A story from the Rescue Sisters Universe
created by Robert and Karina Fabian
by Fred Warren
There was light.
There was a roaring, swirling sound in her ears.
There was pain. The right side of her body was on fire, and her arm throbbed a drumbeat in time with her pulse.
“Sister Claudia.” The voice flitted above the roar, dancing on the edge of audibility.
“Wha – where am I?”
“You’re in the infirmary, at Ceres Base. You’ve had a mishap.”
“I hurt all over.” She tried to move. Something wasn’t right.
“You’re injured. Keep still.”
She reflexively moved to cross herself, but couldn’t seem to find her chest. “My arm. Something’s the matter with my arm.”
“You sustained severe trauma to your right arm. I’m sorry, Sister. We couldn’t save it.”
“Couldn’t save it?” Claudia flopped her head over to bring her arm within view. She lifted it, gasping as a lance of agony transfixed her shoulder. The arm was wrapped in thick gauze.
It ended a few inches above where her elbow ought to be.
And she remembered.
It was a maxim of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Rescue that there was no such thing as a routine mission, but this came pretty close. A transport carrying ten sightseers near the Crucible had clipped a rogue chunk of rock, damaging the ship’s engines and control systems.
Claudia was incensed. “This is the third accident in six weeks. The Crucible is no place for tourists. God only knows how much military hardware from the Corporate War is still floating around out there.”
“The operator is licensed and insured,” Sister Euodia replied. “Their business exists within the letter of the law. There’s nothing we can do about it, Sister, so I suggest you curb your indignation.” Euodia was six years Claudia’s senior, and was lording it over her younger Sister, as usual.
Claudia wasn’t going to back down this time.
“Come on, Euodia, do you really believe they hit a rock? What did they do, back into it? I guarantee that pilot was flying in a restricted sector. Sooner or later, one of them is going to blunder into a mine or wake up a dormant defensive array.”
Euodia’s eyes were fixed on the forward viewscreen as she swung the shuttle into position for the rescue operation. “They’re in public space now. We can’t prove any wrongdoing.”
“What if we take their flight data recorder?”
“That’s a job for the Belt Patrol, not us.”
“The tour company will send someone to wipe the recorder long before the Patrol gets around to impounding the ship. People are going to die if we don’t stop this.”
“I have an idea,” Euodia replied with a deep sigh, “Let’s concentrate on completing our mission, so the people who are our responsibility right now don’t die.”
Claudia bit her tongue and went aft to don her vac suit. It wasn’t right. She had it in her power to put this tour company out of business for good, and she wasn’t going to let anybody, especially Sister Euodia, stop her.
An hour later, the last of the stranded crew and passengers had been ferried to the rescue shuttle. Claudia affixed a marker beacon to the hulk and switched it on, illuminating a bright white strobe and starting a looped warning message broadcast on the navigation advisory frequency.
Her commlink buzzed – Command Priority. “Time to leave, Sister.”
Claudia swung herself through the open hatch. “I want to make one more sweep to be sure we haven’t missed anyone.”
“We have everyone.” Even on radio, Euodia sounded like a jaded schoolmarm. “The ship’s power is fluctuating, and its computer is surge-damaged. It’s not safe.”
Claudia had already disappeared into the ship. “It’ll just take a second.”
“I know what you’re up to. Back to the shuttle, Claudia. That’s an order.”
“Coming, coming.” She’d located the data recorder and was backing out its retaining screws with a power driver. Claudia knew she’d catch hell from both Euodia and Mother Superior, but it’d be worth it to keep these idiots out of the Crucible. She yanked the box free and pushed off toward the exit, but in her haste, she misjudged her alignment and tagged the control room hatchway, dropping the recorder as she struggled to right herself.
The ship’s lights flickered and sparked, then began cycling red and amber. The addled computer was commanding an emergency lockdown. Claudia had only seconds to respond, or they’d have to cut through the hull to get her out.
She reached back into the control room to grab the slowly-spinning data recorder – and the hatch irised shut, trapping her arm. A high-pitched whine filled her helmet as her vac suit tried to compensate for the pressure disruption.
She shouted and banged on the hatch, but the mindless mechanism knew only that something was obstructing its effort to seal in whatever remained of the ship’s oxygen. It engaged a secondary hydraulic booster and relentlessly squeezed down on Claudia’s arm like a giant bolt-cutter. She lost consciousness as the bones pulverized.
Claudia drifted in and out of awareness during the next few days, medication dulling both the pain in her severed arm and the emotional impact of its loss. One evening, she heard arguing in the corridor.
“She didn’t ask for this to happen. It was an accident.”
“The rules exist to protect us. She disobeyed a direct order. It’s nothing new. She’s always played fast and loose with procedure. She thinks she knows better than her elders.”
Muzzy as she was, Claudia recognized Sister Euodia’s harsh voice.
