The last few asteroids had
fallen apart under the drills. The last asteroid
had literally shaken to pieces under Anechka’s feet. Didn’t
matter; she always stayed in her rig until they were out
of the belt, ready to jump away from debris.
the steering collar of the Uvlechenie toward the floor while leaning back in the seat. The Uvlechenie settled
onto the asteroid, (650) 2003 RKN, just the way she liked
it, slowing the rotation and leaving the valuable dust mostly
It was the
only gentle thing she knew how to do.
Misha said, “Lots
Carbon meant they were required to check for organic material,
for “life.” Sludge on the bottom of a coffee cup, more like
“Would I lie
to you?” Misha said.
“Now, how ethical
the drill and ran it a dozen feet to anchor the ship. Hypothetically,
this would destabilize the asteroid, sending loose chunks
of rock in unpredictable directions. Practically speaking,
however, it anchored the ship.
her unlit cigar. To light it would break another law, the
law of killing yourself by using up your oxygen. Cause, effect. “Take
answer. She looked over the landscape of the asteroid, such
as it was, and listened to the sound of stone being ground.
Then the drill
spun loose underneath them, and the asteroid shook them off.
Anechka cursed again, pressing down on the collar with her
palms until the ship had settled again.
was moving in ways that it shouldn’t, bucking and jerking
her on the back of the head. She gripped the collar. “What’s
moved behind her, caught whatever had come loose. “It’s solid
rock down to fifty feet. After that—govno, Ane. Something’s moving down there.”
“Pull up the
She heard the
drill lock close, then leaned back and popped the steering
collar, making the ship hop backward.
was spewing fluid, a full spray that slowed and stopped as
she watched. She took a look over her shoulder at Misha.
He was half-strapped into the drill rig, clutching the cover
of the emergency button.
“It came off
again,” he said.
in, you fool.”
On the screen,
the fluid dissipated. The asteroid was still jerking under
them, and she shifted with it.
go,” Misha said.
off the hull, making the peculiar sound of half an echo.
Anechka kept her feet planted. The surface of the asteroid
was breaking up in flakes, like paint.
“Come on, Ane.”
backward, the elastic straps of the pilot rig keeping her
from bouncing around the ship. Below them, the outside of
the asteroid was thrust away.
“What is that?” Misha
“I’ll be damned
if I know.”
“Hah. You don’t
believe in damnation; that’s cheating.”
A rock plate
over a hundred feet across flew at them, and Anechka kicked
off from the side of the ship. The jets fired, and the Uvlechenie slid out of the way.
slammed into her. She turned her head to see Misha completely
out of his rig, leaking blood from the back of his head all
over her suit. The screens overhead showed she was about
to hit another asteroid, so big the screens couldn’t hold
it all. In retrospect, she wished they’d tried that one instead.
But Misha had
had a feeling about this one.
then ran backward over the surface of the large asteroid.
She pressed her palms down on the collar for stability as
the jets danced under her. When she was on the far side,
she kicked off again, and the plate from RKN shattered against
the larger asteroid, spraying shards around, but not into,
A quick check
for more rock, and she drifted backward. With the larger
asteroid partially in the way, she couldn’t be sure of what
she was seeing, but it looked like a…some kind of animal.
It looked like a cord cover. It wound through the rock, nosing
along its side where the drill had bitten it.
There was a
dot flashing in the corner of her eye. She winked and turned
off the recording, then scrolled through the video options
with twitches of her jaw until she had the recordings erased.
It wasn’t legal, but it was done.
A worm. That’s
what it looked like. A headless, sparkling worm.
She spun the
ship and ran in the rig until she was winded, increased her
oxygen, and kept running, accelerating halfway to Mars, wasting
months of fuel.
Misha was no
sooner in the med bay on Eureka than Veronika, delicate,
beautiful Veronika, was there to see him.
