Six Rocketeers by Starlight
by Aimee Ogden
They leave early, half a dozen rocketeers, while Luna sleeps around them. Tomorrow the
sun will rise and drink down the two weeks of darkness that have shrouded Luna's pale profile.
Today, only the harsh white blaze of the magnesium streetlamps lights their six haggard faces.
Those bright lights glitter in the dusty windows that line the street: darkened shops, saloons,
houses. Susannah looks up to catch her glassy ghost sliding past in the black window of a
dressmaker. The echoed lights dance about her reflection as she moves, as if they want to be
carried along with her. Maybe they too wish to be out among the stars.
The night is cold, with a brisk salt wind coming up off the Sea of Tranquility. Susannah
pulls her jacket collar up and wishes for a scarf. She's packed lightly. She can't, after all, bring the
beauty of Luna with her. The night-gleaming city of Artemis and the tang of moon-dust, the Arc
markets on Sundays and the sticky ginger-beer floor of her favorite saloon and the Pan-Lunar
Fair, that's all too much to cram into the little case she wears slung over one shoulder. Still, she
carries it all with her, and the weight makes her feet drag.
The others are getting ahead of her. She quickens her pace to catch up, and steps over an
abandoned newspaper that tumbles across the street. The headlines scream at her, but she ignores
them. She knows them too well already, and right now she wants to know something, anything
else. When she looks back, shadows pool in the prints her boots leave in the gray dust of the
street: a chain of farewell kisses for the only home she has ever known.
Kuo walks at the front of the group, telling jokes in Chinese that keep Josef chuckling all
the way across the Midcity Commons. Susannah wishes she understood more of what he was
saying. But as the city begins to awaken to the smells of porridge and cooked ham, Kuo's voice
drops lower and finally falls quiet. After all the nights of planning, the bickering and worrying
and tears, now silence swallows them up. The others slow and let Susannah take the lead before
they cross into the next Arc. Enku smiles reassuringly at her as she passes, and Kuo reaches out
to brush the back of her knuckles with his own. The sudden warmth of his ungloved hand on hers
makes her startle, and he drops back with an apologetic-sounding murmur. She fumbles to build
a bridge--Russian, they both speak a bit of that--but then she is at the Arc gate. The American
guard, who has been turned into the shelter of the gate to hide his probably-illegal cigarette,
barks, "What's your business?"
"My crew and I got a long haul." The first lie of many. This crew has been Josef's since
long before Susannah signed on, but an American accent plays better here. "Couple of us got
family back on Earth and it ain't easy or cheap getting home." The bones of truth to hold up the
skin of lies: only official transport flights were allowed to pass atmosphere these days, ever since
that Texan rocketgirl went and blew herself up square in the middle of the biggest launchpad in
The guard looks over her shoulder. His jaw juts sideways, and he crams the cigarette back
into place in the shelter of his upper lip. The cigarette doesn't have the Lunar Authority tax ring
on it, or maybe he's smoked past that point already. Susannah doesn't smoke; too pricey to pay
the oxygen tax. "We all got expenses."
That is her cue. She reaches inside the collar of her suit, finding the breast pocket
concealed inside. The guard takes the folded wad of currency, a rainbow of yuan and roubles and
birr mixed in amongst the Lunar selenes. Without looking at it, he tucks it into his own trouser
pocket and takes another drag on his cigarette. "You enlisting?"
"My brother's in the Sixth." Another shard of the truth, one that cuts Susannah's mouth to
say aloud. She washes the pain away with a benumbing falsehood. "Need today's take for the trip
down to join him."
"Attagirl," says the guard tonelessly. He turns his back. After a moment Susannah gets the
idea, and slinks past him into the Canadian-American dome. Where the launchpads lie, where
their rockets sleep. Where freedom waits, an unknowable shape waiting for them to carve it out
of the dark.
"Hang on." That's the guard again. His hand shoots out and locks in the leather cuff of
Kuo's suit. "Where you from, boy?"
