EARTH UNAWARE (Chapter Victor)
Victor didn’t go to the airlock to see Alejandra leave the family forever, to marry into the Italian clan. He didn’t trust himself to say good-bye to his best friend, not without revealing how close he had come to disgracing the family by falling in love with someone in his own asteroid-mining ship.
The Italians were a four-ship operation, and their lead ship, a behemoth of a digger named Vesuvio, had been attached to El Cavador for a week, as the families traded goods and information. Victor liked the Italians. The men sang; the women laughed often; and the food was like nothing he had ever eaten, with colorful spices and creamy sauces and oddly shaped pasta noodles. Victor’s own invention, an HVAC booster that could increase the central heating temperature on the Italians’ ships by as much as eleven degrees, had been an immediate hit with the Italians. “Now we will all wear one sweater instead of three!” one of the Italian miners had said, to huge laughter and thunderous applause. The Italians had been so smitten with Victor’s booster, in fact, that it had brought in more trade goods and prestige than anything else the family had offered. So when Concepción called Victor in to talk to him just before the Italians decoupled, he assumed she was going to commend him.
“Close the door, Victor,” said Concepción.
Victor did so.
The captain’s office was a small space adjacent to the helm. Concepción rarely closed herself in here, preferring instead to be out with the crew, matching or surpassing them in the amount of labor they put in each day. She was in her early seventies, but she had the energy and command of someone half her age.
“Alejandra is going with the Italians, Victor.”
Victor blinked, sure that he had misheard.
“She’s leaving from the airlock in ten minutes. We debated whether it was wise to even tell you beforehand and allow you two to say good-bye to each other, thinking perhaps that it might be easier for you to find out afterward. But I don’t think I could ever forgive myself for that, and I doubt you’d forgive me either.”
Victor’s first thought was that Concepción was telling him this because Alejandra, whom he called Janda for short, was his dearest friend. They were close. He would obviously be devastated by her departure. But a half second later he understood what was really happening. Janda was sixteen, two years too young to marry. The Italians couldn’t be zogging her. The family was sending her away. And the captain of the ship was telling Victor in private mere minutes before it happened. They were accusing him. They were sending her off because of him.
“But we haven’t done anything wrong,” said Victor.
“You two are second cousins, Victor. We would never be able to trade with the other families if we suddenly developed a reputation for dogging.”
Dogging, from “endogamy”: marrying inside the clan, inbreeding. The word was like a slap. “Dogging? But I would never in a million years marry Alejandra. How could you even suggest that we would do such a thing?” It was vile to even think it; to the belter families, it was on the wrong side of the incest taboo.
Concepción said, “You and Alejandra have been the closest of friends since your nursery years, Victor. Inseparable. I’ve watched you. We’ve all watched you. In large gatherings, you always seek each other out. You talk to each other constantly. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk. It’s as if you know precisely what the other is thinking and you need share only a passing glance between you to communicate it all.”
“She’s my friend. You’re going to exile her because we communicate well with each other?”
“Your friendship isn’t unique, Victor. I know of several dozen such friendships on this ship. And they are all between a husband and his wife.”
“You’re sending Alejandra away on the basis that she and I have a romantic relationship. When we don’t.”
“It is an innocent relationship, Victor. Everyone knows that.”
“‘Everyone’? Who do you mean exactly? Has there been a Family Meeting about us?”
“Only a Council. I would never make this decision on my own, Victor.”
Not much of a relief. The Council consisted of all the adults over forty. “So my parents agree to this?”
“And Alejandra’s parents as well. This was a difficult decision for all of us, Victor. But it was unanimous.”
Victor pictured the scene: All of the adults gathered together, aunts and uncles and grandparents, people he knew and loved and respected, people whose opinion he valued, people who had always looked upon him fondly and whose respect he had always hoped to maintain. All of them had sat together and discussed him and Janda, discussed a sex life that Victor didn’t even have! It was revolting. And Mother and Father had been there. How embarrassing for them. How could Victor ever face these people again? They would never be able to look at him without thinking of that meeting, without remembering the accusation and shame.
“No one is suggesting that you two have done anything improper, Victor. But that’s why we’re acting now, before your feelings further blossom and you realize you’re in love.”
Another slap. “Love?”
“I know this is difficult, Victor.”
Difficult? No, unfair would be a better word. Completely unfair and unfounded. Not to mention humiliating. They were sending away his closest friend, perhaps his only true friend, all because they thought something would happen between them? As if he and Janda were animals in heat driven by unbridled carnal impulses. Was it too much to imagine that a teenage boy and a teenage girl could simply be friends? Did adults think so little of adolescents that they assumed that any relationship between sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds of the opposite sex had to be motivated by sex? It was infuriating and insulting. Here he was making an adult-sized contribution in the trade with the Italians, bringing in the largest share of income for the family, and they didn’t think him mature enough to act properly with his second cousin. Janda wasn’t in love with him, and he wasn’t in love with her. Why would anyone think otherwise? What had initiated this? Had someone on the Council seen something between them and misinterpreted it as a sign of love?
And then Victor remembered. There was that time when Janda had looked at him strangely, and he had dismissed it as pure imagination. And she had touched his arm a little longer than normal once. It wasn’t sexual at all, but he had liked the physical contact between them. That connection hadn’t repulsed him. He had enjoyed it.
They were right, he realized.
He hadn’t seen it, and they had. He really was on the brink of falling in love with Janda. And she had fallen in love with him, or at least her feelings were moving in that direction.
