1:13 P.M., Saturday, November 17, 2136
Laboratory X-682, Asteroid Geographos, between the orbits of Earth and Mars
Human Resources Manager Tendo Naoko opened her mouth to object, but the handsome man silenced her with a look. That look made it clear that the decision had been made and that, in this case at least, such things as rank, senority, or years spent with one company or another meant exactly zilch.
“We’ve been through this already,” he told her now. “Here, I’ll give you the nutshell version: Paula’s the only one who knows the safety systems well enough to manually override them and let the rest of you get out of here. She can’t do it by herself, and there are only three of us, except her, who know the systems well enough to help. I’m one of those three. So, Paula has to stay, and one of us has to stay, and it has to be one of those three. And I’ll be damned if I let somebody else die with Paula instead of me. That’s MY pleasure.”
Naoko wanted to argue, but she knew he was right. Paul Macon was usually right, the old bastard. He looked to be in his late twenties, maybe thirty years old, but everybody knew that he was actually a hundred and thirty. That in itself wasn’t unusual; out of a human population of eleven and a half billion, just over one million people were older than a hundred twenty; nearly a thousand were over a hundred fifty. Not one of these ultra-centenarians looked to be older than seventy, and most looked less than fifty. In his long life Paul had been everything from a rock star to an actor to a soldier to an underwear model to an engineer, and always, since they were both eight years old, he had been the best friend and lover of Paula Akron. It was Paula who now gave the younger woman a smile.
“It’s four hundred ninety-eight lives for two, Naoko-sempai. It’s the way it has to be. Now get. You need time to get as far away as possible before this thing blows, and we need to be able to concentrate so that you can get away at all.”
“Is there...” Naoko had to sniff before she could continue. “Is there anything you want me to tell any-body?”
Paula nodded. “Tell our children and grandchildren and great-gran ... Tell our descendants that we love them.”
Paul nodded himself before adding, “Yes. And tell the band and all of the fans that we’re sorry we couldn’t do the tour.”
Naoko had just started to sob, but now she almost laughed. “Under the circumstances, I’m sure they’ll forgive you.”
Paula wiped a tear from Naoko’s face. “Tell everybody that we died together, the way we wanted. The way we’ve always hoped it would happen.”
Paul nodded. “Yes, exact...”
The man was interrupted by the perfect diction of a computer.
“FORTY-SEVEN MINUTES TO CORE BREACH”
“Exactly,” Paul noted. “Now get.”
Naoko found that she couldn’t speak, so she also nodded before walking into the escape pod and closing the hatch behind her. It would take over a minute to reach the only docked ship, the Fast Enough. This was the ship in which the experimental new warp coil was to have been installed, the ship which it had been hoped would then be fast enough to take humanity to the stars. Now, with the coil still in the lab and about to blow, everybody hoped that the ship would be fast enough to save their lives. Once the pod reached the ship it would take another minute and a half to prepare for launch, if they could launch at all.
The ultra-centenarian couple spent little time watching the only escape from the coming explosion pull away, for they had work to do. Paul Macon was the second or third most knowledgeable person on the team when it came to the safety systems, Paula being the first. Now the damage caused by the imminent core breach had caused these safety systems to lock the facility down and were threatening to kill the entire five-hundred-person on-site team. Paul was the perfect person to assist because, not only was he knowledgeable, he had the best rapport with Paula and could work with her smoothly. Even with this, though, he found it a strain to take note of all the information his implants kept feeding him, to constantly do the things which must constantly be done, all while responding to the frequent commands his wife gave him.
As for Paula, she felt almost overwhelmed by the task of circumventing multiple systems she had designed to not be circumvented. Had her assistant been anyone else, even someone slightly more familiar with the systems, she would have had to give more detailed instructions and the whole effort would probably have been a failure. As it was, sixteen minutes after Naoko had shut the hatch Paula used one of her implants as if it were a microphone, mentally pushing a “talk” button. She had to shout to be heard over all the notifications the computer kept giving.
“THIRTY-ONE MINUTES TO CORE BREACH”
“GO! GO! GO! We can’t hold it for long so GO!!”
“Roger that,” replied the voice of Kifeda Jakande. “Do you, do you want us to talk to you until ... until...”
“SYSTEM SS-48 FAILURE – ATTEMPTING REBOOT”
Paul used one of his own implants now. “Negative on that, Mr. Jakande. We have more work to do so you don’t get shut down, and we’d prefer to spend our last moments together alone.”
“Understood. If there is a next life, you two are going to get the best of it. Fast Enough out.”
It was the closest Kifeda had come to expressing a belief in the supernatural since his early teens.
“SYSTEM SS-32 FAILURE – ATTEMPTING REBOOT”
“SYSTEM SS-48 REBOOT FAILURE”
The safety systems were trying to repair themselves, and it was quite the job to make sure that they did not. Nobody but the woman who had designed the systems and the man who knew her best could have done it, but they did it. When the engines in the ship ignited, system SS-15 tried to shut it down. When system SS-15 didn’t work, it tried to reboot itself. Always the two engineers were a half-step ahead, but never more than that.
“SYSTEM SS-15 FAILURE – ATTEMPTING REBOOT”
“SYSTEM SS-32 REBOOT FAILURE”
“THIRTY MINUTES TO CORE BREACH”
“SYSTEM SS-27 FAILURE – ATTEMPTING REBOOT”
“SYSTEM SS-15 REBOOT FAILURE”
A minute later the ship was away and the couple could relax. Let everything reboot; it wasn’t going to stop the evacuation now. Within another three minutes the only notifications from the computer were about the approaching core breach itself.
Paula Akron looked at the image of the fleeing ship, with its four hundred ninety-eight human beings aboard. Already it was but a speck in the distance.
“Do you think they’ll make it?” her husband asked.