Cast of Wonders 301: Ana’s Asteroid
by M.K. Hutchins
I raced Cornelius home after school, through the corridors of the Platinum Phoenix. He took the right hand side, I took the left. The dents in stainless steel walls made our reflections wobble.
“I’ll beat you this time!” Cornelius called from behind. He was eleven — two years younger than me.
I laughed. “I doubt — ”
But my feet slipped out from under me. I skidded across the floor. Like all the other kids on this asteroid mining colony, my clothes were sewn from surplus mylar blankets — slick stuff. I crashed into a sealed-off door. There were plenty of unused corridors like that, leftover from better days when the Platinum Phoenix actually had passengers.
Cornelius laughed and sped past me, his legs pumping fast. I picked myself up and jogged after.
He waited for me, red-faced and panting, at our door. “Told you, Ana. I’m getting faster.”
I rolled my eyes. “Or I fell.”
That didn’t dampen his round-faced grin in the slightest. “I still won.”
I palmed the key pad, and our door swished open to the side.
“Hey Mom!” I called. “We’re home!”
No one answered. I stepped inside. Our tiny apartment — a steel kitchen table, a couch, and one arm chair — was empty. I peeked into our parents’ room. Nothing.
“Weird,” Cornelius said, voicing my own thoughts. Mom had been putting in plenty of overtime at the ISRU refineries, but she always scheduled her shifts so she’d be here when we got home. Even if she collapsed and fell asleep ten minutes later. Dad was at the school — as the only teacher on the Platinum Phoenix, he always stayed late.
“Maybe she fell asleep at her desk again,” I offered. Our apartment felt tiny and sterile without her weary smile.
I ducked into my room to check on Leonhart, my succulent plant. A little lamp shone on him. No windows for us; the colony was built a kilometer under the surface of our massive asteroid.
I drank in the greenness of him, the beautiful radial symmetry of his leaves. “One day, somehow,” I whispered, “I’m going to save up a small fortune and buy us a ticket to Earth, where there’s whole continents full of grass and trees. Let’s go be botanists together, okay?”
“Are you talking to your plant again?” Cornelius called.
My cheeks heated. “It’s called science! Talking to your plants is proven to help them grow better.”
“You only looked up that study after you started talking to it.”
I stroked one of Leonhart’s smooth, thick leaves and lowered my voice even more. “Cornelius is just jealous.”
“I heard that!” He paused, his tone switching from teasing to hopeful in a heartbeat. “Hey. Want to play Racing All-Stars Unleashed?”
I wanted to stare at the website for the Mendel Academy for Young Botanists and the pictures of its lush campus, covered in purple jacaranda trees and flowering mounds of rhododendrons. Or its pictures of students doing botanical surveys out in the oceans of grass that were the Pampas of Rio Grande do Sul. My parents had grown up in that paradise of green. I still wasn’t sure how they could choose to leave it behind.
But Cornelius would tease me if I said I’d rather stare at pictures of a school. “I should do my homework first.”
“You always do your homework first.”
“That way I’ll have plenty of time to play Racing All-Stars with you later.”
Cornelius snorted. “You mean then you’ll have no time to do anything but obsess over your biology paper.”
I ignored him, sat at the desk under my loft bed, and revised my report to the muted background noise of jet-propelled race cars.
An hour passed. Then another. My stomach was rumbling and my paper was utterly flawless. I wandered out to the couch and sat by Cornelius. “I…guess I could play now.”
He looked worried instead of thrilled. “Do you think we should call Mom or Dad or something?”
It wasn’t like Dad to be home this late. I tapped my wristlet. It projected text across the silvery sleeve of my mylar shirt. I scrolled through my inbox, but neither of them had sent me a message.
My finger hovered over the call button. Surely nothing was wrong. I’d call, and they’d both apologize about getting caught up in some boring meeting.
The door swished open. Mom and Dad walked in, carrying foil-wrapped trays.
“Supper,” Mom said, in a voice deader than the abandoned moons of Mars. The purple-black circles under her eyes seemed even darker than usual. Dad wasn’t any cheerier.
