To Mi Dimarco, the habitat blister’s common room felt cavernous after her five-month trip in the solo transfer ship. She floated just inside the room while Estevez, in the quick, clipped patter of a salesman, gave her the short-form tour of the asteroid mining camp.
Estevez ended with, “Those hatches are the bunks. Last one, on the end, is yours.”
Mi slung her pack over one shoulder and used her legs to launch off the wall, arrowing toward her bunk. She did a quick flip to look at Estevez as she floated, feet first, across the room. Estevez shoved off a console to follow her. He looked a little clumsy, like a ground-bounder who’d come to freefall through training, not instinct.
“‘Mi.’ That’s nice. Is that Japanese or something?”
Everyone asked about her name. “It doesn’t mean anything. My dad used one of those baby name books and picked the first thing he came to.”
She landed on the wall next to her bunk, absorbing her momentum with her legs. Estevez flew in and clutched at the hatchway to stop himself.
“Wouldn’t that be an ‘A’ name then?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
He hesitated, as if searching her expression for signs of a joke he’d missed. “Well, anyway, it’ll be nice to have a woman out here.”
Mi kept her expression blank. He’d deadpanned the line, but he was studying her, eyes narrowed. Inwardly, she sighed. Didn’t they teach rookies etiquette? She’d worked on all kinds of crews. Some were open, some weren’t, but they always worked it out up front. Making assumptions was just rude.
She decided to spank him, but not too hard. “I’m guessing you’re new at this, so I’m going to do us both a favor and pretend I didn’t understand what you thought you meant. That way no one has to deal with the complications of hurt feelings, awkward moments, or bits of broken teeth floating around and getting into the equipment. What do you say?”
Estevez looked surprised, then a smile spread slowly across his face. “Damn!”
“Yeah.” Mi shoved her pack through the open hatch. “I have that effect on people. And for the record, I don’t like to play at the office.”
Asteroid BOCS-4312, called Rocky by the miners, was a belt object with a stable, roughly circular orbit. Shaped like a blunt cigar, it was more than a kilometer long and massed enough to shepherd its own flock of smaller asteroids around the inner rim of the belt. With an environment blister on the dark side, it served as a base for a rotating crew of four miners as they harvested the local cluster of asteroids. The sunward side had an automated hydroponics farm and a small ore processing facility. The camp was nearly self-sufficient. What organics they couldn’t get from stray deposits of cometary ice were shipped up from Mars. Mi’s presence on the transfer ship had been almost incidental. The hold had been packed with food, tools, and equipment.
Mi glanced into her bunk. There wasn’t much to see. It was little more than a large closet with sleep webbing on one wall, a recycle toilet, and what looked like either a computer panel or an entertainment station set into what, in her current orientation, was the ceiling.
“Yeah,” Estevez went on, looking around the common room. “So, anyway, Niedermeyer and Vann should be back in as soon as they unload the last of the cargo and get Chung off on the drop to Mars. Vann’s okay, but ya gotta dance around him a little sometimes. Kinda got a temper.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, you’re a real charmer.” He gave her a half smile. “Anyway, Nieder’s a little, well, you’ll see. He’s kinda become Vann’s puppy, if you know what I mean.”
“Not really.” She didn’t think she wanted to know. She pointed to a hatch on the far end of the room. “Where does that lead?”
“That’s the bubble. Wanna see? It’s all plexi. Vann keeps the hatch closed ’cause he doesn’t think the shielding’s good enough. Afraid the cosmic rays will shrivel his . . . ” Estevez’s voice drifted off and he looked uncomfortable.
Mi just let him hang there and pushed off toward the bubble. She was neither embarrassed nor offended, but Estevez didn’t know that. When you’d spent most of your life on space stations, you learned there wasn’t much room for baggage.
She reached the hatch, cranked the wheel, and levered the heavy door open with a knee against the wall. Unlike the bunk hatches, this one looked vacuum-worthy. If the bubble ever blew, the habitat would likely survive. Vann’s fear of shriveled organs aside, keeping the hatch closed just made sense.
The bubble was a seamless transparent curve about five meters across. Mi hooked a foot on the console that stood in the middle of the floor and pulled herself down. She looked out across the asteroid’s surface. Work lights cast dagger-sharp shadows across the landscape. To her right, about ten degrees off the horizon and far enough away to be out of the rock’s shadow, the power station gleamed in direct sunlight. The solar panels were big onyx wings shot through with amber filigree. Sunlight played along the umbilical that snaked toward the asteroid and occasional plumes of ice crystals burst from the station-keeping thrusters.
Estevez bumped in beside her. She tossed her head at the dome. “Tell Vann he can lose the lead undies. It’s Lunamum.”
He made a derisive noise. “Let him sweat.”
Mi just shrugged. She didn’t know either of them. He could play it however he wanted to.
Estevez sighed as he stared out at the surface. “Makes you feel like you’re a long way from home, doesn’t it?”
“Not really.” In truth, it was only out there that she ever really felt at home.
“You know you say that a lot.”
“No, I mean you don’t say anything. It’s all ‘no’ and ‘not really’. We’re gonna be out here a while, the four of us, and I’ve got three months before my shift’s up. If you’re just gonna—”
“What? I’m supposed to spill my life to you because we’re out here working together?”
“Let’s see. Born on the moon, Bishop Colony, West Dome. Age: 32. I’ve done micro-g work all my life. My mother died in a blow out on Diana Station when I was four. My father is a smothering, over-bearing—”
“Oh no, you started this. What else do you need? I wear size eight shoes, I’m AB negative, and I hate the taste of turnips. Is that enough? You happy now?”
Estevez paused, brows lifted, fighting back a smile. “Not really,” he said.
Mi just stared at him. She felt foolish, but tried hard to hang on to the fire of her outburst. At last, she gave up and let herself smile. “Now you know why I don’t say much.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
Movement outside the bubble caught Mi’s attention. Someone was pulling himself along the hand holds set into the surface, as if climbing a horizontal ladder. Walking on Rocky was possible, but too time-consuming. A dropped tool took ten lazy minutes to settle to the surface, and a hard jump could get you to escape velocity.
There was something strange about this person’s suit, though. It was form-fitting, like her own skin-tight, but bulkier. It looked somewhat like a hard-suit, the little one-person space ships often used in heavy construction, but it was too small. Thick through the torso, it showed no sign of external tanks, just a standard safety harness for tools and tether rings. The climber was too far away for details, but the helmet looked odd, as well. In fact, it looked like he wasn’t wearing a helmet at all.
“That’s Max,” Estevez said.
“Max? I thought this was a four-man crew.”
“It’s a four-person crew. Max stands for Mobile Autonomous Excavator, or something like that. He’s an AI. Supposed to be some kind of experimental robot rock jockey.”
Mi felt a familiar knot tightening her gut. AIs made her uncomfortable, but not for any reason Estevez would guess. “No one mentioned it during training.”
Estevez scratched the stubble on his cheek slowly, as if tapping his fingers. “Yeah, they never do. Trade secrets, I guess.”
Mi shook her head. “There’s no way. Anything even approaching artificial intelligence needs a lot more processor than that thing will hold and it still can’t match your average three-year-old. It just fakes it better.”
“Oh, he’s pretty smart. Just ask him.”
“Look, I know something about personality algorithms and learning nets. Unless that thing’s just a terminal for something a lot bigger, it’s not an AI.”
Estevez tapped the console. “Hey, Max. It’s Estevez.”
