Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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Remission

by Charlie Fish




On an overcast afternoon in late July, hundreds of us stood shoulder to shoulder in the big plaza outside Middlesex Vocational College, waiting for our futures to be decided. The air was thick with humidity and tension, all eyes facing Speaker's Plinth.

"Brown, Camelia: Lunar 4 Geomechanics."

Dean Porter stood atop the plinth wearing a ceremonial gown and a stern expression that made it look like he was delivering a eulogy. As each name and job was read out, there was a ripple somewhere in the crowd. Mostly back-patting and congratulations; sometimes commiserations.

"Dyer, Felix: Lunar 1 Planning."

I stood with Fred, Don and the Olivers (there were two of them), the guys I'd grown closest to while we'd been studying there. We were all hoping to get placed together, on the same mine at least, but it wasn't going to happen. Lunar Corps and the other mining agencies placed grads like us according to academic performance only. No mere social considerations held water.

"Ibsen, Thomas: Lunar 4 Ventilation."

Don had all but flunked out. He'd be bound for maintenance or construction -- one of the jobs where you routinely have to shove your head into giant machinery. Fred and one of the Ollies were hoping for the fast track to command. I'd aced my mining modules but embarrassed myself in the space disciplines.

"Idleworth, Frederick: Earthside Launch Mechanic."

Fred jumped up and punched the air, whooping like an American. We put hands on his shoulder, smiled our fakest smiles. Being placed Earthside was even better than command -- you could go home each day. I wonder who Freddie's dad had greased up to get him that gig.

The Olivers were up next. Both got placed on Lunar 4. Ollie J got the fast track that he wanted. The logical part of my mind said I should feel happy for him, but I couldn't feel till I heard my name.

"Jackson, Paul: Lunar 2 Engineering."

I'd wanted to go into space ever since I was little. My grandfather used to take me outside past bedtime to point out Venus or Jupiter through the methane miasma that tainted the city sky. He told me to lie in the grass at night next time I went camping and look up -- that I wouldn't believe how many stars there were. It was only after he died that I first saw the Milky Way, and then there were so many questions I wanted to ask him. A question for every star in the sky. But it was too late.

"Judd, Donald: Lunar 4 Construction."

Don's whole body relaxed like a parted vice. He wore a beatific smile. Not because he'd got a crummy job -- that was no surprise -- but because he was going to Lunar 4 with the two Olivers. I felt sweat pricking my skin as if every pore in my body had dilated. My breathing was fast and choppy, but I couldn't slow it down. Lunar 4. Please, Lunar 4.

The next few names seemed to take a million years. A bubble of blood appeared on my thumb where I was nipping at a hangnail, and then it wouldn't stop bleeding. I sucked the side of my thumb, my consciousness converging until I was aware of nothing but Dean Porter's smug baritone. Then I heard my name.

"Lemont, Archer: Io 1 Generalist."

There was a whooshing sound and time slowed. The sound, I realised, had been a collective intake of breath. Dean Porter was still talking, but everyone seemed to be looking at me. Not just my friends -- everyone.

"Well," I said, "talk about your space adventures. Io! I'll have some stories to tell!"

Either they didn't hear me or the words hadn't actually come out. Don put his hand on my shoulder and left it there. The faces of the others were frozen.

"Sorry, Archie," said Don.

"What are you sorry for? I'll be okay."

"I mean... the Pit."

"I'll... Don't worry. I'll --" My voice cracked. I smiled. Must have looked like something out of Madame Tussaud’s.

Both Ollies squirmed. Fred crossed his arms and sneered -- I couldn't tell if it was discomfort or disapprobation. Don said what needed to be said; something we could all buy into.

"Let's go for a drink."



* * *

Lucy. Sweet Lucy Pinner. My childhood sweetheart, technically, although we'd both strayed plenty. But we kept ending up back together like a bad habit. Truth is, I'd never slept with another woman without picturing Lucy's limpid blues, although I'd never admit that to her.

So when I stumbled in drunk that night I was glad to see her sitting on my sofa, eating my popcorn and watching old Britcom reruns.

"How'd you get in?" I slurred.

"Gave your landlord sexual favours. He might seem like a meek little Sikh, but he's hung like a hoss."

"I hope he tipped," I said, shucking off my jacket.

"You're pretty drunk. Celebrating, I hope."

"And you're pretty ugly, but I'll be --"

"Sober in the morning? That'll be a first."

I landed next to her, kissed her deeply, then put my arm around her and started firing popcorn into my mouth. "Don't toy with me," I said. "I'm half-cut and emotionally vulnerable."

