The Future Was Yesterday’s fusion reactor containment failed when she was three days out from Rattlesnake Station. Automatic failsafes triggered within microseconds, shutting off the reactant supply and bringing the nuclear reaction to a halt, but a few hundred grams of sun-hot plasma now had a clear path to the supercooled magnets surrounding the reactor.
Yesterday’s operating system opened a ventral port from the reactor into open space. Almost all of the plasma was successfully shunted through this port and away from the ship, but a small fraction followed the path through the containment breach, touching off a massive detonation when they contacted the magnets.
The violent sideways kick of the explosion was the first Yesterday’s crew knew of the unfolding disaster. Apparent gravity changed direction twice in less than a second, first from the steady 1g of deceleration to the side as the explosion accelerated the ship into a spin, then from sideways to outward as the ship’s new centripetal force tugged the crew out from the center of the ship toward her bow and stern.
Shockwaves from the explosion traveled out from engineering, vibrating every centimeter of Yesterday’s rigid frame. Plastic instrument covers shattered, ceramic cups cracked, gangways shook themselves loose, and an infrasonic thrum blurred the crew’s vision as they struggled to understand what was happening.
The sound of the explosion came last. It was a titanic crack as though some forgotten god of the void had seized Yesterday and cracked her spine in retaliation for waking their anonymous slumber.
But there were no vengeful gods in the Big Black, and Yesterday’s spine was not actually broken. The explosion had pushed her structural integrity to the limit, but not past it. Yesterday held herself together.
Her crew tended to their wounded and carefully began the precise pattern of maneuvering burns that would counter Yesterday’s spin as efficiently as possible. They were safe, for the moment.
Beyond the moment? There was no way they could restart the crippled reactor, and the Kuiper Belt was a bad part of the Solar System to lose your fusion drive, especially on an outbound trajectory. Without the deceleration burn, they would fly right past Rattlesnake Station. There were no other permanent bases between them and the Oort Cloud. If someone couldn’t catch up to them and bring along enough reaction mass to overcome their velocity, nothing could stop Yesterday from going Dutchman.
Those were long term considerations. In the short run, all that mattered was power.
Without power, life support would fail. First they would asphyxiate. Then the cold would freeze their lifeless corpses solid. Yesterday’s capacitors could keep her essential systems humming for hours. Maybe a day at the outside. A rescue mission wouldn’t take days or hours. It would take weeks or months. Yesterday’s crew needed time. They needed power.
They knew how to get it.
While Yesterday’s spin was tamed, her crew took exacting measurements of their position and velocity. They sent the data along with a discreet mayday call back towards the Inner System on heavily encrypted channels. The message would take seven hours to reach Cislunar, the cradle of humankind’s nascent interplanetary empire. Hopefully, a ray of concentrated sunshine would reach back out towards them across the millions of kilometers of empty space, arriving fourteen hours after they sent their message.
If they were very lucky and their telemetry data was very good, that little photonic lifeline would score a direct hit on their emergency solar array, bringing them the power they needed to stay alive until help arrived.
If they were very lucky.
Rahul Jain licked his lips and tasted the salt of his own sweat. That was odd. Had he been sweating? Now that he thought about it, his brows were furrowed in an unconscious effort to keep more beads of sweat from dropping into his eyes.
Why was he sweating? It couldn’t be heat. Their ship, floating a few hundred meters away from the satellite, had deployed an enormous solar shield to protect them from the brunt of the Sun’s fury. The shield let enough light through to see clearly, but protected him from the heat and radiation that would have overwhelmed his suits enviro controls and cooked him otherwise.
If it wasn’t heat…
Rahul gritted his teeth. He wasn’t a dirthugging rookie. He was a spacer first class. He did not fear the Big Black. The Big Black was where he lived now. He should be cool and calm, just like the empty vacuum all around him.
But he wasn’t, and that made him mad. The anger distracted him, and he got even angrier at himself for letting his attention be diverted. He clenched his right hand tightly, willing all of his stress out of his mind and into his fist.
“You OK, noob?”
Rahul glanced up as Joshua drifted closer, obstructing his light.
“I’m fine,” said Rahul.
“You sure?” asked Joshua. “‘Cause you haven’t moved for ten seconds. Rigid as a statue, you were. Sure you’re feeling all right? A little agoraphobia’s nothing to be ashamed of, chum.”
Joshua had an upper-class British accent. It reminded Rahul of his upper-class schoolmates who’d had everything handed to them their whole lives. It sounded like all the money in the world that he had never had. He hated it with a passion.
Thanks, chum, for getting an allegation of agoraphobia into the official mission log, thought Rahul.
He gritted his teeth even harder. Of course Joshua sounded helpful, but that was how Joshua always sounded. He had a savior complex even Jesus Christ would find excessive.
