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Don’t Screw Up

It’s easy, they said. Just don’t screw it up, they said. Even an idiot could do it, they said. Inspiring words which grew less inspiring the more I fretted about the consequences of failure. They were pretty stark. Here we were, the habitat colony in orbit around the third moon of Junas. Decent place to live, plenty of work. Crucially, plenty of non-space work. Most of the kids in my generation were mad keen to get outside, do some tooling around in zero gravity, maybe fly some shuttles back and forth between the moons. Hell with that. Space is exactly what I thought it was: a death trap. You can’t breathe out there, if you get exposed to it, the pressure is so low that your blood boils inside you. I mean, just no. No to all of that. Sure, being in a space station just means that you’re surrounded by vacuum, but it’s the closest you can get to being on a planet, which is just a space station so large you don’t notice that you’re surrounded by space.

It’s not like I had a choice. I was born here, I never chose to live in a bubble of air. Who would? My parents and their lunatic colleagues I guess, who had enthusiastically leaped at the chance to travel hundreds of millions of miles from their nice comfy planet to do a geo-survey of Junas, miserable death planet below. Of course, they didn’t know that when they set out. All the spectral analyses had shown a world with every chance of supporting life. But you really do need to see a world close up to make sure it’s actually what you’re looking for. Junas looked great from home, but when they arrived they discovered that it’s basically made of death. Plenty of nitrogen and oxygen, but they rain down in acidic compounds which are slowly dissolving all the land surfaces. And the “water” content is equally awful. It took them fifteen years of dodging cancer in a can of trapped farts to learn all this. It’s a hard ask to just turn back and head for home, knowing that you’ll mostly be sixty plus when you get there – if you get there – and you’ll have wasted thirty years in transit. I can see why no one fancied that. So instead they unfolded their spaceship and set up camp around the moons. There’s not much on the moons to write home about either, but they wanted to achieve something, anything. And then maybe they’d head back after a few years. The moons aren’t exactly liveable, but they’re where most of the real water and useful elements that aren’t being dissolved into slurry are, so I suppose it wasn’t the worst possible plan. The worst possible plan was allowing people to start having babies. The second that happened they were screwed. There was no way they could make a child endure the trip home – fifteen years away from a decent gravity well would play merry hell with their development. As it was they had to establish a moonbase just to handle giving birth and infancy. Then we all got shipped back to the orbital stations where gravity was spun up to a fraction below Earth-normal. And that’s why I’m here, because the great astronauts of my parents’ generation could not keep it in their pants. Or at least use contraception reliably. Gives you real hope for their successful operation of air and power.

Speaking of, the current hideous situation. As you might imagine, there’s a dire lack of jobs and work to do that aren’t all utterly critical to the survival of what’s turned out to be the Junas colony. It’s all hands on deck, all the time. Apparently the people back home are sending an expansion set of tools and materials to make the colony larger and more self-sufficient, but it’s been twenty years so who knows. I mean, who are you going to get to pilot that roadtrip to nowhere? There’s talk of taking the whole lot back to Earth once we’ve reached an undecided upon age. Hard to imagine that working either, rebuilding a shuttle out of the mess we’ve scattered around and on a couple of moons. I think we’re stuck here. And like I say, there’s nothing to do that isn’t mission critical. We don’t have any artists, or checkout supervisors or, I don’t know, bus drivers. Here it’s either water, air, food, heating, infrastructure. It’s all so intense and essential. Free time is for getting into awkward fights, awkward drug and alcohol use and awkward sex. Of all the people here, we’re the lot that really don’t want kids.

I’ve refused to go outside, so I’ve got a “cushy” job, in the greenhouses. They’re right up on the edge of the station, so while I’m not outside I’m as close as you can get, so thanks for that. The view, except for the bleak expanse of utter darkness is pretty good though: Junas looks amazing, and the sun beyond is even stronger (relatively, from this orbit) than back on Earth, apparently. That means it’s a good spot for the crops. I’m not the only one who works here of course. There are six of us tending to the nutritional needs of the colony, plus we’ve got another two on the meat tanks. End of shift, before we vanish behind both the moon and Junas for seven hours. I was just finishing up, switching all the ultraviolet lights on to keep photosynthesis going overnight, and everyone else had sloped off already. That’s when the “unthinkable” happened, or as I like to think of it, the “utterly obvious, bound to happen sooner or later” event of a load of space debris smashing into the main body of the space station. We’ve avoided plenty of events like this before, shunting the station around in orbit to evade meteorites or even our own jettisoned space junk. It was only a matter of time.

The klaxons and pulsing red lights are remarkable not only in being impossible to ignore, but for how they push right on whatever part of the brain generates headaches. They came on at almost the instant of impact, so even if you weren’t being sucked out into the death outside, you sure knew that it was coming. All the internal bulkheads came down fast and hard. I was trapped in the greenhouse, but that was on the opposite side of the station, and I guess there was enough station to slow the particles down before the reached me. I stood there feeling freaked out until I realised we should be checking in. That’s when I found out I was the only one in a position to fix it. The voices on the other end were intensely calm, quietly panicking – I recognised it from how all the original astronauts talk. They were trained to stay calm through utter disaster and keep it together even while people were dying around them and the air whistled out of their helmets. It’s quite scary to grow up with, and wildly intimidating.

There’s an airlock from the greenhouse, a legacy of when all these units were chained together to make a spaceship. All I need to do is suit up, which I obviously know how to do, open the airlock and go outside. Into that boiling freezing expanse of nothing. I can just walk across the hull, halfway round the station to where the main power coupling has been knocked loose. According to my parents it’s not even damaged, just bumped. I’ll need to shove it back into place and turn a massive switch. Then come back inside. The power will return, the air pumps will work, the station will heat back up and everyone will live. Everyone who’s not already dead. They’ve been evasive about that: “casualties yet to be determined”, but there’s no point worrying about who’s alive if everyone will be dead in two hours anyway.

I’ve got the suit on. It’s made for someone shorter than me. All us second generation are taller than our parents – we’ve stretched out in the lower gravity – and like the doors being fractionally too low, all the suits are just that bit too small. I squeezed in, and it makes me walk like what I think a dinosaur walked like, hunched over with short arms, like mine are because my shoulders are pinned back, and this suit sleeve feels like a flipper. I don’t know about this. I can’t see it going well. I have made it as far as getting in the airlock, but the voices in my helmet were starting to lose their infernal cool, so I turned it to silent. I can do this, I’m sure I can. I’m totally going to go out there and save the colony. Save us, and doom us to living in this tin can where everything is too small, and there’s too little of everything. That’s worth saving, isn’t it?

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Don’t Screw Up

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