by Bryan Carrigan
Saint James swept his light across the cafeteria. Emergency strobes flashed above the hatchways. Someone had left a plate of macaroni and cheese sitting on one of the tables. It had been sitting there long enough for the cheese to congeal and for the noodles to turn gray. There were two bodies floating in the weightlessness. The flow from the regulators kept them pinned against the domed ceiling.
“A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar,” Wickham said. “The bartender sees them and says, ‘What is this? A joke?’”
“You’re pissed there’s nothing here for you to shoot,” Saint James said.
Wickham shrugged off his backpack. “I suppose it would be bad form to brew a pot of coffee.”
“What happened here?” Saint James reset the breakers. Nothing happened.
Wickham rigged up a battery pack and used it to restore power to the compartment. The lights winked on. The refrigerators started humming. The air smelled like burnt plastic and melted gym socks. It was thin but it was breathable. The temperature was slightly above freezing. He set about brewing a pot of coffee.
“Doesn’t it bother you that, in two hundred-odd years of manned spaceflight, we’ve found nothing beyond a couple of single-celled organisms on Orion? And they were very likely hitchhikers we brought with us from Earth. Two hundred years and nothing. Nada. No aliens to speak of. It’s just us out here.”
They would have to begin rounding up the bodies. The mining station had a complement of 140 registered souls. Those souls would begin to putrefy once they brought the heating elements back online. Saint James poured himself a coffee and tried not to think about it.
“A guy walks in on his wife in bed with another man and says, ‘What’s going on here?’ His wife looks at her boyfriend and says, ‘See? I told you he was slow.’” Wickham pulled the CO2 scrubber. Its casing was cracked but not so badly that it wouldn’t work. “I really screwed up this time.”
“You screw up every time,” Saint James said. “Sarah always takes you back.”
Wickham locked the scrubber back in place and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Shaft 5 is a total write-off. If there’s anyone alive down there, God help ’em, because we—”
An impact rocked the station. The hatchways swung shut. Their magnetic locks sealed the hatchways airtight.
“Well, that’s no good,” Wickham said.
“I’d like to get off this station before we die,” Saint James said.
“You and me both, buddy.”
Wickham reset the locks. They made their way down to Master Control. The power was out. Wickham rigged up a portable generator and used it to power up the damage control board. It painted whole sections of the station yellow, others flashed red, but one of the crew modules was unlit.
“Could be a burnout,” Wickham said.
“A guy’s sitting in a bar, quietly getting drunk. The guy next to him yells out ‘26!’ and everyone laughs. Whatever. He just got his card punched. He orders another martini. Someone else ‘17!’ and the place goes nuts. His whole life, all he’s wanted is to make fleet, and it turns out he’s got a heart murmur. Medically disqualified. But a woman in a red dress blurts out ‘9!’ and everyone is cracking up. What the hell, he figures. He raises his glass and yells ‘23!’ Crickets.
“‘Some people can tell a joke,’ the bartender says. ‘You, not so much.’”
“I hate that joke,” Wickham said. The corridor to Module B showed signs of a recent fire. An oxygen line had ruptured. A stray spark had lit an inferno. “I hated that joke when I told it to you back when we were cadets.”
“I tell it better,” Saint James said.
“23 my ass,” Wickham said. The hatch had been dogged from the inside. Wickham banged on it with a wrench. “A duck walks into a bar—”
“No,” Saint James said.
“Come on, it’s a classic.”
“I don’t care.”
Someone on the other side answered Wickham’s banging with banging of their own. Three long, three short, three long.
“Save our souls,” Wickham said.
A pair of eyes filled the hatchway’s porthole. The hatch spun and a wave of warm, stale air spilled out. “Thank God,” the survivor said. He laughed for no reason and sank to his knees.
Saint James helped the guy up. “What’s your name?”
“Cox,” he said. “Joseph Cox. We didn’t think anyone was going to come.”
“We? There are more of you?”
Cox nodded. Saint James saw the others emerging from their pods. They looked tired, emotionally exhausted. He counted seven in all, including Cox.
They had just come off duty when the first alarms sounded. Cox said he thought it was another drill. They buttoned up like the manual said they were supposed to and waited for the All Clear. Three days in, they realized they needed to start rationing their food and water.
Wickham shuttled cheese sandwiches and coffee from the kitchen to the module.
“A gas pocket blew out Shaft Two,” Martin said. “The release generated just enough force to change our angular momentum. The pinball effect did the rest. We destabilized the entire asteroid field. We’ve been getting pounded ever since.”
“There was a fire,” Saint James said. He didn’t mention Landers.
“Half the station has been exposed to hard vacuum,” Wickham said.
Martin crossed himself. “You’re getting us out of here, right? I mean, that’s why you’re here. You’re here to rescue us?”
“Sure,” Saint James said.
“An amnesic walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What can I get you?’ The amnesic says, ‘I don’t know. I’m having trouble remembering things.’ The bartender says, ‘Like what?’”
Cox and Martin traded a look.