"I'm just sore I didn't get invited. I don't like being soberer than you -- your sway makes me seasick."

"Well, catch up then," I said and reached over to the wine rack. "Red or white?"

"Are we celebrating?"

"No, we're drinking."

"Hm. Make mine a large then. White." She produced a glass from somewhere.

I filled it almost to the brim, kept pouring, then told her, "Say when."

"When!"

"When you want me to stop, of course."

"Stop, stop!" A little wine splashed onto her leg.

"Let me get that," I said. I slunk off the sofa and scooched between her legs, licking the wine from her thigh.

"Huh, you're about as sexy as a pinscher."

"What can I say. I can't resist you."

"You mean I can't be resisted. It's not a weakness of yours, dear, it's my innate charisma. Don't try to fight it."

"Oh I won't."

"But first," she said, grabbing a clump of my hair and gently lifting my head from between her legs, "tell me. Is this a consolation prize? What job did you get?"

"Let's not talk work, let's --"

"Come on, Archie, it can't be that bad. Did they make you a cleaner or something?"

"Not now, I'll tell you tomorrow."

Lucy clamped her legs together. "You'll tell me now."

I gazed up into her eyes and felt the weight of the infinite future. My bones ached with it.

"I'm a Generalist," I said.

"That's... good, isn't it? On which base?"

"Io."

Nothing moved for a moment. A clutch had been pressed, my life changed gear. Then, gradually, the wheels engaged again and I continued, headlong.

I settled back on my haunches, kowtowing before Lucy. Her eyes grew wide, and I couldn't look at her any more. I stared at her ruby-painted toenails instead.

Her voice was steady. "How far is Io?"

"Six years. Give or take."

"And how many shuttles are there?"

"Two."

"So six years out, six years there, six years back? Eighteen years?"

"Minimum."

"When do you launch?"

"Ten weeks."

She said nothing for a while. I brushed a fingertip against the almost invisible hairs on her left big toe. She stood and walked out of my line of sight. I re-focused onto an old grey carpet stain.

Then I felt her arms reach around me from behind, and her head rest on my shoulder. My heart swelled and my eyes stung. I turned and kissed her; we sank to the floor and lay like that, caressing each other's hair and saying nothing.

I woke the next morning, still on the floor, with aches in muscles I didn't know I had. Lucy wasn't there. I stumbled around tidying up the previous night's debris with a hand over one eye to stop my brain falling out.

Later I went to the bedroom and she was there, sitting on the bed, staring into the middle distance. I sat next to her.

"Sit up straight," I ordered.

She obeyed, correcting her posture.

"Smile," I said.

"I don't want to."

I put my arm around her. She was stiff. "Lucy?"

"Yes?"

"Will you wait for me?"

Her face collapsed as if she'd been punched in the stomach. She shook her head and fat tears rolled down her cheek. "I wish you hadn't asked me that."

"I don't mean wear black and cross your legs for eighteen years. I'm not asking you to be Penelope. I mean... I want to marry you and have a family with you and --"

I stopped because she'd thrown her arms around me and started sobbing. It was the first time I'd seen her cry; it was explosive, as if she'd stored up a lifetime of sorrow. I felt no sorrow. Only weight.


* * *

I'd heard of the Pit, but knew nothing about it. Don filled me in; he always seemed to know more about the obscure space stuff than he did about the basics. Great for trivia, useless for exams.

"P-I-T stands for Preservation for Interplanetary Travel," Don explained, over a pint at the student bar. "Most economical way to send crew to the outer reaches."

"Most economical," I said, "but not the most comfortable, I take it."

"Most practical, anyway. Take the titanium mine on Io. It's mostly automated, just needs a skeleton crew to keep it running -- probably less than a dozen people. But it takes six years to get there. So you'd need to bring six years of air, food and water, plus another six years' worth to top up the supply at the Io base, and a further six years' worth for the people you're taking back."

"Six years, six years, six years, I get it," I moaned, leaning my head into my hand and taking a swig of my drink.

"Sorry. Anyway, carrying all those supplies, you'd need a much bigger ship than for an unmanned mission. To keep the miners comfy you need to control atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide and humidity. You need sleeping areas, exercise facilities, showers... And you need more crew -- technicians, plumbers --"

"Whores."

Don leaned over the bar and picked up a little salt shaker. He put it on the table between us. "Sputnik 1, the first ever space probe back in the twentieth century, had a payload of 84 kilos. Unmanned. But Sputnik 2 carried a dog. For the sake of keeping that one little puppy alive, you know how much bigger the payload was?"

