Centaurs

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2010.

Easy: obviously you don't wear a skirt for a date where you'll have to use a pressure suit. Hard: exactly how much did Ginny like Serge? A lot, yeah, but — she felt her cheeks get warm, and realized she'd probably been brushing her teeth for fifteen minutes straight while replaying the same rutty fantasy.

Oh, god, some people would say this was really a first date. Ginny turned on the hair dryer to make it sound like she was doing something. But it didn't feel like a first date. So what if they'd never met in person? She felt like she knew Serge better than she'd ever known a friend. Better than any boy, for sure. Way better than Juan, and she'd gone pretty far with him — would have gone further if his stupid sister hadn't come home at the wrong time. She wished she lived on Earth, where you could get some privacy. She'd carefully never mentioned to Serge that she'd had her tubes valved, so that would obviously be an easy excuse to say no. It would all be easy, if she could just figure out whether “no” was the word she wanted to say.

By the time she was done with the checklist for her suit, she'd stopped worrying and was whistling the bluesy instrumental chorus to her tune tune. It was a good line, simple in a way that would never give anyone a clue how much sweat it had cost her — and it was singable, like the best instrumental lines always had to be. Maybe she should let Serge put lyrics to it after all.

She realized that her father was hovering in the door to her room, his prosthetic arm folded over his real one.

“I like that one,” he said. “What did you end up calling it?”

Makes You Wonder.”

“Oh, I remember.” He ya-da-da'd the first couple bars of the A section, and she laughed. Daddy was probably the only man in the Neptune Trojans who could wander off key singing three notes that were supposed to be the same pitch. He joined her, laughing at himself. “It's an old mining camp you're checking out?” he asked.

“Yeah.” She laid out her suit's carrying bag on her bed and zipped the suit inside.

“And this boy Serge,” he asked, “he's vacuum qualified?”

“Of course. They make you do it in school.” She was pretty sure that Serge had done the qual as an independent study, but there was no need to steer the conversation in that direction. Her parents seemed to have assumed that she'd already met Serge in person, and she hadn't corrected them.

“Never know these days. Anyway, the time comes, all the drills in the world might not mean anything. What kind of suit does he wear?”

“Uh, Berg and Huang, I think.” She didn't actually know. She put her own suit bag over her arm and acted ready to leave.

“Lot of people swear by a B and H,” he said. “I don't like the helmet, though, bad case of alligator head. Filed your flight plan?”

“Yep. I'll be back by midnight.”

“Okay. Don't rush to get back on time, just call and let us know if you can't make it. Rushing —”

“— is the best way to get killed, I know.” She must be the only girl in the world whose parents would worry so much about such a short flight. The whole thing was less than a light-second, and she wouldn't even be solo for most of it.

“All right, then.” He handed over the keys to the runabout and gave her an awkward hug around the suit bag. “Have fun.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”

Ginny laid in her precomputed course and started bringing the cabin down from habitat pressure to 30k. Centaurus looked so bright and close from the pilot's couch that she felt an urge to lick a finger and wipe it off of the cockpit plastic. How could anyone have ever seen the shape of a horse-man in that jumble of stars?

The quarter-gee of thrust was just enough to settle her stomach, and she ate two breakfast bars and drank a bulb of tea. She decided that her dithering in the bathroom had been all about low blood sugar. Completely silly. She was just looking forward to meeting Serge in person, and checking out the old mine site. If he'd had another reason for suggesting a flight to a secluded spot, well, that could be okay too. Her cousin Maypalig knew him, and last year Ginny had managed to twiggle enough information out of Maypalig, without seeming too interested, to be pretty sure Serge was someone you could trust. Anyway, Ginny knew him better by now than Maypalig did.

The transfer orbit brought her in with her vector slanty instead of ass backward, so she got a nice naked-eye view of the Blum family's habitat from its day side. It was the kind of independent mine (ice and methane) that Daddy always talked about going back to — a four hundred meter rock with the habitat spinning inside a big ice-reinforced cavity. All Ginny could see was the surface, which was littered with equipment.

