Tue 1 Nov 2011
by Ferrett Steinmetz
“The sauerkraut is what makes us special,” Lizzie explained as she opened up the plastic door to show Themba the hydroponic units. She scooped a pale green head of cabbage from the moist sand and placed it gently into Themba’s cupped hands.
She held her breath as Themba cradled it in his palm, hoping: Please. Please don’t tell me that stuff grows everywhere at home.
Themba ran a dark brown finger along the cabbage’s veins, then let loose a sigh of wonder. “That’s marvelous,” he said.
Lizzie puffed out her chest. Themba had passed her final test. At ten years old, Themba was two years younger, six inches shorter, and eight shades darker than Lizzie was, and she’d known him for a record three days and nine hours. That made him her best friend ever.
Themba leaned in through the access hatch to grab for another cabbage, but one of his escorts hauled him back out by the scruff of his red-and-gold kaftan. Lizzie was sure Themba would protest this time, but he ignored them as always. “You grow that stuff in here?” he asked her. “In space?”
“Yup,” Lizzie said proudly, watching the escorts inspect the hydroponic basin for traps. “Momma says there are thousands of refill stations across the Western Spiral, but only we have genuine, home-made sauerkraut — one jar for ten indo-dollars, four for thirty. I know captains who chart an extra point on their jump-charts just to take some of our kim-chi home with ‘em, yessiree.”
“You gotta tell me how to make this stuff!” Themba stuck a thumb inside the jar of sauerkraut – the escorts had already tested it – and licked the juice off. “I mean, if it’s not a trade secret or anything.”
“It’s pretty simple,” Lizzie said – though secretly, she wondered if Momma would mind her sharing. “I can show you now, if the stoops don’t get in my way.”
“Aw, they’re good eggs. Come on, fellas, give us some room. It’s been three days, it’s not like she’s going to go all homi on me now.”
The escorts squeezed reluctantly back out of the station kitchen, a convenience nook just large enough to allow two people to defrost prefabbed meals for the daily guests. Lizzie could see their muscles flex as they squatted on the aluminum cafeteria benches outside, glaring at Lizzie through the serving window.
Themba’s escorts creeped Lizzie out; they had wrinkle-free faces that never smiled. They were utterly unlike Themba, whose broad, flat-nosed face was so expressive it flickered from mischievous grins to repentant sadness in the twinkle of an eye. Themba wore colorful, flowing robes, his cornrowed hair dotted with beads; his guards wore crisp, gunmetal-gray uniforms.
“I’ve never cooked!” said Themba, rubbing his hands together at the unexpected freedom. “All my food gets brought to me. So when I’m staying with the Gineer heads of state, I’ll make sauerkraut for them. They’ll all ask, ‘Where did you learn this amazing recipe?’ and I’ll say, ‘In space.’”
“That’ll impress them?”
“You kidding? To hear that actual, grown food came from an outpost? In a system with no habitable planets? When I’m done, they’ll all be begging to live in space stations.”
“Themba, you are awesome,” laughed Lizzie. “I hope your ship’s busted forever.”
Themba blushed. “I love it here, but I need to get to my reward.”
“What’s your reward?”
“I’m gonna be – “
One of the guards stood up, so fast he banged his knee against the cafeteria tables. Themba glanced over nervously.
“It’s a secret,” he whispered. “A state secret. But it’s gonna be awesome.”
If Themba said it was awesome, Lizzie believed him. Themba was the only visitor to Sauerkraut Station who’d ever understood just how awesome her home was.
It was one of Lizzie’s duties to show their guests’ children around for the handful of hours it took Gemma and Momma to resupply their ships. Space travel was both expensive and time-consuming, so the kids were spoiled and cranky. Most wrinkled their noses and told her it stank in here, which it most certainly did not – Lizzie had lived her all her life, and she was sure she would have noticed any funny smells.
Determined to prove how glorious life in space was, she always took them on the full tour, displaying all the miracles that kept her family alive in the void.
Lizzie took them for a walk all the way around the main hallway, explaining how the central, cigar-like axis rotated to give Sauerkraut Station its artificial gravity. She told them why the station looked like a big umbrella –Lizzie didn’t know what an umbrella was, but the dirters always nodded – it was because the axis had a great, solar-paneled thermal hood on the end that shielded them from the sun. That hood simultaneously kept the heat off so they weren’t boiled alive and generated electricity to keep their servers running – a clever design that her great-great-Gemma had pioneered.
To finish, she showed them the cabbages, which took a lot of time and precious energy to grow.
“We have cabbages at home,” they yawned. “Can’t we go for a spacewalk? Or watch the ships dock?”
Of course they couldn’t go outside. Lizzie only got her first spacewalk after months of training – and considering Sauerkraut Station only entertained five ships a week during the busy season, they weren’t likely to see any other ships.
So her guests inevitably went down to press their noses against the observation deck window – the only window on the station looking outside. That baffled her; why would anyone want to look at a boring old dust belt? They didn’t even know the constellations.
Themba hadn’t wrinkled his nose.
Momma had towed Themba’s crippled ship down off the edge of the system’s gravity well. He’d entered the station with a cautious wonder bordering on reverence. And when Lizzie had showed Themba the banks of magnets that kept the worst of the radiation off, he’d asked all sorts of questions.
When she’d offered to show him the EVAC suits, which Lizzie had never done before, Themba held up his hand to stop her.
“My Dad says tourist stuff’s all the same,” he’d said. “Ships are ships. What’s important is the people who run it. What do you do for fun?”
So she’d taken him to the observation deck to point out her Daddy’s body. She told him how he orbited by once every forty-seven days, and they always held up a candle for him.
Themba saluted Lizzie’s father, real solemn and sad, like a soldier. He didn’t tell her it was creepy; instead, he asked what Daddy had been like.
So Lizzie showed him Daddy’s constellation. She traced the family shapes on the narrow, scratched porthole of the observation deck: Daddy’s bear-constellation, Gemma’s turbine-constellation, Momma’s battleship. Themba started making up his own constellations until Lizzie explained that you only got to pick your own constellation when you turned thirteen.
He stopped. She’d liked that.
So Lizzie showed him how to make wishes off the microshields, where you said a question out loud three times and if a meteoroid got zapped before you could count to thirty, your wish would come true. And by the time Themba and Lizzie were done, Lizzie’s last wish was that Themba would stay here forever.
Even though he was two years younger, he seemed older, because his Dad hauled him around the galaxy on diplomatic trips. He had lots of crazy stories. And though Lizzie wasn’t too clear on how life actually worked on a planet, Themba never got tired of answering her questions.
Which was why Lizzie would show Themba how to make sauerkraut. Maybe Momma didn’t want Themba to know; maybe it was a secret. But Themba was worth Momma’s anger.
“Okay,” Lizzie said. She put Themba’s cabbage head down on the cutting surface and reached for a knife. “You – “
One of Themba’s escorts grabbed her wrist. Lizzie cried out, dropping the knife. She looked at the cafeteria – how could they have gotten through the kitchen door that fast?
“Fellas, fellas!” Themba shouted, waving them off. “Come on, it’s a kitchen, there’s knives, what’s the problem?”
The escort kicked the knife over to the other, who examined it closely.
“You okay, Lizzie?” Themba rubbed her hand. His fingers were pleasantly warm.
“It’s fine,” Lizzie said. And really, it was. If his escorts weren’t so stupidly paranoid, they’d have let Gemma repair their ship in the mechbay instead of waiting for their own customized mechanics to arrive. And then Themba would have been gone in seven hours, not ninety-one.
“Come on,” Themba begged them. “Give me the knife.”
The escorts exchanged flat glances. Then they shoved her back into a corner, interposing themselves between Lizzie and Themba, then handed him the knife handle-first.
“I guess that’s okay,” Themba shrugged. “What do I do with this?”
“Take the cabbage,” Lizzie said, craning her head to look out from underneath the escort’s armpit. “Cut it in thirds…”
Lizzie had never taught anyone before, but even so she thought Themba was a little clumsy. He would have cut himself twice — but his escorts reached out, quick as a meteoroid, to grab the blade before it cut him.
“You’re doing well,” Lizzie said. Themba smiled. Even with the escorts in between them, it felt – well, special. It was simple work, chopping and canning, but making sauerkraut was like the metal beams that framed the station, fundamental and strong; she’d never shared that part of herself before.
“This is fun,” Themba said. “Now I put in, what? Carrots?”
Themba dumped the last of the ingredients into a plastic tub, then proudly hoisted his special sauerkraut.
“Well,” she said. “It’s gotta ferment.”
Themba bit his lip. “How long’s that take?” And when Lizzie hesitated, knowing that it was longer than they had, Themba grabbed her arm.
“Promise me you’ll keep it,” he said, looking absurdly serious. “Keep it here until I come back. Please?”
“I’ll have to hide it,” Lizzie said. “Otherwise, Momma will sell it.”
“Show me where.”
They squeezed past the escorts and darted into the tiny airlock to the fermenting chambers, which were kept on a separate circulation vent. As it was, the damp, yogurty-vinegar sour smell almost made Themba topple over.
The chambers were small and cool, stacked with giant plastic tubs that bubbled over with foam-flecked sauerkraut. Lizzie hunted for the perfect space to store Themba’s batch. His escorts bumped heads, fighting to peer through the tiny porthole.
“Come with me when I leave, Lizzie,” Themba whispered. “They don’t want you along, but I bet if I begged they’d bring you.”
Lizzie froze; it had never occurred to her that she could go anywhere else. She was going to grow up and die on Sauerkraut Station, just like five generations of Denahues before her.
“Where – where are you going?”
“I’m gonna be a hostage,” Themba said, and from the dreamy way he said it Lizzie just knew it was the best thing in the whole ‘verse. “They’ll give me the softest beds and the nicest food and all the games I want while Daddy talks to the Gineer. He says I’ll be treated like a king while he’s gone, but it could be years. It’ll be lonely. With you, we could cook, we could play VR hockey…”
Lizzie fumbled for a marker and scrawled a big “T” on the top of Themba’s tub.
“You like me that much?”
“Everyone’s all stiff where I live,” Themba said. “Grab the wrong fork at dinner, they talk for months. But you, you’re just… cool.”
Lizzie blushed as she shoved Themba’s tub underneath a pile of well-aged kraut containers. No one had ever called her cool. But now all she could think of was Momma and Gemma, and how they’d just gotten Lizzie up to speed to take her slot on this three-man station. Momma should have hired someone new to take Daddy’s place when he’d died five years back. Gemma had harangued Momma enough to get someone new, but Momma was firm: the family would get by without outsiders.
Fortunately, that was when Themba’s escorts forced their way through the airlock, running a med-scanner over Themba’s body.
For the rest of the day, Themba acted like he hadn’t said anything, but Lizzie felt like she’d eaten a sugar bar. By the time she went to bed, she was vibrating with the secret.
Momma combed Lizzie’s hair, as she always did before bedtime.
“What’s gotten into you, Elizabeth?” Momma asked. “You’re all snarls and tangles, and not just in your hair.”
