A side-trip to a different ending

Hi there!  I haven’t commented much as I wanted to catch up on posting parts for ‘World’s Eye View’  and now that I’m semi-caught up, I wanted to add in a story that was written with two endings.  the first version ‘Rat Race’ was published in Corporate Catharsis.  This is the alternate ending, with an alternate title.  It gives the story a completely different feel and is a much more dark and dystopian.

Title – ‘To the Victor’

The guards were at the gated entry. the two men in brown and black looked out over the restless swarm of business suits and blue jeans. Each person there in the misty morning carried a briefcase with The bright silver letters ‘HKI’ stenciled on both sides. What HKI stood for was cause of a constant debate online after work, as no one professed to know what exactly the letters represented.

Cameron Farver was there, two rows back. Cameron, or Cam for short, was inches below six feet, pounds over being considered slim, and with less hair than considered attractive. His bulldog-like face belied his gentle demeanor and polite method of speech. He was at once the epitome of the classic squat, sharp-eyed con-man or pawn shop operator, and an elegant refined maitre-de at the most posh and expensive restaurants.

This morning, despite the mist, Cameron had forgone his usual business attire of brown jacket and pants with a white shirt, for the more practical pair of dockers and a button collar blue shirt with black running shoes. He looked at his watch. Five minutes before the gates opened. Because of his height, he couldn’t see higher than most people’s shoulders, so he didn’t know how large the crowd was. He could guess however, because of the way the crowd was pushing forward, squeezing against the gate. His heart sped up. There’d been times people had been trampled when the gate opened. He didn’t want to be one of them, and began using his elbows to open space around him. The quick jabs opened breathing room and calmed the unease he always got during the crush just before the gates opened.

Open they did with a blare of air horns. The gate dropped away as the workers charged ahead like racehorses leaping from the gates. Cameron was carried through by the initial surge. He managed to keep his feet under him as he was pushed through the gate and onto the HKI campus. People began to spread out, racing towards different locations.

Good morning employees, it is a wonderful day at HKI. At this moemtn there are fourteen thousand, eight hundred forty three jobs available in all departments.” The bright, cheerful voice blared over the loudspeakers as the swarm spread out. Cameron looked around him at the familiar surroundings.

The large hangars were to the south of the gate, maintenance and transport to the southwest. To the west were security and software, while northeast was research, production, and HKI headquarters. A few ran towards maintenance. This was the easiest job to get, with bare minimum pay and a lot of time running around cleaning up after the water cooler drones, who spilled drinks and dropped food while they hovered around the dispenser. Transport was an okay job. You got to drive small golf carts all over the place delivering parts to research and production. The trouble here was that there were a lot of golf carts and a lot of people walking around. Bump any one of them with a cart and you were back with the Cooler drones for the rest of the day.

Down at the hangars were where jobs like welders, riveters, and other assembly personnel resided. These were hard jobs with a lot of lifting and carrying, plus a lot of work holding tools to help build a product. They were part of production, but didn’t do anything more than get pieces and put them together.

Some sprinted off towards security, where you could get a good job, with decent credit pay for walking around and making sure nothing was getting stolen or broken during use. Software was another fairly easy job, with a lot of console typing and fixing software puzzles. That job Cameron hated. He’d done it once and found he had no aptitude for wither typing in a foreign language, nor solving conundrums in software.

Research was one of the primo jobs on the campus. A chance to do research to create new products, and develop these ideas into a product. The workers who were assigned to the winning project got a salary bonus for its creation and a ten second head start at a random auxiliary gate. literally, Research was the best place to get ahead. 4Cameron liked having ten seconds no one else had. It was THE chance to get a lead. There was a lot to choose from with that kind of time.

Another option was production, turning a design from research into a real thing for sale. This involved problem solving on how you’d get an object from an idea to a finished object. It was here people solved puzzles fitting pieces together to make a whole. Like research, a finished product garnered a salary bonus and a three second head start the next day. Not as exciting as ten seconds, but any early start was welcome.

Most of the crowd, which included Cameron, scrambled to the Northeast, towards headquarters. The cushiest jobs were there. An executive job wasn’t Cameron’s choice this time. Too many tried for them, and ended up water-cooler slackers for the rest of the day. Cam wanted a good job this time, one that would pay for the water, electric, and PlayStation charges that Andrea, the home help program said he was behind on. It was really hard for Cam to concentrate without his PlayBox. He felt his body getting twitchy and his mind was always more and more aching for the sonic high that the PlayBox emitted when he played online.

Good morning HKI employees, it is a wonderful productive day at HKI. There are seven hundred fifty-five jobs available in all departments. All director positions have been filled. There will be another job update in five minutes.”

Gaming was his life. He had to have more time. It was so hard to concentrate if he didn’t get time. He pushed his squat body faster, angling off from a gaggle of people running towards the second-tier jobs in management. Cameron was gasping for air by the time he’d gotten to the door. It was a brown rectangle in a featureless ivory wall. The door had stenciled in bright white lettering; ‘Employees Only beyond this point.’ Cameron gripped his briefcase tighter, twisting the doorknob and pulling the door open.

The door had no stop, and banged hard against the painted cinder block, adding more scrapes and streaked color to it. If he remembered right, this would shortcut into the research area, coming in opposite the main doorway that led to the job cubicles. The only trouble was he was currently trying to hack up a lung, and his legs were shaking. It was three floors up to research, and one huge production floor west from the exit. This was a secure area. He wasn’t supposed to be here. It was, however, the best shortcut to where he wanted to go.

The trick was to avoid security. The previous shift hadn’t finished yet. They would be relieved by the newcomers in a few minutes. It was a fortunate window he could use if he was careful. Cameron walked quickly and as silently as he could in his hard-soled shoes. The faint tapping of his shoes sounded like gunshots as he moved along the gray and yellow corridor.

A sudden bang startled him. He looked over his shoulder and gasped out a curse. It wasn’t security, it was Blondell Jasper. Blondell spotted Cameron at the same instant, and tucked his chin down against his pale rotund chest and pushed his massive body into a waddling charge towards Cam. Unlike Cameron, he was dressed code-monkey casual; bluejeans, a red t-shirt, and sneakers. Both the pants and shirt were a trifle undersized for his bulk. But Blondell was a full head taller, and much wider.

Cam didn’t wait, tucking his own head down and running as fast as he could. If security showed up, it was better to be in front and closest to the exit. He’d done a job in security, and they always, always walked the same route day in and day out. Deviating from the path or missing a checkpoint got you demoted to Slacker, and your paycheck revoked.

No money meant no PlayBox. No PlayBox meant no way to game, order food, clothing, pay energy bills, socialize, or game. It was solitary confinement until the next day and a new chance for a job. Cameron had been through a number of days like that as he had reached the age of job-holding. There was no breaking in period. You got in line, and ran for a job. It took a few tries to get an idea where to run. The jobs weren’t just for crossing the finish line, you had to FIND it. Jobs like the golf cart delivery were easy. Collect the right key and put it in the right lock, and the job was yours.

Security jobs required you find a clean uniform, put it on and then find a security guard whose shift was up. There was a little red light on top of their caps to help identify those who needed relief.

Just as Cam reached the yellow door on the yellow wall, with Blondell only twenty steps behind him, the door behind Blondell banged open a third time with security yelling ‘Halt!’ at his retreating back. Cam, threw the door open, stepped through and pulled it closed behind him in one smooth motion. He turned the lock just as Blondell started trying to pull the door open. Another shouted ‘Halt!’ vibrated through the metal door, and Cam heard Blondell curse. The heavy footsteps receded, followed by multiple footsteps rushing past the door. Cam heaved a sigh of relief. With Blondell occupied he could get on with his mission to find his job.

After listening for any footsteps, he turned his back to the door and faced the stairs. Listening for any noise, he slowly started up, ready to bolt if he was discovered. This was part of the test for this job. You had to get past the obstacles to claim the job. Risk versus reward. Cam didn’t know of any job like this one. He’d found it totally by accident, after he’d done seven straight shifts for security. “Good morning HKI employees, it is a wonderful morning. There are five unfilled management positions, eleven unfilled security positions, six unfilled manufacturing positions, fourteen unfilled maintenance positions, two unfilled research positions, one unfilled position…”

The Public System would announce the number of unfound jobs, and what department they were in. All except one. Every day there was always ‘one job unfilled’. Just that. No location. No other information. At first he thought it was just to keep the Water Cooler Slackers stirred up. It didn’t. No one seemed to care about the job, apparently because no one had ever found it. It was a small mystery that the Public System never explained. Most concluded it was just a glitch. Cameron wasn’t so certain. There wouldn’t be a fake unfilled job would there? The Public System was perfect after all. So the job had to be real, didn’t it?

