Since the shuttle accident that broke my brain, getting out of bed is like marshalling a poorly-trained and easily-distracted army. Turns out I’m not a good general. I’m a medtech, or at least, I used to be. Nursing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at, but I really can’t be trusted near sharp objects anymore.
I’m on the far end of the grief cycle these days: past not-possible, not-fair, if-only, not-caring, finally making it to if-I-must acceptance. To me, that means dealing with the reality of having to talk my arms and legs, fingers and toes, abs and ass into working together to crawl us out of our warm zero-g-rated cocoon at least as far as the head.
“Hey guys, rise and shine.” I’m not good at keeping the razor out of my tone, and I swear the disparate parts of me grumble at me like cranky children. Both hands take fistfuls of the cocoon and show no sign of letting go. The legs curl up into a fetal position.
Instead of screaming in frustration (hey, progress), I go through one of the techniques my therapist gave me. Eyes closed, I concentrate on the pressure in our bladder, the gurgling in our stomach. Turns out none of us actually want piss in the bed or the clean-up that comes after, and, oh yeah, food would be nice come to think of it. Once Newton’s first is in play, it’s relatively easy for me to corral everyone into clean coveralls and out toward breakfast.
Relatively being a relative term, of course.
The right side is usually more biddable, whether by some quirk of my physiology or simply because the damage to my brain was worse on the right side. The medical program had no experience with my injury – that much damage to brain and spinal column should have left me dead or paralyzed, not mind-shattered – and the damn machine was too dumb to conjecture. Anyway. Controlled by what commands can still get through the slightly less damaged neural cabling of the left hemisphere of my brain, the right side is more genial, more of a favorite son. It’s pulling and shoving us along a ladder right now, the left leg lagging and causing a limp, the left arm ignoring the task entirely.
Basically, the left side is a bit of a dick. Right now, the left hand is lazily grappling for something in a pocket. It’s not going to find anything, since the shrink removed all my tchotchkes from my cabin at my request. Damn thing is really persistent.
“It’s your fault we’re still in PT.” The hand flips me off, but somewhat reluctantly reaches up for the next rung on the ladder to the mess hall. The roughened upper surface scrapes tender skin as we pull up. I’ve worked with amputees before, and the sensation is a lot like their frustrated descriptions of a phantom limb itching and twitching at the end of a stump – without the stump.
My PT insists that I talk to my recalcitrant army, but I don’t actually speak out loud to my various parts anymore. Too many people stared at me in the halls. Now, I subvocalize my interpersonal (ha) communication.
Not that it stopped all the staring. Case in point – Ethan Chu stands at the mess hall entrance to the ladder tube, watching me as I scramble and limp and haul myself forward all at once, probably resembling a monkey humping a light socket. His eyes are fixed on the freak show coming toward him.
I remember a night six months ago, when he flirted with me over the dregs of a rum and coke. His brown eyes were shining and wide.
As I approach him, the left hand is balled in a tight fist, the knuckles ivory white with tension. “Acceptance,” I remind it, and while it does relax, it goes back to digging in my empty pockets. Baby steps, I remind myself.
I take a breath and ask my abs for support. “Good mor-” The support kicks in, and my voice quavers with the almost blow. “-ning, Ethan.”
He snaps out of whatever reverie he’d fallen into and steps out of my way, out of the reach of the wandering hands. His round face is tinged pink now. “Morning, Casey.” He falls back further as I approach the mess hall. A smart move, considering the left’s attitude problem.
I clamp down on the now-expected upwelling of frustration tinged with hysteria and smile at him as I pass. The air of the mess hall smells of spice and reconstituted tofu, a sour tang that smells of home.
That’s when something gurgles in the hull-side wall.
The weird sound gives everyone just enough time to turn toward it like the curious monkeys we are before what looks like half the plating explodes inward with a horrific bang.