Gemma had tried combing once, and even though Gemma was great with engines and cuddles, she was terrible with hair. But Momma was coolly methodical, softly tugging each snarl, and when she was done she left Lizzie with the cleanest, freest hair you could imagine. It was the most soothing feeling, being in Momma’s hands.
But ever since Daddy had launched himself into orbit, Momma had gotten brittle. Daddy’s death wasn’t Momma’s fault, Lizzie had understood that even when she was six – Daddy was just a cook, and should never have been out on the hull. But Momma had been dreadful ill thanks to a flu she’d caught from some inbound flight; Daddy had been dumb enough to try and do a woman’s job repairing air leaks, and in his haste he’d forgotten to tether himself.
Back then, Momma had hugged; now, she gave orders. The only sign of the old, loving Momma was in that careful combing, and Lizzie was afraid that if she left – or even mentioned leaving – Momma might stop combing her hair.
“You lose someone dear to you, you start making distance,” Gemma had told her. “She still loves you, but she’s terrible afraid of losing you. You gotta approach her just right, or she’ll shut down on you like a crashed server.”
Lizzie tried to think of a nice way to put it, but nothing came to mind. So she blurted it out: “Themba wants me to be a hostage.”
Momma’s brush stopped in mid-stroke. “Does he.”
Lizzie leaned back into her Momma, hoping to restart the brushing, but nothing came. So she turned around and said, “He says he wants the company.” That didn’t seem like enough reason to leave the station, so she added: “He’s my best friend, Momma.”
“I’m sure he is, Lizzie.” Momma was looking at the dented metal of the bedroom wall, like she often did these days.
“I’ll need you here,” Momma concluded. Lizzie’s heart sank — but the brush started moving through her hair again, comforting and careful. “I’ll be ordering some hydroponic prefab farms tomorrow morning; you’ll need to help install them. And it’s time you learned how to pilot.”
That was an expected bonus; she’d been bugging Mom to let her learn to fly for years, but Momma said that girls under fourteen shouldn’t fly unassisted near a dust belt. It was about as close as the new Momma came to an apology.
“That’s real nice of you, Momma,” Lizzie said politely.
“Changes are coming,” Momma replied, and kissed her on the cheek. Lizzie nearly forgotten what that felt like.
The next afternoon, Themba’s special-ordered mechanics docked at the station in a big mil-spec ship that bristled with gun ports. Lizzie had hoped that maybe it would take the techs weeks to fix Themba’s ship, but Gemma had already told her it was a simple repair; they just wouldn’t let Gemma touch it without a Level IV Gineer security clearance.
Sure enough, six hours after the mechanics arrived, Themba came to say his goodbyes. She squeezed him tight, trying to store the memory away for future nights.
“So you gonna come?” he whispered.
“I can’t. My family needs me.”
He nodded. “I thought so,” he said. “But it’s good, I guess. I’m helping my Daddy forge friendships, you’re helping your Momma stay in business. Our parents need us. That’s good, isn’t it?”
Lizzie tried to say yes, but she burst out in tears instead, and then Themba buried his face in her neck. “Come back when you’re done?”
Themba put his hand on the bright breast of his kaftan and promised that he would. And then Lizzie watched her best friend of four whole days, eighteen hours, and twenty-three minutes leave.
She hoped she’d see him again, but she doubted it. Things had a way of disappearing in space.
The guests at Sauerkraut Station told Lizzie stories of a world without maintenance. It seemed incomprehensible to Lizzie. How could a garden just spring up when you weren’t looking?
When she was younger, she’d asked the customers about these worlds, expecting that if she asked enough people then one would eventually relent and admit that yeah, it was all a lie, just like the Vacuum Vipers that Dad had told her nestled inside incautious little girls’ spacesuits, waiting to bite anyone who didn’t check their EVA suits carefully.
But no; somber businessmen and travelling artists alike assured her that yes, water dripped freely down from the air, and helper faerie-bees flew seeds into every crevice. Gemma had even taken Lizzie down to the rec room, where customers paid money to kick their feet up on one of eight overstuffed footrests and pull a rented screenmask down over their heads, to show Lizzie the videos she’d taken of her planetside adventures. It had taken some convincing before Lizzie had believed that it wasn’t a special effects trick.
What would it be like to live in a world that could get by without you? Lizzie’s world was held together by checklists of chores and maintenance. Lizzie’s world needed her.
For the first time, though, her needful world didn’t feel like enough.
In every room, she found something she’d forgotten to tell Themba. Her daily tasklist became a litany of things she should have said to Themba, a constant ache of wondering what he would have thought.
When she straightened the cramped sliding-cabinet beds of the twelve guest chambers, she would have told Themba of all the crazy things people left behind — ansibles, encrypted veindrives, even a needler-rifle once. When she re-tightened the U-bends of the shower stalls, which provided luke-warm dribbles of water to customers for a nominal fee, she thought about how Themba would have wanted to see the central heating system, would have squirmed into the central axis to look at the boiler. And her worst chore of all would have been a joy with Themba there; normally, Lizzie hated pushing all the spare part bins away from the walls of Gemma’s repair bay so she could scan the walls for metal fatigue.
But with Themba, she would have tugged up the heavy metal plate in the floor to expose the hidden compartment full of emergency supplies. Then she would have whispered about the hidden hidden compartment below that they never dared open, lest they disturb the dust at the bottom.
Then, afterwards, she and Themba and Gemma would have all clambered into the punctured ship that was crammed edgewise into the beams of the dockbay’s ceiling – that contentious collection of parts that Momma called a junker, and that Gemma insisted was a classic waiting to be restored. And Gemma would have hugged them both as she told Themba the story of Great-Gemma and the Pirates.
But that was stupid. Themba’s father had brought him to hundreds of planets. Why would he be impressed by a secret compartment? Sauerkraut was a novelty to Themba the first time — but when his hands stung from chopping a hundred heads of cabbage, would he still smile? When his shoulders ached from serving defrosted sausages and Insta-Ryz buns to six-hour guests, would he still want to stay?
Of course he wouldn’t. He had chefs now.
And when Momma’s voice boomed down from the conning tower to alert her that a new collection of guests was on its way, Lizzie took her place by the station’s airlock with new vision. Momma always told her that the guests were weary from nearly a month in the transit-ships — they wanted a happy smile, a home-cooked meal, a touch on the shoulder. Lizzie had seen them as just another chore.
Now, when the airlock hissed and let in that first blast of body-odor-and-ganja laced air, Lizzie sniffed deep. As the guests emerged, stretching their arms and looking around in blink-eyed wonder, Lizzie saw them not as chores, but as people. Where had they come from? Where they were headed to, and what would it be like to stand in those strange and beautiful places?
As she drifted off to sleep, Lizzie pressed her face against the air vent, imagining a breeze – a wind stirred by no fan, only the goodness of the world itself. And she longed, burned, to feel that wind on her skin, to feel sunshine unfiltered by glassteel faceplates.
She needed to talk to Gemma.
Gemma was busy reducing the leakage on the junker’s engine. Still, she dropped down the knotted chain ladder to invite her up into the cramped cockpit — their private talking-to space. Gemma took off her protective facemask, shook out her long gray hair, and patted the lap of her oily coveralls.
Lizzie curled up into Gemma’s hug, resting her boots on the curve of the junker’s dashboard. Momma was practical, giving Lizzie the biology-talk of why you never played doctor with the customers – but Gemma was the one who told her how Momma and Daddy had fallen in love and made Lizzie.
“Gemma,” she asked, “What was it like, when you ran away?”
“Sounds like someone has a case of Station Fever,” said Gemma. “You counted the walls yet, girl?”
“228,” said Lizzie.
“Only 228 walls in Sauerkraut Station,” Gemma nodded, clucking her tongue in sympathy. “All the walls you’ve ever seen. And each of those walls feels like it’s squeezing you. There’s gotta be someplace bigger out there, and you’re gonna die if you don’t step into it. That it?”
Lizzie nodded eagerly, feeling like Gemma had just opened an airlock inside her.
“Perfectly normal at your age,” Gemma concluded. “Is it that kid you liked?”
Gemma waved her hand in the air, like she was trying to clear away smoke. “Themba, whatever. He’s not important in the specific — for me, it was a merchant marine. Sea-green hair, storm-gray eyes, all adventure and spitfire. The important thing is that he made me think of someplace else. And then I had to go.”
“Daddy said you made your Momma furious,” Lizzie said.
“Oh, how I did!” Gemma’s titanium-gray eyes twinkled. “Left her with just my brother — a two-man crew for a three-man station. It was years before they forgave me.”
“I guess it would be mean to leave you with all that work,” Lizzie said. But Gemma planted her finger right in the center of Lizzie’s chest.
“My happiness shouldn’t enter into it, Lizzie,” she said firmly. “Only you know what’s gonna make you happy. That’s why you should go if you need to, Lizzie — you have to follow your own dreams.”
Lizzie felt absurdly grateful.
“But planets are big and careless,” Gemma continued. “I’ll tell you what I told your Momma: You get swallowed up there. There’s so much room to spare that people just wander away. They don’t need you like station folk do.
“And us spacers are fools down there, Lizzie; you’ve seen how they make us look in the VDRs. They laughed at me for recycling waste urine, for refusing to bathe more’n once a month, for jumping when the wind whistled. Eventually the loneliness ate me up inside, and I crept back home to take my licks. My family forgave me — that’s what families do — but I never forgave myself.”
Lizzie thought how easy Themba had made it seem. Gemma pursed her lips thoughtfully, then added:
“I hate to say it, Lizzie, but Themba’s probably forgotten you by now.”
“Themba would never forget me!”
Lizzie hadn’t meant to yell. Gemma just nodded wearily.
“That’s exactly what I thought about my merchant marine, ‘Lizabeth.”
Lizzie knew Gemma didn’t really mean that. Whenever Gemma talked about the nameless merchant marine who was her Momma’s pa, it was always with such a regretful fondness. It was a hurt, Lizzie could tell, but a useful hurt, like the way your muscles ached after a long day of wiping off solar panels.
But Momma must have noticed her loneliness, because within a few days the chores started racking up. Shipments of wiring and water tanks arrived, and Lizzie spent whole days in her EVA-suit tethering vacuum-safe cargo packs to the surface storage hooks.
Then one day she saw a gigantic construct-tug blotting out the stars, a ship big enough to hold whole stations inside its belly, and soon after that a ferry-trawler dragged two huge shiny new rooms towards them, gleaming in the sun. Momma explained that the new hydroponics modules were here, two new rooms and twelve new walls for Lizzie to check.
It was exciting and dangerous work, since adding any new chambers to the station’s architecture could cause any number of dangers; hull breaches, orbit eccentricity, brownouts. The last time they’d added a room was well before Lizzie was born.
“Why do we need more hydroponics, Momma?”
“We’re gonna need more independence,” Momma said. “This’ll give us extra oxygen and more food once the shortages start coming.”
“What shortages?” But Momma refused to talk about it. Gemma nodded grimly in agreement.
