Saturday, November 3, 2012

Chapter 3

“I think you owe me the rest of that story,” Joanna said, handing a pouch of coffee to Eric, who had stopped by to chat about the data that had come back from his atmospheric probes. Joanna only understood a little of it, but listened patiently. She’d taken three of the little blue pills that morning, and felt a little distanced from everything around her. She made a mental note to ask the station doctor to adjust the dosage instead of trying to do it herself, and tried to focus.

“Which story?” Eric asked, somewhat confused.

“The whole ‘I was a teenage conspiracy theorist’ story.”

Eric laughed, and the tips of his ears turned pink.  “Ah. Yes. That one. Where did I leave off?”

“I don’t think you ever really got started.”

He sighed, and took a deep draught of coffee. “Alright. When I was younger, I read every space-related conspiracy theory I could find. Ancient astronauts, ruins on other planets, everything. And that stuff sucks you in, one claim at a time. It sounds just plausible enough that you don’t question it too much; after you’ve granted a few of their claims, the others get wilder and wilder, but they sound like they flow logically from the things you’ve already accepted. Especially when you’re a kid. Anyway, by the time I hit college, I knew all the arguments and had even started doing some research of my own. I didn’t really believe the people who said the Sorenson expedition was sent to cover up ancient ruins in Cydonia; that stretched even my highly-flexible credulity. But I was convinced that there was evidence for ancient civilizations around the solar system. I wrote papers about the civilization that must have been annihilated when a mysterious planet was destroyed, forming the asteroid belt.”

Joanna inhaled a sip of coffee, and was lost in a fit of coughing.

“Yes, I know, it’s ludicrous. But it didn’t seem that way at the time. I thought I was a crusader for truth, finding hidden facts in the darkness of corporate greed and governmental need for control.” He smiled ruefully. “Not that those things don’t exist, they just weren’t the cause of my problems. Anyway, I was convinced that any alien ruins would be found on Venus. We can hardly see under that atmosphere, and it’s nearly impossible for us to land anything there, especially if we want it to last longer than a few minutes. A perfect hiding spot, and near enough to Earth to get back and forth fairly easily a few times per year. I had reasons why all of the odd things about Venus, like the backwards rotation, the runaway greenhouse effect, and so forth, were actually proofs that an ancient alien civilization had lived there. Of course, once I got out here, on my first study, it all fell apart. There was nothing here but clouds, rocks, and a planet that had been dead for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer.”

He fell silent for a few moments, sipping at his coffee. Then, he looked toward the door, and whispered, “You know, I miss it sometimes.”

“Miss it? Why?”

“Because I thought I knew where I was in the world, that I knew what was really going on behind everything, and knew the truth. Now? Now I’m just muddling through like everyone. I miss the certainty.”

Joanna mumbled something in response. How is anyone ever that certain, she wondered. I’ve never been certain of anything in my life. Except during the accident, I was certain I was going to die. But even that ended up not being certain at all.

Eric drained the last of his coffee and stuffed the empty pouch into a nearby recycling unit. “Thanks for the coffee! I need to go work on crunching this data so I can get the next test ready.” He turned to go, but paused, and looked over his shoulder. “You won’t tell anyone, right? I mean, it’s not that I buy into any of these ideas anymore, but it’d be better if no-one knew that I’d ever believed them.”

“Of course.”

As Eric left, Joanna pulled up the med station info on her computer. It was late, but perhaps she could make an appointment for the following day. There was one open slot remaining, early in the morning; she reserved it, and unbuckled herself from the chair. I hate the paperwork, she thought as she stretched. This would be a perfect job if all forms filled themselves out.

She locked the equipment room door behind her ; during open hours, anyone with the public code could open the door, but while she was out, only someone with a high-clearance code could get inside. There had been talk of hiring a second person to handle the night shift, but since all equipment requests had to be approved and scheduled in advance, there hadn’t been need. Still, Joanna thought, it would nice to feel like I’m not on call at all hours.

