by Bryan Carrigan
Wickham worked through his pre-flight checklist. “Two guys are out walking their dogs. The one guy’s got a lab, his buddy’s got a Chihuahua. They walk past a bar and the guy with the lab says, ‘My wife walked out on me. I could use a drink.’ The guy with the Chihuahua says, ‘They’re not going to let us in there with the dogs.’ ‘Watch,’ the guy with the lab says.
“He walks in and sure enough, the bartender yells at him, ‘Hey, you can’t bring that dog in here.’ ‘It’s my seeing-eye dog,’ the guy says. The bartender relents and pours him a beer.
“The guy with the Chihuahua tries and it’s the same thing: the bartender won’t serve him. ‘It’s my seeing eye-dog,’ the guy says. The bartender scoffs, ‘Yeah, right, a Chihuahua? Gimme a break.’ ‘What?! They gave me a Chihuahua?’”
Saint James held his hands over the heating vent and said nothing. They had recovered twenty-three survivors; the shuttle wasn’t rated for medical evacuations or personnel transports. It was primarily used to ferry parts and machinery between the California and its tender ships.
“’They gave me a Chihuahua,’” Wickham repeated. “See, it’s funny ’cause he’s pretending to be blind.”
“Yes,” Saint James said. A tremor shook the shuttlecraft on its landing struts. Lucy IV-M35 was in its death throws. The asteroid would shake itself to pieces. There was no way the California could reach them in time; their only option was to evac via shuttle.
“Sarah laughed at my jokes,” Wickham said.
“Sarah left you,” Saint James said, “I’m still here. How much longer?”
“Honestly, the weird thing is, I’m happy for her. She’s got this amazing life ahead of her. Now it can finally get started.” Wickham worked his way through a bank of switches; Saint James heard the shuttle’s power plant spin up. The reactor came online. “We don’t have enough oxygen to get everyone out.”
“I’m aware of that,” Saint James said.
“It’s nothing personal; it’s just math,” said Wickham. “The Cali is six, seven days out? Even if we max out the scrubbers and only breathe through one nostril, there’s no way our dry cells can generate enough O2 for twenty-three mouth breathers.”
“I know,” Wickham said. “I’m just saying.”
Saint James said nothing. It felt good to be warm. He longed to close his eyes and let the warmth carry him back to the California. There were tricks they could use. Harvesting O2 cylinders from the station, stuffing miners into pressure suits, medically inducing comas. Once they were clear of the asteroid field, Wickham could flash the California. Decker wouldn’t hold back. It would be a photo finish, but still...
“Did I ever tell you the one about the dyslexic? He walked into a bra...”
“I should start bring our guests aboard,” Saint James said. “There’s no chance Landers will survive an evacuation in his current state. You’ll need to signal the Cali for a medical transport once you’re clear of the asteroid field.”
“He’s my patient, Daniel.”
A gas vent had opened up in the regolith beyond the landing platform. A chunk of real estate the size of lower Manhattan calved away from the rocky plain and joined the Brownian ballet playing out in the sky above them.
“Mallory always had a crush on you,” Wickham said.
Saint James made his way through the umbilical.
“How soon can we leave?” Cox asked. He had his duffel bag packed and his footlocker ready to go. The others did as well.
“There’s not enough room for any of that,” Saint James said.
Cox pulled his duffel bag a little closer and said, “My whole life is in here.”
“And this is the part where I ask for volunteers,” Saint James said.
“Volunteers for what?” Ledbetter asked. Saint James did the math for them. Ledbetter shook his head. “No, we’re going. We’re all going. All of us, together.”
A tremor shook the station hard enough to shake the dust from the rafters. A yellow strobe flashed. The pressure door connecting the multipurpose room with the crew pod swung shut. Its magnetic seals locked. Saint James took a quick headcount — they hadn’t lost anyone — but a slow bleed had opened up in the crew pod. The tremors would shake the station to pieces.
Ledbetter took charge of sheepherding the survivors through the umbilical and out to the shuttle. Saint James moved all of the portable heaters over to Landers’ bedside. Ideally, he would have liked to raise the ambient temperature to 98.6°F. Landers’ burns were so extensive that his integument could no longer regulate his body’s temperature. But that wasn’t possible. He checked Landers’ vitals and began the tedious process of changing the kid’s dressings.
His radio crackled with static and Wickham came online. “A rabbi, a priest, and a pastor are sitting in a bar across the street from a brothel. They’re getting lit up pretty good, talking about God and the foibles of their congregations, when they see a rabbi walk into the brothel. ‘Oy!’ the rabbi says, ‘It’s awful to see a man of faith give into temptation.’
“A short while later, a Lutheran pastor walks into the brothel. ‘Damn! It’s terrible to see a man of faith give into temptation like that,’ the pastor in the group says.
“The night’s winding down and it’s last call and they see a priest walk into the brothel. The priest, he’s an old Irish guy, he orders a round of whiskey and raises his glass, ‘It’s nice to see the wee lasses, who have been so poorly used, have time to confess their sins.’”
