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William Ledbetter

William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning author with more than sixty speculative fiction stories and nonfiction articles published in markets such as Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s,, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra magazine. He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, and is the Science Track coordinator for the FenCon convention. His science fiction thriller novel Level Five, published by Audible Originals, is available in audio format at He lives near Dallas with his understanding wife, a needy dog, and two spoiled cats. Learn more at

Sigvaldi and its trailing moonlet, Astrid, were already high in the dark sky, but still too far away for me to see the long thread of the bridge. They were waning and didn’t provide much light, so I stepped from the shadows cast by the launch gantry and squinted into the growing dawn. My pulse quickened and the air crackled as a distant, growling roar announced the fødselsvind’s approach.

Ghostly on the horizon, the pale, towering dust tsunami separated from the darkness. It raced toward me, occulting the horizon and even the stars above. I lowered my goggles, pulled the scarf up over my face and planted bare feet, shifting them until they felt firm, then crouched and leaned forward.

The dust swept in, gently at first, then building in strength. I waited until stinging grit bit my bare skin before sucking in a breath and holding it. The wind intensified, threatening to push me backward, but I leaned further into it.

I refused to yield.

I would not move my feet.

I would best the fødselsvind.

An unexpected gust made me twist, arms reeling and I almost fell. Then it was over as the terminus wind swept past and a new day was born.

I released my breath, sucked in another through my nose filters, then spread my arms wide and screamed defiance into the settling dust. More yells rang from the paling darkness as other geitbrors also proclaimed their victory and mastery over nature. Like the seven generations before me, I had proved worthy of another day on Støvhage.

Hearty laughter rang out behind me and a strong hand clamped my shoulder, raising a small dust cloud. “By the gods, Judel, will you goat herders ever become civilized?”

I turned to face Alvin Lund from the government’s intelligence office and shrugged off his hand. Not only had I bristled at his suggestion that my family heritage was barbaric, but something about the man made me squirm in my skin anyway and I didn’t want him touching me. Like most visitors from the coast who braved fødselsvind, Alvin wore full storm gear, including a sealed coat long enough to brush his boots.

“What do you want?” I said. “I know you didn’t come to celebrate the new morning. Blow the fish stink off, perhaps?”

He smiled and shook his head, but didn’t rise to the insult.

“This,” he said and gestured around him, “is a good place to talk.”

I started walking toward the dormitory, letting him know my opinion of his wanting to talk. “You’re making a mistake. I’m not a spy.”

His coat made a rustling, hissing sound as he scuttled up beside me. “We’re not asking for much. Just tell us what you see.”

“I don’t spy on my friends,” I said, reaching for the dormitory door handle.

He grabbed my arm, then slipped between me and the door.

“That’s just the point, Judel. These people left us down here to die and ignored our struggle to survive for a full century. They are not our friends!”

“Their ancestors did that to our ancestors,” I said. “What good does that grudge do anyone now?”

“They’re using you, Judel. Do you think it’s coincidence that your contact is a beautiful woman? Do you think for a second that Sofie isn’t just flirting with you and stringing you along? These skogsrå are good at seduction. They know how to manipulate men.”

“Skogsrå? So now they’re magic fairies? Look, if you think I’m so easily fooled by these people, then find a new chief project engineer and send him or her instead.”

“We’ve considered that,” he said in barely more than a whisper. “You’re too deeply embedded in the project. They trust you.”

“Which is exactly why I don’t want to betray them.”

Lund’s gaze grew hard in the dim morning light. “Betray them? Is that how you feel, Judel?”

A chill crept up my spine and for the first time since the government spooks started courting me, I felt a flicker of worry. “Believe what you like. Put me in jail if you doubt my patriotism.”

Lund’s expression changed immediately to one of brotherly comradery and he clapped me on the shoulder again. “We don’t doubt you or we wouldn’t let you go, but it’s easy to lose focus on what is really important sometimes. While you are up there, or any time you are working with these Sigvaldites, remind yourself that their motivation is the same as ours. To do what is best for their own people. If you remember that, and view everything they do through that lens, then they can’t fool you.”

* * *

“I launch in about two hours,” I said. “I…thought maybe I’d check in and see if you need for me to bring anything up.”

Sofie smiled into the camera and must have answered my call from home instead of the engineering office. When she shook her head, loose hair lifted into the air and then slowly settled to her shoulders like storm-driven snow when the wind suddenly dies. So strange. She lived in an environment with which I had no experience.

“You already told me you can’t sneak fresh salmon up here this trip,” she smirked. “So how about bringing Frank?”

This time I shook my head and laughed. “The Space Authority refuses to let him fly without a space suit and those seem to be hard to find for dogs. You’ll just have to meet him when you come down to my farm.”

“I’d like that,” she said with a faint smile and rested her chin in her palm. “But for now, I’ll have to settle for you.”

That smile, and her little teasing remarks always made my pulse race, but now Lund’s comments intruded and made me wonder. Was she manipulating me? My intuition said no, but would I know? Or did I like her so much I would subconsciously overlook subtle signs?

“Do you have restaurants up there?” I said, deciding to go for it.

“Of course. Your people are supposed to be the ‘barbarians,’ not us.”

“Then maybe, for lack of that fresh salmon, you can introduce me to your local cuisine instead.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Are you asking me on a date, Judel?”

I flinched. “Well…I mean if…”

“In my opinion, we have excellent food. Even pizza,” she said.


“And by the way, I’m a pretty good cook if you like vat-grown meat and algae casseroles.”

