::if ur thirsty go get a drink::
Alaya glanced up from her chatscreen and across the small apartment to the blinking red light on the family water tap; they’d already used up their daily ration. She licked dry lips. Simone didn’t understand—she lived down in Grand Tunnel, where everyone got an extra liter of drinking water per day just because they were old families sitting on the biggest ice vein left in the asteroid.
::maybe ill just go swimming:: Alaya answered.
Simone responded with video clips of surfing—an old Earth sport they’d just learned about in history class at school—and they were both laughing when Alaya heard the lock buzz open on the front door. Her mom wasn’t supposed to be home from work for hours yet, but if she came back from work anytime and Alaya’s homework wasn’t done—
::gotta go:: Alaya typed, then quit chat.
Her grandmother Dionne pushed through the door with the urgency of a Leak Team. She wore her own well-patched walking suit, everything but the gloves and hood, and carried a second set of outside gear folded under her arm.
There was no hello, no how-are-you, from the little old woman, just a hasty, “Alaya, come over here and stand against the wall.”
Alaya froze like mist in a vacuum: she recognized the second set of gear tucked under her grandmother’s arm.
“What are you waiting for? Go on,” her grandmother said, with a casual swat at the back of her head.
It didn’t come close to hitting her, but it was enough to send Alaya scooting from the table to the kitchen wall. There were twin pairs of ascending lines and corresponding dates written on the buffed sealcrete. One set of lines had been added every year on her birthday. Rhymed with earthday. If you counted only her own trips around the sun, she was little more than one year old, but out here in the frontier archipelago of the colonies their clocks were still tied like a lifeline to Earth’s spin and orbit.
“Don’t slouch! Stand up straight.”
Alaya stretched to her full height, towering over her diminutive, Earth-born grandmother. She tried to glare at the old woman without meeting her eyes.
“That’s what I thought. Only fourteen years old, and you’re already as tall as Brandon was when he—” She paused. “You’re the same height as your brother was. Guess he took after me.”
Alaya folded her arms across her chest. So she was already as tall as her brother Brandon was when he died. So what? There would never be another mark, another year scratched on the wall for him. Sometimes his absence still seemed as unreal as the way they measured years.
“Hello, Alaya.” It was the pleasant-but-firm voice of her geometry homework, calling to her from the tablet at the table. “Do you need additional help solving this problem?”
“No, I’m fine,” she said sharply.
“Haven’t you got your homework done yet?” her grandmother asked.
Alaya hesitated. “Everything except math,” she mumbled. “I had a hard time concentrating.”
“Babygirl, you have got to keep up with your homework. Especially math.”
Alaya’s grandmother was a bioengineer and her mother was a farmacist, and they both expected her to follow in their sciencey footsteps, even though she dreamed of working at the docks just for a chance of seeing the sky outside their asteroid. At school she competed in every sport they offered because the best athletes with the best reflexes had the best chance of being assigned to the docks.
“Alaya, are you listening to me? Promise me you’ll do your math when we get back.”
Back? “Where are we going?” Alaya asked.
“I promise,” she said, eyeing her brother’s suit. “Where’re we going?”
“I thought you liked surprises.” She handed the suit to Alaya. “Carry this—you’ll need it.”
Alaya didn’t like surprises so much as she hated to be bored, but this looked like the opposite of boredom. A walking suit was good for only one thing. Most of her friends had gone walking on the asteroid’s surface at least once already, if only at the main dock entrance, and Simone had been outside half a dozen times to help her father do solar panel maintenance. But ever since Brandon died, Alaya’s mother had kept her tethered to schoolwork and far away from anything with a whiff of risk.
Grandma Dionne stood in the doorway. “Are you coming or not?”
Her grandmother was prickly, quick to change her mind when she got frustrated, and Alaya didn’t want to ruin this opportunity—her next chance to even stand in one of the big open locks at the docks could be years off. Tucking the suit under her arm, she followed her grandmother out of their quarters and closed the door.
“Grandma, where are we—?”
“Save your breath, girl. If I wanted to talk, I could have invited you to dinner.”
Her grandmother must be twisted up in nerves if she didn’t want to talk. Alaya’s heart started to race—that had to mean they were going outside.
But then they turned the wrong direction, away from the main corridor. Instead, her grandmother led her to a maintenance tunnel and one set of locks, then through another and finally into a series of freezing and abandoned ice-mining tunnels. Together, they hurried six kilometers up-spin, their way illuminated only by a hovering dronelight that scattered the stray beetle-mice. The air grew thinner as they went, which made Alaya’s mouth grow even drier.