Prepping for the addition was a lot of work: Lizzie and Momma had to go over the hull with electrostatic rags to clear it of grit, and then pushed a layer of fresh sealant over everything so the surface was smooth and ready. Then, all three of them maneuvered the bulky units to the hull carefully so the new units almost touched — one bump might cause it to fuse in the wrong place — then clamped and vacuum-welded the metal.
Then the real welding started, which Momma wouldn’t let Lizzie do because the torches could burn through the sleeve of an EVAC suit.
Next, they filled the chambers with cheap test helium to see whether there was any leakage, which of course there was, leading to tedious sealant application. And then there was the big danger when they closed down the station for a day; they air-locked off the rest of the station, broke the vacuum-seal on the new rooms, then carefully opened up the old rooms one by one until they were sure the bond would hold and they wouldn’t lose any expensive oxygen. Lizzie’s ears popped until they pumped in enough fresh O2 to regain equilibrium.
Lizzie was exhausted, because it wasn’t like her other chores had stopped. She still had to greet the incoming guests and fill the sauerkraut vats and serve meals. At one point Lizzie fell asleep on the counter, right in the middle of serving dinner. She woke to find Momma, smiling as if she hadn’t just put in a twenty-hour day, handing plates of thawed bratwurst to grateful travelers… And Lizzie felt shamed for being so weak, even though Momma never mentioned it, that she worked triple-shifts.
When that was done, they had to prime the hydroponics — filling the circulation system with nutrient water, lining the trays with diahydro grit, planting the seedlets. They even installed locks, which was weird; the old chamber never had locks.
On the day of the new hydroponics opening, Lizzie was thrilled to find that Momma had splurged for a sugar-cake. Everyone wore the celebration hats from storage, and Momma gave Lizzie some wonderful news: Lizzie was in charge of all the hydroponics.
“You grew those cabbages better than I could,” Momma said proudly. “You got your Daddy’s native thumb.” That made Lizzie beam with pride, and she stayed up after shutdown cycle tending to the tender shoots of soybeans and oxyvines.
When she harvested her first ear of corn, she went to the observation deck and duct-taped it to the window so Daddy would see it on his next orbit.
Yet every day, she wondered what Themba was doing. She asked Momma about sending him a text, but Momma said intra-planet textbursts were expensive. All their money was tied up in the new hydroponics, anyway.
That was when the Gineer arrived.
Lizzie went to greet the incoming customers, but when the airlocks cycled, it didn’t smell of BO and pot; it stank of ozone and WD-40. She started to say, “Welcome to Sauerkraut Station, the homiest place in the stars,” like always, but as she did there was a “HUP!” from the inside and ten soldiers came tramping out in a neat line.
It was almost like a dance, the way they came out; each soldier had the same bulging foreheads of Themba’s escorts, a sure sign of vat-grown folks. And like Themba’s escorts, they wore reflective jet-blue uniforms with plastic gold piping on the shoulders, though these uniforms had a dullness to them; some of them had tiny, ragged holes.
Unlike Themba’s escorts, they clasped black needlers. They fanned out before the airlock in a triangle pattern, and when their eyes moved the tip of their rifles followed their gaze, ready to spray death at whatever they saw. Lizzie trembled as those rifle-barrels swept across her, but she locked her knees, determined not to show disrespect to a paying guest.
When they were done, they yelled “CLEAR!” The commander came striding out of the back, as calm as her troops were nervous. She was flat-foreheaded, tight-skinned as a drum, with a long rope of braided red hair tied neatly around her waist. Her suit was spotless, which could have meant she’d never seen combat, but to Lizzie that seemed unthinkable; she was thin, sharp, attendant.
The commander bowed deeply, palms touching.
“Hold no fear, little one,” said the commander. “Your reinforcements have arrived, free of charge and ready to sacrifice health for safety. Would you escort me to your mother, Elizabeth, so I might formally inform her of the transfer?”
Lizzie matched the commander’s stern politeness. But when Lizzie ushered the commander into the comm room, Momma stiffened. She stood up to her full height to greet the commander — though the top of her head barely reached the commander’s neck.
“I thank you for your assistance, commander,” Momma said. “But I also regret to tell you that we shan’t need it.”
“I think you’ll find that you will have great need of our aid in the months to come. I have tales of the depredations the Intraconnected Web have inflicted upon defenseless locales. But could I share these cautionary warnings in private, without…?” And the commander jerked her chin towards Lizzie.
“My daughter is my tertiary command structure, and is privy to all conversations,” Momma snapped back, which surprised Lizzie. “And while I appreciate what you’re trying to do, it’ll only tear us apart.”
“You know war’s been declared, Mrs. Denahue,” said the commander. “You chose your position well; you’re one of three stations that stand between the Gineer empire and the Trifold Manifest. That’s been beneficial for tourism, but when war comes – well, do you really think the Intraconnected Web will respect your home-grown capitalism?”
“Actually, it was my great-gramma chose the location,” Momma said tightly. “And you know we support the Gineer. But if you surround us with gunships, then you make us not a waypoint, but a target. The Web might respect our neutrality, they might not, but they sure as hell will shoot if you contest us. You might win that battle, but we’ll lose everything.”
“We have a new line of ships specially designed to defend stations such as this,” the commander said. “And if something happens, we’ll reimburse you for any combat losses…”
Momma barked out a laugh. “And then we’ll be known as a Gineer station, and be drawn into every war after that. No offense, commander, but you think short-term. My family’s been here for five generations; I want it here for five more. I’m not getting drawn in.”
The commander pursed her lips. “And if we decide to garrison this station?”
Lizzie didn’t know what garrisoning meant, but the intent was clear enough Lizzie froze. But Momma simply looked sad, like she did when they caught customers trying to hack free time from the VDR machines.
“It’s that desperate?” she asked. “This soon?”
“We’re confident in our chances. But it would help to take this place.”
Momma eased her hand down into her pocket, gripping something.
“My faith is in the Gineer,” she said. “But my hand is always on the self-destruct switch.”
The commander frowned, pulling new creases into pristine skin.
“Look,” Momma added quickly, thumping her left breast. “I support you folks, my heart to God. As long as you don’t go bandying it about, I’ll give you folks six percent off of any refueling costs I have, to give you an edge on that Web menace.”
“Twenty’s a lot in wartime. We could – Elizabeth, would you mind fetching the commander some sauerkraut?”
The negotiations took several hours. Momma called Gemma up to help set the terms, leaving Lizzie to serve hot dogs and kraut to the soldiers. But the soldiers didn’t relax; they ate like they expected someone to snatch it away from them at any moment, then asked for seconds.
By the time they took off, everyone was exhausted. Momma still took the time to comb Lizzie’s hair.
“I hate them,” Lizzie said. “They’re mean.”
“Who?” Momma asked, surprised. “The Gineer?”
“They were mean to you, and mean to Themba. They tried to take our home.”
“Actually, sweetie, I meant it when I said the Web are bad news. Themba’s people are no better…”
“Themba wouldn’t try to rule our station.”
Momma shrugged. “We don’t choose allies,” she said. “That’s how we weather storms. Some day you’ll understand.”
Still, Lizzie felt her hatred of the Gineer burning in her. They were cruel, cruel people, and suddenly she feared for Themba.
Over the next few weeks, traffic picked up and ships docked every day, carrying harried-looking people away from the upcoming war. Momma had to start rationing fuel.
Predictably, the Gineer started shouting when Momma said she could only spare enough fissionable material to get them to Swayback Station, a mere five systems over. And when they stopped shouting they started begging, thrusting handfuls of cash at Momma, certain that everything was for sale. But Momma couldn’t afford to stock up too heavily on any one currency.
The Web folks were disappointed, but took the news with a grim resignation. They were used to shortages.
Web or Gineer, though, every guest was desperate for food – especially when Lizzie explained that sauerkraut didn’t go bad. They bought huge jars, so Lizzie had to stay up late at night chopping more cabbage.
But the Web folks seemed disheartened at having to spend money for food; they’d sigh, their pockmarked faces faded to a pale, overmilked coffee color thanks to weeks locked inside darkened ships.
“The Intraconnected used to provide for its citizens,” they said, gesturing to their families huddled miserably behind them. “I’m a stamp-press mechanic, not a soldier! They tried to make me switch tasks. They said my children would be provided for in the unlikely event of my sacrifice – but I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk it…”
They were so polite, so peaceful, so like Themba, that Lizzie gave them extra dollops of sauerkraut.
The Gineer were pushier. Their smooth faces were plastered with makeup, men and women alike, pancaking their cheeks to hide the blemishes that had cropped up once they couldn’t get their weekly gene-treatments. Lizzie didn’t see anything wrong with a pimple, but tell that to the Gineer. They held up suitcases packed with useless stuff — gameboxes and electric hair-curlers — and lamented that this was all they could carry.
Yet in their suitcases they carried photos of their families. They were eager to tell Lizzie stories about the beautiful house they’d saved for, the beloved husband they’d negotiated so cleverly for to get their marriage authorization. They stroked the pictures with their fingers when they talked about the past, as if they were rubbing a genie’s lamp for a wish – and then told Lizzie how the house had been bombed to splinters, the husband crunched under rubble.
Lizzie tried to tell herself that the Gineer had it coming. But then she imagined losing her home, seeing her Momma dead, and her anger dissolved into pity.
“You can’t listen to their stories, Lizzie,” said Momma. “It takes too much time. We need to get them out of the station as soon as possible.”
Then there were the soldiers. Whether they were Web or Gineer, they were all lean-limbed, clean-cut, eager; they each told Lizzie how the other side had started it, and they pumped their fists at the idea of dispensing proper justice.
Lizzie bit her lip when the Gineer soldiers trash-talked the Web. Smart-mouthing was bad for business.
After a few months, a sour-looking Gineer with a bushy white mustache limped out of the airlock. His patched white suit hung in unflattering rags off his stick-thin frame. He chomped at a ganja cigar with malice, his wrinkled cheeks pulling in and out like a pump.
He sniffed the air and scowled.
“Smells like ass in here,” he said.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Lizzie shot back, forgetting to be polite. “And if there was a smell, I would have noticed.”
The man chuckled, bemused; it set Lizzie’s hackles on edge. “You vacuum rats are so superbly cute,” he said, ruffling her hair. “I’m Doc Ventrager. You must be my apprentice, Elizabeth. Inform your Momma of my presence, and update her that I shan’t physic anyone in this sauerkraut fart of a place until I get a fresh deodorizer in my quarters.”
Momma was slumped over her comm unit, half asleep. “That’s right,” she said, gulping a cup of tea. “I forgot he was arriving. It’s time you learned medicine, Lizzie; in these times, it’s good to have a sawbones handy. From now on, your spare time will be spent with Doc Ventrager.”
Lizzie nearly suffocated from the unfairness of it all. “But I was supposed to learn how to fly!”
“Circumstances have changed, and so must you, Elizabeth. Instead of paying us rent, the doc is earning his keep teaching you to set bones – and you’ll both do good business here, sadly enough. Now show him to the medbay.”
