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Earth unavare (the first formic war), Page 2

Orson Scott Card

  Besides, not seeing Janda off was best for her. If she did love him, then his abandoning her at her departure would only make it easier for her to forget him. He would be doing her a favor. Then again, Janda knew Victor. She might suspect that he hadn’t come for that very reason, and therefore the plan would backfire. Instead of stamping out their love, it would only endear him more to her.

  Or, she might jump to the wrong conclusion entirely. She might think that he had not come because now that true feelings were laid bare, he found her revolting. She might think: He hates me now. He despises me. I’m the one who looked at him with love in my eyes. I’m the one who touched his arm. And now that he knows what my feelings were, he thinks me vile and repulsive.

  This thought nearly sent Victor flying from the room and rushing to the airlock to tell Janda that no, he didn’t think any less of her. He never could.

  But he did no such thing. He remained exactly where he was.

  Concepcion said, “The members of the Council will be perfectly discreet on this matter. Not a hint of gossip will escape any of our lips. As far as we are concerned, we didn’t even meet on the subject.”

  She was trying to reassure him, but hearing her stress the confidentiality of the situation only stoked Victor’s shame. It meant that they were so disgusted by him and Janda, so repulsed by it all, that they were going to pretend that nothing had ever happened. They were going to go about their business as if the memory had been wiped from their minds. Which of course was impossible. No one could forget this. They could pretend to have forgotten, yes. They could smile at him and go on as if nothing had ever happened, but their faces would only be masks.

  There was nothing else to say. Victor thanked Concepcion and excused himself from her office. The hall that led to the airlock was just ahead, but Victor turned his back to it. He needed to work. He needed to occupy his mind, build something, fix something, disassemble something. He took his handheld from his hip and checked the day’s repair docket. There was a long list of minor repairs that needed his attention, but none of them were a screaming emergency. He could get to them soon enough. A better use of his time might be installing the drill stabilizer he had built recently. He would need permission from the miners before touching the drill, but he might get that if he asked today. The Italians hadn’t pulled out yet, so the miners wouldn’t be ready for the drill for another hour at least. Victor switched screens on his handheld and pulled up the locator. It showed that Mono was down in the workshop.

  Victor hit the call button. “Mono, it’s Victor.”

  A young boy’s voice answered. “Epale, pana cambur. What’s shaking, Vico?”

  “Can you meet me in the cargo bay with the pieces for the drill stabilizer?”

  Mono sounded excited. “Are we going outside to install it?”

  “If the miners let us. I’m heading there now.”

  Mono whistled and hooted.

  Victor clicked off, smiling. He could always count on Mono’s enthusiasm to lift his spirits.

  At nine years old, Mono was the youngest apprentice on the ship, though he had been following Victor around and watching him make repairs for several years now. Six months ago the Council had agreed that an interest as keen as Mono’s should be encouraged not ignored, and they had made his apprenticeship official. Mono had called it the happiest day of his life.

  Mono’s real name was Jose Manuel like his father, Victor’s uncle. But when Mono was a toddler, he had learned to climb up the furniture and cabinets in the nursery before he had learned to walk, and his mother had called him her little mono-“monkey” in Spanish. The name had stuck.

  Victor flew down the various corridors and shafts to the cargo bay, launching himself straight as an arrow down every passageway, moving quickly in zero gravity. He passed lots of people. Now that the Italians were pulling out, and the trading and festivities were over, it was back to life as usual, with everyone taking up his or her assigned responsibility. Miners, cooks, laundry workers, machine operators, navigators, all the duties that kept the family operation running smoothly in the Kuiper Belt.

  Victor reached the entrance to the cargo bay and found Mono waiting for him, a large satchel floating in the air behind him.

  “You got everything?” asked Victor. “All three pieces?”

  “Check, check, and check,” said Mono, giving a thumbs-up.

  They floated through the hatch into the cargo bay and then over to the equipment lockers, where the miners were busy gathering and preparing their gear for the day’s dig. The ship was currently anchored to an asteroid, but drilling had stopped ever since the Italians had arrived. Now the miners looked eager to get back to work.

