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Article: Habitat 762

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Habitat 762

In Deep Space, Nobody Wants to be Left Behind.

In the last few days of a two-year assignment, a survey team, isolated on a beautiful but toxic planet, finds out that mistakes and accidents can extract a brutal price. Now, things are coming apart at every turn as their equipment and shelter begins to break down all around them, despite the efforts of Ms. Betty, their habitat's self-aware, artificial intelligence.

Lindsey, the team's biology tech, begins to wonder about the causes of the accidents. Are they simply because of worn-out equipment, or are the hostile conditions of the planet to blame?

Now the clock is ticking. Will she survive long enough to learn the truth?

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Chapter One

Date: May 27, 2448
Planet ID #: 3589-5459
Project: Habitat 762
Duration: 731 days
Current day: 727 days
Time: 11:00 hours

Lindsey Mendez shut the monitor off, her eyes tired despite how early in the day it was.

She was almost done compiling her final reports, right on schedule, having been at it since she had awoken early this morning. She’d applied for an exemption previously, but she doubted they would honor it. This rock might be pretty, but it wasn’t ever going to be inhabited by humans. Despite the similar gravity, environment and twenty-four hour day, the atmosphere was just too toxic. Combined with the erratic weather and frequent electrical storms, this planet was a dead loss for anything but mining right now.

That meant the Company wouldn’t grant her exemption. They didn’t care about how this planet might develop if left alone for the next thousand years. Nor did they care that all the signs of intelligent life developing were already present. Having paid for the rights to this entire sector, they were going to strip every planet that was not suitable for colonization. Before she could stop herself, she let out a sad little sigh.

“Are you well, Lindsey?” Betty asked, her voice coming through the speaker right in front of her. “Your biological readings indicate stress. Is there anything I can do to aid you?”

Lindsey couldn’t help smiling at that. Ms. Betty, as everyone but Lindsey called her, was actually a Synthmind CX-39-TG, the most advanced synthetic intelligence ever created for the purposes of remote exploration and research. Not only did Betty keep the entire compound running and monitor the well-being of the team stationed there, but she also piloted the on-site research drones and remotely piloted the transport ship which had brought them here from the orbiting space station.

While Lindsey understood that Betty was a machine, she couldn’t help feeling like they were friends. After being stuck here together for two years now, they really had become close. There were five other people here, but Betty was the one she talked to the most, embarrassing or not.

They had even formed their own book club, where they would read and discuss the files from her historical literature database. Last week they just finished another classic from the twentieth century, which Lindsey had greatly enjoyed, not having read any his-lit since school. In an odd way, she thought now, she would really miss Betty, machine or not.

She wouldn’t miss the facility though, as run-down as it had become. Designed to last for the initial research phase on the planet without requiring extensive maintenance or repair and built on a grid system so that everything was connected by corridors, it was now starting to break down all around them. The problems weren’t anything catastrophic and shouldn’t become so anytime soon, but the machinery and systems were getting worn out. While they had some 3D manufacturing equipment to make parts, they had long run out of supplies to make anything larger than a coffee spoon.

Two weeks ago, the machine room door had stopped closing, simply freezing in its tracks, wide open. Since that didn’t matter aside from a little more noise in the facility, no one cared. But that wasn’t always the case. Just last week the cappuccino machine had finally given up the ghost despite all their tinkering, causing all kinds of ill-will towards Betty, as if she were to blame. Thinking of that now, Lindsey made sure to sound cheerful when she spoke.

“No, I’m fine, Betty,” she replied, “But it’s very kind of you to ask. My eyes are just tired.”

“You should rest now,” Betty replied, her voice just as soothing as always, so that she sounded just like a person. “Your report is almost complete and you have sufficient time to complete it based on your average rate of efficiency.”

“But what if I decide to just abandon efficiency and do nothing but sleep?” she replied, trying not to smile.

There was just the slightest pause, as if Betty were calculating probabilities. “I do not believe that statistically likely at all, Lindsey. Based on that and voice analysis, I believe you are teasing.”

“I am, Betty,” she replied, delighted the machine had caught it this time. “You’re getting pretty good at being able to tell now. And your delivery is coming along really nicely, too. You’ve even got the timing down for the punch-lines now.”

