Dehkarr drifted and watched the world turn lazily beneath his feet.
Somewhere far below, a storm barked lightning, clouds twisting and writhing in their death throes as the weather modification fields shaped them, sapped them, until only wisps escaped to flow placidly over the gritty smear that was the great megatropolis of Tarlahk. Over the southern continent, a glittering sea of millions upon millions of migrating birds caught the sun's light, lending much-needed mystery to the dull, swampy marshlands below. Long, unbroken streets of cloud pressed lengthwise against the mountain ranges, crisscrossed here and there by the contrails of suborbital flitters.
Some part of him recognized and appreciated the sheer impossible beauty of what was happening below him. Some part of him marveled at all the lives down there, spread out across tracts of land he could spend a dozen lifetimes exploring. A much bigger part of him, however, was currently much more concerned with the fact that he was about to lose his lunch.
"I hate null-gee," he groaned.
His shitty old radio sparked and crackled, making his tin can of a suit feel even more claustrophobic. "Oh, suck it up," Sarbash said. "Literally, if you have to. I'm not cleaning puke out of your suit again. No way they pay me enough for that."
Dehkarr snorted and tried to hold his head very still. The secret, he'd heard, was never to tilt your head. Something to do with the way the fluids in the ear canal moved, the scientists said. Hell, he'd always figured the real secret was not to wander into null-gee in the first place, but no, he'd just had to apply for the network admin job. He'd just had to go and make himself indispensable. Problem with a refueling station's ventilation system? Send Dehkarr, he's good with electronics. Unexplained orbital decay? Dehkarr to the rescue, again.
Weather satellite sending you some weird fucking readings? You know who to call.
He risked turning his head, very slowly, to shoot a venomous glare at the little passenger freighter that was currently serving as the other end of his suit's oxygen umbilical. It wasn't like Sarbash could actually see him in there – especially since the faceplate on this cheap-ass suit was so scuffed up it was practically opaque – but it did make him feel a bit better.
Then, painstakingly, he turned back to the job at hand, which involved unscrewing a panel from the antiquated weather satellite that had, earlier that day, broadcast a forecast of twenty million degrees for Sherak Capital. He couldn't imagine that going over particularly well. Today: Death and fire and spontaneous combustion, with a chance of lava. Tomorrow: partly cloudy.
Anyway, the problem wasn't so much the screwy readouts as it was the fact that the satellite had stopped communicating thereafter. And, of course, nobody had bothered to install a proper haptic interface that'd allow him to run diagnostics from his nice, comfortable, gravity-filled office back home. No, apparently it was actually more cost-effective to blast him into orbit every few months than it was to upgrade. Sometimes he hated the Protheans for coming up with the whole cheap-and-easy mass effect technology thing. Progress wasn't always a step forward.
"You're just afraid of falling," Lathira had told him, when he'd been complaining to her over the vidscreen the night before. "It's perfectly natural. Being in orbit is like falling and falling while the ground keeps forgetting to catch you. That's scary stuff." And she was an astrophysicist, so Dehkarr figured she knew what she was talking about. Granted, that was pretty much always the case, no matter the subject. Lathira did nothing by halves: she considered, contemplated, weighed options, and made the best possible assessment based on the data at hand. He figured the only truly inexplicable thing she'd ever done in her life had been to marry him.
But thinking about Lathira mostly just succeeded in reminding him that she was still visiting her sister on Omega. Two weeks apart was a new record for them, and all the vid calls and dirty omnitool messages they could muster weren't doing much to fill the gap between them. He sighed, finally managed to jerk the panel free without slicing his suit's gloves on the jagged edges. "One of these days, Sarbash, I'm going to ask for hazard pay. You are going to go fucking broke."
In reply, the radio made a weird buzz in his ear, kind of high-pitched and warbling, and after a couple seconds he recognized it as a softer and less obnoxious version of the suit's automated warning system. He'd lowered the volume as far as safety regulations would allow, because there were only so many times you could hear about all the firmware upgrades now available for low, low prices. This particular tone, however, sounded important, so he settled back from his work and cranked up the volume.
"-initiating transition to emergency oxygen tank. Three point six hours of oxygen remaining. Warning-"
He grimaced, shoving the plating back into place with a bit more force than was strictly necessary. "Sarbash, what the fuck? It's one thing to cut corners on the suit, but the oxygen supply? I mean-"
He turned around to deliver another scathing glare at Sarbash's ship. It was gone.
The umbilical wiring had been cleanly severed by the ship's systems – there it was, a mass of tubes just sort of hanging out in space, attaching his suit to nothing in particular. Turning back to the satellite, he latched his magboots onto it – at this point, anything bigger than him seemed like a decent way to anchor himself. "Sarbash?" No reply. Not even static.
Move slowly, he thought. Don't panic. But all that seemed to be doing was stretching out the queasy feeling in his stomach so it was just one long, unbroken wave of nausea. This was way, way beyond budget cuts or practical jokes. This was attempted murder, damn it! Sure, he and Sarbash hadn't exactly seen the world with the same eyes over the years, but Sarbash had always struck him as the kind of guy to settle a grudge at the bar. Not in orbit.
He made the mistake of looking back down to the planet. Now all the inspirational, infinite variety just seemed like a big blur, the only recognizable landmarks being the parts of the planet that looked like they'd be particularly painful to crash into from geosynchronous orbit. Which was pretty much everything.
Fear of falling. Perfectly natural. Right.
The suit's damn VI warned him that he was hyperventilating, and helpfully suggested an upgrade to his CO2 scrubber software, only 59 credits per day if he ordered now. He shut off the warnings. He must have glanced at the sun at some point, because red and orange spots danced in front of his eyes. Wasn't that a symptom of oxygen deprivation?
The fear of suffocating, of choking on vacuum and drifting forever, was what snapped him back to himself. He forced one long, slow breath, then another. He was clinging to the satellite, and together they were falling, falling, and the world below turned and turned and never caught them.
On the surface, smoke was rising. He could see great plumes of it, stretched and warped and twisted by the uncaring winds. He blinked again, still trying to clear the orange and red spots from his vision. Fire, he thought.
Something was looming.
He turned slowly and squinted into the darkness, the faint pinpricks of stars almost overpowered by the reflected glow of the planet. Something was moving among them, blocking them, the stars scintillating, here and gone, here and gone. Something dark and massive and empty.
The ships – for they were ships, cold and metal and roaring with foghorn voices – brushed past him, and only now could he see the others already on the surface, black like bugs swarming on the burning cities. Things were falling around him, debris, bits of ships that had once flown Hegemony colors, spy satellites smashed from orbit into irrelevance. They flared briefly in the atmosphere and were gone.
"Three-point-five hours of oxygen remain."
He was numb, empty, he was nothing beyond the distant pressure of the satellite's struts against his gloved hands, the emotionless, inexorable countdown of the suit's VI in his ears. He was moving slowly, slowly, drawing out each thought until it blanketed his mind. He spent the first hour wondering about Sarbash, remembering fights and drinks and laughter. He spent the second dreaming of Lathira, and those dreams were quiet and private, touches and whispers and the distance between.
(Art by maxxiedemon)
A transmission murmured over the radio, an evacuation shuttle offering assistance. Faceless, formless people dragged him aboard, and then he was sitting among the sobbing, shaking refugees, staring at his hands, thinking again of the slow tides of fluid in his ears, the slow turn of Khar'shan, the slow burning.
And still he was falling, knowing he would never land.