Nothing went the as they had expected. Nellie Walker and her brother Ash left Earth with their mother for a new world. A chance to participate in the creation of something wonderful.
Until the sickness took their mother and August Partel seized control of the Makemake colony. Stranded in the distant reaches of the solar system, what chance did they have?
Nellie’s teeth pierced the roll’s crisp crust as she swung through Makemake’s corridors with the speed and grace of a monkey back on Earth. Her tongue softened the salty bread and her stomach growled.
It wasn’t safe to stop and eat. Not now. Not in the public corridors where any grasping grown-up might cuff her and take the roll. Besides, it was mostly for Ash.
She’d snatched it, nimble fingers quick to filch it from the baker’s shelf. Quick and light, she’d bounced up to the grips and swung off through the crowd before the old man could catch her. There wasn’t even time to shove it in her sling.
It was like playing tag back on Earth. She still remembered running on the grass beneath the sun, but it was dim. Something from before. Before, before, before everything. The rockets and the years spent cooped up in the transport when Mama died and left her and Ash alone. Before everyone got sick, and Director Partel took over the mission. When they came here to Makemake, which people said ‘MAH kay,’ like saying okay, except it wasn’t.
Nothing was okay. Not the hot and damp tunnels. Not the weak gravity that made walking clumsy and hard. Easier to swing and bounce than walk.
Nellie caught a side grip, letting her momentum swing her thin body and legs around the corner, feet-first. A shuffler, an oldster woman with weights on her legs, shrieked at Nellie.
She released at the right moment and rocketed down the corridor past the woman. She rotated, feet striking the floor as her knees bent and she pushed off, bouncing back up to the grips to swing on.
Fast, fast, that was the key. Never stop. Never let them grab you.
Ten minutes later she swung through the curtain sheltering her comb in the warren. The hexagonal room was small but it was only Ash and her, that was all since Mama died. The room was a converted storage container, repurposed from the transport that had brought them out from Earth. The hexagons were stacked up in the warren, one row on top of the next, with curtains hung over the openings for privacy. Add grips by the hatches, and you had everything you needed to create a private space for all of the colonists.
Ash stirred and woke. He rubbed dark, shadowed eyes which fixed on the bread still held in her teeth. He was small and thin. Too small for eight, four years younger than her, and weak. He’d only been four when Mama took them to the rockets saying that they had to leave. Everyone that worked with Mama was leaving, they were all leaving Earth to new worlds. Better worlds, Mama promised. She lied. At first there wasn’t any other world at all, just big balloon rooms floating in space and then the transport and then here.
Back on Earth Ash had run on the green grass. He had even laughed. He threw his ball. He jumped and rolled, and chased Spunky, the little rat terrier dog they hadn’t been able to bring with them, around the yard. Now Ash hardly left the comb at all, and only when he was with her.
Nellie landed lightly on her feet. She bit through the roll, taking the part that was already in her mouth. It was a bit salty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside with bits of egg, meat and vegetables. She handed the rest to Ash.
He clutched it close and tore at the roll with his fingers. Each tiny piece disappeared into his mouth. Quick fingers shuttled back and forth from the roll to his mouth like a raccoon she’d seen eating the time Mama took them to the zoo, except Ash didn’t wash his food first.
He needed a washing himself. He smelled sour. The comb smelled of their sweat and the chamber pot that needed to be emptied. Nellie leaned against the wall, crossed her arms and watched him eat.
His eating slowed when most of the roll was gone. One end remained. He looked up at her, then held out the end. Nellie’s stomach tightened but she shook her head.
“I’ll get something later. You eat.”
Later, if there was anything it’d be the green soup. Healthy, they said, but not appetizing. It kept them alive. There was never enough real food to go around. Nellie did what she could for Ash, like Mama would have wanted.
Ash tore at the remaining end. Piece by piece disappeared into his mouth.
He finished and tucked his knees up under his chin. He wrapped his thin arms around his legs.
“Thank you.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“Are you going out today?”
She nodded. “I have to work. We need the credits.”
Credits to pay the protection fees. Their air, water and food tax. The housing tax. It was never enough. She did what she could, taking whatever jobs they’d let her do. Sometimes it was watching babies. Other times cleaning out chamber pots in the composting chambers. Dirty work, but it paid and it wasn’t what the older girls did, the ones that lay with the water miners. She knew all about sex. The vids showed anything she wanted. There’d been miners grabbing and pinching her, so she knew they would pay her if she wanted to do that, but cleaning the chamber pots was better. If the thought of a big smelly miner pawing at her wasn’t bad enough, the chance that she might get pregnant, that was worse. She hadn’t had her cycle yet, but you never knew. Nothing on Makemake was like what Mama had promised.
“Do you have to?”
Nellie closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. She wouldn’t get mad. She opened her eyes. “You know I have to. We don’t want to end up debtors.”
Ash hugged his knees tighter and bit his lip.
Debtors were the lowest of the low, those that had fallen behind on what they owed. They got the most dangerous jobs. People spit on them. They often didn’t last long and then they did their final duty to the colony by being composted themselves.
“Hey,” Nellie said softly. She stepped lightly over to the cot and squatted beside it. She put her hand on Ash’s arm. His skin was cool to the touch. “Put on your hoodie and stay inside. Work on your vid lessons. That’s your job, remember? You have to study and learn, and someday you’ll get a supervisor position. Or maybe even a pilot slot.”
“What about you? Don’t you need to study?”
“Tonight,” she promised. “You can sit with me while I study. Okay?”
His head moved in two quick jerks.
Nellie pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. His dark hair tickled her nose. Suddenly he grabbed her and hugged her tightly. The move pulled her off balance but the cot braced her. She hugged him back for a moment and then gently disengaged.
“I’ll swap the chamber pot first. Back soon.”
“Back soon,” Ash whispered.
Nellie picked up the chamber pot, twisted the lid to secure it and stuffed it into her sling. She didn’t like going out with the bulky chamber pot. It slowed her down and threw off her center of gravity, but she shouldn’t run into any problems now. The wardens wouldn’t come looking for her over the roll.
Even with the chamber pot sloshing in her sling, Nellie swung with more grace than the oldsters. They dangled and swung with slow, slothy movements while she looped around them with full releases between grabs. Too many years stuck in the deep belly of Earth’s gravity well, the oldsters hadn’t adapted to life on Makemake. Some of them even wore shoes for Sun’s sake! They also bundled up in extra thick hoodies over their workalls. It only took her a few minutes to work her way around the spiral down to the lower levels housing the composting chambers.
The air here was stifling and hot. The hottest place in the warren. All that compost, it produced heat which was carried up on rich air currents laden with the scents of fresh night soil. Close in the air was sharp against her eyes. She swung around to the head of the line and landed lightly in front of a shuffler clutching her chamber pot. The oldster’s hair had mostly fallen out, except for a few moldy patches clinging to her peeling scalp.
“Hey!” The oldster squawked.
Nellie narrowed her eyes and stared back at the oldster from the depths of her hoodie.
The oldster gummed her chapped lips together and averted her eyes.
That was better. It wasn’t that Nellie wanted to push around an oldster, most of them came along in the exodus out to Makemake, just like her. It was tough, was all. None of them found the world what they thought it’d be. Blackstone had broken her promises, just like Mama. You had to look after you and yours, was all.
Nellie reached the main desk, pressing up to the counter as she swung her sling around and pulled out the full chamber pot. The front chamber wasn’t that big, just the lobby with the crowd of people bringing in full pots and exiting with empty ones. The counter cutting the room in half was made from dirty gray printed panels, just like everything else. It came up to her chest.
Today Jason Hamilton was behind the counter, running things as he did most days. As oldsters went, he wasn’t all bad. He was also the fattest man that she knew and spent most of his time sitting in his sling on the pulley he’d rigged up behind the counter. His hair was white and wavy, his cheeks round and flushed red most of the time. His breath stank almost as bad as the rest of him. But you always knew where he was and he did what he said, not like some.
His blue eyes widened as she hoisted the chamber pot up to the counter. “Nellie, you looking to work today?”
She shrugged as if it wasn’t important. “If you’re asking for help, I suppose I could.”
