FICTION

APRIL 2020

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What I Knew Then

by David Barber

This is the kind of story that gets told when spacers meet up; old hands who know about time spent in the Dark.

 

We sat round a bar table crowded with empty bottles, the overhead painting our faces with shadow and light. Some of us had shipped together, some had been rivals in the Ice-Rush, two had loved the same woman, but all that was long ago.

 

What remained was a bond of experience which no amount of enthusiasm for cruises and holidays in the Rings can give, since one is just a pastime while the other has been our lives.

 

Perry had been cajoled into telling about an infamous voyage in her youth, when she’d crewed the Franklin out to the Kuiper.

So many things went wrong with the Franklin they began to call it an unlucky ship. Equipment stuttered with the kind of faults that drove engineers wild, as if experience counted for nothing and it was just malevolence at work. You could hear the crew chatting as they jockeyed the ice, marvelling at the latest glitch.

 

Finally the drive refused to light. Perhaps it was the sensors, or bits in the safetyware flipped by stray radiation, or maybe the containment had failed just like the readouts warned. The crew argued back and forth about the likelihood that they'd vanish in a fireball. No one on board was an expert; the drive was a sealed unit.

 

Traffic was sparse out in the Kuiper. The Zaibatsu 12 was close, and big enough to take everyone, but would claim salvage when the Franklin was abandoned. Captain Chen would not hear of it. There was no need to risk firing up the drive, he said. The disposable boosters they used to drop ice down to the inner system could do the same for the Franklin, and asked for volunteers to stay on with him. After the initial burn, their long slow orbit would take about two hundred days to reach the Belt where tugs could safely tow them in.

 

Perry was not even twenty then, and in the strength of her youth it seemed something to measure herself against. She mentioned this awkwardly, as if we had never been young ourselves.

 

She was surprised when Lem Reich stepped forward; all smart talk, but with calculating eyes when you weren't looking. He knew life support from his time as a phage manager with Ceres Green, and he'd worked vacuum round Pallas, though that wasn't the same as time in the Dark.

 

It's Perry, large as life, he would say with a sly grin when they passed in the corridors of the Franklin. It's larger than life Perry, he would announce, squeezing himself next to her in the mess. She caught the winks that passed between the men. Perry didn’t need to explain this to us; she owned an outsize vac suit and had hands like shovels.

 

Without the drive and a crew, the ship was echoingly quiet, and after seventy days in transit, even their own voices seemed too loud. She didn’t ask what the other two did, but kept herself busy with a brutal maintenance schedule, trying to stay ahead of entropy.

 

Perry stared defiantly at each of us at the table. The Franklin had been an old rattle-trap plodding round the Kuiper picking up ice. She had flown in far better ships since, but still remembered that one with affection and regret.

 

Reich kept complaining about the coms, and she found him hunched over the ancient radio gear.

 

“Hear that voice?” he whispered.

 

Perry shrugged.

 

“No, listen.”

 

She leaned in, hearing waves of static swell and fade.

 

“My dad called me champ,” Reich breathed.

 

Can you hear me, champ? a far-away voice seemed to ask.

Perry turned up the gain. “Did it say Lem? Put Lem on?”

Tell him it's his dad.

“It's been fifteen years,” Reich said.

Can you hear me, champ? the voice insisted.

Perry nudged him. “Just answer it.”

Reich didn't move. “He's been dead fifteen years.”

Everything Captain Chen owned was neatly stowed away, all his loose gear velcroed and netted. They sat knee to knee in the small space. Perry had never been in the Captain's cubby before.

The urge to fix stuff went deep in her nature and things on the Franklin were going wrong. Like Carrefour, the little med-tech who had vanished along with her vac suit and belongings. Only Perry seemed to remember her.

Perry was explaining about searching the ship’s systems and finding no record of her.

“I'm hollow,” interrupted the Captain. He held up the knife. “Shall I show you?”

 

So they bandaged Chen up and confined him to the medbay under sedation, though out of respect Perry ate her meals with him, reporting on maintenance as if he was still the Captain. He hardly spoke, his grey head nodding.

 

After that Perry struggled awake from bloody dreams, and though nobody wants to hear about them, she visited Reich’s hidey-hole in Life Support. He was staring at an algae tank full of blood.

 

“Just some sort of bloom,” Perry told us. “But still.”

 

How long before life support fails? Reich kept asking.

 

His expression was unfamiliar. Something was moving the furniture round inside his head. He promised Perry he would fix things, and when she was outside checking the big dish, he managed to crack open the Franklin to vacuum, a purge that boiled off hydroponics, wrecked life support and jammed every valve.

 

Neither he nor Captain Chen were suited up.

 

This was the part Perry shrugged through. The time spent living in her vac suit, and later, an airlock she managed to repressurise. Heads nodded grudgingly. Bringing the Franklin home.

 

Most likely there had been a contaminant, a psychoactive agent growing in the life support, it was suggested, though after exposure to vacuum no trace remained.

 

She told us she volunteered because she was young and foolish, and had yet to learn the Dark offers nothing except hard knocks, and old spacers like us know there’s no need to go looking for those.

 

Then gazing round at our faces, variously lined and marked by life, Perry confessed that just the same, she wished she knew now what she had known then.

 

 

 

THE END

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David Barber lives in the UK. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, and Asimov’s. (He framed the cheque.) His ambition is to write.

Fiction by David Barber:

"Blues in the Dark" October 2020
"What I Knew Then" April 2020
"What the Good Must Remember" February 2020