I leaned against the observation glass and looked down at the bands of Jupiter from low orbit. After a moment, I pointed. “There. Right there. See it? Find that storm, the swirl on the equator; it’s just passing left of it.”
“What . . . that little ripple?” Maya looked disappointed. I’d promised to show her monsters, after all.
“Wait for it. There’s only one reason they come so close to the surface. Any minute now.”
We watched, and we waited. The bands bulged and tore as the gas serpent breached the atmosphere. It twisted and lashed, flinging an enormous crystal from its tail, with a motion like the crack of a whip. Bracing myself into a seat, I pulled a laptop over to me on its swivel mount, programming a drone to intercept the crystal.
“That was … but the storms! They’re supposed to be huge! How big was that thing?”
“That one? There’s no guessing how long, it’s rare to see the whole thing break cover at once. It looked to be a couple of dozen kilometers across, so maybe seven, eight hundred–”
“–Kilometers long . . . they get pretty big.”
“But we’re safe up here?”
“Oh, yeah. It can’t breach a thousandth of the distance it’d take to reach us. That’s a lot of gravity down there.” I pushed out of the chair, floating to her, and folded her in my arms. As I caught her, our mismatched momentum started us spinning. I touched a toe to the window briefly, to steady the spin; a lifetime working in space, and such things were natural to me.
Not her, though. She was clumsy in space and had gotten caught floating without a handhold in reach more than once. The first time she had come on board, she leaped into the cockpit like she was diving into a pool, and struck her head on the navigation console. Now she was timid and ready to panic until I steadied us.
“What is that stuff? Why do they throw it like that?”
“It’s fuel for the tunneling drive, purer than any synthetic process can produce. It’s poison to them and can break down violently under pressure, so they get rid of it. They do a better job preserving their habitat than humans do.”
“So . . . it’s poop?”
“It’s Heisenium seven.”
“Yeah, but Heisenium seven is poop.”
“It’s not . . . alright. Yes. It’s poop. I’m the conductor of the poop train, all right?”
She giggled, her hands flattening against my chest. “Sorry I teased you.”
I could never stay angry at her. My eyes softened at her caress, and I was about to make a few interesting suggestions on how to spend our time in orbit when an orange star caught my eye, hardening my expression. I braced my back against the glass, pushed her towards her seat. “Strap in.”
She squeaked, flailing, but latched onto the arms of the chair when she fell into it. “What the hell! Don’t be such a–”
“Shut up for a second.”
I called up a list of the observation platforms and found one disabled, focusing the ship’s telescopes to that platform’s position. The view locked onto the location, zoomed, resolved, and then began to get crisper as the computer refined the image. A dissipating fireball, debris, and the blue flare of a powerful engine.
“Caleb, what’s going on?” Fear and uncertainty had crept into her voice. I’d never been rude to her like that; she knew something was very wrong.
“A Bolger Industries light corvette. It’s a corporate raid.” I started flipping a series of switches. Readouts would tell me when the reactor was ready, but I counted in my head and flipped switches early. I needed full power fast. It was a good reactor. I could probably exceed spec without blowing us up. “I told you to put on that seatbelt.”
“But … can they do that? What about the corporate fleets?”
“The Aramark fleet Is sixteen minutes out, and there’s no king of space to say it’s illegal. You only own what you can protect out here.” I buckled in and gave the drone instructions to reach a stable orbit and shut down. Maybe I could get it later. Right now I had six containers full of crystals like that one linked on, and I wanted to keep them.
Green lights lit up across the board, and I pointed my nose down to Jupiter’s horizon, pushing the engines up one gee of thrust. I called up the navigational computer and started plugging variables in, giving it requirements. “They outclass us in maneuvering and speed, so I’m going to use a slingshot through that gravity well to buy time. A lot of things can go wrong in a gravity well that steep, and I’m gonna make things go wrong.”
“What can I do?”
I unbuckled my seatbelt to stand up – under thrust, we had a sort of gravity – and went to Maya, kissing her brow. “Come with me. Help me with the tools.” I unbuckled her and turned to go into my workshop, taking an old mining laser off its mounting. “I need those magnetic drivers.”
The mining laser was okay to own – it had started my career in space. The modular mass of heavy-duty capacitors and power systems was also okay – common circuity. As I bolted them together, though, I broke a dozen different corporate guidelines regarding heavy weaponry on vessels. If I lived through this, I would still be up shit creek.
