Space Truckin’: Free Fall

“Hey, Dad. When are you coming home? It’s been forever since we’ve had a chance to hang out, and I know I was away at camp last time. Mom sent me there, and when I got home, you were already gone. We miss… I miss you. Come home, Dad.”

Will reached a hand out to the computer screen, slightly touching it, as he watched his daughter do the same. He was trying to keep the torrent of tears at bay. He had told himself he wasn’t going to cry and, damn it, he was going to keep that promise.

Her tears came first. From the glow of her lamp behind her computer, he could see the little glint. He couldn’t see the lamp, but watched it twinkle off the little tear creeping down her cheek. Then another one came down the other side of her sweet, innocent face, and he heard her sniffle. He knew it would just be a second before she would pull her hand away from the screen to wipe her nose, then she did.

That was all it took, although his tears didn’t flow down his face. In just half a G of constant acceleration, the tears hung at the edges until more formed, then the little drops of saltwater floated around the cabin. Eventually, they would hit something, or he would drift into them and the wetness might actually reach his cheeks. Right then, he longed to feel their touch. It would allow him to share in what his daughter was feeling…that moisture, those tears, that hurt as she looked at the screen. Her tears were coming faster, and he watched as her chest heaved in sobs.

“I love you, Dad,” she said, quickly reaching forward, grabbing her laptop. Then his screen went dark.

He didn’t reach as quickly for his own. There was no reason for him to hurry. It wasn’t a live communication as he was out of range and anything that would be fast enough for them to talk without any kind of unbearable delay, so it was just easier to send the video messages. This one was her latest as she had just gotten home from camp, realized he was already gone again, and knew it would be at least another six months before she would see him.

It had already been two months since he left. He was ready to get back and stay home the full time this time. As it was, he could have stayed home and been there when Angie got back from camp. Had he known she would have been home, he probably would have. If her mom hadn’t been such a pain in his…

            Don’t let yourself get worked up thinking of her. It won’t do you any good. Don’t go down that road. Just calm yourself, take deep breaths. Deep breaths.

            Her mother, that selfish woman he had been married to for nine years, had lied to him, allowing him to believe Angie had been sent away to school. That cocksucker of a new boyfriend of hers had money, and Wendy got most of his, so he had little way to verify what they told him. It wasn’t like he was home all that often. He had no way to research or look into it. How would he have known Angie was only away at camp? She was supposed to be overseas doing some kind of school internship.

He could have spent some time with his daughter before coming back out here. He didn’t have to hurry. He had plenty of time to use. He could have stayed home, seen her, spent time with her. Instead, he had taken that woman at her word, allowed her to tell him his daughter was gone.

            And if you continue to just sit here and allow yourself to get pulled further into thinking about it, you are only going to make it worse. Your daughter’s home, she is safe with the beast, and you are now almost a million miles away from Earth, driving your rig to Mars. If you start thinking about it too much now, you’re just going to continue thinking about it, then you’ll be falling back into depression again. Space is the last place you want to be suffering from that. It isn’t like you can just pull into a truck stop, like the old days, and start talking to someone.

And it wasn’t like he could just pull into a truck stop to “find” someone for a little “me” time, even though he’d never done that before. He hadn’t been one of those drivers who found comfort in another woman’s arms when he was out on the road. He knew many other drivers who did, but he stayed faithful, even though she never believed he did.

He reached forward and clicked “Save” on the message. He knew he would probably never watch it again. It would get stored in the internal storage of the on-board computer system and just sit in his personal folder. It would get lost in the depths of family photos, music he had made sure to download for the journey, some TV shows he had been behind on from his last trip out, and whatever movies he could sneak off the net before he had launched back out.  Yes, it was illegal and, sure, it wasn’t right, but when you were gone from Earth for eight months at a time, there was a lot to catch up on. There was just no way to pay for it all before he left.

William was one of the few in the fleet of “truckers” who were now on the space highway hauling ice and whatever else was needed for the terraforming efforts taking place on Mars. Few meaning there were only about a hundred or so, but it wasn’t a job in high demand right now. Not too many people wanted to take on the risk or could deal with the isolation. After all, this whole project was not like what sci-fi books or movies portrayed. This was a corporate run, which meant everyone was in it for a profit, and profits meant being on the cheap.

