ICETEROID

Chapter 01.

I'm sweltering inside my space suit, and it's my own vaccing fault. I've made the newbie mistake of working too hard, and letting my heat build-up overwhelm my suit's cooling system.

I should know better. I've lived in the asteroid belt for most of my life. But when I turned fifteen last week, and started working in my dad's ice mining company, I became not only the youngest and slowest ice jock in the crew, but obviously the stupidest too. Great going, Jase, I tell myself. I stand rooted to the ice asteroid as my helmet fills with sweat droplets. They cling to my lashes and eyelids in the micro gravity, blurring my vision.

"Useless piece of garbage!" I grumble, wishing for the thousandth time I could trade in my space suit for a newer model. I shake my head to clear my eyes. It doesn't help.

"What was that, Jase?" asks Andy Mcgregor. His voice sounds hollow over the comm link.

"Nothing," I reply, hastily switching off my mike.

Andy is my partner. He's in his early twenties, and until I came along, he was the youngest ice jock in my dad's ice mining company. I think he's glad I took over that role, but I'm not going to let him hear me gripe about my space suit when I should be spinning thread.

I whip my head from side to side, flinging off the sweat droplets.

At last my vision clears. Above me, blazing stars burn steadily in the black sky. This far out in the asteroid belt, close to Jupiter's orbit, the sun is a tiny dot, but still too bright to look at directly.

I drag my eyes away from the spectacular view. It's time for me to get back to work. The containment web won't spin itself.

Then I glance down, and nearly drop my web spinner. Blowout! I curse silently. I'm at least fifty meters above the surface of iceteroid K24, and drifting farther away as I watch. My boot grippers must have broken free from the ice.

Below, a dozen or so ice jocks are crawling over the newly constructed two kilometer iceteroid. Like spiders on a soccer ball, they are busy spinning carbon nanotube threads between the red anchor plates that cover the surface. I recognize Jackie Isaacs in her purple and gold helmet. Beyond her is Shorty Jeffers, unmistakable in his zigzag patterned helmet. Thankfully all the ice jocks are looking down at their own threads.

No one wants to make a mistake in the containment web. No one wants to be responsible for the iceteroid breaking up when it is finally launched on its journey to the Lunar colonies. Especially me.

I release the trigger of my web spinner, and the thread trailing from its tip suddenly grows taut. The jerk nearly yanks the spinner out of my grip. I kick and flail without much effect, clutching desperately to the spinner handle. Terrific. All I need is for the other ice jocks to see me looking like a total vachead. At last I regain control, give my suit jets a tiny burst, and drift back down towards the surface.

My boots touch down. The grippers on their soles cling to the ice. Maybe no one noticed me bouncing like a newbie at his first zeegee dance. Then my comm link beeps.

"You ok, Jase?" asks Andy.

I groan, but at least he's calling me privately over tight beam. Feeling my face grow hot, I switch on my mike.

"I'm good," I reply, trying to sound casual.

"It looked like you were spazzing," says Andy. "I was afraid you might pop a seal."

"It was nothing," I say. "Just a little sweat in my eyes."

"Don't overdo it," says Andy. "You need to keep your suit in the green."

"I know that," I snap, as my cooling system status light starts to blink amber.

"Just saying," says Andy.

"I've been wearing space suits since I was six," I remind him. "You don't have to check up on me every time my boots come off the ice."

I hear the edge in my own voice. Mostly I'm mad at myself. But I still resent Andy treating me like a newbie.

"You're not getting special treatment," he says. "Six hour shifts in a suit are tough on all of us. Every ice jock goes through this. Got it?"

"Got it," I say, trying to stifle my irritation. I hope this doesn't get back to my dad.

I switch my comm to the general channel. Time to stop blowing air, and get back to work. When I check the spinner, I discover I'm trailing a hundred meter length of thread. It is way too long, and now totally useless. I'll have to start again. I find my original anchor plate and begin a new thread. Soon I spin the thread to the next anchor plate, attach, tighten, and bond it. Then I click on my mike.

"JCB, thread fifty seven ninety two connected," I say.

"Ok, Jase," says Olaf Hagarson, our crew chief. "And just so you know, your average thread connect time is now under ten minutes."

I grin to myself. My time is improving, even after I bungled that last thread. Then Shorty Jeffers' voice comes on the channel.

"Hear that Andy?" he asks. "Better hustle or the kid will whip your butt for the Top Jock spot."

There is a burst of laughter over the channel from the ice jocks listening in.

My grin turns into a scowl. I'm used to the crew yanking my jets. But why does Shorty make it a full time career?

Andy doesn't reply, but a couple of others chime in about the sorry state of my web spinning.

Thankful that none of them saw my last screwup, I keep quiet. I'm not going to let this skew me. Gritting my teeth, I begin spinning my next thread.

At last Olaf breaks in. "Let's cut the chatter, people. We've got a deadline to meet."

I spin two more threads, check the time, and decide I can finish one more before the shift ends. That's when my web spinner flashes a warning message.

"Oh, blowout," I moan. Luckily my comm is back on tight beam, so only Andy hears me.

"What's the problem Jase?" asks Andy.

"Nothing," I say.

"It didn't sound like nothing," says Andy.

I exhale a long, defeated sigh.

"My c-flex cartridge ran dry," I confess. "I guess I forgot to bring a spare." There is no point mentioning the hundred meters of thread I had to discard.

"I guess you did," says Andy, with a grin in his voice. "Suck it up. Call it in and head back. The shift is almost over anyway."

I let out an irritated sigh. Does Andy always have to be right? But without c-flex my spinner is useless. Once more I switch my mike to the general channel.

"JCB, I'm out of c-flex," I announce. "I'm heading back for a refill."

"OK Jase, come on in," says Olaf.

To my relief, Shorty remains silent. I glance towards Andy's sector. His black and yellow helmet is just visible above the iceteroid's nearby horizon. Andy sees me looking, and flips me a wave. I lift my arm in a dejected reply, then kick off the ice, power up my suit jets, and point myself towards the command shack.

As I fly over the curve of the iceteroid, the blinking red beacon of Interplan Corporation's new Alpha station comes into view.

I frown at the pulsing light. Interplan is my dad's biggest rival. They are the reason my dad is in such a bad mood these days.

A moving speck of light flares as a pogo, a small space scooter, crawls across the familiar starscape. I track its progress with a twinge of envy. I can't get my own pogo until I solo. Mom and dad still refuse to let me try, even though I passed all my piloting tests. I mean, come on. What are they waiting for?

I glance down, and correct my course. The bulk of K24 unrolls a few meters below me.

Then Evan Owens' voice comes over the general channel. "ETO, thread five thirty eight connected, swapping c-flex cartridge." Like me, Evan ran out of c-flex, but unlike me, he brought along a refill. It figures. I search for Evan's blue and yellow helmet. I'm approaching his sector, but don't immediately spot him.

Suddenly there's a blinding flash off to my left. Crack! Something hits my helmet. My ears ring. I start to pinwheel. My heart slams against my ribs. Blinded and terrified, I wait for my helmet to shatter.

Nothing happens. The afterimage from the flash clears. White, black, white. I'm spinning head over heels. Then my training kicks in. I fire my suit jets. Stop my spin.

Then I search the sky. When I spot Evan, my skin turns icy. He tumbles through space, his arms and legs flopping brokenly. He is surrounded by a sparkling, swirling cloud. His suit is leaking air.

 

 

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