Everything swelled up inside him at once: anger at being accused; shame at learning that all the older adults on the ship had talked about him behind his back, believing he was moving toward disgraceful behavior; disgust with himself at realizing that perhaps they may have been right; grief at losing the person who meant the most to him in his life. Why couldn’t Concepción simply have told him her suspicions before now? Why couldn’t she and the Council have said, “Victor, you really need to watch yourself. It looks like you and Alejandra are getting a little close.” They didn’t have to send Janda away. Didn’t they know that he and Janda were mature enough to act appropriately once the family’s fears were voiced? Of course they would comply. Of course he and Janda wanted to adhere to the exogamous code. Victor would never want to do anything to dishonor her or the family. He and Janda hadn’t even realized that their relationship might be headed toward perilous waters. Now that they knew, things would be different.
But arguing would only make him look like a child. And besides, he would be arguing to keep Janda here, close to him. Wasn’t that proof that the family was right? No, Alejandra had to go. It was cruel, yes, but not as cruel as keeping her here in front of him every day. That would be torture. Now that their love—or pre-love or whatever it was—had been so flagrantly pointed out to them, how could he and Janda think of anything else whenever they saw each other? And they would see each other. All the time, every day. At meals, passing in the hall, at exercise. It would be unavoidable. And out of their duty to honor one another and the family, they would become distant and cold to each another. They would overcompensate. They would refrain from any look, any conversation, any touch between them. Yet even as they tried in vain to avoid each other, they would be thinking about the need to avoid each other. They would consume each other’s thoughts, even more so than before. It would be dreadful.
Victor immediately knew that Alejandra would understand this as well. She would be devastated to learn that she was leaving her family, but she would see the wisdom of it as well, just as Victor did. It was one of the many reasons why he respected her so much. Janda could always see the big picture. If a decision had to be made, she would consider every ramification: Who would be affected and when and for how long? And if the decision affected her, she would always consider it dispassionately, with an almost scientific eye, never letting her emotions override any wisdom, always putting the needs of the family above her own. Now, standing here in Concepción’s office, Victor realized that perhaps it wasn’t respect that he felt for her. It was something else. Something greater.
He looked at Concepción. “I would suggest that I go with the Italians instead of Alejandra, but that wouldn’t work. The Italians would wonder why we were giving up our best mechanic.” He knew it sounded vain, but they both knew it was true.
Concepción didn’t argue. “Alejandra is bright and talented and hardworking, but she has yet to choose a specialty. They can adapt her to what they need. You, however, are already specialized. What would they do with their own mechanic? It would put you in competition at once. No, they would not accept the situation, and we could not do without you. But it was generous, if pointless, for you to consider it.”
Victor nodded. It was now a matter of clearing up a few questions. “Alejandra is only sixteen, two years too young to marry. I’m assuming the Italians agree to wait until the appropriate time to formally introduce her to potential suitors from their family. They understand that they can’t possibly be zogging her now.”
“Our arrangement with the Italians is very clear. Alejandra will be bunking with a family with a daughter her age and no sons. I have met the daughter myself and found her most agreeable and kind. I suspect that she and Alejandra will get along very well. And yes, the Italians understand that Alejandra is not to be considered a prospect for marriage until she comes of age. When that time comes, she is not to be coerced into a relationship or choice. She will move at her own pace. The decision of who and when to marry is entirely her own. Knowing Alejandra, I suspect she will have her pick of bachelors.”
Of course Janda would have her pick, Victor thought. Any suitor with an eye for beauty—both physical and in every other respect—would immediately see the life of happiness that awaited him with Janda at his side. Victor had known that for years. Anyone who spent five minutes with Janda would know she would one day make an attractive bride. Everything that men hoped for in a companion was there: a brilliant mind, a kind disposition, an unbreakable devotion to family. And until this moment, Victor hadn’t considered this opinion of her anything other than intelligent observation. Now, however, he could detect another sentiment buried within it. Envy. Envy for the man lucky enough to have her. It was funny, really. The feelings he had harbored all along for Alejandra were like emotions filed away in a mismarked folder. They had always been there. He had just given them a different name. Now the truth of them was glaringly obvious. A long friendship had slowly evolved into something else. It hadn’t fully developed and resulted in any action, but its course was set. It was as if the boundary between friendship and love was so thin and imperceptible that one could cross it without even knowing it was there.
“The Italians can never know the real reason why Alejandra is leaving,” said Victor. “They can’t know that she was moving toward an unacceptable relationship. That would forever taint her and drive off potential suitors. You must have told them some invented reason. Families don’t just send off their sixteen-year-old daughters.”
“The Italians believe that Alejandra is going early so that she may have time to adapt to being away from her family and thus avoid the homesickness that plagues so many zogged brides,” said Concepción. “Such emotions, however natural, can put a strain on a young marriage, and we have explained to the Italians our desire to avoid it.”
It was a smart cover story. Homesickness happened. Victor had seen it. Sooman, a bride that had come to El Cavador a few years ago to marry Victor’s uncle Lonzo, had spent the first weeks of their marriage crying her eyes out in her room, bemoaning the loss of her Korean family. She had come willingly—no zogging is a forced marriage—but homesickness had crept in, and her constant weeping had really gotten to Victor. It made him feel like an accomplice in a kidnapping or rape. But what could be done? There could be no divorce or annulment. Her family was already millions of klicks away. Eventually she had come around, but the whole experience had been a burden for everyone.
“What assurance do we have that the Italians will abide by these conditions?” Victor asked.
“Alejandra isn’t going alone. Faron is going with her.”
Again, this was wise. Faron had come to the family late in his teens, when the family rescued him and his mother from a derelict mining ship after pirates had stripped it and left them to die. The mother did not live long, and Faron, though he was hardworking and grateful, had never fully become part of the family.
