Prose Header

Orbiting Janus

by Jennifer Shaw

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

You can’t see the moon that well from here. That’s disappointing. One of the major draws of this particular space station is supposed to be the amazing views of Vesta, but it’s blocked most of the time. The station is held too firmly in its orbit by that monstrous Janus, that big gas giant. From my hospital bed window, I can barely make out anything besides a dim ribbon of pale yellow through the gas that is Janus’ surface.

Janus means “two-faced,” or the god with two faces. I looked it up before shipping out here. I don’t know why they named the planet Janus, because it doesn’t even have one face. It doesn’t even have a surface. It’s just gas with a single moon going around and around and around. The moon for Earth has a bunch of names, like Diana. That’s also the name of our nurse on board.

I’ve been cooped up here in sick bay for more than a week already. I can’t feel my foot at all. I got it jammed in an airlock that wouldn’t open again. It refused to open. That’s what it felt like, anyway.

My foot had to be pried out by Dave and Jeremy. I’d screamed. I’m not proud of that. I like to think of myself as ready for anything, but the door slamming closed did its best to make me feel like a bug with its leg caught in a shut window.

There was blood everywhere once I got out of my suit. If I’d left my suit on, likely the whole thing would have filled up with blood. I would have looked like a giant blister, ready to pop.

I don’t like the station overall, and the accident didn’t make me feel any better about it. There’s an old feeling to it, though it’s barely fifty. I feel like it disapproves of me. Most times when I’m on assignment, it takes maybe a month or two to get adjusted. I’ve been here for two years, and I still feel like a stranger being told that I don’t belong here. I’m told quietly, though, so others can’t hear.

I never mentioned this to the other men, or to Diana. I don’t know why there’s a nurse and no doctor here. The only thing I can guess is that Bellicore Transmissions can’t afford to keep a doctor out here, though that seems unlikely. The accommodations are first class, and my own pay isn’t cheap, not for a three-year contract. The station is practically brand-new.

“They don’t want to pay for a doctor because, really, what can a doc do for you out here?” said Jeremy over breakfast one day when Diana wasn’t around. “If you’re bad enough off and you need a doc, you’re not going to make it back to the Core anyway.”

“Valhalla had a doctor,” I said. Jeremy and I had worked on her together.

“Yeah, and he was also a nuclear technician. They got two for the price of one.” And I agreed, mostly because Diana had just come into the dining area. I may not be the nicest guy in the world, but I’m not rude, especially to someone who may have to take care of me.

The accident happened ten days after that. I’ve been stuck in sick bay ever since.

* * *

I’m looking out the window again. The hazy mist of Janus is depressing. It reminds me of childhood. In the early mornings, if you left my house early enough on a spring or summer day, the haze of moisture over the greenery made everything soft and mysterious. Some children might have delighted in the fog.

I hated it. Shapes loomed and lurched out of the grey. Sometimes the shapes were buildings and trees. Sometimes they were people going about their daily tasks. But for me, the boogeyman, the troll, the witch, they were all hiding in the fog, ready to jump out at me. Maybe because I wasn’t awake yet when I would leave to go to school. Maybe my dreams were still hanging around in my head like cobwebs and got all tangled up with the fog.

I had been on my way to school once when I was seven. I had just had a birthday and I was very proud of my new red plastic knapsack; it was resistant to the voracious alkali of the soil. It was strapped tightly to my back but kept coming loose. I could feel it sagging towards my butt. My thick Hitchon boots, also alkali-resistant, made big spiral shapes in the wet, salty dirt that covered everything. I was concentrating on my steps, trying to make the spirals from the left boot and the right boot overlap, like orbits.

If you looked down, they couldn’t see you.

I knew it was all in my mind. There was probably nothing in the mist that would hurt me. But I was a scaredy kid. A fraidy cat. No matter how much I told myself there was nothing out there, the moving shapes scared me. I knew that if I concentrated on my Hitchons and their patterns in the grey dirt, I would be at school in no time.

Easy peasy.

A huffing sound in front of me almost made me stop. It sounded like a dog or an old man.

I hesitated, and then I sped up. A lot. I knew that once I got past it, whatever it was, it would be behind me. It would be in my rear-view mirror, as Mom would say. Bye-bye, sucka.

The huffing noise came closer, right in front of me. I stopped. Maybe it would pass me, if I just stayed still.

Out of the grey, a scarecrow staggered.

I only knew about scarecrows because my mom read me an old book, The Wizard of Oz. I liked the scarecrow. He was funny. The scarecrow in the pictures looked like a clown, like he was trying not to laugh and failing.

This scarecrow didn’t look funny. It was grey, grey like the dirt and the fog, with sticks for hair and holes where the eyes should have been. Its mouth sagged open, a puckered gash with no lips and no teeth. It made a horrible hunh hunh hunh sound, like it was grunting and panting at the same time, and its hands were made up of bunches of white sticks that poked out at the end of blobby arms. The hands were stretched forward, as though the scarecrow was asking for help. It looked like it hurt to walk.