At last they dropped into an old, dusty barrel lock. Built by the asteroid’s original wildcat miners, it was barely big enough for two people, with the hatch they came through connected to the tunnels and another situated in the middle of the floor leading to the surface where it could connect directly with a ship. Maybe her grandmother was going to take her flying somewhere?
The space had been designed for earthers, so it was a cramped for someone as tall as Alaya. Her grandmother docked the drone in a charger, and it lit up the space. The wall niche contained fresh supplies: two airbags, some coiled cable, baskets, rolls of patchtape.
“Put it on,” her grandmother said, nodding at the suit in Alaya’s hands. When Alaya’s heel slid all the way through the stiff pants into the boot, her grandmother exhaled relief, breath condensing into crystal fog.
“I could have tried it on at home,” Alaya said, shivering.
“Your mother might have caught us.”
Alaya’s eyes widened. “You didn’t tell mom?”
“We don’t have a lot of time before your mother gets home from work so I’m not hooking up the plumbing for you,” her grandmother answered, changing the topic. “So if you have to go, just hold it.”
“I’ll be fine!” A half-hearted protest, but still enough to make her lips crack. Alaya wasn’t peeing more than a couple times a day. The asteroid’s orbit was at aphelion, as far as it could be from the regular belt routes. Supply ships hadn’t visited in months, and everyone’s food and water rations had been cut. For those in the outer rim of tunnels, like Alaya’s family, rations had been cut a little more. Plus Alaya was giving part of her shorted portion to her aunt, who’d just had a baby. The next ship was scheduled to arrive in about a week, but it could just as easily be another month or two before it showed.
“Seal everything up tight,” her grandmother said. “This suit hasn’t been worn in a couple years, so we’ll need to run a leak test first.”
This suit hasn’t been worn since your brother’s accident, is what she could have said.
Either the coriolis effect or nerves were making Alaya’s stomach twirl. “I can’t get this glove on.”
Her grandmother reached over and snapped it shut. “Did you see how I did that?”
Her grandmother unsnapped the glove. “Now you do it.”
The second attempt went smoother. When the glove was snug, she said, “I don’t know how to connect the hood either.”
“Just fit it into the collar, it’ll seal itself. Let me hook the airbag up to your breathing system first. Did you see how I did that?”
“Good. You’ll do it next time. Now put on your hood.”
With thick-fingered hands, Alaya tugged the hood over her head and fitted it into the collar socket. When it clicked into place and sealed, lines of colored text lit up the clear faceplate.
Air remaining: 177 minutes
Depth: +2 m
Nearest airlock at: O m
Voice channel: open
In range: Thigpen, D.
Thigpen, B. The B was for her brother Brandon—she’d have to change that later if this was going to be her suit now. Thigpen, D., her grandmother. Effie, short for Ephigenia, named after the Ethiopian saint, not the figure from Greek myth. Effie was a dark, dense C-type asteroid, potato-shaped, one of the independents located on the edge of Jupiter’s trailing Trojans, and not to be confused with Iphigenia, a corporate asteroid in the main belt. The channel was local but no one else was close enough to overhear them through the rock. The airlock indicator would always point to her nearest way inside; the target-shaped graphic blinked green at the moment because she was standing in an airlock. Other graphics signaled her vital signs. Everything was green, except her pulse, which was beating fast enough to blink yellow.
“Turn around.” Her grandmother’s voice in her ear. She was wearing her own hood.
Alaya turned and bumped against the wall.
She felt a tug on the floppy airbag draped over her shoulder. “Your suit’s going to fill with red smoke,” her grandmother said. “It won’t hurt you, but hold your breath.”
“If it won’t hurt me, why do I need to hold my—”
But then red smoke was swirling in Alaya’s face, so she clamped her lips tight and squeezed her eyes shut. Panic bile rose in her throat, but she swallowed it—she had no desire to scrub her brother’s suit clean with sand and rags.
Her grandmother mumbled a string of curse words as she ripped wide strips of tape off a roll and slapped them onto spots behind Alaya’s knee, under her armpit, and in the middle of her back where the airbag connected to her suit. Alaya realized that’s where Brandon’s suit had been torn in the tunnel accident, where his air and life had leaked out while he was trapped under the borer. A hand on her shoulder spun her around—her grandmother checking her from every angle.
“I’m going to flush your suit now.”
The air whooshed out, sending a cloud of red smoke swirling up the lock and into the tunnel. Alaya’s ears popped. She opened her eyes just in time to see her grandmother tuck the tape roll into a pouch at her waist. Then she stood on her tiptoes to touch their faceplates together. Alaya saw herself reflected in the old woman’s big brown eyes.