Rahul didn’t need any black marks on his official record. This job wasn’t a gap year lark for him, and he didn’t have a safety net of rich parents and family connections waiting to catch him if he failed. There were no safety nets for homeless orphans from the streets of Mumbai on their way up. His life had no safety margins.
“I’m good,” was all he said.
“Well, I’m not sure, so convince me or I’m taking over.” Joshua fired a microburst from his EVA pack and drifted even closer. If they hadn’t both been encased in vacuum suits, he’d have been literally breathing down Rahul’s neck.
Rahul closed his eyes and suppressed twin waves of panic and rage. This was a Tier 4 case. That didn’t mean it was high-priority, but it did mean it was difficult. Tier 1 cases could be handled by autonomous repair drones. Tier 2 cases required some human interaction, but it could be remote. Tier 3 cases required on-site human work, but it was mostly just following a rote decision tree. Only Tier 4 allowed spaces to demonstrate open-ended problem-solving and judgment. They were rare, and this one was probably Rahul’s only chance to take lead on one before the mission wrapped.
He needed something like this to get a superior rating. To stand out from his peers. To buy himself just a tiny margin of safety, for once. Now this posh dilettante wanted to “help” him.
Joshua was thirty, a decade older than Rahul, and had come in several rungs higher up on the promotion ladder thanks to prior military experience. He didn’t need anything at all. But he was mission lead. He could take this from Rahul if he determined Rahul couldn’t handle it alone.
Rahul took deep, quiet breaths. He needed to purge every trace of frustration from his voice. He couldn’t even let the fact that he was breathing deeply to calm himself down come across the transmission. When he was ready, he spoke.
“Thanks, Josh,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve got this. Could you please just move a bit, if you don’t mind? The light.”
Rahul kept his eyes squeezed shut while he waited for Joshua’s response. Joshua strung the silence out a moment or two.
“Right, of course,” he said. Another quick burst and he started drifting away again.
Rahul returned to his task with a renewed focus. At least the confrontation had gotten him out of his own head.
The service call was almost complete. He’d already correctly diagnosed the problem: a faulty sensor was reporting that one of the gimbals for the satellite’s control moment gyroscopes was at its stop even though it wasn’t. This caused the satellite to expend valuable reaction propellant re-orienting itself before it needed to. It already had ten percent less reactant than any other node in this cluster.
He’d also proposed a simple solution: remove the faulty sensor and replace it. He’d bring the faulty one back for some glass-stomached dirtsider to repair later. With a new sensor in place, the satellite would be back to full efficiency and Rahul’s first Tier 4 would be in the official log.
The hitch was that he had to take an otherwise functional satellite offline to do the swap. Since this satellite was the output node for the cluster, it meant taking the entire cluster down.
That was a little risky. If Rahul broke something, he would turn a Tier 4 into a Tier 5. That entire cluster would be offline for weeks or even months until a specialized ship could be sent from Cislunar.
The calculated risk was a feature of Rahul’s plan, not a bug. It showed Rahul exercising judgment. That was a line item on the promotion readiness form. Just one more box for him to tick to prove to everyone that they hadn’t been wrong to trust him. To give him a way off the streets.
Rahul tried to slot the gimbal stop-sensor into its receptacle again. It didn’t quite fit, but it felt closer than the last time he’d tried. He wrapped one gloved hand around a grab-bar on the satellite and started to push harder on the sensor, willing it not to break or deform.
“Abort mission and return to ship,” said Dagmar. Her voice was calm and professional. She had more decades in space than the rest of her 4-person crew put together. Nothing shook her.
Rahul was too excited to register what she’d said. The sensor had snapped into place perfectly this time. He leaned back from his work and sighed in relief. Just a few bolts to secure the sensor, a couple more to replace the cover, and they could start bringing the control moment gyro back up to speed. Watch out, Tier 4 case, Rahul Jain is on the case!
“Repeat last transmission, mission lead,” said Joshua.
“Confirm previous,” said Dagmar. “Abort mission. Return to ship.”
“Roger that,” said Joshua. “Aborting mission. Returning to ship.”
Rahul felt a soft impact through his suit as Joshua patted his back. “You got that, old chap? Stow your tools. It’s time to head back.”
“Go ahead, old chap,” replied Rahul. “I’ll just be a moment. Cheerio and whatnot.”
Rahul positioned the first bolt on the driver. That was hard to do in a space suit. You couldn’t see the bolthead well enough to line up the driver, so you had to do it by feel, which was tricky when your hand was encased in puffy vacuum gloves. Rahul was proud of his deft touch, and he’d gotten it on the first try. He grabbed the bar again to steady himself and got ready to tighten the bolt.
“Abort means abort,” said Joshua. “It does not mean ‘hurry up and finish real quick’.”
Rahul ignored him and pressed the trigger. He listened carefully as the driver ran the bolt home. He was rushing. Hadn’t taken the time to preset the torque. Was doing this by ear, which was hard, since all he could hear was the whisper of sound transmitted through the medium of his suit and the air inside. It was just a ghost of what a hand-drill would sound like in atmosphere. That was enough for Rahul. He had practiced for hours and hours and hours.
