A science fiction story
John Nation walked down the sleek, white hallway that led to the ship’s boardroom. It was brightly lit and freshly painted as was all the management level. The furnishings were of the most modern design, and new artwork depicting the glories of the heavens adorned the walls. He had had it all replaced while they were in port, as he had grown tired of the same old decor. The carpet was new as well. In fact, the nap was substantial enough that it often produced a painful shock when touching the bare, titanium doors. Fortunately, he was spared this experience when entering the room in which the last meeting of the week was to transpire.
The ship had almost completed the long fall back to Earth after having spent a few weeks on the company asteroid. They were on their way to deliver a shipment of painite that had been mined on that same asteroid as well as to pick up passengers and servant crew for yet another grand tour of the Solar System. As usual, they were making money with every move they made, and, as usual, he would receive a healthy percentage.
John took his place at the head of a long rectangular table. Before him sat five uniformed men wearing caps embossed with the corporate logo. They made no effort to acknowledge his presence. Instead, all sat in silence, hands folded neatly on the marble slab in front of them as if dreading what was to come.
“As you know,” John began, “I’ve called this meeting in order to discuss any ongoing concerns you may have. We only have this opportunity once a year, so now is the time to make your opinions known. I’m here to get down to specifics. I want to hear what changes can be made in order to help improve your work experience.”
John pointed to the slender, middle-aged man seated nearest him. “Mr. Hall,” he stated. “As the team leader, I feel it appropriate that we begin with you.”
James Hall remained quiet for several, awkward minutes before finally replying, “Pass.”
“What?” John asked.
“Pass,” repeated James.
“You can’t take a pass,” insisted John.
“Pass,” said James.
John was quick tempered and was already becoming visibly aggravated. His normally pale face was beginning to turn a light shade of red, and if anyone at the table had actually been looking at him, they would have noticed a slight tremble in his hands. The big man reached over and filled a waiting glass with cool water from one of the taps built into the table. He took a drink and cleared his throat, trying to compose himself. Looking down briefly, John caught a glimpse of his reflection in the polished marble surface. A chubby, white-haired man stared back at him. I’m getting too old to have to deal with simpletons, he thought.
“Well then, what say you?” John asked, in as calm of voice as he could muster while gesturing to the next man in line. “You’re supposed to be his right-hand man.”
Matt Stevens turned his head slightly, facing John just long enough to utter the words, “pass.”
“I don’t have time for this crap!” shouted John. “My time is valuable, and you’re wasting far more of it than you’re entitled to! I demand that you cooperate!”
“Why?” asked James.
“Participation in this meeting is mandatory!” replied John. “You’ll risk disciplinary action if you don’t start answering my questions!”
“There’s no point,” said James. “Every year, you ask the same questions. We give you the same answers, and nothing changes. You only have these meetings and ask these questions because you’re required to. You don’t care what the answers are. You just need something to write on your forms, so you can get the hell out of here and not have to associate with us greasy knuckle draggers.”
“You’re forgetting who you’re talking to!” John shouted. “I…”
“You already know how I feel,” James Interrupted. “We don’t have enough people. The Infinity is a Nebula class liner. She was designed to be maintained and operated by a compliment of no less than twenty engineers. We’re down to five.”
“We would go bankrupt if we took on that many,” replied John, “besides, you have the bots and…”
“You clueless bastard!” James shouted back, turning a little red himself in the process. “You ask for it, so now you’re going to hear all about it, but rest assured, this will be the last time that I’ll ever waste my breath on a piece of human garbage like you! Now, as I was saying, she was supposed to have an engineering compliment of twenty when she was new. However, this old crate has been humping around the Solar System for over fifty years with fancy coverings hiding her rotten guts. We take our wealthy passengers on sight-seeing tours, where they enjoy spectacular views while sipping champagne and enjoying the lavish comfort of their staterooms. All the while, they’re blissfully unaware of the crumbling infrastructure that lies below. You know the rule. If it’s not seen, then no money is spent on it. The Infinity can accommodate 600, not counting the crew. It’s impossible for so few to maintain such a vessel, and, as for the robots, the two that are still operational are as worn-out as the ship.”
“Well, you see, the economy is very bad, I — mean too good right now. It’s hard to find qualified engineers looking for work. They’re all already employed,” said John, fumbling a little with his words.