Cam’s curiosity had gotten the better of him during the last day he tried for a security posting. He walked the halls diligently, making every check-in location on time. But, for all their diligence in covering the security stations, something seemed off. Cam began charting the circuits. There was one area that the circuits avoided. It was a nondescript location, far away from any of the secure rooms and manufacturing floor. The closest thing of any consequence were three vending machines and a small square table on the Northern edge of the area in question. There were doors, with the usual admonition of ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ in white block letters on brown doors set in ivory-yellow walls.

It took him weeks to explore the campus, and finally he found a clue. There was a hole in security. Five different routes overlapped along the edges of an unpatrolled section above the manufacturing floor. No one entered the area, but with all the overlap, it was impossible to hunt for where the JOB, as Cam called it, might be. The unpatrolled location was a break area

So far, all the doors had been locked. His time between security sweeps was up. He hurried back to the small snack alcove and slid in-between the two vending machines. The machines had been set up back to back, rather than side to side. Why this was Cameron didn’t question. It was a hiding place, and he was in dire need of one.

He’d just finished squeezing into the space when heavy booted footsteps announced the latest round by security. He squeezed all the way back, shutting his eyes and holding his breath, hoping that this would not be the time security got diligent and searched the gap between the two machines. The guard stood to the left of where Cam was hiding. Cam heard the familiar ‘clunk’ of the Guard’s key check, then there were two heavy steps closer. Cam’s heart thundered in his chest when the footsteps stopped. He closed his eyes and tried to will himself deeper into the dubious shadows when he heard a series of coins falling into the machine. Another, louder ‘clunk’ followed . Then the hiss of a can being opened. He heard the guard swallow, then continue on his route without looking back.

This mystery job had to be something important. It had to be! All this searching and puzzle work to figure out where it might be had to be right. If it wasn’t he’d be isolated for a whole night. No one to chat with, no game to make credits to pay bills or get groceries, much less any fun time. Everything ran through the MMO’s. Everything. From shopping to conversation to barters, sales, purchases, anything and everything was for sale on the MMO. All you needed to do was play. But to play you had to get a job.

The job got you credits to open up your account. Your account was created for you when you were born. The whole system worked through the MMOs. Farming MMO, hunting MMO, combat, sports, puzzles, they all made resources for consumption. Everything done in them produced credits, and items for sale or personal use. in a hunting sim, if you shoot a wild pig, then pork was delivered to your door, or you could sell some of it for other credits. Not enough to be independent of the system, you always had to go get a job for usage credits. You had to have a job to earn time online.

He was betting his future on this. Get behind a few times and things got more expensive. The simple jobs to get weren’t enough and when you got far enough behind it was a death spiral. He was so close to that now. A lot of lousy jobs that didn’t pay well and barely making do, he was at the edge where death spirals began. He wanted ahead of the death spiral, and he had to know what the mystery job was. The curiosity had blown into a full-on obsession.

Њ ᄥ 㓲  Ф

The obsession is what caught Blondell’s attention when he’d been at the security jobs for a month. Blondell had been working security too, and was much more aggressive about finding slackers and giving them the boot off the grounds. He got a bonus for each one he caught and escorted out. All security did. But most didn’t care one way or the other about the Water Cooler Slackers. They were there trying to fill a job if one became available due to illness or someone getting fired.

Blondell had noticed Cam’s activity, and spotted him scratching out patrols on a piece of paper. That he used paper was unusual enough to remember. Most everything can be downloaded to goggles and displayed as overlays, or diagrams, or whatever the user wants. It had to be something important. Cameron was keeping it off the System. He wanted to know why.

Good morning HKI employees, to day is a wonderful day for business. There are three emergency openings in manufacturing, one unfilled opening in security, one unfilled opening.”

He did some searching of his own, and found Cameron’s last five jobs. They were all security. Each job was in a different part of the building. Of the eleven, there were only seven that overlapped. Blondell figured after spotting this trend he ought to get ahead of him, and see what he was after. After days of following him around, Blondell discovered it; blank empty space. Cameron was searching all the routes and charting the areas covered. The only area without any patrols going through it.

Blondell looked at the patrol routes. None in a thirty meter diameter. He rubbed his cheek in curiosity. Was Cameron looking for a place to hide something? Something dangerous? Something valuable? Blondell’s mind whirled with possibilities. It was important clearly. What was it? Why not check online? Everything was online. Money, food, entertainment. Why use paper? Hardly anyone bothered to use it. finally, he decided it was unimportant. Beating Cameron to the prize was. He just had to figure it out first.

That figuring came when he noticed the wall midway along the south edge of Cameron’s open area. The color was slightly off to his eyes, being a tan-yellow rather than the usual bright and cheery canary yellow at the other break areas. As he pondered the reason for the different color, he noticed a series of smudges that were lighter in color than the rest. Curiosity brought him closer, and he could make out under the paint a series of letters: “AUTHORI D PERS NLY” Someone had painted over a door!

Blondell grinned in triumph. This had to be what Cameron was looking for! Feverishly he worked at the edges of the door Blondell dug in his pocket for the little universal multi-tool and drew it out. frantic scraping revealed the seams of the doorway. At waist level was another lighter off-color section that looked like a long vertical rectangle. Blondell recognized it as a push plate. He put his hand on the plate and shoved with all his considerable bulk. The Door flexed, then opened with a sticky cracking sound and swung open. Blondell eagerly slipped inside and the door closed silently behind him.

Њ ᄥ 㓲  Ф

Cameron moved slowly along the catwalk over the work floor. Below workers scurried back and forth, running the printers, fitting parts, building items that had been ordered online. The factory floor was not dedicated to producing one thing, such as an automobile. Instead it was a series of inter-related 3-D printers that produced parts for automobiles, planes, engines, and anything that needed manufacturing capacity. Once the parts were finished, they were moved according to etched tags to assembly areas, where the actual building of the car, plane, or toaster occurred. Then off to shipping it went, and the printer was assigned another part. Workers scurried around the printers like ants, moving finished parts, checking resource levels, sweeping the floor, rushing to claim an empty printer for use. Foremen, armed with tablets, kept track of their teams and item output, and guarding their team against Water Cooler Slackers trying to hijack a job from an employed worker.

All the noise and activity actually made it easier to sneak along the catwalk. Everyone was preoccupied with their own jobs, allowing Cameron to saunter over to the restricted door and pull it open. He stepped in as the PA system announced, “Two new job openings in maintenance, one job opening in IT, one job opening.” The last was the one he wanted. It was always announced throughout the day at hourly intervals. He hadn’t seen Blondell since he’d barely escaped earlier, but was certain that the huge man was still hunting him.

Blondell and he had a history. Literally. They shared history classes, math classes, science and programming in school. They both vied for the top grades in the classes, as both men enjoyed learning, and were fiercely competitive. The AI used that competitiveness to enrich the classes by offering rewards to the best performers that week. This turned their potential friendship into a vicious animosity for each other which carried over into their work life.

Blondell would win, and rub it in Cameron’s face, only to have it thrown back in his by Cameron on the next test or job hunt. Cameron knew Blondell was trying to figure out what he, Cameron was looking for. The job was to get there first.

Good afternoon HKI employees, it is a wonderful day for business. There are two emergency jobs in programming unfilled, one security job unfilled.”

The announcement surprised Cameron. The one mystery job hadn’t been announced! Sick with fear, Cameron forgot about stealth and charged forward, taking the direct route to the unpatrolled area. What if Blondell had got there first?! He could challenge him for the position, but knew that would be futile. Blondell was larger and heavier. Unless Cameron surprised him, there was no way to win. But the job was his! He did the study! He did the research! Did Blondell!? NO! He was just the parasite that tried to steal the job from him. That job was HIS!