“I’m so proud of you, babygirl,” her grandmother said. She stepped back, breaking contact. “Now when we’re out there, you do everything I say.”
It was the same tone of voice she used with the assistants in her lab, and Alaya responded the same way they did. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her grandmother picked up a large spool of microcable, unreeled a length, and tugged on it skeptically. She hooked a carabiner to the harness on Alaya’s suit and connected the two of them. “We’re going to follow the line of anchors. You always have your carabiner hooked to an anchor until I tell you to move. You got that?”
If they were using a line, it meant they were going outside and not into another vessel. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her grandmother tapped a round metal anchor on the airlock wall. “I want to see you hook it, unhook it, and do it again.”
Alaya attached and removed the carabiner several times. “How’s that?”
“Good enough. We are never both unhooked at the same, do you understand?”
“Why?” Her pulse started to race again, making a yellow heart beat its warning on her faceplate. “What’s going to happen?”
“Nothing’s going to happen, we’ll be fine,” she said firmly. “But just because we’ll be fine doesn’t mean we won’t be careful. It’s the other way around—careful is what keeps us fine. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alaya said, but she called up a map of the asteroid to try to figure out where they were. The answer was approximately nowhere, close to nothing. “Grandma, what are we doing out here?”
Her grandmother squeezed her shoulder. “We’re going to look for wild chickens.”
“Chickens?” Alaya laughed. The Lumpkins, who were the richest family on Effie, kept dozens of chickens, goats, and other animals on their algae farm over in Iron Hole. Alaya had visited them with one of her school groups. “You’re making fun of me. There aren’t any chickens in space.”
“Then they’ll just be our secret, won’t they? Now seal the hatch.”
Sealing the hatch was Alaya’s job because she could reach it more easily. With their suits on, the only thing distinguishing the two of them was size, and anyone who saw them would take her for the adult and her grandmother for a child. As she reached up and spun the door shut, she remembered something her mother said once: Being trapped on Earth made people small—we had to move into space in order to grow.
“Sealed,” she said.
Her grandmother wiped dust off the control pad, entered a code, and cursed when the panel flashed amber. She tapped in a different code, and the old light blinked mint. A fan whirred and pulled the air out through a vent in the wall. There was a mechanical click, and the door at their feet popped up a half inch.
“Ha,” her grandmother laughed. “Your uncle DeAndre told me this airlock still worked, but I wasn’t sure I believed him. I didn’t test it when I brought the supplies down here because I was worried it might only work once.” She bent down, turned a lever, spun the wheel, and pulled the round door open.
Alaya knew that Effie had been spun up to give the rockers inside an illusion of greater gravity. She knew that the floors they walked on were the inside of an eggshell, and their heads were pointed toward the yolk.
Knowing that was one thing. It was another thing entirely to see her grandmother open the hatch, drop through the floor, and flip upside down so that her feet were on the outer surface.
The hole gaped at her feet. She saw nothing but empty space and the diamond pinlights of distant stars.
A sharp yank on the cable at her waist pulled her down to her knees.
“Come on,” her grandmother said. Her shadow leaned across the hole, eclipsing the stars. “Don’t waste air. We’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, you can. Grab the hold bars and swing through like you’re going around a corner.”
Alaya swallowed hard and grabbed the bar.
“And don’t forget the baskets.”
She reached over to the wall niche and clipped both microfiber baskets to her wrist. Baskets were different than sacks because they had rigid bottoms, which made them easier to prop open in low gravity, and lids that sealed magnetically when you flipped them shut. She fixed her eyes on her grandmother’s feet, and swung through the hatch. The round circle of an anchor glared at her like a blind eye, and she slapped her safety line onto it. After she pulled the hatch shut, she stayed there on her knees, staring at the ground.
Layers upon layers of bootprints were pressed into the regolith. That meant lots of people had walked here before. Which was less reassuring to Alaya than she expected. She gripped the access bar and tried not to barf. What was it Simone said about going outside the first time? You feel like you’re going to fall up, so just stare at the ground in front of you until the feeling goes away. It was a lot easier to stare at the ground if she stayed on her knees.
A hearty laugh burst in her ears. “All right, that’s long enough. Get on your feet, babygirl.”
“Don’t but me. Sounds like your mama talking. She never did like taking walks with me—too much of an agoraphobe.” She grabbed Alaya by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet—Alaya stiffened and kept her eyes fixed on her own feet, just to make sure they didn’t leave the surface. “What? Are you worried you’ll go flying off the surface? We’ll be walking against the spin, toward Pancake Crater. Nothing leaves the surface going against the spin. When we’re done, we’ll keep going around the crater to the Sunnytown Lock on the other side. Against spin the whole time. No risk at all.”
