OUTER SPACE | 2055
In the eighty-three years since the Near Miss scared the hell out of those tasked with keeping an eye on the planet’s celestial neighborhood, a lot of discussions over what to do about it had started and ended in acrimonious dissent.
An endless parade of plans had come and gone as governments shifted priorities to more immediate matters. Not to say that there weren’t other things to worry about, Major was often forced to concede; it was just that all the petty squabbling and resource hording was going to get everyone equally killed.
You could be the richest man in the world sitting on an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with every drop of remaining petroleum you could buy, steal, or kill for, and it wasn’t going to save you when a twenty-kilometer-wide comet smashed into the house, town, country, or continent next door.
Scientists had agreed for some time that it was an object half the size of the current threat that placed the fatal punctuation mark at the end of the age of dinosaurs. Life in the later half of the 21st century wasn’t always a walk on the disappearing beach, but Major wasn’t in a big hurry to see the last of it.
If anything surprised the captain, it was that the remaining powers got it together enough to send him and his team out at all. When Zhang arrived from the Asian continent, for many it was like seeing a ghost. Few Western nations had engaged in official contact with China since he was a teenager, and it was through the relationship the rogue nation had built with an independent Hawai‘i that provided a location for the mission that everyone could agree on.
Although most governments supported freezing out the Asian continent, there was always the nagging xenophobic suspicion that they were up to something.
“It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for,” Major remembered his grandmother saying. He just could not remember the context of her proclamation. Major recalled being kind of an introverted kid. Focused, was closer to how he would choose to describe it.
From his earliest dreams, he knew that he was destined to end up exactly where he was: in a flimsy tin can hurtling to his certain death in unforgiving space. Well, if silence meant sedition, he thought, it certainly isn’t Zhang I have to watch out for. He is far and again the noisiest thing going for several light-years in any direction.
The unmistakable sound of a human skull striking a rack of overhanging conduit, followed by a string of curses in baihua, an old Cantonese dialect, announced Zhang’s arrival.
“Jesu, Zhang,” Major called out through the open bulkhead. “How many more times are you going to hit that mess before you remember that it’s there?”
Zhang slid effortlessly into the empty gravity chair to Major’s right. It always fascinated Major how gracefully a nearly two-meter tall Chinese man could navigate the cramped confines of the ship and yet never fail to hit his head on the most obvious obstruction.
“It reminds me that I am alive, captain,” Zhang declared as he set about changing all of Konstantinov’s chair settings to match his frame.
“Give it to me straight, Zhang,” Major said, looking into the doctor’s coal black eyes. “How is he?”
“I’m not going to lie, Captain, it’s not good. As we feared, the oxygen in Bjoren’s blood began to boil in the vacuum causing his body to swell to almost twice its normal size.”
Major gasped in spite of himself. “Is he … ”
“Please let me finish,” Zhang interrupted. “Although our fellow knew the consequences of holding air in his lungs, the body often wants what it wants, especially in a panic situation. The extra pressure, I’m afraid, ruptured those organs beyond repair.”
Major’s countenance fell as he realized the gravity of what Zhang was telling him.
Before Major could ask the inevitable question, Zhang cut him off. “I’ve taken the liberty of instituting … extreme measures.”
“What are you saying, Zhang?” Major demanded. “Out with it! Is Bjoern going to make it or not?”
“Captain, perhaps you are not aware of the strides China has made in certain technologies in the recent past,” Zhang explained. “I assure you, our astrogeologist will participate in this mission. Perhaps you should meet me in the sick bay at 1300. It will be easier to explain once he has been sufficiently stabilized.”
“I don’t understand how … ”
“Captain, you must excuse me; I must prepare the crew’s dormancies. We will all have to go down pretty soon after we break orbit. We only have so much of this wonderful abstracted food.”
“All right, I will see you in the sick bay at 1300. You know, Zhang, I’ll really miss this alone time with you once we are put to sleep,” Major deadpanned.
Zhang, for his part, simply turned his gaze toward the captain and farted.
“Damn it, Zhang, you’ll kill us all!”
“I am as God made me, sir.” Zhang let his comment hang in the air least as long as the stench from his valiant attempt to properly digest space food. “Captain, if I might ask a question … ”
Major squinted at his medical officer, not sure if this query was a trick along the lines of pull my finger. “I suppose so … what is it?”
“When Bjoern lost consciousness and you went out to bring him back, why did you unhook your tether once you had him?”
“Well, Zhang … ” Major thought about it. “I suppose I didn’t want to lose my grip on him. It was a judgment call.”
“If I may further inquire, captain, what would you have done if you, in turn, were struck by an object?”
“I … ” Major began, “I guess I didn’t consider that.”
“Interesting, that is a deviation from your prog … your training, is it not?”
“I don’t recall ever going over the protocol of an appropriate way to keep your geologist from becoming a flaming meteor, but I get your point. Perhaps it was a bit rash.”
“Please stop saying that.”
“Zhang, do not be surprised when you wake up outside.”
“Interesting. You will let me know if you start having more sanguinary thoughts, won’t you captain?”
“Good bye, Zhang.”
Konstantinov squeezed past the doctor as he left the command pod to start preparing for their hibernation. She did not speak until she hit the remaining wall of funk he had left peeling the proverbial paint off the bulkheads.
“Chërt voz’mí!” she exclaimed. “What died in here?” Swinging into her usual position next to the captain, Konstantinov almost slid out right of it again. “And who’s been messing with my chair?”