I froze stock-still where I was. I wet my new Vloche pants, though I didn’t realize it right away.

The scarecrow went past me, grunting and lurching.

I turned. As scared as I was, I still managed to turn. The scarecrow staggered into the fog and disappeared. The grey behind me, where I’d just come from, was a solid wall of haze again.

I stood for a moment and then went on to school. What else was I supposed to do? I got scolded for wetting my pants, but when the teacher saw how quiet I was, he piped down and got worried. I’d been a big mouth in class up to that point.

I found out later that the scarecrow was one of the many victims of silt poison. Those unlucky bastards who managed to stumble into a collapsing pit of toxic maracin that had been covered up. All the sites, which were supposed to be secret, had been starting to fall in around that time.

It was not unusual to see the victims roaming around that summer, their eyes eaten out by the chemicals, the flesh melted off their fingers, before the screaming medicos got to them. You could see the big bugs coming for them from miles away, swooping in like buzzing hawks, spitting out their webs of elastice, trapping the victims in clouds of white. They would be reeled up and into the belly of the medicos, and zoomed away to the chemburn centers, which were the only places equipped to treat them. This is why a lot of people had left Earth already; there was just no living with all the chemicals we had pumped into the air and the water and the soil.

I couldn’t bear to think about their feet, after seeing those fingers. How it must have hurt for them to walk.

I met some of them years after treatment, and except for the metallic glint of the new eyeballs, you couldn’t really tell what had happened. They looked haunted, though, like what had happened burned something out of them. I felt sorry for them.

But I never stopped fearing them. All it takes is one scarecrow lurching out of the grey morning mist to make you terrified of them for life.

You don’t care too much for mist, either.

* * *

Diana just came in. She took my temperature with the flexowand. She was always doing that. I asked her why and she just smiled. “There’s no indication of an infection,” she said.

I wondered who on board would have gotten me infected with anything. You have to take a zillion medical tests every time you get deployed. But I guess you can never control for every microbe and germ that humans carry.

“Do you know why I can’t feel it?” I asked. The gash on my leg was still bandaged. She changes the bandage every day. It’s still full of sealant. The bandage makes a wet sound when she peels it off.

“Trauma,” she said. Her grey hair is stringy. I wonder what it looks like in real air and sunlight. Probably a lot better. We are all grey and stringy after a year or two in space. You can tell she grew up on Earth, like me, because her face always looks windburned.

Jeremy and Dave have faces with skin like babies. There’s no lines or wrinkles or dark patches. They’ve been in sealed environments their whole lives. Probably raised on outposts.

“It’s clotted, and there’s pus on the edges, which means the white blood cells are working. Physically everything is fine.”

She left.

I wish she wouldn’t do that. I don’t like being in the bay by myself, with the haze of Janus right outside my window. It’s making me a little bit sick.

I know there’s nothing out there. There’s nothing moving in that thick atmosphere. But I still don’t like it. It’s not like I can put Janus in my rearview mirror.

Jeremy was still shook up when he and Dave came to see me, right after Diana used her sealant gel to close the wound on my leg, right after the accident that didn’t feel like an accident.

“I checked the charge on that door,” he said. “I looked at the mainframe and the circuit. There was no reason for it to jam like that. None.”

“It’s okay,” I said. I was touched that he was so concerned, though, of course, it could have happened to any of us. “At least it didn’t take my whole leg off.” I was glad they didn’t mention that I’d wet my pants. They would probably have wet their pants, too, if a space station had tried to take their leg off.

He went pale. “Don’t joke about that.”

“Hell no,” said Dave. “It was close enough as it was. Blood everywhere.”

I smiled, though it made me feel a little sick. It would have been entirely too easy for my foot to pop right off. It would have rolled out of the suit with a wet thump, like a ham hock. And Jeremy had been right, there would have been no need for a doctor at that point, because we have blood on board, but not probably enough for a transfusion.

Of course if she had stopped the bleeding quickly enough, Diana could have sealed my stump with that plastic liquid she uses for wounds. She could have put the foot in the biotank. It would have floated in jelly, still alive, till they sent a ship for me. I could have gone to visit it. It would have been in a sealed environment, like kids growing up on outposts.

I imagined seeing my foot in the pink jelly. The jelly would look like haze. I would tap my fingers on the glass. Would that bother the foot? Should you not do that?

Now I really felt sick. Dave grabbed my arm.

“You’re okay, buddy,” he said, and I was reminded again why I tend to like Jeremy better than Dave. Dave’s an okay guy, but he insists on calling people stupid names like “buddy” or, even worse, “brother.” But you can’t tell people to stop calling you a nickname. It’s like you’re supposed to be glad they named you, like a pet.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Shaw

Home Page