"He's Australian," blurts Enku. Her voice cracks on the last syllable. Kuo's eyes flick to
Susannah, whose shoulders jerk in a shrug.
"That so?" The guard's mustachioed lip draws back from his teeth. "Say 'g'day', you son of
Kuo ducks. A discarded fuel spindle swings through the air where his head had been, and
clocks the guard instead. The guard goes down silently, and Darshana drops the spindle on top of
him. She flexes her hands and says, "Time to go."
Susannah's shoulders stiffen. She can't look at Darshana's face, only the red-brown leather
of her Royal Space Fleet jacket. Too easy to forget on a haul, that one of them has already faced
up with the specter of war that has joined Luna in Earth orbit. Not only faced it, but made a
widow of the peace it left behind.
Out here darkness shrouds the face of the void, so far that the Sun has turned its back, but
six rocketeers by starlight shine against the black. The iron rockets belch smoke, but they sing the
journey with tongues of fire. Beautiful, bustling Luna hangs behind them in the sky, an ever-shrinking scar against the darker face of the Earth. Susannah presses her knees tighter against the
rocket beneath her, and makes herself face forward, into the limitless night. Best not to look
homeward, lest she turn to salt.
Josef rides lead rocket, as Josef usually does. Even pushing fifty he has better eyes than
the rest of them. Better to spot danger, in the form of privateers or lunar moths; better to clock
the asteroids that the rocketeers could set their sights on, driving them homeward to sell. Kuo
picks up the rear guard, and the rest fall into pairs. Susannah finds herself matched up with
Darshana. If it were one of the others, Susannah might try to shout over the roar of her rocket's
engines, to crack jokes about mistaking Josef's flapping mustache for a lunar moth. To wonder
aloud about the life that waits for them ahead, without the kiss of Luna's cool white face to look
forward to. But the black hole of silence around Darshana swallows up Susannah's good humor.
And as far as wonderment goes, Susannah knows what kind of life waits behind her, and she
wants no part of it. Whatever awaits them will be, must be, better.
The hours grow long. Without conversation to occupy her, Susannah sings to herself:
When the Corn is Waving; Kalinka; a few of her mother's favorite hymns. Her voice wearies and
her chin starts to bob toward her chest. She taps on the glass bubble of her helmet to wake herself
up, and swallows her yawn.
A length of rope strikes the rocket fuselage in front of her. She startles, but instinct kicks
in fast. She seizes the rope before it can slide away, and looks around for its origin.
With her knees, Darshana steers her rocket in close. In her hands, she holds the other end
of the rope, which she ties off on the iron loop behind her own saddle. "Long journey ahead," she
calls. The yellow flames spraying from the back of Susannah's rocket reflect off the glass of her
helmet, hiding her face. "Best tie in and get some shuteye while you can."
Susannah hesitates, but can't find it in herself to argue with Darshana's faceless stare. She
fastens the tow rope to her own rocket with a cat's-paw knot, and clips her belt into the hooks on
her saddle. She's trusted Darshana and all the others on a hundred other runs. Nothing has
changed between them, not really. But their world shifts and twists beneath their feet, and
Susannah doesn't know where to step. "Thanks," she says, and Darshana nods sharply before
nudging her rocket into higher gear.
The rope pulls taut and so do Susannah's shoulders. She forces her chin back down to her
breastbone, begging her body to relax into its restraints. Furtive sleep dances into the darkness,
just ahead of Josef's headlamp.
Sometime just past Lunar dawn, they anchor together on a comet fragment drifting lazily
end over end. The ice slips and crunches beneath Susannah's boots, but it's nice to pop her helmet
and share a meal with her friends. Footprints and piles of scat suggest that the comet is inhabited
by a small pack of ice-cats, so Enku, Josef, and Ned go hunting. Susannah and Kuo feed ice-cat
dung to the cookfire to keep it going, and lounge in its glow, trading amiable, awkward barbs.
Susannah has little Chinese, Kuo's English is minimal. But he grew up in the Sino-Russian dome
and she spent a year working the Translunar Express under a Muscovite crew chief. So together,
they assemble a conversation out of utilitarian Russian.
