Light leaving the sun took a little over eight minutes to reach Earth and about four and a half hours to pass Neptune. Another two hours and those much fainter rays registered on the hull of the Kaladiss deep in the Kuiper Belt.
The survey ship was very quiet. It shouldn’t have been. Too many days of unusual stillness while the crew struggled with the crisis. A faulty reactor seal had initiated emergency venting, dangerously depleting the ship’s remaining fuel, and help was very far away. Over ten billion kilometers sunward.
In Kaladiss’s compact galley, Lamora sat with her exhausted crew. No one had spoken in the moments since she’d provided the latest fuel update: just enough.
Just enough to swing them back toward the inner system.
Just enough to keep their environmental systems functioning.
Just enough to give them hope.
That was the killer, Lamora realized. There was a slim chance they could all survive, and each was making their own cold calculation as to what that would take.
Ronit finally voiced it, “Even if we get to the rim, we have no way of slowing the Kaladiss. What are the odds that another ship would be near enough to help?”
“And willing enough,” Chinde added.
“You mean crazy enough,” Burhl huffed, tapping his temple.
“That’s pretty much the situation,” Lamora acknowledged. As the ship’s commander, she felt the pressure of finding a solution, of keeping them alive and functioning as a team. “We’ll need to find a ship on the rim close enough to catch and match our trajectory with a crew willing to risk their ship to save ours.”
“Is the company able to help?” Chinde asked, almost defeatedly. “Sure, we all signed on knowing the added risks of a deep survey mission, but what will management do for us?”
Her eyes steely, Ronit shrugged, “The bare minimum. They’ve crunched their cost/benefit numbers. At this point, we’re little more than an uncomfortable balance sheet item to them. A sunk cost.”
“That’s bleak,” Burhl said. “But probably fair. Business is business.”
Chinde frowned at Burhl and Ronit. “You really believe that? Is compassion such a huge liability?”
“In deep space it is,” Ronit answered. “I’m trying to face reality. The company is not going to be heroic. We’re just another crew. And crews go missing. Their sense of obligation is low, so any rescue effort they make will be purely perfunctory.”
“Perfunctory. How comforting,” Burhl chuckled humorlessly. “Ronit, as a child, you were never loved.”
Lamora features froze, stricken by those last biting words. In her deep subconscious a glacial memory calved: her mother thrashing, gasping, struggling, Lamora tucked to her side, keeping her from slipping forever beneath the waves. Were it not for her mother, she would have. And, yet, Lamora had never thought her mother heroic for saving her. She was her mom, and she’d instinctively protected her young daughter.
One sorrowful night many years later, her college roommate had broken down, confiding that she didn’t know if her parents really cared about her, that growing up they never seemed to show genuine affection for her. Then she’d asked Lamora, “Did your parents love you enough?”
Far from home, way beyond the outer rim, almost bereft of sunlight, Lamora remembered her answer. She remembered it comforting her and compelling her forward. Through university. Through post-grad. Through deep space command training.
She snapped back to herself. Ronit, Chinde, Burhl, were eyeing her curiously. Her crew. Not her family, but hers. All and immediately hers. She spelled out what they would do. How they would make it back home. All of them.
Chinde, of course Chinde, asked, “Will it be enough?”
Feeling like she was on that long-ago beach after her mother had saved her from the riptide, Lamora gave her crew the same answer she’d given her college roommate about being loved. The same answer that would fuel her now as it always had.