Features | Written by Kate Fathers 28/04/2021

AFTER PARTY [Part 4 of 4]

“Welcome back, Jamie,” Mark says from on top of a desk, watching as she squeezes back into the lab. Below him, two janitors run sonic cleaners over the shattered coffee pot and vaporize the mess in the trash. He wishes he could open a window. He wouldn’t even mind if he got sucked into space.

Mark doesn’t know why he keeps agreeing to things. First it was the promotion, with its longer hours and extra paperwork. Then it was picking up the slack when the head of research took off to a conference on Earth, and heading the Federation Day party planning committee. Between troubleshooting the planetary live-streams and making sure that there was enough food, he never got to enjoy it. Last night, he dreamt of the yellow sand on a Venusian beach; bowed palm trees and a slushy cocktail with a blue umbrella. When he woke up, he could still smell sunscreen.

He blames his parents. He never should have agreed to major in astrophysics.

Mabel slides primly into her desk chair. She’s wearing different clothes. “The infirmary is out of painkillers and anti-nauseates,” she announces.

“And my tablet?” Mark asks.

“They’re not sure.”

Mark groans, scrubbing his hands through his purple hair and over his face.

“You should have made a backup,” Dave says.

“Go to hell,” he says into his palms.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Yesterday, he’d thought that letting everyone leave the lab early would make his life easier. Naively, he’d believed that it would only take minutes—a half hour—to make up the missed work. But most of the lab is barely conscious, and the grant deadline is looming, and he’ll have to tell the head researcher during their daily call that they won’t have enough data. He doesn’t remember when the rush of responsibility fizzled out like so many dime store sparklers, but he decides, starting today, that he won’t agree to anything else.

“Hey Dave, got any aspirin left?” someone asks.

“Sure,” Dave says, hurling the bottle across the room. It hits the ground, the top popping off and scattering pills across the floor.

“I’m going to see if my tablet is in the rec room,” Mark says, leaping off the table and sprinting into the hall.

Section Four is covered in crumbs, torn streamers, and tipped-over tables. The Federation president’s head is melting in a plastic bucket next to a pile of mini flags, and a janitor is wiping a yellow streak off one wall. Mark winces; everyone in the space station was at the party, but not everyone is responsible for clean-up.

“Hey Asha,” Mark says as she passes, rolling up the sleeves of her janitor’s uniform. “Have you seen a tablet?”

She shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Mark sighs, scratching his scalp. Across the room, Gary tears down the remains of the HAPPY FEDERATION DAY sign. “I’m really sorry about all of this; the whole station’s a disaster.”

“It’s fine,” Asha says. “I mean, who do you think threw a Tequila Sunrise at the wall?”

Chuckling, Mark turns to leave and nearly crashes into Eun-Jae, the head of Observation Lab 2.

“Hey Mark, do you have a second?” she says.

He hesitates, remembering the same cloying tone that she used two weeks ago, when she conned him into organising the party. Steeling himself, he stands up straight. “Sure”.

“I was thinking that, with the grant deadline so close, we could organise a friendly competition between the labs to encourage the troops. Interested?”

Agreement starts to creep up his throat, but he swallows it. This is it: his first chance at reclaiming his weekends, and weeknights, and a decent bedtime. He can remake himself. He’ll be professional, yet firm. He hates team-building exercises, anyway.

“Gotta go,” he says.

He bolts, hurtling out of the recreation room and down the hall, feeling hot and sick and like his knees will give out if he slows down. He passes a janitor carrying a bundle of table cloths, and vacant media rooms; the empty conservatory, and a bathroom with an Out of Order sign, and—

“Mark Singh!” Barry, the stocky blond head of the analytics department, booms, popping out of the dining hall. “I thought that was you! I had this idea that I think you would be perfect for—”

“Bye, Barry!” Mark snaps, cringing and breaking into a full-on run.

Tearing around a corner, he hurries past the gym and the pool—the secondary recreation room and the sauna—before collapsing in front of the elevators. His comm. unit rings; he fumbles it out of his pocket and turns it off without looking at it.

“Oh shit,” he says. That could have been the head researcher.

It was only Martha, the head of catering, and relief smacks into him so hard that he nearly faints. Swaying into a stand, he calls up the elevator; he should go back to the lab, before he ruins his career. When the elevator arrives, he settles next to a frazzled security guard and takes a steadying breath. His palms are cold. His chest feels jittery, like it’s full of bees. For a second, he thinks he hears the comm. unit go off and inches it out of his pocket; it’s dark.

The second he steps into the hall, the comm. unit buzzes. It’s the head researcher.

Mark coughs. “Hello, sir.”

“Mr. Singh! I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” Mr. Leung says.

“No, sir.”

“How is the data gathering? Are we on target?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve been talking to some of the people here at the conference, and I had an idea about the angle for our analysis. Hold on a second.”

Mark slowly walks towards the lab, one foot carefully in front of the other like a tightrope walker. He turns around before he can get too close, trying not to stumble every time the static on the other end of the line thumps and pops like a warming-up drum. As he makes his fourth pass, something tickles the edge of his eye—a hunk of tissue paper stuck to a window frame. Plucking it off, he shoves it in his pocket and moves to scrub at a smudge on the glass before he realises that it isn’t a smudge at all: it’s the tail of a cloud.

The star has barely changed in all the years he’s been at the Nursery. It’s still a protostar; still tiny by star standards and still pulling hydrogen from its parent cloud, greedily collecting the detritus from a whole nebula. When the station is in the right orbit he can see it from his bedroom window, and on good days he falls asleep with its glow warming the walls, turning what they know of its inner workings over and over in his head like a Rubik’s Cube. There isn’t much; no matter how many scans they do and readings they take, the star stays stubbornly unknowable—unfathomable—all of their conclusions as limited as lace. He can’t say he blames it. Change, he knows now, is harder and longer and more embarrassing than everyone thinks it is. They both have a long way to go.

“Sorry about that, Mr. Singh,” Mr. Leung suddenly says. “Now, I was thinking—”

Something tickles the edge of Mark’s eye. A tiny Federation flag floats by on the other side of the glass.

“—we could use that new imaging software, and—”

Then, a cluster of canapes rolls into view. A tangle of napkins; grapes; a fork.

“And how’s the grant application coming along?”

And then, covered in green icing that’s crystalizing in the cold, there’s his tablet.

“Oh balls,” Mark says.

Read AFTER PARTY - Part I

Read AFTER PARTY - Part II