Tumbler: Part 4 (long one)

Just like home, the Tumbler has a freezer. It’s a lot cooler and colder than ones you’re used to though. Cooler, because this thing is in outer space. Colder because, well, it’s in outer space. We just use the cold of vacuum to keep anything chilled. As you might imagine, it’s pretty effective.

It being exercise time, I’m going to get hungry soon. So I might as well make my way back to the freezer and get something to nibble. Fortunately, I don’t have to get suited up. We’ve got a fancy conveyor belt thingy that uses magnets and works in extreme cold that let’s us dial-up whatever we want from cold storage. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the good freeze-dried meals, so I dial-up some chicken soup. It’ll do.

The soup goes straight into the heater. I couldn’t actually touch it until it does, I’d get freezer burned something awful. But the souped up microwave we’ve got nukes my soup to eatability pretty quickly. I keep it in the sealed container for now, since exercise time is nearly over and the change in spin speed can cause you to spill soup pretty easily. It’s all the little things that make living in space a pain in the ass. Still, better than starving on a planet.

Spin slows down, soup is still piping hot. I take my dinner up to the control room and my pilot’s chair. Eating in the control room is, technically, against the rules, but it’s not like there’s anybody here to yell at me. So I get comfy and sip soup while I check over my screens.

Everything looks pretty good. No red lights on the reactor, the engines or the cowcatcher. Yellow on environmental. That’s “normal” though. At least since the accident. I patched the holes best I could, but, as I’ve said, I’m just the pilot. My repairs aren’t yard-grade. Just patches and kludges and duct tape layered on hope. I’m surprised my patches are holding as well as they are, considering.

When that cloud of dust crossed our path, well, it punched a lot of holes. It came in at high-speed from across our arc. We were in the middle of a turn and the particles were too small to pick up on sensors. Space flight isn’t like flying a plane. When you turn, you don’t go in that direction right away. You slide sideways for a long time before your new angle of thrust gets you going the way you want and you steady out. But you go sideways through a big arc. If we’d hit that cloud going forward, the cowcatcher would have melted it all before it caused any trouble. But we didn’t. It caught us from the side and suddenly we were venting air and warmth out both sides of the can.

Four people died then. I was up in my usual spot, right where I am now, sipping soup. I was flying us through the turn, of course, not sipping soup. By the way, all the lame jokes are a coping mechanism, at least, that’s what the computer psych analysis program told me.

The particle cloud was bigger than the entire ship plus the load. It did damage everywhere, but it punched right through the crew area of the can. The control room was sealed off by the system. I couldn’t really leave until our course was corrected anyway, too dangerous, but I didn’t have a choice. I just had to sit there and listen to the chaos in the back.

Samir, our money man, was in the shower. He probably never even knew what killed him. One of the particles went through the outer shell, through the shower, and through him without even slowing down. Cleaning up the bathroom was hell.

Agnes, our cargo master, was outside, checking the load. What was left of her was pretty much stuck to the side of the asteroid. Getting her remains back was also hell.

Lester, our navigator and cook, survived the initial impact, but died before he could get into a suit. The damage killed the can’s spin and Les never was good in zero-g. The lethal combination of vacuum and cold moved faster than he did. He was fairly easy to clean up, being frozen and floating.

Alina, our engineer, died right after saving my life. She got into her suit, got outside, fixed the damage to the reactor that was threatening to go critical, got me enough power to get the ship under control, and got back inside. But her internal organs shut down from massive doses of radiation before she could patch up the inside of the ship. That was hell, the whole damn incident was hell, but at least I got to say goodbye to Alina. I never took her out of her suit. It would have been too much.

While Alina was dying, I got the ship back on a safe course and got into the emergency suit that’s stored in the control room. It’s one-size-fits-all so, of course, it doesn’t fit anyone. But it’s better than dying, so I got suited up. Once the system saw the emergency suit was online, it allowed me to crack the seal on the control room.

It took about twelve hours to get the holes patched. By then I was exhausted, horrified and just about hysterical. I had to patch up the bathroom bulkheads with bits of Samir floating around me. Even though the holes were patched, I was still stuck in my suit. It would take a while to re-pressurize and re-heat the can. I couldn’t rest anyway with my friends the way they were.

I took care of Les and Alina first. I sealed Les in a body bag and towed him to cold storage. Then I took Alina, still in her suit, back as well. Samir, well, Samir I mostly mopped up. His remains went into a sealed plastic bag. That went into the freezer too. By then the can was warm and had air enough that I could get out of the e-suit and into my real suit. I needed that to get outside and bring in what was left of Agnes. She went into a bag and into the freezer as well.

At that point, the system was alerting me that I’d been awake for nearly two days and I wasn’t allowed in the pilot seat until I got some sleep. As stressful as the last day-plus had been, I was so exhausted I fell asleep immediately. Not great dreams. But I slept.

Waking up was hell. I say that a lot. But, please understand, I just lost the four people I was closest to in the universe. The four people I had grown up with in the Mars habitats. The four people I had pooled everything we could scrape together with to buy a broken down ship. The four people I had sweated alongside putting a retired hulk back into commission. The four people I had spent the last two years crawling between the asteroid belts and Mars or Luna. The four people with whom I had just celebrated paying off our debts and successfully picking up our first hopefully profitable cargo. The four people who gave my life meaning. The four people I had just packed into the icebox along with the freeze-dried soup.

I don’t know how you define hell, but I think I just mapped the 9th circle.

Still, the ship wasn’t going to fly itself. Not completely. And while saying fuck it and joining my friends in oblivion did have some appeal, I never seriously contemplated suicide. There were no alcohol or drugs on the ship that I knew of, so that was out of the question too. So I got up, did the morning checks, and got down to figuring out how I’d do five people’s jobs by myself and still get the cargo in on time.

I worked out a schedule of checks, maintenance and required reading, programmed it into the system so it could keep tabs on me and all the things I would inevitably forget, and the spent the next few days trying to keep up and revising my new schedule to fit reality. I won’t say it was hell. I was too busy to have an opinion.

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