Connor Jecklan wanted to go home. Home was about seventy steps further down the tube. He really wasn’t sure he was gonna make it.
The tube was swinging back and forth, like the other side was stuck to the end of a pendulum held by a very, very hungover person. He started to wonder if this entire fucking community had been designed by hungover people.
The front right quarter of his head was pounding like someone ripped open his skull, freeze-dried that chunk of his brain, and soldered it all shut. His eyes were so dry that blinking was like dragging a dry rag across his corneas, and once the lids were shut they got stuck and needed to be pried open. His tear ducts were heaving and grinding, desperate to pump any kind of lubricant onto the orbs they were meant to protect, but they just couldn’t find any.
Connor was dehydrated because he was maybe, just a bit, kind of hung over.
Connor was a runner. Runners lived and worked in the twelve-hundred foot by nine hundred foot chunk of cheap-ass titanium-frame intergalactic real-estate sticking out the ass of the Joanna Ng, a Trebuchet-Class Leapfrogger spaceship.
Leapfroggers were transport ships for the mining industry. They got paid to pick up the shit the diggers dug up, and they moved it to places where people need shit.
Connor was a mechanic. He did the shit that kept the Leapfrogger moving the shit. He and the other runners were called runners because the engines need a lot of grease, and since the living quarters for all two hundred and fifty mechanics need to be oriented below the engines (for tax reasons), the twelve-hundred foot by nine-hundred foot of real-estate he called home collected a lot of the run-off, and came to be called The Runs.
Context’s a bitch. But there’s no getting around it. For example: Connor was vomiting in the side of the tube, and great big watery chunks of his dinner were sticking to the dull titanium wall. This wasn’t just, “go easy on me, I had a rough night,” hung over. This was, “I tried Tequila for the first time last night and seriously, Mom, can you maybe take me to the hospital?” hung over. And Connor had work in three hours. Out of context, you might assume that he had a problem. In context, it was much worse.
Connor didn't normally drink alcohol. That put him in the minority, there in The Runs. The reason was his hang overs. If alcohol made you as sick as it did Connor, you too would just use Nether, the mildly hallucinogenic opiate that always seemed so plentiful on starships like the Joanna.
But sometimes you have to have some whiskey. Because a man drinking whiskey with another man just brings those men together. It brings some extra trust into the room. Makes everything warmer, particularly if one of those men is, like, stupid.
And last night, Connor really needed a stupid man to trust him. That’s why he’d gone to the bottom level of the deck on a Thursday night. That’s why he’d brought so much money. It’s why he’d put on his formal-wear, which he had forgotten he even had until he had found it vacuum sealed in the back of his closet.
But things had gone sour. People had gotten angry, enemies had been made and certain professional agreements had been rendered null, all because Connor didn’t handle his whiskey very well.
The hangover was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t as bad as the thoughts crowding his head. In a couple days, he’d run out his supply of Nether. He’d never been through withdrawal before and he had no idea what to expect, but he was sure it was going to be far, far worse than this.
He vomited again.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that, even on a highly advanced piece of technology like the Joanna Ng, there was a network of crime. The Joanna had a community, and you can’t have a community without criminals any more than you can have a tree without shade. The leaves at the top soak up the sunlight, stretch towards the heavens, marvel at the majesty of their own accomplishments. But beneath them, there’s always a patch of dirt that doesn’t get enough light, where no grass grows. Where it’s just dirt, and worms, and the faint smell of pee from the drunk guy's stop on his way home. You need the dirt, though, or you can’t have the tree.
A more clear explanation is that doing drugs is like pooping: awesome, but the more mixed company you get in a room, the less likely it is to come up in conversation. Therefore, societies will always have crime until we all stop pooping.
Even now, breathing hard and looking at the puddle around his feet and trying to remember when he’d last eaten carrots, it still seemed worth it. Maybe he was rationalizing. Maybe he just couldn’t accept his own failures, but right then and there it didn’t seem like Connor had any other option. He'd taken a calculated risk and it hadn’t worked out. Now he was paying for it. That’s just the way things go.
Then he looked up and stared down the tube, trying to will it to stop swaying back and forth. The sudden burst in concentration probably saved his life; at that very moment, he was lifted off his feet and thrown down the tube with a force that was as surreal as it was brutal. The end of the tube was now the bottom of the tube, and he was falling faster than he had ever dreamed of falling in his life, and this is what ran through his mind:
I’m dead. Shit, I am super fucking dead.
And then his head cracked against a fire extinguisher, his body bounced against the ceiling, and he lost consciousness.
