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We take shifts talking to Denish. He dozes off a few times, but we always manage to rouse him. I start thinking, maybe it would be better to just let him sleep, and try to rouse him when it’s nearing time to take the helmet off – but what if we can’t? You’d think the lack of oxygen would wake him when it’s time, but no – the body doesn’t sense oxygen, it senses carbon dioxide, and the suit is filtering carbon dioxide normally. According to the doctor, upping the carbon dioxide in the suit to keep him awake and breathing wouldn’t be helpful; he’d just breathe faster, and use up the oxygen faster. And there’s no way to set a timer in the suit to suddenly flood him with carbon dioxide to wake him up when it’s time.
As soon as the two halves of the spaceship seal back together, I start pressurising his ring. “Not long now, Denish.”
“Tomorrow will be fun, huh? You can rest up and meet our new crewmate.”
“What are they like?”
“I… don’t actually know. Ke was asleep last time I was off comms.”
“You see the tattoos?”
“Yeah. Each to their own.”
“My sister was zeelite for some years. No tattoos, but miniskirts. Big long nails. Always, ‘we should get a navcom with some personality, Denish’.”
“You have a sister?”
“Had sister. Is probably… what, eighty years on Earth? Everyone is surely dead now.”
I keep forgetting that. My own siblings would be dead. My whole cluster would be dead.
“You know,” I say, “I bet they have some great navcom personalities now. I bet a bunch of zeelites got together and were like, ‘you know what? We can build a realistic computer personality,’ and did it.”
“Ha! Nightmare. I think maybe zeelites have died out now. Silly fad, probably very short.”
“You know there were pre-Neocambrian zeelites, right?”
“No, no – modern zeelites, based on pre-Neocambrian aesthetic. Very different. Were not zeelites then, were just normal people guessing future.”
“I bet there were zeelites then, too. I bet they wore glowing hoops on their wrists and high silver boots and carried fake ray guns and pretended they were in space.”
“And drank glittery coloured alcohol in bars with metal and glass tables!”
“Yeah! And the waiters dressed like fake robots with big silver antennae sticking out of their hair.”
“My sister take me to one of those places once. Actually very good drinking. Bad, bad music.”
“Ha. I bet.” I glance at the pressure readout. “Pressurisation will take twenty six more minutes. How much oxygen do you have?”
“Okay. This is going to be tight.”
“I can lower it more. Make it last longer.”
“No. Do not do that. If you lower it further, you risk passing out, and if you pass out you’ll die in that suit. Stay calm, breathe deep, don’t change the oxygen ratio. I’ve already spoken to the doctor; I’ll have it talk you through the process when it’s time, but basically, this is what we’re going to do. When your oxygen levels go red, you’re going to saturate your suit with everything that remains and take several deep breaths, and then you’re going to push as much air out of your lungs as you can. Okay? You’re going to completely empty your lungs. And then take your helmet off.”
“Ring will not be at full pressure.”
“That’s why you need to empty your lungs. There’s going to be a pressure difference and we don’t want to rupture anything in your airways. Outside of the suit, things are going to be uncomfortable. You’ll pop your ears, you might damage your eyes. But you’ll be able to breathe. Once the helmet is off, you can pass out of you need to; you’ll be breathing normal, if low pressure, air, while the room finishes pressurising.”
“I know. You just need to hold it together for nineteen minutes. We’re gonna get you out of there and into the medbay and you can freak the fuck out as much as you need to then, okay? I’ll go see if we have any alcohol in storage and sneak it to you, even if the doctor says no, and if we do have any alcohol it’s been there fifteen years longer than planned so it’s probably just pure ethanol right now. But first, nineteen more minutes.”
“Eighteen minutes,” he says shakily.
“Great. That’s no time at all.”
I keep talking to him until the doctor comes in. “Tal’s awake,” it says.
“No obvious signs of permanent damage, but it’s been about two minutes, so.”
“Right. Denish, air?”
“Five minutes, captain.”
“We’re twelve minutes from full pressure. Right on schedule. I’m handing comms over to the doctor now.” I wave the doctor over and vacate the seat.
“How are you holding up, Denish?” the doctor asks.
“Good, good. Sleepy. Friend?”
