Issue 129 – June 2017

5540 words, short story, REPRINT

Human Error


Lappet worked the mineral vein by hand. There were machines, of course, but they weren’t always suitable. This was a narrow, rotten course of pyrochlore, loaded with niobium and tantalum. It corkscrewed through the asteroid like a drunk on a crotch rocket. Automated equipment didn’t work well with too many irregular vector changes. A rockhead with a hot tip and a trowel, on the other hand, could follow it just fine.

She didn’t mind, really. Outside work kept her away from the habitat. Ever since Malibu died, Alain had been insufferable. Tanielu had been a shit from the beginning of the tour. Being rock boss had gone to his head.

The mining crews didn’t try to bring in bulk ores—siderophilic chunks of mantle, for example. Those were tagged with screamer beacons and left for the grab-and-drop operators that cruised the Belt on their own long, slow schedules. Their job was to locate and harvest the rare minerals, valuable material in small quantities that didn’t show up well on remote scans or fast sensor sweeps. Any chunk of rock with something else inside it had a chance of being important.

This pyrochlore was the fabled “something else.” The loose vein was shifting again, trending into the third octant from local-z orientation. Time to cut another length of access tunnel. She clipped her hot tip and her trowel to the capture bag and carefully worked them down her back tunnel to the closest void. Lappet’s handheld rock burner was stowed there.

Their rock, (217496) 2078 HJ3, was a chunky mass of carbonatite—crustal material, an unusual find with a high potential for rare earths and a number of scarce metals. They’d found a few scattered caltrops in some of the surface crevices, also a good sign. In addition, the asteroid had several naturally occurring voids, which was also unusual. Out in the Belt, rocks without good structural integrity tended to become smaller rocks.

Kind of like what happens to people, she thought. Alain was flying apart. Tanielu had been nothing but a monobloc of shitheadedness.

Lappet wondered what that theory meant for her.

The good thing about the voids was she didn’t have to back all the way up the tunnel every time she needed an equipment change. The alternative was to burn out a stowage cave, but the company strongly discouraged that. Ceres Mineral Resources took the view that extracting bubbles of hot rock from their precious real estate was a health and safety risk. More to the point, they were afraid of slagging something of material value.

Rockheads such as Lappet Ugarte were not considered to have significant material value.

She was still just as happy to be down here by herself. If she’d been running one of the remotely operated burners, she’d be back in the hab sharing oxygen with a couple of very difficult men.

Lappet shifted the handheld burner back up her access tunnel. It was a heavy beast, massing over 100 kilograms. Tiny reaction jets positioned and stabilized the equipment when it was running, but she wasn’t supposed to relocate it while there was any power to the systems. She’d seen a couple of burner accidents early on. That was one safety precaution almost everyone bought into.

She aimed the burner roughly along her desired line of cut. There was an imager mounted to the handlebars to check the working path for voids, insertions, or boundaries in the rock matter itself.

The imager caused the handlebars to vibrate slightly. Her faceplate offered a data feed, but Lappet concentrated on the unit’s built-in display. An even distribution on radargram would mean a clean cut. Anything else would mean wrestling the damned burner back down to the last void and going in by hand. She wouldn’t even use the hot tip if there were another void ahead. It would be all HERO—hand extraction of rubble overhang. The problem with voids was that they might contain gas. Cutting into one with a handheld burner carried a potential for more excitement than any rockhead wanted to meet on an outside shift.

The radargram showed a substantial void, with a metallic inclusion to boot. “Damn,” hissed Lappet. She’d be half her shift cutting into that one the hard way. On the other hand, she could bring up all her stowage once she’d opened up the space.

Her earbud whined. “Hard vac three, do you need assistance?” It was Tanielu. He must have been monitoring her audio feed.

Tanielu could be rough and ready whenever it pleased him to be, but when it came to Lappet he was nothing but by-the-book, all the time. She had enough infraction notices from him to fill a kit bag by way of proof.

“Negative, rock control,” Lappet said.

“Then cut the chatter. Rock control out.”

“Right. Hard vac three out.” You anal purge valve, she mouthed into her faceplate. Though there was almost certainly a code for that buried somewhere in the company man pages, her saying it out loud wouldn’t have been so much by the book.

