Jetta’s crew are hideous, like elephants smashed into an octopus. I tell her so and she laughs and slaps my hand away. “That’s not funny.”
“No, really,” I say, reaching for her again. “I’ve had Lovecraftian nightmares that were better looking.”
This time she doesn’t smile. “Jay,” she says. “These guys are like family to me.” I’m trying too hard, I know. We’ve been together three amazing months, and I’m afraid I’m going to blow it.
Anyway, we meet up with her crew at the site bar: three Hoolians, all huge, muscled, and male. Tentacles for legs and maybe another one for a nose, heavy gray skin, and two oddly human arms with suckers for hands and the most splendid biceps you’ve ever seen. And they have six-pack abs. Like the cover of some twisted interspecies romance: tentacles, biceps, and abs. “Don’t be jealous,” Jetta says, noticing that I’ve noticed. “It’s just a coincidence. Like convergent evolution.”
That’s not at all what convergent evolution means, but I let it go. She’s gorgeously muscled herself, my girl, lithe and wiry like an acrobat. “Who’s jealous?” I say, helping her stay on-balance as she angles toward a chair. Jetta’s muscles aren’t always reliable the day after a long job. Her crew is nice enough, though, and one of them slides me a beer once we sit down.
Talk turns to their work and gets technical. They’ve got too many jobs right now, which is a good problem. Lately they’ve been dropping garnet crystals off the edge of Orbital 41. Something in the station’s tilt and the planet’s radiation makes the crystals grow like barnacles: huge, abrasive, and detrimental to station efficiency. Industrial-grade garnet is profitable enough that the job pays for itself, as long as you’ve got the manpower. Hool-power, I say, and they look at me funny but let it pass.
It’s interesting work, though. Dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but not difficult. So when they mention they’re shorthanded for the next job, I volunteer.
Jetta narrows her eyes at me. “You don’t have a power suit,” she says.
“I’ll rent one!” I say it loud and cheerfully so that I can’t be ignored. One of the Hoolians hoots and gives me a high-five, hand to sucker-palm. They learned that from Jetta, I think, or maybe it’s one of those human gestures that traveled. His sucker makes a kissing sound on my palm, and I can tell we’re going to get along.
We head out shortly: one Hoolian, jovial; tight-faced Jetta; and me. The other two Hoolians are prepping for one of their bigger jobs, but we can do this one with three, Jetta explains, if we’re careful. “Triple-check everything,” she says. She doesn’t seem like she’s having a good time.
At the site, I’m impressed. They really are massive, like glittering skyscrapers, a whole redwood forest in ruby and glass. I stand there staring, thumping my rented boots against the station hull, while Jetta and the Hoolian decide on blast charges, drop lines, edge clamps. Timing is critical, they say. With the station’s spin, the top of each crystal sits in different gravity than the bottom. The angle needs to be precise to drop it down, to prevent it from shattering into space and fouling up the shipping lanes. Jetta and the Hoolian argue a little bit, comfortably, and eventually she comes back over to me. “Don’t move,” she says, clipping my safety line in two places. I already clipped it correctly, but I let her check anyway. “Not until I tell you.” The Hoolian’s already at the top, laying charges. I watch him putter around while Jetta preps the base, then pulses up to the central break point, exactly halfway between us.
Everything goes right until it doesn’t. Later, I find out that nobody did anything wrong, that some kinds of imperfections in the silicate don’t show up on scans. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter. The tenth time, a good team will act fast to correct their lines, pop some of the charges early. Usually, Jetta has a good team. This time she had me. The garnet slab cracks like heavy ice, hurling shards and spikes into the black. I feel it twice: once as I’m ripped backward, away from the station; and once as I snap against the void, bones creaking, the thin wrinkle of the safety line linking my suit to the station’s surface and the rest of my life.
“I’m okay,” I say to Jetta, when I can, through the suit. We’re all alive, everybody’s alive, but she’ll be worried, I know, wanting to make sure I’m okay. I look for her at the end of my line. She’s not there.
It takes a second too long to find her. She’s steering in quick pulses toward the Hoolian, splayed at the end of his tether like an octopus against the background stars. They’re checking air vents, passing hands over each other’s suits. It takes almost a full minute for her to finish making sure he’s okay before she turns and checks the lines, most of which held. The larger shards haven’t traveled far. When she’s done securing the site, finally, she turns to me.
She has that look you get when you’ve finally caught the station mite that’s been buzzing around your bedroom for hours, and before you get rid of it you hold it up, close to your eye, impressed that something so small and oblivious could have caused you so much trouble.
We’ll date a little while after that, but it’s in that moment, suspended in the brilliant garnet haze, that I know it’s over.
I think how remarkable she looks: strong muscles, haloed in red. Then, ignoring the auto-thrusters that I don’t know how to use, I pull myself slowly along the tether, hand over hand, to get back down to the surface.
This story was previously published in ThrillingWords.com, JUNE 2019
Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her work has also appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Thrilling Words magazine, and the anthology Way of the Laser: Stories of Future Crime. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her email@example.com.