Alaya hesitated before speaking. “I don’t think that’s right, grandma. Escape velocity doesn’t have any direction.”
Her grandmother made a little hmmm sound that didn’t sound entirely displeased. “How about when we get back to your room, you do the math and show me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She spoke quietly. Math was the farthest thing from her thoughts at the moment, and she wasn’t eager to lead her grandmother down a path toward more homework.
“If you’re worried about getting lost, you can think of the anchors as a corridor. As long as you stay connected to them, you’re on a known path, where someone else can find you if they come looking.”
“Uh-huh.” Alaya bit her tongue to keep from saying that if nobody knew they were out here, nobody would come looking for them. She kept her head down, looking out for the trail as they walked. The display in her faceplate showed elevated pulse and respirations. She tried to slow her breathing. “You’re going to a lot of trouble just to play some joke on me about chickens.”
“That’s what you think, huh?” Her grandmother took a leap toward the horizon and landed near the nickel-plated knob of another anchor. “Guess you better keep up if you want to find out.”
Alaya followed, keeping one eye on the beacon of her grandmother’s suitlight and the other on her own datastream. The airlock indicator changed every ten meters or so, and now an arrow pointed back the way they’d come. The little red heart graphic pulsed fast, hard, and the respiration icon puffed little yellow warning clouds at her.
Meanwhile, they hopscotched from anchor to anchor, pitted old bolts sunk deep into the dark, carbonaceous surface of the asteroid. They had been left behind by the wildcat miners who later became the early squatters who became the first families who settled there. Everybody knew the history of the first four families: Dudley, Lumpkin, Sapp, and Singh. Alaya’s family were Thigpens and Patels and Broadnaxes, mostly second- and third-wavers, although her uncle DeAndre had an ex whose other partner was related to the Sapps. Alaya was so scared she watched the ground the whole time just to make sure it didn’t slip away.
They came to a stop.
“Look up, babygirl,” said the voice in her ear. “Go on, look up. No prettier show in the universe. And to think some folks go their whole lives and never see it.”
Simone’s advice had helped, although she didn’t think she’d ever admit that to Simone. But her stomach had settled a bit, so Alaya glanced up—
—stars wheeled slowly overhead, like welding sparks drifting down an unlit tunnel with no visible bottom—
Her grandmother chuckled softly. “Yeah, you got eyes big enough to drink it in. Thought you might. Nothing like your mama.”
Alaya loved her mother, but she stood a little straighter thinking that she might be better at something that her mother was. As they loped along again, she kept her neck bent back, soaking in the sky, glancing down just long enough to clip her anchor or check her step. A relatively smooth path stretched along the row of bolts from the airlock to an old landing site, but once they passed the site the trail disappeared in rubble and spall. Alaya barely noticed. Out there somewhere in the spinning dark was Mars, with its underground cities and its first shallow, surface lakes, and the Moon, with all its military bases and atomic scarring, and the orbiting platforms around Jupiter and Saturn, and somewhere else in the asteroid belt were the cities in Ceres and Vesta and Juno, the mining stations that supplied Effie and all the other parched rocks with—
She stubbed her toe on a boulder, stumbled, and fell hard into a jagged cluster of rocks. Her facescreeen flashed red as a warning pinged. “I’ve got a leak!”
“Hold on, I’m coming,” her grandmother said, pulling out her roll of tape as she hopped to Alaya’s side.
“I found it, it’s on my knee,” Alaya said, clamped a hand over the tiny tear, twisting the fabric shut. The red light switched to yellow, but the alarm kept buzzing. Her minutes of remaining air ticked down quickly.
“Okay, I need you to spread the fabric flat, on three,” her grandmother said, with a strip of tape poised to go. “One, two, three.”
Alaya smoothed the fabric flat—her faceplate burned crimson, the alarm squealed—and her grandmother slapped the tape down, silencing everything.
“You okay?” her grandmother asked.
“I’m fine,” Alaya said. “I’m sorry—”
“Nothing to be sorry about. These cheap old suits were meant for temporary, emergency use—not to be passed down from generation to generation. And anybody who doesn’t have their head up in the stars the first time they go for a walk has their head up their ass. I know that’s not you. But now you know the danger, so be more careful, okay?”
“Okay,” Alaya said. She checked her vitals. “I’m down to about 130 minutes of air.”
“That’s plenty,” her grandmother said. “We’re close to the crater.”
Alaya studied the surface. Before them stretched a single set of old footprints, going out and coming back, frozen in the dust like a child’s trail through wet concrete in a new tunnel.
