Hawking colony wasn’t just a mining town, it was headquarters to a successful, far-flung mining operation. The consortium of wildcat prospectors who owned asteroid 2220 HK also owned the other flying boulders in a volume of space a thousand kilometers wide, several tens of thousands of kilometers long, and 2.772 astronomical units from the Sun.
The Hawking consortium’s mining claim wasn’t the only one in this part of space. A dozen other consortiums were Hawking colony’s neighbors, business rivals, and in an emergency, allies. The old saying, “Space is a dangerous place,” is a harsh reality anywhere in the void, but especially so in the asteroid belt. If a miner got injured or stranded in the belt, there was no one nearby to help except your allies; that is, the people who were usually your bitterest rivals. And as friendly enemies, even old rivals had to occasionally put on an uneasy smile and meet face-to-face to confirm emergency procedures that would ensure their mutual survival.
The bulbous, white, meteor-pocked shuttle from the Chen-Glücksbringer consortium settled laboriously in its landing cradle at the Hawking South Polar Spaceport. A rush of vapor from the shuttle’s landing thrusters evaporated into space before the usual ballet of robots, cranes, and gantries secured the vehicle on its landing pad elevator and the passenger egress tunnel extended to meet it.
Smilin’ Sam Higgins, a rugged-looking, friendly man who carried himself like an ex-sandhog, was from the Public Relations Service and stood at the mouth of the passenger egress tunnel with a big grin on his face and a thick hand outstretched. “Patty, Manny, you two look great! Good trip I take it?” Sam said. He vigorously shook Patricia Benz’s and Manuel Zhao’s hands in turn, and they replied with the usual cheerful salutations. Sam nodded at, but did not otherwise acknowledge the meek-looking, nameless male assistant who was carrying his superiors’ confidential documents.
“Let’s get your luggage squared away and then I’ll take you to your hotel,” said Sam. He turned and gestured for his own nameless assistants to approach. “You probably want a hot bath, a hot meal, and a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s meetings, right?” Sam said, indirectly touting his colony’s success. “You’re going to love this hotel,” he bragged. “It’s done in this wonderful French pastoral cottage style. Very relaxin’.”
Sam and his guests chatted politely as they walked through the VIP section of the terminal to transportation. The spaceport was on the axis of asteroid 2220 HK and should have been in near zero-gravity, but an extravagant artificial gravity grid made it as comfortable as walking on Earth. Patty looked around the terminal inquisitively until she finally had to ask, “Samuel, what is meaning of so many banners that say, ‘Welcome Planeteers’?” She was referring to the cheerful, multicolored holographic signs that crisscrossed the spaceport.
“Just us doin’ our civic duty,” said Higgins. “We’re hosting a big shindig for the Jr. Planeteers. It’s sort of a combination convention, skills exhibition, award ceremony, and party for a few hundred deserving kids. You’ll see ‘em marching and flying around the colony the next few days, showing off their stuff.”
An expression came over Manuel’s face as if he had bitten into a lemon. “Hundreds of them? They’re going to be here the entire time we’re trying to have meetings? Underfoot? Worse yet, will they—Heaven, please don’t let it be true—will they expect us to buy boxes of their dreadful—cookies?”
“Now, now, don’t worry about a thing,” Sam assured his guests. “They’ll be spending most of their time out on the playa so you won’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to. But frankly, I think you’ll be missing out on the fun if you don’t.”
Patricia sniffed and then said for Manuel and herself, “Thank you, no, Samuel. We will do just fine missing that experience, I think. Now, is far the hotel?”
As the entourage walked and talked, the personal electronics they carried, such as pocket computers and communications devices, silently introduced themselves to the local domains of the Hawking public computer network. The assistant to the Chen-Glücksbringer delegation respectfully lagged behind his supposed superiors, pretending to be meek and innocuous. All the while he sauntered along, the computer virus in the pocket computer he carried in his jacket meticulously burrowed its way through the otherwise superb cybersecurity protocols of the Hawking public computer network; probed, then ignored the unimportant private networks; and then finally sequestered itself in the critical computer network infrastructure permeating all of Hawking colony.