Everything is broken. The screen that takes up one entire wall of the play area is broken, cracked from corner to corner. There’s nothing usable in the games and toys cupboard, which is piled high with neatly stacked boxes full of mismatched parts and flat batteries. The few handhelds that work at all are agonizingly slow and manage to connect to the wifi for five minutes out of every hour.
The play area is boring, but at least it’s colorful. Abigail and the others come here for a couple of hours every day just to spend some time away from the washed-out greys and greens of the main ward. Low-technology entertainments help ease the boredom a little. Lei and Simon have a set of playing cards scavenged from the remains of at least three different decks. The Kid has his drawing pad and Lynn sits with a beaten-up old paperback. Sometimes Abigail reads too, but today she just wants to daydream by the window, looking down at the street through the gap between buildings or up at the lid over the station.
“I feel sick,” the Kid says, suddenly.
“You always feel sick,” Abigail says. The Kid is a strange color, but then his color is always a little strange. Abigail has not had a lot of practice looking at sickly white people, so she can’t tell if it’s currently worse than usual.
“No, I mean really sick,” the Kid says and then smoothly vomits a puddle of puke onto the floor between his feet. The other kids jump back, making various yuck sounds, and Abigail starts looking around for a nurse, but the Kid is not done. He’s stumbling around the play area with the spew coming out of his mouth in steady waves, seeping down his pajama front and splattering across the books and toys. Lei and Simon’s abandoned playing cards are quickly glued together in a chunky heap. Everything in this room has been made to be as wipe-clean as humanly possible, but even the highest quality molded plastic fittings and heat-sealed laminates can’t hold out against this tidal onslaught of regurgitation.
The Kid keeps barfing until one of the nurses comes over, yanks his central line out from under his pajama top and pushes the contents of a syringe down it. By this time he’s gone a color so strange even Abigail can see it doesn’t look right, a sort of fluorescent green. The drugs start working straight away though, and within moments the Kid’s stomach has stopped emptying itself through his mouth and his complexion is starting to go back to whatever its usual shade is.
An attendant comes with a wipe-cloth to take care of the mess. But when he sees the full extent of the Kid’s spectacular ralph—with splatter down the back of the wall heaters, books gummed shut, and solid food wedged into the gaps in the colorful plastic chairs—he throws them all out of the play area and declares it closed until it can be deep-cleaned.
“When will that be?” Abigail asks and he tells her he doesn’t know, that the station is short-staffed this week because of the meteor alert.
And so saying, he pulls down the quarantine shutters and seals off the play area from the rest of the ward.
Abigail likes spending time in the play area, even though being in there attracts attention to her and that usually makes bad things happen. Yesterday a nurse noticed her and took her away to draw blood, then a doctor noticed her and took her away to give her a shot, then another nurse noticed her and took her away to draw more blood. Abigail told the nurse she had given already, pulled up her sleeve and showed the fresh round Band-Aid in the crook of her elbow, but adults don’t like little girls telling them what to do, so the nurse put another needle in her vein and took more anyway.
Even the short amount of time she spent in the play area today pre-puke must have been enough for someone to notice her because there’s an orderly by her bed with a wheelchair, waiting to take her away.
The orderly is talking to someone, and when Abigail gets closer she realizes it’s her mother. It’s the afternoon, so she would normally be at work. Abigail is delighted to see her for about half a second, before she remembers to be suspicious.
“Mom, why are you here?” she says, warily.
Her mother takes her hand. “Honey, we need to go next door. It’s time for your treatment.”
“No,” Abigail says. “No, I don’t want a treatment. I had one a couple of days ago. I don’t need another one.”
“The doctors say you do,” her mother says. Abigail notices that a doctor and a nurse are hovering nearby.
“It’s horrible!” she shouts. “I don’t want it! I won’t let you!”
“You’ve done very well so far with the treatments,” says her mother, who is being very calm. “But you need to have the rest so you’ll get better. There are only a few more left.”
“I don’t need any more. I feel fine,” Abigail says.
“I know you do honey, because the treatments are working. But you remember how you were when we brought you here.” Her mother sits there holding Abigail’s hand while she screams and cries, but because Abigail does remember the time a few weeks before when she nearly died, she eventually lets them put her in the chair and wheel her down the hall to the elevator.