N.P.T.H. Tech, the subsidiary of the larger search company that started it all, tried to run things as cheaply as possible. They cared more about their computers and its self-driving capabilities than the human component. He was more of a hindrance in their machine than actually a help. Sure, he was knowledgeable about fixing things on his rig here and there, but he wasn’t a true pilot or “driver”. He was just a passenger, only there to allow them to get government approval…not that they really needed it.

It was well-known that N.P.T.H. could have easily launched the whole project from any country, and the laws were kind of lax with it being a space-borne project. He launched up to an orbiting station, the Alpha, at which his rig would dock. His load looked more like a train. The lead car housed his living quarters, followed by a row of ice blocks or shipping containers linked together, and ending in the “caboose”.

On Earth, the whole system would be a mess with cars trying to slip in and out, nothing able to keep them from going all over once the thrust was applied, but this system was developed for lower gravity. The propulsion came from the caboose, the propellant converted from excess ice in the rear car, and the links kept straight by cables along the corners of each car. The cables could pull in or extend a little, depending on how everything needed to adjust while the rig was in motion

N.P.T.H., or even their parent company, was a business. Astronauts cost money, and since their self-driving system, which would be nearly legal on the highways across the United States, was such a good system on roads, why not use it in space? And if the system could drive itself, why pay for an astronaut or scientist? They weren’t used to the isolation, have a higher education, and might cause ripples. Worse yet, they might look at the technology under the hood and steal it for a competitor. Why bring on those people when there are cheaper alternatives?

Will was not sure when or how someone started to look at truck drivers to become these “space truckers”. Maybe it was when one of the high-priced execs was stuck in traffic one day, sitting behind an eighteen-wheeler, and started thinking about that driver sitting behind that wheel all day. Maybe he looked into it and found that these people drove fourteen-hour days, stayed out on the road for months at a time, and were locked up in their own self-imposed isolation away from wives and kids.

They realized they wouldn’t need scientists. They just needed gear jammers, someone to sit in the seat and be a passenger as this behemoth drove itself.

It was an interesting system. He would haul the loads to the station on Mars, drop off his load, hook up to the empty containers, and bring them back to Earth. In a way, it wasn’t any different than his trucking job had been. He would be out for the eight months it would take for a round trip, then he’d get four months off before he would go back out.

This last time, however, he had only been home a month. In that time, he had nearly gotten himself locked up, fought his ex many times, and had a couple of bar fights and an all-night drinking binge. The whole mess had him on such a downward spiral, he felt as if he needed to go back out again. Being home wasn’t doing him any good if he couldn’t see his little girl. Burn and turn, make some extra money, and when he got back the next time, they would be able to do something really nice with his four months.

But he could have stayed. He could have been home longer.

A light flashed on his console. He had another incoming message, but unlike the message from his little girl, this one had the standard tag on it. It was from his dispatcher, Audrey. She was a nice girl, but she needed to learn it wasn’t necessary to check in with him every day.

He touched the screen, sniffling in the last of the tears as he did. They kind of clung in the back of his throat, not having the force to really pour out of him like they should. In a second, a young woman, blond hair cut short in a bob that he was surprised to find out was coming back in style, appeared on the screen.

“Hey, Will. Just checking in. You’re halfway there. Yeah!” He watched as she did a little happy dance in her seat, and he couldn’t stop the side his mouth from curving into a small smile. It was funny how these young pups seemed to be the ones behind the screens now. The computer world was for the young. He would always be the gear jammer, just going where this younger generation sent him. Although it made him happy to think that his daughter would soon be one of these young people running things. “Everything is right on track. You don’t need to send me a reply or anything, unless you need to talk. I’m always here. You know that. You guys out there… You are all amazing, and I’m just amazed at how you keep those rigs running so safely. We’ve been two hundred and ten days without an accident. Safety is all over how astonishing that is. We have now set a record, and so now everyone’s worried about when the shoe will drop and something will happen. Don’t let it be you. I’d hate for it to be one of my drivers to break the record. You be safe out there.”