Jason grunted as his puffy hands slapped down on the chamber pot’s slate gray sides. He dragged it off the counter and dropped it down behind where it clanked dully against the others building up in the bin on his right. He swiveled around and fetched an empty chamber pot out of the bin on his left, which was already half empty. Someone had to take the full pots, clean them out, and return the empty pots back to reception. She was one of Jason’s fastest workers, and most regular. It paid better than some jobs, if you could handle the stink of it.
Nellie took the empty pot and slipped it into her sling. “I’ll be right back, after I drop this off for Ash.”
“Better hurry, or I might have to give the work to someone else.”
“Someone else won’t do the job as well, or as fast.”
Jason grunted and waved a hand at her. “Someone else won’t block my counter.”
She resisted the urge to stick out her tongue and instead moved off with a leap to the ceiling bars, swinging wide out of the path of a low-hanging oldster, and releasing just a moment to bounce to the wall and back up to the bars. A quick swing up to their comb to drop off the chamber pot for Ash, and then she’d be back to help Jason with the chamber pots before he ran out of empties.
In the middle of Nellie’s third hour working in the compost chambers, she pushed a fresh empty bin into the front lobby. A nose clip kept out the worst smells, and the thin mask over her mouth supposedly prevented her from inhaling anything she shouldn’t. Neither measure was completely effective. Either that or her brain just wouldn’t let her get away with not smelling the shit when she saw it. She mostly tried not thinking about the smells and what she was doing. It was messy, hard, hot work but it paid for her and Ash. That’s what mattered.
She locked the wheels on the bin, and was about to shove out the next bin, half-full of loaded chamber pots when she saw one slate gray pot beneath the counter.
“You missed,” she said, bending to get the pod.
Jason swung his seat and stomped down on the pod with a hairy foot. “That’s a special request. I’ll take care of it, and if you want to work here again, you’ll forget you saw it.”
His fat face was serious. Nothing about the way he looked, or his voice suggested he was joking.
Nellie bounced back lightly on her toes. “I didn’t see anything.”
Her heart pounded away as she shoved the bin out of the reception area as fast as possible. She ran it down into the processing bay to the cleaning section. She plucked the first chamber pot out of the bin and unlocked it before tossing it onto the wheel.
Special request? What could he mean? The only thing that made sense was some sort of delivery. Not the shit that was usually in the chamber pots, but something else. Some contraband that he was dealing in. There wasn’t any way to find out what, even if she wanted to know. Which she didn’t. Whatever oldster business was going on, it was nothing to her. She wanted to go on breathing, and the best way to stop that was to get too curious about things that weren’t her business.
The next time Nellie went out front, with a bin full of spun and cleaned chamber pots, she kept her head down and her mouth shut. In fact she moved so fast that she had barely locked down the wheels on the bin before she was turning around to head into the back. Although even in that second, she had seen that the special request pot wasn’t beneath the counter any more. It was none of her business.
“Hold up,” Jason grunted.
Nellie froze in her tracks and didn’t turn around. She hadn’t seen anything. Didn’t want to know anything. She leaned on the empty bin. “Mostly all done, that last batch was only a half-wheel load. I can get it cleaned out, if you don’t think we’ll have more?”
“Naw, you go ahead and skip that today. You’ve worked hard, and I appreciate that. I do. But as an official employer, I also have to spread it around, you know. Come back in a few days, a week, and I’ll have some more work for you then.”
Her heart sank. Kicked off latrine duty? If they started falling behind on the payments, they’d never dig out. Not even if she started spreading her legs for the water miners. She couldn’t protest, though, not without touching on the real reason behind this. That chamber pot, that was the source of the problem.
“Okay,” she said, with mock cheerfulness. Her eyes burned. She still didn’t turn around. “I’ll scrub out. Thank you for the work.”
“Don’t mention it,” Jason said.
His tone said it all. She wasn’t to tell anyone what she saw. Her throat closed up. She nodded and pushed the bin out.
Nellie swung down through their curtain over the comb and saw the two men in the comb. She braked her forward motion with the grip by the door, and resisted the urge to swing on back up out and away.
Ash was right between the two men.
They weren’t doing anything to him, just standing on either side of the cot where he sat, his thin legs draw up to his chest. His arms were wrapped around his legs, face buried in his knees. His head snapped up when she came through. Dark eyes locked on her, filled with hope, but he didn’t move from that spot. His mouth opened and nothing came out.
Nellie dropped lightly to the floor. The sling at her back held two bottles of hot green soup, like coals against her back. Hot didn’t help the flavor, but it helped it go down. Until this moment, she was looking forward to a quiet evening with Ash. Dinner and then some storybooks before sleep.
That didn’t look likely, from the look of the two men.
They were big, with oldster bulk. Both wore thick long coats over their workalls, and rubberized toe-shoes on their feet. They might have been brothers, for all the difference between their dark, scruffy beards and hair. They smelled of men and oddly, enough, soap. They weren’t dirty, these two. And that meant that they carried enough clout to actually bathe. Maybe even in water? That was rare, when most folks used fine sand to scrub themselves and their clothes. Enforcers, then, that worked for Director Partel.
The one on her right spoke first. “Nellie Walker?”
The man on her left moved fast, holding onto her folded hammock to brace himself, his foot lashing out to clip Ash’s shoulder.
Ash screamed and tumbled away, hitting the side of the comb.
Hot rage burned through Nellie. She wanted the man dead. But there were two of them, big and strong men who had eaten recently and she was just her and there was Ash. She went to Ash, picked him up and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. His body shook as he cried silently into her shoulder.
“You were working at the waste reclamation facility today?” The first man said.
She understood what he meant, even if she never called it that. Then, because he seemed like he was waiting for an answer, she said, “Yes.”
“Did you see anything unusual with Hamilton? Did he take any suspicious packages?”
The special request that she was supposed to forget. They might be working for Partel, they might not. But they had hurt Ash.
She shook her head. “I didn’t see anything.”
The second man took a step forward.
“All I saw was shit and piss. I spin ’em, blast ’em, and send out the empties. That’s it.”
The first man moved and she flinched, turning to cover Ash. The man didn’t hit her, he was holding something out. A card of some kind.
Nellie took it. The face was a blizzard of block dots.
“Scan that,” the man said, “and it’ll connect you to me. Go back to Hamilton for more work. Watch him. You see anything odd, don’t say anything, just call us. You’ll be rewarded for your service.”
Nellie nodded and slipped the card into her sling. She waited for something more.
Without another word the two men swung out of her comb, launching themselves out to catch the main line grips and swung off. Oldsters, but adapted and capable. She peeked out the curtain until they were lost in the crowds outside, everyone scattering from their path. People glanced at her comb and she ducked back inside.
She ran her hand across Ash’s head. “Hey there, you okay?”
Ash sniffled and looked around the comb. “They’re gone.”
“They just came in and —” Ash’s voice rose until she pressed her finger against his lips.
“Let’s eat.” She pulled the soup bottles, still warm to the touch, from her sling. “Here you go.”
She twisted off the lid and guzzled it down. It wasn’t all that hot anymore and was starting to thicken. The green soup clung to her teeth and tongue as she drank it down as quick as she could. It never quite tasted the same, depending on what plant stock was blended with the algae. She didn’t even try to taste it, better that way.
The last bits she had to use her fingers to wipe out, licking off every last drop. Nothing wasted. Ash finished his just as fast.
“Let’s get the hammocks hung, and I’ll read to you, okay?”
Usually Ash was eager to hear stories read to him. The tablets could read aloud, of course, complete with holographic animations and sound effects. He just preferred to hear her read the plain text words aloud. It was something Mama had done, and something that Nellie had continued when Mama died. She had found that she enjoyed it more than she would have thought, even though she didn’t sound like Mama, and sometimes stumbled over words. Not often, anymore. Tonight, however, Ash didn’t move. He rubbed his hands together, rubbing off the soup that had dried onto his skin. Small beads drifted downward from his hands.
“What is it?”
“Will those men kill us?”
Nellie crouched and pulled him in close against the chill. “No. No, they aren’t going to kill us. They work for the Director, is all. They want me to spy at work, and let them know if I see anything wrong.”
Ash pulled away. She let him go. His eyebrows dropped.
“I don’t think you should.”
She shivered. “What?”
“Don’t do it!”
“Ash, we don’t —”
“No! They’re bad. It’s all their fault. Things weren’t supposed to be like this!”