The explosion knocks me sideways and I land right-shoulder-first, some blessed lizard brain instinct bringing the arms up around my head before it can hit the floor. Pain radiates out from the various points of impact, the right side complaining the loudest. Sounds are soft and unfocused, and I fear for my eardrums. I have to shake my head free of the arms before I can get a look at what’s left of the mess hall.
And that’s exactly what it is: a mess. We’re in the middle of shift change, when the hall is full of crewmembers grabbing a bite to eat after third shift, other crew members grabbing a breakfast bar and coffee before first. Now, all those people are crumpled into corners, splayed across tables and chairs and each other, limbs tangled and angled in unnatural shapes. The moaning hasn’t started yet, but it will.
(I have surprisingly vivid memories of my accident. Our accident.)
The shuttle pilot didn’t moan right away, either. His eyes snapped open when the pain hit him, and he sucked in a shocked breath just before the first disbelieving groan.
My gorge rises, and I force it back down. An unexpected benefit of spending the past several months running roughshod over my body’s demands. My head is swimming with adrenaline, and though I can only distantly feel it, the limbs and fingertips are shaking, too. I take a few deep breaths to steady myself.
“We need to stand up,” I subvocalize.
The left hand clenches, unclenches, and reaches for the wall, fumbling for a handhold. Good old left arm, not such a dick after all. The right is trapped beneath our torso, wrapped around what hurts enough to be a broken rib. I push the thought away for now. Cursing is starting to fill the silence. Across the room, someone sucks in a ragged breath and screams.
“Stand up, dammit.” The legs, woozy as legs can get, gather under us despite their wobbly knees. Without the support of the one cooperative arm, however, they pitch me forward onto my face. Something crunches in the bridge of my nose. The pain almost blinds me. The taste of pennies floods my mouth, and I spit blood onto the rough surface of the floor.
I drag in another breath. “Dammit, stop fucking around and stand us up!” The rising cacophony of wounded mingled with a belated warning klaxon drown out my yell; I can barely hear myself.
The left arm, dragged to the floor by the fall, pats at my face in an almost sympathetic fashion. I shake off its fumbling before it can reach my broken nose.
I manage to keep the words silent this time. “Cut that out and help me up. Come on. Please.” Having one’s face smashed into the floor and rubbed into the carpet is either infuriating or ridiculous, and I am well on my way to dizzy giggles. “I’ll give you a toy to play with later, I promise.”
Our body rolls onto its left side in jerky, uncoordinated fits and starts, the right arm clamped tight to aching ribs. Inch by slow inch, we stagger to our feet and I take in the scene.
It’s a horror show, the sort of thing you see in cheap space operas on the net. Except the view isn’t obscured by ads for the latest VR game and the blood isn’t made of corn syrup and dye. Ethan Chu must have hit his head on the corner of a table on the way down. His long form is splayed on the floor like a huge droplet of blood, limbs torqued and twisted, his eyes open and empty.
As empty as the eyes of the woman beside me in the shuttle. Green, and empty, and the only thing I saw before my own pain hit.
I need to help. It’s my job. It’s who I am, despite the months between me and medical staff greens. But our breaths are accelerating and our body is shaking and it wants nothing more than to turn tail and run away from the chaos.
And, in a moment of weakness, I let it do just that.
I’m in the hallway, hands grabbing at corners and handrails, unwieldy feet dragging me over a chunk of twisted metal coated on one side with fluffy insulation. I shoulder-check crewmembers in bright yellow emergency services suits in our suddenly-coordinated escape. A dangling breath mask smacks me in the face as I shove past one of them, and the strap whips frighteningly close to my eye.
We fall into the cul-de-sac of an open supply closet in a tangle of arms and legs and fingers and spit, my much-abused shoulders slamming into a wire shelving rack. The right hand grabs on and keeps us all upright until the feet get sorted out.
The left hand takes the opportunity to explore my tingling cheek and incandescently painful nose. Dick.