Darshana remains in the camp too, but she takes her kit far from the fire. She unfurls her
sleeping roll and burrows inside, alone and silent. Susannah watches her shudder once, then turn
up the high collar of her uniform jacket against the cold. She turns back to Kuo and says, "I don't
know why she even came with us. Her heart still beats for the Royal Fleet, that's plain as day."
Kuo looks down at his bare hands, painted pale red by the firelight. "We all had things we
couldn't leave behind. Didn't you, Sue? If my heart beats for anything, it's not the cold and black
we're bound for. If we had one more day in Artemis, I'd--I'd just--"
Silence seizes them. They both look upward, backward, as if they could sight the yellow
smoke and glow of bomb-glazed soil, hear the battle-cries, on the tiny inscrutable surface of the
"If war could follow us to Luna," says Susannah slowly. War is a less complicated thing
to name and hate than the twisted knot that lies at the heart of the matter. She could more easily
number the stars than remember, or care for, the name of the politicians who started all this. No,
that's a child's thought. The ones who started all this were Cain and Abel, and it's never stopped
since. "Who's to say that it can't follow us farther still? Who's to say that we can leave it behind
"We have to try." Kuo looks at his boots, and Susannah tears her gaze away from him,
back upward to the distant Earth. "We have to try."
Across the campsite, Darshana rolls over and pulls the corner of her bedroll over her
head. Susannah starts guiltily, then changes the subject to rib Kuo over the time a busted stirrup
sent him into a tailspin that nearly cost them a prize rock. He groans, but laughs too, and their
heads hang close together. When Susannah looks over her shoulder, their shadows dance cheek
to cheek against the flickering firelight.
A lone asteroid out in deep space doesn't look like much. Battered rocks, scarred by a
million years' impacts, gray and brown and lost out between the worlds like marbles left over
from a child's forgotten game. The craggy mountains cut the sunrise into red ribbons on Mars,
and there's nothing like watching the blue bauble of the Earth roll across the skies of Luna. But
an asteroid, that's just a bump in the road, a fleck of debris on the clean endless night. The lovely
thing about a rock is the color that runs in its veins: silver molybdenum and manganese, blue-sheened osmium, chalky gray rhodium and waxy white phosphorus. An asteroid is only beautiful
when it bleeds.
The rocketeers pass by rock after rock. Many would have made perfectly good hauls,
most would at least have paid a passable rate at market on Luna. Some at least are pocketed with
ammonium perchlorate, so the rocketeers can feed their rockets enough fuel for another leg of
this endless haul.
But most of the rocks they find just aren't big enough to settle on. One sizable lump of
rust-red iron looks likely enough from a distance, until they make landfall and pop their helmets
only to be greeted by facefuls of sulfur dioxide. Once, a likely-looking candidate has columns of
campfire smoke rising off of it; no telling whether those belong to other homesteaders or a
cluster of privateers, so the rocketeers burn low and slowly coast past.
Yet another rock keeps its promise of habitability for a good six hours, long enough for
Ned to start laying out claims and Enku to find a low creek bed where the water runs slow, but
sweet. Then as the asteroid spins its face to the sun once more, great dark wings blot out the
horizon. The rocketeers beat it back to their rockets only just before the lunar moths do. Ned and
Darshana cling to their iron mounts with their knees to turn back and fire off a few rounds from
their rifles. Finally the moths fall away, and the rocketeers put some distance behind them.
"Maybe we should turn back," says Ned, some long hours later. They're lying about the
remains of the campfire; it's long since died out but no one has mustered the get-up to coax it
back to life. The chemical smell of the firestarter pervades; no animal dung to feed this fire. The
only sound is the sorrowful scrape of spoons against tin cups, as the rocketeers search for just one
more mouthful of beans. Ned looks as stretched-thin as the diluted coffee he chucks over one
shoulder, and his eyes search his companions' faces. Looking for a little hope to kindle his own,
maybe. Or their resignation, to smother it before it grows into something harder to kill. "See if
we can't grab that titanium-core we passed last week, sell it for a little something."