Joanna made her way down the corridor leading to the outer section of the station. It took some getting used to; as the corridor moved away from the central hub of the spinning station, gravity increased, and it became a deep well. The trick, Joanna had learned, was in holding on to the handholds before you felt like you needed them. A fall would start slowly enough that you could right yourself without injury, but it was best not to fall.

She felt the familiar twist in her stomach as the hallway, without changing in appearance, suddenly began to feel very distinctly downwards. Instead of drifting laterally, she was beginning to sink. Most of the temporary station residents chose to sleep in zero-gravity quarters, since the health impact would be low. For station residents, staying anywhere from six to twelve months, sleeping in Mars-gravity quarters was mandatory.

Instead of drifting peacefully, Joanna was now dropping slowly from handhold to handhold, her weight increasing with each meter. As the end of the corridor neared, she grimaced as the weight of her body hung from her arms. She dropped from the last handhold to the floor of the corridor that ran around the rim of the station and turned left to go to her quarters.

When she got back to her quarters, she locked the door behind her, and let out a long breath. Despite being alone most of any given day, she never really felt like she could relax until she was in her own quarters for the night.

She stripped down to the shorts and tank top she wore under her jumpsuit, and shivered as the cold recycled air hit her bare skin. With a quick tug, her bun came down, letting her hair flow across her shoulders. Joanna braided it swiftly and turned on the heater for her room. It wouldn’t be enough to make the room feel toasty—nothing in deep space ever felt completely warm—but it would at least stop the goosebumps that prickled on her arms. She pulled on a simple robe, and looked around the quarters.

In the years since she’d started focusing on stable jobs, Joanna had begun to collect a few choice items that could be taken to nearly any deep-space station; it wasn’t exactly what her mother would have called a real home, but it was close. Most of her book collection was on her computer, but a few well-worn volumes rested on a shelf, along with a handful of curios from some of the more interesting places she’d visited. A small snowglobe model of Andronivi City on Vesta, a carved ferrous figurine from a small asteroid mining colony, nothing so large it couldn’t be easily packed away for her next move. She had an apartment on Mars, of course, but rarely lived there for more than a few weeks at a time between jobs; this arrangement of belongings, in any space, was home now.

Joanna grabbed her computer and pulled up the book she was reading. She sat on the bed somewhat awkwardly; it took time to readjust to gravity at the end of a day. She read until her eyes began to close, then turned out the light and slept.

She could see the gap just ahead. She’d seen worse breaches, but this was bad enough. She moved forward carefully, keeping an eye on the jagged edges of metal surrounding the breach. The hole was big enough to fit two people through with ease.

She clamped her toolbox to the wall with a magnet and opened it. As she drew out the sander, she felt a tremor go through the interior wall. She turned her head to look, but only caught a blur as the wall exploded outward. Her forehead hit the glass of her helmet, and she saw stars.

Floating in the black, she saw a million white-hot points of light, rushing at her from all directions. A streak of blood on the inside of her helmet turned a few of them red. She gasped for air, saw the crack in the helmet, and felt cold all over. She twisted around, saw the station behind her, the brightly-lit hull breach pouring atmosphere out into nothingness. Saw a rip in the arm of her suit and felt the cold fill the suit.

Then, a sharp tug at her back, and she was moving toward the station again, though facing back out into nothing. Her lungs ached, and her fingers felt like brittle sticks. She felt herself be pulled back through the breach, felt the sharp edges clutching at her suit…

Joanna woke, gasping for air, holding back a scream. The dream, again. It had been months since the last time; being so near the open airlock, even behind a door, must have triggered it. She sat for a long time in the dark, breathing and flexing her hands. She tried the breathing exercises her first psychiatrist had recommended, and felt her heart rate slow.

She bent forward and rested her head on her knees. The first time the dream had come, it had been months after the accident; she’d been terrified, unable to sleep for fear of finding herself back in that corridor.

Joanna tapped her computer and checked the time. 2:18am, standard station time. A good four hours before her usual waking time. She groaned and pulled herself out of bed, wrapping her robe around her to ward off the chill of the air. She knew from long experience that it would be worthless to try to go back to sleep, and resigned herself to a very long day.