There was no helping what lay before her. Lappet shifted the burner back down her access tunnel, then set to work the old fashioned way.

There was a reason rockheads still called themselves miners, even out here in the Deep Dark amid their cocoons of remote operating controls and life support and company regulations. In the end, it somehow always came down to shovels and picks.

Lappet labored three hours in silence punctuated only by the ragged sound of her own breathing. The carbonatite was fairly soft—it broke easily and she could push it back by hand. The trick in such a small tunnel was removing the spoil with a timing that balanced between efficiency of effort and not blocking herself in.

All in a shift’s work.

Flexors and tensors in the fabric of her skinsuit braced against her muscles so she could move in the asteroid’s microgravity. The tools seemed to be extensions of her arms—dagger sharp fingers and shovel-bladed hands. It was work, in the purest sense, combining the physical strain of gym time back in one of the rock ports and the thoughtful process of setting her next strike, pulling her next load.

Based on her reading of the radargram, now cached in her faceplate’s processors for reference, Lappet needed to remove less than three steres of rock to open her tunnel into the void. Her dig plan was to work the full two meters of access tunnel, rather than open an exploratory shaft. She would only have bothered with that if she’d thought there was any serious chance of a gas outflow. The two other voids she’d opened so far following the pyrochlore run had been vacuum.

The metallic inclusion was more on her mind. The signature didn’t make a lot of sense—too dense and small to be an ore vein. She assumed it was a nodule that had gotten caught in the original lava flows that laid down this carbonatite, back when the rocks were still part of planet Marduk.

Sometimes she wondered if they remembered those days, with slow silicate thoughts. Did rocks know regret?


It took her a moment to realize she was hearing Alain’s voice in her earbuds.

“Busy here, rock control,” Lappet said, dismissing her fantasies of thinking rocks. She was close to breaking in. Dust fogged her lights. She needed to run a sweeper soon before her sight lines were too occluded.

“Tanielu’s asleep.” Alain sounded dreamy, unfocused.

She leaned against the shaft of her Robbins shovel and let her heart rate settle. The slight plucking sensation of the skinsuit wicking away her sweat was pleasant. “Alain, maybe you need to sleep, too.”

“You’ve been out a long time.” There was definitely a sing-song quality to his voice. “Come home before I lock the door and turn out the lights.”

That was a threat. “Alain . . . ” Damn Malibu for getting himself killed. Who could have known his love was the lock that kept Alain’s head-case tendencies shut safely away?

Well, the Ceres Mineral Resources psych group, for one.

Lappet thought for a few moments. He couldn’t lock her out, not literally. All airlocks opened from the outside with a purely mechanical by-pass. Rescue was more important than piracy. Even to rock pirates. She was suited up for vac now, so whatever turning out the lights meant to Alain, it wouldn’t affect her immediately. Unless he dumped their habitat’s life support or purged its fuel cells, there wasn’t much she couldn’t readily recover from.

So it wasn’t a threat, just an annoyance. At least to her. Some stir of conscience troubled Lappet. “Alain, can I talk to Tanielu?”

“My name is rock control, sweetie.”

“In that case, my name is hard vac three.” She toggled the haptics in her left glove and made Tanielu’s handsign. The habitat’s central systems would send him an alarm. He’d be pissed at her for waking him up, but whatever color Alain’s sky was at the moment, it wasn’t the honest black of the Deep Dark. Someone needed to pay attention.

Alain’s voice was jittery now. Had he been crying? “Well, ok. But come back soon. I miss you.”

“Hard vac three out,” Lappet said brusquely. Alain was on another Malibu jag. Stupid luck was the leading cause of mortality among rockheads. Human error ran a close second. The company classed those two together, though any miner who ever shipped out of a rock port could swear to the power of luck both good and bad. Psych-outs were the third leading cause, her conscience whispered.

She was out here, Alain was in there, and Tanielu could handle him.

As long as her workflow was already interrupted, Lappet ran the sweeper. When she’d cleared much of the dust she resumed digging her face. The pyrochlore awaited.

