The whine of the harvester’s blade breaks off in mid-grind.
There is silence in the cabin except for the hiss of the air vents.
Ruz lets go of me, and we stare at the instrument panel. Rows of lights blink angry orange.
‘It’s jammed,’ he says, his lips still moist from kissing.
Well duh. I break the contact between us to reel in my tether so I drift back to the controls. We’re on the short side of the cometoid and the fast rotation rate is doing its best to fling me to the side of the cabin. I jab a gloved hand at the resets. Diagnostics trail over the screen.
What the…? The power reserves were more than fifty percent when I left the habitat.
Ruz frowns at me. ‘What does that mean, Kee?’
‘I don’t know.’ It kind-of irritates me that I don’t, because I feel I should. I am from a builder clan after all, and trying to impress a Suarez. Worse still, I had let him kiss me and get me to agree to build a habitat for him.
The screen asks me, run recovery?
I press yes because usually that fixes jams, but oh, this is so embarrassing.
I smile at Ruz. ‘That should fix it.’
I listen intently to the clangs as the machine stores blocks of ice it has already cut, and the monotonal singing from the start-up of the blade.
‘Does it happen often?’ Ruz asks.
I hold my breath, crossing mental fingers. The whine becomes louder, and louder. Any moment now the blade should resume cutting—
Orange flashing lights.
Crap. I breathe out heavily. ‘Looks like I’ll have to un-jam it manually.’ Now that doesn’t happen often. But never mind, I have all the vacuum gear.
‘I’ll do it,’ he says. He unclips his tether, flings the magnetic pad to the airlock and reels himself in that direction.
‘You know what to do?’ I ask to his back while he thumbs the airlock out of sleep mode.
He looks over his shoulder, stuck to the wall like a limpet, grinning. ‘Trust me. I used to un-jam cleaner bots.’
I didn’t know that Suarez children did those jobs, too. Somehow I just assumed that they didn’t do that sort of work. Then again, ours are likely not the only habitats that need outside maintenance. He’d score a point, if he wasn’t home already. I like a boy who’s not afraid of a bit of hard work.
‘I love you,’ I say, and he returns a grin that makes me all soft and gooey inside.
Ruz puts on his helmet, clips the seals shut. His mouth moves. Inside the airtight bubble I can’t hear him. I turn on the radio-comm.
He gives me the thumbs-up. ‘… let’s do this.’
He cycles out the airlock.
I wait, floating in the air, tugging at the tether, staring at the wide-angle viewscreen, where the stars track visibly through the sky. I made the claim on the cometoid because scans showed a lot of ice under the thin layer of regolith crap. It has lots of other volatiles, too, stuff I can sell to the farm habitats. I chose this position on the short end of the cometoid’s bone-shape because the orbital momentum is greater. Providing I time the release precisely, I can return the harvester to the habitat without having to spend much more fuel. One of these days Uncle will demand that I buy him a keg of processed helium shipped from Uranus and there’s no way I can afford that. Any fuel that hasn’t been ordered three years ago will have to come on interstellar boat, and the premium for them to stop here is massive. That’s me and my folly. Living on borrowed time.
Of course I could do the sensible thing and attach a module to an existing habitat. But I don’t want to. I want Ruz Suarez, and Suarez clan don’t go for bits tacked onto shabby Paris clan habitats.
The viewscreen shows Ruz making his way down the side of the harvester, producing a pool of light with his helmet lamp.
‘Allokay?’ I ask him, and I think how it’s really cool that he’s doing this for me. He cares. He loves me. He will help me convince his mother to give me a break.
‘Yes. Blade looks fine.’ He opens the cover and gives the massive cutter blade a whirl. It turns freely, releasing a cloud of ice-dust into space.
I don’t know whether to be happy or not. I’d hoped we’d struck a patch of carbon, which would be even harder than ice. Carbon pebbles could have bent or broken the blade’s teeth. That happens sometimes; I can fix that.
This looks like an electronic problem. High tech is the domain of the Suarez clan. They’re smaller than us and they tend to have long fingers good for fiddly work.
Ruz operates the arm that lifts the blade out of the ice. The cam shows a black slit the width of the blade. The ice itself is not as good as I’d hoped. It’s not completely clear. I’d have to use Auntie Mari’s heater element to fix that.
Ruz peers into the trench. He leans forward, reaches into the blackness, yanks…
The harvester shudders. Something white spews from the hole. The screen goes blurry.
Ruz swears. There is a clang against the hull and a big something flies past the cam’s view. A static crackle.
‘Ruz! What’s going on?’
The image on the screen is still distorted, but I think I can make out a gout of ice dust spewing from the hole. But I can’t see Ruz anywhere.
There is no answer. I stare at the distorted image, realising that a substance coats the outside of the camera lens. But no sign of Ruz.
Oh, crap. I thumb the tracker signal onto the screen.
Ruz isn’t under the harvester anymore. The camera view has almost cleared. I can see Ruz’s tether flap idly in space.