The face I made must have been awful, because she laughed hard. “I also make good cookies. Maybe we should stick to those. Your stomach will probably be squishy from the flight and low gravity anyway.”

A pounding on my door reminded me it was time to go and we said our goodbyes. As I let myself be led to the launch-prep area, I wondered if her comment about being a good cook was some kind of signal or hint. Was she planning to invite me to her apartment? Or wanting me to ask? And if so, should I go? Damn, Lund! He had lodged doubts in my mind like a treble fishhook.

* * *

I had little to do during the pre-launch period but lie on my back, look at the vast instrument panels, and “not touch anything.” Much of the originally planned gauges and switches had been replaced by Sigvaldi touch panels. All of the computers were of their design as well. I couldn’t deny that they were superior, lighter, smaller, and more efficient, but it made me uncomfortable. It was hard to argue against the systems—for spaceflight and the bridge control—needing to be seamless and integrated, but we relied on them too much. If relations with those fickle Sigvaldites went belly-up again, then we could be in trouble. Of course, if that happened then the bridge project would become a moot point anyway, so it wouldn’t matter.

I closed my eyes and tried to relax the knots in my stomach. Radio chatter filled my helmet as the two pilots worked through their checklist with ground control. I wasn’t afraid, not really, but my loss would set the project back by at least a year, maybe more. This entire launch was simply to get me up to Sigvaldi so I could interface with their engineers. Sofie insisted I use their immersion fields and that wasn’t something they could export to us.

The pilot next to me, Anna, laid her hand on my arm and said “This is it, Judel. You ready?”

I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me in my helmet and croaked out “Yes.”

A series of bumps and bangs made me flinch, then I felt and heard a roar that grew steadily deeper. Vibration made my vision blur and teeth rattle, then a load settled on my chest. Støvhage was larger than Earth, so already had a gravity that was nearly half again the evolved human normal. Those of us living on the surface had adapted. Each generation handled the added stress better, but escaping the gravity well of this monster planet required a lot of power. As a result, rockets were only built when needed and crewed flights up to Sigvaldi had been few since the colony’s founding.

It was easy for the Sigvaldites to come down to the surface—they only needed a capsule that could withstand reentry—but, perversely, once they arrived they were invalids dependent on mechanical aids to even get out of bed. Only twelve had visited during the last hundred and fifty years, but due to the gee forces imparted by our chemical rockets, none were ever able to go home. I understood the problem implicitly as I struggled to stay conscious amid the building force. I—one of the strongest generations yet produced by Støvhage—could barely breathe. Hopefully, the bridge would end our dependence on rockets.

* * *

Microgravity was not kind to my stomach and even though they had trained extensively for this mission, the pilots had not actually been in space before either, so my upset triggered a “bag use” chain reaction. Luckily, they didn’t hold a grudge.

On our second orbit, one of the pilots suggested I unharness and look out the tiny window. We were passing beneath Astrid, the kidney-shaped moonlet. Just beyond I could see Sigvaldi’s cratered surface, brighter and clearer than I’d ever seen it from the ground. Amazing as those sights were, I was transfixed by the long glittering string of the bridge.

It was really more of a sky hook than a bridge or a space elevator, but “bridge” had been used by the media and politicians, so the term stuck. The structure was only anchored on the Sigvaldi end and trailed the moon like the leash dragged behind by a runaway dog. Its loose end flew through Støvhage’s sky, skimming a mile or more above the surface and only getting close enough to access when it crossed the high plateau. That is where my work started. I’d designed the maglev system to accelerate the carriages up to a speed where they could catch and grab the end of the leash as it passed. It had been the most challenging and rewarding work of my life, yet paled in comparison to what Sofie and her team from Sigvaldi had built.

Our ship drew closer, but as interesting details began to emerge—things like moving robots and construction workers—my crewmates insisted I return to my seat for docking. We arrived at maintenance hub four, which was little more than a blister on the spine of the bridge. It contained emergency medical supplies and feed lines for fuel and volatiles, but nothing like a crew quarters. Not that it mattered. Both pilots were forbidden to leave the capsule for the entire week I’d be on Sigvaldi.

“Don’t forget to come back,” the flight commander said. “I’d hate to stay locked up with Anna all this time for no good reason. I mean she snores and chews with her mouth open. Very crude.”

Her comment had been stated as a joke, but I knew she was quite serious. I wondered what Lund and his spooks had told them. That I was a defection risk? That I had been bewitched by skogsrå?

“Keep the engine running. I’ll be back soon.”

The maintenance hub was supposedly pressurized, but as a precaution I sealed my helmet before opening the docking hatch. I pushed my duffle bag ahead of me, then squeezed my bulk through as they closed it behind me. I clipped my bag to my lower back, below the environmental unit, then pulled myself along the bridge spine in a series of awkward lurches until I found the transfer hatch. The clumsy jerking around in microgravity made me dizzy and sent my stomach into queasy somersaults again. I had to gain control. I didn’t want my first face-to-face introduction to the Sigvaldites—and most especially Sofie—to be amid a vomit cloud.

Lund’s voice hissed in my helmet speaker. “You doing okay, Judel?”

They had all the data feeds from my suit, so they knew exactly how I was doing. The bastards even spied on their spies.

“Couldn’t be better,” I snapped. “This null-gravity stuff is a breeze.”

He laughed. “Good. Our boards show your ride is only a couple minutes away, so hang on just a little longer.”