“Being spirited and showing initiative and resourcefulness aren’t crimes, Sister. She’s still young.”
Calm tones in an odd accent. That was Mother Superior.
“She nearly died young. We’re fortunate she’s been sufficiently hobbled to prevent her participating in a rescue mission ever again.”
“There are advanced prosthetics that might allow her to return to her duties. Our corporate sponsors may be willing to underwrite the costs.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s her whole attitude toward authority that’s in question, not just her physical disability. Claudia is a danger to herself and others. Eventually, she’ll cost someone their life – one of us, or, God forbid, a civilian.”
“You know it’s true. She’ll have to be removed from the Rescue Service. If you don’t see that, I’m sure the Archbishop will.”
“You’d violate protocol? Go over my head? Now who’s playing fast and loose with the rules?”
“With respect, Mother, for the good of the Order, I will do whatever is necessary. Our mission is to save human life, not endanger it. By your leave.” Angry footfalls thudded away down the corridor.
Claudia tried to make sense of what she’d heard. Was it possible she could be grounded forever? She’d disobeyed Euodia’s command and deserved punishment, but a lifetime bar from rescue operations?
Her stump throbbed, and she realized Euodia was right. Claudia knew in her heart she’d never take part in another rescue. There were no one-armed vac suits, and she wouldn’t be able to manipulate most of their equipment one-handed. A standard artificial arm would allow her to perform simple tasks, but using one for extra-vehicular work in space was out of the question. State-of-the-art neural-linked prosthetics were murderously expensive. Despite Mother Superior’s optimism, the asteroid mining companies that covered their expenses had never granted such a request.
She had become a liability. Every member of the Order had to pull their own weight. Half the applicants washed out prior to training for minor physical shortcomings. Her condition was much more limiting than a trick knee or nearsightedness.
Claudia’s eyes filled with tears, but before the shuddering sobs could begin, another metered dose of painkillers flooded her bloodstream and she fell back into a dreamless sleep.
In another week, she was able to walk without assistance and was summoned to Mother Superior’s office. Claudia’s slippers made a soft chuffing sound on the deck plates, and she touched the corridor bulkhead from time to time to adjust her balance. A few of the Sisters passed her, smiling briefly, but never quite meeting her gaze. Everything felt askew – tilted and asymmetrical, as if losing her arm had disrupted the harmony of everything around her.
No, that was pride and self-pity speaking. She was the one out-of-balance, and she’d done it to herself.
Mother Superior was a tall, strong woman, Australian, a musical lilt clinging to her voice though she hadn’t been home to Sydney in nearly twenty years. She greeted Claudia at the door. “Come in, child, and sit down. You gave us quite a turn, but Sister Miriam says you’re mending at a fair pace. How do you feel?”
“A little wobbly.”
“A little afraid, perhaps, as well?”
Claudia pursed her lips. Mother Superior had a way of leaping into the heart of any matter. “Sister Euodia thinks I don’t belong here anymore.”
“That’s not Sister Euodia’s decision. I’d say it mostly depends on you.”
“But I can’t do rescues without…without…”
“Without two good arms? I suppose that’s so, but there’s more to the Sisters of Our Lady of the Rescue than unloading frightened people from derelict spaceships. We’ve quite an administrative workload, and there’s recruiting, and communications, and…”
“I’ve wanted to be a Rescue Sister since I was a little girl. I don’t know any other life, and I love it. It’s my true vocation.”
“You’ve served the Order with distinction for three full years. You’ve helped save many lives. Now you must consider whether God might have a different vocation prepared for you, but you certainly don’t have to leave the Sisterhood.”
“But I won’t be a Rescue Sister,” Claudia murmured. “I’ll be the person who used to be a Rescue Sister, until she made a stupid mistake, and God punished her for her arrogance.”
Mother Superior rose from her chair and laid her hands gently on Claudia’s shoulders. “You must seek God’s guidance, Claudia. Let me pray with you.”
Claudia shrugged off the touch. “I don’t know if I can pray anymore, or if God will listen if I do. I’m sorry, Mother, I just can’t. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She fled the room and stumbled back to her quarters, locking the door behind her. She dropped onto the bed, wiping tears from her eyes and gulping for breath as her shoulders shook uncontrollably.
After a few minutes, Claudia regained mastery of her breathing and turned to pull a tissue from its box on the nightstand. She reached with her right arm, out of habit, gritting her teeth as she realized what she’d done. The box fell to the floor. She stared at it for a moment, then picked it up and collected a tissue. After wiping her eyes and nose, she looked up at the crucifix hanging on the wall above her bed.
I’m an idiot. He gave everything for me, without complaint. All I’ve done is lose an arm.