Joshua slapped him on the back again, much harder. Rahul cursed. He’d just pulled the driver off the bolt anyway, so no harm done, but that slap could have bounced the driver into the satellite’s exposed interior while it was spinning. That was a great way to hurt yourself or, worse, the satellite.
“Now, spacer. Right now.” The faux jocularity was gone. Joshua’s tone was an unalloyed, condescending sneer.
That amused Rahul. He found it easier to keep his own cool as Joshua lost his.
“Look, I’ve got three more bolts and I’m done with the sensor. We don’t have to wait here while the gyro spins up. We can go back to the ship and finish the testing remotely, OK?”
“Abort mission,” Dagmar repeated again on the channel. For the first time, there was a hint of anger in her voice. “Say a final time: abort mission and return to ship.”
Joshua turned without another word and engaged his thruster. Puffs of propellant jostled the bolts in the mesh bag Rahul had magnetically attached to the satellite.
Rahul took a moment to set the torque on the driver. No mistakes. He was so close.
He didn’t think Dagmar would report him. She hadn’t directly singled him out on the voice comm, so he knew that–unlike Joshua–she was being careful what she put into the record. Still, his hands were shaking and he didn’t trust himself to judge torque accurately on the remaining bolts. Three more on the sensor. Then the two on the cover. He’d left that out just now, talking to Joshua, but who was going to stop him two bolts shy when he’d just done four?
He finished driving the second bolt.
Dagmar liked him. She had his back. And this was his Tier 4 case. She knew what that meant to him.
Another bolt in. Just one left for the sensor. No more calls over the channel. Dagmar was letting him finish. Keeping it off-book. She had his back. He started to breath easier. His hand steadied.
He was just setting the driver on the last bolt when someone collided into his suit and pinned him to the satellite. A moment later, he was spun around a hundred and eighty degrees.
“Joshua!” he shouted, but then his anger evaporated and was replaced with terror. It wasn’t Joshua. It was Dagmar. Her close-cropped gray hair, pinched features, and steel gray eyes were clearly visible through the visor of her own helmet. She’d suited up and crossed the few hundred meters faster than he’d thought possible. He was terrified, but he was also amazed. She was good.
Dagmar jammed her helmet forward into contact with Rahul’s so hard he cringed. A vision of his helmet cracking open flitted through his mind’s eye.
“I’m keeping this offline,” she said, using the contact of their helmets to convey her words. “This is your one and only–I repeat only–get out of jail free card.”
Rahul’s throat went so dry he felt like a fish dropped on a sand dune. He had miscalculated. Badly.
He’d never seen Dagmar angry before. He’d never seen her emotional in any way. Splotches of red had broken out on her face and her voice was hoarse with controlled anger. Rahul couldn’t meet her eyes, but he didn’t know where else to look. He stared vacantly, focusing on nothing at all.
“If you ever disobey a direct order again, I will see you booted from vacuum ready status so fast you will black out from re-entry. Do I make myself clear, Spacer Jain?”
Rahul tried to say “yes” three times before he could make a sound. He waited, motionless as a mouse in a cat’s jaws, until she slackened her grip on his suit.
“Follow me back to the ship,” she said.
She turned, released the mag clamp she’d used to anchor herself to the satellite, and blanketed Rahul with propellant as she started back to the ship. There’d been no time for the tiny suit computer to do a calculation, so Rahul knew she was flying back on manual control.
That was way over his skill-level. He had to wait a few more painful seconds while his suit calculated a shortest-time return trip.
He stared at their ship while the computer cogitated. Most spaceships were arrow-shaped: a massive, armored arrowhead on the front; a long, narrow spine where modules could be attached or removed for different missions; a drive cone sort of like a fletching at the tail end.
Their ship, heavily specialized for near-Solar operations with a very small crew, had the arrowhead in front and the drive cone behind, but the two were connected by a short, stout body with no modularity at all. The stubby little ship didn’t even rate its own name. Just an alphanumeric designation. But it was Rahul’s ticket to the Big Black and he loved it. Now he just needed to make sure he didn’t get kicked off of it.
His suit showed him the projected route. He toggled off the safety override warning him that his velocity would not be perfectly matched when he got to the ship then engaged the autopilot. It was a little stupid, but after the monumental stupidity of staying out against orders, he wanted to get back as fast as possible. He could take a rough landing if that helped him make up some of the time he’d cost.
He used the last fumes of propellant just before sailing through the open airlock door. Instead of drifting to a stop inside the airlock, he sailed across it and smacked into the inner airlock door. Even though he’d cut corners, Dagmar had still beaten him in. She grabbed him to ensure he didn’t rebound all the way back out through the outer door.
