(Space Truckin’ Part 1)
Will was once a truck driver. When he was on Earth, his days were spent alone, traveling the highways for months until he went home to see his wife and family. Then Space Trucking became the new thing, and they didn’t want pilots. They wanted men like him, the ones who were used to the isolation.
Now he is a new breed of driver. He is a Space Trucker, and his job is simple enough. Haul the load and drop the load. Just now he is in space, and his destination; Mars.
Breaking Fate Publishing
© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing
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“Free Fall (Space Truckin’)” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017
(A Space Truckin’ Story)
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
. . . .
“What in the Sam Hill?” Will grumbled, fighting against his restraints. Around him, alarms blared, lights flickering from red to orange and back to red. The ship itself, heavy by Earth standards, shook harder than what should have been possible. The harness strapping him onto the grav couch pinched him tightly as everything shook, causing the fabric to automatically tighten, which he thought was one hell of a flaw. He tried to undo it the damn thing so he could find out what in the hell was going on, but it wouldn’t release. The clasp was locked so tight that even when he found the release button, it wouldn’t budge. The catch was caught against whatever fasteners were in the mechanism and it wouldn’t let go. He was stuck in the damn bed as who knew what was going on in the ship.
The alert klaxons raised in pitch around him. Another great design. If an alarm was ignored, it must need to be louder. He tried to figure out how the hell to get out of this damn grav couch, but he could barely think over those alarms. What happened if he couldn’t get up to turn them off? Would it get loud enough for his ears to bleed?
He pushed and pulled on the release of his restraints while holding in the button. It still wouldn’t budge as his efforts grew more frantic. In his head, he could feel the strain wearing on him, the start of pain at the edge pushing in on his thoughts. If he didn’t change something soon, a migraine would attack him while he had to deal with that damn overbearing alarm.
After a bunch of short tugs on the release, he gave it one long pull…and it opened. The straps holding him in place loosened and he was free, his body rising in the room.
However, he was rising faster than normal. The sudden release should have bounced him up a little, but he was rising faster…and not straight up. He was moving at an angle. Something wasn’t right.
He reached above his head to a handhold and grabbed it, twisting himself around. Not having the time to worry about putting on his uniform, he stayed in the one-piece undergarment he had been in and pulled himself out of the hatch.
It didn’t take him long to reach the control room, what he always thought of as the cab of the “space truck”. Half of the console was flashing, and the touch screen that handled most of the automated systems was flickering. He could see part of an image that he thought was the main information screen, but then it would shake again, leaving him with a jumble of numbers and letters.
This system was supposed to be able to run by itself and was never supposed to be like this. This was something out of one of his first nightmares when he had been a first-year. Being in space had been a very upsetting experience, and there had been quite a few video messages sent home of him freaking out. Sometimes, he would be a crying mess after just a warning message would appear, sure that the whole system was going to go dark and he would be left adrift out there, never to see his wife and daughter again.
This shouldn’t ever be like this. Not unless something really bad was happening. Not unless the system was lost in… What had the techs called it? There was something… Some kind of cycling.
He tried to think about what the techs had said. They had told him something he could try. One of them had laughed about it, joking that it was the solution to almost all tech problems. Whenever something happened, it was the tried-and-true fix.
Damn it! What the hell was it?!
He racked his brain, but he just couldn’t think. That noise erupting around him, the edge of sleep still not fading away, his brain still fuzzy. Dreams sticking at the edge, calling for him to come back to them, lay back down. Just turn off that alarm and go back to sleep.
Turn that alarm off! It was so loud; he just couldn’t think over it. He needed to turn it…
Turn the system off. Restart it. That was it. He needed to reboot the system. He needed to cycle it all down by removing the side panel and finding the processing core.
It sounded so complicated, something a tech should be doing, but they had shown him how to do it multiple times. It was just a simple button he had to hold down for ten seconds, powering everything down. Then he’d wait thirty seconds before pressing the button again. They said it was no different from his computer at home, although he hadn’t admitted to them that he didn’t have a computer at home. All he had was his phone and his tablet to play games on. It didn’t matter. He remembered where the button was.
The system made a few beeping sounds as it restarted, then there was a long squeal. He wasn’t sure if it was actually coming back to life or if he had just screwed the whole damn thing up. Just what was it supposed to sound like? Was the screen supposed to flicker like that? It flashed some damn logo, then went back to a black screen. Was that normal?