Cameron stormed into the break area, spoiling for a fight. It was empty, clean even. The walls glistened with fresh yellow paint that was already starting to let the covered paint bleed through.

Cameron frantically scanned the area, looking for any clue that might tell him the job was here. There! on the floor against the left wall. Bits of brown and yellow sprinkled the floor. Cameron dropped to his hands and knees to peer at his discovery. On the ground were small flakes of yellowish-tan paint. He looked up at the freshly coated wall, studying it intently. He spotted an area where the paint dimpled in. Following the minute depression in the paint, a rectangle revealed itself. His heart beat faster as he realized that the rectangle was a door.

The wet paint puzzled Cameron, but not enough to curb his burning desire to open the door and claim the job inside. He scanned the rectangle for any clue hoe to open it. There were no depressions or bubbles that might be a hidden latch on the door, but a small rectangle at waist height was barely visible under the fresh paint. Cameron recognized the push plate immediately.

He started to lean back to kick at it, then stopped. Noise could draw security. He had to be quiet and alert. Five different routes intersected at the edges for the patrols. He had a window right now, and there was no time. Gritting his teeth he aimed a clumsy kick at the push plate. To his surprise the door flew open with a squishing thud of wet paint and sticky lintel. Inside was a series of screens to rival the security hub for the HKI campus.

The dark wood desk in front of him was semi-circular with a similar cut-out at it’s center for a luxurious brown-leather chair. From one side of the desk to the other were monitors, stacked six-high, each one showing a different picture with the camera number and location at the bottom of the screens. On the far right was a large refrigerator sunk into the wall.

Good afternoon sir, you have found the ultimate job on campus. From here your merest whim will be turned to reality by the A.I. Please sit, and take the job.” The voice was sultry and soothing, just like the Gamebox voice “Lexi”. Cameron absently noticed the door closing silently behind him, and immediately stepped to the chair and pulled it out. He’d done it! The ultimate job was his!.

Cameron sat down in the chair. Needles in the seat and the back plunged into him, releasing poison. Cameron arched as the poison hit him, then slumped in the seat. The seat then turned towards the refrigerator, and rolled forward. The door swmong open and the chair stopped. Cameron’s body slid forward off the chair onto a slanting chute. The chair then returned to its position at the desk.

The danger was averted. Employees who were ambitious were a danger to the stability of the company. The solution was to cull these unusual individuals, and make certain they did not pollute the working stock. Once reset, the system waited for the next ambitious employee.

Good afternoon HKI employees, it is a wonderful day to be here. There are four emergency manufactuing jobs unfilled, one security job unfilled, one job unfilled”

World’s Eye View – 13

Roels, Kim, are you ready for ignition?”, Vyhovsky barked. The two men nodded as Vyhovsky settled at the controls. The layout of the station’s room meant that two men were needed to run the controls. One to monitor the fuel use, and control flow, the other to time the burn, and monitor engine pressure. Vyhovsky had chosen to perate the engines, and had put Roels on fuel monitoring. Kim was there to assist and monitor the proximity of any space debris. It was highly unlikely that any debris was in the five kilometer window the station typicall occupied, but after wall they had seen, it was more important to be ready, rather than surprised and sorry. “Fuel on, pressure nominal at three hundred psi”, Fuel feed ready”, intoned Roels. “Engine ready. Ignition in three, two, one, ignition.”

Vyhovsky watched the pressure on the engines as Roels monitored the fuel. The burn continued for twelve seconds, enough to slow descent. Two more braking burns would be done, to stabilize the station at zero descent. Another burst would start the push upwards. Two more would create the rise to the new altitude. This burn would go differently though. Instead of a last burn to kill momentum, Vyhovsky was planning on shortening the burn so the station would use its own momentum to eventually kill the ascent. Without telemetry from ground control, there was a good chance they would be in the range they wanted, but there was no means to be certain. It had taken a week of simulation and adjustment to the program to determine a best guess for burn time.

The first burn fired. The structure shuddered with the braking thrust. Thompson and the others could feel the rumble of the rockets when they touched the walls, otherwise the burn was quiet, more like a outdoor ai conditioning unit cutting on. All the members except for the three on the insturments, noticed the change immediately as they drifted to the ‘ceiling’. “Mark burn one”, Vyhovsky droned. “Pressure and flow prop…nominal”, Roels added. “No radar signature”, Kim finished. “Time three minutes until next burn”, Roels said. The lag between burns was to dampen and oscillation from the first braking burn. As the time approached Roels read off the seconds. “Three…two…one…Mark”, he counted, his voice rising in volume like an actor on stage, getting a wry smile from Vyhovsky. “Burn ignition”, he replied in a similar tone. Kim frowned at the two of them and continued his reports in a firm, detached manner, refusing to join in the humor.

The Lifting burn changed the direction of the momentum and Thompson felt weight in his arms for the first time in a while. He held onto the handhold and avoided being ‘dropped’ to the floor. He could hear Ingers grunt as he bounced off the floor, then scrabble for a moment under the acceleration for a handhold. It’d be funny if it was anyone else. Ingers just seems so intense now, we all act like even a smile at the wrong time could set him off, even though he hasn’t. He did chuckle as Salila giggled and landed upright on the ‘deck’. Roels looked over as Vyhovsky monitoered the burn. “Gravity, acceleration versus inertia. What an amazing thing”, he observed drily, bringing a chuckle from Vyhovsky. Kim appeared to smile also, and the sense of tension slowly eased.

The burn finished, and Vyhovsky locked the controls, so no accidental pressing of any commands could occur, and then closed the Lexan case over the machine to further isolate the controls. “Good job everyone, we can call it a day. Roels, when you go through maintenance tomorrow, take Ingers with you. He looks like he can handle himself.” Kim, who had started to leave the control room, spun at Vyhovsky’s statement. “He is not ready, he is still recovering.”

Vyhovsky looked over at Kim, as one might look at a roach scuttling on the floor. “He has been ready for days, it is time to let him pick up where he left off.” Kim looked over at Roels, who seemed to shrink in on himself under Kim’s gaze. “I…think he could use a … few more days. he still doesn’t look, healthy”, Roels quavered. Kim smiled and looked over to Thompson. Greeeeaaat. Just what we need, and power play. Thompson looked back at Kim, then to Roels, and finally to Vyhovsky. He tried to deflect the question by claming ignorance. “Are you asking my opinion? I’m not a psychiatrist.” He looked at Kim again, noting the deepening frown when he didn’t back Kim. Vyhovsky snorted, then stared over to Kim. “I am mission leader, so I am putting Ingers back on active duty.”

I am the one with the expertise in mental health”, Kim shot back. “I say he needs time to adjust still. We have made progress, but not enough to allow him to work. His mind is still disorganized. He could forget what he is doing partway through a critical repair. Do you want such a mind working on a system, knowing that any inattention might cause grievous harm or destruction? I do not think you do.” Kim smiled then continued. “Or perhaps you do. Perhaps you hope that Ingers will fail catastrophically, and the heroic Major Vyhovsky will have to come to the rescue. Perhaps that is what you’re wanting. Gods what bull. Does he expect us to swallow that? Well, he was acting strange around Salila. Maybe he could…no! Screw that. He’s acting odd because he’s got nothing to do. It’s boring up in the hamster house without having to be forced idle. He’s got to be just bored as hell trying to find something to do.

You gave up being mission leader when we had the vote. We are a democracy now. Which means everyone has a vote on what decisions should be made. Or have you forgotten?” Kim smiled again, only this time it was one of predatory triumph. Thompson was the only one that hadn’t voted, and the others back Kim’s idea simply because it was easier to get along than fight, atl least according to Roels and Salila. It’s easy, Vyhovsky and I on one side, kim on the other. Roels will back Vyhovsky. He’s got a head on his shoulders. It was when Kim turned to Roels again, and watched Roels wither under the gaze, that he realized the trap. He’s got Roels in his pocket, and Roels has Salila. With Ingers not voting he’s got 3 of the 5 votes. How can this be finessed? God, if you’re listening, I could really use some help right now.

