"You've got to eat, Sal", said the AI, as imploring as an affectless voice could be. Sal drifted to the bottom of the compartment in the microgravity, staring straight ahead, unblinking, exhausted.
"It's been 35 hours. You need to keep up your intak--".
"Not--" she snapped, then catching herself, "...now."
CHANDRA chimed an affirmation.
The compartment was in disarray. Bits of panel have been opened or torn away in haste. Cabling and tubing spilled out from each, swaying gently in the air current. The compartment was a gallery of monstrous appendages reaching for the wayward tools floating past. While the smoke had cleared, the smell of burnt insulation and...worse...lingered, not having yet been scrubbed out.
"Shall we jettison the corpsicles?"
"Don't--", catching herself again, "...call them that."
She knew what CHANDRA was trying to do. They attempting to lighten the mood by making a feeble, joking reference to what she had called the hibernating crew members. They were programmed to do that, so they would interact with the crew more effectively. They used to be quite good at it too, but that was before Sal had to re-initialize the base matrix. All those months working together, all that personality they had, gone.
The air recycler sighed into the silence. She didn't call the hibernating crew "corpsicles" anymore, either.
"And no, don't jettison...the crew."
"As you wish, Sal".
Sal wasn't listening; she continued to stare across the compartment at the pods. Each status screen showed the same message in bright, red letters:
>> AUTO REPAIR FAILED <<
The bar smelled of stale cigarettes and exhaustion. Why in the hell would he want to meet here? Sal asked herself. Normally, she'd only set food inside a place like this unless today had seriously gone to hell. And today qualified.
"Ahh! Specialist! Back here!" Sal made her way to the back of the bar where her soon to be ex CO sat.
"Commander," she replied matter-of-factly. Sal did not salute.
"Yeah...I suppose we no longer need to do that."
Sal too her seat, silently, letting her anger churn. He pushed one of the two mugs on the table toward her. She winced as the taste of the cheap, post-war beer hit her. Bitter and hollow, its only admirable quality was how quickly it could get you drunk.
"I've given you and the UA five years, Marco. And this is what they do? Send us a discharge in a fucking letter?" Sal took another swig. Usually, an announcement like that was handled in person by a UA representative, or the company commander if they were particularly remote.
"Look, I'm upset too. We've done a lot of good in the last five years. I remember the day you walked up to me, asking if you could help. The medics hadn't even cleared you yet to leave your bed."
Sal slumped in her chair at the memory. She was lucky to be alive after what had happened, and like hell if she was not going to do something. Besides, in the middle of the war the UA was probably the best supply of HRT she could get. She was good with tools and was a competent medic, just the sort of person a corps of engineers could use. What followed was five years of firefighting, rescue, and rebuild after the environment collapsed and the former government turned rancid.
Marco shook her out of her reverie. "The others turned in re-enlistment papers. I know you got one too, but I didn't see anything yet."
"It wouldn't be the same."
"Yeah, I know. The UA has been scaling back now that things are starting to get back to normal. A lot of people want to get back to that as soon as possible, and a truck with a UA logo on it brings back too many bad memories."
They both took a drink.
"I'm...tired, Marco. I'm tired of people, and tired of trying to put back together a shattered world."
"What do you think you'll do, then?"
"I don't know! Maybe I'll go back to school, find a hospital to work at, something!"
Marco raised his glass to take another sip, "You'll get bored of it."
Marco smiled, putting down the mug. "Fine. You're tired. I get it, but that doesn't mean you need to quit."
"And just what should I do?"
"I was thinking the space program."
Sal laughed out loud, she couldn't help herself. "That? It's a fluff project! Just feel-good propaganda."
"Maybe so...but maybe the world could use a bit of that right now." Sal scoffed, polishing off the remainder of her glass. He continued, "The world's been through hell. We're all waking up from the nightmare. Sure, you could get a job in a solar panel factory, but that's not you."
"Give me one reason."
Marco's expression turned suddenly serious. Reaching into his jacket he pulled out a short stack of papers and tossed it at Sal. On top was a photograph. A pale blue-green arc cut the picture in half, a black starfield beyond it. Near the edge of the arc was a fuzzy dark spot, a vivid blue halo around it.
"Really, Marco? You gotta try better than an old meme." He just shrugged silently. "Thanks for the drink, I'm going to go back and pack."
Sal didn't notice the completed application under the picture, with her name at the top.