by Jennifer Shaw
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Diana had just changed the bandage again. I was asleep and only woke up when she finished putting the tape in place.
I can’t feel it at all. I don’t mean the wound, which I’m sure she put some anesthetic on. I mean my whole foot. I tried wiggling my toes earlier, and when I look at them, they’re moving, but I can’t feel them. Diana keeps saying this is psychological.
“You had a trauma, Aaron,” she said. She went into detail this time. “You imagined your foot coming off. So now your foot is no longer a part of you, in your mind.”
“But I still see it,” I protested.
“And you know when people really do lose a limb, they insist it’s still there, even when they can see it isn’t.”
“So I have the opposite. I think my foot is gone?”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
She shrugged. “There’s very little that makes sense when it comes to the mind and body. I once cut myself while I was slicing meat. It was a deep cut, a bad one.” She showed me the scar. It was old and purple. I whistled.
“I never noticed I’d nearly cut my thumb off until I washed my hands. The second I put my hands in the water, I started screaming. I couldn’t use my hand for a week. If I’d never put my hands in the water, would I have felt anything? Would I just have gone on slicing and dicing?”
“Ugh,” I said, imagining bloody meat parts on a granite counter, bits of Diana’s hand mixed in.
She nodded. “You just think your foot is gone,” she said. “Did you ever see someone get a foot cut off? Maybe when you were a kid?”
The scarecrow lurched in my head, reeling across a grey landscape.
“Not exactly cut off,” I said.
“Well, the whole thing obviously scared you,” said Diana.
I started. Diana seldom swore.
“The very idea of having your foot cut off triggered something. Plus being trapped. Plus the pain. That’s trauma.”
“Sure,” I said.
Usually when a wound is sealing itself back together, it itches like a sonofabitch. I know, because I once had to get stitches when I fell and busted my eyebrow open in school. This time, there’s no itch at all. I rub the bandage with my other foot. I feel nothing.
I rub my feet together. I can only feel the left foot. It’s like the right one isn’t even there.
* * *
When I’m on assignment, I have the same routine every day.
I wake up at zero eight hundred. Dave wakes at zero five hundred. This makes no sense to me. We’re millions of kilometers from anything like a sun. The bioconditions of the space station mimic the original Earth perfectly, and our bodies were designed to sync with the cycle of the Earth turning and moving closer and further away from the sun.
You can tell what Dave does isn’t natural. He starts fading as soon as the orgolight is dimmed. I swear he does it to seem morally pure or he’s exceptionally disciplined. Again, I don’t know who he’s proving this to, unless he has a crush on Diana, and he doesn’t seem to.
I suck down one of the nutrient tubes, which I happen to like. Jeremy and Dave prefer a full breakfast, with grilled polenta and that soy chicken we have so much of, but that’s too heavy for me first thing in the morning. The tubes are quite good. My favorite is nutty bar, but the vanilla bean is good, too.
Then I get to work. There’s always something that needs doing. There are little repairs all over every station that, by themselves, aren’t any big deal, but if you let them go and they start piling up, suddenly the engineers and the data specialists can’t do their jobs anymore.
Some station managers don’t even hire guys like me, but that’s always a mistake. The wear and tear adds up until they have to send out a whole crew to fix things up, or scrap the entire project. Either way, hiring someone like me ends up being a whole lot less expensive, even if we don’t come cheap.
So some days I’m patrolling the shields, making sure they haven’t taken any serious knocks lately, and on others I’m tinkering with the physical plant stuff, making sure doors open and close properly, fuel gauges are all up to speed, you get the picture.
The most exciting thing I had to do recently was replace the pokers in Dave’s gear. He kept saying they wouldn’t charge. I don’t believe him, but he’s the researcher. If he says his gear doesn’t work, it’s my job to fix it.
My biggest chore is cleaning the air filters. I swear, even with only four people on board, those things get so clogged with filth it makes you sick to look at them. They get choked with all kinds of things: hair; fruit peels if somebody didn’t use the trash conductor properly; white stuff that you know is dead skin. Piles of it. I’m breathing this stuff, I think, and then I resolve not to think about it anymore, while I coax that godawful slow-ass crane to maneuver the huge things into the cylovac.
I found a dead rat in one of the filters, about two months into the trip. I have no idea how it could have gotten on board, except in the food containers or somebody’s luggage. I hate rats, but I felt almost sorry for this one. Maybe it thought it could use the filter stuff to make a nest. On one of my first deployments, somebody brought a hamster on board the ship, and it got into the heating ducts. It survived for the whole trip, and we found bits of pink heating insulation everywhere.
This rat was not so lucky. It was caught in the filter with a mouthful of the wiry stuff. Some of it was poking out of its cheeks. It was really caught good. The cyclovac did its job, though, and the rat got sucked out into space along with all the other filth.