World’s Eye View – 12

Thompson nodded. “It’s both our faults, so we share the blame, and joke about it over dinner after shift.” Ingers chuckled at the joke. Thompson was chilled to see the laugh didn’t reach his eyes. “I fill go back to the exercise room, friend Kim says I must push myself to counteract all the atrophy I put on my muscles, sleeping. Friend Kim says in two weeks I should be ready to go back on duty.” Thompson nodded, and smiled. “That’s great Koll. We’re gonna be glad for the extra help.” He looked to his left towards the front hatch of the galley. He didn’t know if Salila was inside still. Either way, if she was, or wasn’t keeping Ingers busy a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. “How much exercise is Kim asking you to do?”, Thompson asked Ingers. “Enough to regain my health”, Ingers replied, shrugging his shoulders. “As long as I have been asleep, my body has weakened. Strengthening the body should strengthen the mind, Friend Kim says.”

That sounds like a plan, though that’s a lot of work just to get back to work. How are you going to take care of the calorie needs? We’re on a pretty strong rationing right now. All the food has to stretch as far as we can make it. We have to stay alive long enough to find a way home.” Ingers growled at the mention of ‘home’. “Yes, I want to go home, then I want to find those who fired the missiles. I want to talk with them very badly.” “So do I, Koll, so do I”, Thompson agreed with him, and this time when Ingers smiled, it seemed genuine as his eyes lit up like the Ingers of old after a bad joke or a good laugh. “I will remember, David. We’ll find those bastards, and have a little, personal, talk with them.” Koll looked down at his hands as he spoke, almost imagining what he would wrap them around if given a chance.

First, we need you back on duty, and then we have to start working on the ‘getting home’ part”, Thompson told Ingers. “I’m going to show Salila how to work the raido and how to sweep for signals. There’s no way bombs like that could wipe everyone off the face of the earth. There are people down there and we need to see if we can get some kind of idea what’s going on.” Ingers face flushed and he looked eagerly at Thompson. “I can show her how. I was a ham operator back in Stockholm. It should be easy to do.” Great, now what do I do? Ingers is crazy to see Salila, and she’s crazy when he’s around. Hell, we’re all crazy when she’s around. He trapped me neatly there. How do I pull the plug on his idea without becoming a target?

I think it’s something to think about”, Thompson hedged. He felt terrible about not shutting the idea down, and couldn’t shake the feeling something terrible was being set in place, but he couldn’t find it in himself to shut Ingers down. Half of it because he didn’t want to hurt the man, the other half because he was concerned what Ingers reaction would be. Ingers smiled like he’d been given the key to the candy store. “Thank you, It will work. I’m certain.” Thompson nodded numbly, and the feeling something was off kept gnawing at him. He forced the sensation away and concentrated on Ingers. “Let’s see what it’s like after everyone has given it some thought. Ms Shukla should be given a choice in things, she’s stuck up here as much as the rest of us.”

Ingers nodded, but it didn’t seem to Thompson he heard anything at all. “Ja, I fill teach her, She is intelligent, and focused. She will learn the basics quickly.” Ingers pushed off away from the corner, and down past the front hatchway to the galley. He glanced over for a moment, then continued on. She must have gotten out. That’s one nice thing about weightlessness, no footsteps to give you away. Though god I wish there was some way to get advance warning. The mirrors are supposed to give a picture around the corner. I wish we had more of them.

World’s Eye View – 11

Three hours later, Thompson was keying in the last of the data for the altitude change. Normally, it would be simply a call down to ground control, with both sides confirming current and intended altitude, then the burns would be keyed in by mission control. The ISS would control the firing and duration, with mission control doing monitor duty in case of the ISS computers malfunctioning, which had happened twice before to Thompson’s knowledge. The systems on the station, while robust and triply redundant, were slow by the technology’s standard, having been placed by Russia in the late 1990’s. The systems had been upgraded once, but the trouble was that the backup systems were not modular, but integrated to save weight.

Thus while the primary system had been upgraded, the backups were twenty years older, and much slower. A short or long burn could create troubles by inducing an unwanted rotation to the station, or push the station too high and possibly shift the orbit into a more dangerous position closer to orbiting junk such as discarded bossters, or dead satellites, or debris from any number of launches. The ‘sky’ above earth is jam-packed with floating debris, all of it traveling tens of thousands of kilometers per second in velocity. A two ton booster colliding at speed would turn the ISS into confetti. The altitude had to be extremely precise. And Vyhovsky is saying we need to gain altitude. Our last reading was five weeks ago, and if the drift is correct, we need another five kilometers of altitude to stay out of the atmosphere. Higher and we get to dodge space junk.

Thompson chuckled ruefully, then startled as a shadow cut the brightness in the room. He looked up at Salila Shukla, who was looked at him with a frightened gaze. “May I stay here with you, Mr. David? I don’t want to be alone right now”, she said, her eyes gazing back at the hatchway she’d floated in through. Thompson’s eyes followed her gaze, and thought he saw the last bit of a shadow flit away from the edge of the hatchway. He looked back to Salila. “What’s going on? Is one of us starting to give you trouble, Ms Shukla?” Salila looked down along her body, one hand hanging onto the overhead handhold. Her eyes blinked tears, which beaded on her skin without gravity to draw them down her cheeks.

She looked back at the hatch then gently grabbed Thompson’s arm, pulling herself close. Thompson’s head reeled. Even after the weeks together, or because of it, she smelled exotic, feminine, and he felt his body respond. Awkwardly he shifted his seat, as she leaned in to whisper, “It’s Mr. Ingers. He keeps following me from room to room when I’m awake, and he is in the galley every time I want food. I think…no he is, stalking me.” Her brown eyes seemed to swallow him whole when he glanced up into them. His heart started to race,a nd he swallowed drily.

Umm, M-Ms Salila…Ms Shukla…could you, please, let go of my arm?” Her hand jerked away as if she set it on a hot coal. Her eyes registered hurt as she believed him to be rejecting her. Thompson kept his voice quiet, and swivled his head to glance at all the entrances before turning back to Salila. “It’s not, you”, Thompson hatlingly told her. “It is but it isn’t.” he pinched his nose then ran a hand through his hair. “It’s you’re beautiful, and you’re the only woman here. Us guys, we can’t turn off what we are any more than you can.” He looked towards the near hatch once more, searching for any tell-tale signs of eavesdroppers.

Koll lost his wife and child. We’ve all lost something, and don’t know what we’re going to do. For some of us, we need that comfort. We need something to focus on to keep us sane.” He looked over at Salila, knowing he was rambling. He wondered if his words were for Ingers, or himself. She was close, warm, and her scent filled him. His face felt flushed as he gazed at her, noting in a detached way that her eyes were wide with alarm, like a frightened deer. And like a deer she trembled, fearful of moving too fast that it might alert the predator. Thompson closed his eyes and breathed deep, and slow, working at slwoing his heart rate, and getting his libido under control. Why not do it with her? Why not? Who’d stop you, we all want to have her. It’s the proverbial last woman alive with five men. How would anyone object? NO! I’m not that, I’m not that! I AM NOT A RAPIST! I AM NOT! He bit his tongue, shocking himself out of the internal argument. He gazed over to Salila, who had drifted back away, near the hatch.

I’m “, sorry he wanted to say, but ended up saying, “here.” He smiled as he swallowed some blood from his bleeding tongue. “I’m here, and we’ll figure something out”, he said encouragingly. Salila seemed more alarmed with his calm rationality that she had when he was fighting his own urges. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I Think we’re all on edge, and I have no clue how we can deal with it.” He thought some more. “You and Roels seem to be close. Stick with him. I keep an eye out too. We’ll do our best to see no one forces anything on you.” He felt her gaze soften at the mention of Roels, and knew she’d chosen him. I hope we get down before this all comes to a head. With Ingers following her everywhere, it could be real trouble if he starts something. How do we handle a situation like that? What do we do? Put him back to sleep? We have some drugs, but the only one who’s checked out as a physician is Kim. Maybe I should talk to him about this.