“Maybe not, but they are like this. If we want to keep eating and breathing, we don’t have much choice. I have to keep you safe.”
“You can’t.” Ash’s voice was flat and hard. “You’re gone working. And you aren’t big enough. But you still shouldn’t help them. The rebels should win.”
Now she was really scared. “What? Ash, where’d you hear that?”
“Around,” he said defensively. “Tommy Smith says that the rebels are gonna fight the director!”
Tommy Smith was a boy a few combs over that lived with his parents, both of whom had survived the exodus.
“What does Tommy know about it?”
Ash shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. But if you turn over the rebels, then you’re just as bad as the director. You’re working for him!”
“I am not,” Nellie said. “But if I don’t work, we could end up debtors. You don’t know what could happen to you!”
“You don’t!” Nellie lowered her voice. It wouldn’t do for the neighbors to hear them fighting.
Especially not when they were talking about rebellion. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d heard people saying things like that, she just hadn’t known that Ash was hearing things too. What else did she expect? She couldn’t think he was always going to stay in their comb when she was gone. The thought of him swinging through the corridors chilled her.
“How often do you go out?”
Ash crossed his arms and didn’t answer.
Nellie rubbed his arms. “I just want you safe.”
“You’re not Mama,” he said.
That surprised her. She struggled not to let it show on her face. “I know that, but I’m still your big sister. It’s my job to look out for you.”
“We shouldn’t have left Earth.”
That was better. That was something she could deal with. “If we’d stayed behind Mama would have been arrested and they would’ve taken us away.”
Maybe. Mama had feared that would happen, but she didn’t really know. They probably could have gone somewhere else and started over on Earth, except that Mama had always dreamed that they would go into space and live in the new worlds Diaspora was building. She had believed.
“You don’t know that,” Ash said, echoing her thoughts.
Nellie sighed. “Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, does it? We’re here. This is the way the world is. What do you want me to do about it?”
He didn’t believe that she could do anything. It was written all over him, and he resented her for it. She was his big sister, was supposed to look out for him, and she was failing.
He moved away, unhooking his hammock to string it across the comb. From outside came the normal sounds of their neighbors. Muted voices rising and falling. A thump when someone hit a wall. The hexagonal combs were stacked all around the central passage, full of humanity instead of honey. They hardly had any space or privacy.
Was this what Diaspora had planned? It didn’t seem so, when Mama had talked about the colony they were going to on Makemake. She had said that things would be hard, that each day would be a challenge but that they were building a new world. That had to be exciting, didn’t it?
Mama hadn’t said anything about the way the Director ran the colony. That the whole thing was rigged. You had to work to pay for your air, water and food. For the space you used, and the waste you produced even though everything was always recycled over and over. By the time you did all of that, any credits you earned by working were eaten up by the system.
After stringing his hammock across their quarters, Ash unclipped the one end of hers and bounced across the small space. He moved through the air almost as if he could fly, with a quick snap of the hammock. It carried him across to the other side where he deftly caught a grip and absorbed the impact with his bare feet. He moved easily, naturally, but then he had known zero-gee and micro-gee for most of his life. He probably didn’t even remember being stuck on the ground unable to move so easily.
He clipped in her hammock.
“Do you need to use the chamber pot before bed?” She asked.
“No.” He rolled into his hammock and pulled the blanket over himself from the coil along the side.
The trick with the hammock, that was neat. She might be able to do something with that, if she could figure it out.
Tomorrow. Nellie grabbed her tablet and rolled into her own hammock. She pulled out her blanket and tucked it around beneath her, and under her arms. She thumbed open the book she was reading to Ash, something called Goblin Alley: the Bloodied Fang, a fantasy adventure set on Earth and in the world of fairy, connected by alley ways, and a boy with a talent at running. Ash loved the book, and secretly, so did she. Especially the romance, which was the part that Ash didn’t care for, although he agreed that Mingmei’s ability to shapeshift into a fox was neat.
If only they had alley ways like those in the book, that they could use as shortcuts back to Earth. She’d brave all the goblins and geists to take Ash back home.
She hadn’t finished a chapter before his breathing changed and he was asleep. She marked a spot a bit before that, and then continued reading on ahead, partly to make it easier when she read it to Ash, but mostly because she enjoyed the story. She finally stopped when she couldn’t fight sleep any longer herself.
The next day she went back to the compost center early and pounded on the access hatch. Finally the hatch opened a few inches and Jason looked out. When he saw her, he scowled, bushy eyebrows dropping.
“Walker. I thought I told you not to come back until next week?”
“Yep, and when I got home, there were two of the Director’s goons waiting for me. With my brother!”
“What?” Jason pulled back and the hatch opened wider. “Get in here.”
He tried to grab her, but she bounced away, caught the grip above the hatch and swung right over him into the corridor beyond.
The rich compost air enveloped her as she swung on a few grips into the corridor, caught and spun around to kill her forward motion. She hung by one arm.
Jason swore and shoved the hatch closed. He threw over the bar to lock it.
He tiptoed down the corridor, looking up, still scowling. “Into my office!”
She swung along easily ahead of him to the office door, and only then dropped down lightly to the corridor floor. Jason tiptoed up a moment later.
He typed in a code into the access panel beside the door. The panel slid open. This time she waited for him to go first, then followed.
She’d been in the office before, and it hadn’t changed much, except it had gotten messier. Stacks of discarded non-compostables, broken panels, worn clothing, and broken electronics, gathered around the small clear area surrounding his sling chair. It hung in the center of the tiny circular area.
Jason caught the sling chair and climbed in. He activated a box hanging on his belt and an exclusion bubble formed around them, filling that small space.
“There,” he said. “Now we can talk. Tell me what happened.”
Nellie told him about the men that came to her comb. She’d given it a lot of thought after her conversation with Ash. Sure, he was only eight, but he had a point. Things on Makemake weren’t what Mama had promised. It wasn’t anything like what they had been told. Back right after the exodus, when they were in the temporary habitats above Earth, Terra Blackstone had come to see them. Blackstone! Not them, specifically, but everyone in their habitat. She had spoken to them and talked about the new worlds.
This didn’t sound like what she had wanted.
Since those men wanted her to watch Hamilton, maybe Ash was right. The rebels must be real, otherwise the men wouldn’t have come to her, and Hamilton had to be involved. Or at least the Director’s goons thought he was involved.
He took it pretty well, just listening while she spilled it all out. If she was wrong, if it’d been some sort of test, then she was probably in trouble.
“See? I had to come back,” she said. “They told me too. If I didn’t, it would have looked suspicious.”
Jason put his fingers together and swung his legs, setting the sling chair swinging. “You were right. Absolutely right.”
He laughed and spun the chair.
“So what do I do? How do I help?”
Jason dragged his foot to stop the chair and dropped the exclusion field. The normal hum of the place popped back into existence, noticeable after the quiet in the field.
“Now? You can get out there and start getting empties ready for the morning rush. There’s also a quarter-bin of last minute pots that came in last night, so you can start cleaning those. By the time you finish the early risers should be showing up.”
“What about —”
He raised a finger and waggled it. “We’ll see how it goes. You do good work, maybe I’ll let you come back.”
Right. No exclusion field. Someone might be listening.
She pointed to the stack of worn workalls. “Can I take a couple of those old workalls? I’ve got some patching to do.”
“Sure,” Jason said, waving his hand. “Go ahead.”
Nellie pawed through the stack and pulled out two larges. She stuffed them into her sling. They’d be much too big for her and Ash, but she didn’t plan on wearing them. She had another idea.
After work, after waiting in the chow line to pick up two more bottles of the green soup and turn in their empties, Nellie swung into her comb. She tensed, half expecting the men from yesterday to be back but they weren’t. It was empty. No Ash.
For a second her muscles refused to move. She looked around the small chamber. The hammocks hung on the wall. Their table was folded up on the large back wall. Her tablet sat on the narrow back shelf, where she always kept it next to their spare workalls. Everything looked normal down to the chamber pot in the right corner. Just no Ash. But his tablet and sling were gone too. She relaxed a bit.
If his sling and tablet were gone too, then he must have gone out. He did go out, whether she liked it or not, but usually he was back home before she finished work.
He’d be back, probably soon. If she went looking for him, then he’d come back to an empty comb as well. She’d wait, and trust him to return.
