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May 31 2015

Confined Space

When his shuttle arrived at the docking hub in low earth orbit, James couldn’t wait to unhook the straps pinning him into his seat and fly for the first time in microgravity. He ended up ricocheting around the cramped station, frustrated at his lack of coordination, to where his assigned ship was docked.

Life on Earth was predictable, and automation made jobs scarce. James’s new bosses promised to put him in space after a week’s training in the simulator. “We want humans out there,” they told him. “Computers can’t deal with the unexpected.” James could use a little of that.

He opened the airlock to find a fat guy doing a hand stand. Unexpected indeed. The guy said, “I’m your captain. Call me Brett.”

James realized he must have been the upside down one. He contorted into the new orientation. “Yes, sir. Reporting for duty… Brett.”

The captain was a bloated middle-aged man in a stained coverall, hanging from what was now the ceiling, his hair spreading in a sphere around his head. “Come on.”

Brett pushed off and torpedoed through the crew area of the ship, curving his path into the cockpit with a few graceful nudges along the walls. James came bouncing after him to find the captain pulling the ship away from the docking hub, flying with one hand. He held onto the back of the pilot’s chair with the other hand, his feet waving out behind him.

James held the handrail at the door and braced against the acceleration that swung him back and forth.

When they were clear of the hub, Brett asked, “You know the controls?”

“I think so,” said James. “The simulators were–”

“Great. Keep it on course.” The captain spun, pushed off and shot out of the cockpit, leaving James alone to run things for the next five hours.

James couldn’t wait to get way out there and see the small, maneuverable ships that mined asteroids on the frontier of space, pilots risking their lives to explore where nobody had gone before, but this multi-ton long haul freighter wasn’t exactly agile. The only exploration it would do was to bring supplies to those miners and then tow their precious ores back to Earth.

Traveling in as straight a line as possible, crossing the hundred million miles to the asteroid belt would take three months. He and the captain were apparently the entire crew.

The view of space though the cockpit’s grimy windows looked the same as a night sky on Earth. James listened to the music he brought with him. It was all he would have for the trip. According to Brett, only the captain had access to the communications array.

He tried to keep their course, but the ship had no automatic navigation. The steering controls would lock up more often than not, and the navigation sensors kept losing track of where they were.

Every once in a while, a chunk of space debris would come out of nowhere and impact on the hull. James thought back to the news stories that ran when freighters like theirs disappeared. He didn’t want that to happen to him.

“How’d it go?” Finally, Brett came back to check on him.

James launched into a detailed report on the buggy systems as he unharnessed himself from in front of the controls.

The captain waved off his concerns. “It’s fine. The company wouldn’t send us out if we were too broken to make it. They care too much about the cargo.”

“What about us?” James couldn’t remember if the news reports said anything about the crews of those lost ships. Their fates were probably gruesome.

Brett strapped himself into the pilot’s chair. “You want safe, you should have stayed on Earth, with all the damn computers. I’ve made a lot of these runs. Haven’t died yet. And there’s room for advancement out here. Look at me. I’m a captain.”

That was all Brett would say on the subject. He didn’t have much to say at all, except the same few anecdotes he never missed a chance to repeat. James quickly came to prefer his music.

The tiny crew area seemed to be pieced together from parts of different spaceships, stuck onto the front of their massive cargo hold. Besides the cockpit, there was one communal room, round except where it wasn’t, with sleeping bags for each of them pinned to opposite walls and a toilet hole in the middle. The lack of privacy made James nervous, until he realized one of them always had to be in the cockpit.

They traded off twelve hour shifts. James piloted at night by the dashboard clock, but it didn’t seem to matter. The stars were always out.

One night, the captain listened to a message while James was at the controls, telling them to stay on course, no matter what they hear about “the political situation.”

James asked, “What do they mean? What situation?”

“Don’t worry about it. I confirmed, we’re on course.” Brett’s face was blank, unreadable.

James persisted. “Why would they need to send us that command? What else would we be doing?”

“You’re right,” said Brett. “We can’t do anything else, except our jobs. In the morning, go patch the cargo hold.”

When space debris damaged the surface of the ship, someone had to go outside and patch it up. In a space suit, held to the hull by suction boots, James aimed the long tube of the sealant dispenser at a fresh divot.

He looked up and stared back at the Earth, which was quickly becoming just another light in the sky. There went everything he’d ever known. He turned to aim the tube at another pockmark and looked up at the infinite space ahead of them. It was exciting not to know exactly what was out there.

After a week in space, the tops of his feet hurt from hooking under handrails to steady himself, and his soles hurt from running on the treadmill to keep up his muscle mass. Weightlessness wasn’t as fun as he thought it would be. The captain drifted through the ship with calm, efficient movements, but James couldn’t seem to copy his technique.

James dangled in his sleeping bag, just barely touching the wall, listening to the same music on an endless loop. He wondered what the “political situation” could be. He imagined he was missing something big, a revolution, the beginning of an Earth society restructured around peace and cooperation, with money abolished, where someone would be happy to fix their broken controls, just for the challenge. On the other hand, their bosses wouldn’t want that kind of change. Competition fueled the prices of the ore they were going to bring back. In a world like that, he wouldn’t even get paid for taking such a dangerous trip. In that world, would he still have a job at all?