Her gaze shifted to a framed icon of Saint Gillian on the adjoining wall. It was a modern version, the founder of the Sisters of the Rescue depicted as a stately lady in a hooded white robe, bobbed red hair peeking out from beneath the hood. Claudia had always thought the Saint looked very much like Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot, another of her heroes. Gillian had pale skin and blue eyes, and the iconographer had even sprinkled a few freckles across her cheeks, which amused Claudia no end – a saint with freckles! It made her seem more approachable, somehow. A translucent aureole of light surrounded her head, like a space helmet, and she held one hand out and downward – her right hand, Claudia noticed – to the viewer, offering assistance to one who had fallen.
The robe was gathered at Gillian’s slender waist by a white cord from which hung a small silver grapnel, Gillian’s Grapnel, symbol of her Order. Claudia, like all the Sisters, wore a replica of it on a pendant. Three mutually-opposed hooks joined at their stems and surmounted by a cross. God’s lifeline – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, meeting as one at the point of sacrifice.
It was more than a religious image. The Sisters used a modern, practical version, a flat-bladed magnetic grapnel on a braided carbon microfilament tether, launched from a pneumatic gun, to secure drifting wrecks or reach spacewalkers who’d blundered loose from their safety cables.
Claudia’s favorite representation of the Patroness of Spacefarers, though, shared her nightstand with the tissue box. She picked it up and shook it gently – a little globe filled with water and iridescent sparkles, containing a doll-like figure of Gillian on a delicate, springy wire. She wore a vac suit and carried a tiny rope and grapnel in one hand. She waved with the other hand, a winsome smile on her freckled face, floating joyfully among the glittering stars.
It was a gift from Claudia’s uncle Javier on her eighth birthday, back when she was Maribel Sanchez, before she became Sister Claudia of the Rescue. Javier was a freighter pilot, a big man with an incandescent smile.
“Oh, Tio Javier,” she’d said, “It’s wonderful! Who is she?”
“Ah, chica, she is a great lady, a great Saint. Saint Gillian of L-5…she watches over all of us who travel through space, and, I think, also over little girls with stars in their eyes.”
“She’s waving at me! Hello, Saint Gillian, I’m Maribel! Tio Javier, what is that thing she’s holding?”
“She uses it to catch spaceships that have lost their way, then she pulls them to safety.”
“That sounds like fun. I think she’d like me to help her. The way she’s waving, it’s like she’s saying, ‘Hey, Maribel, c’mon! There are so many lost ships and just one of me. Come help me save them!’ Do you think she’ll let me go help her some day, Tio Javier, when I’m bigger?”
“Corazón mio, of that I have no doubt.”
But Claudia had plenty of doubts. Had she deluded herself all this time? If being a Sister of the Rescue was her true vocation, why was God taking that away from her now? If He wanted her to do something else, there’d been ample opportunity to change her path before now. There were never enough nuns to fill the need for more conventional humanitarian work – tending the sick, caring for orphans, teaching school. He could have planted a different desire in her heart, or even arranged for her to wash out of training.
The training was hard, and she’d been so proud to finish it successfully, near the top of her class. She’d only been tempted to quit once – she was having difficulty with the zero-gee obstacle course, and her training mentor was in her face, asking her repeatedly if she really wanted to be a Rescue Sister after all, and she’d shouted back…
She’d hollered, “I’ll do anything to join the Sisterhood! I’d give my right arm!”
Claudia shook her head dazedly. Mother Superior’s right. I need to pray.
She knelt beside her bed and began the Rosary, fumbling a little at the beginning. Can’t even cross myself properly. She sighed and did it left-handed. The effort of prayer was painful at first, like turning rusty gears or stretching arthritic joints, but as she persisted, she fell into the ancient rhythm, her own difficulties fading as she contemplated the Mysteries. She reached Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and paused.
“Not my will, but Thine be done.”
There it was. Claudia wanted more than anything to find a way, some way, any way to remain a Rescue Sister, but she had taken an oath of service to God. The servant didn’t get to choose the service. The Master always made that decision. If she was ever going to move forward, Claudia realized, she had to accept that reality and trust God for the results.
She spilled out the desires of her heart, humbly and without demands, a simple petition. “Dear Lord, if there’s a way for me to stay here, doing what I love, fulfilling the calling you gave to me, please let it be so. If not, let your will be done, and show me the way to go.”
She felt a little better, a tiny weight lifted from her heart. It wasn’t perfect peace, but it was progress, and Claudia figured that was good enough for the moment. She finished the Rosary and added a quick request for Saint Gillian’s intercession. The elegant lady on the wall regarded her patiently, as always, hand outstretched, waiting for Claudia to grasp it and pull herself up. On the nightstand, Saint Gillian’s avatar bobbed placidly within the glittery aether, still grinning, still waving her welcome, as if to say, “C’mon, Claudia, chin up. Of course I’ll help!”
Claudia smiled back. It was childish and silly, but it was the first real smile she’d had since the accident, and it felt good. She turned off the light, slipped under the bedcovers, and slept soundly until the chime for Matins the next morning.
