display | more...

Space is pretty cold. Yes sir, mighty cold it is. I don't mean cold in the physical sense, don't get me wrong. I mean sometimes you have to do real bad things that you don't want to do, and there's no help for it, it's either you or them. Space doesn't give a damn about you, is what I mean. You put a foot wrong and you're toast, because the laws of physics are pretty cold -- the equations don't forgive.

Especially one of the basic ones for space flight. The problem of fuel. Now, if you've got a nuclear cruiser on your hands it's less of a problem because you can pack a lot of fuel in a little thing, but if you're in something older, or smaller, or just plain cheaper, you're using liquid fuel and that leaves you right on the edge of the basic fact: you have to have fuel to propel the fuel. The more fuel you have, the more fuel you need to shift it, especially if you're fighting against a gravity well.

So, since I was being shot off in an old one-person emergency collapsible cargo drop shuttle, I was working with liquid fuel and every bit of mass counted. Every bit of the ship that could have been stripped was already stripped, just to the edge of the whole thing being rickety. I had a cargo of medicine I had to get to this colony out here on Woden and I had one shot to get the shuttle down safe, and no chance to lift off again. Every bit of fuel would be spent in the deceleration so that the shuttle wouldn't slam into the atmosphere at burn-up speed.

So you can imagine the look on the face of the poor little twerp who had stowed away in the closet when I told her about standard procedure for stowaways on these things. Oh, Space was going to be mighty cold for her.

But she looked so sad, and I figured I could take a little time to ask her why the hell she'd jumped onto a one-person lifeboat.

"I just wanted to see my brother," she said. "He's part of the colony. I figured that I ought to tell him our parents had died, and, well, Woden is far enough out from things that it's a safe place to escape from things -- that's why he went there in the first place, you know."

Oh boy. Sob story. "Well I'm sorry, you know, but think of it this way. The colony is sick, including maybe your brother. If I don't get the medicine to them it could be kaput. And you're a little slip alright but a hundred pounds extra is still too much. So either you die or we all do. Tell you the truth, if you were a man I would have tossed you out without a second thought, because that's the iron law. I'm playing nice right now."

"Why?"

"Because you're cute."

"Fair enough. Wait, how old are you?"

"Going on thirty-five. You?"

"Seventeen."

"Forget I said anything then."

The girl glanced around the shuttle. Not like there was much to see, just some personal knicknacks of mine and the deceleration couch and the control panel. "Isn't there anything we could jettison? Anything at all?"

"Nope. Sorry, kid. You're out of luck."

"What about that mug?"

"Oh hell no, that one belonged to my mother. See it says right here, Employee of the year 2184, Wayland-Yutani Incorporated. May the Nimbus fly forever."

"Wayland-Yutani...your mother was the one who designed the cruiser SSV Nimbus? The same one that crashed? I can't imagine you'd want to keep a memento of her failure."

"Excuse me, the design of the ship was perfect. There wasn't a thing that went wrong with the structure except the parts that the bosses insisted she add on. Those were the things that failed when we flew near the accretion disk. I saw them explode and I thought we were all toast until my mother piloted the cruiser to the nearest solid moon. She saved as many people as she could even at the cost of her own life, thank you very much."

"She designed the Nimbus and flew it?"

"No, two different people. P.D.Q. Shepard was the pilot. Damn finest pilot there was in all the galaxy until Wayland-Yutani led her to that tragic end."

"P.D.Q. Shepard...I thought she was a diplomat."

"No, that was the other mother. Samantha Shepard. One of the great diplomats of the galaxy, she was. Managed to negotiate a peaceful end to the Keldeo-Human war."

"And she designed the Nimbus?"

"No, that was the other one. Liara Shepard. I had three mothers."

"How come you get three mothers and I only get two?"

"Sometimes life isn't fair, kid. But sometimes it's perfectly fair, like what I'm about to do to you."

"Now hang on second." The girl pointed to the corner. "What about that tall stack of magazines that clearly weighs more than me?"

"Vintage copies of Astounding Science Fiction. Also belonged to my mother. I figured I ought to take those if I'm going to be stuck on this planet for a year. I wouldn't trust them with anyone else."