"And spend it where?" Josef's hat is pulled down low over his eyes. The vowels of his
native French are clipped sharp compared to Ned's drawled, Missouri-bred version. "Ain't
nowhere left that'll home all six of us for long. Not while the Home Powers and Eastern Alliance
are at each others' throats."
Enku and Kuo murmur to each other in Chinese. When Susannah glances their way, Kuo
offers her a lopsided smile. He switches to Russian to say, "Afraid I'm our bad luck. Without me
the rest of you wouldn't have any trouble sticking together back home."
"You're not bad luck!" Susannah's eyes dart, briefly, to Darshana's still and silent form. If
there's an albatross hung about their necks, it's her and that bloody uniform she wears.
"Whatever's back there, it's not worth tearing ourselves apart over. And when they all blow
themselves to kingdom come, good coin won't spend on ash and rubble." She repeats herself in
English for Ned and Darshana's benefit. Ned nods slowly, though he doesn't look at her.
Darshana lies unmoving beneath the ragged line of her blanket, like a woman already dead to the
A few weeks out, Enku announces they've crossed Martian orbit. "Maybe we'll find
something more fitting near the Belt," she shouts, and her face tilts upward. Pale starlight plays
gently over her night-dark skin, but doesn't penetrate the deeper shadows over her eyes.
They make rockfall soon after, on a tiny little chip of a thing barely big enough for them
all to lay flat. Susannah and Josef set to hammering in stakes to tie off their rockets and keep
them from drifting apart while they eat and catch a bit of rest. Enku, Ned, and Kuo head off again
on a short loop of the area, looking for game to stock up their dwindling food stocks.
Darshana ties off her rocket at the first post Susannah finishes. When her knot is set and
steady, she sits back on her heels. "Getting more dangerous this far out. Of course there's rock
strikes to worry about. But Belt moths are bigger and meaner than what we got back on Luna.
too. And who knows what else is lurking out there?"
It's the most Susannah has heard her speak since they left Artemis. Maybe the most words
she's ever spit at one go. She only stares at Darshana, whose head dips briefly to rest on the back
of her wrists. Then she pushes upward and walks around to the far side of the asteroid. Out of
sight, but her stirrup clips scrape accusingly against the bare rock.
"Let her be," says Josef, when Susannah shifts from foot to foot. "She's lost enough
Hunger puts a sour twist on Susannah's frustration. "It's folks like her who got us--" she
waves one hand wildly: not us six rocketeers, but us, the grand sweep of humanity spread out
among the battered rocks of the solar system--"who got us into this mess in the first place. The
ones who left the Earth but couldn't put it behind them. Don't know why she doesn't just go back,
if she's so worried about what's ahead and not what's behind." She spat on the ground, but the
sour taste lingered in her mouth. "Think she misses shooting Chinese? I reckon even Belt moths
don't quite got the same thrill for soldiering sorts."
"Will you keep your voice down? You talk a lot for a girl who don't know a damn thing."
Josef's tone is mild but the sharp words cut Susannah deep anyway. "They stripped her
commission when she wouldn't fight at Taizhou. Then she got to bury them that fought anyway."
He holds out another piton. After a moment Susannah accepts it, and sets her hammer to it. Over
the ring of iron on iron, she hears Josef say, "Sometimes a jacket's just a jacket, and sometimes it
ain't, and whichever it is, that's none of your business nor mine."
Kuo comes back towing a Martian cuttlefish behind his rocket. He whoops in greeting,
and tosses a rope down to Susannah; Enku and Ned are close behind him. "We surprised a whole
herd," he says, after he dismounts and drops to the rock beside her. "Dumb things didn't even
know to be scared of us. Might be they've never even seen a rocket before!" Together they pull
down the hulking carcass, which trails perfect spheres of black ink that blot out the stars above.
Kuo and Susannah grin stupidly at each other; cuttlefish chews like old boot leather, but it tastes
sweet enough, and it'll keep for weeks with a bit of salting. "Maybe our luck's turning," he says,
and she leans hard into those words.