There was Serge, with a big orange signal ball. She brought herself in on manual with the gas jets, nice and easy. Not bad for a townie girl, hardly even kicked up any dust. (She'd hated Juan's slapdash landings.) She drove in the landing pitons and winked a go-ahead with the hull lights. The ball blacked out, and Serge launched himself casually into a flat fifty-meter arc with just enough spin to bring his feet forward. Clank, nailed the landing on her hull — he obviously spent a lot of time doing surface work. Daddy would approve. He probably wouldn't have minded at all if she'd mentioned that she'd never met Serge in person.

She checked her face on her phone. The airlock finished cycling, and Serge's voice came over the intercom from his helmet radio. “Hey, tone-deaf.”

“What's up, word butcher?” It was funny to hear him answer right away, without any lightspeed delay at all. She leaned down to look through the cockpit's hatch. Useless: everyone looks the same in a suit. She already knew what his face looked like.

He waved a gauntleted hand. “How about we get under thrust,” he said through the intercom, “and then I'll unpeel?”

“Sounds good.”

It still felt strange to talk to him in real time. Bolivar Condominium and the Blum family hab were as close together this month as their orbits would ever bring them, close enough that Serge and Ginny could afford the fuel for a visit — if she was careful to nav it like a little old lady going to church.

The cockpit GUI showed that Serge was strapped in to the passenger couch. She lifted off, fired up the nukes, and got under way. As her attitude lined up, Centaurus swept back into view. Contradictory images of centaurs popped into her mind from that boring semester of Ancient Earth Cultures: wise teachers, then a statue of a savage one carrying a struggling nymph slung over his horse-back. Foosh! Her forebrain might be old-lady-to-church, but her hindbrain was obviously on a different track. She checked to make sure her ears weren't too red before hitting the comm. “All clear,” she announced.

She left him some time for privacy in case he had plumbing to arrange while he shucked his suit. Finally she heard his steps coming up the companionway. She took a deep breath and leaned over.

“Hi.” His head popped through the hatch.

“Hi. You can come on in, there's room. The nav board's locked down.”

“Okay.” He did a slow-motion pull-up and swung into the cramped cockpit. He looked the same as on the phone, but ... younger.

“At last I meet my nemesis,” Serge said.

“Do I look like you expected?” she asked, forcing a smile to cover her surprise. “I sharpened my fangs just for you.”

“Better than I expected. That wart cream must really work.” She could see him looking-but-not-looking at her, the way boys did.

“So, uh, I guess I never asked, but how old are you, Serge?”

“Fifteen. You?”

How could she not know that? But of course only a total frutzer would do that on the first pingback: How old are you, and what school do you go to? It was the kind of thing her parents probably said the first time. She realized that she hadn't answered his question.

“Turned seventeen in April.” She saw that he was blushing. “Sorry, it's not like it really matters. I mean, I was just surprised. Most of the kids in BritLit are older, that's all.”

“I'll be sixteen in a couple months. They placed me in freshman comp,” he said, pretending to look at the nav board, “but I threatened to throttle this guy if he dangled another participle, so they kicked me upstairs.”

“So are you going to graduate early or something?”

“No, I have a dysfunctional relationship with Euclid. Proofs —” He turned back to her and made a face. “You want to do ag management, right?”

God, had they really sunk into talking about what they wanted to major in? “Probably,” she said, “but I try not to worry about it too much. Life ends up happening to you anyway, you know?” Maybe she was trying too hard to sound sophisticated. Fifteen ... wow. Why hadn't Maypalig told her? Probably because Ginny had been so careful to act like she didn't care.

Serge had found the rock in a database of old mining claims, but the records were short on details: nothing but orbit, mass, and diameter. She put the runabout in a slow orange-peel trajectory around it and did an eyeball scan while lying on her back in the pilot's couch. The landscape appeared to twist and revolve. Typical crunchy frostball, dirt sprinkles on top.

