by Sheila Crosby

 

 

 

 

 

From Issue 16 (Dec 2011)

Dan Gaunt squirted half a tube of Tabasco into his chili. It still tasted like ashes. He shoveled it in anyway.

Kylie, his wife, stared at him. “Don’t you like it, love?” asked Kylie.

“Tasteless.”

Kylie’s eyes widened. “Chili with added Tabasco is tasteless?”

He slammed his napkin down. The magnets in its corners clanged as they hit the steel table. One broke off, and the freed corner floated like seaweed in a current, breaking the illusion of gravity.

Kylie went very still. “Talk to me, Dan,” she said quietly. “I can see you’re hurting, but I don’t understand why.”

A large part of Dan wanted to clam up, but he’d begged Kylie to come 375 million kilometers so he could talk to her. This was their first chance to talk alone for eight months. “I’m not hurting. Numb. I don’t understand it either. But since I got here everything’s tasteless. Everything’s gray. It’s like some dentist injected me all over.”

“It must be horrible.”

Dan made himself go on. “This probably sounds stupid, but everything’s dead here. Never even been alive. I mean back on Earth there’s life everywhere. Everything’s busy eating something else. Even in the city there’s birds and moss and stuff. Everywhere.”

“And cockroaches. Remember that revolting flat in Glasgow?”

“Kylie, I’d give anything to be there again. Earth looks very small from here. Life gets to feeling like a bunch of meaningless atoms. People are just carbon and hydrogen, you know?”

“Have you told anyone else about this?”

“‘Course not. They’d have me on the next ship home.”

Kylie hesitated, then said, “Maybe you should come home.”

Dan pressed his lips together. “I won’t get another salary like this one. I got us into debt. I’ll get us out of it.”

“It wasn’t your fault!”

Dan muttered, “So who talked who into investing with Piers Mountbatten?”

“Look, he’s a pro. He made a living by taking people in. The judge said so.”

“So there’s one of us born every minute. Big help. Tell the bank that.”

Kylie took a deep breath. “We’ve been through this before. Let’s just agree to differ, and talk about you. Are you telling me you’ve been carrying this alone for five months?”

“Like I said, no-one to talk to. Seems like everyone’s in cliques. I started writing you an email, but when I wrote it down it looked stupid. Anyway, I don’t think email’s really private.”

Kylie nodded slowly. “What about the boss, that Nigerian guy you liked so much at the interview?”

“Shuwundu? He’s Kenyan, and he isn’t the boss. Anyway, he chatted up the pilot, Juanita, on the way out here, and now they’ve only got eyes for each other.”

“So what about the boss?”

Dan rolled his eyes. “Jim? Do me a favor! He thinks feelings are for wimps, and real men eat hard vacuum for breakfast. I can’t go tell him I’d like to see some butterflies now and then. Or failing that, cockroaches.”

“So why don’t you tell the owner?”

“He is the owner.”

Kylie gasped. “He owns this lot? So what’s he doing out here instead of living it up on Earth?”

“Proving he’s a real man. Avoiding alimony. Besides, he’s a control freak. He wouldn’t trust anyone else to wipe their own nose without supervision.”

“Depressing bloke to work with.”

“Very.”

Kylie took his hand. “Look, Dan. I know you when you get down. You haven’t thought of killing yourself, have you?”

Dan stared at his bowl of chili. “No,” he lied, absently scooping a blob of Tabasco from mid-air with his finger. The zero-G product had higher surface tension, but this drop had evidently splashed off anyway.

“Well if you can cope with this lot, on your own, you’re definitely over it then.”

“It” was his father fatally stabbing his mother, then himself. At age five, Dan heard the whole thing, cowering under his bed trying to comfort his little brother and keep him quiet. When the noise stopped, he was relieved, but neither of them came out until Dan crept down in the morning. Now he stared at his chili, seeing a lake of dried blood.

The vid-phone shrilled.

The chair’s magnetic feet screeched as Dan pushed it back. “And knowing my luck, that’s Jim now.” He unfastened his Velcro lap belt and stomped off to the phone, feeling Kylie’s eyes on his back all the way.

It was Jim all right, looking angry. “Dan, get to the spaceport now. Collision alert.” The screen went blank before Dan could draw breath, much less reply.

“Rude man,” said Kylie. “What’s a collision alert?”

“I’ll tell you while I get ready.”

They went to the airlock.

Dan said, “All the bigger asteroids are tracked by the computer, but there’s zillions of tiny ones too. One’s heading our way.” After five months here, getting into his spacesuit was simple. The trick was to get one foot firmly fastened into the suit before you took the other out of its metal-soled shoe. If you didn’t, you found yourself floating weightlessly around the airlock, magnetic floor or no magnetic floor. “So we’re going out to the other asteroid to push it out of the way. We don’t have to move it much – just give it a little nudge with a water gun, so it misses us.”