  Victor scanned the crowd and noticed that many of the men were over forty, which meant they were members of the Council and therefore knew the real reason why Janda was leaving. Victor wondered if they would avert their eyes when they saw him, but none of them did. They were all so busy making their preparations that no one even seemed to notice that he and Mono were there.

  Victor found his uncle Marco, the dig-team leader, over by the air compressor, checking the lifeline hoses for any leaks. Miners were extremely protective of their gear, but no piece of equipment was given more care and inspection than the lifeline. The long tube connected into the back of every miner’s spacesuit and served two purposes: It was the miner’s anchor to the ship-operating like a safety cable. And it was the miner’s source of fresh air, power, and heat. As the sign above the lockers read: CUIDA TU MANGUERA. TU MANGUERA ES TU VIDA. “Take care of your line. Your line is your life.”

  “Epale, Marco,” said Victor.

  “Epa, Vico,” said Marco, looking up from his work and smiling.

  He was a member of the Council, but he showed no sign of hiding anything. He appeared to be his normal, happy self. Victor pushed the thought away. He couldn’t live like this, constantly questioning the thoughts of every person over forty on the ship.

  “Nice work with that heater doodad you made for the Italians,” said Marco. “We got some good equipment out of that trade.” He gestured to a large metal cage anchored to the floor, filled with slightly used pressure suits, helmets, mineral readers, and other essential equipment. Most of it looked newer than anything miners on El Cavador had ever used, which might work to Victor’s favor-he was about to ask permission to access the drill, and it would help to be in the miners’ good graces.

  “What time are you going out this morning?” asked Victor.

  Marco raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”

  “I’ve been working on something,” said Victor, “an enhancement for one of the drills. It’s still a prototype, but I’d like to test it. And since you can’t fire up the drill until the Italians pull out, I thought maybe I could install it before your guys get out there and start digging.”

  Marco eyed the satchel.

  “It’s a stabilizer for the drill,” said Victor, “for whenever we hit ice pockets. It’s a way to keep the ship from pitching forward and the drill steady.”

  Victor could see Marco’s curiosity nibbling at the bait. “Ice pockets, huh?”

  Nothing was more annoying to a miner in the Kuiper Belt than ice pockets. Asteroids this far from the sun were dirty snowballs, masses of rock laced with an occasional pocket of frozen water, methane, or ammonia. The laser drill could bore through it all, but it produced a rocketlike reaction. Unless the ship was moored to the rock with the retrorockets firing as a counterforce, the laser would simply knock the asteroid away from the ship.

  So as long as the laser was digging through rock-for which all of the retrorockets had been calibrated-the ship held steady and the dig went smoothly. But the moment the laser hit a pocket of ice, the laser would burn right through it, losing the ship’s upward force. The retrorockets were still firing, however, so the whole ship would pitch forward, causing chaos inside for the crew. People fell over, babies couldn’t sleep.

  Then, after the laser ha
d seared through the ice and hit rock again, the upward force would return, the two forces would then equalize, and the ship would pitch back again. Everyone called it the ice pocket rodeo.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” said Victor. “The drill is working. What if my ‘improvement’ damages the drill?”

  “The thought crossed my mind,” said Marco. “I don’t like anyone touching the drills unless absolutely necessary.”

  “You can watch everything I do,” said Victor. “Step by step. But in truth, the installation isn’t that invasive. The main sensor goes up by the retrorockets. Another piece is wireless and goes down by the blast site on the asteroid. All I’m doing with the drill is installing this third piece, the stabilizer. It makes minor adjustments in the drill’s aim when the ship moves because of an ice dip. It’s designed to keep the laser pointed straight down into the blast site, instead of wavering or shifting mid-drill.” Victor pulled the device from the satchel and handed it to Marco. It was small and intricate, and Marco clearly had no idea what he was looking at-though this was to be expected since nothing like it existed. Victor had built it from junked parts, scrap metal, and polycarbonate plastic.