A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek before it lifted into the space around him. He felt warm. Was the ship’s thermometer screwed up? If it had quit, the ship should be cooling down, not getting warm, especially since he was traveling away from the sun. To him, that meant the ship’s systems were out of whack.
And how the hell would you know that? Even your basic knowledge of trucks is rudimentary. Even with the slightest problem, you always had to call on-road to come out and fix it. Remember that one time you ran out of antifreeze and had to wait for five hours just so someone could come out there and put water in your radiator? How would you know if it’s the thermometer, rather than something more serious?
He could just be nervous. His stomach had knotted, and he could feel the taste of last night’s food working its way back up. It had been a long time since he had vomited in zero gravity, but he never wanted to repeat it. Just the thought had him remembering the stench he had lived with for four months. The smell had been cycled from the air immediately after the mess had been contained, but psychologically, he smelled it the whole remaining trip.
Now he smelled it again.
The screen flickered a few more times before he saw the familiar logo, then the icons he was used to. Everything looked normal. Maybe it had just been a computer glitch.
Yeah, one hell of a computer glitch.
Then a large “danger” symbol flashed on the screen, everything tinted red. The icons blurred in the background as the danger symbol kept flashing.
What the hell did that mean? Well, he knew what it meant, but what was he supposed to do about it?
Taking a stab in the dark, he pressed the “danger” symbol. A box appeared, containing a message.
Hull has been breached. Propulsion is being released. Please exit the vehicle and repair.
Below the message was a button.
Click here for directions.
Feeling like an idiot, he clicked the button, not really sure what they expected him to do. Sure, he had the minimal training on how to do some of the crap that might need to be done, but no one ever seemed like they expected him to actually do any of it.
Another box appeared with what looked like the EVA gear. Beside it stood a person. The screen then started to go through an animation, walking him through what they expected him to do.
The acidic feeling in his stomach turned to a large lump of clay. This didn’t look like something he was going to be able to do. He was in way over his head.
Why in the hell did they choose him for this crap if they knew he was no good at it?
Because he was one of the few idiots willing to do it. There weren’t a lot of candidates, and the turnover rate was terrible because most hotshots lasted one or two trips before they quit. Too many lost themselves to cabin fever.
They didn’t care if he knew how to handle this. They lose a load, or him, it was just a write-off. He was just a write-off.
Everything on the cheap. Yeah, but how cheap was that EVA suit going to be when he got into it? How well-made was it going to be? Could he even fit into the damn thing?
When the animation ended, there was the option to replay it. He pressed the button, trying to pay more attention on what he was about to do.
. . . . .
It felt odd, definitely not like anything he had expected a spacewalk to be, and nothing like he had ever seen on television. Not that he was into all that science fiction garbage. He didn’t think it was all that realistic, but that was before they had started doing these space trucks. Lightsabers? Really? Who would use such a thing? How was that even practical?
But this thing he was in now was a damn box with arms. It looked more like what some kid would put together in his or her garage while playing with Dad’s tools. It was bright white, and the outside felt like some kind of soft plastic over a hard exterior. It wasn’t something he could really explain, other than it felt almost like touching skin.
Once he was in it, it felt like a coffin. There was some kind of gel substance he had lowered himself into, then the lid closed over him. Tubes ran in for him to breathe into, and he assumed the tubes down below were supposed to take care of his bodily fluids. He didn’t want to know what happened to it.
When the ship “launched” him out of the undercarriage, he knew the box he was in shook. He could see it in the screen showing him an outside view, but he didn’t feel it. The gel must have been some kind of shock absorber.
He tried to take a deep breath, but the maintained air filtering in wouldn’t allow him to. The flow was steady and consistent, and he let out a silent curse through clenched teeth. Why was this damn machine keeping him from taking a deep, calming breath if he wanted to?
Don’t waste oxygen, you idiot. That’s what the machine is trying to tell you. Listen to it. Get the job done and get back in.
That annoying little voice in the back of his mind was right. He knew what he needed to do, or so he hoped. He had watched the animation five times, saw where the propulsion breach was and the quick fix the computer had recommended. It sounded simple enough…if he didn’t think too much about the spacewalk aspect of it. He would just head out to where the gas was leaking, then apply the super strong duct tape to the hole. It really wasn’t duct tape, but the roll of sticky material had that feel to it. It was that “fix everything” solution engineers and mechanics loved to use. Duct tape and WD-40, the solution to everything. He had to give it to the space guys for coming up with a space version of it.