Lappet broke into the void a few minutes later. There was a swirl in the dust. Possibly some small amount of gas had been trapped within. More likely it was volatiles condensing in the energy input of her lights.

She worked the opening until it was large enough to peer through. This void looked just like the others had—a relatively smooth-walled bubble in the original igneous flow. There was a dark patch on the far wall, over a meter away from her breakthrough. She couldn’t see how high up the void went.

There were probes for this sort of measurement, but this was mining, not science. She meant to complete the process of extending her digging. Lappet used her number three recoilless pick to widen the opening until it was large enough to serve as the next frame of her tunnel. She took another run with the sweeper, then stepped inside.

The void ran almost three meters along her current y-axis, and was slightly over two meters across. Lappet aimed her lights upward. A darker line across the nominal ceiling showed the transit of the pyrochlore vein. She then looked at the patch on the opposite wall.

It was metal. A mass of metal about the size of a small child, with planed and curved surfaces and a regularity of form, which began to frighten her.

Worked metal, inside an asteroid. With the same strange gray-green sheen of the caltrops which the rockheads found from time to time in sheltered spots—cracks, caves, and voids—all around the Belt. Everyone said those were crystals of some kind.

This was undeniably a made thing.

“Rock control,” she whispered. “We have a problem.”

Lappet backed out slowly, careful not to touch anything else inside the void, or indeed the tunnel. One by one she turned out her lights.

The habitat was staked to one flank of (217496) 2078 HJ3. It was a large inflatable module, designed to be stowed for long-haul transport, or simply towed from location to location. In place, it was a big floppy tent with three outstretched arms. Their team’s rockhopper was parked nearby, also staked down to the larger mass of the asteroid. The ship provided power and comm support for the habitat.

Lappet warily approached the hatch at the end of one arm. The pinlights for the controls were live. At least Alain hadn’t dumped the power, then. From the readouts it actually looked like all systems were hot, which was odd, too. Had they been testing something? He hadn’t dumped the life support either, otherwise there would be frost everywhere outside the habitat. The big orange tent wouldn’t have the same whaleback curve of atmospheric pressure within, either.

Maybe Tanielu had responded to her alarm. For the first time since Malibu had died, Lappet found herself concerned about the fate of her fellow rockheads.

She didn’t want to face what was down in the void alone.

Her code opened the hatch. Lappet was mildly surprised. There were two skinsuits on the other side of the airlock, their names stenciled on their chests and helmets—Tanielu and Alain. Malibu’s had been lost with its owner, the suit bracket standing as empty as a promise ever since.

No one had gone for a walk in her absence. Or if they had, they hadn’t gotten far.

Lappet stripped down and wiped her skin clear of the gunk that always accumulated during a shift outside. She hated the sticky feeling, and the fug like an old suit liner. Once clean, she tugged her blue yukata over her shoulders, belted it closed, and keyed her way onward into the habitat’s core.

Inside it smelled of people, ozone, and steam. Tanielu and Alain were at the table, drinking tea. A third sippie was clipped down waiting for her.

“Hey, Lappet,” Alain said. He was small, dark-skinned, grandparents from Haiti. Tanielu, a first-generation Samoan easily twice Alain’s size, nodded. He looked exhausted.

But then he should, she thought. Tanielu’d had less than three hours of rack time between their last comm chatter and when she’d sent him the alarm. “You boys alright?”

“Might be,” growled Tanielu. “Depends on your problem.”

She took her seat. “If you were so worried about me, why didn’t you ask?”

“Didn’t hear no emergency declared.”

Alain nodded agreement.

Something was going on here. Lappet could feel it. The two of them were very nearly cross-eyed with tension. This was more than Alain’s ongoing odyssey of disintegration.

The thought came in a rush of paranoid fear: They knew what she’d found.

Her quiet conscience whispered back: of course they did. Everything any of them did on company time, with company equipment, was metered and miked and imaged. Just because she didn’t snoop the boys’ suit cams or instrument readings when they were out in hard vacuum didn’t mean they weren’t snooping her. As rock boss, it was practically Tanielu’s job to spy.