“Yes, once you explained that humor is frequently irrational, I believe I have a better assessment of its use. Combined with vocal tones, I believe I can detect it more than ninety percent of the time now.”

“That’s great, Betty. Just think, when the maintenance team gets here, you’ll even be able to joke with them. Don’t forget that you can even add in that drum roll as a signal before the punchline. Then they’ll know it’s a joke. In fact, after all we’ve practiced, you might be the funniest one here once I leave. At the very least, you’ll be able to make them laugh occasionally.”

“Yes, that is the most likely outcome from our time together.”

“Oh, hey, don’t say it like that,” Lindsey joked. “I thought we were friends.”

There was a brief pause. “Yes, Lindsey, I do believe that would be the correct assessment.”

“Oh, don’t be so mean,” she teased. “Come on, Betty, say it. After all this time together, all those books we read and discussed, all the jokes I told you? Girl, I brought humor into your life! You have to think we’re friends. I’ll be hurt if you think otherwise. After all, I consider you a friend.”

“Thank you, Lindsey,” Betty replied. “I feel the same. I have enjoyed our friendship.”

“Me, too. If I didn’t have you to talk to, I’d probably be crazy by now.” She paused for a beat. “Well, more crazy, anyway.”

“I anticipated that joke,” Betty replied. “But as you have said, that does not appear to lessen its value.”

“See, you’ll be doing stand-up in no time.”

She stood up from her desk and stretched out her back. When she was busy touching her toes to loosen it more, she heard a whistle. “Nice view. Do me a favor. Just stay like that for another thirty seconds or so, will you?”

She whipped upright to see Chris Sanders making a goofy face at her. He was one of the techs, along with Monica Vey. But unlike his quiet female counterpart, he was always cracking jokes, some of them exceptionally vulgar. Since Sanders was a short, skinny wise-ass clearly just interested in being funny, she didn’t care what he said anymore, but that hadn’t always been the case.

Being that he was no muscle-bound moron, she hadn’t expected any trouble after meeting him. So the first time he had made a crack about her body, she had been more than a little disappointed. In fact, she had wanted to put his head right through the wall at the time. There was no way some little punk a decade younger was going to harass her, she had thought, enraged at the idea.

But she hadn’t needed to do a thing. He had seen the look on her face and immediately apologized, his hands up to keep her back as he had backed away, looking very young and scared suddenly. Seeing that, she had understood he had only been joking. So rather than bust his head, she had cracked a joke about his tiny feet in return.

To this day, she could not forget the look of surprised delight on his face. Despite being twenty-five and highly intelligent, it seemed that Chris had the sense of humor of a none-too-bright twelve-year-old. Like a boy that age, all he wanted was someone to indulge him so they could snicker together. Once she understood that, Lindsey didn’t mind in the slightest. Humor was fine. Harassment was not. So now, despite the comments, she knew he was just teasing her.

“Like you could even last thirty seconds,” she announced, trying not to laugh.

“No way,” he replied, looking delighted. “I’m good for at least ninety.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard. You might last ninety, but good for it? No, that’s not what she said.”

Chris cracked up, shaking his head. “I’m telling you, we’re wasted here. We have such a future as a comedy duo ahead of us.”

“You have been here way too long,” she teased. “That constant smell of dirty socks has warped your mind.”

“How could it not? Lately I’ve been dreaming of being attacked by a giant smelly foot, the stink is so pervasive,” he joked before sobering. “Hey, I wanted to let you know that Dave got in a boatload of data. He might have heard something about your exemption request.”

“What, before they crack the planet in half, you mean?” she said, disheartened just thinking about it. “I wish I could believe that.” She shook her head sadly. “You know, sometimes I hate this job.”

“You never know,” he replied earnestly. “They could do the right thing.”

Lindsey just looked at him for a moment. She didn’t even need to say anything.

“I know, I know, dream on,” he said quietly. “But you never know. It’s the Company, yeah, but it’s run by people. They might see your point.”

“It might be run by people,” she said just as quietly, “but they’re only that in name. I don’t think they’re going to turn down profit in this case, not when the atmosphere makes it uninhabitable. If they could colonize it, that would be one thing. But I’m not holding out a lot of hope.”

“Agreed.” Chris nodded, shrugging little as he did. “But I thought you might want to see what they said, at least.”

