I am 50 today! Have a Lady Astronaut story as a party favor!

Hurrah! I became a Level 50 Human today. I have soooooo been looking forward to hitting level 50. Why? Because as a woman, it’s already hard to be taken seriously. As a young woman… ugh. The sheer number of variations of “don’t worry your pretty little head” are super-annoying.

But older women? They have this power that is breath-taking. My entire life, I’ve watched my mother be this force of nature — she once pulled a police officer over for speeding. A colleague of hers said that “she could quiet you to death.”

So level 50? I get my Older Woman badge and, oh honey… It comes with a lifetime supply of “bless your hearts” and a serious buff against “giving a fuck.”

It also comes with a certain amount of perspective. One of which is the importance of not trying to do things alone. I’ll be honest… I’m supposed to be on a cruise ship in the Caribbean for my birthday, but there was a family medical emergency (do not ask me about the details) AN HOUR BEFORE I WAS SUPPOSED TO LEAVE. I stayed. I helped. But I also contacted a bunch of friends and asked them to text me random photos of awesome.

Those little pops of brightness kept me steady. That’s the thing about being level 50. I have great gear and the best questing party anyone could ask for. Honestly, that includes y’all, too. If you want to leave me a pop of awesome in the comments or on twitter, I would love that. Or… I’m doing a fundraiser for Parkinson’s over on Facebook.

Meanwhile! I have a party favor for you. Here is a story published in Magazine in Science Fiction and Fantasy in the July/August 2018 issue.

It is set in the Lady Astronaut universe, but you can safely read it without having read the novels. Although, folks who have read them might recognize the Geologist’s surname…

The Phobos Experience 

By Mary Robinette Kowal 

 

IAC HEAD WARNS ABOUT CUTS IN BUDGET 

JOHN W. FINNEY, Special to The National Times 

FEB. 6, 1972—Sheldon Spender, head of the International Aerospace Coalitions base on Mars, warned the United Nations today via a remote connection that any cuts in the minimal budget of the Mars colony would increase the overall cost of the program. Budget overruns remain a concern as unmanned supply vessels have been lost in the depths of space, prompting Spender to call for more manned supply ships. 

*** 

In the afternoon at the Bradbury Space Center, the light wells to the surface of Mars shone with a sticky caramel glow. Darlene hurried up the stairs from the computer center toward the director’s office. She ran one hand along the rail as she went, careful to keep her head level and looking straight ahead.  

God. What if the director wanted to see her because someone had noticed her vertigo? 

She was being ridiculous. The flight surgeon had cleared her. Said that BPV happened to a lot of folks in low-gravity environments and to return if it became a problem. It was annoying to be light-headed, but it didn’t make her nauseous or cause her to fall. So. Not a problem. 

Darlene came out on the director’s level, which was at the surface and built into the side of a cliff wall. Some of the offices here had windows that looked out toward the new dome being built. Darlene stopped outside the director’s door and wiped the sweat from her hands onto her jumpsuit before she stepped inside. 

His secretary looked up and smiled. “He’s expecting you. Go right on in.” 

Of course, Director Spender was expecting her. He’d just sent a pneumatic down to the computer department telling her to come up. Her father’s voice ran through her head. Always be nice to the secretaries for they run the world. “Thanks. I appreciate it!” 

As she opened the door to his inner office, the view through the small window caught her attention. No larger than Life magazine, the window was one of the biggest in the colony and looked across the reds and umbers of Gale Crater. Dust eddied on the surface of Mars in a smoky salmon plume. 

“Ah! Lieutenant Ritika, thank you for joining us.” Sheldon Spender was leaning against his desk and gestured to three men seated near him on some of Bradbury base’s ubiquitous folding chairs. “You know Modesto Westenberg, of course.” 

Mo gave her a two-fingered mock salute that just touched the edge of his dark crew cut. The sight of the astronaut immediately calmed her. He was a pilot, and if this were about her vertigo, they’d have the flight surgeon in here.   

She turned, carefully, to greet the other two men. One of whom wore a US Air Force uniform and—Oh crap. A general. She saluted so fast she almost slapped herself. She’d been on loan to the International Aerospace Coalition for long enough that she had almost started to think of it as a permanent posting.  

“At ease.” He was a tall Latino man with the weathered skin of a pilot and he smiled as he held out his hand. “Chuy Araujo.” 

“Sir.” As she shook his hand, a voice at the back of her head was screaming that this wasn’t a social call. What the hell did they want with her? 

Spender pointed to a lanky young black man with a spattering of acne under his chin and blue ink staining his index finger. “And this is Phillip Lindquist from our Geology Department.” The director looked down at his watch and then back up to smile at all of them. “All right. My part here is done—you’ve got my office for two hours while I attend a meeting on dome construction. Good luck.” 

