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One-arm Jed

In the eyes of us, the new officer intake, she was a technological fossil. She unnerved us with her pitted and scarred hull, and her organic embellishments of patches and repairs - so different from the slick, streamlined vessels on which we had trained. But we were somehow also reassured by her evident ability to survive. We laughed at her in the mess-room when we were all together and the lights were bright and the beer was flowing - but I suspect many of us, when we were alone in our cribs, were also soothed to sleep at night by the lullaby of her engines.


There was one repair that intrigued me - a brownish, organic-looking excrescence on the interior of the hull, down in the cargo hold near the prow. It was a little over half a metre long and looked oily to the touch, but its surface was actually cool and hard and slightly transparent, revealing murky, unidentifiable shapes within.

But it was not so much the repair itself that fascinated me, as the behaviour of one of the crew around it. One-arm Jed had been on the ship far longer than any of the rest of us. His face was a hotchpotch of broken veins and ugly, blackened lesions, and with his long white hair and distorted, emaciated limbs he looked like some kind of ancient, fanatical prophet. Living in zero-g does that to you, if you do it long enough. I wondered how come he hadn't been invalided out of the service long ago.

I frequently saw Jed down there in the hold, brooding over the repair. He didn't seem to do much - just touched it occasionally, as if to reassure himself that it was still there. A couple of times I saw him apparently scratching it, and once I noticed him, when he thought no-one was looking, run his hands along the length of it almost caressingly.

We were busy, though, and I was well into the second week of my tour of duty before it occurred to me to ask anyone what it was all about. The officer’s mess was closed, so we were in the regular mess-room having a beer, and seeing Jed on the other side of the room I remembered my question. A momentary lull in the raucous bawdiness gave me a chance to pose it.

Before I could stop him, Mikey was shouting through the crowd. “Hey, Jed! Young greenhorn here wants to hear about when you gave your right arm to save the ship!”

It was clearly a common request. Jed grinned and grasped a grab bar to pull himself over. His white hair undulated around his face. “Buy us a beer, and I’ll tell ye”.

“It was nearly thirty years ago when I first come ‘board this ship. She was new then, one o‘ the first they built. None o’ these fancy safety features then, force fields and the like, but they built her to last. That’s why they never decommissioned her, see? Cheaper to just keep on repairing.

Anyway, it was the darnedest thing. I was down in the hold doing some repairs. There was this almighty bang, an’ out the corner o’ my eye I saw something tiny whiz across the room.

Ship’s Engineer said later it was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. Meteoroid hit a weak spot at just the right angle and just the right speed to make this little hole in the hull - no bigger’n a penny. Then, the other side o’ the hold it hit a bulkhead, and that stopped it goin’ right through. Biggest fluke you ever saw - but then if it’d happened any other way I wouldn’ be here tellin’ ye this now.

Straight off I could hear the air escaping. No time to think, really, I just slammed me arm against the hole an’ started praying.

The doc said that if I hadn’t o’ been wearing my regulation overalls, I’d ha’ been done for. Seems that bit o’ fancy fabric protected my skin just enough to seal off the hole. Didn’ stop the cold, though.

We didn’ have any o’ them sensors, then, so none o’ the crew knew what had happened, and I was just left there, plastered ‘gainst the inside o’ the hull. Most o’ the air had escaped, so by the time they found me I were half dead from cold an' asphyxiation.

Well - they re-pressurised, and they warmed me up, and then they got the doc down there, and the engineers, an’ they tried ter decide what ter do. See, the arm was pretty well gone through frostbite an' radiation anyway, an’ they didn’ want ter risk movin’ it ‘cos they didn’ know whether the integrity o’ the hull could take it. So in the end they jest lopped me arm off at the elbow, covered it wi’ resin, an’ left it there. Not much else they could do, really.

Funny thing is, I can still feel that arm, even though I lost it so long ago. Some times it itches like you wouldn’ believe, an’ the only thing I can do is go on down ter the hold an’ scratch it. They all think I’m mad, but it works, though I never could fathom why that might be.

That’s why they never pensioned me off. Should ha’ gone back home to the wife an’ kids nearly twenty year ago, but I wouldn’ leave me arm behind.”