"How do you know this stuff?"

Don slammed his pint glass next to the salt shaker, splashing some beer onto the table. "509 kilos," he said. "Six times bigger."

I told you Don was crazy on trivia. "I get it. Manned journeys need more room than unmanned, which means less space for titanium, or at least less money for the Space Corps."

"Right. Solution? Don't transport living people."

I stared at him. Downed my drink. "I do not like where this is going."

"Instantly you're two-thirds lighter on supplies, you don't need to worry about life-support conditions, you don't need any extra crew, and you don't need to worry about your miners going stir-crazy on the trip."

"Back up. They're going to kill me?"

"The Pit is the future of interplanetary travel. We can send people to stars hundreds of years away. We can --"

"Shut up, Don, and tell me. I'm going to die?"

"Think of it like suspended animation. You get mechanically revived at the other end. Good as new, once you wake up."

"I'll have no pulse, no brain activity, no consciousness..."

"Right."

"So I'll be dead."

Don shifted in his seat. "Well, no. At least, not legally."

"Ha!"

"The Pit is actually pretty old technology, but it's only a few years ago that the law got sorted out so the Space Corps could start using it. Routinely, I mean."

"You mean the Pit technicians didn't want to be tried for murder."

"I guess."

"I need another drink."

Don nodded and got up to queue at the bar. I stared at a beer puddle on the table, trying to keep my eyes still, but they were floating on the alcohol in my skull.

Eighteen years. I focused on the thought and tried to feel sad -- it seemed appropriate. But I couldn't muster up a tear. I tried laughing instead, and that worked pretty well, so that by the time Don came back he found me gaping cross-eyed at the beer puddle, guffawing quietly to myself.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Cheers, buddy." We clinked glasses.

"Look on the bright side."

"There's a bright side?"

"Well, you know -- clouds... linings... When you get back, you'll get two decades' worth of pay at once. And you'll get bumped up to at least Commander."

"Eighteen years to get to Commander? That's not exactly fast."

"But it'll only be six years for you really. In the Pit, you don't even age. Closest you'll ever get to time travel."

"Don't I get some kind of extra compensation for having to do such a long tour? Danger money? Anything?"

Don shrugged his shoulders. Sipped his drink. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, then he looked at me sideways. "How's Lucy?" he said.


* * *

By mid-August I'd taken to avoiding the student bar altogether. I couldn't stand the constant hangdog looks from everyone as if they felt so sorry for me. They barely knew me.

Besides, it was sunny out. We'd all finished our studies and had jobs starting in a few weeks; meanwhile we had nothing to do. So Fred and I played tennis. Don taught me how to juggle. I joined Don and the Olivers in epic war games with painted miniatures in Ollie J's garden.

And Lucy came round often. We would go out to the patch of grass round the back of my digs, she'd lie with her head in my lap, and we'd talk for hours. We talked about travelling, visiting Thailand or Patagonia, challenging ourselves to get from one city to another on foot, or getting ourselves invited to dinner by the locals. We talked about how many children we wanted -- two or three -- and how we would bring them up. We talked about what would be the first thing we'd do once I got back.

And twice we dared to make love right there in the sunshine, reckless, heedless of the risk that someone would happen by, spreading ourselves out on the tickling grass and inhaling the primal scent of the soil as if we were making love with the earth itself.

Don and the Olivers shipped out to Lunar 4 in early September; things were pretty quiet after that. I was starting to feel the side effects of the medication I was given to prepare my body for the Pit. Waking up tired, as if I was already half dead, and barely able to coax myself off the sofa all day.

My mum visited a lot during that time, fussing over me relentlessly. She was full of smiles and platitudes. "It'll be fine, Archer. The time will pass before you know it." She made me huge meals that I barely touched for lack of appetite; I told her I felt guilty for not eating what she'd made, but she hugged me and kissed me and said it didn't matter. She told me she was proud of me. It seemed like an odd thing to be proud of.

My sister visited me once, while I was having a check-up in the Corps Medical Centre. I was in bed, wired up to an IV and various monitoring devices. She turned up clutching her handbag with her shoulders hunched, eyes puffy.

"Zel!" I said, grinning. "Great to see you!"

She approached my bedside tentatively, and sat. "You look awful," she said.

"Thank you very much. You don't look so hot yourself."

She reached a finger out and touched the tube protruding from just below my right clavicle, feeling where it entered my skin. "Does it hurt?" she asked.

"They call it a 'port'. All the drugs go in through there. Just before launch they'll give me another port so they can pump all my blood out and replace it with the enriched methanal for the Pit."