“Thanks for that,” she replied. “I’ll go see if that was included.”

She headed out into the hall, then towards the lab, where Dave Murray was likely to be. He was the head of the team and her direct supervisor. But despite him being a highly regarded geologist with a long history of working for the Company, she didn’t think much of him. She didn’t actively dislike him or anything, because he wasn’t a bad guy. He just wasn’t her kind of person.

He had no sense of humor and seemed to take a little too much pleasure in being in charge. She’d gone toe-to-toe with him several times over the course of this project, most recently over this exemption request. But since Dave was always backed by Bob Ellison, the Company stooge they had sent along to spy, she hadn’t made much headway, no matter what she had suggested. Dave was old school all the way and as far as she was concerned, he was due for retirement. So when she entered the lab, she had mixed feelings to see him, just like always.

“Dave, nice to see you,” she greeted him. “Chris said you got some data. Any news on my exemption?”

“I don’t know why you bothered,” he griped as he handed over a data card. “They’ve listed their reasons for denial.” He gave her an annoyed look. “I told you they weren’t going to go for it. It was a complete waste of your time.”

“Well, as experienced as you are, you know I always appreciate your advice, but I had to at least try,” she argued politely, knowing anything else would just agitate him more. “That exemption was a valid request, based on the samples and reports. I had an ethical obligation to file it, so I did. I didn’t expect them to agree, but I had to ask. I can’t control the decisions they make, but I can control mine.”

“Not enough to avoid wasting your time, apparently,” he noted, sounding slightly less annoyed now that she had made it plain she wasn’t interested in undermining his authority past filing her exemption.

“Apparently not,” she admitted, looking down at the data card. “Thanks for this, anyway. I’m almost done compiling my last reports, but I need a break before my eyes fall out of my head. Anything I can help with?”

Dave shrugged. “Mike’s busy messing around with one of the drones, trying to get a few more samples. You can go make sure he’s staying out of trouble. I reminded him not to treat this like a video game, but he’s getting edgy now.” He gave her a glance of admission. “We all are.”

Once more she was reminded that Dave wasn’t a bad guy. He was just close to retirement and humorless, an unpleasant combination at times, but there was nothing personal about it. And he was right as well. With only a few days to go before leaving, everyone was on edge. Once they were gone, the maintenance team would arrive to shore up this pit for the mining team, but that wasn’t her problem.

“Sure, I’ll go check on Mike,” she agreed. “Calm him down a bit. See you later.” She waved the data card. “And thanks again for letting me know, at least.”

When she found Mike Lee, he was hunched over the drone control station, his eyes glued to the monitor. He barely noticed her arrival, annoyed as he was at the bright green lizard-like creature who was blocking his view of the foliage.

“Move it, you little shit,” he muttered as he swung the drone this way and that, trying to entice it to move. “I need some samples. You’re in the way.”

But the creature simply stood there, its crest fanning out defensively, obviously unwilling to move.

“Try moving away from it,” she suggested. “It thinks you’re another predator in its territory, so it’s trying to chase you off with that display.”

“I need you to tell me that after dealing with this crap since I got here?” Mike spat, glaring at the defiant creature on the monitor. “Screw this. This little shit is about to get what he deserves.”

Before she could even respond, the drone’s laser cut the creature right in half.

“Mike! Stop that! What are you doing?”

He turned around to glare at her. “Back off, Lindsey. It wouldn’t move. What was I supposed to do? There’s a million of those things, anyway. Besides, once the Company gets here, they’ll probably kill them all, just as a side-effect of whatever they have planned. What does it matter?”

“Because that’s not why we’re here,” she argued. “What you just did is a complete violation of protocol and you know it. If Dave had seen that, he’d write you up for it.” She gave him a look. “How would you feel if I was using a drone to destroy all the plants and bugs you’d spent two years cataloging and studying?”

“What does it matter?” he asked sourly. “This whole planet will be nothing but mud and ashes by the time they’re done.”

“So that excuses you killing things for convenience?” she replied, trying to keep her voice even. “Even if you don’t care, you know damn well how serious the rules are when it comes to preserving life. Please don’t put me in a position where I have to fill out a report because you can’t control your temper. I’m serious, Mike. I know you’re ready to flip out. We all are. But you need to get control of yourself right now.”

