Outer or inner space - Editor
BJ's Last Shift
by Lawrence Karis
"This is Willie Sims, second in command of the Mars Explorer, 267 days out from Earth. I am recording this message for delayed transmission to Director Mike Jackson at mission control. By the time you receive this message, BJ will be dead." Willie looked over his shoulder at the hatch to the aft cabin. He knew BJ couldn't hear him, but he still whispered.
He walked to the storage rack where two space suits hung in readiness. He picked up the life-pack with BJ's scrawled initials and carried it back to the work bench.
"I saw this coming, but I didn't want to believe it. I hoped he would snap out of it. There's no hope now. BJ is completely insane.
"Two days ago he went through the cabin with a marker writing his initials on everything he thought was his. He even marked the dishes and utensils in the mess kit. He left a note saying that if he caught me using any of his stuff, he'd throw me out the airlock.
"I am delaying this message transmission because he changed the password and locked me out of the main computer." Willie looked up at the video display and adjusted the camera pointed at his face. "I think he would kill me if I rebooted the computer to reset the password. That's what it has come to: I kill him or he kills me."
Willie took a wrench out of the tool pouch and started removing the life-pack cover. "It started when little Billie died in a swimming pool accident when we were about 90 days out. On Earth they were burying his only son and we were millions of miles away in this tin can. I can't imagine that kind of grief. But BJ's strong. I really thought that he was going to get through it.
"After Billie's death, things got worse between BJ and Carolyn. She blamed him for not being there. Six months later, she sent a message announcing their divorce. She was pregnant and getting married to an insurance salesman. His daughters would have a new daddy. BJ wanted to be home---to put his life back together, but it was all gone. It's no wonder he went insane."
Willie pulled out the rebreather circuit board and set it aside. "I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to do this. I couldn't just sneak up behind BJ and bash his head with a wrench. I needed a solution that would be quick and painless. The solution turned out to be quite simple. Once a month, one of us suits up and goes outside to inspect the ship for damage. We used to take turns, but he won't let me go out any more"
He pulled a circuit board from the tool pouch and examined it carefully before inserting it into the life-pack. "I modified the safety controls on his rebreather unit. When BJ goes out, the pressure will keep building for forty-five minutes until it explodes. He won't know what hit him.
"For added insurance, I modified the airlock. When BJ goes outside, the outer hatch will jam when it closes. I've set all the computers to go into diagnostic mode when that happens. He won't be able to open the airlock or access the computers. When I wake up in twelve hours, I'll reboot the computers. If I'm lucky, the rebreather explosion will knock his body away from the ship. He will have an honorable burial in space."
Willie stood up and carried the life-pack to the storage rack. He placed the pack on the shelf making sure it was precisely as BJ had left it.
He walked back to the workbench and sat down. "When you get this message, Director Jackson, BJ will be dead. Maybe then you'll feel some of the helplessness that he felt---knowing that you can't change anything at this distance."
He sat down and placed the tool pouch in the drawer. "It's done. The airlock is set. The life-pack is set. Now, all I have to do is button myself into my sleep module. When I wake up tomorrow, BJ will be dead. I'll be alone. So totally and completely alone."
“Director Jackson, Senator Blevins is on line one,” the metallic intercom voice said.
Jackson took a deep breath as he punched the answer button. “This is Mike Jackson.”
“Mike, this is Senator Blevins of the Senate Space Exploration Committee."
"Yes, Senator. I remember you."
"I'm calling about the Mars mission," the senator said. "What’s going on up there? I’ve had reporters hounding me all week.”
“Senator, we lost contact with the ship ten days ago.”
“What does that mean?”
“There's no response to our communication and all of the computers seem to have shut down at the same time, which doesn't seem possible. There doesn't appear to be any physical damage. We don't know what the problem is.”
“Is this another one of your agency’s screw ups, Mike?”
“Senator, I know that we've had difficulties---"
“Difficulties? Mike, your agency designed a ship to take two astronauts to Mars. When the ship was almost finished, you discovered that the life support system wouldn't support two."
"We could have fixed the problem, Senator."
"You wanted two hundred billion dollars and another year to fix the problem. That was out of the question."
“We restructured the mission for one astronaut. We trained and tested for every emergency situation we could think of. All of the test results said that BJ could do the job.”
“Who's BJ? I thought the astronaut was Bill Johnson."
“Yes, sir. Most people here call him BJ. Some of the med staff call him Willie. His full name is William Sims Johnson.”
“What’s the next step, Mike?”
“Senator, we’ll keep trying everything, but it’s pretty much up to BJ. We'll just have to wait until we hear from him.”