And she dreamed…it was the most wonderful dream. She was soaring in space with Saint Gillian, and her lost arm was restored. They spun, and swooped, and laughed together. Gillian led her to a small asteroid, where a long table was set for a feast, and the Sisters were there, waiting for them.
“They need your help, Claudia,” Gillian said. “They’re thirsty.” She gestured toward a crystal pitcher of water set on a marble pedestal near the table.
Claudia floated over to the pedestal, lifted the pitcher – with her right arm – and began serving her Sisters, one-by-one. When everyone’s glass was full, Claudia took a seat near the end of the table, and they all shared in the fine meal, smiling, singing, and sharing stories of impossible rescues and narrow escapes.
At the first note of the chime, Claudia was instantly awake and hurried to dress. Mother Superior had allowed her to be absent from the daily cycle of services during her recuperation, but today Claudia felt a new determination to reintegrate herself into the spiritual rhythms of the Order, even if she couldn’t directly participate in its mission. Prayer was her first duty, after all, she reminded herself.
Her arm felt strange. There was very little pain in the stump now, but Claudia had noticed that every so often it felt like the rest of her arm was still present. She’d feel a tingling sensation in her elbow, or her fingers, but of course nothing was there. The feeling was particularly strong that morning. More than once, she reached to pick something up with her right hand before she realized what she was doing.
She managed to wriggle into the shirt and slacks that constituted the simple habit of the Sisterhood, opting for a long-sleeved shirt to fully cover her injury, but the right sleeve was problematical. It didn’t seem proper to have it flopping about. After some deliberation, she folded it in half and pinned it to her shoulder. That issue resolved, she ran a brush through her hair and bolted out the door.
She’d expected to be the last one into the chapel, but most of the other Sisters were behind her, several of them grumbling amongst themselves about something. Her corridor-neighbor, Sister Victoria, ran up to her and gave her a quick hug. “It’s so good to see you up and about, Claudia.”
“Thanks. What’s going on? Everyone seems so grouchy.”
“There’s a practical joker among us. Many of the Sisters woke to find their water pitchers upended. Sister Joan nearly broke an ankle when she slipped on the wet floor.”
Claudia’s mind flashed back to her dream. Could she have been sleepwalking? She gulped, but managed to maintain her composure. “Who – who would do such a thing?”
“Nobody knows,” hissed Victoria. “Did it happen to you?”
“Well, no. I slept like a rock last night.” Except for the dream.
Victoria looked sidewise at her. “You’re fortunate. It took me twenty minutes to mop up the mess, and now I have no clean towels.”
“I’m so sorry. You should have called me to help.”
“I had no idea you were feeling so much better. It’s no problem. I’ll survive, but I pity the one who did this when they catch her.”
Mercifully, the Sisters arrived at the chapel before Claudia had to reply.
“You seem to be much improved today, Claudia. It was good to hear you singing at Matins again.”
“Thank you, Sister Miriam. I am feeling better.”
“Let’s have a look at that arm, then.” Sister Miriam slowly removed the synthetic gauze wrapping from Claudia’s stump. “Ah, this is coming along nicely. We should be able to fit you with a prosthesis in a few more weeks. Any pain or chafing?”
Claudia’s head was turned away. She wasn’t quite ready to confront the naked reality of her injury. “Hardly any pain now, but…Sister Miriam, sometimes it feels like my entire arm is still there. I can feel tickling in my forearm and hand, and if I close my eyes, I can imagine I’m wriggling my fingers.”
“Ghost Limb Syndrome. Very common. Your brain hasn’t come to terms with your injury. Some of the nerve fibers in your shoulder and upper arm are firing, and your brain interprets that as sensation or movement. It should pass in time, though some people have reported symptoms for many years.”
“That’s a relief. I thought I was going crazy. Sometimes when I try to move my right arm, things nearby have gotten knocked over. I figured I was just clumsy with my knees or feet, but I was afraid it was some sort of hallucination.”
“Well, some cultures believe the ghost limb is evidence of the human soul. The limb is gone, but its life-force remains in place.”
“What do you think, Sister Miriam?”
She smiled. “It’s an illusion, child. The mind’s playing a trick, but it’s a harmless one. I’ve heard we may be having trouble with the artificial grav unit. Lots of things dropping and spilling. Why, just last night, a pitcher of water emptied all over my floor.”
Claudia’s stomach clenched. “Some of the Sisters think there’s a mischief-maker on the loose.”
“Hmmm. I doubt it.” Miriam’s sunny smile became a menacing grin. “I’m a light sleeper. If anyone had gotten into my room, I’d have had them by the scruff of the neck before they could say, ‘April Fools.’” She deftly wrapped Claudia’s arm in a fresh bandage and taped down the end. “All done. So, what plans do you have for the rest of the day?”
“I thought I might speak with Sister Priscilla. I want to find something productive to do. I’m tired of lying in bed feeling sorry for myself.”
“Good for you.”
