Working Alone

Working Alone
Copyright 2003 by Henry Melton

(First published in the June 2003 issue of ANALOG)

Silence jolted Barry Altman awake. His heart raced two beats as he struggled in the weightless darkness to anchor himself. The grip of the chair alone kept him from knocking his head against the close-in walls.

I shouldn’t have dozed off like that. He blinked the sleep from his eyes, and turned the cabin lights up a notch. How long have I been drifting?

Quickly, he ran through the checklist—an old plastic sheet barely readable in the dim cabin light. The little asteroid shuttle was old and long overdue for an extended stay at Ceres docks, but it had proved reliable if cranky.

Maintenance is not my job. The Ace was a leased steamer, about the only one he could afford. A single seat, plus enough cargo space to haul groceries and mail to the numerous mining settlements in this part of the belt. In the resupply game, travel time was not an issue, just regularity.

Ice and energy were easy enough to come by out here in the cold part of the solar system. Find a pilot willing to spend weeks making deliveries, and a delivery service could be made marginally profitable.

His mind had already started to stagnate when the employment advertisement appeared like a ray of light over his bunk in the transient hotel. The next heavy transport back to Earth space wasn’t due for another six months—he would be insane by then if he had to live in dark quarters, lit only by the perpetual ‘entertainment’ screens.

I am a writer. His output had been choppy and fragmented. He could never remain centered long enough to bring his protagonist through a coherent scene. The place was killing me.

The delivery job looked like heaven—days at a time with no distractions, no entertainment screen, no chatty roommates—he signed up that day.

And when my novels finally sell, this time will be great source material. That’s what he told himself every day since he had left Nebraska.

He slid back the thermal insulating window shield and tried to focus on the stars outside. I’ve slept through the whole deceleration. It was time to find asteroid 12885 and line up an approach.

If the autopilot was up to its usual standards, he should be able to eyeball the rock. A tap on the orientation thrusters set the Ace into a very slow roll. He picked up his binoculars with the IR enhancers and started scanning the starfield. Even if the rock was nearly black, as some were, the IR would show it as a glowing patch, quite distinctive from the stars.

Several full rotations and a plane change later, there was still nothing.

Barry sighed. I guess I’ll have to give them a call. It was hard enough dealing with miners that were openly amused by newcomers. Admitting that you were lost made it that much more difficult.

“Door to Door Delivery Service. Requesting a landing beacon from Asteroid 12885. Please acknowledge.”

The radio showed no sign of a response. He repeated the call, and then turned the gain all the way up. Nothing.

“Okay. Maybe they are asleep.” He fumbled for the delivery order. This wasn’t a destination he had picked before. “Nobody Mining” —that’s a little operation for sure. No one would be monitoring the radio.

I’ll have to figure it out myself.

He swiveled around in his chair to face the navigation computer. It was a simple-minded gadget—punch in the start and destination, and estimated travel time. It would contact Ceres for the latest orbital elements and do the calculations. Barry usually had to do it two or three times to get the fuel and energy to come in under budget, but once he had a solution, piloting was just a matter of pressing the GO button.

The computer training module had spent an hour going over some of the other functions of the device. It logged your motions and could also get your position from the beacons strategically located throughout the belt.

“I need my position.” The downloaded elements of asteroid 12885 wouldn’t have changed.

The frayed user’s manual was clipped to the top of his work documents. At least every other trip it bailed him out. He turned to the appropriate page and following the directions, tapped the Function-8 key.

The display flickered and went blank.

He paused with his finger hovering over the next key. Is it supposed to do that?


He stared at the display dumbly for a long pair of seconds, and then paged frantically through the book to the list of error codes. There it was: ERRORCODE 13—Power supply fault. Check connections and restart.

“Connections? This thing is built-in.” He hit the reset switch. After the standard greeting display, it prompted for a command.

Hesitantly, he pressed Function-8. Instantly, the failure repeated—ERRORCODE 13.

Okay, think this through. He glanced at the window. The universe was black out there, sprinkled with lights. Power supply fault? Power supply?

