Confined Space

Originally posted in 2015, on a blog that used to be around here.

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 tough. Automation had made jobs scarce, but the recruiter for the Interplanetary Shipping Force promised to put James in space after a week's training in the simulator. "We need people out there," the man had told him. "Computers can't deal with the unexpected."

But James had no idea what to do when he opened the airlock to find a man doing a hand stand. The upside-down man said, "James? I'll be your captain. Call me Brett."

"Yes, sir. Reporting for duty... Brett." James worried he was the upside-down one. He hooked his feet under the bar he was hanging from and stood in the new orientation.

The captain was an overweight, middle-aged man in a stained yellow company coverall, hanging from a handrail in what was now their shared ceiling. His long yellow hair jelly-fished around his head. "Come on," he said and pushed off from the railing, torpedoing through the crew area of the ship and curving his path into the cockpit with a few graceful nudges along the walls. James went bouncing after him to find the captain pulling the ship away from the docking hub, flying with one hand and holding onto the back of the pilot's chair with his other, feet waving out behind him.

James hooked under handrails with his hands and feet, bracing against the accelerations that swung him back and forth.

When they were clear of the hub, Brett flipped down into the chair. James strapped himself into the spare seat, just like back in the simulator.

The captain's safety straps stretched backwards as the engine thrust shoved the two men into their chairs. This lasted several minutes, during which it was difficult for James to breathe, let alone ask questions. Finally, Brett shut off the engines and asked him, "You know the controls, right?"

"I think so," said James. "In the simulators--"

"Great. Keep it on course." The captain did a spin, pushed off and shot out of the cockpit, leaving James alone to run things.

The view of space though the cockpit's grimy windows looked the same as a night sky on Earth. James put on the music he'd brought with him.

He couldn't wait to get way out in deep space and see the small, maneuverable ships that mined asteroids on the frontier, 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 turn around and tow their ore haul back to Earth.

Traveling in as straight a line as possible, crossing the hundred million miles to the asteroid belt would take three months, and the ship had no automatic navigation. He and Brett were the entire crew.

The navigation sensors went out, losing track of where they were. James worried he would fail the captain's one order and take them off course. He managed to restart the system and make minute heading adjustments to hold course, but the steering controls kept locking up, and James tensed up, trying to force the joysticks to make those tiny nudges he wanted.

Every once in a while, there was a noise, and he realized chunks of space debris were coming out of nowhere, making impacts on the hull. James remembered a news story about a freighter destroyed out here, all its cargo lost. He didn't want that to happen to theirs, but he didn't know what to do about it.

"How'd it go?" When Brett finally came back to check on him, he'd been alone, in fear, for five hours.

As James unharnessed himself, he gave a detailed report on his trouble with the navigation and the steering and the impacts to the hull.

The captain waved off his concerns. "It's fine. The company wouldn't send the ship out if it was too broken to make it. They care too much about the cargo."

"What about us?" James hadn't been able to remember what the news had said about the lost ship's crew. Their fates were probably too gruesome.

Brett drifted near the pilot's chair. "You want safe, you should have stayed on Earth, with all the damn computers. I've made a baker's dozen of these runs. Haven't died yet. And there's room for advancement out here. Look at me, captain of my own ship." He wouldn't say anything more on the subject.

As the days went on, James realized the captain didn't have much to say at all, except for the same few anecdotes he never missed a chance to repeat. James preferred listening to his music, but what he'd brought with him was all he would have. According to Brett, only captains had access to the communications array.

The tiny crew area was tiny, stuck onto the front of their massive cargo hold. Besides the cockpit, there was one hemispherical room, with a sleeping bag for each of them pinned to the flat back wall and a hatch in the center to flush "waste" into the hold. The lack of privacy made James nervous, until he remembered one of them was always required to be on watch in the cockpit.

They traded off twelve hour shifts. When James piloted, it was night by the 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 heard 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."

Outside in a space suit, to patch up hull damage from the space debris, James aimed the long tube of the sealant dispenser at a fresh divot, his suction boots the only things keeping him from flying off into the vacuum.

