Short story by Iris Carden
The artificial gravity is out again.
“Artificial gravity” is a fancy name for an electromagnetic floor working on metal inserts in shoes and clothes. Whenever the ship needs more power for something else, the gravity goes out.
Something must be going on in the cockpit, or engineering or wherever power gets drained. Whatever it is, it’s not going to have any impact in Medical, except, of course, for the gravity.
Mary uses the grab rails to direct herself as she floats her way back to her desk at the nurse’s station. Weightlessness; yet another thing to hate about being in space. It’s not just the inconvenience, without gravity, people lose bone density. Mary worries that the whole crew will have osteoporosis before returning to Earth. She imagines Medical being full of crew members with broken bones.
“Why don’t they just redirect power from life support, and put us all out of our misery?” she mutters.
On her desk, stuck in place with blu tack so it won’t become airborne is a silver-framed photo of her mother. Mary keeps it here to remind her why she is doing this. Her mother’s medical treatment is expensive, so expensive that this really is the only nursing job available that will allow Mary to pay for it.
She straps herself into her seat at the desk.
A message on her computer screen tells her an email is coming from Earth. To get here, it’s bounced from satellite to satellite, for so long that it’s probably a month old. Five minutes until it finishes downloading. Will it be from her mother or her sister? Perhaps from her niece, that cute little baby she cuddled before launch, who is now starting university.
The light for bed four comes on. Mary undoes her seatbelt, and launches herself towards bed four, catching grab rails to redirect her course.
“Sorry,” says her patient. “I was doing my exercises, and dropped the resistance band.” The band’s floating about a metre away from the bed. Mary retrieves it.
“While I’m here, let me see you do a couple of reps,” Mary says.
The patient demonstrates the exercise, and Mary corrects his technique. “It’s important,” she says, “because you need to keep up muscle strength and bone density while you’re stuck in bed. You lose one percent bone density per month in space, if you don’t keep up your exercise, or have gravity on, and we hardly ever have gravity on.”
“If the gravity hadn’t been on when I fell, I wouldn’t have got hurt,” the patient says. “What was that? A one in a thousand chance?”
Mary laughs, “Something like that. I think artificial gravity was a con, something to make us think it was OK to sign on, but was never intended for actual use.”
“We’re the pioneers,” the patient said. “Those satellites we’re dropping out of Payload as we go, are going to make life easier for future ships travelling this way, as well as for the mining camp. Maybe engineering will get the kinks out of artificial gravity as well.”
“Maybe. I hope they sort it out in time to benefit us. We’ve got twenty more years before we get home.”
“At least we get to go home. The miners we’re leaving on planet next year, won’t ever get back to Earth.”
Thinking of the miners, and why anyone would sign up for that job, Mary returns to her desk, to the photo of her mother, and the email which has arrived in her absence.
It’s from the institution where her mother is living and having treatment. “Why would Mum use their email instead of her own account?” Mary wonders, as she clicks “open email.”
She reads: “We regret to inform you that your mother has passed away.”
With tears starting to form globules at the corners of her eyes, Mary looks at her mother’s picture. The funeral will have already happened. She feels further from home than she has at any other time in her journey. For the next twenty years, she will be stuck in this giant aluminium can for no reason at all.