Ira Hart, knowing he had exactly three seconds to live, gently placed his hands against Caitlyn Castillo's waist and kissed her for the last time.
There were, of course, precautions and procedures in place for such dire circumstances. The Asteria had been equipped with three escape pods and a plethora of early warning sensors, but not even the most advance safety protocols could keep Caitlyn Castillo out of harm's way.
"Move," Orlan shouted. "We need to dump the core samples and use the hydrogen as propulsion."
Caitlyn pushed her way back in front of the consol. "You mean a bomb."
"Yes, a much smaller one than that dying star." Orlan switched on the intercom. "Captain, I'm getting opposition down here."
"Cut the cargo," the intercom hissed. "That's an order."
"Even if we get a boost from the hydrogen without blowing up the ship, there's no way we could outrun the gravitational force of the star."
"I'm not suggesting we try," Orlan interrupted, "but with that momentum we might be able to slingshot the escape pods around that moon."
"Do you have a better idea?"
Caitlyn was silent.
Orlan grunted condescendingly and ejected the cargo.
Ira could feel the slight vibration in his heels as the cargo was jettisoned into space. He knew Orlan would attempt to create a controlled explosion to propel The Asteria closer to the nearby moon.
Orlan had always been overzealous, even reckless, especially when it concerned The Asteria and money.
Orlan and Ira had purchased The Asteria together, but because of Orlan's precarious management style, 65% of The Asteria belonged to Sovii Corp, a mining conglomerate on Arizio-81.
"She's beautiful isn't she?" Orlan said, placing a hand on the old, colonial ship. "And they only want 17,000 credits for her."
"17,000?" Ira scratched his head. "We'll spend twice that much getting it up to code. Does it even run?"
Orlan turned back toward the ship. "These backwater colonists have no idea what this ship is really worth. Can you believe they've been using it as a silo for the last four years?"
"You've already promised them the 17,000 haven't you?"
Orlan smiled. "This ship is our future. You'll see. Sure it needs a little work, but they don't build them like this anymore."
Ira frowned. "With the kind of modifications I'll need to do, we'll need to take out another loan."
"You let me worry about the money. You just get this thing in the air."
Sovii Corp insisted a new Captain be installed and demanded a higher yield from each mining expedition.
Ira's position maintaining the engine and operating the mining equipment remained relatively unchanged after the new work orders had been enforced.
Orlan, on the other hand, had been removed as captain and demoted to second mate. As a result, the two things he cared about most, his pride and wallet, were painfully empty.
"I don't know how long I can keep this up," Ira said wearily. "We've been mining for over a year, and we're barely breaking even."
"If we just stay out a little longer," Orlan pleaded, "another four months maybe, we should be-"
"No, I can't. I've been away from Caitlyn too long already."
"What, so now a woman is more important than our business?"
"You know what she means to me. Maybe this ship is your future, but she's my future."
"You're right," Orlan huffed. "I'm sorry, but don't give up on this yet. We're so close. Why don't you bring her with us? She's handy with circuitry, isn't she?"
"We don't have the credits to hire another person."
"Then I'll give her my cut until we can find the money. That's fair isn't it?" Orlan put his hand on Ira's shoulder. "I can make this work. Trust me."
Ira hesitantly nodded. "Alright, I'll ask her."
Orlan made a silent oath that both would be full before the end of their current expedition.
"Where are we?" Captain Rak demanded.
"I took a slight detour," Orlan said smiling.
"Why wasn't I notified? Is something wrong with the ship?"
"The ship's fine." Orlan eased the ship into orbit around the dying star.
"I demand an explanation," Captain Rak snarled.
"I've found a way for all of us to make a lot of money - enough to buy back The Asteria."
"You're tittering on the brink of insubordination. Now return this ship to its previous course."
"No," Orlan said, locking the consol. "Just hear me out. There are enough resources in that dying star for all of us to become very, very rich. We hack the data logs and sell it at the Atoxx Colonies without Sovii Corp ever finding out. You could use the money to retire."
The Captain's expression remained like stone.
"Or," Orlan smiled, "you could stay on as Captain and we could all be partners. We wouldn't have to answer to anyone but ourselves. We'd be free. How often does an opportunity like this happen?"
Captain Rak licked his lips. "Alright, make it so."
It was a desperate plan; of course, they were all going to die in just under 21 minutes, so any plan seemed appropriately desperate.
"The ship isn't equipped for this kind of extraction." Ira pointed to the readout. "Even if the hull can withstand the forces of the dying star, our most durable cargo bay is full of ore for Sovii Corp."