She shook her head in contempt as the door closed and air rushed into the room. Rahul stared at his feet. His head rang from the collision with the airlock door. He might have knocked a tooth loose. He probed it with his tongue and felt a sharp stab of pain. Just a downpayment on the recriminations he’d heap on himself for the foreseeable future.
By the time Rahul realized the airlock had finished cycling, Dagmar was already through the inner lock and heading down the corridor. They were not under acceleration, so there was no gravity. Dagmar flitted down the corridor with economical grace. So cool. He hoped for half her technique when he was a veteran.
If he ever got the chance.
“Common area,” Dagmar called back at him as she reached a junction, flipped neatly, and zoomed out of sight.
Rahul frantically removed his EVA pack and vacuum suit. Underneath, his jumpsuit was drenched in sweat. He shivered in the cool air of the ship. He really needed to clean up, but there was no way he was going to delay another command from Dagmar. He stowed his equipment and followed her as fast as he could.
The common area was the biggest room in the ship, which wasn’t saying much. It was a round room crammed with convertible workout machines that functioned under thrust or in zero-g. They had originally been glossy white, but dull metal showed through where the paint had been worn away. Everything on the ship was well-maintained, but nothing was new.
In one corner of the common area there was a round table surrounded by two semi-circular benches. Joshua sat on one of the benches. His back was straight and his forearms were flat on the table. One hand rested neatly on top of the other like a bank president posing for a formal portrait. If it weren’t for the fact that the vinyl cushion under his butt was perfectly smooth, you’d actually think he was sitting there under normal gravity instead of just posing in zero-g. Rahul rolled his eyes.
He spotted Everett a second later. Everett was floating upside down in a lotus pose–cross-legged with upturned hands on his knees–near the ceiling above the table. He wore faded boxer briefs and a stained white t-shirt stretched taut over his round belly. On top of this, his tattered bathrobe fluttered in the omnipresent breeze from the ship’s air cyclers.
Despite the knot of anxiety in this stomach, Rahul grinned. Everett was the most well-adapted to space of all of them, and Rahul admired him almost as much as Dagmar in some ways. His technical skills were only mediocre, but he had a preternatural ability to read the moods of the people around him and know just what needed to be done to keep the peace. Like, for example, hanging upside down like some kind of trailer-park monk to defuse Rahul and Joshua’s simmering feud.
“All right, crew,” said Dagmar. “We’ve got a new job. It’s emergency priority.”
Rahul hadn’t spotted Dagmar. She was standing–actually, hovering in a posture that approximated standing–off to the side by a wallscreen.
Rahul shivered. Partially it was the chill of sweat evaporating from his damp clothes, but mostly it was another wave of fear. He’d wasted precious time when there was an emergency call. In his chest, the fear sprouted, grew, and blossomed into guilt like a time-lapse video.
No wonder Dagmar had been pissed, but she’d still kept her reprimand off-record. Rahul swore to make the most of the slack that she had cut him.
“What tier?” asked Everett. In deference to Dagmar’s sober news, he’d rotated himself right-side up and pushed off from the ceiling to occupy a seat next to Joshua.
“Tier 1,” said Dagmar.
“A Tier 1?” Rahul asked. “Like… a drone could do it?”
“We’re closer than any drone,” said Dagmar. “This isn’t a complex job, but it needs to be done immediately. That’s why they bounced it to us.”
“Where is it, mission leader?” asked Joshua. “Where does command want us to go?”
“The output node on cluster Beta Foxtrot Two Twenty-Two,” said Dagmar. The designation meant nothing to any of them–there were tens of thousands of clusters in the Solar Cloud–but she brought up a display on the wallscreen at the same time. It showed the Solar Cloud as a sparkling sphere surrounding the Sun within the orbit of Mercury.
Each pinpoint represented a cluster of thirteen satellites. Twelve of them gathered light–either directly from the Sun or from another cluster–then channeled that light to the thirteenth, which redirected the concentrated light wherever it needed to go: an input node on another cluster to concentrate the light another level or out into space wherever there was call for a jumbo order of photons.
The view zoomed in to show two points. A green one indicated the cluster they’d been working on. A blue one showed the target cluster. Data on the stats to get from the green dot to the blue dot in terms of delta-V, time, and reactant consumption appeared beside the map.
Rahul looked around the room, trying to see if everyone else could see what he was seeing: the recommended trip would burn essentially all of their propellant. They’d have to rely on their solar sail to get back to Cislunar. It was a lot slower, and it had no backup. The solar sail was the backup.
Everett whistled. Joshua blinked stoically.
So, they saw it too.
Neither of them said anything, so Rahul didn’t say anything either.
After a moment Dagmar continued, “As you can see, this little detour blows right through our reactant mass safety margins. On top of that, we’ll be doing an emergency burn from A through D.”