  Marco handed back the stabilizer. “So this will take care of ice dips?”

  “Not completely,” said Victor. “But it should minimize them, yes. Assuming it works.”

  Victor could see Marco’s mind working. He was considering it. Finally, Marco pointed a finger and said, “If you damage the drill, I’ll have you sucked back into the ship through your lifeline.”

  Victor smiled.

  Marco looked at his watch. “You got forty-five minutes. We’ll be checking equipment until then.”

  “Not a problem,” said Victor.

  “And that’s including however long it takes for you to suit up,” said Marco. “Forty-five minutes total, from this moment.”

  “Got it,” said Victor.

  “And work on the old drill,” said Marco. “Not the new one.”

  Victor thanked him, and he and Mono hurried to the lockers. As they changed into their pressure suits, Mono peppered Victor with questions, as Mono was always prone to do. Most of them were mechanical in nature, so Victor was able to answer them without much thought. The rest of his mind was at the airlock. How had Janda looked when she left? Had she acknowledged Victor’s absence or pretended not to notice it? Probably the latter. Janda was too smart to risk revealing her feelings now.

  “Hola,” said Mono, waving a hand in front of Victor’s face. “Earth to Vico. We’ve got a green light, and the clock is ticking.”

  Victor blinked, snapping out of his reverie. They were in the airlock, sealed and ready to go. The light over the airlock hatch had turned green indicating that they were clear to exit.

  Victor entered the command in the keypad. There was a hiss of air, and the exterior hatch slid open. Mono didn’t waste any time. He pulled himself through and pushed hard off the hull, launching himself into space, whooping and hollering as he flew. Victor launched after him, his lifeline unspooling like a single strand of spider’s web behind him. Victor’s thumb found the trigger on his suit, and the gas propulsion kicked in, gradually slowing his forward motion. He rotated his body back toward El Cavador and saw the Italian ship Vesuvio as it was maneuvering away.

  Janda was leaving.

  The other three ships of the Italian clan-also named after volcanoes in Italy: Strombuli, Mongibello, and Vulture-were a short distance away, waiting for Vesuvio. Soon they would accelerate and disappear.

  Victor refused to watch them leave. Better to stay busy. “Let’s go, Mono. No time for flying.”

  Victor hit the propulsion trigger and shot forward back to the ship, heading toward the side facing the asteroid, back where the old laser drill was housed. Several thick mooring cables extended from the ship down to their anchors on the asteroid. Victor moved past them, being careful not to entangle his lifeline. When he reached the drill, he stopped, brought up his feet, and turned on his boot magnets. The soles of his boots snapped to the surface, and Victor stood upright.

  He and Mono got to work removing the panels on the drill and exposing its inner components. The stabilizer was a quick install. It was just a matter of bolting it in and plugging it in to one of the drill’s mod outlets. Most big machines allotted a certain number of modifications and had built-in power outlets and boards to accommodate them. Victor would have to reboot the drill before it recognized the stabilizer, but his lifeline carried hardware lines to the ship, and he could do it from here using his heads-up display. He blinked and called up the display. The helmet tracked his eyes, and Victor gave the necessary blink commands to reboot the drill. When it came back online, he saw on the display that it recognized the stabilizer. “We’re in business, Mono. Now for the retros.”

  They replaced the drill paneling and flew up to the retrorockets. Victor looked to his left as he went. The Italians were gone. A small dot of white in the distance might have been their thrusters, but it could just as easily have been a star. Victor looked away. Back to work.

  The installation on the retros was more difficult since their mod inputs were so dated, and Victor had to make an adapter from parts in his tool belt. Mono asked questions every step of the way. Why was Victor doing this or that? Why wouldn’t he try this instead?

  “That’s how we do it, Mono. We make do with what we have. Corporate miners have stores of spare parts and resources on their ships. We have nothing. If something needs fixing, we pull out the junked parts and use our imagination. Now let me ask you a few questions.”

