Quality of Life

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Jim Baen's Universe, August 2008.

It's not easy to barricade a door in zero gravity. Lee looked at the shambles she'd made of her apartment. She'd torn out every article of furniture she could detach, and tried to wedge it all into the little entry hall so that the door couldn't be opened. It was all flimsy stuff, though — even these days, with nuclear rockets, it was still expensive to lift anything heavy into orbit.

She had no idea if it would be enough of a barrier to keep out her would-be rescuers. It sounded like things were getting a little chaotic, so yeah, maybe. Under normal circumstances, they'd surely find some way to handle an old rich bitch refusing to be evacuated from the station — but the whole reason for the evacuation was that these weren't normal circumstances, so maybe they'd just take the hint and bug off. Well, she wasn't going back down there, no way. Gravity would mean wheelchairs and motorized beds. Hmph! Take you to the potty, watch to make sure you didn't fall in.

No thank you. Lee intended to stay right where she was, in orbit. Hell, a hundred and six years ought to be enough for anyone. And riding down in a ball of fire, on a space station reentering the atmosphere — now that had style!

What could be more frustrating? You get all nerved up for a good pissing match, and then they stand you up. No busybodies insisting on saving your life, no fresh-faced young astronauts pleading ever-so-sincerely. So now the irony of biology took over: she was hungry, and her belly didn't care that it was all going to be over in a few days anyway. Her larder was empty, and it was time to go shopping.

She opened the door for the first time in two days, and launched herself down the corridor. The lights were on, but it looked like nobody else was home. Someone's ball-point pen was floating loose, and she reached out and grabbed it absentmindedly as she went by.

She came around the corner into the observation lounge. Drop-dead-gorgeous view of Earth. She wondered idly what continent her ashes would flutter down over. Turn another corner, and there was someone there, floating with his back to her. One of the other residents of the geriatric wing?

“Hello?”

No response, no movement. Was he asleep? She grabbed a railing and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Sir? Excuse me?”

He didn't answer, but her tap had started him rotating slowly. She retreated a short distance back along the railing to keep his feet from hitting her, and then his face slowly rotated into view, upside-down from her perspective. Dead. She remembered his face. Larry? Carey? Didn't have all his marbles left, but he'd been a nice enough guy. He'd been a diabetic, and both those feet were prostheses. He'd probably been left behind, and died because he didn't get his medication.

It didn't paint a pretty picture, did it? Not enough lifeboats on the Titanic. Women, children, and scoundrels first. With hindsight, it wasn't so surprising that the evacuation had been a mess. First Brazil had canceled their lunar program, and all those handsome Brazilian boys had gone home. After that, SkyLife's bottom line had sunk into the red, and this silly asteroid scare had been the last straw. Their shares were trading almost in the penny stock range these days — she'd picked some up herself when the price had first dipped below two bucks — and with their market capitalization that low, it meant that their investors had written off the station itself as a complete loss. You couldn't even salvage the office furniture out of a bankrupt orbital business. She'd been naive to think they'd try so hard to make her leave. If they couldn't afford the boosts to keep their main asset out of the stratosphere, then it shouldn't have been a surprise that they'd cut corners on the evacuation.

She went through his pockets and fished out his wallet: Carey Guelich. She should call his family and let them know. It seemed wrong to leave him floating out here in the corridor. She found his apartment number on his ID, towed him down the hall to it, and used his thumbprint to open the door and deposit him inside. Poor guy. Even on a good day, he hadn't always seemed too sure of what was going on. He'd probably been scared and confused when he died. She felt a twinge of guilt for huddling in her room, thinking only of herself while he'd been out there dying.

She went on to the station's little overpriced grocery store. Its storefront was closed and locked. Well, that figured. The glass looked pretty flimsy, though — everybody used lightweight construction materials up here. She went back to her apartment, got her biggest barbell (four kilograms worth of inertia), and returned to the store. She flung it at the glass, and it shattered with a satisfying crash. All those boring sessions of waving the weights around had come in handy after all. An alarm went off, but at least it was safety glass, so not much was left floating around. The cleaning bots would get it.