“Faron is a good miner, Victor. He’s been waiting for an opportunity to get on with a bigger clan. He wants to be piloting his own digger someday. He won’t accomplish that here. This is Faron’s choice. He’ll watch over Alejandra and see to it that her needs are met, not as a guardian, but as a protector and counselor. If any suitor tries to approach Alejandra too soon, Faron will remind him of his place.”
Victor had no doubt of that. Faron was big and well muscled. He would defend Janda as his own sister should the occasion ever require it, which it probably never would. The Italians weren’t stupid enough to threaten their own reputation and alienate themselves from other families. Zogging was crucial to mixing up the gene pool. Every family upheld the practice as sacrosanct. To marry well was to preserve the family and build the clan. True, there were belters who dogged and married only within their own clan, but these were considered the lowliest of low class and were alienated from everyone else, rarely able to find families willing to trade goods with them. No, in all likelihood, Janda would be given all the luxury and protection the Italians could afford. Faron was only a formality.
“It’s an ideal situation,” said Concepción. “It works out well for everyone. Now if you hurry, you can catch her at the airlock. I’m sure she would like to say good-bye.”
Victor was surprised. “But I can’t possibly see her off.”
“But you are the person she will most want to say good-bye to.”
“Which is exactly why I can’t go,” said Victor. “The Italians will be there. They might catch some sign of special emotion at our parting. Alejandra and I never noticed that we were conveying any emotions to each other at all, yet apparently we were or you never would have felt the need to hold a Council. So we might reveal something that we don’t detect but that everyone else does. And the Italians are sharp and suspicious. They made me take the HVAC booster apart three times before they would believe that it works. No, as much as I would love to say good-bye to Alejandra, it would only put her at risk. They can never suspect that there was ever anything between us. I appreciate you coming to me beforehand and trusting me enough to give me the opportunity, but you must understand why I respectfully decline.”
Concepción smiled sadly. “Your reasoning is clear, Victor, but I also know the pain behind it. And the pain your decision will bring to Alejandra.” She sighed, crossed her arms, and examined him a moment. “You don’t disappoint me, Victor. You’re the man I always hoped you would grow to be. Now I just hope that you will forgive us for what we have done to you and your dear friend.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Concepción. I’m the one who needs forgiveness. I have lost us Alejandra two years early. I’ve taken her from her parents and family. That wasn’t my intent, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happened.”
What he didn’t say were his others reasons for not going to the airlock. He simply couldn’t face Janda, for one. Not because of his shame, though he felt plenty of that. It was more the finality of the event. He couldn’t look at her knowing that it would likely be the last time he would ever see her again. He couldn’t bear that; he didn’t trust his emotions enough. He might do something foolish, like cry or stammer or turn red as a beacon light. And he didn’t want the weak side of him to be her final impression of him. Nor was he willing to steel his jaw and square his shoulders and see her off with a cold, stately handshake, as the Council would expect. That would be an affront to their friendship. It would imply—to him, at least—that their relationship had meant nothing to him after all, that it could be ended as dispassionately as two acquaintances parting ways. He couldn’t allow that. He wouldn’t let their final moment be an exercise in pretense and awkwardness.
Besides, not seeing Janda off was best for her. If she did love him, then his abandoning her at her departure would only make it easier for her to forget him. He would be doing her a favor. Then again, Janda knew Victor. She might suspect that he hadn’t come for that very reason, and therefore the plan would backfire. Instead of stamping out their love, it would only endear him more to her.
Or, she might jump to the wrong conclusion entirely. She might think that he had not come because now that true feelings were laid bare, he found her revolting. She might think: He hates me now. He despises me. I’m the one who looked at him with love in my eyes. I’m the one who touched his arm. And now that he knows what my feelings were, he thinks me vile and repulsive.
This thought nearly sent Victor flying from the room and rushing to the airlock to tell Janda that no, he didn’t think any less of her. He never could.
But he did no such thing. He remained exactly where he was.
Concepción said, “The members of the Council will be perfectly discreet on this matter. Not a hint of gossip will escape any of our lips. As far as we are concerned, we didn’t even meet on the subject.”
She was trying to reassure him, but hearing her stress the confidentiality of the situation only stoked Victor’s shame. It meant that they were so disgusted by him and Janda, so repulsed by it all, that they were going to pretend that nothing had ever happened. They were going to go about their business as if the memory had been wiped from their minds. Which of course was impossible. No one could forget this. They could pretend to have forgotten, yes. They could smile at him and go on as if nothing had ever happened, but their faces would only be masks.
There was nothing else to say. Victor thanked Concepción and excused himself from her office. The hall that led to the airlock was just ahead, but Victor turned his back to it. He needed to work. He needed to occupy his mind, build something, fix something, disassemble something. He took his handheld from his hip and checked the day’s repair docket. There was a long list of minor repairs that needed his attention, but none of them were a screaming emergency. He could get to them soon enough. A better use of his time might be installing the drill stabilizer he had built recently. He would need permission from the miners before touching the drill, but he might get that if he asked today. The Italians hadn’t pulled out yet, so the miners wouldn’t be ready for the drill for another hour at least. Victor switched screens on his handheld and pulled up the locator. It showed that Mono was down in the workshop.
Victor hit the call button. “Mono, it’s Victor.”
A young boy’s voice answered. “Épale, pana cambur. What’s shaking, Vico?”
“Can you meet me in the cargo bay with the pieces for the drill stabilizer?”
Mono sounded excited. “Are we going outside to install it?”