“Hey, Serge?” she said over the intercom. “I'm not seeing much, but I don't know what I'm even looking for. You want to come up and take a look? You're the miner.”

“Okay.”

The centrifugal force was just enough so you could hear his hands and feet on the rungs of the latter. He popped into the cabin.

“You want the couch?” she asked. “I can —”

“No, it's all right.” He crammed himself onto the tiny deck, slouching with his fingers hooked behind his knees and his head tilted back.

Discreetly, she looked him over. He was actually ... kind of cute. Fifteen, though. What would people say? She caught a whiff of him, that suit smell that boys got, but it wasn't strong. Nice, really. His belly muscles were just a little bit taut through his white cotton shirt. Oh, god. This was nuts. Totally inappropriate. They were artistic colleagues, and that was all it was going to be. Ever. She was operating on a whole different emotional level from a fifteen year old. And people would say —

“See that white circle?” he asked.

“No.”

“Over on the right-hand edge of that crater.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I think that was probably their radio dish.”

“All right, let's try it.”

Outside the runabout, they took a look around by sunlight. Serge had tried to pick a fresh place to land where they wouldn't disturb any old stuff, but the spot he chose turned out to be almost on top of a vertical mine shaft. A brown cloud of dirty methane vapor whipped away into space from the ground around the still-glowing jets. This was the first time she'd landed on a surface that nobody else had landed on, one that still had volatiles left. She knew from Daddy's stories that the brown stuff would stink up the cabin like crazy if it got on their suits. A pool of something was seeping up around one of the pitons. Nitrogen? Serge would probably know.

They maneuvered over to the dish, Serge using feet and hands and Ginny her hip jets. Next to the dish was a quonset hut, covered with a thin layer of regolith.

“You think they did that with shovels?” she asked, amazed.

“Looks like it.” Serge's voice came over the radio. “What is that, twenty centimeters of shielding? They must not have cared much about their tender chromosomes.”

“Maybe they didn't expect to stay in it for very long.”

“Maybe,” he said. “So what do you want to do, captain?”

Captain. Well, she was the one who was seventeen. “We could poke around in the hut, but ...”

“What do you think?”

“I don't know,” she said. It seemed creepy.

“If you don't want to...”

“I don't really want to,” she admitted. She was glad he'd said it first.

“So ...”

“You want to go down the shaft?” she asked.

“I guess we could. We saw the bottom, it's not that deep.”

“Maybe it's stupid,” she said, like she just didn't care very much. He was the one with all the surface hours. It would be better if he said it was okay.

“Should be all right,” he said. “This gravity, you can't hurt yourself by falling. No sun or impacts inside, so it shouldn't be any different than the day they dug it.”

They went back and stood by the runabout at the lip of the shaft.

“I should probably go first,” he said.

“I'll go.”

“How many hours have you got?” he asked.

“Almost got my Level III.” Depending on what you meant by almost.

“Rock, paper, scissors?”

“Okay.”

Ginny's paper covered Serge's rock. Boys never chose paper.

She jet-hopped cautiously to the lip of the shaft. Her jets planted her hard enough in a patch of crust to make methane sizzle out from the warmth of her soles. For the fourth time since leaving the runabout, she checked that her helmet light was on. A muscle in her belly twitched. She wished she'd picked scissors.

“Okay,” she said, “how about if you just give me a tap? I'm afraid if I try to hop in, I'll overdo it and clear the hole.”

“All right. Ready?”

“Go ahead.” She never felt the tap, but she saw the edge of the blackened pit glide slowly under her, and then she was starting to sink. “Geronimo!” she yelled. She checked her helmet clock.

Pretty soon she was bored with the process of falling. After a minute, the lip of the shaft was up around her waist. Gradually she picked up speed. Another thirty seconds and it was above her head. She wanted to use her hip jets to speed up the process, but decided that would be foolhardy. She'd probably end up bouncing off the walls. Now she was moving fast enough that she could detect the upward creep of the walls from one second to the next: striations of ice and rock.

