Out here, people learn to fix their own problems or they die. Still, there are jobs for specialists. Not every colony in the belt can afford to have a quantum flux tech to keep their reactors tuned up. Reactors are pretty reliable, so the smaller places just hope things will keep working and if there is a problem the repair man will arrive before they all die. Usually we get there in time.
I was new to the belt and new to the job, so I drew the worst assignments. Usually that meant the longest transit times. When no other tech was willing to spend weeks traveling out and back the job fell to me.
The time trapped in a little ship was not what kept the senior techs off the job. It was the prospect of what would be there when they arrived.
This job dropped down on my head just like all the other shit jobs. The outpost had waited just a little too long before calling for help. The price of help was high the company owned quite a few colonies that hadn't been able to pay their bill but the cost of waiting was even higher. Now I was crashing across the belt at max burn, and things were looking grim. The company was not going to get paid for this run and neither was I, but to their credit they let me try to get there in time. A rescue cruiser launched at the same time, but I was closer.
Over the weeks of travel I came to know their senior engineer, Hastings, well. I ran simulations of the reactor's failure and transmitted adjustments to put off the inevitable as long as possible. Every moment the disaster was delayed, the more time there would be for the boats scrambling from all over that part of the belt to reach the victims, and the more people they could keep alive until the cruiser got there.
My boat would not be part of the rescue effort. In order to get there as quickly as possible I had not brought fuel or supplies for the return trip. When the cruiser got there I would be just another ship in distress.
Hastings was always calm and businesslike. "It doesn't look good," she said while I was still a week out.
There was a noticeable pause before she responded, longer than could be explained by simple distance. "Dammit." All the children would be saved; most of them were off the rock already. For the rest there was a lottery. Hastings was not on the list. She would die with her hands on the controls, giving the last boats as much time as possible to get clear. Not that she would be able to do much when things started to go really wrong. She would be bathed in crippling radiation, burned horribly, cooked from the inside; then would come an explosion, decompression, and death.
I was speaking with a ghost, the image of a woman who was already dead.
* * *
I got the ping while I was supposed to be sleeping. Hastings was there, looking weary. For the first time, I saw her fear. She was alone.
"Sorry to bother you," she said. "I know it's your sleep cycle."
I shrugged. It would be a long time before I slept again. "How you doing?" I asked.
"All right," she said, "considering." Her voice shook as she exhaled heavily.
"Yeah." I watched her haggard face, trying to stay strong, but that wasn't why she had contacted me now. She watched me, but I don't know what she saw. Anything I thought of to say sounded stupid. "Hang in there?" "It will be all right?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's not your fault."
"I'm sorry I can't buy you a beer someday."
"I'm sorry about that, too." She skewered me across the void. "That would have been nice." She chuckled and looked away. "Not sure my husband would agree with that."
We were silent for a few minutes. "I told them," she finally said. Of course she had. As their lead technician it was her job to tell the decision-makers when it was time to call for help. "They said they had faith in me to keep things together until we'd met our delivery contract. Only three more months, after all these years. I I let them bully me, and flatter me."
My company was ruthless about payment, and to have a colony on the verge of filling its contract have reactor trouble was ideal. The moment that contract was met, the moment the freighter pulled away with a hold full of precious ore, the colony would have paid off its investors with plenty to spare and from that moment would be free, and wealthy. When that rock was exhausted, they would have the resources to move on to the next one. Eventually they would be the ones giving loans to other colonies, to get them started. Eventually they'd have their own reactor tech.
Unless the company presented them with a bill for reactor repair which they were unable to pay. They would, in a heartbeat, be turned from prospectors to employees. It was no wonder they wanted to delay as long as possible. My company, the other companies out there, it didn't matter. Almost every time a colony was showing promise some company found a way to own it first.
She was shaking. "I should have pushed the button." The panic button. It was not a physical button, but in most colonies the head technologist has a mandate to override the civil authorities and call for help when safety is threatened. She was right. She should have pushed the button, and that was the real reason she would not be on a lifeboat.
"We're all gamblers out here," I said, but I felt bad saying it, even as I risked my life pushing machine and self past design tolerances, overdriving the collision detectors, to get there only a little bit too late. It didn't matter. I worked for the house.
* * *
She had shaved her head so her hair wouldn't catch fire in the last moments. She had already been exposed to staggering amounts of radiation, but she would be dead before that mattered. Her skin was red and peeling. The reactor was oscillating dangerously, and the final lifeboats were advised not to approach. Most ignored the advice and Hastings was trying to give the rescuers a hope of survival. She was doing a good job, but things were happening too quickly for human intervention now; it was up to the automated systems. Still she struggled on.
I gave her some numbers, a last futile play for a few more minutes, and she hesitated when she heard my voice. "Thanks, Jake," she said. "For everything." She was about to say something more, but she was distracted. "Wait. Not yet!" There was a flash and that was all.
* * *
Not yet. Her last words were the same ones her leaders had used when she asked them to send for help. Not Yet. She hadn't been talking to me, or even to the machine that was going so wrong. Death had ignored her desperate plea, her final human cry to a Universe that was colder than the company.
I was already on deceleration burn, so I couldn't cut back the engines or I'd go flinging far past the colony. The motors were in the red, but the designers, I was sure, built in a safety factor. Just like we did in our reactors. It was the assumed safety factor that got so many into trouble.
Not Yet. They were the only two words I could even think as I crashed in to park near the glowing ruin that had been a colony on the verge of prosperity. Most of the inhabitants had been pulled off in time, but they were right back where they started.
"Ignition lock-down," my display read. "Severe damage to drive." Looked like I'd be needing a tow. I was going to be in that boat for a long time yet, alone with the ghosts.
While I waited for the cruiser to reach me I looked at the rock on my vid, hour after hour, zooming in to see the wreckage, hoping, irrationally, so see some sign of her. It would be a long, long, time before her body was recovered. If there was anything left of her at all, she would be no more than an archaeological curiosity.
I deleted our conversations from the ship's memory. It was against company policy, but to hell with the company. It didn't help, though. He final words were still echoing in the recycled air.
Finally it was my turn to receive assistance. "T-X-nine-oh-five," crackled the efficient voice, "prepare to receive docking tube."
"Sure," I said, but in my heart I wanted to say something else. I didn't want to go back to the place I had been, to the people I had been with. To the person I had been. I wanted to stay and drift alone among the asteroids until I was one of them. Not yet, I wanted to say, but I didn't have the strength.