Everett whistled again, but Rahul–farthest from the screen–had to squint to see what the new information was. Then he got it. They’d be doing 3 g’s for four continuous hours, two to accelerate and two more to decelerate. No more rest in between than was required to redirect the drive cone by flipping the ship 180 degrees.
“Mission leader,” said Joshua. “This, uh, violates union regs, doesn’t it?”
“It does, Joshua,” said Dagmar. “That’s why we’re here talking about it. Only the military can order us to violate our safety regs, and this request came through our civilian chain of command.”
“We can say no?” asked Rahul, just trying to catch up.
“It’s an emergency,” said Joshua condescendingly. “Someone needs our help. ”
You were the one who brought up union regulations, thought Rahul. He addressed his real question to Damgar. “What kind of Tier 1 repair could possibly be an emergency priority?”
“I don’t know,” said Dagmar, “They didn’t say.”
“If it wasn’t an emergency, they wouldn’t have given it emergency priority,” said Joshua.
Even Dagmar had to keep from rolling her eyes.
“I’m in,” said Everett.
“Thank you,” said Dagmar.
“We’re… voting?” asked Rahul.
“I’m in, too!” declared Joshua. He started to jump to his feet, bounced his knees hard against the underside of the table, then quickly grabbed the table edge to pull himself back down before he drifted away. He was older and more senior than Rahul, but his military service had been dirtside. He didn’t have much more time in the Big Black than Rahul did.
Once Joshua was settled, he shot Everett an approving nod, then turned to Rahul with one eyebrow raised in haughty challenge.
“Is this a real vote? Binding?” said Rahul.
Joshua huffed in disgust and looked away.
“I just think we should trust Dagmar,” said Rahul. “Do whatever she says.”
“I can’t order you to break regs,” said Dagmar. “We have to vote.”
“Come on, Rahul,” said Joshua, “Even you-”
“Would you shut up?” Rahul shouted. He whirled to face Joshua without grabbing a handhold first. He managed to brush the wall with his fingertips, but then he was out of reach, slowly rotating in the air.
He breathed heavily and buried his face in his hands, focusing on his breathing. It had just been too much: losing his Tier 4, getting reamed by Dagmar, an emergency that made no sense, and through it all Joshua’s unending stream of noxious condescension.
“No, you shut up,” said Joshua, half-rising in his seat. “If you had a speck of courage-”
Rahul let the words wash over him. He refused to explode again.
“Both of you shut up,” said Dagmar, quietly and with authority.
The room fell silent.
Everett pushed off from the couch, drifting toward Rahul. He crashed gently into Rahul, pushing them both within easy reach of the regularly-spaced handholds on all the walls in the ship. Rahul nodded his thanks to Everett and they bumped fists lightly.
Rahul turned to Dagmar with an expression as calm as he could make it.
“I just want to know what you think,” he said.
“I say we go,” said Dagmar.
“Then I’m with you, mission leader,” said Rahul.
Dagmar nodded her head. Everett patted Rahul’s back and grinned. Joshua folded his arms and muttered, “Took you long enough.”
“All right,” Dagmar clapped her hands. “Everett, make sure we get the solar shield reeled in. Joshua, prep the ship for high-g. And Rahul,” she turned to look at him, “you have five minutes to clean up. We go four hours at 3g with that stink rolling off you, and we’ll never get it out of the ship.”
Dagmar smiled and Everett chortled good naturedly. Rahul smiled back at both of them. He pretended not to hear Joshua’s snide chuckles.
“It’s time to be the cavalry, people,” said Dagmar. “Let’s ride!”
Four hours is a long time when you weigh three times as much as you’re used to. Other ships had specially designed accelerations, but Solar Cloud maintenance vessels were built to be slow and cheap.
They were supposed to sleep. Rahul couldn’t. The nagging constant pressure wasn’t that bad. What got to him was the feeling of being constantly about to suffocate. Napping under this level of thrust felt as dangerous as nodding off in a full bathtub. Drifting to sleep felt like a smoothly paved on-ramp to death.
So instead of sleeping, he lay in his bunk and thought about the new vistas of discomfort opened to him by the unrelenting pressure of his own body on itself.
“Ow,” he said, to his tiny, empty cabin. “Just… ow.”
And then he added, “Are we there yet?”
No one else could hear him, but that was fine. He didn’t like to seem flippant when he was on-duty. Here in his quarters, he could freely laugh at his own joke. So he did. It felt good for a second, but then it just started to make him ache in even more new and interesting ways.
He gave a sigh–a small, careful one–and ordered up some documents on the screen over his bunk with voice commands. Might was well read up on cluster Beta Foxtrot Two Twenty-Two.
The crew gathered in the common room as soon as they finished decelerating. No one sat down this time. Everett, Joshua, and Rahul stood outside the ring of benches around the table while Dagmar gave their pre-mission briefing.
“OK, crew, I’ve got the details on our orders. We’re washing the windows.”
“Come again?” said Joshua.