He zipped up the suit and gave Kylie a peck on the cheek. She looked worried. “Relax, Sweetheart. They’ve done this before. There’ll be an evacuation drill, but it’s just a precaution.”

She still looked worried.

He strapped on his fanny pack. “Honest. Now get out of the airlock, so I can go. See you.”

“Goodbye, Love. Take care.” She kissed him and went.

As Dan left the dome, he set the computerized electromagnets in his boots to ten percent G. He bounded effortlessly across the surface of Paycheck asteroid in five-meter strides, accelerating to a reckless sixty kilometers an hour. Once, the speed would have terrified him. Now it barely eased the emotional deadness.

His spacesuit lights threw a jumble of shadows. Each had razor-sharp edges, but at the speed he was going the ground was a blurred patchwork of red and black.

He passed the mine where he worked. B shift was working away, loosening huge chunks of ore. That was all they needed to do – loosen them and give them a nudge upwards. The mine was covered by a huge canopy, like a funnel. Paycheck’s own rotation flung the ore to the top where the grinders and smelters converted it to stainless steel.

Dan jogged on between the hawsers that held the canopy. Two hundred meters further, he reached Paycheck’s pole. The spaceport blazed with lights as they unloaded the Buzz Aldrin. Buzz called twice a year. It brought mail, food, equipment, medicine and replacement personnel. Yesterday it had brought Kylie and Johnny. Later today it would carry on to Liveheart, a comet core. Within a week it would be back to collect Kylie and Johnny and load up with stainless steel from the smelter. Even though Paycheck was eighty percent nickel-iron, mining and smelting was far more expensive than doing it on Earth. On the other hand, transporting it to a space construction site was dirt cheap because of Paycheck’s negligible gravity. The Company was making money hand over fist. So were its employees, because the job was dangerous.

Ten minutes later, Dan sat at the back of the four-seater transport as they flew to the other asteroid. The others had done this several times before, but Jim constantly barked unnecessary orders. “Remember you’re in a zero-G vacuum everyone!”

As if I could forget, thought Dan. His suit smelled of old socks. His nose was itching again. These days it started itching as soon as he got into his suit and out of an airlock.

Dan could never understand why he was still alive, while his mother was dead. Sometimes all he wanted was a convenient fatal accident so Kylie could collect his insurance. Then they’d all be free of Dan Gaunt. He wished his intercom had an off button so he could be alone with his misery, but he was stuck with Jim’s hectoring, and the noisy combined breathing of four people. It had taken him a long time to get used to the intercom. Everyone within a kilometer sounded as though they were right beside you.

“Now you’re all to do as you’re told. We can’t have no mistakes. We got to stick together and do this right.”

Shuwundu jabbed a finger up, behind Jim’s back, then stared at the approaching asteroid and said, “Why is it winking like that?”

The other asteroid was indeed winking, about once every nine seconds.

Jim said, “Five months out here and the prat still can’t tell when something’s rotating.”

Yes, thought Dan, but why would one side be so much brighter than the other?

As they got closer, Dan saw the asteroid was a peculiar shape. The bright side consisted mostly of a semi-circle, unnaturally accurate.

Shuwundu said, “It’s a ship!”

Kylie hurriedly cleared up the meal and squirted air-freshener, wondering what to do. Nothing in this place was as she’d expected. Dan’s messages had become so terse and infrequent that she came prepared to battle with another woman. When she got here, she found Dan seriously depressed, which was almost worse. She’d have known what to do about a rival. She’d expect to live communally in identical tunnels, but they lived in higgledy-piggledy domes – whatever was left over from something else. Everything possible was made of iron because it was available locally. Water was almost plentiful, because they got it from comet cores. It all made her head spin. She wanted to run back to Scotland, but even if there’d been transport available, she couldn’t leave Dan in the state he was in.

Enough maundering. She called out, “Who loves meeeee?”

Two-year-old Johnny peeked out, and looked around for his father. When he saw Dan wasn’t there, he came barreling out of his room and tackled her legs. “Hug!” he demanded, so Kylie did.

He pulled free and grabbed Kylie’s hand. He counted her fingers: “One. Two. Nine. Six. Nine.” Then he sat back and grinned, obviously pleased with himself.

“Very good!”

He pressed her eyelid, a little too hard for comfort. “Eye,” he announced.

“Eye,” Kylie agreed.

Then he put his finger up her nostril. “Nose.”

Ouch! Time to cut those nails. “Nose,” she agreed.

He stuck a finger between her lips. “Mouth.”

“Grrrrrrr!” said Kylie, pretending to worry it from side to side, like a dog with a stick. Johnny squealed in delight.

“Sausage,” said Johnny, meaning he was hungry.

Kylie strapped Johnny into his high chair, then got him some lunch from the fridge.