"So," Orlan shrugged.
"So we'd need to retrofit four of the smaller bays, and we don't have the material for that."
Orlan scowled. "We're not leaving until we collect enough resources to buy back the ship. There has to be a way. You're smart. I know you'll figure it out."
Ira shook his head. "If we don't have the parts, then we don't have the parts. There's nothing I can do about that."
"What about the engine?" Caitlyn interrupted. "These old colony ships were just repurposed battle cruisers from the Outpost Wars. The ship can't be using more than 40% of its potential."
Ira shook his head. "I know what you're thinking and it's a bad idea."
"Quit being a prude," Orlan jeered. "Go on Caitlyn."
She continued, "We reinforce the walls with a proton field created and stabilized by the engine."
"It's not as easy as she's making it sound." Ira looked at the Captain. "The engine is powerful, but it's old. In order to maintain that kind of field, someone needs to constantly keep the levels in check."
"Isn't that your job anyway?" Captain Rak asked.
"Mining a dying star isn't the same as mining a drifting asteroid or a lifeless planet. The smallest mistake and we could get pulled in by the star's gravity beyond our thrusters' threshold. I can't mine the star and maintain the engine."
The Captain pondered for a moment then turned to Caitlyn. "Can you keep the engine stable?"
She nodded. "I think so."
Captain Rak took a deep breath. "Fine, make the changes to the engine and the cargo bay. Ira, get the mining equipment ready."
Ira knew the gravitational pull of the collapsing star would keep the ship from reaching the nearby moon, Orlan's most logical destination. The force required to break the star's gravity would tear the ship in two before it freed them.
"Keep it steady," Ira shouted into the intercom. "The power fluctuation from the engine is too much for the mining gear."
"Well I'm sorry," Caitlyn shouted back through the intercom. "This is a lot harder than I thought, okay. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Ira sighed. "Loop the shield feedback through the second sub-controller to stabilize the power distribution."
"What do you think I've been doing?"
"And there's still this much flux? This is getting too dangerous. Cut power to the mining gear, reallocate everything to forward thrusters, and back us out of here. We'll have to live with whatever we've gotten so far."
"No," Orlan interrupted. "It's not enough! Caitlyn don't you dare cut power to that equipment."
"You don't understand Orlan. We have more than enough power," Caitlyn clarified. "That's the problem - it's too much power. The newer equipment isn't designed to handle this much."
"Just a little bit more," Orlan commanded.
"Ignore him Caitlyn. Redirect the power," Ira said, retracting the mining equipment.
"I can't," Caitlyn shouted. "He's overridden the thrusters."
"Orlan," Ira shouted, "Don't be an idiot. The engine's pumping out too much energy for the coils to dispense cleanly. If we don't cut back and redirect the power something's going to blow."
"We're so close. We can't quit now."
Suddenly the hull groaned and jerked forward as the mining equipment was ripped into the gravity of the dying star. Ira quickly ejected the leads before the ship was pulled in too. "Orlan, please don't-"
Ira's pleas went silent as the intercom and power cutout while The Asteria drifted further and helplessly into orbit around the dying star.
If he was going to save the ship, Ira knew he had to stop Orlan from blasting the cargo.
"Ira," Orlan growled into the intercom. "Begin accelerating the ions. Ira?"
The intercom buzzed with static.
"Damnit," Orlan pounded the consol. "The intercoms are still cutting out. We'll have to do this manually." He grabbed Caitlyn's wrist and examined her watch. "Tell Ira to accelerate the ions in exactly ten minutes. Go. Hurry up. It'll take you at least six minutes just to reach him."
Caitlyn glowered at Orlan then reluctantly sprinted to the engine room.
"What's the damage?" Captain Rak asked with a scowl.
Ira slid out from the electrical vent. "Navigation, thruster control, long-range communication, shield-damping, all of it - everything's fried."
"Can you fix it?" Orlan asked.
"Not without the parts." Ira scratched his head. "I could probably get the intercom and two of the thrusters operational. Luckily, the life-support systems are built into a highly adaptable island relay or we'd all be dead right now."
Ira had designed, built, and installed the island relay after some early engine benchmarks for The Asteria. The power output was exponential higher than any other galactic engine he had tested.
The original cruiser dual bow propulsion, which was designed to handle the higher power yield, had been replaced by three dynamic plasma thrusters when the ship had been repurposed for colonization. The plasma thrusters were better suited for continual, long-range travel, but also acted as a power bottleneck for the rest of the ship.