Mo and Lindquist exchanged looks of confusion as Director Spender walked out of the room. At least she wasn’t the only one who was baffled. When the door shut, General Araujo cleared his throat. “All three of you are US Air Force, with degrees in geology and appropriate security clearances.”  

Two different alarm bells went off in Darlene’s head. Her geology degree was a minor and focused on lunar geology, not Martian. And then there was the phrase “security clearances.” What did she need clearance for on Mars? 

Araujo opened a soft-sided satchel lying on Director Spender’s desk and extracted three folders. “I apologize for the short notice, but bear with me as I brief you on this mission, which is highly sensitive.” 

Darlene’s heart started pounding harder than a mechanical calculator. Mission. Mars was neutral territory and belonged to everyone on Earth. There was no military presence, which was why she was “on loan” to the IAC rather than stationed here. She bent her head to look at the folder and the room started to spin about her.  

Benign Positional Vertigo her aunt Fanny’s ass. There was nothing benign about BPV when you couldn’t even look down without getting light-headed. “May I sit, sir? So I can go over this?” 

“Of course, of course.” He waved her to a folding seat next to Lindquist. 

“What am I looking at here?” The geologist had hunched forward over the folder, his lower lip tucked between his teeth as he turned page after page of Type I or II carbonaceous chondrites rock formations.  

“That is Phobos.” 

Lindquist looked up, with his brows nearly together. “But . . . This represents a cave system.” 

General Araujo smiled. “Correct. Phobos is hollow.” 

The geologist wet his lips, looking faintly ill. “Sir, with all due respect.” He looked down at the pages, wincing, and then back up again. “There was . . . That was an April Fools’ joke back in ’59. There is no Doctor Arthur Hayall or a University of the Sierras. The moons are not artificial satellites. They aren’t made of metal. Sir.” 

Darlene had to admire Lindquist’s frankness and did not envy him the task of contradicting a general. That was never a pleasant experience, but sometimes it had to be done. The report contained hand-drawn pages showing a system of interior voids in the larger of Mars’s two moons. It was a load of bunk. 

“You are correct, and I am gratified that you think so.” The general gestured to the folders. “Keep skimming while I talk. The April Fools’ joke was a cover story created by the CIA. Currently, the US is the only country that knows about the cave system on Phobos. Our mission is to put a lander on that moon and find an entrance to the caves.” 

And now she understood why she was in the room. They didn’t need her scant geology background. They needed a NavComp to plot the course to a moon that was only fourteen miles in diameter. 

 ***

For the entire trip to Phobos, Darlene kept rechecking her math. The tiny moon was covered by a three-foot layer of dust and the legs of a standard Martian lander would slide right through it. But stretching wire netting under the ship created a sort of snowshoe that would allow it to nestle on top of the dust. Unless, of course, Darlene got her math wrong. 

She hated not being able to run things past one of the other women in the computer department, but the general’s desire for secrecy meant that she could double check parts of the equations with them but not the whole thing. It was standard procedure and no one even blinked at getting part of a formula, but oh, did she ever want to talk through the entire problem. 

As the dark gray surface of Phobos rose beneath their ship, Darlene ran through the NavComp checklist. “Stabilization and Control circuit breakers: DECA Gimbal AC—closed. Command Override—off.” 

From the pilot chair, Mo flipped the Command Override switch, which allowed him to assume control of the descent engines. With his spacesuit on, she couldn’t see him nod, but he poised his gloves over the ship’s hand controllers. “Confirmed. Got a landing area in sight. Doc, look okay to you?” 

Mo had the ship tipped forward as they flew so he could watch the ground. In the seat between them, Lindquist had used most of the five-hour trip from the Mars Orbital Station to review the mission’s survey goals mixed with a series of truly terrible geology jokes. 

But once they started the landing sequence, he’d gone silent immediately, which she appreciated. Now he was leaning forward against his shoulder belts and peering out the small viewport. Set in a wall of gauges and toggle switches, it framed a landscape nearly as gray as the inside of the ship. Centered in the window, the ridge of the Stickney crater, which dominated Phobos, lay beneath them.  

Lindquist gave a double-thumbs-up to accompany his voice on the comm. “Peachy. That’ll be as dust-free as we’re likely to get but it will probably have faults.” 

She groaned at the pun. “You are terrible.” 

Mo laughed. “Got the measurements you need, Darlene?” 

“Roger.” Having done most of the math before they left Mars, all that remained was to plug the actual numbers into the equations. That was why you needed a NavComp aboard, to react to the realities of a situation. The first part of this, at least, was governed by a well-understood set of equations. Darlene watched the clock and her numbers. “Mark. 3:30 till ignition.” 

“Confirmed.” Mo’s voice was as calm as if this were a sim and not an actual landing.  