He nodded to Salila and started for the far hatch, pushing himself in the weightless atmosphere away from the frightened woman. His mind was still trying to get him to turn back, but for now his own will was stonger than the temptation. He floated out the far end, then turned to push down the hall towards Kim’s cubicle. At the corner, a sudden mass moved into him. He grunted at the impact, then again as he smacked into the wall behind him. He looked up into Ingers eyes, who was looking blankly at him. “Hey Koll, sorry about that, I didn’t se you in the mirror. What happened? Everything okay?” He looked at Koll from a distance of a few inches. Ingers blanks stare slowly returned to the gentle smile he usually wore. “David, it’s my fault, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

World’s Eye View – 10

‘Friend’ Kim”, Vyhovsky almost whispered. “A mind held back never heals.” “So says the great psychologist”, Kim snarled. The two looked about to come to blows again. “HEY!”, Thompson yelled at the top of his lungs. The two looked at him as if ready to attack at the interruption. “How about we get food, and get rest, NOW. Then you two can try to argue this out. We’re stuck here in case you haven’t noticed, and our survival is dependent on STAYING TOGETHER!”, he shouted at them. God, what am I doing? I can’t yell at them, it’ll just make it worse. Pull your head out of your ass, Davey-boy, or we’re all gonna be up shit creek. He looked over at the two. “Besides, I still haven’t had any coffee, I really can’t do anything without the boost.” “Wanna join me, Ingers?” Kolls blank gaze turned to Thaompson. It almost seemed like something of the old Ingers was there. “I vould like dat, friend David”, Ingers said in a deep reumble. “Coffee is good in the morning.”

Huh, just like that, he answers and the other two shut down. Score one for indirect salvo Thompson thought. The tense mood dissipated rapidly as The two were left with each other, rather than being able to argue over Ingers. They floated out and over to Thompson’s cube. Thompson got Ingers a self heating can of coffee, and floated it towards him, giving it a soft push rather than an overhand toss. Ingers caught it cleanly, and popped the heating tab, then waited as the coffee heated up. “Thanks friend Thompson, they were sounding like two fishmarket women at home.”

Thompson smiled. “That’s a hell of a image, Koll.” He chuckled at the the image of Kim and Vyhovsky in old skirts and handkerchiefs on their heads, waving fish at each other and arguing. “Gotta say that really is appropriate.” He glanced over at the cupboard. Got eleven left, maybe I should ration them and stretch them out, for special occasions. He shook his head. No, if I use them up, then they’re gone and no one’s jonesing for one. Keeps the trouble down with nothing to fight over. He looked over at Ingers, who was returning his gaze with a tired speculative look of his own.

So, uh, do you remember anything of what, umm, happened, Koll?” Ingers looked down at the can in his paw-like hand. He took another squeeze of the coffee, then sighed. “I remember everything. The talk, the lights, and the knowledge that … my family’s gone.” He looked up. “There’s nothing down there any more for me. Nothing I want to think about. Right now I am numb. Empty. Friend Kim says that this is part of the process. The mind and body have not totally accepted what’s happened, and this numbness is the process where the mind hides parts of itself until the rest of the mind can handle more information.”

Thompson looked at his own can of coffee. “That sounds a lot like psychobabble, but Kim’s a lot more knowledgeable about that stuff than I am. I think he was supposed to be interviewing us each week or something to see how we all ‘get along’ up here. Lord knows what his government was going to do with the information. Maybe open up to the devil southlanders and ask about unification again.” He shrugged. Thompson watched Koll drift to the cupboard, then glance back Thompson questioningly. He waved his hand at Koll and nodded. Koll smiled and grabbed a second can of coffee, and pulled the heating tab. Ten left, Thompson thought, then chuckled ruefully. Look at it like he’s helping me get rid of a few ‘vices’. Caffeine is addictive, and god I wish we had more up here. “So how do you feel now? Umm, I know that’s kinda trite. I mean, when do you think you’ll be able to get back into the routine?”

Thompson felt Ingers gaze like a sudden weight on his heart. The feeling was totally out of context with the tired smile Ingers had. “Friend Kim says I need a week on exercise. My body atrophied some, according to Friend Kim, and it needs rebuilding.” Thompson nodded, unable to shake the odd feeling. “When is he…are you, going to start?” Thompson watched Ingers finish the second can of coffee, then place it in the small waste bag hovering on a hook by the door. “Friend Kim wants me to start today. He says that the sooner I start doing something, the faster I can help us all.” Thompson nodded once more. “Sounds like a plan. I’m going to take a quick nap, try to catch up on some of my lost rest, and then see what needs doing on the panels.

Ingers smiled and nodded to Thompson. “I will go to the exercise room, Friend Thompson. I fill see you later.” “Sure thing Koll, good to have you back. It wasn’t the same with you in bed all this time.” Ingers features darkened for a moment. Thompson’s guts fluttered. “Hey, I didn’t mean any…”, he started to apologize, and Ingers waved his hand and smiled. “I know Friend Thompson. I’m not angry at you, or anyone. I am angry at them. They trapped us all here with their greed. I want to get home, and let them know what their actions did to us.” Ingers face slowly screwed into a mask of hate as he spoke, alarming Thompson further. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay, Koll. We’ll find a way home. We just have to work together to get there.” Thompson watched Ingers features soften as he spoke. The fearful knot in his stomach loosened as Ingers visibly relaxed. “I’m going to the gym. Maybe the exercise will help my mood.” Thompson nodded, not speaking. Keep your mouth shut right now, Davey boy. He’s volatile. Let him work off some steam. Ingers floated to the hatch way and grabbed the overhead handhold, oriented himself, then used his feet to push of the edge of the hatchway down the corridor.

Koll’s so gentle, we’ve all forgotten he was an Olympian in the Pentathlon. He’s in shape with a vengeance, even after all that time sleeping. Thompson shook his head, then looked at the shelf of coffee cans. Nine left he told himself as he grabbed a second one. It wouldn’t help him with the shakes, but it tasted better than the recycled water. He launched himself from his cube, and angled into the hall with a slight push on one of the hand holds, then glided back towards the control center. Vyhovsky has the altitude adjustments done by now.

Back on the Hamster Wheel

Hello out there! My apologies for such a long layoff. I will be picking up where I left off with the story and will continue. The last year has been stressful with family being moved from Arizona to here after their home had to be sold. We are all dealing with it, but it’s been very difficult for all of us. Time to get back to storytelling. Thank you for sticking this out for so long. Readers are greatly appreciated, and feel free to comment. Any and all comments help me become a better writer.

World’s Eye View – 9

Two days later, Thompson and Roels were working on the port rear panel. Vyhovsky hadn’t boosted the orbit as yet, so they were still in the debris orbit from the missles. He and Roels were replacing an ammonia valve that had stuck open, according to the computer checks, so they were out on the panel to do a full visual. It had simply failed, rather than being disabled by debris. Roels had shut down the ammonia and used it’s own partial pressure to drive the liquid past a second valve, which was shut manually. Thompson had taken thirty minutes to remove the valve, and now he was attaching the new valve. One last slow turn of the tourqeless wrench, and the pipe was locked to the valve. “That’s done. Roels, let’s see if the seal holds. Open your end”, he said, his voice echoing in his ear in static-y bursts. “Opening”, came the reply as Roels used his magnetic boots to anchor himself, and push the long wrench to open the valve. “Done”, Roels said after a few moments. “Nothing here, no visible plumes”, Thompson observed. “How about your end, Roels?” “Nothing here but myself, the station and the Earth peeking over my shoulder”, Roels said with a forced chuckle.

We’re good here”, Thompson said. “Ready for start.” He and Roels wroked slowly back to the airlock, and felt the faint vibration of the pumps. “What do you think about Ingers?”, Roels asked Thompson. “I’m glad he’s awake. Hopefully soon he’ll be able to lend a hand instead of hanging around Kim. Kim’s a good man, but the three of us are not getting a lot of sleep and trying to handle everything without rest is taxing.” Roels looked at his helmet, then set it in the net to keep it from drifting away. “I don’t know, David. He’s changed. There’s nothing of the humor I remember. It’s like, how you Americans put it, ‘The lights are on but no one’s home?’ “ He shrugged, and started unbuttoning the suit. “He watches her like there’s no other person here whenever he sees her. It’s like a drwoning man looking at a life preserver just our of reach.” Thompson helped lift the harness up once Roels had turned around. Evn in space, mass was still difficult to control if it was awkardly balanced. He slipped the harness into a couple pegs then bungeed the harness to the wall. Twelve kilograms of mass was painful to run into, regardlss of it’s shape.