To increase system stability, Ira added three Zarrii-based magnetic thrusters with built-in relays to compensate for and distribute the obstructed power.
The modifications increased The Asteria's propulsion and electronic threshold by 70%. The only drawback was the delicate relationship between the ships electrical systems and the strain placed on the thrusters.
As a precaution, Ira designed a smaller and independent magnetic thruster to stabilize the ship's life-support systems in case of a thruster malfunction.
Caitlyn laid her head against Ira's shoulder. "I can't believe I let this happen."
"It wasn't your fault." Ira glared at Orlan.
Orlan looked away. "The engine still works, doesn't it? This old beast doesn't know how to die and neither do we." He sighed. "Let's just get out of here."
Orlan had refused to give-up on The Asteria. Even though the business was quickly accruing debt and each expedition was longer and more grueling than the last, Orlan knew the market would be ripe if they could just give it a little more time.
Unfortunately time, like their money, was running out. To stay afloat, Orlan began making deals transporting illegal cargo for questionable and shadowy corporations.
When The Asteria failed to deliver four crates of exotic and endangered Qu'zarin red-billed falcons, Orlan had to sell stock in the company to repay the angry and animal-loving gangsters.
In his haste, Orlan thought he was selling stock to a dozen different companies, but later learned each of those companies was owned by Sovii Corp, who at that point owned 65% of The Asteria.
"Agreed," The Captain said sternly. "How long are these repairs going to take?"
Ira sighed and shook his head. "I don't know. The intercoms will take about 15 minutes. The thrusters will take longer. I need to repair each one individually."
"What if Caitlyn helps you?"
Ira had met Caitlyn at the 48th Intergalactic Techno Fair on the moon of Caspirion-II. She was arguing with one of the presenters so vehemently that a crowd had formed around her.
When she disproved the presenter's theories with an elegant and simple equation, Ira felt a flutter in his heart he had never felt before.
He followed her through the fair like a lost puppy, trying to buildup the courage to speak with her. After a full afternoon of being followed, she stopped him midstride and demanded an explanation for his odd behavior.
Her beauty left him speechless, and he could not remember how science or food or life could have existed before seeing her. Annoyed and unimpressed, she turned to leave.
Suddenly, he blurted a variation to her equation that accounted for deviations she had not imagined. She stopped and reworked the math in her head.
She laughed and shook her head unable to believe this stranger could so casually improve a theory she had spent months slaving over.
Ira could not actually remember saying anything. Whenever he thought back on the event all he could recall was the fire and wonder in her eyes when she spoke about the universe, and the subtle smile she tried to hide when arguing her theories.
"She'll be busy fixing the engine coils, the distributor, and the sub-controllers - at least what's left of them."
"See," Orlan said with faint cheer. "It's not so bad."
"No," Caitlyn groaned. "It's worse than you think. The longer it takes us to fix the thrusters, the more we get pulled into the star's gravity. The engine has enough power to breaks us free, but the thruster might not. The longer we drift, the harder it will be for us to get free."
"Then get to work," The Captain ordered.
"Captain, ETA is ten minutes."
"Fine," The Captain's voice hissed. "The rest of the crew is already boarding the escape pods." The Captain hesitated. "This is going to work, isn't it?"
"I don't know," Orlan sighed "The Asteria is an old ship. but she's far from retired. There's plenty of fight still in her."
"Let's hope so."
When Marcus Rak learned he would be captaining The Asteria, he was unimpressed. The ship was a relic from the Outpost Wars, repurposed as a colonizer, and then repurposed a third time as a mining vessel.
It was true that ships were built tougher in the early days, but The Asteria was nearing 200 years old, and its outdated technology did little to inflate his rank or ego.
"What is this?" Captain Rak grunted. "It looks like a busted farm turbine and a couple of Scootme engines."
"Oh, well it is," Ira nodded. "Caitlyn and I put it together on Delphlore after we bought the ship from the colonists."
"What happened," Rak asked, tapping the machine, "The two of you couldn't afford a water purifying rig?"
"Uhm, well I suppose, but those big rigs fall apart after a few long hauls. Besides," Ira pointed at the unique machine, "This is more efficient than any stock rig."
"Is that right? Hmm," Captain Rak scowled. "It looks like junk to me."
Ira shrugged. "Technically it is, or was. The colonists were willing to throw it in with The Asteria. It was a real bargain. They scavenged most of the equipment on the ship for their settlement, so we had to get creative. Luckily, they had some amazing, classic tech lying around, you know, the kind of stuff from that first big exodus. Anyway, most of the ship's systems are built from of that."
