I had spent 30 years of my life on the same NERO salvage rig hauling reclaimed scrap from humanity’s “golden age” back to the colonial core on Mars. Earth was a dead planet, and the history books say we only have ourselves to blame, but the folks at NERO thought they could turn it around, so they put together a fleet to pick through the remains hoping to find out exactly what went wrong.
My crew was one of the best. Highest yield, quickest turn around, and the fewest accidents. Everything we picked made it back to the core in one piece—provided it started that way. Our success earned us a promotion: Guardian Angel class. That meant a new rig, and new responsibilities.
Whenever a rig goes down, the closest GA crew shifts to search and rescue. Get the downed crew to safety, and salvage what you can from the wreck. It hard to pass up the hazard pay that comes with it, but no one warns you about the bodies. On a normal op, you know you’re breaking into a crypt. People died on every inch of that rock when it collapsed, but it happened so long ago it’s easy to compartmentalize.
The first time we were called to a downed rig, there was a kid—couldn’t have been more than 16. He was taking stock of their last pick when a piece of debris took out a stabilizer and sent the rig into a death spiral. We all train for that. If you move quick and get to a harness, the survival rate is 85/90 percent. Good odds. But this time, one of the crates wasn’t properly restrained. The ship went down, the crate came loose, and a 16-year-old kid who should have survived was pancaked on the wall of the cargo bay.
Thing is, it doesn’t get easier. Every body you find was someone’s kid. Someone’s husband, wife, sister, brother. After ten years on a GA rig, I’d seen just about every nightmare you can imagine, and then a call came in from the Reclaimer. They were up near the Arctic Circle. An ice storm knocked out their nav systems, and in near zero visibility, they’d collided with the side of a mountain.
The distress beacon kicked in, but between the cold and the impact, it gave out before the rig hit the ground. Our best guess gave us a ten mile radius of icy peaks and narrow canyons. Our rig was too big to land anywhere near the impact site, and even if we found a place to touch down, we’d never find the Reclaimer in the middle of a blizzard without a working distress beacon. We had to wait for the storm to subside.
The storm lasted for two days. When it finally passed, we landed in a valley about 15 miles from the Reclaimer’s last known position. Every GA class rig has three shuttles to transport injured crew members. We flew the shuttles out to the marker and started our sweep. After losing two days to the storm, the missing crew would have five more days of emergency supplies as a best case scenario.
We’d have to take it low and slow across every inch of area to even have a chance of spotting them after two full days of snowfall. It’s never easy when the op feels like a lost cause before it even begins, but we didn’t have a choice.
The first day out, we found nothing. No debris, no tracks, just a frozen wasteland. Day two was worse. One of my guys caught a glint of metal in the sunlight. We went in for a closer look, and found entire panels from the hull buried in the snow. I ferried in one of our excavators while the other shuttles continued their sweep. We didn’t find any bodies, but we did find two of the Reclaimer’s emergency crates, and both of them were still sealed.
Given the amount of debris in the area there was a good chance these weren’t the only crates lost in the crash, and if no one had come looking for them—well—there aren’t many pleasant explanations. We were starting to lose hope.
When we returned to our rig that night, I gave the pep talk that no one wants to hear. NERO has strict regulations when it comes to rescue ops. One week. No more, no less. My crew had been called in to at least a dozen wrecks with no survivors. Running a “rescue” op when you know there’s no one left to rescue is the hardest thing GA crews have to do, and that’s what this op was starting to feel like.
Day three and four turned up nothing important. We found some scraps and a couple crates from the Reclaimer’s last pick, but no sign of survivors. The next day would be our last day on site. Even if the crew had managed to survive this long, their time was up. We couldn’t even find bodies to bury.
It was just after two AM when I got the wake up call. South of our position there was a light shooting up between the cliffs. By the look of it, the beam was coming from a location a few miles out of our search area. Someone survived the crash. I rallied the crew and we raced to get the shuttles in the air.
We followed the light to its source, and as we drew closer, the Reclaimer’s distress beacon kicked in. Thanks to a flood light and a jury-rigged power supply, we found the crew of the Reclaimer in the forward hull of their rig. Less than half of them made it out alive, but that still felt like a win.
When we returned to the Martian colony, I submitted a formal request to rename my rig. “The Beacon” seemed like a fitting reminder of why we do what we do. One week. No more, no less.