The elevator is opposite the nurse’s station. You have to turn a key in a lock to go to the roof, which is the easiest way to get to the building next door. Abigail, her mother, and the orderly get in the elevator, but then there’s a pause. They’re not going anywhere. Abigail’s throat is sore from crying and she doesn’t want to ask what’s going on, but she hears the orderly patting his pockets. He can’t find his keys. He hesitates, maybe thinking about going back to find them, but instead when he thinks she isn’t looking he takes a coin out of his pocket and uses that to turn the lock.
Orderlies don’t like to waste any time. The instant the elevator doors open he’s pushing the wheelchair into the covered metal walkway that links the two buildings’ roofs together. Between the elevator and the walkway there’s an instant when Abigail gets a glimpse of the open roof and the view over the station. She twists in her seat, trying to see more, and says, “Can I take a look at the roof, please, just for a second?”
“Sorry,” the orderly says, and keeps pushing. Her mother says something about how it’s dangerous to be out on the roof just now and maybe there’s somewhere else they can go later.
Abigail always wants to spend time in open spaces. Her favorite photograph is from when she was too young to remember. It was taken just after she was born, a little while before they came to live here on the station. Her parents are in the garden at her grandmother’s house. She’s in her mother’s arms. There are trees and soil, clouds in the sky and mountains in the background, and a hint of blue from the ocean.
She used to pester her parents constantly with questions about living on a planet. How did it feel to live in a place with a horizon, and seasons, and wind? How did the air smell in the morning, and after the sun had gone down? And whenever she could she got them to take her to the station park, the reservoir, the butterfly garden. Anywhere with open space or water or plants.
Then she had to come here to the hospital, and spend months trapped in well-scrubbed little rooms with polished floors, breathing ultrafiltered low-particulate air until it made her want to scream. She had started to forget how it felt to dream of a bigger world.
But that was before this morning, when she learned how to get up to the roof, which is the biggest open space of all.
In the treatment room, the nurses do all sorts of things to try and distract her, but she ignores them all. She just wants to sit, red-eyed and miserable, and watch the bag of glowing yellow fluid. They hook it up to a vein in her arm and the bag shrivels as it slowly empties itself into her.
It’s as horrible as she remembers. She can feel the stuff crawling around under her skin. When the bag is empty the orderly takes Abigail back to bed and her mother kisses her goodbye and goes back to work. She spends a few hours just lying there, not eating or talking, staring at nothing. But by dinnertime she’s sitting up a little and paying attention to what’s going on again.
The Kid and his father are sitting in the corner sketching together, Lynn is lying on her bed inhaling medicine through a face mask, and Lei and Simon have assembled a new deck of cards as well as a table of random junk and are playing a game they insist is Tri-Dimensional Cribbage.
One of the Vampires is examining Lei’s arm, looking for a place to put a new IV. Everyone started calling these nurses Vampires because the first thing they do when they meet you is look at your veins, and also because the Kid can’t pronounce the word phlebotomist. Lei had a growth spurt last year that has left him incredibly clumsy, and he can’t seem to go a day without smacking his IV on something and knocking it loose. The nurses always think he’s on the verge of being discharged, so they keep putting these flimsy little IVs in his arms and the back of his hands, instead of something more long-term like the Kid’s central line. Lei’s arms are covered with poultices to soothe the places where old IVs got inflamed and had to be taken out.
The Vampire manages to find a vein for the new IV, puts it in and leaves, muttering darkly about needing to use a vein in Lei’s foot next time. Abigail thinks that would last about an hour and a half tops.
“You know what I’d do if I was in charge,” the Kid says. “Whenever there was a meteor alert I’d use the meteors to build stuff, instead of sending space ships to blow them up.” He has drawn a picture to illustrate this idea and he shows it to his father and the others. In the drawing, the station looks like a cake slice with ice cream scoops attached to the bottom, floating in space that’s full of rocks and angels. Some of the rocks are flying into the scoops, catcher’s mitt style.