She found herself a bag of pre-sliced bagels and a tub of cream cheese, and spread the cream cheese onto a slice with a finger. She'd paid an obscene amount of money for dental work last year, booking an appointment every time the dentist came up from the surface. Objectively, it was a sorry waste of money, but she was still glad to have a working set of choppers today, especially because the bagel was a little stale. Come to think of it, if she only had a few days left to live, maybe she should take the opportunity to eat some of the foods the dentist had warned her away from. Hadn't she seen some beef jerky by the register?

The alarm was still sounding. She set herself gliding up the aisle toward the checkout counter, and was confronted by a metal spider the size of a small dog, crouching on a rack of potato chips. She grabbed a rail and brought herself to a panicky stop, sending a bunch of plastic beer bulbs flying out of their holders.

“Ms. Lewicki?”

It was a human voice, coming from the spider. She realized how foolish she'd been. It was just a waldo, probably controlled by someone down on the surface. Two of its legs were actually short little arms, with manlike hands on the ends.

“Yes?” She tried to regain her dignity, realizing how she must look. She stuck her hand into the pocket of her robe, and furtively tried to wipe the cream cheese off of her finger.

“I'm glad we found you. Please don't be alarmed.” It turned around so that it was right-side up from her point of view.

“Who are you?”

“Joao Linhares. I'm in Sao Paulo.”

“Joao?” She recalled a dark brown kid with the muscles of a dancer. “We met, didn't we?”

“Yes, you bought me a drink, if I recall correctly.”

“So now they've got you doing waldo work?”

“Yes. With the cancellation of the moon program . . .” The spider turned its palms up, and managed to suggest a Latin-style shrug, despite its lack of shoulders. He even made the binocular cameras rise a little to suggest raising his eyebrows.

“Yeah, that was a shame. You know, I saw the first moon landing in 1969. They let us out of Sunday school, and I stayed glued to the tube all day. It was amazing what they could do back then, with just chemical rockets.” She realized she was babbling to cover up her embarrassment. “You must think I'm pretty stupid.”

“I cannot imagine why you say that, Lee. But perhaps we can go somewhere more commodious to talk.”

It seemed like yesterday that she had floated here in the big, fancy Stardust Lounge with Joao. It was surprisingly easy to forget that the waldo wasn't really him.

“Is anybody else listening in on this channel?” Lee asked.

“I am afraid yes, but it is not public. Only the other people working directly on the mission can hear, plus my boss, her boss, the boss of her boss, and so on.”

“Well, that's all right. What exactly is your mission?”

“Indirectly, it may be to save your life, but I regret to say that that may still be impossible, and it is not the most important part of the mission. This waldo did not come in a crewed vehicle, and we do not have one that can be launched very soon.”

“That's okay. I didn't miss the evacuation by accident, Joao. I have Guillain-Barre syndrome — you know, like Roosevelt. My legs work, but not well enough to walk. Down on the surface, my quality of life wouldn't be much to speak of. I was lucky to be able to afford to live up here, but everybody has to die someday. I made the decision to die on reentry, instead of lying in a hospital bed, waiting to catch pneumonia. I'm actually glad they didn't send you back here just for my sake, but then why did they?”

“You know about the Meyer-Iwakura object?”

“The asteroid? It's supposed to miss Earth, right?”

“It is not an asteroid. It is an alien spacecraft.”

“You're kidding.”

“No. We think it must be uncrewed. The acceleration is very high, and also it is emitting a great quantity of radiation, so probably nothing could stay alive inside it. It is like a car's engine, you know — there is waste heat, and it must get rid of it by radiating.”

“Fantastic! Too bad I'm not going to live long enough to see what happens when it lands.”

“Probably it can't land. Its trajectory is a very exact mathematical shape, and when we extrapolate, it makes a flyby. There has been much worry about the gamma radiation. It emits seventy terawatts of gammas, and if the flyby is close enough, that can have bad effects. Indonesia and Malaysia will be near its point of closest approach, and there have been riots in Jakarta. The radio emissions are also very strong, and already it is making interference. The first job I had to do here at the station was to install a laser link.”