Though Lizzie had dutifully run their syscheck routines once a month, she had no idea what all of the headsets and plastic wands in the medbay actually did — but judging from the harrumphing noises Doc Ventrager made as he picked them up and slapped them back down, he wasn’t impressed. Momma stood behind him anxiously, chewing her lip. The Doc had Lizzie unlock the doors to the medicine cabinet, then peered in at the neat rows of antibiotics, opiates, and sutures.
“Well, at least that’s well-stocked,” he said.
“My great-grandma installed all this herself, after the pirates came,” Lizzie protested. “It all works.”
He flicked ash on the floor. “Thank the stars that despite their predilection for genegineering, the Gineer haven’t altered the core organs of the human body in the past century.” He turned to Momma. “Install that deodorizer and give me a free hand over pricing, and I’ll educate your offspring with these antiques.”
“Sold,” said Momma. Lizzie said nothing. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be under Doc Ventrager’s tutelage.
As it turned out, Doc Ventrager had brought his own equipment, and he expected Lizzie to carry it all for him. He pointed out where the leather satchels and tanks should go as Lizzie struggled under their weight. As she ferried them out from the ship, Doc Ventrager seemed to sum up everything that was wrong about Gineer folks — even if Ventrager’s pockmarked face meant he wasn’t exactly a normal Gineer.
The next morning, she checked the hydroponics and then went to the medlab. “Right,” the Doc said. He pointed to a tank, where child-sized things with gray, wrinkled flesh floated in a stinking green fluid. “Let’s see what you’re made of. Fish one out, deposit it ‘pon the table.”
They were so small that at first Lizzie thought they were children – and then she realized their ears and noses were funny. Lizzie ran her palm across the stiffened flesh, feeling its hard, horned hands, its antenna-like ears, the little snippet of flesh on its butt that looked like a leftover from a bad vaccuforming job.
“What are these?” she asked.
“Pigs,” said the Doc. “A lot cheaper than anatomy clones, that’s for damn sure.”
She frowned. “I thought you were supposed to teach me about humans.”
“Pig bones and organs are close enough to hum-spec for the rudiments of injury repair,” the Doc said, absent-mindedly cleaning a sharp knife on his gown. “You know how to stitch a wound? To set a bone?”
He handed her the knife. “Time you learned. Now cut.”
Doc Ventrager was a hard but efficient taskmaster; Lizzie learned that he’d spent years training girls and boys at stations all around the ‘verse.
“You’re damn lucky,” he said, after a long day treating simulated decompression injuries. “Most kids have to learn this all in theory. They can’t call me when someone’s EVA suit rips; it’d take three weeks to get there. So their first major field operation is on their dying Momma – holding her down while she’s thrashing, shrieking, soaked crimson in blood…”
Lizzie sensed the test buried in the Doc’s words; he was trying to frighten her with thoughts of her Momma. She said nothing.
The Doc nodded and took a long drag off of his reefer cigarette, blowing the sweet smoke into the room to overwhelm the “gangrenous reek” he smelled.
“But you, missy,” he said, tipping his cigar at her, “Will acquire a chance to watch the real show. By the time this conflict’s ebbed its course, you shall be qualified to teach.”
She found out what he meant when the first Gineer warship arrived, one engine nearly shot to splinters.
Gemma immediately started working up an repair estimate, but the sergeant was more interested in cornering Doc. “We received some specially withering fire in a rear-guard action,” he explained. “We had to escape before resupplying, and so several soldiers have severe infections. What’s the charge to cleanse gangrene?”
“Allow me a gander,” the Doc said, looking satisfied for the first time since Lizzie had known him. Doc walked, preening, into the ship, but Lizzie almost threw up from the smell.
Twenty soldiers rested on pallets against the wall, most with broken limbs that had healed in horrid ways. They bit down on pieces of plastic, trying not to shriek; the last of the painkillers had been used up weeks ago.
“Oh, that’s a fine mess,” the Doc said, rubbing his hands together. “The quote is one-ninety per head.”
“One-ninety?” the sergeant said. “That’s three times normal rate.”
“You possess superior alternatives?” the Doc said. “No. You do not. You can sew ‘em up now and have ‘em heal en route to the next battle… or you can keep your funds walleted and remove them from your roster. Either way’s acceptable to me.”
“Excuse me,” Lizzie said politely, ostensibly to Doc Ventrager but speaking loud enough that the sergeant could overhear her, “Don’t forget that Momma said the Gineer get eight percent off at Sauerkraut Station.”
“I never heard of that. Even if I had, it wouldn’t apply to me.”
“You’re on the station, aren’t you?”
“Goddammit,” he said. “I will speak with your Momma.” But didn’t; instead, he went down to one-seventy. Lizzie felt a malicious price at seeing the Doc’s greed quashed.
And she felt pride when she cleaned her first batch of wounds. Though she’d drained pus on the dead pigs, Lizzie hadn’t been sure how she’d take to it once she was working on live men. Judging from the sergeant’s pleased reactions, she did a fine job.
The Doc grumbled at having to work for such low rates, snarling at everyone like their injuries were their own damn fault. “You went to war,” he snapped. Lizzie, on the other hand, tried to be nicer, even if they were stupid, Themba-hating soldiers.
More ships came in, Web and Gineer alike, each carrying loads of injured people, so fast that Lizzie almost forgot to tend to the hydroponics. She diagnosed complications arising from welding burns, set broken legs from failed rig-drops, irrigated chemical lung-burns, treated vacuum explosions. When she rinsed off the cabbages, flecks of blood washed off her hands.
She wanted to take pleasure in the Gineer soldiers’ agony, telling herself that it was just punishment for picking on the Web. But all soldiers screamed when they were hurt, and when they were dying they all wanted to talk to their Momma or their brother or their husband. They all wanted to see their families one last time.
Lizzie cried so much, she felt like her whole body was drying up. But never in front of the soldiers.
Momma combed her hair, told Lizzie how proud she was. “But you have to get the Doc to work faster, Lizzie,” she said. “They have to be out the next day.”
Lizzie hated letting down Momma, but if she rushed Doc Ventrager then people died. When she was alone, she squeezed her fists tightly enough to leave half-moon cuts in the palms of her hands.
After a few months of surgical assistance, the Doc handed off the minor operations to Lizzie. The Doc made it clear that even though she was doing doctor duties now, any profits from her surgeries went to him. That was better; surgery was like any other repair work. You took care, and measured twice before cutting once. The fact that she’d spent four hours a day in surgery for the past five months helped – and now she could go at her own speed.
Still, the soldiers always panicked when the twelve-year-old girl hooked them up to the anesthetizer. She reassured them that this was nothing, just removing a slug buried next to a lung, she’d done it twenty times before. And if they struggled against the straps, their fellow soldiers laughed and said, hey, man, haven’t you heard about the Angel of Sauerkraut Station? Settle down, man, she makes miracles.
But no matter how busy things got, every night Momma brushed Lizzie’s hair.
“Those ships are deathtraps, Momma,” she complained, anguished. “There’s no supplies; they get cooped up in there, stew in their own disease. Why don’t they just build one big ship with a medlab?”
“One atomic bomb would take it out,” she said. “Or heck, one kamikaze run. Spaceships are fragile, interconnected — like bodies, really. The more chambers you add, the more possibility that one hit ripples across all of them.”
Momma pursed her lips in disapproval. “Little ships are easy to churn out, Lizzie. They let you land soldiers across a wider area. They’re built cheap and disposable, to carry cheap and disposable cargo.”
A thought occurred to Lizzie. “We’ve had ships full of Web soldiers,” she said. “And ships full of Gineer.”
Momma smiled in approval. “You noticed.”
“But never at the same time.”
“Interstellar ships are very slow,” she said. “The chances of two enemy fleets showing up on the same day are slim.”
“But if they did?”
Momma kissed Lizzie on the head. “Why do you think I’ve been riding you so hard to get everyone out of the station?”
That thought kept Lizzie up at nights. But not for too long, because between the surgeries and the sauerkraut and the hydroponics, Lizzie was working eighteen-hour days. She slept deep.
She couldn’t sleep long, though; the station was so packed with folks that their groans kept her awake. They slept fitfully in the hallways, with their heads on their backpacks, and when they woke it was always with a scream. And when she woke, startled, Lizzie smelt the fresh stench of infected wounds, body odor, and – yes, there it was – sauerkraut wafting through the vents. Its briny scent was stark against all the other recycled smells.
The Doc was right. Sauerkraut Station did smell. She hated him for revealing that. And she hated the way he kept raising his prices.
“I possess a mere two hands,” he said after sending another Web soldier back to her doom. “As such, my time’s at a premium.”
“It’d take you one hand and three minutes,” Lizzie shot back. “All that girl needed was a proper implantation of bowel sealant.”
Lizzie was surprised at how blunt she was with Doc – but she was doing half the work these days, and most of the trickier stuff.
Doc just looked irritated. “Why shouldn’t I make it worth my while?” he asked. “I’m an old man. War’s the only time I can fill my coffers.”
“I have to tend to the hydroponics,” Lizzie said, snapping off her surgical gloves. She made her way down to the lounge where the wounded Web soldiers keened. Their sergeants fed them watered-down painkillers – which wouldn’t stop their ruptured bowels from flooding their bodies with infection.
They were all bald, dark-skinned. It was like seeing a row of Thembas, sweating in agony.
“Hush,” she said, kneeling down, taking the stolen hypodermic of sealant out from under her shirt. “I’ll fix you.”
The look in their eyes was so pathetically grateful that it would be worth Momma’s anger.
The Doc had dragged Lizzie to the comm tower by her ear.
“The girl’s undercutting me!” he cried to Momma. “She’s working for free! The Web soldiers are waiting for her to treat them!”
Lizzie stood tall, ready for the slap. Momma had only hit her twice in her life, both times for being careless around vacuum — but she’d never disobeyed anyone so flagrantly before.
Instead, a curl of a smile edged around Momma’s mouth.
“It’s free work,” she said. “She’s an apprentice, no?”
Doc’s face flushed. “Yeah – but…”
“She’s getting extra medical practice in. That’s why I brought you on board, you remember – to teach her?”
“Not at my expense! I didn’t come here to get into competition, goddammit – I arrived with the intent of a monopoly!”
“I never promised you’d be the only doctor here,” Momma said coolly. “I promised you free room and board as long as you served as a doctor. Check your contract.”
“That’s letter of the law,” the Doc snapped. “That’s planetary talk. I deserve better than – “
“I’ve been quite happy with your service here, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said, cutting him off. “But if you’re not satisfied, there’s no time frame to your contract.”
Doc Ventrager’s hands twitched, as though he was thinking of taking a swing at Momma. Momma’s hand dropped to her taser.
“Fine,” he said, biting down so hard on his cigar that it snapped in half. “I hereby proffer you my summary resignation.”
“Best wishes, Mister Ventrager,” Momma said pleasantly to the Doc as he stormed out of the comm room.
Lizzie stepped forward to wrap her arms around Momma, but Momma looked suddenly solemn. “Well, Lizzie,” she said. “You’re the ship’s doctor, now. Are you ready?”
