Single Point of Failure

CW for language, violence, and suicidal ideation.

Mercury is going to kill me.

* * *

Jaceer was the first, and of course everyone thought it was suicide. She was in the industrial freezer with the meds and the etching solutions, stripped down to her underwear, the safety lock sabotaged from the inside. It’s not like the thing is soundproofed, either; if she’d yelled for help we’d have heard her, even in the middle of the goddamned night. Dr. Sofara didn’t even bother with an autopsy, just thawed her out, ashed her, and packed her in a box for the next drone home.

I felt bad for her family, but really, she was kind of a bitch.

Not that I let anybody know what I was thinking. Kellan knew it, because even with all the fucked-up shit we’ve done to each other over the last thirty years, he never stopped being able to read my mind. But in public? I had the big sad eyes and the platitudes, and I attended the Company-sponsored psychological refresher courses along with everybody else.

We had to redistribute her work, of course. No new staff until the resupply ship was due—another 300 days. I have enough of a background in mechanics that I was able to pick up her shift moving the solar collector, but the others had to take over her janitorial tasks. So I wasn’t the first one who started trashing her memory out loud.

I didn’t tell anybody about the dream. 

The dream where I was the one in the freezer, where I’d left my clothes folded neatly on the bed at Kellan’s feet. The dream where I stood, patient, waiting for cold to turn to pain to turn to numbness, until that final darkness swallowed all the sorrows of my life.

The dream I had the night before we found her.

* * *

Mercury Station sees a lot of suicides, but Kellan and I figured we’d be immune. We’d worked every mine station in the solar system, including five years out by Jupiter and two years on an IndoAsian asteroid trawler. Close quarters like that, years at a time, you see it all: fighting and fucking and even mass murder. The Company writes off the losses and ships you off to the next assignment. Death is old hat at this point.

But Mercury’s different. People who’ve never been here say it’s living on the poles, half-underground on a world that either wants to fry you or freeze you, but really it’s the weird-ass sense of time you get when everything goes retrograde. Relativity be damned—when objects you think you know start moving the wrong way, reality starts warping, and I’m not talking about wormholes and time dilation.

Einstein was smart, but he didn’t know shit about psychology.

* * *

Tohan was next. Industrial accident. Cleaning out the dust filters on the primary solar collector, and forgot to put his thermal gloves back on after a break. Fused the fabric of the liners into his skin, and burned his hands down to the bone. Took him three days to die of sepsis, and even though we stuck him in the room furthest away from our sleeping quarters, we could hear him screaming the whole time.

That time I’d dreamed of walking toward the collector in my indoor uniform, my eyes open to the burning sun, blinding me almost instantly before the furnace tore me apart.

My dream was merciful. That’s something, I guess.

* * *

You sign a full indemnity release when you go to Mercury Station. All the mines require releases, but Mercury’s is special. The Company tells you Mercury has a higher incidence of accidents, and you pledge both to lower that incidence and absolve the Company of liability if you can’t. 

I heard rumors a few years back there were protests on Earth about it, but Kellan and I signed without hesitation. What the fuck did we care if we died on Mercury Station?

Maybe that was just me.

* * *

Two hundred and forty-seven days to restaffing, and people started dying more regularly. Bogora: food poisoning. Caliente: overnight air leak in her quarters. Siobhan: injected herself with cleaning fluid instead of allergy meds. All suicides or dumbass accidents, only nobody believed that anymore, even if I was the only one who knew what was behind them.

Dr. Sofara decided the place was haunted, and ended up panicking himself out an airlock. If he’d been on collector duty he’d have burned fast, but outside our polar habitat, he had to suffocate. At least it was quick, or quick enough; anyone who’s done any interplanetary travel has been trained not to hold their breath. I’m sure it was painless. More or less.

I hadn’t dreamed about that one, so he was probably a legit suicide.


* * *

After we lost twelve, bringing our staffing down to thirty-six, I told Kellan about the dreams. Even after all these years, all the bitterness and hatred, I still thought he’d comfort me.

He rolled his eyes. “The universe doesn’t fucking revolve around you, you know,” he said, and walked away.

I knew, then, what I should have known years ago. And I knew what the dreams meant.

Sometimes you stay together only because you said you would, because you made a promise. Because it’s the right thing to do. Loyalty. And then you’ve lived your whole life, and loyalty is hollow and starved and meaningless, and there’s nothing left for you at all.

