When Richard Hayek was eight years old, he had rescued a kitten. It was a scrawny, mud-covered thing, staggering down one side of the alley he cut through on his way home from school most days. The kitten had black patches around its eyes; Richard was nursing a black eye. They were both alone, both crying, both hungry. It was a perfect match.
After an evening spent scouring the water-stained reference books his father had once rescued from a dumpster, he named the kitten Koshka. Having never raised another living creature before, the boy promptly set about offering it every scrap of food on the place. Koshka developed a liking for protein supplement bars and a fierce loyalty to the human who had saved her.
Koshka’s death, the year he started graduate school, wasn’t the first time Hayek had lost someone he cared about. But it was the hardest.
She’d gotten listless, at first. At twenty-one years old she was sleeping more than usual, her eyes and ears too aged to let her make her way as a hunter any longer. But those eyes, which had always been alert and watchful, glazed over. She shook her head more often, forlornly, dizzily. At times she would stare past him, as if she couldn’t tell he was there.
Then her motor skills began to give out. Twice he was woken in the night by a scrambling sound and a thump, as she tried to jump onto the low bed beside him only to crash into the side railing and land messily on the floor. He built her an ersatz stepladder from textbooks, but when she stumbled and collapsed off the side of the pile one evening, he moved his mattress and pillow to the floor.
One day, she didn’t get out of his bed at all. She soiled it, instead, and her large eyes and downcast ears were enough to keep him from scolding her. He cleaned up the bedding and the cat, gently, as best he could, then laid plastic sheeting across the foot of the bed and folded the blanket – now “hers” – over it. He took the blanket down to the laundry in his ramshackle apartment building and washed it every time she soiled it, as many as six times a day. He fed her by hand, what little she would eat, and stroked her ears. She purred constantly.
The ending came quickly after that.
When he woke up in the morning, her hind feet were gone. Not missing but limp, frozen, as if they were no longer attached to the rest of her body. He canceled the class he was to teach and sat with her, reading, petting her every time she mewed for him. Her voice had gotten high-pitched, lost, afraid.
The limpness crept up her body. By mid-morning she’d lost control of her tail; by lunchtime, which neither of them observed, her entire lower body. When sunset came she could no longer reach out a front foot to grasp his finger, which had long been one of her favorite games.
He laid down beside her that night knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep until she did, and perhaps not after that. Ten minutes later she closed her eyes, wheezed twice, and was still.
It was the first time he had cried since his father’s death. He hadn’t cried since.
He also hadn’t thought about that day since. At least, not any more than he could help. But today, he couldn’t stop.
The ridged metal surface of the floor jabbed at him as he lay on his back, examining the ship’s computer core. Above him, bundles of glowing optic cable hung limply and a forlorn data node blinked red. Beyond that the core stretched away into a densely-packed darkness, three decks high, only a faint whirring and the sharp close smell of warm metal to tell him it was running at all.
That, and he was still breathing.
Inside the core, he was tolerably warm. Outside it, in the rest of the ship, the temperature had dropped to a crisp seven degrees. The crew were going about their business in snowsuits, blankets, gloves and hats. Even their captain had donned an old overcoat, her one concession to the predicament facing her crew.
The ISS Jemison was dying.
It was the only explanation Hayek could find that made sense, the only metaphor that fit. Her functions were shutting down one by one, had been for weeks, ever since they’d attempted to integrate a new analytical processing core, a bit of alien tech picked up at a salvage yard near Alpha Centauri. No. Before that. They’d added the processor because they’d lost its predecessor, another bit of salvage that looked to be Devori.
He couldn’t blame the new unit. It had never worked. It had fused to the EF network and he didn’t know how to remove it, but it hadn’t caused the cascade of failures as near as he could tell. But he also couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t talk to a tangle of wires attached to a plastic box, and talking was about the only thing he was good at.
Which left no one to blame but himself.
Hayek scowled and wedged one large hand into the node, fishing for the dangling ends of the data cable. He reconnected them, bracing himself for the small, biting shocks that told him the connections were working.
They didn’t come.
He blinked and looked up. The pulsing red light on the front face of the data node had faded away. The unit was dark.