Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Issue 51
Stories
Mathematical Certainty
by Andrew Neil Gray
Only Then Consume Them
by Aimee Picchi
The Raptor Snatchers
by Rachael K. Jones
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley
Bonus Material

Writing Fantasy

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

Mathematical Certainty
    by Andrew Neil Gray

Mathematical Certainty
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Everyone who prospects in the asteroid belt knows the score: Physics is in charge, with money a close second. You have mass, you have propellant, your engine's got a specific impulse. You do the math that Newton and Einstein gave us and that's it. There are no loopholes. No matter how hard you wish there were.

Physics and hubris stranded me in a slow orbit around a grey-black fragment of comet. Physics and money did something far worse to Sal Guinto.

I found out about Sal on the Mathematical Certainty forums. Toni sent me the link along with her daily message. "Maybe you should have looked at this bunch of losers before making your career choice, asshat. Instead of drooling all over Mellie Rao."

"I love you too," I messaged back.

I'd told Toni about Mellie one night back home in the bloc. We were outside on the plastic chairs at smoker's corner. Everyone else was in the rec room gaming or gossiping or lifting weights. I remember smelling the ocean. The faint tang of tobacco and weed from the jar full of butts at my feet.

"A big score," I said. I'd just received my exam marks from MIT Online and I was lit up, spinning tales about my glorious future. "Even bigger than Mellie Rao's platinum strike."

I'd pretty much memorized the top hundred most valuable asteroid finds page on Wikipedia. There's a picture of Mellie up top, dripping in jewelry. She doesn't just own an island: she's got an island chain. And her investors? They're richer than God.

"Uh huh." Toni held her cherry fingernails up in the dim patio lights. Examined them carefully. She shot me a familiar look: You're full of crap and we both know it.

I kept on going anyway, talking about how I'd come back and shower everyone in the block with wealth, 'cause I'm that kind of guy. A man who'd never forget where he came from. And her: She'd never want for anything again.

I actually said that. "Never want for anything." Like I was in some old movie. No wonder she kicked my chair when I leaned back. Laughed her ass off at my flailing arms as I went down.

After I watched Toni's message I had a look at a local copy of the Certainty forums. The site made a fetish of those of us who are lost and lonely out in the dark. It sucked me in. All that gloom and regret.

I read about prospectors, explorers, even an idiot who stole a ship and took it for what he thought was going to be a short joyride. They all shared the same basic situation: doomed by physics but still around for a while to talk about it. Certainty was full of them--the videos they sent, their tearful ramblings, their diaries. All the things they did as they waited to die.

Some of them, the cameras still broadcast post mortem. Corpse TV. I streamed one and regretted it immediately. I cut the feed and cast around for something less depressing, something to wipe away the stain.

That's when I found Sal Guinto.

Sal's last name means gold in Tagalog, which you might think would be good luck for an asteroid prospector, and it was, at first. Then after a couple of respectable finds she got excited about a group of rocks way out of the plane of the ecliptic in highly eccentric orbits. She filed her claim, loaded all the fuel and supplies she could carry and set off from Port Ceres.

Three quarters of the way there her ship got slammed by a chunk of iron the size of a softball. The ship survived, but its engine was shredded. Sal was supposed to change course to rendezvous with her asteroids, but with a dead engine she just kept going in a straight line.

So she called for help and the folk at Vesta traffic control plugged in the numbers and then they talked to the people who counted the beans back on Earth.

The laws of the market are as unforgiving as those of physics. If you're in trouble and it would cost the insurance company more to send a rescue ship than pay out the claim . . . well, the math isn't hard.

For Sal, within a few hours of her call for help, her backers had already written her off and submitted the paperwork. Vesta messaged her back, nice as can be, and told her, sorry lady but there's nothing we can do: You're already dead.

Meanwhile, she was still there, still talking to people as she sped out of the solar system. She even had a daily video show. She was a kind of celebrity: the doomed woman with the good attitude.

"What the hell?" I messaged Toni. "You thought that site would cheer me up?"