“You mean, we went through four hours at three g just to–” said Rahul. He stopped speaking when he realized he was agreeing with Joshua.
Everett chuckled, although Rahul wasn’t sure if it was at their absurd mission or at his discomfort with being on the same side as Joshua for once.
“We knew it was a Tier 1,” said Dagmar.
“I know,” said Rahul, “but I read the stats on Beta Foxtrot Two Twenty-Two while we were in transit-”
“You did?” interrupted Dagmar and Joshua at the same time. She sounded impressed. He sounded incredulous.
“Yeah,” said Rahul. “Couldn’t sleep. Felt like drowning in a bathtub.”
Dagmar and Johua gave him quizzical looks, but Everett nodded sagely. “I can see it.”
“The point is,” Rahul went on, “Beta Foxtrot Two Twenty-Two was cleaned a few months ago. It’s by far the cleanest cluster in the sector. This mission makes no sense. I’m worried we’re getting something wrong.”
“Rahul has a point,” said Joshua. “I read the docs, too, and he’s right.”
The room went silent. It took Everett and Dagmar a moment to process the unlikeliness of Joshua publicly admitting that Rahul was right about anything.
Damgar recovered first. “I’ve asked for more information on why they need us to do this, but I haven’t heard back yet. I get the impression something big’s going on, but no one’s talking.”
“Big like what?” asked Rahul.
“I don’t know,” said Dagmar. “But I’ve double-checked these orders. We’re in the right place, and this is what they want us to do: get out there and clean the incoming reflectors on the output node.”
“Theirs not to make reply,” said Joshua. “Theirs not to reason why.”
“Let’s just hope we can skip the next line” said Rahul.
“I don’t know what’s weirder,” said Everett. “The fact that you two are agreeing or the fact that you’re quoting poetry. What was that, anyway?”
“Just an old poem,” said Rahul.
“An old poem?” asked Joshua indignantly. “You’re calling a masterpiece of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, an ‘old poem’?”
Rahul put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, unsure if Joshua was on the point of tears or physical assault. It looked like it could go either way. Possibly both at once. That was a disturbing thought.
“Gentleman,” said Dagmar. Then, a little louder, “Boys!”
They all fell silent. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we have our part to play, and we’re going to do it. Everett-”
“I want to take a walk,” he said.
“Yup,” said Dagmar. “You and Joshua take this one.”
Rahul was crestfallen. It was only a Tier 1, but it seemed important. Well, if Joshua and Everett were suiting up, that just left one job that he could do to help.
“Rahul-” began Dagmar.
“Deploy the solar shield,” he said. “On it.”
“Very good,” said Dagmar. “Get going.”
As they started to head out of the room, Rahul muttered under his breath, “So much for being the cavalry. We’re just interplanetary janitors.”
Everett squeezed Rahul’s shoulder and leaned in close. “Interplanetary janitorial cavalry.” he said. “Tell me that doesn’t sound cool.”
“Maybe to an American,” said Rahul. “You all still think you’re cowboys.”
“Yee-haw,” said Everett. He drifted backwards and pretended to draw and fire two imaginary six-shooters. “Hey, what was that poem, really?”
“‘Charge of the Light Brigade’,” said Rahul. “It was based on a real event. Some British cavalry got their orders mixed up and went charging off into a valley lined with artillery. They died. Brits like that sort of thing.”
“All of them died?” asked Everett.
“Most of them, I think,” said Rahul, shrugging
“Most of them died gloriously,” amended Joshua.
“Rahul’s right,” said Dagmar as she headed out of the common area. “That is very British.”
“Indeed,” said Joshua. “Quite.” He followed Dagmar out. Everett holstered his imaginary guns.
“And, uh, what was that next line?” he asked.
“Theirs but to do and die,” said Rahul.
“Yeah, let’s totally skip that part.” Everett pushed off and followed Dagmar and Joshua.
Rahul sighed, then followed everyone else. It was time to provide a little shade for the interplanetary janitorial light brigade.
“Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them,” he muttered. “Something something, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell rode the six hundred… Yeah, let’s just skip all of that.”
“Solar shield deployed,” said Rahul.
The command center was located just behind the armored arrowhead of the little ship. There were no forward-facing ports, but they look out laterally, and they were close enough to make out the satellite a few hundred meters away without any magnification.
“Confirmed,” said Dagmar with a quick glance at Rahul’s screen. She hovered next to him in the small space. There were chairs for maneuvering, but since they weren’t under thrust the two of them floated side-by-side in easy reach of the control consoles.
“Mission is a go,” she said, keying the general channel. She left it on so that Joshua and Everett would be included in the conversation. “Come back safe.”
Joshua and Everett confirmed, and a moment later their vac-suited forms appeared through the window, sailing toward the satellite. Everett watched Dagmar’s screen over her shoulder, assuring himself that everything was nominal with their trajectories and suits.
He cleared his throat.