A few minutes later, I was in my suit, and opening the airlock, climbing out onto the hull. Jupiter was oppressive above me, a massive banded sky over my head. If I fell, I’d drop into that sky until the pressure crushed me; after I was burned alive in my own engine’s exhaust.
I swung out over the abyss and climbed down the hull until I reached the engine nacelles. It was bulky enough to stand on, and here I bolted the mining laser’s mount to the ship. Laying on the nacelle, I would be able to look over the edge through the laser’s scopes.
I aligned the laser on the distant ship and looked through the scope, to bring it to bear on my target. I pulled the trigger back until it clicked and locked at the halfway mark. The whine of the capacitors charging rose in pitch. “Come on girl, just one good shot. Maya’s counting on us, and it’s my fault she’s out here. You’ve never let me down before. I just need one more shot.”
The whine steadied, and I turned on the targeting laser. The red dot marked my target when I looked through the scope, and I put it on what I thought was a fuel line. Blue stars bloomed behind the corvette, and I looked up. The Aramark fleet was here, but the Bolger ship still had time to rob me and escape. I couldn’t rely on a rescue.
Another star bloomed in front of me, much closer — brief, orange and angry, and my faceplate fractured. I could see the groove where the bullet had grazed the glass. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Please hold. Please, please hold,” I prayed to my faceplate. They still didn’t want to risk dumping my cargo into the gas giant, so they’d have to be careful with their shooting. I looked down through the scope, and through my suit’s contact with the hull, I heard another projectile strike the hull nearby. “Come on, old girl. One last hurrah.” I pulled the trigger back all the way and saw the fuel line turn molten red, then explode. Every indicator light in my helmet went out as the power surge overloaded the laser, and fried every system in my suit.
No matter. I’d won. I watched as the jet of flame from the ruptured line tumbled the cruiser. They handled it well; they cut the engines, and the fire died down as the fuel in the line burned off. Maneuvering jets clicked on and off, steadying their tumble. But they’d have to jump, now. I’d baited them into this slingshot, but without their main engines they’d never be able to complete it.
It took a moment for them to come to the same conclusion. The tunneling drives engaged with a blinding flash. Pain flared in both eyes, like daggers. I screamed, but had the presence of mind not to try to cover my eyes – my faceplate was still cracked. I howled, and I cursed, and I pounded my ship’s hull in frustration. But I only gave myself a moment – it was all I could afford. With my suit fried, I needed to get back to the ship, to fresh air. Maya couldn’t very well come out here to help. If I wanted to live, I’d have to climb back.
The outside of my ship bristled with instrumentation, an easy climb for the sighted. But without sight and my sense of touch muted by my suit’s gloves, I struggled for every inch. Hand over hand, I climbed, dragging myself up, groping for one handhold after another. I could already taste my air going stale, and I hadn’t reached the airlock yet. Was I too far left? Or right? How would I know if I had missed it entirely?
Then I heard a high-pitched creaking that chilled my blood. “No . . . no, no, no, no, no.” I jumped at the crystalline splintering sound and the faint hiss that followed. Panic began to rise as I realized it was air escaping from my fractured faceplate. I knew the panic would kill me, and knowing it just invited more panic.
I reached as far as I could, first above me, then to either side. The airlock had to be close! It had to be! My arms were burning from the long climb, and my lungs were burning from the fouling, thinning air. My ears popped, then began to ache. I ignored it, flailing to try and find the airlock’s edge.
Something caught the back of my suit and tried to yank me off the hull. I struggled to hold on, but between my exhaustion, full gravity, and the force dragging me down, I couldn’t hold on. Then I slammed into the ground, and my faceplate shattered. I closed my eyes and exhaled to protect my lungs, expecting to die. Air rushed back in a moment later, and I gasped for breath. I heard someone walk toward me, and reached blindly to try to grab them, reaching only air.
I heard the clasps on a helmet unfastening, then the sound of it striking the ground. Maya’s voice was tense, and I could read the tears in her voice as she threw her arms around me. “Caleb! You’re okay! You’re inside!”
I clutched at her, trembling, waiting for the panic to subside. With someone to hold on to and air around me, I slowly began to calm down and took a slow breath to steady my voice. “Holy shit, that was intense. Did you just pull me in?”
“Sorry. I didn’t know your helmet was broken.”
“It’s okay. It is very much okay. You saved my life. I’m blind. You’re going to have to help — wait. I didn’t know you could use an EVA suit.”
“I can’t. I just closed the seals. I didn’t need long. ” She helped me out of my suit, opening each latch, and helping me get the parts off.