The communication cut off as she gave a little wave, then stopped the recording. He continued to look at the blank screen for a moment before his little smile wavered and the silence of the room around him closed in.

He knew she would be sending that message out to the others, as well. She had about eighteen people she coordinated. Each one was a few days behind the one in front of them, all on their own trajectory to meet Mars orbiting around the sun, and running in a continuous loop. With how Mars had an elliptical orbit, it was somewhat funny how one of them would leave after another driver, but be able to get home first just by how their launch window was.

Well, it was time for him to start his day. He’d been sitting there long enough listening to messages. It was time to get something done.

He spent the next five minutes checking, seeing all the systems were running fine. There were no anomalies. He was on course. Everything was the same as usual. All the automated systems were running as they should. Everything was normal.

The propulsion system was converting ice to fuel, just like it should. The flow was optimal. There was nothing he needed to do but sit there.

Damn, this is going to be another long day.

He unfastened his seat belt, feeling that artificial sensation of gravity give way as nothing held him. He was left to just hover, his body floating above the grav chair. It was always so disconcerting to no longer feel his weight against the chair, even though he had never truly felt it. It had only been the pressure of the strap that had kept him there, not his actual weight.

He had to find something to do. There was the aft propulsion he should check on. It would only be another day before the caboose ended its long burn and the cab would fire its engines.

He was never at a constant speed, but at a state of constant acceleration.  It gave him the little gravity he did have, but meant he was either accelerating or decelerating.  There was never a time when the rockets weren’t burning, so tomorrow, when the accelerating rockets cut out, the decelerating rockets would fire, starting the two months of constant deceleration. There would be a sudden jolt and a wicked twist, then his stomach would feel like it was upside down.

There were still plenty of system checks he should perform. They were mandatory, just like doing the logs every day. Check this and that, make sure this system was a go, that this valve was regulating properly. He made sure to check them every week. It wasn’t a big deal if they didn’t get checked daily. However, now that the big burn was going to shift, he really should look more into it, make sure it was all good to go.

It always was, just like everything else on this damn automated rattrap. He didn’t know why he even bothered.

He reached out the on-board tablet mounted on the console and unfastened it from its dock. The screen immediately lit up, requesting his passcode. Why the hell he needed to enter a passcode on a rig where he was the only person made just as much sense as why there were EVA suits for five people stored in the maintenance lockers. Just another of the many mysteries of wasting money.

He typed in the eight digits that made up his daughter’s birthday, then cursed under his breath when the screen flashed “invalid”. It was never easy typing in the damn thing when gravity was loose around him. He took a deep breath and slowly retyped it, making sure each number registered correctly.

Before he could finish, a light flashed on the console, indicating a message. This time, it wasn’t a delayed video message, but a live audio message. He pressed the box on the screen, letting the table float near his head as he reached out to pull himself back into the grav chair.

“Hey, Space Cowboy. This is the Young Duck. Comeback.” A very young and excited voice filled the small room. He quickly reached to turn down the volume. There was always something odd with how the live audio feeds came in at such a higher volume than the recorded messages. Someone once said it had something to do with compressing something else, but it didn’t matter to him. All of that was all over his head.

It was always good when he was able to hear another voice. It often occurred when a return driver just happened to be within a relatively close range. It didn’t always happen, and when it did, they typically had maybe an hour or two before they’d lose the ability to talk in near real time. After that, they would drift far enough apart where the delay would make communication harder and harder until it would grow unbearable.

Truthfully, it wasn’t usually the delay that stopped the conversations. Will didn’t know how it was with other drivers, but he wasn’t the most talkative. He liked the chance to talk for a little bit, but two hours was a stretch. Any longer than that, he just didn’t think he had in him.

“This is the Space Cowboy. You on your deadhead?” He knew the other driver must be, but it was just as good of an icebreaker as any.

“Sure ‘nough. Already kicking in the reverse burn and we’re almost home. It is going to feel good. Damn, I can’t wait to get that paycheck and those four months off.”

So much energy, so much fire. Young Duck was probably just that. Some young pup who was probably doing his first solo run.