Serge's voice came over the radio: “I'm shining my helmet light straight down. Can you see the bottom better now?”

“I dunno, let me check.” She folded herself into a diver's pike to take a peek down past her legs. She had to fight against the inflated suit, and it was hard work. She remembered Serge's pose in the cockpit and felt herself flush. “Not really. I can't get the right angle to look.” She relaxed her body again.

“How fast do you think you're falling now?” he asked.

“Mmm ... maybe a centimeter a second. Hang on, gonna hit the far wall.” She reached out at waist level and pushed gently with her index finger for a fraction of a second to fend herself off from the wall.

Another minute passed, and then she felt a gentle push on her heels, and she was flipping onto her back in slow motion.

“Okay, I'm at the bottom.”

“Foosh! Were you scared?”

“Not really,” she said.

“What does it look like?”

“It's totally white down here at the bottom.”

“Must be a nice vein of ice.”

His helmet light looked very far away. “Will you wiggle your head a little, so I can see your light move?”

He did. “Thanks,” she said. It was reassuring to know he was up there. “Can you see mine?”

“Yep. Looks kind of hazy, though. Do you have something smeared on the lens?”

She checked that the palms of her gloves were clean, then took a swipe at it. “Any better?” she asked.

“Hm ... not really.”

“I think I know what you mean,” she said. “I'm seeing the same thing.” It was as if she were looking through cotton.

A drop of liquid landed on her faceplate, freezing in a spatter.

“What the hell?” she said. “I got a drop of something on my faceplate.”

“Are you sure? That's not good.”

“Sure I'm sure. Don't shank with me. What do you mean by not good?” Another drop.

“Sorry. I'm not shanking with you. When it hits your faceplate, does it freeze, stay liquid, or fizzle off?”

“Freeze.” Shit, what did that mean? That had been on the Level II test, but now her brain wasn't working.

“Okay, stay calm. That's water. Everything's going to be okay.”

“You mean is okay, or is going to be? How can there be liquid water flying around?”

“You saw everything boiling off around the runabout. There's outgassing going into the shaft. Cracks in the bedrock or something.”

“And?”

“Well, it means the shaft might not be as stable as we thought. So just take a deep breath, let it out, and give yourself a kick —” She kicked off like a jackrabbit. “— just a gentle one. You don't want to do a whizzy.”

She hit the side of the shaft and went spinning head over heels. “Oh, god —” She flailed, and her breakfast came back up. “— whiz.”

“Don't panic. You're headed up and out, so it's okay.”

She had to stop the spinning. She waved her hands around, felt one hand slip over something, and then got a grip on a rock with the other. Her body swung around and slammed into the wall of the shaft, and she was barely able to keep her grip on the rock as she rebounded.

“Ginny? Tell me what's happening.”

Couldn't he see? “I'm stopped. I'm grabbing on to a rock.” Her vomit was freezing to the inside of her faceplate, and she was huffing and fogging up the plastic with her breath.

“Okay, that's fine. Deep breath, let it out, and count one.”

She breathed in and out. “One.”

“Good. Again.”

In and out. “Two.”

“Good, but slower. Give me up to five.”

She gave a voice command to ramp up the defrost and then complied. “Three ... four .... five.”

“All right. What do you see around you?”

She realized that she'd had her eyes closed. She opened them, but the defrost was only starting to work. “Hang on a sec, I'm waiting for the defrost to catch up.” She felt sheepish for panicking. It was really no big deal.

The plastic cleared. “I see lots of water drops in the ai— in the vacuum,” she said. They were pretty, she realized, like stars.

“Okay, ready to start up again?”

“All right.”

She tried, but her hand wouldn't come unstuck from the rock. “My hand is stuck!”

“Stay calm —”

“It's stuck, I can't get it off!”

“Don't do anything, just wait —”

“It's stuck! The ice, it's frozen on!” She pulled so hard that her hand came up into the sleeve, and then she was free and whizzing again. “I got it, oh, god!” More vomit came up.

“You've got a pressure drop, Ginny.”

