Saturn’s ammonia clouds stretch into an infinite horizon, the Sun casting long shadows across the platform’s deck. Lucky Cricket rests silhouetted against the sky while shimmering aerostat lights hang suspended in the distance, waiting.
A dull chill seeps into Jia’s arm as she fishes through the toolbox. With her cryowear, she resembles an arctic explorer with a full-face respirator. She finds the logic probe and hands it to Ping.
Ping kneels beside the aerostat. An aura of menace surrounds it, like working underneath a boat in dry dock. Another gust of wind rattles the blimp’s umbilical. Alloy support cables twang like guy wires and the aerostat groans as it shifts in the dock clamps. Ping stumbles and catches the rail, pushing his hood back. He’s tethered, same as her, but it’s still unnerving. It’s a long way down through Saturn’s clouds.
He slips the logic probe into the access panel. “Did you know that the Assyrians named Saturn ‘Oldest of the Old’?”
Jia smiles. She loves Ping’s trivia. “Well, did you know that it’s the least dense of all the planets? If you had a really big ocean, Saturn would float.”
Ping holds up his hands. “You been raiding my trivia files?”
He examines the probe. “There you are. Open panel forty-two cee.”
A square inset on the aerostat’s surface slides away. Scorch marks mar the control board. She opens the spares compartment and locates a replacement. “I have no idea how Voj makes his numbers with these old J-series stats.”
As if she summoned him, Voj appears in a comms window. “Status?”
“I think we’ve got it,” Jia says. She hands the spare to Ping. “Spectrometry module is fried.”
Voj frowns. “You going to wrap up before sundown? You need to stay on deck overnight, it’s coming out of your commission.”
“Yeah, we’ll make it.”
“Why you wearing cryowear, anyway? You freeze to death on my deck, you’re going to screw my safety numbers.”
“Don’t worry, Voj, your ancient aerostat isn’t worth dying over.” She lifts up the spectrometry module. “Seen this before, you know. You guys should check your clean room procedures. Someone touching parts with ungloved hands cost you fifty thousand.”
“Just fix it,” Voj says. The comms channel closes.
“Eh,” says Ping, “become a freelancer, meet exciting people, make new friends.”
Jia touches Ping’s elbow and he stops. “Sooner or later we’ll have enough saved so we don’t have to take these throwaway jobs.”
Ping gazes up. Saturn’s rings are banded specters against an ultramarine sky. “I’ll miss the view, though.”
* * *
Cassini Station is a city in space, habitation decks rotating against the backdrop of Saturn’s F ring. Every day the station grows as construction vehicles ferry in components. It’s like living in a city where new streets and buildings appear each week, a frontier world powered by its own gold rush of Saturn’s sixty-two moons.
From Jia’s approach vector the station’s rings appear stacked and squashed. The comms icon illuminates. “Lucky Cricket, you are cleared for landing at dock four.”
Jia glances at Ping and smiles.
“Oh,” Ping says, “this is my cue.” He taps the screen and accepts the tower instructions. A heads-up flight path overlays the forward view. “Cassini Control, NG-991 Lucky Cricket, acknowledged.”
“You’re sounding like a pilot,” Jia says. She taps the controls and the ship rolls to match the next waypoint.
“Eh, next we should start training you to be an engineer.”
Jia scrunches her nose. “Yeah, math’s not really my thing.”
Ping holds up both his palms. “You gotta be kidding, right?” He motions at the choreographed dance of space traffic. “If there were any more math around here you’d be tripping over it.” He extends the struts.
Jia coasts into dock four and sets Lucky Cricket down.
It takes a moment to adjust to the station’s spin and she staggers to her ship’s locker. Inside rests a brown jacket with silver stripes, red gradated sunglasses, and a pulse pistol. Ping gives her a sidelong glance. He disapproves of the gun, but she won’t get caught flat-footed again. She dons the jacket and glasses, leaves the gun.
They descend the umbilical and catch the elevator to Customs. The main transit hub is a bustle of people with systems engineers, construction specialists, haulers and gas miners. Beyond it lays the Exchange, a dedicated market hub full of shops and services looking a bit like the malls lining Earth’s airports. It’s an assault on the senses with prismatic holo ads and thumping music everywhere.
They slow as they pass the exosuit shop, eyeing the metallic amber PLEX suit. Another job, maybe two, and they’ll have enough saved. With it, they can go places cryowear can’t. They can unlock a tier of jobs which pay real money. With enough real money, they can move back to Earth and take back the life they lost, and she can finally lift her family out of the slums where she grew up. But, for now, they take the lift to their apartment.
Ping heads to the kitchen. “You want some breakfast?”
They’ve been up all night flying back from Saturn and Jia’s not sure if she’s exhausted or hungry. At the sound of him rustling through the pantry her stomach rumbles. “Sure. Would you make me a tea?” She rubs the back of her neck. “I’m going to catch a quick shower, okay?”
“It’ll be ready when you get out.”
She enters the bathroom and leans on the sink, looking in the mirror. Above her left eyebrow is a small v-shaped scar. For a moment, she thinks about the bathroom mirror in the emergency area of the Uranus mining platform, about her ship shredding around her, and the expression which peers back wants to be somewhere else. Somewhere with Ping, for certain, but it’s like she’s on a business trip which never ends, staying in a hotel which is not her home. Everything that was her life burned up in Uranus’s cerulean sky.
After a moment she strips off her clothes and steps in the shower. The hot water is wonderful on her skin. She rubs her neck and the heat relaxes her muscles. For a minute, only the white noise of raining water and steam fill the small space. She closes her eyes.
The shower door slides open and Ping’s hand touches her shoulder. She turns and faces him. They kiss. There’s barely enough room for the two of them, but it’s not the first time they’ve shared the space. They embrace a moment before Ping rubs her shoulders, and she turns as he massages her neck. It’s a very long day, but the heat of Ping’s hands on her shoulders melts it away.
“The tea can wait,” he says. “Thought you’d like company.”
Not everything was lost, she realizes.
She sighs. “Yeah.”
* * * *