She left Johnny throwing cheese and ham around, and went to check the spacesuits. The cupboard was open and Johnny’s suit was a mess. She shut her eyes, breathed deeply, and counted to ten. Then she did it again. It seemed no matter how hard she tried to keep track of Johnny, he always managed to break something while she wasn’t looking. She’d learned to lock up everything she could, but in the eight months they’d been apart, Dan had lost the habit of keeping things toddler-proof. If she’d known how careless he’d become, she’d never have brought Johnny here.

She shook the magnetic Lego out of the legs, but she couldn’t pry the play-doh out of the helmet catches, or remove the toy car rammed down the air hose.

Dan’s depression was dangerous. Perhaps she ought to get him off Paycheck as fast as she could. Perhaps then Dan would turn back into the man she’d married. Oh, to see grass again, to smell it, and walk on it barefoot, and feel its slight stickiness on a hot day! With Dan sharing the childcare, she might even get a chance to do some painting again.

And Dan would call her a traitor.

Kylie felt a familiar tearing sensation in her chest, as though she were being pulled in two.

Jim said, “Don’t be daft. We’d know if a ship was coming.”

But Shuwundu was right. As they got closer, there was no doubting it. Originally, the ship had clearly consisted of an outer ring, joined by spokes to a central sphere on which rockets were mounted. Presumably the engines were in the center, and the outer ring had spun to provide gravity. Now it tumbled crazily, and a large part of the ring had been blown away by some huge explosion. Some parts were almost black, and nearly invisible even in sunlight.

They watched it in silence for several minutes, and then everyone began talking at once.

“God help whoever was on that when it blew.”

“Can’t have been many survivors.”

“No ID visible now.”

Dan listened morosely to the chatter. He knew he ought to be feeling something, but the truth was, he couldn’t care less. Numb again. With no clues to distance, they were almost on top of the ship before Dan could judge its size. It was only about 100 meters in diameter.

Shuwundu said, “How about we get Base to find out which ship this is? It would be good to have the technical data.”

Juanita replied, “I already transmitted some video to Amelia. No reply yet.”

The launch chased the jagged edges of the ring, but the spaceship tumbled so wildly she couldn’t land. Juanita said, “This is impossible. I think we should anchor near the center.”

“Stupid woman,” muttered Jim.

Juanita headed for the center. Since this moved more slowly, and the landing pads were undamaged, she landed with little difficulty. Shuwundu and Dan got out to tether the launch.

Dan said, “I’ve never seen anchor points like this before.”

Shuwundu said, “Yeah. Must be a real old station. Hook it round the pigtail bit. See?”

Dan felt sick. The stars and asteroids appeared to spin wildly as the station gyrated.

“Ugh,” said Jim. “Let’s stop this spin first.”

Bleeding obvious, thought Dan. We can’t do anything else while we’re on this whirligig.

Juanita said, “Amelia can’t find the station in Base’s database. She’s asking Earth -”

Three men groaned at once. It would take over thirty minutes for the radio signal to get to earth and back, even if Earthside replied immediately.

” – but she estimates the remains of the station at 2401 tons and says each cable should be 2325 meters long if we attach it to the rim and use the transport and cargo for weights.”

Oh fun, thought Dan.

Everyone except Juanita got out of their five-point harness and started strapping on mobility packs – a harness with little thrust rockets pointing every which way.

“Now unstrap yourselves and get into the mobility packs,” ordered Jim. He was the last one ready. “Get a move on, everyone,” he barked. “Don’t use the rockets inside the transport.”

Dan knew better anyway. They pushed off from their seats, and climbed out.

The damaged ship had ladders along each of the six struts that joined the central sphere to the outer ring.

Ten minutes later Dan was moving along a ladder with Jim, playing out one of the thick carbon cables behind them. He stared at his feet and tried to ignore the stars whipping past below and to the sides. He still felt like an ant on a Frisbee. It was worse where the ladder had buckled. Beneath their feet, the explosion had torn large chunks off the outer skin of the space station, exposing pipework beneath. Dan concentrated on his tethers.

They welded the cable onto the station rim. It was hard work because the centrifugal force tried to fling everything into space.

Finally, Jim said, “That should do it. Juanita, we’re heading back now.”

As they retraced their steps down the strut, the launch flew past them, looping the cable round and round the station in the direction of spin. Meanwhile, Shuwundu attached a similar cable to the other side. His was attached to the launch, while Jim and Dan’s was attached to the launch’s cargo – mostly water.

“Right, lad,” said Jim. “It works like this. The launch weighs the same as the cargo. We’ve got two weights, see, each fastened to a cable looped round this here station. Juanita kills her engines, and we blow the bolts, and the spin throws them both out, like, spinning the opposite way. Of course both weights together are a lot less than the station, but they’re a lot further out, see? So if Base got their sums right, the angular whatsit should cancel out, and we stop the boy spinning. Even if they’ve screwed up again, it should be spinning a sight less.”

“I know,” said Dan. He didn’t see how they could work with even a small residual spin, but he didn’t bother to say so.Jim ignored him anyway. “Right, everybody get in.”

They all got into the launch and strapped in.

