Here’s the first scene to a short story I’m working on (working title is Titius). I’m going to be writing a few short stories over the next couple of months to help me build out the world for my next series, and I’ll try to post them all here for you to read.
This opening is partly inspired by this crazy audio clip of sound recordings from space. Some of you might also recognize this main character from another story of mine, We Are Perpetually Rising. This is a complete rewrite; hope you enjoy it!
People say that there’s no sound in space, but they’re wrong.
Elise could hear the eerie groaning of the planets, even from inside Titius. Each and every person she mentioned it to said it was impossible. The electromagnetic vibrations were beyond her ability to hear; she was only remembering the recordings, the ones that probes had taken and translated to an audible range.
But she knew what she heard. Space was hers, the way that Titius was hers. It was a free-floating colony, orbiting Mars and positioned to mine the asteroid belt that drifted alongside it. Every day was a tug-of-war between the aging colony’s walls and the encroaching fingers of space outside. Elise saw herself as the mediator between the two, always coaxing Titius to last one more day, space to hold back its wildness for a little longer.
“Elise, stop dozing off and get that panel replaced!” barked Roland, the maintenance chief.
Elise grinned, not turning away from the sheet of metal in front of her. She braced her hands on the cold alloy, feeling the hum of the colony vibrating beneath her hands. She and Roland were in the sixth sector, responding to a request to replace the heating control panel in the miners’ living quarters. The building was five stories high, the limit for the colony, and housed over a thousand miners. Normally, it buzzed with activity, but when Elise and Roland had arrived, they’d seen the workers shuffling through the hallway, their coats tugged tight around their shoulders as they left for their shifts.
Titius’s temperature usually hovered at 10C, but it plunged quick when the central heating was on the fritz. It was one of the many perils of living in space. Still, Elise breathed a deep, happy sigh, feeling that cold bite through her. Life wouldn’t be any fun if things always worked the way they should.
She went about untwisting screws to get into the wiring behind the wall. Behind her, Roland was pulling up data logs, trying to pinpoint the moment the temperature had started to take a dive. She could hear the gruff old man muttering to himself. “If it’s another misplaced character in the code, I swear to the planets that I’m going to knock Tern’s teeth from his mouth.”
That set another smile to her face. “He says that he’s got it right this time,” she said. Tern, the third member of their crew, had proposed to update the heating system’s software a week ago, stabilizing the temperature maintenance so that residents didn’t have to. Even a few minutes saved was important on Titius. They lived lean, with just enough resources and people to get by. Tern hoped that the update would relieve one of the many responsibilities Titius’s citizens lived with, and had talked the maintenance team into giving it a try.
They’d had nothing but trouble ever since. The whole idea had been too fancy for Roland’s taste from the beginning. Most other colonies lived and died by the automated systems that ran their worlds, but Titius was different. It had been built in 2075 and rarely upgraded in the hundred and twenty years since. Its citizens valued independence above all else, and that meant they trusted repairs done by their own hands above those maintained by a computer.
But Tern had gotten excited about the programming he’d been learning on the side, and Elise had been fixing the resulting mess for over a week. Normally she wouldn’t have minded the extra work, but it had put them behind schedule. An eclipse was coming, and she should have finished preparing for it two days ago.
Elise leaned further into the gap within the wall, the beam of her flashlight scattering shadows. She spied a split wire. Bits of metal poked through the rip in the blue rubber coating. “Found the culprit, chief,” she called over her shoulder. “A splice will fix this right up. Hand me the kit?”
No answer. Elise backed out of the space in the wall, wondering if Roland had gone to check another room. But no, he was there, except his eyes weren’t on a computer screen, but on a man standing in the doorway. He wore a black, double-breasted peacoat and a crimson scarf looped twice around his neck. A bit overkill, in Elise’s opinion. He was tall, with a bronzed cast to his skin that spoke of time in the sun and a healthy diet.
She shut off the flashlight and slipped it into her jumpsuit pocket. Titius was a small community, and this was not a man she recognized. Her shoulders tensed, hunching up defensively. Outsiders, especially ones that dressed as nicely as he did, were never a good sign. Earth-born, she guessed. Spacers like her tended to be shorter, their features muddled and irregular. Not even the wealthier colonies in High Space fully managed to keep off the effects of space radiation.