While she waited she tried to keep busy. She lifted the table from the wall so that the single leg swung down to support the surface. There wasn’t much material to the table or leg. Back on Earth they would have looked especially thin and spindly, but under Makemake’s tiny gravity they were easily strong enough. She pulled the soup bottles out of her sling and put them on the table’s surface. Her stomach growled but she ignored that. She’d wait for Ash to get back.
To keep her mind busy, she pulled the worn workalls out of her sling. Mostly the material had worn at the edges and seems, but large sections looked fine. She could make so many things with it, but she had something particular in mind. She kicked over to her shelf and picked up her tablet and began to draw.
An hour passed before Ash returned, swing through the curtain to land in the comb. Nellie looked up from her work, needle in hand.
“Ash! Where have you been?”
“Out.” He skipped over to the table and picked up one of the bottles.
Nellie put down what she was working on and joined him. “It’s not going to be hot. I’ve been back over an hour.”
Ash shrugged and squirted the soup into his mouth.
He wasn’t talking. Probably still mad at her. This morning he hadn’t been happy that she was going back to work at the compost center, but she couldn’t really tell him what she had planned. Or anything about what she and Jason talked about. Secrets didn’t last long in the warren. Not when everyone was piled one on top of the next in the thin-walled combs.
She took a long drink of the soup. It tasted a bit minty today, covering some of the bitterness. It wasn’t hot. She was hungry enough that she just drank it as fast as she could, and then she didn’t have to taste it.
“Where’d you go?” She said, when she had drained most of the soup.
Ash twisted off the wide top and ran his fingers around the inside of the bottle. “Out. Just around.”
“You have to be careful,” she said. “You watch out for perverts?”
He licked his fingers clean. “I do. They couldn’t catch me anyway. I’m fast.”
Then he let a small grin onto his face. “Faster than you.”
Smiling now, Nellie said, “No way.”
“I’m smaller and lighter.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m stronger. And I get more momentum.”
“Just makes it harder for you to stop!”
“I’ve got a secret weapon.”
His eyes widened. “What?”
Nellie kicked back to the workall on the floor. It was one of her two spares. She lifted it up and held out the sleeve. A membrane ran from the sleeve on down the side of the leg. It was made from the old workalls she’d gotten from Jason. She spread the leg and showed the membrane sewed between the legs.
Ash bounced over the table, landing silently on his bare toes. He reached for the workall.
Nellie pulled it back. “It isn’t ready yet. Almost. I thought I might test it out tonight.”
“What’s it for?”
“You gave me the idea.”
“Yep.” She pointed at the hammocks. “I noticed that thing you did with the hammocks, snapping it to fly across the room.”
“That was just something I figured out.”
“I know. It was smart. I got the design for this from the library. It’s based on wingsuits back on Earth. I modified it a bit to handle my sling, but that wasn’t hard. Skydivers used the wingsuits on Earth, with parachutes.”
“We don’t have a sky.”
“We don’t need a sky. We could fly through the tunnels.”
Ash’s eyes widened. “Like really fly?”
Nellie sat down where the wall slope up to meet the straight wall. She turned the suit to the section she was still sewing.
“Sure, mostly. Kick off and just soar above and around everyone. Fold up your arms and legs to gain speed, then back out for lift. Once I get going I won’t hardly have to touch a grip again. Not unless I want to land or make a fast turn.”
“Can you make me one?”
Nellie pointed the needle at the other spare workall Jason had given her. “I think I have enough fabric for it. But you have to promise not to break your neck!”
“I won’t,” Ash said seriously. “Everyone is going to want one.”
She’d thought about that already. Assuming it worked. “This might be a good business for us. We can make ’em and sell ’em to make money.”
“If the Director lets you.”
“He’d just tax us for it, like any business. More money in the government’s pockets.”
She sewed and Ash stood fidgeting and watching her. After several minutes Nellie looked up at him. “Don’t you have some studying to do?”
“I’d rather watch you.”
She pointed the needle at his tablet. “And I’d rather not be watched. Get you studying done. I’ll finish this, and then we’ll take it for a test flight, okay?”
Ash bounced over the table.
“And fold up the table if you’re not using it,” Nellie said.
He did that, clearing away their bottles to the shelf above the table. Then sat on the sloped wall section on the other side of the comb with his tablet on his knees. She still caught him glancing up at her now and then, but he mostly focused on his studies.
Nellie hung from the grips on the North down shaft. The tunnel fell away down a smooth spiral slope. There wasn’t anyone around except her and Ash. They’d swung along the grips like normal to get here from the warren. There were too many eyes around there, she didn’t want her test flight witnessed by so many.
This tunnel spiraled on down to the industrial tunnels that housed the colony’s environmental systems, machine shops, and hydroponic gardens. Eventually it also led to the mining tunnels that spread off through the ice following the veins of water ice. The lights were widely-spaced along the tunnel ceiling, creating alternating pockets of bluish light and darker areas. The air rising from below was warmer and scented with dust from the diggings.
Ash dangled from the grip beside her. “Well? Are you going to do this?”
“Yes, just give me a second.”
“You’ve already had a second.”
Brother. Still, it was good to see him excited about something. Nellie took a deep breath. What was the worst that could happen? Even falling wasn’t going to hurt here.
She spread her hands on the grip and brought her feet up, pressing them against the bar between her hands. Just a normal kick off.
She jumped, aiming low so that she didn’t hit the next grip.
She shot forward into the tunnel. The floor was approaching fast.
She thrust her arms out and spread her legs.
It was as if a hand had grabbed her and yanked her up toward the ceiling. She twisted and dropped her arm and rolled just in time to miss slamming into one of the grips.
The wall was right there!
Nellie rolled the other way, spread her arm and caught the air.
She brought in her arms, just a hair, and dropped slightly.
There was a noise behind her. She dared a glance back over her shoulder and saw Ash, swinging along the grips, skipping every other one, yelling his head off.
She grinned and drew in her arms a bit more. Her speed increased as she dove through the tunnel.
As the tunnel turned she banked and followed the curve. It was faster than she had ever gone through the tunnels. She couldn’t help but grin as the wind rushed past her.
Then an oldster shuffled out of a side tunnel, right into her path!
Nellie reacted instinctively, snapping open her arms. The wingsuit caught the air and she rose up over the oldster, buzzing past his balding head.
Then she was past, and diving down the tunnel again, laughing now.
All too soon the tunnel leveled out on the industrial level. Steam blew past her head. The air was hot and moist.
Nellie dragged her legs in the air, and embraced it with her arms. The drag slowed her quickly and she dropped. A quick flap of her arms at the last moment, and she landed lightly on her feet.
She turned around, looking for Ash but there was no sign of him. A chill pushed aside the exhilaration of the flight. Taking him out here? This late? What was she thinking?
She bounced up to the grips, caught one and swung forward. As she built up speed she let go and spread her arms. Flying up the slope, the ground came up quickly. She flapped her arms experimentally.
She rose up. Flapping faster, she flew up the tunnel. After every few flaps she rest her arms and rode the air until she had to flap again.
Still no Ash.
She was starting to panic when she finally saw him as she rounded the curve in the tunnel. He was swinging gamely along the grips toward her.
Even though her own arms were tired, she flapped up to meet him and caught a grip to stop.
She was breathing hard, but said, “See? I am faster.”
Ash grinned. “Only because you’ve got the wingsuit! Wait until I get mine!”
“I’ll work on it,” Nellie said. “But it’s late, and probably not a good idea to be out here. Let’s get back.”
“Okay.” Ash yawned. “That was amazing.”
Amazing. Imagine that. Nellie swung alongside Ash, letting him set the pace.
Back at the comb he hooked up the hammocks without complaints, rolled into his and was asleep before she got out of the wingsuit to sleep. She folded it carefully and climbed into her hammock.
In her mind, the tunnel walls were a blur. She’d never felt so free, not since running on the green grass back on Earth.
When Nellie went back to work at the compost center the next day she wore the wingsuit but she didn’t fly along the corridor. She did extend an arm as she made a quick turn, catching the air to help make the move, but that was all. It was different with so many people out and about. The tunnel was crowded, and she didn’t want to draw too much attention. Not unless she had to.
Jason let her in without commenting on her modified workall. He disappeared quickly with instructions to start cleaning out the leftovers before the main rush started. Not a word about anything.