The Kid’s father comes to visit every evening, without fail, when he gets done his shift at the station turbines. They always sit together like this, sketching or doing jigsaw puzzles, the Kid wizened and tiny in his pajamas and his father broad-shouldered, stocky and shiny bald in his overalls.
Abigail is thinking about living on a planet again, and after visiting hours are over she starts showing Lynn her favorite landscapes. Lynn has something like five younger brothers and carries around a permanent air of Sensible Older Sister. This really got on Abigail’s nerves until a couple of times when the facade cracked and Lynn just lost her shit and started screaming and shouting because of some totally minor inconvenience. After that she felt like she could relate more to Lynn as a person and they started being friends.
Lynn is a white girl with straight black hair usually tied back in a ponytail and whenever she’s on her feet she drags an IV stand around with her. She is also incredibly skinny and no matter what the doctors try, like sticking a feeding tube up her nose overnight, she never puts on any weight. Abigail, who has always been a short, thick girl, was a little envious until Lynn showed her how you have to suppress the gag reflex when the feeding tube goes down your throat. After that, Abigail stopped daydreaming about what it would be like to be that thin.
“When I get to a planet I’ll visit here,” Abigail says, showing Lynn a picture of a desert, “and here,” a snowy mountaintop, “but I’ll want to end up living here,” a house by the sea.
“I hated living on a planet,” Lynn says. “I never knew when there would be a smog alert, or the pollen count would suddenly shoot up, or there would be a heat wave, and I would get sick. It was horrible.”
“I think living on a station is horrible,” Abigail says. “The air smells the same every single day. It always smells of nothing. Everything is the same all the time. It’s so boring.”
“I like boring,” Lynn says. “Boring and predictable is good.”
Simon says, “I don’t think station life is predictable. It’s like we’re floating through space in a big glass soap bubble. What’s predictable about that?”
“I keep hearing the nurses talk about how this is the biggest meteor shower they’ve ever seen,” Lei says. “If one hits the station and smashes it to pieces, that won’t be very predictable.”
“Well, I’m not worried,” Lynn says. “I’ve never heard of that happening.”
“I bet they’d keep it quiet if it did happen,” the Kid says. “But I heard about a station where something hit the gravity controls and everyone was floating for a month.”
“See, I think floating would be much worse than pollen,” Abigail says.
“No, because pollen happened all the time and floating never has. But if it ever did happen it would probably make me feel pretty sick.”
“It would probably make me be pretty sick,” the Kid says.
“How would that be different from every other day?” Abigail asks.
“’Cause it would be zero-gravity puke,” the Kid says. “Floating everywhere!” He’s lurching around the room zombie-style making barf noises when one of the nurses comes in to turn out the lights and tell everyone to settle down.
After breakfast, Lei and Simon’s epic card game continues. Simon keeps pretending to forget which game they’re playing, shouting “Snap!” and “Gin rummy!” at inappropriate times. He’s obviously enjoying how much this annoys Lei, who starts shouting, “Why can’t you take it seriously?” But Abigail notices that he takes it seriously enough so it doesn’t start feeling like a waste of time, and Lei keeps playing.
All the same, the game is done before lunch. A group of nurses and orderlies descend on Simon’s bed and pack up his things so they can move him next door, to the adult hospital. They say it’s to make things easier for his medical team, so they don’t have to keep sending him over there. Simon complains, but it gets him nowhere. He’s gone within minutes.
There’s a big empty space where his bed and locker used to be. It hits Lei the hardest. “We all have to go next door sometimes,” he says to a nurse. “How come they aren’t moving the rest of us over there too?”
“They probably will,” the nurse says. “They’re trying to find room over there for everyone so they can close this building until the alert is over.”
Lei cheers up a little when he hears that, and for a while he brightens whenever he sees any adult he doesn’t recognize walking up the hall, but it always just turns out to be some military person who is there because of the alert. By the next day he has settled into a semipermanent sulk. “I wonder what Simon’s doing now,” he says at lunch, chewing on a mouthful of hospital toast.
“You should write him a message,” Lynn says, not looking up from her book.
“I’ve been trying. I can’t think of anything to say. It’s not like anything ever happens here worth telling him about.”
“Just tell him you love him and you miss him!” Abigail says.