“So what does all this have to do with me, or the station?”

“As it is getting closer, we are collecting more and more precise tracking data. If it continues the same mathematical pattern, it will match orbits exactly with this station.”

“Jesus.”

“Yes.” The spider crossed itself.

“When does it get here?”

“That is the problem. It gets here in three days, and unless we can do something, the station will have reentered before then.”

“That's a hell of a note. Quite a coincidence, that they're catching the human race with our pants down like this.” She thought of the image she must have presented to the Brazilians, back there in the grocery store.

“It is not completely a coincidence. There was an attempt to keep the trajectory data secret, but the astronomers, they do not like to be censored. A few weeks ago, the error bars became small enough that they could see the probe will be coming somewhat close to the station. SkyLife's stock went down very rapidly,” — the spider made a diving motion with one hand — “and their creditors became worried about 'preserving assets and minimizing liability.' ”

“And now it turns out the station was exactly where the bug-eyed monsters were planning to pull over and take a snapshot.”

“Yes.”

“Can we, uh, ask them to change their itinerary a little?”

“We have tried to send them messages by radio, but we don't hope very much for it to work. Their receiver would be surrounded by their own radio noise. It is like trying to talk to someone on the telephone while a nuclear bomb is exploding in his living room.”

“So what's your plan?”

“The station's solar panels are like sails that catch the wind. If we can detach them, the station can stay up for longer. With only one person inside, life support can run from the fuel cells.”

“You said 'we?' ”

“Yes. This waldo is made for working on small communications satellites, and the satellites are made so they can be worked on by such a waldo. This station was not designed that way. We have attempted to plan a disassembly using only the waldo, and it cannot be done.”

“You need another pair of hands, and I'm it.”

“If you are willing.” The Latin shrug again.

“Of course I'm willing. Able is a different matter. I've never been in a spacesuit, and I'm not that strong, even in my upper body. I do all my exercises, and the zero-g drugs these days are wonderful, but I'm just not as fit as I was in my nineties. Do you realistically think I could do it?”

“Our engineers have made a procedure that we think can work.”

She'd always enjoyed socializing with the professional astronauts (especially the Brazilians, who didn't seem as uncomfortable around old people), so she'd already picked up some idea of the mechanics of an EVA: the diaper, the prebreathing, the checklist as long as your arm. They didn't try to make her memorize the whole plan for detaching the panels, or even learn how to maneuver. Basically the spider would drive her to various places outside the hull, set her down on her magnetic boots, tether her to a safety hook, and then she'd pull a lever, remove an access plate, or whatever was required of her.

It went well at first. She could tell they were afraid she'd wig out with agoraphobia, or puke in her helmet or something, but after all, she'd been living in space for over a decade. It wasn't really so different from skygazing in the lounge, except that the suit was uncomfortable, and the fans were noisy. They said the alien probe was a naked-eye object now, if you knew where to look, but she'd told Joao not to bother trying to point it out to her. Her vision was the best that money could buy, but there was a limit to what medical technology could do for a centenarian.

What she hadn't anticipated was how hard it would be to bend her arms in a spacesuit. The astronauts had told her how much better the suits were these days, with improved constant-volume joints and all, but “better” was a relative term, and those young men all had bodies like Greek gods. The jobs they needed Lee for were all the ones that required arms with a longer reach than the spider's, and she found herself in some damned awkward positions. She kept trying to reassure Joao that she was okay, but they could monitor her pulse and breathing through the suit, so she couldn't hide how tough it was physically. The hardest part was that she kept getting out of breath. The pressure had to be low to allow the suit to remain as flexible as possible, but that meant she always felt like she was climbing Mount Everest. At least she had plenty of time to rest while the spider did the steps she wasn't needed for.

There were three of the solar arrays, two small ones and one big one. The two small ones went, and she shared a high-five with Joao. It was when they got to the final, big one that she ran into problems. She had to lift off an access plate, and the damn thing was in the most awkward possible location: in a cavity set into the hull, surrounded by radio doodads. She just wasn't flexible enough to thread her body into the cramped space, especially with the suit so rigid.