"And that large duffle bag next to them?"

"My weightlifting set. Got to keep my strength up while I'm there."

"And the bag of cement?"

"Not much of proper materials down there for building concrete. I figured I'd bring some extra."

"And the big chair?"

"That's the deceleration couch, kid. I don't want to get flattened by the g-forces when I'm making my descent. Talking of which, how exactly did you plan to survive that issue yourself while hiding in a closet?"

"Um -- "

"You don't have much experience with space travel, do you."

"No. Working on the cruiser as an officer's gofer was my first time making this kind of journey."

"So you didn't think much about the sign on the door that says AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY."

"Didn't think it was a matter of life or death."

I sighed. "Look, it's not like the cruiser can even come back and pick us up now. This is a one-way trip. It's a matter of death and we're running out of time. I think I've given you enough time here."

I started to move towards the airlock when the girl said, "Wait a second."

"Not many more seconds left for you, kid."

"No, I mean -- " she pointed to the lining around the door. "I'm paying attention to that door now. Look at it. Look at the writing."

I looked. The solid metal frame of the door had raised letters. Wayland-Yutani Incorporated. Made in Earth Alliance Space with one hundred percent Earth Alliance Materials.

"Yeah, so what?"

"So...did your mother design this thing too?"

"That's the last straw, kid." I grabbed her by the back of her shirt collar and dragged her towards the door.

"No wait!" she said. "That's not what I meant! I mean this thing is designed so stupidly that she couldn't have possibly designed it!"

"Oh really." I let her go. "Explain."

"Look, you told me that space doesn't forgive you for making big mistakes, right? I haven't been to space but I've read enough about space travel to know that you're supposed to design ships with redundancies in mind in case something goes wrong. That's why the Apollo 13 mission didn't end in death. Whoever designed this thing didn't think of adding redundancies even though they really should have if they wanted precious cargo to reach planetside safely. And -- and if it's Wayland-Yutani then maybe they were just cutting corners for cost. And maybe they did the same thing with the Nimbus and never told your mothers."

"Come on. Nobody who goes to space is that stupid."

"But if you never go to space and only think about the bottom line?"

"That's a fair point."

"And isn't there still a big lawsuit happening over the Nimbus where the survivors are suing for a trillion Earth Bucks?"

"There is. I think the defendants are blaming pilot error. You can see why I'm sensitive about my mother."

"And are there any witnesses who can disprove that assertion?"

"Well there's me, I'm a skilled pilot and I didn't see my mother make any mistakes at any point."

"And the plaintiff's counsel let you go?"

"I was supposed to be heading back to Luna Base because I got the call from the lawyers that they needed me. But then the captain said there was an emergency on Woden and I was the only pilot who could get the shuttle down safely. So I had to do this. It was either save a colony or slog through a lawsuit. Not much choice."

"I see. And did you actually hear any transmission from Woden?"

"No, the captain just told me there had been one. Why?"

"Did the captain smile as you left?"

I shrugged. "Not sure. I couldn't see his face but he was high-fiving the first mate. I thought they were happy that the colony would be saved."

"I see. Hm. Does the ship's Space Radio work?"

"Perfectly."

"Alright." The girl went to the control panel and started looking at the switches.

"Woah hold on now," I said. "I know how to work those things and you don't."

"Just send a message to the colony if we're close enough."

"Fine." I punched in a few numbers on the radio settings and turned a dial. "Woden colony, Woden colony. This is an emergency cargo shuttle X352 from the SSV Stardust, authorization code 267J dot Swordfish. Do you copy?"

A voice came over the radio. "I copy, cargo shuttle. This is Woden Colony. What's your business?"

"Requesting permission to land. Got a supply of medicine you need."

"Medicine?"

"For the epidemic."

"What epidemic? Everybody's healthy here, X352. Healthy as normal barring a few fevers and one sprained ankle."

I glanced at the girl, whose own face had gone from confused to furious.

"Roger that," I said. "Someone pulled a fast one on us. Requesting permission to land because our cruiser is long gone." The girl whispered something in my ear. "Oh and uh, can you tell Mister Cross that his sister Marilyn is coming to see him."

"Two people on a single emergency cargo shuttle?"