Cold dread clenched around my gut. “What’s wrong?”
Dad ran a hand through his thinning hair and said nothing. Mom managed a weak smile and set the trays around the table. “I’m sorry we’re both so late. You must be starving.”
We were on tight rations these days, but for the first time in a month, I wasn’t eager to tear into the tray. Cornelius didn’t share my hesitation — he ripped open the top piece of foil, letting out a puff of steam. Beneath, peas and amaranth swam in a gray-green sauce of algae and nutritional yeast.
My parents open theirs and nibbled lightly.
“What broke this time?” I asked. “The navigational thrusters?”
I couldn’t think of much that hadn’t broken. The fabricator — a sophisticated 3-D printer — had been down for six months. The water recycler spluttered out next. Technicians patched it together, but without exact, fabricated replacement parts, it was running on seventy percent efficiency. The aeroponics garden used to grow strawberries. Not anymore.
After that, the air scrubbers needed a patch-up job. Then the furnace.
My parents looked at each other, silently debating how much they ought to say.
“If you don’t tell me, I’m going to assume that the air scrubbers failed completely and we’ll all suffocate tomorrow.”
I half-expected them to laugh. But the worry lines around their mouths deepened. They squeezed each others’ hands. In a very soft voice, my father said, “It’s not…not quite that bad.”
It felt like a black hole was imploding my stomach. Cornelius hadn’t stopped eating, but he had paused to chew, watching our parents carefully.
Dad sighed. “Do you want me to tell them? I can do it.”
Mom hesitated, then nodded. I couldn’t tell if she actually thought this was a good idea, or if she just couldn’t muster the energy to disagree. She bent her head over her plate, nibbling the peas. Not looking at us.
Dad cleared his throat. “The last of the repair robots for the mines broke last week. Today, both charge-setting machines leaked blasting gel all over themselves. Without the robots, we have no way to clean them up. Mining operations have stopped completely.”
Cornelius swallowed. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
I knew exactly how bad that was. The Platinum Phoenix didn’t just mine heavy metals to sell to Earth, once our massive asteroid orbited back around. It mined ice, too. Ice could be melted for drinking water — or chemically split into breathable oxygen and hydrogen fuel to heat the colony.
With the water recycler, air scrubbers, and furnace all patched-up and running inefficiently, we needed every bit of ice we could get.
“Can you and the other ISRU technicians fix the repair bots?” I asked Mom.
Mom rubbed her bloodshot eyes. “We’re…trying.”
It didn’t sound like they were succeeding.
“How long do we have?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.
“Maybe we’ll find a way to fix them.” She tried to sound reassuring, but her voice was thin and exhausted.
“How long?” I asked again.
Mom sighed and set down her fork. “A week. We’ll run out of air in a week if we don’t figure this out.”
I’d just been joking about suffocating, but her words still felt surreal. Distant. Untrue. Our family — and the six hundred other inhabitants of the Platinum Phoenix — couldn’t just cease to exist. Especially over some mining equipment.
“Not all parents will choose to tell their children about this,” Dad cut in. “Please honor their decision and don’t spread this around at school.”
“School?” I spluttered, incredulous. “You want us to go to school when we’re all about to die?”
“School tomorrow, like normal,” Dad said firmly. “Eat your dinner, Ana.”
I ate it all, then chucked my foil dish into the recycler. I want to say my dread made dinner taste horrible, but apparently algae and nutritional yeast already taste as bad as anything can, because the bile rising in my throat might have actually improved the flavor.
Every night when Mom came home — always late, now — I demanded answers. On the first day, she said they might have fixed one of the repair robots.
The next day, she said they’d utterly fried the robot. She explained their plan to start up one of the charge-setters, despite the leaked blasting gel all over it. The machine still worked; the real danger was accidentally igniting the gel. Perhaps, she said, if they were careful, they could keep mining.
On the third day, she reluctantly admitted they’d blown up not only one of the charge-setting robots, but one of the three shafts up to the mines as well. She assured me they’d solve this problem before we ran out of air.