"I'll drink to that!" Enku announces, and produces a leather flask from inside her quilted
jacket. A ragged cheer goes up, and the flask works its way around as the crew starts a fire and
carves up the beast for cooking and stowing.
Darshana doesn't join them for the impromptu celebratory meal, and in truth there's more
than a little desperation tagged to their gaiety. Susannah fills a tin plate and carries it around the
curve of the asteroid. Darshana is asleep, or pretending to be, so she leaves the plate beside the
heap of her blankets.
The night is cold enough to sting. When Enku's moonshine runs dry, Susannah drags her
bedroll next to Kuo's and tells him to budge up. Arms wrap bodies, legs twine together. She
drifts to sleep with her head in the curve of his shoulder, and tells herself it's just for the warmth.
It's another week of travel before the Belt unfurls before them. The tumbling rocks make
Susannah's belly twist, but the rocketeers skirt through this initial barrage to where space opens
back up between the asteroids. "Finders keepers!" shouts Enku, and whoops as she coaxes her
rocket into a gear as high as her spirits. Six rocketeers spin away from each other: two pitching
up and down, two yawing ahead to either side, two rolling to left and right. A perfect formation,
one that would have made Josef whistle in pride on the tail of a wild-spinning rock. But it's
bigger paydirt they're after now.
Sharp-eyed Josef finds it first, but Enku isn't far behind. They loop over the surface of a
mighty rock, hooting and hollering with childlike delight in their discovery. The others are drawn
into orbit too, six satellites in thrall to the new world below. No one wants to lay the first footfall
on that sleeping face. No one wants to be the one to break the spell and send them packing
onward again, one more long haul out into the unknowable dark.
Finally Darshana reaches perigee and breaks downward. The rest hang back as rocket
kisses rock. Before the yellow sparks stop flying, Darshana dismounts, takes three steps, and
folds to her knees before dropping face-first into the dust.
"God almighty!" Susannah kicks her rocket forward and down; the others are right behind
her. She jumps clear as her rocket lands and runs to Darshana's side as the flames of the engine
gutter and the rocket belches one last cloud of resentful smoke. Her hand falls on Darshana's
shoulder, and both women are trembling. "Darshana! What happened?"
Darshana presses upward, back to her knees. Tears paint her face and the inside of her
helmet glass; Susannah breaks the seal and pulls the helmet clear. "We found it," Darshana
moans, and her fingers claw deep into the ochre-brown dust. "We found it." Her eyes close and
her English cracks open to pour out something red and raw in her native tongue--Marathi?
Susannah doesn't know what Darshana is saying, but she knows a prayer when she hears one. She
puts her arms around those leather-clad shoulders, and the women cling together until their
The rock they've chosen is a good one, and when they open its veins, it will sing to them
in voices of crystalline ice and soaring soprano antimony. It's isolated from the main belt, though
you can still see its cousins tumbling through the sky at a distance. When Susannah fits her
spyglass to her eye, she sees ironhides leaping from asteroid to asteroid, craterwings flitting in
between. No moths in sight, though with this much prey to be had, they'll have to watch the
horizon. At least there's no nest.
It is also empty, and desolate, and very little like Luna. It is a healing scab, a held breath.
It could be, she thinks, someone's home. Maybe even hers.
"More will come," says Enku quietly, as they unpack what's left of their gear for what
they hope is the last time. She's probably right. The thought warms Susannah and frightens her
too. They won't be the only ones to hope for something better than a world of poison smoke and
bloody bayonets. "What should we call this place?"
"No name." Susannah's chin comes up when the others turn to her. Kuo's hand lands on
her back, and that comfortable weight feels like a promise. She swallows hard and presses on.
"No name and no flag either." Calling its people Lunar citizens hadn't kept Luna from crashing in
on itself when all those old wounds reopened. Let no more lines be drawn here. "Let's just get to
And so they did, six rocketeers in the deep of the night where the sun does not call,
spinning around a new idea of home.