Holding On – Justen Russell

Holding On – Justen Russell

October 2022

I was eight years old when Yuri Zhilin floated away.

Yuri, the first man to orbit Io; the first human to walk on Ganymede. Replacing the lens of the JUVENTAS orbital telescope was supposed to be a routine procedure. Something done a half-dozen times with a half-dozen other telescopes around the closer planets and their moons. It wasn’t even the first untethered spacewalk over Jupiter; Mimi Lin had beaten him to that almost a year earlier.

Still, I had to watch. It was Yuri.

I’d sucked up to José all week so we could watch the broadcast together on his father’s new omniscreen. At that resolution we could count the stitches under Yuri’s ROSCOSMOS badge—four: one for each planet he had orbited. Of course, I was more interested in his hair. Six long, straw-blond strands had escaped the bun on the back of Yuri’s head and, without gravity to restrain them, they danced. Hairs just like mine.

Before his spacewalk, Yuri gave a tour of the capsule where he and Mimi had spent the past seven years. He showed the workstations filled with experiments, the sleeping harnesses, and what counted as a toilet in zero g. “Study hard, earthlings,” he said in his thick Russian accent, “and you can be like us.” José and I, we believed him too.

At the cockpit, Mimi Lin waved for the camera and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to be jealous. I would have given anything to be her then, to have floated next to Yuri just once.

While he suited up, Yuri explained in Russian the purpose of everything he would wear. Gloves, belt, boots, I caught the main words—just not the small ones in between. José and I would use those same words when we played to make it more authentic. Like it was possible for us to work for ROSCOSMOS too.

Yuri’s helmet had its own internal camera and when he put it on, his face appeared as a small inset in the bottom right-hand corner of our screen—smiling as always. He blew a kiss to the Earth, then pushed himself towards the airlock.

Ten meters of open space separated their capsule from the orbital telescope. Any closer and the protective magnetic field of their spacecraft would have damaged the satellite’s delicate sensors. Ten meters exactly—no give or take. Mimi Lin held them in perfect alignment.

Yuri had one hundred and eighty-nine successful spacewalks on his record. I knew that number by heart. It was twenty-six more than Mimi Lin. It was nearly double the third place. One hundred eighty-nine times, Yuri Zhilin had stepped out into the void, then on the one hundred and ninetieth his mind shut down.

I could tell something was wrong the moment he pushed off, even before his arms started to flail, even before his legs started to kick. His eyes, so clear in that ultra-high definition inset in the bottom right corner of our screen, went blank. Yuri was no longer there.

With a forty-three-minute speed-of-light delay, there was nothing anyone on earth could do except watch. Whatever would happen already had. Mimi Lin had left the cockpit and hesitated at the airlock; she had suited up, calculated trajectories, and then suited back down. Twenty minutes before we watched Yuri kick off, she had concluded what we were about to: Yuri Zhilin was already gone.

‘Space Sickness’, the TV commentator explained after the ‘live’ broadcast cut out. It would become the new word of the summer. ‘A rare catatonic response to stimulatory overload in high stress situations.’ It was nearly unheard of among professional astronauts, but everyone knew they were the minority in space. Among the asteroid miners and orbital laborers—well—no one kept statistics on them, but ‘Space Sickness’, we would learn, probably claimed more than half. Outer space was littered with the bodies of those who couldn’t quite hold on; usually, they were not broadcast for the whole world to see.

My mother named me Laika after the Russian dog that went to space. I think she meant it to be aspirational. A stray who made it to the stars. No one ever told her that the dog died on the way up. No one tells a woman like my mother things that might ruin her smile.

She left Quito for Manta when they started building the elevator. It was a good time to be a woman with a smile like hers. The streets there were full of contractors, astrophysicists, and astronauts, all with good jobs and full pockets. Back before the gated communities went up, and Manta became another Quito on the sea. Even Yuri passed through on his way up.

She said my father was an astronaut named Mudak. She used to tell me he was where I got my blonde hair. There is no way she could have known for sure—there were a lot of blond foreigners in Manta—but if I was going to have a fake father, he might as well have been an astronaut.

I always knew there was a real Mudak—whether he was my father or not. My mother could not have made up a name like that. See, people did not tell my mother things, but they told me. Things like ‘Laika died on the way up’ and ‘a mutt’s name suits a mulatta like you’. Things like ‘you know mudak means testicle in Russian, right?’.