It was the small hours of the morning back home, so she must have been up late. I heard back from her as quickly as the speed of light allowed.

"Guy falls down the stairs, you laugh, right? Mostly thinking, glad that's not me. None of those morons are you, Silvio, are they? Now, cheer the hell up and stop sending me all those gloomy messages. You're one of the lucky ones, right? You'll get rescued. You'll get to go home."

I was one of the lucky ones. I told myself that every day I woke up in my little refurbished prospecting ship not dead; not hurtling uncontrollably away from the little sparks of light and warmth that humans have built for themselves out here in the dark.

If I said it often enough, one day I might even believe it.

In the morning there was another message waiting from Helmut Zimmer. Helmut was an insurance adjuster in the Berlin office of Sicherung SE. The message contained a new document, an inquiry about mineral rights I didn't bother to read. I'd already spent enough time listening to Helmut, signing documents. Three months ago I put my eyeprint to a comprehensive agreement that explained how they would save me, how I owed them my life, and by the way, here's a repayment schedule that will last the rest of it. I didn't owe them anything more--hell, I had nothing more to give.

I dismissed Helmut's request, opened a new message window and sat there for a moment, hesitating.

Sal Guinto responded to few of the people who contacted her. But most of them were idiots with improbable theories about how to save her, or lonely souls who'd convinced themselves they were in love. I figured I had a shot since I was a prospector too, especially if I kept it simple.

I sent my message.

She was almost 30 light minutes away. I waited for three hours. Then overnight. Then the next day. Nothing.

I guess I'm just another idiot after all.

The night before I shipped out, Toni threw me a goodbye party in the rec room. Mostly populated with people who I assumed only showed up because I was her friend. A girl I dated a couple of years back got all emotional about me going off into the abyss. I tried to tell her abyss meant down, but she wasn't having any of it.

I was slumped in a chair, fuzzy from drink and narcotic vapors when Toni emerged from the throng. "Your new friends are interesting," I said, watching a shirtless guy show his pulsating tattoos to the girl I used to date.

She shrugged. "They're off Minimum. They pretty much do what they want."

"Careful," I said. "Whatever it is you're up to with them. You get caught, no more of this luxury living."

"The hell with Minimum Income," Toni said. "I don't want minimum anything any more. Neither do you, else we wouldn't be having this goodbye bash."

We went out to the patio, leaving the noise behind. It was cool outside and the breeze smelled of something cooking.

She sat in one of the battered chairs. I stood, looking at the buildings down by the ocean, imagining I could see a sliver of water in the dim night. I realized I hadn't been down there for months. As of tomorrow, I might never see that much liquid water in one place again.

She cleared her throat. "You know we move pharm, right?"

I'd already figured that. "Medicine or the other stuff?"

She shrugged. "Whatever people want to pay for. But that's not the point. First day I went out with them, you know where they took me?"

"S'meat Palace?"

She cracked a smile at that; even people living on Minimum had standards. "Smartass. They took me to the prison to visit with a couple of the old gang. Then a squat in the flood zone, a guy they ran with who's on the juice now. Half a skeleton."

I sat in the chair beside her, feeling the plastic bend as I leaned back. "You know I'd give you a better time than that. Just sayin'."

Another smile. Different though. Something serious in it.

"They wanted me to go in both eyes open. Nobody wants crew who're gonna flake when things get tough."

"How kind of them."

She looked uncomfortable, which may have been a first for her. "What I'm saying, moron, is that nobody ever gave you a chance to back out, did they?"

I gave her a confused stare.

"Whole time I've known you, all you've ever talked about is going up there." She gestured at the night sky above us. "You worked your scrawny ass off. And you did it. You actually got backers to pay your way, stake you a ship and gear. What was it you always said? One in five hundred get out?"

I nodded. Almost nobody gets off Minimum Income Support. Our block has maybe fifteen hundred people. So three might escape the life of living on Minimum, doing your mandatory labor and then spending the rest of your time filling the hours with whatever: video, drunkenness, games, gossip.

I was always going to be one of those three. I realized then that Toni was too, in her own way.

