The compression suit itches, but I can’t take it off to scratch. We wear them to keep our guts inside our bodies while the pressure changes. In training, many years ago, a sleep-deprived trainee hadn’t fastened hers properly and I’d seen her throat turn inside out and flow out of her mouth, filling her helmet with this pink and purple sausage. That pressure test had been scheduled for three hours, so a dozen of us got to share the chamber with the grimmest lesson we’d ever have to learn about spacefaring.

I’m looking out the viewport and trying to catch a glimmer of the wreck we’re approaching. The light angles are all wrong, though, and the hulk is drifting in the shadow of one of the giant asteroids hanging in the void around our ship. Carl has triple confirmed the readings on the sensors and has assured all of us that we’re heading in the right direction. You can’t ever trust the sensors, though. At least, not the ones we could afford.

Salvage has been paying my bills for almost twenty cycles now, but experience doesn’t really count for much in this field. You know all you need to know after a three-month course, and provided you keep your compression suit properly zipped up you’re as good at graduation as any veteran. The time you spend on the job then became a counter for how long you’ve managed to go without killing yourself or being killed. It’s horrible work, months at space in cramped quarters with garbage air and garbage food and garbage people to talk to, most of them either foolishly enamored with the siren call of the vacuum or on the run from something they’d done. Which am I? I suppose I had started out as mostly column A but after so many years of living the life I sit squarely in the ‘escaping’ category.

The airlock intercom snaps, followed by the usual squeal of feedback as Carl adjusts his microphone. “Turning on the floods now. You should be able to see something off the port bow.”

A mechanical thump pounds through the bulkhead and soft vibrations starts pulsing through my helmet. You’d might think that fuel and maintenance, aside from the labor, would be the big costs in operations like this, but you’d be wrong. It’s these moments when we have to use our precious batteries to see into the inky blackness of the vacuum, powering the massive lamps needed to penetrate the eternal night. They’re so blindingly bright that you can’t look straight at them without heavy polarized visors. Get too close to the light arrays during a spacewalk and you can cook inside your suit in seconds. No one ever says that a salvager’s life is one of safety, and the longer I’m at it the more I’m convinced that it’s the constant threat of a quick death that brings most of the crew back for another run.

I can tell the lights are on because their glow suffuses the dust and oil on the viewport. The vacuum outside the ship is clean, though, so the lamps draw no beams. Sometimes you pass through dirty patches of space where the airless void is choked with grit, and you get some really angelic looking rays, but not today. I see something change in the darkness ahead as a leviathan form starts to resolve and take shape, its metal panels catching the light.

Someone whistles behind me, and I notice the massive hole in the side of the ship. Even from our current distance to the hulk it’s clear that whatever broke it did so with great violence.

“It looks like it came from the inside,” someone says. I check again and indeed it does. The cladding of the hull is clearly bent outward, great peels of metal curled tight against the hull like the petals of a dried flower.

“Maybe an engine failure. Or a magazine rupture,” I speculate. I get a bad feeling, something I haven’t had in ages, not since that mess over Arcataur III. Something’s just walked over my grave and I have to take a few deep breaths to shake the sensation. It doesn’t fully leave, though, and I want to be anywhere else but here.

“You’ll have twenty minutes, people,” Carl says. “You know the drill: electronics, mechanicals, and preserved biologicals in that order. Good hunting.” The speaker snaps as he closes the mic and the light inside the airlock dims into nothingness. Four yellow caution lights spin up, one at each corner of the outside door, and there’s an impossibly loud hiss as it starts to iris open. There’s always a slight difference in pressure, again mostly due to the quality of the equipment, and I feel an inexorable pull. Then the door is fully open and we’re staring right into the hungering maw of the vacuum.

My suit still itches as I thumb the controls on my jetpack and push out into space towards the waiting hulk.

2014.10.19 – 2023.06.10

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