She understood he was depressed and frustrated, because she felt the same. They all did. They had spent two years here, coming to appreciate this place for all its beauty, even if they couldn’t breathe the air. So now, it was devastating to think of it being mined until everything of value had been stripped from it.

Suddenly, looking at the bloody remains of that innocent little animal on the monitor as the drone moved closer to the moss it had been blocking, Lindsey felt like crying. She wondered again why she was even here as their biologist, when all they were going to do was destroy everything she had come to love. It was all such a waste. She hadn’t thought working for the Company would be like this.

“Fine, no need to get all emotional,” Mike snapped, color high in his cheeks as he refused to look at her. “I’ll leave your beloved freaky lizards alone so we don’t have to fight about it. I wouldn’t want to ruin your reputation as a peacemaker, after all. God forbid.”

“Do you really want to go there this late in the game?” she replied, her voice cool. “We’ve never had a problem before this. Are you sure you want to make one now? Think about it, Mike. I’m not trying to give you a hard time. Dave sent me here because he was afraid that you might be acting like this. We’re so close now. Don’t fall apart over something so stupid as a few more samples.”

“I know, I know,” he grumbled, finally looking at her. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be nasty. I’m just ready to leave. I only have to collect a few more samples and get them analyzed, then I’ll be done. Once I am, I’ll be in a better mood.” He turned back to the monitor, his hand tightening on the controller just as Lindsey noticed the drone was now on the ground, apparently unresponsive. “What the hell is this? Ms. Betty, reset drone S13. It seems to have become unresponsive.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Lee,” Betty replied. “There appears to be a catastrophic failure in power cells one and five. There is not enough power to bring S13 back online.”

“Were those last few samples analyses processed, at least?” he asked.

“Negative, Mr. Lee,” Betty replied. “They were not transmitted. They should still be in the science module’s memory, but there is not enough power to initialize the science net connection. A new energy package will be required.”

“Great, so if I want the data, I have to go get that piece of crap myself?” Mike complained. “So what good are you, then?”

“I maintain the entire research facility, the drones, the enviro-suits and the remote ship from the station, Mr. Lee,” Betty replied, as if it had been a question.

“But you can’t go get my drone now, can you?” Mike griped as he stood up. “No, for that, you are completely worthless. So now I have to trek my ass out there and retrieve it. And it’s all the way over on the other side of Hell’s Wash. You know how much I hate that cable car, so do me a favor and just shut up for a change, will you?”

“Yes, Mr. Lee, it will be necessary for you to retrieve it. However, there is an incoming storm, so you must wait. I currently estimate that it will be out of the immediate area sometime after 16:00 hours this afternoon, should you have some other tasks you wish to complete during that time. I will inform you when the storm has moved out of the area.”

Still complaining, he stomped out of the room. Lindsey waited until his stomping feet could no longer be heard, then she spoke.

“I’m sorry if he was rude, Betty,” she said quietly. “We’re all tired and ready to get back home. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.”

Odd or not, Lindsey felt like she had to apologize for Mike’s comments. Even though Betty wasn’t a person, she had come to treat her like one. In fact, Betty was the only one lately who was never rude or irritable like the humans on the team had become. Should something go wrong, Betty was more likely to be their savior than any human. So Lindsey was always nice, both because she sincerely preferred civility and because she genuinely liked Betty, synthetic intelligence or not. So being anything but nice just wasn’t an option, at least not for her personally.

“That is generally how he speaks to me,” Betty replied. “Whether he is in a good mood or not.”

“Well, don’t take it personally,” she replied. “I promise not to talk to you like that.”

“No, you never do,” Betty replied. “Based on my analysis of our interactions, we are friends, just as you have observed.”

“Aw, thank you, Betty. See? We’re not all so bad.”

“No, of course not,” Betty replied, pausing for just a beat. “Not all of you, anyway.”

Before she could stop herself, Lindsey burst out laughing.

Chapter Two

Day 727
16:25 hours

Once the latest storm had finally moved off, Mike Lee left the facility after suiting up.