Funny, how space now has all these human bits floating around in it, orbiting Janus, just like Vesta does, though I can’t see her. Just going around and around and around. Hair, skin, shit, and now rats. We’re bits of space debris now, which makes sense. We are made out of the same things as stars and planets and galaxies. We’re all chemicals, when you get right down to it.
Rats always follow humans, wherever we go, even into space. Jeremy says they are more part of our evolution than dogs are. I feel like what Jeremy says about human design must be right. He is the engineer, after all.
I keep watching the fog — the haze of Janus — for the rat to float by. I think it’s orbiting us now.
I hope I can get back to work soon. There’s a bad smell developing on board, since no one has time to clean the air filters.
* * *
It’s a few days later. I’m back at work. My foot has healed enough to get back to business.
Dave is really pumped about it. Or so he tells me. “Righteous, brother, righteous,” he tells me. “Knew you could do it.” Like my body doing what it’s supposed to do is somehow an act of triumph. Whatever.
He has really started to bother me. I know he means well, but his constant remarks and his stupid grin are wearing on me. I don’t like the names: he can’t call me Aaron, it has to be “brother.” I can tell he’s bugging Jeremy too. Jeremy hasn’t said much to me, but I can tell he has had enough of Dave.
I make sure I eat three or four meal tubes for breakfast. I need to get my strength back up.
The first thing I do is make sure the air filters are clean. They are clogged with grit, bits of trash and dead cells, which is normal. There are no rats or other critters. That’s good, but as soon as I am done I start smelling something foul again.
I hunted all over the station. There are two barrels of waste that need to be emptied, so once I take care of that, things will be fine, for a little while.
Then the smell came back.
Jeremy asks me how I’m doing. He has been watching me. I can tell he’s worried.
“I’m fine,” I tell him. Diana has just given me a clean bill of health. “Besides, the station needs me to get back to work.”
“You know the ship will be here soon for you, don’t you?” he asks.
“What ship?” I say.
Now he looks worried. “The retrieval ship. Remember? We contacted them to come get you after the accident.”
“But I don’t need it now,” I say.
“Come on, buddy,” says Dave. “You’ve done all you can up here. You need to get home, get really fixed up, so you can get back to work, get back on your game.”
I look from one of them to the other. Jeremy’s forehead is pinched in a frown, and Dave has a big goofy grin. There are sweat beads on his forehead.
“Do you guys just not want me here?” I ask.
“Of course we do!” says Dave. “But come on, bud. How much can you do without—“
“You need a doctor,” Jeremy interrupts him. “A real doctor, at a real hospital. You know sick bay is just a kind of waiting room.”
“But I like it here,” I say.
It’s true. Something about the haze, the floating in space. It’s peaceful. I have time to think. It reminds me of home, my real home, Earth. The one Diana and I shared.
“Besides,” I say. “Who’s going to take care of her if I leave?”
Jeremy looks at me sideways and then looks at Dave.
“Take care of who, champ?” asks Dave.
“Well, the station, of course,” I say.
Dave smiles. “They’re sending a replacement, buddy,” he says. “Don’t you worry about us.”
I tell Diana about this.
She frowns. “I didn’t send for the ship. The whole thing seems kind of silly. You’re completely healed now.”
“I know,” I say. “I feel just fine.”
She still lets me sleep in sick bay, even though I’m better now. I’ve come to like the view from here. The haze is... soothing. It reminds me of childhood.
Dave is definitely getting on my nerves.
I fell on my way to breakfast. It happens. Even when you’re healed, it can take a while to get your balance back. Dave caught me by the elbow.
“Woah there, buddy!” he says. His smile looks fake. It has always looked fake. It’s just that I’ve started noticing it recently. “Careful there!”
“I’m okay,” I say. I start for my chair and stumble again.
“Why don’t you use the crutches, big guy?” he asked.
“I don’t want to favor one leg over the other,” I say. “Besides, the more I use the left foot, the faster it will build back up.”
Diana comes in right then. She knocks a tray of eggmeat off the table by accident. Or maybe not by accident. Dave looks over. Then he looks back at me and, very quietly, gets up to clean up the mess. He doesn’t say “buddy” again.
Diana just walks out as if nothing has happened. I wonder why she is in a bad mood.
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Diana says later that day. “I don’t like Dave.”
“What about Jeremy?” I ask.
She smiles. “I like him fine. But you’re the one who spends the most time with me. I feel a connection with you. I don’t really feel it with those two. You feel it too, don’t you?” She smiles and sweeps her hair back. “We’re a couple of old Earthies, miles from home. Not many of us anymore, are there?”
I smile back at her. She actually looks better nowadays. Her hair looks a little less stringy. Her skin looks healthy.
“Maybe my replacement will be a good conversationalist,” I say. “The most I can talk about is cleaning filters and repairing circuits.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Its like nursing. You fix things. Things that are broken.”
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Shaw