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Orbiting Janus

by Jennifer Shaw

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


I was up in a synthetic harness, switching out the dyentholeem tubes. They have to be rotated every few months. You have to wear this big helmet, in case one of the tubes gets broken. If you breathe the powder from a broken tube, that’s it for you.

The tubes were hard to see, and I dropped one. It smashed on the floor seven feet below. I twisted around to see Diana looking up at me, the yellow powder blooming in a poisonous cloud around her. Her eyes looked stern. My heart jumped and started going crazy. I could feel my chest shaking.

In the powder, I saw scarecrows staggering through the mist, eyes gone, mouths howling in pain.

“Sorry about that,” I said. I don’t want her mad at me. I don’t ever want her mad at me again. I’ll do anything. “I’ll clean that up.”

She didn’t say anything as I struggled to lower the harness. I clambered out of it as best I could and staggered over to the minivac.

“Sorry, sorry,” I kept saying as she watched me. I turned the vac on and started sucking up the crystalline powder that would dissolve your skin and turn your fingers and toes into crumpled white sticks so you would scream and cry with every step you took, except you couldn’t cry because your eyes would be gone, melted down your face like jelly. The powder was everywhere.

I kept apologizing over the whine of the vac. I had made a mess of the station. She would be really, really mad.

Maybe mad enough to hurt me again.

I was babbling by the time I turned the vac off.

“I promise, nothing like that will ever happen again, I swear. I was just clumsy, I won’t do it again, I promise—”

She touched the visor on my helmet as I crouched at her feet. She smiled down at me.

How could I have ever thought she was only fifty? She was older than that. Thousands, maybe millions of years older. Maybe as old as Janus, as old as Vesta. Her hair floated around her head in a black and golden cloud, her eyes ageless and full of a cold light that bathed me like I was a naked baby in front of her. I was shaking.

I don’t know what she is. She is hollow and she burns, like my childhood. She’s empty and eternal, like space. I think... I think I brought her with me, from Earth, like the rat that came with us. And if rats are part of our evolution, well, I guess gods are too. And that must be what she is, a god, because I don’t know any other name for this opening in time that is staring at me with white eyes. Aren’t gods in the sky, too, in the stars that make up constellations? Are we in her constellation now?

She smells like home, like wet earth and green trees, the few that were left, and she’s suddenly young and smiling at me.

“It’s all right,” she told me. “You can do something for me.”

“Anything,” I said.

* * *

Dave tried really hard to talk me out of it. “Come on, buddy,” he said through the shaft vent.

I hadn’t shut the opening yet, though he was pretty well trapped in the vent. All I had to do was pop open the outside zirque, and he would shoot into space like a cork from a bottle.

That wasn’t the plan, though.

“Don’t do this,” he said through the six-inch gap. He was smiling that same fake smile, the beads of sweat dripping down his face. “You don’t want to do this. I’m your pal, remember? Your old buddy Dave.”

Stop calling me buddy!” I screamed. “I hate when you call me that!” My breath was coming in little huffs.

He’s not such a bad guy, I thought. He’s not so bad, really, once you get past the whole nickname thing. Dave’s okay. Sure he is.

Still. It was either him or me.

Dave gave up trying to talk to me. He was on the com, trying like hell to reach Jeremy. Let him. Jeremy was locked in sick bay. Diana had put him there.

I played with the dials on the circuit board. Diana came up behind me and looked over my shoulder. She was a cold light shining over me. She was a statue of stone and marble. My skin temperature plummeted. I shivered, miserable. I felt like a rat with a mouthful of wire.

She knew I was stalling. “Go on,” she said in my ear. It echoed in my head. Go on.

I gave her a pleading look. “Please don’t make me do this,” I said. “Please.”

Aren’t I your favorite? I wanted to ask. Can’t you let me off the hook? Just this once? And then I knew there was no point in asking, because Diana has no favorites, and no one gets off the hook with her, and they never have.

She is merciless. She is cold light and marble and the hunt.

She picked up my hand and forced it onto the circuitboard. It hurt, where she touched me. It was cold.

It was almost like before, when she bit me with the air vent.

Dave looked up, and I know he saw her, maybe for the first time, he finally saw her. His mouth fell open and he dropped his hand from the com and backed up, though there was nowhere for him to run. I pressed the switch that would overload the unchanged dyentholeem tubes. The window of the vent went yellow with the powdery explosion. Dave started screaming.

I put my hands over my ears and backed away from the door.

“Okay,” I said. I squeezed my eyes shut. “Okay. I did it, okay? I did it. It’s done. Like you wanted. Can I go now? Please can I go?”

“You have to open the door,” she said calmly, like Dave wasn’t shrieking, like he wasn’t making noises like a tortured animal and flailing in all that yellow powder behind the vent. Like only the two of us were here on the station, her cold hand closing over mine again. It hurt.

I sobbed. It hurt. It hurt so bad.

I opened the vent door. Dave fell out, his eyes gone, his hands withered into white sticks.

His mouth was a black hollow that wouldn’t stop wailing.

* * *

I’m back in sick bay. I still can’t see Vesta, the moon who’s name means “home,” that goes around and around and around Janus, the planet with two faces, one facing the future and the other staring at the past, the way Diana goes around and around and around Earth, though there’s no one there any more.

“Was that all a lie, what you told me about cutting yourself?” I asked Her.

I’m clutching my foot to my chest. Well, what’s left of it. I found it under the bed. I guess I hid it from Jeremy and Dave, when they saved me when the door slammed shut on my leg. When I found the foot decomposing under the bed, I remembered it had rolled out of my suit, and again, I heard the sound it made when it fell, a wet thump like a ham hock.

I guess I wasn’t ready to let go.

I’m holding the foot tightly, and now, finally, finally, there is pain, there is a terrible itching and pain where the foot used to be. Only now that I know it’s gone for good, does my body protest what it knows is true, like it’s saying, No that piece of meat is not your foot, here’s your foot, still attached, still part of you! Can you feel it? Can you feel it now?

“What?” said Diana. She’s watching Dave from the doorway. He’s still crawling, though his howling is just moaning now. He’s got a lot of energy, for a scarecrow.

He is dissolving, turning back into chemicals. Just like my foot.

“When you told me you cut your hand,” I say.

She smiles. It shines over me like it could cut through the mist, through the fog of my childhood, like a diamond, hard and cold. “I thought you would like that,” She says. “No, that didn’t happen. Does it matter?”

“I guess not,” I say. I don’t know that anything matters now, except Her.

“Don’t be so morose,” She says. “Don’t you like me being here? I’m part of home, just like the rat.”

And She is part of me, I suppose. All of us who had to sever the Earth, who severed home, and now feel the pain, the horrible burn, and have to pay and pay and pay, to Diana, who will take what is Hers.

I guess I was infected, after all. I brought a god with me, and gods always want sacrifice.

“Are you stronger now,” I say, because I can see Her very, very clearly, like a telescope lens turning and turning, bringing her into focus. Dave has stopped moving, stopped moaning.

“I have always been strong,” she says. There are galaxies in Her hair. Her eyes are white. “But sometimes you forget.” She looks out the window, her white eyes empty. Empty like space, like the planet full of scarecrows I left behind.

I look out the window at the haze of Janus floating by the window. There’s a dead rat out there, in all that fog. And skin and shit and other human things.

And Jeremy. Jeremy is space debris now.

Somewhere out there, Jeremy is orbiting Janus. Around, and around, and around...

Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Shaw

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