Captain Rak lifted an eyebrow. "So most of this ship is running on junk that you've managed to string together?"
Ira smiled. "Impressive, right?"
"That's not the first word that comes to mind." Rak sighed. "I'll have to see if I can't get Sovii Corp to invest in some...traditional equipment."
Sovii Corp gave him a budget for a crew of 20 and a strict delivery schedule which he made every effort to adhere to, but as the expeditions lead further into the pirate Zar'Toriza's territory and unpredictable danger, Captain Rak requested increased pay and a promotion.
Sovii Corp was not only unmoved by Rak's request, they took action to extinguish any further desires by cutting Rak's budget by 30%, forcing him to ration food, meter energy usage, and terminate three of his crew.
When Sovii Corp denied his reasonable request, Captain Rak knew his career would ascend no further. Being a man of ambition, he began to ponder ways of circumventing Sovii Corp's contract. Hearing Orlan's plan to buy back the ship was particularly tempting, especially with the promise of a stake in the company.
Marcus Rak's family preferred the term Honor when describing the heights of their pride, but Marcus knew ambition was the more accurate and less insidious term.
His family had a long line of military service. His great, great, great grandfather had served in the Outpost Wars, garnering respect and wealth among the newly formed colonies.
Every generation since, a Rak had held a position of power in the military, that is, every Rak until Marcus.
There were no great wars for him to fight, which meant promotions were slow and seldom given.
In an attempt to reach the heights of his predecessors, he headed an unsanctioned mission against the scavengers inhabiting the asteroid belt of Perrisius I.
The incursion resulted in several innocent deaths, and Rak's eventual discharge from military service.
Due to his family's name and influence the incident was quickly classified and covered up. His family's disappointment, however, was blatantly obvious.
Marcus abandoned the shameful looks of his father and mother, attempting to fulfill his ambitions in the corporate world.
Though Sovii Corp had no direct purpose for Captain Rak, they hired him hoping to strengthen their brand with the old world traditionalists. He, unfortunately, saw this new employment as the opportunity that would bring his redemption.
He falsified a few of the Sovii documents while Orlan modified the black box to obscure their change in trajectory. They quickly and excitedly continued their plan before the others had the sense to stop them.
In truth, the whole crew was mere moments from their impending demise.
Ira knew their end was an eventuality for he had calculated it to the attosecond. His attempts to avert the aforementioned event had, to the crew's dismay, proven unsuccessful.
"We're out of time," Ira shouted into the intercom.
"Then find more," Orlan shouted back. "Only one escape pod launched. Half the crew is still on board."
The escape pod jostled against the conflicting forces, but managed, miraculously, to escape the star's pull. The six crew members cheered as their destination, the moon, appeared brighter and closer.
The escape pod drifted in the moon's orbit for 17 days before a Mauler Transport picked up their distress beacon.
Aside from dehydration, the survivors were relatively unharmed, a trait they attributed to Ira Hart.
They spent several months searching the system for their silent savior, but they failed to find him and were forced to give-up searching.
They glanced back at The Asteria. The ship appeared to be moving slower. The emitted light seemed redder and was sluggishly dimming.
Ira groaned and switched on a third plasma thruster. Sparks jumped from the unshielded circuit board. "You've got three more minutes, but you know that won't be enough time for everyone."
"It'll have to be," Orlan threw two survival packs into the second escape pod. "Now get down here."
The survival packs would last no more than three weeks, but Orlan was confident a patrol from the outpost would reach the distress beacon before then. They would be fine. They'd make it. Orlan was sure of it.
Ira always had a way of building some kind of contraption or apparatus that would get them out of the worst situations.
Maybe The Asteria would be destroyed in the process, but that's why they had insurance. Orlan would find a way to get them out of the Sovii Corp contracts, and they would start over. Orlan might even convince Captain Rak to tag along too. After everything, he wasn't so bad.
Orlan and Ira had started over before. They could do it again.
"I can't," Ira said, already re-working the second magnetic thruster.
"You've done all you can," Captain Rak interrupted. "It's time to abandon ship."
"No. Without the fourth thruster, The Asteria will reach terminal velocity before the escape pods can break free of the star's gravity. I have to stay or the rest of you will die."
Ira shoved the circuit board in place. With any luck there was enough of the mining gear still intact to pull in more hydrogen from the star. It certainly wouldn't be his brightest idea, but it was definitely his bravest.
