As Ben did up the last buckle of the restraint the AI added, “You realize we cannot choose our landing location?”
“Yeah, I know. Pray it’s a good one.”
“I am an artificial life form, Ben. To whom do you suggest I pray?”
He sighed and prepared himself for a rough landing. He took the time to puzzle over the mined asteroid. Did someone set up some old surplus mines to protect their claim? It was certainly worth the effort given its potential value. Maybe it collided with another body and got bumped out of their boundary. Too bad for whoever went to all the trouble. If he could repair his ship and stop it within his own stake, someone else’s misfortune might be his fortune.
With nothing to do but wait, Ben’s thoughts wandered back to the events around Gina’s death. They were memories he regularly tortured himself with whenever he found himself in a dark mood.
“Computer, how does this body compare to the last transient to pass through here, twenty years ago?”
“There is no complete log of the event, Ben. I am locked out of those files. Why do you ask?”
“This one just seems familiar,” he replied, wistfully. A moment of silence passed.
“I accessed all published records for the year in question. There is only a brief reference to a body of similar mass and trajectory in the transcript of your hearing before the Asteroid Mining Commission.”
The tribunal determined he had been negligent in the death of his wife.
“Do you know what happened that day?” He sounded angrier than he was.
“As I said, Ben, I cannot access those old records. You can give me the codes, unless you would rather talk about it?”
He let the question roll around in his head. Maybe he did want to talk about it. The damned rock that had just wrecked his ship had brought back the old painful memories; ones he had never shared.
“We had just returned to our claim after a year planet-side with Natalie,” he started.
“You and Gina?”
“Yes.” His throat was dry, and he tried to swallow.
“You know, I never admitted this to anyone, but she played a major part in her own death. She was the one who wanted us to nab the transient that entered our boundaries.” The admission hurt. He felt like he was betraying her twenty years after the fact.
“According to the record of the hearing, you took full responsibility for her death. You sent her after the transient asteroid.”
“I admitted to that because I was afraid the insurance wouldn’t pay out if there was even a hint to suggest she acted on her own. The claim would have been challenged as a suicide. As it was, I knew they intended to use me as a warning. They had been trying to legislate for tighter rules for years. I was the poster boy for poor mining safety standards. Hell, there weren’t any standards then. By finding against me, the insurance would pay out and Natalie would receive enough to be raised on Terra.”
“But the finding against you meant you could never return to Terra.”
“The commission planned to make sure of that anyway. I just wanted to ensure Natalie had a shot at a decent life; at getting her citizenship someday. She couldn’t do that if she was exiled with me out here. She was better off planet-side, even if she was a ward of the state. At least, my lawyer convinced me of as much.”
“So, what happened, Ben?”
“We’d just returned; hadn’t even had any time to run full maintenance on either of our ships. We spotted a few strays drifting out of our claim, so we split up and started to catch and herd them back inside. I was working on fixing up a wonky trucking motor on one when she radioed me, all excited. She had spotted a transient. It was out of my sensor range, but the way she described things, it was a huge M-class asteroid. She wanted to chase after it.”
“What did you do?”
“I actually told her not to.” He smiled, “I hardly ever could say no to Gina. But that day, I did. She went ape shit on me, telling me I didn’t trust her; that she knew what she was doing, and I was holding her back. Something like that, I don’t recall. I do remember we argued about it for ten minutes over the radio. It was weird, because we never fought. She thought getting that rock corralled would set us up for retirement. We could move to Terra, buy citizenship and raise Natalie like normal parents. In the end, to my regret, I gave in.”
He sat silent for a long period, the AI waiting patiently. He licked his dry lips and continued.
“We agreed she would chase after the rock and I would follow as soon as I finished my repairs. We stayed in contact. We apologized to each other for the fight, laughed at each other’s jokes and dreamed about how our lives would be changed. That part I remember very clearly. It was just before the radio went dead.” He fought to keep the tears under control, but his voice broke.
“I hurried back to the cockpit and brought on the scanners. I couldn’t find her anywhere, and I couldn’t raise her on any channels. I think I pushed 80G’s to reach her projected position. She wasn’t there.” The now freely flowing tears detached from his eyelids and floated as droplets inside of his helmet.
Ben sniffed hard and wished he could wipe his eyes. “I spent twenty days searching. I didn’t find anything of her ship; no debris; nothing. I only quit looking when my AI convinced me I would die and leave Natalie an orphan if I didn’t stop.”
“Ben, we are on final approach to the asteroid. We need to make our braking burn in two minutes.”
“At first I tried to speak with Natalie every week. Then, it turned to every month as she grew older and became less interested in regular visits from a man she had never met. When she was old enough, she learned of what had happened, and stopped taking my calls entirely. I still kept tabs on her. Old friends sent me news whenever they could…” his voice trailed off. Ben’s sadness over Gina was magnified when he thought about how Natalie’s life might be if he had only done the right thing on that day.
“Twenty-seconds to deceleration burn…”
The announcement snapped Ben back into the present. “Ready with the clamps? We only get one shot at this!”
Unless they could activate the grappling actuators and secure themselves to the surface of the asteroid, they would bounce off it and be targeted by the mines.
“I am aware of that,” the computer responded, imitating Gina’s tone. He marveled for the thousandth time at how precise the simulation was.
Twenty-seconds later the retro burn vibrated the ship, followed by a very anxious ten-seconds of nothing.
D.M.(Doug) Pruden worked for 35 years in the petroleum industry as a geophysicist. For most of his life he has been plagued with stories banging around inside his head that demanded to be let out into the world. He currently spends his time as an empty nester in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his long suffering wife of many years. When he isn’t writing science fiction stories, he likes to spend his time playing with his grandchildren and working on improving his golf handicap.