Lizzie wasn’t sure. But she realized she hadn’t left herself another choice.
The irony was that within weeks, Lizzie was charging prices as bad as Doc Ventrager’s. But that wasn’t her fault; there just wasn’t the medicine.
The trade routes had dried up. The freighters told her that pirates and privateers were running rampant. Both Web and Gineer officials complained bitterly whenever the pirates struck — but everyone knew that the pirates were only allowed to operate if they gave a cut to their sponsoring government, and the privateers carried brands authorizing them to steal.
Thankfully, after what Great-Gemma had done to them long ago, the pirates wouldn’t touch Sauerkraut Station. But Momma wondered how long that age-old story would keep the pirates at bay – especially now that things were getting desperate.
Meanwhile, Lizzie bargained hard on the rare occasions she found a merchant with a case of Baxitrin or Rosleep. She got it for what passed for a good price these days. Lizzie hated sending poverty-stricken soldiers off with untreated wounds, but Lizzie found it was easier to set a price and refuse anyone who couldn’t pay. When Lizzie chose who to subsidize that week, it made her responsible for the dead.
Food was scarce, too. The Web soldiers told rumors of other refill stations staffed by skeletal families, reduced to trading away fissionable materials in exchange for a case of protein bars. Lizzie tended to the vegetables in the hydroponics chambers with extra-special care, grateful for Momma’s planning.
Occasionally, Lizzie stun-tagged hungry soldiers who pried at the food chamber locks – mostly Gineer scoundrels, as she’d expected. She lectured the Web troopers, though, sending them back thoroughly ashamed.
Fortunately, there were fewer ships. The war seemed to be spreading out. But the soldiers were getting meaner.
In the beginning, they’d all been fresh-faced and kind, talking about home with a wistful attitude; these new soldiers’ faces were hidden under grizzled beards and puckered scars. All they talked about was war.
The Gineer soldiers shouted at her because this God-damned dry waste of a station had no alcohol to buy. The Web yelled because where had the Angel of Sauerkraut Station been when Ghalyela took a bullet to the head?
Lizzie tried to be nice, but “nice” just seemed to slide right off of them. They’d lost something vital out there.
Both sides threatened her when Lizzie tried to explain that she they had to pay for the Baxitrin. The Web grumbled, but the veterans were quick to explain that this was the Angel of Sauerkraut Station; Lizzie had done work for free, back when she could. They pulled their friends away with an apology.
The Gineer soldiers, however, had only known her as Doc’s assistant. And Doc Ventrager’s cruelty had become legendary.
“I can give you a six percent discount,” she always explained, looking as wide-eyed and kid-startled as she could. “But there’s just not enough to go around. You understand, don’t you?”
That worked until a soldier with a head wound took a swing at her.
Fortunately, Momma taught her how to use a stun gun back when she was six. Lizzie pressed her back against the wall as the other eight wounded soldiers looked dully at the twitching man on the ground, then looked at Lizzie as she frantically tried to reload her stunner –
Finally they laughed, a scornful mirthless cough of a thing.
“Punked by a kid,” they chuckled, helping their friend up. “No wonder this asshole needs medical attention.”
They joked about how maybe Freddie could get beaten up by a teddy bear for an encore. But not a one of them seemed to think there was anything wrong with trying to beat up Lizzie.
Shaken, Lizzie worked on that whole troop for free, handing out precious supplies like they were sauerkraut.
She’d apologized to Momma for using up so much medicine at a net loss. Momma just hugged her. Lizzie froze with the newness of it all; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d smelled Momma’s hair.
“It’s getting bad,” Momma agreed. “If I could, I’d install a deadman’s switch to dump knockout gas into the chambers to keep you safe, but…”
“Nobody has any,” Lizzie finished.
“It could be worse,” Momma said, putting the best face on it. “Imagine what would have happened if Doc Ventrager had stayed.”
Still, Lizzie alternately hated herself for being paranoid, then hated the station for requiring paranoia. Lizzie counted the people in the hallways now, moved quickly from room to room so she’d never be too outnumbered; she squeezed her taser’s rubberized grip until the bare metal poked through. She sighed with relief every time they got the latest batch of ships out beyond the Oort cloud.
She was trying to catch up on sleep before the next patrolship of soldiers arrived, when she woke to a sizzling pop. Her hair rippled; a soft current buzzed through her. The vent next to her bed puffed stale ozone and wheezed to a halt.
When she opened her eyes, there was nothing to see. Did that current blindme?
Then she heard the awful silence, a void so utterly complete it took a moment to put a name to it:
The motors had stopped.
There were no creaks from the gyros, no hiss of water through the pipes, no hum from the meteoroid shields. It was the sound of space, a horrid nothing, dead and empty in a place that should have a million parts moving to keep her alive.
“Momma?” She tried to yell, but her mouth had gone dry.
Lizzie fumbled at the latches of her emergency supply case to get a flashlight, banging her knees. This is a mechanical failure, she told herself; we’ll get this fixed, and everything will be fine. Except there was no light reflected down the hallways. The walls were shiny metal, each room normally ablaze with control panels and LEDs; she saw not a glimmer.
She clicked the flashlight on. The LED stayed dark.
“Momma!” This time, it was a shriek.
“Circuit-friers!” came Gemma’s voice, echoing from down the hall. “Gotta be pirates – goddammit, nobody’s supposed to use those on civilian targets!”
“Our systems are toast, Lizzie,” Momma yelled from the control tower. “Even the self-destruct’s dead. I’m going for the box.”
“What box?” Gemma asked, her voice sharp. “Oh – no, love, too soon. Don’t show your hand before we hear what they have to say.”
Lizzie swallowed back bile. She reached out and wandered forward, hoping to hug Gemma, but without light the echoes in the hallways went every which way.
There was the dull clank of hull bashing hull. Lizzie was flung into the opposite wall. That wasn’t a gentle docking, when computers guided you in with micromovements; this was manual dock, a hard impact that crushed airlock collars and risked depressurization. The central gyros creaked in protest.
Lizzie tried to make her way to the conn tower, but everything was jumping around in the dark. She followed the walls as best she could, but the distances seemed infinitely large. All the while Gemma yelled stay calm, we can talk…
More clanking. A hiss. She wasn’t by the conn tower, she’d blundered to the airlock. She turned and ran, but a set of white-hot flashlight beams skittered along the walls, targeting her. Something exploded against the wall, sending slivers of shrapnel into her legs –
“It’s a kid!” someone yelled. “No fire! No fire!”
Someone grabbed her shoulders, wrenched her arms behind her back. Just before they pulled the hood over her head, she saw the camo-green uniform of a Web soldier.
The Web searched the halls with IR detectors, looking for other guests. Gemma, Momma, and Lizzie sat in the cafeteria with their hands crossed primly on their laps, pointedly not looking at the soldiers who aimed needle-jets at their hearts.
When the soldiers smashed the locks off the kitchen cabinets, it hurt Lizzie like a blow; she’d installed those locks. Momma winced, too. Lizzie wanted to protest as the gaunt soldiers reached in with skeletal hands and chomped the raw cabbages with glee, but she didn’t dare. In the harsh glare of the portable spotlights, the soldiers assigned to guard them looked envious and angry; they couldn’t keep their eyes off of the dancing shadows in the next room, where food was being wolfed down. And when they looked at Lizzie and Gemma and Momma, who were skinny but not emaciated like they were, their dark brows narrowed.
The commander, a leonine black woman with gray streaks in her hair, walked in. “Place is clear,” she said to the guards. “Get in there and get your bellies full. I’ll talk to our newest citizens.”
The commander had the ketone-scented breath of a starving woman, yet she pulled up a chair as though she had all the time in the world.
“Muh – maybe you should eat first,” Lizzie said.
The commander smiled and stroked Lizzie’s hair. Her touch was light, delicate, comforting; a mother’s touch.
“Bless you, child,” she said. “I’m afraid that yes, we will be eating your food. That’s a philosophy you’re going to have to learn.”
Momma scowled. “I take it the war’s not going well.”
“We’re staging a tactical retreat. This way-station has been useful, but at this stage we can’t afford it to benefit our enemy. If we just leave you here, you’ll give our enemy fissionables, food – we can’t have that.”
Behind her, her soldiers looted the kitchen. The new arrivals dug into the tubs of sauerkraut with both hands, shoving their mouths full of shredded cabbage with a fierce and frightening satisfaction. The ones with full bellies had begun toting the remaining food supplies back to the airlock, moving quickly.
“We won’t give them anything,” Lizzie begged. “We’ve been rooting for you, we don’t want to help those awful Gineer…”
The commander smiled wearily. “I know you mean that, child, but you can’t enforce it. Refuse to sell it, and they’ll take it. They’re as desperate as we are. We can’t afford to leave you here.”
“So you’re going to kill us?” Momma asked, putting her arm around Lizzie.
“Despite the Gineer propaganda, we’re not barbarians,” the commander snapped. “My troops will strip this outpost to bare metal – but we’ll take you with us. We’ll escort you to the nearest free Web holding where you’ll be safe.”
“In between combat missions? That could take years,” Gemma said.
“The Web’s more efficient than you give us credit for. The good news is that we’ll consider your ship’s materiel your entry fee to the Intraconnected Collective – you’re citizens now. It’ll be a better life, child; no more worrying about air, food, or clothing.” She ruffled Lizzie’s hair, as though to prove what a wonderful world it would be. “Just as you provided for us today, we will provide for you. I’ll personally recommend you for a surgeon’s career when you hit planetfall.”
Lizzie felt like she’d been punched in the chest. She’d had dreams about leaving, yes — but that left Sauerkraut Station where she could come back to it. The commander was talking about forced relocation, putting her in a place full of strangers, and taking everything she’d loved as payment.
The soldiers smashed in the door to the fermentation chamber. Momma and Gemma blinked back tears. Lizzie knew why; Momma had installed that airlock when she was Lizzie’s age, the first time Gemma had trusted her with the welder.
Everything in this station was her birthright, purchased by one Denahue and installed by another. The Web would take away this history to give her someone else’s hand-me-downs. And everything that five generations of Denahues had built would be so much floating debris.
Choking back tears, Lizzie watched as the soldiers hauled the tubs of sauerkraut out – and then she saw it.
A small container with a scrawled “T.”
“NOT THAT ONE!” Lizzie yelled, leaping off the bench before anyone could stop her.
She tackled the soldier, sending a stack of tubs clattering to the floor; she clutched Themba’s sauerkraut and to her chest.
The commander bent her wrists back to make her let go; another soldier took it away. “THAT’S THEMBA’S!” she yelled. “YOU CAN’T HAVE THAT ONE! I HAVE TO SAVE IT FOR HIM FOR WHEN HE – HE COMES BACK – ”
Lizzie was already sobbing as the commander carried her back to the table, dropping her into Momma’s arms.
“I understand the challenges of parenting,” the commander said stiffly to Momma. “And your daughter’s proven herself an ally. But you will settle her down, or it’s the cuffs.” She unholstered a pair of handcuffs, swung them lightly off the end of one finger.