I closed my eyes, swallowed hard, and pleaded in desperation with my stomach to not fill my helmet with puke.

“We’re all counting on you, Judel. Make us proud and don’t let them push you around.”

“Do my best,” I grunted.

Vibrations, strong enough to feel through my pressure-suit gloves, announced the carriage’s approach. I wondered if the shaking was caused by an anticipated interplay between carriage and bridge, or if it was an unexpected oscillation that could be a real problem. Maybe the recent docking of our capsule set up a local resonance in the bridge structure? It bothered me not knowing all the design elements of the bridge itself. We on the surface were only responsible for the terminal interface.

A green light winked on, then the hatch slid open revealing a small airlock. When I stepped in, my space-suited bulk nearly filled the entire area. Since both sides were already pressurized, the other hatch opened almost immediately revealing Sofie, who floated beyond. She offered me a bright smile and held out her hand. I took it, intending a handshake, but even though her long fingers disappeared in my massive glove, I could still feel her strong grip as she tugged me into the carriage.

She helped me remove my helmet, then kissed me on the cheek. “Welcome to the bridge!”

I reached for her, intending to kiss her back, but she ducked and my forward momentum sent me somersaulting across ten meters of empty air. Once the bridge was operational, the carriages would all be configured for cargo or passengers, but aside from some maintenance equipment strapped to one wall and four acceleration couches bolted to the “floor,” this carriage was empty and offered nothing for me to grab. I continued to spin, seeing Sofie’s grin once every rotation as she tried to stabilize me. She finally caught my arm and my tumble slowed, though imparted some of that motion to her. We were both laughing, hard, by the time we slammed into the padded far wall.

Using cargo cleats on the wall, we worked together and pulled ourselves down toward the floor, then grabbed handholds on one of the couches and were strapped in within a couple minutes.

Only then, after she had turned partially away busy with her own preparations, did I let myself really look at this woman. Scale was hard to get from a video link, but in person I could see that she was at least several inches taller than I. She didn’t wear a pressure suit—a probable violation of protocol—only a form-fitting utility layer that implied her weirdly long arms and legs were mostly hard muscle.

She gave a series of verbal commands. The carriage movement was at first barely perceptible, but acceleration increased until reaching about one and a half planetary gees, where it remained.

Surprised, I turned my head just enough to see Sofie. Her usual unfathomable half-smile had been replaced by a grimace and short, forced breaths. Before I could take any satisfaction in seeing one of the mighty Sigvaldites laid low, she gasped out, “Normal passenger…acceleration will…be a half gee. But I thought…you could…handle this.”

Her smile returned, just for an instant.

* * *

The carriage eventually stopped at a terminal carved deep in the heart of Sigvaldi. The cavernous, echoing rooms were cut from bare stone and empty except for the occasional robot or human worker mounting signs or polishing surfaces. At least from this perspective, it little resembled the glittering faerie cities of rumor and legend.

My disappointment at this fact was compounded by the irritation at having ridden all this way inside the bridge, yet aside from the brief glimpse through the capsule port, I didn’t really “see” it. Was this life on Sigvaldi? Seeing everything only from the inside?

Sofie took me to a room lined with large lockers. I was suddenly aware of my smell as Sofie helped me out of the pressure suit, but she didn’t comment, as she hung it and my helmet in a locker. I was hesitant when I saw no lock of any kind on the locker, but she only smiled, took my hand and placed it against the outside of the closed door.

“It has a built-in palm reader and now will only open for you.”

She demonstrated how it worked. I’d read about such technology, but had never seen it. I longed to examine the interior mechanisms but she instead gently propelled me out the door.

I was relieved to get out of the uncomfortable suit, but even happier to be out from under Lund’s watchful eye. His surveillance of me was locked away with my suit. At least for now. I followed her down a long corridor to a train station also cut from the unadorned stone.

“Considering the size of those rooms and corridors, you must be expecting a lot of traffic from the bridge,” I said.

For the first time since our initial meeting in the carriage, she looked me directly in the eyes and smiled.

I melted a little.

“It’s easier to build everything large from the beginning than to go back and change it if needed later,” she said.

I nodded, not entirely trusting myself to speak. Lund’s words kept echoing in my head. I am not going to let this happen, I thought. She is just a woman, and an engineer, not some mythical fairy who can bewitch a man’s mind. At least not mine.

The train arrived and we rode in an awkward silence for about fifteen minutes. When the doors opened again, it was on an entirely new world. Tall, brightly dressed people loped back and forth along the train platform. The walls were covered with tile mosaics, frescos and woven tapestries. I paused to stare, becoming the stone jutting out of a fast-moving stream as the people gave me curious glances, but flowed around me. I tried to absorb all the details for my report, but it was like trying to catalogue the movement in a kaleidoscope. I did note that there was no sign of military or defensive works.

After a couple of seconds, Sophie took my hand and led me to another corridor.

“We have small field offices on the surface at the main construction site and even in two places along the bridge, but the immersion equipment is in our main office and that’s a bit of a hike from here.”

She guided me along with gentle tugs and nudges. I tried not to think about her hand in mine. There was nothing flirtatious about her guiding me along in strange corridors and weak gravity, but during the years of talking to her, working and laughing together, I had built up hopes and expectations about this moment. Part of me worried that she would try to seduce me, but mostly I feared that she wouldn’t.