My nav screen is a tangle of intersecting orbits, with the orbit Ruz has just been flung into outlined in white. I make a quick calculation. Data flashes over my screen. Fifteen minutes, and he’ll intersect the orbit of the Tokyo clan’s harvester, which is on its way back to Darkside. Twenty minutes longer, and he’ll interfere with the Cairo clan’s heavy traffic. Ten more minutes and he’ll drift into the Darkside approach route and a mere fifteen minutes beyond that, the main interstellar pathway. You do not interfere with StarfleetConsortium vessels. Their owners on far-distant planets are good at suing us for any damage to their ships. They think we’re worms and they wouldn’t stop, not even for Ruz Suarez, if they could.
I glance at the clock. I have an hour and a bit.
The engine fires and the harvester disengages from the cometoid. For a moment everything spins around me, but my brain quickly re-orients itself. We out here are born not needing up or down. I hear that people living on planets get sick in space. I find that funny.
I navigate the harvester, firing the propulsion engine.
Whoosh—cringe. Oh damn, this is going to cost me that keg of helium. I won’t be able to propose to Ruz’s mother now. I won’t be able to finish my habitat so we can start a home together. I’ll be poor for the rest of my life. I’ll never see such wondrous things as Uranus or the Sun.
By the time I catch up with Ruz, he’s still not responding. He’s floating like a rag doll in space, reflecting the harvester’s light when it hits the suit. I shoot the recovery grapple and reel him into the airlock. Minutes tick by while I wait until I can open the inner door.
The light flashes ready. I drag him out and undo his helmet. He’s unconscious, but breathing. I can’t see signs of injury, or signs of exposure.
‘Ruz, Ruz, can you hear me?’
I need to get him hooked up to the med station, take off this lumbering heavy gear—his suit is completely wet.
Trails of vapour rise from the outer skin of the suit. What sort of gas is that? I grab an emergency mask from behind the pilot’s seat, jam it over my face, yank off the suit and fling it into the airlock. Slam the door shut. Dial the air recycling speed in the cabin up to maximum.
All I can hear is the fan roaring. I’m thinking of that keg of processed helium Uncle will want me to buy.
Oh, crap. With the harvester’s current orbit, the only place I can put in without expending even more fuel is the Darkside port. Darkside is a good deal bigger than all of our constructed habitats together. No one’s quite sure what it is, a planetoid or an asteroid, except that it returns to our vicinity every three years. Some say it’s an old moon. It’s rocky and except for the Tokyo clan’s settlement, completely dark. Well, duh.
* * *
Ma Suarez eyes me up and down. She’s wiry and wrinkled, and the typical Suarez green pigment stains dot her bare-skinned arms. I can see her brain working behind those large eyes so dark that I can see my own reflection in them. She’s probably thinking, What is this worm doing with my son? She wouldn’t have half the money and even less guts to build a habitat for him. She’s also probably annoyed to have to come out here to retrieve her son.
She asks, ‘What did you do?’
Not what happened. It was my fault, clearly.
‘The harvester hit something. He went to un-jam it.’ I stop there. She doesn’t know about my building plans. If she did, of course, according to her, I should have been the one to repair the harvester. I am only a Parisian after all. ‘Something blew out of the hole. I think the force blew him against the bottom of the harvester and he hit his head. The blast was strong enough to break the tether.’
‘Hmph.’ Ma Suarez glides past me into the simple hospital room. Her movements are made more majestic by Darkside’s nominal gravity—much less than we’d maintain in the habitats.
I left my handheld on the bed next to Ruz, who’s in a drug-induced sleep to help heal his concussion. When Ma Suarez came in and I have to rush to bow for her, I was just looking at my habitat designs to see where I could possibly save money.
She picks up the screen and snorts. ‘You’re building this?’
I feel naked having my design displayed openly. The ice walls I’ve spent hours welding—with the welder Auntie Mari’s lent me as her advance to the family she hopes I will have. The precise, rounded dome which I’ve calibrated with the latest software lent to me by my cousin. The six insulating layers of the habitat module, a new design which no one has used before. It aims to decrease energy loss so the habitat can survive with a smaller reactor and have more room for the currency of Ma Suarez’s choice: children. Mine and Ruz’s. If the design carries her approval and she accepts me into life-long debt for the cost of the reactor.
I can hardly breathe. I’m not ready to ask her that question yet.
For many, many long seconds, she says nothing. Then she puts the handheld down on the bed and walks back to the door.
Panic surges inside me. ‘Wait—let me prove that I can build it.’
She turns around, a sneer on her face. ‘You can’t even un-jam your own harvester. Ruz shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. He should have known better. You should have known better.’
I’m dismissed from the job of looking after Ruz. He’s gained consciousness, but not before Ma Suarez shooed me out of the room.