The thought of coffee drew her out of her quarters. After slipping into a clean jumpsuit and pulling on her boots, Joanna made her way out of her quarters and up the corridor that lead to the interior sections of the station. As she moved upward, the gravity lessened and she found herself drifting easily forward. She debated going to her own office for coffee, but the thought of another plastic-tasting brew was less than appealing at such an early hour. She turned down the corridor and headed for the cafeteria.

As she passed the door to the archival room, Joanna saw a light in the window. She hesitated, telling herself that it would be a much better idea just to keep moving, but found herself unable to keep from looking in.

There was something inherently strange in seeing a middle-aged man in slacks and a sweater vest floating between stacks of computer drives; Joanna thought it would have been less strange if he’d worn the jumpsuit that the majority of the residents wore. As it was, he looked like some odd magical character out of an old children’s book.

Joanna was about to move on when Carson looked up and spotted her through the glass. With a smile, he waved her inside; she groaned inside, regretting the impulse to stop and look in. Too late now. She punched the public-access code into the keypad and opened the door.

“You’re up awfully late, Joanna,” Carson said as she entered. “Or is it early?”

“I could say the same about you. I didn’t think the archives were open at this hour.”

“Technically, they’re not. But no-one ever comes by, so I don’t bother locking the door. And I’m here because here is more interesting than my quarters.”

“Don’t you ever sleep?”

He shrugged. “Not much. Five or six hours at a stretch. I’ve been told that when I was young, I decided that sleep was very boring, and decided not to engage in more of it than was strictly necessary.” He paused and looked up from his computer. “You look as if you’ve had a rough night. I can make tea, if you’d like.”

A voice in the back of Joanna’s head told her that she knew better than to accept, but she ignored it. “Tea would be wonderful. Caffeinated, if you have it.”

He fiddled with a machine that looked almost identical to her own coffee infuser, and in a few moments, handed her a teardrop-shaped cylinder full of amber liquid.

“Ah, a real cup,” she smiled.

“What passes for one here, anyway,” he said, using a small tube to add tea to another cup. “Most people think the pouches are more convenient, but I can’t stand the plastic taste they add.”

“How much of your space allowance did these take up?” Joanna sipped the tea carefully; the shape of the cup allowed the liquid to be wicked up the narrow edge of the cylinder while the surface tension kept it from sloshing.

“Too much, probably, but we all have our own priorities.” A silent moment passed, in which Joanna forced herself not to notice how nice his shirt looked.

“Having trouble sleeping, then?” Carson asked, draining the last of his tea, and putting the cup inside a mesh bag on the wall to keep it from floating around the room.

Joanna nodded. “Bad dreams. An old one, nothing I can’t deal with. But I know I won’t sleep again tonight, so I was headed to the cafeteria to get something hot. Thanks for the tea, again. It’s a lot better than a premix.”

“Much better. This dream, you say you’ve had it often. Would it help to retell it, or would that only make things worse?”

“Oh, neither. I’ve been over it with a psychiatrist, and it doesn’t scare me anymore. Just crops up from time to time, and pumps enough adrenaline into my system that I can’t go back to sleep.” She hesitated, then took a deep breath.

“I was twenty-six, and I’d signed aboard the Clytemnestra. She was a deep-space research ship, and I had gotten a job on board as a mechanic and engineer. A chance meteoroid struck the outside of the ship and gouged the hull. I was part of the crew sent to do repairs. There was a weak seam on the interior wall of the corridor, which no-one knew about. Just as I got near the breach, that weak seam ruptured. It blasted me through the breach, and into space. We always followed safety procedures, so I was wearing my tether. The rest of the crew was able to haul me back inside, but my suit had been damaged. When I woke up in the infirmary later, the doctors told me I had suffered damage from the cold and lack of oxygen. It all healed, eventually, but it took months of physical therapy to get back to normal. By the end of it, I’d decided I was getting too old to be putting myself in those kinds of situations anymore, and started looking for jobs with a distinct lack of access to the vacuum.” She wrapped her hands around the rapidly cooling cup, trying to soak up the last of the warmth. “In these dreams, I’m back in that hallway, walking toward that breach. Every time, I know what’s going to happen, but I can’t stop it, and I’m blown through that hole again.”

