The Conservation of Kindness
Jarod K. Anderson
Little Val Sorn wore a purple sweatshirt and sat next to airlock delta like an abandoned shoe, the sort of object whose providence can hardly be explained by anything good. Most people on the station didn’t glance down at her as they walked past on their way to post or pleasure. Some tried to casually run their eyes over her as if she were one of the rotating sculpture pieces tucked into the alcoves along the corridors. They had heard the rumors. Others, like me, knew the truth of the story. Most of us couldn’t look at her at all. To know and look and not scoop her up and try to save her was like prying up the lid of your soul and smelling rot.
The day Val’s mother died was the first time I’d heard a code 36. Five progressively sharper chimes followed by a location. I had no idea what it meant. Eventually, looking around the deck, I found one stony face in the sea of confused faces and got an answer. A code 36 meant someone had committed suicide without leave to do so or the aid of the medical staff. I remember the security officers in their yellow coats all huddled around the airlock, fidgeting with their equipment and walking in circles.
There was no crime scene. No evidence. The culprit was a frozen, tumbling spec already too far away to be seen clearly with the unaided eye.
Of course, some people spoke of another culprit, alive and well and walking the decks in the uniform of a senior officer. Colonel Cedar, after all, had sent Val’s father to his death on an assignment most of the other officers had called needlessly risky. I was one of those officers. And it was difficult not to notice the way Cedar’s eyes tracked Val’s mother, a predator hiding in the weedy cover of authority.
Val was only eight years old. I hoped that wasn’t old enough to understand the injustice. I hoped, but didn’t believe. The universe is vast and rich with elegant complexity, but kindness isn’t a governing principle. It isn’t conserved like energy or matter. It isn’t stable. She knew.
Sometimes I started awake imagining I heard a code 36 on the edge of sleep. I’d sit in the dark and try to shake off the image of a tiny shape, dressed in purple, cartwheeling over the bulkhead. I’d get up and pace my quarters, almost trekking down to public housing to check on Val. Almost.
I was there on the day she finally did it. I was just taking a lap around the outer ring after my shift. I was focused on the salt and pepper head of Colonel Cedar a dozen paces in front of me, hoping, doubtfully, that his sleep was as troubled as mine. My throat clenched when I realized that our course would take us past airlock delta, that Val would have to see him.
When we neared the airlock, I forced myself to look straight ahead. I imagined reaching an arm through the hull and letting the absolute cold of empty space fill me up, pack all my senses in ice. My fantasy was broken by a noise that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. The woosh of the inner airlock door opening.
Val had punched in the code to open the door. I had no idea where she would have gotten that code, but there it was. Cedar had stopped, level with the door, and stood staring holes into the little girl. Val darted into the airlock and stared back at Cedar with her hand on the outer door panel. She seemed to be daring him to enter. Willing him to do it.
Cedar walked up to the inner panel, waved his officer’s credential at the sensor, and tapped in the lock command. Then, he stepped into the airlock. Val entered the opening sequence into the door panel as fast as she could, but nothing happened. She was trying it again when Cedar grabbed a fistful of the back of her sweatshirt and dragged her away, nearly lifting her off the ground.
He was certainly taking her to security. Reeducation. Remedial programs then a life of the worst kinds of menial jobs. But, I saw the truth of it, the way she pirouetted under Cedar’s grip. Desperate. Looking for some last minute miracle. Spinning on her axis. Out. Out into the vacuum of the rest of her life.
I opened the comm-link on my wrist and whispered, “code 36.”
Everyone in the corridor jumped when the chimes began. Code 36: Airlock Delta. Just like on the first day I’d heard that code.
Cedar froze in place, looking around for something he’d missed. I barely remember the next part. I must have spoken into my comm, canceling the code. I don’t recall making a decision or weighing my options. I was just next to Cedar, slapping his hand away from Val and shoving him against the wall.
Cedar snarled something in anger and surprise. He raised a fist. Then, shaking all over, he slowly lowered his arm. I leaned in, almost whispering the words a few inches from his reddening face.
Cedar winced as if he’d been struck, but he got the words past his gritted teeth.
“Yes ma’am, General.”
Then, he spun on his heel and stomped away muttering.
Val was a little shaky, but after a brief, civil chat, she accepted a piggy-back ride to the station’s residential office. I was going to need more living space. I was going to need to rethink my opinion of purple décor. I was going to need to rethink the universe.
Note: This is an older bit of unpublished flash fiction I had laying around, so I thought I’d feed it to the internet. Hope you enjoyed.