“The California is eight days out. Push comes to shove, we can evac via shuttle. But I’d rather not chance getting up close and personal with an asteroid unless absolutely necessary. I mean, I’m one helluva pilot, best in the fleet—”
* * *
The laceration on Ledbetter’s calf smelled like an egg salad sandwich. Green and yellow pus seeped from the wound. Saint James rinsed it with a squirt of saline. “How did this happen?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Ledbetter said. “I snagged it on something. I was down in Shaft 2 when everything went to hell. I thought I was going to die down there.” He shivered uncontrollably.
Saint James wrapped another blanket around the big man’s shoulders. His options were rather limited. Wickham had gone below to try and bring the reactor back online; without power, the station was bleeding heat into the vacuum. Ambient room temperature had fallen below freezing.
Ledbetter nodded towards Landers. “How’s the kid?”
Landers had lapsed into a coma. “He’s resting,” Saint James said. It was a small mercy. Hypothermia was a miserable way to die. After the shivering had passed, mental confusion would set in. Speech would become sluggish. Muscle coordination would cease. Walking would become impossible. Amnesia would replace fear and anxiety as the body counted down to zero.
“Jesus,” Ledbetter said. He said it again. “Jesus.”
“This will hurt,” Saint James said. There was nothing for it. The laceration had festered; the edges of the wound were necrotic. He injected two sticks of lidocaine and began cutting.
Ledbetter inhaled through his teeth. “I told him not to go down there. We were cut off from each other. I was stuck in the control room for the primary infuser. He was in the comm center. He thought he could bring the reactor back online. Idiot.”
Dead flesh came away in stringy, black strips. The wound began to bleed. Saint James kept cutting until it bled cleanly on all sides. He opened a peel pack and laid out the instruments he would need: a needle driver, sutures, and forceps. He quietly threaded the needle and tied eighteen stitches.
Sewing had never been his strong suit, he’d accepted early on in medical school that he wasn’t destined for a career in surgery, but he thought his stitches were sufficiently tight and was pleased at how neatly he’d knitted the jagged flaps of skin back together. He dressed the wound with bacitracin and bandaged it with gauze.
“You’ll have a scar.”
“Jesus,” Ledbetter said. He clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering.
“Once we’re off this rock, I’ll set you on a proper course of antibiotics. In the meantime...”
Saint James tried to radio Wickham. He watched an asteroid the size of Idaho tumble across the horizon. The sky was full of them. It amazed him that the station hadn’t taken a direct hit.
Once upon a time, Lucy IV had been a planet in the goldilocks zone, but it had collided with one of its moons. The result was an asteroid field rich with heavy metals and rare earths, ideally suited for excavation.
Saint James’s radio crackled with static. Wickham came on and said, “Can I ask you a personal question? How does artificial gravity work?”
“At present, it doesn’t,” Saint James said.
“The logic of it has always bothered me,” Wickham continued. “Forget about this place, let’s say we’re back aboard the California. Does the ship generate gravity along her keel? And if so, wouldn’t that field extend outward in all directions?
“If each deck generates its own gravity and we’re six decks up, wouldn’t gravity on the flight deck be six times Earth-normal? And if gravity on the main deck is pulling everything down, why can’t I go down to one deck and walk on the ceiling?
“And for the Cali to have Earth-normal, that would imply we have the mass equivalent of an Earth-sized planet... If that’s true, then how can she navigate through an asteroid field without inducing tidal forces?”
Saint James poured himself a cup of tomato soup from the thermos and said nothing. He had commandeered the station’s multipurpose room. The psychology of its design wasn’t lost on him. The architects had used high ceilings, recessed lighting, and tall, narrow windows to create a false sense of openness.
The view was spectacular. Montana and Virginia collided downrange, kicking up clouds of regolith as fragments impacted the asteroid’s surface. A tremor rolled through the station. Rivets popped. Saint James could hear gas hissing somewhere out in the corridor. A line had ruptured. He wasn’t overly concerned.
“Mallory says that I should be happy for her. That if I really love her, I should let her get on with her life.”
“Smart girl, your Mallory,” Saint James said. “I think I’ll take her to dinner next time I’m in town.”
“The reactor’s a no-go,” Wickham said. “You are not dating my sister.”
“I want you back here. We’re bugging out.”
“Decker is going to be pissed.”
“Screw him,” Saint James said. “He’s not here.”
“Copy that,” Wickham said.
Saint James cracked a glow stick and rounded on his patients. Ledbetter dozed under a pile of blankets. McCann and Burroughs huddled together with a heating tab between them. Adams stared blankly at nothing. Landers evinced no signs of consciousness. His pulse was thready and his breathing ragged but he was still alive. Saint James considered that a victory. He hooked Adams up to a portable oxygen tank and clocked Ledbetter’s temperature at 31.5°C.
Saint James snapped his fingers in Ledbetter’s ear. “You need to get up.”
Ledbetter blinked. “My leg.”
“Up. Right now. Move.” He pulled Ledbetter to his feet. Ledbetter teetered unsteadily, unwilling to put any weight on his injured leg. “Listen to me: if your heart rate falls any lower, your major organs will begin to fail. We’ve got to get your circulator system pumping. Stat.”
“I’ll have the bangers and mash,” Ledbetter said. “Shift change is in three hours.”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Bryan Carrigan