by Bryan Carrigan
Saint James braced himself against his makeshift operating table, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was falling. It was a trick of the inner ear, nothing more than a miscommunication of endolymph fluid and cilia between the superior and posterior canals. He felt as though he was falling and that the station was falling with him.
A drop of blood floated under the lights. It was impossibly spherical and spinning, as though it, too, had been overcome with vertigo. The droplet drifted from his left to his right, caught in some unseen current. There was more of it. Drops of blood floated through the air all around him. His gloved hands were slick with it. He could taste the metallic bite of adrenaline in his mouth. It was like sucking on a penny.
Saint James forced himself to breathe. He was in a mining station, attached to the asteroid Lucy IV-M35, in orbit some two and half astronomical units from a main sequencer. Wickham was somewhere nearby searching for survivors. The station was breaking up around them. Saint James ignored the klaxons and strobes. There was an injured man on his table. He had work to do.
Landers had suffered full-thickness burns to his upper extremities, head, and neck. Saint James repositioned the suction line. It drew off the bloody mist and gave him a clear field of vision. What was left of the boy’s face had been burnt black and peeled away in thick flakes. How it had happened didn’t matter. Saint James held his hands under the sterilizer and reached for a pair of forceps. He started with the eyes, debriding the wounds with saline and peeling away dead strips of flesh.
Saint James’s radio crackled with static. “A guy walks in on his wife with his best friend. He shoots the guy. His wife says to him, ‘You keep that up, you won’t have any friends left’.”
“I’m trying to work, Daniel.” Landers writhed in agony. There was nothing Saint James could do for him. Lidocaine leached through his charred tissue without providing any relief. But pain was a good sign. It meant the temporal nerves were still intact. With time, with luck, surgeons would be able to reconstruct something of his face.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I freed a genie from its lamp?” Wickham said over the radio. “He gave me a choice, I could either have a perfect memory or a ten-inch cock.” A seismic tremor rolled through the station. The overhead lights flickered. The hatchway clanged shut. Its magnetic seals buttoned it up airtight. The klaxons added a deep base note to its alternating whistles. Warning lights strobed yellow and blue.
“That’s just the decompression alarm,” Wickham said. “Nothing to worry about. We’re bleeding atmosphere.”
“Good to know,” Saint James said. The alarms sounded distant and far away. They were easy to ignore. Saint James focused on his work. Surgery wasn’t his forte, critical burn care even less so. Landers needed a level-five trauma center and fully equipped intensive care unit. Saint James needed a cigarette and a cup of coffee.
“You’re supposed to ask me which I chose,” Wickham said.
“Sorry,” Saint James said, stealing the punch line, “I forgot.”
“On the plus side, decompression means the fire is probably out.”
“Where are you?”
“Working my way through the machine shop,” Wickham said. “We’ve got some structural failure here. Two dead. Decompression. The one guy got pinned under the debris; looks like his buddy tried to pull him out. Sarah’s cheating on me.”
“You cheat on her all the time,” Saint James said. A patina of blood coated the light fixtures and stained his surgical gown.
“Yeah, but I always feel bad afterwards. We’re talking sincere remorse. This is different. She’s enjoying herself. I think she’s going to leave me.”
“Good.” Saint James loosened the straps securing Landers to the table. The ensign drifted upwards in the weightless environment. “She deserves better.” Saint James rolled him over and marked a donor site with his fingertips. He used the dermatome to flense a two-millimeter split-thickness graft from the pink, healthy skin on the boy’s back. Spots of blood stippled the donor site; the dermis would heal quickly.
“You sound like Mallory,” Wickham said. “There’s no power in this section of the station. I’ve got a bad feeling that those three we found in the emergency pod are the only survivors.”
“Rosewood and Collins are both dead,” Saint James said. “There was nothing I could do for them.” He fed the graft through the stretcher. Its mechanical teeth perforated the tissue, chewing it until it resembled a fine mesh. Saint James draped the mesh across the boy’s forehead, cheeks, and nose. He cut slits for Landers’ eyes and began the slow, tedious process of stitching the graft in place.
“This place is just the gift that keeps on giving,” Wickham said. “Mallory says I owe it to myself to only date monogamously.”
“She’s twelve,” Saint James said. “She shouldn’t know what the word ‘monogamously’ means.”
“What are you talking about? Mallory’s a butter bar. She just got her first posting. The Vicksburg.”
“She was twelve last I saw her,” Saint James said.
An explosion rocked the station. The deck grating lurched violently and pitched Saint James into a stack of shipping containers. One of the containers ruptured, spilling its ore.
“You all right?” Wickham asked.
“What exactly do they mine here?” Saint James asked. The ore had the consistency of coffee grounds.
“Lanthanides,” Wickham said. “Rare earths. Nothing too terribly exotic.”
“Pretend I don’t know what lanthanides are.”
“Picture the periodic table,” Wickham said. “Those bottom two rows not connected to anything? The top row are your lanthanides; in the bottom row you’ve got your actinides.”
“And if I happen to inhale a lungful of lanthanides?”
“I wouldn’t,” Wickham said. “I’m going to make my way down Shaft 5. The computer says there should be an emergency trunk every two hundred meters. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Saint James righted himself and began debriding Landers’ neck. It had been seventeen days since the miners on M35 had activated their distress beckon. He wasn’t overly optimistic that Wickham would find any more survivors.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Bryan Carrigan