Elfrida stared at the screen in rapt terror. Above Venus’s streaky shroud, a scatter of black dots slowly converged on a point in the screen’s lower right quadrant.
The lifeboat jinked violently.
“I think that was us, not them,” dos Santos said, momentarily captivated by the screen, too.
“Oh my dog, there are thousands of them!”
“About five, looks like. Of course, there could be more out of sight. Don’t they usually travel in packs of nine?”
Elfrida could only bite her lip. She didn’t know. Dos Santos didn’t know. Maybe Dr. Hasselblatter, or the President, and/or some ultraclassified spy organization knew all about these small, fast ships that were trying to turn Botticelli Station into orbital debris. But all ordinary people knew was that they were deadly and they were called the PLAN.
A tiny nova blossomed on the screen. Elfrida clapped her hands over her eyes. Then she grabbed the arms of her couch as the lifeboat shook again, a flea on the back of poor, harried Botticelli Station.
“They’re lobbing tactical nukes at us,” dos Santos said in a hoarse voice. “And we’re trying to dodge.”
“We’re going down, aren’t we?”
“Looks that way.” Dos Santos glanced at the console. “Yup. I wonder who’s driving.”
“Isn’t it the hub?”
“That dumb chunk of hardware? No, it’s got to be Touré or Sikorsky.” Dos Santos named the exec and captain of Botticelli Station, who were generally viewed with contempt as the hub’s fall guys. “I know Sikorsky’s ex-Space Force. I hope he remembers he’s piloting a space station, not a Graves fighter.”
The PLAN were not invulnerable. They could be blown up, just like any other ships. But the lumbering space station had no offensive armaments at all.
Another enhanced-radiation warhead exploded nearby, filling half the screen with a nebula-like cloud of light and debris. Botticelli Station squeezed out some more angular acceleration. The bulkheads creaked and Elfrida struggled to breathe as the G-force pressed her into her couch.
“Much closer, and the neutron radiation is going to scramble our systems,” dos Santos said. “Which is, of course, exactly what they’re trying to do. Fuck it. We have got to get out of here.” She went back to interfacing with the console. Elfrida wished she had something to distract her. She understood that the ships’ respective trajectories had locked them into a high-speed chase. The PLAN ships were flying in lower, faster orbits. They were overhauling Botticelli Station, while the station dived towards Venus, and all the craft continued to whirl around the planet at several kilometers per second. Newtonian mechanics, not any fly-boy pyrotechnics, would govern the outcome. Elfrida remembered lying in bed when she was a child, back in Rome, cheering on the raindrops that would race oh-so-slowly down the skylight. Now she knew what it felt like from the raindrop’s point of view.
A new raindrop appeared on the heads-up display. Slightly larger than the PLAN ships, it was orbiting towards them on the perpendicular.
“All right,” dos Santos whooped. “Finally!” But she was not referring to the newcomer. “I’m commencing the ejection procedure. Hold on.”
The procedure seemed to be endless. Dos Santos cursed under her breath in Portuguese. The ships on the screen grew larger and acquired distinct silhouettes. (At this point Elfrida realized that she could zoom in on them by leaning forward and touching the screen.) The PLAN ships were finned cylinders, girdled with guns. These were the shapes familiar from countless news vids and immersion games, made no less nightmarish by their slang appellations of ‘flying rats’ and ‘toilet rolls.’ The newcomer was still too far away to be identified.
“I feel like this isn’t real,” Elfrida said, her voice high. “I keep trying to log off. And then I remember, oh yeah, this is my body. It’s not an avatar. I’m not somewhere else. I’m here. This is real. I can’t log off.”
Dos Santos nodded sympathetically. “I know what you mean. I get that, too. This isn’t fun anymore? Time to log off—whoops. Can’t. It’s a hazard of the job. But—”
The lifeboat slammed sideways. The jolt hurled dos Santos out of her couch. Elfrida’s couch ballooned, wrapping itself around her entire body in a split second. Like a rigid marshmallow, it covered even her lower face. Gagged and immobilized, she watched dos Santos pick herself up, blood dribbling from her nose. “Shouldn’t have turned the damn couch off,” dos Santos grunted. “That’s it.”
Elfrida’s couch flowed back into its original form, apparently acting on the idiot assumption that the danger was past. The console screen had gone dark. The heads-up screen still insouciantly displayed the raindrop race. Two of the PLAN ships had vanished, but that was because they were now so close. The sensor feed, autofocused on Venus, could show only 160° of this three-dimensional battle. In fact, it was over.
“They got us,” dos Santos said.
The interior of the lifeboat was silent. Elfrida heard herself utter a silly laugh. At least she hadn’t shat her pants this time.
“I’ve lost the flight computer.”
Dos Santos slammed both palms on the console screen.
“Does that matter?”
“You bet your sweet patootie it matters.” Dos Santos leaned back, dabbing at her bleeding nose. “Whoever designed this jalopy didn’t think decent rad shielding was worth the spend. That last nuke must’ve exceeded our tolerances. Even my augments are dead.”