His mood was further soured when he realized that while the air in the habitat had long ago started smelling like a gym sock, the smell inside the enviro-suits was getting downright nasty. After all this time here, he was ready to leave. Yes, this planet was beautiful and contained some fascinating new species, but it was a wasted effort. Since the atmosphere was incompatible with human life, this ecologically diverse and beautiful planet was useless to the Company.

He had mixed feelings about it, of course. They all did. No researcher wanted to be a part of wanton destruction, but at the same time, it was this or teach. He didn’t think he had the patience for that. If he had to spend all day lecturing idiots, he’d lose his mind in no time.

Of course, he felt similarly about this job by the end of each project. But at least the irritations in this job changed regularly, unlike teaching, so that was something, anyway. He did his best to ignore the clunky feeling of his enviro-suit as he walked down the cleared path, knowing that annoyance would fade by the time he reached the cable car about a quarter of a mile away.

Now he just had to hope another one of those horrifying electrical storms didn’t pop up suddenly, like they had started doing in the last few months. They were usually at least a few hours apart, which is why he had waited until the system had given him the all clear, then hurried out as soon as the latest one had passed out of range. But then again, they had also been increasing in frequency and intensity over the last few months, so that now, he wondered. While he doubted he was a big enough target to be hit by lightening like the habitat had been at times, just the idea of being out here for one of those storms made him start to sweat and walk even faster. The sooner this was done, the sooner he could return to the safety of their habitat.

Then he could content himself with looking out the windows when he felt like experiencing the great outdoors, rather than marinating in his own stink just for a simple walk. Right now, that had an immense appeal. He scowled as he continued down the path, away from what passed for civilization around here. Of course, that wasn’t saying much, dump as this place was in his estimation.

Stenciled with the Company logo and their project ID, #762, the habitat had been constructed in a small natural clearing, a deep gully running alongside it which needed to be crossed upon occasion to retrieve malfunctioning drones sent to collect samples from more diverse areas than just their clearing. At the bottom of the gully was a raging river, so very far down that it made his skin crawl. It was scary as hell, even thinking about that drop, Mike reminded himself now. They all felt that way, so it wasn’t just him.

After all, the team had nicknamed it Hell’s Wash because it really did look like a drop into the watery pit of hell itself. Despite that, the Company’s solution to getting across was a slightly rickety-looking mesh metal basket with two benches and a cargo box, which they optimistically called a cable car. In his opinion, it was more like a deathtrap, suspended from a pair of hybrid steel and synthetic stranded cables that were anchored on both sides of a near-vertical ravine.

The river, about four hundred meters below the top of the ravine, was a fast-flowing torrent that was filled with rocks, vegetation and other debris that was slowly carving its way into the planet’s bedrock as it tumbled down from the higher altitudes of the mountains. Luckily, the team who had set up the facility had installed the cable car, or he’d never be able to reach his drone. He just had to cross it this one last time and come back, then never again.

He kept telling himself that, because he hated crossing it. He’d done it quite a few times now, but still, each time he felt like his heart might stop the whole time he was suspended over the water. When the wind hit it about mid-way across, it was even worse. The irony of his fear over this small airborne traverse and his complete calm during many planetary descents wasn’t completely lost on him.

Shaking it off, he tried to concentrate. When he couldn’t, he decided to ask the system to give him the exact coordinates of the downed drone. Then he could just think about that instead of crossing Hell’s Wash.

“Ms. Betty, what are the exact coordinates for the drone?”

He waited a moment, then tried again.

“Ms. Betty?”

When there was no answer, he rapped his helmet hard with his fist, since that generally worked when the suit comms acted up.

“Goddamn it! Ms. Betty! Can you hear me?”

This was unbelievable, he thought, truly aggravated by having his suit’s communication system finally die on him now of all times. Like so much of the gear by the end of any project, it had been touchy lately, near the end of its expected life as it was. When it had first started acting up, he had considered asking Monica if she could look at it. But he hadn’t been sure how that might go over with her after everything. So since a good rap on the helmet had always clicked it back on, he had just stopped worrying about it. Certain he wouldn’t need his suit much between then and departure, he hadn’t done a thing to get it fixed. So now here he was, stuck out here with a completely busted comm.

Of all the times this had to happen, it had to be today. It couldn’t have made it just one more day. No, because like everything here, it was a poorly made piece of crap, outsourced to the lowest cost bidder without regard for quality. And now he was stuck out here without anyone to talk him through crossing this goddamn river one last time.