I’m panting like a sprinter, my pulse hammering in every bruise and broken place. Footsteps pound past my hiding spot, loud and then fading. Panic is squeezing my throat like yet another uncontrollable hand.
I’d say I don’t know when I became the person who runs away from danger rather than toward it, but that would be a lie. I can pinpoint it to a fraction of a second, when a needle of titanium shot through my brain and shattered me into a mutinous army of limbs and torso and head.
I want to scream. I was a medtech a year ago, and today, I can’t even help myself.
No. I can. I can.
“Let’s sit down.” I inhale slowly, exhale, inhale again. Blessedly, the fingers of the right hand soften their grip and we slide slowly to the floor. The left hand sweeps down to brace the fall, which means at least it’s leaving my face alone for the moment.
I mutter a thank you (my mother always taught me to be polite) and concentrate on the here and now. Grounding myself.
The closet is small and dark, but a sharply defined ray of blue-tinged light comes in the barely-open door. It’s a stretched reflection of the oval hatch, notched here and there where the soft gasket is torn, meaning I’m in an interior storage room that hasn’t exactly been kept at airlock quality of maintenance. The floor is nubbled under my fingers, a stiff industrial Berber carpet that the left hand seems to enjoy. The far wall is only a few feet from the tip of my swelling nose, close enough that both feet rest against it.
Outside, the klaxon whoops again, a long sliding scale from a wall-buzzing depth to an ear-piercing high. The right hand claps over my ear, and I wince. I appreciate the thought, hand, but that’s not very helpful. The hallway is quiet now, no more people rushing toward the mess hall, and the screams are quieting, joined by groans and unintelligible but still sharp-voiced direction from the emergency responders.
My heart is slowing, though it still feels clenched and sore from my panicked scramble. The carpeted floor is hard beneath our hips, reminding me that I’ve lost weight and tone since the accident. The right hand slides to my chin and rubs at the sticky blood drying there over my morning stubble. Another thing that makes me feel alien in this body, but at least the beard is a familiar wrongness.
There’s a hint of smoke in the air wafting from the hallway, acrid with burned electronics and the fear that smell always brings on a spaceship. The closet itself smells clean – sterile, actually. I look up and am not surprised to see plastic-wrapped pseudoskin bandages strewn across the floor. That would explain why the door was open in the first place – it’s a medical storage closet. I wonder who charged through it, whether I know them. I’m still regaining faces and names after the accident.
The taste of blood is fading from my lips, salt and iron fainter and fainter with every lick of my tongue. I take a final deep breath and blow it out through my lips. My broken nose twinges.
The left hand leaves off its exploration of the carpet. In one swift, purposeful motion, it takes my nose between thumb and forefinger and yanks it straight with a crunch and snap.
The burst of pain is almost enough to light up the room. I gasp and let loose a stream of invective bluer than the sky of Earth, yelling until I start to repeat myself. As I wind down, the left hand pats my forehead clumsily, and I suppose I should be grateful the damn thing didn’t try to comfort my throbbing nose.
Panting as the agony subsides, I am abruptly giggling. Shock? Endorphins? My inappropriate sense of humor? It’s hard to tell.
The laughter subsides with a hiccup. “Thanks, asshole,” I say out loud to the left hand, the sound nasal and thick. The hand wipes off blood on the leg of my coveralls.
One of the people in the mess hall shrieks, an unrestrained pitch that quiets everyone else. Respect for the pain being expressed, or fear? The sound pulls at me, a call to action that I should be answering but my body, my cursed, broken body won’t take orders anymore. I clamp my jaw tight on the urge to call back, to let them know I’m coming.
The fingers of both hands twitch. The right grabs the shelf above my head and pulls hard. The left snatches a crackling package of bandages, then another, and clutches them tight.
With no warning, I’m sobbing.
My chest heaves while my left hand crams package after package of bandages in my empty pockets. Tears course down my stinging cheek as my right drags me upright, as my legs stumble us to the door and my shoulder shoves it open. Light pours over me, sounds gain clarity. The air is chill on my cheeks, and smells of blood and ozone and smoke.