Mudak is like calling someone an asshole. Mudak is calling someone a jerk. Usually, mudak is what you call a person you don’t like, but sometimes Mudak is how another mudak introduces his friend when they are trying to be funny and don’t want to give a real name to the smiling girl.

I don’t know if Mudak really was an astronaut, or if he just wanted to see more than a smile. I don’t know if he really was my father, or just the best mudak around the right time. All the men my mother smiled at were mudaks, but if she had any regrets, she never told me. The mudaks kept us fed. At least, they used to.

I never had a smile like my mothers, even before I lost three teeth fighting over something silly like my father and his name, but that did not matter, because I was going to space. Sometimes after I fought, I would tell my mother I had tripped; that I wasn’t meant for gravity. She liked that too. “Just like your father,” she would say, and I think she meant it—not like the other mothers. The ones who say, “Yes darling, someday you will have a mansion on the hill,” because they know that the day their child finally understands, she will have grown up and no longer needs her mother.

For my mom, there was always something romantic about the elevator. It was never just another feature along the horizon. The wind turbines, the luxury cruise liners, the mansions on the hill—those were meant for mudaks and not for us. The mutt never gets invited inside, but there is room for her on a rocket, if she isn’t concerned about coming back.

In the morning, when the sun shone from the east and the sky was clear, you could see the elevator—a thin, silver thread reflecting the light, stretched taut from heaven to horizon. At night, some trait of the filament in the upper atmosphere caused it to glow—the equatorial aurora—and a dancing line of green and purple floated in front of the stars. Most of the time, however, the cable itself was too far away and too thin to see.

Only the crawlers were visible when, for José’s tenth birthday, his father drove us to San Mateo, where the cliffs overlooked the ocean. Before the elevator, he’d read, astronauts used to train on special parabolic flights. Ones that fly high in the sky then nose-dive straight down so the passengers inside can feel what it is like to be without gravity. They still did, I told him, just as children, not astronauts-to-be. The first time Yuri floated was at a birthday party where the parents had rented a parabolic plane; but our cliffs would be just as good.

“We will float for two whole seconds,” José said. He had done the math and knew that part for sure. “Just like Yuri,” he added for me.

We raced up the cliffs, each of us eager to be the first to jump, but in the end, it was José’s birthday and I let him win. Only, after he leapt, I didn’t; I couldn’t.

I remember wanting to. I had been excited, even as José’s scream echoed off the water below. But then I walked to the edge to make sure the landing was clear. I don’t remember if it was. I just remember how much taller that cliff looked from the top, and how very, very far away the ocean seemed.

José hollered for me to jump. Then, he climbed back up and tried to convince me that it would be okay. It wasn’t me that needed convincing, it was my legs; they wouldn’t co-operate. They wouldn’t step. I wanted to jump. At least, I wanted to have jumped, but I couldn’t make myself approach that void.

When he could wait no longer, José left me there. He jumped again, and again, and again—and I didn’t.

Each time, José was fine. It was me, still at the top, who was broken. I had to climb back down the way I had come up.

José didn’t yell at me for ruining his birthday. He pretended we had both had fun, but I cried that night because I knew I would never be a Yuri, or a Mimi—or even brave like my mother when she left everything she had known for a new city. I would never be able to jump.

The next morning my mother wiped away my tears and marched me all the way back to the cliffs. It took hours to get there on foot, but she said, “Trust me.” And I did.

We climbed the rocks together—slowly this time—and she stood with me at the top, all the way back from the edge. She said, “Sometimes, when you know what you have to do, it is better not to look.” Then she grabbed my hand and said, “Close your eyes,” and we ran. We didn’t look and we didn’t stop, we just fell off the edge of the world, and for two full seconds we were weightless in the air.

I jumped off the cliff a second time, and third, and a fourth—until my mother said we had to go back because the sun would soon disappear. It was easier every time. By the end of the day, it no longer mattered if I ran or if I looked. My legs kept working.

My mother laughed the whole way home—about the way I had screamed in the air, about the way my arms and legs had flailed when I fell. It didn’t matter; I had jumped. I laughed about my flailing arms too.

Her smile always made everything okay. I wish I could have learned to smile like my mother, to have given that back to her just once before I left.