The old prints matched the new ones left by her grandmother. The exact same boots, only the first set looked fresh with deep treads and the new set were worn smooth at the heels. She wondered exactly how long her grandmother had been using this same suit. Probably ever since she arrived on Effie.
They continued, slowly picking through the crater’s ejecta, and Alaya had to keep her head down, her eyes focused on her next step. Her grandmother paused to find another anchor, and then paused longer for the one after that. They reached the end of the footprints at the rim of the crater. Her grandmother stood there, staring down the long, low slope.
“What are you looking for?” Alaya asked.
“This is where I scattered them,” her grandmother said, scanning the surface intently. “I had a theory at the time that there would be more water contained in the regolith around a crater because of ice ejected by the impact. And I figured no one else would come looking for it. Too low gain for quick extraction.”
Alaya studied the crater, but it had such a low albedo it was almost as dark as the sky above them. “Your chickens?”
“I designed and released them about thirty years ago, when your mother was the age you are now.” She let out some of the line, easing her way down the slope. “I knew we’d need them some day. I just didn’t know it would be this long.”
If she didn’t sound so serious, and if she wasn’t one of Effie’s top genetic engineers, Alaya would have taken it for a joke. She licked her cracked lips. Even her tongue felt thick and dry in the recycled air of the suit. “Grandma?”
“If it’s so hard living here, why did you leave Earth?”
“Just because it’s hard here doesn’t mean it’s better back there. When I left Earth, it felt like we were escaping a house on fire. At least out here, in the archipelago, the problems are a more a manageable size. One tiny rock full of desperate people instead of a whole planet full. Nobody’s got nuclear weapons. Hell, nobody has guns. We’re all just struggling to get by together.” She paused. “Your eyes are better than mine—do you see anything?”
“Like what, a chicken?”
“If the sun was up, there’d be enough light that we’d see them moving. No, I’m looking for signs of movement.”
“That twisty little line there,” Alaya said, pointing at a thin trail curving like a sine wave through the dust. And then added, only half seriously: “It looks like it was made by a chicken.”
But her grandmother said, “Yeah, I see it.”
She skipped down the slope to a dark, dusty rock sitting at the end of the sine wave. She reached down and lifted it up with two hands, holding it up for Alaya to see.
Six tiny legs twitched slowly.
Alaya squawked and hopped backwards.
“Get back here,” her grandmother snapped, and Alaya caught herself. She eased forward in a crouch.
“What is it?” she said.
“I called them chickens because I designed them to lay eggs. I started with cockroach genes, because they’re vacuum and radiation resistant, but if I had to do it all over again now I might try some of the new macroexpression tardigrade genomes instead. These creatures get just enough light from the sun to let them crawl through the dust. They chew up the regolith, sorting out the tiny bits of water, which collects in a pouch back here . . .”
She squeezed the rear end of the creature and its legs twitched, a little more vigorously than before. Her grandmother muttered some curse words which Alaya knew she better never repeat, and put the “chicken” down again, making sure to brush the dust off its back. The creature lurched forward an inch or two into shadow and then stopped.
Her grandmother traced the animal’s trail backward, bent over, studying the dust as she went. With a sudden, delighted “Aha!” her hand darted into the regolith and came up holding a speckled gray ovoid as big as the palm of her glove.
“It’s an egg!” Alaya said.
Her grandmother laughed. “It’s over a hundred em-ells of pure frozen ice, is what it is.”
Alaya swallowed a dry lump in her throat. 100 milliliters. Just five of those would be enough to bring her daily water ration almost to normal again. And they could recycle most of that, day after day, at least until the supply ships came. “How many are there?”
“Let’s find out,” her grandmother said. She traced the sine wave back through the dust and pulled up another one. “Hurry up and bring those baskets down here.”
Alaya slid cautiously down the slope to her grandmother’s side. She unhooked one of the baskets from her wrist and set it on the surface. The weighted bottom gave the microcloth shape and kept it open. The first two eggs tumbled out of her grandmother’s hand and into the basket’s dark mouth.
“I’ll take this basket and this direction,” her grandmother said, unclipping the safety line that connected her to Alaya. “You take that direction over that way and start filling up yours. Tie on extra line if you need to, but stay anchored.”
Too excited to speak, Alaya turned and scanned the dust for the telltale tracks. When the full-spectrum light of her hood lamp fell on a dark rock, the rock seemed to wake up and twitch slowly through the dust. This time, Alaya didn’t jump.
Up close she could see the resemblance to the Lumpkin chickens. The creature was about the same size and color as the astrolorp breed, which had been specially bred for low gravity on the asteroids. The large round body had a carapace instead of feathers, and wings that spread out slowly like solar panels to catch and absorb the light from her hood lamp. The large body was topped by a tiny head with hard, beak-like mandibles that slowly pecked and crunched through the regolith.