“How?” I asked.
Mom plastered on a smile, squeezed my shoulder, and didn’t answer. She didn’t know.
I holed up in my room after that. I didn’t do my homework. I sat on my bed and stared at Leonhart.
I knew the two of us never had a chance of buying a ticket to Earth and attending Mendel Academy, but it would have been nice. Flowers. Grass. Water. Air.
Last orbit, we’d only had two people who could afford to pay for a shuttle lift from Earth — my friend Manoela and her mom. I’d been angry and jealous, watching her leave me behind. I was still jealous. But now I was glad she’d managed to get off.
It was past 1:00 am colony-time when my door opened. Cornelius scuttled inside, his round face lit only by his wristlet. “Ana? Are you awake?”
“Yeah.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Lights.”
They flickered on, revealing a red-eyed Cornelius. He climbed up the ladder and sat on the bed next to me. “For the first time in my life, I wish I’d done more homework.”
For the first time in my life, I hadn’t touched mine at all.
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Cornelius whimpered.
I nodded. Knowing how we were all about to die wouldn’t change the fact, but I could at least explain it to him. “There’s only one charge-setting machine left, and it’s covered in leaked blasting gel, so we can’t mine with it anymore. No mining means no ice, so we can’t get more water, air, or fuel. Which we need, given how broken-down everything in this colony is.”
“I know that. But why don’t they just send someone up into the mines to clean the charge-setter?”
“I’ll show you.” I twisted my wristlet so it projected at the wall, and brought up a map of our asteroid — a roughly circular shape about thirty-two kilometers across. There were two kilometers of squiggly lines, nestled safely away from solar radiation a kilometer under the asteroid’s surface. “Here’s our colony, the Platinum Phoenix.”
I tapped again, and a red blob, a kilometer away from the colony and three and a half kilometers beneath the surface, appeared. “Here’s where the best ore deposits are. Drilling a two and a half kilometer, straight shaft is really, really hard — time-consuming, expensive, prone to tilt and curve. You name it. The engineers drilled three access shafts at different points — each just wide enough to send up the repair robots. Robots assembled all the larger machinery up in the mines.”
Cornelius stood and walked over to the wall. The projection rippled across his back. He stepped to the side and traced the three thin lines leading up into the mines with a chubby finger. “They made these shafts too small for people?”
“No one thought we’d need people. It was safer to have the robots do all the maintenance work up there.”
“It’s not safer now. You’re sure none of the technicians would fit?” Cornelius’ voice was all pale and shaky — worse than when Dad called on him in class to solve a division problem he didn’t know.
“Wristlet. Project a to-scale image of the lift tube.” A rectangular shape appeared on the wall. “This is what the repair robots ride up and down in, like an elevator. It carries ore down, too.”
Cornelius frowned at the image. “Maybe someone really skinny would fit if they just made it taller.”
“Six years ago they tried taller tubes to speed up ore delivery. They always got caught on slight curves in the shaft. The tubes crumpled.”
Cornelius winced. “You’re sure?”
I paused, tilting my head to the side. The outline of the tube almost framed him. “Can you step an inch to the left? Sorry, my left.”
I chewed my lip. The outline of the tube was maybe fifteen centimeters taller than Cornelius. Ten centimeters or so taller than me. And just barely wide enough for a kid to fit.
None of the adults on the Platinum Phoenix could travel up the shaft and into the mines. But I could.
The Platinum Phoenix was supposed to be the investment opportunity of a lifetime. Nuclear engines spun the asteroid 1036 Ganymed so we’d have Earth-like gravity in our colony, then pushed the asteroid into an elliptical orbit that passed by Earth, then Mars, and back again in a little over two years. Our colony could ferry settlers and scientists to Mars, using only limited fuel to keep the asteroid in the right orbit. In the meantime, we could mine valuable metals to sell.
I was born on the Platinum Phoenix, into what my parents were sure was a bright future.