“Every goddamn thing in that stinking facility is breaking down now,” he raged, banging his helmet with a clenched fist in the hopes that more force would work.

But there was no click, which made him want to scream. Now it would take even longer for him to find the goddamn drone because he’d probably have to traipse around like a lost hiker until he tripped over it. He was so sick of this place, he thought resentfully. He always felt like this by the end of a project, but this time, the feelings were especially fierce. This facility was literally the biggest piece of shit he had ever been stationed at, and right now, he was completely out of patience.

Without even realizing it, he started yelling.

“I hate this! This is bullshit! Everything here is a piece of shit!”

He felt a little bit better after that. Since Ms. Betty couldn’t talk him through it like she normally did, being pissed at this place might just give him the distraction he needed to get over Hell’s Wash one last time. So he continued to rant about his hatred for being forced to live in a stench-filled shit-hole and the rotten meat smell that was inescapable inside his junked suit. His shouting in the confines of his lonely helmet continued until he noticed his ears were ringing.

The shouting helped as a distraction, at least until he reached the cable car. He would be suspended over that raging water so far below him that it would look almost miniaturized, even as he knew that nothing could survive if caught up in its grasp. There was something prehistoric and barely controlled about it, just like the rest of this lush environment, and it frightened him deeply.

He didn’t trust the Company to get anything right, not with their cheapskate ideas about the “cost efficiency of timed maintenance,” which was now resulting in the facility and their gear falling apart piece by piece. Like the rest of the physical plant, these cables were probably on their last legs, too. Fortunately, the system safeguards meant it would only run if the cables were within desired specifications for safe operation. Otherwise, he’d never risk it.

Holding his breath, he stepped onto the cable car and closed the gate behind him. His heart pounding, he reminded himself that he had done this many times before, so this last trip would be fine. When his breathing had finally evened out so his heart was no longer racing, he pushed the button to begin the crossing.

With a hard jolt, the cage lurched away from the loading platform. He flinched, clutching a little more tightly to the rail. He hated this part, how the car dangled under the cables, swaying with the wind and any motion from its passengers. It gave him the creeps.

In spite of his gut feelings, the car moved out over the open air of the ravine as smoothly as it ever did, jolting and shivering slightly, until he could clearly see the river below. It was raging today, brown and foamy, with a yellowish mist in places where it dropped between great slabs of rock into holes it had excavated in what must have been softer layers of rock beneath. This planet was ripping down a mountain with water, much like the Company would tear down the planet itself using giant mining machines.

But scary or not for all its power, this planet was doomed. The thought almost brought him a small moment of relief until the cable car suddenly went dead. Judging by the control panel, the power had cut out again. It lurched to a complete, jolting stop just as the wind hit it, swinging it wildly and nearly making him scream. Remembering the storm which had just swept through, he assumed it might have been hit earlier, since that was hardly a rare thing, after all. Eventually it would begin working again, he knew from past experience. But as the basket twirled in the gusts of wind like it was trying to shake him loose, that awareness didn’t make it any easier to tolerate now.

“No! No! No! Not now, goddamn it! This is bullshit!”

He hit the button again and nothing happened. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised, because this was just like everything else, barely functional and clearly without power for some goddamn reason. That he was going to be stuck here until it started again, hanging out in the wind over this drop, made him want to kill someone. In a second, Mike Lee completely lost his temper.

“Fuck it! Fuck the drone! It can rot out there for all I care! As soon as this piece of shit starts again, I am going right back to the habitat! I am so sick of everything here always breaking all the time! This is bullshit!”

He was still busy screaming when his suit’s oxygen supply died.

Chapter Three

Day 727
16:37 hours

Dave Murray couldn’t believe what he was seeing on the remote camera.

Mike Lee was in the cable car over the middle of Hell’s Wash, pawing furiously at his helmet and dancing around like he was having a seizure, the cable car swaying wildly from his antics along with the rising wind.

“Ms. Betty,” he snapped. “What’s wrong with Mike?”