“I think I know what we’re doing here,” he said.
“There’s only one reason I can think of that we’d need to clean the mirrors on the output node of the cleanest output node in the sector.”
Rahul couldn’t tell if Dagmar was leading him on as a mentoring exercise or just too focused on overseeing the mission to make any more significant contribution to the conversation, but he pressed on.
“It means that even the cleanest output node in the sector isn’t clean enough.”
Rahul hesitated. He’d run some back of the envelope calculations, and the numbers he’d come up with were scary. “Which means that maybe they’re about to try redirecting every other cluster in the sector through this one.”
“I think you’re right,” agreed Dagmar.
“Really? Every other cluster? Have they ever pushed that much power through a single node before? I mean, with that much power, you could melt a ship as far out as Cislunar. Maybe even Mars.”
“Only if the target held still long enough,” said Dagmar, “We’re talking about a seven minute light lag from here.”
“So you’ve already thought of this?”
Dagmar didn’t answer.
Joshua and Everett reached the satellite and checked the condition of the reflectors.
“They look good,” said Joshua. “but we can get them cleaner.”
“Understood,” said Dagmar. “Make it snappy. Don’t rush, just… be fast.”
“Slow is smooth,” said Everett philosophically, “and smooth is fast.”
Rahul picked the conversation back up. “If there’s a time-sensitive emergency, it means someone out there had to scram their reactor. Now they need light for their backup solar array.”
“Mhm,” said Dagmar.
“And if they need this much power at the source, they must be way out there. Like, past Neptune. But the really weird thing is: we haven’t heard anything about a mayday call. And we would have, right? That’d be system-wide news.”
Dagmar turned to give Rahul her full attention, but she didn’t say anything.
“So there’s a ship way out there. And it’s in trouble. But it’s covert. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“You’re right,” said Dagmar.
Rahul beamed. “What do you think they’re doing out there?” he asked, excitedly.
“Dying, if we’re not fast enough,” said Dagmar. She turned back to her displays. “Figure at least six hours for their distress call to get to Cislunar. We’ve spent four more getting here. Another six hours for this light to reach them. That’s at least sixteen hours without power. Potentially more.”
“Oh,” said Rahul. He’d been speculating about cool secret missions in the Kuiper Belt. Dagmar’s focus on the human stakes chastened him.
“How are things going out there?” Dagmar asked Everett and Joshua.
“Pretty good,” said Everett. He sounded happy because he was outside. Rahul liked spacework because it was part of his job, but he’d never heard of anyone who loved being out in the Big Black like Everett did. He was definitely a little insane.
“Just finishing up,” confirmed Joshua.
“Sounds good,” said Dagmar. “Let me know–”
A brilliant white glare blanked out Rahul’s vision. He reeled back from the portal, losing contact with the walls of the ship and windmilling his arms frantically as he drifted into the center of the command deck and found nothing to hold onto.
He blinked furiously, but it didn’t help. He got nothing but neon swirls of fuzzy color and stabbing pain in his eyes for his efforts.
“Report in,” said Dagmar. “Are you OK?”
“What was that?” asked Everett
“We’re OK,” said Joshua at the same time.
Rahul gave up waving his arms around and rubbed his eyes instead. It probably didn’t help, but it made him feel better to feel his eyeballs under the pressure of his knuckles. After a moment, his vision started to come back. As the command center blurred its way towards focus, the first thing he saw was Dagmar at her post. She hadn’t moved an inch. She was incredible.
“Rahul,” said Dagmar. “Are you good?”
Rahul looked up and saw that the ceiling was in reach. The ship was engineered to make sure you couldn’t really stay out of contact with all surfaces for too long. His vision was almost back to normal. He grabbed a handhold and arrested his drift. “I’m good,” he said. “Let me check the solar shield.”
“This is the first time they’ve coordinated this many nodes in the Solar Cloud, and it’s in the middle of an emergency. I think somebody got the timing wrong.”
“Oh, no,” said Dagmar, catching on. “Everett, Joshua, are you guys still behind the umbrella?”
The two spoke over each other in a confusing jumble of replies. “Everett,” she said. “You’re senior. Report. Are you still protected by the solar shade?”
“Yes,” said Everett. “Why?” He sounded worried.
He should be. “Dagmar,” said Rahul. “We’ve got a problem.”
“What is it?”
“Massive temperature spike on the outer hull. One of the feeder clusters must have fired early and we were near the sightline to the input node they’re targeting.”
“They shot us?” asked Everett.
“That’s not very friendly,” said Joshua dryly.
“Where did it come from?” asked Dagmar.
“I don’t know,” said Rahul. He gestured helplessly at his console. “We’re not set up to trace something like that. I don’t know which cluster fired. I don’t know which satellite they were targeting. I don’t know where the next shot is going to come in.”