"What?"

"Basically embalming fluid. My blood goes into cold storage, and when I land at the other end it gets pumped back into me. Then I get a few electric shocks and boom, I'm back in action. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that's the gist."

Zelda's face stretched -- either she'd sat on a pin or she was about to burst into tears. I pretended not to notice and kept talking.

"Here, listen to this," I said, picking up the packet from one of the drugs I'd been taking. "Side effects may include nausea, diarrhoea, fatigue, blah blah blah, oedema and death. Pretty harsh, huh? Mind you, in a sense death is the desired effect. Ah, the glamorous life of an astronaut. I --"

She put her hand on mine, held it. I got the message and shut up. Tears were running down her cheeks, but she closed her eyes and composed herself. I offered her a tissue. Then she gave me a fierce look, like she'd taken a huge breath and her whole body was tensed for the release -- I dared not move until she spoke.

"I'm pregnant," she said, and suddenly her eyes glittered, her face was soft; she smiled the saddest smile I've ever seen.

My heart swelled. I opened my mouth to congratulate her, and surprised myself by overflowing into tears. Without fully understanding why, I was laughing and sobbing. We were sobbing-laughing together. Without speaking we said a thousand things to each other. With a tilt of her head she told me she'd only just found out, that I was the first to know. With a nod I told her how sorry I was that I wouldn't see her child grow up. With a lopsided smile she told me that she would tell her baby all about me.

My sister and I hadn't always got on. We were always too absorbed in our own lives to look out for each other. But in that moment I saw that she was the best friend I had. I saw how well she knew me, and how much I valued her.


* * *
The week before launch was a blur. I was on so many different drugs I couldn't trust my senses. I remember seeing my mum, Zelda with her husband, Lucy, but I also remember seeing Don, and I can't have seen Don because he was at Lunar 4.

The bed in the Medical Centre became my universe. Nothing existed beyond its boundaries. My left foot hurt and my entire identity became that foot. I had no name, no context, no purpose -- my being was reduced to the boiling pain in the fifth metatarsal. Then the pain would subside and I would have a moment of clarity. The hovering face of a nurse would ask me if I was OK and I would smile wanly and nod my head. I would start to say something, but lose the thought.

This cycle of agony and clarity repeated and intensified, woven together with fitful dreams and fevered hallucinations. Images of my mum shouting at my dad for coming home late mixed together with Lucy reading me a spiralling Dylan Thomas poem, and I wasn't sure what was real.

Then gradually, after a million years or half an hour, the moments of clarity became clearer, and the pain duller. I saw beyond my hospital bed and realised I wasn't in the Medical Centre anymore. The room was bigger, plainer. Metal walls. A smell of oil and rotten eggs. A television buzz. Io 1. A man came by and asked me how I felt. "I'm never drinking again," I said. He asked me again -- but then I realised he was asking someone else this time, off to my right.

A strange gruff voice responded, "Dead good."

I felt a jarring sense of disorientation. It seemed impossible that I was on some godforsaken rock four million miles from home. Impossible. The room dipped and swayed as I fought a terrible vertigo. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe deeply.

When I opened them again I tried to focus on little things. My throat was dry. I was lying down in a large padded cylinder. The port in my right shoulder was connected to tubes that protruded from the cylinder's white wall. The port in my left thigh was hooked up too. I was as naked and hairless and grey as a newborn mole.

I wiggled my toes, lifted my arm, tried to picture Lucy's face; but I felt an odd sense of detachment, as if I was merely channelling someone else's thoughts. Little aches and pains chased around my body every time I moved as if my veins had grown scales.

The man came back and leaned over me, fiddling with my ports. He was hairless too -- his expression was rendered oddly neutral for lack of eyebrows. He moved with a slow grace, as if dancing. My ports were sealed, the tubes disconnected, and he signalled for me to get up.

I sprang up and nearly fell out of the cylinder. My head spun; my fingers clawed for purchase. I hovered in mid-air for a second like a cartoon before falling awkwardly back into the padded Pit. The man -- a doctor, I decided -- laughed at me.

"One-sixth gravity," he said. "You'll get used to it."

That reeling vertigo again. I clutched the edge of the Pit, white-knuckled, feeling seasick. The doctor moved on to his next patient, leaving me gasping for breath.

"Looking peaky," said the gruff voice.

Through blurred vision I saw that it belonged to a well-built shiny-skinned man sitting up in the Pit next to mine. And beyond him, five more Pits, five more naked Rip van Winkles being awoken from their long slumber.