“Thrust translation, four jets. Balance Couple—on. TTCA Throttle—minimum.” With each phrase Darlene recited, she or Mo flicked a toggle switch on the control panel. “Okay. Abort Stage Switch—reset.” 

Aborting from here would be fun if they had to do it. The moon had so little gravity that escaping it wouldn’t be the problem. The problem would be having their intakes clogged by dust.  

“Attitude Control is all yours.” Darlene paused to double-check her math against what was actually happening. “Standing by for engine arm descent.” 

“Override at 5 seconds.” Mo reached up and flicked the toggle switch within its cage. “Descent armed.” 

The clock ticked over and Darlene braced for– 

“Ignition.” Mo squeezed the engine thrusters and the ship kicked against them, asserting gravity for the first time since they had passed through Mars’s Orbital Station on the way here.  

With it, her vertigo became distressingly apparent as her inner ears insisted she was doing a series of backflips. Darlene blinked, focusing on the dials on the control panel. “Ignition confirmed. Thrust 10 percent.” She needed him to stay at 10 percent to give her a window in which to make distance corrections. Darlene’s pencil flew across the page. 

As she worked, Mo adjusted the ship’s pitch so that they were nose-up again, with the engines pointed straight down. 

Watching the radar, Darlene kept up a recitation of their altitude and forward momentum. “76 meters altitude, down at 0.74, 5.80 forward. 67 meters, 1.06 down, 4 forward.” 

Her surface radar blinked out. 

Shit. Darlene reached out and tapped the screen as if that would bring it back online. Her pulse ratcheted up. Part of the briefing had warned them that this might happen when they got close to the surface. Phobos plowed right through the solar winds without an atmosphere, and there was a theory that it would build up a negative static charge. Predicted was great, but still unnerving. “Radar is out.” 

Mo sighed, but that was all the commentary he gave. “Prepping for manual landing.”  

“Roger, wilco.” She grimaced and flipped the gauge screen over the window. With that and her sextant, she could give him distances, but her palms were still sweating inside her gloves. Aborting would have been her preference but with a secret mission, they couldn’t easily make a second attempt without being noticed. “30.50 meters down, 1.06 down, 2.74 forward.” 

She was using known measurements of the ship to gauge the distance to the ground, but it was always approximate. At this point, they were really relying on Mo to be able to set the craft down by feel. 

“12.20 meters, down 0.75, 2.35 forward.” Dust swirled past the window like fog.  

Over the comm, Mo grunted. All that dust would make it hard for him to pick out their lateral and downrange velocities. Visibility continued to drop as they descended and Darlene could barely find stationary rocks to base anything on, so she had no idea how Mo was making his translational velocity decisions.  

“6.10 meters, down 0.15, 1.22 forward.” Almost there, although with the dark gray dust nearly obscuring the moonscape, they could have a giant rock under them and she’d never know. On the other hand, as light as Phobos’s gravity was, Mo could let them just drop from this distance and they’d be fine. Unless the ship tipped over. 

The contact indicator on the dashboard lit up. She hadn’t felt them touch at all. 

Lindquist pointed at the light. “Contact. In case you were taking it for . . . granite.”  

The comm filled with the hiss of a huge sigh as Mo leaned back in the pilot seat and powered down the engines. “Granite confirmed. Let’s secure the ship and see where we are.”  

 ***

On the surface of Phobos, Darlene weighed two ounces, but sinking through three feet of loose dust was still a concern as friction from dust in the seams of her suit could compromise its integrity. At least the additional rubberizing appeared to be keeping all of their electronics from reacting to the localized static charge. 

Her calves ached from the awkward skip-shuffle forced on them by the snowshoe-like things strapped to the boots of her space suit. The contraptions kept them above the surface of the dust and also provided just enough drag that she wasn’t in danger of breaking escape velocity with a jump. Not that it was really likely. Probably. That’s why they all had SAFER packs attached to their suits. The Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue was designed to allow an astronaut to pilot back to a space station or ship in an emergency using compressed gas. Although…in this instance, they were a safety measure in case she was wrong about the amount of propulsion required to get off this rock. 

And the US thought it was a good idea to establish a military base here, where a sneeze could shoot you into the sky? Sure, the general had never outright said that, but she could read between the lines.  

Ahead of her, Mo steadied the line for the descent into a crater that led below the moon’s surface. Hopefully, they could work their way into the cave system from there. Lindquist had already gone down. 

“Careful when you hit bottom.” As Lindquist’s voice buzzed over the common channel, it sounded like he was standing next to her. “The dust layer is thicker down here, but it clears out in a bit.” 

Mo shifted to the side to make room for her to take hold of the line. “Good to know. Don’t go too far, Doc.” 

