Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It's quiet out here when I wake up, like always. Sometimes you can hear the quiet pneumatic hiss of a door opening somewhere else, but that's the extent of it. It's not like there are any neighbors to keep us awake at night, after all. I slap the alarm button to stop that painfully annoying beep that all alarm clocks seem to share.

I swing off the small bed and land on the metal floor with a dull thump. Thankfully, it's not cold; the engineer must have managed to fix that problem with the heating today. I walk to the door and press a keypad to open it, and it does as its told with a quiet slurp of pressurized air. I look out into the hall before I step into it, but there's no one coming from either direction. With only the three of us up here, it's pretty uncommon to run into someone else.

The walls are a sort of dull gray metal, closer to white than black, but still pretty ugly to look at. The monotony of the walls is broken up by a few tiny, shaded portholes to the outside, but even those seem to blend in once you've walked by them enough times. A year of living in the same place tends to do that to you, I've found.

As I walk down the hall to the small room we've adapted into a cafeteria, I hear a door open in front of me and see Harry walk out of his room. Harry's our resident engineer; we give each other a nod and walk toward the mess. He's a short guy, kind of stubby, but I think it's mostly muscle, as opposed to fat. Neither of us say anything for a bit; we're still reveling in the silence, before our other resident wakes up and spoils the mood.

“Breakfast” is a lumpy sort of nutritional gel that allegedly contains all of the vitamins and nutrients we need to survive. I say allegedly, because it sure doesn't taste like it can be good for you, and I mean that in the worst way possible. It's a little bit like someone took everything you ever hated about your healthy food and mixed it up into it's worst possible form. It doesn't spoil and it's cheap to make, though, so it's almost all we have for food out here.

Harry eats his the same way every day, with a pair of chopsticks he brought from home. I've never quite understood how he manages to get all of it with those, but sure enough his plate is clean quicker than mine. I eat a lot more slowly; I don't have any pressing tasks today, and quite frankly I'd like to put off what I have to do for as long as possible. Harry starts to walk outside and says “Bye” in his quiet voice. I don't think I've ever heard him raise his voice above “barely whispering.” I see him dodge past something in the hall as he leaves, and I prepare myself for the oncoming verbal assault.

Sure enough, I see James' tall frame walk inside right after Harry leaves, the door pressurizing shut behind him. Now, I want to be very clear here: I don't dislike James, but he can talk for hours without stopping. Part of the reason I asked for this project was for the quiet, and James absolutely obliterates it with his presence. Sure enough, he sees me and his mouth opens.

“Hey Blake! Good to see you again this morning. You look a little grumpy, did you not sleep well? See, I've figured out that the frequency that the station resonates at 'cause of the radiation shields interrupts human sleep, it's funky like that. So whenever I go to bed, I wear these ear plugs, I made 'em myself so that they block that specific frequency and I've been sleeping better ever since...”

He keeps talking, but I tune him out after a couple minutes. James is an absolutely genius physicist (or so I think – I don't actually know anything about physics), but he also absolutely loves talking about it. I mean, granted I sometimes get that way about a particularly interesting specimen, but I try to limit my excitement to fellow biologists, not everyone within earshot.

I take a quick look at my watch. It's been broken for a few weeks now, but James doesn't know that. “Sorry, James, I can't stay and talk longer. Gotta go water the plants.” I get up to leave and silently pray that he doesn't follow me. Apparently God's not with me, because James follows me out the door, talking the whole time.

I hear him say “Well, I'm not really hungry anyway, I'll come with you.” and then start ignoring him again. Like I said, I don't dislike the guy, but his ability to talk about astrophysics nonstop is simply astounding. He says something about Earth, sixteen thousand light years away, and I realize I haven't been back in nearly three years. I don't miss it too much, these days; it always too noisy there, what with all the cars and trucks roaring up and down the super highways.