The thin user manual wasn’t going to be any help. The pages mocked him. It told him how the navigation computer worked, not how it failed.

He blinked his eyes, trying to make more sense out of the text than was written there. It flickered.

His mouth gapped open as he looked over to the utility console, where the water and air and electricity and other mundane functions of the ship were controlled. The power level light was a sick, pale yellow.

I am losing power!

Burt Durham tapped the radio. He had been expecting a mail delivery for three days. Still nothing but occasional static on the short range band. I really miss being able to call home.

The catalog listed a Net relay for 3000, plus link charges. Expensive for personal use. Out here, hand carried messages were a lot cheaper, if delivery time wasn’t an issue. The distress beacon for 500 was a compromise.

But how long will Belinda put up with it. He had taken this one-man posting to earn their way out of her mother’s cube. It ranked as hazard pay, putting up a water storage tank on this rock all alone, but it was a long job. Welding the 534 curved puzzle pieces together took months.

Working in the dark, with nothing but music so old that it had worn groves in his ears, living by the checklist—he wondered if she had written him off with that last letter. He re-read it every night. The acid was gone from her words—or maybe he had just developed scar tissue.

Barry wiped the moisture off the Ace’s one lone window, and aligned the sighting scope on Jupiter. The telescope tube was no wider than his thumb and had half the yellow paint chipped off from banging around in the tool chest. At least the optics still worked. With Jupiter in the right-hand crosshairs, he turned the verniers to bring another dot of light into the left-hand target. He corrected for the slight tumble of the ship and prayed that it was indeed Ceres that he was aiming at. A couple of readings would tell him just how lost he was.

As near as he could guess, the charging system had gone out. As he slept his cabin batteries had sagged down into no-man’s-land. If an alarm had gone off, he had been too dead to notice.

More energy than he could ever use was sitting the engine power cell but it wasn’t electricity. Without electricity not even the engines would run. It controlled the feeds. The charging system should have charged the batteries off the engine. Obviously it hadn’t.

Every switch with an off position was there. After searching for several minutes by the slowly sweeping beam of sunlight through the window, he located the circuit breaker panel and hesitantly shut down the less critical systems. Even the air was stagnant now. Fingers were crossed that he would know when to refresh it.

Calculating on paper, he copied down the angles and opened the navigation manual. There were four pages on navigating the hard way. By faith alone, he knew there was enough juice in the batteries for one burn. He would run the calculations manually, check them on the navigation computer once, and then go.

I wanted silence. Now he had it. Heart and lungs and a neglected stomach supplied the only noises now.

“Nobody Mining Daily Checklist” It was clean of marks. Habit bred bad habit. Burt’s first week, blackening the list, and then rubbing it clear at the end of the day seemed satisfying. Then it seemed pointless, a week later forgotten. There were days when he had loaded the cage, jetted over to the work, and been ten meters into verified seams before he remembered to look at the checklist.

Nothing matters but the seam. He could lose himself in the painful, bright destruction which flowed smoothly into red creation—union. What had been two was now one.

The company needed this water tank for something, and when the day came to pressure-test, then he would see how well his seams held. Rework was a disgrace.

For now, he was a bug on the petal of a great dark flower, intent on the seam and worried about Belinda.

Barry’s stomach dropped into free-fall. Early! His ears told him the same. The engine had stopped prematurely.

Then with a comforting push into his couch, the engine roared back to life. That lasted a second. Then off again. It’s stuttering. A triplet of shakes, and then nothing.

Barry waited a dozen labored breaths. No, that’s it. No more juice.

He hit the reset switch on the navigation computer, but after the first hint of a screen flash, it was dead dark.

The electricity was gone.

He panted. He could barely get out one breath before he needed another. Carbon dioxide. It’s not just terror.

Oxygen hissed, in response to his hand on the lever. He kept it up until his ears started to hurt. Then he forced the manual purge switch, until the pressure eased.

He breathed easier. Wasteful of air, but I’m dead anyway.