We eventually entered doors that were marked simply “Engineering.” A hallway led to a wide, colorful room, open and brightly lit. Though quite different from my own facility, it had all the markers of engineering offices everywhere. Various partially disassembled machines sat on tables and desks and wide screens displaying test data, while diagrams and conceptual drawings covered every wall. A beautiful, quarter-sized model of my bridge carriage sat in the center of the open area.

Conversations around the room tapered off and stopped as all eyes turned our way. An almost impossibly tall man, easily a head above the other giants, stood up behind a table and crossed the room in two long strides.

“Judel, this is Luther, our engineering director and my boss,” Sofie said.

He gave a slight bow, looking down at me from lofty heights and offered his hand to shake. Like Sofie’s, his hand was narrow with long fingers. “Sofie shouldn’t have brought you here first. You must be exhausted from that brutal flight.”

“Totally my doing,” I said, cutting off Sofie’s reply. “I insisted on coming to your office first. I’m quite interested in seeing this amazing Sigvaldite immersion tank that…”

I froze mid-sentence, my face feeling suddenly hot as I realized much too late that I’d used Sigvaldite, what they considered a derogatory term, in an actual conversation. The term was common usage down on the surface and I had been extremely careful during all these years, only to let it slip here and now.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I just—”

Luther held up his hand and slowly shook his head. “I’m sure all of this, including our immersion tank, must look like magic to an engineer who has been forced to use the equivalent of stone knives and bear skins to build your end of the system.”

I wasn’t sure what the hell that meant, since there were no bears on Støvhage, but I knew it had been an insult and my embarrassment flared immediately into anger.

“And for future reference please refrain from using that kind of language in front of my people. The original colonists called this moon Kanin before we even arrived and that name is good enough for us. We call ourselves the Kaninish.”

I shifted my feet for better balance and Sofie put a hand on my arm. I knew I was about to say things that might tank the whole project. I also knew that wouldn’t stop me. Those early days on Støvhage had been utter hell with more than half of the original colonists dying in the first two years. The world truly was dead, its soil being closer to regolith on Earth’s moon than the rich dirt on our mother world. We’d known before arriving that we’d need massive amounts of nitrogen for the crops, but those who stayed on the moon to mine stopped sending it just as they refused to send down the second wave of colonists. As our pleas and protests grew more insistent they eventually cut off radio contact. They had written us off as a failure and decided to save their resources for some future attempt. But we didn’t fail.

“I don’t give a damn if you find that name offensive,” I said. “You cut us off, leaving us to die down there with no help or resources. Your level of betrayal made Jarl Sigvaldi’s seem like a childish prank, but that is the best name we had for you.”

Luther’s face darkened. “Those sins belonged to our ancestors, not us, and we’re trying to make amends for them now, with the bridge and our technology.”

“As well you should, but you’ve earned the traitor’s name and we will always refer to you that way. If you don’t like it, then send me home and try to build your bridge without us.”

Luther’s mouth clamped shut in a tight, white line. He glanced at Sofie, then turned and stalked away.

Sofie’s already pale face took on a whole new pallor. “Well, that could have gone better. Let me show you to your room. We’ll start fresh tomorrow.”

“No, I’d like to see this immersion field now.”

She stared down at me for a full second, then shrugged and looked around. “Alright, but we’ve found a potential problem. Are you in the proper frame of mind to look at this information objectively?”

“I can separate my work from my personal feelings.”

She shrugged, then led me to a large room with white walls that sparkled with thousands of tiny glittering pinpricks and handed me a pair of goggles.

“Don’t remove these while in the simulation or the lasers will blind you.”

The goggles were a tight fit on my broad face, but covered my eyes well enough. Sofie flipped some switches near the door and the walls flickered faster and faster until vague, ghostly structures took shape in the room’s center.

As the holograms solidified, I recognized the mag rail twin track system we’d built on Støvhage’s central plateau. It looked so real! Like flying over it in an aircraft. Then the bridge appeared on the horizon. Sigvaldi’s tail it had been called, with the computer-controlled stabilizers providing the barb, its upper reaches disappearing into the blue sky, like the real thing. The camera view shifted slightly to focus on and follow two carriages, one on each track, accelerating toward us.

The bridge loomed larger in the background, getting ever closer, until it converged with the carriage at the docking terminus. I held my breath as the view zoomed in close enough for me to see the mechanical latch system engage, yanking the carriages off the track and up the bridge rails toward the moon passing above. But then something unexpected happened. The carriage closest to my perspective shifted suddenly, canting at a strange angle, almost faster than my eye could follow; it broke free and spun off in a ballistic arc. The second carriage then broke free and followed its predecessor in a spinning plunge to the ground below.

“What the hell!” I whipped around to find Sofie, but she was invisible in the simulation. I almost removed my glasses, then remembered it could blind me. “Where are you?”

The simulation halted and faded, revealing Sofie standing next to the control panel. “Can you—”

I crossed the room, nearly losing my balance in the lower gravity, until I was right next to her. “What is this insanity? Why did your little cartoon show such a catastrophic failure?”

“Because in the right circumstances—”

My arms flailed and spittle sprayed; I didn’t seem to be able to control myself. “We’ve tested that design fifty times—”

Sofie not only held her ground, but bent closer to my face and put her hands on my shoulders. “Judel! Listen to me. The numbers don’t lie. In a fully loaded condition, those locks will fail.”

I wanted to yank away, scream in her face and leave, but there was a pleading in her eyes. She believed what she said. But those locks and that carriage design were our last bastion of respect. The entire bridge had been their idea, their design and built by them. We had built the mag rail track needed to accelerate the carriages to translation speed, but the engineering had been theirs. The carriages were our only real contribution and the locks were my design. They had wanted magnetic locks from the beginning, but we—no I—had insisted that mechanical locks would be more robust and reliable.