Claudia’s mind whirled as she made her way to the Administrative Section. Sister Miriam was right – if she had been sleepwalking, someone would have noticed. The dream was just a bizarre coincidence. Still, it had been so vivid. She’d never had a dream like that. Every sound, every touch, every tiny detail had been as clear and sharp as reality, and she remembered it all. Her dreams usually faded into an amorphous fog of impressions after a day or two.
A door slid open in the corridor ahead, and two Sisters emerged, clad in vac suits, helmets cradled in their arms. They were absorbed in conversation, oblivious to Claudia’s presence, chatting happily about the mission they’d just completed. Their faces were flushed, and perspiration plastered their hair to their heads in untidy mops, but they practically glowed with joy.
She watched them pass, a lump forming in her throat. She knew exactly how they felt, breathless with exhilaration, knowing they’d just saved someone from an agonizing death in the icy darkness of space. Knowing they’d made a difference, one more time.
She’d never feel that way again, and the knowledge hurt worse than any physical injury.
Claudia squared her shoulders. All that was behind her. She had to concentrate on finding a new niche within the Order, some place she could be productive and make a meaningful contribution.
“We don’t get many young people down here,” Sister Priscilla said in her quavery, singsong voice as she maneuvered a desk chair through the narrow path between workstations in the tiny office. “A few rescuers on convalescent status, like yourself. They putter around for a few days, they mend, and then we never see them again.”
Claudia took the proffered chair and scooted it into a vacant terminal, blinking in dismay at the complicated graphic interface.
Sister Priscilla peered over her wire-rimmed spectacles. “However, given the nature of your particular injury, it’s possible you might join us permanently. It’s not a glamorous job, keeping the Sisterhood’s records in proper order, but it’s very important. Imagine what might happen if a requisition for life support maintenance was sent to the wrong agency, or if our monthly orders for food and supplies were miscalculated? Someone would have to come rescue us! We’d lose all credibility with the mining companies and the spacers who have come to rely on our aid. Then where would we be?”
There was a long pause. Had Sister Priscilla lost her train of thought? Claudia glanced up. The elderly nun was watching her expectantly. It seemed the question wasn’t rhetorical. “I…er…I don’t know.”
“Do try to stay focused, my dear. This job is all about attention to detail.”
“Now, let’s see here. The keyboard won’t be much help to you until you’ve learned how to type one-handed. You’ll have to use the voice entry system, and it’s rather twitchy.” She twisted a micro headset into Claudia’s ear. “Don’t use it at all, myself. Last time I tried, I spent a week correcting all the errors it made. God willing, the wretched thing will like your voice better than mine. We’ll start with an audit of the personnel database.”
Six hours later, Claudia left the Administrative Section with a raw throat and blurred vision. Sister Priscilla bade her a kind farewell, but Claudia saw her shaking her head and tut-tutting as she reentered the office.
It hadn’t gone well. Claudia had gained little more than a new appreciation for Priscilla’s expertise and the certainty that office work was not her new vocation.
The next few days passed in similar fashion. A hopeful start at a new task – supply, communications, data systems, even the galley – but frustration and disappointment at day’s end. For all her previous skill at rescue operations, the ancillary tasks that supported the Sisterhood’s primary mission were impenetrable to Claudia.
She lay on her bed after a thoroughly disastrous afternoon working with the station’s environmental system. Sister Elizabeth had assured her they’d have the humidity rebalanced before anyone noticed, but the air still felt too moist to Claudia, and some of the other Sisters had eyed her suspiciously as she returned to her quarters.
This wasn’t working. As devoted as Claudia was to her vows and her Order, the conviction was growing within her that she had to be a Rescue Sister or nothing at all.
She felt a migraine coming on. After a few moments of rummaging through her nightstand drawer, she found an analgesic tablet, poured herself a big glass of water, and gulped the pill down.
Claudia nearly choked as she realized she was drinking from a glass suspended in midair with no visible means of support.
She had picked up the glass with her right hand. The hand that wasn’t there anymore. She could feel the coolness of the glass, but it was oddly slippery, as if it were coated with soap. Tentatively, she reached over with her left hand to wave it in the intervening space between her stump and the glass. The invisible right arm tingled as her hand passed through where it ought to be, but its grasp on the glass remained solid, if a little greasy.
It had to be a hallucination. Her heart pounding, Claudia slowly set the glass onto the nightstand and released it. It wobbled slightly, but remained upright.
She reached for it again. Tingling, insubstantial fingers felt the cool, slippery surface and took hold. She brought the glass back to her mouth and took a sip.
Claudia experimented with other objects in her room. She fluffed her pillow, moved a broom across the floor, and straightened Saint Gillian’s icon. As her invisible hand moved across the wall, the sensation was odder yet, as if it was moving through jelly. She pushed harder.