For a second,
Anechka saw Veronika running toward her, and her heart ground
in her chest like a rock crusher. Then Veronika exclaimed, “Oh
Misha!” and Anechka’s stomach flopped.
have to come,” Misha rasped. “It won’t change anything.”
up. “Excuse me.”
have to go, it’s not like I’m going to say anything private,” Veronika
over Misha for a few minutes, then dried her eyes and said, “What
Anechka said, “Uh.
We uh. A bad asteroid. Pocket of gas.”
“Is that what
it was?” Misha whispered.
“With me half
out of my rig. I’m such an idiot.”
again. “I jumped away from the explosion, and you flew into
me like a rag doll. Knocked the wind out of me.”
a face like an angel, a half-hesitant smile, and more charm
than Anechka would possess in a thousand years of trying,
that is, if she ever tried to be charming. She looked like
she was made to be wrapped in soft things. Anechka simultaneously
couldn’t stand to look at her and couldn’t help doing so.
It had been worse when Veronika and Misha had been together,
“Ane, I have
something interesting for you,” Veronika said. “I can finally
talk about it. My team made a breakthrough. A cure for nicotine!”
Anechka said, “Eh,
be able to quit smoking cigars.”
Anechka said, “That
reminds me. I would like to use the lounge.”
“We don’t have
the money,” Misha whispered.
go yet, Ane.” Veronika grabbed Anechka’s hand; it would have
been the work of a second to twist away from her. “I have
more to tell you. It was an interesting project. An addiction
to nicotine is not like an addiction to anything else. That
is, not like an addiction to any other drug we know. For
example, if you were to take morphine, your withdrawal symptoms
would be much different—you would not be able to delay
the onset of withdrawal, for example. But with nicotine,
you can wait.”
“Not that long,” Anechka
said. “So hurry up.”
“You can wait
as long as you need to, with nicotine,” Veronika repeated. “Don’t
“It isn’t a
true addiction!” Veronika beamed at them.
“I don’t understand,” Anechka
said, who was thinking that if she wasn’t addicted to nicotine,
her body was certainly good at hiding that fact from her
an addiction to nicotine involves the emotions. I was thinking about it one day. What does smoking
feel like? Well, of course I didn’t know, so I set up a survey
to find similarities between smoking and other types of emotional
reactions. It was just a hunch. But I was right! It turns
out that nicotine addiction feels almost exactly like falling
love,” Misha croaked.
love.” Veronika put her hands on her hips. “So, actually,
you should never try to quit smoking while you’re falling
in love, especially if you take our new drug, which we’re
calling Anerosma. Like it? Take this stuff, and poof! it’s
over. You could fall in love or start smoking all over again,
but why risk it?”
help looking at Misha. He’d been trying to get rid of Veronika
“But, you know,
it didn’t seem to affect any of the test subjects who were
already deeply, truly in love.” Veronika sighed, put her
hands up to her face, and smiled. “So I brought you some.”
“For your smoking.
Unless you’re falling in love with someone, of course.” Veronika
batted her doelike eyes.
“What if I
don’t want to quit smoking?”
“But it’s so
bad for you!”
“So is almost
getting killed for getting out of your drilling rig during
evasive maneuvers, and I don’t see you mixing up drugs for
Anechka snorted. “All
right. One condition.”
“You have to
take some, too.”
her hands in her lap. Her face was relaxed, but her hands
were clenched so tightly she must have clawed herself. “But
why? I don’t smoke.”
“That you might
not be truly in love with someone, that you might only be
infatuated. With pretty boy here, for instance.”
love you,” Anechka said. “He told you to leave him alone.
You can’t even leave him alone when he needs his rest to
heal. That isn’t love.”
to her feet and left the room.
seen the last of her,” Misha croaked. “God, you’re tactful.”
“You know what
you’re crazy about? God, and the lack thereof.”
“So what if
this stuff takes away your ability to hate God?”
“I don’t hate
God. How can you hate something that doesn’t exist?”
“Hate is an
inoculation against infatuation. Against the first stages
of love. What if this stuff affects hate as well as love?”
“Then we have
quite the revolution on our hands, regardless of what it
does to my lack of faith. A world without hate is not this
closed his eyes.