She turned her head to look at the creature’s track. Deprived of photons, it stopped moving. “How many eggs has each one laid?” she asked as she followed the trail backward and found her first.
“It takes years to lay an egg, but there should be four or five in each trail,” her grandmother said. “Keep an eye on the clock and hurry up now. We’ll need about forty minutes to get to Sunnytown Lock.”
Alaya checked her datastream. Less than ninety minutes of air left, which meant fifty minutes to work. She gave a verbal command for an alarm at forty-eight minutes and then she started hunting for eggs like a toddler at an Easter party. She found four eggs along the first trail, but spent too much time looking for a fifth, then too long again finding her next chicken and adding line to her safety rope to reach it. Her basket was less than half full when the alarm went off.
“Start heading back up slope,” her grandmother’s voice said in her ear. “I’m going to get just one more . . .”
Alaya turned in time to see the distant figure of her grandmother, about half a kilometer away and free of her safety line, take a long leap downslope toward a cluster of dark, chicken-sized rocks. It was graceful and precise and Alaya found herself admiring the skill of it as her grandmother’s foot touched down in the dust—
Her leg twisted, slamming her into the ground.
Her grandmother screamed simultaneously with the safety alarms. Her basket spilled and eggs rolled down the slope through the black dust.
Alaya froze for a second while her grandmother reached for her leg and shrieked again.
With more reflex than conscious decision, Alaya jumped toward her grandmother. The basket of eggs dangling from her wrist bounced against her leg. When her safety line jerked her up short, she unhooked it and kept going.
She landed in the dust at her grandmother’s side and immediately saw what had happened: the toe of her foot had lodged in a crack between two rocks buried in the regolith, and her momentum torqued her as she fell, snapping her leg. Her dusty gray suit was torn. White bone, bright as a knife blade, split the old woman’s black skin. Blood was everywhere, and air hissed out of the tear even as her grandmother tried to squeeze it shut with one hand and grab her tape with the other.
“Alarms off,” Alaya said. Her own suit was warning her about her elevated heart rate and breathing. Decompression training from school kicked in, and she clamped one hand over the leak while grabbing the tape from her grandmother with the other.
“You’re going . . . to have to . . . push the bone back . . .” her grandmother said through gritted teeth.
“I know,” Alaya said. There was so much blood but it was freezing as it hit the vacuum. At least the icy scab, the only bright red thing in the black and gray world, formed an emergency seal of sorts. She untangled her grandmother’s foot first and then she leaned on the leg with all her weight and pushed it back into line.
She thought she knew all of her grandmother’s curse words by now but she learned a new one. Then she took the tape and wrapped it around and around and around the leg until there wasn’t any left. “How much air do you have, grandma?”
“How much?” she said, using her mama’s voice.
“Oh my gosh!”
“There’s always more than that . . . reserves . . .”
“Shut up a second.”
Her grandmother shocked her by shutting up, but she was breathing fast the way Alaya’s aunt had been when she gave birth. Alaya’s mind raced. The airlock indicator still pointed back the way they came, only half the distance of the one to Sunnytown.
“Are you ready?” she asked her grandmother.
The old woman’s face was pale through her mask. She bit her lip and nodded.
“This is going to hurt,” Alaya said, slipping an arm under her shoulder. Then she changed her mind. “Wait a second.”
She scrambled down the slope, stuffing as many of the spilled eggs as she could into her own basket until it bulged full. Returning to her grandmother, she said, “Okay, now we can go.”
“Good thinking,” her grandmother said. It was barely a whisper.
Alaya grunted as she lifted her grandmother with one arm and the basket with the other and started slogging back up the slope. All the extra weight felt like it was pressing in on her lungs, stifling her breath. And dehydration was making her light-headed and sluggish.
But there was nothing she could do about that. With her head bent down to illuminate the path at their feet, the climb was slow as it was arduous. By the time they finally crested the ridge, Alaya’s head throbbed and she staggered dizzily. Her grandmother was panting.
“If I can’t go on, you take the eggs and you . . .”
“That was the hard part,” Alaya interrupted. “The rest will go faster.”
Her grandmother didn’t reply, just hopped along on one leg, mostly carried by Alaya’s arm around her waist. The bone had been sticking straight out of her leg. It cut right through her suit. There was so much blood. Alaya knew her grandmother was strong, but she had no idea how the woman was still going right now.
They were nearly to the landing pad when her grandmother passed out, just slipped out of Alaya’s loose grip, falling like starlight into Effie’s somber dust, where she stayed.