She looked at me, her eyes barely visible in the dim light. "No shame in it," she said. "No shame if you change your mind. People do."

The average working lifespan of a prospector in the asteroid belt is five years. You retire rich or you die. Or if you're really unlucky, you find nothing of value, get your ship taken away by your backers and finish your days broke in a charity hospice somewhere, dying from some radiation-induced cancer you don't have the money to cure.

So yeah, people flake. Sometimes they even get all the way to the moon, right to the point where they're about to set foot in their prospecting ship, before losing it completely. But that wasn't going to be me.

I just stared back at her. Inside, the music thudded. Behind the glass people were pogoing, hurling themselves toward the ceiling with every beat. She and I were silent.

Then she nodded. She stood up and took my hand. "Just don't get yourself killed out there, okay?"

I blinked, surprised at the emotion in her voice. "Are you actually--" Then her mouth was on mine.

I didn't talk much the rest of the night.

Two days after I contacted her, Sal Guinto replied.

I'd only sent six words: How do you live with failure?

She sent a video back.

"You're the first person who's actually asked me that. I had to think about it a couple days." She was floating, cross legged, in the centre of her ship's living area. Hair a black cloud around her head. I'd been watching her show, and the scene was so familiar I had to remind myself that this was being sent to me alone.

"That blackout period, the one they talk about on the forum. You want to know what I did?" It was the source of some speculation. Three days after traffic control told her she was done for, she'd gone dark for two weeks. People had figured she'd taken an overdose from her medical supplies or opened her airlock. It happens.

Then she'd come back in a big way, sending videos, taking part in an Ask Me Anything, being the poster child for doomed prospectors going out with their chins up.

"Some lady at my mother's church said I should read a book called The Promise of Cancer. About coming to terms with death. It was so depressing. Really, I don't recommend it. But it got me thinking that someone must have written something better. So I grabbed every philosophy book in my library and waded in. I got through a dozen of them."

She pulled a stylus from behind her ear. There was a tab velcroed to the top of her thigh and she idly drew on it as she talked. "I don't think I learned anything I didn't already know. Or that Gandalf didn't say in Lord of the Rings." She looked into the camera. "Acceptance, right? That's what it mostly came down to."

She shook her head, hair following the motion in a delicate drift. "Screw acceptance. You're terminal with some disease, at least your body's telling you it's all coming to an end. But here?" She looked around her ship. "I'm as healthy as the next girl."

"Then I remembered something." She went back to her tab, speaking without looking up.

"When I was sixteen I went to my uncle's cottage in the mountains for a long weekend. It was great. I mean, just really . . . great. The best thing I'd done since I was a kid. A canoe, swimming. Marshmallows on the campfire. Talking about real stuff. And then I started ruining it by thinking about how soon it would be over, and about taking the crappy loop trip back home to my mom, who I was fighting with all the time.

"I was in the forest looking at the maple leaves in the sun and wishing I could freeze time when it hit me. I had to let it go. Obsessing about the end would kill the middle."

She looked into the camera again. "So not acceptance. It still sucks that I'm going to die out here. But I've chosen to ignore it, because if I don't then I'm going to ruin the time I have left. When I understood that, I came back online."

She held up the tab. She'd sketched a landscape on the display. A lake and a cottage. "I'm learning how to paint now. I'm going to send this to my uncle when I get it right."

"Your turn, Mr. Silvio Cortez. Tell me something about you. Tell me how you live with failure."

When I shipped out a couple of days after the party, Toni wasn't there, but my mother was.

I stood in the peeling lobby of our block while she sniffled beside me, waiting for the car that would take me to the launch site. I held the small polymer box that contained my personal effects.

"Saint Christopher, patron of travellers," she said, holding out two medallions.

"They only give me one kilo, Ma."

"And Saint Barbara," she continued. "This was a hard one to find. They had to print it up for me. She's the saint of miners and also servicemen of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces."

I frowned at her. "How the hell is either of those me?"

"Silvio," she snapped. "I'm doing what I can." She looked at me, eyes red, and I softened. I reached out and took the medallions from her.

