Captain Haleola Kitewhetu adjusted the springs that held her ankles in place, then tightened her knees to grip her saddle so she could twist around without floating out of her seat. The Paomo was a comfortable place to spend twelve hours in microgravity, even if it didn’t have all the advantages of being in ops. Her first officer, officially returned from his honeymoon, had the Chʼil Awoshí bridge, having taken over from Lieutenant Commander Kwion at shift-change.
Hal was spending the day on the Paomo watching the marathon that was the careful dismantling and rejoining of Discworld. A few dozen of the crew were with her, including Lieutenant Ning Yuanhui, who occupied a saddle next to her, keeping track of all the minutia regarding the many regulations each disc had to adhere to in order to maintain their position in Discworld and in the Chʼil Awoshí, both physically and politically. Ning knew which discs had odd clauses grandfathered in that exempted them from certain requirements, and which had already received warnings regarding some issue. Her yeoman, Ajaana Ables, clung to the ceiling like a bat, nearby if needed but otherwise out of the way. She wasn’t the only one “up” there; many of the support personnel who could be called upon to help with some task waited there. It was an odd yet friendly community that chatted and twittered quietly like a flock of birds.
“And they’re rejoined,” Ning announced. “One more then it’s Istanzia’s turn.”
There was a flurry of whispers at the mention of the new disc. Hal had long ago tamped down any misgivings regarding the colony. Chief Nayazov had given them a long lecture regarding the Sixteen Ton rules, as they were known. Member colonies in the Ekumen, whether attached to the Chʼil Awoshí or not, were not allowed to create indebtedness in their employees or citizens so that they owed their souls to the company store. Istanzia’s policies skirted many such rules. Hal expected a small exodus as soon as Discworld was reunited; many of Istanzia’s workers had become disenchanted with the colony. She only hoped, for their sake, that they’d be able to retain or recruit enough of a population to maintain a viable infrastructure. Losing any module, even one as small as a disc, always felt like a personal loss to her. She wanted her city to grow and thrive.
Then again, to thrive, sometimes dead weight has to be cut.
“We have separation,” Ning reported. Hal watched as the next disc in the stack gently floated away from the south end of Discworld, spinning independently.
“We have a wobble,” Lieutenant Sariputta said. “It’s…”
Hal watched the Lieutenant carefully, waiting for her to finish her sentence.
“That explains some of the stresses being recorded in this section,” Ning said. “Is it fixable?”
“More than negligible,” Sariputta said. “They’re attempting an internal fix.”
Hal stared at the disc, less than a kilometer away from Paomo and mere meters from her beloved station. Wobbles and instability within one module affected the infrastructure of the entire station as well as the module’s neighbors. While separated, a tiny wobble could rapidly grow into a dangerous flail.
“Tell them they have twenty seconds to fix it or we’re taking over.”
“Yes Captain,” Sariputta answered.
There was nothing discernable to the naked eye. The disc was simply spinning, as it had been, though now separated from the stack.
She counted down in her head. Thirteen, twelve, eleven…if you endanger my station I will fling you out faster than—
“They have control,” Sariputta reported.
“Engineering has been alerted. They will oversee the permanent fix as soon as Discworld is back together again,” Ning added. “Ready to rejoin.”
Hal watched as the disc gently spun its way to the north end of Discworld and rejoined its neighbor there, settling against the thin waffle that served as a separator and cushion. A pair of drone ships brought out a new waffle, bringing it up to spin and then guiding it into place, ready for the new disc to join the stack.
“How does it look?” Hal asked.
“Operating within optimal parameters,” Ning said. “She’s ready.”
Hal stretched up from her saddle, straightening her legs. A thousand new citizens were about to join her city. Only a handful of them, mostly government officials, had ever set foot on the station. She wondered how many of the citizens who had been confined in the disc for weeks or even months would bolt as soon as they were given the opportunity.
“Maneuvering into place,” Sariputta said.
Hal clenched and unclenched her fists. Eleven days ago a shuttle from Istanzia had attempted to ram the Chʼil Awoshí. The matter was settled. The saboteur was dead, and his unwitting accomplice imprisoned. Hal wasn’t sure whether the man was a hero, a villain, or a dupe. Probably a combination of all three. The news outlets were already bored with him; he’d probably fade into obscurity if he decided to stay on the station beyond his sentence.
“Ready to join,” Sariputta said.
Hal watched as the giant disc found its place, settling in next to its neighbor, nesting in place exactly as planned.
