A Novel by Janet Baker
There’s been an explosion on the Bernina Harrison, the mining asteroid worked by Halliburton in association with the colony. Asteroid management is paralyzed, but the Regina Caeli crew, stopping by to rescue a pregnant woman from a forced abortion, take action to break through the explosion rubble, risking their own death, and rescue the trapped miners on the other side. The following is a scene in one cabin as two Chinese women and an Indian guy await their death.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the blockage, darkness reigned. Dust hung thick in the still atmosphere. You could see little, but you could hear. Voices were calling, and there a harsh metallic staccato—drumming on pipes. People were signaling to rescuers. The vents made noise, too, cycling on and off repeatedly, but nothing came out of them. The sounds clashed in the darkness.
The atmosphere on the Bernina Harrison was generated deep in the asteroid, where hydrogen and oxygen were taken out of the asteroid’s abundant free water. The oxygen was combined with other gases and circulated throughout the interior in both the working and the living areas. The circulation motor was running, but something had gone wrong upstream. There was no air. Perhaps the vents had been blocked by the explosion.
In a residence room in E sector off Corridor 12, three figures lay on the metal floor with their heads inward. They lay face down, in their Bernina Harrison “leisure uniforms” of loose pants and even looser over-tunics, like pajamas. In the darkness, it was hard to see whether they were male or female, until the characteristic clues of identity—the slope of the shoulders, the shape of the skull, a birthmark—made it clear. Then, like a camera autofocus coming in, the individuals were suddenly visible: Gen Bao, distinguishable by her boyish haircut, her roommate, Yi Meifen; and oh yes, those were the bitten fingernails of Jai Birdi, a young man on their work team, an Indian. Both his hands were visible up near his head. He had been visiting Meifen and Bao in their room, carrying on his endless argument with Meifen about which was worse for its people, China or India.
They had been arguing about castes. Jai maintained it was so much worse in India, in spite of sixty years of legislation. Meifen had countered that it was worse where it wasn’t recognized, like in China. She’d then told him about a girlfriend of hers who had loved this guy, but see, he was from Shanghai and she was from this village way up north and west, Jiangsu; you’ve never heard of it. And she could not get papers to live in Shanghai, so she would have to give him up. She would have to marry in Jiangsu because her family was from Jiangsu and China followed that system, huji—where your family was from, that’s where you were from. Forever. Just like castes! And she had just blown a big concluding bubble with the bubble gum she always kept boiling in her mouth, and when it had popped, that very second, there was the explosion. Like Meifen had caused it.
It had gone dark right away. Jai had crawled to the bed and snatched the blanket, and crawled over to the door and asked for tape. “Gas,” he’d said. Bao had groped in the side table drawer and crawled over and handed the tape to Jai, and he’d taped the blanket up to the door, all around it. Bao had helped. It was hard to do in the dark.
Then, with no atmosphere blowing out from the vents, they’d felt along the wall for the panel that held the re-breathers. There were two, for two occupants. And one didn’t work. So there was one. They’d thought it was good for an hour but had been uncertain whether there were two kinds, two brands, with different time capacities. They’d remembered some kind of boring technical presentation before the subject was dropped. So they’d figured, among the three, they maybe had twenty minutes, but they wouldn’t have to start using it right away. There had been some air in the room. But when that had gotten very low—they held on as long as they could—they had finally turned on the re-breather.
Now, they were all lying the same way, with their arms and hands stretched toward each other into the center, and passing around the re-breather. And doing it with as little movement as possible, staying as close to the mouthpiece as possible. The other re-breather, the dead and useless one, lay on the floor across the room, where Meifen had flung it.
They couldn’t talk—no air to waste. They were left alone with their thoughts while they concentrated on keeping a slow and steady breathing rhythm, on keeping calm, on keeping still. It took everything Bao had. But she continued to manage it. A mystery. Take the mouthpiece, breath in, breath out, hand it off. The machine was recirculating all the atmospheric gases in the breath, except for the exhaled carbon dioxide, which it sucked off and replenished with oxygen. Hold your breath, lightly, lightly, don’t panic, don’t move, until it came round again. Breath in, breath out, hand off. (Continue Reading….)