“We?”

“Yeah. I got a passenger heading back. One of the locals from the station who needed to get home and couldn’t wait for the next rotation.”

“Coffer?”

“Yeah. She’s got it bad. They have me keeping her in restraints.”

Coffer was what some of them got when they had been out there too long. It was a form of cabin fever. That confined feeling when someone couldn’t get out, just staring at the same walls all day. It drove some of them to a form of mental breakdown.

One of the first cases had been pretty bad. The man had been locked in his room on the station, lying in the dark. He was convinced he was dead and in a coffin. Somehow, that coffin feeling, being trapped in the darkness of space, that claustrophobia of being in a small box, had come to be known as Coffer Syndrome.

Sadly, it wasn’t all that uncommon. Many times, it set in quickly, usually with the new shuttle jockeys. Young Duck would be a perfect candidate as it often happened to those who were the most energetic and new to driving.

“Yeah, well, keep those restraints on her. They can get dangerous if she gets free.”

“I am. Keeping the meds in her, too.”

“Good.”

“How long you been out?”

“I start my reverse burn tomorrow.”

“Ahh, damn. Sucks man. Still got another six months. How ya doing with it?”

“Just another day.”

“Really? How long you been doing this?”

“Six years now.” Six long years, and getting longer. This job wasn’t getting any easier.

“Damn. I don’t know if I could do this for six years. Though it’s gotta be nice. Hell, the mad pay… You gotta be rolling in the dough.”

Will didn’t want to be the one to break it to the kid. When drivers headed out, nobody told them they had to pay for all the prepackaged food and stuff they sent off with them. When they got back after eight months, they deducted all those expenses, as well as anything he may have damaged in flight, and took that off the paycheck. It was another one of the ways they got a person out there, making it so he had to stay. Sure, he got four months off when he got home, but his cell phone would be turned off and he’d lose his apartment while he was out. It was hard to find places that supported renting to someone for just four months.

He might make a decent paycheck, but it never seemed to add enough to get him out of the hole he always seemed to dig himself into.

“Yeah, just keep raking it in. So, any word from the station? Any news?”

“There’s talk. The Martians are all up in arms about the robots. They need new parts, but aren’t getting them from Earth. Plus, they’re all bitchin’ about their rotation being so damn long. Man, there is this one hot MILF there. Next time I get back, we’re going to-”

When the radio started to hiss and break up, Will wasn’t too worried about it. The kid was probably on a trajectory farther out than Will had originally thought. It wasn’t the worst thing, though. The kid was somewhat annoying.

Young pups… Why was the energy and excitement for things always wasted on the youth? Was he ever truly that young?

He let his head fall back to the headrest, feeling a little moisture touching the edge of his eye. His chest had that little ache, and each breath was pulled in with effort.

He already knew what was going to happen to the kid. He would get back to Earth, expecting to get some huge paycheck that would turn out to be a third of what he thought. He would say it was still more than he would have made if he continued to be a gear jammer back on Earth, and he could still have a lot of fun with four months off.

Then the kid would get home and his parents would be older. If he had a girlfriend, she would have run off with someone else. Of course, he had been sending her messages. When she didn’t respond, he just thought she was really busy with work. If she did respond, her responses would be short and sporadic. He would go home, if he still had a home, and find all her stuff gone from the apartment. Or he would go to her place and the door would be locked, and when he knocked, a man would answer, asking who the hell he was.

The kid was in for one hell of a shock when he got home. Will almost felt sorry for him, but it was the nature of the beast. If the kid was going to make it, he would have to learn that they were gone for eight months at a time and things didn’t wait around for them. Life moved on, and they were now just tourists to Earth.

“Fly safe,” he said into the silence, knowing the kid would never hear it. With any luck, the kid would be okay.

He made sure the timer was set to wake him an hour before the burn, then he keyed the lights and undid the safety harness before floating back to the sleeping compartment. As the timer on the light counted down, he made his way to the bed, then secured the safety net around him. When the timer hit “0”, everything other than a few emergency lights turned off.

Tomorrow would be a new day, another day closer to getting home.

****

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