After a few
minutes, she left for the smoking lounge and paid for her
air. As she smoked, staring “out” the viewscreen toward the
surface of Mars, she caught herself thinking about the worm.
If she didn’t keep her mouth shut, they’d have quite the
revolution on their hands regardless.
her in the corridor between the guest quarters and the
medbay. “I’ll do it.”
“Take the Anerosma.”
“I was joking.
Leave me alone.”
“I wasn’t.” Veronika
pulled out two small vials, about 5 cc each, from a side
pocket. Her hand was shaking. “I talked to Misha, and we
decided it was for the best.”
in her face. “You haven’t got the nerve. You wouldn’t know
true love if it was standing in front of your face.” She
grabbed one of the vials, idly noticing that her own hand
was shaking. “What do I do, just drink it?”
the red cap and tossed back the fluid. It didn’t taste like
much of anything. It tingled on her tongue but faded quickly.
Her pulse went up, and she took a step toward Veronika. She
felt blood pumping through her groin. “I—”
once, like a hiccup, and fled.
And then it
up with the steering collar askew in front of her, strapped
into the pilot rig of the Uvlechenie.
Misha,” she said automatically.
There was no
answer. She looked over her shoulder; he wasn’t in the drill
unstrapped herself and pushed herself toward the cargo hold.
It wasn’t pressurized. She put her hands up to the scratched
view panel and cupped her eyes to see into the darkness.
By the glow of the LEDs, it was empty. She was alone.
What was she
Where, in fact,
back to the pilot rig and strapped herself back in. With
her head settled, she accessed the computer. The Uvlechenie was close to the former (650) 2003 RKN, on the (227)
1996 RDR—the larger asteroid she’d used to block the
explosion of the RKN. She grabbed the steering collar and
used it adjust the ship more firmly on the surface of the
asteroid, a tickle of jets across the surface.
quivered. She held her balance, waited until the shaking
had settled, and did it again. Again the quivering, peaking
at 3.3 on the Richter scale.
What was it?
She felt hot, wrong suddenly. She tried to focus her attention
but couldn’t. She was embarrassed. Because she was so curious.
the surface again, sweeping her palms flat across, then doubling
back for a quick jab.
was harder this time, 4.1.
So. She’d found
the first non-Terran life form in the solar system, and it
was ticklish. What was wrong with
her? She laughed at herself for the first time she could
off and erased the recording. Then she checked her fuel.
With patience, she should be fine for months. Her food stores,
with only herself for company, should last at least that
off all communications and settled in to wait.
She took to
tapping out simple patterns, which the worm would copy. She
came up with patterns and had it guess the next item in the
sequence, caressing it with her jets if it guessed correctly.
She was not thinking about things.
however, the effect of the Anerosma wore off, and she found
herself getting bored. She ignored the worm’s repeated attempts
to communicate and dwelled on how much she hated Veronika
and Misha—both of them. She felt herself getting more
irritable by the hour.
on the communications. There were thousands of messages for
her to sort through; she deleted most of them, especially
the ones from her bank saying she was broke and from Misha
demanding the return of his ship. She didn’t answer any of
them. In the end, she flew back to Eureka a month earlier
than she had to. She tried to keep the journey low-cost,
but found herself leaning into the rig, pushing her speed
higher. It was out there. It was behind her. It was going
to get her. It was going to follow her around like a dog.
It had gone into her brain and hypnotized her. She had to
get so far away that it couldn’t call her back. Ever. She
had to get revenge.
Anechka docked Misha’s ship,
expecting to be arrested. When she disembarked, a dockworker
bumped into her, and she scowled at him.
you?” a voice asked from behind her.
raising her fists. “Back off.”
It was Misha.
She took a few steps away from him.
you? You owe me at least that much. It’s my ship.”
filled with tears. She felt mad. She lowered her fists and
ran down the corridor. She knew it wouldn’t do any good.
She was on a space station. Where could she go?
She’d be fine
in a few days. The more the drug wore off, the better off
she’d be. It was making her irrational.
opening the door to Misha’s room, seeing them together.
