4   Weightless

from the YA novel Monks in Space

 

     In the dream, Bart was nine years old again, wandering the halls of the Prominence in search of his mother. The monks all wore their cowls over their heads and each one he approached ignored Bart. He would reach out and tug on the brother’s habit, always with the same result: the robe came away in his hand, leaving only air.

     The cold woke him. Normally, air handling kept the temperature inside the Prominence at a steady 18° Celsius, but once in a while the cold of space stole in. When a draft crept in under his habit, Bart thought he had kicked off his covers.

      His eyes still closed, Bart fumbled for his blanket and felt himself falling. He flung his hands from his sides to catch the mattress—but there was no mattress. The reaction sent his head crashing against something in the dark, and when Bart opened his eyes he realized he had banged his head on the ceiling. That sent him drifting slowly towards the floor.

     He was weightless.

     Bart looked around their darkened cell. He wasn’t far from the center of the room. Following the sound of Gary’s snoring, Bart found him floating just beyond their bunks, tethered by a corner of his blanket still pinned to the mattress. He turned in his sleep, wrapping himself in the blanket and rolling back into bed, oblivious.

     “Gary!” hissed Bart, whispering for some reason. He called his name once more, louder this time.

     He opened his eyes. “What? Was I snoring again?”

     “There’s no gravity!”

     Gary looked around the room, most of which was below him. “Jesus. How long has it been like this?”

     “I don’t know,” said Bart. “I just woke up now.”

     “All right. I’m heading for environmental. I want you to get down to the dormitories and wake up anyone who’s still sleeping. Tell people to use tape or clay or whatever they can find to stick anything heavy floating around to the floor.”

      “Right.”

     “And be careful. Stay away from anything that might fall on you when the gravity comes back. And tell people to stay low!”

     “Okay,” said Bart.

     Gary jackknifed into a pair of coveralls and then pushed out the door and into the hall.

      Bart’s habit was billowing around him like a jellyfish’s bell, catching on everything. He backed out of it and pushed it aside before kicking off a wall for the doorway. It was important he move fast and no one in the entirely male order would protest his lack of clothing. Bart caught the doorframe and swung into the empty corridor outside the cell. Gary was already gone, and nobody else seemed to have woken up, yet. But there were already plenty of loose objects floating around, including a ball of water, a book—H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds—and a few coins. He was surprised at how few objects there were in the air. The gravity couldn’t have been off for long.

     Remembering Gary’s warning, Bart kept low to the deck, floating aft down the corridor. Despite the dangers, within moments, he was having enough fun to wish Gary wouldn’t be able to put the gravity back on anytime soon. He passed the galley entrance, where a refrigerator had already drifted out into the hallway. Inside was chaos: cutlery, bowls, half a loaf of bread, and a bunch of carrots floated about the room.

     “Anybody here?” called Bart. Hearing nothing, he closed the door to contain the mess then continued aft. Still no sign that anyone else was awake.

     He soon reached the darkened cathedral. Bart ducked into the church, which was easily four stories from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. Here on the dark side of the abbey, he could see only stars through the few windows that were not stained glass. Otherwise, the church seemed to be in good order.

     After a moment, though, he noticed that some of the stars were drifting. Floating throughout the room were candles—hundreds of them in their red glass tumblers, lit for the night services. Without gravity, they burned with only the faintest, blue blob of flame. Still, they were dangerous, especially if one of them drifted into the curtains that normally hung behind the altar, now billowing across the chancel.

    Bart swam about the room, extinguishing the flames one by one. He had to launch himself through each constellation of candles, plucking up as many as he could. But there was nothing but air to stop him as he drifted past, and he was flying dangerously high. Just when he thought he’d put out the last one, he would spy another sprinkling of blue stars.

     It was taking far too long. Still, he couldn’t resist, and pushed off from the back of a choir stall toward another cluster. It was thrilling to fly so high above the floor. It occurred to Bart that this was what it must be like for Sol, looking down upon His congregation.

     He was blowing out the last few candles when a movement below caught his eye. A bright yellow disc tracked across the church, only a few feet above the floor. It was spinning as it moved, a slow Frisbee. Bart recognized the rich color as one of the gold glazes that Aelred had created, and it was covering a large dinner plate—a dish destined for the dining table of a King or some wealthy collector. But at the moment, it was heading for the back wall of the church.

     Bart wanted to dive for it, but he had drifted out of reach of the ceiling. It was the worst thing you could do while weightless: he had left himself without a push-off point. He could do nothing until he drifted to a wall or the floor.

     Just as Aelred’s dish was about to smash against the wall, Bart watched a figure shoot into the room from the back of the church and intercept it. Whoever it was moved as gracefully through the air as a trout in clear water. Then she laughed a distinctly feminine laugh, and Bart recognized the girl they had rescued from the remora. She was still wearing her yellow hospital gown, which was not made for wear in zero gravity. It billowed around her, giving Bart a good look at her uncovered legs.

     Bart wanted to dive for it, but he had drifted out of reach of the ceiling. It was the worst thing you could do while weightless: he had left himself without a push-off point. He could do nothing until he drifted to a wall or the floor.

       Just as Aelred’s dish was about to smash against the wall, Bart watched a figure shoot into the room from the back of the church and intercept it. Whoever it was moved as gracefully through the air as a trout in clear water. Then she laughed a distinctly feminine laugh, and Bart recognized the girl they had rescued from the remora. She was still wearing her yellow hospital gown, which was not made for wear in zero gravity. It billowed around her, giving Bart a good look at her uncovered legs.

