When I woke up that morning, Akayla wasn’t at her post. She should have been monitoring the rhodium miners and scanning the maps for possible new mining locations. We had automated systems for that, but sometimes the automated systems were wrong and human input allowed us to catch costly mistakes. Redundancy was important. Redundancy was what made the whole mining operation work. She knew that. When I checked the monitor I learned that she was outside home base, approximately 115 meters SW. She did not respond to com.
I suited up, went out, and walked along the magnetic path that would lead me to her. I was annoyed. No doubt she was performing some task she had failed to perform earlier in the day. I rehearsed what I would say to her, about sticking to the schedule, about keeping her radio on. I heard the snarky responses she would offer in response. It would be like a million other conversations we’d had, ending either in shouting or laughter. Laughter was preferable. I resolved to keep my temper in check. We would argue, we would laugh, and then we would go back to base and eat a meal together — breakfast for me and dinner for her.
I found her, however, lying on her back, a large tear in the arm of her suit. She was dead.
Akayla and I were not just co-workers, we were brother and sister, twins. Through childhood, grade school, boyfriends, girlfriends, college, space training, and now our current assignment as managers of the Kuiper Belt 2022 WB mining facility, we had always been together. We had been like the little binary system we presently occupied. The base is on 2022 WB, which is gravitationally bound to 2022 WC, its sister object. Brother and sister, facing each other, circling each other, arguing, laughing, loving, hating, fighting, and forgiving.
Her body was frozen stiff, meaning that she had been dead for several hours at least. I picked her up and carried her under my arm, like one of the aluminum posts used to construct the base. Gravity is minimal here, of course, but when you carry extra mass you have to be especially careful to stay on the magnetic path. If you allow momentum to carry you off you can waste a lot of time trying to get back. So I was concentrating on my feet, step by step, not thinking, not allowing myself to think about anything else.
Back at the base, I laid her body on her bed and removed her helmet. She stared at the ceiling while I let out a long breath. She must have been hit by a meteoroid — even a tiny one could have made the tear in her suit. It was one of the many reasons we spent as little time as possible outside the base. Or we were supposed to.
What was I going to do? I didn’t know, but I did know where to look for the answer. Mechanically, my brain still not firing on all cylinders, I went to the office and stood on a chair to reach the large, black 3-ring binder on the top shelf. The KBO Mining Policy and Procedures Manual. The manual had everything I needed to know.
Section 7.2: Death of a crewmember
I felt a little bit calmer just finding the title in the table of contents. I flipped to section 7.2.
In the event that a crew member has died, use the following checklist to ensure the continued smooth operation of the facility.
- If you have not already done so, send a message to human resources saying who has died, including any relevant information about the cause of death. If you have ongoing safety concerns, include those in your message. Be as thorough and precise as possible, as requests for clarification can result in costly communication delays.
- Your facility should be equipped with human remains pouches (HRPs). Place the body of your fallen cremember in a pouch. If there are personal items you think the next of kin would like to have, those may also be placed in the pouch. To minimize decomposition of the body while waiting for transport, take the pouch outside and tie it to the base of the main fine ore storage bin.
- (Optional) At this time, up to an hour of non-denominational expressions of mourning are allowed.
- Log the HRP as an item to be picked up by the next ore transport ship.
- As soon as practical, perform any duties neglected during the processing of the body.
Once the above steps are completed, refer to Appendix XXII for regular schedule adjustments based on the number of remaining crew members. Remember that all crew members have been trained in all aspects of running the mining facility, so that you will be fully capable of performing any duties previously performed by the fallen crew member. Human resources will provide additional instructions specific to your facility and situation.
I put down the binder. It made sense. Redundancy. Our schedule was not too demanding. I would just have to work a little overtime until a replacement could be sent. Meanwhile I had a list to get through.
Still in something of a daze, I went to the com and drafted a message to HQ. Akayla Spencer died performing her duties. A meteoroid tore a hole in her suit. I had no ongoing safety concerns. I ended the message by saying that she was a good worker and that it had been a privilege to serve with her. I would miss her. I hit “send.” I pictured the radio antenna on the top of the base sending the message out through the molasses of space towards Earth. ETA: 5.32 hours.
I found an HRP in the closet and laid it out, or tried to. It billowed in the air and took a minute to settle onto the floor by the bed. I looked at my sister, water condensing on her icy skin. I began removing her bulky suit as I doubted I could get her in the pouch otherwise.
Wait. What had she been doing out there? Maintenance on the cart tracks wasn’t due for another two days. Had she just gone out for a walk? She’d done that before, just gone out for a walk, which was an insane thing to do and totally against company policy. But she was like that sometimes. Stupid.
Her stiff limbs gave me some difficulty but I managed to get the suit off. She looked frail and thin in her jumpsuit. Like a child. Tears sprang to my eyes for the first time. “Why are you so stupid, Akayla? You just can’t follow the rules, can you? You just have to… you want what you want when you want it… you should have just…!”