The voice that came from the speaker surprised her. It was beautiful in a way that had to be by design. It was a favorite uncle full of comforting bedtime stories. It was a strong, confident doctor pronouncing the lump benign. It was a giggling child poking at a freefall water droplet. It captivated her, and all it said was “I’m here, Estevez.”
Estevez looked at Mi while he spoke, grinning. “Wave to the bubble, buddy. I got the new crew here. Her name’s Mi Dimarco.”
The robot shifted and gave a long, full-armed wave. “Is that, M-E?”
“M-I,” Mi said.
“Chinese, isn’t it?”
Mi sighed and gave her standard “baby name book” answer before she realized how silly a thing it was to say to a machine.
The speaker emitted a strange, crackling buzz interspersed with scraps of Max’s voice. “Brzzzzz that’s brzzzzz baby name—brzzzzzzz—less. Brzzzz—title—BRZZZZZZZ!”
Estevez punched at the keyboard. “Max! You okay? Your radio’s coming through all frazzed again. You snap an antenna or something?”
“No—brzzzzzz. Sorry. How’s that. I’m—it should . . . be better now.”
“That’s it. Anyway, when you get a chance, come on in. You can meet her in person.”
Estevez shut off the radio. “What’s wrong with you?”
Mi was surprised to find him staring at her. “Oh. Nothing. He’s an interesting, uh, piece of equipment.”
“Isn’t he? Plays a mean game of chess, too.”
But there was something wrong. Mi knew what that buzzing sound had been. Of all the thousands of times she’d used that line, no one had ever caught on. Her father had used a book and he had chosen the first name he’d come to. The book was “1,001 Baby Names,” and he’d gone no further than the title.
Max had been laughing.
The crew’s first meal together, dinner according to station time, was an awkward bit of social dynamics. The three men had long since settled into whatever arrangement worked for them, like bubbles on a pool of water. Now a new bubble had surfaced and there was the usual period of reshuffling as everyone tried to figure out how Mi fit into the tableau.
Vann was hard. He had the heavily muscled body of an Earth-born weight lifter. Low gravity did nothing to soften his features, either. Without gravity, body fluids normally spread out, giving everyone a rounder, puffier face. Vann’s just looked like it had been chiseled from a softer stone. He was into his tats, too. The tiger on his right arm was one of those new biolume jobs that scrolled the colors of a neon rainbow when he moved.
His questions were all about the work, and the work was all about the money. He was crew chief for the rest of his shift and he took more than one opportunity to emphasize what that meant. Outside, on the job, his word was the final word. It was the only word.
Niedermeyer couldn’t have been more different. Needles, as he introduced himself, was thin enough to be space-born, but he was loose-jointed and awkward. His blond hair was long enough to lag behind his movements and his face would have looked like a kid’s in any amount of gravity. He was on an adventure and he was eager to talk about it. What had she worked on? What had she seen? What had it been like living on the moon?
More than once he glanced at Vann before speaking, as if making sure it was okay, and he snapped silent whenever the bigger man talked. It didn’t look like fear so much as deference. It was hero worship, maybe.
Estevez was station chief, so inside things went his way. He was sharp, in a sly sort of way, and he never failed to get an edge in word-wise. He poked at people until he got a reaction, looking for sore spots to irritate, finding out just how far he could push. “We take turns by day on galley duty,” he said. Then he gave Mi a lopsided grin. “Unless you want to work out some kind of arrangement.”
Mi glared at him. “We’ve been over this, Estevez.”
Vann leaned forward. “Hey! You got a problem, Mimi?”
Mi turned to Vann, but kept the glare. She hated dominance games. “It’s Dimarco.”
“Is it, now?”
Needles spoke up. “I’ll take your shifts. I like—”
“Shut up!” Vann tried to slap him on the back of the head, but hadn’t braced himself for the motion. He just twisted awkwardly, fanning the air.
Needles ducked anyway, muttering a quiet “Sorry, Vann.”
Estevez, armed with a disarming grin, popped off the bench. “It’s okay. It’s okay, you guys. We did discuss it already. She’s just concerned about foreign objects getting into the equipment panels.”
“In other words,” Mi said, still focused on Vann, “not really.”
“It’s frosty, Vann, really.” Estevez did a lot of shrugging and gesturing. “I’m good. She’s good. We all take turns and everything’s sub-z. It’s fine.”
Vann relaxed slowly. He looked uncertain, but willing to let things slide.
“We good?” Mi asked.
Vann shrugged. “I don’t plan to kill you in your sleep, if that’s what you mean.”
“Good enough, then. I’m going for a walk.” She kicked off toward the ceiling, did a swimmer’s flip, and shot toward the airlock. She was showing off, but it wasn’t the dramatic exit she’d have preferred. The suits were stored in an equipment closet next to the airlock, so she spent twenty minutes in the corner of the room wriggling into and rigging her suit. It helped, though. None of them had ever seen a skin-tight before and they pounded her with questions about it. They cooled a little when she told them it had cost her two years’ salary, but by the time she had everything on but her helmet, they all seemed comfortable with her on the crew. Vann, no doubt, was calculating how much extra rock they could cut with her experience.
“Then there’s this.” Feet planted on the deck, she put her hands up, bent over, and touched her toes. “Try that in one of those gas bag suits.”
“I can do that,” Niedermeyer said.
Vann sort of growled. “In vacuum, idiot.”
Outside, Mi felt like she could breath again. The stars were fierce points in a vast, black openness that seemed to call to her. She hooked a tether on one of the surface grips, spooled out about twenty meters, and jumped. She tucked, turned, and lay flat, parallel to the asteroid’s surface. With a faceplate full of stars, she relaxed. The long fall. This was what her father could never understand. Out here, it was just her and a few billion of her favorite stars. She could imagine herself shining back, just as bright, just as fierce, as they all fell together.
Stay safe. Stay close. Don’t take chances. That was her father’s mantra. At first, she’d taken it as a sign of his love, skewed by the loss of her mother. But as his grip grew tighter, more desperate, things changed. It became selfish. His life. His daughter. He couldn’t lose her, couldn’t take it, wouldn’t let go!
Then came that whole scam of an engagement and her father’s complicity in it. How could anybody think she’d want to give up freefall work? Matchmaker, manipulator, jailer. He’d keep her safe no matter how miserable it made her.
So she jumped. Then she kept on jumping, from the moon to Lunar orbit, then to Ares Alpha in Mars orbit and the construction work on the Beta station. Then finally, here. The edge of the map.
Her radio warbled in her ear. Someone was requesting an encrypted private link. She briefly considered ignoring it, but on the third tone, tapped the key on her arm band that allowed the connection. There was no sense rekindling someone’s anger.
“I just wanted to make sure you were all right.” It was Max’s voice.
“AIs don’t worry, Max.”
“Wouldn’t it make sense to program an AI to value the crew’s safety?”
“And they don’t laugh. Humans don’t even know what makes humor tick. Coding a machine for it is impossible.”
She started when Max slid into view above her. He maneuvered in front of her with bursts from a hummingbird. The multi-nozzled frame spit compressed gas, centering him.
“Does not compute,” he said.
“Oh, knock it off. Another thing, humaniform robots are just stupid. It’s a generalized design. There’s almost always a better application-specific form factor available.”
“I should be a hovering ball with telescoping manipulators and laser beam eyes.”
“You’re either a waldo, which means you’re really standing around in a telepresence rig somewhere inside of radio range, or you’re, I don’t know, something else.”