“We’re installing a new waffle on this side as well,” Ning said. “It’s protocol for a new module.”
Hal nodded. She knew that. She’d seen Discworld grow from a pairing of just a couple of modules to the dozens of discs that spun together today.
The next few separations and rejoinings went by without anything newsworthy.
“The River Slipnir,” Ning announced.
The river module was a station-owned utility. There should be no problems there. Her engineering team was top notch, and knew how to prepare the water-treatment disc for separation.
“We have…wait…” Ning said.
Hal resisted the urge to prompt him, but his silence was annoying.
A moment later he finished the sentence. “We have two discs separating together.”
Hal looked out at the River Slipnir. She couldn’t see the disc on the other side, but she knew what it was. “That’s Agatea, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes sir,” Ning answered. “Shall we proceed?”
Hal shook her head almost imperceptibly, not meaning it to be an answer. “Lieutenant Sariputta, please let Agatea know that they need to wait their turn. They need to separate from the river immediately.”
Sariputta acknowledged then relayed the message. “Sir, they are…”
Hal filled in the answer as Sariputta paused. “They’re trying to say they’re doing us a favor, aren’t they? Pretending that by staying attached to the river, they’re saving us time and trouble or something.”
“Yes sir. That’s the gist of their message,” Sariputta said. “The Empress is asking to speak with you.”
Hal snorted. Yui might call herself an Empress, but as far as the Ekumen was concerned she was simply the leader of a small, though extraordinarily wealthy independent colony.
Hal was not about to chat with the Empress like they were old friends. Yui could go through proper channels, without special treatment. “Ning, what is the standard response when a module fails to separate?”
“Inquiry as to extenuating circumstances,” Ning answered. Hal noticed he didn’t need to look up the answer. “Depending on that answer, a time limit of ten minutes to fix the problem themselves before the station takes over and forces the separation.”
“That,” Hal said, nodding to Sariputta.
Admirably, Sariputta’s facial expression and tone of voice were perfectly modulated as she relayed the information. She betrayed neither annoyance nor apology.
Hal watched the pair of discs spinning together. There wasn’t any particular advantage to being adjacent to a utility disc. Freshwater was delivered and wastewater returned directly no matter how many modules were in between. It wasn’t like Earth where a city downstream had to rely on the filtration from cities upstream.
“Extenuating circumstances?” Hal asked, glancing at Sariputta.
“No sir,” the lieutenant answered. “She’s still insisting that if she could just chat with you, this whole matter could be cleared up.”
Hal smirked. She withheld the comment that leapt to mind, as it was definitely not becoming of a commanding officer. “Ten minutes,” she said.
“Eight minutes, forty-five seconds,” Ning contributed.
Hal raised an eyebrow at him. He swallowed hard, but held her gaze. Good for him. “Eight minutes…” she paused, “…thirty seconds.”
Sariputta swayed back and forth in her saddle, as if listening to music on hold. Except, of course, Sariputta was the one putting Agatea and the Empress on hold.
Hal wondered at Yui’s motivation. Was it simply a power play? Demonstrating to all the other discs that Agatea could exempt themselves from any inconvenience simply on the basis of their financial influence? Or worse, from the perception that the Empress was a close and personal friend of both the captain and the governor?
She wouldn’t be surprised. Yui was nothing if not vain. There were hundreds of other highly influential and powerful people on Tumbleweed. Yui was no exception there, though she might be in contention for the top spot.
Hal took advantage of the eight minute break to use the restroom, floating back into her place as the countdown reached zero.
“Lieutenant Sariputta, are there extenuating circumstances we should know about?” Hal asked.
“No sir. The Empress is still insisting that this is a silly misunderstanding, and the two discs should simply rejoin as a unit so we can get on with the rest of the procedure.”
“Inform Agatea that station command is taking control of their module, with separation in one minute,” Hal said.
The bridge of the Paomo buzzed. Hal noted which officer would be controlling the River Slipnir and which would be controlling Agatea.
“Ning, do we have a bludger?” Hal asked quietly.
He nodded. “Yes, there’s a compliment on hand.” Ning paused. “However, they’re a bit small to affect a disc as large as Agatea.”
“A gorignak then?” Hal asked.
Ning nodded again. “Three, sir, ready if need be.”
Ning held her gaze for a moment, mouth open as if he was about to speak but wasn’t sure of his words. “Yes…I…” he lowered his voice. “I had a feeling there may be an issue with one or more of the discs today.”