Then the world lost interest in settling the Red Planet. No more passengers. No more scientists. Greatly reduced profits. The last time we passed by Earth, the colony could only afford basic supplies. I knew a few people who would have bought a shuttle ticket to the surface then, if they’d had enough money, but most of the founders of the colony still believed they could make it work.
No one had seemed worried about surviving our twenty-five month orbit. No one had planned on the fabricator breaking beyond repair.
Which was the only reason I found myself sitting with my parents in front of Governor Cardoso. We were still eight months and millions of kilometers away from Earth and anyone else who might help us. I was his only option. I wiped my clammy hands on my repurposed mylar pants.
“Your daughter, Miss Martins, sent me a very interesting message late last night.” He folded his hands on the cold stainless steel desk between us — the metal was the same color as his hair.
My throat became a desert. I’d hoped he’d just send me off, without telling my parents. I didn’t want them to worry.
Or to say no.
He pushed a glass screen across the desk to them. “If you’d sign this consent form.”
Mom and Dad glanced at me, then furrowed their brows over the document.
“You…you want to send her up?” Dad spluttered.
“Her idea. Not mine.” Governor Cardoso’s hard, unflinchingly voice would have been scary in other circumstances, but right now, his resolve was just what I needed.
“She’s…she’s too young to do something so risky, so…” Mom fumbled for the right words to excuse me.
“Actually, I’ve contacted Dr. Almeida,” Governor Cardoso said. “She assures me that Ana is, in fact, exactly young enough. She’s the oldest child on this asteroid who can physically fit into the tube.”
Fear swirled across my parent’s faces. Dad sat closest to me. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Hard. “You can’t have our daughter.”
“I volunteered!” I protested, my voice shriller than I’d intended.
“That doesn’t make it right to endanger you,” Dad replied.
I tried to give my voice the same firm edge that Governor Cardoso’s had. “If I don’t go, I’m dead anyway. Me, you, Mom, Cornelius. And everyone else we know.”
They couldn’t deny that, but their mouths were pursed, flat lines.
“Please. Let me try,” I whispered.
They hesitated. Their hands trembled. But the signed the consent form.
I spent the next day with the technicians, learning how to use a wire brush and a slick orange solvent to safely scrub up blasting gel. The next day, I got ready for the mines.
I had to wear a diaper — gross — but the suit itself was even more uncomfortable. I squeezed one foot in, then the other. The lines criss-crossing the fabric made me feel like a bottled-up tube of toothpaste, but I guess that was the point. The mines were a cold, unpressurized vacuum. I needed the pressure of the suit to keep my blood from boiling.
I got my arms through the tight sleeves and my hands into the stiff gloves. A half-dozen techs checked the fit on everything. Some of them gave me grateful glances. Others shuffled uncomfortably through their work, never looking me in the eye.
Nurse Hwang took my vitals. After she gave the thumbs-up, they fastened an airpack to my back, then snapped on the bubble-like helmet. All that extra weight around my head made me feel like I was about to topple over. But I managed to walk to the airlock without swaying too badly.
Dad waited for me there. All suited up, complete with airpack and bubble helmet. “I’m going to take you down to the shaft.” His voice crackled through the small speaker in my helmet. “Your mom wanted to come, too, but we drew straws. She’s staying with Cornelius.”
Dad squeezed my hand, then kept holding it, like I was a little kid half my age. Just then, I didn’t mind.
A twelve minute ride up the mine shaft. A three-kilometer walk to the charge-setter. An hour or so of scrubbing it clean. Then the walk back, and a twelve minute ride home.
My airpack, with a mini air scrubber attached, could give me eight hours. More than triple what I needed.
Dad and I stepped into the airlock, a small chamber maybe two meters by two meters. The door clicked shut behind us — a thick wall of aluminum and glass separating us from the techs and the rest of the Platinum Phoenix.
Air hissed, pulled through the vents. The veins on my suit seemed to squeeze tighter as pressure left the airlock.
Then the far door slid silently open. Out headlights illuminated a wide gallery of polished red-brown asteroid rock in front of us.
