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Horseplay

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.
Jaro only just joined external maintenance, but I can already tell he’s a cocky little shit. Walks around talking about all the sim time he’s done, like that makes him ready for real hullwork, and then this thing with the helmet?
We’re not supposed to have favorites when it comes to the hullsuits, not supposed to mod them or personalize them at all. It’s one of those rules a lot of people bend eventually, but Jaro comes in on his first fucking day, finds this helmet that’s big on most of us but fits his ugly lump, and sticks a little decal on it.
So when we’re gearing up I ask him about it, real friendly-like, like that a cockroach, then?
And he acts all affronted, like no, of course not, it’s a horse.
I never did learn my animals growing up, all the running swimming flying things most little kids think are so fun to look at. Never seemed worth it, to me, since the only animal on the ship is us. Genebanks aside.
The only people who fantasize about animals are the people who fantasize about Planetfall, so I ask him, like you one of those Miscalculation truthers?
Pops up now and again, these idiots who think we’re way farther along course than the instruments say, think we’re ten years off instead of a hundred.
Jaro doesn’t give me a straight answer, just goes all blushy and sputtery, which means he’s a Miscalculation truther and I like him even less.
So after he huffs off, I grab his helmet.
When I go see Chlora in her cabin she’s already two lungs deep in her hash ration and possibly another person’s, but I’m not worried. This is the kind of hack she can do in her sleep.
I tell her I got a little experiment in mind, a little test to see if Jaro’s really got the guts for hullwork. Nothing dangerous, just a goof.
She blinks at me, then she’s like what’s the game.
And I show her the helmet, tell her how Jaro’s already got his favorite and it would be a real shame if something happened to it.
She’s like, costs your ration.
And I’m like, all yours, love.
So she goes into the helmet HUD and loads the little animation I found, rigs it to play two minutes after seal confirmation.
I test it out myself. It’s good. Eerie, even indoors, enough so I feel bad for a second. But it’s the same kind of goof that gets done to everyone, same kind of goof I did to Chlora back in the day when she was new crew.
And if he shits himself, the hullsuit can handle it.
I swap shifts with Donner so I can be out there with Jaro on his first hullwalk, and a few people already know the game so there’s a lot of winking and grinning. Even Chlora’s doing her sleepy smile as she helps me gear up.
Jaro’s ready to go, cool as a comet, saying stuff like the airlock’s much cleaner in the sims and we don’t need this many people to gear us up.
He finally shuts it once we’re out on the hull, which is nice. I think it should shut you up, being on the hull, realizing we’re this tiny solar-sailed speck of metal sliding through the Big Black, and it’s nonsense to think we’re important at all, nevermind important enough to be the ones who see Planetfall.
I say this way, horse head, and I lead him along the tether to the spar we’re retrofitting, the one the drones kept screwing up on.
We’re just setting to work when Jaro’s voice pitches up an octave, like man, I think I’ve got a helmet problem.
And I’m like, share the HUD.
He shares HUD, and in the corner of my faceplate I see what he sees. And what he sees is a crack, worming slowly out from the edge of his helmet. It suddenly starts to race, suddenly splits into two cracks, and across from me Jaro jumps.
Oh, fuck, he says, doing the next octave now, oh, fuck, I have to get back to the airlock!
I’m like, is that procedure? I can’t remember the sim for this.
He starts wailing, stomping back for the airlock as fast as he can go. I bust my guts laughing, but I’m not heartless. I’m about to reel him in, tell him it’s just a goof, when his cable-lock snaps open and he loses contact with the hull.
They drill it into you every day: one magnetic boot on the hull at all times. All times. But Jaro was running, and he idiotically forgot to do up his cable-lock, and before I can get to him he’s spinning off into the Big Black.
Jaro’s screaming, I’m screaming, everyone’s screaming--the rest of the crew tapped into our HUD feeds to watch Jaro fertilize his hullsuit, but instead they’re watching him float off to die. I start shouting at them to launch the rescue drone, and they’re so delirious they start fucking laughing at me, and Jaro starts laughing, too.
Oh. Wait.
My HUD flickers, and I see Jaro go flying into space all over again, except this time I notice he’s a ragdoll pulled right from the training sims. I hit the reboot. The real Jaro is crouched down on the hull, cable-lock intact, giggling himself sick because he’s in on the goof.
My heart finally slows down, and I didn’t fertilize my suit but it was a near thing. I can picture Chlora helping me gear up in the airlock, smiling around her vapor pipe.
I don’t put no fucking decals on it, but yeah. We all got a favorite helmet.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 12th, 2021
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