“If the miners let us. I’m heading there now.”
Mono whistled and hooted.
Victor clicked off, smiling. He could always count on Mono’s enthusiasm to lift his spirits.
At nine years old, Mono was the youngest apprentice on the ship, though he had been following Victor around and watching him make repairs for several years now. Six months ago the Council had agreed that an interest as keen as Mono’s should be encouraged not ignored, and they had made his apprenticeship official. Mono had called it the happiest day of his life.
Mono’s real name was José Manuel like his father, Victor’s uncle. But when Mono was a toddler, he had learned to climb up the furniture and cabinets in the nursery before he had learned to walk, and his mother had called him her little mono—“monkey” in Spanish. The name had stuck.
Victor flew down the various corridors and shafts to the cargo bay, launching himself straight as an arrow down every passageway, moving quickly in zero gravity. He passed lots of people. Now that the Italians were pulling out, and the trading and festivities were over, it was back to life as usual, with everyone taking up his or her assigned responsibility. Miners, cooks, laundry workers, machine operators, navigators, all the duties that kept the family operation running smoothly in the Kuiper Belt.
Victor reached the entrance to the cargo bay and found Mono waiting for him, a large satchel floating in the air behind him.
“You got everything?” asked Victor. “All three pieces?”
“Check, check, and check,” said Mono, giving a thumbs-up.
They floated through the hatch into the cargo bay and then over to the equipment lockers, where the miners were busy gathering and preparing their gear for the day’s dig. The ship was currently anchored to an asteroid, but drilling had stopped ever since the Italians had arrived. Now the miners looked eager to get back to work.
Victor scanned the crowd and noticed that many of the men were over forty, which meant they were members of the Council and therefore knew the real reason why Janda was leaving. Victor wondered if they would avert their eyes when they saw him, but none of them did. They were all so busy making their preparations that no one even seemed to notice that he and Mono were there.
Victor found his uncle Marco, the dig-team leader, over by the air compressor, checking the lifeline hoses for any leaks. Miners were extremely protective of their gear, but no piece of equipment was given more care and inspection than the lifeline. The long tube connected into the back of every miner’s spacesuit and served two purposes: It was the miner’s anchor to the ship—operating like a safety cable. And it was the miner’s source of fresh air, power, and heat. As the sign above the lockers read: CUIDA TU MANGUERA. TU MANGUERA ES TU VIDA. “Take care of your line. Your line is your life.”
“Épale, Marco,” said Victor.
“Épa, Vico,” said Marco, looking up from his work and smiling.
He was a member of the Council, but he showed no sign of hiding anything. He appeared to be his normal, happy self. Victor pushed the thought away. He couldn’t live like this, constantly questioning the thoughts of every person over forty on the ship.
“Nice work with that heater doodad you made for the Italians,” said Marco. “We got some good equipment out of that trade.” He gestured to a large metal cage anchored to the floor, filled with slightly used pressure suits, helmets, mineral readers, and other essential equipment. Most of it looked newer than anything miners on El Cavador had ever used, which might work to Victor’s favor—he was about to ask permission to access the drill, and it would help to be in the miners’ good graces.
“What time are you going out this morning?” asked Victor.
Marco raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been working on something,” said Victor, “an enhancement for one of the drills. It’s still a prototype, but I’d like to test it. And since you can’t fire up the drill until the Italians pull out, I thought maybe I could install it before your guys get out there and start digging.”
Marco eyed the satchel.
“It’s a stabilizer for the drill,” said Victor, “for whenever we hit ice pockets. It’s a way to keep the ship from pitching forward and the drill steady.”
Victor could see Marco’s curiosity nibbling at the bait. “Ice pockets, huh?”
Nothing was more annoying to a miner in the Kuiper Belt than ice pockets. Asteroids this far from the sun were dirty snowballs, masses of rock laced with an occasional pocket of frozen water, methane, or ammonia. The laser drill could bore through it all, but it produced a rocketlike reaction. Unless the ship was moored to the rock with the retrorockets firing as a counterforce, the laser would simply knock the asteroid away from the ship.
So as long as the laser was digging through rock—for which all of the retrorockets had been calibrated—the ship held steady and the dig went smoothly. But the moment the laser hit a pocket of ice, the laser would burn right through it, losing the ship’s upward force. The retrorockets were still firing, however, so the whole ship would pitch forward, causing chaos inside for the crew. People fell over, babies couldn’t sleep.
Then, after the laser had seared through the ice and hit rock again, the upward force would return, the two forces would then equalize, and the ship would pitch back again. Everyone called it the ice pocket rodeo.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Victor. “The drill is working. What if my ‘improvement’ damages the drill?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” said Marco. “I don’t like anyone touching the drills unless absolutely necessary.”
“You can watch everything I do,” said Victor. “Step by step. But in truth, the installation isn’t that invasive. The main sensor goes up by the retrorockets. Another piece is wireless and goes down by the blast site on the asteroid. All I’m doing with the drill is installing this third piece, the stabilizer. It makes minor adjustments in the drill’s aim when the ship moves because of an ice dip. It’s designed to keep the laser pointed straight down into the blast site, instead of wavering or shifting mid-drill.” Victor pulled the device from the satchel and handed it to Marco. It was small and intricate, and Marco clearly had no idea what he was looking at—though this was to be expected since nothing like it existed. Victor had built it from junked parts, scrap metal, and polycarbonate plastic.
Marco handed back the stabilizer. “So this will take care of ice dips?”
“Not completely,” said Victor. “But it should minimize them, yes. Assuming it works.”