His little coffin briefly fired a thruster, shifting him around. It was automatically doing everything. He just had to use the glove things near his hands. They were odd little gloves that he fit his hands into, allowing him to move the arms outside. He would use the arms to adhere the space tape, then he would be on his way again.
It all seemed so simple, he wondered if a robot could do the job. It had to be almost like what the robots did on Mars. They used robots for almost all the terraforming work. The people in the Mars station were only there as computer monkeys, typing all day on their machines.
Yeah, and none of them risked their lives to go out and fix a hole in their station. They would just tell their robots to do it. Or maybe the robots would fix the hole without being told.
He didn’t have a robot in his little space truck. It probably cost too much. Life was cheap, but robots cost money. We couldn’t risk one of those now, could we?
Maybe the coffin was automated, but he’d still have to be in it to work the controls, which he prepared for by putting his hands in the gloves. The material seemed to tighten around them, and he had a brief moment of panic that he wouldn’t be able to get his hands back out. Just to make sure, he pulled his hands, yanking them free.
See, there is nothing to worry about. You are not going to lose yourself to some damn machine. It still needs you, you need it, and everything is going to be fine. Now, quit freaking out about every little damn thing and get this fixed. The longer you take, the more off course you’ll get and the harder the burn will be to set everything right. The animation said so.
“Forty below and I don’t give a f-. Got a heater in the truck, and I’m off to the rodeo,” he sang to himself, remembering the old trucker’s song he used to listen to back on Earth. When shit was going bad, he always found humming a few verses seemed to put some calm back into him.
He opened his eyes, putting his hands back in the gloves as he practiced working the arms. Then he closed them again to keep from looking out at the large black expanse of nothing he could see through the little visor in the suit.
“Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses,” he sang, changing to a more positive tune, although it made him think a little more of home. While he wasn’t itching to see his ex anytime soon, it really wouldn’t be the worst thing. He had loved her once, and maybe she hadn’t kept his little girl from him on purpose. Maybe it had been an accident. He would be home soon, then he would see them both. He would hug his little girl, getting lost in that smile.
How long ago had it been…years maybe, when he had come home from being out on the road. He had been away for too long and had come home to see a large gap in the front of her mouth. She had lost several teeth that summer, and he made sure the tooth fairy got back pay for all those missing teeth he hadn’t been home for.
The jets turned him around again so he was now facing the ship. He could see the little hole, gas leaking out in a white mist. He couldn’t believe that little hole was causing him all that trouble. Had he not been so close, he wouldn’t have been able to even see it. It was the size of a pinhole, maybe smaller.
He hoped it hadn’t gotten him too far off course. The accelerated burn of the reverse thrust might not be so bad.
He reached out and fastened his safety line to the side of the ship, the magnetic clamp firmly grasping the metal. It was a small, thin cable designed to keep him from falling behind the ship. Once the line clasped into place, the magnetics sent a signal to his suit, confirming the lock, and the suit’s thrusters quit their burn.
The ship was still in a state of acceleration. If he were to let go, he would stay at his relative speed while the ship continued to accelerate past him. It was so strange. He didn’t feel like he was accelerating, the motion having a constant pull against him, but that was how it was out there. He just always lived with that feeling in the back of his stomach, as if something wasn’t right.
That was why so many new space jockeys got nauseated so much at first. It took a while to get used to the feeling.
He put his discomfort out of mind as he went to his work, using the metal arms to fix the hole. It wasn’t that hard. The controls felt intuitive and, in a strange way, he rather liked using them. Hell, it gave him something to do. Better than the nothing he did nearly every day. This was actually a nice distraction away from all the rest of it. He finally had a purpose.
He finished with the first “bandage” and looked at it. The silver of the space tape was bright compared to the dull gray of the aging metal around it. Would it truly hold once they started the reverse burn and this part of the ship went from being the control center to being the caboose that had to slow everything down?
It just wasn’t in his nature to trust one piece. While he enjoyed being out there, having a purpose, he didn’t want to be doing it again any time soon.
He pulled another stretch of tape from the roll and made another line. Then he pulled a third, placing it on the craft.