"All those years I thought you were just playing games online," she said. "Not studying to leave us."

In my pocket I crumpled an unfolded a piece of paper. Toni's note from the morning after. This was just a goodbye lay. Come see me when you buy your islands. Signed with her full name, Antonia.

I imagined her coming around the corner to send me off, tear tracks on her cheeks. It would be like some old war movie: The man heading off into the unknown leaving his weeping women behind. Who would wait for his triumphant return.

Nobody came around any corners.

I sent a long, rambling reply to Sal. I told her about Toni and my mother and her medallions, which currently float around my neck; fat lot of good they've done. I told her about taking all those online courses, year after year, my room a hermit's retreat.

And I confessed that I ignored all good advice to start modestly and prospect in a safer part of the belt where probes had already flagged promising asteroids. No risk, no reward, right? And how I truly, royally and unforgivably screwed it all up.

I hesitated before sending the message. It was nothing like the carefully crafted productions I'd been transmitting to Toni. Before I lost my nerve, I mashed the button on my tab and it was gone.

A response arrived in 59 minutes. "I looked you up, Silvio," she said. "After your message. You actually went for a comet first time out." She grinned, showing gleaming teeth. "I like your style. Though you know it was a stupid thing to do right? Blowing your radiator stack like that when you came in too hot. Frying your propulsion controller. I wonder how close you came to the actuaries' limit?"

"Fourteen hundred," I sent back. "They said I was under by fourteen hundred dollars. That's how much cheaper it was to rescue me than to just pay the claim."

She laughed and laughed. "Some people spend more than that on a pair of heels." She reached into a familiar looking polymer box and brought out a bright red shoe. "I should know."

"Seriously? That's what you brought three quarters of a billion kilometres from home?"

She was all mock solemnity in her reply video. "And what did you, Mr. Silvio, spend your one kilogram on?"

My box was a cliché: champagne and chocolate, tucked in a storage cabinet by the toilet. To be opened upon the success I was so sure would be waiting for me.

"Nothing as sexy as those shoes," I finally messaged back.

She replied with an invitation. "Hey, can I interview you for my show?"

The interview package was a video of her asking questions, followed by a pause where I was to insert my answers. When edited together, it would look like we'd had an actual real-time conversation.

So I told her about where I grew up, my family, a memory of how I loved the beach as a kid until the water came all the way up into the old buildings and there wasn't a beach any longer. Then my adolescence, spent increasingly indoors. As I talked, I realized something I'd always known deep down. I had no life: Everything had gone into working, studying, preparing to leave everyone I knew behind.

The last answer I added on my own. "It was all supposed to be here," I said. "That's why I seem so lame. I've never done anything interesting. My life was going to start out here. But I screwed it up. I blew it. My only chance."

I looked out the starboard viewport, the one that's part of an obvious patch from some pressure-related mishap in my ship's previous life. The fragment of comet I floated beside was a dark absence in the field of stars, their unblinking points like holes poked in the night. Behind them lay something bright and promising, and forever out of reach.

Dammit. Here I was complaining about my fate to someone whose destiny was to be the most famous person on Corpse TV. I erased my last answer before sending the video back to her.

After I sent it I floated quietly, listening to the hum of the systems that were keeping me alive.

My hold was full of survey bots: little crawlers and diggers, mobile neutron spectrometers. I hadn't bothered to deploy them after my accident--what was the point? But there was Sal, with a death sentence but still learning to paint. I was getting rescued, and all I could do was marinate in self-pity and watch movies.

After a few minutes, I pulled up my tab, tapped into the survey network and sent them on their way, watching as they fired their microscopic thrusters, a horde of blue fireflies in the night. At least they'll be able to do the job they were made to do.

"You still alive out there?" Toni messaged. "It's been days, asshat."

I felt a guilty twinge. She was looking tired. There was a picture on the wall behind her. It showed an old ocean liner on its side on mudflats, hull plating being picked apart by spider-like welding robots. It wasn't in her apartment before. Where she definitely wasn't messaging from. This place was larger, brighter.