“I’m just trying to figure out where the pun was.” As Darlene wrapped her hand around the rope, a wrinkle inside her glove liner bit into the base of her fingers. The pressure made the wrinkle feel like a metal bar. She ignored it, although she would check for “hot spots” on her hand when they unsuited. For the moment, though, it wasn’t a problem. Using the line to steady herself, Darlene walked backward over the edge of the crater’s rim to begin her descent of the rock wall.  

“Huh. It clears out really fast . . .”  

Darlene looked down to orient herself. And immediately had a problem.  

The vertigo was worse. Tilting her head forward made the entire moon spin around her. Darlene tightened her grip on the rope and stopped moving. She lifted her head and stared straight at the nearly black rock face in front of her. Going in and out of gravity must have shifted more of the small crystal cupuloliths in her inner ear. 

Over the comm, Mo asked, “Everything okay, Darlene?” 

Darlene took another step down the wall without waiting for everything to stop turning. “Yep. I just have a wrinkle in my glove and was trying to reposition my grip to avoid a hot spot.” 

It was a short descent, barely more than eight meters, and the gravity was so light on Phobos that she had to push with her upper foot to feel like she was making any real progress. The climb felt like an eternity, though, because she couldn’t look down to see how close she was to the bottom. In front of her, all she had was dusty rock and Lindquist’s bootprints. 

The rope vibrated as Mo began his descent above her. That must mean she was close— 

Darlene stumbled as her foot hit flat ground and the rear of the snowshoe bit into the dust. She tugged it free, stepping away from the rope. The moon pitched, but not enough to do more than make her feel light-headed. She stood still for a second, trying to orient herself. Lindquist had moved a short distance from the rope, dragging their pack of gear off the cushion of dust at the foot of the wall. Past that, the ubiquitous dust of Phobos gave way to nearly black stone. It was hard to see much further than that, between the low albedo of the stone itself and the shadow of the overhanging rock. 

Darlene turned to face the wall and leaned back, carefully, to look up. Mo was nearly at the base, glancing over his shoulder as he came down the rope. Each step was an awkward dance as he swung his snowshoe things wide around each other.  

Wait. She had seen a bootprint on the wall. “Lindquist? Did you take your snowshoes off for the climb down?” 

“No . . .”  

“Mo, look at the wall. I saw bootprints on my way down.” 

“What?” Mo’s voice was sharp on the comm as he swiveled on the rope to check the wall. “Shit. Shit. Yeah. I see them.” 

Her pulse was so loud in her ears, the guys must be able to hear it over their comm channel. “Think the Air Force sent a previous expedition and left it out of the briefing?” 

“That would be nice . . .” Mo reached the bottom of the cliff face. “But I’m not taking bets on it. So the question is: Are they still here? And where’s their ship?” 

 ***

They had entered the cave through a V-shaped shaft, an obvious choice for their descent since it was the only break in the rim overhanging the interior. Apparently, it had been as obvious to someone before them, too. Inside her suit, the liquid cooling system was not enough to keep her from sweating with worry. 

Lindquist led them forward across the cave floor, deeper into the interior of Phobos. Darlene took photos as they went, trying to document the space. Drifts of dust lined the corners but the floor itself was largely dust-free.  

“This isn’t natural.” Lindquist stopped and shone his suit light across the floor. “Less dust, yes, that’s to be expected, but not cleared down to the bare stone.” 

“You think someone cleared it.” Mo aimed his light deeper into the cave but the dark stone swallowed the beam. “How long would it stay free of dust?” 

“Tricky. There’s no wind so it could have been done yesterday or twenty years ago.” The nice thing about a worried Lindquist was that he stopped making bad jokes. 

“Twenty years ago, no one was on Mars.” Darlene set the tripod down and tightened its legs. 

“Thanks,” Mo said. “Real helpful.” 

“My point is that given the available technology, it’s more likely that it was cleared recently.” Having a task helped keep her from screaming at the men to run. Nothing good came of going into dark holes where someone else might already be. She focused the instrument down the length of the cave. “Who has the resources to come here without the IAC’s involvement?” 

“That’s not our purview. We’re here to survey and get out, and frankly, I don’t want to court trouble.” Mo crossed the camera’s field of vision. “Let’s just survey the next chamber and that’ll be enough. A temporary base only needs enough room to set up an IFFY.” Mo had a point, even if he was guessing about the purpose of the mission.  

An inflatable habitat would be all the Air Force needed if they wanted to put a base here, at least to begin with, and the cave they were in was big enough for that. If the next chamber was as large, you could house forty people in a couple of IFFYs—assuming you could get oxygen, food, and water to them.  

As soon as he cleared the frame, Darlene clicked the shutter button and the flash went off, lighting up the interior of the cave like day. Her breath caught. 

An inflatable habitat module occupied the far end of the cave. 

“God. Did you see that?” Nothing about this was right. Spots still danced in her vision from the flash and her breath rattled in her helmet.  

“What?” Lindquist turned toward her. 