There was a yelp and crash from the adjoining compartment. Claudia rushed from her room and pounded on the door. It slid open, revealing a dripping-wet Sister Victoria. “Somebody has got to do something about the grav,” she growled. “I swear, that pitcher floated up into the air and emptied itself onto my head.”
Claudia helped Victoria wipe up the floor and change her bed linens, wrestling with her conscience as she did so. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Sister Victoria, I have a confession to make.”
Victoria looked at her quizzically. “Father Harrison will be on-station in a couple of days, I think.”
“No, no…I mean, I have a confession to make to you. I’m the one who spilled your water pitcher.”
“You’re the prankster? I can’t believe it!” To Claudia’s surprise and dismay, Victoria actually seemed delighted. “Okay, I’m a little annoyed, but this has got to be the best prank ever. How did you manage it?” She pulled Claudia closer. “Did you tinker with the grav unit?”
“No. I reached through the wall.”
“It’s my arm. You know how sometimes a person who’s lost a limb can still feel it, like it’s still there? Well, I can pick things up with mine.”
“Right. Are you feeling okay, Claudia?”
“I’m not crazy, Victoria. Here, I’ll show you.”
Claudia reached for Victoria’s pitcher, but the sensation was gone. No feeling, not even a tingle. Nothing happened.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?” asked Victoria.
“It was working just a minute ago. I was moving all sorts of things around my room, then I reached through the wall and accidentally knocked over your pitcher.”
“Mmm-hm. Claudia, I think you should get some rest. I know you’re trying hard to find a way to fit back in, but after everything you’ve been through, more stress is the last thing you need right now.”
“I’m telling the truth, Victoria! It was real. You have to believe me!”
“Go rest, Claudia. I’ll be praying for you.”
Claudia tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the phenomenon over the next several days. The sensation of her arm’s presence waxed and waned, seemingly at random, but she was unable to grasp or move objects with the invisible limb. Perhaps the malfunctioning grav system was responsible for the strange goings-on, or maybe Victoria was correct in her assessment that Claudia was overstressed. To her credit, Victoria hadn’t breathed a word to Mother Superior or the other Sisters about Claudia’s hysterical outburst, so at least there was no worry of being put on psychiatric watch.
Not that it mattered anyhow. Claudia had made up her mind. She couldn’t stay any longer, so close to the work she loved, but never able to participate in it. She’d go back to Earth, spend some time with her parents, perhaps make a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem – whatever it took to put her confused spirit back in order.
“You’re certain this is what you want?” Mother Superior’s face was sad and disappointed. It nearly stole Claudia’s resolve, but she wasn’t about to turn back. It would only make things worse.
“Mother, I’m not certain of anything anymore. All I know is that I can’t stay here among the Sisters. Maybe this is God’s way of directing me. Every day brings more pain, more evidence that I can’t pull my weight here, that I don’t fit in.”
“I’m sorry, my child. Don’t blame yourself. This is a failure of the entire Sisterhood. We’ve not made adequate provision for those who fall in the line of duty.”
“No, Mother Superior, you’ve been wonderful, and so have all the other Sisters. It was my fault that the accident happened, and this is my penance.”
“Claudia, please understand that you’ll always be one of us, and you’re welcome to return at any time. We’ll make a place for you.”
“I understand. Thank you,” Claudia managed, knowing in her heart there would be no coming back. “I’ll always cherish my time here, and I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
“Very well. Sisters Euodia and Victoria are making the monthly supply run to Rashkov Distribution Complex tomorrow. From there, you can catch a transport to L-5.”
Claudia stiffened when she heard that Euodia would be taking her away from Ceres Station. One last chance to say, ‘I told you so.’ At least Victoria would be there, too. That would ease the sting a little.
Packing her few possessions didn’t take long that evening. Her crucifix, Bible, rosary, prayer book, some clothes and personal necessities, and her diary. The icon of Saint Gillian stayed on the wall to inspire the room’s new occupant. Claudia picked up her little water globe and shook it. Saint Gillian soared among the stars once more, oblivious to Claudia’s distress.
She put the globe back on the nightstand. “I’m sorry, Saint Gillian,” she whispered, “This is where we part ways. You belong here in space, helping the Sisters with their rescues. I won’t be coming back.”
Through the starboard passenger window of the supply shuttle Mercy, Claudia could see in the distance the flashing red and white marker beacons that outlined the edge of the Crucible, warning ships to stay clear of its briar patch of debris and discarded weaponry. She remembered the tour ship, hoping the Belt Patrol had gotten to it soon enough to collect the data recorder and the damning evidence she knew it contained. That might have made it all worthwhile. One last good deed for Sister Claudia of the Rescue.
They were a third of the way to Rashkov, with eight long hours to go. Claudia reclined her seat and tried to sleep.
As a ship passed within detection range of Tachikara Heavy Industries Perimeter Outpost A37, the outpost’s tactical computer executed a randomizing algorithm, then energized its main power relay. THI was no more, a casualty of the Corporate War, but this robotic watchdog still clung to life, hidden within a hollowed-out asteroid, hoarding its last reserves of electricity and ammunition as it awaited the signal to engage an enemy that no longer existed.