“So we’ve just been nuked.”
“Yup.” Dos Santos hung her head back further, trying to get her nose to stop bleeding. ”But don’t stress about it. We’ll be dead before we get sick.”
“How—how do you figure?”
“That wasn’t the nuke we just felt. Couldn’t have been. No shockwaves in space. No, they just threw the kitchen sink at us: projectiles, non-nuclear EMPs, whatever else they’ve cooked up recently in Gale Crater. Soooo … there’s probably not a lot of old B-Station left out there.”
Elfrida’s couch, no longer functioning, released her haunches. Her knee bumped the console. She bobbed towards the ceiling of the cockpit. Dos Santos floated up to join her.
“They’re gone,” Elfrida blurted.
“We might escape detection if they don’t scan the debris too closely.” Pearls of blood drifted from dos Santos’s lips. “That would give us, oh, another couple of hours to live.”
“There are radiation treatment kits on board. There’ve got to be.”
“Maybe, but there aren’t any kits to fix the air circulation,” dos Santos pointed out.
Elfrida swallowed, realizing what dos Santos meant. With its electronics dead, the lifeboat had stopped pumping atmosphere into the cabin. Their lives could now be measured in cubic meters of air.
“You got any regrets, Goto?”
The screen had clouded over. Now it was solid white. Elfrida supposed that the last of the electrical systems had succumbed. They drifted in the cockpit like corpses in a shipwreck, automatically making the fingertip adjustments necessary to avoid bumping into each other, which was good manners in zero-gee.
“Yes,” Elfrida said.
“Yes what?” dos Santos said.
“I do have one regret. That I didn’t t-t-tell you how I feel about you when I had the chance … ma’am.”
Dos Santos pushed off from the ceiling, rolled over, and stared at her. Lit only by the white glow from the screen, her face looked young and soft … and incredulous. Raising her eyebrows, she said, “Ma’am? We’re about to die together. Call me Glory.”
Elfrida could not tell if dos Santos was teasing her or not. She scrubbed her face with her hands, discovering that even with death imminent, it was still possible to be embarrassed.
“Goto, I’m … incredibly touched. Do you know how it feels to be forty-two, and hear something like that from a beautiful kid like you? Oh, listen to me: I’m still making jokes. Do not go defensive into that good night, Glory,” dos Santos scolded herself.
“It’s all right,” Elfrida interrupted, unable to bear it. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s not you, Goto, it’s me. There’s a great deal you don’t know about me. I’ve led a life that’s … not entirely straightforward. The things I believe in mean a lot to me, but I’ve been forced to deceive people, in a certain sense. Including you. Is that wrong? I know it’s necessary. But sometimes I regret what it’s done to me. I’ve evolved a lot of protective tics. Do you understand?”
“Of course,” Elfrida said, meaning no. All she understood was that dos Santos was rejecting her.
A deep male voice resounded through the cabin. “Attention all personnel. Thees ees Sikorsky.”
Both women flipped instinctively into a vertical posture, staring at the heads-up display, which was still whited out.
“Ve have sustained masseeve damage to our hull and engines, but the backup generator ees now online and I conteenue to send Mayday seegnals on all frequencies. The good news ees that the hub is completely slagged. You may also be glad to know that the toilet rolls are no longer pursuing us. I veel explain later how I evaded them to anyone who ees eenterested. It vos audacious and very risky maneuver.”
“Oh, shut up, you pathetic old Russky,” dos Santos yelled. “Make your case for promotion when we’re safe on Earth!”
Captain Sikorsky was continuing. “You veel have noteeced that you are floating. Zero-gee safety protocols should be observed. Eef you can reach an EVA suit, put eet on. Eef not, I apologize for these fameeliar vords, but please remain vere you are. Help veel come soon. Sikorsky, out.”
As soon as she heard the captain’s voice, Elfrida had tried her contacts again. Naturally, they still weren’t working. She realized there was a lot of room left for bad news in the things that Sikorsky hadn’t mentioned, but she clung to his key assertion. They had evaded the PLAN ships!
“EVA suits,” dos Santos was saying. She shot down the length of the cabin. “EVA suits. I should have thought of that! I know they’re here somewhere …”
Elfrida stared at the heads-up display. An audacious and risky maneuver, the captain had said.
How did you evade the PLAN? It seemed like an oxymoronic proposition. In space, there was nowhere to hide. In space …
But in orbit around a planet shrouded in sulfuric clouds?
“Dos Santos! Ma’am! Oh my dog!”
“What? What?” Dos Santos streaked back into the cockpit, two EVA suits floating in her hands. Elfrida pointed at the display.
“What does that look like to you?”
“It’s just … wait. Wait. How stupid can I be? That’s the autofeed from the station’s sensors!” Dos Santos spun around, letting go of the EVA suits. Elation radiated from her face. With her blonde hair floating in a halo, she looked like a bloodied angel. “Goto, do you know what we’re looking at? Clouds! Those are goddamn clouds!”