‘Study hard, earthlings,’ Yuri had said, ‘and you can be like me.’ José, maybe; he had it all planned out, every step required for a documented position at the top. Scholarship to a secondary school on the hill, two years of college outside Manta, engineering degree from the University in another three. He would never be an astronaut—ROSCOSMOS didn’t scout for people like us—but he could get up the elevator, so long as his father sold their house to afford tuition. It wouldn’t be grades that held him back.

My mother didn’t have a house to sell. She had a smile, and every year, it seemed, fewer and fewer men smiled back. Maybe it was the whisper of wrinkles around her eyes, or maybe just the way a city changes, but my mother had started smiling at men she would have never smiled at before. Men who were not good to be around when the smiling stopped.

I used to dream that someday she would only need to smile at me. I would come back and look after her the way she had looked after me; we would hold on together. I knew it would never happen. The best I could dream was that she would no longer need to look after me—a girl who would never smile like my mother could.

I started standing at the docks near the unemployed women and men, waiting for my way out. While José was studying, and the children on the hill played, I pretended I was watching the elevator; but I liked to go best when the weather was bad, when even the crawlers were hard to see.

The docks were less crowded when it rained, and I would think, Maybe if there is no one else, someone will choose me. If a boat came by looking for workers, I would puff out my chest and stand on my toes to look strong and tall. Then, I would keep staring where the crawlers should be, even as the boat left.

That is why Belen chose me. She was looking at the elevator too.

“We’ll get close enough to touch it,” she told me. “If that’s what you want.” She was tall, and far too thin, with dark curly hair and a frown that said she understood.

She told her captain she’d chosen me instead of a big man with arms the size of tree trunks because, “She’ll eat less.” He shrugged and wiped the rain from his bald head, then told us both to help him unload.

I’d gotten lucky. You have to get lucky to make it to space. Even Yuri was a backup on his first mission, until the main pilot caught the flu. Before that he was just a mudak looking up.

From the shore, the wind turbines had always seemed small. Like the yachts and mansions that also decorated the horizon, they were just toys. Simulacra that filled the ocean between the mainland and the Galapagos, sprouting from the water like reeds in a pond. I used to think, How can those hoist ten-tonne rockets into space?

On the rusted Buena Mañana, as we floated directly beneath one, the sun flickered in the shadows of its whirring blades, each two hundred meters across. I was almost afraid to see the elevator the same way; afraid and excited. It would be real then. Would I still be willing to leap?

“Mussels will grow anywhere,” Belen told me, as she zipped the wetsuit up to my neck. “Hanging out here, where there are no starfish or crabs, they get big.”

The elevator had dispensed with the need for rocket fuel—at least at launch—but the crawlers that climbed along it needed energy to reach space. Energy supplied by the wind through those turbines and the massive electric cables that stretched out between them under the sea. As Belen explained, there were mussels growing in long, cylindrical nets called socks that dangled all along each cable’s length.

“Haru buys them as seed,” she said. That’s what you call juvenile mussels, when they are just large enough to start clumping together—about half the length of a fingernail—mussel seed. Any smaller and they would slip right through the mesh of the socks.

“Nine months after we hang them, they are big enough to harvest,” Belen said. “That’s where we come in. Someone needs to dive down and hook the socks, so the crane can haul them up. Don’t worry; you’ll love it. The open ocean is just like outer space.”

She had helmets to make me believe her. Tucked in a locker along the side of the fishing trawler were eight flawless, glassy orbs. Space helmets, exactly as I had seen them in countless magazines and low res-feed. Helmets just like Yuri’s, save, of course, the ROSCOSMOS lettering.

“They used to make them in Manta,” Belen said, “so, we find plenty floating out here. They work the same in zero bar or ten, so might as well use them diving.”

“They float?”

“Would you believe that some people try to ride up outside the elevator with just a helmet and an air tank?” Belen said. “I don’t know what they think they’ll do after they make it to the top.” She chose a small helmet for me to try on. “When they are sitting up there in outer space in a t-shirt and shorts, but they never make it that far anyway. Not with a diving regulator connecting the helmet to the tank.”