“No,” she said slowly, aware she’d taken too long to answer. “No emergency declared.” It was tank-switching time. Go for broke. “You know what I found.”

Tanielu answered first. “No, actually we don’t.” He and Alain didn’t even look at each other. A sure sign of collusion.

“Something’s down inside this rock. Something someone made, once.”

“Someone not human, you mean?” There was a catch in Tanielu’s voice.

“Ever read the company man page on artifacts?” Alain asked. His tone was too bright, strangely shiny.

“Mmm . . . no.” Lappet didn’t know anyone who had.

“There’s a standing first-time bounty of one billion tai kong yuan for the discovery of a non-human artifact.”

Fans whirred. A piece of equipment whined faintly. She understood their silence now. One billion TKY was fifty times a miner’s likely lifetime earnings, barring a lucky strike bonus. Whoever could claim that would immediately be very, very wealthy, in that special way that only created more money for lifetimes to come. There were any number of people in the company’s management chain who would be more than pleased to hide three bodies on their way to claim the bounty. Or simply ignore the protests of three lonely, deluded rockheads.

“Do they know yet?” she whispered. Lappet could hardly imagine a worse fate than being bound by wealth to these two. Being dead would be worse, though.

“Your data’s on a batch send,” Tanielu said. “I cut our upstream comm feed right after you found it. So no one knows so far. We’re on an unscheduled maintenance window now as far as the company’s concerned. We’ve got about two more hours before the routine status queries begin.” He leaned forward, clutching his tea sippie close. “If you didn’t know about the money, what the hell scared you so much, Ms. Houston-we-have-a-problem?”

“Just . . . just what it means. What people will think. There was someone else here once. Maybe back when Marduk was a planet and not just an orbiting rockyard.” It baffled Lappet that they didn’t see the gaping, soul-devouring truth. “We are not alone. We aren’t even the first people here in the solar system.” She spread her hands in appeal. “Use your imagination. Think what this means to the human race.”

“It means a billion tai kong yuan,” said Tanielu.

“It means Malibu is still dead,” said Alain. “Unless your aliens can bring him back.”

“It means everything changes,” whispered Lappet.

Tanielu shook his head. “Our lives still aren’t worth a plugged jiǎo. Especially now.”

What else is new, thought Lappet. In that moment she hated them both for being so petty, so worried, so right. “Fine. We send a public broadcast, tell the world what we found.”

“How?” Tanielu again. “Our navcomm systems are completely self-contained. They lock on a company repeater, traffic goes back to Ceres. Unless we go outside and string up wires, we’ve got no way to reach anyone that isn’t within hailing distance.”

That was less than 10,000 kilometers plus or minus, depending on the amount of local dust. No one was that close to them, unless they were running black and cold.

Lappet’s mind scrabbled. “Can we message the guild? Or do a send-to-all?”

“Everything drops into the oversight queue back on Ceres.” Also standard procedure.

Alain stirred. “I say we wipe her data feed and destroy that thing she found.”

“I’ll lose my berth for destroying data!” Lappet was shocked. They were all indentured to the company, but that service could be relatively rewarding—such as being a rockhead—or it might be a lifetime of negative accrual cleaning sludge filters on Ceres.

“You could be dead.” Alain’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe you should try it.”

“Malibu’s death was an acc—”

He came over the table after her, screaming incoherently. Tanielu grabbed at Alain as Lappet jumped back. She moved so quickly her slippers missed their hold and sent her rolling into the air. Tanielu and Alain followed, still wrestling as their combined velocity pushed them past her position on a vector for the upper wall of the habitat module.

Lappet hurled her cup upward to gain downward momentum. It wasn’t much, but she didn’t have far to go. Outside in hard vac she’d have a line gun. In here . . . Inside a habitat module people weren’t supposed to be this stupid.

She made it to the floor as the boys were descending on their rebound from the habitat skin. Her slippers found their plane and gave her back her artificial down. She eyed the arms locker briefly, but escalating the confrontation didn’t seem to be in her interests. Tanielu was far meaner than she was, capable of almost anything. Alain was capable of Houston only knew what, through sheer hopeless desperation.

For a billion tai kong yuan, a whole lot of other people could be killing me as well.

