Another creative writing assignment, this time a complete short story. It’s been considerably pared down in order to limbo under the 2,500 word limit, so it’s one of the more sparse pieces I’ve written. Enjoy.

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There was a ship in Earth’s orbit.

Hopper stared at her curiously from the flight deck of his own vessel, the Iron Lung. With active sensor camouflage, and her brown hue blending into the planet’s atmosphere, he’d almost collided with her.

Derelict vessels in geocentric orbit weren’t remarkable. Hopper’s entire profession depended on that. But this one was different. She was in perfect condition; no missile scarring or breached hull from a forgotten battle, no accumulated vacuum ice or meteor dents from a century of hanging in orbit. A system scan confirmed that her engines had been engaged only twenty-four hours ago.

Most puzzling of all was her appearance. At first glance she looked like the retro rockets from the space boom of the 21st century, amusingly primitive, no different from the wrecks Hopper explored nearly every day. But she was… irregular, with slight stylistic changes. As though somebody had built a fresh ship in the old fashion.

Where could she be from? Virtually nobody went near Earth. The only other people in the area were vultures like himself, and none of them were flying anything this weird.

As Hopper watched, the ship’s gradual rotary drift brought the starboard bow into sight, and he saw her name: the Forerunner.

Overflowing with curiosity, he set the Iron Lung in a holding position, and headed for the airlock. He suited up, kicked off and drifted towards the ghost ship.

Half an hour later he was flying back to Luna, panicked and skittish, a thousand phantom nightmares chasing his ship through the void.

* * *

Daedalus was the largest city on Luna, which wasn’t saying much. It had a population of around sixty thousand people, most of whom were transient workers, young men from Mars or Jupiter who jetted into town, spent a few hellish months in the helium-3 mines, and jetted out again a few million richer. Railways and pistes stretched out from Daedalus in every direction like the tendrils of a jellyfish, coiling around the mining pits and refineries that encrusted the cratered landscape. Daedalus was the centre of lunar civilisation, not that there was much; Earth’s moon had been abandoned soon after Earth itself, its people moving on to better lives on Mars or the gas giants. Humanity had only returned to Luna’s dismal maria thirty years ago, beckoned by the moon’s rich veins of ore, and despite the mining boom the population remained scant.

Like every other lunar settlement, Daedalus was on the far side. Even after a hundred years nobody wanted to look up at the barren husk that was all that remained of mankind’s birthplace.

Hopper was sitting in the office of a fellow Martian named Bly, an old acquaintance who ran a ship architecture firm at Luna’s only spaceport. He’d recorded his experience onboard the Forerunner, and Bly was watching it, intrigued.

Hopper waited for him to finish, staring out the windows. Daedalus was an ugly place, a metal wart as grey as the lunar dust it sprouted from, existing solely to support the helium miners. There were no parks, or lakes, or fake holograms of blue skies and delicate clouds gliding across the glastic pressure bubble that arched over the town. No unnecessary expenditures. Just grim, utilitarian warehouses, dormitories and mineral silos, and an austere black sky of frozen stars. But it was familiar, and safe, and full of life. He needed that.

The recording finished. “Wow,” Bly breathed.

Hopper sat down, drumming his fingers on the lacquered desktop. “No membrane airlock, fission engines, stonewall security… who’d build a ship with tech that’s been out of date since the Jovian War?”

“I’m more interested in the crew,” Bly said. He played the recording again, scrolling and pivoting the hologram with his fingers. “Shame you didn’t get a closer look at the flags on their uniforms…”

Thinking about the crew made Hopper’s stomach lurch. The four men had been strapped into couches on the bridge, dead or unconscious, with beige jumpsuits and pallid skin. The experience had been eerie enough until then, but Hopper’s lustful curiosity had collapsed when one of the crew had stirred from his coma and murmured incomprehensibly. He’d fled back to the Iron Lung with his courage shattered.

“Nothing visibly wrong with them,” Bly continued, “so it must have been giloc. Internal injuries and bleeding.”

Gravity induced loss of consciousness. Hopper had assumed the same. But that could only occur during planetary takeoff with intense g-forces, which certainly wouldn’t happen on Luna…

The thought hovered, unspoken, in the light of the hologram. Both men realised the significance of what the ship could mean.