“That’s terrible,” Caron said softly.

Joanna shrugged. “It happens. I was very lucky. No lasting physical damage, except this.” She touched the scar above her eye. “Most people who spend time in the vacuum aren’t so lucky. I’ve worked through it with a psychiatrist, I’m not scared of space. I just get the dreams once in a while.” Suddenly self-conscious, she handed him her empty cup. “I’m sorry, I’ve been blabbing on. I should let you head to your quarters.”

“It’s no problem. I rarely get visitors in here, and it’s nice to have a little company. I don’t mind listening.”

“Thanks for the tea.” Joanna slipped out of the door, and let out a deep breath. That visit had been a mistake. She checked the time. 2:53am. Four hours til her appointment. The time couldn’t pass quickly enough.

“I can up your dose a little bit,” Dr. Harris said as she adjusted Joanna’s prescription in her computer. “But I’d advise against it. This only suppresses the physiological causes of your feelings, but it won’t negate them. You’re going to have to work through them on your own.”

“Oh, I know,” Joanna said. “But this should help me focus while I do it.”

Dr. Harris nodded, then clipped her computer to her belt and turned to face Joanna. “Ms. Regent, from one woman to another, maybe you should just consider telling this person how you feel. Clear the air.”

“That…is never going to happen. It’s unprofessional, and the last thing I want is to be stuck on a station for months with someone I’ve made a fool of myself to.” She smiled, and made her way back out to the main corridor, making a mental note to pick up her new prescription as soon as possible.

As she neared the equipment room, she saw several groups of people in the corridor, hunched over computers. There was a tension in the air that sent a chill down her spine.

Montse looked up from one group, and waved her over. “Have you seen the news?”

Joanna shook her head. “No, I had a doctor’s appointment. What’s happening?” She bent over the computer, trying to make sense of the video feed.

On the screen, a white plume of smoke stretched from the ground to the sky; it was indistinct near the edges, and Joanna knew the launch must have been at least twenty minutes past. A crowd milled around, obscuring the base of the cloud, and a reporter struggled to keep on his mark in the midst of the crush.

“If you are just joining us now,” he shouted, trying to drown out the noise around him, “the Hermes-class supply shuttle, Titan, has been overtaken by protestors following its launch here a few minutes ago. Those in control of the shuttle claim to be from the protest organization KERR, Keep Earth Resource Rich. The KERR officials we’ve been able to contact deny that they are behind this, and we will have a statement from them shortly. The Titan launched without incident, but all communications went silent forty seconds after they achieved orbit. One message, proclaiming KERR’s responsibility for the attack, came through, but mission control has been unable to receive any further information. At this time, we do not know what the protestors plans are for the shuttle. They have not yet deviated from the original flight path, and the ship appears to be preparing to leave orbit on its supply run to the Haephestus, orbiting Venus.”

Joanna tapped the screen, and the video disappeared. “Turn it off.”

As someone in the group began to protest, she held up a hand. “We don’t know anything right now. It’ll take them hours to find out what’s going on, and that’s if they work quickly. Even if they are still headed for us, that’s a three week journey at maximum burn. Right now, all we’re going to get is speculation and panic. Keep it off, wait for the real news to trickle through.”

The station public announcement system whispered to life, and everyone turned to look at the nearest speaker.

“Station-wide bulletin: the supply shuttle Titan has been attacked and may be under the control of a rogue group of uncertain origin. At this time, we do not anticipate any interruption to our supply schedule. Please keep calm and do not spread rumors that may lead to panic. We will keep you informed of verified information as we receive it. Thank you.”

As the speakers faded into silence, the people in the corridor glanced at each other, and Joanna saw fear in every glance. 

1 comment:

  1. Yay for knowing about the accident!!