Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer

Her hands groped the earth. Superheated fingertips sent urgent signals to the chip embedded in her neocortex. Owl withdrew, shook her hands and heard the particles cascade back home. “This is it,” she said. “The motherlode.”

Whisper of motion, creak of the evosuit’s stiff neck. Fox was shaking her head. “I don’t know how you do it, Owl. Ten for ten near fucking Antares.”

Owl stretched her face. She’d been told she had a predatory grin. Good. They were going to strip this forsaken shit heap of a planet and get trashed in every Vegan casino they could find. “Did Fish pull up the digger?”

“Yeah. Here, let’s go.”

Fox’s heavy gloves enveloped Owl’s arm and the two of them walked back to the digger, a six-seater that hummed with what Owl liked to think of as nervous anticipation. When the vibration drove into her bones, Owl pressed her hand against the door, which hissed as it swept upward. Inside, she let Fox help her remove the evosuit.

Owl waited until their footsteps echoed off the narrow walls of the pilot capsule. “We’re going in,” she announced. She didn’t need to hear fabric scrape on plastic to know Fish was squirming.

“It’s so close to the edge, Owl.” He rattled off numbers.

“Great, yes, take it slow.” She couldn’t remember the exact size of the digger, but her fingers still tingled with the heat of the rare elements buried in this planet’s crust. Owl made her way to her chair and strapped in. Buckles echoed from the opposite side as Fox did the same. The assistants must already be seated—Owl was known to work fast.

Rumble, someone gasped as they tilted, and wave after wave rushed through her body as the digger invaded the crust. Twice, Fish asked her if she wanted to stop, but Owl knew they weren’t done here. Don’t call it intuition—better, it was ambition.

Owl heard a faint cracking, the digger’s claws reaching in, the susurrus of processed material. Small shifts as the AI redistributed the added weight so they could keep going, hollow out the crust like those wasps that laid their eggs in some plodding caterpillar.

“We’ve acquired six kilograms of praseodymium,” Fish said. “Are we done?” Owl heard a hitch in his voice and waited. Sure enough, Fish inhaled deeply and went on. “It’s hard to be sure on these worlds, but there’s a geographic anomaly nearby. A—a break in the crust.”

“An underground volcano,” Fox said.

“Are there minerals? You know that shit could be worth more than the lanthanides.” Owl wiped a spot of drool from her chin.

“I’d rather”—

“Fish. If I wanted someone who couldn’t hack a ‘geographic anomaly’ I would have hired Wedge Liao.”

She heard his teeth grind—faint, but she knew to listen for it—and the digger lurched forward. The powerful burr of deep-crust extraction blocked out all possibility of Owl reading his reaction.

“Yes,” she whispered, too quiet for the others, knowing Fox would have stopped her if she’d seen something alarming. Owl imagined silk sheets caressing her flesh and hot mud bubbling around her toes. Hands feeding her fresh grapes, not from a hydroponic farm but open-grown, followed by the kind of cake that flooded her mouth with flavor. Someone was saying something, but Owl could taste the chocolate.

The fantasy collapsed as the digger attempted to rebalance. An almighty thrust, the creaking of joints, and then there was heat. The planet belched, but it wasn’t enough to reach the surface.