It was impossible. Ridiculous to contemplate. It contradicted one of the first things learnt growing up. The old nations of Earth, already languishing from the apocalyptic catastrophe of the Himalayan supervolcano, had reignited old rivalries and wiped themselves out in the 72-Hour War nearly a century ago. The space colonies had been swamped with refugees, and there had been a period of chaotic re-settlement, ethnic tension and several further wars, but eventually humanity had recovered, excising Earth from its collective mind. Those who had fled were the only survivors; the homeworld was a dead planet. The atmosphere was suffocated with ash and dust, a world-wrapping storm of bleak brown. The surface was a hellscape of toxic deserts, dry seabeds and skeletal city ruins, haunted by screeching banshee winds and illuminated only by cloud-damped pulses of lightning.

Yet… there were stories. Tales spun by drunk vagrants on backwater asteroids, or urban legends and conspiracy theories found in the dank corners of the net. Rumours of freighters that miscalculated while slingshotting around the planet on the Mars-Venus route, descended below the dust canopy, and returned to civilisation gasping deliriously about lush forests and glinting rivers before expiring from radiation poisoning. Comms technicians from the nearside radio telescopes, who claimed to have heard mysterious electronic signals coming from the planet’s surface – and would tell you more if you just bought them another drink. They were myths. Hopper didn’t even understand why they existed. Why would anyone yearn for Earth, when Mars was fully terraformed, sustaining oceans, mountains and glaciers more beautiful than any Earth had ever boasted?

“It’s a government project,” Hopper said. “That’s my best bet. Some kinda experimental ship to explore the surface. It must have found its way down there, and then fucked up while trying to get out. I’m gonna forget about it, and you should too.”

He left the office. After a few moments, Bly started scrolling through his contact list.

* * *

An hour later Hopper was sitting in the corner of a crowded bar near the spaceport. Travellers from all over the system were squashed into booths, from Venusian sheikhs to Galilean space crews, smoking and drinking while arguing loudly about helium prices or news from the outer worlds. A local band was playing awful calypso-jazz inside a hologram of a tropical beach in Chryse, wreathed in a nimbus of hashish smoke, and Hopper watched them sullenly as he tallied his options.

He meant what he’d said to Bly. The idea of a secret government project, as stupid as it sounded, was far more plausible than life on Earth. He clung to that theory with determination, trying to ignore the issue of the ship’s antique design and pale crew.

The problem, then, was his own involvement. While he’d been aboard he would have left trace nanyte signatures, and if the Forerunner was reclaimed by whatever government forces had dispatched it, it wouldn’t be hard for them to locate him. Maybe he should leave Luna for a while, head back to the asteroids, or even further out into the gas giants. There wasn’t much time left in the vulture game anyway. Too many newcomers muscling in, violent confrontations over scavenging claims growing more frequent, the interest of the corporate titans piqued… there were only so many derelicts out there.

He was gloomily considering this when a man slipped into the seat across from him. Hopper’s hand automatically darted for the gun tucked underneath his shoulder, but the stranger was smiling, hands flat on the table.

“Who are you?” Hopper asked suspiciously.

“That doesn’t matter,” the stranger grinned. He was wearing a spacer’s jumpsuit, common attire in Daedalus, and had a curiously bland and forgettable face. “What matters is who you are, and what you’ve found.”

Hopper suddenly felt sick with fear.

“About three hours ago you discovered a spacecraft in Terran orbit,” the stranger continued. “I want its co-ordinates.” His accent was bizarre, with clipped vowels and slushy pronunciation. Hopper, a veteran drifter, couldn’t place it anywhere – which frightened him more than anything else.

“Why?” he asked, keeping one hand on his holstered gun.

“Because,” the stranger replied simply.

His face was too generic. Hopper decided it must be plastic surgery. “That’s helpful,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Again: what matters is who you are,” the stranger whispered, leaning closer with his unsettling smile. “You see, Andrew Hopper, I know all about you. I know that you were born on Mars in 2160. I know that you served in the military, and saw combat on Pallas, but were arrested for battlefield looting and organ theft from dead soldiers. I know that you spent two years in a federal prison, and that when you were released, you stole a spacecraft and had it renamed and re-registered. It’s the Iron Lung now. I know that you smuggled drugs in the Trojan belt for a few years, but eventually grew wary of the authorities and came to Luna to become a vulture, pillaging abandoned Terran space stations. I know all that, Andrew, but thirty minutes ago I’d never even heard of you.”

The bubble of music and conversation suddenly seemed very distant. “Who are you?” Hopper demanded a third time, his voice cracking now.

“We’ve been through that.”

Hopper didn’t like being threatened, but neither did he want to be involved with the Forerunner for another second. He scribbled a few figures on a napkin and pushed it across the table. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you,” he warned emptily, then stood up and strode out of the bar.

