By Adrian Simmons
“Can you fix it?” Captain Rodriguez asks the moment I’m awake enough from Deepsleep to answer.
The Yinoldi colony is off to a bad start. The ship hit hard, it looks like it even rolled once or twice. The ship doesn’t matter, now that we’re here, but the breeder reactor inside- mostly inside it- does.
“I’ll need time to check it,” I say. My brain works slow, thick; how much time? How much time has already passed? Then, because I’m finally aware enough to realize that neither she nor I should be having this kind of high-level conversation: “Where is Mr. Traung?”
“Dead,” she says. “We lost half the set-up professionals due to rapid-wake.”
I want to tell her that I’m just an anthropologist- is there anything less useful now that Earth is likely no more- I dropped out of nuclear engineering as soon as it got hard. I want to tell her that, but instead I ask for eight hours and she gives me six.
Five hours later:
“No, captain,” I say. “We’ve lost too much of the liquid sodium coolant. A plutonium reaction is simply out of the question. So we’re left with the uranium fuel, which can put in the emergency reactor. It’ll boil water, it’ll produce electricity, but it won’t last near as long as the breeder reactor would have.”
Captain Rodriquez looks at me, looks past me to the dead reactor. My team and I haven’t even gotten to look at Yinoldi yet. I can see it behind her, behind the wreckage and temporary shelters and hastily assembled fence. A great orange veldt beneath a pinkish sky, and on the horizon a forest of spherical trees the size of houses. Two of the three moons are high up in the sky; right now I can’t remember their names.
Just inside the fence I see another team working at digging graves. I don’t even know who has made it and who hasn’t.
“How long can we last on the fuel we have?” Captain Rodriguez asks. Somehow she’s in a clean uniform, managing to look the part.
“Maybe ten years,” I answer. Best guess. “After that we’ll have to change plans.”
”Ten years to find Uranium…” she muses.
“And lead,” I answer, “to contain the waste. Amid the usual production of metals and materials.”
“If another ship comes,” one of my team—I can’t remember her name—says, “we can use their reactor to get ours up.”
Rodriguiz shrugs. “If it doesn’t come in five years, it won’t come at all.”
Six years later:
“How long has it been eating through the cables?” I ask.
Xian shrugs, “I don’t know, probably within a year or two of planetfall.”
“What is the risk?” Old Lady Rodriguez asks.
“It’ll overhead and melt down,” I say. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the main risk.
“Can you shut it off?” she asks.
“Not easily,” I offer. “We’ve had to cannibalize some important parts. We didn’t expect the control system to fall apart.”
Nobody in the meeting speaks. We have to have the reactor. The machines, and the ‘bots that plow and harvest and build upon that great orange veldt, the reactor feeds all of it. But we haven’t found uranium to feed it, and without the reactor we’ll never find uranium.
We’ve already had to monkey with the controls to get it to work, and now we can’t monkey it back and everyone knows that there is only one way to shut it down.
My mouth moves, my tongue forms the words, “I’ll go.”
”No you won’t,” the old lady says, “Xian will. Get him a radsuit.”
The radsuit will help. He’ll just shorten his lifespan by twenty years.
I argue it, of course. She’s right, of course. I’m the senior nuclear engineer. The best of what was left.
Xian suits up, calmer than I would be. He lets himself into the reactor and disappears.
“What are the odds?” Rodriguez asks.
“That we can get it shut down? Fifty/fifty, honestly. But if we can’t we’ve got to get everyone to Lick River in six hours.”
She ages a year in front of my eyes. Nodding toward the reactor she asks, “Will it still run?”
“If we can find some rubber that the fungus hasn’t eaten through, I’d give it another three years.”
Two years later:
The groundcars jostle and rumble through the woods- we make ethanol for them, but we can’t make new cars. The other two cars keep close, the great compound crossbows, fore and aft, waiting to drive away any of the hundreds of creatures that lurk in these cage-trees. I keep my feet off the floor; knees tucked up to my chest. Stones, crucial stones, jumble and grind beneath me.
We come out of the woods: across the veldt the compound waits. Ordered rows of plants, a field of semi-domesticated Roxen, smoke from fires. Behind us, one of the Pin-heads stretches its sensory stalk up into the air, tracking the cars. We’ll have to conduct business inside.
The gates open and we roll in and to a stop. The kids are always first to greet us. They run out, dodging around the hulks of the cannibalized ‘bots and machines. Dressed in hides and woven plant fibers, they have faces that are older than they should be.
Everybody is quiet, waiting.
Old Lady Rodriguez comes out with the other elders. She leans on her cane, looks at me then at the rocks. “Is that it, is that uranium?”
“I didn’t say I found uranium, I said I found the solution to our problem.”
She waits while I settle a square of glasshopper hide across my knees and use a bit of thick copper wire embedded in an anteleap horn to chip at a hand-sized shard of translucent stone.
“I’m a busy woman,” she says, the years creeping in around her eyes, “what are you doing?”
It isn’t an easy solution, but it’s worked before.
“I’m making a flint arrowhead.”
About the Author
Adrian Simmons is a Norman, Oklahoma, based reader, writer and editor. His essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Internet Review of Science Fiction, Black Gate, and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in James Gunn’s Ad Astra Magazine, and Pseudopod. He has hiked over 900 miles. He is famous on the internet (in a good way). He is still waiting to live in a center-left nation. He is one-third the editorial team of heroicfantasyquarterly.com.