Brett kept saying the political situation was none of their business, and James couldn’t figure out his password to the communications array. He imagined invisible messages flying through the darkness all around them. Talk had to be looser on the frontier. He would find out more when they got there.

Afraid he would fall asleep at the controls, he drank extra coffee and stared at the uncountable points of light ahead, in case one split off from the rest and ripped a hole in the hull too big for the sealant. He couldn’t fix the ship, but if he paid extra attention, maybe he could keep things from getting any worse.

He thought about the room for advancement Brett had mentioned on the first day. The captain’s job didn’t look that hard. If Brett could do it, maybe James would be able to command his own ship soon, a better ship, one that worked.

At the end of each shift, Brett would dangle from the cockpit door. “How’d it go?”

James struggled to find new things to report, besides the controls out of whack or the dents in the hull. “I miss the Earth,” he reported one day, including Brett in his fresh train of thought.

“Earth? That place where computers take care of everything? Did I ever tell you about fixing up my old car…” Brett started one of his too-familiar stories. James got out of the seat and monkey-barred away.

More days went by. Every day, “How’d it go?”

“Boring,” reported James.

The captain shrugged, his face the expression of a face. “You expect too much from life.”

Eventually, James’s end-of-shift reports shrank to a single word.

“How’d it go?”

“Good.”

After two months, James ran out of his share of coffee.

He pulled himself into the cockpit for his shift, his head pounding. “Brett, I need some of your coffee ration.”

“No, drink yours.”

“I drank it all already.”

Brett sighed. “You know they’re called rations for a reason, right? What are you, stupid?”

There was little to think about after that but the sting of the insult, the stiffness and exhaustion of caffeine withdrawal and the “political situation.” Without any more information, he now imagined it was a conflict where the governments of the Earth destroyed each other, where there would be nothing left to go home to, where he would be stuck in space forever. If there really was room for advancement on the frontier, he would run away and find it.

He flew the ship in silence. He was sick of his music. He stopped talking at all, reducing his reports to a simple, spiteful nod. Eat. Sleep. Pilot. There was nothing else.

Pinned to the wall in his sleeping bag, it was day by the clock, but he couldn’t sleep. He would be tired for his shift, but after so many boring weeks and without any coffee, he couldn’t work up the energy to care. What was so important to be awake for? Nobody would see him stop paying attention. If space debris blew a hole in the ship, an alarm or something would tell him. Why was he even out here?

In the cockpit, strapped to the pilot’s chair, his limbs drifted, and it was almost like not existing at all. He lost track of time. He lost track of the difference between being awake and asleep. The controls locked up, then unlocked for no reason, but nothing seemed to go wrong for it. There was nothing in front of him but emptiness.

When the proximity lights came on, he couldn’t remember what they meant. Then it came back: the asteroid belt. The frontier. He’d made it.

The docking coordinates were on a big rock, but the space around it looked as empty as all the rest. Any other asteroids were too far away to see. He looked for somewhere to run off to, but there were no other ships around.

James docked the ship and threw himself into the supply port, thrilled with the mystery of this new place. There, he found a claustrophobic room, where an automated retail kiosk sold simple human necessities for a hundred times their prices on Earth.

“I’m not going back.” Brett’s voice came from the airlock behind him.

“What?” James spun himself using the nearest handhold.

“I’m staying out here, leasing a mining ship.”

No. James wanted to stay on the frontier. Then the opportunity here occurred to him, “Do I get to be the captain on the way back?”

Brett sighed, his eyes growing sad. “James, I have to tell you, the ship has no captain. The ship’s computer is technically in charge. We just keep it on course.”

James struggled to understand what his captain was saying. He lost his grip on the wall. Or was it the ceiling? “But you hate computers. The ship is all manual.”

“There is a computer. It just doesn’t work very well. We’re only out here because sending us is cheaper than fixing it all the time. Some of our bosses want to spend the money, but they can’t agree on anything. It’s all internal politics, nothing to do with us.” Could that be the political situation they had mentioned in the early days of their trip? No.

“That can’t be true,” said James. “We’re here because computers can’t deal with the unexpected.” He remembered that from his training. He reached for the bar on the wall, but it was out of reach. “What would happen if debris put holes in the ship and we weren’t around?”

Brett shrugged. “Not much. Without us, the ship wouldn’t even need an air seal. The dents aren’t that big a deal. Patching them is mostly to pass the time.”

James floated across the center of the room. Looking back, the only unexpected they’d had to deal with was their ship being broken. James thought about the patched together crew cabin and the astronomical price of supplies out here, all of which would go back to their bosses. In the end, he really didn’t cost them that much.

Brett gave him the password to use the communications array, but the frontier was quiet, and he had nothing to say to their superiors.

They assigned him a new crew mate, a miner who flew in from some other rock. Dave was a tall man with black hair and a beard who turned out to have even fewer stories than Brett.

The sun would be ahead on the way back, its gravity helping pull them towards Earth, but James would find no comfort there. He spent most of his salary on supplies, probably from their own ship, but he left the asteroid without getting any coffee.

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