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THE LONG WALK AFT
By Gareth L Powell
It was Kurt’s turn on watch. They were a year out from Earth, forty years from their destination, and it was his turn to be awake.
At first, he enjoyed the solitude. Everyone else was asleep in their pods and he had the ship’s echoing corridors to himself. But before long, he grew restless. His duties mainly consisted of checking dials and monitoring the ship’s housekeeping systems. As the days began to drag, he started looking forward to the time – six months hence – that he would return to stasis, letting someone else take their turn.
The only thing that relieved the boredom for him was eating. The automatic kitchen could synthesise an impressive range of dishes and delicacies – some familiar, some new and exotic. Each evening he would sit in the mess hall, mouth watering with anticipation, as he waited for his order to appear.
He sampled curries and salads, stews, sandwiches and steaks. Each night he tried something new. Until five weeks into his stint, the kitchen stopped delivering.
Perplexed, he consulted the housekeeping program, only to find that the recycling loop had become contaminated – that there were toxins in the biomass the kitchen used to synthesise food.
Without food, he wouldn’t last more than a few days. He would have to purge the system and replace the biomass. But where would he get the material to replace it? His bodily wastes could be recycled, but they alone weren’t enough to sustain the system. At the very least, he needed a dozen kilograms of organic matter.
He started by collecting together all the leather and cotton he could find, rifling through the clothes stored in the cargo hold. But he was still woefully short of the weight he needed.
He found a couple of wooden bangles; they went into the recycler. There were some books in the captain’s cabin, and they went in. But he still didn’t have enough.
In desperation, he roamed the ship, eventually ending up in the medical centre. There were some cotton sheets in here that he could use, and he bundled them together, ready to lug back to the recycler. But as he did so, his eye fell on a case of surgical instruments, and a nasty thought entered his head.
He put down the sheets and looked at his left arm. Then he walked over and opened the case, picking out an electric saw. He could cut his arm off just below the shoulder and feed it into the recycler. More would be better, but maybe this sacrifice would suffice. Maybe it would be enough to get the system working again.
He started searching around for anaesthetic, but already knew he couldn’t go through with his plan. He was responsible for the safety of the ship. How could he perform his duties with one arm? How could he respond to an emergency if one arose? If he cut his arm off, he’d be jeopardising the well-being of the crew.
He put the saw down. He would have to find another alternative.
But thinking of the crew – all two hundred of them, frozen in their pods in the aft storage section – had already given him another idea.
No, he thought. I can’t do that.
But the more he considered it, the more logical and inevitable it became.
So he picked up the saw and revved it. Then he stepped out into the corridor, and with a rumbling stomach and shaking hands, began the long walk aft to where his crewmates slept.