  It was then that the instruction began. Victor passed the tools and pieces to Mono and asked him questions that didn’t explicitly tell Mono how to finish the installation but that pointed him in the right direction. That way, Mono was discovering the steps himself and seeing the logic behind everything. It was how Father had trained Victor, not only letting him get his hands on the repair, but getting his mind in it as well, teaching Victor how to think his way through a fix.

  As Mono worked, Victor allowed himself another look out to space. There wasn’t a trace of thrusters now. Just blackness and stars and silence. Victor wasn’t a navigator, but he knew the big asteroids that were currently in this general vicinity, and he wondered where the Italians might be going. It wouldn’t be anywhere close, of course. In the Kuiper Belt it took several months to travel between asteroids. But even so, maybe Victor could guess.

  He closed his eyes. It was pointless. There were thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt. They could be heading anywhere. And what good did it do to know their destination anyway? That wouldn’t change anything. That wouldn’t bring Janda back. And yes, he wanted her back. He realized that now. He had never been physically affectionate with her in any way that wasn’t innocent. And yet now, when he couldn’t have her, he suddenly longed for her to be close to him.

  He loved his cousin. Why hadn’t he seen that before? I’m exactly what the Council feared. Whatever they think of me now, I deserve it.

  Mono was asking him a question. Victor returned to the task at hand. They finished the installation and then made their way down to the blast site on the asteroid.

  In mining terms, the asteroid was a “lumpy,” or a rock rich in iron, cobalt, nickel, and other ferromagnetic minerals. Miners used scanners to look for concentrations of metal in the stone, which they called “lumps.” The more lumps or seams of metal they found, the higher the metal-to-stone ratio. No lumps meant the rock was a “slagger” or a “dumpy,” a worthless chunk of nothing.

  Victor and Mono touched down on the asteroid. Their boot magnets were set to the highest setting, and the minerals in the rock were just enough to hold their feet to the surface. They walked to the lip of the mineshaft and looked down. The laser drill had burned a nice circle into the asteroid, though not with a continuous cutting motion. It actually fired a series of close, single bursts that perforated the rock to a predetermined depth, creating a tight ring
of holes. Miners then broke the narrow walls between the holes with the shake-hammers, then pulled out the rock in chunks, building the shaft.

  But this shaft wasn’t deep enough. The miners hadn’t yet reached the lump. When they did, they’d bring in the cooker tubes and refine and smelt the metal on-site, shaping it into cylinders that could be floated back up to the ship. It was tedious, hard labor, but if the lump was big enough, it was well worth the effort.

  Victor found a spot on the inner wall of the shaft where the steam sensor could be installed, and then called up Marco. “We’re nearly ready to test this thing. Do you have a moment to come help us out?”

  “On my way,” said Marco.

  Victor thought it best if Marco was the one who installed the steam sensor. It was a simple procedure, and it would allow Marco to feel some ownership for the device. Besides, the miners would be the ones moving the steam sensor every time they moved the drill, so they needed to know how to install it at the blast site. It made sense for Marco, as team leader, to have the first go.

  Marco didn’t come alone. Word had spread, and every miner in the family now gathered around the mineshaft, ready to watch.

  “When ice melts it produces steam,” said Victor. “This sensor goes down in the shaft and detects steam. The moment the level of steam in the detritus goes up a certain amount, it tells the retros to ease off. Then, when the rock particulate goes up again and steam diminishes, the retros accelerate. Meanwhile, it’s sending adjustments to the drill, to keep it from waffling as the ship moves. So the beam always stays dead center on the blast site.”

  “Won’t the heat from the laser burn the steam sensor?” asked Marco.

  “That’s what the casing is for,” said Victor. “It’s pretty tough stuff. I’m thinking it will hold.”

  “So no more ice dips?” asked one of the miners.

  “It won’t rid the ship of all movement entirely,” said Victor. “There would still be some slight shifting since it will take a moment for the sensor to detect the steam, but the movement will be far more gentle, like slight waves instead of sudden, jarring jolts.”