Max’s head tilted to the side. “Maybe I’m the phantom, come to teach you to sing.”
“I get a lot of time to read.”
“How about Quasimodo, then?”
“Brzzzz. Have you thought that through? That makes you Esmeralda.”
Mi laughed in spite of herself. “I guess I hadn’t.”
She watched Max as he spoke. It was bizarre. He gestured as he talked, fully articulated hands and fingers adding subtle emphasis. His—skin?—was bright white, but seemed to have a fine gold mesh beneath a lacquered surface. Nothing on his face moved, except for some kind of lenses set beneath a proud, Greek-statue brow.
“You know a lot about AIs,” Max said.
“It comes with the genes.”
Max nodded slowly, and it struck her. That was something she could never do. Nod inside a helmet and no one sees it. She envied him. He could live here, while she could only visit.
“So you’re related to that Dimarco?”
“I see.” Max jetted a little closer to her. “I take it they didn’t know that when they gave you a contract.”
“I made sure of it. Why?”
He reached toward her, as if he wanted to touch her face. “Because it’s very important that no one gets too curious about me. I’m just an AI experiment.”
“I have to be.” He jetted sideways, rolled, and headed back to the surface. His hummy left a dissipating cloud of ice crystals behind.
Mi rolled over and watched him sail away. “Then why tell me anything at all?”
“I don’t know. Why did the phantom come to Christine?”
Her radio beeped. The connection was closed.
“I failed French lit, you know!”
The next day, Mi went out on her first run with Vann and Niedermeyer. Vann was in a brittle mood. They were drilling organics and light rock from a low-density aggregate a few kilometers west, anti-orbit, of camp. Essentially an old comet core, the rock would yield ice and rock that could be cooked down for essentials like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and even some bonus elements like nitrogen and calcium. The problem was that what they didn’t use themselves rarely fetched much on the Martian market.
They rode out on the sled with Vann at the controls. The sled was a big, open-frame platform with a cargo bed, four seats, and a little nuclear-powered steam boiler. Mounted on either side were harpoon guns for launching pitons and tow cables. These weren’t like the compressed gas piton guns they each carried on their tool belts. These fired the heavy two-meter rocket-assisted harpoons that could plant themselves in dense materials. It was a perfect platform for rock diving.
Vann parked the sled about twenty meters north of the rock. He rolled it ninety degrees, putting the asteroid to port, and set it for station-keeping. “You’re up, Dimarco.”
The rock was a craggy, shapeless clump about thirty meters across. Niedermeyer had dubbed it Bullwinkle, from an old cartoon he kept in the library. She slapped her seatbelt open and pushed out of her seat. “On my way.” She clipped a bag of pitons to her harness, then added a pair of tether spools.
“Not wearing a hummy,” Vann said.
“It slows me down.” She slipped on her metal mesh gloves and scrambled over the edge, planting her feet on the side of the sled. The rock loomed over her head.
Vann grunted. “Just remember, you lose your grip and drift off—”
“I know,” said Mi. She snapped a tether to one of the sled’s d-rings. “You won’t waste fuel coming to get me.”
“I was going to say I’d be pissed off about the waste of time.”
She dove straight up and felt the familiar tingle of coming alive. Arms spread, back arched, she became the sky.
“But I’ll live either way,” Vann added.
Mi flipped slowly and landed on the surface like a spider, careful not to bounce off. She grabbed her piton gun and fired into a soft seam between two stony masses. The asteroid was like a big slush ball of clay, dust, ice, and rock. The piton dug half-way in and held. Next came one of the self-setting hand grips. Pulling on the piton let her push against the rock as the drill points bit in. Once the drills were in, she fired the charges that rammed the spreaders home.
She moved the tether spool from her harness to the hand grip and locked it. “Come and get it.”
“On the way,” Vann said.
Mi watched him slide hand-over-hand along the guide wire, towing the big drill. Carefully choosing her grips, she crabbed clear of Vann’s landing spot and helped him wrestle the gear to the surface. Smooth bore holes and fresh, angular cuts gleamed on the sunward edge where the rock had been mined on some previous trip.
“Coming in!” It was Niedermeyer this time, starting down the wire.
“Anchor that,” Vann said.
Mi set another piton and clipped the tool bag to it. “I thought you hated drilling light rock.”
“I do, but the word is that Mars is gonna be thirsty in about a year.”
“Tell her, Needles.”
Niedermeyer’s voice sounded unsteady, nervous. “Water futures. Gonna spike in about twenty-eight hours. The new PlaneTat dome.”
“Needles tracks the markets!” Vann might just as well have said “Good boy!”
“Twelve-month futures,” Niedermeyer went on. “No one else likes to play out that far on commodities.”
“I had no idea.”
“That I was smart?”
“That you were business savvy.”
“It’s just a thing. I—”
His hand missed the cable and he started to roll. He reached again, missed, then missed again. His movements started showing panic.
“Niedermeyer? Needles!” Mi leaped up and toward the guide line. She one-handed it and swung up as she came around.
“Leave him be!” Vann said. “He’s tethered.”
“He’s terrified! Needles, listen to me. I’m here. Look at me.”
Niedermeyer’s voice was torn by ragged breaths. “I can’t— I’m not—” He was still grabbing blindly for the line.
Mi stopped in front of him and tapped his faceplate. “Here, Needles. I’m right here. Just breathe. Don’t move! Just relax. Just breathe. I’ve got you.”
“Oh, for cryin’ out—”
“Shut up, Vann! How’re you doing, Needles? Good?”
He’d stopped grasping at nothing and his face looked calmer. “Yes. I’m good. Thanks.”
Mi guided his hand to the wire and he grabbed on.
“Jesus! What are you even doing out here?” She backed down the wire, making sure her face was all he saw.
“I’m fine on the rocks. Really. And on the sled. It’s just . . . in between. When I’m nowhere.”
“It’s called sky panic. No visual cues for orientation. The inner ear goes crazy. Some get it, some don’t.”
“It’s just so big.”
“Don’t look at the sky. A lot of people get it and get by just fine. From now on you look at your destination or you look at you helmet telltales. Got it?”
“Anywhere else and you just close your eyes.”
Once he was down, Niedermeyer seemed perfectly comfortable and ready to work. Vann gave orders in sullen, one-word sentences, but while Mi was setting up the drill she noticed him key his radio controls. He stood for a while with his hand on Niedermeyer’s shoulder. Scolding or soothing? Whichever. It seemed to work for them. She didn’t exactly have a yardstick to measure normal human relationships. Maybe everyone else threaded the same minefields she did.
They broke off a massive chunk of the asteroid. Shrouded in a thermal sheet to prevent out-gassing, it looked like the system’s largest silver nugget. Of course if Niedermeyer was right, it was worth a good bit more. It took them an hour to secure it to the sled. They drained and refueled their hummies four times nudging it into place. When they were done, Vann let the computer steer them home.
There was nothing to do but wait for the steam jet to build enough acceleration to get them back to camp. Mi keyed a private channel to Vann. “Why don’t you use Max on trips like this? Let Niedermeyer hang back. He still gets paid.”
Vann’s hand chopped at nothing. “Needles ain’t your problem. He’s good.”
“Why push him?”
“Leave it alone. I’ll take care of him.”
“But Max can—”
“I don’t like that thing on my crew!”
He was silent for a minute while his hands floated around aimlessly. He pulled his piton gun off his belt and started fidgeting with it, loading and unloading a piton. “I don’t trust it.”
Mi thought about that and watched Vann’s hands worry the piton gun.
“That thing you did,” he went on, “for Needles. That machine would never have done that.”
Neither did you. “But if he can help.”
“It! It’s a piece of equipment.”
“So what if StarMines decides it works? What if they just put a few dozen of them out here? It’s gotta be cheaper, right? So what happens to us? We get sent home and there’s no more paydays. I can’t do that. I’ve got . . . obligations.”
“What the hell do you care?”
“I don’t, really.”
“This is my first shift out here, and I need three. Two to clear me and one to set me up. The company starts shipping robots out here, that ain’t gonna happen.”
Vann loaded the piton back in and stopped fidgeting. Was he deliberately pointing it at her? She couldn’t be sure.
“Stay clear of it,” he said. “The experiment’s gonna fail. It has to.”
After dinner, Estevez’s special tofu and sweet potato soufflé, Mi took one of her walks. This time, though, she climbed around to Rocky’s sun side. Her faceplate darkened as the sun cleared the horizon and she took a moment to let her eyes adjust. More than a bright star, but less than the well-defined disk she’d seen from Mars, the sun turned the asteroid’s surface into a playground of glints and long, syrupy shadows.
When she reached the greenhouse, its size surprised her. She knew it was a hundred meters long, they’d said so in training, but that was an abstract. From just outside its airlock, it was an emerald palace that went on forever.
Inside, she stripped off her suit. The place’s alienness assaulted her. Every shade of green ever imagined fought for her attention. Green smells pushed away the filtered, processed smell of normal. Dampness clutched at her skin. She gripped the edge of the nearest tank and closed her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
She opened her eyes to find Max floating a short distance away. His hand lay on a railing that ran the length of the room. There had been no metallic scrape.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” she said.
“After months in a solo ship, I suppose so.”
“After thirty-two years. I’m space-born. The moon, Diana Station, Ares A.”
Max cocked his head. “Now, I know Diana has an installation a lot bigger than this. I . . . “
Mi waited, but he never went on. “You what?”
“I’ve read about it.”
Mi watched him, but it was frustrating. People had tells—a lift of the brow, a tightness at the corner of the mouth. Max was impenetrable. Face value was all you got. But then, how good had she ever been at looking deeper?
“Loneliness,” she said.
“Oh.” He tapped his index finger idly on the railing. Was that his tell? “Are you sure it wasn’t revenge?”
On impulse, Mi reached over and touched his hand where it lay on the railing. The skin was soft, pliant, not so warm as flesh, but not cold. “It’s soft.”
“So is yours.”
She snatched her hand back and looked around for something else to focus on. “The tomatoes. They’re, um, they look ripe.”
Max plucked one from the vine and pushed it toward her. She grabbed it as it floated by and bit into it, thankful for the diversion. The skin was thinner than she was used to and the tomato, overall, was rounder. Droplets of juice formed a tiny cloud around her mouth. She sucked them up through pursed, smiling lips.
“It’s delicious,” she said, starting to hold it out to him. “Would you . . . ? Oh, God. I—.”
“Brzzzzz. It’s okay. Brzzz. Sometimes I forget myself.”
Mi stared at him, still trying to read something from those marble features. “Forget what?”
“My manners. Come on. I’ll give you the tour.”
Row after row of tanks and soil beds held a wide assortment of crops. She saw short, stubby wheat stalks, soybeans, cranberries. There was an oddly shaped lettuce that turned out to be a hybrid of Iceberg and Romaine. Most of the facility was automated. Changing a few filters and harvesting the crops were the only intervention required. Those duties had fallen to Max.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s a perfect blend of living things and technology.”
They’d reached the eastern end of the farm. She could see the tip of the asteroid just a few dozen meters away. Beyond that was eternity.
Max tapped something at the computer terminal that stood near the clear, sloped wall. “It’s almost time.”
He pointed out the window. “Watch.”
A fountain of light exploded out on the surface. It shot straight up in a tight spray of blue and gold. A curling halo of ice shimmered where the exhaust gases were pushed far enough away to freeze.
“Orientation adjustment,” Max said.
“Give me a lever long enough . . . “
Mi looked at Max’s face. The rocket’s light toyed with his features, infusing them with a living warmth. “What the hell are you?”
He drifted over to the window, resting one hand against the glass. As if mesmerized, he stared into the rocket’s fire. Tap, tap, tap. His finger against the window.
He spoke in a monotone. “I am an AI experiment.”
“That’s bull! I know better. Your hands, your skin, they’re like—”
“Like every other AI robot asteroid miner you’ve ever met.”
She took his free hand, examining it. She bent the wrist, the thumb. “Are you here to spy on us?”
“I’m here to work.”
“We both know you’re hiding something. How am I supposed to trust you?”
“How do you trust anyone?”
Mi launched herself at the railing. It was getting late. “That’s easy. I don’t.”
She pulled herself back to the airlock. Max caught up with her while she was getting into her suit. He reached into a cabinet and came out with something in his fist.
“I made this.” He opened his hand. Resting on his palm was a loop of tether cable attached to a silver medallion. An ornate letter ‘M’ was cut out of the center of the disk.
She picked it up and examined the delicate scroll cuts. It was fine work. “Is that ‘M’ for ‘Mi?'”
“Yes, it’s for you.”
She looked for the smile that would have been on anyone else’s face. “Bastard. You know I can’t tell when you’re joking.”
“We should play poker some time.”
“‘M’ for ‘Mi’ or ‘M’ for ‘Max?'”
Max shrugged and Mi found herself thinking about what an amazingly complex mechanical motion it was. She moved her shoulder around slowly, trying to feel which muscles pulled which way, how her skeleton moved.
“I was thinking ‘mystery’,” Max said.
She already had her suit on, so she looped the necklace onto her safety harness. “Or ‘mannequin.'”
“No. Not that.” She checked the seals on her suit and lifted her helmet from the rack. “I think there is one, though. You should be careful of Vann. He doesn’t like you very much.”
“Of everything. Aggression is his safety blanket.”
“Maybe he is.”
“No, the ‘M.'”
“Moody. Morose. Miserable.”
Max tilted his head, first to one side, then the other. “Is there a pattern here?”
She smiled, then let it stretch into a grin. “Mmmaybe.”
He took the helmet out of her hands and started to put it over her head. “Mercurial.”
Mi heard the familiar click as he locked the helmet to her suit’s collar ring. Her own breathing filled her ears. Mercurial. She liked that. It had a nice, classical ring to it. Mercurial Mi and the Misunderstood Mannequin.
Max swung the airlock door open and bowed deeply, waving her in. She slipped in and keyed her radio. “Most mannerly.”
The door latched and she punched the button to cycle the lock. “Now you’re just showing off.”
Mi wedged the hydraulic jack under one end of the ingot and levered it off the sled’s cargo deck. The ingot was a hundred-kilogram beam of iron and nickel. Estevez did the same at the other end, and soon they had it floating free above the deck. Mi strapped on a hummy and readied herself for the heavy work.
With Max’s help, they were assembling a shipment to Mars. Working half a kilometer above and east of Rocky, they were banding the ingots together into a two-metric-ton block. Four of the ingots were platinum. They weren’t supposed to be, but the miners were gambling on Niedermeyer’s talent.
Using their hummies, they pushed on opposite ends until it was parallel to the stack that was already assembled.
Max directed them from the stack. “Good. Now slide it a meter toward Estevez and bring it over.”
Mi nudged it, then Estevez pushed back to stop it.
It had been two months since Mi’s arrival and, while the work was hard, she couldn’t remember being happier. She felt like she had escaped, as if she had broken free from the tight death-spiral that came with a close orbit around her father. She spent most of her free time with Max. In front of the others, she was careful to treat him as the robot he pretended to be, but they’d become friends. Sometimes, she even managed to pretend he wasn’t lying to her. She tried not to think about that.
Estevez waved her over to the middle of the beam. “On three, ready? One, two, three.”
They pushed on the ingot as if holding it over their heads, their hummies on full. Mi’s arms strained against the pressure. For a long time it seemed like nothing was happening. Just when she was about to ask for a break, Max called for them to shut off. She glanced back at the sled. It did seem a little further away. They probably weren’t moving more than a meter per minute, but any faster and they would have trouble braking on the other end. Max jetted out to join them and they scrambled around to the other side, feet aimed at the growing stack. Estevez read their speed and distance from a radar gun aimed past his toes.
Her father would probably find her eventually. He might even know someone who knew someone who could influence someone else and she could find herself without a contract. But for now, and for a while yet, she was free. She was making good money, too. Niedermeyer’s talent for predicting the futures market kept them a step ahead. StarMines’s trading department had started calling them when short-term options came up. They were able to make deals they once had to pass on—high profit deals.
“Hey, guys. Get this!” The laughter in Vann’s voice blared through the radio. “Anderson in Trading wants to know if there’s any way to get some platinum into this load. Some company’s paying huge to option fourteen-month futures.”
Estevez howled. “Needles, I love you!”
Mi couldn’t help smiling. “I hope you made him sweat for it.”
“Like I was pulling it out of his—”
“Talk later,” Estevez said. “Ten seconds to retro.”
Hands over her head again, Mi fired her jets on Estevez’s command. She felt the familiar strain of being crushed by the metal beam. He called the shut off just as her boots touched the stack. Together, they eased it into place. Four more trips and they’d be ready to strap it together, mount the rocket and guidance package, and kick it off on the long fall to where Mars would be in just over a year.
Mi programmed her hummy to take her back to the sled, but something caught her attention before she activated it. Out and up, something had winked at her. There! It looked a little like a comet, but the tail was an odd, dashed line. She sighted it through her compass and watched the angles spin down to a steady reading. Calibrated against the positions of known stars, the device tracked angles and direction relative to the plane of the ecliptic and the position of the sun.
She read the direction off to Max and Estevez. “What is that?”
Max answered first. “It’s COEN-1709. It’s more asteroid than comet, but it’s on a cometary orbit.”
“COEN? It’s an Earth-crosser?”
“We call it Tinkerbell,” Estevez said. “You can’t see it from camp because it’s behind the big lump Niedermeyer calls Boris.”
As he always was on an open channel, Max was matter-of-fact. “It’s apparently the result of a collision between a comet and an asteroid. The rotation causes the outgassing to be periodic rather than steady. It’s also smaller than it looks.”
“Then it’s close.”
“No prob,” Estevez said. “It’s supposed to miss us by a million kilometers or so.”
Mi keyed a private channel to Max. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“You’re supposed to be looking at the comet.”
“I’m looking at you looking at the comet. That’s beautiful, too. You belong here, Mi.”
She checked to see that Estevez was still turned away from them and gave Max’s hand a quick squeeze, but the lie rose up again. She wasn’t sure if the person she knew as Max could feel it, or if it would mean anything to him if he could. She felt foolish and somehow betrayed.
Estevez broke in on the common channel. He’d reached the sled. “Come on, Dimarco. Let’s go. Four more bars and this tune is done.”
She switched her radio over. “On my way.”
It took them an hour to get the rest of the ingots stacked and strapped together. Mi and Estevez were exhausted, so Max did most of the work mounting the booster and calibrating the guidance package. The hard calculations would be handled from Mars. The miners just had to fuel it up and start the sequence.
“We should go,” Max said. “First burn is in twenty minutes.”
Estevez patted the side of the bundle. “Safe trip, you big beautiful paycheck.” He jetted back to the sled.
Mi smiled and turned for another look at Tinkerbell. Something had to change. She keyed her radio. “I need to know, Max. I need to know the truth.”
“I’ve given you what I can.”
“I’ve tried to accept that. I really have. But it’s not enough.”
She slapped the radio’s disconnect and jumped for the sled, ignoring the repeated tones echoing in her helmet. By the time she reached the sled, Max had stopped trying to reconnect.
Four days. That’s how long it had been since Mi had spoken to Max. She floated in the bubble, staring out, but not really seeing anything. The lights were dimmed and a random selection of classical music washed over her from the camp’s library. Was it better this way?
The crank turned and the hatch behind her opened. She could see Max reflected in the Lunamum. Then he closed it, and the image was gone.
“Mozart, isn’t it?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
Then he was next to her, a foot hooked under the console.
Silence built up between them. Mi let it build. If he had something to say, let him say it.
“I’ve missed you.”
“Max, don’t.” She still didn’t look at him, choosing instead to stare out at the asteroid’s surface.
“You don’t understand.”
“Sure I do. You’re an AI experiment and you’re here to work. Fine. Go work.”
He moved around in front of her so she had to look at him. “It’s complicated.”
“No, it’s simple. You don’t trust me. That’s fine. I can deal with that. I just can’t invest in it.”
Max started to reach toward her, but pulled his hand back. Instead, he put it down on the console, where the index finger began tapping. “What do you know about prosthetics?”
“Oh, please.” She looked at his face, but there was just no way to read it.
“Really, really expensive ones,” Max went on. “With pressure-sensitive skin and titanium joints. And electro-contractile metal-fiber musculature. And fullerene joint lubricant.”
“But . . . “
“CCD eyes. Aural implants. Nerve controlled limbs. None of it is new. It’s all been done before. Just not on this scale.”
When he’d lied to her before, she’d known he was lying. This was different. It had the feel of truth. She put her palm against his chest. “That means . . . “
He nodded. “My brain is intact. And most of the brain stem. It’s kept in a nutrient solution. I have to hook up to a machine every so often, to filter it and add supplements. It’s something like kidney dialysis.
“That’s why you’re human, I mean humaniform.”
“Of course. It’s a lot easier to wire up one-to-one replacements than it is to teach motor nerves to operate tractor treads.”
Mi stared at him. As she did, he looked away. “Why?”
“Why else? I was dying.”
Max had once been Carl Bernard, an asteroid miner working contracts for StarMines on an Earth crosser named Toutatis. With his wife and young son, he’d migrated to Ares Alpha, intending to work the Martian Trojan asteroids. The plan had been to build a stake and settle in one of the new colony domes on Mars. A routine physical changed all of that.
“Cancer,” Max said. “Liver, kidneys, lungs. Everywhere. Maggie and Brad would have been left with nothing. We spent our whole stake just getting to Ares A.”
He was silent for a long time, staring out the window. She let him have his thoughts for a while. Finally, she reached out, almost touching his arm. “Carl?”
“Carl is dead. It’s official. Maggie gets a healthy death benefit paid in annuities and Max pays for it working here. And no one can know.” He turned to look at her. “I mean that. No one. It’s part of the deal.”
“It’s illegal for one thing. No testing. No clinical trials. No government approval.”
“But you said yourself it’s all been done before.”
“Not like this. It would make a lot of people uncomfortable, to say the least. Forget French lit, there’s another book that fits the situation perfectly.”
“Brzzzz. Brzzzzz. I was thinking of Frankenstein.”
Mi shook her head. Warmth flooded through her. It felt good to have her friend back, but it was odd in a way. Her mental image had always been of someone, somewhere, talking to her through a machine. Now that picture snapped back like a rubber band as the image tried to become the machine.
But there was still one thing she just had to know. “What is with that laugh?”
His head cocked to the side. “Brzz. I guess the designers of the speech synthesizer never considered laughter. It has a verbal component, but it’s not really speech. The circuit doesn’t know what to do with it. Personally, I find it both charming and covert. It keeps me from giving myself away.”
“Oh yeah, it did a great job of that.”
Boris was a shiny, black tumbler that promised a mother lode of platinum group metals. It would be a tough job to settle it down, though. Some cataclysm in its past had given it a nasty spin. Not only was it rotating once every minute, but it also rolled over about once an hour. Until they could spin it down, it would be impossible to mine. The asteroid was nearly six hundred meters across, so someone clinging to the equator would experience nearly half a gee trying to throw him out to space.
Vann parked the sled above the rock’s temporary northern axis. The plan was to use what StarMines called a yo-yo brake. The miners would jump to the surface at the axis, climb down to the equator, and mount tethered rockets on opposite sides. When the rockets were launched, the tether cables would wrap around the equator, pulling against the spin. A lot of time, and several refueling trips later, the spin would be slowed to something manageable.
Mi wondered about the odd choice of crew for the job. Vann had chosen just Mi and Max to go with him.
“I’ve got the strength,” he’d said when Mi asked about it. “You’ve got the experience.”
“The can opener’s expendable.”
Mi hooked a radio beacon to a harpoon and armed the port gun while Vann worked the sled’s controls. Keeping position over the slowly moving pole was tricky. Through the sight, Mi tried to focus on the spinning surface. Oblique sunlight made it a chaotic smear of light and shadow. The gun bucked against her hands when she pressed the trigger. Compressed gas shot the harpoon out, then her view went white as its rocket lit. She looked up in time to see the shaft bury its tip in the surface.
“It’s in,” she said.
Vann checked the beacon and set the sled’s automatic positioning system. “And we’re locked.”
The sled’s thrusters spat a few short bursts. Using the beacon, the computer would keep the sled’s relative position while they went to work.
Vann made some last adjustments to the controls, then went to the rear to gear up. He shoved a hummy toward Max. “I go in first, then the Tin Man. While we’re setting the first pod, Dimarco, you come in and start driving a ladder down the other side.”
Mi shrugged into her safety harness and, as she did on every run now, looped the necklace Max had given her onto the belt. “Shouldn’t one of us stay with the sled in case something goes wrong?”
“I want to be cutting on this thing by the end of next month. I’m not wasting time. Besides, if something goes that wrong, the sled won’t help.”
Vann wrestled the first of the yo-yo pods to the side of the sled. It was an ungainly affair with two bulbous tanks wrapped around a stubby cone. It was ringed with sturdy cable mounts that trailed thick, titanium alloy ropes back to a mounting plate.
Snapping a line to his safety harness, Vann grabbed a net full of hand grips. “Still nothing. You don’t like it, sit this one out. But I’ll make sure you don’t see a dime off this rock.”
“Save the hardass talk, Vann. I’m just as worried about your safety as I am mine.”
“Well aren’t you sweet.” He went over the side and dove for the rock.
Max stopped next to her on his way to the side of the sled. He reached down and clutched her medallion in his fist.
“You, too,” she said, putting her hand on his.
“My momma always said so,” Vann said.
Mi had forgotten she was on an open channel.
Max dove. Mi watched him sail down to join Vann on Boris’s spinning surface. They used the harpoon for leverage until they, too, were spinning. Once they were in tune with Boris, they started driving hand holds in a line away from the pole. Vann was in the lead. It wasn’t long before the spin was strong enough to swing their legs out. They were hanging from their harnesses and working over their heads.
By the time Mi had gathered her equipment and gotten to the surface, Vann and Max were well over the asteroid’s tiny horizon. She lined herself up opposite their trail and started driving her own series of hand grips. She worked in a steady rhythm, testing each grip, then tethering herself to it and swinging into position to set the next. She was twenty minutes into the job when a tortured squeal pierced through her radio’s speaker.
“Max? Vann? What’s going on?”
There was no answer but the steady, deafening noise. Rule number one had been passed down from the earliest days of manned spaceflight: There are no small problems.
She unhooked herself and scrambled back to the pole hand-over-hand, not even bothering with a safety line. Boris’s roll put her in steady sunlight as she reached the harpoon-pierced landing spot. The sled was still turning dutifully overhead. She called for the others several more times, but heard only that same squealing static.
She bent her knees and jumped as hard as she could, free diving for the sled. Trying to kill some of her spin, she flung her arms out to her sides. The sled, still spinning, was coming up fast. The railing slammed her shoulder, then came around and clanged off her breathing gear. As she started to tumble, she grabbed a cargo strap and held on. Her shoulder tried to scream harmony with her radio as it bore the burden of matching her momentum to the sled’s.
“Max! Vann! Can you hear me?”
From the pilot’s console she looked down at Boris, but there was no sign of the others on the part of the surface she could see. There was something, though. Out there, to the east and sunward, something bright. Something wrong.
She trained her compass on the spot and zoomed the optics. Max! He was drifting, helpless, and heading out of range fast. If he’d come loose at the equator, he’d be moving at more than sixty meters per second. Something flashed near him and she followed it with the lens. He’d fired a piton back toward Boris. Trailing a tether line, it drifted lazily toward the asteroid, much of its velocity spent overcoming Max’s own.
Mi killed the station-keeping lock and spun the sled around, readying the main thruster. Every second Max was sailing further away, and it would still take her time to build velocity. Before long, reaching him would be impossible. Even empty, the sled couldn’t manage much more than a quarter gee. She slapped the control for the main thruster, but earned nothing but flashing red status messages on the screen. It was complaining about a faulty propellant pressure sensor. Nearing panic, she tried to override it, but the system refused to cooperate.
Her radio squealed, mocking her.
No time. No thought. Instinct. She snatched an extra hummy and a couple of fresh tether spools. No time! The line snapped solidly onto the railing and she leaped, aiming herself at Max’s listless piton. If she could reach it before his spool ran out, she had a chance. Once he reached the end, it would spring after him.
No time! Hummy on full, she watched through her compass and willed the little jets to push her faster.
“Max!” The radio was still useless. Her mind couldn’t focus. The insanity of what she was trying to do crowded around her, threatening that single, fiery point of will. Don’t think! Just be. Be me. Be Mi. Max! That’s it. Just move to meet Max. She giggled, sobbed, something. Just make it to the meandering missile.
“Dammit!” Her hummy pinged a “fuel out” alarm and went dead. She straddled the spare and lit it up.
She was closer now. Sunlight teased along Max’s trailing tether. The piton was off to her right. To her left, Max was little more than a bright dot. Almost there. She could see the tether clearly now. She readied herself to grab it. If she missed, she’d never be able to decelerate in time for another try. Max would be gone.
The line shuddered, then went taught. He’d reached the end of the spool! The piton, close now, teasing, began flying to the left, across her path. Too fast! She stretched her arm out, but she could already tell she would come up short. Inches. That’s all she needed. Just a few measly—Max!
She snatched the necklace from her harness and gripped the loop. Almost there. The piton was nearly in front of her now. She flicked the pendant away from her and swept her arm across. It grazed the tether as the piton slid by and snagged on one of the tines. She pulled to keep tension on it, but then it pulled back harder than she could have imagined. Pain shot down her arm as she swung around behind Max. Do not let go. Do not LET GO! She was the pivot point of a kilometer-long tug of war. Straining, she pulled the piton toward her and earned enough slack to hook its line to her harness. She’d done it!
She looped the little necklace back where it belonged with her left hand. Her entire right arm was a throbbing mass of pain. The static had quieted somewhat and she tried calling for Max again. This time, through the shrill noise, she thought she could hear the music of Max’s voice.
The line spooling out back to the sled was banded in yellow. It was almost out. Max was a brilliant, white dot to sunward and the sled was a tiny flash above Boris’s dark mass. She was about to be pulled in two directions at once, but the sled’s mass should be enough to anchor them both. At least this time, all the strain would be on her harness.
Mi readied herself for the jolt and checked the spool again. It wasn’t moving. There was still line on it, but it wasn’t paying out anymore. Vann must be bringing the sled after them. She started the rewinder to take up the slack. In spite of her aching arm, she climbed a dozen meters up Max’s line and gathered the loose cable. She whipped a few sine waves up the line. Hopefully, he’d notice the slack and climb back to meet her.
“Max, can you hear me?”
His reply was almost audible through the dimming interference.
“It’s okay, Max. I’ve got you and Vann is bringing the sled. Copy?”
“—ink so. Vann . . . I . . . you . . . this.”
The slack she’d gathered in Max’s line went tight. He was working his way back to her. Slowly, his form grew more distinct. So did his voice. Mi began to cry quietly as the tension and fear finally broke and her adrenaline abandoned her. She closed her eyes and gave herself up to the tears and to the solace of the long fall.
Max’s voice brought her back. “Mi, are you all right?”
She opened her eyes to find him just a few dozen meters away.
“Oh, Max. Yes, I’m fine. Vann should be here soon with the sled. Everything’ll be okay.”
“No, Mi. He won’t. He’s—I wish you hadn’t. I’m so sorry, Mi.”
“What are you talking about?” She spun and looked behind her. The sled was nowhere in sight, but a tiny flashing spark chased her reeling tether. She knew what it had to be. The hook she’d latched to the railing.
“I don’t understand.”
Max pulled himself the final distance and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what? What’s going on?”
He let go, but held her hand. “Vann did this. He set a bad hand hold for me. Once I’d tethered on, he kicked it loose. I tried to warn you, but he was already jamming the radios. My hummy failed, too, not that it would have helped much. I fired that piton hoping you’d bring the sled.”
“I tried to, but . . . dammit! He must have disabled the main thruster so I couldn’t come after you.”
“Sweet Mi. He never counted on you being completely insane.”
She laughed in spite of everything. It felt so good to be back with Max that the terror of their situation seemed a distant abstraction. In a sense, she had exactly what she’d wanted. She was free. She and Max and the universe were all falling together. She was a cometary being, a bit of star stuff returning home. She had, what? Three, maybe four hours? Five, if she powered down to minimum. Then she and Max would just . . . Oh.
“How long will you . . . ?”
“I’m not really sure.” His voice was soft, as if he were trying to ease the burden his words would put on her. “Two months, maybe more, but I’ll never know. The toxins will start to build up before then. Plaque deposits. Cell death. I’ll lose my mind long before the end.”
“You’ll be alone.”
“If I’m lucky, my memory will go first.”
“I’m sorry. It should be me. Alone is pretty much my natural state. And I’m not all that fond of a lot of my memories.”
“For which, my life or my death?”
“Don’t be. You’ve managed to make them both pretty spectacular.” She tried to laugh, but it didn’t work very well. She pulled her hand free and grabbed her compass. “Well, we should at least figure out where we’re going. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could end up catching air around Mars or Earth and wind up as someone’s ‘wish I may, wish I might?'”
“I’ve already checked. I’m broadcasting a looped SOS beacon with our course on the off chance someone at the camp will pick it up.”
“And fight off Vann. And reach us in the sled.”
“I’m an optimist.”
“You’re a Romantic. In the classical sense.”
“Dickens would never let us die.”
Mi laughed as she sighted their position. “Shakespeare would, if he thought there was a lesson in it.”
Max buzzed a short laugh. “Hugo would kill me and save you.”
“Not if you’re Jean Valjean.”
“Right. Then he’d kill you just to make my life more poignant.”
Mi took a reading from a sparkling gray mass to sunward. Its lateral motion was nearly zero relative to theirs. They’d be making a close pass. It looked like the craggy mud ball that brought up the rear of their local cluster. What if? Could they really make it back?
“Camp,” she said.
Max shook his head. “No. For camp you want Moliere. He’d have us bump into a passing survey ship with—”
“No, no, no. Hear me out. That rock to sunward. Rho two point nine and one degree north. Isn’t that 5716, the next organics mine on our list?”
Max sighted the asteroid, then the sun, then back at Boris. “5761, but yes. I think so. Why?”
“Because it looks to me like we’ll pass it by less than a kilometer.”
“So what would Melville do?”
“He’d have it eat us.”
“Yes, but only after we’d harpooned it! It’s a mud ball, a piton should set easily.”
Max was silent. He swept his compass around, taking dozens of readings, mostly behind them. Mi tried to be patient, but after a while she couldn’t wait any longer. “Well? What do you think? We’ll take a hell of a jolt, but it would keep us in range of the sled.”
Max put his compass down and shook his head. “I wish I had a computer.”
“Because I think we can do better. With the right timing, we can use the tether to steer.”
“Swing around and let go when we’re aimed back at Boris?”
Max looked at her. His finger was tapping the side of his compass. “That’s where the computer comes in. I was thinking a few degrees short of a one-eighty.”
Mi thought it through. After a minute, she realized what he was suggesting. “Back to camp? Without a visual? Not to mention Boris is plus half a degree rho from camp. How would we change direction southward?”
“What’s so funny?”
“Brzzzzz. You’re worried about what direction our frozen corpses will be going long after we’re dead?”
“We’re not dead yet!”
“Exactly. So quit sweating the details and let’s do the math.”
It was roughly ninety minutes before their closest approach to BOCS-5761 and they spent most of it working through the mathematics of the maneuver. Their calculators weren’t really designed for the purpose. The built-in functions were more related to time and distance calculations and fuel estimates. No one anticipated the need for a bank shot off a tethered asteroid across several thousand kilometers. When they were done, they had settled on a best-guess figure for where on the arc to release the cable.
When they were close enough, Mi fired a piton, careful to adjust her aim for their relative motion and for the nearly eight seconds of travel time the missile would need. They were 700 meters away when the steel shaft buried its point into the asteroid’s surface.
“Now we hope it holds,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“I’m a Romantic, remember?”
The sun disappeared behind the asteroid, and shadow swept over them. Her suit’s heater lit up and she tapped the controls on her arm band to shut it down. She could take a little cold to save the power. They strapped their harnesses together, checked the tether, and began the nervous wait before they were in position.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. You must miss them a lot,” Mi said, as she tied their harnesses together with her necklace.
Max’s voice was quiet and he stared out at the stars behind her as he spoke. “Of course I do. It’s nice, though, knowing I’m still taking care of them.”
“Like a guardian angel.”
Now he looked at her, touched her hand. “I’m not. I lived. I died. Now I live again.”
She sighted her compass on the distant glimmer of Boris. “Now you’re probably going to die again.”
Mi’s harness yanked her as the cable pulled tight. Pain exploded in her back where the straps tried to cut her in two. Spots cluttered her vision, but she kept Boris lined up as they started to swing around. When they swept behind the rock and Boris was eclipsed, she felt a brief panic. She swept her compass up and down the westward limb, afraid she’d miss it. There! She picked it up again and watched the angle change. Her breathing was strained against the acceleration of their turn and she felt cold. Three. Two. One. “Now!”
The stars doubled, tripled, swam around her. Shaking her head cleared it some, but the pain in her back, in spite of their return to freefall, refused to subside.
“I think we did it.” Max’s voice was steady, clear. She tried to focus on it, to use it like a lifeline.
Still breathing raggedly, she spoke between gasps. “Any idea how close?”
Max was rapidly taking compass readings. “Not yet, but I’ll update the SOS loop with our new course as soon as I have it. We won’t know any more until we get a sighting on camp. The power station should stand out.”
“Good.” Her breathing eased, but every breath still sent blasts of fire across her back. She tried bending forward, but pain exploded down the backs of her legs and the stars swam around her. “How long?”
“Two hours. Maybe a little more. Why? Getting bored?”
She blinked back the spots in her vision and checked her suit’s telltales. An hour of air. More for batteries, but not much. A cough ripped through her and some of the stars turned pink through droplets on the inside of her helmet. “Getting dead, I think.”
Max twisted around. He held her helmet between his hands and stared in at her. His face was as unchanging as ever, but his voice sounded tortured. “Mi? Oh God, Mi!”
She whispered now. It was easier. “It’s okay. Fine. It’s . . . just not such a long fall anymore.”
Max punched her suit’s controls. “I’m powering you down. You’ll feel a little cold and sleepy.”
“We’re in sunlight. You won’t freeze. Just rest.”
“Die anyway. S’difference?”
“No! I’ll get you home, darling.”
White stars stained pink. Black sky. Max’s shining face, dimming, turning gray. “You . . . said ‘darling.'”
“Sleep, Mi. I’ll get you home.”
She tried to raise her hand. It hurt, but she pushed through the pain to touch Max’s face. “Sweet. Max. I am home.”
Max pulled her to him. She relaxed against his chest and gave herself up one last time to the long fall.
Bright, foggy light. Faces sweeping past like comets. The soft kiss of moving air. Death wasn’t at all the way she thought it would be.
Mi blinked back the fog and saw the ceiling of the camp’s common room. Niedermeyer leaned over her.
She tried to talk, but her dry throat was too raw. She barely managed to whisper. ” . . . happened?”
“You cracked a coupla ribs. Broke another. That one tore a lung. Not too bad, though. There’s, uh, something with your back, too, but the doctor can’t tell without a scan.”
She tried to move, but something held her down and the effort made her dizzy.
“You’re strapped to the table. Don’t try to move. The doctor says you’re supposed to stay still. You’ve been out for a week.” He smiled, looking proud. “Don’t worry. We’ve been working two-man crews around the clock to keep the rock dropping. You’ll get paid.”
Ignoring the pain, she looked around, but couldn’t see anyone else. “Needles. Watch Vann, he’s—”
Niedermeyer looked away. “Just rest. The doctor says—”
“Not anymore!” He looked at her and pain aged his features. He didn’t look at all like a boy. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“He tried to stop us. Said the radio was broken. That he was trying to fix it. But he was lying.”
“If I hadn’t been checking the market reports.” He shook his head and a smile tried to creep back onto his face. It didn’t get very far. “Imagine. Who’d’a thought Max would send an emergency message on the commercial freqs, huh?”
The smile finally won out. “Helluva robot. You know he used his own power to keep your suit going? Sliced himself open with a piton to get at the leads. Helluva thing.”
“Hell,” Mi gasped, “of a man.”
“Nah, I didn’t do anything special. You should sleep now. Here.” He gave her a small drink from a squeeze bottle. It tasted funny, but it soothed her throat. “Doctor wants you out for a few more days. You can thank Max for that, too. He blew off the regular staff doctors and got in touch with some research guy. He really knows his stuff.”
“Yeah. You sleep now. Okay?”
“Max . . . “
“I’m here, Mi.”
She felt the soft, warm skin of his hand in hers. She opened her eyes to find him looking at her.
“I had a dream,” she said.
“I don’t wonder.”
“We were together. Flying free. Holding hands. It was nice.”
He lifted his other hand so she could see the “M” medallion hanging from it. He laid it gently on the pillow next to her head. “I’ve been wearing it,” he said. “For luck.”
She smiled. “They were the same, our hands. Brilliant white in the sunlight. Soft. Warm. No suits. No helmets.”
Max brushed her cheek with the back of his index finger. “I would have thought you’d had enough of that.”
“Never.” She took a deep, cautious breath. It hurt far less than she remembered. She took some of the water Max offered her, then more.
“Doctor Gianelli says you can try to get up for a while, if you’re up to it. But not if your back hurts. He’s still worried about nerve damage.”
“He’s your doctor, isn’t he? Doctor Gepetto. The one who . . . “
“The one who made me what I am today.”
Mi stared at his immobile features. There was nothing there, but there was something. “You’re smiling.”
His head tilted to the side. “How can you tell?”
“I just can.”
Max started undoing the straps that held her to the table. His movements were quick, nervous. He fumbled with the clasps.
She put her hand on his arm. “I love you, Max.”
He froze. “No.”
His shoulders slumped and his head bowed. He didn’t breath, but it was a long sigh in every other respect. “You can’t.”
“You’re as human as I am.”
He was silent for a long time before he turned to look at her. “There’s a new crew person coming out on a high-g transfer. He’ll be here in about a month. You’re supposed to rotate out as soon as your back can take the acceleration.”
It should have been a hard decision, but she couldn’t remember an easier one to make. It was time to stop running. “Talk to him, Max.”
He stared at her. Light flared across the lenses of his eyes as he searched her face. “I can’t ask that.”
“You’re not asking. It’s my decision.”
“It’s too much! You’re young, healthy.”
“My back may be broken. I can’t feel my legs, Max. I know what that means.”
“It’s still too much.”
She ignored the agony in her back as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “It’s more than that. It’s everything!”
He pulled her arms loose, but he didn’t pull away. He touched her cheek, her chin. “Are you sure?”
“I want to be with you, Max. I want to be like you.”
She watched his face, studied the tilt of his head, the angle of his eyes. “You’re doing it again.”
“You’ve already talked to him, haven’t you?”
He shrugged that marvelous mechanical shrug of his. “When he first suggested you might not walk again. I knew you’d ask.”
“He’s agreed to consider it, but you’ll have to convince him. He’s concerned with the fact that you’re not dying.”
Mi laughed. It hurt, but she didn’t care. “That’s an odd trait in a doctor.”
“You know what I mean.”
“But I could come back here. With you.”
“You’d have to.”
She pulled back, puzzled. “Why?”
“It’s a very expensive procedure. It’ll take years to pay off.”
“I don’t care if it takes forever. There’s one thing, though.”
She smiled at him, wondering if, in her new form, he would come to recognize it. “Do you think he can do something about the laugh?”
“Brzzzzz. I sure as hell hope so.”