“I’m dead now!” The words aloud had a tentative sound to them. Perhaps he still didn’t have the air pressure right. “No matter.”

The creeping path of the sunbeam across the cabin had changed slightly—perhaps because of the gasses he had vented. The patch of bright illuminated his papers, an untidy collection of old manuscripts.

His most recent work was inaccessible, in the computer. Changing jobs so often, he had fallen back to his practice of keeping paper archives. You can’t edit files on an incompatible disk.

Still, he had splurged too much of his weight allotment on those. He should have scanned everything into Net storage and burned them long ago.

“Burned them?” Where had that idea come from? I never intended to burn them. They might be valuable when I become rich and famous.

He felt his lips crinkle as he smiled pity at himself.

I will never be rich and famous. Not even posthumously. Worthless old papers.

Sometimes new work would be commissioned after an author had died, using old notes, or even just the titles left behind.

“Don’t be silly.” He tasted the feel of the words on his lips. “That sort of treatment is only for the famous. And I never made it.”

Still, if the ship was discovered eventually, perhaps he should leave something. A will perhaps?

He pulled out a sheaf of papers. They were printed on one side only. He fished a pen from his toolkit.

“To Whom It May Concern:” he started. His lettering was shaky.

“Tomorrow,” Burt promised himself, “I will take off early.” Three weeks running, he had worked long hours. Red cooling welds were more attractive than the books he had brought along for the stay. “I can’t afford to finish too early.”

Long jobs in space had taught him about him. He could take solitude, as long as his hands were busy. Too many off days would breed dangerous thoughts. A vacuum worker should never become too comfortable with the nothing outside his suit.

A co-worker, Bill Johnson had been a bungi addict last year. The cord held, but the ragged crystallized break told the story. The tie-off had gone cold-brittle. Burt had been in the crew that found him. The cord was extended, orbiting his body. He had it in a grip of death.

The Vacuum Workers Quarterly had a regular column listing fatalities, and how they had happened. He never missed an issue. They were sobering, and he paid attention. Belinda should never be a widow. That is why he rented the distress beacon. He just hoped he never had to use it. Activation and the rescue would take years to pay off.

He plucked the worn letter from its clip as he settled into his sleeping web and read it again.

You never loved me ... hiding off in the dark ... pay no attention to my problems ... Mother says ... the girls at the office say ... if you were any kind of a man ... I don’t know why I put up with you ....

The words ran together in his head. Last month, seeing it for the first time, he had stuffed it back into the envelope and tried to stuff it into the back of his mind. She had sent angry letters before, but not quite as bad as this one.

I should have stopped everything and sent a reasoned reply by the same delivery man. As it was, he had ripped up his chatty nothing of a letter and kept his silence.

So now she had his silence, on top of whatever other offences he had committed. What would a month of that do to her?

He looked at the calendar, with his smudge marks on it. When was the next delivery due?

A sparkle of light flickered in the window as Barry moved in his seat. A shock of unexpected hope shook him from his lethargy. It died quickly.

Frost. The condensation has turned to frost. The air was getting colder, making it harder for him to doze off. With no engine heat, and the climate control system as dead as the lights, the ship was cooling down. In the asteroids, so far from the sun, that was cold.

“Maybe I’ll freeze before I suffocate.”

Waiting patiently for a dozen seconds, he finally reached his hand into the moving beam of sunlight. Not much warmth there.

He had almost died of exposure before. They were highschool boys, a half-dozen of them camping out together on Signal Hill. The waters of the Dismal River in the distance had prompted him to take a hike. A fall down the edge of the riverbank had left him with a broken ankle, trapped amid a pile of driftwood logs.

It had been two days later when his mother had started checking with the other families. No one had noticed that he was missing.

A sheet of paper floated into the beam. He snagged it—page two of his will. He slipped it back under its clip.

All of this is useless. It could take a thousand years to find me, or more. By then, none of this will matter to anyone. I will have been forgotten.

Being forgotten—that bothered him. It always had.