Jim said, “Juanita, get ready to cut us free.”

“Ready”.

“Three…two…one…Now.”

Now the station appeared to be moving, as well as the stars. Dan shut his eyes.

Shuwundu said, “Get ready for a little jolt when the cable’s all paid out.

The little jolt nearly pulled Dan’s arms out of their sockets. He kept his eyes shut until he heard a ragged cheer. The stars had stopped moving and Juanita cut the launch free.

Jim started giving orders again. “Right, let’s get to the thrust point.”

Juanita was already steering them there. Now that the station had stopped its wild tumbling, it was simple enough for Juanita to land on the outer ring, near the huge gash.

As they climbed out, Jim continued, “Shuwundu, take the generator. I’ll take the gun. Dan, you don’t know what you’re doing. Stick with me.”

Jim pointed to a section of the ship’s hull. “This’ll do. Come on, get a move on. We can’t get this thing moving fast, so we’ve got to start it moving now. We’ve only got an hour left.”

Dan held the gun down while Shuwundu taped it to the station. Then they adjusted it, using gyros, until it pointed at ninety degrees to the station’s direction of travel.

Dan said, “Shame we can’t use the ship’s own engines.”

Jim snorted. “Yeah right. Let’s go spend half an hour finding out why this thing’s abandoned and leave it too late to use the gun. Keep your mind on your work, you stupid git. That’s miles out. Do it again.”

It went much faster the second time, because they just lined up on the scratch marks Shuwundu made the first time. Then Jim said it was perfect.

They started connecting the generator.

Shuwundu said, “Come on Dan, let’s get the ice.”

They left the others connecting the generator, and went back to the transport. The ice was in six flexible bags, each a meter cubed. Although it was weightless, it still had a lot of inertia, so it took a good shove to get it moving. Shuwundu made it look easy, keeping it going in the right direction and stopping it dead, just as they got to the water gun.

The generator was already humming. Shuwundu connected the ice bag to its heater and the gun, and they were in business.

Everyone moved well back.

“Move back!” shouted Jim. “This gun can punch a hole through steel.”

He switched on. The melting ice was pumped into the gun, converted to steam at a thousand degrees centigrade, and squirted out of a fine nozzle. There was no sound, and nothing to see unless something was behind the narrow, shimmering line of supersonic steam, but the space station began to change course very, very slowly.

Jim’s voice sawed into the background of breathing.

“Juanita, get an update from Amelia.”

“Collision time, one hour and twelve minutes. She’ll contact us when she’s got data on how the gun’s working.”

“I said get an update, not old data, you prat.”

“I asked for the update when I saw the gun start. Amelia will give me fresh data when she’s got it. She always does.”

There was a pause while they floated around and listened to their breathing. Dan looked up. The shrunken sun was directly overhead.

Time passed. The water bag started to deflate. Dan wanted to look inside the ship, but he knew what Jim’s reaction would be if he suggested it. Why did I come and work here?thought Dan. My old job at the coal mine wasn’t so bad. Real sky and birds when you came up. At least my boss wasn’t such an idiot.

“Update,” said Juanita. “The space station’s starting to spin. We need to adjust the gun by twenty-six arc minutes east. Apart from that, the space station’s lighter than she first thought, and we won’t need all the ice.”

Shuwundu switched off the gun, to adjust it.

“Shuwundu, switch it off and adjust it,” said Jim.

They had it going again in under a minute.

Dan thought, If I “accidentally” caught the jet, my suit would deflate. It would all be over in a second. I’d never have to put up with Jim again. Hell, I’d never have to put up with my nightmares again.

“Update,” said Juanita. “We’re bang on. We should only need a few liters of the second bag, but Ameilia says to fire half to be sure. Evacuation canceled.”

“Dan, get another bag,” ordered Jim.

Dan did. On his own, it was much harder to control the ice. It went shooting off sideways. He’d chase it and try to stop it, only to have it careen off again. The short distance to the gun turned into a drunkard’s walk. It was so difficult he almost forgot his troubles, briefly.

He was close now. He gave the water bag a cautious nudge, and it spun into the gun, knocking it sideways. Once the gun wasn’t pushing solidly into the hull of the station, the force of the jet tore it free. As the gun flew off at high speed, the steam jet slashed through the bag of water that Dan had brought, then sliced a gash in the space station’s hull.

Jim and Shuwundu jumped away. One ton of ice boiled and vanished in ten seconds.

Kylie de-pressurized the airlock. The tiny suit beside her flopped over immediately. It was still leaking like a sieve. She put more duct tape on the air hose and tried again. The suit still deflated. Thank goodness the collision alert was over. There was no way she could have taken Johnny to the spaceport for evacuation without his suit.

She re-pressurized and got out of her own suit, then immediately blew her nose. She could hear the PA going in the main dome, but couldn’t catch the words. Assuming it was the standard company trivia, she stayed in the airlock and kept hunting for the leak.