“Grandma,” Alaya said, her voice cracking, her lips cracking. “Grandma?”
She rolled her grandmother over, leaving a body-shaped void in the regolith. Her grandmother’s respirations were up, her blood pressure was down, and her skin was pale. Alaya bent down, grabbed her grandmother by the armpits, and started dragging her toward the airlock. The egg basket was still secured to her wrist, and by the time they passed beyond the old landing site, she was tripping over it every second or third step. If she wasn’t too dry for tears, she would have been sobbing.
Leaving her grandmother was not an option. Leaving the eggs was not an option. Carrying them both wasn’t working.
She opened the colony’s emergency radio channel and called for help. No reply. That was no surprise; there were no direct lines to any receivers from this location, and the surface was too dense to penetrate. Every warning indicator on her facescreen blinked yellow or red, but she made herself pause to think.
This was just like running deliveries for her mother’s farmacy. When the loads were too big to carry at once, she’d carry them in stages.
She unhooked the basket from her arm and then spun around, like they did in the hammer throw for strength building down in the gym and let go. It flew farther than she hoped.
Her grandmother’s eyes blinked open when she lifted her under her arms and started dragging her again. The old woman glanced side to side, panicked. “Where are the eggs?”
“We’re going to get them.”
“Don’t let anyone else know,” she said between gasps. “We don’t have enough eggs to share.”
“Stop kicking the ground,” Alaya said.
“I’m trying to help walk.”
“It’s not helping.” Her heart raced and her tongue was so swollen it threatened to choke her. At least it felt like they were climbing downhill. Part of that was the curve of the asteroid, going downward from the rim of the crater to the airlock. She was shuffling toward sunrise, but it felt like floating. “Here are the eggs. Hold on a second.”
She spun, and, with all her strength, threw them again. They sailed even farther this time before they dropped into the dust. She was panting when she grabbed her grandmother again.
“We’re going spinward,” her grandmother side, her eyes as wide and bright in the dark as a pair of moons. A red light flashed on her faceplate. Her oxygen levels were close to zero.
“It was the closest airlock,” Alaya gasped. “We couldn’t go farther.”
Her grandmother’s grip tightened on Alaya’s wrist. “Be careful. The real danger is the cliff just beyond the airlock—”
When she reached the eggs, she looked down slope and spotted the old airlock on the lip of the horizon. Still too far away. She didn’t think she could make it. Her limbs felt as loose as a bad orbit. Spots swam in her eyes. She leaned over, hands on her knees, gulping oxygen.
“Why’d we stop?” her grandmother asked through gritted teeth.
“I just . . . need to . . . catch m’breath . . .”
“Your brother . . .” her grandmother started, and then paused.
Her dead brother. Crushed in a mining accident—he had volunteered for the extra shift to bring home extra rations to help his mom and little sister. “What about him?”
“He used to keep a little chemical helper. You know what I’m saying?”
She didn’t. “No . . .”
“A stimulant. In his suit. For emergencies.”
Neither her mother nor her grandmother approved of drugs, as such, but everybody knew that you did what you had to do, especially in an emergency. Alaya figured this probably counted as an emergency. “Where?”
“Verbal command . . . tell the suit you need to wake the hell up.”
“Suit, I need to wake up.” Nothing happened.
“Wake the hell up.”
“Suit, I need to wake the hell up.”
The sharp pinch of a hypospray injection shot into the meat of her bicep. A second later, before she was done saying ouch, euphoria cometed through her blood. Confidence exploded like the volcanoes on Io. She had this. She could see the airlock. She was going to get the eggs and her grandmother to the airlock and she was going to celebrate by drinking a glass of water.
Her suit blinked a whole new set of red alarms. Her heart rate jumped into tachycardia and her respirations came twice as fast. Sharp pains stabbed through her head and chest. Her mouth felt even dryer, if that was possible. But it didn’t matter. It all was far away, like it belonged to someone else. The part of her that was present in her body right here, right now, could do anything.
“Okay, okay, okay, I got this,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier, I got this, we’re going to do this now, okay. Okay?”
“You got this.” Her grandmother grimaced, but gave her a thumbs up.
First the eggs. She picked up the basket. It was nothing. There was a long flat slope in front of her. She started spinning the basket above her head as she ran. Her reflexes had never felt so perfect. When she reached her top speed, at the apex of her leap, at just the right tangent to her spin, she let go. At exactly that moment the golden eye of the sun rose over the asteroid’s horizon, spilling cold light across the surface. The basket of eggs went sailing. Alaya landed on her knees in the dust, squinting at the extra light and grinning so wide it hurt her cheeks.