Even the man’s laughter sounded strange.

* * *

Hopper forced his way through the crowded streets, mentally running over a list of destinations. It would have to be somewhere isolated; Neptune or Uranus, probably. He pushed past a gaggle of corporate executives squeezing into a limo on the steps of the spaceport and entered the cavernous terminal.

There was a police cordon around Bly’s office.

Hopper stopped, paralysed, staring at it across the entire length of the terminal, past potted plants and billboard holograms and security queues. A few uniformed constables stood guard, a plainclothes detective interviewed a puffy-eyed secretary, and a sterilised forensics droid trundled through the door.

He turned away, heart thrumming, and took the first elevator platform up to the concourse. Other passengers stood calmly around him, bored or tired, and Hopper tried to conceal the furious typhoon of panic clutching his mind.

He’d known Bly must have been involved somehow as soon as the stranger had sat down, but he’d assumed it was as a conspirator, passing a warning on to somebody. But no: the information the architect had possessed had been taken from him by force. How? What had happened while Hopper was squandering time in a bar?

The elevator floated to a halt, and vomited its passengers out onto the catwalks. Hopper headed for the Iron Lung as fast as he could without breaking into a run. Nothing else mattered now. Once he reached the ship, he’d be safe.

He arrived in the relative seclusion of his dock, fringed by chain-link fences and stacks of vacuum crates. The Iron Lung awaited him, a reassuring hulk of grimy steel, jointed landing struts splayed across the pad like a colossal beetle. Outside the airlock, he hesitated.

A few minutes later Hopper crawled into the ship’s hold, a gloomy, rust-stained cube. There was a decommissioned exhaust vent he used when he needed to enter the ship inconspicuously, and this was one of those times. Crouching in a corner, he twitched his eyes imperceptibly, activating the microscopic nanytes in his retinas. Instantly the world was displayed in a landscape of heat colour, from the cold blue of the ship’s hull to the warm oranges and reds of the fusion engines – or the human body waiting for him in the corridor above.

It was crouched in an attack position, waiting to ambush Hopper as he came through the airlock. He felt a strong sense of satisfaction as he crept silently up the stairwell to ambush the intruder himself. The oculars had cost two million dollars in an illegal backalley operation, but now it was hard to doubt their worth. For good measure, he switched on his various other nanyte systems: muscle enhancement, adrenaline harness, ballistic protection… he wouldn’t need them, as he intended to simply shoot the intruder in the back of the head, but they couldn’t hurt.

Hopper crept into the main corridor, and saw the orange human outline at the other end. He quietly unholstered his gun, took careful aim…

Somebody tackled him from behind and he was slammed against the bulkhead. Even as he tried to bring the gun around to bear, struggling against snarling blows, he realised what had gone wrong. There had been a second intruder, but his heat signature had blurred into the glow of the engine room behind him.

Now he had Hopper’s gun hand pinned to the wall. But Hopper had muscular nanytes, making him stronger, and so with a roar of fury he wrenched his hand free, pressed the gun barrel against the man’s head and fired. In thermal imagery, he saw an eruption of gold and orange cascade onto the cold floor.

Hopper whirled to face the original intruder too slowly; the man had already covered the distance between them, and thrust upwards with a knife before Hopper could react. He felt a burning in his ribcage, but the nanytes suppressed it, and in a vicious struggle he thrust his gun into the man’s stomach and squeezed the trigger three times. His attacker collapsed, and Hopper switched his oculars off, trembling.

The corridor sank back to dreary grey. Hopper knelt down, wheezing, to examine his attackers’ faces. Neither was the stranger from the bar, though both had the white skin he’d seen on the Forerunner‘s crew. The second one was still alive, windpipe rasping and face speckled with red, so Hopper seized his head and smashed it against the sticky floor. “Who are you?” he demanded, distorted voice echoing throughout the ship. “Where are you from?”

“Otago,” the man whispered, and died.

Hacking up ropes of blood, Hopper limped to the flight deck, and lifted off from Daedalus without waiting for clearance. He jettisoned the corpses as soon as he was in orbit. After taking one last glance at the stark brown circle of Earth, he set an autopilot course, stumbled to the sick bay with his vision greying, and filled his ruptured lung with medical gel.

A few weeks later, with his wound healed, his liquor supplies nearly depleted, and the Iron Lung halfway to Neptune, Hopper remembered what the dying man had gasped. He looked it up, and immediately regretted it.