There was no way she was leaving Dan alone with his depression. The least bad option seemed to be Shuwundu. As soon as they got back from this other asteroid, she’d go see him and spill the beans. She started to plan what she’d say.

Three men held their breaths at once. The silence sounded loud behind the rapid thud of Dan’s heart. He felt sick and cold.

“You idiot!” Jim called Dan every name in the book, and a few new ones too. Shuwundu tried to get a word in edgeways. When he failed he jetted back to the transport. Through his misery, Dan was vaguely aware of Shuwundu touching helmets with Juanita, so they could speak without the intercom.

Jim eventually paused for breath.

“STOP IT BOTH OF YOU!” roared Shuwundu. “We’ve got to THINK!”

“Update,” said Juanita. “We’re at least ten liters short. Collision time in thirty-four minutes.”

Some time later, Kylie got the feeling that Johnny was far too quiet. She went back into the main dome, only to find he had escaped from the playpen. She looked all round the room; no Johnny, but the fridge was open. Finally, she remembered to check the walls and ceiling as well as the floor, and sure enough, Johnny was hiding at the top of the dome. She could see his face and chest were covered with something red. Her chest tightened with fear.

When she spotted him, he giggled and waved. “Bye-bye Mummy,” meaning hello. “Bye-bye.” He didn’t seem hurt, thank goodness.

Kylie climbed one of the metal struts on all fours. She hated heights, and seeing the floor at that crazy angle made her feel sick. She shut her eyes and reminded herself that in micro-gravity, down was whichever way you felt like, and falling wouldn’t hurt. Then she opened her eyes, forced herself to stand upright, and carried on.

Johnny waited until she was just two meters away, then scampered off, giggling, leaving a few red blobs in the air behind him.

Kylie caught one and sniffed it. “Tomato!” The little horror must have squirted an entire tube of precious ketchup over himself. She didn’t know whether to laugh with relief or cry with frustration. Whatever else, she had to clean him up, and she couldn’t stay here, upside down at the top of the dome. “Stay there, Johnny. Mummy’s coming.” She started edging down, forcing herself to breathe slowly and deeply.

Johnny waited at the base of the strut, chuckling, until Kylie got within two meters of him. Then he scampered off again.

The intercom said, “Evacuation. Evacuation. Collision in fourteen minutes. Remaining personnel report to the port immediately. Repeat immediately. Collision time in fourteen minutes.”

For a moment Kylie froze in disbelief. Then she ran to the phone to call the help desk. No reply.

“Mummy!” called Johnny. “Bye-bye Mummy.”

Kylie tried Juanita. No answer.

“Mummy!” repeated Johnny.

“Sorry darling, Mummy’s busy.”

She tried the smelters. No reply.

Amelia’s voice came over the intercom again. “Evacuation. Evacuation. Collision in twelve minutes. Remaining personnel report to the port immediately. Repeat immediately. Collision time in twelve minutes.”

She went through the whole short phone list as Johnny climbed back up to the top of the dome.

She tried the help desk again. No reply. Then she realized that Amelia must be busy on the intercom. She seemed to run the entire admin single-handed. Everyone else had gone to the port.

“Evacuation. Evacuation. Collision in ten minutes. Remaining personnel report to the port immediately. Repeat immediately. Collision time in ten minutes. Ship leaves in five. Signing off.”

Kylie looked around in panic. Then she ran to her suit and switched on the intercom. She heard Amelia talking.

“Base to nudge team. Evacuate. You have nine minutes to get clear. Take-off in one. Rendezvous with Buzz Aldrinafter collision.”

She heard a crackle of static in reply. The ordinary intercom couldn’t reach Dan’s team.

“Base! Amelia! Help! Help!”

“Who’s calling?”

“This is Kylie Gaunt. Johnny’s broken his suit. We can’t leave the dome. We-”

The radio squawked as Amelia cut her connection. Kylie couldn’t believe it. As soon as she stopped shouting, the squawking stopped, and she heard Amelia again. “- Do you copy?”

The reply was barely more than a whisper, but it still shook.

“Message received. No airtight transport available. I think she’ll just have to leave the kid.”

“What?” screamed Kylie. The intercom squawked back, silencing her. Amelia wasn’t going to let her interrupt.

“- serious?” said Base.

“I know, I know! But I can’t do anything. There isn’t a bus. We can’t fit a shuttle into the airlock. And if we don’t leave in four minutes we’ll alldie.”

Amelia said, “Do you copy, Kylie?”

Kylie tried to reply, but got a squawk.

“Try again Kylie,” said Amelia.

Kylie sobbed. “I’m not leaving Johnny. I’m not.”

She heard Amelia take a deep, deep breath. “Kylie, I’m so sorry. But you can’t help Johnny. You can only save yourself. Get to the port. It won’t help Johnny to stay behind. Get to the port. You’ve only got three minutes.”

“No! ” cried Kylie. “No!”