I refused to show I was scared — to linger even a step behind Dad. I strode into the gallery with him. My lights glared on the threads of metal embedded in the smooth floor — the electromagnetic tracks of the mine carts.
Dad glanced at me. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I replied, even though my skin prickled all over.
His long exhale rattled in the speaker. “All right then. This way.”
We walked only a minute or two before we came to the mine cart. It looked a bit like those in old Westerns, except it was four times as big, shinier, and the computer console on the front glowed slightly green. Dad boosted me over the edge, then pulled himself up and over. We each picked a wheel well cover to sit on.
“Technicians,” Dad said. “You can start the mine cart.”
It lurched forward, throwing us into the back wall. I grunted, peeling myself up into a more comfortable position. My hip ached, though I wasn’t really hurt. But I still had a bad feeling — a lump in my stomach, an icy sensation inside my teeth. Something was wrong about this place, and it wasn’t just the vast darkness and the looming, rust-colored rock.
“You hurt?” Dad asked.
The cart vibrated under us as we sped through the gallery, toward the nearest of the two remaining mine shafts. That’s when it struck me. I could hear myself breath. I could hear my Dad. But I couldn’t hear anything else. Not the smack when I hit the wall, or my footsteps before that, or the noise of this cart on its tracks. There wasn’t any noise in a vacuum.
I slapped my hand on the floor of the cart. Nothing, of course.
Silence pressed, deep and suffocating, all around me. “So. Umm.” I needed a conversation. But I had nothing to say.
“I’ll…umm…be back soon.”
“We can turn around, if you’re nervous.”
Of course we couldn’t. I was the oldest kid still small enough to fit. We’d all die without these mines. “I’m not nervous.”
Gentler than it had started, the cart glided to a stop. Dad and I piled out. There, in front of us, stood a short, stainless steel tube, dangling from pulley wires. I tried looking up the shaft, but the darkness quickly swallowed my light.
Dad lowered the tube door — it hinged at the bottom, forming a short ramp. “I’ll be here when you come down again.”
“I know, Dad,” I mumbled. I just wanted to get it over with.
“I know, Dad.”
Then he hugged me. “I love you.”
I knew that, too.
My brain tried to hear the scrape of my boots on metal, but all remained eerily silent as I stepped inside. I had to bend my knees and tilt my head to the side to fit. Dad packed my cleaning supplies and a long-comm around my feet. A regular comm couldn’t cut through all this rock. My legs were already starting to cramp.
Dad closed the door. My headlight glared all over the rock-dust coated inside of the tube. I felt pressure on the soles of my feet as my stomach dropped. I was headed up. Through a tiny shaft, surrounded by kilometers and kilometers of silent, dark rock.
My elbows and knees throbbed where they pressed against the walls. Twelve minutes. It hadn’t seemed that long, before. Why I hadn’t I uploaded music or a book or something to my wristlet? I only had my aches and my queasiness to keep me company.
I twisted my arm, managing to glance at my wristlet. I’d been in here for less than two minutes. I thought I might be ill, but I clenched my jaw tight. I was not going to spend the next two hours up here with vomit splattered all over my face and helmet.
The tube slowed. An alto voice cut through my speaker, via the long-comm. “Hi, Ana. This is Lily Mason. I’m an ISRU tech — I work with your mom. I don’t know if you remember me. I’ll be the one talking you through this.”
“I remember you.” Mason was the one who’d had the bright idea to use mylar blankets to sew new clothes for growing kids. Mom always said she was both brilliant and easy to talk to — a rare combination. I hoped she could talk me through the mines and safely home again.
“All right. You’re stopped. I’m opening the door.”
As she said it, the door in front of me silently fell forward and hit the ground.
My headlight illuminated an awkwardly low ceiling, but no walls. Just the occasional squat support pillar and a dark expanse. I knew this shaft led into an open room, but it didn’t make it less unnerving. It felt like something built by aliens. It certainly hadn’t been built for humans. My pulse quickened, pounding against the tightness of my suit.
