An assignment involving three short scenes: one consisting mostly of dialogue, one conveying a tone such as “menacing” or “cool”, and one dealing with action of some kind. About an hour before I left for uni I realised the second part actually had to be either “menacing” or “cool”, not whatever tone we wanted, but too late! The die was cast.

The scenes take place in a space opera setting I’ve been tinkering with for a few months, with the intention of writing some novels in it some day. It’ll be my next epic project after I bury the End Times leviathan (353,400 words and counting!)

An elegant restaurant. Windows reveal the city lights casting glittering reflections across the dark river. The clatter of cutlery drifts out from the kitchen, mingling with the bubble of conversation and pinging of wine glasses. A debate begins at a corner table.
“… because we could reclaim Earth.”
“Wishful thinking.”
“No! We could. We terraformed Mars, didn’t we? Two hundred and thirty Kelvin, poison atmosphere, air pressure one per cent of Earth’s? We terraformed Ganymede and Callisto and Titan, and those were even harder. The things we can do these days… the nanytes, the software, the engineering… we could rebuild Earth. We could rebuild Earth easily.”
“Earth is a bit different from Mars or Ganymede. Earth is still throbbing with radiation.”
“That could be overcome. There’s hundreds of amateur sims for it on the net. You should check them out. Estimates go as low as fifty years.”
“Yeah, and a hundred trillion dollars. Why do you want it so badly?
“Uh, it’s Earth. Mankind’s birthplace? Cradle of civilisation? All that jazz?”
“So what? Mars is better. Mars was always better. Mars has more to offer than Earth could ever dream of. Do you know how high the tallest mountain on Earth was? Eight kilometres. Eight! There are cliffs on Mars that high.”
“So why do we colonise Pluto and Mercury and every boring, backwater moon and asteroid in the system, hmm?”
“Resources. Minerals. Obviously.”
“Exactly. Earth has resources.”
“Not enough to justify all the time and money you’d spend scrubbing it clean. Earth was sucked dry long before the supervolcano and the war.”
“You just don’t get it.”
“No, you’re just trapped in sentimental nostalgia. Earth is gone. It’s been gone for nearly a century. Get over it.”
“Chill out. I don’t care that much. I’ve never even seen it. I’m just saying, we have the technology, we have the funds, so why not restore it? Why doesn’t mankind fix the mistake it made?”
“Because it would never be the same. Even if we spent a thousand years cleaning up the atmosphere, negating the radiation, replanting forests, cloning and releasing animals, it would still be artificial and constructed. We’d know it wasn’t the same Earth.”
“So? It’s better than nothing.”
“No, it really isn’t. It’s better not to disturb the dead. It’s better to leave it as a reminder of how easily a world can be destroyed. That’s why we don’t build fusion bombs or radiation curtains or orbital weapons platforms anymore. Because we remember.”

The Iron Lung is mostly quiet. Straining ears can pick up the muffled throbbing of engines, or hum of computers glowing in the darkness on the flight deck. It is a spacious ship, a freight vessel originally designed for a crew of dozens. But only one man lives here now.

His name is Hopper. He wakes alone, works alone, and eats alone. The net gives him access to media whenever he needs it, and he often cranks the volume up, filling the empty corners of the ship with music or news headlines, drowning out the silence.

Sometime he gives in and simply sits on the flight deck, gazing out the windows at the titanic Earth, looming up and filling his field of vision with its ugly brown atmosphere. He was born on Mars long after the war, but still he cannot help but think of the history, from the Mesopotamians to the Mongol Empire to the European Union, the whole epic sweep of human accomplishment, erased in the course of only three days.

The job is psychologically torturous. Some scavengers quit after mere weeks, flying back to the comforting atmospheres of Mars or the Jovian moons. Some commit suicide. Some go insane, staring at the dirt storms swirling endlessly across a world that was once green and blue. For the same reasons, all the Lunar settlements are on the far side of the moon.

Finding fresh wrecks to loot is the easy part; there are hundreds of them. The looting itself is far more stressful. Suiting up, kicking away from the airlock, gripping the meteor-pocked hulls of the target station with his lifeline unspooling back to the Iron Lung. Cutting through the hull, and floating into the depressurised cabins among the eternally tumbling papers and pens and food packets. Occasionally he finds frozen corpses, American or Chinese or Indian, nearly a century old but perfectly preserved. Sometimes they float in clouds of red ice spheres, from wrist-slitting suicides.

He frequently suffers from paranoia, hearing ghostly, muttered words, or seeing shadows flitting at the edge of his vision. Space dementia, he warns himself, but he still has nightmares. Fears of something dark and evil, some supernatural horror borne of the death of fourteen billion people, lurking in the forgotten fragile shells in decaying Terran orbit to prey on foolhardy scavengers. He doesn’t think he can do this much longer.

But the money is good.

Webster stalked into the pod bay quietly, holding his Koch .38 in one hand and surveying the room. The four escape hatches lined one wall, the others tastefully landscaped with a mix of ferns and flowers, like every other room on the Calypso. Corpses were strewn across the floor, and the smell of burning plastic lingered in the air.

Only one escape pod remained, the wounded stragglers from the raiding party having commandeered the other three when their ramshackle ship had retreated without them. Webster prowled towards it warily.

Without warning somebody burst from the flower bushes and slammed into him from the side, sending the gun skittering across the floor. Webster gasped for breath and struggled against his attacker as vicious blows slammed into his jaw, panic flooding his body. Desperately, he twisted a leg up and kneed his assailant in the crotch, pulling away and stumbling backwards, strings of blood hanging from his mouth, trying to override the frenzy of adrenaline and evaluate the situation. His attacker was a skinny, long-haired wretch. One of the pirates, an abandoned bastard who must have slipped past security sweeps and tear-gassed corridors in the aftermath of the failed raid, trying to reach an escape pod. He was scrabbling backwards on his rear, and Webster realised suddenly that he was reaching for the gun.

Webster yanked a combat knife from his belt and hurled it underhand towards the pirate. It twirled forward with a glint of light, then dug into the man’s forearm just as he brought the gun up. He howled in pain and dropped it, a vibrant ooze of blood seeping between the fingers he clapped to his wrist. Webster staggered to his feet, pulled out his second knife, and lunged forward, slamming the raider against the wall with the blade at his neck.

“Where are you from?” Webster demanded.

“Novybor,” the pirate choked.

Webster had heard of Novybor once or twice; some backwater Slavic asteroid, a failed state with one endless revolution or civil war after another. Evidently it wasn’t too far from the Calypso’s flight path. Unsurprising, really; the asteroids were full of tiny nations that had exhausted their mineral wealth, and had their society collapse as their economy did. Most ships were prudent enough to travel above or below the ecliptic plane, burning extra fuel but avoiding the piracy-soaked asteroid belt. Unfortunately, the Calypso‘s captain was a cheapskate. “Thank you,” Webster said, and slit the man’s throat.