Connect yellow cable to yellow slot. The instructions were very clear. But all these slots were the same color, and the data ports on the server bore no resemblance to the diagram in the instructions. Mara laid the tablet on the concrete next to her and thought.
There were twelve ports with the right number of pins for the yellow cable. One was already filled by a line running off to the observatory, plugged in by someone in days previous. Hopefully they'd known what they were doing. Eight were all in a row down the side of the server box; those were probably for linking to the eight other servers in the room. That left two ports, and no obvious way to choose between them.
She did not want to have to ask. She did not want to be the stupid one again, who needed to ask. She had marked her sixteenth birthday three months ago, she was almost too old to apprentice, and this might be her last – no, that wouldn't help now. She shoved the thought away, focused on the two data ports. But they remained mysterious.
“Idling?” Ermon asked behind her, and she jumped.
“No sir!” Oh spirit, not now. She plugged the cable into the left-hand slot. Can always fix it later.
“Pick up the pace, newbie. I want this done before you knock off tonight.” She heard his footsteps as he headed back to the hab, and relaxed slightly.
Let's see... Red cable to red port...
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The evening meal was almost over when she got back to the hab. She grabbed a plate of lukewarm mash and headed for the Orphans' table, at the end of the hab hallway.
“I'm telling you, they won't catch me,” Dee was saying, her voice low, as Mara sat next to her. “It's not like they watch us.”
“You're almost seventeen,” Pol replied from across the table, leaning forward conspiratorially. “If they do catch you, that's it, you might as well go on the dole.”
Mara ate a spoonful of mash, the warm starchy flavor filling the void in her stomach. She looked around the dining chamber. The Orphans' table was set in the back, away from the tables of the guildmen. There were new people at the head table, she noticed, catching sight of the black of a nobles' tunic. She turned to Dee. “Who are those guys at the head table?”
Dee ignored her, too focused on her own project. “I'm going on the dole anyway. Ermon's got it in for me, no way they'll take me after this.”
“Who are those people at the head table?” Mara reiterated.
“Dunno,” Pol said distractedly. “They came in on a crawler this morning.”
“I'm in,” said Yat from further down the table. Mara winced inwardly. Yat was only thirteen, and eager to impress, and still felt he had all the time in the world before he was too old for the guilds.
She took another bite of mash. Some of the paste dripped off the end of her spoon and caught in her neckfur, and she wiped at it with the back of her hand.
“Your attention, please!” someone shouted at the front of the dining hall – the man in the black tunic. He had jumped on top of one of the tables as a makeshift stage. All she could see of him from here was that he was tall, thin, grey-haired and -furred, a flicker of gold around his neck – a muniprin's circlet?
“Thank you all for the hard work you've done,” the man said. “Three days ago, I had a personal audience with the autarch of Elysium. I am pleased to say that he has graciously given us his blessing to continue.” The room broke into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause. Mara clapped as well, despite not knowing what she was applauding, and the rest of the Orphans' table joined suit. Only the other newcomers at the head table – two in senior guild uniforms, a second man in a noble's tunic, and a squat trimind – did not join in.
After the applause died down, the man continued. “I know I don't need to tell you what this means. We have all looked up to the sky and wondered – are we the only survivors? Are there other men still living and sane in the solar system? Spirit willing, we will know the answers soon. And perhaps even make some progress towards our ultimate hope,” he added enigmatically. “If all goes well, we will make our first observations in a month's time. Now, I'll let you all get back to your dinners.”
Mara ate another spoonful of mash. She'd never wondered about what the stars hid. She'd lived her life underground in Elysium, had never known the stars except from vids until she'd come to this mountainside just six months ago. The other Orphans seemed non-plussed as well, but the rest of the room held enthusiasm to make up for it. The buzz of conversation followed her as she returned her plate to the kitchen and wondered down the hab towards the airlock.
She borrowed an air mask and a parka from the rack by the lock and waited for it to cycle. Outside, night had fallen, the stars shining down on the observatory dome and the hab airlock and a row of crawlers parked next to it. A pressurized tube was under construction between the hab and the dome, but it was still only half-finished. She walked along the little plateau holding the observatory until the lights of the hab were hidden behind a rock outcropping, then turned and looked up.
What was up there? She knew the tales of lost Earth, as any child did, and as she probed her memory more names came back – Mercury, burning-hot and rich with ore, Luna and its factories, Saturn and the outposts circling around it. But she could put no names to the dots of light that swarmed the sky, could not pick out any of the worlds where men had once lived.
She wondered if someone else, on one of those other worlds, was looking up at her, and wondering...
After perhaps twenty minutes, she headed back to the hab. She had studying she needed to do, an hour stolen from the designated sleep time to cram as much as she could of the Sensologists' instructional files, knowledge hoarded in hope she might some day be able to use it. But she thought she would see if she could find a file on astronomy, as well.