The helmet felt tight around the neck, but Belen seemed happy with that. “A good seal,” she said, “will keep the water out. But a diving regulator,” she clipped the helmet in place, “that’s what puts air there in the first place. It regulates how fast air comes out of the tank. It’s designed to match the pressure around it. That way you can breathe when the weight of the entire ocean is trying to squeeze you. In higher pressure water, it delivers higher pressure air. Thing is, at least for the people trying to ride on top of a climber, when there is no pressure around it, a diving regulator won’t deliver any air at all … or maybe the valves freeze?” She hesitated, trying to figure out exactly how someone would die in her hypothetical. “Either way, no air. They pass out halfway up and fall. The water around us is littered with their bodies, and their helmets.”

“How do you make it up then?” I asked.

“That’s the silly part,” Belen said. “They want us up there—the companies at least. Nothing is locked. If you pick the right crawler, you can seal yourself inside and ride all the way to space. Most of the floaters out here never had a plan, and never had a chance. But us—it’ll be different for us.”

I didn’t miss her choice of words: us.

“From up close, we’ll be able to read the logos,” Belen said, choosing a helmet for herself. “The mining crawlers are the good ones. Anglo American, Ferrobras New Horizon, Objectif Outre-Terre. The last few times it’s been NASA and CNSA. Can’t stow away with astronauts.”

It hadn’t occurred to me to be picky about what spaceship I ended up on. “Why not?” I asked.

“Pick the wrong crawler and it’s out the airlock,” Belen snapped her fingers, “like that!” Then she laughed. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.

If anything, the ocean was the opposite of space. At least, the opposite of what I expected space would be. Space was open. Space was empty. Whenever Yuri left his capsule, every star had been visible from light-eons away. The ocean was full.

A blue-green haze swallowed everything around me. It took all that I had to stay calm. Less than a meter away, Belen faded into the murk until the shadow of her shadow was all that remained. The boat above us disappeared and then there was nothing. Nothing above; nothing below. Nothing but blue-green.

We descended further, the water getting darker as well as cloudier until I couldn’t see my hands, my breathing getting shallower and faster until, as if by magic, the water cleared. There was a line, turbid above, clear beneath. The lower edge of a vast, undersea cloud.

A little further still and the open, empty darkness was not quite so empty. Something was there in the black; the cable, dark and thicker than I could wrap my arms around. It stretched as far as I could see in either direction. All along its length hung the socks, tall, mesh cylinders bulging with fist-sized mussels.

One after another, we harvested and replaced. Belen showed me how to attach the hook of the crane to the loop of a sock, and how to signal to Captain Haru it was ready to be lifted. Then we waited as the sock ascended, pulled up into the undersea cloud. I could imagine, just as easily, that it fell—plummeting into the thick atmosphere of some gassy moon I was orbiting. In the dark, open depths, there was no up or down; I was weightless. Belen had been right, I loved it.

When the replacement sock came, she showed me how to guide it gently to the cable. Since it was mostly empty, with just a smattering of mussel seed, it was easy to pull around. We lined the ends up so that one draped over each side of the cable. Belen let me unhook the crane and connect it to the next sock.

As I floated, waiting, I imagined I was Yuri outside his spaceship for the first time. I exhaled, and the bubbles streamed up from somewhere near the back of my helmet. I watch them dancing their way to the surface, imagining they were stars.

That was all it took. A moment of distraction.

It was just a light bump as I drifted past one of the dangling socks. Something caught. A valve on my tank, or a clasp on my wetsuit. I couldn’t swim away. I couldn’t turn. I couldn’t move.

In that moment I realized just how very, very far I was below the ocean’s surface. Underwater, I couldn’t have called to Belen if I had thought to, but I didn’t think. If you know what you have to do … fighting panic, I put my feet against the sock … it is better not to look … I kicked off as hard as I could. The only way to get free. Something shifted inside the sock, and for a moment I moved forward. Then it pulled back twice as hard.

I wheezed. The full weight of the sock and all its mussels slammed against me, knocking the air from my lungs. I coughed, trying to find my wind. I coughed on water.


I hadn’t heard my helmet crack, but water was seeping in. A slow, cold trickle. I moved my head. A stream of bubbles ran towards the surface. Water flooded past my chin. There was nothing I could do. My arms flailed. My legs kicked. I tried to lift my head; anything to keep my mouth above the water. It surged past my ears. I gasped and choked on salt.