Momma stroked Lizzie’s hair, hugging her tight. Lizzie cried until Themba’s container was out of sight – and then a thought occurred to her.
“Could you at least relocate us to Themba’s house?” she asked. “He’s my best friend.”
The commander hesitated. “A Web citizen was your best friend? Is that why… why you were the Angel?”
“Oh yes,” Lizzie gushed. “We played together for four whole days. He asked me to come with him — he’ll be glad to show me around his home, I just know it.”
“It’s – an unusual request…”
“Please,” she begged. She looked to Momma for support, but Momma and Gemma were studying the tops of their boots. “If I can be with Themba again, it’s… okay.”
“I can’t promise. But… Themba’s a common name. If Can you give me more details?”
“He was a hostage.”
The commander flinched. The handcuffs fell to the floor.
Gemma let loose a choked cry. Momma reached over, and both Momma and Gemma were crying now, and that scared Lizzie worse than anything.
“Sweetie…” The commander reached out to take Lizzie’s hands. “We gave our innocent sons to the Gineer as a token of our good will. We thought showing them our beautiful children would help them deal in good faith.
“And… when the Gineer broke the treaties, they probably shot the hostages. That’s how hostages work.”
Betrayed, Lizzie looked to Gemma and Momma. “You knew?”
“She said ‘probably,’ love,” Gemma said, sniffling. “We did news-scans, but never found his name…”
Lizzie felt the tears on her cheeks before she realized she was crying again, huge whoops of pain that seemed to erupt from her like air squirting into vacuum. She’d been holding everything in, all the anguish of the war, and now that everything was lost she was flying apart into nothing, nothing at all.
“We’ll find someplace good for you,” the commander promised. Lizzie slapped her.
“You killed everything!” she shrieked. “You made everything dead!”
The commander touched her fingers to her swelling cheek in disbelief. Behind her, her soldiers froze; they cradled the sauerkraut containers awkwardly, not sure whether to keep moving or go for their guns.
Momma, her arms protectively around Lizzie, glared them all down.
“You’ve taken everything from her, now,” she said. “Every last illusion. Will you take her home from her, too? Is that who you are?”
“You’d die!” the commander shot back, exasperated. “Your circuits are blown. And the Gineer are hot on our heels — so we can’t leave you with fissionables, or food, or medical supplies. We have to leave now, and all you’ll have left is a metal tube with a puff of air. Would you rather die in space than live in the Intraconnected Commonwealth?”
Lizzie turned to Momma, wondering what she’d say – but was surprised to find Momma was waiting for her answer. And even though Momma’s face was patient and kind, Lizzie could see it in Momma’s eyes:
Momma would rather die here.
She had spent forty-three years in Sauerkraut Station. Here, she was a commander; in the collective, she’d be a quirky neighbor. Brought to dirt, Momma would become the stereotypical planetfaller that was the butt of every VDR comedy’s joke: terrified of the outdoors, obsessively closing every door behind her, frozen by the overwhelming choices at supermarkets. Laughed at by everyone.
Yet Momma’s gaze told the truth: I would endure all of that. For you.
Lizzie thought about that, then gripped her mother’s hand. Her Momma gripped Gemma’s hand. Three generations of Denahues turned to face the commander.
“This is our home,” said Lizzie.
The Web troops left, burying them in black. In the darkness, Momma and Gemma hugged her tight.
“You’re a true Denahue,” Momma said, wetting Lizzie’s neck with tears.
“You did us proud, Lizzie,” Gemma assured her, enfolding them both inside her strong, stringy arms.
“But I’m gonna die a Denahue,” Lizzie said. “We’re gonna suffocate inside a tin can…”
Momma sighed, a warm stream of breath that rustled Lizzie’s hair. “We got hope, Lizzie. Not a lot, but some.”
“What do you mean?”
Gemma took Lizzie by the hand and they fumbled their way carefully to the mech-bay. She placed Lizzie’s palms at the back of the now-empty hidden storage crèche.
“Tell me, Lizzie,” Gemma said, her voice wavering. “I know they found the hidden compartment. But did they find the double-blind?”
The hidden hidden compartment! Lizzie had forgotten. And as she ran her hands along it, she whooped in happiness as she realized it was unopened.
“I guess it’s still there,” Momma said. “Now we’ll see if the shielding held.”
“It’s shielded,” Gemma said firmly. “My Momma made sure of that.”
“She couldn’t test it, though,” Momma replied. “How could she, without frying the station? And we haven’t checked the integrity of the backup hardware – well, since Lizzie was born, at least.”
Gemma was unconcerned. “Momma stored stuff to last.”
Lizzie’s sweaty hands unbolted the last of the secret latches. She tossed the panel aside with a clatter. Come on, she thought, running fingertips around the edge of what felt like an emergency supply box. She grabbed at what felt like a flashlight.
A blue flicker illuminated the mechbay.
“Goddammit, yes!” Lizzie cried, and Momma didn’t even cluck her tongue at the swearing.
The light was thin, barely enough to pierce the gloom, but Lizzie aimed it into the cramped cabinet. Fit neatly like a puzzle was a set of oxygen tanks, two backup servers, a case of shielded fissionables, a set of power tools, a month’s supply of food, and a full meteoroid shielding kit. Lizzie let out another whoop and turned to hug Momma.
Momma pushed her away, looking grim.
“Sweetie,” she whispered. “We’re still probably gonna die.”
Lizzie shivered. It was the truth.
The worst part about Momma and Gemma leaving was that Lizzie couldn’t even wave goodbye. She stood on the other side of the welded door, doing the math one last time. Math was all she’d been doing for the last ninety-four hours, and the end results were merciless.
As a rough guideline, Lizzie knew the average human exhausts the oxygen in about 500 cubic feet of air per day. There were three of them. The station had 99,360 cubic feet of air, not counting airlock losses. Since the oxyscrubbers were fried along with everything else, that gave them two months before they suffocated on CO2.
They did not have two months’ worth of food.
Lizzie had begged hard, and the commander had left them with two weeks’ worth of rations. There had been a year’s supply of protein bars stored in the double-blind, but mold had crept in and gnawed most of it into a dry, inedible fuzz. Their water supplies were even worse: a mere thirty gallons.
And even that didn’t matter unless they could get the meteoroid shield back up and running. Without that, as Gemma so colorfully put it, this place would be a tin shack on a firing range. Their first order of business was to get that running — which took twenty sleepless hours. (Thankfully, as Gemma pointed out, great-great-Gemma was wise indeed, spending the extra money for a shield that could be completely swapped out without ever leaving the ship’s confines.)
When they were done, Momma and Gemma collapsed into a four-hour nap that had to keep them awake for thirty, but Lizzie had an idea. She felt her way out in darkness, conserving the power on her flashlight.
As she stepped out of the bunk room, she bonked her head against the door frame.
The station’s gravity was artificial, created by a near-frictionless rotating drum; judging from the new creaks the station had acquired and then lessening gravity, Lizzie judged the impact of the Web ship must have crushed something inside, creating drag. A few days, and there would be no gravity at all.
Yet another deadline.
Lizzie carefully bobbed like a balloon down to the hydroponics room, then dunked her hands in the growing chambers.
Her wrists were engulfed in cold, moist sand.
She sighed with relief. The Web had drained the water tanks, but they hadn’tremoved the water in the diatomaceous earth. Lizzie didn’t know how much water was there precisely, but it was enough to feed the roots of seven hundred square feet of plants. All she had to do was filter the silt out with a bedsheet and a bucket before the gravity stopped.
The next day, they looked at Gemma’s salvage ship, stuck so high in the rafters and looking so damaged that the Web had left it behind. Gemma ran a quick test; a lot of it was fried, but the junker’s older circuits weren’t as finicky as the newer installs.
“Say it,” Gemma crowed.
Momma lowered her head. “It was a good idea to keep the junker, Momma.”
The junker had been designed for short hops out to the edge of the solar system, but in a pinch Gemma could rig it for cross-system travel… Assuming that there were enough supplies in the double-blind. Assuming that a jury-rigged drive wouldn’t conk out in mid-jump, leaving them drifting through empty space – Lizzie knew the junker was already a hot zone, leaking scandalous amounts of waste energy.
Then Lizzie thought about how crowded it was in there when it was just her and Gemma cuddled inside the spaceship. She pictured all three of them there crammed in there, plus the food and water to feed them, the oxyscrubbers straining under a triple load –
Even if, as Momma pointed out – if – they successfully made the jump to Swayback Station, there was no guarantee the Web hadn’t stripped Swayback as well. Lizzie pointed out it was a leap hubward, away from Web territories – but Momma retorted that fissionable material had already been scarce. There was no guarantee the Swaybacks, rumored to be a particularly mercenary family, would lend them fissionables for the week-long jump to Mekrong planetfall.
And Mekrong? Did Mekrong have the supplies to refit Sauerkraut Station? If they did, could Momma afford to buy it?
A single missed link meant either death or bankruptcy. Out here, the two were pretty much one and the same.
“And even if we could all squeeze in there,” Momma agonized, putting her face into her hands, “We couldn’t. The Web were fleeing a pursuing force. That means the Gineer will probably be here soon – we already know they wanted our station. If we all stay here and wait for help, the Gineer aren’t any more likely to help us out than the Web was. But if all three of us leave, the Gineer can jump our claim and refurbish our station for their needs.”
“That’s not a bad thing, staying behind,” Gemma mused. “The station’s not comfortable, but it’s stable. We got a working distress beacon in the closet. They’ll hear it.”
“No guarantee they’ll stop, though,” Momma said. “Not in war. Not for a dead station.”
“True,” Lizzie said. “But I bet they’d stop for a little girl.”
The silence was punctuated only by the groans of the ship’s axis slowing.
“Don’t say that, Lizzie.” Momma’s voice was hoarse.
“I have to, Momma,” Lizzie replied, feeling light-headed but oddly sure. “You can take two weeks’ supplies on the ship with you – that gets you to Swayback. And two people have to go to Swayback – without our usual bankfeed to draw from, one of you might have to stay behind at the station as insurance. And someone has to stay here, or we might just as well have traded our station to the Web. The math says one person stays.”
“That’s me,” she said, her voice only trembling a little bit. “I’m smaller than you. I eat less, I breathe less. Leave me with all the protein bars and the water in the sand, and I bet I could last for – for three, maybe four months. Someone’s sure to come before then.”
Lizzie tried to sound more certain than she was. Her plan assumed that nothing further went wrong with the station. That Lizzie didn’t go crazy from being cooped up in a lightless ship. That the soldiers who answered her distress call weren’t soldiers who thought it was okay to beat up a little girl. But Lizzie’s future was a teetering stack of uncertainties; this plan was the best of a bad batch.
Momma argued fiercely for a time – so furiously that Lizzie realized that Momma had already considered this plan. She just hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. And when Momma was forced to admit there was no other way, Momma squeezed her tight and wept. It was only the second time Lizzie had seen Momma weep since Daddy had died, and both times in the same day, and that scared her to the core.