Barry had never subscribed to the notion that a person’s only immortality was in the memory of his friends. Either God was real and He provided an afterlife where the dead continued a conscious existence, or there was no immortality. No half measures allowed, to his way of thinking. All the religious training of his younger days had come racing back to the forefront of his mind since the blackout. His neglected prayers had been reactivated with a passion.

But still, he could be chatting with the angels, and after a memorial service back in Nebraska, that would be it. Barry Samuel Altman’s earthly existence was gone. He spawned no family. He touched no one’s life. He wouldn’t even take up space in the old family plot in Thedford.

It’s my own fault. Always following my dreams, at the expense of my life. This trip is the perfect example. Be a hermit so I can write—and it has cost my life.

The paper drifted off again. He glared at the clip. Not even that worked right on this ship.

He released the hugger and drifted free of his chair to snag it.

Weakly, Cook took the cool metal into his hand. “Thank you.” He glanced at the settings. It would have smashed his chest into a thin layer of red on the ground below him. He set it to safety, and eased it down.

The fragment of one of his unpublished novels snapped him off into vivid memory—the fictional world of Cook, a loner wandering a world of forests, searching for his own identity.

“I’m sorry Cook.” Tears started forming, quickly wiping out his view of his coffin. He blinked and shook his head to clear them. His character was a friend closer than anyone in the real world.

“I had plans for you, Cook. I had a whole life planned out for you, if the trilogy sold. It’s so unfair to leave you there, at the end of the first book, with power, but no idea of what you should do with your life.

“I had plans, Cook. You would have had a life! Your soul-mate would have appeared in the third book. You would achieve your destiny. You would have your own kind of immortality.

“If only that first book had sold! I was frightened, you see. Without a sale, writing the sequel would be a waste of time—or so I thought.

“But it left your life truncated, your destiny out of reach.”

He looked over at his files. Who else was there?

Able stared back at him. The technological genius who would have been forced into mythic state as the sire of a whole sub-species of humanity. But now, at the end of his unsold novel, he was a slave riding in the belly of an alien ship.

And there was Horace, poor robot. “I never got around to plotting that final confrontation, did I? You spend thousands of years looking for your creator, and how will you cope when you realize that he is long dead?”

Other faces started appearing in the darkness. There was Sue, and Queen Hanna, and Elizabeth. More than any real person, they were slices of the true love he had never met.

“I love you all, my people. I am so very very sorry I have failed you. You have no immortality, beyond the echoes in people’s minds, and I have failed to put you there.”

There was no heaven for an unpublished character.

“Nor hell for you Kal, either. I had more story for you too, my friend. I would not have left you the monster you were in the first book. Redemption was possible, if I had ever written you to the Pit.”

Barry plucked pages from his old manuscripts, reading in the uneven sunlight fragments from his old work, apologizing to his unpublished characters, crying the tears they could not make for themselves. Before he slept, the air was full of white corpses, silently standing judgment over him.

Burt woke by the clock, dressed in a set of overalls freshly dried from the night’s low-impact laundry box. He checked off the daily report he had forgotten from the night before. A routine life, until breakfast.

The radiated milk was empty. He had powder, but the empty container of the fresh stuff made him check his calendar. Yes indeed—the delivery was at least five days late now.

It had been late before, sometimes a day or two, but never this long. What has happened? There was a radio receiver that could pick up the System News broadcast from Earth, but he hadn’t used it in ages. Besides, it had an alert channel, and nothing had triggered an alarm. Listening to the tribulations of society was annoying, and useless. Still, maybe he should check for some Ceres disaster that would have caused the delay.

Tomorrow. I’ll be late to work. He checked the digits on the clock. On solo jobs, getting to work on time was a ritual. Let that slip and everything would go down hill.

He scanned the checklist, thought about making the marks for less than a second and then loaded the cage for the day.

Belinda was on his mind again. If the mail is late, what can I do?

Short range radio was very low power for a reason. On some jobs the distracting chatter from neighbors made radio useless. But anyone within range just might have a Net relay and could forward a message to Belinda.

