Features | Written by Kate Fathers 06/04/2021

AFTER PARTY [Part 1 of 4]

When Jamie stumbles into work, she’s twenty minutes late and immediately smacks her knee on a chair. She has a hangover the size of Saturn and a stain on her t-shirt that smells like Peach Schnapps; as she sits down, she realises that one shoelace has snapped. Yesterday’s jeans are chafing. Her lanyard is on backwards. Around her, the other lab techs are nursing coffees so strong she can taste them, and moaning in four different languages. She flicks on her computer. The neon green numbers burn her corneas.

“Pay attention to these readouts people, we’re way behind!” the project manager with the purple hair says. His name is Mike, Jamie thinks, or maybe it’s Matt? She squints at his lanyard; it bounces sickeningly against his chest.

Beside her, something rattles, and she gingerly turns her head. A man with marker whiskers on his cheeks is struggling with a bottle of aspirin.

“No more fun. No more parties. Whoever brings alcohol onto this station is fired,” maybe-Mike says. “And has anyone seen my tablet? It has the grant application on it. God, we’re so fucked.”

The image of a Darth Vader sticker on the silver back of a tablet blooms across Jamie’s brain before fizzling out like a firework—like the carbonation in an antacid. Groaning, she presses her palms against her eyes and wonders if she should have called in sick. Not that anyone would have believed her; all of Stellar Nursery Station B had crammed into the recreation room for the Federation Day party. Her forehead throbs.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” someone mutters, sliding on their knees to the trash can and retching so hard Jamie’s stomach twitches. Maybe-Mike sighs and taps her on the head with his clipboard.

“You, go down to Section Two and find a janitor. And don’t dawdle; we need every brain cell you can spare.”

Jamie staggers out of her seat and into the empty hall. The rest of the station is done up in the same utilitarian grey as the lab and soaked in the same florescent light, and she follows its gentle curve to a bank of elevators and a box that’s missing its fire extinguisher. A map of the station is tacked up on the wall, and she quickly double-checks the location of the janitor’s office. She’s only been on the station a month and she’s still getting used to the layout, to the rumble of its engines, to everything. It’s nothing like it said in the brochures.

The door to the janitor’s office has a gleaming silver nameplate, and Jamie only manages to knock once before a harried man in a navy jumpsuit rips it open. “Gary” is etched onto his nametag.

“What do you want?” Gary groans, rubbing his blond five o’clock shadow. Behind him, a dark-skinned woman with “Asha” on her nametag is shoveling ramen noodles into her mouth.

“Sorry,” Jamie says, her gut twinging in a confused way. It always amazes her that you can feel sick and starving at the same time. “We need a janitor at Observation Lab 4.”

“Not it,” he says.

“I’m on my break,” Asha sings around a fishcake.

Sighing, Gary collects a small toolkit before pushing past Jamie and stomping down the hall. Asha smiles apologetically and lifts her chopsticks.

“Do you want some?” she asks. “The program is still in the replicator.”

Jamie eyes the small refreshments table and the square replicator that’s fused into the wall above it, but her brain pulls her back into the hall. She should get back to work. She still has three hours before her own lunch break.

“No thanks,” she says.

Asha shrugs and Jamie slowly shuffles back towards the elevators. The hum of the environmental controls and the soft buzz of her station-mates scrape against her temples, and she wonders why she’s here, in this bright hallway when she could be in bed—in the cold sterility of this space station when she could be in the warm cradle of Earth. STUDY THE UNIVERSE, all the literature had said. STUNNING VIEWS! EXCITING CHALLENEGES! But all the windows in the lab are too small to see through, and Federation Day was the first thing to truly happen in weeks, and while she knew that she would spend her entire tenure watching a single star be born, she still thought this job would be more than what it is. She imagined that, without daylight or seasons, a life in space could move in any orbit. Instead, she’s just a number cruncher and errand girl. Even when they’re lightyears past Mars, human beings still fall into the same Earthly patterns.

Jamie tiptoes out of the elevator on Section One like she’s cutting class. Her living quarters are down the fourth corridor, and she carefully peeks around each corner while straining for strange footsteps. She can already feel her cool cotton sheets under her hands; she can smell the crisp, bright scent of the recycled air. Then, something clatters against the floor and she scrambles back, hurling herself into the first corridor she sees.

“Why the hell were these in the bathroom?”

A woman in a janitor’s uniform hobbles into view, juggling three fire extinguishers like they’re squirming cats. One pops out of arms and crashes to the ground. “Shit,” she hisses, tucking the other two under her arm and flailing for the third with her free hand. Jamie flattens herself against the wall. She holds her breath. Finally, the janitor grabs the fire extinguisher and makes for the elevators.

The second she’s gone, Jamie creeps into the hallway, standing in front of the picture window with her knees vibrating between two directions. She’s been out of school for months, and yet she’s acting like she’ll get a detention if she’s caught; she’s thinking of ditching, like the lab is an Advanced Math class. Scuffing her shoe against the floor, she catches the reflection of her tangled blonde hair and the stain on her t-shirt, and beyond, a curl of sand-coloured cloud no bigger than her hand. It rolls across the dark sky picking up rocks like a ball of dust, crossing paths with blue clouds and brown clouds until it’s pulled into the white-hot heart of a baby star. It’s so easy to forget, in the data and the daily grind, that only a handful of miles away is something beautiful and alive and capable of anything. It could be a scalding sun or a tie-dyed, gaseous Jupiter; it could be a rocky, frostbitten Pluto. Or it could be an Earth, peopled with creatures so ridiculous and contradictory that they create holidays out of document signings and turns miracles into spreadsheets. It’s a journey that she wanted to be a part of, and deep under the hangover, she thinks she still does.

The station shudders. Jamie turns around.

As she nears the lab, a mass of curly brown hair crashes into her.

“Sorry!” Mabel says, pushing up her glasses. “The boss wanted me to tell you: we’re going to need two janitors. You better hurry up.”

Or maybe she’ll go back to bed.