With the hydrogen gone, the star would contract, and if his modifications to the magnetic thrusters worked, then The Asteria would shield the escape pods while the star expanded.
This was, of course, theoretical. The heat and force of the star collapsing and expanding could just as easily destroy the escape pods. Or worse, he could have miscalculated, and the star would destroy The Asteria before the escape pods ever had a chance to leave the ship.
The Asteria was going to be destroyed. That was inevitable, and perhaps, his one advantage. Since moving the ship was irrelevant, he could redirect all the engine's power through the thrusters to create a magnetic field, slowing and maybe even controlling the expanse of the star.
Those few seconds would be enough for the others to escape. However, the unfortunate constant in his equation was the unavoidable death of the engineer who remained to maintain and monitor the engine.
"Don't be stupid," Orlan pleaded. "If you stay then you'll die."
Ira sighed. "Tell Caitlyn I love her."
"You'll have to tell her yourself. She's already on her way to get you."
"No," Ira gasped. "There isn't enough time."
"Caitlyn," Ira shouted, "Get back to the escape pods."
"Not unless you're coming with me."
"I can't. Someone has to stay behind."
Caitlyn crossed her arms. "Then I'm staying too."
"I'm not going to let you die. I can't...I just, I need to know you're going to be alright." He reached out to grab her hand, but she grabbed his first.
"I'll be alright with you," She said smiling softly.
She remembered the night he asked her to travel on The Asteria. How he took her to the ship and showed her the constellations of all the places they would go together.
He was nervous and clumsy, but so sweet, and she saw something unexpectedly genuine about him. The other men that had been pursuing her busied themselves by showing off their experiments and equations like spoiled children, but Ira was content being in awe of the universe.
He told her the military had christened the ship after a titan goddess, Asteria, who commanded falling stars. The Generals thought the name suited their power and military pursuits, but Asteria was also the goddess of nocturnal oracles and prophetic dreams.
Ira told her that he always thought exploration and science was more like a prophetic dream than a method of unbiased observation. The universe was so beautiful and unexpected. It was like a dream that he was always on the verge of waking up from.
The wonder Ira saw in the universe was so refreshing, Caitlyn knew she had to go with him. In that moment she knew she loved him.
"No," Ira shook his head, "You don't understand. The Asteria isn't going to make it, and neither will you if you stay on the ship."
"I know, and I'm not leaving you." She flipped on the intercom. "Orlan, finish loading the escape pods and prepare to leave."
"Uh," Orlan hesitated. "What about you?"
"Ira needs my help with the engine."
"Uhm, yeah. Alright." Orlan closed his eyes and pressed his head against the cold metal of the escape pod. "Thank you, both of you, for everything."
Suddenly the ship jerked forward.
"The reaction's starting. The coms won't work through the interference. Goodbye Orlan." Ira cut off the intercoms before Orlan could respond. He rubbed his forehead. "There has to be a way. There has to be." His eyes went wide with a revelation.
He stared at the sensor readout and then back at Caitlyn.
She tilted her head in disbelief. "No way. It's not possible."
"I know the thought's crossed your mind too."
"Yeah but, we have no idea what would happen."
"If we don't try we're going to die. That's a certainty."
Ira began reprogramming the thrusters.
"Will it be enough to counteract the tidal forces emitted by the star?" Caitlyn asked, rewiring the island relays.
"If the relays can sustain the power, then the whole ship should emit a magnetic field. If we expand the proton field from the cargo bay to almost the entirety of the ship then we should be able to gather enough hydrogen to slow the expansion of the star's core."
Caitlyn nodded. "And once we get close enough, we compress the star's mass to produce a black hole."
"Yes," Ira said, helping Caitlyn pop open another relay case. "After we cross the event horizon, we adjust the magnetic thrusters and use the feedback to move the ship through the wormhole unscathed."
"And we end up in some other part of the universe..."
Ira shrugged. "Theoretically, assuming we don't get torn apart in the process."
Caitlyn shook her head. "What about the others?"
Ira scowled and looked away. He had forgotten about them, and in truth, he wished they had remained as far from his mind as possible. "The only person I'm worried about right now is you."
Caitlyn's cheeks turned pink, and she smiled. "I know. That's why I had to come back."
Ira laughed half-heartedly. "I did all this so you wouldn't have to." He glanced at the screen displaying the collapsing star. "People think of it as dying, but it's really just becoming something else."
"So will we," She said taking his hand.
He smiled and thought about how much he loved her.