Momma took Lizzie in her lap and combed her hair one last time while Gemma finished soldering the junker into shape. “You know I love you, right?”
Lizzie did, but it was good to hear it now. She buried her face in her mother’s chest, trying to inhale Momma’s scent so deeply it would carry her through blackness and terror. All her life, Momma had always been just a couple of rooms away; now, Momma was going to be systems away, crossing the void in a half-dead ship, and Lizzie would have no way of knowing what happened.
“Maybe I should have gone to planetfall,” Momma muttered, rubbing her hands on her pants. “Maybe I should have – ”
That questioning was the most terrible thing of all. Momma never doubted.
“It’s okay,” Lizzie said. “Daddy’s out there. He’ll protect me.”
Momma looked sad, and then desperate, and then she floated with Lizzie to the observation window — the only native source of light in the whole station now — and spread her fingers across the scratched window.
Momma said other things before she left, but that was what Lizzie remembered: the terrifying fear and love as Momma said a silent prayer to Daddy, the stars reflected her eyes.
Without electricity, the airlocks didn’t work. So Lizzie said her goodbyes, and then pressed her ear to the wall as Momma and Gemma welded themselves behind a door, then started up the ship, then rammed through a weakened hatch and into space. The only confirmation she had of their leaving was the hollow metal thoom that resounded through the station walls.
She prayed they’d make it. But whether they were alive or dead, for the first time in her life, Lizzie was alone.
Back when they’d had guests, Lizzie had bragged how even if all the servers crashed irrevocably, Sauerkraut Station would still remain a livable environment until rescue could arrive. The thermal hood that covered the axis like a great, trembling umbrella was the brilliant part of Great-Great Gemma’s design. It intercepted all the solar emanations that might otherwise cook the axis, transmitting both heat and electricity back into the station. It was an elegant design that required little monitoring, and no complicated circuitry; the core of the station’s axis served as a boiler room, keeping the station heated to human-habitable temperatures even in the deep cold of space.
But, Lizzie thought after the first day, it made for lousy viewing.
She pressed her nose against the observation deck window, looking for signs of Momma and Gemma. It was suffocatingly black; the thermal hood blocked all the sunlight, leaving Lizzie to strain her eyes to the faint illumination of reflected starlight. The only real light came from the sporadic purple bursts of the meteoroid shields zapping another microparticle.
Yet that was the only place that had any light. The rest of the ship, quite sanely, had no weak points to expose to the sucking vacuum outside. Every corridor was a lightless prison.
On the first day, Lizzie had to dare herself not to turn on her flashlight.
She hugged the hard plastic to her chest, shivering. For the first time in her life, nobody would answer if she called out for help. The emptiness of the station seemed to have its own personality – a mocking smirk, hidden in darkness.
By the time Lizzie half-skipped, half-floated up to the observation deck on the second day – at least she thought it was the second day, it was hard to tell without the usual lightcycles – the observation deck was tinged with a strange glow. It was her eyes adjusting, she knew that, but the deck felt like the ship’s lights during a brownout.
Part of Lizzie wanted to stay at the observation deck all the time. A wiser part understood that if she stayed there in the light, eventually she’d be too terrified to venture back down into the chill void of Sauerkraut Station’s hallways – and so she forced herself, trembling, back to where the water supplies and her bed and the repair kits were.
On the fifth maybe-day, Lizzie almost died.
The gravity had finally dropped to near-zero, and she’d let go of the doorway to push herself off the wall. But in the darkness, she’d misjudged her foot position, and instead of kicking off into space, she just stomped on empty air.
Lizzie tried to whirl around, to get ahold of something — but flailed and touched nothing but air. She knew she must be drifting, slowly, down the middle of the main corridor, towards the observation deck. But she could see nothing; this deep into the station, there was no difference between having her eyes open and her eyes shut.
From here, the observation deck was an eighth of a mile away.
How fast had she been going when she let go? It couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches a minute. She was drifting, slowly, like a speck of dust, down the middle of a long and empty hallway.
Lizzie shrieked. Her voice echoed back, colder and shriller, as if the station itself was throwing her words back at her. She punched, she clapped, she frog-kicked, hoping to feel the pain of her hands smashing against metal. Her hands only slapped the globs of water hanging in the air.
There was nothing to push off of. There was no way to get free.
“MOMMA!” she shrieked. “GEMMA!”
Lizzie saw it all in her mind; she was drifting down the dead center of the hallway, slow as syrup. She’d eventually brush up against the gentle curve of the western wall — but that might take weeks.
She might starve before her body bumped metal.
She pictured her dead body ragdolling slackly against the wall and rebounding, just another dead thing floating in a dead ship. The doc had told her what happened to dead men when they rotted…
She was still screaming, but now she was shrieking at the stupid Web. “I ROOTED FOR YOU!” she said. “I TRUSTED YOU! AND NOW YOU LEFT ME TO DIE, YOU STUPID… STUPID IDIOTS! I HOPE YOU ALL DIE LIKE ME IN YOUR HORRIBLE WAR!”
Then she realized it was only five days maybe five days and Momma hadn’t thought the Gineer would show for weeks and she was going to die and bounce around this ship.
Lizzie didn’t know how long she hung there, yelling like a madwoman; it felt like hours. But after too long a time it finally occurred to her: silly, just take off your clothes. And once she flung her shoes away, that gave her enough motion to thump against a doorway a minute or two later.
It was a childish mistake, the kind of thing Daddy would have laughed at her for. But the panic of that moment never left her. From then on, she strapped herself to the bed when she slept, and she always carried a small canister of oxygen so she could jet herself to safety.
Without gravity, going to the bathroom was an abominable chore, a filthy thing that contaminated the very air. The air stank of human waste and rotting sauerkraut. That made eating a precursor to horror, so she ate only when she grew faint from hunger. She stopped going to the observation deck because floating through the hallway’s splatters made her sick.
All she wanted to do was stay in bed. But what would happen to her muscles?
Things started to coalesce from the blackness.
At first it was little sparkles here and there, but the sparkles turned into constellations, and then firespark-white lines connected the dots to turn them into great silver airlocks. The airlocks hissed open. And as Lizzie pushed her way past the glowing doorways, she glided into a vast hydroponics chambers, the skies ribbed with water-pipes hissing down clean cool rain.
She looked down, and her fingertips brushed across waxy, familiar goodness; rows of cabbages floated below her. The cabbages danced joyfully, a strange and careful motion like two ships docking. Thousands of pale green heads bobbed beneath her fingers, like little men bowing.
She saw a flash of braided brown hair.
“Themba!” she cried.
“Play,” said Themba, his voice just as full of joy and life as always, and as his cornrowed skull dipped under the dancing cabbages, she realized that Themba was playing hide and seek with her. She launched after him, laughing — and rammed into a cabinet.
As she shook off the sting of it, the blackness swallowed her up.
She tried to tether herself to the bed, but in the darkness she heard scuttlingthings coming for her. She felt fine hairs brushing against her skin, hoping to find an anchor on her flesh to drill deep.
She shrieked, and the walls of the station fell away, and she was walking on the panels of the outside hull.
Daddy walked with her.
His desiccated hand was all rattly inside his punctured spacesuit, but he held her wrist like they were going for a walk around the corridors back in the good old days. Lizzie didn’t have a suit, but that didn’t matter; it was a beautiful day. She closed her eyes, felt warmth of the sun on her face.
“You’re dying, Lizzie,” Dad said.
“I know,” Lizzie shrugged.
“It’s only been two weeks.” His face was smashed in like a crushed cabbage – but still kind. “You gotta be strong. Trust me, Lizziebutt, I know what you’re going through.” He gestured up to point at himself, a dot far out in space.
“Aw, Daddy,” Lizzie said, hugging him tight. Her squeeze sent a puff of dry, dead air shooting out through his cracked faceplate.
“It’s no good hugging you any more, Daddy,” she said.
He nodded. “Only the living can give comfort,” he said. “That’s why you gotta stay alive, Lizziebutt.”
“But you came for me,” she protested.
“That’s cause I know how empty things are. You’ve been doing this for just fourteen days; I’ve been out here five years. But I wouldn’t be out here drifting if I hadn’t screwed up. I lost my footing, and drifted out, and wham – I was gone. You know how hard it is to get a glimpse of you only once every seven weeks?”
“I miss you, Daddy,” she said, laying down on the panels and closing her eyes. “It’s nice here.”
“You gotta do stuff, Lizzie. Or you’re gonna go crazier than you already have. So I’m gonna make things worse to give you something to do. It might kill you, too. But what wouldn’t, these days?”
Daddy knelt down and swept her up in an embrace, then he leapt off like a ballet dancer to launch himself into space. He whirled around like a gyro and flung Lizzie back into the station.
She busted through the hull with a horrible pong noise, and there was a hiss as all the air came whooshing out, and Lizzie realized that she was struggling against her bedstraps.
There was new light in here. A sliver of stars, shimmering behind a fluttering stream of purple.
Something had broken through the hull.
A very real hissing came from a finger-sized hole on the wall. A meteoroid had punctured the alloyed metal like a bullet fired from space. If that meteor had gone three feet to the right, it would have punctured Lizzie’s stomach.
She reached down for the emergency sealer-patch under her bed with the familiarity of practice of years of hull breach drills. She turned on the flashlight, and her head exploded; the light made her just as blind with white as she’d been blind with black.
As she slapped the sealer on, she peered out the gap; the plasma hummed. The shields were holding.
So why had a meteoroid made it through?
When she was done, she floated back to the observation deck. It was almost too bright to see now, a strobing purple.
How could she have ever thought it was dark? It was radiant in here.
But looking out the window, she saw meteoroids sizzling against the shields. There was maybe one a minute – way more than usual. She pressed her face to the window, trying to see what looked different.
Sure enough, Daddy’s bear-constellation had slipped off the side of the window, and she could only make out the top three stars of Great-Gemma’s turbine-constellation. If the stars were changing position, then the station was drifting off-course – through the fringe of the dust belt and into the nearby asteroid belt. The shields were designed to burn off small inbound particles… But large ones would still penetrate. Without thrusters to prevent her from drifting into the denser part of the belt, the shields would fail.
Lizzie tried to get the thrusters back on-line, but it was no use; even if she’d had enough fissionables to start a reaction, the reactor itself was laced with yards of blown-out circuitry. She’d thought about controlled hull breaches, maybe jetting her way to safety with air, but some calculations scrawled on a filthy whiteboard showed her that the displaced air wouldn’t be enough to significantly affect the station’s mass. And even if she could have moved the station, she didn’t have a clear idea which way the ship was drifting. She might knock it deeper into the field.
All her life, Momma had taught her that everything came down to guts and brains, but this put the lie to it: she was dice rattling around in a cup, her life determined by sheer randomness. Nothing she had could prevent the larger meteoroids from breaking through. Every punk! meant that a rock had blown through the hull, and by sheer dumb luck it hadn’t blown through her.
It was like trying to drift off to sleep with a gun pressed against your stomach.