A firm hand grabbed my shoulder. Belen! I grabbed back and pulled, together we could … she kicked me, hard. What little air I had left bubbled out of my nose.

Another blow. Belen pinned me with her bodyweight, holding me down. Drowning me. I tried to fight. Tried to push off her. Then, in one, firm motion, she grabbed my helmet and twisted. The water stopped seeping in. Only the seal had broken. She held me as, with the regulator, she purged air back into the helmet. She continued to hold me until I stopped struggling, until my breathing returned to normal. Until I was calm.

With her hand on mine, Belen guided my hand to the single loop of netting that had tangled around a valve of my air tank. She made me work it free from the sock. Then we ascended together slowly, her guiding me firmly the whole way to the top.

“You panicked,” Belen said back at the surface, back on the Buena Mañana.

“I— I was drowning.”

“Divers get tangled. Helmets come loose. But, if you had stayed calm …” she frowned. “It’s panic that kills, down here and up above.”

I wanted to cry.

“You’re learning,” she said, more gently. “Next time you’ll do better.”

“N— Next time?” I was shivering, even though I wasn’t cold.

Belen wrapped her arm around my shoulder. “Do you know why they want us up there—the orbital companies?” She wiped a tear from my cheek. “Truth is, you can’t stow away without someone noticing. We’d never even make it onto the crawler of a research ship, but the mining ships, they want us. Not because we’ll work hard, because we’re disposable. Everything up there is dangerous. They only hire people for the safest jobs. A stowaway gets drilled through by a micrometeorite, there is no paperwork. Construction is better than mining. More jobs to transition to inside. But we only get promoted if, when we fall, we get back up.”

I dove more times that day because Belen made me, and over the next few because there was work to do, and I wanted to. I never had another problem, but the thought was always there in the back of my head: it only takes one mistake. If I had stayed calm, if I hadn’t panicked … I thought of my fearless mother, and for perhaps the second time in my life I wondered, what if I wasn’t meant for space? Maybe I took after my father. Maybe Space Sickness ran in my blood.

When the night sky was clear, Belen and Captain Haru liked to sit out on the roof of the Buena Mañana and watch the stars. I lay beside them as we rocked gently in the ocean waves, not a light between us and the horizon. This, at least, was somewhere I belonged. To look, at least, the stars were free.

“When the first explorers sailed across the equator,” Belen said, “they found different constellations in a different sky and had to write new stories to make sense of them. It will be the same up in space. When we finally leave the solar system the stars in the sky will move. We will say things like ‘Orion is getting fat, we must be moving towards Betelgeuse’, or ‘Aquarius has sprung a leak, adjust to starboard’.”

“I think they will have computers to tell them where to go,” I said. Computers with future engineers like José to program them.

“Computers only say what someone told them to say. I will want to know for myself what I am looking at.” Belen said.

“Then look,” said Haru. “What a view we have from here.” He had been silent so long, I hadn’t realized he was listening.

“They need us up there,” Belen said, “Space will be tamed by its workers, not its astronauts. For every Magellan or Columbus, there were a hundred unnamed sailors—every bit as impressive—just less well known.”

“You are already an important part of it.” Haru said. “Until someone finds mussels growing on asteroids, they need you here.”

“They will, though,” said Belen. “Not mussels, but something. They will forget us eventually. Everyone says there is nothing up there to support life, but that is the same way we used to think of the ocean. When the Polynesians first packed their whole families on boats, they set sail without knowing what they would find. For them the ocean was as hostile as space is to our explorers today.”

“Space is not an ocean,” Haru said.

“Most of the ocean is empty and inhospitable,” Belen said, “but those early explorers found ways of telling what was over the horizon to find islands they needed, and ways of telling what was below the waves to find the fish. We will too. They looked for clouds to find islands with freshwater springs; we will use spectroscopy to tell if asteroids have water and oxides to harvest.”

“Maybe someday,” Haru said, “but not yet.”

“Someday,” Belen echoed a little more somberly. She, like me, was looking at the elevator—that glowing purple line—and not the stars behind it.

Belen saw it first.

I know because of the way she swore under her breath and shifted in her seat. In hindsight, that was to block my view. I thought she had cut her hand on a mussel, as I had already a half dozen times that morning. Between the waves and the sweeping shadow of a turbine blade, it could have been anything floating out there.