She bounced off of a wall, bounced again.

“Ginny, can you hear me? I'm showing a pressure drop in your suit.”

“Where?” As she said it, she realized it was a stupid thing to ask. She checked her own pressure gauge. Oh shit, oh shit! Her ears felt like someone was driving icepicks into them.

“I can't tell where. Okay, it's not dropping too fast, so stay calm. I'm coming down. Stay where you are. Try and find where the leak is.”

Serge's helmet light disappeared from above, and she was still spinning, the blood pooling in her head. Which way was up now? Forget that, find the leak. Her hand was cold. She looked at her glove, and in the light from her helmet she saw her own skin through a millimeter-wide hole in the fingertip. She must have torn her glove when she pulled it loose from the ice. She slapped the hand under her armpit and squeezed hard. She checked her pressure gauge, and it seemed to be holding steady now.

“Your pressure stopped dropping,” said Serge's voice.

“I found the leak. It's in my glove, and I have it stuck under my armpit.”

“Good. Stay the way you are. Don't try to use your patch kit.”

Then he was bumping into her and scooping her up in his arms. She heard the sound of someone crying and wondered if it was coming from her.

“Oh, god, you must think I'm such an idiot,” she said. She was sitting in the passenger couch, sucking on a bulb of tea. The cabin was warm, and they were under thrust on the way home.

“Not at all. You did what you had to.”

“I just kept making things worse.” If anyone heard how stupid —

“You're alive. I like you alive.” He really did have a cute smile.

“You want to come over and sit with me?” she asked.

Two in an acceleration couch would normally be one too many, but they made it fit. They had a two-hour flight back to the Blum rock, and she wouldn't mind spending it just like this. She felt safe and happy. She was surprised by how tired she felt. She definitely needed to start hitting the vacuum training harder. Some of the boring things the teachers said seemed a lot more real now: You might not get a second chance. Don't try to do things beyond your level of experience. She was lucky to have had Serge with her.

A long time went by, and maybe she fell asleep for a while. She opened her eyes and looked at Serge's face, his nose a centimeter from hers. She could feel his heart beating fast. She could tell he wanted her, and a hot feeling started to spread out from a spot just behind her belly button. She kissed him. He was a little clumsy at first. Hadn't he ever kissed a girl? Her hand went under his shirt, his hand on her thigh.

They kissed for a long time, and then her mind flitted back to the bathroom that morning. She'd set up an excuse to say no. Now she wanted to say yes. Yes! But what would he think? It sort of was like their first date, even if it wasn't. She pulled her mouth back from his and looked into his eyes. His hand stroked her hip. It was hard to give herself permission to say it. And then she realized that she had an easy excuse to say what she wanted to say.

“Serge, you saved my life. You can ... if you want ...”

He pulled his head back. “So that's what this is? A thank-you shank?”

“No, that's not the way I meant it.”

He looked away, but she could see a tear in the corner of his eye. She reached out to wipe it off, but he batted her hand away. She wanted to explain, to tell him what she'd thought in the bathroom, how she'd felt when he was on the deck of the cockpit. But it was hard to figure out how to say those things, and before she could say them Serge was hauling himself out of the couch and climbing up the ladder to the cockpit.

After the midflight flip on the long leg home, she found Centaurus staring in at her again through the cockpit window. Stern, definitely the wise teacher version now. Yeah, all right, too bad you weren't there in the mineshaft, buddy. She decided that even if screwing up was no fun, it was better than having someone who'd always tell you the right thing to do.

A ping came in. Mom. Navving solo was a good excuse for leaving the comm set to text only.

Hi, sweetie, good trip?

She pictured the scene, the two of them sitting on their bed a hundred thousand klicks away. Daddy: Don't joggle her elbow, she's a big girl now. Mom: Just touching bases. Daddy, hmph, unstrapping his arm and pretending he's not worried, won't lie awake in bed with the lights out.

Ginny's suit was in its bag already. She'd have it slung over her arm casually when she got home.