She squeezed my shoulders and bent a little lower until her face was inches from my own. “Please trust me, Judel.”

“But we tested them,” I muttered and took a deep shuddering breath. “To three times the load requirements.”

She dropped her hands and straightened to her full height. “I know. But you tested for individual stresses, not all twelve factors at the same time, because there is no way to do that until the actual system is built. We also suspect the purity level of the carbon alloy in your electronic models is higher than you’re capable of manufacturing, so we set it at a more realistic level in our simulation.”

“But we—”

“And before you get defensive, we can’t produce that level of purity either. It would only be possible with nano-assemblers and you know we haven’t had any luck with that.”

“Okay,” I said. “Show me.”

We watched the simulation four more times, with color enhancement and data tags showing exactly what happened as the stress loads piled up until the latch mechanism failed. So many thoughts crowded my head. I had doubts, but I also didn’t believe that Sofie was frivolous and shallow enough to waste so much effort creating an elaborate ruse. Especially not just to get her way on magnetic locks or for a little one-upmanship. Once the lasers were shut off I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes.

“You must be exhausted,” Sofie said. “Are you ready to go to your room?”

I nodded and let her lead me through the now dark and empty engineering center and down the wide corridor to the dormitory and my room. We both hesitated awkwardly in the open door, but when I asked her to come in, she smiled and gave me a little shove. “Get some rest.”

And I did just that, still in my clothes, and the last thought in my tired mind was of Sofie’s hands on my shoulders, only this time, instead of yelling, she kissed me.

* * *

The next morning I awoke stiff and unsure of the time. I took a shower that required me to squeeze through a rubbery, sphincter-like membrane into a tight little closet. The water spray came from three sides and, due to the weak gravity, filled the space with a weird mist made of large droplets that clung to me and had to be squeegeed off. I put on fresh clothes and settled down to reexamine the latch design. Each time I looked at the numbers it felt like touching an open wound.

So I left my room, curious as to how far I’d get before their security wonks collected me. I wandered aimlessly for more than an hour, but the only thing I noted that could be considered useful intelligence was that most of the plazas and corridors I found were almost empty. Of course other than my dealings with Sofie, I had no clue about the schedules these people kept, so I could be between shift changes or maybe it was a holiday. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the infrastructure had been designed for a much larger population.

The expected hand on my shoulder finally came, but when I turned, it was a winded Sofie.

“Good morning,” I said. “Rough night?”

“Why are you out wandering around? Are you trying to get me in trouble? I’m supposed to be your escort.”

“I’m a tourist. Was I supposed to stay in my room?” I said, feigning innocence.

She sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m winging this too. Look, they expect us at the engineering center in an hour, but there are no actual design meetings scheduled until the afternoon. Do you feel up to a little field trip to the surface? Since you are a tourist and all, I thought you might like to see the bridge from the outside.”


She led me back to the locker room where I’d left my suit the day before. We helped each other dress and cross-checked our equipment after topping off our gasses, then walked up a long, sloping corridor that ended in a cluster of airlocks. As we waited for the air to evacuate, we checked our communications links.

“As soon as we’re outside, you need to clip your short tether to the guide line,” she said. “It’s about one tenth of Støvhage’s gravity. It’s harder to reach escape velocity than you might think, but if you get a good enough launch it will still take hours for you to come down.”

She took my hand before the hatch opened and held onto me through the whole tethering process. It felt a little silly, like a child being mothered, but I also knew that she’d been born in this gravity and had far more vacuum experience than I, so was grateful for the help.

We walked perhaps half a kilometer, then stopped and turned back to look at the bridge.

“I knew you’d want to see it from the outside, too,” Sofie said.

The terminal building we had exited was huge, perhaps three stories high, covering several acres and that was only the end where the bridge was anchored. Aside from my brief peek through the capsule window, I had only seen the bridge from Støvhage’s surface, moving past at over a thousand kph, which gave it the impression of some vast, bizarre aircraft. From this perspective it was a tower rising impossibly high into the blackness, getting ever smaller until it vanished from view.

The inflexible neck on my suit forced me to lean backward in order to look up, but upon seeing a slowly rotating Støvhage nearly filling the sky overhead I totally forgot about the bridge. Painfully white clouds covered much of the surface, but I could see green bands separating the blue of lakes and oceans from the yellow-brown of the still dead lands. The fragile proof of our generations-long struggle. It was beautiful, powerful, and compelling.

I gasped and muttered an old litany from the days when—due in no small part to these traitors on Sigvaldi—humanity’s survival on the surface had been doubtful.

Sofie had said nothing during this time and when I turned to see why I found her facing away from me, staring at what looked like a smooth, nearly cylindrical mountain. Various antenna and other equipment protruded from the top and I realized it was an enormous building, covered by a thick layer of regolith.

I touched her shoulder. When she turned to face me, the lights inside her helmet glistened from tear tracks on her cheeks.


“We have to stop this, Judel.”


She pointed to her helmet and then held up a gloved hand with two fingers, then three, then one.

I changed the channel on my suit radio to 231.

“I’m going to do something stupid,” she said. “Please trust me. This needs to be done.” She unhooked our tethers from the guideline, then clipped them together and motioned for me to follow.