I took one step out and slipped on the ramp, landing flat on my back. My legs must have fallen asleep or something. I flexed my toes and rubbed my legs as best I could, then stood.
It felt like walking on rubber. I was bouncing. I picked up my cleaning kit and the long-comm.
“Walk slowly until you’re used to it,” Mason said. “Our gravity is generated by the spin of the asteroid. You’re two and a half kilometers further inward, so gravity’s only ninety percent in there. Keep heading the direction you’re going. Do you see the leftward gallery?”
No, I wanted to scream, I didn’t. Just floor and ceiling and darkness ready to swallow me up and crush me under tons and tons of unforgiving rock.
I bumped my head and shrieked.
“Ana?” Mason asked.
I shuffled backward and looked up, ready for giant spiders or evil robots. There was just a low, rough patch on the ceiling.
My hands were clammy, my throat was dry, and I felt like an idiot. “I’m fine.”
I kept walking. After a while, my light caught on something up ahead — a wall, and a square opening in it. “I see the gallery.”
“Good. Keep walking. The equipment’s two more kilometers in.”
Walking wasn’t exactly the right word. I was bow-legged and shifting along as best I could. The insides of my thighs and my lower back already ached from the strain. Two more kilometers. My lungs felt tight, but I could do it.
I entered the gallery — low-ceiled, but wide, maybe five meters across. I tried not to watch the long, flickering shadows my headlamp cast over the clawed-out stone. My light caught the occasional glitter of a speck of ice. I breathed shallowly. I felt cold and shaky and hot all at once, like I’d come down with a bad fever.
I wished I had Leonhart here to talk to. Or even look at. Something green, something familiar. But he probably wouldn’t survive the cold vacuum of space any better than I did, and they didn’t make space suits for succulents.
More and more ice glittered on the walls, until there was a whole vein of it, streaking down the gallery wall. Soon after the vein appeared, I found the charge-setter and the end of the gallery. Just as Mom had said, a capsule of blasting gel had bubbled all over the front of the machine. I prodded the gel with a finger. I prodded the gel with a finger. It had dried all hard and springy — like the rubber turf of the running track in the rec hall.
I pulled out a bottle of solvent, some rags, and a wire brush. I tried to wipe my clammy forehead before I got to work, but of course my hand just hit my bubble helmet.
When I knelt next to the charge-setter, black spots swarmed my vision. Maybe I really would be ill. I bent down on all fours, trying to catch my breath, but my lungs still felt tight.
“Ana. Your biometrics are showing that you’re low on oxygen. Can you check on your airpack?”
“Without taking it off?” I tried to look over my shoulder, but it’s not like the helmets had great mobility.
“Turn around so the charge-setter’s camera can see what’s back there.”
I did so, slowly.
Mason swore — a stream of words I knew with at least three I didn’t. My stomach lurched, but I swallowed it back down.
“Tell me,” I demanded.
“The tube connecting your airpack to the air scrubbers — the stuff that recycles your air and gives you plenty to breathe — it’s been jarred open just a crack. Probably when you fell. Reach behind you. Can you grab it?”
I felt like I was dislocating both my shoulders, but I could only just brush it with my fingers. I had no leverage to pop it back into place. “No.”
More swearing. “You have to come back.”
I swallowed hard. “How much time do I have?”
“An hour. Probably.”
I glanced at my wristlet. It had taken me that long to walk here. “Can I even make it back?”
She didn’t answer. I heard snatches of other voices — none of them Mom or Dad. Did they even know?
I’d tried to save everyone. Instead, I’d just be to the first to suffocate.
I bit my lip. I didn’t have enough time to get back, but maybe I had enough time to scrub this machine clean. Maybe I could save Mom, Dad, and Cornelius.
I poured out some of the solvent and began scrubbing, blinking away black spots. My head felt huge and airy, my arms detached and heavy. I had to work quickly. Orange mist rose from the solvent as it slowly began to boil, thanks to the low pressure in the mines. I wiped my brush clean on the rags, then poured more solvent on the machinery.