“Yeah, very good,” Lei says. “This is why it’s useless to ask for suggestions from girls.”
Abigail and Lynn exchange a look and shake their heads.
Lei’s mother comes to visit and soon she is also shaking her head. “I don’t like to see you this way,” she says. “Being in this hospital environment for so long is not having a good effect.”
“Mrs. Xiao, the hospital has a little garden we can go to with adult supervision,” Abigail says. “You could take us down there for a while if you think it would help.” The garden is nothing special, basically just a couple of flower planters and some park benches with memorial plaques, but at least it’s a change from the ward.
“Yes! Excellent idea,” Mrs. Xiao says. “We will go on an outing. Is everyone able to walk? Okay Lynn, I will get you a chair.”
The nurses don’t like the idea of patients leaving the ward during a staff shortage, but Mrs. Xiao is not interested. “Nonsense,” she says. “It is all very well to give these children medicine, but if you want them to be healthy you cannot neglect their happiness.” Mrs. Xiao is small and unassuming, but she runs a community center somewhere in the Amidships and she is used to getting things done. The nurses don’t know what hit them. A wheelchair is quickly found for Lynn.
As they’re leaving the ward a doctor comes to examine the Kid, so he has to stay behind, but Mrs. Xiao takes the others down to the garden. Almost. The entrance is closed and locked. “Please swipe your staff ID card to proceed,” the entry console says.
“We will find someone with a card,” Mrs. Xiao says, but there is no one. Even the shops and cafe are closed today.
“We just want to sit in the garden for a while and look at the flowers,” Abigail says to the console.
“Unfortunately, the garden is closed due to the meteor alert,” the console says. “Please return to your ward and watch one of the many excellent nature documentaries available on the view screen of your play area.”
Even Mrs. Xiao’s legendary powers of persuasion have no effect on a computer. They have no choice but to turn around and go back to the ward.
They get back just as all the nurses are leaving. They’re needed elsewhere in the station so they’re leaving the janitor in charge, the head nurse tells them. He can help with most nonmedical things, and if there’s an emergency he knows who to call.
“What happened to moving the rest of us to the adult hospital?” Lei asks.
“We ran out of time,” the nurse says, and vanishes into the elevator.
The second after she’s gone, the janitor stands up from behind the nurses’ station and goes to sit in the toilet with his newspaper.
The hallway is empty. The shutters are still down on the play area. And Lei looks so miserable Abigail can’t stand it. It’s finally time. She says, “Lei, if you want we can go see Simon in the other hospital.” She tells him about the broken elevator lock.
At the thought of seeing Simon again, Lei actually smiles. “This is brilliant,” he says. “We could do it.”
“I’m not hearing this,” Lynn says, slouching lower in her bed and hiding behind her book.
“I could take some drawings with me,” Abigail says. “Nobody pays any attention to a kid carrying an art project around a hospital.”
“Okay, actually I am hearing this and it sounds incredibly dangerous,” Lynn says. She has gone into full-blown Big Sister Mode. “You’re both here for medical treatment. You can’t just go leaving the hospital because you’re bored.”
“We’re not leaving. We’ll be in a hospital the entire time,” Abigail says. “If either of us needs a doctor while we’re over there we’ll be surrounded by them.”
“Not while you’re up on the roof. And by the way, it can’t be safe to be up on the roof during a meteor alert.”
“C’mon Lynn,” Lei says. “If a meteor ever did hit us it’s not like it would do any good to be inside a building. But that’s not going to happen anyway. All the adults have disappeared because everyone who can fly a spacecraft is out there firing lasers at rocks instead of down here doing their usual job.”
“The janitor’s going to ask where you are, eventually,” she says.
“Just tell him we didn’t see him at his desk so went looking for him.”
“I don’t like lying to adults,” Lynn says.
“You could come with us instead, and then you wouldn’t have to lie,” Lei says.
“I’m coming with you,” the Kid says.
This catches everyone off guard. They look over at the Kid. He’s sitting on the edge of his bed with his shoes on, laced up, ready to go on an adventure.
“Oh no, honey,” Abigail says. “No, you can’t. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sick of getting left behind while people do fun stuff,” the Kid says. “If you try I’m gonna scream and scream until the janitor comes to find out what’s happening. And I’m gonna tell him.”