“What is going to happen when I take helmet off?”
“Well, there’ll be some pain, especially in your ears. There may be blood. If you’ve properly emptied your lungs, and don’t worry I’ll coach you on how to do that, there won’t be any lung damage, but you might get a raw throat. You probably won’t notice anything except the ears.”
“And then I pass out?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. The air’s going to be thin, not much oxygen, and you’re already drowsy. And the depress itself won’t be pleasant. If you do pass out, that’s okay. You’ll just fall asleep for a bit. If not, that’s okay too. The air pressure will tick up to normal, and we’ll come and get you. Once you’re in the medbay, you’ll be treated for pressure sickness, which will feel unpleasant but is completely treatable. There might be some bruising or bleeding around the eyes and nose, but other than that, in a few days it’ll be as if your body never went through this.”
“All you’ll need to do is empty your lungs and get the helmet off at the right time. If we can manage that, there’s absolutely no danger.”
“Thank you, Friend.”
The doctor glances at me. “Are you going to go meet Tal?”
“In four minutes.” I take another seat and wait.
We sit in tense silence as Denish’s oxygen supply drops. Eventually, it beeps an alert, and the doctor leans toward its microphone.
“Okay, Denish, we’re young to up your oxygen all the way now, okay? All the way, that’s right, dump the rest in there. And now we’re going to take five deep breaths. Breathe with the friend. You can hear it? Good. Breathe. In… deep, deep as you can… out. In… out. In… out. Last two are quick; in, out, in, out. Out more, out all the way. Empty those lung, keep your jaw open and relaxed, and… yep, the helmet, that’s right, good work. Just pull it up. Just pull – are you still awake? Good. Well done, Denish. Well done. You’re going to be just fine now.”
“Check the airlock doors,” I say. “Still locked?”
The doctor types at the terminal. “Still locked.”
“Alright. I’m off to see our IT guy. Well done, Denish.”
He doesn’t reply. Judging by the angle of his cameras, he’s slumped over, possibly unconscious. There’s nothing I can do for him now except get him help as soon as possible.
When I enter the medbay, Adin sits awkwardly on the end of a hospital bed and Tal is out of bed, sitting at the computer terminal and typing rapidly. Ke doesn’t look up at my approach. “Hello, captain.”
“It’s Tal, right?”
“Yes, captain.” The typing doesn’t let up at all.
“Do you have any questions? About where we are, why you’re awake?”
“… Right. Um, can you do something for me?”
“What do you need?”
“Our crewmate’s trapped behind an airlock. It’s locked as part of an emergency procedure, because there was an air contamination issue on the other side.”
“That’s not how airlock emergency procedures are supposed to go.” Kes fingers are still flying over the keys.
I bite back my irritation. “Yes, I know that. There’s something wrong with the emergency procedures. Can you fix them? Get the airlocks working normally?”
“I’ll try.” There’s absolutely no change to the rhythm of typing, so my first clue that ke’s actually doing what I asked is a low whistle. “This isn’t a good emergency procedure.”
“Yes, I know, I – ”
“Want it scrapped, yeah.” Ke chews kes lip. “You write this?”
“Someone did. Fire your IT guy.”
“You’re my IT guy now. Whoever wrote these procedures is almost certainly already dead.”
“Oh, well, don’t fire me, because – there we go.”
I blink. “Already?”
“You fixed it?”
“No, I just scrapped the whole thing. I’ll fix it now, but it’ll take hours, and you want to get your guy now, right?”
“R-right. Thank you.”
Tal doesn’t react. Ke just keeps typing as if I’m no longer there. I glance at Adin. He shrugs.
The door bursts open and I leap back to make room for a stretcher.
“Okay,” the doctor announces, “everyone who needs medical treatment, get into a bed; everyone who doesn’t, get out of the medbay. Tinera, once you’ve helped this friend get our engineer here onto a bed, you’re dismissed; it can handle it from here.”
Denish looks at least partially conscious. His face is covered in blood, but I don’t have a good enough view to see exactly what’s bleeding.
“Is he going to be – ?”
“He’ll be fine, if you all let this friend treat him. Do you have any specific orders for this friend, captain, or can it get on with its job?” The doctor fixes me with a hard glare, carrying the weight of 875 living colonists ejected into space.