I snap out of my reverie as I approach the airlock that holds my experiments. Why the airlock, you might ask. Isn't that dangerous? Not really. This one's been sealed for years, I don't think we could open the outer door if we even wanted to. But the shielding on this part of the station is weaker than anywhere else, so it gets all the weird radiation that we're protected from. I mean, you get all kinds of lovely rays when you're closer to a red sun than Earth is to our own sun.

I have to put on a rad suit before I go into the lock; if I went in unprotected I'd get some lovely new types of radiation poisoning. You know, the kind that's never been studied in humans because humans have never been exposed to red sun radiation at a distance of one hundred million kilometers. That's why I'm here, in fact; to study how a red sun affects terrestrial life.

I pull the last of the suit on, and James is nice enough to check the seals for me. The door slides open in front of me, I step through, and it slides shut. The suit makes it awkward to move – it always has – but by now, I'm used to it. I've got a few specimens sitting out here, soaking up the radiation. There are some planted roses of various colors, a couple of ferns, a small oak banzai tree, and two glass aquariums full of dirt.

It's the specimens in the dirt that are my favorites, but I look at the plants first. The roses haven't really taken to it; they all look sickly and poisoned, and at least a few of them have died. I note any changes between today and yesterday; they look a little more brown, but otherwise unchanged. The ferns are equally unhealthy, and only the tiniest bit of green remains. The oak tree is covered in tiny little lumps; they look normal at first, but closer inspection reveals that they're basically the tree equivalent of tumors.

The aquariums (or terrariums, if you're pedantic) are a lot more interesting. One of them contains garden variety earthworms; the kind you find in flower gardens all over the world. They not only manage to survive, they practically thrive in this environment, and it's remarkable to watch. The other tank is a slightly rarer type of worm; they're only found in the part of Russia affected by the Chernobyl disaster nearly two hundred years ago. The radiation there has nearly dissipated, but the worms that lived there mutated and adapted to it, even to the point that they can clean up radiation. It's amazing, and it's why I have a tank full of them.

Sure enough, the worms are happily living deep in the dirt as I dig through looking for them. I sometimes wonder how aware they are, and if they have any idea that they're millions or billions of miles from home, but I don't think that's likely. At any rate, my count today turns up even more worms of both kinds than yesterday, and I note that down eagerly.

I wave good bye to the worms (they might not have eyes, but I'm sure they would appreciate the gesture if they did) and walk out of the airlock. There's no sign of James, so I strip off the radiation suit myself and hang it on the door. It's only when I see one of the digital wall clocks that I spent nearly two hours logging my observations. It's impressive, but I do tend to get caught up in my work. I shrug, and figure that it's about time for my lunch serving of glop.

Harry and James are already there, and James is talking Harry's ear off like he does mine. Harry looks fascinated, though. I guess as an engineer, he probably has some kind of physics background, so it doesn't sound like a bunch of nonsense to him. I don't pay attention, though I do hear something about “meteor showers” and “solar flares.” My understanding was that red stars didn't flare, but I could have heard that wrong.

At any rate, I spend the rest of my day watching old science fiction movies and laughing at what they got wrong. It's one of my favorite hobbies, and with the transmission speeds we have these days, it's really easy to get new stuff in a matter of minutes. It's glorious.
Dinner is more paste and a conversation, by which I mean James talks while I listen – about some old movie about a black hole and hell. He says a lot about the inconceivability of supernatural effects, which I'm inclined to agree with, and the blatant ignorance of physics presented by the movie. I haven't seen it, but I mentally mark it down on my list.

I go to bed after a little bit more of the “discussion” and have trouble sleeping, like every other night. Who knows, maybe I will take James up on his offer of earplugs. They might help me sleep. I forget that train of thought as I drift to sleep.

The next days go about the same. We get up, eat breakfast, listen to James talk, run experiments, collect data, eat lunch, watch movies, eat dinner, go to sleep. It's not a bad routine, and it's the one we've been living for the better part of a year, so we don't complain.

It's about a week later, while I'm getting lunch, that Harry and I have a conversation.

You ready for that meteor shower today?”

I'm surprised to hear this news. “Sorry? Meteor shower? No one told me about this.”