“There’s an IFFY at the far end.” 

Mo spun to look as if willpower alone would allow him to see through the darkness. “Back to the ship. Now.” 

She didn’t need to be told twice. Darlene turned back to the camera, bending to smack the latches on the tripod legs, and everything whirled. She tried to straighten, to stop it, but the rapid movement only made the vertigo worse. She reached for the tripod to steady herself. If she hadn’t released the latches on the legs, it would have worked.   

The tripod folded, and even weighing only two ounces, she knocked it over. Grabbing for the casing, her glove hit the shutter button and triggered a rapid series of photos, with flashes going off like a strobe made of sunlight. 

“Darlene! Are you o—” Mo’s voice broke on the comm. “Shit. Shit! Run.” 

At the far end of the tunnel, lights came on.  

Darlene wrenched the camera off the tripod and scrambled to her feet. The cave whirled about her, but she kept her head level and aimed toward the wall they’d climbed down. She switched from the skip-hop of the moon to the long, toe-propelled translation of the space stations. The gravity was almost low enough to fly but not quite, and she didn’t want to be that far from a surface.  

Shadows danced on the wall as a light source behind her moved. Darlene didn’t dare to look back, so she kept following Mo. In her ears, his breath blended with hers and Lindquist’s. Who was behind them?  

Mo bounded ahead of them, reaching the base of the wall first. Dust flared around him in a sheet of dark sand. He knelt, grabbing the snowshoes, and slung all six over his shoulder. “We’ll strap on when we reach the surface.” 

“You’ll get snarled in the dust at the top.” Lindquist doubled back to help Darlene with the camera. She would abandon it, but they’d need to show the general pictures of the IFFY. 

“Moot point if we’re caught before we make it up there.” Mo looked past them into the cave, light reflecting off his helmet visor. “You’ve got four unfriendlies on your tail.” 

Lindquist glanced back, and instinct made Darlene turn her head. The moon kept spinning around her. She missed her next step, catching her foot on a rock. All that forward momentum translated into a sweeping arc downward. 

Lindquist reached for her with one hand, but he didn’t have the weight to stop her forward motion and they both went down in a tangle of limbs. Her face slammed into the side of her helmet and the spinning wouldn’t stop. 

She forced herself to stand anyway, legs wide, head up.  

At her feet, Lindquist didn’t move. Oh, no, no, no. She crouched again and rolled him onto his side. All his suit indicators were green-lit, thank God. His faceplate was intact, but his eyebrow was split and bloody.   

“Lindquist is out cold.” She knelt with her back to the escape route and faced the two people skip-hopping toward her. The motion looked like a drunken toddler’s gait but carried a great deal more threat. The other two were still headed for the team’s captain. “Mo. Get out of here.” 

“Even if I were willing to leave you, I can’t navigate back to Mars solo,” Mo said. 

“You don’t have to. Just blast off, straight up. Get out of the radio shadow of Phobos and call for help.” Sure, there was a chance this was a completely legitimate science expedition, but it might also be Russia, China, or South Africa, or some other nation that had decided to lay claim to the territory and would eliminate any witnesses. So her job was to appear as non-threatening as long as possible while Mo got help. Darlene put her hands up, arms out to the side as far as they would go in the bulky space suit. “I’ll narrate what’s happening here for as long as you can hear me.” 

“Shit.” But the sound of his breath in her ears changed as he started to climb.  

She swallowed and turned her attention to the space-suited figures approaching her. “All right . . . Their suits are two different styles, both older generations than the IAC standard. Looks like the X-3 Gen and an Artemis Class. Only the X-3 has a SAFER.” She had visions of setting it off and sending the person flying away. Very unlikely visions. She turned, as carefully as she could, and looked at the figures chasing Mo. “The ones after you don’t have SAFERs.” 

“Roger that.” Mo dropped the snowshoes and deployed the arms of his SAFER. A moment later, a great wall of dust billowed away as he jetted into the sky.  

Without air resistance, the dust flew in an inertial arc, creating a curtain of dark sand before it gently resettled on the surface of Phobos. Darlene swallowed and turned back to the ones coming for her. Mo only had enough nitrogen for 10 seconds of sustained flight, but he was an experienced pilot. He could do short bursts and make them count. She hoped. 

A low groan sounded on the comm.  

“Mo?” 

“I’m fine. Lindquist?” 

The man before her stirred, blinking back into consciousness. “Wha . . . ?” 

“Hey there . . . stay down, okay?” She tried to keep her voice as friendly as she could for him, and soft, because he probably had a helluva headache. “We’ve got unfriendlies approaching. Let them think you’re still unconscious.” 

“Confirmed.” He let his head sag back inside his helmet. “Dizzy. Wha’d I miss?” 

“Mo got clear. He’s heading to the ship to call for help. You and I are about to be taken captive.” 