I nodded, trying not to vomit.

"I'm Masher," he said. "Masher?" I managed. "That's your name?"

"Naw, but I figure I can be Masher out here. You?"

"I'm --" I retched. A glob of stomach acid burned its way up my throat. I swallowed it back down. "I'm not feeling very well."

"Nice to meet you, Puke-Risk."


* * *

There were seven of us on Io 1. Five mining generalists, a commander and a doctor. The only life for millions of miles in any direction. The seven crew who had preceded us left the day after we all got out of the Pit -- seems they were keen to get home. They'd shown us where everything was and how to run things, but they'd only shown us once, so it took us a couple of weeks to get our heads around everything.

Particularly because we all felt like death warmed up. Which, of course, we were.

The seven of us had nicknames for each other. Those who didn't have a nickname already were given one. Masher, Doc, Two Fish, Lippy, Ghost, Manc. I tried to be Shorty, but too late -- Puke-Risk had already stuck.

The base was small. There was the loading station, where we'd woken up, two labs, a habitation module with kitchen facilities and beds, a tiny exercise/shower room and an even tinier toilet. There weren't enough rooms for us to be in one each, unless one of us put on a suit and went outside. Anyway, there was a kind of unspoken taboo on being alone for more than a few minutes.

The routine was unbearably monotonous. We worked three shifts, in pairs -- the days were about forty-two and a half hours long, which made the shifts just over fourteen hours each. My buddy was usually Masher. The drill buggies and recon drones did the actual work of mining without any human intervention, but we were kept busy with vehicle maintenance, materials processing, geothermal monitoring, tectonic analysis, land surveys, site excursions, shift reports, power-plant duty, and dozens of other things.

In our off-duty time we had to do at least six hours of calisthenics per Io-day, four hours of further study, and usually at least two hours of base safety checks or inventory counts or whatever other mundane make-work Two Fish could come up with. Plus sleeping, twice a day. But even with all that to occupy us, we still ended up with interminable hours of spare time.

We each had a portable tablet that we could sync up to central comms, so we could effectively send and receive emails. But with the vagaries of electromagnetic radiation and random celestial obstructions, it often took several days for a message to get to or from Earth, and sometimes the messages seemed to get lost completely.

When I first synced up my tablet, I had six years' worth of messages from my family and friends. My eyes started stinging when I saw that I had four hundred and thirty-two messages from my mother, and over a hundred and fifty from my sister. I felt a deeper, darker set of emotions when I saw that I had only ten messages from Lucy Pinner.

There were messages too from Don, Fred, both Olivers, a bunch of family friends, and even a few notes from Zelda's son, talking about how in school today he made a castle out of a cardboard box, or how much he didn't like broccoli.

What hurt the most was not that I'd missed six years, but that everybody had got on fine without me. Their lives barrelled on, they didn't miss me or think of me, except as part of an occasional letter-writing exercise, an obligation, a chore. They were getting promoted, married, having children; for me, those milestones were nothing more than half-baked possibilities hovering at the distant edge of a soul-grinding limbo. My life was on pause.

I wrote back to them all. I noticed, though it wasn't my intention, that in all my letters I asked only about them and their lives. I didn't reveal a single thing about myself and my life on Io. Neither did they press me for such details. They asked, but didn't seem to mind when they got no answer.

The messages seemed to reinforce the distance between us rather than shrink it. So, as time went on, I wrote less. Except to Lucy. To her, I wrote every day. Personal things. Deep meandering desperate thoughts that I'd never have admitted to her directly. Her scarce replies were blandly encouraging, as if she were hedging her bets. She spoke of the various false starts in her acting career; of drudge bar work to pay the bills; of the people in her life; of men she met and discarded. She said she loved me. I read every word she wrote a thousand times.


* * *

"Race you back," said Masher over the helmet radio.

"No way. I'm not giving Two Fish an excuse to put me on cleaning duty again," I responded.

"Two Fish is a prick," said Masher. "Screw him."

"He can hear us, you know."

"Yah, like he'd bother to listen. Switch to fifteen."

I rolled my eyes. Masher and I were riding a couple of recon drones on manual override, having done a sampling run on the beta seam. The Jupiter rise was in full flood ahead of us, its marbled surface of dusty orange dominating the horizon. The sun looked like a dull penny at our backs. I switched frequency.

"…read me? Can you read me?" Masher's voice crackled.

"I'm not going to race."

"Listen, Puke-Risk, Two Fish has got too big for his boots. You know it, I know it. So we're gonna stage a mutiny."

