Part 4: Shiva - Chapter 5

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Of all the stupid things Maddy had done in her life, and there were more than she cared to admit, this rated up there with the best of them.

Once, back on the Slowboat Endeavour when she was fourteen and had just completed her university degree, she rushed to show her father the message she'd received confirming her qualification as a communications technician. It meant she'd be able to work for a living and help her father bring in the credit that meant more luxuries in their sparse colonist lifestyle. Proud of herself and eager to tell her father the news, Maddy had decided to take a short cut through a temporarily closed passage between decks, slipped in her haste as she rounded a corner and skidded across solid steel flooring to slam into a bulkhead. She broke her arm and took a remarkable quantity of skin off her backside. Her father also had the humiliation of paying the fine imposed for entering an off-limits area of the ship.

That had been stupid.

But it was sensible compared to what she was doing now, walking as the last in a line of three figures across the unforgiving hard iron surface of Shiva.

Progress was slow, made so by the razor-sharp edges of the craters where other bodies had slammed into the surface of the asteroid, melting the iron which splashed and then resolidified to form outlandish shapes and spears. One indiscreet touch and a space suit might be punctured. The terrain was lit only by the lights on their helmets, which cast narrow beams. They moved in long, loping strides in the preciously weak gravity, judging each step carefully. The bounding rhythm of look, stride, soar, land and recover quickly became exhausting.

The horizon was close, barely more than a hundred and thirty metres away, which meant a constantly changing line of sight that misdirected her eyes, especially with the necessity of watching where she placed her feet. Each time she looked up the landscape had completely changed. All bearings were quickly lost.

Reed was a few metres ahead, bouncing along on his sturdy Helot feet, with Marshall a tall grim shadow behind him. Every minute or so he would turn and look over his shoulder at Maddy, who nodded each time as if to reinforce the fact she hadn't fallen behind or tried to escape. Where he thought she might go on this blasted piece of scrap metal was anyone's guess.

She sucked some water from her suit's reservoir through a drinking tube and listened to the laboured breathing of her companions over the comlink. It had been forbidden by Reed to use any unnecessary communication, even on a private sub-channel which would not go beyond the three of them, otherwise she would have called up the ship and informed Geranium of their progress. Thoughts of the girl worried the back of her mind even as she focused on not falling over.

Reed held up a hand to warn them to stop. It took a second or two for Maddy to readjust her last jump so as not to slam into Marshall ahead.

They were at the top of a small rise, so their horizon had shifted back. On the flat plain below, three space-suited figures—Helots by their build—stood beside a small space dinghy, working on some structure that had been erected on the surface. Nearby searchlights illuminated the scene.

Reed knelt down and turned off the light on his helmet. The others did the same and darkness engulfed them. The Helots worked without apparent supervision, which was unusual enough even here for Maddy to double check there were no Sapes around.

'What are they doing?' Reed whispered instinctively despite their private channel.

'They don't look like terrorists to me,' muttered Marshall. 'More like engineers.'

'They are engineers you idiot. Maddy, what do you think?'

It was some kind of thrust engine, she was fairly sure, which made sense when she remembered the whole asteroid was meant to be moved out of its orbit. But they were unlike any engines she'd ever seen before. It would be interesting to see the electronics behind them; if those people weren't working on the thing, she'd be tempted to have a closer look.

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