He double-checked the radio in the cage. It was already cranked up to maximum sensitivity.

He transmitted, “CQ CQ. Anyone in range?” He repeated the call on all available common channels all the way to the work site, but there was no response.

What if the transport had run into trouble? What if he was stranded here with no supplies? What if he had to use the distress beacon?

It would wipe him out, financially, but then he could talk to Belinda.

He darkened his visor and struck the first spark. The play of intense light over the work drew his attention and a well-practiced part of his mind took over. The seam started to grow.

The shakes tormented Barry. He had let the window frost over hours ago, and gave himself up to the cold. His body didn’t agree. Neither did his brain.

I wish I were technical, like Able. He could take the food paste and junk from the tool box and build a battery strong enough to run the ship, or find a way to override the customer locks and raid the delivery supplies.

He smiled, his teeth chattering. It had taken hours to collect all the papers and re-order the pages. In neat bundles, he had collected the lives of his characters, and written complete biographies of each of them. If the ship was ever discovered, perhaps someone would be interested enough to read them.

Perhaps I should write a biography for me too.

No, my life is too boring.

The shakes hit again, hard enough to hurt.

I’ve got to stretch. He freed himself from the chair and went through the zero-g contortions recommended to keep your muscle tone. There wasn’t room to do them all. But anything was better than sitting and shivering to death.

He wiped the crust of frost off the window. The stars swept slowly across the view, until the sun’s cold brightness made him blink away a tear.

What was that? He looked again at the anonymous points of light. My mind is playing tricks. Stars don’t twinkle in space.

Soon enough the sun swept by, and he looked aside instead of staring at it this time.

There! I saw it again.

This time he locked on the pattern of stars. One of them was flickering.

It went out of view, and he counted the heartbeats until the sun came back.

Yes! That has to be human. He watched it, remembering other times he had watched the stars in more populated space. Welding. Someone is welding out there.

“Hey! Help!” He slammed his fist against the window.

They can’t hear me, or see me. Other than the welding flare, I can’t see them.

“Help me! Please.”

“Tomorrow,” Burt promised himself, “I will take off early.” He stared at the seductive, cooling red line. How late is it? He glanced at his clock.

“No wonder I’m so tired.” He leaned back from his rig and closed his eyes. In spite of the welder’s filter, the afterimage seemed there forever.

The filter flipped back, and he shut down the power and the gas feed. Trash and scraps stuffed easily into the catcher bag.

All secure. He unlocked the cage and fired a short burst from the thruster. Save fuel. If the delivery is lost, I’ll need every liter.

Travelling slow, mind on idle, he allowed himself to admire the half-completed tank. The curve was perfect, unflawed. The heat traces of his welds were clean and even. Only another welder could appreciate the lines, but it was enough that the seams were right. His work would last.

A reflection caught his eye. Is that a flaw? It appeared as if the light of a star wavered. On a smooth metal surface, that wouldn’t happen, the image would still be a point, crawling slowly across the skin as he moved.

There! It happened again, but the position was different.

He turned his head. Unwinking stars, and the bunkhouse, half in the sunlight, were all he could see. But something ....

A light flared brighter, and faded over several seconds. What is that? It was nothing like an engine.

Flare, white, and then yellow to red—its position against the star had shifted. It had to be close.

“Hello ship!” He hailed on the radio. There was no reply.

Like clockwork, the light bloomed, and faded.

“Can you hear me? Delivery ship, is that you?”

There was nothing on the radio—no change in the light.

But somehow, he had the feeling it wasn’t a machine. The timing was regular, but not precise.

He calculated the cage’s fuel in his head. The unknown ship had to be close, but he had no way of ranging it.

If that is the delivery, then Belinda’s letter is on it. It felt like the ship was approaching. Better approach now, rather than as it recedes.

He judged the vector by eye, and fired his thruster.

That’s enough. He coasted.

After long minutes, he could make out the shape of the transport. Still closer, he could see details.

The light, flashing from inside the cabin, stopped, to be replaced by the sight of a naked man shouting silently at him through the window.