I swallow. “N-no, that’s… good. Everyone should probably get some sleep. Be prepared for hospital shift duty at the doctor’s discretion.”
I trudge off to my own bed. This was a big day; we have Tal now, and access to the front of the ship. I need to think about how this affects –
I pass out as soon as I’m horizontal.
It’s hard to keep much of a sense of time, on the Courageous. I can tell that it was previously inhabited by career astronauts because all the lights turn on at a full, which brightness whenever a ring is inhabited, no matter the time of ‘day’ it is. The greenhouses have a normal light cycle, for the sake of the life within, but everywhere else feels like being indoors all the time. (I know we’re in space and we technically are indoors all the time, but that doesn’t mean it has to feel like it.) I’ll need to ask Tal if there’s a way to get a proper blue-to-red light cycle going.
Anyway, point is, I have absolutely no idea what time it is when I wake up. My eyes are crusted over with sleep and my mouth feels like a mouse slept in it, so I was probably out for awhile. I drag myself out of my room and into the greater environment of Habitation Ring 2, only to find it apparently deserted. Maybe everyone else is still asleep.
A quick inquiry at the ring’s singular computer terminal reveals that, no, the entire rest of the crew is in Recreation and Medical Ring 2. Okay then. I take a quick shower, remember to put on clothes to protect the sensibilities of my Texan crewmates, and head out to see my crew.
All six of them are crowded around a picnic table in the recreation area, drinking something from bottles. Adin and Denish are having a loud conversation in Texan, but look up when I approach.
“Hey, it’s Captain Greaves!” Adin raises his drink. The others follow suit.
“You found alcohol?” I ask.
“They’re not allowed alcohol,” the doctor says firmly, sipping from its own bottle. “They’re all still recovering from chronostasis.”
“Also,” Tinera adds, “we couldn’t find any. This is just water, which we are pretending is booze in lieu of actual booze. I checked the records thoroughly, there’s not a drop of it on the whole damned ship.”
“Incorrect,” the doctor says. “Alcohol is a key component in several cleaners, medicines, and solvents on board.”
“Requesting medical clearance to drink hand sanitiser, doctor?”
“What do you think?”
“We can make cider,” Adin points out, “when the apples are ready. The apple trees are flowering now, so it shouldn’t be long, right?”
“Apples take months to grow,” I point out.
“You don’t need apples to make alcohol,” Tinera says. “You can do it with sugar packets, if you don’t mind the taste.”
The doctor crosses its arms. “It’s sentences like that that leave me with a ward full of people with methanol poisoning.”
“You think this is my first shuttle jump, doc? I’m not going to give anyone methanol.”
“If you try to ferment anything without pseryn yeast – ”
“Okay, first of all, there’s no way this ship has no pseryn yeast. You think the people putting this together thought it was a good idea to deprive a new colony of the means to make alcohol? There’s definitely pseryn yeast in the cryofreezers, I’d bet my O2 on it. Second, pseryn yeast was engineered, what, a century ago? Humans have been making booze for all of recorded history, and long before. You can ferment ethanol with natural yeasts, you just gotta keep an eye on your oxygen and temperature. It’s like the second oldest industry.”
“What’s the oldest industry?” Adin asks.
“Fucking for money.”
“I don’t think that’s an industry. I think it’s more a service profession.”
“Make product, is industry,” Denish says. “Make new people.”
“Okay, but even before birth control I don’t think the actual purpose of the profession was to – ”
“Hey, Denish,” I cut in, because this conversation is going nowhere useful fast. “Are you okay?”
“Am good, captain. Doctor is very good.”
The doctor waves a hand dismissively. “You were barely injured.”
“Good.” I can’t help but grin. Everyone’s alive, we have full access to the ship, and Tinera seems confident about her ability to supply the crew with disgusting and potentially dangerous home alcohol.
Things are looking up.
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One thought on “023: RETRIEVE”
Yay, Denish is okay! And we have a decent IT person! Interesting pronouns…
But Aspen just said/thought the worst thing they could in a fiction story, so something’s gonna go horribly wrong in the next few chapters.