She gave me a tour. "Someone's come up in the world," she said. I saw a living room, a trim little kitchenette. Definitely not the block.

"I'm doing well," she said. She showed me a slick scooter parked out front. Her eyes flickered away from the camera, looking off at something I couldn't see. "Really well."

I knew a lie when I saw it. "What did all this cost you?"

Her reply came a few hours later. It was dark outside her windows. She had a beer in front of her. Some imported brand in an actual glass bottle. "I did what I had to do, Silvio. Just like you're doing what you have to."

She picked at the beer label. "When you told me you'd screwed up your expedition I felt bad for you. You wanted that big score so much." She looked up, her eyes half-shadowed. "But I don't know . . . maybe it's for the best."

She stared at me. An expression more than twenty minutes old now. "When you come back you can stay here, you know. I can help you. You can work on paying off that insurance company."

I could labor a hundred years doing whatever black economy job she found me and still not repay a tenth of my debts. A scooter and an apartment are rounding errors when it comes to the price of spacecraft rescue and repair.

I had her note in a pocket still, paper almost as soft as cloth. I took it out and read it again. Come see me when you get your islands.

I hadn't expected a reply from Sal after I sent my interview answers back. But she kept talking.

"You're not so different than the rest of us, Silvio."

I'd cringed to see myself on camera. Apologized for being so boring.

"Nobody who makes it out here isn't single-minded. I would have matched you for obsessions not long ago." She was quiet a moment. "It's being stuck here that's made me think about the other stuff, you know? How all the things you do are part of your life. They're not just moments to be suffered through, holding your nose until you get to something better."

Behind her on the console I saw one of her paintings. A wind-twisted tree.

"Now," she said. "I was trying to figure out what you'd brought in your personal effects. Other than your handy patron saints."

The guessing game had gone on for a few days already. A slow, silly conversation I didn't want to end. She'd guessed variously: cheese, a cat, a teddy bear.

"I've got it: sex toys!"

I actually blushed at that.

In response she turned on her electric toothbrush and let it float slowly in front of her crotch, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. "Everybody says asteroid prospectors are connoisseurs of self-pleasure, don't they?"

I couldn't think of a response that wouldn't make me more embarrassed than I already was. Then I noticed the timestamp on her message. "How come it's only 58 minutes for a reply? Shouldn't you be getting farther away?"

"You did go to school, didn't you? Dig out your textbook."

I had the top grade in Eastern North America in MIT Online's course on orbital mechanics. I took her hint and did some math. We started out just under 30 light minutes apart. Now it was 29.2.

"How about that. In less than a month we'll be kissing cousins." The craggy piece of comet I was following would come within 22 light minutes of her ship in its journey above the plane of the solar system. Then continue onwards, making its plunge toward the sun.

"If you call kissing range four hundred million kilometres, sure. But you're not going to be there for long, are you?"

Twenty-seven more days until rescue. At least our conversations would be a little faster. Talking with a near-hour lag wasn't like talking. It was more like we were composing letters to each other. Soliloquies. It encouraged a certain emotional openness, and I found myself telling her things I hadn't told anyone else.

She was different too. Not the same cheery girl in her video show, which she was still creating and sending out to her million or so followers every morning. She wasn't sad. But she was vulnerable. She let me see some of the cracks in the face she showed the outside world.

And one day in the middle of listening to her tell me about when she was a kid and she got lost in the transit system, I realized I was falling for her. Had fallen. Past tense. It happened somewhere in all that sharing. The late nights rambling into my camera, listening to her voice as I drifted off to sleep. She'd slid in there somewhere when my defences were down.

A few days after my realization--which I kept to myself, even as I felt it blooming in me every time I saw her face--I tuned in again to Corpse TV. A cold bucket of water to dunk my feverish head into.

Someone had curated a page of feeds and you could watch a dozen at once. Not that there was anything going on. You'd need time-lapse to notice any changes. But there they all were, the unlucky souls whose ships were still in transmission range.

Some of them died of decompression and had been preserved by vacuum and cold. Eyes fixed on infinity. But others decayed in atmosphere, leaving horror-movie tableaux, their bodies consumed by the bacteria they'd lived with all their lives. Rot and bones, ghastly grins. One young man missing his head.