I sighed. "How would you run the base any different?"

"Manc is well up for it. Lippy'll bend. Doc doesn't count, and Ghost is a pussy. No more base safety checks two hours after we finished the last one. No more yes sir no sir. And we could all stop taking those bloody pills and grow back some hair."

"You've been talking about this for days."

"But now's the time. By my reckoning, tomorrow it's an Earth year since we got here. It'd be symbolic. A changing of the guard."

We parked the drones and switched them back to auto, then bounce-walked to the pressure lock. We talked procedure while the air and psi normalised, but the temperature always took longer. It had to heat up from minus 150 C.

"We've really only been here one year?" I said.

"Time crawls when you're having none," said Masher, looking at me through his helmet glass. The pressure lock was too cramped for personal space; I could see the red veins in his eyes.

"Mash, do you get the fear sometimes that this'll never end?"

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean like we're in some kind of infinite loop on this rock. Like we can get to the end of a day, but as soon as we wake up we're back at the start again? Maybe we really died, and this is some kind of Sisyphean punishment."

"Sissy what?"

I squinted to read the analogue temperature gauge. "Two zero four Kelvin and climbing."

Masher verified my reading with his digital gauge. "Check. I'm counting the days, buddy. Every sleep is one closer to going home."

My eyes focused on the ghostly reflection of my face in Masher's helmet glass. "But what's home? It's a memory. Doesn't exist anymore," I mused. Not that Masher was paying attention. "D'you ever think, 'Why me?'"

"Naw. Why not me? I can take it better than most, I reckon."

"Two niner zero Kelvin and stable. Safe temperature achieved."

"Check."

We went through all the checks once more -- that's how we survived in space, double- and triple-checking everything -- and let ourselves into the base. We took off our heavy suits and skipped to the habitation module. Two Fish was at the mess table playing cards with Doc.

"Sampling excursion complete, sir," I said.

"Heya, Puke-Risk," he responded. "Masher."

Masher pointedly ignored the greeting and sidled to the kitchenette to make a hot drink (actually a tepid drink -- the boiling point of water was lukewarm).

Two Fish shook his head wearily. "Masher, you're on cooking detail today. Puke-Risk, you're auditing the titanium in the shipping bay. Make sure the ore is packed in as tightly as possible."

"Yes, sir."

"Soon as the two of you have done your shift report we'll take over."

"Who's on shift with you?" I asked.

Two Fish responded by looking in the direction of the lav. He looked concerned.

Doc picked up on his expression and said, "Ghost has been a while in there, eh?"

Two Fish put down his cards, got up and walked over to the toilet. Masher and I exchanged glances then watched him as he yanked the door open. We couldn't see what he saw; his bulky back blocked the view.

"Need some help here!" he shouted, and dropped to his knees. He took his vest off, revealing his giant tattoo of two fish swirling together into a yin-yang.

The three of us -- Masher, Doc and I -- rushed over. At first I didn't realise what I was seeing. Everything was slick wet, Ghost was on the floor and Two Fish was wrapping his vest around Ghost's shoulder. A metallic tang in the air. Tackiness underfoot. The vest blushed crimson where it touched Ghost's pale skin.

Blood. Everywhere, blood.

Two Fish bent over to start CPR, but Doc stopped him. "He's pulled out his port," said Doc. "He's dead."

Doc and Two Fish exchanged a glance. Two Fish nodded, then barked orders. "We need to get him to the Pit as soon as possible. Our only chance."

Two Fish, Masher and I picked up Ghost's body. Doc ran out of the habitation module and we followed him. I tried not to think of how painful it must have been to pull out his port. Had he been so unhappy? I'd known the man for a year, yet we'd only ever spoken in small circles. I knew so little of him.

I felt unnaturally aware of the port in my own chest, just below my right shoulder, like a splinter. I felt light-headed.

"Puke-Risk!" shouted Masher. "Pull yourself together!"

But it was too late. I dropped to the floor and vomited my guts out.


* * *

Ghost lay in one of the Pits, grey as winter clouds. He was conscious now, but something behind his eyes had stayed dead.

Once Doc had replaced Ghost's port, the Pit had done its job: drained the rest of his blood away and preserved his body for a while, then slowly fed his blood back in. Brought him back from beyond the veil. He spoke occasionally, to request water or pain relief. He moved when instructed to for his physiotherapy. But he didn't seem whole any more.

I sat next to him, reading him one of the classic novels that had been preloaded onto my tablet. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I knew the others thought I was weird for spending time with him, but they left me alone. The whole base had been pretty subdued since Ghost tried to kill himself. Masher's energy for mutiny had certainly vanished.