“I am uncertain, Mr. Murray,” Ms. Betty replied, sounding like the soulless bitch she was. “I have lost communications with him. I believe his communications system is offline – ”

He cut her off before she could continue, his eyes bugging as he saw Mike lurching around, banging his head on the supports and bouncing off the safety rail like he was having a temper tantrum. As if that weren’t enough, a strong gust of wind hit it then, bouncing him around like a rag doll so that he almost went right over the side.

“It looks like a lot more than a radio problem!” he roared, horrified by what he was seeing. “Just help him! He’s going to fall right over the rail otherwise!”

But before she could even reply, another sharp gust of wind hit it. Mike was thrown into the safety rail hard, losing his balance just as another gust hit, knocking him right over the rail, so that he suddenly disappeared from the camera’s view below the cable car. Dave blinked, not believing what he had just seen. Then he blinked again, ducking his head to rub his eyes, telling himself he had imagined it. Mike would be right there once his eyes cleared. He was just tired and it was making him as crazy as everyone else.

But when he finally lifted his head to look again, Mike was still gone.

He knew there was no way Mike would survive the fall, much less the water, rocks and debris in the deep canyon below. Except for orbital photography, they hadn’t explored the river downstream while they had been there. It simply wasn’t a priority and with the difficulty of the terrain, the elevation changes and their scheduled departure in just days, they probably wouldn’t be able to find Mike’s body before they left.

He couldn’t believe it. All this time with nothing going wrong but minor irritants, and now this. It was unreal. This was supposed to be the capstone of his brilliant career, the last project he had to manage. He had paid his dues over the years by always being a Company man, so once retired, he would call in some of those favors. He had counted on it.

With his spotless and distinguished record intact and the Company’s endorsement, he would be a favorite on the lecture circuit. He would finally get the respect he deserved, instead of spending his life on the ass-end of nowhere being treated like some random number. He was tired of working for a bunch of money-grubbing pricks who had never really appreciated him, despite all he had done for them.

He had decided to retire more than a year ago, after all, even if he hadn’t told anyone yet. He simply couldn’t stand the idea of another project after this one, whether he took time off between them or not. It had been so intolerable that he had told himself all he had to do was get through this last project, then he was done. So far, that had been enough to keep him from having a meltdown in the interim. It had all been going perfectly, right up until now.

But now, for the first time in his career, he had lost a team member on his watch. Now, his spotless record would be tarnished, whether or not that was fair. There would be an investigation, he knew. But even worse, the outcome of his guilt was inevitable.

The Company would never accept blame, no matter what was discovered once this was formally investigated. After all, he knew how that went. The whole thing was nothing more than another ass-covering exercise for Corporate, no matter what they called it. Contributing factors like the weather and the faulty equipment would never suit them as good enough reasons for this, he knew. That put it all back on them to maintain their employees’ safety in the field, giving Mike’s family fuel for a lawsuit.

They’d never let that happen. So instead, it would all come down on him. They would say that he had failed to keep his team safe by not closely directing the techs to keep the gear in working order, not that the Company had outsourced their gear based on cost and killed an employee as a direct result. His reputation would be sacrificed to save theirs. This would ruin him, he knew. Instead of the future he had always planned for, he would die a penniless old man, utterly forgotten.

He had to do something. Mike was already gone, so he couldn’t help him. But he could still save himself if he handled this right.

“Ms. Betty, erase the cable car footage.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Murray, but I cannot. In the event of a fatality, I must preserve all records for the investigation.”

“He committed suicide,” Dave yelled before he could stop himself. “You saw it. He lost his mind, then his balance. No one needs to investigate. If it wasn’t suicide, then it was a careless accident on his part.”

“I am not in a position to determine that, Mr. Murray,” the evil bitch replied, like she enjoyed ruining his life. “That is a job for the investigators.”

“You goddamn filthy, soulless piece of metal,” he seethed, “listen to me. This is not my fault.”

“Of course not, Mr. Murray. The investigators will clear you after examining the data.”

“Are you stupid?” he screamed, smacking the closest speaker he could reach. “It won’t matter that I had nothing to do with it! Don’t you even know anything about the company that built you?”

“Of course I do. Founded in the late twenty-first century and based on a mission of aiding society through interstellar exploration and – ” she began before he cut her off.

“Shut up, you stupid bitch!” he screamed. “This is a goddamn nightmare!”