There but for the grace of God.

Helmut Zimmer made his offer a week later. His calm face stared at me from my screen. In the background I could see the skyline of Berlin, which I'd become familiar with during our correspondence.

"We have been reviewing the survey data your probes returned," he said. I'd actually forgotten about the probes. I'd had other things to occupy my time. But the little robots had been busy, and since Helmut's employer owned my ass now, they'd been getting copies of the survey results.

The wall beside Helmut's window was panelled in dark wood. A vase of purple irises on the sill. The last time it was some sort of lily. It was clear the insurance company was not short of money.

Helmut cleared his throat. "As you're aware, the small comet you claimed has more value than we anticipated. In particular, the complex organic compounds that coat its surface are in demand right now for provisioning new habitats. Of course, the law says you're free to sell to the highest bidder, but think about this: We have a rescue ship less than three weeks away. How long would it take someone else to outfit a mission? What if something went wrong in the meantime?

"So, we have revised our figures for this account. You'll be pleased to hear that we have a new offer for you."

He laid it all out. In exchange for signing over my mineral rights, they would clear my debt and bankroll a new, less risky, expedition when I returned. He talked some more about fine print and details, but it was a babble I could rewind and listen to again later and I hardly heard it.

I felt a lightness in my chest; a smile that hurt my cheeks. I looked at the flowers in Helmut's office, their stems buried in polished quartz pebbles. A bird drifted by his window, flapped its wings and was gone. One day I might have a view like that.

"That's amazing," Sal said when I told her. She smiled, genuinely pleased. "Really, Silvio. Nobody gets a second chance out here."

Toni took a while to get back to me. One word, "Congratulations." Then a day later she sent a video.

"You know" she said. "You can still come home. They're buying your contract out, right? Spending money on you. Get them to give you the cash instead. It doesn't have to be an island." The last sentence said with a look right into her camera. "You don't need to be a big man back here. Being a live one's enough, Silvio."

I was more startled than I should have been when my proximity alarm sounded nineteen days later, announcing the drone ship's arrival. The messages from Helmut had been crystal clear. The timing to the second. But I'd been up late talking back and forth with Sal, whose time zone I was living in, and I was asleep when the alarm hauled me out of whatever deep place I'd been.

Sal and I had taken to leaving an open channel between our ships. The screen was a window twenty-two minutes back in time. On her end it was dark; I could barely see her hair puffing out of her sleeping pouch, her arms floating beside her head. I let her sleep.

After a wake-up pill I wriggled into my EVA suit and got to work. They'd been very clear about how quickly they wanted me to get going, Helmut and his colleagues. Time being equal to money.

The drone came with a program to load into my suit system. It led me step by step through the business of replacing my radiator stack and the burned out control modules of my main drive. I was just another set of arms, a remote-controlled tool working beside the robots the drone controlled.

When I finished, the bulk of the cargo remained in the back of the drone. It was a single machine: a cylinder bristling with radiators and folded struts, the trefoil radiation warning symbol painted on its access panels. A nuclear tug to be attached to the comet. The instructions for deploying it were complicated, so I took a break, went inside for something more satisfying than suit-food.

I was sitting with my microwaved lasagna in a bag when a buzzing sound entered my awareness. It was coming from Sal's ship. She was brushing her teeth in her little bathroom space.

It wasn't like we were ever together. Or that I wouldn't be able to send her messages all the miserable way home. But it wouldn't be the same. The light lag would just keep on increasing. The clock would tick toward the time when something essential inevitably failed on her ship.

A minute later, she was getting breakfast together. I'd made fun of her for brushing her teeth before eating more than once. Now it just filled me with an ache in my chest.

Sal toasted me through the screen, holding up her coffee bulb like a goblet. "Wakey wakey," she said. "We need to have a celebratory feast before you head home. A goodbye party."

I couldn't stand it, watching her act as if it was just another day. "How can I just leave," I blurted. "I love you."