He looked 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 stared 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, the jumpsuit smoothing his paunch, but James couldn't seem to copy his technique.

He dangled in his sleeping bag, just barely touching the wall, listening to the same music on a loop, wondering what the "political situation" from the message could be. He imagined he was missing something big, a revolution, when all the frustration back home would boil over into the beginning of a global Earth society, abolishing the need for money in favor of universal peace and cooperation.

In that world, someone would fix their broken controls, just happy for the challenge. On the other hand, it was capitalism that fueled the prices of the ore they would bring back. In a world like that, he wouldn't get paid for taking such a dangerous trip. In that world, would he still have a function 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 problems the ship already had, 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 that 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 doorway. "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. The dashboard computer was such..." Brett started one of his too-familiar stories. James got out of the seat and monkey-barred away.

Every day that went by, "How'd it go?"

"Boring," reported James.

The captain shrugged, his face in the calm expression he always seemed to have. "You expect too much from life."

Eventually, the end-of-shift reports stopped having meaningful content at all.

"How'd it go?"


Each day the same.

"How'd it go?"


After two months, James ran out of the ration of coffee included in his starting bonus.

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

"No, drink yours."

"I already drank it all."

Brett sighed. "You know they're called rations for a reason, right? What are you, stupid?"

The insult had come out of nowhere, it seemed, and James had little to think about in the days afterwards except the sting of it. There was also the stiffness and exhaustion of caffeine withdrawal and his continued curiosity about the "political situation." Without any more information, he now imagined it was a conflict where the governments of the Earth had 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, too 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 weeks of travel, without any coffee, he had no energy to care. What was so important to be awake for? If space debris blew a hole in the ship, an alarm or something would go off, and he'd either be able to fix it or he wouldn't.

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 a new light came on, he wasn't sure what it meant. Then he remembered: the proximity alert. The asteroid belt. The frontier. He'd made it.

He didn't see anything up ahead. A vague memory of his training told him to flip the ship and thrust backwards, but he didn't dare wait for the captain to wake up and make the order. Brett's sleeping bag should keep him from getting hurt.

The navigation system worked well enough to find the supply port. It was attached to what, as he got closer, turned out to be a truly gigantic rock, but the space around it looked as empty as all the rest. Any other asteroids around were too far away to see. James looked for somewhere to run off to, but there weren't any other ships here either.

He docked the ship and threw himself into the supply port, thrilled with the mystery of this new place. He found a single room, where an automated retail kiosk that sold basic 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 turned around using the nearest handhold.

"I'm staying out here, leasing a mining ship."

No. James wanted to be the one to stay on the frontier. Then the opportunity 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 things on course."

"But you hate computers." To wave his hands in exasperation, James let go of the wall. Or was it the ceiling?

"Now you know why. It's in charge, but it doesn't work very well. They send people along because we're cheaper than making the automatic systems more reliable."

"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 handrail again, 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, and patching those dents, that's mostly just to pass the time."

James floated across the center of the room, with nothing to hold onto. "And that political situation in the message?"

"Oh, I told you, that's nothing. The company's board of directors was going to vote about phasing us out, but it never got that far. Even if it did, there's nothing they can do to us that are already out here."

James wasn't sure about that, but thinking back, things started to make more sense. The only unexpected he'd had to deal with out here was their ship being broken, and now he saw the astronomical price of supplies, new that all that money would go back to the company. In the end, he wouldn't come out costing them much at all.

Brett gave him the password to the communications array, and the logs confirmed his story. There'd been no revolution, no global destruction.

Chatter on the frontier was minimal, functional. A couple days later, Brett's new ship flew in from some other rock. That ship's pilot was assigned as James's new crew mate.

Dave was a tall man with black hair and a beard who turned out to have even fewer good stories than Brett.

The sun would be ahead on the way back, its gravity helping pull them towards Earth, but James had nothing to get back to. He spent most of his salary on supplies, probably mostly from their own ship.

He drifted near the controls, the ship holding close enough to course. The money he'd saved by cutting down his coffee ration had at least bought him some new music.

Background image used under Creative Commons with slight changes.
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