Victor could see Marco’s mind working. He was considering it. Finally, Marco pointed a finger and said, “If you damage the drill, I’ll have you sucked back into the ship through your lifeline.”
Marco looked at his watch. “You got forty-five minutes. We’ll be checking equipment until then.”
“Not a problem,” said Victor.
“And that’s including however long it takes for you to suit up,” said Marco. “Forty-five minutes total, from this moment.”
“Got it,” said Victor.
“And work on the old drill,” said Marco. “Not the new one.”
Victor thanked him, and he and Mono hurried to the lockers. As they changed into their pressure suits, Mono peppered Victor with questions, as Mono was always prone to do. Most of them were mechanical in nature, so Victor was able to answer them without much thought. The rest of his mind was at the airlock. How had Janda looked when she left? Had she acknowledged Victor’s absence or pretended not to notice it? Probably the latter. Janda was too smart to risk revealing her feelings now.
“Hola,” said Mono, waving a hand in front of Victor’s face. “Earth to Vico. We’ve got a green light, and the clock is ticking.”
Victor blinked, snapping out of his reverie. They were in the airlock, sealed and ready to go. The light over the airlock hatch had turned green indicating that they were clear to exit.
Victor entered the command in the keypad. There was a hiss of air, and the exterior hatch slid open. Mono didn’t waste any time. He pulled himself through and pushed hard off the hull, launching himself into space, whooping and hollering as he flew. Victor launched after him, his lifeline unspooling like a single strand of spider’s web behind him. Victor’s thumb found the trigger on his suit, and the gas propulsion kicked in, gradually slowing his forward motion. He rotated his body back toward El Cavador and saw the Italian ship Vesuvio as it was maneuvering away.
Janda was leaving.
The other three ships of the Italian clan—also named after volcanoes in Italy: Stròmbuli, Mongibello, and Vulture—were a short distance away, waiting for Vesuvio. Soon they would accelerate and disappear.
Victor refused to watch them leave. Better to stay busy. “Let’s go, Mono. No time for flying.”
Victor hit the propulsion trigger and shot forward back to the ship, heading toward the side facing the asteroid, back where the old laser drill was housed. Several thick mooring cables extended from the ship down to their anchors on the asteroid. Victor moved past them, being careful not to entangle his lifeline. When he reached the drill, he stopped, brought up his feet, and turned on his boot magnets. The soles of his boots snapped to the surface, and Victor stood upright.
He and Mono got to work removing the panels on the drill and exposing its inner components. The stabilizer was a quick install. It was just a matter of bolting it in and plugging it in to one of the drill’s mod outlets. Most big machines allotted a certain number of modifications and had built-in power outlets and boards to accommodate them. Victor would have to reboot the drill before it recognized the stabilizer, but his lifeline carried hardware lines to the ship, and he could do it from here using his heads-up display. He blinked and called up the display. The helmet tracked his eyes, and Victor gave the necessary blink commands to reboot the drill. When it came back online, he saw on the display that it recognized the stabilizer. “We’re in business, Mono. Now for the retros.”
They replaced the drill paneling and flew up to the retrorockets. Victor looked to his left as he went. The Italians were gone. A small dot of white in the distance might have been their thrusters, but it could just as easily have been a star. Victor looked away. Back to work.
The installation on the retros was more difficult since their mod inputs were so dated, and Victor had to make an adapter from parts in his tool belt. Mono asked questions every step of the way. Why was Victor doing this or that? Why wouldn’t he try this instead?
“That’s how we do it, Mono. We make do with what we have. Corporate miners have stores of spare parts and resources on their ships. We have nothing. If something needs fixing, we pull out the junked parts and use our imagination. Now let me ask you a few questions.”
It was then that the instruction began. Victor passed the tools and pieces to Mono and asked him questions that didn’t explicitly tell Mono how to finish the installation but that pointed him in the right direction. That way, Mono was discovering the steps himself and seeing the logic behind everything. It was how Father had trained Victor, not only letting him get his hands on the repair, but getting his mind in it as well, teaching Victor how to think his way through a fix.
As Mono worked, Victor allowed himself another look out to space. There wasn’t a trace of thrusters now. Just blackness and stars and silence. Victor wasn’t a navigator, but he knew the big asteroids that were currently in this general vicinity, and he wondered where the Italians might be going. It wouldn’t be anywhere close, of course. In the Kuiper Belt it took several months to travel between asteroids. But even so, maybe Victor could guess.
He closed his eyes. It was pointless. There were thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt. They could be heading anywhere. And what good did it do to know their destination anyway? That wouldn’t change anything. That wouldn’t bring Janda back. And yes, he wanted her back. He realized that now. He had never been physically affectionate with her in any way that wasn’t innocent. And yet now, when he couldn’t have her, he suddenly longed for her to be close to him.
He loved his cousin. Why hadn’t he seen that before? I’m exactly what the Council feared. Whatever they think of me now, I deserve it.
Mono was asking him a question. Victor returned to the task at hand. They finished the installation and then made their way down to the blast site on the asteroid.
In mining terms, the asteroid was a “lumpy,” or a rock rich in iron, cobalt, nickel, and other ferromagnetic minerals. Miners used scanners to look for concentrations of metal in the stone, which they called “lumps.” The more lumps or seams of metal they found, the higher the metal-to-stone ratio. No lumps meant the rock was a “slagger” or a “dumpy,” a worthless chunk of nothing.