They were right. They were both right. Damn them. She wasn’t smart enough to see a way out of this that didn’t have her taking a hit. The best she could do was minimize the damage.

“Tanielu, wipe the stupid data,” Lappet said as the other two found their footing. “We’re running out of time, and such as it is, that’s our safety valve. I’m going to head back out into hard vac and chisel that thing free. Nothing happens without the artifact, no billion tai kong yuan, no losing it, nothing. If one of us thinks of a way to cash in, fine. We’ll all three be millionaires until long after we’re dead.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “If I decide to fire it into an eccentric solar orbit, Tanielu can give me an infraction notice the size of Bellona-on-Mars. I’ll go back to Ceres and dig sludge, while we all live to be miserable another day.”

“You’re going to throw away a billion tai kong yuan?” asked Alain.

Tanielu turned on him with a fist cocked for a blow which the big man seemed to barely hold back. “Haven’t you been listening, even to yourself?”

“I always listened to M-malibu.” Alain’s voice thickened. “Before Lappet killed him.”

“Dumb luck,” Lappet said, almost the same instant as Tanielu said, “Human error.” His grin was deeply feral.

It was a frayed safety cable, she thought desperately. They’d both been out in hard vac. Lappet had been slipping a bad charge cylinder out of Malibu’s other line gun when the man’s cable snapped. He already had minimal velocity due to the positioning jets of the stone burner in his hands. In Malibu’s panic the burner had flared. Or maybe the switch had stuck—that’s why he was working with it out on the surface in the first place. His suit’s attitude jets fired wildly, sending him into a spin, but they didn’t have nearly enough power to bring him home again. The rockhopper had been cold parked, at the wrong end of a four-hour launch cycle, so Tanielu wasn’t able to scramble after Malibu.

The whole incident grew increasingly muddy in Lappet’s mind. All she knew was that she was holding the line gun the dead man should have had on his belt. When Lappet desperately went to fire it upward in contravention to regs and common sense alike, there was no shot due to the missing charge cylinder.

That was the story Lappet told herself every sleep shift in her dreams, when Malibu came visiting, accompanied by the clicking sound of his suit jets dry-firing after their compressed gas had run out. Sometimes she could hear Alain crying. His sobs became the dead man’s breath, returned to torment Lappet.

They’d listened to Malibu screaming on the comm until his suit had passed out of range. Hearing his lover’s long, slow death had stripped Alain of his sanity.

“I’m suiting up.” Lappet’s throat felt as if it were closing too tight to breathe. “Delete the logs, and keep them turned off until I’m done out there.” Whatever the hell I decide to do.

Outside the vacuum displayed the same knife-edged beauty it had always held for her. The Deep Dark was an eternity of sterile consistency. Lappet followed her safety line around the short, irregular horizon of their rock to her digging. It was blessedly out of sight of the habitat.

Spoil marked the edges of her hole, like some terrestrial rarebit burrow. Despite her fatalistic sense of hurry, Lappet stopped and did her safety checks—life support, power systems, comm. Everything worked. Unlike Malibu, she even had her line gun.

She headed down her twisting tunnel with its gaping vein of harvested pyrochlore. Even through the rock Lappet knew exactly where the artifact was. It took her almost fifteen minutes of very careful movement to reach the last void.

The artifact still sat where she’d left it. She studied what she’d found. It was wedged into a crack in the far side of the void, as if perhaps it had been pushed in from the other direction. Lappet drifted close, the attitude jets in her suit keeping her station while she studied her goal. Not embedded in the rock, so it wasn’t as old as the igneous processes which had formed this chunk of carbonatite.

She reached out her hand. Whatever this was, whoever had made it, this artifact had come through far more time to meet her here than the human race had crossed to send her to this meeting.

It was solid under her touch. There was no squirming, no lighting up, no tiny, toothed alien larvae leaping out. The thing didn’t come loose at her tug, either, but Lappet had expected that. She broke out her 0, 00, and 000 picks and set to work freeing it from the stone.

The bindings of time slipped free one grain of rock after another.

