Author : Rob Burton

There’s that tapping again.

I’ve been listening to peeling bass music, as loud as my ears can stand it, but it doesn’t shut out that quiet, metallic tap. Perhaps this capsule is resonating, magnifying the tapping. Perhaps it’s just my mind, feeding the slow rhythm into everything else I hear. Each time my eyes flick up to the window, unbidden.

Under normal circumstances, Gemmah Merchant only sends one void mechanic at a time, and only then when several robots fail. The madness that accompanies solitary months in the void can usually be kept at bay with communication – an invisible electronic umbilicus feeding us nutritional family contact and friendship. But delays and solar interference preclude that this far out, and simulations can only do so much. They sent two of us so that we wouldn’t go insane.

Often, despite the value of the mined resources, if they go astray they have to be abandoned. The sun can spit a particle that’ll corrupt a computer now and again no matter how heavily it’s shielded – even sitting the piloting ‘bots control computer behind the load doesn’t guarantee anything. Sometimes they just stop working – the ion drives stay on, or it just goes dead and it drifts. This time it started to decelerate the load too early, crawling round to the far side and starting the long breaking process before it’d barely covered a quarter of the journey to Earth. Gemmah determined that it was worth attempting retrieval, and sent out a ‘bot. It failed, reason unknown. Such was the limit upon time and the value of the cargo, they chose to send us. It sat there, as dead as my companion is now, waiting in its own private, ponderous solar orbit.

Gemmah Merchant exists to make money, not spend it. In space, mass costs money. Just enough filtering and air – never mind the smell. Not enough food, and appetite suppressing drugs (pills are light). Hardly enough room to turn around, only the barest chance of limping home alive if we failed to fix the ‘bot. One window. One suit. He’s still wearing it.

It’s easy to forget that you are always travelling fast. How fast only depends on where you’re standing. We’d been decelerating for a week, varying the deceleration as much as our bodies could stand it. He’d been eager to get the job done, boredom being a wonderful motivator. I was willing to let him take the first EVA, being of the opinion that it would probably take more than one to fix the ‘bot. It could be me out there. He certainly seems to think it should be.

These lanes are vast and almost empty. Almost. Some tiny thing smashed through the suit at his shoulder. Wrapped his remaining arm around a handle on the capsule, all he was ebbed out to ice before me. I had to switch off the comm. I couldn’t stand to hear him screaming.

The ion drive pushes slowly and inexorably. The acceleration is constant. I tell myself it’s just some strange coincidence, some function of the acceleration and the elastic properties of the suit around that missing shoulder. The glove strikes the window once more, the fingers curl, and it slowly rebounds, beckoning me. He wants me to join him. I’ve tried switching off the engine. It just starts again as soon as I switch it back on. If I try and drift home, I’ll starve to death. And every time I hear the tap I look up. I’m trying not to.

But there’s nothing else to look at.


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