       “Quit fooling around!” he heard someone hiss from the corridor outside the church.

       “Have you ever seen so much space?” she said. “This ship is huge!”

       “Give that to me!” said a male voice.

       She turned and, with a practiced flick, sailed the plate through the door toward the voice. A moment later, he heard the ring of ceramic shattering on stone and saw the woman put her hands to her mouth.

       “Do you know what that was worth?” said the voice.

       Then she laughed again, that beautiful, silvery laugh, and at that moment looked up and saw Bart hovering high above her. And then Bart remembered that he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on.

       “What is it?” came the voice from the corridor.

       “We’ve got company,” she said, her eyes on Bart, who did his best to cover himself with his hands.

       A second later, the man they had rescued from the remora swam into the church and floated next to her. A cord trailed from his hand to somewhere outside the room. A moment later, a mesh bag full of what looked like laundry drifted in after him. It took Bart a moment to realize that it wasn’t clothing. It was dozens of the order’s ceramics, each hastily wrapped in a sheet or robe.

       “Hi,” said the girl.

       “What are you doing?” asked Bart.

       She exchanged a coy glance with the man. “We’re robbing you.”

       “Looks like you’ve got yourself stranded,” said the man. “Come on,” he said to his partner and then pushed out of the room, still hanging onto the cord. The bale of pots spun in mid air before he towed it after him. The girl floated there, looking at Bart for a long moment, and Bart couldn’t help but appreciate the fairness of his predicament. He had stared at her when she was defenseless, and now she was returning the favor. After a moment, she folded into a jackknife before pushing off one of the choir stalls and out of the room.

       Bart had to move. He tried swimming, but that was a notoriously ineffective way to move in air. He filled his lungs and blew away from the wall as hard as he could, over and over. After a moment, he began floating towards the wall. It was still about five meters away.

       He blew again and again, and slowly he picked up speed. Three meters away. He filled and emptied his lungs a dozen times, getting dizzier with each breath. He reached out to one of the church’s vast, stained-glass windows.

       At last, he was able to pinch some of the leading between panes and pull himself downward. That did it. Head swimming, he was closing in on the floor. He grabbed a stall by the canopy and shot toward the back of the church.
Bart pushed himself from the doorjamb and toward the tunnel where the remora was docked. He angled his way off a wall, trying for one long shot down the hallway. When he passed stores, he thought he could hear the pots, wrapped in their linen, clinking faintly. Rounding a corner, he saw the thieves attempting to wrestle their bundle through the entrance to the docking tunnel.

       He was still some distance away when they looked up and saw him. Bart didn’t know what to do. As a Copernican, he was forbidden to raise a hand against another human being. Scripture taught him that it was better to let them take all of the pots, even if they were the Order’s lifeblood.

      If a man covet thy house, make wide the door for him.

       The man saw Bart hesitate, and a wolfish smile came to his face. “Come on. There’s nothing he can do about it.”

       Bart launched himself at the bag of pots and snagged the mesh as he passed by. He had the momentum. The man, clearly experienced in moving in zero-g, didn’t fight him, but pushed the bag in the direction it was already traveling, pinning Bart against the wall.

       Bart shoved the bundle away. With nothing to brace himself against, the man drifted backwards. Then he pushed off the bundle so that he continued even faster in the direction Bart had sent him, caromed off the wall, then the ceiling, and came back at Bart, who was ready this time. He pushed off the floor, then dove from the ceiling and came down on the man. But the girl had also launched herself at Bart and grabbed him around the neck. The man kicked Bart in the stomach, and he felt all the air leave his lungs.

       Struggling to regain his breath, Bart reached back, grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled. She gave a pained cry and Bart was surprised at how easily he broke her grip. He flung her against the wall, and realized, suddenly, that he was much stronger than either of the thieves. Their months of floating had had left them as weak as children.

       The man jammed the flat of his hand into Bart’s nose. He heard a sickening crunch and was soon flailing in a spray of red droplets. A surge of anger coursed through him. He grabbed the man by the throat with one hand and drew back his fist, just as he felt weight returning to him. It was as if his body were turning to lead. The man felt it, too, and struggled to turn them over, so that he would be on top, but Bart had the advantage, now. He pushed off the wall with his elbow, righting them, and with a thud they hit the deck. Bart estimated they were only back to half gravity, and already Bart’s weight was squeezing the breath out of the man.

       “Brother Bartholomew!”

       Bart turned to see Aelred, James, and Gary standing just inside the bulkhead door, looking down on them.

       “What are you doing?” asked Aelred.

       “They were trying to steal our wares.”

       Aelred gave Bart a hard stare before turning to Gary. “Captain Tanner, would you take Brother Bartholomew to the infirmary so that Brother Theodore can treat his injuries?”

       Gary helped the boy to his feet, and Bart wiped blood from his nose with a grimy sleeve. “You sure you can handle these two?” Gary asked Aelred.

       Aelred watched as the man struggled to his hands and knees, but full gravity still pinned the girl to the floor. “I don’t think they’ll be any further trouble. Brother James, have someone bring stretchers for these . . . people.”

       “All right,” said Gary. “But if they try crawling to that docking tunnel, you better sit on them, or at least read one of the Abbot’s harsher sermons.”

       Then he turned to Bart. “Let’s go, champ.”