The artifact wasn’t quite as hard to maneuver as the stone burner, though it was damned near that heavy. Forty kilos of mass, at least, which meant at that size it was dense as all get out. She pushed it ahead of her, careful not to knock it against any stony edges and thus leave a betraying trace. Lappet promised herself she would return to the void and use the stone burner to slag the artifact’s resting place.

As she emerged from her hole, something struck her hard on the shoulder. Lappet lost her hold on the safety line and bounced off the spoil pile. She used that momentum to pivot herself around the unwieldy mass of artifact, trying to bring it before her as a shield.

One of the boys was spinning away from her. He had a long-arm wrench in his hands, which he was now flailing to push himself off the surface of their little asteroid as his attitude jets puffed. Lappet twisted her head, trying to spot the name on the suit.

She felt a cold stab of pain. The stencil read Malibu.

Malibu regained control and warped himself along a safety line.

Lappet kicked away from the surface to escape her attacker. It couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. But the suit.

She looked down. Malibu was firing his line gun into the asteroid, using the kinetic reaction to propel himself upward like a missile.

It can’t be Malibu, her inner voice whispered in answer to her fears. You saw him die.

She tongued her comm as the dead man began to overtake her. “Rock control, where is hard vac four?”

Tanielu’s response was prompt. “In his quarters, hard vac three.”

“Could you . . . ah . . . check that for me?”

Alain’s voice broke in. “I’m right heeeere.

Lappet didn’t have a weapon. Not that that mattered much. The way things were going, they might as well all kill each other and save the company the trouble. She drew her line gun and fire suit jets to spin along her axis, seeking a good vector to get back out of the fight and think clearly.

She was aiming her shot when Malibu slammed into her. The line gun tumbled out of her hand, into a low orbit around (217496) 2078 HJ3. Malibu’s helmet cracked into hers.

Alain leered through the faceplate. This close, she could see the stencils were just an overlay. She could have smacked him silly for that stupid stunt.

Still, she would be damned before she’d kill more of her own crew.

“You’re going to pay,” he howled over the comm. “I’m dumping you into the Deep Dark.”

“Why?” Lappet shouted, distracted from her moment of reluctant good will by his anger. She tried to shove the artifact at him, but only succeeded in adding to her spin. “So you can go home with this thing and die without ever getting rich!?”

“Blow that piece of crap out the airlock,” he said. “You owe me a life, sweetie.”

Alain swung the long-arm wrench again. The torque expended twisted his body, loosening his grip on Lappet.

She tried to duck. She wasn’t going to kill again, even if he was trying to kill her first. Her helmet drifted downward, close to Alain’s return swing. Lappet caught him with her free hand and tucked herself under the flailing wrench.

That was when she realized they were thirty meters above the surface and moving away from the asteroid somewhat faster than local escape velocity. Neither one of them had their line guns anymore. Their suits’ attitude jets weren’t going to do it. Malibu had shown them that.

Alain thrashed against Lappet as she tried to think. They had spin. She could kick free of him at the appropriate segment of their arc of rotation and use the imparted angular momentum to return to the surface. She might well bounce, but at least she’d have a chance. He’d be off on a permanent trip of his own, safely out of her way.

Or I can release the artifact, she thought.

She’d lose a billion tai kong yuan that way. Pushing Alain and his homicidal rage into the Deep Dark would let her be worth half a billion, instead of a third.

Half a billion she’d never live to cash in.

Alain thumped on her helmet, scrabbling for the purge valve on her oxygen supply.

“Damn you, you stupid bastard,” she screamed. Counting off her degrees of rotation, Lappet let go of the most significant piece of history ever to be touched by human hands.

Lappet hugged the struggling Alain close as the two of them spun toward the surface of (217496) 2078 HJ3. She was afraid of letting go of him too soon.

They slammed into the rock hard enough to crack her teeth together. Lappet was mortally afraid of the bounce. Suit jets firing, she threw out her hands and scrabbled for purchase. There were knobs and cracks and crevices all over this asteroid.

Alain grunted something incoherent. He tugged on her boot, tugging her away even as Lappet’s fingers snagged on a rounded lip of rock. Her body pulled upward, the strain of both their masses stretching at her shoulders. “Stop fighting me, you damned fool!” she screamed.