“That’s this year,” replied James. “I’ve been here for fourteen years. What’s your excuse for the other thirteen? I remember that last year the economy was bad, so we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, even though we were making record profits. We’ve lost so many good people. Most just couldn’t handle the stress anymore. For Christ’s sake, we’ve been working double shifts for four years, and you talk to me about the damned economy! Seriously, do you really think we’re that stupid? Tell the truth for once. On second thought, let me tell you. The truth is that the less money you spend, the bigger your yearly bonus is. Consequently, I’m stuck with a department of five salaried guys who have to work all of the overtime you want for free.”
“Hold — on,” John began, while flipping through his paperwork. “That’s not right! My roster shows six of you.” His voice was becoming shaky. It betrayed his nervousness. They had never seen him so unconfident. “What about the girl? Where is she?”
“Dead,” James replied.
“Yes,” James answered. “She died this morning, probably while your fat ass was still in bed!”
Little beads of sweat were beginning to appear on John’s forehead. The redness had gone from his cheeks. In truth, he was as pale as a cadaver. “How?” he asked, in a cautious, quiet voice.
“We were just at Liberty Station a few weeks ago for a refit, and what did you do? Once again, you wasted the money that the company allotted you for repairs on luxuries for the management level. You had no problem shelling it out for new paint, new carpet, new furniture, and artwork, yet you spent nothing on the machinery. I told you that we were in desperate need of a complete overhaul, and I begged you to, at least, replace the cooling pumps, if nothing else. As usual, I was ignored. We’ve been running on the backup for two years. The primary failed long ago, but that’s ok. Redecorating your office was more important. Tell me. Was it worth Jenny Wong’s life?”
John was feeling sick. He was normally a very confrontational man, but the words of his lead engineer had sucked the fight right out of him. He stood up from the table and walked over to the observation window, where he stared out at the stars. “How did it happen?” he mumbled.
“The backup cooling pump finally failed,” replied James. “The high temperature alarm didn’t alert us, as it should have. Jenny found the reactor overheating when she did her morning rounds. She summoned us immediately and began working on the pump, but it was too far gone. Before we could reach her, the temperature of the core rose so much that it swelled and cracked its housing, flooding the compartment with radiation. We had no choice but to seal it off with her inside. Thank God we’re returning from the asteroid’s shipyard instead of hauling passengers as usual. Otherwise, we would be about to lose hundreds of customers and servant crew. As luck would have it, only upper management and we few engineers remain.”
“Can it be contained?” murmured John.
“It’s in full meltdown,” said James. “We have about twenty-five minutes before it melts its way into the hydrogen tanks.
“My God!” screeched John. “Why haven’t we evacuated?”
“In what,” said James? “All of the working craft were used to ferry the servant staff down to Earth for shore leave before we headed out to the asteroid. The few shuttles we have left are nonoperational and haven’t been for years. Sadly, there is but one functioning transport aboard this vessel.”
James watched, as his engineers stood up and began making their way toward the door. Once they had exited the room, only he and John remained. They passed a few moments in silence before John finally spoke.
“So, you plan to leave us then?” asked John.
“Luckily, we still have the captain’s yacht. Do you remember when we had a captain? It’s been a decade since you decided that having one was an unnecessary expense. After all, the ship’s AI needs little supervision (when it’s working). At any rate, I regret that the remaining vessel only has room for five passengers and their provisions. However, rest assured that I will let the corporate office know of your sacrifice and that, in the end, you, and your brain trust put the needs of your employees before your own. I’ll leave it up to you to send the official distress call, for all the good it will do. It’ll be your last chance to actually do your job.”
James made it to the shuttle with eight or so minutes to spare. They had launched and were well out of range when the Infinity detonated. James watched through the rear viewport, as she flared into a brilliant light and then slowly faded into darkness. He turned and moved past the other engineers then climbed over numerous crates of painite in order to reach the cockpit where Jenny Wong was piloting the craft. Ahead of them, they could see the blue disk of Earth adrift in the void.
“Do you think this thing will hold together?” James asked.
“I’m not worried,” Jenny answered. “It was never used that often, besides, I got up early and ran it through all the diagnostic checks while you were setting the charges.”