He smiled, looking at his work. That should definitely hold up. If the space tape did its job, this would work. He just had to believe those space scientists knew what they were doing when they developed the stuff. He didn’t want to find out it was just duct tape with glossy metal backing. He might never go back in space if that were the case.
He pulled his hands out of the gloves so he could tap at the controls on the screen below the window in his box. It took only a few taps for him to bring up the status of the rig. The system no longer flashed danger, but the alert icon was still on the screen. He tapped it and the little dialogue box appeared.
System fault. Course warning.
Below the brief message was the little box he had grown so accustomed to over the years. He tapped the “Okay” button, but wasn’t ready for the jarring shock immediately afterwards.
Around him, the space seemed to blow up, the metal exterior of his ship shaking. Everything seemed like it was on fire, and the internal sensors of the suit flashed with the growing familiar red warning.
Exterior temperature warning. Shutting down.
He could feel it, too. Suddenly, the suit no longer was the comfortable controlled temperature to which he had grown accustomed. It radiated heat, the gel around him growing increasingly hot.
Wait… What? Shutting down?
Just what was shutting down? If the suit shut down, how was he supposed to control it? How were the thrusters supposed to get him back inside the ship?
He fought to pull in breath. The air felt as thick as syrup and was getting hot. The moisture evaporated inside his mouth, and the hairs in his nose felt like they were burning. He tried to blink, but his eyes were stuck open as the warmth got more intense.
Just what was going on?
He tapped on the touch screen, but nothing happened. The screen was frozen, the “Okay” button the only thing left on the screen. Everything else had blurred and was impossible to read. He kept tapping on it, then slammed his fist on the pad as hard as he could. The sweat on his hands blurred the screen further, then it went black.
“Come on, you damn piece of…,” he grunted, his teeth clenched. The gel around him was getting hard, as if the material was losing its elasticity. It was becoming solid…and shrinking, giving him room to move. But when the box shook, it slammed him into the sides. It was getting hard to move against the different directions the box seemed to want to go. It really was turning into a coffin. He was dying here.
You have to do something. Come on. This damn tablet… Why did every damned thing in this box have to run from the damn tablet?
The gloves didn’t, but what the hell could the do with those? Grab something? Like what? He couldn’t even see anything through the screen. It was all just white noise out there. Everything was too bright. Even with his eyes nearly closed, he couldn’t make anything out. Was he going blind? Was this what it was like? He had always imagined going blind like everything just went black. Was it just the opposite?
He knew of one other occurrence people claimed to see white. Could he have died?
That didn’t explain the heat, and he didn’t care how much of a heathen he could be. He did not feel like he could be going to hell. That just didn’t fit. He was a good person.
He put his hands back in the gloves. They no longer had the suction as the lining had stiffened, now fighting against his motions. He had to use them, but would he be able to find something to grab onto?
The coffin slammed against something, sending him hard against the far wall. Even in the thermal protection suit he was wearing, he felt the searing heat, like he had fallen into an open flame. His skin felt as if it were melting. Was the suit even still there? It didn’t feel like it, the heat scorching him past the point he could even feel the heat any more.
He was no longer sweating, his body no longer possessing the ability to cool itself.
Can I really survive this?
He felt some resistance in the gloves, the hands closing into a fist, forcing his own hand closed. Had something just slammed into the robot arm outside, or was the glove no longer operating?
Pushing against the sensation, he tried to force it open. The glove resisted and he pushed harder, but it didn’t respond. He was sure it was wedged against something, or maybe shattered.
Suddenly, there was intense gravity. He felt the coffin spinning wildly, slamming him against the back wall. The gel seared into his back, the heat setting it alive. It felt like second-degree burns all across his skin…and that was being optimistic.
As the gravity grew stronger, the coffin rattled vigorously, slamming him back and forth until the gravity became strong enough that he was stuck against the back wall. Even though he could smell his burning skin, there was no way he could pull himself forward to relieve it.
This stuff was supposed to be designed so it didn’t melt and burn like this. Those damn lying scientists. Never trust ‘em. Those bastards always think they are too damn smart.
And if you don’t start getting smarter, you are not going make it through this. Don’t be getting all pissed at people who are not here. It’s not going to do you any good. Come on. Get it together.