"Unusual circumstances. One of us is a young moron and the other didn't expect anything that was going to happen today. Do we have permission to land?"

"Permission granted."

"Roger. Cargo shuttle signing off." I turned off the radio and turned to the girl. "Alright," I said, "sounds like you're on to something here."

"And I'm not finished," she said. "Let's check the cargo." She moved to the cargo hatch door.

"Now hang on," I said, "it's mighty cold and dangerous in there. Let a big strong man handle it, eh? Keep yourself warm in on the crash couch. We won't reach Woden for a few hours."

Marilyn sat on the couch, looking like she was prepared to strangle someone.

I put on the Space Parka and the emergency rebreather and made my way through the Cargo Bay airlock. This wasn't a place designed for people to check very easily while in transit. Not hardly pressurized or anything. Anyone who tried to stow away in HERE would have learned their mistake more quickly than the girl did. But there was some access for the sake of emergencies, and with the gear I had on there would be some time for me to look through the cargo.

I opened one box. It was full of foam that protected tubes of blue liquid. Alright, so maybe the girl was wrong. Maybe I was supposed to be carrying medicine because there had been a mixup in the communication. Or maybe the guy on the radio was lying because he wanted the whole colony to die. But might as well check the rest of these boxes, right? I shifted the first box aside.

Or tried to. The damn thing wouldn't budge. Way too heavy for a box full of foam. I lifted off the first layer of foam and saw that the rest of the box was full of stacks of grey metal.

Dammit.

I made my way back through the cargo bay airlock and said "Alright, so you were right. This thing is a death trap. You wanted to know if we could get rid of some extra junk? We can get rid of a LOT of extra junk."

Marilyn grinned.

"How did you guess anyway?"

"Let's say I'm young and hasty, but not a complete idiot. And I know that Wayland-Yutani would want to get rid of a potential star witness in a big lawsuit."

"But I've done so many valuable flights for them! I'm one of their best pilots! Augustus Shepard, never let a cargo be lost! I've even got my own employee of the month mug from them!"

"And your salary is how high?"

"High as a pilot can get. I've always fought hard for my raises and won."

"And labor laws these days make it hard to fire anyone. See what I'm getting at here? Killing you will get them a cheaper pilot and prevent a loss in a trillion-Buck lawsuit."

"But I've made them three trillion Bucks!"

"And if they're forced into being responsible by a loss in a big lawsuit, they'll lose more than three trillion Bucks. This isn't a cold equation, sir, this is a no-brainer. You're in this position because you trusted them. I'm in this position because I'm running from people who think I was involved with my parents passing stronger labor laws. That's how it is with money. Now how fast can we jettison the cargo? I'm thinking it's going to be a real pain to drag all that stuff out of the cargo bay and toss it out the main airlock."

"We can do that," I said, "or I could just do this." I pushed a button on the control panel and there was a rumbling whirring noise. "Always a good idea to be able to open the cargo bay from in here, after all."

"I guess that solves our problem. Um. What about the deceleration couch then?"

"Well, I can't offer you another one but I might have something else I can do." I went over to a duffel bag in the corner and brought out the air mattress.

"And how am I supposed to fill that thing?"

"You're gonna have to blow real hard. Think of it as a small penance for being dumb enough to stow away on one of these shuttles."

"Didn't I save your life?"

"Yeah, and that's why you avoided the really big punishment of getting spaced. Start blowing."

...

So that's how it is, Mom. We landed safely with one more crew member and much less cargo than I had expected. Marilyn suffered a bit from the deceleration but was otherwise unharmed. And that's why we're here, on Woden, and that's why I'm calling you, because I figured you'd want to know that your son was safe after all, and because I know you know how to get me a shuttle to Earth real fast, and I figured you'd be very interested in having further evidence towards why one of your spouses died and the other had her reputation ruined. Wayland-Yutani really are a bunch of cost-cutting scoundrels.

Then they'd better hope I don't get appointed to a position where I write the regulations.

Understood. But I think they're going to suffer quiet a bit if you tell the plaintiff's counsel what I told you and then get me back to Earth for a proper deposition. I look forward to seeing you soon. Augustus Q Shepard signing off.