It didn’t bother her, seeing Veronika. It was Misha that
bothered her, the mindless, eager look on his face. His
And then the
worm had taken over her mind. What? For company? Because
She had to
destroy it. Before it could control anyone else.
running when she reached the smoking lounge. The smell was
familiar, but didn’t set her to craving a cigar. She palmed
the door lock, and it let her in, more out of habit than
out of any reflection of her credit score. The door shut
around. The smoke was actually quite pretty, both as it swirled
from the patrons’ cigars and as it gathered in a haze that
caressed the ceiling.
see anyone she could use until Dow waved at her from the
other side of the room. Dow was a trader who had been hitting
on her for years. A nice enough woman, but unappealing. Had
the credits she needed, though.
said. “How are you? You disappeared for a few months. Everyone’s
been wondering what happened to you.”
“I need a job,
Dow. Know of anything?”
went up. She gestured with her cigarette. “Misha?”
“I can’t take
the thing with Veronika anymore.”
give up on that trollop,” Dow said. “She’d never do good
“I don’t know
what I ever saw in her.”
always work for me.”
“I’d like that.”
Her rings sparkled on her fingers. “I know how that is.”
sure what they were talking about anymore.
“Want a cigarette?
You must be broke. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without
your cigars. Even when you couldn’t smoke them.”
Anechka said, “I’m
trying to quit.”
“Are you feeling
“No.” And then,
embarrassingly, she burst into tears again. She grabbed a
napkin from Dow’s table and wiped her eyes, wadded up the
napkin, and threw it in the recycle bin.
her throat. “Behind you.”
It was Veronika.
“Did you come
running back to all your old addictions when the drug wore
off? Why couldn’t you leave Misha alone?” Veronika, her sweet,
unforgettable angel’s face still beautiful, threw herself
at Anechka, clawing at her face.
to the side, but not fast enough, and a concealed blade slid
down her cheek. Somebody gasped.
in her element, grabbed Veronika’s wrist and made her drop
the razor, then knocked her on her ass. “You crazy bitch.”
“He’s the one
who found me! He wanted to know why I stole his ship! Or
isn’t that reasonable enough for you?”
I’ll steal him? Why don’t you watch him instead of me? It’s
not like he’s the faithful type.”
“I love him!”
I took your drug. You didn’t. You still won’t. You’re a craven
little dog, master, master, pay attention to me! Master,
Veronika hard in the short ribs, one kick for every time
she said the word master. “And
to think I wanted you.” She leaned over, grabbed Veronika
by her long, silky brown hair, and said, “Thank you for killing
my infatuation with you. Thank you.” She
let go of Veronika’s hair, and her head hit the floor with
up in a ball and started crying.
back at Dow, but Dow was gone. So much for that.
Anechka expected arrest, and once again, nothing happened.
She had her face stitched up, and that was that.
near Veronika’s quarters. Rumors were starting to get out
about the Anerosma, both from their fight in the smoking
lounge and from her test subjects, NDAs be damned.
Space. It was
the biggest small town in the universe.
down the corridor with a box of papers. Anechka stepped out
from her neighbor’s doorway and said, “Veronika.”
the box of papers at Anechka and ran down the hallway.
it,” Anechka called. After a few minutes, she picked up the
papers and put them back in the box. Papers. Who printed
on papers anymore?
a minute later. “You give those back!”
the box on the floor in front of her. “I want some Anerosma.”
“I want some—”
“I heard you;
I just don’t understand.” Veronika babbled for a few minutes
about everything she didn’t understand.
her. “I’m going back into space. One of the things it does
is keep you from noticing how bored and crazy you’re getting.
I’m leaving. Get it?”
her door with her thumbprint, carried the crate inside, and
returned with a rack of vials, five by five, with only three
missing. “Sure, take it. I have to get rid of it.”
“Get rid of
Anechka said, “Of
course it works.”
“It doesn’t work,
savvy? The company decided it would cost too much to fight
her the rack of vials, then covered them with a napkin. “Try
to be discreet. You’re really leaving?”