There was a lot to complain about, as a runner. It definitely wasn't as glamorous as being a Warp Drive Technician, who worked with robots instead of their own hands and got higher pay and nicer uniforms. Then there’s the smell the engines always seem to give off -- sometimes acidic, sometimes oily, and always changing just enough to stay noticeable.
But still, it had its perks. For one, you got to use your body, which kept your heart pumping and your fine motor skills sharp. And two, if your captain ever decided to ram another ship at three hundred and fifty miles per hour, you would be living in the back of the ship instead of right above the single most unstable piece of technology known to man, and the resulting explosion wouldn’t liquify your body before squirting your remains into space.
Instead, it just hurled you down a hallway.
Connor woke up slumped in a corner. He tried to open his eyes, and realized that it was so dark it didn’t make a difference.
There wasn't any ambient light in the spaceship. Obviously. So when the lights went out, the darkness was unlike any other feeling. It wasn't just a lack of light -- it had weight, a presence that surrounded, squeezeed, and invaded you. It was a deep, thick loneliness that crept inside you, wrapped itself around your heart, and breathily whispered that it would never, ever let go.
Of course, you calm down a bit once the lights come back. But in the moment, it’s pretty scary.
As Connor lay on the floor, trying not to freak out, a thousand different thoughts showed up at the door to his head, invited themselves in, and started spilling beer all over the couch in the living room of his conscious mind. He wondered if the creeping coldness was his own nerves or the slow, deadly loss of air-pressure. He wondered if the blackness meant that they’d lost core power and that the ship’s heat would slowly radiate off into space until they all froze to death. He wondered if he was already dead, and this is just what being dead was. Then he dismissed that thought, because he still felt hung over, and dead people don’t get hangovers.
Or do they? Maybe when you die, you’re stuck with the last feeling you felt, forever. Shit. What a terrible day to overdo it on the whiskey.
A big part of Connor didn’t want to find the answer to these questions. He knew he wasn’t the type to take the suicide tab locked in the drawer in his cabin. No, if there was a problem, say, with the O2/CO2 Balancer, he knew that he’d cling to life right up to the moment when he was choking and gasping and retching on the floor while his eyes bugged out of his skull and he deliriously clawed open his own throat. Yeah, he’d seen the instructional videos they showed at flight school. He knew all the horrible ways that you could die in space when things went wrong -- but he just didn’t care. He wasn’t taking that damn tab.
Two years back, when Connor was working on a different, smaller ship, they had come across a derelict vessel. It had suffered a slow, almost imperceptible air leak that no one had found until it was too late, and among the corpses there were a few that had clearly died in distress, their bodies... you know, all distressed. While the others on the away team had shaken their heads in confusion, muttering things like, “What a waste. What an awful way to go,” Connor had instead thought, “Yeah. That makes sense. Good on ya, kid.”
Connor decided that if he was going to die of suffocation, it might be best to find somewhere more comfortable to thrash around than a steel hallway. Otherwise he might split his head open once he started convulsing.
He stood up unsteadily and patted his hands against the wall until he found a braille handle and oriented himself to confirm that down was the direction it should be, which was a good sign. Kind of. Synthetic Gravity took about three hours to dissipate after core power loss, right? This was the kind of thing he should know, in his line of work, but he’d forgotten in this particular moment. He pulled himself forward with the handle, half expecting the Synthetic Gravity to magic itself away when he lifted his foot off the ground for the first time. But it didn’t. He took the step just fine. The second step worked, too. And the third. Oh shit, Connor, he thought. You’re on a roll.
He made his way toward what he thought was his cabin, and eventually his fingers found a fire extinguisher, and then slipped against a cold, slick substance spread along the steel tube. Condensation of some kind? Leaking fluids into the air could be poisoning him right now. Was he dizzy?
He was starting to panic. He reached underneath the hydrant, ripped the temporary flashlight off its velcro holder and snapped it open, flooding the hallway and revealing the hydrant to be sticky with something thick and red and...
Connor’s head throbbed. Blood. From when he smashed into it. He reached up and touched his skull and felt some skin hanging loose. Yeah, definitely a big enough injury to warrant that much blood. He sighed in relief. The panic went away.
And that, the moment he made his first human sound, was when he realized how alone he was.
“Hello?” he shouted, or at least tried to. It came out as more of a rasp. Was he dying? Could he breathe the air? The panic came back, happy to find that its seat was still warm. If Connor couldn’t talk, that could signal all kinds of contaminants in the air that were right now shredding his body from the inside out. Some even acted painlessly due to anaesthetic qualities. Maybe? He was starting to confuse which horrible things he had actually learned about, and which horrible things he had made up, just now. Spaceships were pretty complicated, after all.