She went to work thinking about it. Was it because he didn’t trust her? Or because someone might be listening? The Director probably had bugs and stuff all over the place. When they had talked Jason had used the exclusion field to prevent anyone from listening. Actually, thinking back on that conversation, had he said anything about being part of the rebellion? Not really. He had listened to what she had to say, and then he had dropped the exclusion field. That was all. He hadn’t said he was part of the rebellion, or anything.
Nellie picked up a full chamber pot. She twisted the lid off and stuck the pot in the big wheel, clamping it in place. The lid snapped into place beside the pot. She gave the wheel a turn to the next position and picked up the next pot. It sloshed as she twisted the lid off, and the smell! Her eyes stung. Some were worse than others, and that was nasty. She quickly snapped the pot into place, the lid and turned the wheel. Once she got the wheel filled, then she’d drop the lid, and power it up. It spun to draw out all of the material from the pots, which was carried off to the compost chambers. After that that dry sand and heated air would blast the pots and the wheel clean, before spinning up again to remove the sand. She always like the blasting the best. Everything scrubbed away.
The next pot was light. She twisted the lid off, expecting a mostly empty pot, and instead there were some electronic components at the bottom. She recognized one crystalline piece as a quantum computer core stone. That definitely wasn’t what she normally saw in the pots!
She put it aside and quickly finished loading the wheel. She activated the sequence, scooped up the pot with the components and slipped it into her sling.
Chances were, she wasn’t supposed to have found it. There was that special pot the other day that Jason had, and this was probably the same sort of thing. He was connected to the rebels!
But what were they doing?
Did she trust him, or report him?
It wasn’t a hard decision.
He was out front, at the counter, with a line of people dropping off pots when she shoved in a full bin of cleaned chamber pots. Jason barely glanced at her as he took a pot from a needle-thin oldster, dropped it in the dirty bin and registered her deposit before taking one of the last clean pots out of the clean bin.
The woman looked down her nose at the chamber pot he put on the counter. “You should have someone else handling the clean chamber pots. And the counters should be separate.”
Hamilton grinned at her. “Budget cuts, ma’am. Feel free to complain to the Director, maybe he’ll increase my budget and I can hire some decent help. Have a nice day now.”
Nellie moved the remaining clean chamber pots into the full bin of clean ones, and swapped the bin positions. The woman focused her attention on Nellie.
“You’ve got her. She could handle the clean ones, while you take the dirties.”
“You wouldn’t want me to do that, ma’am,” Nellie said, grinning. “I’m the one that has to open the pots and get ’em cleaned.”
The oldster wrinkled her nose and picked up the clean chamber pot from the counter. “Someday we’ll have decent plumbing and you’ll be out of a job!”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Jason said. “Thank you for your business.”
She made a noise in her throat and shuffled out of the way of the other people waiting. Nellie took advantage of the moment to get close to Jason.
“I’ve got a pot that’s got something in it I’ve never seen before. I think you should take a look at it.”
Jason picked up a sign from beneath the counter and plunked it down before the next customer could put down his chamber pot. The customer was a young man, with dark eyes and pale, pale skin. Sort of cute. He looked at the sign on the counter and then down at the chamber pot her held.
Nellie smiled at him. “Break time. We’ll be back in ten minutes!”
“Thank you for your understanding,” Jason said.
The young man looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of the words.
Jason slipped out of his sling and hurried out of the lobby area. Nellie grabbed the empty bin and pushed it after him.
She left the bin in the back and followed Jason to his office. As soon as they were inside, Jason activated the exclusion field. The static filed popped into existence around them and cut off all the noises outside. He snapped his fingers, loud in the field.
Nellie slipped the chamber pot out of her sling and twisted off the lid. Jason reached for it and she pulled it back, tipping it so he could see but not letting him take it.
“Give it over,” Jason said.
“No.” Nellie tucked it back to her side. “What is it?”
“Nothing that concerns you!” He made a grab for the pot.
She bounced out of his reach.
“I want to help. What’s going on?”
“You don’t want to get involved,” Jason said. “You want the Director’s goons back after you?”
“No, but I want to know what’s going on. Things can’t stay like this.”
She hadn’t ever said it out loud like that, but it was true. Makemake couldn’t go on like this. It was getting worse.
Jason raised his hands in surrender, showing his palms, and stepped back. “Fine. We have to be quick, before the people out there get impatient. Those are components for an initiator, for Diaspora’s instantaneous communications network.”
“Think of it like a radio with no lag. We can call Luna in real-time. Better than that, they can do full holographic calls over it. Diaspora is getting everyone hooked up, but the Director has delayed building the initiator. Without it only Diaspora can initiate an instantaneous connection, and it ties up the main communications station. Since he controls that, he can tell them anything he wants about conditions here.”
“He’s lying to Blackstone?”
Jason nodded. “Yes. But we have people that got the plans for the initiator, and they’ve been fabricating parts. That’s the last of it, but something’s wrong. My contact should have given the pot to me. It shouldn’t have ended up in the back.”
“What does that mean?”
Jason rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. Look, we have to get that to the ones building the initiator. They have to get a call out to Blackstone, and let her know what’s going on. I can’t leave here.”
“I can do it,” Nellie said quickly.
“It might be dangerous. If the Director’s people are on to us, you could be asking for trouble.”
Nellie put the lid on the chamber pot and twisted it into place. She slipped the pot into her sling and settled it against her back. “Where do I go?”
After leaving the compost center, Nellie felt like every eye was on her as she swung along the grips through the tunnels. According to Jason, the rebels were holed up in a played out series of water mines. That meant going into the lowest levels, into sections she normally avoided. The closest way down was the South down tunnel, much like the North tunnel where she had tested the wingsuit. All she had to do was get down there and find her way through the industrial areas to the mining entrances. Jason had shown her a map and made her memorize it, rather than risk having it on her if she was caught. He was trusting her.
She caught a grip and swung her body around an oncoming guy. For a split-second his dark eyes were on her — was he one of the Director’s men, he had that look? Then she was past him. She didn’t look back. She didn’t dare.
A woman ahead, tall with her black hair closely braided to her head, was watching Nellie. The woman wore a smooth, crisp workall. And glasses. Not the prescription kind, but the data kind, with full holographic capability. Not someone that was struggling to get by then, which meant she was most likely working for the Director. She moved casually, taking a step before jumping up to catch a grip.
Two more swings and Nellie was getting close. The woman wasn’t looking at her, she was looking at something else that Nellie couldn’t see, something projected by her glasses. But then she looked up and her eyes met Nellie’s. There was recognition there. The woman’s red lips parted a bit.
Nellie looked back. The guy that she’d swung past, he was back there, swinging lazily behind her. His dark eyes met hers too, and a muscle in his jaw jumped.
They were following her.
Now she was truly scared. If the Director was after her, if the rebels were caught, then it was all over. Except, if that was the case, why come after her? She wasn’t important. She was a messenger, at best.
The woman was right there, a couple grips away and moving now to block her.
Nellie released the grip she was on and caught the next with both hands. She swung up, not releasing, twisting around and switching her hands. Her feet came right up to the next grip and she let go, bending her knees.
For an instant it was like she had landed on the grip and the floor was only the wall in front of her.
Nellie jumped, in an instant reversing her direction and going back toward the man.
Now the floor was back to being a floor again and she was flying toward it. The man was in front of her. His eyes widened with surprise but he let go of the grip and dropped.
Just as she’d expected. He thought she was going to ground to try and get past him.
Surprise! She thrust her arms out. The wingsuit caught the air and she swooped up. He had nothing, wasn’t touching the ground yet, didn’t have a grip, and she dipped one arm to twist sidewise as she flew past him.
Someone shouted, she didn’t see who. Now that she was past him she was gliding down the tunnel. She whooshed over the heads of a couple oldsters shuffling on the ground. The man’s up-turned expression of shock was hilarious, but not more than the woman’s delighted smile.
Clear of them, Nellie flapped her arms. The wings caught the air and thrust her forward. She flapped hard, a swimming motion, reaching forward and then thrusting down against the air. Chalk one up for Makemake, that wouldn’t have worked under Earth’s gravity.
She banked into a side tunnel and caught a passing grip to make the quick turn. She swung and released, catching the next, and continued. She glanced back behind her. No sight of the two goons. Not yet at least. She had to get out of this tunnel, and head up to the North access. Hopefully they’d just picked her up leaving the compost center and hadn’t been waiting to cut her off.