She makes it clear that she’s taking Ruz back to their habitat as soon as possible. I’m outside, trying to fix the damn harvester, when they leave in a proper shuttle, such as our clan doesn’t even own.
My helmet fogs up from the inside with my tears.
She hasn’t even thanked me for rescuing her son. She hasn’t said a further word about my building activities.
I probably won’t ever see Ruz again. And worse, I have a damaged harvester and a fuel bill the size of which I don’t dare contemplate. And I’ll have to tell my Parisian relatives—who sponsored me—that I’ve failed.
But first I need to return the harvester, and I can’t possibly do so in its present condition. Not only is the blade jammed, the arm has bent back. Something must have come out of the ground with some force. This is going to take all of my savings to fix. I might even have to sell the building materials I’ve collected so far. Or sell my claim on the cometoid. Which my whole family thought was silly anyway.
I swallow tears.
While I’m standing there, a voice crackles in my helmet. ‘Kee, dear, when are you planning to return that harvester? Cazli’s launch window is coming up fast, and if she misses it she’ll lose ten days.’
Cazli’s my cousin, a nice obedient girl without silly plans.
‘I… I’ve hit a problem.’ I hate telling him this, but Uncle has a sixth sense for fibs. He finds out the truth, no matter how much you hide it. ‘I’ve taken some damage.’
‘Just bring it back.’ Even through the static crackle, I can hear the scorn in his voice. I told you so, he’ll be saying, That teaches you and your silly ideas.
Maybe he’s right. I better do as he says. For once.
Inside the cabin, I almost trip over the suit I’d taken off Ruz and that is another reminder of how much of a mess I’m in. I’d have to take the suit back. And I’d have to return Ruz’s flyer, still on the cometoid, to Suarez clan, before they drift out of flyer range, since they are on a different orbit to us.
I initiate the engine’s startup, and while the procedure runs I stow the suit in the cabinet so it won’t go floating all over the cabin.
When I rescued Ruz, the suit was wet. Now it’s dry. I remember the vapour that rose from it. I smell the fabric. Nothing hints at what it might have been. And I can’t stand not knowing.
The air filters might tell me.
While the engine warms up—and I should be doing other things—I run the filter diagnostics, but the program returns no unusual components. Which only means the substance was nothing that could harm the occupants of the harvester.
The ready light flashes. I ignore it.
Uncle asks, ‘Kee, what are you doing?’
I ignore him, too.
I re-play the vid of the gush spouting from the ice. It was something under pressure. Something that, when released into space, didn’t freeze up and snow out. It coated the lens like a layer of oil, and still didn’t freeze but evaporated without leaving a trace. It was most likely a volatile, that’s not nitrogen or oxygen—if they occur in pure state, they’re frozen solid—
Crap. I know what it is.
‘Kee? Answer me, please.’ Uncle’s voice is impatient now.
‘Hang on.’ I press launch and the acceleration pushes me in the seat. But the vectors I enter in the nav screen are not those of the habitat; all hell will break loose, but I’m going back to the cometoid. I won’t give up my dream.
I stand in the airlock to the Suarez clan main habitat, proud and my face glowing with excitement. The vid screen on the wall shows the interlacing structure of bigger and smaller habitats that is the Suarez clanhold. This, the biggest one, is where Ruz lives.
The door cycles open and I step inside.
It’s so different from my family’s little cubby. Suarez have carpets and artistic light fittings. Opposite the airlock door is a hanging that depicts a scene with tall and square buildings on some sort of surface, all facing the same way, under a blue sky. If that picture is what I think—an artefact from Earth—then it’s worth a fortune.
‘You don’t give up easily, do you?’ Ma Suarez looks me up and down, from my borrowed, dirty suit to my scuffed boots—Cazli’s; even she has put something into my bid. No doubt Ma Suarez has watched me arrive in the rickety shuttle I’ve borrowed from the Cairo clan, and she’s wondered what the heck is going on.
Ruz peeks in from a doorway. The surprise on his face is priceless. Slowly, his mouth forms a wide grin.
His mother turns around. ‘Scat, you! This is no place for boys.’
He gives me the thumbs-up before vanishing into the room.
‘Now,’ Ma Suarez says, while meeting my eyes. ‘What do you want?’
‘I’m here to ask for Ruz’s hand.’
I pass her the handheld, still overwhelmed by the sensation of carpet under my feet. But my own construction is growing. I’ll be able to afford carpets and electric lights. I’ll be able to buy a reactor. And pictures from Earth.
She looks at the screen. Her eyebrows rise. Good; she’s seen the StarfleetConsortium logo.
She reads out loud.
‘Greetings, Miss Paris,
It is with some excitement that I can confirm that the sample you sent us is indeed helium. While liquid helium deposits are known to occur in the outer system, they are rare and nowhere near as concentrated as the deposits you have found.
Since you’re registered as the cometoid’s only claimant, we would like to initiate negotiations for a mining contract.
With kind regards,
Lora K Magnenti, CEO, StarfleetConsortium.’