The randomizer had spoken. It was time to strike again.
Radar acquisition and lock took 0.03 seconds, and a spray of anti-ship projectiles flashed toward Mercy.
Claudia was jolted awake as something slammed into the shuttle’s aft section, the impact knocking the ship sideways. Warning lights flashed and alarm bells rang.
Sister Euodia entered the passenger compartment. “Are you all right?” she shouted over the din.
“Just shaken up. What happened?”
“I don’t know. It felt like we hit something, but there’s nothing out here to hit. Propulsion’s down. I’m going on an MMV walk to check it out. Victoria’s trying to get auxiliary power on-line.”
“How can I help?”
Euodia paused, staring hard at Claudia, then she nodded. “Check the ship for air leaks. Use the backup gauges. Life support readouts in the cockpit will be inop until Victoria gets the power back up.”
The alarms stilled, and Claudia began making her way around the interior of the shuttle in the eerie glow of emergency lighting, inspecting the gauges, air supply lines, and connectors.
A37 initiated a second volley, but its gun did not respond. The tactical computer confirmed the anti-ship magazine was empty, but also noted a human infrared signature near the target. It switched to anti-personnel flechettes, firing ten of the needle-shaped rounds and emptying that magazine. Ammunition spent, the outpost detonated a self-destruct charge, melting itself into slag.
For Outpost A37, the Corporate War was now well and truly over.
Claudia and Victoria listened on the comm channel as Sister Euodia talked through her inspection. “This is bizarre. The venturis are shredded. This isn’t meteorite damage or an internal malfunction. It’s like someone took a giant shotgun to our engine.”
“Could it have come from the Crucible?” Victoria suggested, “Maybe we triggered an automatic defense system.”
“No, we’re in public space. At this range, there’s no way anything could…”
The transmission dropped into static. Victoria screamed, and Claudia rushed forward to the cockpit. “What’s going on?”
Victoria pointed to the port window. “It’s her MMV. It’s out of control!”
Claudia could see Euodia spiraling away from the shuttle, propellant spewing from her Manual Maneuver Vehicle backpack at an odd angle. She struggled with it, finally disconnecting the straps. It pinwheeled into the darkness, leaving Euodia still tumbling away from Mercy, but at a slower rate.
Euodia’s voice rang out from the intercom. She was breathing heavily. “Something hit me. Punctured the MMV. My tether twisted around a piece of jagged metal on the tail section and sheared. I’m going to try a grapnel shot, pull myself back.”
Victoria keyed her mic. “I’m coming out for you.”
“Negative. I don’t want you getting hit too. Besides, we’re not kitted out for rescue. That was our only MMV. You’ll never catch up to me.”
What Victoria and Claudia both knew, as their eyes met, was that Euodia would run out of air long before a rescue ship arrived, if she couldn’t grapple the shuttle.
Claudia hurried back to the passenger compartment, where there was a window better-aligned to see what was happening. She gasped. Euodia was already a long way from the shuttle. Claudia could barely make her out, aided by the flashing beacons on her helmet and vac suit.
There was a brief flash as the tiny jets on the grapnel’s magnetic head propelled it toward Mercy, the tether playing out behind. It was a good shot. A very good shot. Claudia was ready to breathe a sigh of relief, then she saw the tether go momentarily taut, and the magnetic grapnel fell short.
Half a meter out, and slowly drifting away. Close enough in that moment to reach out and grab, if only they weren’t in space, with the shuttle’s hull in-between.
Desperately, without thinking, Claudia reached out. To her surprise, she could feel her phantom arm now, from elbow to fingertips, sliding through the ship’s bulkhead, into the breathtaking chill of open space, stretching farther than it ought to have been able to, its invisible, tingling hand closing around the tether where it connected to the grapnel.
The lifeline was slick, and painfully cold. She couldn’t pull it closer, but somehow, she held onto it, and she prayed as she had never prayed before. Praying for faith to believe in the incredible thing that was happening. Praying for strength to hold on until Sister Euodia pulled herself in. Praying for forgiveness for every hateful thought and harsh word she’d ever exchanged with the woman on the other end of the tether. Praying for the intercessions and support of Mary, and Saint Gillian, and all the angels in Heaven.
Praying for a miracle.
She became aware that someone was shaking her by the shoulder. She opened her eyes and looked upward, blinking at the sight of Sister Euodia, still in her vac suit, bending over her. An odd blend of emotions was playing across the stern face.
“It’s all right, Claudia. I’m safe, Sister. You can let go now.”
Claudia looked out the window. Her eyes felt so heavy, but she could see the grapnel and its tether were suspended in place, a little less than a meter from the hull, as if held there by an invisible hand. The stump of her right arm was pressed tightly against the window. She released the tether and pulled back, feeling a tingle and welcome warmth as the unseen limb reentered the shuttle.