Matching speed wasn’t difficult, but as he latched the cage to the transport, Burt worried about stopping them. The little open frame shuttle hadn’t been designed for tug work.

The deliver man worried him. Hand signs said he was okay, but Burt could see him coughing badly, as if the air inside were bad.

Barry tumbled through the hatchway as soon as the airlock allowed.

“Close it.” He coughed, gasping in a lungful of the clean air. “Smoke.”

The big man dogged it shut. “Fire?”

Barry coughed again and shook his head. “No. Under control.”

He was offered a blanket. Barry nodded his thanks and wrapped it around him.

“Burt Durham.” He offered his hand.

“Barry Altman, Door to Door Delivery Service.”

Durham let out a sigh. “Nobody Mining. Is the shipment okay?”

“Yes. Should be.” He quickly explained the power outage. Relief settled on the welder.

“Important shipment? They don’t tell me what’s in the hold.”

“Mail from home, but that can wait. What do you need? Did you burn your clothes?”

“Yes, to start. With a total power outage, it was the only way to make a signal light. A wrench from the toolbox sparked when I hit the bulkhead. The air was mostly oxygen by then. It caught quickly.”


Barry nodded. “But I had nothing to lose. I had given up all hope days before. When I saw the welding light—I had to try something.”

Burt nodded. “I worked late today.”

“I would have drifted past, and frozen to death if you hadn’t.”

“You were making regular flares. That is what caught my eye.”

Barry’s face twisted into a wry smile. “Well, the clothes burned quickly. The only thing I had left were some papers—old manuscripts. I fed them to the sparks, one chapter at a time.”

“Your stuff?”

“Yes. Old novels that never sold.”

Burt frowned. “I bet that hurt.”

He nodded. “Those characters saved my life.”

Burt did most of the work installing new batteries, but he let Barry help. He could tell that the delivery guy could push the buttons, but he didn’t know the hardware. He really was a writer pushing a transport as part time work. The energy tap was fried, it didn’t look like it had been maintained in years.

The extra batteries brought the ship to life, and it started shrieking like a turbine pushed past its limits as the machine woke up to its sad state and tried to fix everything all at once.

But the cargo locks worked. Burt keyed in his access code, and the hatch unsealed. He glanced over a month’s worth of supplies with no interest.

Taped to the side of a food crate was his mail pouch. He ripped it free and retrieved the letter.

Burt, something has to be done now. Everyone agrees that I should have already filed for the divorce, but I’ve decided to give you one last chance....

Barry Altman felt like a kid, dressed in Burt’s oversized overalls. He listened to the big man’s advice. In the last five days, he had become like an older brother.

Burt beamed. “You will be saving my life this time. The double-bank of batteries will get you safely back to Ceres, but don’t waste any time getting the ship into the docks. It’s a deathtrap until you get it repaired.”

Barry tapped the sheaf of papers. “I will hand-deliver the letter to Belinda, and sing your praises. If she agrees to buying the Net relay, I’ll help her with the purchase and bring it out on the next run.”

Burt sighed. “It’s either that, or default on the job and go back to her in person. A month between letters is too long for us. I’ll lose her otherwise.”

They shook hands one last time.

They sealed the hatch and the transport pushed away with the faintest of thrusts until it was clear of the Nobody Mining work area.

Barry went through his checklist and confirmed the readings on the navigation computer, its display crisp and sharp, although the surface needed more cleaning.

He saw Burt’s love letter start to slip in the clip and rescued it.

Some of the best prose I have ever written. It was Burt’s heart, in Burt’s own words, but he had needed a writer to coax them out. It had taken a couple of days before the man had opened up, and even longer before he had shared his wife’s letters.

He pressed the button, and the ship’s engines started rumbling with the feel of full thrust. Loose clutter started falling to the aft wall.

It is good. Much better than the scene I wrote where Able and Sue realized their love for each other. I’ll do that over. Real people talk differently.

Burt and Belinda—how much would these two bleed their lives into his established characters? He flexed his fingers. Barry was aching to find out.


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