"I'm sorry, Mr. Diggitt, the satellite feed over the Burroughsville region has been black for the last two hours. We have no way to confirm your claims."
Sounding more like a growl, Diggitt grunted a yes. On screen, the deputy stared back at him, looking more amused than concerned.
"I have evidence right here."
Diggitt held up the dented sliver of metal to the screen.
"These marks here say it was a Turtle drone that trashed my crops. I'm sure you can find out who is operating them in my area, can't you?"
The deputy leaned back in his chair and rolled his neck on his shoulders. Diggitt dropped the shard onto the table with a clank.
"Tell you what, Diggitt, you don't tell me how to do my job, and I won't tell you how to do yours."
Diggitt leaned in to the screen and yelled, "I don't HAVE a job anymore because someone smashed my crops, and it's your job to find out who did it! How about you start by asking Moses Clayburn where his fucking Turtles have been for the last two hours!"
The deputy looked off-screen and hissed a hot breath out from his nose.
"I think we've got all we need from you, Mr. Diggitt. We'll be in touch if we find anything."
The screen blinked back to the menu.
Diggitt cursed and glared at the Red Island One Communications logo in the corner of the screen. He picked up the metal shard and tapped it on the table. The logo gleamed in an animated loop, Mars rotating in the 'O' of the word 'One'. Diggitt bit the inside of his lip.
"This should be interesting . . . "
Diggitt tapped open a line to Red Island One.
Anne, the voice of the AI interface asked which department he wanted.
"Emergency . . . Gretchen Anderson," Diggitt said.
"One moment, Mr. Diggitt," said Anne.
Gretchen's face popped up on screen and a gurgle churned in his guts. Even after all these years, she was still pretty. In microgravity, faces swelled just enough——age lines disappeared. Too practical to care about her looks, she had cut her hair short. Too busy to acknowledge the emergency blink, her head dropped off screen and came back in profile, not looking at who was calling.
"Sorry, we've had some problems up here today, what can I do for you?"
She leaned out of frame again, then returned. Her eyes twitched wide when she saw Jeremy's face.
"Jer. It's been a while. I didn't expect to hear from you again."
"Sorry, Gretchen. It just got too . . . complicated."
"I know. You said. For me, too." She looked off screen for a moment, took a breath. "I've been busy, anyway. We're starting to cover Tharsis next month. Thirty new satellites."
Hearing the words coming out of her own mouth, realizing how pathetic she sounded, her eyebrows knitted.
"You're doing well for yourself," Jeremy said, forcing a smile. "Good to hear."
Gretchen shook her head and flicked her eyes above the monitor. A bleeping alarm pulled her away.
"Pause?" she said, her hand already reaching out to switch him off.
The screen flipped back to the Red Island One logo. Jeremy rubbed his face and coughed.
"What did you expect? Of course she's angry," he muttered.
Nine years ago, they had been in the same Mars habitation training classes, learning emergency routines and maintenance of air scrubbers, how to drill for water, how to signal satellites for help. They had gotten close. They were talking about a future together when he met Milla, and Gretchen took the job on Phobos. Diggitt knew he had hurt her, but that was a long time ago.
Her face returned to the screen.
"Sorry. You would not believe the sol I'm having. One of our people went missing."
"Missing? Not many places to hide up there."
"Exactly. No ships leaving either, but no trace of one of our techs."
Her eyes focused on a spot somewhere off screen for a moment, grasping at a theory. She blinked the thought away.
"What's going on with you?" she said.
"What happened to your satellites over B-ville?" Diggitt said, something knotting in his throat.
Gretchen laughed and shook her head. "Business then. Okay. Well, Mister Diggitt, our tech working on that problem is the one who disappeared about an hour ago. Red Island One ain't that big, but he is——size of a full grown bacon tree, and we can't find a trace of him anywhere. Why? . . . and how did you know we're black?"
"Someone trashed my crops, Gretch. I think it was another steam farmer, name of Moses Clayburn. He's been trying to get me to sell for months. I think he got someone to hack into one of his drones so it would look like an accident. Had to be someone with satellite access."
"Son of a bitch."
"I'm pretty sure Clayburn paid off the local enforcers. They were the ones giving me static. Told me about B-ville going black."
Gretchen tapped her fingers on her workstation.
"Son of a bitch. Okay. I'll see what I can find out."
"Thanks. I owe you one."
"You sure do, Germy."
She smirked and blinked off.
Diggitt leaned back in his chair. Guilt pulled through him like a rusty cable. He had clearly seen the pain in Gretchen's eyes. She had hoped that they would end up together, even after his daughter was born. Milla never found out about that last time when Gretchen visited Burroughsville. He looked at the clock. More than an hour had passed since he had talked to his wife. It never took her longer than an hour to get back from the farm. He called up her blinkstick.