The moment the words were out I wanted to take them back. But we had a live link, and they were already riding a wave of laser light at 300,000 kilometres a second toward her.

I could tell when they arrived, forty-four minutes later. Her expression changed. A flicker of a smile then a grimace. She turned away, dropped into shadow. I could feel my heard thudding. Mouth dry. Stupid, I thought. So stupid. But I couldn't stop watching.

"I can't feel things like that, Silvio." She spoke in a whisper, her face still shaded. "I can't let myself. I have my life, such as it is. But I can't have anything else." She emerged and I saw the glimmer of a tear in her eye. They don't trickle out in zero G, they just stay there, messing up your vision.

A blurry image of her reached toward the camera. "Go, Silvio. Go and live your life again." Then she turned off the link and the screen blanked.

I sent two messages. Three. Waited for hours with no reply. I felt an echoing hollowness inside. Finally I distracted myself with the complicated work of deploying the nuclear tug.

It was a hell of a machine. Ten times more powerful than the refurbished equipment I brought with me. And ten times more expensive. My gear would have taken years to move a chunk of comet into a suitable orbit for processing, and I'd have lost more than half of it to the heat of the sun. This would barely take six months and lose almost nothing but the water it uses for reaction mass. They spared no expense, the good people at Sicherung SE.

It was a measure of my level of distraction that it wasn't until I had the controls in my hand that it finally clicked. They'd suspected the comet's value all along. They'd been planning to take it since they agreed to my rescue. They'd already tried to get me to sign a mineral rights document, which I'd ignored only out of grumpiness.

The change in plan had come when I'd deployed the survey bots and they thought I'd found out it was valuable too. They'd figured I might tell someone else, use it as a bargaining chip, rather than abandoning my claim and going home, tail between my legs. It wasn't fourteen hundred dollars that saved me: they probably spent more than that on fresh flowers every week.

Without the comet, the bastards would have left me to slowly expire, just like Sal.

I floated there for a long time, hearing my breathing, the whirring of fans in my suit. Then I put the controls away and went back inside.

I had some orbital mechanics to calculate.

Physics and math rule the universe, and if you plug the numbers into the right equations you get an answer that's unequivocal.

Although I was closer to Sal now than I'd ever been, we were heading in different directions at a relative velocity of 54 kilometres per second. It was a tremendous speed.

I calculated what would happen if I used shaped charges to fragment the comet, attached the nuclear tug to my own ship and brought a sufficiently large chunk of ice to use as reaction mass. Could I get her and then return us both safely?

No.

I simulated chopping off chunks of my own ship. Dumping mass overboard. Running the reactor way past its design limitations. Maximums, minimums. I worked until my eyes ached but none of the answers I got were the answers I wanted.

I slept, dreaming numbers. I did the math again, then a third time. The tug hung silently off my starboard side, waiting for my decision. Messages from Earth pinged my tab: Helmut, Toni. The silence from Sal was the loudest message of all. She wanted me to leave her to die. She was making it easy for me.

Go and live your life again, she'd said.

I looked out the viewport at the half-shadowed engine. The faint shape of the comet behind it. Thought about creating a life worth living.

I made my decision.

After that, I spent a busy week not answering increasingly urgent messages from Earth. Then I sent some of my own. A couple to Toni, who I figured would understand grand gestures more than most. One to dear Helmut in Berlin, telling him exactly what I thought of him, sitting in his leather chair in his comfortable office, making decisions about who lived and died half the solar system away. Then, finally, thanking him for his nuclear tug.

The last one I sent to Sal. Like my first, it was only a few words long. "I'm coming to you."

She'll be angry when she gets it. I know her well enough now to know what she'll say. She'll accuse me of throwing my life away for someone I've only known as a face on a screen. Of being just as foolish as when I tried for a comet the first time out. And more likely to fail.

But it doesn't matter. The tug's nuclear engine rumbles behind me, spitting out plasma, warping my path through space, my course irreversible. It's too late to change anybody's mind now.

There's only one equation that I care about. Is love a force equal to or greater than physics and money?

I'm going to find out.

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