They’d have back up coming and now that they’d seen what she could do in the wingsuit, they’d be better prepared. She had to get ahead of them, find the rebels and deliver the components.
Through the warrens, that was her best bet. Lots of people. She could blend in and get past. Not by swinging, though. They’d be expecting her there.
Two quick tunnel sections took her up past the baker’s and the other shops. She dropped off the grips and landed lightly on her feet. She took one shuffling step, then another, bending over as if her sling carried a heavy load. Tiptoe, as if she was afraid of losing her balance, of tripping over her own feet.
God, it was slow. She didn’t see how the oldsters could handle it. What did they think when they saw the younger members of the colony swinging past overhead? Did they even notice?
A gray-faced woman, gray hair, was just ahead of her, shuffling along with each step. Her face might have once been pretty but it was lined and haggard. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. Her arms hugged her body. From the dark circles beneath her eyes, she looked like a ghost.
Nellie mimicked the woman’s posture. If she moved like that woman, the Director’s people might not see her. They’d be looking for someone swinging along the grips like a monkey, or flying free. Not a tired, worn oldster.
The crowd thickened as she entered the warrens. The hum of voices filled the air. Most of the people just stood around. Some sat in the openings of their combs, legs hanging out. A lot of people didn’t have jobs. She shuffled past a group of men standing in a circle and caught fragments of the conversation.
“— don’t know. That’s what I heard.”
“A crack down? What…”
She didn’t stop. It sounded like people were talking about something going on. She wanted to find Ash and make sure he was okay, but going back to her comb right now was a stupid idea. That’s where they’d look for her. All she’d do by going home was put Ash in danger.
A commotion up ahead. She heard voices raised. Someone shouted. Then an amplified voice rang out.
“All of you back to your quarters! Off the streets. Director’s orders! Back to your quarters!”
She froze in place. She wasn’t the only one. Voices rose up again near the front, angry questions shouted out. A half-dozen enforcers in clean black workalls swung into view above the crowd. Batons hung from their belts. A big man hung in the center, like a gorilla studying the crowd. He had a wide, brick-like face with small eyes and almost no neck. He spoke, and his voice was picked up and amplified throughout the warren.
“Back to your quarters. We have an active terrorist threat. For your safety, clear the streets!”
People bounced up the faces of the combs. Others carefully climbed the ladders. Many of those sitting in the openings to their combs pulled back inside.
She’d have to get past them to even get to her comb, and they were searching each person that tried to pass. Looking for her, or other rebels? It didn’t make any difference. If they searched her they would find the components hidden in the chamber pot. Not only that, if they saw her close up they’d see how her workall was modified. She’d be arrested. They’d arrest Jason, if they hadn’t already, and maybe even Ash just because he was her brother.
Her only chance was to get past them, get away, down to the rebel’s tunnels. Maybe they wouldn’t find her there, if she was fast enough to get away.
Nellie took a deep breath and let it out. The crowd was thinning. Her time was running out, she had to move even though her feet felt like they were frozen in place. She took one shuffling step forward, then another. It wasn’t hard to mimic the oldster shuffle, not when she was facing the Director’s goons.
Three of them had dropped down to search the crowd, while the others, including the big man that had spoken, remained above to watch the people. She’d have to surprise them and be quick.
One of the enforcers, a young man with blond hair, roughly patted down a woman ahead of her. He smirked as he ran his hands over the woman’s breasts and body. She kept her head up, eyes straight ahead. Nellie was approaching on the woman’s left, one shuffling step at a time. If she could slip past while the man was distracted, she might have a chance.
The woman’s eyes flicked over and focused on Nellie. Her lips tightened and she lowered her hand to the man’s face. Her fingers ran along his cheek as he straightened, grinning. She leaned closer.
Nellie took the chance the woman was offering her. Why this stranger was doing it, she didn’t know, but she was grateful.
She took two bounding steps, picking up speed, and jumped to the wall. The man jerked away from the woman, lunging for her, shouting.
Nellie’s feet hit the wall and she jumped off into the air. She did a big flap with her arms and once again felt the rush of air past her face as she flew higher in the warren. Here there was lots of air between the grips and the floor.
A black shape flew at her from her right!
An enforcer, one of those from above, leaping to catch her!
Nellie tucked in her arms, twisted her legs, and rolled away under the grasping hands. She stuck out her arms, catching the air and swerving madly toward the floor.
She corrected, caught the air, and flapped up. There were shouts behind her, orders to stop. She ignored them and picked up speed by angling her arms back so that she dropped slightly. Just like sliding down a hill on a sled. She brought her arms forward, caught the air and rose back up. Then down again. It was faster than swinging grip to grip or trying to run along the warren.
The tunnel leaving the warren was much smaller. She tucked in her arms and shot toward it like a bullet. Two enforcers stood in the tunnel, batons in hand.
They saw her. Two men, eyes wide. It had to be a sight, a girl falling from up high, head-first right at them. Nellie swung her fists forward in front of her head.
The men held their ground.
She kept coming, falling faster and faster. Too fast to pull out of the dive? She didn’t know. The wind tore tears from her eyes, blurring her vision.
She screamed in the last moments before she reached the men.
At the last second they bounced out of her way, rather than be hit by her.
Nellie thrust her arms out and was yanked upward. She buzzed right above the tunnel floor, barely missing it. Her arms ached from the strain. She dropped them back, sacrificing lift before she smashed into the ceiling.
She gained control and soared on down the empty tunnel. The enforcers must have driven everyone before them into the warren. She twisted, taking one side passage and then another. The shouts behind her faded.
Her arms were very tired already, but she flapped on to the North tunnel. The familiar spiral passage down was a welcome change. She coasted, gliding down into the depths.
The empty tunnels were eerie. Nellie hung from grips in one of the side passages and listened to the sounds in the corridor she had just left. It was people. Enforcers, from the sound of it, sweeping through the industrial tunnels, ferreting out anyone caught hiding. She’d gotten out of the main tunnel before being spotted. For now.
She swung quietly away. This was a narrow connecting tunnel and it twisted and turned as it bore downward into the rock. Maybe it’d once been a water ice seam back when the colony was first dug out. Robots were sent down to Makemake to dig and chew into the crust of the planet. Water ice was rarer on this planet. She didn’t know why, maybe the scientists did, but she’d studied it before they even left to come out here. There was other sorts of ices on the surface, methane, ethane and other stuff, the tholins. Not much water ice. What there was, it was in fissures in the crust and as hard as rock. The robots dug down to harvest the ice and left behind passages that the colonists sealed and pumped full of air before they moved in.
It was all ancient history, as far as she was concerned, but here it was very real.
She was below the industrial level now and the lights ended, leaving the tunnel ahead dropping away into blackness. Nellie stopped.
The way down was this way. Deeper down, away from the improved passages, off into some played out shaft. How was she supposed to find her way in the dark? There wasn’t any light down there. None.
She couldn’t do it swinging, or flying. If she was going to do this, she had to do it on foot.
First, she needed a light. She pulled herself up onto the grip, hooking her legs over to keep herself in place as she reached out to where the last light glowed. It was self-contained, driven into the rock. She dug her fingers around the sides of the light and twisted. At first it didn’t budge. She wrapped both hands over the light and twisted harder, anchored with her legs.
It gave way, a tiny bit. Dust floated away from the hole and slowly drifted downward. Nellie twisted until her fingers hurt and slowly, scratching, the light unscrewed from the anchor in the rock. Two more turns and it began turning more easily. A minute later she had twisted it free entirely.
The end was pointed, and threaded where it went into the anchor. The top was bulb-shaped and dim, but it produced enough light for her to make her way. She held it up and took cautious, short bounding steps down into the tunnel. It shouldn’t be much farther now.
Nellie eased along an uneven floor, watching her step as best she could in the dim light from the bulb she held. It was a self-powered area light from the tunnel above. There wasn’t anything like it in this tunnel. Nothing about this tunnel was developed.
The floor was uneven, and covered in rock chips. Threaded marks on the walls and floor showed the passage of the robots that had chewed out this passage. Hacked out, smashed out. There wasn’t anything neat about the tunnel. No smooth floors or squared-off sides. No lights, grips or planters. It was a dry and empty tunnel on the ass-end of the colony.