The tension shifted, and for a moment she thought he’d let go. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Alain’s wrench spinning away. She hit the surface again, rolling over fast, trying to catch a look at him.

He was floating above her, moving much more slowly now. Still, he was leaving, just as the billion tai kong yuan had done.

“No!” Lappet launched herself after him, slowly so as not to overshoot or drag them both into solar orbit, and caught Alain’s arms. His faceplate was fogged—the bastard was crying. Counting the degrees of their rotation, she reached past his helmet and cracked his oxygen purge valve.

He became a little rocket carrying them back down slowly enough to land in one piece.

As Lappet and Alain impacted the surface again, their team’s rockhopper passed overhead. The ship trailed the safety lines and stakes, which had held it in place. That bastard Tanielu must have had the thing warming through pre-launch cycle since she’d first found the artifact.

“A rescue,” she yelled over comm, but Tanielu didn’t bother to answer.

Lappet already knew where he was heading—chasing after the one billion tai kong yuan she’d just launched into solar orbit. Without the rockhopper’s power supply, the habitat’s fuel cells would be good for ten days, maybe two weeks max, before they froze to death amid the cooling precipitate of their own carbon dioxide. All their comm transmission capability was gone too, except for the short range rescue screamers built into the skinsuits.

She rolled over, her elbows and shoulders aching as if the joints had separated. “Well,” she told the rapidly-fading Alain. “Looks like it’s just you, me, and Malibu out here.”

Twelve days later a pair of hardsuits made their way through the lock into the fetid interior of the habitat. Lappet looked down from her hammock along the upper wall. She liked to think that the oxygen was mildly better at the top of the miniscule gravity gradient, and it kept her away from the mold which had taken over the floor.

Alain hung inert next to her. He hadn’t spoken in four days. Of course, neither had she.

A suit speaker crackled in the thick, hard air. “You kids alive?”

“I am,” Lappet croaked.

One of them raised a nozzle. Ah, she thought. Tanielu made it to somewhere useful, and now he’s cleaning up the competition. Her death would be worth 333 million tai kong yuan to him, after all.

A pale cloud hissed out. Moments later she could taste sweet, sweet air.

“Malibu?” It was Alain, moaning.

“He’s righ’ here,” Lappet lied. “Waiting for you.”

Alain sighed and rolled over in his hammock.

The other hardsuit jetted up to her and offered a breathing mask. “Where’s your rockhopper?”

“You ha’n’ hear’ from Ta’ielu?” The words were hard, so very hard.

“Followed your suit screamers in after we showed up in the area to see why Ceres had lost comm from your team. That’s all we know.” She jetted over to Alain’s hammock, but her suit speaker was still perfectly audible. “What the hell happened here?”

She collapsed back in her hammock. Who knew anything now? What story to tell? Her head wasn’t straight, and Alain wasn’t good for anything.

Lappet struggled to speak again. “Human error,” she said. “Tha’s wha’ happen’. Human error.”


Originally published in Interzone, January/February 2010.

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The late Jay Lake was a highly talented and highly prolific writer who during his tragically short career seems to have managed to sell to nearly every market in the business, appearing with short work in Asimov's, Interzone,, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Aeon, Postscripts, Electric Velocipede, and many other markets, producing enough short fiction to fill five different collections: Greetings from Lake Wu, Green Grow the Rushes-Oh, American Sorrows, Dogs in the Moonlight, The Sky That Wraps, and, most recently, the posthumously released Last Plane from Heaven. Lake was also an acclaimed and prolific novelist, whose novels were Rocket Science, Trial of Flowers, Mainspring, Escapement, Green, Endurance, The Madness of Flowers, Pinon, and Kalimpura, as well as four chapbook novellas, Death of a Starship, The Baby Killers, The Specific Gravity of Grief, and Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh. He was the co-editor, with Deborah Layne, of the six-volume Polyphony anthology series, and also edited the anthologies All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, with David Moles, Other Earths, with Nick Gevers, and Spicy Slipstream Stories, with Nick Mamatas. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2004. Lake died in 2014.

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