“Hello?" he tried shouting again. His voiced cracked, but at least it worked. It didn’t echo. Nothing echoed off the steel they used in these interiors. He felt like his voice only traveled as far as the beam of his tiny flashlight before being swallowed by the blackness. He tried again.
“Hello?” he shouted. “This is Connor Jecklan! Is anyone...”
He stopped again, well before he had really gotten going. That was a tough sentence to finish. He decided not to challenge himself. One thing at a time, and the first thing was to make his way back to his quarters and make 100% sure his suicide tab was still there. He wasn't gonna take it, obviously. But it'd be comforting to know where it was.
The voice was loud and aggressive, and it hit without without warning, like an erection while you’re at work. It scared the shit out of Connor until he realized that it was actually just seconds after he had shouted. It was probably someone answering him. Shit, his nerves were fried.
“Connor! Connor, it’s Jamie! Say something again! Are you hurt?”
Jamie was another runner. She worked on the turbine just above his. He knew her, kinda. They’d slept together once a couple months ago. She hadn’t been great, but that was all right because he probably hadn’t been that great either. It was nice to know that there was a woman alive, at least. He felt a little less weighed down by the prospect of survival, and forgot, briefly, about the suicide tab.
“I’m here!” he shouted. He looked around for some kind of landmark, and spotted a door to someone’s cabin. “Deck F, Room 7B! Right by room 7B!"
“Obviously Deck F, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to hear... Oh, shit, I think I can see your light. Don’t move.”
“Where are you?” Connor asked, turning to look either direction down the hall.
“I said-- God damn it, Connor, turn your light back on. I’m right-- can’t you hear what direction I’m coming from?”
“The light’s still on, I just--" he was turning in the hall, and she thought he was turning the light off. Damn it, that was stupid. He picked a direction. “Can you see it now?”
“Yes. I’m coming.” Her voice was louder, and just a second later she stepped out of the ethereal pillow of blackness at the edge of the beam of light, as if she stepped out of the void of space and into his life right there.
Her skin was darker than their grey suits, so for a brief moment it looked like an empty, haunted jumpsuit walking out of the nothing. As she got closer and he was able to make out her face, her eyes went wide, and she seemed to open her arms to open her arms to him. For just a split moment, Connor thought that they might actually kiss in an explosive celebration at not being alone or dead.
Instead, she said, “Holy shit! What happened to your face?”
“What?” Connor touched his head again and remembered the massive wound. He realized there were rivulets of blood running between his eyes, down the crease at the side of his nose, and collecting in the stubble at his chin. “Oh, right. My face. I hit it with a fire extinguisher.”
“Jesus,” she said. “I just slid across the floor. Burned the fuck out of my ass and hit my shoulder, but it’s definitely not that bad. We need to get you to a doctor.”
“Am I the first person you’ve seen?”
“What? No, there are a lot of us. A few are hurt. I was going to med bay to pick up supplies. They’re not answering on the commer so I was walking down to get some stuff and see if there was a doctor when I heard you shouting. What have you been doing?”
“I was unconscious. What happened?”
“Christ. I dunno. No one knows. Okay, you better come with me. Stay close."
Jamie switched on her own flashlight and led Connor down the tube, away from his room. They walked for what felt like years until they got to the end of Deck F and found out why Medical Bay wasn’t answering their commer.
The Emergency Vacuum Door was shut. The handle was glowing red with the words Do Not Open faintly illuminated in a semi-circle across the top. Both Jamie and Connor stopped walking right when their flashlights fell on it.
Neither of them had ever seen one of these doors shut before. No one they knew had ever seen that before. No one that was still alive, anyway.
Connor stepped up to the Emergency Vacuum Door.
“Connor, don’t,” Jamie said.
He pushed against it, half-heartedly, maybe hoping it would open. It didn’t. He pressed his face up to the glass of the door between Deck F and Deck E, looked through and saw...
This was bad for a couple reasons. The first reason is that when you work on a starship that spends most of its time in the black, you’re not supposed to see space. You can’t see stars in the black, and that messes with your head. The operations manual and general practice on board the Joanna Ng made a big effort to keep crew members from ever seeing space. Looking at nothing isn’t good for your mind. Sometimes it makes you feel sleepy, or hate your job, or quit. Sometimes it makes you kill yourself. Sometimes it makes you kill a whole lot of other people, too. It’s hard to hear your own thoughts when you’re looking at nothing. Nothing can be really loud.
The second reason this was bad is because Deck E is preceded by Deck D. Before Deck D is deck C, B and A. Deck F is the aftmost deck.
And right now, it was also the only deck they could get to.
There were other access points between F and E, but looking through that window, right then, they knew that they would all look exactly the same. They checked anyway. Then they went back to the living quarters to tell everyone else how irredeemably fucked they were.