This week's Bedtime Story is my 80th so far. It's also a special three-parter. Enjoy!
I remember the first time they became too much to ignore.
The food locker I liked to keep food in had run a bit low on pastries. I’d gone a few days without but, after the third farm came in 10% above quota, I felt I’d deserved a treat.
I flipped the low switch on the grav and pushed down the hall. It’s nearly a kilometer to the next locker so I had to kick off a few more times to reach it. I’ve cleared the major obstacles from this run already, but my heart still thuds in my ears every time I make the trip through the dark.
We’re not supposed to read up on the mental ailments afflicting people in solitude. I have though. Vague shapes on the corner of reality … surely a sign I should be spending more time at the socials.
I held my breath and held my arms out to stop myself on the locker. I looked around. Nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief and unloaded the snacks from the locker.
“—tation five, station five, come in, station five,” James’s voice crackled across the divide.
I swore. I’d forgotten to carry a comm and all the section went unpowered when not connected to the interchange. He’d be worried sick.
My time back was two minutes faster than my best record.
I clicked on the set and broadcast, “Station two, station two, this is station five, come back. Come back.”
The sound of cosmic radiation filtered through the set for a moment. “Hey, Scrumpy.”
“Hey James. What’s up?”
James invited me to an impromptu social. His station was running above quota on two farms—7% total—and he felt like celebrating. Probably also curbing the loneliness. Given my periphery, it seemed like a good idea for me too.
I suited up, aimed the magne-grapple at his station, and fired. Two minutes later, the cable pulled taught. The zip light flashed red twice and turned green. I latched myself to the zip and sped across the dusty vacuum.
When you first start pulling these deep space duties, you plan conversation topics for the next time you breath the same air as another human.
I’d given that up five years prior.
James had come on three years ago from another asteroid cluster. We’d met dozens of times and never got to the subject of how many years
I skipped the small talk. Twenty minutes of discussion-free munching and I broached the subject. “You ever get space madness, James?”
He pondered. “Like just anxious over nothing?”
“No. Like seeing things that aren’t there.”
“Maybe. I been seeing a few things lately.”
“You know I’m not going to tattle and I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t have a reason,” I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Scrumpy … I’ve been seeing critters.”
“Bigger than rats?”
“Bigger than foxes.”
I whistled. “They might be real.”
“Scrumpy, you been holding out on me?”
“No. I thought I was going loopy until today.”
“I been seeing ‘em for practically weeks.”
“Damn. Sorry, James.”
“You think we should go look at ‘em?”
I put my helmet back on as answer and made my hand into a cocked gun.
He took the hint and lead me to the armory.
While he put on his suit, I picked through the supply of 90-year-old salvaged weaponry and decided on a few with cells made in my life time.
I tossed James a ShockEE and a ray gun and kept a heat knife and another ray gun for myself.
James led into a disused back wall airlock. All these stations used to be mining platforms before their asteroids were picked clean of the easy-to-mine material. The old airlocks mostly don’t work and who wants to climb in an unlighted space mine?
I think all of us space farmers have done a bit of prospecting here and there though.
James and I stepped through the lock. He turned his helmet overhead on. With no atmo and deep darkness just in front of me, I felt a crushing paranoia similar to looking on bare space on a walk outside.