Haru was not so discreet. “Puta!” he swore and jumped to his feet.

“Just leave it,” Belen tried. “It’s already dead.”

There was a sinking feeling in my gut.

“Him, not it,” Haru said tersely, “he will spoil the waters.”

By the time Haru returned with a boathook, he had drifted close, bumping against the hull of the Buena Mañana with each wave; a human body floating in the water.

His eyes were open, staring up at the sky as what remained of his clothes billowed gently in the waves. The skin was bleached of all color, but with that dark, matted hair and those emaciated cheeks he could only have come from Manta.

“Laika,” Belen said urgently. “Go grab a tarp.”

“No, we need her help first.” Haru hooked under the torso with his pole.

“He’ll cook in this sun,” Belen insisted. She was already half over the side, grabbing at an arm.

“This is not the last corpse she will see out here. She will need to toughen up eventually.”

When I did not leave, Belen relented. “Grab a leg.”

The stench was unbearable even before we pulled him from the water. As the body flopped onto the deck with the unpleasant sound of a wet sponge hitting wood, seawater and built-up gasses began to gurgle from his throat. I didn’t gag—but Belen did.

Haru walked off to grab the tarp himself. Once again, I could not make myself move.

“If he couldn’t be bothered to figure out the ocean,” Belen told me after Haru had left, “I don’t know how he expected to figure out space.”

I did not help them wrap the body. All I could do was stare. I kept thinking, He is just a boy. Maybe thirteen or fourteen, my age or younger. I had not expected that.

I had always known there would be bodies around the elevator, everyone did. They litter the sea. But when I had imagined dead bodies floating in the ocean, they were always old. It made no sense, I know. Octogenarians did not try to stow away, but dead and old just went together. At least, they had until then.

I felt sick. I don’t remember if I made it to the side of the boat before I threw up.

The dead boy needed glasses—when he was alive, that is. There were small divots in the sides of his head, just above his ears, the kind people got from wearing too-small glasses all their life. When he was young, and did not yet have those glasses, I bet he couldn’t see the elevator—even when the light was just right. What about the mansions on the hill? If he could, he looked up there and said, like everyone did when they were too young to know better, “One day I will own one of those.” Only, the mansions on the hill grew larger, not more numerous.

Manta used to have factories, and I decided that the dead boy’s mother worked in one of those. Maybe a factory making space helmets for the astronauts who went up. She even took one home as a souvenir. She set it on a shelf in the starter home she bought on the side of the valley—back when she could afford a starter home and glasses. Back before the factories closed, there were many people like that.

They were already building spaceships in orbit before the elevator was finished, but they were not building helmets there. Not until someone who already had a mansion on the top of a hill realized it was cheaper to send up tightly packed ingots of metal and solid glass than large, empty helmets. I bet that someone bought their neighbor’s mansion after thinking up that idea, so they could tear it down and make their own bigger.

The new space helmets were 3D-printed in a workshop at the top of the elevator, and the factories down in Manta were boarded up. After that, things got harder for everyone, except those who owned the elevator or the workshops up in space. The dead boy’s mother had to sell her home and did not buy a new one. She should have sold her souvenir helmet too. Maybe then it wouldn’t have been so tempting for her son.

Sometimes my mother did not eat so she could keep me fed, and we were better off than most in the valley. I wondered what it had been like for the boy. Had he waited at the docks like I did, hoping the next boat might pick him instead of someone else? Maybe he had tried to work, and stood in line outside one of the few factories left, hoping it would let him in before it closed too. I could not tell from his bloated hands if he had ever tried another way, or if the elevator was his first as well as his last idea. I would never know if he was like me, drawn to a dream, or if he just had nowhere else to turn but up.

People like us would never get factory jobs or starter homes. People like us made our own way or starved. But if even Yuri had floated away, what hope did the rest of us have?

Belen disappeared, leaving Haru and I to pull the rest of the mussels from the socks. He worked quickly, making up for lost time. I was next to useless. My hands would not stop shaking.

When I couldn’t take the silence anymore, I asked, “Do they ever make it—the people who try to ride the elevator?”

He looked at me a moment, then out to sea, as though contemplating the question very carefully. The whole time, his hands never stopped sorting. “Have you made it, Laika?” He finally asked.

“I’m trying,” I said.