“Great.”  

She wanted to bend down and help Lindquist, but as long as she didn’t visibly react to his voice, hopefully, they would think he was still unconscious. And while he was in his suit, there really wasn’t anything she could do for him. So Darlene kept her attention focused on the people coming toward her. Both of them had their gold visors down, hiding their faces. “The X-3 has tape over the insignia on the arm. The other has a name patch on the chest plate that says YORK. But if that’s Elma York inside the suit, I’ll eat my boots for breakfast.” 

“That’s . . . that’s weird,” Mo grunted. 

“Everything about this is weird. Pirates?”  

“Pirates would have shot us by now.”   

“Not in gravity like this. The recoil would be enough to escape the gravity well.” Which didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill her and Lindquist, just that they wouldn’t kill them using projectiles.  

“Dammit,” Mo grunted. 

“What’s happening?” 

“I landed to save gas but Lindquist was right about the dust. I’m hip-deep right now.” Mo sighed. “Really wish I hadn’t dropped the snowshoes.” 

Lindquist gave a dry chuckle from his place on the cave floor. “My sediments exactly.” 

They were making jokes while she was probably going to piss herself and thank God for the fact that diapers were standard issue for EVAs. On the other hand, the current problem was her klutzy fault. If she hadn’t lost her balance, repeatedly, they’d have made it out. But Mo still had a shot and if he got clear, he could call for help. “Mo, the ones coming after you don’t have snowshoes, either.” 

“Great. So this is going to be the universe’s slowest chase scene.”  

The one whose nameplate read YORK beckoned to her, pointing back at the IFFY. The emphatic gesture nearly tipped the suit, so either YORK had vertigo, too, or wasn’t used to light gravity.  

Darlene pointed down at Lindquist and tried to indicate that she wouldn’t leave him. To Mo, she said, “The SAFER should be able to get you close to the ship.” She could draw the flight plan in her head, but it wouldn’t do Mo any good. And she didn’t really have the data she needed to direct him. “Right now, Lindquist and I are heading to the IFFY.” 

Lindquist grimaced inside his suit. “If they get us inside, they’ll make us take our suits off.” 

Which meant that they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other or to Mo. “Want to bet that we’re not dead yet because they don’t want to damage the suits?” 

“You’re thinking pirates? Mars has pirates now? Fuck, no.” 

If so, they were pirates with inadequate gear. She watched the one with the tape on his sleeve. What if that wasn’t to cover an insignia, but was a suit repair? “Hey . . . Lindquist. Only one of these guys has a SAFER.” 

“You thinking of making a break for it with the jets?” 

“Yeah.” 

The X-3 pirate drew a long, thin piece of metal from the toolbar across his chest. For a moment, Darlene thought the guy had a sword, but it was a heavy tire iron, bent at one end and sharpened at the other. He pointed it at Darlene and then swept it through the air to point to the IFFY. 

Oh ho! Their comms didn’t work. She’d thought they were just on a different channel, but these were old suits, unshielded and not rubberized to protect against Phobos’s static.  

Miming confusion, Darlene tried to buy time for Mo to get to the ship. “Guys, I don’t think they have working comms.” 

“Oooo . . .” She wasn’t sure if that was Mo or Lindquist and didn’t care. 

The X-3 suit stepped forward, pointing the sharpened end of the tire iron at her. Getting stabbed would be bad. Getting stabbed in a vacuum would be worse.  

“Lindquist.” She kept her gaze on the unfriendlies. “If I put you in a fireman’s carry over my shoulder, will you be able to reach my SAFER controls?”  

“Yes. I can probably tether us together, too.” 

“Great.” She waved at the X-3 suit and hoped he would understand that she was going to cooperate. Not that she would, but it would be easier if he thought they all agreed. Darlene rocked on her knees and pushed down hard with her toes to bounce to her feet in a way only possible in minimal gravity.  

The rebound sent her higher than she’d wanted to go, but as she came down, she bent her knees to absorb the force of the landing. Keeping her head level, she straightened. Looking at the unfriendlies, she pointed at Lindquist and then mimed picking him up, finishing with a point to the IFFY. 

X-3 turned to face YORK and used the modified SCUBA hand signal for “team up.” They leaned together, touching helmets so that their voices could transmit through the vibrations. Ha! She’d been right about their comms. 

Trying to keep her head level, Darlene bent down to grab Lindquist’s suit. She did okay with that part, but when she hauled him up to sling him over her shoulder, she lost her balance and staggered backwards. Her klutziness would distract the unfriendlies. Truly. Part of her nefarious plans.  

The X-3 separated from YORK and swung the tire iron at her. Darlene staggered, nearly dropping Lindquist on his head again. “Hit it!” 

“I don’t have the controls yet.” His hands reached, patting her side.  