The shuttle kicked up a cloud of dust as it rose up from the pad. Lucy IV-M35’s weak gravity held no purchase. It slipped into a parabolic trajectory and smoothly accelerated into the sky.
Saint James watched as Wickham threaded his way through the morass of asteroids, until the shuttle was barely visible, nothing more than a small dot moving across the star field, its twin engines glowing brightly. There was a flash. A puff of escaping atmosphere. The shuttle’s engine glow was gone.
Saint James toggled his radio. “Wickham? Wickham do you copy?” There was no return signal. There wasn’t even any static. “Daniel, do you read me?”
* * *
Saint James tied a tourniquet around the proximal phalange of Landers’ little finger. The kid had thrown his hands up to shield himself from the blast. The inferno had burnt his fingers down to the bone. There was no profusion. The vessels were damaged beyond repair.
Saint James used a pair of spring-loaded shears to amputate the finger. Blood dribbled out. Saint James wiped it away and began sewing up the wound. He wanted to tell himself that he was wrong, that Wickham had slipped behind an asteroid, that he’d merely lost visual on the shuttlecraft.
He moved the tourniquet to Landers’ ring finger and repeated the process. A tremor shook the station. Saint James watched a piece of real estate the size of California break free and spin away from the asteroid. He decided it was time to move.
He set up shop in the operator’s control suite off the loading bay. It was a small, enclosed space. Saint James dogged the hatches. His job was to keep Landers alive until the California could reach them. He cracked open a thermal pack. Its exothermic reaction warmed the control suite, raising the ambient temperature to a few degrees above freezing.
“See? Things are looking up,” Saint James said. They had heat. They had potable water. They had enough protein bars to hold out for months. “An E-flat walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Sorry, pal, we don’t serve minors.’”
Landers said nothing.
Saint James checked the CO2 scrubbers. He had no idea what he was doing. But it seemed solid in its casing. He locked it back in place and felt better about their situation. Wickham had no doubt cleared the asteroid field and was flashing the California for assistance. Decker would launch the rest of his shuttles.
“It won’t be long now,” Saint James said. “A duck walks into a bar. He says to the bartender, ‘I’d like some peanuts.’ And the bartender says, ‘Sorry, pal, we don’t serve peanuts.’ So the duck leaves.” It was a terrible joke. Saint James was sure there was something in the Hippocratic Oath that prohibited him from telling it, but Landers didn’t seem to mind.
“The next day, the duck comes back and says, ‘I’d like some peanuts.’ And the bartender says, ‘Look, pal, it’s like I said, we don’t serve peanuts.’ The duck leaves.”
He’d have to break the news to Mallory; she’d never forgive him. “The next day, the duck comes back and says, ‘I’d like some peanuts.’ And the bartender says, ‘Enough with the damn peanuts already. You ask me that one more time, and I swear to God, I’ll nail you to the wall.’ The duck, understandably, leaves.”
He had no idea what he’d tell Sarah. “The next day, the duck comes back. He waddles up to the bar and asks the bartender, ‘You got any nails?’ The bartender shakes his head and says, ‘No, I don’t got any nails. Why would I have any nails?’ ‘In that case,’ the duck says, ‘I’d like some peanuts.’”
The heart monitor chirped an alarm. Landers thrashed once and then flatlined. Saint James went to work with the paddles. He pushed two hundred milliliters of epinephrine and started administering cardio pulmonary resuscitation. It was no use. The boy was dead.
Saint James tried to recall the name of the Vicksburg’s captain. It was a ship of the line. Dress whites, bone china, all the trimmings. Lieutenant Mallory Wickham had a future ahead of her; Saint James would have no part in it. A tremor rocked the station. Saint James let himself float above the load master’s chair until it had passed.
Lucy IV-M35 was breaking up around him. There was nothing he could do about it. The control suite had no exterior windows. He had no idea how bad it was outside of the loading bay. He lost track of time. “Sixteen-year-old Thomas Edison walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender says, ‘I’ll serve you this one time but don’t get any bright ideas.’”
The warning lights above the hatch strobed yellow. Saint James eased himself into an EVA suit. The suit only carried one liter of water and twelve hours of oxygen. Saint James cranked its heaters up as high as they would go. Oxygen deprivation wasn’t the worst way to go. It would feel as though he were falling asleep. He hoped Mallory would forgive him for not being there to break the news to her.
“Two peanuts walked into a bar. It was a rough kind of place. One of them was a-salted.”
A search and rescue team from the California reached him early the next morning. They had launched the moment a sensor sweep had detected the asteroid’s seismic instability. Jules wanted to know what had happened to the other survivors.
“Two guys are sitting at a bar,” Saint James said. “The one guy says, ‘I slept with my wife before we were married. I know premarital sex is supposed to be a sin, but I don’t feel that badly about it. Do you?’ His buddy says, ‘No, I waited until after you were married before sleeping with your wife.’”
Copyright © 2012 by Bryan Carrigan