We left the marked path and struck out directly for the strange buried building. Sofie never said we needed to hurry, but I felt an urgency in her actions so I followed without comment. After about ten minutes and little talking, we arrived at a tube that disappeared into the “hillside” which Sofie entered without slowing. Small, dust-covered lights cast dim illumination on the corrugated interior which went about forty feet before ending at a very strange airlock.

The hatch was flush with its surrounding wall, revealed only by a seam not much wider than a human hair. Sofie punched a code into a lighted touch panel beside it which was totally smooth and almost completely blended into the wall. This building had obviously been here for many years, yet this was some of the most advanced workmanship I’d ever seen. Their techniques and capabilities were even more advanced than we’d thought.

The hatch sank slightly into the wall, then slid into a recess, allowing us to enter. My heart sank as I looked around the inside of the airlock. If they were able to employ such exquisite workmanship on something as utilitarian as an airlock then we were doomed. The weaponry at their disposal must be beyond our imaginations.

We passed through a powerful air curtain and vacuum system, then entered into a locker room and helped each other out of our suits. They were almost clean and I wondered why they would use such a wonderful system in this building, but not the main terminal building.

“You said we’re doing something stupid. Why? What is this building?”

Sofie turned and smiled at me. “You haven’t figured it out yet, Judel? We’re inside the ship. This is the Amundsen.”

I steadied myself against the wall as vertigo made the room spin. Impossible. It couldn’t be true. We’d been led to believe the ship had long ago been scavenged for its systems and materials. Yet it all suddenly made sense. The signage was Norwegian, but contained words I didn’t recognize. The workmanship. The technology.

I saw Sofie in a new light. She knew I was a spy. She had to know. Yet she was showing me a secret greater than all others. “Why?”

“Wait and maybe it will make better sense when I show you the rest.”

As I followed her through the ship, I saw that it had indeed been at least partially dismantled. Cavernous, echoing chambers where whole decks had been removed, leaving only wiring and pipe stubs. Hatches had been removed and I could see into large open areas and stripped cabins. We went down ladder after ladder, going far deeper into the ship and making it obvious that only a small portion made up the buried part I could see from the surface.

When we entered another echoing chamber that curved gently away in two directions—obviously part of the rotating habitat—I finally got a sense of scale. The ship had to be a kilometer in diameter and at least half of the floor space I could see was covered by sleeper units. As we threaded our way between them I noticed that some were lit up. They were all occupied…by babies.

Sofie led me to the only free-standing structure amid the cemetery of electric coffins and opened the door. Two surprised men stood in a room filled with humming equipment. They immediately backed away to the far wall and started talking animatedly.

“We don’t have much time, so please listen and try to believe everything I tell you. We know you’re a spy. I also know you are a good person and I think if you have enough information you’ll make the right decision.”

Despite the earnest expression on her face, I couldn’t help but hear Lund’s warning. Remind yourself that their motivation is the same as ours. To do what is best for their own people.

“Your government is building twelve large lift vehicles. We estimate each one could carry a hundred or more soldiers. I’ve seen the pictures, but couldn’t get copies to show you. You’ll just have to trust me that they exist.”

A sinking feeling settled over me. If that was a lie, then it was one that rang true. It sounded too much like Lund and his people. They needed me and my intelligence report, yet they would never tell me why it was important.

“It’s hard to be certain without people on the ground, but by the level of activity around the sites, we estimate they are at least a year from completion. That’s why we’re trying so hard to finish the bridge first. We’re hoping that our people will fare better if integration is slow and natural instead of sudden and by force.”

My thoughts were still on Lund and his subterfuge, so her comment took a second to sink in. “Wait. Integration?”

“Yes. It’s inevitable. That’s why I brought you here.”

She led me to a large console, covered with data-filled display screens. “I’m not exactly sure what our ancestors originally named this machine, but we call it the DNA Adjustor. A combination of our limited population, cosmic radiation, and the very low gravity inflicts our children with an extremely high birth defect rate for natural births. So instead of normal gestation, we put the fertilized eggs into sleeper units, where the DNA Adjuster can monitor the genetic health of the babies and correct problems early.”

Growing babies inside an artificial environment made my skin crawl, but the engineer in me was still fascinated. I leaned in for a closer look and marveled at the symbols and text scrolling across the screens. History told us that our ancestors from Earth directly manipulated genetics, just as they’d been able to manipulate matter on a molecular level, but here it was directly in front of me; one of those magic machines kept working for hundreds of years.

“It sounds as if you have a working system. So why the limited population? And what is the limit?”

She was slow to respond and seemed to be struggling with the question. Then I heard clattering from behind us and looked back toward the door we’d entered. A squad of armed soldiers poured through the hatch, spread out and moved toward us.

“Our population is fixed at nine thousand,” she said abruptly. “That is the most our resources and economy can support. Like everything on the Amundsen, this DNA Adjustor machine was triply redundant. But two of the three machines have failed in the last few years. When this last one fails—and it will eventually because we don’t understand the technology—then our already small population will start to collapse.”

By that point we were surrounded and an earnest, yet nervous young woman approached wearing an officer’s uniform. “You’re in a restricted area. Please come with us.”

“I still want to meet your dog,” Sofie said and kissed me on the cheek.

* * *

The rest of that night I was kept locked in my quarters. I worried about Sofie—feeling somehow responsible and powerless—so I did what I always do when I’m stressed. I worked. In the morning I sent a message to Sofie and Luther, telling them I had a possible solution to the carriage-lock problem and I hoped they would listen to me.