“Crap.” Darlene kept an arm wrapped around Lindquist and ran for the rock wall. She’d fire the SAFER herself as soon as she got clear of the cave overhang. 

And she’d forgotten about the ones who had gone after Mo. They were skip-hopping away from the wall. Four pirates all told, at least as far as she could see, and all of them were coming for her and Lindquist.  

A hand clamped onto her arm. Darlene yelped. A moment later, the mass of Lindquist vanished from her shoulder with a startled cry. The X-3 held her suit and spun her. Vertigo pivoted the cave around the two of them. Flailing past, she saw Lindquist flying up into the air, nearly to the roof of the cave before he began a slow arc back down. He thrashed, tumbling end over end.  

To hell with this. Darlene dropped her hands to her waist and grabbed her SAFER control. She toggled the safety off with one hand while reaching for the X-3 suit with the other.  

Darlene closed her hand around his sleeve and fired one of the SAFER’s side jets. It was enough to send them into a wild spin. As the cave revolved around them, she watched for the other space suits. She shaped the trajectory of Lindquist’s arc in her head and as they came around again, she released the X-3. Flailing arms and legs, it crashed into one of the other suits.  

The momentum carried her away from them and she let it, watching the cave spiral around her as she looked for the spot of white that would be Lindquist. There. She fired a double-tap on the SAFER thrusters, killing the spin—the physical spin, anyway. Her BPV still had her body convinced that she was tumbling through the cave but she could deal with that.  

“Lindquist! Can you stabilize?” 

“Negative.” His breath was unsupported like he was fighting not to vomit. “Control flung free. Trying to pull its tether back.” 

“Starfish position. I’ll grab you.”  

“Then we’ll both be spinning.”  

“I’m used to it.” A brief spurt with the jet gave her enough inertial thrust to speed toward Lindquist. “Incoming.” 

His arms and legs spread out to create the largest target possible. She snared his sleeve and for a moment, they were both free-tumbling through the cave. Around them, the other suits were swirls of color against the dark rock of Phobos.  

Lindquist gasped. “Tethered.” 

“Confirmed.” Darlene wasn’t a pilot, but she was still Air Force and she was still an IAC astronaut. She’d trained for this on the gimbal rig on Earth and in the large atrium on the space station. She got them stabilized in four taps on the control.  

Another tap jetted them up, out of the cave. Inertia sent them arcing over the edge of the crater, but even Phobos’s light gravity was enough to drag the pair of them slowly back to the surface. She also had to keep correcting for spin—actual visible spin, not the one she felt. “Mo, we’re clear of the cave. What’s your status?” 

“At the ship. Powering up.” 

Their ship wasn’t even on the horizon yet. The tiny horizon, but still. She kept an eye on the gauge for her SAFER. She was already in the red zone. “I’m about out of gas.” 

“We’ll use mine next.” Lindquist’s voice came from two directions, the comm and vibrating through the spot where their helmets touched.  

Mo said, “Sounds good and—Shit.”  

Darlene grimaced, waiting for his SysRep about whatever had just made him curse. The ship was probably on fire. Or maybe the electrical systems had all shorted. 

“There’s a ship coming. It’s an old-model BusyBee from the early Expedition vessels, but they are definitely hunting you.” His voice hissed over the comm. “They have a machine-gun turret jury-rigged to the outside.” 

“Fucking pirates,” Lindquist groaned. 

He wasn’t kidding. And they weren’t just hunting for her and Lindquist. If she were them, she’d go for Mo first and contain all of them that way. She toggled off her mic for a second and spoke only to Lindquist through the vibration of their helmets. “Mic off.” 

A moment later, his voice reverberated back. “What?” 

“I don’t think we’ll get there in time for him to be able to take off safely.” 

“Concur.” He moved a little against the tether. “How much air do you have left? And are you claustrophobic?” 

“Eight hours. And no.” 

“Then let’s go to ground. Mic on.” The resonance of his voice changed as it came through her comm again. “Hey, Mo. Take off, get help. We’ll hide until you’re back.” 

“Hide—Where the hell? They’ve got to know the cave systems better than you.” 

“Who said anything about caves?” Lindquist pointed toward a boulder with dust piled unevenly around it. “There’s three feet of dust on this moon.” 

“Seriously?” 

Darlene used the jets to send them down to the boulder that Lindquist had indicated. It was a genius spot because the natural eddies would camouflage their disturbance. “The longer we argue with you, the less oxygen we have.” 

Mo sighed, long and heavy and angry. “Arming engines.” 

“Confirmed.” She bent her knees as they landed, but they broke through the dust and just kept sinking.  

The grains hissed around her thighs and hips. It didn’t take much effort to burrow under the dark sand. What took effort was staying silent in the darkness to conserve oxygen. It wasn’t any different, really, from the sensory-deprivation tank during astronaut selection. The only difference was having Lindquist’s slow, steady breath as her constant companion. She lay in the darkness, waiting for the cavalry, and Phobos spun on. 