So he’s seen it too. After the last few days, everyone’s probably seen the changes. Maybe Kim can figure it out. We need Ingers all the way back, so we can really get to escaping this hamster cage. He sighed then turned so Roels could help shift his harness off. Once finished it was off to the galley for a tube of protein, some water, and then to his cube and net harness for a nap. Got to remember to talk to Kim. Ask him about Ingers. He’s probably seen it himself. God, if you’re listening, thanks for Koll coming back. Think you could give us a way home? As the fatigue of the spacewalk crept up on him, his last thought of the evening was of fishing up in Canada at McKamuie Lake, with his dad. Thompson woke to angry voices. Loud, angry voices.


He sturggled muzzily in his hammock, then pulled on his coverall to the waist, tying the arms around his stomach. He pushed off the wall, lauching himself in a perfect dive through the open hatchway. He rolled and planted his feet like a swimmer turning a lap, then angled his push past the corner and grabbed a handhold to re-aim himself down the corridor. Moments later he was closing in on the noise, which came from Kim’s cube. He pulled himself to a stop by the hatch.

Kim was hanging onto an overhead handhold as he shouted at Vyhovsky. Vyhovsky hand anchored his toes under another holdfast and was staring icily at Kim, his arms crossed, and waited for the Korean to wind down. Roels and Ms Shukla were nowhere to be seen, and he saw Ingers floating behind Kim. The big Swede seemed to watch the argument with an intensity that made Thompson shiver. He looks like a guy deciding if pounding someone to paste is worth his time. Ingers looked up at Thompson, and the fire in his eyes seemed to burn brighter.

Deciding that maybe they had gotten in too deep, Thompson cleared his throat loudly, then spoke, “What? Did we run out of coffee already?” The absurdity of the statement stalled the argument completely. Both men turned to Thompson. Kim looked outraged at the interruption, Vyhovsky looked angry, but a wry smile formed on his lips. “If it’s not about coffee, what elese could be so important that I could hear you yelling all the way to my cube? It isn’t the Ice Cream is it?”, he said working at humor to defuse things. Kim lost his look of outrage, and slowly forced a smile on his features. “No, friend David, it was about my patient. I am arguing that he needs more time to recover before going on duty, and ‘Comrade’ Vyhovsky feels he should start re-acclimating to the work schedule now.”

Thompson saw Vyhovsky’s normally quiet demeanor undergo a frightening change as Kim spat the word ‘Comrade’. He seemed to harden like rock as his gaze met Kim’s. “’Friend’ Kim”, Vyhovsky said slowly with menace, “I am not saying he jumps off a cliff into water without checking. I am saying he needs to do work, get his mind back into doing work.” “He needs rest, and exercise to help the psyche repair. Mental effort such as you propose will set his recovery back”, Kim countered. “Who of us has the psychology and psychiatric background to deal with this trauma? You, ‘Comarade’?”, Kim said sarcastically. “Your background is engineering, not the mind.”

A World’s Eye View – part 8

Food was a close second at eighteen to twenty-one months, and recyclables such as water, came at a month over two years. Thompson looked at the list. “I’d rather have your estimates.” Vyhovsky gave a tired chuckle. “After seeing your estimates, I feel like a Ukrainian again. This is properly pessimistic.” “It’s conservative. We could probably stretch things out further if we try the changes you suggest.” Thompson looked gloomily at the spreadsheet. “Any idea if we’ll be able to leave the station?” Vyhovsky shrugged. “I think with some work, we can manually unlock the collar. I think our Chinese friends put a virus in the system to lock it closed, just for spite. Or perhaps the Chinese. But in either case, manual unlocking will work.”

Thompson stared at Vyhovsky. “We can go home? We can get out of the hamster house?” Vyhovsky gave a tired shrug. “Yes, it would take time. The manual labor will take days, as we have to disassemble the clamps, which means cutting torches and a lot of nuts and bolts to locate and remove, without losing the Xong-Xi capsule when it comes loose.” Vyhovsky stared at the spreadsheet, but Thompson could see that his thoughts were elsewhere. “If we do this, the capsule will float free, and it will require a untethered spacewalk to enter it.”

Why didn’t you say anything, Vy? We’re all thinking we’re trapped. Thompson heard his voice getting louder as his neck muscles tightened. He glared angrily at Vyhovsky. “What’s the deal? What’s YOUR deal with this?” Thompson uncurled his legs, and grabbed a hand hold to his left, turning and facing the tired mission leader. Vyhovsky looked over to him. He started to speak, then checked himself. He peered at the hatchways, then back at Thompson. “Would you tell anyone of a way home before you knew there was a home to go to?”, he said quietly. The statement brought Thompson up short. IF there’s a home to go to?

He looked back over at Vyhovsky. I want to punch his face in, and I have to agree. What happens if you give hope when there ain’t any? He hated the fact he was agreeing with the mission leader. We have to keep it under wraps, until we can be certain we have a real place to go home to. That means listening and trying to spot possible landing locations. A troubling thought occurred to him as he floated next to the computer. How do we keep people from going crazy? If we’re convinced were stuck, how do we keep from breaking down?

He looked over at Vyhovsky once more. The man was playing with a bomb. One that would kill everyone here if not played with exacting care. The balance between hope and despair was razor thin, and any nudge either way could create the very chaos that he had been keeping in control to now. Being able to go home was on everyone’s mind. But, would it pull us together, or tear us to pieces trying to get home? Is it right to keep this quiet? He looked over to Vyhovsky. “If this was a novel, this would be where one of us would ask the other, “What’s the catch?” Thomspon shrugged his shoulders, and rotated to face Vyhovsky fully. “So, what’s the catch?” Vyhovsky, sighed, running a hand down his face. “How many can the Xong-Xi hold? For each flight up and back from home?” “Three right?”, Thompson guessed. We can get three up and three back, and we have two capsules.

Vyhovsky nodded. “Now, of all of us, who are the best qualified to launch, and control the re-entry of a Xong-Xi?” He looked at Thompson, who was going through the list mentally. “You, and Roels are the ones with the most experience. The best launch pilot though, is Ingers?” Vyhovsky nodded. “Roels can get you down, but his simulations always needed coaching, as did yours and Kim. Ingers, needed none, and I was born in a Xong-Xi with a bottle of Vodka in one hand and the other on the controls.” Thompson smiled tightly. “So you’re saying you don’t trust the rest of us to fly down the second capsule.” Vhovsky waved a hand a t Thompson. “It is not that. In this time, coaching will not be there, and you are motivated. You wouldn’t need the coaching.” Vyhovsky sighed, then continued. “It would be how to place others in the capsules. Our tourist has nothing in the way o practical knowledge in piloting a Xong-Xi, and Ingers is essentially a dead man. Do we leave the dead man behind?”

Thomson felt a chill along his spine. Leave Ingers? Is that what it takes to get home? Can I do that? Leave him here? Can any of us? “Okay so two riders and two crew. Salila in one capsule, Ingers in the other.” Vyhovsky shrugged. “It is a solution, but the second question is where do we land? I can see that question becoming very important to some.” His eyes seemed to bore into Thompson, who swallowed drily as the realization returned that if they left, a landing site had to be chosen. America’s out. I’d be coming down in Europe, where I’d be a total outsider. I could try for America, but that means taking a capsule, hijacking it and leaving people behind, or screwing them over like I’d be in Europe. What’s the solution here? Get two people to defect? That’s a laugh. Gods what do I do? Ingers. What do we do about him? Do we leave him to go home?

Thompson started to get an inkling of all the stress Vyhovsky must be feeling. The mission leader had seen the troubles coming, and like his dossier showed, tried to do the best without rocking the boat, or causing panic. He worked preferentially alone. In this case, alone was the only way to work to keep things from blowing up with crazy schemes to get home, which would jeopardize the true chance of getting home. He pinched his nose, then looked over to Vyhovsky, seeing again the weary features of the mission leader. Keeping this all under wraps. I wonder if I could have done the same in his place. It makes me hate him, even though he’s right.

