Eugene stared out from the observation deck of Marsport RH-4 ... a name which the residents of the port naturally presumed designated it as the fourth ring of Hell. Most of the view was obscured by the freighter Rosa Lee, an 80,000 ton vessel that had approached for docking some four hours before. As the rings were bare minutes from setting a firm contact between ship and port, an explosion had taken place somewhere in the biolab aboard the Rosa Lee. As near as anyone could tell on RH-4, a deadly gas had been released, killing everyone on board.
“I don’t see that it’s moving,” said Jareth, standing next to Eugene, his hands flat against the polymer window, eyes squinting at the ship.
“It is moving. At two point six-four millimetres per minute.”
“And it’s ...?”
“Seventeen meters from point of contacting RH-4. Right now, I’d say its maybe thirty meters from us.”
Eugene calculated the number in his mind: seventeen hundred centimetres, probably less, divided by 264, that’s six with a remainder of 116, which gives point four with a remainder of 104, which gives point zero three, multiply by one thousand makes 643, nearly 644 minutes, or less than eleven hour before contact.
“So we’ve got, what –” said Jareth. “Ten hours?”
“Closer to eleven.”
There were efforts going on all over the station. The crew inside were all dead, but the explosion had affected no port facilities. Immediately a dozen teams had gone out to seize control of the ship and bring it under control. They had to cut their way in. From reports, they had been successful, had made their way past security points inside the ship and were right now in the captain’s offices and the Rosa Lee’s bridge. At best, so far, they’d been able to scratch their helmets and poke at a few buttons. In the worst possible way, the ship’s fundamental systems had apparently been jury-rigged six ways from Sunday. The programming was amateur and looked – again, according to the reports – like some smart cookie had invented a personalized operating system for the whole ship.
There hadn’t been much luck in getting the ship’s thrusters operational.
Eugene’s office had reached a level of shrieking squalor, to the point where he had chosen to get up from his desk, climb down four levels to the observation deck, and put his thoughts together.
From here, it didn’t look to him either that the Rosa Lee was moving. Two point six-four centimetres was awfully slow.
“So what,” said Jareth. “It bumps the port and causes some damage. We lose a couple weeks of peak efficiency. A few hundred billion coin.”
Eugene looked at Jareth, who didn’t turn to look back. They knew each other marginally. Eugene remembered that Jareth was in operations. He couldn’t remember if it was catering or housekeeping. A manager of some kind – ten or twenty people under him, it didn’t matter, what was important was that Jareth was non-technical. Eugene wondered how much he should tell him.
“It won’t be a bump. It’s going to tear through the port like tissue paper.”
“A ship that big ... it won’t stop no matter what it hits. And all of RH-4 is 360,000 tons itself. Stretched over three miles of space. That ship out there will hit us, keep going, and wind up dragging the whole port behind it like a long string, like a cow flying through barbed wire. Couplings will break over the whole port and for those people not spewed into space, life support is going to evaporate and every interior will be space-cold in about ten to twenty seconds. Plus a minute or so for a few places. Those of us in our suits – and that will be everyone – who isn’t killed by the power shocks and the coupling breaks might hold enough air to find out if the Rosa Lee drags this port into orbit of if we’re destined to crash into the surface of Mars. But don’t worry ... if it’s the latter, we won’t have enough air to live until impact.”
Jareth was looking at Eugene now. His eyes were large, terrified saucers, the more so because he was the sort of layman who recognized the cool, calm exterior of a techie who’s telling the truth.
“Then we’re dead.”
“If those thrusters don’t fire in the next ...” he calculated; “639 minutes. Probably a few minutes less.”
“But ... if it’s moving so slowly ...”
“Makes no difference. It’s huge. I won’t go into it, but it has everything to do with mass and velocity and frictionless space. Anything you care about?”
Jareth shook his head.
“Sure. Worst thing is,” continued Eugene, “we’ve got nothing here that can push it back. We had the tremendous bad luck of the port being empty today. Every ship in dock is 6,000 tons or less.”
“God,” murmured Jareth.
“You should call your family.”
“Haven’t got one. No wife. No kids. My father hasn’t got contact rights for space ...” Jareth stared at the Rosa Lee. “He wouldn’t ...” He sniffed. “It doesn’t matter.”
Eugene nodded. “I’m 214 in the queue,” he said. “Ten minutes to tell my wife and kids everything I never got to tell them.”
“That’s not very long.”
“Longer than they got.” Eugene pointed at the Rosa Lee. “That crew got no time at all. Compared to them, I’m lucky.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Well, figure how it will be for their families. All you’d hear is that their brothers and sisters and parents and kids died in a weird accident. No last words of love. No chances to make apologies for bad decisions. No reassurances. Your family is dead. That’s all you get. Rest of your life you’d wonder if your wife that went to space really loved you. Or if your father ever forgave you. Or what their last wishes might be. Questions you’d never be able to answer.”
Jareth’s eyes were fixed on the ship. Eugene turned to look at it as well.
“I’ll tell my wife I was a fool,” Eugene said. “I wasn’t. This was the best thing I ever did. It was the only important thing I ever did. But I’ll tell her I was a fool anyway, and I’ll tell her I love her. I’ll probably cry. I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll try to pull it together to tell my son to concentrate on the things that make him happy, and not to listen too much to authorities, and to push himself towards doing something important like his old man. I’ll cry again. I’ll tell them both again that I love them. And then they’ll be gone.”
Eugene wiped his eye, and pressed his lips into a smile: “And if those thrusters fire, next time we get to talk we’ll all laugh at the big joke, and I’ll have to make a promise about giving this up in a year or so and we’ll all be glad the horror show wasn’t real.” He looked at his hands, as though in some way they were meant to fix everything, and couldn’t. “It will be the most important ten minutes of my life.”
Jareth said nothing.
Eugene clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. I’ll buy you a drink. I can’t make that call for probably three hours, and I don’t want to be sober for it. And you don’t want to be sober at all. Right?”
Jareth nodded. “All right. That will be all right.” But he didn’t move from the window. “I can’t see that it’s moving.”
Eugene nodded too, pulling Jareth away. “But it is.”