Features | Written by Kate Fathers 19/04/2021

AFTER PARTY [Part 2 of 4]

Mabel strides past the elevators at a brisk clip, smoothing a hand over the front of her crisp white shirt. She’s allotted herself ten minutes for the round-trip to the infirmary and five minutes to speak with one of the medics; she’s set aside two minutes to settle in back at the lab. By her calculations, her daily schedule will still be thirty minutes behind, a deficit which she’ll recoup during her lunch break. Barring any unforeseen demands, she should finish her work on time. But Mabel left the Federation Day party after a single glass of Venusian Chardonnay and was in bed by ten o’clock, and she thinks that everyone knows that because this is the sixth errand she’s run in the last hour.

As she sidesteps a tattered banner, curiosity itches childishly at the back of her brain. A yearning that she doesn’t want to label shivers in her chest. Pushing open the infirmary doors, she slips on a roll of gauze.

“What the hell happened here?” she asks.

The supply cupboard doors are blown open, scattering the parts of a handheld diagnostic unit across the floor like breadcrumbs and speckling the tile with purple antibiotic vials. Shiny synth-skin bandages are draped across the ceiling like streamers, shading one of the medics who’s curled up in a bed under a thin blue sheet. The second medic is drooling on his desk.

“Huh?” he croaks.

Mabel quickly prods him in the arm, cringing as he peels his face off his desk and squints up at her. His dark hair sticks up like the crest on a cockatoo. “Hadi” is stitched onto his stained scrub shirt. “Do you have any pain relievers? And anti-nauseates?” she asks.

“We’re out.”

“Out?”

“And the replicator is broken,” he weeps.

“Can’t you just use the replicator in the rec room?”

Hadi glares at her. A synth-skin bandage unsticks itself and flutters to the ground. Mabel has never enjoyed parties; she prefers routine, the comfort of knowing exactly when she’ll eat dinner and the precise time she’ll go to bed. She gets more joy out of the orderly lines of a timetable and thrills at a completed checklist, but for a second, she imagines having a second glass of wine. She imagines standing on a chair, taping bandages around the light fixtures. She swallows tightly.

“What happened last night?” she asks. The blue sheet shifts. Hadi presses a hand over his eyes. “Someone wanted to… set off fireworks. See if they worked in space. We came back here to… make a beer bong? I think?”

A grimace tickles Mabel’s nose, but intrigue swoops through her gut. Surreptitiously, she scratches the back of her head. She straightens her hair.

“You haven’t seen a tablet with a Darth Vader sticker on the back, have you?” she says.

“I think I saw a tablet on the snack table, in the main rec room. I—”

“Shit!” the second medic barks, lurching out of bed and landing on the floor with a smack. He moans like a broken foghorn.

“Sam, what did you do?” Hadi asks. Clambering to his feet, he shuffles towards the blue lump and grabs Sam’s arm. “Let me take a look at you.”

Sam lets himself be hauled to his knees, listing to the side, and Mabel wonders why she’s still standing there when she has her answer and her five-minute window has nearly closed. Sam flails like an octopus, nearly clipping Hadi on the chin, and her hands twitch to help—her mouth opens, stuffed with a sentence she’s only half certain she wants to say. She imagines the feeling of stepping outside her schedule, of not knowing when she’ll get back to the lab and planning on the fly. The thought of being so untethered makes her jittery, excited and nervous and, underneath, a little ashamed; helping others shouldn’t be this much of a struggle.

“Do you need any help?” she asks.

Hadi’s shoulders sag, and he smiles tiredly. “There’s a diagnostic unit in the cupboard over there.”

Grinning, Mabel grabs the small, white unit the size of an old remote control. Hadi wrangles Sam back into bed, and she holds him upright while he’s scanned, firmly cupping the back of his neck so he stops bouncing like a deranged bobble head between the floor, and the ceiling, and the back wall. She feels an old connection click back into place, and her stomach drops when she realises that she doesn’t remember when the disconnection happened. She shifts, the edge of the bed digging into her leg. She thinks it might leave a mark.

“You’re fine,” Hadi finally says, picking his way to the supply cupboard and pulling out a shiny silver pouch. He rips off the top and empties it into a glass of water, turning it turquoise. “But drink this; you can at least get your electrolytes.”

Sam smiles and takes a deep drink.

“Hey,” Hadi says to Mabel, “thanks for—”

And sprays it all over Mabel’s shirt.

“Gross!” Sam coughs. “Pineapple!”

Shoving Sam away from her, Mabel races out of the infirmary and nearly crashes into some idiot in a black jumpsuit. It’ll take her twenty minutes to change.

She is never doing this again.

Read AFTER PARTY - Part I