I was having the worst kind of day you could have on a long-haul transport—the kind where your fusion reactor is making funny noises. Not ha-ha funny. Threatening to explode funny.
Which was kind of ha-ha funny, because once you’ve been alone on a long-haul transport for 473 days with no human contact, everything is ha-ha funny. It’s how I kept from crying as I stared at the reactor.
All my training on the fusion reactor consisted of three words: Never. Touch. It.
Therefore, my efforts to fix the reactor consisted of gazing at it with my hands pressed over my face. This, unsurprisingly, failed to rectify the situation.
“I’m fucked,” I told the fusion reactor, my voice hoarse from disuse.
This also failed to help. The highly threatening noises continued. It was a grinding sound, the kind of grinding sound that in my mind preceded essential parts breaking or catching fire. It was a sound that my loyal reactor had never made before today but made my stomach twist into knots.
“Please stop that,” I said.
This also had no effect.
I was out of ideas, so I went to the control room. At least I couldn’t hear the sound from there.
I put out a distress call but didn’t expect an answer. I was so far from civilization I might well have been in the Paleozoic past.
I slouched in my seat and was slowly slouching my way toward the floor when a voice—a real human voice—clicked over the radio. “Hello Alice, we’ve received your ping. This is Min-joon of the Majestic Rooster. We’re headed to PL-354, and you’re not too far off our trajectory. How can we help you?”
I slid back into my seat and slapped a finger on the transmitter. “Hello Min-joon. Thank you so much. I’m having trouble with my fusion reactor. Do you have a mechanic onboard—anyone with knowledge of fusion reactors?”
“Sorry to hear that,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a mechanic. There are just two of us, and we don’t know a thing about nuclear tech.”
“Oh,” I said, and my slouch returned.
“But let me get Arnie. He moonlights as a warlock. Doesn’t do a lot with machines, but he might be able to do something for you.”
“A warlock?” I repeated, hoping that was an acronym or an odd bit of slang. “You don’t mean like… a person who thinks he can do magic, right?”
“Yup. He can work a nice bit of magic.”
“Is this a joke?”
“No—he really can. Hold on one second. I’ll get him.”
I stared around the cabin, wondering whether I’d lost my mind. Was the reactor leaking crazy gas? Did reactors have crazy gas?
A minute later, the radio clicked again, and a different voice said, “Hello, this is Arnie. Min-joon said you need a warlock?”
“I need a mechanic,” I said. “My fusion reactor is making a funny noise.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Well, I’m no mechanic, but I’d be happy to take a look. I have very reasonable rates.”
“Rates? You’re going to charge me for this?” I couldn’t believe I was being taken for a magical scam in deep space. Of course, scams loved the desperate, and who was more desperate than people in deep space with fusion reactors making funny noises? No one, that’s who.
“Sorry, but we’ve all got to make a living,” he said, not sounding sorry in the least.
“Right,” I said, as I slid deeper into my seat. “So what are you charging?”
“You got coffee?”
“How much? I’ll take whatever coffee you got left.”
“Two bags,” I said. I had five. I had been carefully rationing it. Out here coffee is worth more than its weight in radioactive isotopes.
“That’s fine,” he said, sounding pleased. I regretted not saying one.
“And what exactly are you going to do to the reactor?”
“I’ll perform a healing routine for it.”
“And that will fix the reactor?”
I stared out into space. What did I have to lose?
“Deal?” he prompted.
“Deal,” I said.
It took fourteen hours for the Majestic Rooster to reach me, which gave me plenty of time to kick myself for being an idiot and hide most of my coffee.
Arnie turned out to be a chubby man with snow-white hair. He came aboard my ship carrying a red satchel, a stuffed pigeon, and nothing that looked the least bit useful. He wore a normal flight suit, not a robe, which I found disappointing.
“So,” I said, after we said our awkward in-person hellos. “What are you going to do exactly?”
“I will perform a healing routine,” he said, which was all kinds of vague and unhelpful. “All I need from you is to point me toward your engine room.”
I pointed to the left. “Do I get to watch?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m afraid I cannot allow that. A spectator can taint the magic—especially if the spectator is not a true believer.”
A true believer I was certainly not, and thus I waited in the control room as he performed his “healing routine.”
Staying in the control room proved to be a rookie mistake, because after roughly ten minutes, he skedaddled. He was out of there lickety-split with my precious coffee, the Majestic Rooster soaring away before I could check out the purportedly healed reactor.
Feeling like a scammed fool, I trudged down to the engine room and stood in front of the reactor. There was no grinding sound, just the soft hum of the machinery doing its normal thing. The room smelled of incense, and it made my eyes water.
I stared at the reactor for several minutes, waiting for the terrible noise to resume. When it did not, I wondered whether I had to start believing in magic now.
I hoped not.
“I’m not telling anyone about this,” I told the suddenly well-behaved machine. “Ever.”