Four armed guards arrived and escorted me to the engineering center. They even accompanied me into the large conference room, where they fixed me with menacing glares from their posts near the door.

I put my presentation up on the wall screen, ready to discuss by the time Luther arrived flanked by two other engineers.

“Where’s Sofie?” I tried to look as menacing as I could without bringing the guards down on me.

“She…is being detained,” Luther said with the same level of disgust most reserved for discussions of bodily functions. “There will be an investigation as to why she violated security protocols. In the meantime, in order to have as minimal a schedule impact as possible, we need to get these design changes approved so that the failed mechanical latching system can be scrapped in favor of our original magnetic locking system.”

“As Sofie demonstrated yesterday, the mechanical latch system does fail six percent of the time under maximum loading, which is an unacceptable risk. However, problems with the mag lock system still exist too and—”

“If you’re going to suggest that we don’t load the system to its design maximum, then—”

I slapped the table with enough force to not only shut Luther up and make the guards take a step forward, but to raise me several inches out of my seat. “Hear me out! Regardless of what you think of me and all grounders, please just consider this simple alternative. I propose that we do both.”

Luther glowered, crossed his arms and sat back in his seat. “We brought you all the way up here. Of course we’ll listen.”

“Our biggest concern with magnetic locks are power requirements, keeping the pads on the carriages clean and the lack of mechanical fail-safes should the system lose power. We can divert power from the lift drive to the mag locks for two tenths of a second, during the actual momentum shift when the mechanical locks fail, providing that extra robustness, then we engage the mechanical locks and shift power back to the drive system and start the lift.”

Luther stared at the wall screen with narrowed eyes and I could see the gears of his mind whirling. He might be an asshole and a manager, but according to Sofie, he was also an excellent engineer.

“This way we don’t have to add a dedicated mag lock power system and we keep the mechanical lock system,” I said. “We just have to add the controllers and mag pads to the bridge and carriages. A far smaller design change.”

Luther’s lackeys smiled and glanced at each other. He sighed and said, “We’ll work up some new stress and power models for this option and let you know.”

* * *

Once back home on Støvhage, the flight medical team seemed satisfied with my progress, so they handed me some thick gloppy stuff to drink and left me alone. Aside from my stomach being a jittery mess and my head throbbing like a dust rock bass line, I had survived reentry without a problem. At least until the door opened and Lund slipped in. And that probably explained why they immediately separated me from the flight crew after we landed.

“Hello, Judel.”

“Hi, Alvin. What a surprise to see you here.” I had to be careful. Too much vitriol and he would doubt that I’d be so cooperative. Not enough and he’d suspect I was up to something.

He raised an eyebrow. “We’re obviously concerned that the mission was cut short and you were sent home due to a security violation. Care to explain?”

“You’re the intelligence expert. Shouldn’t you have this information already?”

Lund sat down and crossed his arms. “We don’t have assets among their people. That’s why your trip was so important. We’re limited to what our signal processing people can glean from their electronic communications.”

I shrugged, took another drink of the nasty goo and made the appropriate face. “They had confined me to certain corridors and sections. Sofie took me to unauthorized sections and we both got in trouble. She was thrown in prison and they asked me to leave.”

His eyes flared with excitement before he locked the stoicism in place again. I knew he wanted to ask what I’d seen, but he held it in check. “Why did she betray her own security to show you things she shouldn’t?”

“It could be the fact that she, and they, know about your twelve heavy launch vehicles and the plan to put troops on their moon.”

He flinched and went pale, but said nothing.

I’d caught him by surprise. Hopefully it would rattle him enough to believe the rest of my lies.

“She wanted me to see their preparations and hopefully avoid an invasion, but their military wants us to come. And be wiped out to the last man. It would evidently be an effective deterrent against future aggression.”

“And what did you see?”

“She led me out of my section via a service tunnel. Every other corridor and section we visited contained armed soldiers. I saw hundreds. She said they’d been expecting an invasion for a long time and their military service is compulsory for every young person. If she told the truth, they have about forty thousand armed and active.”

I surprised him again. He blinked and then leaned forward. “Their population is that high?”

“All I know is what I saw. The corridors she took me to were shoulder-to-shoulder people. It was like a hive. Maybe what you said about them breeding like animals is true.”

He gave me a sick leering grin. “And is it true? Did you finally consummate your little long-distance love affair?”

I glared at him. My disgust wasn’t in the slightest bit faked.

He rolled his eyes and snorted. “So. They just let you go? Knowing what you’d seen.”

“That part baffles me, too,” I shrugged. “I really don’t know, but I suspect if they kept me, it would’ve given us a good excuse to attack and they’d prefer it to appear unprovoked. Maybe Sofie knew what she was doing and forced their hand?”

He stared at me for a long time without speaking. With his mask back in place he said, “You went out on the surface the night before you left. Why?”

I considered telling him a half lie, about visiting the Amundsen and seeing a super weapon. Maybe the old ship’s asteroid deflection beam I’d read about, but instead decided it would be better to keep its existence secret. I could see these dumbasses firing a barrage of missiles to destroy it and we’d lose that wonderful technology due to lies and stupidity.

“To see the bridgehead from the outside,” I said. “That is one of the main reasons I went, remember? But if they had military facilities out there, they were well disguised. I saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Hidden from our telescopes and probes,” he said with a knowing nod then stood up. “I may be back later for more details. But I have a lot to do based on the information you provided.”

“I bet,” I said and smothered a smile.