Joao told her to take a break and drink some water while he removed the radio equipment. She shook her head to get the sweat out of her eyes. When he'd sent the last piece flying away, he came over and hovered in front of her faceplate.

“How you feel now, Lee?”

“Ready to wrestle alligators.”

“This step is still difficult, maybe. Sao Paulo wants you to rest for another thirty minutes before you try again.” She had to admit to herself that that sounded like a good idea. “You drinking plenty of water?”

“Yeah.”

“You want some music?”

Lee had always detested elevator music, but Joao was trying to be nice, and maybe it would help her to relax while she waited. “Does Sao Paulo have any samba music they can pipe in?”

“They should, or it's a bad hurt to the national honor.”

Joao was a sweet kid. A minute later, a bouncy tune came through the speaker in her helmet. She looked out over the vast panorama of Earth, filling half the sky. It didn't look any closer than it ever had been, but she knew it was. All around them, the wisps of the atmosphere would be tugging on the station, trying to bring it down.

Finally it was time to try again. The access cover had handles a meter and a half apart, just a little more than the spider's arms could reach, and now she just had to wedge herself into the cavity, crouch down, grab the handles, and lift. She tried, and still couldn't fold herself into the tight space. The stiff, inflated suit was fighting her every inch of the way.

“It's okay, Lee. We know it's hard.”

“Dammit Joao, I'm trying. It's this lousy suit that's killing me. I feel like I'm trying to fight my way out of a sausage skin.”

“Sorry.”

“I shouldn't have snapped at you. It's just frustrating.”

“I know.”

“Can't we let off a little of the pressure?” Lee asked. “I bet I could do it if my suit wasn't inflated quite so much.”

“You need the air for breathing.”

“I'll take deep breaths. There's got to be some safety margin built in, right?”

“Let me check with the flight medic.” There was a long silence. “Okay, I have clearance to cut the pressure from point three of an atmosphere to point two two. It will take twenty minutes. If you're ready, I can start the venting.”

“Go ahead.”

The spider's hands did things to her chestplate, and then she waited.

“Okay,” said Joao after a while, “let's see how good your brain is working with less oxygen. Who's president of the United States?”

“Paulette Lufting.”

“Vice president?”

“Hell, I don't know. I don't keep up with surface politics. The last election with a candidate I liked was in 1964.”

“You said they excused you from Sunday school in 1969.”

“I didn't say I actually voted for Goldwater.”

“What's eighteen times three?”

“I didn't bring my slide rule. Tell the doctor I'm fine, Joao.” She'd acquired a pounding headache, but she wasn't about to tell them that.

“Please, Lee. They were very worried about the low pressure idea.”

“Okay, eighteen times three, you said?”

“Yes.”

“Fifty-four.”

“That's good. You want to try now?”

She could tell that the suit flexed more easily now. She got her fingertips behind her knees, and tried to pull them up close to her chest. “Can you maneuver me in there once I'm bent tight enough?”

“Yes. Can you bend a little more?”

She took three deep breaths, blew out hard, and pulled on her knees as hard as she could.

When she regained consciousness, she was in the airlock, with her helmet off.

“Lee?” The spider was peering at her anxiously.

“I blew it.”

“You tried hard.”

“Trying's not good enough, dammit!” She couldn't tell if the sting in her eyes was tears, or sweat.

“I have some good news, though. The probe seems to be operating its drive in a different mode now, with a lower exhaust velocity. Same flyby trajectory, but it doesn't emit the gammas.”

“I guess that's good news for Indonesia. Lot of people there won't get nuked, huh?”

“Not just them. The original gamma flux would have been enough to kill you when the probe came close to the station. It seems that the probe can adapt to circumstances. Perhaps its builders are a compassionate race.”

“If we don't finish the job with the solar panels, the aliens' bleeding hearts won't make any difference. The station will already be gone by then.”

“Maybe not. Remember, we got two panels off. The engineers think the station will still be in orbit when the probe flies past.”

“Really? We did it?” She pounded a gloved fist into a gloved hand.

