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
"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
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
"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,
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 --
"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
* * *
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
"You're pretty drunk. Celebrating, I
"And you're pretty ugly, but I'll be --"
"Sober in the morning? That'll be a
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
I filled it almost to the brim, kept
pouring, then told her, "Say
"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
"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
"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
Nothing moved for a moment. A clutch had
been pressed, my life
changed gear. Then, gradually, the wheels engaged again and I
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
Her voice was steady. "How far is Io?"
"Six years. Give or take."
"And how many shuttles are there?"
"So six years out, six years there, six
years back? Eighteen years?"
"When do you launch?"
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
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.
"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
"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 --"
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
I stared at him. Downed my drink. "I do not
like where this
"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
"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
"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..."
"So I'll be dead."
Don shifted in his seat. "Well, no. At
least, not legally."
"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 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
"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
"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
* * *
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
She approached my bedside tentatively,
and sat. "You look awful,"
"Thank you very much. You don't look so
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."
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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.
"He can hear us, you know."
"Yah, like he'd bother to listen. Switch
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
"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
"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
"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?"
"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
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
"Naw. Why not me? I can take it
better than most, I reckon."
"Two niner zero Kelvin and stable. Safe
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
"Sampling excursion complete, sir," I
"Heya, Puke-Risk," he responded.
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."
"Soon as the two of you have done your
shift report we'll take
"Who's on shift with you?" I asked.
Two Fish responded by looking in the
direction of the lav. He looked
Doc picked up on his expression and
said, "Ghost has been a while in
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"You've been a bit preoccupied lately,"
I didn't respond.
"Ghost'll be all right," Doc said,
consoling. "If that's what's
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
"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
"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
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
* * *
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
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
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
* * *
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
"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
At the end of the row was a picture of
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."
"At least life up there is pretty
"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
© 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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