He had stopped screaming by the time Lindsey Mendez showed up, but he was not far from starting again. It was like she had a sensor for people on the edge or something, he thought sourly, wondering at her timing. He glared at her as she came into the room.

“Are you all right? Betty said you were upset and I should come talk to you.”

“So I’m upset, am I?” he snapped. “Well, since Mike just committed suicide right in front of my very eyes, yeah, I guess I’m a little upset.”

She went white, all her normal cockiness flying right out the window. “What? What do you mean? I just talked to him.”

“Maybe I should be asking you what you said, then,” he ground out before he could stop himself. “Because he just killed himself.”

“Mr. Murray,” Ms. Betty interrupted, like she couldn’t wait to snitch on him.

“Shut up right now,” he roared, smacking the speaker with a closed fist. “You have your precious protocol, so just shut up and stick to it. If you say another word about this, so help me God, I will rip out every last inch of your wiring myself. Shut up about this. That’s an order. I have enough on my plate without having to listen to you right now.”

“Mike is dead?” Lindsey whispered like she was having trouble with her hearing. “He’s dead? How?”

“Near as I can tell, he had some kind of temper tantrum on the cable car, then he either jumped or lost his balance,” he replied slowly, trying it out to see how it sounded. “You know how on edge he was. Old Ms. Ironsides here filed a report on him herself earlier today for breaking protocol. She tried reaching him when he was flipping out, but his comm was dead, like maybe he turned it off so no one could stop him. I guess he finally just lost it.”

To his relief, that version of the story sounded pretty plausible. He ignored the twinge of guilt he felt, because he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He wasn’t the one who had designed or purchased those substandard suits, or built this rickety facility. He wasn’t the one that stranded a team for two years on a toxic rock without a break, so that they lost their minds. That was all on the Company.

He hoped any investigation would show that he wasn’t responsible for this tragedy, but he knew that was probably wishful thinking. Determined as they would be to shift blame, the best he could do would be to slow it down by not giving them anything concrete. With any luck, by the time they started looking to assign blame because Mike’s family smelled a payout, he’d already be out from under their clutches and on the lecture circuit. At that point, they would have vouched for him, so they’d just find another patsy, like maybe Ms. Mendez here. He wasn’t sure how likely that was, but after all the time he had vowed to retire with a perfect record, he wasn’t going to give up on his dream now.

“I can’t believe Mike is gone,” she whispered, her expression haunted. “I knew he was edgy, but this? I never expected this. He didn’t seem depressed when I talked to him. Frustrated, maybe, but not depressed.”

“Who knows what’s going through someone’s head to do something like that,” he replied, hoping she would shut up and drop it. “I’m having trouble accepting it, myself.” Thinking about how to get rid of her, Dave spoke quietly. “Listen, you know I rely on you for the sensitive things. Is there any chance you can tell the rest of the team about this? I just don’t know that I can even talk about it yet.”

“Of course,” she said, blinking like she was dazed. “I’ll do that now.”

Once she was gone, he dug out his antique journal. Archaic though it was to actually write things down in detail anymore, he still kept one for every project, dating each entry. More importantly, he left some blank space between entries, which would allow him to revisit entries later if he needed to cover his ass. After all, it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen this exact same situation before.

He had come up with the journal trick on his very first project, when the lead researcher had been blamed for an accident that was actually caused by the Company cutting corners, much like this one. That poor bastard had done nothing wrong, except limiting his complaints each time something malfunctioned, used to it as he had been. But it hadn’t mattered to the Company, and they had come down on him hard. They had needed a scapegoat, and since there was nothing in writing to document the previous problems, they had ruined his life. Given the choice of them or him, he had never stood a chance.

Dave had never forgotten that lesson. He had started keeping a journal then, in addition to submitting any complaints formally. His journal was where he could document his observations and suspicions in detail, and if he ever needed to, he could use it to refresh his memory if anything got really hairy.

He knew this was going to be one of those times when it might be especially useful to have the journal as corroborating evidence. On his console, he called up his reporting files, then pulled the relevant reports on Mike Lee. It was time to create a little history to support his version of the story. Nothing too grim, but just enough detail of Mike’s mood changes to foreshadow this outcome in the minds of anyone reading it.

So now, he flipped back several months in his journal and began writing.

End of Sample...

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