“That’s a relief.” Veronika
closed her eyes and leaned forward. “Goodbye kiss.”
“I guess not.
Bye!” Veronika slapped the door latch and waved as the door
closed between them.
the lock on the Uvlechenie. It still opened for her palmprint, which puzzled
her. She stowed the Anerosma in a storage compartment on
the pressurized side and booted up the system.
The Uvlechenie was
fully fueled, fully stocked, ready to go. All she had to
do was figure out whether Misha had told the station not
to release on her orders. She knew a couple of people in
Control; too bad she didn’t have any cash for persuasion.
Oh, well. She’d sleep with them if she had to. She’d been
keeping herself off the market for just such an occasion;
according to gossip, bedding Anechka rated almost as high
as getting your hands on a virgin.
is a credit score, she thought.
She shut down
and locked the door behind her.
Misha was running
down the hallway toward her, shoving technicians and their
ever-present carts out of the way. She wanted to smile, but
she was too sick at heart to allow herself the luxury.
“What do you
think you’re doing?” he snarled.
“I was going
to steal your ship,” she said.
She shook her
head. “I’m not talking to you about this in the corridor.”
open the door of the Uvlechenie and pushed her inside. He closed the door as she untangled
herself from her rig. “Talk.”
“What are you
the comms; Eureka had automatically connected them with a
half-dozen distress and other monitoring channels. If she
had a month, she could figure out how to turn them off.
to climb into the pilot rig. Misha grabbed her arm; she jerked
“What are you
She said, “We’re
still being monitored.”
being monitored.” She climbed into the rig. This time he
He went through
the co-pilot checks as she requested permission to leave
the station with intention to head back out to the asteroid
belt, back in six months, etc.
removed her permissions; she could have left without him.
the ship away from the station and ran for a few internal
miles to work out her kinks, but didn’t let the ship build
up external speed.
“Now tell me
what you’re doing,” Misha said.
a gas leak,” Anechka said, jogging. “It was an egg.”
“No. The entire
asteroid had been hollowed out, filled with a worm. An egg.”
putting a shudder through the ship. “When I drank the Anerosma—”
to me and swore she would drink it if I did. So I did. I
thought you might be able to get rid of her for once and
for all. But she ran off like the coward she is.”
under his breath. “Why?”
answer, and she was fine with never saying another word.
Finally he said, “She came to me and said she’d drunk the
stuff herself, and her feelings hadn’t changed. When you
came in—I’m sorry, Anechka. I know she’s bad for me.
But I can’t seem to get her out of my head.”
Anechka laughed. “Either
I want her, or I hate her. Now that the drug has worn off,
I hate her. But I know what that means now. You’re right.
I’m just trying not to want her.”
Misha said, “But
that’s not what we were talking about. You made first contact
with an alien? What did you do, kill it?”
“I ran away,” Anechka
said. “And when I ran away from you, I ended up back there
again. It took over my mind, Misha. I played with it like
a puppy for months, and then it let me go when the Anerosma
“So what are
we doing here?”
to kill it.”
“So it doesn’t
cut into profits? That’s cynical.”
“No. So it
doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
“How did it
her fingers. It had seemed so obvious until he asked her. “It
made me stay here and play with it. It made me.”
Misha said, “Maybe
it was meant to be, you finding the first intrasolar alien.”
Anechka snorted. “Hardly.
If they’re so easy to find, they must have been found before.
it back to the station, then, and have it make all the inhabitants
come out and play. Think it understands about pressure suits?”
over her shoulder at him. “Go to sleep, Misha. I will wake
you when we reach the alien.”
leaned back in his rig, and flipped a few switches, dimming
the lights. “I hate sleeping in this thing. No matter how
many times I try to set it for ‘feather bed,’ it always shifts
back into exercise mode and I bounce around. I swear this
thing is so sensitive that I can feel you breathing.”
her breath, then let it out in rapid pants. The ship twitched
with her as she wiggled a foot along with her breath.
