“We can handle a lot,” Miss Anna whispered. “But I’m not sure we can handle that. Jackson—was there talk of—that is to say—are we all expected to make it?”
“We’ll find our place eventually,” Miss Anna assured the younger woman.
“We’re not findin’ anything,” Constance snapped. “We’re just waiting. We’re having potlucks and picnics and church meetings while the folks down below pretend we hardly exist. Where is ‘our place’ exactly?” She uncrossed her arms to wave a hand at the dark, sullen moon outside. “That sure as hell ain’t it. It don’t take no supersized Martian brain to know that it couldn’t be. We’re here on a lark, and it ain’t the first time.”
Constance realized that she was swaying slightly on her feet, the exertion of her outburst having made her dizzy in the thin air. Miss Anna extended a hand to steady her. “There now,” Anna whispered. “No sense in getting worked up.”
Constance inhaled tremulously.
“Planting a colony is only one of Westward’s aims,” The matron reminded her. “They’re also looking for resources that could benefit Earth, and—well, who knows what else.”
“That’s what gets under my skin, Miss Anna. They’re looking for resources. They’re exploring alien artifacts. They’re pursuing any number of mysterious agendas, and we’re just—what? Piggybacking. Oh, and cleanin’ toilets. It ain’t right.”
“What would you suggest?” Anna asked.
“The stakes are at least as high for us as for them. We should be more involved,” Constance asserted.
She was answered by a masculine voice, hushed somewhat in light of the children that slept in the center of the deck. “You may just get your wish at that, Miss Beckett.” It was Clyde Jackson, who had arrived by way of the elevator apparently without either of the women taking notice.
“What news, Clyde?” Miss Anna asked.
“It’s a three-ring circus down there,” Jackson sighed, running a calloused hand over one of his thick sideburns. “We’ve lost more than half our oxygen reserves. Crew and colonists alike are working hard to repair damaged systems. Not only that, but the situation is dire enough that the skipper saw fit to call a palaver with me there to speak for the colonists.”
“He’s never done that before,” Miss Anna agreed. “What did you tell them?”
“Same thing that Conny would’ve, I reckon.” He winked at the younger woman, who scowled at him in return. Ignoring her withering look, he returned his attention to Anna. “I told the collars that we’re ready to help wherever we’re needed. But if we get through this, we’re expecting to have more of a say.”
They were interrupted by the small voice of Tessa, who had woken from her nap at the sound of her father’s voice and now tugged at his burly arm. “Papa, my head hurts.”
Clyde swept the girl up like a ragdoll and held her. “I know, Tess. We’ll be breathing better soon.”
“I don’t mean to cast a shadow,” whispered Constance, “but even I can tell that we’re in bad shape up there.” She nodded her head toward the windows, outside of which Westward’s oxygen reserve hung in space as a frozen cloud. “How long do they expect it’ll take to restore our air supply?”
“Could be weeks,” Clyde admitted darkly. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Miss Anna’s blue eyes betrayed an emotion that Constance had never before seen in her: Uncertainty. She glanced at the children, who were now stirring and beginning to chatter amongst themselves. “We can handle a lot,” She whispered. “But I’m not sure we can handle that. Jackson—was there talk of—that is to say—are we all expected to make it?”
Clyde’s free hand enveloped the older woman’s shoulder encouragingly. “We’ll all live,” He assured her. “But not here.”