Remember that one time you blew a steer tire? You had to fight that bitch while she wanted to take you into the woods. You had to work it, fight with it, and just go with the flow. There wasn’t much you could do. You briefly sped it up to take weight off the tire, then just let the rig do its thing as you eased her over to the shoulder. Ease it in and let her decide when she is going to stop. Doing it any sooner will only cause it to roll and everything will to go to hell.
So just how was he supposed to ease it in? This wasn’t like a tire blowing out. He was out in space. He had no idea just what was going on. His little tablet thing that was supposed to keep him updated was freaking out, and it was so damn hot and bright that he couldn’t see anything. It was as if he were caught in a…
No, that couldn’t be it.
He forced himself to stare at the little window in front of him. He could see the intense white light, but it was flashing. Because he was spinning, it wasn’t a steady light, and he had brief moments where the darkness of space could be seen.
He was spinning next to the ship. The reverse thrust jets had fired, starting the braking process. It had started early, probably because the ship was off course and was trying to correct itself. When it had suddenly jolted because it was now decelerating rather than accelerating, it had jarred his coffin, throwing him around as the ship he was connected to had gone from being the cab of the truck to the caboose.
Of course, he had not physically moved. Both ends of the craft were identical, depending on whether the ship was speeding up or slowing down. So the engines at what he would often think of as the back of the rig had now turned off, the ones firing on the section he was now by.
That had to be what was going on, but how was he going to be able to stop it. He didn’t think he could get back to the access door with the jets firing as they were. He would have to get closer to that intense heat, and with the computer system having issues, the suit having who knew what kind of damage, and who knew what else had gone wrong, he wasn’t sure it was possible. The coffin had to be venting from somewhere, and he doubted it could withstand this much longer. He knew he couldn’t.
How was he spinning?
If the cable was attached to the rig, it shouldn’t have been able to come undone. But then how was he spinning? He should be slamming against the trailers, not that the thought of being slammed continuously into the ice containers was all that appealing.
So if the wire weren’t holding him to the rig, what the hell was going on?
The box rattled and slammed again. His head hit something hard and he felt a searing pain throbbing through his temple.
Too much more of this crap and his brain was going to go to putty. It was hard enough to think and now that throbbing… An orchestra was trying to play some crazy drum heavy ensemble piece through his head, bringing the whole marching band to accompany them. Stars were forming all around his vision, flashes of light pushing at him. When he looked away, something else caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.
He looked down and saw that the tablet wasn’t blurred anymore. The dulled screen, which had been so unresponsive moments ago, was bright, vibrantly displaying the standard home screen with its normal set of icons. He saw the engine status icon, and even though he was sure he already knew what was happening, he pushed on the glass. The screen vibrated in recognition of his touch, then faded in to display the engine status. The braking thrust had begun. His rig was slowing down, the sky around him a bright array of color as the propellant worked to slow the momentum of the beast.
He grimaced and went to the next screen. The special icon for his EVA, although it seemed so wrong to use the archaic symbol of the old space suits on the original moon landings for the square picture. When pressed, it took him to the status of his pod, then the tablet started to flash with warnings. First was the battery flash, which he cleared by tapping “Okay”. So the tablet was now on battery power. Then it flashed with a network error connection. The tablet was no longer wired to the rig’s network and had been switched to the local intranet. He clicked it as the building dread came back to him.
The pod wasn’t as hot as it had been, quickly cooling around him. Where his skin had severely burned, it still felt hot, but the rest of him was starting to shiver a little because of the chill pushing in on him.
The light was fading so he knew he could look out the portal if he wanted to see what was out there. He didn’t feel he was ready yet.
He tapped “Okay” and waited for the next warning. Any time now, there was going to be that message saying pod disconnected or life support warning. Something was about to tell him he was done. He had gone longer than most, survived past the odds, and had started to think of this as a regular job. He had taken for granted just how much a bitch space could be. He knew she was cold-hearted, that she came for all of them. Now, it was his turn.
The tablet beeped, but it wasn’t another warning. He was lost, drifting, slipping away into his eternal darkness. He was on the threshold, death was at his door, when he heard the familiar sing-song tone of an incoming message.
He saw his daughter’s face. She had sent him another message. He looked at her smiling face, that picture he had taken so many years ago, using it as her profile picture for when she sent him a message.