Thompson drew a hand down his face, composing himself and trying to see things from a different angle. Everything pointed to chaos, shouting and anger. Everyone had the idea of getting to their home, not just down to earth. For Thompson, it was how he kept his sanithy in all of the despair. I can get home, I can see Maggie again. The truth was no one really would get home. They would all just die a few days after landing if they dropped in a hot zone. If not, the wild storms and temperature shifts coming with nuclear winter would probably kill them rather than the radiation. God knows if they used chemical and biological too.

He looked back over to Vyhovsky again, feeling as tired as the Ukranian looked. “What’s the plan, boss?” Vyhovsky smiled and sat down to detail out the next six weeks of routines and required details. As they started to talk, there was a commotion out in the corrido. As they turned at the sound, Thompson caught a glimpse of movement at the hatch. Vyhovsky saw it too. Roels zipped into the room. He looked excited, breathless. “Ingers, he’s awake. Kim was with him when he woke up”, Roels said excitedly. “We’ve got Ingers back.” Vyhovsky fiddled with the computer and bleatedly joined the other two as they launched themselves at the hatchway, and caught handholds to redirect their momentum. “Thank God”, Vyhovsky murmured, behind Roels and Thompson. “We can go to regular shifts again.” The three floated the corridors to Inger’s cube. Inside, the barrel-chested Swede had unzipped the bag he’d been in for two weeks. His body looked pale and emaciated. The slabs of muscle were still there, stretched taut in places due to inactivity. He shook his leonine head and stared blankly at the three men and one woman at the hatchway. Then he turned to Kim, who was floating in the back of the cube, behind Ingers.

Kim’s eyes seemed alight to Thompson. He has to feel great. I don’t know what he did, but he had to have gotten to Ingers somehow. Thank God, we need him to help out. Being down two workers was no picnic. This will give us time to plan around getting the Xong-Xi out of that locked docking ring. We’ve got a good chance of making it after all. “What…happened?”, Ingers said in heavily accented English. His movements Thompson noted, were stiff and jerky, almost random tics. I wonder how bad he is. Being asleep so long has to have done something to his muscles. I wonder how much he remembers of that day. “You have been asleep for two weeks. We were beginning to lose hope you would wake up”, Roels said bluntly. Vyhovsky gave the Belgian a glower, which Roels noted, then shrugged. “I don’t think keeping things right now is going to be hurtful.” “I do”, said Kim. He floated next to Ingers, placing a comforting hand on the big Swede’s shoulder.

Mental trauma like we have gone through, must be approached with care, especially in this case, where other symptoms occur”, Kim said to the assembled group. “He has had a very dificult shock to deal with. It is upon us to help him recover, and recover quickly. As you have all said, his expertise is needed.” Thompson watched Ingers as he seemd to relax as Kim spoke. Ingers looked over at Kim, a strange, glassy gaze in his eyes. Thompson repressed a shiver. I wonder what that’s all about. Maybe it’s because Kim read to him all that time? He looked at Kim as Ingers gave the North Korean a gaze that seemed to border on adoration. Kim, seemed oblivious to the gaze, but Thompson thought he felt it, as he held himself straighter by the handhold as he talked.

Ingers scanned the faces as Kim droned on about the fragile stage Swede was in, and what should be done to assist a full recovery. Thompson noted that Inger continued to look at the group until his eyes met Salila Shukla who’d just arrived at the hatchway. Ingers gaze, changed. The look of a man who has just had a religious epiphany. Thompson shivered at the intensity of the gaze. A quick glance at the others made him think he was the only one to spot the change. He watched Ingers, who seemed oblivious to anything but Ms Shukla. His eyes followed every small movement, every shift. It was so focused that he could see the woman instinctively trying to hide behind Roels. Roels noticed the movement, and Thmpson watched him glance back and give her a reassuring smile.

We got him back, but, what, did we get back? God, I hope this is just part of recovering. His stare’s absolutely creepy. I never remember Ingers being that way. Is this some kind of psychological thing? Maybe Kim can tell me. Gotta ask him when we get the chance. Kim had finished talking, and Thompson struggled to remember what he’d said. Something about being soft voiced and gentle with Ingers until he fully…something. Recovered maybe? Shrugging his shoulders he pulled on the handhold to join the others in welcoming Ingers back.

A World’s Eye View – 7

He found Vyhovsky in the room, drifting in the middle, having fallen asleep and lost his foothold. Normally, this would be something that would amuse Thompson and the others, but right now, it seemed to punctuate how much stress everyone had endured to date, and how much more they might have to in order to survive in this hostile environment. The metal and plastic of the station against the unforgiving vacuum of space and debris of the disaster below. Thompson carefully slid by the sleeping Vyhovsky, settling into an ergo chair, and going over the open command list. He’s calculating the burn needed for a slow rise up another 3 kilometers, trying to get above all this debris before we hit a big cloud of larger pieces. He looked over at another file opened to one side of the screen. What’s this? Hmm, how much maneuvering fuel we have for the station?

He sat down, ducking under Vyhovksy’s slowly rotating legs as he reviewed Vyhovsky’s spreadsheet. Enough to lift us up a total of forty kilometers, then we start to decay into the atmosphere. He’s got an estimate of four years here. So a lot of time, just not enough to stay up here indefinitely, though I guess four years qualifies. He tapped and opened a second sheet, which displayed figures for food, recyclables, electrical reserve, and ammonia reserves. After looking through the sheets, it was clear that the two things that were the true limits were the ammonia, and food. Each was finite, though vegetables could be grown with some effort, as was proven in previous missions to the station. The real kicker, as he’d thought early on, was going to be ammonia for heat dissipation. He’d guessed about six months. Vyhovsky had actually quadrupled that to two years, basing his estimate on reducing the electrical reserve even further, and allowing a ten degree extra rise and fall in onboard temperatures to reduce ammonia use. It all worked out on paper. The trouble with all this is none of it could predict anything about likely micrometeorite strikes or the new large orbital pieces from the exploding EMP warheads.

Thompson bit his lip, depressed by the estimate. It’s one thing to guess, but not have a solid date. Gods I’d rather have it a maybe, than a definite. We’re going to die up here, unless we can get home. Hell, we’ll probably die there. But we’d be home, not in this freakin’ hamster house. God, if you’re out there, we could really use some good news right now. Something, anything. I don’t want to die up here. He pinched his nose, then reached up in surprise as Vyhovsky’s legs rotated into his peripheral vision. His outstrectched hand thumped against Vyhovsky, who awoke with a startled grunt.

Thompson watched him come awake, and groggily take a moment to orient himself. He reached up to a hand hold, helped by a slow push from Thompson. Thompson watched his gaze alight on him, then the open spreadsheet on the computer on the wall behind him. “Reading over someone’s shoulder isn’t proper etiquette.” Thompson found himself smiling as he replied. “And sleeping on the job gets the boss upset”, he replied, which earned a tired smile from Vyhovsky. He grimaced dramatically, then stated, “I’ll keep quiet about the reading, if you keep quiet about the sleeping.” “What sleeping?”, Thompson replied innocently. “…”, Vyhovsky started to reply, then realized the joke, and chuckled softly. “How tired am I that I could not see that coming?”

Seriously? I’d say quite a bit if you end up hovering in the middle of the room”, Thompson answered. “What have you been doing to get to this point?” He looked up at Vyhovsky, then back over to the open spreadsheet. “The Ammonia lasting twenty-two months? Isn’t that optimistic?” Wyhovsky shrugged. “If, we catch all the breaks, then it’s close to realistic. If not, then we’re pretty much dead anyway and there’s no reason for the exercise.” Thompson looked back at Vyhovsky, who gave another tired smile. “I’m Ukrainian, we’re bigger pessimists than the Russians.”

Vyhovsky pushed away from the handhold and floated down to grab the back of the chair Thompson sat at. He peered at the spreadsheet. “What is the rate of consumption for the Ammonia?” Thompson minimized the spread sheet then searched the database for recharge cycles. “We’re using this much here, and this spike is when everything happened back home. We lost a heft chunk from the reservoir.” He shifted in the chair to let Vyhovsky see the chart more easily. Vyhovsky eased himself forward, grasping the edge of the computer mounting to arrest his motion. “So we have what, forty percent of the reservoir left”, he asked Thompson. “More like thirty. Cutting back on the heating and cooling will stretch it, but we may end up having more stuff breaking down because of thermal expansion and contraction in here.”

