The science officer and her aide came to my office late in the cycle, past 14th hour. Normally I wouldn’t take meetings that late, but there was something stilted and overly formal in Doctor Palu’s request that put me on edge.
I re-read her message while I waited, trying to keep the anxiety in my gut from spreading. Was it the nature of this job to always be worried, or was it just part of getting older? Even on Earth it seemed like there had always been something keeping me up at night, and that was before I had two dozen lives relying on me.
They entered my office exactly on time. Palu gestured to Dom, who was trying to pretend the crate he was carrying wasn’t too heavy for him. He slid it onto my desk with a grunt.
“Doctor, you know my birthday’s not for another two months.”
Palu’s arms were tightly folded. “Open it.”
I stood and took off the crate’s lid. Inside was a dented rectangle of mesh that looked horribly like…
“Is this a water filter?”
“This is the water filter, Jessica.” Palu’s jaw was tense. No wonder her message was so carefully worded: there’d be panic if the contents of this crate were publicized.
“What happened to it?”
“Tell her, Dom. It’s all right.”
The aide glanced at her and cleared his throat. “It was George. He had an idea for increasing efficiency that required putting a special coating on the filter. None of the usual techs were available, so he tried to do it himself.”
“He told me it hadn’t broken the first time he’d dropped it,” Palu said sourly. “Not that that excuses it.”
“And the backup?” I asked, heart pounding. My voice held steady, miraculously – of all the crises a space station could endure, running out of water was the worst.
“Contaminated. Technically that one’s the backup – the original failed during construction of the second ring.”
“That was weeks ago!”
“We don’t have the solvent to restore the original filter. It’s scheduled to arrive on the next resupply shuttle, along with two more filters, but…”
“They’re four cycles out.” I sighed. “What are our options?”
“Rationing,” Palu said promptly. “We have to be careful, though: too conservative and we cause panic, too light and we run out of water before the shuttle arrives.”
“Right.” I stood. My fear throttled down to standard anxiety. “’The water filtration system is undergoing maintenance to improve efficiency’ – it’s more or less the truth. I trust you to establish the ration amounts.”
Palu nodded. “We’ll have the numbers later tonight.”
“What will you do about George?” the aide asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since Palu had ordered him. Clearly George was his friend, and he’d been gathering the courage to ask about his fate.
A brief glance at Palu told me what she would like to do with George. I smiled at Dom. “I’ll have a talk with him. Do you know where I can find him?”
George was sitting in the far booth in the commissary. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen. In front of him sat a can of fizzy grape-flavored vitamin beverage, something concocted by the nutritional biochemists.
“Drowning your sorrows?” I asked.
He jumped. “Ma’am?”
“Drinking. It’s a joke. A bad one, obviously.”
“Oh, no, it’s not open, ma’am. I thought…maybe I should save it.”
I sat down across from him. “There’ll be plenty of water, George.”
“I knew the shuttle was coming,” he said desperately.
“Keep your voice down,” I replied, smiling. The commissary was practically empty this time in the cycle, but it was a small station.
“I knew if something went wrong,” he continued in a no-less-suspicious whisper, “the shuttle would have fresh supplies, and everything would be fine.”
I gestured at the view outside the porthole: blackness, a distant star, and the ochre curve of our uninhabitable anchor planet. “’If something went wrong’ is not a viable experimental parameter up here. There’s too much at stake.”
“I couldn’t – ” George was a smart kid; that’s why I hired him. He knew defending himself was moot and now he ought to listen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”
“Wait to work with the staff next time you have a great idea,” I said. “We have plenty of time for innovation, just no time for disasters. Okay?”
I stood. My anxiety hadn’t disappeared, but it diminished; that was good enough. “Cheers, then.”