Haru nodded. “Me too.” Then he added, seeing my confused look, “Make it is a relative term. The Buddha preaches contentment. If one is content with what they have, then they have made it. If one always wants more, then it does not matter how much they have. Those who climb, some of them will make it up the elevator, but then what? Have they made it? They will share a bunk with five others and work more hours than there are in a day. How long do you really think they will last? A month? A season? Of those who make it that far, and that’s pretty far, most will be dead within a year. But will they have made it? A year with a bunk and two meals a day would be making it for some of the people I have seen floating out here.”

Haru shook his head. “We tell stories because they give us hope. We say that if someone can make it up the elevator, if they can work hard and stay safe, if they have just the right luck, if they get noticed by just the right people, then maybe they can make it—whatever that means. And of course, we say, if they can do it, we could too—if we had to, not that we will. There is a certain comfort to that, no?”

“I don’t know.” It did not seem comforting.

“You come from Manta. Tell me, have you heard about the mansion that is owned by a former stowaway?”

I nodded. “Everyone has.”

“If we were closer to the shore,” Haru asked, “could you point it out for me?”

I shook my head. The closest I had ever been was when a mudak who liked my mother decided to take us both for a drive in his car. Even he, in his fancy car, couldn’t get through the community gates.

“I have heard many stories about starship captains who were once stowaways until they worked their way up. They always retire with a mansion of their own. I’ve heard it a thousand times, but if even a tenth of those stories were true, then almost all of the mansions on Manta’s hill must belong to former stowaways by now. I’d think, if that were the case, then you, a local, could point out one or two for sure. Apocryphal, that is what we call stories like that.

“The Buddha preaches contentment. That should be easy for us. You’d think fully bellies, a roof to lay on, and a part to play in what we watch going on above would be enough. We do have a part, Laika, all of us, however small. We feed Manta; without Manta, no elevator, no space. But still, we long for more. We dream dreams and say someday it will be us who make it, because there is no real harm in that, until there is.

“Truth is, that boy on the deck never had a chance; maybe thinking he did is what kept him going on hungry nights, but it is also what made him think he could make it up the elevator. I’m sure that even the Buddha looked forward to a dry fire when it rained, but he knew the difference between a dream and reality. That the boy died in the end, that is tragic—but maybe he lived first because of his dream. That, in a way, would have been making it—would it not? If only he had known when a dream should remain just a dream.”

Belen was at the back of the boat leaning against a railing, looking out towards the elevator as though nothing had happened.

We were close enough now that the crawlers had taken form. The colorful squiggles of company logos were almost clear enough to read—perhaps if I knew their designs better. Belen did not look at me as I approached, but her hand wiped something from her cheek.

Justen Russell illustration of space elevator

She took a sharp, deep breath. “It gets easier,” she said, but she did not sound like she believed it. “Just know, for every floater we find out here, there are ten stowaways who make it to the top.”

That didn’t sound right, but neither did arguing.

“Would you have tried swimming?” Belen asked. “Out on the dock, if I hadn’t picked you?” She turned with red ringed-eyes. I had never seen her like that. “If I had picked the fat man instead of you. How long would you have waited for another boat before trying on your own?”

The elevator was too far to swim, but with a raft—would I have tried that eventually? Would I have ended up just like the boy under the tarp? “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s a good thing you chose me.”

“Is it?” Belen asked. “I always say I’m going to go up there someday, and Haru laughs with me. Like it’s a joke we are sharing, like it’s a game. But it’s not. Not to me. I want to ride the elevator, Laika. I want to be in space, I …” She shook her head. “I keep pretending that I can. I keep saying, ‘soon’. That I am almost ready, that I have it almost planned out, that I have to be smart about it.

“I have planned it, Laika, you know I have planned it all and planned it all again, but there is only so long I can keep planning and keep pretending that it will happen.

“Every time we are near the elevator, I look at the logos on the crawlers and I actually hope it says NASA, because then I will have an excuse. Then, at least, I can live with myself when I don’t. They don’t like stowaways on research vessels.

“Twice now it has been for a mining firm, and I didn’t go. I could have. There was a pressurized crate and I could have just snuck inside. You know I know how. Maybe they would have caught me. Maybe they would have sent me back down. Maybe it wouldn’t have resealed, and I would have died on the way up, but I will never know because I didn’t even try.”

