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Six Rocketeers by Starlight
    by Aimee Ogden

Six Rocketeers by Starlight
Artwork by Dean Spencer

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 Peking.

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 a bitch."

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 Earth.

"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 at all?"

"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 world.

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 already."

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 shaking stills.

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 work."

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.

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