It had to be the right tunnel. She ran her fingers along the rough surfaces of the walls. She traced the marks left by the robots, and the others no doubt done by men and women mining the tunnel.
This looked like the tunnel Jason had described, but so did the last three tunnels she had passed through. This one didn’t look like anything special.
At least right up to the point when a section of the rocks moved on both side of her and a cool metal barrel was pointed at her head.
They wore camouflaged clothes that blended into the rocks and shadows. She hadn’t seen them at all until they moved. There were at least two of them, but she had the impression that there were more behind her. A woman moved in front of her, putting her weapon back in a pocket in her outfit. The woman’s skin was naturally dark. She had high cheek bones and black hair cut short. A pair of glasses were pushed up on her head. Her dark eyes were fixed on Nellie’s.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” The woman demanded. Her tone was calm, but serious.
“Jason Hamilton sent me. I’m Nellie.”
The woman studied Nellie’s face. “You? A child? Why?”
“I was working in the compost center with him. He couldn’t get away, and I found the special chamber pot. There was a lock down. The enforcers were sweeping the tunnels, making everyone go back to their combs.”
“Ambra, what do we do?” Said a man on Nellie’s left.
The woman didn’t look at the man. She stayed focused on Nellie. “You have it, this pot? Hamilton gave it to you?”
The woman plucked the light from Nellie’s hand. “No lights.”
She took Nellie’s other hand in hers and then pushed the buttons that turned off the light. Absolute darkness enveloped Nellie. If it wasn’t for the woman’s warm hand holding hers, Nellie would have been scared.
“Come with me,” the woman said in the darkness.
Nellie followed the woman through the dark and wished that she had glasses to see where they were going. They walked and walked through the dark. At times Nellie stumbled, tripping on the uneven floor, but the woman steadied her each time. She didn’t speak. Nellie couldn’t tell if the others followed or not. If they did, she didn’t hear them. They turned several times, taking other passages, or the tunnel just turned, she had no way to know.
Finally, they stopped. Nellie heard a hissing noise and then light poured into the tunnel. She blinked against the bright light, shielding her eyes with her arm. A hatch was opening. The light gushed from the space around the hatch. She barely had a moment to adjust to the light before the woman pulled her into the opening.
As soon as they were inside the door slid closed behind them and the woman let go of Nellie’s hand.
They were in a room. A real room, with a floor and walls and a high ceiling. It was a pale rusty red color. The light came uniformly from white panels in the ceiling. Planters along the sides of the room were filled with green growing plants.
Plants! There were tomato plants with small bright red tomatoes just hanging all over the plant. Nellie’s mouth watered. She hadn’t had cherry tomatoes since Earth!
“Have some, if you like,” the woman said, gesturing at the plant.
Nellie looked at the woman. She was smiling, but also looked sort of sad. She was really beautiful. Ambra, the man had said. Was that her name?
“It’s okay,” the woman said.
Nellie bounced over to the plant and inhaled the tomato scent of the plant. Her stomach growled. She picked one, then two more because they were right there in that cluster. She made herself stop then and popped one into her mouth. The skin burst and sweet tomato juices and pulp flooded her mouth. She chewed with relish. There hadn’t ever been a better tomato. Not ever!
At least until she ate the next one. She swallowed it and slipped the last one into her sling. She’d take that one back to Ash. More, if she was allowed.
The woman just stood there watching her.
Nellie swallowed. “Your name is Ambra?”
“Yes. And you’re Nellie Walker, one of the children that came here with the exodus transport.”
How? Her glasses, of course. The woman, Ambra, had looked her up while they were walking.
“Nellie, do you still have what Jason Hamilton gave you?”
“Yes.” Nellie pulled the bulky chamber pot out of her sling, glad to get it out. She held it out to Ambra.
Ambra took the pot in both hands. “Thank you, Nellie. You may have saved us all.”
She twisted off the lid and looked inside. She smiled a little, then smiled much wider, flashing white teeth. She laughed and looked back up at Nellie.
“This is perfect. I have to get this to our engineers. Come on, we’ll get you a real meal and a place to rest.”
“I have to get back,” Nellie said. “My brother, Ash, he’s alone.”
Ambra shook her head. “I can’t let you go yet, Nellie. You said it yourself, that they have the upper levels locked down. We’ll keep you safe. The faster we work, the better we’ll be able to help your brother, and everyone else.”
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re going to save the colony. Let me show you how.”
Nellie took a breath. Ash was going to be scared that she wasn’t in the comb. The Director’s enforcers might already be questioning him, demanding to know where she was. He couldn’t tell them, he didn’t know. But if she went back, Ambra was right. They’d catch her and make her tell them everything that she knew.
There was a whole other colony hidden down here. Nellie followed Ambra, amazed at what she saw. These weren’t simply tunnels cut through rock and sealed. They had to be that much, but in these corridors the surfaces were all covered. The light was uniform and as bright as sunshine on Earth. And everywhere, plants grew in containers along the corridors, mounted on the walls, and in planters at the center of intersections.
It was busy too. They passed people swinging through the tunnels on ceiling grips, just like above, but here there didn’t seem to be any people shuffling along. Even those that walked, they took long bounding steps. Everyone wore standard black Diaspora workalls, new, just like the Director’s people.
“How do you have all of this?” Nellie asked.
“We have our own fusion generator and printer,” Ambra said. “It’s let us build this outpost under the Director’s nose. And we’ve hidden the entrance. So far, they haven’t found us.”
“If you could do all this, why haven’t you just taken over?”
“We don’t have enough people. This is a small example of what the Makemake colony should have been like, if Partel hadn’t seized power.”
Ambra stopped outside of a door and touched a panel on the wall beside it. The panel flashed and the door slid open. “What you’ve brought us will change things.”
She went in, and Nellie followed her.
The room was small, but there were holographic displays all around the room with people working at them. In the center of the room was a table, and some sort of machine sitting at the center. The people in the room, three of them, all stood up as Ambra came in. A man with a round face and curly brown hair broke into a big smile.
“Ambra! You’re back.” He looked at the pot she held. “Is that it?”
“Yes.” Ambra handed it over.
“Awesome!” The man said, looking inside.
He looked up, at Nellie. “Who’s this?”
Ambra stepped back and touched Nellie’s shoulder. “Nellie Walker. She’s the one that brought us the parts, evading a lockdown in the process.”
Ambra pointed at the man. “This is Dr. Rick Banner. He’s in charge of this project.”
She pointed at a short woman, not any taller than Nellie, with long blond hair. “Dr. Rachel Dexter.”
Then Ambra pointed at the last person, an oldster with gray hair and a lined face. “Dr. Stan Anderson. This is our team that’s putting together the initiator.”
“Why’d you need these parts?” Nellie asked. “If you have a printer, couldn’t you just make your own?”
“Good question,” Banner said. “She’s smart. We could make most of the things we needed but not everything. The printer can’t make everything, and these needed specialized equipment to manufacture. We had people upstairs that managed to use the equipment there to make the parts for us. It was risky, and dangerous, but it looks like they’ve done it. Now it’s up to us to finish putting this together.”
Nellie looked at the machine. “And this will let us talk to Diaspora? We can tell Blackstone what’s happening here?”
“Yes,” Ambra said. “Thanks to you. What do you say that we get you something to eat, and a place to rest? We’ll let them work?”
“Okay.” Nellie waved at the people “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Banner said. “And thank you.”
“Yes,” Anderson said, his voice deep. “You may have saved us all.”
Nellie blushed and turned away. Saved them all? Was that possible?
The next afternoon there was a chime from the door to Nellie’s room. It was twice as big as the comb, with real furniture instead of hammocks, and its very own plants growing along one wall. It was like having her very own garden. Ambra had brought her to the room after they had a meal in the rebels cafeteria. She had just been watching an old holographic movie from Earth, trying not to think too much about what was happening right now. She hadn’t had any word yet, and she was worried about Ash.
Nellie shut off the holographic screen and faced the door. “Come in?”
The door opened. It was Ambra. She stepped inside and the door slid shut behind her. Ambra gave her a small smile.
“How are you doing, Nellie?”
“Okay, I guess.” Nellie spread her hands. “What’s going on? I couldn’t get any information on the system.”