Victor and Mono touched down on the asteroid. Their boot magnets were set to the highest setting, and the minerals in the rock were just enough to hold their feet to the surface. They walked to the lip of the mineshaft and looked down. The laser drill had burned a nice circle into the asteroid, though not with a continuous cutting motion. It actually fired a series of close, single bursts that perforated the rock to a predetermined depth, creating a tight ring of holes. Miners then broke the narrow walls between the holes with the shake-hammers, then pulled out the rock in chunks, building the shaft.
But this shaft wasn’t deep enough. The miners hadn’t yet reached the lump. When they did, they’d bring in the cooker tubes and refine and smelt the metal on-site, shaping it into cylinders that could be floated back up to the ship. It was tedious, hard labor, but if the lump was big enough, it was well worth the effort.
Victor found a spot on the inner wall of the shaft where the steam sensor could be installed, and then called up Marco. “We’re nearly ready to test this thing. Do you have a moment to come help us out?”
“On my way,” said Marco.
Victor thought it best if Marco was the one who installed the steam sensor. It was a simple procedure, and it would allow Marco to feel some ownership for the device. Besides, the miners would be the ones moving the steam sensor every time they moved the drill, so they needed to know how to install it at the blast site. It made sense for Marco, as team leader, to have the first go.
Marco didn’t come alone. Word had spread, and every miner in the family now gathered around the mineshaft, ready to watch.
“When ice melts it produces steam,” said Victor. “This sensor goes down in the shaft and detects steam. The moment the level of steam in the detritus goes up a certain amount, it tells the retros to ease off. Then, when the rock particulate goes up again and steam diminishes, the retros accelerate. Meanwhile, it’s sending adjustments to the drill, to keep it from waffling as the ship moves. So the beam always stays dead center on the blast site.”
“Won’t the heat from the laser burn the steam sensor?” asked Marco.
“That’s what the casing is for,” said Victor. “It’s pretty tough stuff. I’m thinking it will hold.”
“So no more ice dips?” asked one of the miners.
“It won’t rid the ship of all movement entirely,” said Victor. “There would still be some slight shifting since it will take a moment for the sensor to detect the steam, but the movement will be far more gentle, like slight waves instead of sudden, jarring jolts.”
Marco flew down into the hole and drilled the steam sensor into the inner rock wall as Victor suggested. When he returned, he ushered everyone back to a safe distance and had them lower their blast shields over their visors.
“It’s still a prototype,” Victor reminded them. “I can’t guarantee the beam won’t go off center. It’s bound to need some serious adjustments.”
“Shut up and drill,” said Marco.
Victor blinked the commands into his heads-up display, and the laser blasted down into the rock. Within seconds the laser hit ice, and the ship began to dip. The retros adjusted and the drill countered. It wasn’t perfect; the beam still wavered a bit.
“Needs tweaking,” said Victor. He called up the commands on his display. His eyes moved quickly, and he gave the appropriate blink commands, making the needed adjustments. Twenty seconds later the laser hit another pocket of ice. Steam issued from the hole, but the retros responded quickly and smoothly this time. The drill responded perfectly as well, without the slightest waver from side to side.
Everyone cheered. Mono was punching the sky, whistling.
Marco was smiling. “She handles light. Sweet.”
“So I’m on the right track,” said Victor. “Now I can get to work on the real version.”
“Does Concepción know about this?” asked Marco
“We didn’t want to tell anyone until we knew it worked. Now that it shows some promise, I’ll get my dad involved. He may have some improvements in mind.”
“I’ll take two,” said Marco, smiling. “One for the new drill as well.” He gave Victor an affectionate knuckle tap on the helmet.
When Victor and Mono finally returned to the ship, Mono was on an emotional high. “You’d be rich on Earth, Vico. Stinking rich. All these ideas of yours. They’d pay you millions of credits.”
“I’m seventeen, Mono. I’d be lucky to get an assembly-line job. No one would take me seriously. Out here we can do whatever we want. On Earth it’s different. Besides, you and I did this together. The stabilizer was both of us.”
“I helped with mindless welding and soldering in the workshop. The ideas were yours.”
“Your hands are way steadier than mine. You do the micro work far better than I do. Even Father can’t solder like you.”
When they floated out of the decompression chamber and back into the cargo bay, Isabella was waiting for him. She was Chilean, zogged by the family when Victor was just a kid and married to Mother’s second cousin. More importantly, she was very close with Janda.
“I need to speak with Vico in private, Mono,” said Isabella. “Would you give us a moment?”
Mono shrugged. “I got circuits to rebuild in the workshop. See you around, Vico.”
Isabella waited until Mono was gone, then turned to Victor. “I know you’re upset. And I don’t blame you.”
Victor kept his face a blank. Isabella wasn’t quite old enough to be on the Council, so she might not be speaking of Janda.
Isabella rolled her eyes. “Don’t play dumb, Vico. I’m not an idiot. I know what just happened here. They sent Jandita away. And you hid out with the machinery instead of telling her good-bye.”
“Yes, I was a coward,” said Victor.
“No, you weren’t,” said Isabella. “You were trying to make sure nobody on Vesuvio ever accused Jandita of being in love with a cousin. And don’t look surprised. Just because I figured it out doesn’t mean anyone else did. Jandita was a model of composure at the airlock. I don’t think anyone suspected a thing. She actually made the Italians believe she was excited about going.”
“How did you figure it out?”
“Jandita is my niece, Vico. I am her favorite aunt. I know her thoughts better than her own mother perhaps. Plus, I’m observant. I see and hear all.” She gave Victor a wink, and he furrowed his brow. “Relax,” she said. “I never saw anything improper between you two. What I mean is that I know the signs. Jandita is not the first girl to have fallen in love with her cousin, you know.”
Victor read the rueful expression on her face. “You’re confessing?”