Harry frowns. “James was supposed to tell you. You didn't know?”

Now, it's my turn to frown. “Shit. I barely pay attention to him, you know how he likes to talk.”

“Don't be an asshole, Blake. Better hurry up and get your stuff together. We're putting fragile stuff in the central module, just in case.”

I jump up and run out of the mess. Or I try to, at least; the door takes a second to open, and I run through as soon as it does. Mostly, I'm worried about my experiments; they're the only thing of real value to me on the station. I fly down the hallway, so when James comes from around the corner I smack into him hard enough that I'm seeing stars, and not just the one outside. I don't have time to stop and see if he's alright; I figure he's got a thick skull.

Sure enough, he's following a second behind me.

“Where are you off to so fast, man?” he asks me as he puffs along behind me.

“Airlock. Gotta get the experiments out of there.”

“There's not time for that now, the shower starts soon!”

I don't answer back. I hit the airlock door and key in the code, as fast as I can.

“Blake, don't do this. There's no time, and being out there could be dangerous!”

“I didn't spend a year of my life out here to see all my work go out the window.”

“At least put the suit on!”

“No time.” And with that answer, the door opens up and I step through. It's hot, uncomfortably hot, but I don't worry about it. I grab a terrarium – the one with the regular worms in it – and haul it back through the door. I make my way back out to grab the other one, when the door slides shut behind me. I swear, and turn around to key the code in on my side, when the whole station shakes.

It's disconcerting. I've gotten used to not feeling much movement under my feet, so when everything shakes, I get knocked off my feet and onto my ass. And then it shakes again, and again. I assume my expression matches James', which is a look that says “Oh shit” through the small window in the door. I try to stand up again, but my feet get knocked out from under me. It's getting hotter in the airlock, too, and I can feel the sweat fall off my brow onto the floor.

There's another impact, even closer this time, and the banzai tree falls to the ground, its pot completely shattered on the floor. I manage to stand up, and I make my way over to the keypad, just in time for another shake to knock me on my ass again. There's one more impact, and I swear it must be right outside, because the I can hear it hit the outside of the station from in here. Nothing happens for what seems like a long time, so I stand up, thinking it's over. And then the door hisses.

Not the the inside door; the outside one, the only thing separating me from the cold vacuum of space. It makes that unmistakable noise again, and the door slides up an inch, then another; slowly but surely, it opens all the way. While it opens, the air starts rushing out. It's not as fast or as dangerous as I thought it would be; nothing rushes out, nothing is pulped in an instant, just the air. But that's not my biggest problem.

Because when that door opens all the way, I look into space, expecting an empty void, and I see a sun.
It hurts to look at, this close. People always say you go blind from looking at the sun on earth, but that's not really true unless you've got a great telescope. But from here?

I hear, rather than see, the outside door close again, and feel the air rushing into the chamber from the station. I don't notice it, not at the time, because my eyes feel like they're on fire. I can't see anything, can't feel anything, nothing but the pure pain of having your optic nerves burned out by light, a light so intense that it cooks flesh.

When the inner door opens again, I hear a gasp, and for once James doesn't have anything to say. I guess he can see the damage that sun did to my eyes, or maybe he guesses based on my panicked flailing. Either way, I feel him lift me up and pull me down the hall. I realize he's taking me to the engineering bay, a little ways past the mess, so I try to stand up. Turns out my balance is shot, because I fall and smack the back of my head on the ground.

“Don't try to stand, you could hurt yourself even worse. Come on, we're almost there.”

And then I pass out.

When I wake up, I hear someone I don't recognize say “It's a miracle he's still alive.” I would agree, but my eyes still hurt like hell, and my focus is on other matters. James says something about “fast response” and “good luck,” though I sure as hell don't feel that lucky.

I'm ready to pass out again, I can feel it, but I hear one more thing before my lights go out; Harry says “Can you believe his worms were totally fine? He didn't have anything to worry about.”

So this time, when I pass out, I've got a smile on my face. Worth it.

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