“Ha, ha,” Misha
said. “It’s good to be back—in the ship.”
without smiling and went back to the controls. The next time
she looked, he was asleep.
worm was easy enough to find; it was inside the same asteroid
left it in, (227) 1996 RDR.
“Is it trying
to take over your mind?” Misha asked.
“I don’t think
so, but I haven’t taken the Anerosma.” She settled the ship
onto the asteroid. Despite what she’d just said, she could
feel a twinge in her guts. She knew where the alien was,
because she knew, not because the ship log had told her.
Her hands pressed
down on the steering collar, and she dragged her fingers
across the surface.
shuddered as she tickled it with the jets. It would be over
in minutes, it wouldn’t know what hit it.
“What are you
doing?” Misha asked.
him as the asteroid shook out a pattern. It was one she knew,
and she was afraid she was never going to be able to figure
it out. She double-checked that the ship wasn’t making a
ship,” she said.
killed us last time,” Misha said. “I don’t think we should.”
what did you think we were out here to do? Pat it on the
head and give it a biscuit?”
Misha sighed. “Anechka—”
“What did you
come out here for? To try to talk me out of it?”
“I just think
you should—you should see your face, Anechka. Like
you’re killing your grandmother.”
see my face. You can only see the back of my head.”
his throat. When she looked back, he was pointing at something
on the ceiling in front of her. A mirror. Damn him, how long
had that been up there?
want to kill that thing,” he said.
all that Anerosma for a reason, Anechka. I think you should
“I don’t know
what I brought it for. It was a mistake.”
up with drool clinging to the side of her mouth, slumped
over the steering collar.
“You bastard,” she
said. But Misha was asleep.
off the rig and slowly unstrapped herself. The fasteners
made a ripping sound as she tugged them free, but Misha was
away from the rig as slowly as she could, a bare touch.
As she got
closer to Misha, she noticed his eyes twitching under their
lids. His face clenched, unclenched. His mouth opened, and
he moaned. If he was trying to say something, she didn’t
know what it was.
him and said, “It’s just a nightmare. Don’t let it control
A fat tear
rolled down the side of his face. She touched it and started
to drift away from him. He tried to talk again, but she couldn’t
herself around the ship until she was in front of his control
panel, disabled his controls, and assigned them a password.
Then she transferred the drill rig functions and climbed
back into her rig.
the rig and lowered the drill. Her stomach was quivering. “You
can’t do this to him,” she said. “Myself, I am nothing. But
you cannot do this to him. No matter how much you deserve
to live, to be recognized.”
The drill bit
in, and Misha jerked awake. “What are you doing?”
the alien.” She was sobbing now, tears flying into the walls,
into the electronics, into her ears.
“It was controlling
you while you slept.”
The drill sank
into the rock, drilling down harder. Anechka found herself
hoping the drill would reach its extension before it hurt
the alien and forced herself to think of something else.
It was worming its way into her mind again.
Then the ship
wrenched against the drill so hard that it snapped off. The Uvlechenie tumbled
over her shoulder. Misha said, “It wasn’t controlling me.” He
had the cover of the emergency button in his hand.
growled. “What have you done?”
“You took the
Anerosma, didn’t you? It took over your mind.”
“I was dreaming
about you finding me with Veronika. It was a nightmare. That
in the rig. A warning buzzer sounded, and she jerked her
chin to turn off her access to the controls.
in her straps. “Just ‘Misha.’” She rolled backward to face
him. He was upside down to her, which made her smile. She
found she could afford such a thing as a smile, for the moment
on his controls and assigned himself the pilot function,
bringing the ship back under control. “Don’t you understand
what a miracle this is?”
said, truthfully. “But if you say it is, then it is.”
“Do I sound
like I’m patronizing you? But don’t accuse me of believing
in your sacred space ghost, or I will.”
off his rig and unstrapped himself. He twisted around until
he had aligned with her, then grabbed the straps of her rig.
It was either a thrill of anticipation or the vibration of
the elastic cords, but she was shaking either way.
for stopping me,” she said.
his hands across the back of her head and kissed her, then
pulled open the fasteners on her straps—and let her