There’s no way they can take the Kid, with his weird coloring, his central line and his totally unpredictable vomiting habit, traipsing around unknown hospital wards, but the Kid refuses to hear it. “If you’re going, I’m coming with you,” he says.
Lei tries to bargain him down and manages to get the Kid to say that he’s not really interested in going to the other hospital. What he wants to do is get out on the roof for a close-up look at the Lid.
“You know how when you’re walking on the street during the day the dome over the station just looks blue?” the Kid says. “That’s not what the Lid looks like from up close, like on the roof of a big building like this. You can see right through it. We can look at all the meteor alert ships up there.”
Even Abigail, whose parents have always worked in places where they make laser cannons and defense shielding and who is pretty jaded on the subject of spaceships, has to admit that sounds like it could be pretty cool.
“How about if we took you up to the roof for a few minutes before we go across to the adult hospital?” she starts to ask, but she’s cut off by the sound of Lynn sighing and unhooking herself from the IV stand.
“I’ll come up there with you,” she says. “If I don’t, someone’s just going to end up falling off the building or getting stuck in an air vent or something.”
Lynn’s wheelchair has vanished, so she has to walk with them, slowly, to the elevator. Then Abigail turns a coin in the lock and seconds later they’re on the roof.
The first one to move is the Kid, who zips through the still-opening doors shouting that he wants to look at the ships. Lynn and Lei follow him out, yelling to stay away from the building edge, but what he actually does is head for the center of the roof and stop dead, staring straight upward.
He’s not in any danger, so before Abigail goes after him she wants to have a moment alone in this high, open space. The elevator entrance is protected by a metal overhang, and once Abigail gets out past that she can see that the Lid looks just like the Kid said, with a clear view through to the blackness of space. But right now she’s more interested in what she can see of the city.
There’s a vent stack near the edge of the roof, so she climbs up on it to get a better view. The vent goes all the way down into darkness but it’s covered by a thin wire mesh that creaks and sags as she steps onto it. Now she has a clear view, but before taking it in she first closes her eyes and imagines that instead of the usual still, stuffy air of the station she feels wind against her face, and drops of moisture. Then she opens her eyes, following the curve of the Lid as it changes from the overhead midnight black to its usual perfect summer blue as it extends into the distance, ending in a haze at the far station wall. She feels the change in her eyes as they relearn how to focus on something far away after weeks of being constantly brought up short by the walls and ceilings of hospital rooms.
If Abigail was on a planet now, the blocky grey maintenance shutters clapped down over the tops of buildings would be thunderclouds. The service drones gliding across intersections would be massive insects or large birds. The rooftop pools would be the oceans and lakes she swims through in her dreams.
She takes a moment and breathes deep, then turns, jumps down and goes to join the others.
Lynn is starting to look a bit peaky, unhooked from her IV and having to walk around after the Kid, who is more animated than Abigail has ever seen him. He’s looking up, pointing, talking about all sorts of technical space stuff and just about bouncing on the spot with excitement. When Abigail looks where he’s pointing, the first thing she notices is that she can see the structure of the Lid: an intricate honeycomb mesh around huge transparent panels. And through the panels, in the distance above the station, where the Kid had hoped to see a few spacecraft, there are instead hundreds of ships, all in different sizes and designs, wheeling and diving and swooping, joining formation and breaking off and pulsing with blasts of laser fire.
“It’s… ahh,” the Kid says. For a moment he can’t complete the sentence. “It’s what I wanted.”
“It’s amazing,” Lei says.
“I can’t look up for too long. Makes me feel dizzy,” Lynn says. “But it’s pretty cool.”
“Is that supposed to happen?” Abigail says, pointing. One of the smaller ships, designed to look like a metallic dragonfly, has gone into a spin, its long, thin wings whipping through the surrounding space, only missing nearby craft by what seems from this angle to be inches.
“No! He must’ve hit some space debris,” the Kid says. “I hope he can straighten up.”
But instead two other ships get onto the dragonfly’s tail and blast its wings off, leaving the body of the ship spinning like a top, now a tiny pellet instead of two sets of whirling blades.