When I reached for her face, she took my palm and cupped it against her cheek, where I felt the wetness of her tears. “You’re a badass, Maya. Goddamn nerves of steel, my woman.”
She laughed, to hear herself described. “Your woman? That isn’t … I’m not … we haven’t even talked about … the console keeps blinking. They’re calling you.”
The abrupt change of topic made me smile. “The fleet. Get me to the bridge. Please.” She helped guide me through the ship, putting my hands on ladders and buckling me the seat, putting the radio’s microphone in my hand. “Any red lights?”
“No. no red lights.”
“Good. Then we’re still on course back up into a stable orbit. Maya, thanks. You saved my life.” I turned on the radio before she could respond, lifting the microphone. “This is Captain Caleb Trexler, authorization papa tango five nine. I have been blinded. The current orbital maneuver is on autopilot. I cannot abort it. I’m requesting retrieval and medical assistance, over.”
“Understood. Assistance inbound. We saw what happened, Papa Tango. The whole crew’s talking about it. Captain talked about a special exemption from the heavy weapons prohibition, over.”
“Understood. I wouldn’t want to have to do it again, though. And that exemption would get me out of a heap of trouble. Thank the captain for me if it comes through. We’ll be waiting. Over and out.”
Maya’s hand fell on my shoulder – from the angle, I thought she might be leaning over me. “Your eyes . . . how bad are they?”
They were pretty bad. The retinal nerves were too badly burnt to replace with cybernetics. Maya stayed with me through rehab, but I could tell it was hard on her, and after a while, I transferred to another hospital, off-world. I got a job as a radio operator at a shuttleport and left behind piloting, and Maya.
That is, until one day I came home to a visitor. I walked down the hall, counting the doors when someone ran into me hard. I thought I was getting mugged until I heard her voice. “Caleb! Oh, god I missed you!”
“Maya … how did you …”
“Find you?” I felt her punch me in the shoulder. “It wasn’t easy, jackass. Why did you leave? I was ready to support you!”
I reached back to the wall and trailed my fingers as I walked to find my door. “You didn’t sign up to take care of a cripple. We’d only just started dating. You didn’t need that kind of burden dumped on you.” The key didn’t fit. Damn. Wrong one. I ran my fingers over each key, finding the one with the right outline. This time the door opened.
Maya came in after me. “You don’t get to decide what’s best for me! You should have talked to me! I could have handled it!”
“I couldn’t see you cry, Maya, but I heard it. I knew, if I asked, you’d stay. Why do you think I left? Just go home.”
“I am home.” Her voice was wounded, defensive. “I got a job here. It’s the only way I could afford to find you. They paid for the relocation.”
I turned my head to her, a reflex from the days when I would have stared at her. Did she leave her homeworld for me? I had to admit that I had missed her badly. That part of myself that was self-sacrificing was weak, listening to her voice so close to breaking. As if she could smell it, she chose this moment to press against me, and hold herself close to my body.
“Don’t leave me again, Caleb. I couldn’t take it. I love you. I loved you then, and I still love you. I’ve come so far. Please don’t send me away.”
We’d never spoken about it. We’d always acted like what we had was a playful thing, passing the time, having fun. But my heart broke to see her so unhappy, and I couldn’t help but put my arms around her. When she started crying, I held her tightly, cradling her head to my chest, letting her cry. “You can stay here if you want … it’s not much, but it’s home. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
She sniffled, her face buried in my chest. “Jerk.”
I smiled, tangling my fingers in her hair. “I know. I’m sorry. I won’t leave again, little love.”
She gave me a gentle punch in the stomach. “I’m still angry with you.”
“I can’t believe you left behind Earth for me.” Gently I let my fingers run through her hair, remembering the silkiness of it, and the way it swirled in zero gravity.
“You better not make me regret it. Tell me. Say the words. I want to hear it before I decide to forgive you.”
I turned my lips up, smiling – and reached out to her. She took my hand, cupping her cheek, and for a moment I remembered her doing this in an airlock, finding tears on her face. I found tears now, too. “Maya . . . I saw you hurting. I couldn’t stand to be the one to keep on hurting you. I loved you. I still love you. And I’m sorry.”
It was nerve-wracking, not being able to see her expression. I thought I felt her cheek move under my palm, that she might be smiling, but it wasn’t until her lips touched mine that I knew. “I forgive you. But don’t you ever–” she poked my chest, hard. “–leave me again. If you do, I swear to god I will re-arrange your furniture.”
I barked a laugh and drew her into my chest tightly. There was that sense of humor I had loved so much. “Never again, Maya. Never again.”