“Sorry there, chap, but did you say ‘next shot’?” asked Joshua in a breezy, stiff-upper-lip kind of way. Rahul thought he was over doing it a little bit, but for once he admired the attitude. It appeared even the most insufferable arrogance had its time and place.
“If we’re right about the ship out there, they’re coordinating across thousands of clusters just in this sector. There might be other clusters involved, too. All of those clusters have to be pulled off of their existing jobs and retasked, and they’ve got to account for relativity–”
“We know how the Solar Cloud works,” said Dagmar.
“I”m sorry,” said Rahul. “I know. I’m just saying… they’ve never coordinated something this large before. There are going to be bugs.”
“Hang on everyone,” said Dagmar. She switched the channel to an outbound link to their command in Cislunar and reported the friendly fire incident, asking for confirmation that no more firing would commence until they were out of the vicinity.
“Well, I’ll feel a lot safer when they get that message,” said Joshua conversationally. “In about seven minutes from now.”
“It’s another seven after that before it will have any impact here,” said Everett.
“Right you are,” said Joshua. “Thanks for that cheerful addition.”
“Everett, Joshua, abort mission,” said Dagmar.
“Say again, mission lead,” said Everett.
“They shot us once,” said Dagmar. “They might do it again. I want you guys on board. We’ll move out of range, and wait to get confirmation from Command that they won’t fire again. Then we can move back in and finish up.”
“Affirmative,” said Everett. “I’m all done here anyway. Headed back.”
“Joshua,” said Dagmar after waiting a couple of seconds for a response from him. “Status check.”
“Who knows how long that could take?” said Joshua. “Whoever’s out there might not have extra time to hang around waiting for their air cyclers to come back online.”
“Joshua,” began Dagmar.
“I’m nearly done. They’re depending on us.”
“Who are?” asked Dagmar. “What are you talking about?”
“The covert ship out in the Kuiper Belt,” said Joshua.
“That was just speculation!”
“Fine, I have no idea,” said Joshua. “But someone is, right, mission lead?”
Dagmar bowed her head. Seconds ticked by.
“Joshua,” she said. “It’s not just you. That shot only lasted a microsecond. We get hit with another one, and it might fry us all. We need to move the ship.”
“Just… a… second…” said Joshua.” There. All done. I’m packing up.”
Rahul breathed a sigh of relief. So did Dagmar.
“On board,” said Everett. “Cycling the lock now. It’ll be open when Joshua gets back.”
“Roger that,” said Joshua. “I’m en route. See? You were all worried about nothing.”
The second shot was brighter than the first. Rahul was blinded again, but he managed to keep from floundering around the command center this time.
“Was that another one?” asked Everett.
“Yeah,” said Rahul.
“We’re going to clear out as soon as we recover Joshua,” said Dagmar. “We’ve got enough propellant to get us out of the vicinity. Then we’ll deploy the solar sail…”
Her voice trailed off.
“Rahul?” she asked very, very quietly.
“Do you have any telemetry from Joshua on your console?”
Rahul pretended it was a question on a test. He invented an anonymous trainers voice in his mind. Trainee, please reconfigure your console from sailor shield control to personnel monitoring. You have thirty seconds. Joshua was going to be fine. Everyone was going to be fine. Everything was just fine.
“I’ve got nothing,” he heard himself say.
He looked out the window. The view to the satellite was clear. There was no one out there.
“What’s going on?” asked Everett jovially. He had stripped out of his suit and was holding his helmet in one hand. He hadn’t heard the last minute or two of conversation, but when he saw the looks on Rahul’s and Dagmar’s faces, the smile on his face evaporated.
Rahul said nothing.
“Where’s Joshua!?” Everett demanded.
“He’s gone,” said Dagmar. “He got caught in the second shot.”
She grabbed the edge of the console with one hand. Her knuckles were white. With her firm grip, she didn’t rebound when she punched the portal hard with her other fist. She hardly moved at all.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
It was a long trip back to Cislunar. Solar sails are not a fast way to travel.
Dagmar kept to her own cabin. She was retiring when they got back. She was making sure she’d never lose another spacer.
Rahul taught Everett the rest of the poem. Everett liked it. Especially one line from the last stanza: “When can their glory fade?”
“Do you think it mattered?” he asked. “I mean, if they haven’t told us anything yet, they never will. We’ll never know if we saved that ship or not. We don’t even know its name. Do you think it worked?”
“I hope so,” said Rahul. He thought about Joshua. He thought about time, and how much of it he had wasted when he ignored Dagmar’s first order to abort. What it would have meant for Joshua to get those seconds back. He tried not to think about it, but his brain kept running the calculations every time he tried to sleep.
Rahul realized Everett was waiting for an answer.
“I don’t think it matters,” he said.
“How’s that?” Everett asked.
“He was doing his job,” said Rahul. “He was trying to help. That’s all that matters, if anything matters at all.”
Nate Givens is a data analyst and writer from Ashland, VA.