* * *

The goats arrived, bells jingling and bleats filling the air as I set out the last salt block. Only a few of them rushed over to lick the salt, which was a good sign. It meant they were probably getting enough. The rest milled around my legs hoping I had something more interesting and tasty in the cart.

Frank barked and circled us all, bouncing on his front legs and tail wagging madly. Then he stopped, raised his ears and took off at full speed toward the house. I looked that way but saw nothing. In an irrational move driven by hope, I pulled the AllBox from my pocket to check for messages, but it still displayed a red X meaning that my home repeater was out of range. I sighed and looked out at my inherited family farm. My gaze fell on rolling hills spotty with tough grass and knee-high bushes. Something an Earther would call scrub or trash or ugly, but considering that this world had been devoid of all life when we arrived, I thought it was quite beautiful. Someday, this would all be grass, and covered in cattle and need fences, but not in my lifetime.

I could hear Frank barking in the distance, so I nudged the goats aside, crawled onto the cart, and started back toward the house to see why he was raising such hell. As I topped the next rise I saw him circling what could only be a Sigvaldite wearing one of those spider-like helper suits. My pulse quickened. We saw many more Sigvaldites since the bridge was completed, but if one were visiting me out here then it was either very good news or very bad.

I pushed the cart to max speed and bounced over the rocky ground until I could skid to a stop a few yards from the contraption. The occupant had lowered their composite frame close to the ground and was petting and cooing over a quite enthusiastic Frank. I recognized her voice immediately.

I knelt next to them. “Sofie?”

When she looked up there were tears in her eyes and dust turned to mud smudged on her cheeks.

“Hi, Judel.” Her voice, while familiar, also held the strained wheeze common to Sigvaldites visiting the surface.

“I didn’t know you were out of jail. When did that happen? I’ve been watching my… I’ve been kind of wondering.”

“Two days ago. I should have let you know, but I wanted to come down here. I thought if you knew, you might tell me not to come.”

“Of course not. But this has to be hard on you.”

“You said I could meet your dog after the bridge was finished. I’m here to make you keep that promise.”

I knelt down and wrapped my arms around Frank’s neck. “Did you hear that, Frank? You, my boy, are a very lucky dog. This pretty lady came down from space and all the way out into the dusty badlands to meet you.”

Frank bounced with excitement and licked my face in reply.

“I might have had other reasons, too,” she wheezed. “The last time didn’t really work out as I’d hoped.”

A lump formed in my throat. “Yeah, me either.”

We started a slow walk back to the house and the wind picked up, surrounding us with dust devils. Sofie gasped and stopped. “Will they hurt us?”

“No. Too weak,” I said with a laugh. “Like if you were to try and pick me up.”

She smirked and shook her head. “Some things never change. By the way, I love the solution you came up with for the bridge carriage locks. I’ve really missed working this last year, so indulge me and tell me what you’ve been working on. Your next big super project!”

“The bridge will be my last project for a while. Upon the insistence of the Government Security Agency, more specifically Alvin Lund, I’ve been fired and pretty much blackballed.”

“Oh no. Why?”

“Once the bridge was finished and their agents started snooping around up on Sigvaldi, they realized I had unabashedly lied about your forty thousand troops.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Forty thousand troops? Did you really do that?”

I nodded.

She started laughing, then stopped and gasped for breath. I didn’t know what to do and fluttered around her like a scared hen. With elaborate hand gestures she waved me away and eventually regained her breath.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I’ve missed you and I’m very, very glad you came, but it sounds like this gravity is killing you. When do you go back?”

“You missed me?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Hell yes, I missed you! Talking to you every day was the best part of those difficult years we spent designing the bridge. Then just as I thought… I mean you were suddenly gone.”

“It must look like I’m an invalid down here, but I can get in and out of this contraption on my own. And tend to my basic needs, so I’d like to stay. At least for a little while. If that’s okay. And if it’s okay with Frank.”

“Of course it’s okay. It will always be okay.”

* * *


Her voice was muffled by the scarf around her mouth, but I thought I detected a trace of worry.

“What is it, Squeaker? Are you scared of the dark?”

“I’m a little scared,” she said. “But not of the dark. Some of the kids at school said the fødselsvind picks up kids and blows them away.”

I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed. “That isn’t true. If the wind blew little kids away, then there would be news reports about it on the feeds all the time. Besides, you’re six now and very tall even for six, so the worst that could happen is it would knock you off your feet. And I’ll be here with you to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Okay. But I’m just newly six. Remember that.”

I tried to stifle my laugh and made sure her goggles and scarf were tight. “I’ll remember that,” I said. “We can go back in the house and do this some other time if you’re not ready.”

“I think I’m ready. Will mamma be proud of me?”

I could see the pale wall rising in the east and could faintly hear the building roar. I shifted my bare feet, making sure of my footing and positioned my daughter in front of my legs. “Oh yes, Squeaker. She is always proud of you. She was very excited when you told her.”

“Are we still going up the bridge to see her tomorrow? To celebrate?”

When Sophie got pregnant, she insisted that the baby be gestated in Støvhage’s full gravity; even then it nearly killed her on multiple occasions. The birth had been so hard on her already frail constitution, that she could never come down the gravity well again. Long-distance marriages were difficult and Squeaker and I missed her terribly, but the three of us made it work. “Yes, baby.” I tightened my arms around her as the wind picked up. “We’ll see her tomorrow.”

Her hands tensed on mine as the dust wall towered over us and the wind howled. “You and mamma built that bridge,” she yelled.

“Yes. We sure did.”

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