“Captain? I have separation but no control,” the officer in charge of maneuvering Agatea interrupted.
There was something sparkling between the newly separated discs. As the river moved away from Agatea, little geysers spouted from a dozen spots. “What?” Hal seethed, but she knew what was happening. A nightmare for a space station, losing water. Fortunately, the Chʼil Awoshí was a very large station with multiple redundancies.
“Do we have control yet?” Hal asked.
“She’s drifting, sir.”
“Put the Empress on the line,” Hal said, fuming.
“Yes sir,” Sariputta answered.
Immediately the Empress’ voice filled the bridge. “I insist we—”
“Empress Yui,” Hal interrupted. “Agatea has been stealing water from the utility module that serves multiple discs as well as the connecting core of Discworld.”
“I have no idea what—” Yui sputtered, but Hal continued on.
“Agatea will be immediately ejected from the station. You will release control immediately or your module will be destroyed.”
Hal ignored the Empress’ shrill bark. “The Daegukawa Empire will be subject to a criminal investigation, and any holdings their citizens own on the Chʼil Awoshí may be seized pending the outcome of this investigation.”
“Captain Kitewhetu! I must—”
Hal made a chopping motion and Lieutenant Sariputta cut off the Empress’ protests.
“Do we have control?” Hal asked.
“No sir. They have not surrendered control, and we are unable to seize.”
Hal turned to Ning. “Is there something in their contract that prevents us from taking control?”
“No sir,” he answered. “That should have been instant.”
“Then how…?” she trailed off, then let out a disgusted snort. “Money. Apparently, with enough money, you can ignore any laws that inconvenience you.”
Hal turned to Sariputta. “Inform Agatea that control must be surrendered immediately or they will be fired upon.” She looked out at the discs. The river was still spouting, losing precious water to the vacuum of space. It was being maneuvered away from the station, where it could be repaired, if the damage wasn’t too extensive. It was going to be a nightmare for engineering to redirect water from one of the other river systems until Slipnir could be replaced.
Agatea was no longer spouting leaks, but it was dangerously close to the station.
“We have control,” the ensign said.
“Get that module away from the station,” Hal commanded.
The disc shifted. Most modules only had the bare minimum of thrusters to maneuver independent of Tumbleweed’s framework. Hal didn’t want to harm the people inside, but she was furious. She wondered how many of them were aware of the water theft. It was a small population, and a privileged one. She wouldn’t be surprised if they all felt entitled to the extra water.
Although most modules depended on the infrastructure provided by the station, they were all required to have the ability to self-sustain for a minimum of three days. Agatea would be just fine on its own, though it would cost them dearly to shuttle everything they needed from whatever source was willing to do business with them.
From Istanzia, Hal expected a small exodus of citizens who were new to space and had little to no means of support. Once the citizens of Agatea found out they had lost all the advantages provided by their connection to the Chʼil Awoshí, Hal expected a similar exodus. Of course, Agatea’s exiles could afford to house themselves in luxury wherever they wanted. Those from Istanzia weren’t so fortunate.
“Control is lost,” the ensign announced. "She’s still drifting out, but jets are firing to bring her back in.”
“Launching a gorignak now,” he said.
Hal watched as the disc slowed to a stop, then began inching back toward the station again. Yui must be insane, to endanger her property, not to mention all her people like that. Then again, she probably wasn’t even on Agatea. She was probably still on the Chʼil Awoshí, watching everything from the comfort of her distant estate.
Suddenly, one edge of the disc jolted away from the station. A shuttle-sized rock with multiple jets appeared from under Agatea. “Gorignak has impacted successfully,” Ning reported.
Hal held her breath, watching the disc twist and spin. The gorignak was designed to use simple mass and momentum to knock objects out of the way. There was no finesse involved; it could have smashed a hole in the hull.
Every module had to have enough escape pods and shuttles to accommodate not only their population, but a reasonable number of visitors as well. Hal stared, waiting to see if any pods appeared. Then again, if Agatea’s inhabitants felt empowered enough to siphon water from the public utility, maybe they decided they were above the need for emergency pods as well.
Slowly, painfully, the disc flipped until they could see the side where the gorignak had impacted. A black smudge radiated from a crumpled dent out to the edge. If the hull was breached, there was no outward sign.
Agatea flipped, a huge coin in space, turning away from the Chʼil Awoshí and out into the lonely void beyond.