Victoria was sitting beside her, tears dripping from her chin. “I didn’t know what to do. You wouldn’t answer me. Then I came back here, and you were kneeling by the window, and then I saw…oh, it was glorious! I’m sorry for doubting you before, Claudia.”
“Don’ worry about it,” Claudia murmured. “God’s plan. S’why Gillian’s always grinning.”
“Rescue ship’s on the way,” Euodia said. “You should rest now.”
But Claudia was already asleep.
“So, that’s the story, Mother,” said Sister Euodia, handing a data tablet to Mother Superior. “The Belt Patrol is sending an Ordnance Disposal team to sweep that sector, and they’ve adjusted the public spaceway by 200 kilometers to prevent any further incidents.”
“Prudent,” Mother Superior replied as she scanned the report. “Better late than never, I suppose.”
Claudia sighed. “As for me, I’ll depart on the next available shuttle, now that my official deposition is on file.”
“Balderdash. You’re not going anywhere,” Euodia said. “You’re going to stay here, in the Rescue Service, where you belong.”
Claudia nearly fell out of her chair. Euodia was saying this?
“But, how?” Claudia protested, wondering in the same instant why she couldn’t just keep her mouth shut and be happy.
So very, very happy.
Mother Superior smiled. “The Archbishop has granted you an accommodation. After yesterday’s…incident, it wasn’t a hard sell. God forbid we should hinder one of our Sisters in the pursuit of her true vocation.”
“But what about my arm?” Shut up, Claudia, shut up!
“Ah…about that,” Euodia replied with a grin, “We delivered the tourist ship’s data recorder to the Belt Patrol after your accident, while you were in surgery. You were right. The pilot violated a restricted zone, and it wasn’t the first time. The tour company paid a hefty fine and is now limited to excursions in Earth orbit. This morning, the authorities decided you should receive a share of the fine, in compensation for personal damages and as a bounty for uncovering the mischief. The amount will cover the cost of a neural-linked prosthesis.”
“Our Mining Guild liaison assures me it will provide almost all the functionality of the original arm,” said Mother Superior. “There will be surgery, and you’ll have to re-qualify on basic rescue skills after rehabilitation, but with God’s help, and a modicum of hard work and determination, I expect you’ll be back on the front lines in a few months.”
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Euodia continued, “This won’t be easy. I’m going to supervise your re-qual personally.”
That tempered Claudia’s euphoria, but she figured she could deal with it. The two Sisters excused themselves and left Mother Superior’s office.
“Claudia,” said Euodia, “I have a confession to make.”
“Isn’t Father Harrison coming this weekend?” Claudia replied innocently.
Euodia gritted her teeth. “You know what I mean. I could have told you sooner about the data recorder, but…”
Claudia nodded. “You didn’t want to reward my disobedience.”
“Yes. I also couldn’t abide you being right. Please forgive me.”
“Done. And I’m an insufferable woodenhead who thinks she knows everything. I should have listened to you.”
“God used your disobedience to save my life. I only wish it hadn’t cost you an arm.”
Claudia glanced down at her empty sleeve. “In some ways, He gave me a better one, though it only seems to work when He wants it to.”
“‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, seen and unseen.’ I’ve said those words a thousand times, but now they’ve taken on a whole new meaning. I suppose witnessing a miracle makes a person see everything in a different light.”
“Maybe,” said Claudia. “I think for me, it mostly renewed my faith in the things I believed already. I thought I’d lost my vocation. Now, I feel it stronger than ever.”
Euodia smiled and turned down the corridor to her quarters. “We’ll start planning your re-qualification program tomorrow after Matins,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t be late.”
Claudia waved farewell. It felt odd, this new companionship with Euodia. Odd, but nice. She returned to her own room and began unpacking her suitcase. She spied Saint Gillian’s globe, still in place on her nightstand, and paused to pick it up and shake it.
“Hi, Saint Gillian! It’s Claudia. Would it be okay with you if I come back and help you rescue spaceships again?”
Saint Gillian smiled and waved.
© 2009 Fred Warren
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Author’s Note: This story is set in the Rescue Sisters Universe created by Robert and Karina Fabian in their anthologies, Infinite Space, Infinite God and Leaps of Faith, and inhabits this universe with their permission. The stories in the anthologies are about a future order of Catholic nuns who provide search and rescue services to space workers and travelers throughout our solar system’s asteroid belt. Beyond that foundational setting, the characters and story are my own.
Karina and Rob Fabian came up with the universe of the Rescue Sisters while on a date as a fun alternative to talking about work or kids. Their first story, Code 7, led to several others, plus three anthologies — Leaps of Faith, and Infinite Space, Infinite God I and II. Karina is an award-wining writer and Rob a Colonel in the USAF. Find more at Fabianspace.