“I was eighteen. He was my second cousin as well. I doubt he even knew that I loved him. The year I realized it, I came to this ship and married your uncle Selmo.”
Technically Selmo wasn’t Victor’s uncle. He was his second cousin once removed, but all men on the ship were uncles, more or less.
“Does Selmo know?” asked Victor.
Isabella laughed. “Of course he knows. We laugh about it now. I was young and starry-eyed. I barely knew what I wanted in a husband then.”
“So Alejandra is starry-eyed and naïve.”
“Not at all. I suspect she will think of you for the rest of her life. She’s far more mature at sixteen than I was at eighteen. My point is you’re not a villain, Vico. I know you. You’ll beat yourself up over this, and you shouldn’t. She’s your second cousin. Any place on Earth, you could have married, and no one would have batted an eye.”
“Maybe that’s because there are more sick and twisted dirtbags on Earth.”
Isabella laughed. “They’re human, Vico. Just like us. We can’t help it if we hold ourselves to a higher standard.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Promise me you won’t torture yourself over this.”
What did she expect of him? That he could shrug this off and chalk it up as one of those life experiences that everyone has? Isabella meant well. That was clear. She loved him like she loved Janda. But words of comfort couldn’t bring the comfort she wanted to give. He wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow and think: What a valuable life lesson that was. He wasn’t going to move on. Not here, at least. He realized that now. Everywhere he turned he would see Alejandra. Everything would spark a memory of her. She would haunt him here. How could he take a bride onto this ship? Even if the family zogged someone for him in the next year or so, how could he parade a wife through halls that reminded him of someone else? Of course zogging had worked for Isabella. Of course she could move on. She had left that previous life behind her. She had closed that door. Nothing in her new life would remind her of her old one. Victor wouldn’t have that luxury. Not if he stayed here.
I need to get out, he realized. Go to Luna perhaps. Or Earth or Mars. He didn’t know how to make it happen, but he knew in that instant that it must.
He looked at Isabella and gave her the smile she expected. “I will do my best.”
She looked content. “Good. I’ll be watching you. If I sense any self-loathing, I will beat you senseless.”
“I’m sure you could. But honestly, I’ll be fine.”
“No you won’t. But I’m glad you’ll try.”
They parted then. Victor went to the lockers and changed out of his spacesuit. He would have to tell his parents that he was leaving. Mother would argue with him, but Father would see the sense in it. As much as Father would hate to admit it, he would agree with Victor. He couldn’t leave immediately, of course. He didn’t have the means. It would be months before they found another family willing to give Victor a ride in that direction. But he could prepare himself now. He could start today. Luna, Earth, and Mars all had gravities, and Victor’s legs weren’t strong enough to take on the Gs. He needed strength training. He needed the fuge.
The centrifuge was at the heart of the ship. It only stopped spinning twice an hour, to let people in or out, so Victor had to wait a few minutes after he arrived for the hatch to open. Inside there were a dozen people scattered throughout the room, most of them standing on the wall or floor, waiting for the fuge to get back up to speed so they could continue with their exercise. A few of them like Victor had just entered, and these made their way to the wall where all the magnetic greaves were hung. Victor followed them, already feeling the centripetal force pull him to the floor.
He found a pair of greaves that looked to be his size and strapped them around his shins. Soon he was standing upright, the magnets holding his feet firmly to the floor. Greaves weren’t like real gravity. More like one-sixth of a G, or what someone might experience on the surface of Luna. The trick with greaves was you had to work hard to keep your legs under you, constantly pulling your feet forward as you stepped, dragging against the pull of the greaves.
But greaves weren’t enough to condition his legs, especially if he was thinking of Earth or Mars. He needed time on the treadmills as well. He walked toward the center of the room to the hatch that led down to the fuge within a fuge: the track, the room where the treads were kept. He could feel himself getting heavier as the fuge picked up speed. When it got going full tilt, the pull of the magnets combined with the spin would be about half a G.
To his right was the nursery, a long row of glass-paneled rooms where the children under two years old lived. In one room, a toddler was taking a few unsteady steps from the arms of one adult and into the waiting arms of another. Without the simulated gravity of the fuge, toddlers would never develop the muscles necessary for walking, or learn how.
There were some free-miner families who didn’t have fuges or magnetic greaves and who preferred instead to always fly in zero gravity. But bats, as they were called, were completely useless planet-side. Their children couldn’t walk or even stand, their legs thin and atrophied.
Concepción wouldn’t hear of it. Everyone was required to spend at least two hours a day down here to keep leg muscles from atrophying and bones from becoming brittle. Some people stayed vertical wherever they were on the ship, electing to wear greaves while they worked. It was a matter of leverage and efficiency. Most of the labor on the ship required sure footing. It was far easier to push and pull and lift if your feet were locked down.
Victor reached the hatch and lowered himself into the track. There were fewer people down here than in the main fuge, and all of them were younger than Victor, walking, running, listening to earphones, wearing movie goggles, reading. Yet all of them were vertical. Victor strapped himself into a treadmill and raised the setting to three-quarters of a G. He walked slowly at first, then gradually worked his way up to a light run. After twenty minutes his calves were twitching and his thighs burned. As he lowered the G level and started to cool down, he wondered how much more he would have to train each day to prepare himself to leave.
His handheld began flashing.
Victor stopped the treadmill. The message was from Edimar, Janda’s fourteen-year-old sister. She was an apprentice spotter and watched for movement in space: comets, asteroids, anything that might pose a collision threat to the ship. The message read: COME TO THE CROW’S NEST. URGENT!!