Lizzie pulled herself around the station in an exhausted haze, her arms aching, trying to make herself a moving target. The station seemed to expand and contract at will, the sign of some malicious intelligence; at times it felt like a vast dock and she was a bat, fluttering madly around inside emptiness. Other times it was all walls, and the space outside compressed in. Sometimes she’d fall asleep in mid-pull and not even realize it until the next ponk woke her up.
Ponk. She’d survived. Again.
She had 99,000 cubic feet of lightless air to protect. Her universe was reduced to patching. Her universe had always been patching.
There was no time for sleep; everything was a coma-fugue. She had nightmares about patching horrible, howling holes, then realized she was awake. Once, she fell asleep mid-weld and woke up with her hair on fire.
The station hissed like a boiling kettle.
All the while Daddy and Momma and Themba and Gemma and all the Web and Gineer commanders floated behind her like balloons on a string, babbling in languages that made no sense. They told her the war was over, and everyone went home. They told her to give up, the station was dying and so was she. They told her that all her memories were dreams – there was just her in these stripped-out hallways, blind and numb, forever and ever.
Lizzie was dust. She was air. She was the taste of cabbages.
A flare of light came from the observation deck, so bright it filled the station. She floated over to see, her eyes tearing up; Dad was there, pressing his collapsed face against the window, telling her that it was okay, a meteor was coming to end her misery…
…And it was the catastrophic clang, the big one, a huge sound like a hammer smashing all the metal in the world. Lizzie was flung into the wall, bathed in light, enveloped in such pain and terror that she shrieked and shrieked and kept screaming until Daddy split in four and hauled her down to hell.
She opened her eyes. It took an effort.
She was blinded by the soft glare of fluorescent lights. A repetitive beep changed pitches, keeping time with her heart.
Turning her head to peer at the monitors raised a sweat underneath the stiff blue robe she was wearing. She tried to slide her hand up off the starched bedsheets, but only managed to make her heart monitor spike. Gravity held her tight to the bed.
At least her vitals looked good.
“It’s my ship,” Lizzie protested, using all her strength to lift her head off the pillow. “My home.”
“We know that.”
Lizzie jumped. A nurse was dressed in a close-fit Gineer uniform with a blood-red cross-and-sickle emblazoned on the front, his long hair slicked back under a nurse’s cap. He had a friendly smile.
“’My ship, my ship,” he said, placing a cool hand on her forehead. “That’s all you’d said when we pulled you from the wreckage. And after everything you went through to secure that glorious lifestyle of yours, Elizabeth, our most profound generals decided that we couldn’t remove it from you. You are a hero.”
Hero? Lizzie thought. She hadn’t done anything but survive.
But the nurse called in a couple of Web commanders, older women with sad eyes, and they told her that she’d been in an induced coma for almost two months while they restimulated bone growth and removed excess radiation from her body. In that time, her story had been transmitted to all corners of the galaxy — the discovery of a small girl working diligently to keep her home alive for her family. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Denahue, they said, was now known as an example of the tenacity that only family loyalty could generate.
“But I’m not Gineer,” Lizzie protested.
“Doesn’t matter,” said the nurse. “It’s a nice story. After all the consternation, people ache for a comforting tale.”
She thought about the word “nice,” and logically there was only one reason they could possibly think this was nice.
“So where’s Momma?”
“Smart girl,” one of the commanders said affectionately. “She’s back on the station, refitting it with donated equipment. We almost snuffed you out in towing it back, you know; we thought no one could be alive inside that, it had drifted so badly out of orbit. We were just looking to refurbish it… But you were in there, Elizabeth. There was barely any air left, but you were there.”
Lizzie nodded weakly. “Can I see Momma?”
“Of course, sweetie,” said the nurse. “We just have to fly her in from the station.”
Momma came about an hour later, looking haggard and scared and more beautiful than Lizzie could have imagined. They hugged, though Momma had to help lift Lizzie’s arms around her waist.
“They told me what happened, Lizzie,” Momma said. “We were on our way back, I swear – Gemma had to take a down-planet contract to pay for emergency supplies. But the folks at Swayback were real helpful once I explained what happened. We owe them a big one, Lizzie.”
Lizzie flipped her wrist at the room around them. “So why are the Gineer…?”
“The war’s over, Lizzie. The Web was using some real unconventional weaponry, and the Gineer did something… Well, equally unconventional to end it. Something so big they’ve had to restructure the whole jumpweb around it. On the bright side, that means there’s lots of contracting work building stations. What you’re in right now is a rescue and refit ship designed to find stragglers like us.”
“The war’s over?”
Momma smiled and put a cool cloth on Lizzie’s head. “Yep.”
Her Momma sighed. “Does it matter?”
Lizzie thought about it. It didn’t. She squeezed Momma’s hand, happy to have what counted.
There was a lot of cleanup to be done.
Lizzie was still weak from being weightless for almost two months, but the Gineer had muscle treatments – so as soon as Lizzie could walk within a day or two, Momma put her to work. Internal circuitry had to be replaced, the hull had to be reinforced, the hydroponics rebuilt, the air scrubbed. Thankfully, Momma and the charity mechanics had done the real work of getting the central gyros up and running; rebalancing a station was a job for ten people, not two.
It was hard. The starvation and weightlessness had marked her permanently; her eyes now had deep hollows underneath them, and her arms sometimes went numb, especially when she was using a wrench. Her legs swelled up fierce for no reason.
But now, when she went to bed, Momma combed her hair. That was the only luxury she needed.
Gemma was stuck back on Mekrong for the time being. Until the station was fully functional again, they needed cash. Gemma was doing her part for the family by taking contract work and sending the money back home. Lizzie wrote emails every day, and the charity ship tightbeamed them back for free.
But eventually the charity ship left and the ships started docking again. The folks travelling now were odd mixes that Lizzie had never seen before; gladhanding carpetbaggers looking for new opportunities, grieving families on their way back to homes they weren’t sure still existed, scarred soldiers-turned-adrenaline junkies.
Gineer and Web folks mixed uneasily in the waiting rooms. Sometimes shouting matches broke out. And when voices were raised, Lizzie would limp in, and every person would go fall silent as the Angel of Sauerkraut Station glared at them.
“Your war’s done enough to me,” she said.
Some folks wanted to meet the little girl who’d survived in vacuum for nine weeks, and seemed disappointed when she wasn’t more visibly scarred. Lizzie asked about that, and Momma got out the filthy gray coveralls they’d found Lizzie in.
“If you wear these,” Momma said, her face unreadable, “People will hand you their money.”
Lizzie looked at the rags. They stank of memories.
“Not for all the money in the world,” she said.
Momma hugged her proudly. “Good girl.” And she tossed the rags into the incinerator and pushed the “on” button.
But Lizzie did notice that Sauerkraut Station was now being called Survivor Station. Momma left up a few of the sturdier hull-patches Lizzie had made, and put plaques over them that noted where Elizabeth Denahue had made these patches to survive during her nine-week ordeal in the asteroid belt. She also put donation boxes below them “To help rebuild the station.” They filled up nicely.
A few weeks later, the prisoner exchanges started up, and station was once again filled with soldiers – this time miserable-looking wretches who barely spoke. The handful of survivors had been kept in POW camps, and now they were being shipped back like embarrassing refuse.
They were suffering from scurvy, lice, malnutrition. Most were too weak to move. Lizzie wished she could have done more, but mostly what they needed was clean quarters and a steady supply of food. Neither looked likely in their futures, sadly enough.
She was in one of the prisoner ships, wearing a newly-bought HAZMAT suit and using a viral scanner to double-check the POWs for communicable diseases, when she saw Themba.
He was curled up underneath a pile of bigger kids. She was surprised to find him older – but where Lizzie had grown, Themba had shrunk. His neat cornrows were crusted with sores, his fine robes replaced by a gray prisoner’s suit.
She pressed her hand against his forehead; she could feel his heat through the suit.
Themba was delirious, muttering something unintelligible over and over as though it was the only thing keeping him sane.
She hugged him, then turned angrily to the Web captain. “What’s he doing here?” she demanded. “He was a hostage! You were supposed to take care of him!”
The captain shuffled uncomfortably. “Of that, I know nothing,” he said, consulting the records. “This says he’s an orphan. We’re shipping him back to the collective. They’ll find him a good home.”
“They most certainly will not,” Lizzie said, and thumbed open the airlock. She took Themba in her arms, terrified by how easily she could lift him, and carried him off the ship. She brought him to the single cot that passed for a medbay these days, got a cold water rag for his forehead.
Momma stormed in. “Lizzie, what in blazes are you doing? After everything we’ve been through to stay neutral, we’re not getting involved in politics now!”
“Momma,” she said, “It’s Themba.”
“Think I didn’t know that? We’re not a charity ship, Lizzie. We’re barely making enough to refit the station as it is. Another mouth might put us under.”
“His dad’s dead! Where’s he gonna go?”
“Back to the Web. That’s where he belongs.”
“Think, Lizzie. The boy is – was – a diplomat’s son. Outsiders are trouble on space stations. They’re used to having endless space, used to having endless air. They have all sorts of problem with a life like ours. If they don’t make – make some dumb mistake that gets their ass killed, then they spend the entire time feeling cooped up and desperate. I know you think you’re doing him a favor, Elizabeth, but trust me. He’ll hate it.”
“He loved it here.”
“For a day. A few months and he’ll beg us to leave. And even if he doesn’t, we’d have to train him from scratch to teach him to survive – and even then he’ll never be as good as us…”
“He’s not that way, Momma – he – “
They were shouting – but somehow Themba’s high, whistling voice cut through the air, desperately repeating what he’d been muttering since he’d been put on the POW ship:
“two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water… two heads sliced cabbage, fennel, salt water….”
Momma stopped, and her face scrunched up with a strange mixture of sorrow and happiness. Then she turned to stare at the undecorated metal wall of the medbay – but Lizzie finally realized that Momma was staring past the walls, past the station, stroking her wedding band as she looked to the stars for an answer.
Momma swallowed, hard.
“I suppose this is the way of things,” she said, her voice so soft Lizzie could barely hear her. “All right. He’s crew.”
Momma knelt down, kissed Themba on his forehead. Then she walked out of the room to bribe the captain, which would deplete their meager savings further — but Lizzie didn’t care. She hugged her best friend, feeling the warmth of his skin on hers.
His eyes refocused, looked at her — and he laughed.
“Welcome home, Themba,” Lizzie whispered, not letting go. “Welcome home.”
Copyright 2011 Ferrett Steinmetz
Ferrett Steinmetz wrote for twenty years, but wasn’t much good at it. Then he attended the 2008 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and was reborn. Since then he’s published seventeen stories in places ranging from Asimov’s to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to this extremely fine joint right here – a feat of which he’s especially proud, since a novella with the pitch of “Little House on the Prairie meets Space Stations” was a hard sell to begin with, and who woulda thought it would see print in a place he liked so much? He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a well-worn copy of Rock Band, and a friendly ghost. Visit his site atwww.theferrett.com (two Rs, two Ts) to see his latest blatherings on politics, polyamory, and puns.