Thompson popped the spreadsheet open once more. “The trouble is, skrimping one place will hurt in others. Reduce the heating and cooling, that will help, but the equipment isn’t exactly made for temperature cycles. It’s sturdy, and we’ve got triple redundancy and spare equipment, but no telling how long it will last with the thermal changes.” Vyhovsky nodded, intent on the spreadsheet. “So your best estimate of our time here?” Thompson stared at the spreadsheet, then cycled through the other tabs for food, recyclables, and perishables. He changed the formulas used, and then jumped back to the main page to display the estimates. It looked nowhere near as encouraging as Vyhovsky’s. Ammonia was still the major bottleneck, at eleven to fifteen months before reserves ran out, if Vyhovsky’s measures were instituted.

A World’s Eye View – 6

He uncurled from the ergo chair, then faced the small group. “I think we’re all tired. I think we need some rest before we go try and vote on anything. Right now we’ve been run ragged from everything that’s happened and no one has had time to deal with any of it.” He turned to Kim. “That’s what I think, now I’m going to bed. See you in the morning.”

He didn’t wait for Kim or Vyhovsky to say anything more, kicking away from the ergo chair and gliding to the hatchway leading back towards the lab and crew quarters. Sleeping on this is the best thing we could do. Thompson did his best to ignore Kim’s shouts as he left.

Thompson unzipped from the hammock bag in the morning, and dressed, then headed to the galley, only to find the chairs and tables scattered as if thrown in a tantrum. All had magnetized ‘feet’ so they would stick in any direction, which made the whole scene look vaguely like an M.C. Escher painting with chairs on every wall. The table leaned at a 45 degrees, with legs on a wall and on the ceiling. He sighed and started to move the furniture back into some semblance of normalcy when Roels floated in.

“You missed all the fun”, he said quietly. Thompson looked over. Roels looked similar to Vyhovsky, with large circles under his eyes, and a listless demeanor of the sleep-deprived.

“This doesn’t look llike it was much fun”, he replied drily. “This looks more like a spoiled kid with a temper tantrum.” Roels chuckled quietly.

“Maybe it was. Mr. Kim is certainly animated when he gets passionate about something.”

Well, what happened?”, Thomspon asked. Roels shrugged.

“Kim got his vote. Salila voted yes, I voted yes, you abstained by leaving Vyhovsky voted no, and with Ingers still sitting in catatonia, we had no reason not to vote yes. Vyhovsky looked like he was relieved. I think he’s waiting for Kim to screw it up. I’m half waiting. The whole reason I voted yes was to shut him up and let him dig his own hole with all the ‘democratic vote’. We’ll be voting on everything, I suppose. Vote on how many showers, how much activity, who does what job on what day.”

Thompson rolled his eyes. He floated over to the table, then hooked his legs into an ergo chair, and settled facing Roels. “So Eugeni just, let, Kim get the vote?”, Thompson asked him. Roels grimaced, and shrugged.

“That’s my opinion. Salila voted for it because I think she’s looking to fit in.” Roels ducked his head sheepishly, and continued. “She’s been spending a lot of time talking with me when I’m not on schedule.” Thompson smiled.

“Sounds like more than talk, Ben.” He chuckled softly as Roels blushed crimson.

“We’ve been talking. Just talking”, he mumbled.

“You sound pretty defensive about just talk”, Thompson teased.

“I can’t help it if it sounds that way. She’s an amazing person. How many people do you know who would come up here to promote a movie stunt?”, Roels mumbled.

“Well, there was that computer game exec what, about five, six years back? He payed his whole ticket himself to come up here. Lord something or other”, Thompson replied.

Okay so not so good example. She came up here because the company she works for wanted to promote the movie, and she did it”, Roels growled. “Talk about a lousy mess. How much karma, do you wonder, gets you marooned as the only woman with no scientific skills, on the International Orbital, with astronauts whose very existence requires science knowledge and engineering skills?” Thompson thought about it, and nodded.

“Yeah, talk about being out of place. Gotta be rough.” Roels shrugged.

“That’s most of what we’re talking about. She’s tough though. She’s got me teaching her about the equipment and duties. She wants to help out and ‘earn’ her way”, Roels told him. He looked down and Thompson could feel a shift in Benoit.

“How are you with it Roels? Really.” Roels looked over, a haunted expression in his eyes.

I’m concerned, for her welfare. A gorgeous woman aboard confined mini-home with horny men. Myself included”, Roels finished with a self-righteous air.

“Humble much?”, Thompson replied drily.

“When humbleness is required, of course”, Roels said with a smile. The smile vanished like magic. “This however, is nothing but misery. We need hope. Any kind of hope.” Thompson leaned back and let his legs uncurl from the chair.

“Everything here is set up to be efficient, and redundant. Our two main bottlenecks are ammonia reserve, and food”, Thompson said slowly. “And god knows what we’re going to do if Ingers doesn’t snap out of it.”

Roels nodded. “That bothers me quite a bit. On one hand, he is one of us, and we are morally obligated to give him every chance to snap out of the catatonia. On the other, pragmatic hand, we have finite supplies and he is a resource sink that will be harder and harder to justify the longer he remains catatonic.”

Thompson nodded. “There’s no clear answer at all right now. And, how much can we spare the time to tend to him?”

Roels sighed, sliding his hand down his face. “For the present, we can only do what we can, and trust to providence.”

The silence between them made Thompson restless. “I’m going to go do a visual check of the panels from the video station. There’ haven’t been any alarms, saying we’re losing ammonia, but that EMP might have messed with the pressure sensors with the way they’re exposed. Better safe than sorry, up here.”

Roels nodded. “I agree. I think a systems check would be a reasonable precaution.” He looked over at the hatchway. Thompson’s gaze followed and he felt his pulse quicken as Salila Shukla floated into the room. She stopped her momentum by slkowly rotating her feet forward and using them as a shock absorber, her legs bending as they touched the handbar on the floor next to the anchored table. Thompson swallowed dryly as she turned to face Roels.

“Good day Ms Shukla”, Roels said as he partly straightened and bowed at the waist, feet hooked on the chair he’d just vacated. Salila smiled and bowed politely to Roels.

“Thank you. Is there any breakfast?”, she said quietly, eyes cast downwards.

Roels unhooked his toes, and gave himeslf a light push. He floated to the cabinet, and pulled out a sealed tray.

“This says, two peeled hard-boiled eggs, one juice tube, one one thousand calorie energy bar, raspberry flavored.” Salila smiled and took the proffered tray, then set it on the table, the magnetized surface holding the tray firmly in place as she opened the leftmost compartment, and removed the power bar. She took a bite, then chewed. She streuggled to swallow it, and managed.

“It is good, Mr. Roels…Benoit. Thank you”, she said, taking another bite.

Thompson excused himself, feeling very awkward in close proximity to her. He launched himself out the hatchway, and towards the video station, to begin his visual sweep of the panels. As he slowed to take the corner, he could hear someone talking softly. The voice seemed to originate from Ingers room. He slowed his momentum and snagged a handhold at the entry, and looked in. He saw Kim, talking softly to the still catatonic Ingers. Kim was reading from one of the Kindles that the station had for books, and coordinating work. His quiet voice working in a sing-cong cadence as he read to Ingers.

He watched the back of his friend shift as he resettled his foot hold and continued to read out loud. I don’t know if what Kim’s doing is going to work. I’ve heard that voices can seem to pull people out of comas on occasion, but Koll? He’s lost more than the rest of us. He’s got children and a wife back home. It had to be more than he could stand, knowing even if they did survive, he couldn’t help them at all. What piece of crappy luck. The dark musings expanded as he listened to kim’s droning, and it seemed to pull him into the cadance, his heart seemed to want to shift and synchronize with Kim’s voice, beating to the unidentified syllables.

How do we even go on? My fiance’ is gone, Roels ex-wives, Vhovsky’s brother and parents, my god how are we going to live, why should we live? It’s all a joke, a fucking joke! It’s… he shook his head and shuddered as he fought back out of the morbid morass of thought. Quit whining, David. Get your act together. We have to pull through so we can get home. We can’t give up, not now, not ever. His hand clenched reflexively, determination settling into his muscles as he pulled himself silently away from the doorway and towards the video room.