I found that I'd stopped reading. I'd been staring at the page, but couldn't focus. Ghost was staring at the ceiling, oblivious. My mind kept plummeting back to Lucy Pinner's last letter.

I'd received it three days before. In it she spoke of the play she'd been writing, her insomnia, a pending audition for a TV ad, the unsanitary toilet habits of her flatmate's cat; and, right at the end, a passing mention that she and Don had been seeing each other for the last few months.

She'd written before of having been on dates, of relationships that had fizzled out before they'd really started -- that hadn't bothered me. But sleeping with my best friend? Whenever I thought about it my stomach hurt so much I couldn't speak.

Doc walked in, hesitating at the doorway when he saw me. "Mind if I...?" he said, pointing at Ghost.

I nodded.

He adjusted a dial on the Pit that controlled Ghost's sedation level. Ghost closed his eyes and became even less responsive than usual. Doc sat next to the Pit and set about replacing the bandages on Ghost's port.

"You've been a bit preoccupied lately," said Doc.

I didn't respond.

"Ghost'll be all right," Doc said, consoling. "If that's what's bugging you."

Again, a silence stretched between us. I tried to find words. "I... He... I mean... Why don't you let him die?"

Doc's face fell into a humourless frown. "It's not his decision to make."

"Up here, we've got nothing," I stammered. "It's the only thing we can choose any more."

"The safety and function of the base relies on a full complement of crew. You signed up to this deal when you came aboard. You are not permitted to die."

"Haven't you got any sense of mercy?" I said, blinking back a tear. "Damn your Hippocratic Oath. The only way to help this man is to let him make his own choice."

Doc's face softened. Pity? Woe? I couldn't tell. "Think of his future," he said. "Think of his family and friends."

"They would tell you to let him die too."

"They would at least want to say goodbye. They have the right."

"We're basically dead already. This is no life. We put so much effort into clinging on, and for what? So we can go through the same tiny hell for another day. For another thousand days."

Doc looked down. Said nothing.

I sighed deeply, feeling suddenly angry that my eyes had watered up. I wanted to smash my tablet on the floor and stomp into the pressure lock without my suit on. But the feeling dissipated, leaving my heart heavy, as if a piece of my soul had evaporated. "Sorry," I said, my voice cracking. "It's not your fault."

Doc gave me an infinitely gentle look, like he wanted to enfold me in his arms and let me sob my problems away. But something held him back. A veneer of professionalism? Misplaced machismo? His own fear of falling apart?

He'd always seemed so confident, as if this terribly claustrophobic existence held no discomfort for him, as if he was in his element. But for a split second I saw past the mask. I saw a frightened child. I saw myself.


* * *

It felt unreal when we got news that the shuttle was arriving. Six Earth years had passed, and it was finally time to go home. There was a frenzy of activity to unload the supplies, load up the titanium, prepare for the Pit, revive the new crew. I've never been happier to see a corpse!

By then the seven of us were old hands; bound together by shared scars. Older than before. Masters of our tiny realm. We cultivated a carnival atmosphere, collectively suppressing the nerves that niggled at the back of our minds. Going home was to be celebrated, purely; voicing any doubt was taboo. Even Ghost managed a tiny smile.

We showed the befuddled new crew around. I felt bad for them; I wanted to warn them how hard it would be, but there were no words, so I settled for upbeat platitudes. And then it was time for us to enter the Pit. We had done all the material preparation, but suddenly I panicked that I was mentally far from ready.

But the sickness took over, and it was done.

I woke up bleary-eyed, saw that I was in the Corps Medical Centre back on Earth. I felt the same jarring vertigo as my brain denied with all its might that six more years and four million miles had passed.

An old woman kissed me on the cheek. I looked at her, confused. She stood back -- my mother was standing next to her, with a strange man wearing an even stranger fashion of jeans and U-neck shirt. But she couldn't be my mother, she was too young.

No; she was my sister. Zelda. And the man standing next to her -- her son. My nephew. So the old lady was...

"Mum!" I cried, and tears filled my eyes, falling in rivulets to my temples.

The four of us wept or fidgeted or tried to smile, but none of us found a word to say. Finally, my mum broke the silence. She leaned over, navigating around the tubes that protruded from my body, and gave me an awkward hug. "Welcome home, Archer."

Archer. My name was Archer. And I was home. I smiled more widely than I had done for years.