“But I'm sorry, it still doesn't look like it will stay up long enough for a launch to get here and do a boost. They are trying hard, but honestly, I don't think they will be in time. Already SkyLife was decommissioning the launch vehicles. They had to ship in more uranium, and the bearings seized up when they started the engine for a test burn. I'm sorry, but I think after the probe is gone, the station will reenter. You have been a brave comrade, Lee.” The spider patted the shoulder of her suit.

“I'm a hundred and six, Joao. Don't worry about me.” But somehow she wasn't feeling quite that philosophical about it. “Can't we rig up something else to get that access plate off? Maybe a rope and a pulley or something?”

“Time is running out. You're back up to cabin pressure again, and another prebreathing would take a long time. Changing the station's trajectory makes much more difference if you do it earlier, less if you do it later. And that access plate wasn't the hardest part of the job.”

“Oh. Well that's okay, then. I'm a big girl.” She tried to smile. She'd accomplished something important — more important than anything else in her life, that was for sure. The station would survive until after the probe's flyby. The aliens wouldn't see the human race act like a bunch of monkeys who climbed a tree, jumped off in an attempt to fly, and landed face-down in the dirt. That counted for something, and she should be proud that she'd done so much, so close to the finish line of her life. Should be, should be. So why wasn't she satisfied?

When it was time for the probe to swoop in, they went to the Stardust Lounge and watched through the big glass dome, which faced away from the Earth. Joao probably could have had a better view from outside the hull, but he parked the spider next to her and kept her company. Lee had taken a bath and washed her hair, and was wearing her best suit.

She didn't need a young woman's eyesight to see the probe now. Even with its engines cooled down, and still four hundred kilometers out, it was bright enough to cast shadows across the lounge. She had to remind herself that Joao was only seeing those shadows on a TV screen, just as she'd seen the moon landing on that Sunday in 1969. She remembered being back in Sunday school the following week, how different it had seemed. Prissy old Miss Wendy had talked about Heaven, but for Lee, sitting at a too-small desk in the Fresno heat, it felt like she had come back to Earth. She had sat there with half-formed questions bubbling through her mind, questions that she knew better than to ask out loud.

“Two hundred kilometers,” said Joao. There were some questions that only seemed important when you were either very young or very old. She knew now why she wasn't satisfied with what she'd accomplished here. It was because the probe might have some answers to those barely remembered questions from a century ago. Other people might get answers, but she wouldn't.

“Thirty kilometers,” said the spider. The probe's flame was still brightening. She could feel its heat on her skin. The whole planet must be watching the video feed, but she was the only human who'd ever feel that heat.

Brighter and hotter still. Her heart beat faster. “Can you see anything through the glare?” she asked. “I think I see something.”

“A triangle?”

“Yeah.”

“Ten kilometers.”

She reached over and took the spider's cold metal hand in hers. Joao squeezed gently. The light from the probe dimmed suddenly, and the metallic triangular shape kept growing. It came in, impossibly fast and impossibly big, and then they were seeing it from the side. It came to rest, and filled their entire field of view, a vast wall of silver.

The spider crossed itself with its free hand. “Sao Paulo wants to know if you have anything to say to the world.” Damn, she should have prepared something. One small step? She looked down at her flaccid legs and smiled at the irony.

She was still searching for words when she noticed that she was falling slowly away from the glass dome, toward the back corner of the lounge. No, it wasn't that she was falling, it was that the station was rising up under her. She heard the structure groan under the strain of the acceleration. It wasn't much acceleration, and when she hit the wall, it wasn't enough of an impact to break even her aged bones.

She finally found the right words. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“The probe is pulling the station up into a higher orbit.” It sounded like Joao was yelling into his mic.

“I know.” She watched while the ship, implacable but seemingly compassionate, kept lifting the station — by what method, she had no idea. Joao piped through the channel from the control room in Sao Paulo, and translated for her now and then. They were chattering excitedly about a stream of information being beamed from the probe to the station. There would be answers in that radio squeal, at least some kind of answers, maybe to questions she'd never even thought of. Finally she felt the wall stop pressing against her, and when she looked out at the dome again, the probe was a dwindling candle in the sky.