Victor didn’t hesitate. He left the fuge as soon as it stopped spinning, then moved through the ship quickly, his legs still burning, his shirt damp with sweat.
The crow’s nest was a glass dome atop the upper deck, well above the main body of the ship. Victor flew up the long, narrow tube that led to the room and then pulled himself up through the hole in the floor. The room was dark, and the billions of stars beyond the glass dome shined so clearly and distinctly that Victor felt as if he were outside the ship.
Edimar was floating weightless across the room, wearing her data goggles. The computers were extremely sensitive to light, so spotters wore skintight goggles with interior displays instead of using bright computer monitors.
“Épa, Mar. What’s the emergency?” asked Victor.
Edimar removed her goggles. “You’ve always taken me seriously, Vico. Even when nobody else did. You’ve always treated me like I’m smart.”
“You are smart, Edimar. What’s this about?”
“And Jandita said that if I ever needed help with something I could come to you. She said you’d treat me fair, help me out.”
“Of course, Mar. What is it?”
“I want to show you something. And I want you to be honest with me and tell me what you think it is.”
She found another pair of goggles and handed them to him. “The Eye saw something that doesn’t make any sense. And I don’t want a bunch of people laughing at me if it’s nothing.”
The Eye was the computer system that kept up a constant scan of the sky in every direction, watching for any incoming objects that might collide with the ship. In terms of safety, it was one of the most important pieces of equipment on board. Even small rocks, if they were moving fast enough, could cripple the ship and prove fatal.
“Have you shown your father?” asked Victor
She looked aghast. “Of course not.”
“Why not? He’s the spotter. He’ll be more of a help interpreting what the Eye sees than I would.”
“My father doesn’t think I can do this job, Vico. He has zero confidence in me. He wanted sons, and he got three girls. The only reason I’m his apprentice and not some boy is because Concepción made him take me on. I can’t go to him with something that’s a mistake. I’d never hear the end of it. He might go to Concepción with it as proof that I’m not fit for this job.”
Victor knew Janda’s and Edimar’s father well, and it sounded like a pretty accurate description. Victor knew he shouldn’t ask, but he did anyway. “Why work with your father then, Mar? If it’s so difficult, maybe you’d like doing something else, being around other people.”
She looked angry. “Because I like what I do, Vico. I like working the Eye. And because he’s my father. Why don’t you go work in the laundry or the kitchen, if it’s so easy to switch?”
He held up his hands in a show of surrender. “Sorry. Forget I asked. What did the Eye see?”
She looked irritated and said nothing for a moment, as if considering whether she wanted to involve him after all. Then her face softened, and she relaxed. “Goggles,” she said, sliding on her own.
Victor put on the goggles and stared at the blank screen. “Am I supposed to see something?”
“Not yet. First let me explain. I’ve set the Eye to notify me of any motion outside the ecliptic, even if it doesn’t yet look like a collision. Motion there is more rare, but I’ve got a thing for cold comets. Before the sun heats them up and gives them a tail, I think they’re pretty cool. I figure if I’m the first one to spot a new one, I can get it named after me. It’s silly, I know.”
“Not at all,” said Victor. “Getting a comet named after you sounds pretty chévere.”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “I think so, too.” Then she was back to business. “So the Eye was looking outside the ecliptic, taking in some really clean data.”
Clean data meant there had been relatively little space dust or other particles floating in the Eye’s field of view. It meant the Eye could see way far out.
“Then the Eye detected motion and alerted me,” said Edimar. “I called up a visual and got this.”
An image of space appeared in Victor’s goggles. It looked no different from any other view of space. “Am I supposed to see anything unusual?” he asked.
“The motion was here.” Edimar drew on her tablet with her stylus, and a tiny circle appeared on the image of space. Then Edimar zoomed in until the tiny circle filled the display. Victor strained his eyes. “I still don’t see anything.”
“Neither did I. Which means whatever the Eye saw is in deep space. If it were close, we would be getting better visual resolution. And if it’s way out there and the Eye detected its motion, then it must be moving insanely fast. The problem is, the Eye doesn’t give me enough data to determine the object’s trajectory. All I know is that there’s fast motion. But the velocity decreases over time. It means the object is either changing velocity or direction, one or the other. Either it’s slowing, or it’s turning toward or away from us, making it appear to be slowing relative to us. Only neither one is very likely. I’ve run analyses based on a dozen different distances and possible directions of movement and the only thing that explains the data the Eye is giving me is deceleration.”
“It’s slowing down?” said Victor. “Natural objects in space don’t slow down on their own, Mar.”
“No, they don’t. And when I say it’s moving fast, Vico, I mean fast. Fifty percent of lightspeed fast. And that’s its speed now, after continuing to decelerate. Interstellar objects don’t go that fast, they don’t bend without a gravity well, and they don’t decelerate. So tell me, am I going to get teased for this?”
“I don’t think so,” said Victor.
“I should forget about it?”
“Edimar, I think we’re looking at a spacecraft.”
“Nothing goes that fast.”
“Nothing made by humans.”
At his words, Edimar visibly relaxed and a silly grin came to her face. “So I’m not crazy to think we’ve got us an alien starship? A near-lightspeed ship coming into our system and slowing down?”
“Either it’s a lightspeed ship or somebody repealed a whole bunch of laws of physics. And either it’s alien or some corporation or government is experimenting with a technology so advanced it will make them masters of the universe.”
“So I should call a grown-up.”
“You should call the Council. Or I will. This isn’t just important, it’s so important that they’ve got to make decisions about it right away.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“Because it might very well be headed for Earth.”
EARTH UNAWARE.Copyright 2012 by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston