Hello! Here is the second of two science fiction stories, preferably set in space! The first was The Only Worthwhile Human Cargo by Valerie Valdes, which is fun and very short.
This one is by Miyuki Jane Pinckard, and it's a heftier story than the last one at 6,235 words. I hope you enjoy this ride as much as I did!
This was available for paid subscribers only until the 12th of February, 2021, at which point it became publicly available.
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How to Defeat Gravity and Achieve Escape Velocity
by Miyuki Jane Pinckard
I’m not very good with people, so I don’t realize that Lieutenant Cortes is addressing me until she taps my helmet.
Her voice whispers through the comm. “Masipag? You okay?”
I clear my throat which is suddenly dry and my voice comes out in a squeak. “Yes ma’am.” I turn back to the panel I’m rewiring. “Almost done.” (Breathe. Focus.)
The lieutenant is not stupid; she is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, so I’ll have to be extra careful about how I rewire this security door panel so she doesn’t notice I’ve inserted something that shouldn’t be there, a tiny chip that someone from outside can activate to open the door without triggering any of the ship’s notification systems.
I close the panel and my visor fogs up as I exhale.
Her voice tickles my ear again. “Let’s get back inside, then.” She releases her hold on the handle and launches herself down — or up, depending on your perspective, since there’s no gravity out here — and gracefully sails to the hatch.
She’s smart and also the most physically gifted person I’ve ever met. Every motion of hers is like stars dancing in orbit, a perfect balance of—
“Masipag. You coming?”
(You like her too much, Mar. It’ll get you in trouble.)
The GUS Hippolyte will reach Aster-486 in three days to recover the biggest haul of palladium in three hundred and twenty-nine years. It’s a top secret mission by the Galactic Union but my employers, my real employers, I mean, know about it because they’ve had people inside the bureaucracy of the GU for decades, and I’ve been preparing my cover story for this exact scenario for five years.
Space-pirating is a long-term business.
It wasn’t simple to get the security clearance to sign onto this mission, but the people I work for are very resourceful and very serious and also very dangerous, which I learned the day Miles disappeared. I never heard from him again and when I searched for him it was like he’d been wiped out of the cosmos.
(Don’t let your thoughts race out of control. This always happens when you’re nervous. Breathe.)
If I finish this job and get my cut, I’ll be able to run off to Galatea and retire and maybe get a cat, finally.
Or a ferret.
“Hey, Mar, what’s new?”
That’s Ros, who I think wants to be friends with me, but I’m bad at reading people so I’m not sure. He used to think I was a man, and called me “dude” for a few days, but I’m not. (But I’m not exactly a woman, either.) Since we woke up from hyper-sleep four weeks ago, he’s talked to me every day at lunch when we get our meals.
He and his friend Sash sit next to me, and I listen to them talk about what they did the night before, and I think it’s interesting because I like to know what other people do even if I don’t totally understand why they do it.
Today, though, the lieutenant comes in. We all get real quiet because officers have their own mess and she’s never come into ours before. Also she’s head of security and she’s extremely tall and muscular and beautiful. Her hair is orangey-gold and spiky from being in her helmet, and her eyes are black infinity. She looks around at us. “At ease,” she says with a smile. But that just makes me tense up even more.
She walks over to me. I don’t know what to do. What I know of protocol suddenly goes out of my brain. Do I stand? Salute? Keep my head down?
“Good work today, Tech Masipag. You repaired that door in record time.”
Because it wasn’t really broken to begin with. Stupid stupid stupid. If I’m too fast I’ll draw attention and the last thing I want is for her to become suspicious of me, but at the same time I also want her to think I’m doing a good job. “Yes, ma’am. I mean, thank you, ma’am.”
“I’m recommending you for a commendation.” She has a soft lilt to her words, her vowels so rich and opulent like cream. The way she says “commendation” like she’s rolling that word around on her tongue like a piece of ripe mango—
Ros elbows me. “You’re supposed to be happy about that, Mar.”
I can feel my face getting hot. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
She cocks her head. “Stop by my quarters at 14:00. I need your signature on the incident report.”
She leaves, and everyone watches her, appreciating the way she exits a room.
Sash and Ros are clapping for me. Ros says loudly, “Let’s hear it for Mar! They deserve that commendation!”
Sash says, “Let’s get you a drink.”
“I don’t drink.” But my voice is small and everyone’s clapping and they don’t hear.
At 13:48 I’m outside her door and I lean against the wall to wait because I don’t want to disturb her before she’s ready. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with her alone before, at least not outside of our spacesuits.
The door slides open at 13:52. “Oh, you’re here. Come in.”
Her quarters are tiny but neat, everything put away in its place, and I imagine that’s partly how she was trained and also her nature. I appreciate it because I’m like that too. I don’t like extra stuff cluttering around.
She pulls a desk panel down from the wall and sits on a bench that also functions as her bed. She waves at a stool and I guess that she wants me to sit, so I do. “I just have a few questions about the door panel malfunction, for my report.”
She smiles, crinkling her eyes at the corners and showing the dimple in her left cheek. “You can relax. This isn’t an official meeting.”
How can I relax when she’s smiling at me? I feel like I’m going to explode. I want to hide from that smile, but I also want to look at it forever. It’s like a star that fills the entire view screen.
(Don’t fall for her. You’ve got to get out clean when the mission’s over.)
She thumbs a data pad on her desk. “You said you noticed the malfunction at 07:00, is that correct?”
“Yes, ma’am. I reported it at 07:03.”
“How did it come to your attention, exactly?”
(Pakshet! Be careful, be very careful, she’s smiling, but her velvet eyes are watching.) “What do you mean, ma’am?”
“Well, according to the maintenance logs, that door was checked at 04:30 by Tech Rosenberg, and it was cleared. You would’ve gotten that update in your morning briefing, correct?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did. But I checked it again just to make sure.” This is the explanation I’d rehearsed for just this sort of scenario. Bland, innocuous, unimpeachable. No one could blame me for wanting to be extra-thorough, could they?
“Is that right?”
Pak, she’s beautiful. I never noticed before, but her eyes aren’t actually black, they’re the deepest darkest brown I’ve ever seen. A constellation of freckles speckles the bridge of her nose and cheekbones, a dusting of magic stars.
“Tech Masipag, I’m asking you a question.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I have no idea what she asked me. Sometimes when I’m nervous my brain goes all over the place and I don’t know where it’ll end up.
She sighs. “So you checked the door again at 07:00? Right when your shift started?”
She leans back and I feel a little flutter of increased anxiety because for some reason she doesn’t seem to want to let go of this tiny point that I thought would really not be a big deal at all. “Why would you do that? I mean, most people would review the logs from the night before, maybe catch up with co-workers, grab a cup of coffee, but you went straight to the door to check for a malfunction? Is that what you usually do when you start a shift?”
“I like to get started early, ma’am.” It’s true. I don’t drink coffee and I don’t chit chat. I’m usually on my shift a good half-hour before it officially starts. I like getting things out of the way before my co-workers show up. Only this time part of my routine included faking a malfunction signal so I could get to the panel from outside the ship and do what I needed to do.
“Did you think the night shift might have missed something about the door?”
Ros was on the night shift, and of course he didn’t miss anything. He’s a good tech. “No, ma’am. I always check everything when I start.”
“Huh. You double-check the night crew’s work every morning? Does the night crew have a history of not being as thorough as they should?”
She’s trying to draw me out. I have to keep it simple. “Everyone makes mistakes, don’t they, ma’am?”
Her fingers drum the steel desk lightly. Long fingers, elegant, calloused at the tips, strong fingers. “Everyone but you, it seems.” She smiles again, and it makes me shiver down to my toes. “Your file is impressive, Tech Masipag. Excellent work ethic, no problems with other personnel, no complaints. A model employee, in fact.” She cocks her head again, a little half-smile on her lips. “I just don’t get what makes you tick.”
“Never mind.” She slides over the pad with her report on it. “Read it, and if it’s accurate, please sign it.”
I’ll have to be more careful. It’s only three more days until the rendezvous with Aster-486. I just need to keep my head down, get my work done, keep her attention off me.
But I like when she talks to me. I like when she looks at me.
Ros tells me that he got extra shifts for missing the door malfunction. “I don’t get it,” he says. “I don’t get how I coulda missed that. I know I checked it.”
I feel bad, but at least he didn’t get disappeared like Miles.
Like I will if I fail.
So this is the plan. We’ll arrive on Aster-486 and the cargo will be loaded into the hold of the Hippolyte. The palladium should already be processed and packaged by the mining crew that was shipped out twelve years ago, so all we have to do is load it up. According to my calculations, that will take thirty-three hours and seventeen minutes, including all the safety checks and a buffer for accidents. Then the tricky part. The Hippolyte has to achieve escape velocity from Aster-486 with its immense payload, and that’s why this ship was chosen, because it has the power to do that. It’s the only ship in the Galactic Union that can.
It’ll use the gravity of Aster’s moon Lepreus to slingshot itself out of the gravitational pull of the planet and then head back on a trajectory towards Titian, passing through the asteroid belt where four other Galactic Union ships are waiting to escort the Hippolyte home. Takeoff has to happen at 04:45 on day six of landing to catch the moon in the right spot along its orbit to pull off this maneuver.
And it just so happens that there’s a tiny window of time — thirty-four minutes, to be precise — between leaving escape velocity and meeting up with the GU escort when the Hippolyte will be hurtling through space completely unprotected and that’s when my sabotaged door will come in handy.
For a fifth ship that’s hiding in the asteroid belt, waiting.
Three days later we’re in orbit around Aster-486. This asteroid is small but extremely dense, at 1.6 G, which is a lot for us, especially since we’ve become used to the .88 G of the ship. We have cranes and a few mech suits to help out, but the work will be slow, and we’ll need to take breaks to avoid injury.
Ros and I report for duty in the cargo hold along with three others from tech and maintenance and Lieutenant Cortes tells us to brace ourselves. “There’s less oxygen in the air here than we’re used to, and of course, watch the Gs. You’re going to feel as weak as kittens.”
I wonder if she likes cats.
“Be careful,” she says. “I don’t want any of you injured.”
She has her plasma gun strapped to her hip and I wonder if she thinks she might need it, but then, maybe she’s supposed to carry it when we’re on a mission.
The ship’s grav engines dial down and suddenly I’m made of lead, moving through bromine. I also feel nauseous. I hold on tighter to the seat belt and take deep breaths.
We land with a thump that rattles my teeth and then the cargo bay door hinges open with a cranky groan and we all inhale sharply, as if we’re climbing a high plateau and trying to get more air. Dizziness whizzes around my head and clouds my eyes.
A warm, solid hand holds my shoulder steady. “You okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” (Breathe.)
She nods once, then steps out in front to lead the way.
We’re in a small crater, where a delegation of corporate suits meets us, the executives who run the mining operations and who’ve paid for the Hippolyte to ship their goods back to the core worlds. The same smile is shared between the five of them and they speak with the same words, saying very little.
“We’ll show you to your quarters,” says one. “We thought you might like a change of scenery from your spaceship berths.”
“I’d rather see the palladium first,” LT returns. “It’s a big job ahead of us and my tech team needs to run some tests before we start.”
“Oh, of course. This way.”
They lead us along an underground tunnel lined with metal. The atmosphere here is thin and the humans need protection from the sun’s radiation. The passage opens up to an enormous underground pit so large I can’t see the other side, and so deep that I can’t see the bottom, lit by a few halogen lamps that barely make a dent in the darkness.
“One hundred metric tons of pure palladium,” one of our guides says smoothly. “Refined and melted into bricks for ease of transport.”
A miserable collection of banged-up metal structures clusters along the lip of the chasm. A little face peeks out from the opening of one of the houses.
Lieutenant Cortes interrupts our hosts. “We understood that the miners had all been evacuated.”
The smiles don’t waver. “You’ve been misinformed.”
Her hand rests on her plasma gun as if by accident. “What’s the plan for them?”
“Pardon me, Lieutenant, but that is a civilian matter, not your purview. The palladium has been loaded into crates…” Our guides keep walking.
The lieutenant looks at the little kid for a moment longer, then follows and her feet stomp a little harder on the ground.
“Poor bastards,” Ros says under his breath. “The miners were shipped out here and promised a ride home, only there isn’t going to be one. It’s way too expensive for ships to land and take off here. Only worth it if we’re carrying palladium.”
I can’t help doing the math in my head, it’s how I’m wired. One hundred metric tons of palladium is worth over 150 billion credits. Getting a ship like the Hippolyte, with its elite complement of forty-five crew members, on a mission like this, probably costs two billion credits. “So they’re all going to be stranded here?”
“Not the executives who set up the colony. They’ve negotiated for passage on the Hippolyte.” He makes a face.
“What’s going to happen to the miners?” That little kid couldn’t have been more than eight years old, which means they were born on the colony and lived an entire life in 1.6 G without seeing the sun because the sun here can kill them.
Ros’s friend Sash glances back at us, shrugs with one shoulder. “They’ll adapt or die.”
Adapt or die. That’s how humans have done it for thousands of years.
So I shouldn’t be upset about that. Right?
After the briefing with the suits, the lieutenant’s mouth clamps in a hard line which I’ve only seen once before, when she questioned a tech that eventually got sent down with a dishonorable discharge, but otherwise she seems totally calm as she directs us. We scan the palladium, we check each crate for integrity, and then the suits invite us to have dinner with them, which the lieutenant declines.
She leads us back to the ship. Her spine is straight and stiff as a steel beam.
The lieutenant joins us in our mess for dinner. She sits across from me and Ros and I’m so flustered, but I just like watching her. She catches my eye and smiles and holds up the bottle of wine she brought from the officer’s mess. “Try some,” she says, pouring sparkling amber liquid into my aluminum cup. “It’s the local wine where I’m from.”
(You don’t drink. And it’s not like it’s an order. But… what does the wine where she’s from taste like?)
A burst of guava laced with starfruit dances on my tongue. I swallow, and my mouth feels silky, like it’s been draped with a sheen of coconut oil. Then there’s an aftertaste of something richer and more mellow, almost musky, like lemonsito leaves after rainfall mixed with the soft fertile dirt in which flowers take root.
I don’t realize I’ve closed my eyes until I open them again and I see that LT is smiling at me, amused. “You like it, then?”
I smile back at her. I can’t help it.
Ros jostles my elbow. “I thought you don’t drink.” But I hardly hear him.
Later that night as I’m heading to the washrooms to get ready for bed I just happen to pass by her quarters which aren’t exactly on my way. Someone’s in her room with her and they’re arguing and I recognize the voice of the captain.
“It’s not our mission, Lieutenant.”
“We can’t just leave them here, Captain. We have to do something. Alert someone.”
“It’s a classified mission. There’s no way to alert anyone without breaking protocol.”
“Sir, you know this is wrong.”
His voice is a little more quiet now and I have to press my ear to the door to hear. “Elena, I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”
Her name is Elena. Elena. I fold that to myself like a secret flower in my chest and walk on.
That night I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about Elena’s face, crumpling with sadness. Watching that little kid. Leaving all these people behind. She’ll hate herself forever for not doing something. But if she does something, her career is over.
As for me, I don’t even have a career, not really.
I pull out my data pad and start going over the ship specs. Then I go over the mining colony data.
According to the official GU report there are five hundred and twelve miners and technicians on the planet. Assuming each person weighs an average of 80 kilos, that’s 40.96 metric tons. We could leave half the palladium here and come back for it in another two years — but I already know that the suits won’t go for that. They’ve canceled their leases, they’re eager to shut down the operations, they won’t want to spend another two billion to fetch what could be taken home and monetized right now.
I finally drop off to sleep with the data pad in my hand.
We get to the really hard work the next morning. The executives offer some of their miners to help, but LT declines. Instead she strips down to her tank and shorts and pitches in with with rest of us, getting hot and distractingly sweaty.
“Hey Masipag,” she says as we work on getting a crate harnessed properly so a crane can lift it up into position, “you grew up on Tala, right? Platinum mining colony?”
For a second I’m shocked that she knows this, but then I realize it’s in my file and that my real employers crafted a background as close to my real one as possible for just this sort of conversation.
She looks thoughtful, wipes sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. “Must have been a tough way to grow up.”
I never thought about it before. “What about you, ma’am?”
“Me?” She grunts and the muscles on her shoulders ripple as she pulls the harness tight around the container. “I grew up on Meridian. Where they make the wine.” She grins. “Big immigrant family. Six sisters, five brothers, three mothers.”
“Did you have a cat?”
She laughs. “We could barely afford to keep ourselves fed, let alone any pets.”
“I always wanted a cat.”
“Did you?” She looks at me. “I never would have guessed that you’d be a cat person.” I think she is teasing me, but I can’t tell if it’s because she likes me or if she thinks I’m strange.
(Or maybe… she likes me because I’m strange.)
There’s no way to contact my employers to discuss a possible change of plan. I don’t even know exactly what the full plan is, just my part. There has to be at least one other agent on board because someone has to knock out the guards and anyone else on duty when the pirates show up and open the door to take the palladium. Then after they’re done I’m supposed to take out the chip and flush it down the maintenance shaft where it’ll be vented like the rest of our waste into space.
Two things occur to me sometime after 02:00 as I puzzle this out: one, that the most efficient way for an agent to take out the night crew would be to insert a soporific gas into the life support systems, which means it would have to be someone working in maintenance and that two, if that were to happen, then I would be knocked out alongside everyone else, and I may not have time to take out the chip before it’s discovered by someone else.
So maybe they don’t expect to actually share any of the take with me, after all.
That night my brain just won’t shut off. I keep thinking about Elena and the miners and the palladium, like a puzzle I can’t put together, but I can almost see the solution. The miners can’t get out because the Hippolyte can only take the palladium. Elena wants to get the miners out so they aren’t abandoned here. My employers want the palladium. They don’t care about the miners, one way or another.
There’s a way, there has to be a way, I have to find a way.
Nothing in my training has prepared me for this.
I wonder how many kids are actually on the asteroid. I grab my data pad in the dark and my bunkmates don’t wake up because they’ve grown accustomed to my late-night habits. I keep the light on the screen dim and log on to the corporate network. Some official records are locked, but it’s easy enough to poke in through their lax security systems and take a look around. There are no records of children. The corporation didn’t even bother to track them. Or maybe those files are hidden somewhere deeper and so I dig some more and unearth some technical specs, patents, protected IP details — boring stuff, really.
There’s one folder labeled with a date that will come next week, after we’re already off the planet. That’s curious. Why would you label a folder with a date that hasn’t happened yet? I get inside it to have a look around.
There’s a video-recorded statement from one of the suits we met earlier. I key up the sound so that it plays softly in my headset. “…The tragic accident that claimed the lives of five hundred and twelve brave souls…”
Heart jumping like a grasshopper trapped in a jar, I go through the rest of the files. Press releases about an explosion. The corporation is deeply sorry for the loss of life.
The asteroid is set to explode. They’re going to kill the miners, sweep the fact that they don’t have an evacuation plan under the rug so no one can sue, since the miners signed a contract — which I found in the unlocked sections of the corporate network — that they agree to take on risks that are deemed “unavoidable accidents.”
Horror floods my chest. But also, suddenly, hope.
Because now I know what we can do to get the people off the planet.
I can’t do it myself. I have to tell Elena. I mean Lieutenant Cortes. It means breaking all kinds of protocol and laws, too. She’s a career officer. Why wouldn’t she just turn me in? If she turns me in then not only do I get trapped in the brig and court-martialed, but my employers will disappear me like they did to Miles.
But if she doesn’t… then there’s the tiniest chance that we can actually do this. Get the miners and the palladium and everyone off the planet. The pirates will be happy. And Elena will be happy. And I’ll be happy because Elena is happy.
If I can risk it.
Day three since we landed. Another long, grueling day of loading the palladium. As before, LT joins us and she’s the only officer to pitch in.
After my shift I head over to her quarters.
When I hear her command to enter, I palm the door open and stop, because she’s not in uniform. She’s wearing some kind of diaphanous robe thing and her orangey-gold hair is dark and wet and her skin smells like roses. She’s just taken a real shower with real water.
She smiles a little guiltily. “I know it’s a luxury, but I was so filthy.” Then she sees my face and her voice sharpens a bit. “What is it?”
And I realize I am staring and ugh, how stupid I am, how awkward. “Lieutenant Cortes, I have a way to get the miners off the planet.”
A variety of emotions that I can’t quite read dance across her face as I explain my plan. When I finish, there are two little lines between her strong black eyebrows and her mouth is set in a serious line. Those fingertips are drumming on the steel desk again, double speed. “I can’t count the number of violations you’ve just proposed, Masipag. Your plan would risk the lives of everyone on this ship as well as the miners on the asteroid.”
She runs a hand through her still-wet hair. “I’m not going to report you. I’m going to do you a favor and pretend we never had this discussion. Get back to your bunk.”
“May I show you one more thing, Ma’am?” I pull out my data pad. Show her the press release headline.
“What the hell?” She grabs the pad from me and reads. Goes through all the files. Her face gets harder and darker. Her eyes meet mine.
My voice is quiet. “They’re already going to blow it up, ma’am. I’m only suggesting we do it earlier, when it’ll actually do some good.”
She looks thoughtful now. She leans her elbows on her desk. “Explain it to me again.”
What I hadn’t worked out was how to get all the miners on board and then, how we’d feed them, give them air — there are only sixty-four hyper-sleep pods on the Hippolyte. But Elena waves that aside. “Once they’re on board, we only need to carry them for a few hours — maybe a day at most. We’ll ask for rescue ships to meet us once we clear the asteroid belt.”
I want to tell her about the pirates. But right now, her eyes are shining into mine. I don’t want to see their light go out. My throat closes up.
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “You are a remarkable person, Marisol Masipag.” Her voice is a breeze at twilight bringing the fresh sweetness of the ocean into the forest.
“I’m not, ma’am.”
She leans towards me, subtly, but I’m so aware of her every little movement that it makes me quiver. A warm scent of rose rises off her skin. I want to twine my fingers in her orangey hair and pull her towards me.
But I don’t. Because she’s still my commanding officer. And also, she doesn’t know that I’m a saboteur. And I’m afraid she won’t like me after she figures that out, which she will, because she’s smart.
She smiles and I manage to get myself out of her quarters without embarrassing myself.
Ros comes up to me near the end of the day.
“I heard what’s up,” he says quietly. “LT told me. I’m supposed to get the miners on board when it’s time.” He looks over his shoulder. “A few others in maintenance are on board with the plan, too. A lot of us grew up on places like this. We can’t leave these people here. But how will we get the cargo bay door open without alerting the bridge?”
That’s already been taken care of. But I can’t tell him that. “Um. I can reroute the notification system.”
He hesitates, then nods. “Sounds good.”
That night there’s a message from LT to meet her in her quarters. “Did you find the alpha charge?” The charge that is designed to set off the daisy chain reaction of explosions. The specs were all in encrypted files that I found.
“Yes, ma’am. I rewired it and set it to detonate on a timer. 05:07, Day Six.”
She nods. She looks distracted. “Listen, when all this goes down, you don’t know anything. I’m taking full responsibility. All I care about is that the miners are safely rescued. You just make sure the SOS activates.”
She puts her hand on my shoulder and I can feel its warmth through the thin nylon of my uniform. “I’m counting on you. None of this works without you.”
As I leave her quarters I wonder if she’s planning on not being on the ship.
We’re done with the palladium, and Ros assures me that word has quietly spread among the miners. They’re ready to move. I’m so nervous I can’t believe no one else has noticed. LT looks calm as she leads the final tech review of the cargo and ensures that it’s properly stowed. She glances around the cargo bay hold and addresses us. “Get some rest tonight, everyone. We’re taking off bright and early.”
At 04:30 that night — or the morning of Day Six — I can’t sleep and I think I hear something in the corridor, aside from the normal loud humming of the ship. I slip on my uniform and check the hall. Nothing.
Most of the crew is asleep, except Ros and the night crew. I slip over to the cargo bay.
The bay is crammed with people. Ros and Sash are there, at the cargo bay door, directing people. Someone has made makeshift bunks and hammocks in the rafters and there are nests of blankets snuggled against the containers of palladium. I push through the crowd to talk to Ros.
He gives me a distracted wave. “Good work on the door,” he says. “The bridge has no idea that it’s open.”
“But what about the guard?” A couple of security officers were assigned to the cargo bay.
“LT took care of them. They’re in the brig, I think. They’re fine.”
“Where is she?”
He points out of the doors.
We have less than fifteen minutes to detonation.
I’m tired and the Gs are dragging at me, but I have to find her. She’s not answering her comm. Maybe she took it off. Where would she go? I run through the massive mining colony tunnels, weirdly empty and eerie now.
The plan is, the explosion will disrupt the gravitational field just enough to let the Hippolyte get to escape velocity with the increased payload of the miners. In theory, it should work. But only if it’s timed perfectly.
I understand now: someone needs to set it manually, in case the automation fails. She’s planning to do it. Of course she would.
I find her by the alpha charge. She’s in her space suit, her helmet beside her on the ground, kneeling by the panel. She barely glances up. “Get back on board, Tech.”
“What are you doing, ma’am?”
“I gave you an order.”
“You wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for me. I can set off the charges. You have a career. You’re a good person.”
She looks up at me. “My career is over, Masipag. From the GU’s point of view, I’m a traitor. Get back on board, now.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
We stare at each other. She bristles, an angry goddess.
“Fine,” she says. “I guess we’ll have to share the escape pod.”
A massive tidal wave of relief washes over me. “Escape pod,” I say, faintly.
Her lips twist in a smile, her dimple winks at me. “You didn’t think I was planning to die, did you? It’ll be a tight fit, but doable, I think. No time to prep a second one.”
I’m about to argue, but she’s right, she’s stronger and faster than me. “You’ll have exactly 24 seconds to get to the pod. Good luck, Ma’am.” My voice sounds tinny and weak.
She stands up and takes my face in her hands. She kisses me on the lips. “That’s how you wish someone luck, Masipag. Get in the pod.”
My heart is beating so hard I think I might crack a rib.
It’s time. I lower myself into the pod. It’s built for one, and only for really short distances. I can’t stop looking at the time on my wrist com. My palms are sweaty and I’m shaking. The twenty-four seconds were an approximation. Controlled detonations are difficult to predict. I’ve never blown up an asteroid before.
It’s time. Now.
I hear Elena shout something, then watch as she sprints across the hallway floor. She’s strong and fast, but she’s tired and she’s in 1.6 Gs. Her foot slips and she slams hard on the ground. She’s not going to make it. Her eyes meet mine. “Shut the hatch!” she shouts.
I should close the hatch. We only have ten seconds. Maybe less. I hold out my hand. “Come on!”
She pushes herself off the floor and launches herself towards me. Five seconds.
She dives into the pod, slamming into me, but I’m ready for her and I latch the door closed and slap the button to start the ignition sequence I’ve cued up.
I close my eyes. (We’re not going to make it.)
Her strong arms wrap around me, holding me tight while the universe shakes and roars around us. The fragile little pod rattles. Oh pak. We’re going to be buried here on this buwisit planet.
At least I’m going to die in her arms, which is something.
Heat. A massive flare of light behind my eyelids, even though they’re tight shut. Elena is murmuring something. A prayer?
I open my eyes. On the other side of the view screen, the asteroid blooms into starfire. It’s beautiful. I draw in a breath.
Her arms relax around me, but they stay. Her breathing matches mine.
“I’m not your commanding officer anymore, Masipag.” Her voice tickles my ear. “Look.” She points, and through the tiny porthole I see the Hippolyte arcing away, a dark speck against the flames.
“Well,” she says, wonder in her voice. “We did it. We actually did it.”
“Yes.” I lean back against her warm chest and feel her arms close gently around me.
“And they think we’re dead.”
“Yes.” That doesn’t make me feel sad. I feel like the stars just got brighter. “I’ll set up the distress signal.”
“Let’s wait until the Hippolyte’s safely out of range. Plenty of freighters come by this route, we’re bound to get picked up soon.”
“Where should we go after that?”
“I thought maybe I could show you where I grew up.” She tilts her head a little and I can see her smile from my peripheral vision. “My family would love to meet you.” She sighs. “I just wish those corporate pendejos didn’t get to keep all their palladium.”
My right hand reaches for her left. “What if I told you they wouldn’t?”
She’s quiet for a moment, and we’re bathed in the afterglow of a heavenly body burning up into stardust. “You going to tell me what really happened with that door you ‘fixed’?”
“Um.” What if she hates me? But I have to. It’s the right thing. We can’t start off on our new life, whatever it will be, with a lie between us. “I’ll tell you everything. But first, do you like cats or ferrets best?”
Maybe, wherever we’re going, we can get one of each.
Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, researcher, and educator. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and other venues. She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Santa Monica, California, with her partner and a little dog named Bowie.