I got out of there as soon as I could, and I was on a high for days. I stayed with my mother, spending each day just walking around the city. I revelled in feeling healthy, safe. The sun felt like a caress. I felt drunk on the smells of grass, and exhaust fumes, and hot bread, and summer air -- the noise of life was like music. For twenty minutes I stood in the park, enthralled by the innocent energy of a pet puppy. I sat in a café and took two hours to finish one cup of coffee.

A week passed, my hair started growing back a little, and my mum suggested I get in touch with my old friends. I realised I had been trying not to think of them, as if meeting them again would spoil the memory of how we were before. But once I decided it was time, my nerves sublimated into excitement. I told myself it wouldn't be like old times, but it would be all right.

"I want to see Lucy," I said.

My mum's lips tightened and she asked me to sit down. "I didn't tell you before, because..." She hesitated. Cleared her throat. "Four years ago, while you were travelling, Lucy and Don got married."

I nodded. Looked at the floor.

"I'm sorry, sweetie."

"No, it's -- okay," I said. My mind was a swirl of emotions, but a sharp beam of light cut through the fog and convinced me that it really was okay.


* * *

I rang the bell, took a long, deep breath. The door opened, and there stood Lucy Pinner, looking about twelve months pregnant. When she saw me, her jaw hit the floor. "Archie."

"Lucy," I said. "You look... old."

She stared at me a moment like she'd been slapped in the face. Then she laughed, and the years fell away. She waddled down onto the porch, put her arms around me and gave me a deeply inappropriate kiss. I felt stirred in ways I'd forgotten I could.

"You always knew how to charm the ladies," she said, smiling broadly.

"Hey, you had it coming."

"I have been a very bad girl."

"I forgive you. Let's kiss again before your husband gets here."

"Oh, you cad."

"What can I say, I can't resist you."

"You mean, I can't be resisted." She half smiled, her head tilted, her chestnut eyes looking deep into mine. She kept her arms locked around me, the bump of her tummy pressing against my stomach. Her brow creased. "I know you're the one who had to go away, but you don't know how difficult it's been."

I nodded, held my palm to her cheek.

"I waited," she said. "Tried to wait. But I convinced myself... I thought you'd never come back. Don was an absolute gentleman. I was a wreck -- he looked after me for years."

"Are you happy?" I asked.

Her expression was impossible to read. She held up a finger, pressed it gently against my lips. "You'd better come inside."

I followed her in. She led me through the hall into the lounge. I sat on the edge of a pleasantly worn sofa. She gave me a compact smile then walked out of the room. As I waited for her to return my eyes scanned the bookshelves. Biographies of famous actresses were mixed in with mining textbooks. There was a row of framed pictures of Lucy and Don together. He'd gained a few pounds and wrinkles, his hair was silvering, but he looked happy. They looked happy together. My stomach churned.

At the end of the row was a picture of me.

I heard Lucy padding back into the room behind me. I turned to her, smiling, and my smile froze. She stood before me, glowing with soft energy, wearing not a stitch. I knew as soon as I saw her that this image would burn itself into my mind for the rest of my life.

"Don...?" I asked.

"He's away." Her smile was like a cat's. I let my eyes explore her, savouring the moment. She glided to the sofa and lay across it, resting her head on my lap. I was tense, at first, but eventually I relaxed, letting myself melt into the sofa cushions.

"I can't believe you're back," she said.

"I can't believe you're pregnant."

She laughed. I stroked her hair and we sat there together, saying nothing for a while.

"How long before they call you up for another tour?" she asked.

"Dunno. Could be weeks, could be years. My experience'll probably qualify me for another ridiculously distant assignment."

"Don't go."

"At least life up there is pretty simple."

"Don't go."

"I wish I had the choice."

She didn't say anything after that, and neither did I, until the sun went down. At some point she'd fallen asleep. I stood up as slowly as I could, covered her with a blanket, and left.

As I sat on the train I thought about my future. I had money, and freedom, for now; I was healthy. Maybe I'd go away somewhere. Maybe the best gift I could give to Lucy and Don would be to leave them alone. Or maybe it was for my sake. The longer I thought, the less I knew.

When I got home to my mother's house, I saw a letter from the Space Corps waiting for me on the dining table. I went to bed, leaving it unopened.

THE END

THE END


© 2017 Charlie Fish

Bio: Mr. Charlie Fish is a popular short story writer and screenwriter. His short stories have been published in several countries and inspired dozens of short film adaptations. He was born in Mount Kisco, New York in 1980; and now lives in south London with his wife and daughters. Remission was first published in Bleed (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2013).

E-mail: Charlie Fish

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