The Buzz Aldrinanswered, “Look you stupid woman. You’ve got three minutes. Get to the port.”

“Kylie, please!” said Amelia.

“No!”

She collapsed, shaken by sobs and gasping for breath.

Amelia said, “Kylie – Kylie – are you there? Listen, I’m coming over with an adult suit. Maybe we can get Johnny in it. Then we’ll jump off Paycheck and hope the ship can pick us up afterwards.”

The Buzz Aldrinsaid, “The collision’s due that side. If the crunch doesn’t squash you, the shrapnel will punch you full of holes.”

“Kylie, have the airlock open, ready. And get into your own suit.”

“Bloody women!” said the Buzz Aldrin. “Go ahead and commit suicide!”

Kylie ripped the intercom speaker off her suit.

Paycheck filled the sky on the space station. The computer back at Base predicted that the space station would hit close to the spaceport. Paycheck probably wouldn’t disintegrate, but the living offices and domes would certainly be destroyed.

Nobody had said anything to Dan since Shuwundu had shouted at them to think. Dan himself had said nothing. It made very little difference, since the screaming carried on inside his head.

By now, the space station was so close to Paycheck that they could hear Base direct, instead of having to go through Juanita.

“Base to nudge team. Evacuate. You have nine minutes to get clear. Take-off in one. Rendezvous with Buzz Aldrinafter collision.”

Two defeated men flew back to the transport.

“For God’s sake Dan, hurry up or we’ll leave you!” snapped Jim in his ears.

Dan went the other way. He was no use to anybody.

“Dan, don’t be a fool! Everybody makes mistakes,” yelled Shuwundu.

Dan ducked into the ring of the space station. They wouldn’t hang around to look for him for long, and in a few minutes Kylie would be free to find a decent father for Johnny. He got just twenty paces inside when he stopped in astonishment.

The walls were covered in Arabic.

Filled with curiosity, he turned into one of the rooms off the corridor.

It was a workshop. He recognized a lathe and a drill. One wall held shelves, empty now, their contents floating around. He vaguely remembered some fundamentalists setting off to start a new colony. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, only Islamic. Looked like they hadn’t got far.

His intercom crackled faintly, the signal broken up by the hull of the space station. “Base to nudge team. Evacuate. Time’s up.”

“Right, everyone split up. We’ve got to find the silly sod fast!”

Dan switched his lights off. He huddled deeper into the shadow as he watched a human figure fly past the door.

“Christ! It’s useless. He can hide for hours, if he wants to.”

One minute after their limit, the others left, swearing. Dan felt relieved. No more waking up in the night, dreading the coming day. No more acting normal when he felt anything but. He was committed now, and he could relax.

A burst of static whispered on the intercom – somebody on Paycheck talking to Amelia.

“Who’s calling?”

Another whisper of static.

“Amelia to Buzz Aldrin. Child without a spacesuit in dome six. They need assistance, do you copy?”

Shock knifed through Dan. Johnny in danger? He couldn’t believe it until he heard Buzz Aldrinreply.

“Message received. No airtight transport available. I think she’ll just have to leave the kid.”

“No!” It was several seconds before he realized that the scream was his own.

“Leave the kid?” said Amelia. “Buzz Aldrin, are you serious?”

“I know, I know! But I can’t do anything. There isn’t a bus. We can’t fit a shuttle into the airlock. And if we don’t leave in four minutes we’ll alldie.”

Dan swooped along the corridor with no plans, only

desperation. He searched around desperately for somethingto move the space station. Killing himself through stupidity was one thing, but Johnny!

Amelia said, “Do you copy, Kylie?”

Kylie sobbed. “I’m not leaving Johnny. I’m not.”

Dan felt a crazy pride in his wife. She’d stayed loyal to him when he’d been impossible for months, and now she wouldn’t leave Johnny. Whereas he had been trying to leave them both. He didn’t even…

Dan caromed into a shut door and instinctively hit the button beside it. The door opened and he flew into a large room.

It was the control room. Certainly there was a bunch of display screens above and behind consoles full of buttons. Part of his brain admired the flowing Arabic script, while most of his brain wished the space station were still functional.

The door had opened when he’d pushed the button. There must still be power. If only he had time to work this all out.

Dan shrugged. He had nothing to lose, so he might as well try. He chose a workstation at random and punched a few buttons. Nothing.

Hang on. The captain would be somewhere central so he could talk to everyone. The pilot would be pretty close to the captain. If there were an engineer, he’d be close to both.

The extra-large harness there would be the captain. OK, let’s try the one in front. Dan pushed the big button at the bottom. Nothing. Some in the center. Nothing. So how about the one with the cover on? Had to be a panic button or a reset. He lifted the cover with difficulty and flipped the switch. The room lights came on.

That’s when Dan realized how little he’d expected his fumbling to work. He shrugged, and tried the big button at the bottom again.