“That was good, grandma, that was really good,” she said. “I got so much power into my throw . . . wait, that’s not good, no, wait.”
The basket did not appear to be coming down. She had thrown the eggs so hard that if they hadn’t achieved escape velocity they had at least accomplished a very low orbit. They were going to sail right past the airlock and disappear over the cliff and the curve of Effie’s surface.
“Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.”
She clapped a hand over her own mouth, ashamed at her swearing.
Her grandmother’s calls to her ablated like water in a vacuum. Alaya was already running, taking huge, dangerous bounds across the surface, chasing the shrinking basket of eggs. She was first in her class in most sports, but she had never run like she did now. The chemicals shooting through her veins charged her with electricity. The dust hid dangerous rocks, just like the ones that had broken her grandmother’s leg, but Alaya scanned the surface as she ran and missed them all. Her brain spun out dryboard calculations as she went. vesc = (2 * G * M / r)1/2 —the escape velocity was the square root of 2 times the gravitational constant, or 6.67 times 10-11 Newton-meter2/kilogram2, times the mass of Effie divided by the radius at the pole, and . . .
Oh screw it. Math sucked anyway. She was going to have only one chance at this and she was running out of time.
She was fast approaching the rocky edge of an escarpment, the highest point in her route. Just beyond that, the surface of the asteroid curved sharply away, like the edge of a cliff.
Her grandmother’s voice crackled over the radio.
Alaya ignored it. Her foot hit a solid edge of stone and she launched herself at the basket. It felt like her first perfect grade card, like the first time she’d done a gene splice in her mom’s lab, like the time she’d won the school handball tournament. Flawless. Right.
The sun coming over the horizon flared on her faceplate like she was falling into a deep tunnel of white light. She hung there for a long moment. No matter how hard she stretched, the edge of the bag floated just beyond the reach of her fingertips, like she was a rogue planet with her own tiny moon. Fear shot through her, that they were both going to keep on sailing, zooming right off the edge of the asteroid and into the vast empty space toward the inner planets.
Her middle finger touched the trailing cord.
She wrapped her hand around it.
Yanked down hard.
The change in angular momentum was just enough. They fell, spinning and twisting, tangled together, into the dust just over the edge of a steep slope.
She immediately checked her suit to make sure nothing was leaking, and by some miraculous turn of fate, it wasn’t. She snapped the basket to her wrist and stood up, suddenly drained, like a bottle with a crack in the bottom. When she plodded back over the ridgeline, her grandmother’s voice burst in her ears.
“Alaya! Babygirl! Answer me! Alaya!”
“I’m coming,” she said.
That was all she said. Girl. But Alaya could hear a change in her voice, something new that hadn’t been there before.
The long trudge back, dragging her grandmother to safety, the nausea and disorientation when she flipped through the airlock and stood on the inside of Effie again, stashing the eggs where no one could find them, calling for help, and dragging her grandmother downspin through the tunnels until help came to reach them—all that passed in a blur, like the lies that she spun about why they were outside and what they had been doing. Astronomy project. Dark side of the asteroid for a clearer view.
She wished the conversation with her mother had gone as easily, but she survived that too, although threats of retribution and righteous judgment to come lingered afterward in the air like the smell of burnt toast, and then Alaya escaped and went back to retrieve the eggs, and soon after that she and her grandmother were alone in their tiny apartment. Her grandmother lay in her hammock, with her leg strung up in a cast. Glowing green icons on the cast indicated that the healing stims were working.
“You know, there’s an old Earth saying,” her grandmother said with a laugh. She’d been laughing softly to herself a lot ever since the doctor started her pain meds. “Something about the danger of putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Alaya thought about that. She thought about how Effie was like a big egg floating through the solar system, with a few thousand people protected inside its shell, scraping by as well as they could. Someday a meteor might crash into them, cracking the egg and spilling them all into space. Or someday they might hatch out of there, and Alaya would head out into the wider universe to do something interesting.
The timer buzzed. Alaya rose and pulled a cup from the microwave. It contained about one hundred em-ells of dusty water rescued from the regolith. She handed it to her grandmother, who took it with a grin. Her eyes were sharp and clear. She tipped the cup to her lips, then passed it back.
Alaya accepted it back. “Sometimes, there’s no choice.”
“Huh?” her grandmother asked.
“Earth, Effie, it’s all the same. You don’t have a choice. Sometimes all your eggs are in one basket,” Alaya said. She took a sip of water. The taste was sharp and acidic on her tongue, so cool sliding down her throat. “But then you better take good care of that basket.”
Spread the word!