That picture had been taken on a good day. It was before the fighting, before the wife from hell had started to tear into him. They had all been happy then, or he liked to remember it that way. He couldn’t remember the fights, but he remembered that smile. He remembered the roller coasters and cotton candy. The state fair with music playing at a far stage, too many people, too hot, too muggy, but there were still the smiles. Her riding on his shoulders, and that picture… She held his phone up while he held her. It was her first selfie. It would always be on his phone, and it would always be with him.
He clicked on the smiling face.
“Dad! I can’t believe what Mom did. She told me. Can you believe that? She lied to me, Dad! Grr.”
He tried to figure out what had happened. It was obvious that his daughter was upset. The laptop she was talking into was placed on her desk, but she couldn’t stay seated in front of it. She was walking back and forth, running her hands through her long hair, then looking at the screen. She was so animated, her hands were a blur. She seemed to have her own sign language, but the motions were going a mile a minute and the video feed couldn’t keep up.
He had never noticed the blurring of a transmission before, but the person was usually seated.
“I just found out what Mom did. I can’t believe…”
The signal glitched. He could see her moving, but the sound sputtered with only syllables coming through here and there.
He blinked away the wetness in his eyes. It took a few times, as the moist wall didn’t want to go. Then he felt the tears drift away, but not down the lines of his face. They just slipped away, floating around him.
He finally looked up to the portal to look out.
“I mean, how could she do something like that, Dad? That’s just so cruel. She has to be the most cold-hearted bitch.”
Outside, he saw the true cold-hearted bitch. It was staring right back at him. That big nothingness of space. So much out here, yet so little. Everything so far from one another. As his pod rotated, he watched as the rig he had been so used to thinking of as home came back into view. He had to be twenty feet away from the third car. He could see the strands of cord keeping what was essentially just a large block of ice attached to the rig.
The cord that had once connected him to the rig dangled just on the outside of the portal. It floated there, free in space. He was also floating there, free from any attachment in space. There was nothing connecting him to anything back home. It was all just slowly moving past him and there was no way he could get back to it.
The fourth car moved past him, then the fifth. He was moving away from it, and the pod was getting colder.
“Dad, I really miss you.”
He looked down at the screen. The video cut out as the rig got farther away, the signal getting weaker.
Yeah, it would never be any clearer than what it was now. He was never going to see his daughter again, even in the video. He could only listen to her. She seemed to have calmed down, but there was a sadness now. He could hear her sobs, feeling his own rising up inside him.
“I hope you make it back soon. I know it’s supposed to be another six months, but… I don’t know. Maybe your ship will break down and you’ll have to come back early. I just…”
Her words hung there, and all he could think about was how much he wanted to be there to give her a hug.
The eighth car passed him by. There would only be a couple more before the caboose became visible, although he wouldn’t see it. He was still rotating around. He would be facing away from the rig when the caboose finally made its slow trek past him.
“Dad, can I ask you something?” A flicker of light made him look back at the tablet. He was surprised to see he had video again.
“Yes, hun. You can ask me anything,” he said, the silence of the pod being the only response, but he watched as her eyes looked through the millions of miles to stare deep into his own, seeming to wait for his response.
“When you come back, can I live with you? I can’t stay with her. And, well, maybe I can come out there with you. I know you’ve said no in the past, but I can’t stay with her. I miss you. Please, take me with you.”
When the pod made its way around again, he could see the caboose already past him, slipping away, moving into the distance.
“Dad, I love you.”
He looked back to the tablet and saw that the video had frozen as she was looking at him, awaiting his answer. He wished he were on the rig, connected to a strong signal so he could send back his message. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her, that she could come with him. He could ask for a transfer, maybe stay on Mars and keep her there. Or maybe he could go back to just driving a truck. It would be a pay cut, but he could take her on the road with him. It wouldn’t have the schools and the learning he was sure the families on Mars had, but she would be with him.
They had to have something on Mars that he could do. He was just some driver. He had never been special. Just some road jockey who had gotten lucky enough to land this cool gig out in space. It had made his daughter think he was so cool. He was an astronaut, a space trucker, out there amongst the stars. How awesome was it that her dad got to leave Earth and travel back and forth to Mars.
He wasn’t special. He was just some guy who sat in a rig for eight months.
Now he wasn’t even that.
He looked at that image, his daughter looking at him through the distance, as his life left him behind.