“Ana.” Mason’s voice returned. “We want you to stand and start walking back. You’re going to make it.”
“Not enough good air,” I mumbled, my words already sounding slurred in my ears. My hands slipped on the machine’s metallic panels. I got one glove smeared in partially-dissolved blasting gel. The stuff hardened up again, fusing three fingers together.
Mason cleared her throat. “You’re…right, unfortunately. Once you get as far as you can, we’ll have you vent some heat. We’ll keep you cold. Then we’ll send someone to bring you back.”
I’d heard stories of half-frozen astronauts being brought back to life — you weren’t dead until you were warm and dead. But I knew it was a long shot. “None of the techs can fetch me from here.”
“We’re getting Cornelius suited up as we speak.”
“No.” I scrubbed, the wire brush impossibly heavy in my hand. I wanted to save my little brother, not endanger him. “I’ll finish it.”
My hands doubled in front of me. At this rate, I wasn’t going to get the charge-setter clean before I passed out.
I leaned my back up against the wall, trying to pop the tube into place. Nothing happened.
I chocked back a sob or a laugh — I felt delirious, just thinking about Cornelius finding my corpse. Was the image of him standing over me hilarious or tragic or both? I couldn’t even imagine his round face in a space suit, let alone up here, surrounded by all this endless rock.
I slumped to the ground next to the charge-setter, leaning heavily on my hand with the blasting gel-fused fingers.
“Ana. You have to start walking. Ana. Are you listening?”
I poked the half-solvent goop drooling onto the floor from the charge-setter. Orange mist curled up from its surface. “Don’t send Cornelius,” I mumbled.
Of course they were going to send him. Someone had to finish the job I’d failed at. I poked the gel again. It had failed its job, too. It wasn’t supposed to ooze everywhere, then harden up.
The fingers I’d been prodding it with dried together, too. Tight.
Hope fluttered up my chest. Delirious, wild hope that tasted like algae and spinach and hot sauce.
With both hands, I scooped up as much goopy blasting gel as I could and poured it over the busted seal of my air scrubber.
The black spots in my vision shrunk, then disappeared. I could feel my toes and fingers properly. A faint, plastic smell circulated into my helmet.
“Ana? Your biometric readings show that your oxygen levels are rising back to normal. That can’t — is that right?”
“Don’t send Cornelius,” I said firmly. Then I carefully poured some solvent on my gloves, picked up the wire brush, and got to work.
The walk back through the gallery was no less dark, and no less creepy. The ride down the shaft was just as long and just as cramped. But my father was waiting for me at the bottom. We rode the minecart to the lab. On the other side of the airlock, I took off my helmet and breathed in clean, abundant air.
Mom and Cornelius were there, waiting for us. All four of us crushed together in one group hug that somehow wasn’t awkward, despite the two airpacks in it.
“The Platinum Phoenix might be a dying bird,” Mom said, “But thanks to you, it’s not dead yet.”
I nodded, not wanting to think just yet about how close I’d come to dying myself.
Cornelius whipped around and grabbed something off a counter — he’d brought Leonhart. “Here! I knew you’d come back if your plant was waiting for you.”
I cupped my succulent in my hands, staring into that mesmerizing pattern of living green. Then I glanced up at Mom. “Are we…are we going to be okay now?”
“We should be able to make it to Earth and resupply, yes,” Mom replied gently. “There’s already talk of how to prevent this from happening in the future — including more plants all over the colony, to help with air supply.”
More plants. More green. Less metal and hard corners. That was almost as good as going to the Pampas on Earth. If I hadn’t just come down a mine shaft, I would have cheered. But I was still shaky all over.
Thankfully, Cornelius had enough enthusiasm for both of us. “You were awesome, Ana! Let’s go play Racing All-Stars Unleashed to celebrate! I’ll let you be first player.”
I smiled at him. Our world had nearly ended, but Cornelius was still himself, whole and unharmed. “Let’s do it.”
About the Author
M. K. Hutchins
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, and a force of nature. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and the magic, wonderful world in which she lives here: https://www.patreon.com/