Kellan never understood. It was never the others, the ones he looked at the way he used to look at me–decades since I wanted to touch him, since I’d grieved the feeling I’d lost. It wasn’t even the acrimony that followed us to every new job, every new attempt to leave our corrosive history behind.

It wasn’t Kellan that broke me. It was time. Everything’s relative, right?

He should’ve left me. Why didn’t he leave me? If he’d left me, I’d’ve been free.

And I wouldn’t have had to kill him.

* * *

Kellan’s skills always brought us the most profitable deployments. He had twenty-five years’ experience with solar collectors, with conditions much more hazardous than Mercury’s: hard vacuum, flimsy equipment, no back-up oxygen. He was obsessive about safety. He said that’s how he’d lived so long.

So very, very long.

He pounded on the airlock door, his eyes on mine, pissed off and terrified and realizing, at last, that I was done saving him, that all of our sins had come down to this moment, as our transport rolled placidly toward the solar collector and the daylight terminus and the unfiltered sunlight.

“Open the fucking door!” he shouted, easy to hear, because I’d left him oxygen even as I’d sealed him in the airlock without his thermal protection. I could see in his eyes he couldn’t quite believe I’d do it, and I wondered how he could know me so well and still know me not at all. He may have been convinced, there at the end, but it happened too fast: his eyes sublimating in his head, just like my own in the dream, his oh-so-thin clothing turning to flame and ash in seconds, his skin blistering and boiling and turning to black before my eyes.

I waited until there was nothing left of him but superheated dust.

By the time the others called to ask why Kellan’s telemetry had been interrupted, I’d manufactured a convincing level of hysteria. They really seemed to think I was traumatized.

That left us with twenty-three. And I believed it would finally stop.

* * *

Ninety-four days before it was due, the Company pulled the resupply ship. One final message: “The station is being abandoned. Your families will be contractually compensated.” 

You spend your life traveling through space, you know it’s big. You know it’s deadly. When that message came through, the seventeen of us left recognized, for the first time, how fucking isolated it was.

Most of the others wrote messages telling the Company to go fuck itself in various creative ways. I wrote a message asking for my compensation to go to Kellan’s family. I had no one else.

* * *

So many ways to die on an alien world.

Suffocation. Injury.

Freezing, poison, bleeding out.

Fighting. Stir-crazy, they used to call it. Manesh, Calla, and Adon all knifed each other to death, apparently over the last pack of frozen corn.

We still worked shifts. How bullshit is that? The Company wouldn’t be coming for anything, at least not until long after we were all gone. But we needed the occupation.

I dreamed of clawing out my own eyes, of cutting my wrists, of provoking someone until they took the initiative in my stead.

In the morning it was never me.

I began to be grateful.

* * *

Twelve of us left.

I don’t sleep anymore. I don’t dream. For a few days, that helped, but it doesn’t matter now. It’s still happening. It’s independent, broken away from me, leaving nothing but this demon in my head, telling me I used to be in control. 

All demons are liars.

It doesn’t take someone every day. I think it likes giving us hope.

We’ve tried working in pairs, locking ourselves in one big room, chaining ourselves together. It doesn’t matter. It gets us anyway.

It doesn’t even wait for night anymore.

* * *

I don’t know how long I’ve been in this airlock. I brought food, but it’s gone now. For an hour. For a day. I don’t know.

I can hear the others. Screaming, Crying. Dying? I can’t tell. Dying, living—in the end, it’s all the same.

The demon still whispers to me, trying to make me sleep, but I don’t. I brought more stims than I did food. Enough stims to kill me long before I run out. I started out judicious with them, but I don’t remember when the last dose was, and it’s easier just to keep taking them. It’s the only way to be sure.

I can’t save the others. They bang on the door, they beg me. They want in, or they want out—I don’t know. We all speak the same language, but I can’t make out their meaning anymore.

I tried, for a while, to tell them there was something here, something that started in my dreams and came to life, inhabiting the halls, feeding off the close heat of the sun and Einstein’s madness.

I don’t remember what it was like not to be empty. I don’t remember what it was like to think this was strange, or painful. I am hollow and hungry and endless, and this is what I have always been.

They bang on the door and beg me, and it doesn’t matter. It’ll kill them, all of them. It’ll kill me, too, someday.

But by God, it’ll kill me last.