“Who’s our visitor?” she asked.
Roland looked up at her, and she spotted a flexi-screen in his hand, displaying the seal of the Earth Council.
“Inspector,” Roland said, voice gruff. He handed back the screen, and the man rolled it up and slipped it into his coat.
“My title is Assessor, as I’m sure you know,” the man said with a hint of disdain. “Titius is overdue for a review by more than eight months. I was told to find Roland Medlock and insist that the review be delayed no further.”
“Might as well be on your way,” Elise said, her grin tightening to bare her teeth. “We’re all up to code here, inspector.”
He raised both eyebrows, the taut skin of his forehead barely wrinkling. “I suppose we’ll see.”
Roland gave her a short nod, signalling for her to get back to work. Her eyes glanced over the inspector one more time before she returned her focus to the task at hand. She dug through her kit, looking for her cable cutters while Roland continued to speak with the man.
“Silas Godfree. Yeah, you sound like an inspector,” Roland was saying. “Listen, my crew is up to our eyelids in a list of repairs, and we need to finish prepping for the eclipse. Having you tag along—”
“—is the only way to move forward,” Silas said. “You should have completed your preparation for the eclipse days ago. That’s why the Earth Council chose this time for your review. If you’re saying that you’re still not ready…”
“We’re ready,” Roland said firmly. Elise’s hands slowed as they searched through her kit, and she shot a look at him. They weren’t ready, not yet. An eclipse meant an asteroid crossing between Titius and the sun. It happened often, but this asteroid was the largest in five years, almost 100 kilometers across. That was more than six times the size of Titius. Their power would be interrupted for more than a week, and they needed to set up power rations across the colony. It meant dimmer lights and colder temperatures. More people would be on colony as well; they couldn’t afford the jump to the asteroid mines. Elise believed her team could get things ready in time, but it would be close. There were only three of them that worked regularly, and qualified volunteers were scare.
But Roland knew what he was doing. He oversaw the maintenance of the entire colony, and worked often with the three district chiefs that governed Titius. He would never promise something that he couldn’t deliver.
“I hope you are,” Silas said. “I will not be leaving until my work is complete. Believe me, I want this job to be over as quickly as you do. There are better places in the universe to be.”
Elise’s hand tightened on the plastic casing of her kit. Like some lackey from the Earth Council had any idea how things worked on Titius. They’d always gotten on just fine without anyone’s help. Elise hated reviews, hated the way the inspectors came in and cast judging looks at her and her home. She couldn’t even focus on the tools in front of her, each item blurring into the next.
She blinked, trying to clear her vision. It only got worse; she watched as the kit split into a dozen triangles, each turning towards the center, like someone had slipped a kaleidoscope in front of her eyes without her noticing.
“Roland, it’s happening again,” she said, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. Her arms locked in place as the effect worsened, the spinning shapes speeding up, and she closed her eyes, willing herself to inhale deeply.
She felt Roland’s hand press her elbow. “Over here,” he said, guiding her to a chair across the room. She gripped his arm until she felt the seat beneath her, then let go, bracing her hands on her knees.
“What’s happening?” Silas asked, and Elise cursed. This would happen in front of an assessor.
“Schizopia,” Roland said shortly. Elise winced, though she knew he had to say it. He couldn’t lie to an assessor.
Silas didn’t say anything, but Elise could feel his eyes on her. Schizopia was unique to Titius, a recurring genetic fluke that had started as a consequence of radiation and never gotten completely washed out of the gene pool. Elise had lived with it for six years.
“Now, let me go over our schedule with you.”
Elise listened as Roland navigated the conversation away from her, but she knew that this wouldn’t be the end of it. She wondered if Silas would enjoy prying into her condition. He’d try to use it as a reason to get her off of maintenance; they always did. They reasoned that no one suffering from bouts of schizopia had any right to be working with temperamental machinery, never mind that Elise was the best mechanic they had.
She took another deep breath, focusing on the rough feel of coveralls beneath her fingertips. It would pass, as it always did. Whether it would take a minute or an hour was anyone’s guess, but eventually her vision would return to normal.
And then she could focus on dealing with Silas.