One of the severed wings veers off out of view. The other drops directly toward where Abigail is standing. It’s laid out flat, a rugged triangle of molded metal broader than the hospital rooftop.
It happens fast. Lei watches hypnotized as the wing falls at them, then once it’s only slightly above the Lid he shouts “Oh shit!” and dives to the ground, taking Lynn and the Kid with him.
“It’s okay! It’s going to burn up on the shield!” Abigail shouts, left standing there alone with the others at her feet. As she says it, a bolt of light bursts across the sky and the wing, big as it is, totally vanishes.
There’s dead silence for about a second and then shrapnel from the burn-up starts pounding off the Lid, whamwhamwham, whamwhamwham. Abigail and the others have their hands clapped to their ears and the sounds keep coming, occasionally building up to an eardrum-bursting whamwhamWHAMWHAMwham. Everyone’s shouting at the top of their voices but no one can hear a word.
Finally it tails off and there’s only the occasional plink and thud from above. The Kid is the first back to his feet. “That. Was. Cool,” he says. He still has the same strange coloring as always, but aside from that he seems like a different kid.
Lei is up next, nursing his hand. “I think I hit my IV,” he says.
Lynn gets up last. She’s breathing heavily and moving slowly. It looks like it’s taking a lot of effort for her to stay on her feet. Abigail catches Lei’s eye and jerks her head in the direction of the elevator.
“I think maybe we should head back now,” Lei says. “That’s probably enough—”
Then a maintenance drone whips by his head, the flame of its blowtorch only inches away from his face. It’s so unbelievably dangerous that it takes him a moment to register it actually happened. “What the hell?” he says. “Right in my face! Those things are supposed to have safety settings.”
“Unless it’s on emergency mode when no one’s supposed to be up here,” Abigail says, looking up. “Could the Lid have got cracked?”
Dozens more drones are flying up over the edge of the building, going at top speed instead of making their usual slow, cautious movements. Many of the drones have equipped sharp tools or gas burners. “Back to the elevator, now!” Lei shouts. “Stay low!”
Now Abigail looks up and sees steel shutters telescoping out of the honeycomb mesh down toward the roof. “They’re going to seal off this part of the Lid!” she shouts.
“Go go go, get off the roof!”
Lynn makes it about ten steps and then she stops. “Not going to make it,” she says. “Need to leave me.”
“We’ll carry you!” Abigail says. “Lei, take your side.” Lei is maybe twice Abigail’s size so it’s a pretty lopsided lift, but together they manage to get Lynn off the ground. It’s just as well she weighs almost nothing. They carry her a few steps, then Lynn takes a couple of steps without them, then they lift her again. The Kid keeps pace with them, sneaking glances back up at the Lid whenever they have to stop. By the time they get to the edge of the roof, the shutter has reached the elevator overhang, but they duck under it and they’re on the safe side when it comes down and seals off the damaged section.
Lynn has overexerted herself. She’s taking great heaving, rasping breaths but even so she can’t seem to get enough air in. She contorts herself over a railing, trying to give her lungs as much room to expand as possible. Lei asks if he should go and get a doctor but she just holds her hand up to indicate no, unable to get any words out.
Finally, after a couple of minutes of this, her breathing slows and she starts to have a coughing fit, and they can see things are returning to something more like business as usual. The coughing takes another few minutes, enough time for Lei to get in the elevator and check out what’s happening on the ward while Abigail stands with Lynn and the Kid walks around with his hands in the air holding imaginary space ships and making whoosh noises.
When Lynn is just about done coughing, Lei reappears. “Janitor’s still in the toilet,” he says, shaking his head. “That must be some dump. Anyway, we’re good to go.” He’s gently massaging his hand as Abigail guides Lynn into the elevator. “I’ll probably need to call a nurse once we’re down there. I need them to take this IV out.”
The Kid, walking in last, says “I need to draw a whole bunch of pictures.”
“I need to lie down for a couple of days,” Lynn says.
To Lei, Abigail says, “Sorry we didn’t make it across to the other hospital.”
“It’s fine,” he says. “At least we did something for a change.”
“Put it in your message to Simon,” she says as the doors close.
© 2018 by Stu West