Aphelion Issue 230, Volume 22
July 2018
 
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Always

By N.J. Kailhofer

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Some of the individual versions of the stories in this series were written for forum flash challenge contests to help create this "world." As such, stories may not match the characters or settings of the continuous version of the story, which blended all the entries together.




Aphelion Two, Day 175


The bulb on the battery-powered lamp faded out.

I've always hated being in the dark.

Their ragged breath carried across the blackness, blackness that pressed in on them all, choking out their voices. Gone now were the radiation alarms, replaced by oppressive, silent fears that gripped them in a vice of emotions that forced out all hope.

There was a crack, and an eerie, green glow oozed from between Takuya's fingers. He shook the light stick, spreading the chemical illumination to the length of the tube. He tossed it on the stack of CO2 scrubber canisters and adult diapers in the empty spot.

Ophelia swallowed. "Have any more of those?"

Tak held up one finger.

There were tears on Helga's cheek. "It's ridiculous. Three days of this!" Unconsciously, she reached out and held her husband's hand.

Why does she love Mac? He doesn't deserve it.

Chandra quoted, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

Mac frowned. "Honestly, what the heck does that even mean, eh?"

Chandra smiled. "Maybe it is the universe's way of making us slow down and take stock of ourselves before it will reveal it's wonders to us on Mars. Perhaps when we are ready to purge the negativity of our frustrations or actions, we can move past them to enlightenment."

I've always wondered why, with all the combat training everyone had, no one beat the crap out of him for all those frustrating platitudes. I know other people from India, and none of them is a quarter as philosophical as he is.

"Look, I'm sorry." Mac looked at the floor. "I was in a hurry, you know. I wanted to make everyone safe. The alarms--"

Tak's eyes were like daggers. "Everyone knows you have to retract the pins on the hatch before you shut it. One bent when you slammed it so hard. It took all of us to get it to close."

And now that the storm passed, it won't open. Everyone will suffocate here in this closet-sized space between the propellant tanks. It's just a matter of time. And it might not have been an accident. I know that better than anyone.

Helga snarled, "He was trying to protect you all!"

Ophelia cleared her throat. "Getting mad won't help. Is there any other way to get out of here? Any at all?"

"Sure," Tak said with sarcasm. "If someone could squeeze between one of these six tanks, claw through the shielding there, and somehow force apart the ship's skin, we could all decompress into space. How's that?"

Ophelia glared at him. "I've tried that. I wouldn't recommend it."

I've always wished I could have learned to be more useful, more dynamic. I know I'd sure love to kick this door in now, and show everyone I wasn't useless.

Ophelia wouldn't give in. "Does anyone have any tools at all?"

Tak held up a deluxe, Leatherman multi-tool. "This will not open those bolts on the housing. This hatch is built like a bank vault door, strong enough to keep out vacuum, fire, explosions... whatever could cause us to hide in it. A last refuge."

Mac sputtered, "Apollo 13 astronauts used old socks, the cover of a flight manual, and duct tape to connect their wrong-shaped CO2 cartridges and we can't even open a damned hatch!"

"Oh!" Ophelia eyed the CO2 canisters. "Could you cut a nut-shaped hole in the nylon-composite casings of those and use it to turn these bolts?"

"I do not know if it's strong enough."

Chandra said, "Trying would be better than doing nothing."

"Yes," Helga insisted. "Let's do something!"

Tak's first try snapped the canister apart, but they used the shard broken from the back and cut a hole to fit. Finally, it took three of them together on the makeshift wrench handle to turn the nut. By the time they could get all the bolts loose, the first light stick was dark.

Tak cracked his last light and pulled loose the housing. It looked complicated inside. He pointed. "This is the jammed pin. We cannot get at it. Only this little bit is exposed."

Mac asked, "Could you cut it with that saw or the file on your Leatherman?"

"The metal is an inch thick."

Ophelia brightened. "How about scoring it as far around as you can, cutting it until your blade is dull, then we pound on it to make it break on the scored line."

God, she's always beautiful when she's like this--all mission, completely focused. I'd love to kiss her right now.

Tak shrugged. "I do not have a better idea."

***

Watching Mac hammer in the dying light, Ophelia mused, "You know, it's Sid's birthday today."

Mac paused and swallowed. "If we don't get this open, we'll all join him soon. C'mon, everybody together. Helga, you keep pounding. The rest of us will try to turn the latch."

Dammit! I'm tired of being helpless. Always a looser, always a joke. Ophelia deserves more. I should be helping. That's what a real crewman--a real man--would do.

Mac, Tak, Chandra, and Ophelia strained as hard as they could on the latch. Veins stood out on their faces and arms. Sweat stained their clothes. Helga held the leatherman against the pin and hammered on it with the burned out lamp.

He timed his blow. Now!

With a 'crack', the pin broke. The handle turned and the door swung open. Light spilled in from the outer room.

"Thank God!" Helga shouted.


* * *


The cupcake floated in front of the window, slowly rotating in the weightlessness. A single, unlit candle stuck out of the improvised frosting.


A smudge of flour stuck to Ophelia's cheek. She stared out the window at the spacesuit tied to the hull with a wistful look. "Happy birthday, Sid."

I think she loved me.

His invisible spirit smiled beside her.

And I'll be here for her.


Always.


THE END


2009 N.J. Kailhofer


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