“I’m glad you didn’t die.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

“I wish I were dying,” Belen said. “How sick is that? I wish I were starving. I tell myself that if I were starving, that if I had no other choice, that if I would die if I didn’t find a way to stowaway on the next crawler, I would risk it. I would try because I would have nothing left to lose … but that’s not true. I will always have a reason to wait. What does that mean, Laika, that even in my dreams I only go out of desperation, only because there was no other way?”

“That you have something to lose,” I said. “That’s not such a bad thing.”

“Is it?” Belen snapped. “I’m what—too lucky?—too fortunate? Too rich to be desperate enough to follow my dreams—yet too poor for there to be another way.” She laughed. Not a happy laugh, an unpleasant half a snort, half a sob. “I’m jealous of a corpse, Laika. It’s ridiculous. I am being ridiculous. He is dead. He was stupid and now he is dead and under a tarp and still, I want to be him because at least he tried. At least he had the chance to get lucky. At least he got to know. How pathetic is that? How can that make any sense?”

I never really knew the right words to say. That was my mother. I never had her smile. I pulled Belen close for a hug.

“I want to go,” she said, “even if it doesn’t work out. Even if I end up dead. I just want to know. Was I good enough? Could I have made it? I want to be up there right now looking down on this ocean of merda.” She sunk into my arms. “Why can’t I do that?”

I spoke my mother’s words: “When you know what you have to do, it is better not to look. Just go.”

“If only it were that easy,” Belen said. “I don’t know if I am more scared that I will fall, or that I will never even try—but I’m scared, Laika. I’m scared.”

“I’m scared too.” I said, and I was. As they never used to tire of telling me: the real Laika, the Russian dog, she died on the way up.

“You’re just a kid,” Belen said. “You still have time.” Did I? Or had we both already looked over the edge and seen the rocks below.

In the morning, as the sun shone from the east, I could see the elevator. Not one thread, but several—six parallel lines stretched taut between the sky and a metal island in the middle of the ocean. I made up my mind before we were close enough to read the labels on the crawlers—if they were wrong, I would wait on that island until they were right. When you know what you have to do, it is better not to look.

I laid my equipment out along the deck—like Belen had for diving—and chose from the regulators hidden in the back of the locker. Those designed for altitude, not diving. Belen had planned everything, and then planned again.

I felt a pang of guilt as I set a helmet on the deck, but there wasn’t time for that. I would be forgiven; this was why she had brought me here, to show her it was possible. I took one slow, calming breath, then changed my mind. I ran down the stairs into the Buena Mañana’s cabin to where Belen was still asleep.

“I’m going,” I whispered, nudging Belen awake. “Come with me. Don’t think, just come.” She didn’t understand but sat up, too groggy to resist my pull, at least, at first.

We were halfway up the stairs when she asked about Haru. I shook my head and pulled her harder. There was no time to slow down.

“He’ll be fine.” He had his contentment. There were plenty of others in Manta who would love to harvest mussels and look up at the stars. “This is the reason you chose me, isn’t it?” The big man on the dock would never have pulled Belen up with him, would never have thought to look up at all.

“Objectif.” Belen gasped as we stepped into the sun, and I looked—though I shouldn’t have, because I truly did not want to know. The colorful squiggles on one crawler’s glossy sides had resolved into the square and circle logo of Objectif Outre-Terre—an orbital construction company.

“We have to go now,” I said.

I pulled Belen to the equipment and helped her put it on. Gear for the swim to the island, and gear to stay warm on the ride up.

“I can’t,” she said, then, as I tried to put a helmet on her head, she finally stopped me. “What if …”

“We could die,” I agreed, “maybe. Or we could live. Don’t you want to know?” The sea may be littered with the bodies of those who did not make it, but Manta was choked full of those who never even tried.

“I want to try,” I said. Reflected in Belen’s helmet, the elevator did not seem so tall. It seemed to bend towards us—bowing. No one kept statistics on stowaways, but I doubt half made it as far as we already had. “Don’t think,” I said, “jump.”

She let me put the helmet on her head.

With it on, Belen could have been Mimi. It was my own reflection, however, that caught me off guard. Even missing three teeth, I had Yuri’s smile: bright, infectious, content. We were going to space. The mutts were going to fly.

“Hold on,” I said, as I took her hand and we jumped.

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