Five buttons in a cross shape glowed violet. Dan shut his eyes and tried to remember how the station flew with respect to Paycheck. The outer ring was just about edge-on to Paycheck, so he wanted the main engine. He punched the center button, hoping.

Nothing.

He tried again. Still nothing. Of course with so much of the ship wrecked, it figured. The chances of all the vital parts surviving the explosion were remote.

With no better idea, he wandered back along the corridor to where he’d entered the ship, and right outside. Paycheck looked noticeably larger.

Dan glared at the useless main engine. If only! Then he looked thoughtfully at the exposed pipes running towards the engine. Logically they must have held fuel. Maybe they were still under pressure. If he could just make a hole in them…

Nothing in his fanny pack looked promising. Back to the workshop.

Sure enough, he found a nice big drill bit, tipped with something like black glass. With a bit of luck, it would be an industrial diamond. It had to be hard anyway, or why else put it on the end of a drill?

There was no sign of a hammer or mallet. Maybe they’d all got lost. Whatever.

Dan headed back outside, remembering his first attempt to use a hammer in zero-G. He’d picked up a lump of rock and bashed a recalcitrant lever. The reaction from the blow had knocked him clean off Paycheck and Shuwundu had had to rescue him.

Now, he flew a hundred meters from the station, turned his mobility to full acceleration, held the drill bit with both hands like a pistol, and rammed himself into the pipe.

He almost dislocated his shoulders, but the bit dug in. It took most of his strength to pull the bit free.

Then to his delight he saw a jet of tiny ice crystals zipping out of the hole he’d made.

He repeated the maneuver, making another three holes. Now he had four jets, nudging the ship away from Paycheck.

The station was accelerating.

There was nothing more he could do here. Paycheck looked close enough to touch; he might as well die with Kylie and Johnny. He kicked hard. With no opposing gravity, he flew the one and a half kilometers to Paycheck in two and a half minutes. Behind him, he saw a cloud of crystals shimmering in the sunlight. Ahead, he saw the grinding and smelting station detach from the top of the funnel, getting out of harm’s way. He flew into Paycheck’s shadow and his suit lights switched on.

His intercom crackled. “Kylie – Kylie – are you there? Listen, I’m coming over with an adult suit. Maybe we can get Johnny in it. Then we’ll jump off Paycheck and hope the ship can pick us up afterwards.”

“Amelia, don’t! The collision’s due that side. If the crunch doesn’t squash you, the shrapnel will punch you full of holes.”

“Kylie, have the airlock open, ready. And get into your own suit.”

“Bloody women! Go ahead and commit suicide!”

Dan landed beside the spaceport.

Because he was setting the magnets in his boots, he braked too late and hit Paycheck hard. His left ankle collapsed in agony. He gasped, set the left magnet back to zero, and carried on. The Arab spaceship seemed to be coming straight at him as he hopped to the canopy and living area. He knew he wasn’t going to make it, but kept going. He just wanted to put his arms around Kylie one last time.

“Kylie? Can you hear me, Kylie?” She wasn’t answering.

“I think her intercom’s broken,” replied Amelia.

Dan could see the spaceship in sunlight, with a lone star twinkling beneath it. This was going to be very, very close. He could even see the engines sticking out from the station like a rude finger.

The sun rose.

The space station tore into the canopy, missing Paycheck itself by a few meters. Flailing hawsers scraped a line of destruction across Paycheck, like the path of a tornado. Dome seven vanished in a cloud of debris. Dan ducked uselessly, then automatically turned his head towards the flying rocks, to reduce the chance of getting hit. When he opened his eyes, he saw debris flying out of a huge gash in dome six. The dome had de-pressurized.

He had failed and his family was dead. He’d killed them.

Kylie stared at the intercom in her hand. What had she done that for? Amelia would be too late. She had two minutes to improvise a spacesuit for Johnny. Suppose she put him in a garbage bag? No, the plastic would explode in a vacuum. She looked around wildly for salvation, and saw the freezer. She sprinted over, pulled the door open, and emptied the freezer in frantic haste. Frozen pizzas and bags of peas bounced around the dome. The shelves and drawers clanged on the floor. When it was empty, she had a cubic meter of space.

Johnny was back at the apex of the dome. No sense chasing him. She knelt down and opened her arms wide. “Who loves meeee?”

“NO!” Johnny refused to get in; refused to let her near him. Kylie forgot all about vertigo. She sprinted up the strut and managed to grab Johnny’s arm. He screamed and kicked her as hard as he could with his metal-soled shoes. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she dragged him to the freezer, threw him inside and slammed the door. She could hear him still screaming and kicking inside.

She drew a deep, shaky breath. She put on her helmet and clicked the catches. Johnny was safe. Then she pictured the vacuum outside sucking the freezer door open. Thank God for reinforced duct tape, she thought, grabbing it. Her hands shook so much, it was difficult to feed the tape round the back of the freezer. Ten turns should do it. How long to impact? And how could she get this thing out of the airlock by herself?