After a while of this, when the tears had dried crusty on my eyelashes, I picked her up, and laid her in the pouch. I zipped it up halfway and remembered the note about personal items. Due to strict weight restrictions, we had brought very little from home. She had a total of three personal possessions.
The first was a photograph which she had taped to the wall above her bed. I peeled it off carefully. It depicted us playing on the beach as kids, about eight years old. Somewhere in Delaware, I thought. Our dad stood half-turned to the water, his face squinting back at the camera, his tanned belly sticking out. Akayla stood up to her knees in the water, holding up a mass of seaweed and laughing. I was at the water’s edge, facing Akayla, hugging myself.
I heard her 8-year-old voice: “Come on in, chicken!” She was always the more adventurous one, the first in, but also the first out, as I would work on my crawl or my backstroke for an hour. She would build half a sandcastle, then chase a seagull, then tell me to bury her in the sand and get bored when I had barely managed to cover her legs.
I slipped the photo in the pocket of her jumpsuit. Mom and dad would be happy, maybe surprised, to see that she had kept it.
I picked up her journal: personal possession #2. I was tempted to read it, but I couldn’t. When we were 13 I had read her diary, and she had made me rue the day. The funny thing was that it only told me what I already knew, that she had a crush on Carlito Suarez. As if it could have escaped my attention. In retrospect, I realized that she had been oblivious to the things I was thinking and feeling, and she had assumed the disregard had been mutual. But I’ve always been an observer of people, and I found her the most fascinating of all. So like me and so unlike me. My doppelgänger. She cried bitter tears that day and said she would run away and die in a hole. Also she gave me an atomic wedgie.
The journal would not fit in the pocket so I opened the jumpsuit, put it inside, and zipped it back up.
Now, where was her pocket knife? On one of our birthdays (16th?) our dad had given us both pocket knives. The handle of mine had been mahogany, hers rosewood. I had lost mine somewhere along the way, but she had developed a sentimental attachment to hers, which was uncharacteristic on both counts. It should have been on her bedside table — I was sure I had seen it there recently. I looked everywhere in the sleeping quarters and when I couldn’t find it there I checked the kitchen, the lab, the gym (basically a room-sized centrifuge we used to work out in Earth-like gravity), and the storage room. I unzipped the HRP and patted her down. Then I inspected the space suit, which was when I took a closer look at the meteoroid tear.
The tear seemed both too clean and too crooked to have been made by a meteoroid, as if it had been created by two or more slashes of a knife. A knife.
“Akayla, what have you done?”
I suited up again. The helmet latch gave my shaky fingers trouble. I took the magnetic path back out to where I had found Akayla and searched the area for the pocket knife. I remembered that she had once picked up a rock and bet me that she could throw it hard enough to put it in orbit around 2022 WB. After some mental calculations I had told her it was impossible, that she would have had to throw it four times faster than a major league pitcher to achieve orbital velocity. She threw it anyway, of course. She had probably chucked the knife too. It could have gone hundreds of kilometers before landing.
I went back inside and looked again at the tear in the suit. A fold in the material could explain the jagged appearance, maybe. Maybe…
“Akayla. You are messing with my head again.” Her childish body lay inscrutable and cold, a lump in her side created by her journal. “You have given me no choice. You cannot give me a wedgie now anyway.” I took the journal out and sat on the bed. I flipped to the last page.
You creep. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist. You think I can’t give you a wedgie now, but my ghost will come in one night and stretch your undies over your head. You’ll see.
Anyway… sorry. Yeah.
How can you stand it here? I thought it might be a little boring, but I didn’t know how mind-numbingly dull it would be on this rock, cataloging piles of dirt, eating MREs, watching the same movies over and over. If we worked the same shift it wouldn’t be so bad, but you’re always sleeping or in the gym. You still talk in your sleep. All the time. “That’s not right, Akayla,” you say, “Akayla, no!” you say, “Goddammit!” you say…
I’m such a screw-up.
Well, not anymore. No more making excuses for me. No more dragging me through the steps, drilling me for tests, taking up my slack, correcting my calculations. No more apologizing to my boyfriends for me. You remember Jack? God, how embarrassing.
I can hear you saying, “Only six months left on our assignment! Hang in there, kid… You’re doing fine… I can’t do this on my own…” You’re a fucking liar. You’ve been doing it on your own all along. I’m dead weight.
You’ll be fine. Better than fine. I’m setting you free, buddy. Like you always deserved. Love you.
I read the message again. And again. I didn’t understand how she could have felt that way, and I didn’t understand how I hadn’t known that she felt that way. I was an observer of people, and she had fascinated me most of all. My doppelgänger. So like me and so unlike me…
By this time my letter to human resources had reached Earth. A response may have already been on its way, but I began to compose another message. My message was, in essence, that I quit. I would no longer catalog piles of dirt. My sister and I, I had come to realize, were not redundant machines, but two halves of a whole. My sister had broken, and so I was now broken. I didn’t know how long it would take to put myself back together, but I was sure it would be longer than the hour allotted by the KBO Mining Policy and Procedures Manual.