“Sorry about that. We’ve gotten by this long by being very paranoid. But I do have news for you.”
Nellie hugged herself. Mama had said that, before they left Earth. Honey, I have news for you.
Ambra’s eyebrows went up and she held out a hand. “No, it’s not bad. Just the opposite. With the parts you brought they’ve finished the initiator. It’s ready to go. I wanted to invite you to be there when we make the call. If you want?”
Nellie nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”
Ambra turned and palmed the panel to open the door. She smiled. “Let’s go.”
Nellie followed Ambra through the rebel outpost to a large round room. It was dimly lit, mostly by dozens of holographic stations. She saw views of the inside of the colony, with enforcers watching lines of people.
“What’s going on?”
“Partel is trying to root us out, but he can’t keep the people just sitting in their combs. He’s got to let them out, but he’s clamped down on everything.”
“And you can see all of this?”
“Yes, we’ve been monitoring the situation. He’s offering incentives for people to come forward with information on us.” Ambra’s pointed ahead. “We’re going to use the main display.”
Nellie recognized some of the people present. The team from the lab that she had met yesterday, Banner, Dexter and Anderson. There were other people waiting, all of them looking at her and Ambra as they approached.
“Ready for the big moment?” Dr. Banner asked Nellie.
Banner gestured to Ambra. “If you’d like to do the honors?”
“Thank you,” Ambra said.
Everyone around the room had stopped what they were doing and were standing, watching. Nellie felt very conspicuous standing in the center of it all, but no one looked unhappy. They were all watching Ambra.
“Thank you,” Ambra said again, louder. She turned, looking at the people. “Your sacrifices, everything we’ve accomplished has led to this moment. We almost didn’t get the chance.”
She put a hand on Nellie’s shoulder.
“This young woman, Nellie Walker, risked everything to get us the last few components we needed. Without her, we might have lost our chance. I’ve asked her to stand with us.”
Ambra’s hand dropped from Nellie’s shoulder. She gestured and a holographic display opened up before her at the center of the room.
“Initiator online,” Banner said.
“Okay. Let’s make the call. Give me Diaspora Base, Terra Blackstone.”
The Diaspora Group logo of planetary orbits appeared in the floating middle of the room. The tiny planets spun around the sun.
“I hope we don’t get a busy signal,” Ambra quipped.
Nellie grinned as nervous laughter flew around the room. The tension in the room eased up.
The logo faded away and a woman stepped out of nothingness. It was Blackstone, just as Nellie remembered her when she had visited the exodus habitat above Earth, before they left for Makemake. Blackstone was beautiful, with fair skin and wavy black hair. She wore a black workall, but on her it wasn’t baggy and shapeless. Her feet were bare, but her toenails were painted bright red, with golden flecks, just like her fingernails. It looked like she was really there, right in the room with them, but it had to be a holographic display. She looked around the room, and then focused on Ambra.
“Ambra Smith, it’s good to see you. I didn’t expect this call.” Blackstone’s red lips broke into a grin. “Really good considering Director Partel reported you as lost months ago.”
“There’s a lot that he’s been lying about, Terra. We need your help.”
Nellie listened as Ambra summed up what had happened since Partel had taken over. As she talked Banner started a data transfer, sending all the details, all the information on the illness that had swept over the exodus mission. Partel had seized the opportunity to gain power, and when they arrived at Makemake, he had used his people to seize control of the colony facilities. It was only then that Nellie realized, with a start, that Ambra Smith was the woman that had been in charge of Makemake before Partel arrived and took over.
When Ambra finished summing up what had happened, Blackstone spread her arms.
“I wish I could give you a hug! All of you!” Blackstone looked around the room. “I commend you all for your bravery. And I can help. Together, we can make things better. Now that you’ve created an initiator we can use that to seize control of the Makemake command core. I’ve got overrides to make that possible, but I haven’t been able to use them. Partel isolated the core from outside connections or I could have already used them to find out what was going on. He’s been using an isolated system to send us false reports.”
“We’re already tied into the colony systems,” Ambra said. “Just give us the word and we’re ready. If we can gain control of the command core, he won’t have any choice but to step down and face charges.”
Blackstone grinned. “It’s good to have you back. You’ve pulled off a miracle. It’s like you’ve come back from the dead, and I couldn’t be happier.”
“We almost didn’t make it,” Ambra said. “For all of our sacrifices, it eventually came down to a few key components and one brave young woman.”
Shocked, Nellie realized Ambra meant her again. Blackstone looked at her, and there was recognition in her eyes.
“This is Nellie Walker,” Ambra said. “She created a clever wingsuit, and used it to evade Partel’s people and get us the parts we needed to make this call. We wouldn’t be talking without her help.”
“I remember you,” Blackstone said. “You left here with your mother and your brother. Are they okay?”
Tears stung Nellie’s eyes. She shook her head. “Mama died when people got sick on the ships. It’s just been Ash and I since, and I don’t know what’s happened to him since the lockdown.”
Blackstone looked at Ambra.
“We’ll find out,” Ambra said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get you back to him safe.”
“We’ve got a lot to do,” Blackstone said. She looked back at Nellie. “Thank you, Nellie. Let’s take our colony back and make it what it should have been all along.”
Nellie nodded. “Okay.”
As the adults discussed what to do, Nellie bounced up and caught a grip in the ceiling. No one was using them, so she hung above it all by herself. It gave her a great view as Ambra, Blackstone and the rest planned what to do. Apparently Blackstone could use their connection and the initiator, to activate deep overrides in the colony’s command core that controlled, well, everything. Air, water recycling, power, the economy that Partel had set up, security, all of it. They could even control the emergency hatches and doors.
In the end, taking the colony back went smoothly. Partel never knew what was going on. Blackstone locked the place down, locked Partel and his people where they were and the rebels went out to seize control. As soon as the people realized what was happening, there was cheering throughout the colony.
Nellie followed the rebels back up to the colony, but then she left them and flew through the tunnels, using the wingsuit. She made it back to the warren in record time. She reached her comb and swung through the curtain to land on her feet.
Ash yelled and jumped at her. She was so surprised that she barely caught him with one arm, and a grip with the other to stop them from falling right out through the curtain.
He squeezed her tight and his body shook against hers. Nellie hugged him back.
“It’s okay. We’re okay,” she said. “Ambra Smith is back, she’s taking back over with Terra Blackstone’s help.”
Sniffling, Ash pulled back. “Really?”
“Really.” Nellie put Ash down. “They’re going to make things better, the way it should have been, the way Mama talked about it.”
“Where did you go? I thought they had arrested you!”
Nellie shook her head. “Sorry, Ash. I had to help, and Partel’s people chased me. I found the rebels, though, and helped them.”
“You did all of this?”
Nellie shook her head. “I only helped a little.”
“More than a little,” a voice said, behind them.
Both Nellie and Ash turned quickly. Terra Blackstone’s face was on Nellie’s tablet on her shelf, smiling.
“You must be Ash.”
He rubbed his nose and nodded.
“Your sister is very brave. She came through when it was needed and saved the colony.”
Nellie blushed. “I didn’t —”
“You made a difference,” Terra insisted. “And you’ve been carrying a bigger burden than you should have to carry alone. I’m going to personally make sure that you get the help you need. I’ll be checking up on you, I expect great things from you, and you, Ash, but you shouldn’t have to do it alone.”
“Thank you,” Nellie said.
“You’re welcome.” Blackstone grinned. “And that wingsuit you made? That’s a great idea for low-gravity worlds. I’m going to have someone work with you on getting that design out. I saw you on the cameras, amazing, beautiful. Are you okay?”
Nellie hugged Ash close. “We’re okay.”
“Great. I’ve got to go make sure Ambra has things in hand. We’ll be talking. Bye!”
Ash waved and then the tablet went blank. He turned and gaped up at Nellie.
“Don’t look at me like that.” She pointed at his tablet. “Just because we helped save the colony, it doesn’t mean that you get away with not studying. You still need to learn.”
Ash grinned and bounced over to pick up his tablet.
Nellie sat down on her side of the room, leaning against the wall. She wasn’t tired. Not yet. She was energized, like when she flew through the tunnels. All of that fear that she’d been carrying around was melting away, releasing her to soar.
This story is the 13th weekly short story release, and the 13th Planetary Bodies story.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!