Left fist clenched around a bandage held up like an offering, I stagger into the mess hall.
It’s still a mess, but a more organized one. Now that I’m not blind with panic, I can see more of what caused it: a section of space-facing wall has blown inward, maybe a gas line, or part of the kitchen system, since there appears to be an inordinate amount of crisped protein flung out in a ring from the explosion. I shake off the speculation. It doesn’t matter what blew up. It could have been space rats chewing on the wires, for all I know. (It wasn’t space rats. There are no space rats.) That’s not my responsibility; I’m not an engineer.
I’m a medtech.
So I take in the carnage instead.
There’s less blood than I thought there’d be. Two crewmembers must have been next to the wall when it blew, two indistinct body shapes under reddening sheets. I bite my lip and scan past them.
One woman clearly has broken her leg, and just as clearly just had it set; her face is green-tinged and her knuckles white around the yellow-clad arm of a medtech. He has not pulled away, and now he mutters something in the patient’s ear that gets her to loosen her grip with a shaky laugh. He’ll have bruises tomorrow, I bet.
Then I catch sight of Ethan Chu. Not dead after all, and the gust of relief that sweeps through me turns my knees to jelly. He does have a wicked head wound that’s currently bleeding through a bandage being held to his temple by the chief medical officer. Karen … Karen Something-Or-Other. I curse my hole-riddled memory, and the plastic bandage in my left hand crackles in my fist.
Karen looks up at the sound, and her dark eyes widen in surprise. She makes as if to stand, but Ethan sags when she moves and she restrains her impulse with a grimace.
Ethan’s green eyes are slits as though he’s half-awake, but I can’t see his pupils. His gray coveralls are dark with a spray of blood trailing down from that scalp laceration. His breathing is slow and even, a fact I can discern over the slowly lessening moans from other patients. The corner I hold onto is cold and smooth under the fingers of my right hand.
It lets go and ask my legs for a bit of help, and they get me to Ethan’s side with a minimum of jerking. Thanks, buddies, I owe you one.
The expression on Karen’s face is a study in careful neutrality, the look of a doctor trying to decide whether she has another patient on her hands, and which one needs her more.
My left hand offers up the bandage, presses it on her. “I want to help.” I need to help.
Karen’s gaze focuses on the bandage, and her lips part in surprise. “Casey. Did you just offer me something?”
Meaning, did I just move my own hand? A spark of hope is flaring in her eyes.
I shake my head. “Nope. Still a conglomeration here,” I say. She deflates. My left hand shakes its offering, and Karen takes it, ripping the crinkling package off with her teeth before applying it to Ethan’s head wound.
She looks crestfallen, so I smile at her. “But we’ve at least found a common purpose.”
I negotiate a step forward, and my hands rise to offer to replace Karen’s at temple and shoulder. She purses her lips, dubious, but when I raise my brows and give the rest of the room a significant glance, she sighs and lets me take her place. My legs fold under me and my hands pillow Ethan’s still-bleeding head on my lap.
Karen moves off toward the next casualty, and I focus in on Ethan. His eyes are open now. My right hand smooths back his forelock.
“Casey?” He’s still muzzy. I suspect he has a concussion, and if I know anything, I know concussions.
I give him a crooked smile. “Don’t worry, Ethan. We’ve got you.”
Aimee Kuzenski is the woman your martial arts teacher warned you about. Her cat was not born hairless; Aimee once shaved her with a single knife stroke and the fur was too scared to grow back.
A graduate of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop, Aimee writes about thorny relationships, messy spaceships, and galactic elven empires. She has also narrated audiobooks for indie authors and for the SFF short fiction podcast PodCastle. Aimee lives in Minnesota with her wife and not enough Filipino weapons.
You can find more information about Aimee’s work at her website, akuzenski.com.