A rock the size of a car ripped through the wall with a deafening crash. The lights went out. Her scream sounded loud against the sudden silence outside her suit. Kylie lost all sense of direction. The light from her suit showed things that made no sense. A plastic bag of ice cubes exploded in front of her eyes, and the ice evaporated instantly. The freezer seemed to be flying through the air with her. Had the floor magnet failed?

Sunlight dazzled her. She was hundreds of meters up in the air, flying away from Paycheck with no way to land.

She switched on her boot magnets, knowing it was useless. She was yanked round and her feet thudded into something. It was the freezer. Dimly, she could hear Johnny’s screams traveling up her shaking legs. How long would his air last? She had probably given her baby a slow death instead of a quick one.

Dan could have wept with relief when he saw Kylie fly out of the dome. “Hang on Kylie, I’m coming!”

There was no reply. With a sickening jolt, he realized that it might well be an empty suit, or Kylie might somehow be dead inside it.

“Kylie? Can you hear me, Kylie?”

Setting the main thrusters on his mobility pack to full, he dashed after her, and then very nearly overshot. Braking fiercely, he grabbed the spacesuit’s waist and swung round to look into the helmet. Kylie’s wide eyes delighted him so much he hardly noticed the pain in his injured shoulders.

Assuming that her intercom was somehow broken, he touched helmets with her. “Darling, are you OK?”

Kylie started crying. Her helmet fogged up immediately. She rubbed uselessly at the outside with the glove of her spacesuit, trying to clear it. Dan remembered doing that when he’d been  a raw recruit. “It’s OK, Sweetheart. Switch off your magnets, and I’ll take you to the transport. I can’t manage the freezer as well.”

“I can’t leave Johnny.”

Dan’s chest squeezed so tight he could hardly breath. “You did all you could. Come on now.”

“No!”

There was no point arguing. He reached over to the controls on her forearm, and switched the magnets off himself. Then he accelerated away from the freezer, gently, so Kylie wouldn’t notice. She was distressed enough.

Thanks to Kylie’s fogged visor, they had gone over a hundred meters before she reacted.

“Dan! Dan! I can’t feel Johnny any more.”

“Hush, love.”

“But he’s stopped screaming. He’s run out of air. Oh why couldn’t we have had a bigger freezer!”

It took Dan several seconds to work it out. Then he gasped. “Darling, you’re a genius.”

He wanted to get back to the freezer at top speed, but he forced himself to take it slowly. He couldn’t have much fuel left.

As soon as they got to the freezer, Dan leaned his helmet against it. Johnny was screaming, all right.

“Right,” said Dan, with new determination. “How do I get one mobility pack to push the three of us?”

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Juanita.

Dan was stunned. He’d completely forgotten the transport.

It seemed an age before Juanita arrived. Between them, they lashed the freezer onto the side of the transport. Dan sat beside Kylie, wondering how long Johnny’s air would last. He hadn’t a clue.

Amelia said, “Nudge team, can you slow down so I can catch up. I’m low on fuel and oxygen.”

“Roger.”

Amelia’s mobility pack wasn’t working properly. It took an age to pick her up. Try as he might to distract himself, Dan kept picturing Johnny suffocating while they maneuvered.

Why on Earth had he thought money so important? He’d swap the whole of Paycheck for oxygen for Johnny in a moment.

It was another age before they flew into the giant airlock of the Buzz Aldrin, and heard the characteristic hissing of re-pressurization. As the pressure increased, the silence from the freezer grew louder and louder. Kylie tried to loosen the duct tape with her gloved hands.

The full pressure gong sounded. Dan took his helmet and gloves off.

Jim charged in front of him. “You’re fired!” he shouted.

“Bloody hell!” said Shuwundu, pulling him away. “Let’s get the kid out first.”

Dan ignored both of them. He rummaged round in his fanny pack for a knife, and lunged at the freezer to cut the duct tape.

Kylie flung open the door, and there was Johnny, eyes closed and motionless.

Dan’s heart stopped.

Johnny snored.

Kylie grabbed Johnny, and Dan grabbed them both. Johnny woke up and burrowed sleepily into Kylie’s shoulder, whimpering. Dan kissed her passionately. She tasted of chili and tears. He kissed Johnny, who tasted of ketchup, and kissed back sleepily.

It was wonderful to be alive. How could he ever have felt any different?

Copyright © 2002 by Sheila Crosby

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Sheila Crosby

Sheila Crosby is British, but she lives in the Canary Islands, just off the North West coast of Africa. She originally went to the island to work at the astronomical observatory in 1990 on a three year contract. There she met a tall, dark, handsome local man and got married. Now they have a son, who is the sweetest, handsomest, cleverest kid in the history of the universe, at least according to his mother.

Sheila’s hobbies are cooking, laundry, ironing and cleaning the house. Unfortunately she’s so busy writing fiction, selling photos, and playing with her son that she rarely gets chance for her hobbies.

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