*** 

Nine hours later, Darlene had learned that Lindquist snored and that she could sleep through snoring. Which was good, since it had extended her oxygen supply. And at some point while she slept under the sands of Phobos, the pirates had fled the tiny moon. 

By the time they were back on Mars, debriefed, fed, and given the astonishing treat of hot chocolate, the IAC had a team of people going through the cave they had found.  

Darlene sat in Director Spender’s office with a blanket around her shoulders, cupping the glorious mug of cocoa. Lindquist sat beside her, also blanketed, with his nose practically buried in his cup. Every few moments, he inhaled the steam with a sigh. 

It kept their attention off General Araujo, who was glowering.  

Director Spender, on the other hand, was beaming at them. “We knew that we had a problem with supplies for the Mars colony going missing, but we thought it was happening on the voyage out. The idea that there were pirates grabbing unmanned drops never even occurred to us.” 

Mo leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “Any clue who they are?” 

General Araujo cleared his throat. “Outside your purview, son. We’re just glad you accidentally stumbled upon those caves. What a lucky find.” 

Darlene caught Lindquist’s glance over his mug of cocoa. She rolled her eyes and took a sip. Let the Air Force general do his thing of hiding the real purpose of their mission. 

“Although I will say that perhaps the UN should reconsider the absence of military on Mars.” General Araujo’s glower deepened. “It’s one thing to say that they stole a couple space suits destined for a museum, but the machine-gun turret my people reported must have been imported from Earth. You’ve got a bigger problem on your hands, Director, than just a few smugglers.” 

“Mm-hm . . .” Director Spender narrowed his eyes and stared at the general. “Funny, isn’t it, how ‘your people’ described a machine-gun turret that sounds like an Air Force model.” 

Mo raised a hand. “I wasn’t close enough to ID it positively.” 

“True.” The general nodded. “And even if it were Air Force surplus, that doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to be one of ours than that Elma York is a pirate.” 

Director Spender gave a dry chuckle. “Fair point. And the pirates were just colonists who saw an opportunity for profit. Right?” Here Spender’s smile faded. “The colony isn’t so big yet that we can’t tell who’s missing, General.” 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He straightened, lifting his chin, and glared down his nose at the director. 

Director Spender smiled at him. “I’m sure you don’t.” He stood, brushing his hands off. “Well. You make your report to the UN and I’ll make mine.” 

The general cleared his throat. Darlene kept her attention fixed firmly on her cup of cocoa and tried to ignore the implication that the pirates were a scheme to get a military presence onto Mars. She would bury people alive if she found out they’d been put at risk for that. 

“Of course.” The general’s voice suddenly seemed too warm and friendly. “May I borrow your office again to talk to my people?” 

Your people?” The director looked out the tiny window in his office at Gale Crater. “Yep. Still on Mars. Per UN regulation 230-G regarding military on assignment to the IAC on Mars . . . these are my people. And my purview is keeping them safe.”  

“But—” 

“Let me show you out.” Director Spender came around his desk and walked briskly to his office door, practically forcing the general into the corridor. Darlene lowered her mug to scramble to her feet but the director waved her down. “Sit tight and enjoy your cocoa.” 

A moment later, he had somehow gotten the general out of the office, leaving her alone with Mo and Lindquist. She blinked at the door, head spinning.  

Lindquist’s brow was wrinkled and the constellation of stitches over his eye bristled with confusion. “So . . . I know I’ve got a concussion, but—” 

Mo shook his head. “Not our purview. You heard the director.” He walked over and picked up a mug, pouring himself some cocoa. “This is our purview.” 

Darlene was lucky to be alive and lucky to work with astronauts like these. She grinned at them and held out her mug. “I’ll drink to that.” 

The IAC logos clinked together and somewhere above them, Phobos spun past. 

END

PS. That April Fool’s joke was real. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott_Houston)

PPS. I also talk more about writing it in this interview at F&SF: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/blog/2018/07/30/interview-mary-robinette-kowal-on-the-phobos-experience/

PPPS. I had benign positional vertigo while writing this.

PPPPS. If you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll send you a story on your birthday.

 

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5 Responses

  1. mg

    For decades, my mother has worn a button everywhere that says “Aging to Perfection”. My 50s were good – enjoy yours! And thank you for the birthday present!

    Sorry about the family emergency, hope it all resolves soon.

  2. S. J. Pajonas

    Happy birthday, Mary Robinette! I’m 43 and I know that 50, when I get there, will be awesome. I hope it’s super awesome for you!

    Looking forward to reading the story. This is one of my favorite series. 🙂 I’ll keep this tab open and treat myself after work today.

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