Lonely in Space. A deep spacer loses, finds, and loses his girl.
John is a deep-spacer about to begin a ten year journey. He meets and falls for a woman, having to leave her behind – or does he?
A few years ago, I'd have been embarrassed at the attention as my limo driver slows to park across several reserved spaces along the front of a large supermarket. As I step out, I notice all eyes are on me, among them at least a half-dozen store security guards as well as three bodyguards of my own. After being bullied and laughed at as a child, being a celebrity feels odd.
"I still don't see why you insist, John?" the secret service leader asks, eyes constantly on the move as he watches guards and store customers. "One of us could easily have made the trip for you."
"I appreciate the thought, Tom, but I have to get outside once in'a while. To feel I'm still human, not merely the fleshy part of that damned spaceship."
"Still, it's dangerous. Without you the mission would be scrubbed." He signals one of his people. "Come on, we might as well get started."
When we get to the queue waiting to enter the supermarket, I order him away.
"Now hold on, John. I can't do that. Can't just leave you here among strangers."
I look way up at his craggy face, scowling down at me. My hand goes to the zipper on my trousers. "If you don't get the hell back there, I'm gonna ... I'm gonna whip it out and piss right here, in front of the crowd and their cameras." Seeing an astounded look on his face, I continue. "Get moving Tom, or out it comes." Shaking his head, he steps back. He knows when I'm serious.
Feeling the presence of a multitude of strangers, I ignore stares and walk to the back of the line. There are ten or fifteen people in front of me. How times have changed for little, literally little, Johnny Adams. Before winning a position as a leader of the space race, I'd been one of those masses. Now, I feel uncomfortable.
Impulsively, I step close to press my nose against a skirt worn by a woman in front of me, if only to actually smell another human being. Towering above me, she spins to stare angrily over my head. I often affect people that way.
"Down here," I tell her, enjoying the change in her features as she sees my diminutive figure. How can she remain angry at such an innocuous little man.
"Sorry," she says, "but I thought you were a masher."
"Why not? Why can't I be a masher? You're beautiful enough to rate one."
Only then does she notice my entourage, a couple of my bodyguards glaring at her and looking ready to come over. I see a light of recognition as she studies my face. It's been on the front page of enough magazines.
"So you're one of the deep spacers?" She smiles down at me, obviously impressed. "You shop here often?" the goddess asks, turning her eyes back up to check over her grocery list.
I'm immediately attracted to her and her chest, which is looming over me. It's hard keeping my gaze from studying anything but her chin and the bottom of a nose.
Head inverted, I see those lovely greenish lips moving as she reads the list over, making certain she hasn't missed anything.
Not wanting to be responsible for her making a mistake, I wait, taking the time to gaze up and down, mostly up. Harsh lamplight reflects interesting hues of reflected light through a globular hairdo, so far above me.
We deep spacers tend to be short, saving weight on spaceships. The vessels we use are designed for us individually, each inch of height meaning more tons of metal and plastic, also the fuel needed to lift it. Me, I'm three-foot-seven in height.
"Next three," an admittance clerk shouts and we shuffle up a few paces, me crowding close to smell her perfume.
"When I'm in town," I speak to her back, hands longing to stretch out and cop a feel; an act I was notorious for as a kid - as well as dodging under ballooning skirts – "I have an apartment here in ChiTown." Why not, I figure. "Maybe you'd like to come up sometime? I could tell you all about my work." After all, we do have quite a few groupies.
"You look larger on the holoshows." she turns her head and leans down forward, giving me a good view of a sculptured chin, small nostrils flaring above it. "Maybe I should," she says, reflectively.
"Next two," the clerk calls out and we step into the lobby of the supermarket, standing with arms raised as security guards sweep their detectors over us. ChiTown is considered one of the safe cities. Even though safe, you still can't wander the aisles and shop for yourself.
"Go on in, Mr. Adams, sir," the guard stutters. I have that effect on people, being easily recognized and a celebrity. He moves to shove the woman aside.
"No, the lady's ahead of me," I have to remind him, causing a little embarrassment and seeming to amuse the girl. In these days of terrorist fears, even lowly security officers feel self-important, some taking that pistol on their hips as an extra phallus.
"Mr. Adams, sir. Glad to see you again." All three clerks scramble to serve me as the lovely lady is ignored. It's my turn to be embarrassed. I humbly smile and hand my shopping list up to a clerk.
"Right away, sir." A female clerk grabs the form and disappears from sight, rushing back to fill my order. I can hear my name being bandied behind the counter, knowing the clerk will be running down the aisles with a shopping cart. Meanwhile, I'm gratified that the lady is also being served.
After a spat of store bombings and poisonings, no business in the country can afford the insurance payments needed to let customers walk the aisles themselves, possibly poisoning foods or hiding bombs among merchandise. Instead, they hire extra clerks and security guards. Each customer has to check off items on a long shopping list before entering, which a clerk fills. You have a certain amount of time in front of the clerk, then outside into an enclosed area to wait for your order to be filled.
At least in safe cities like ChiTown there are a few businesses, such as restaurants, still open. Even they are restricted to a small number of tables, well-lighted and guarded inside and out. You have to be careful if you lower your hands under a table to scratch yourself while eating. The guards might fear a bomb and drop an anti-explosive barrier between yours and other tables. And that's in the safe cities. I can imagine how it is in other places.
Being a celebrity, I'm finished first, one of the guards even carrying my bags out for me. Being horny and interested, I wait with my car and driver for the woman to finish.
As I sit in the back of the armored vehicle, with every confidence armed driver and bodyguards will protect me, I survey nearly-empty streets. Hardly anyone walks anymore, even in a safe city, except for marching squads of soldiers and plain-clothed police officers.
Eventually the woman comes out, carrying several large sacks of groceries. She starts for a bus stop.
"Hey!" I open my door and call out, "you need a ride home? Those bags must be heavy."
I see her hesitate for a moment, obviously debating about accepting a ride from a stranger, then smile and walk over.
"Thanks," she says, letting a bodyguard help her put the bags in the trunk. "My name's Janice Thomas, by the way. I guess you're safe."
"I wouldn't count on it. Some women say differently."
She laughs, a lovely sound.
"So I've heard. Just as long as you stay on your side of the seat and I stay on mine."
She gets in and we leave. I enjoy her profile as she leans over the seat to give her address to the driver.
"Look, Janice. You're a lovely girl." I get to the point, one of my less noble graces. "I'd like to see more of you. Is that possible or do you have a husband or boyfriend?"
"I suppose so. What do you have in mind, kind sir?"
"Well, I don't like restaurants. Too many people watching my every move; not to mention the cameras. It's hard to eat under those circumstances. How about coming over to my place tonight? I'll send my car? Or even your place if you like? Maybe you have a restaurant in your building? Somewhere that doesn't know me?"
"I don't think that's possible, John. I assume I can call you John? Everyone knows you by sight. Like it or not, you're on the news almost every night."
"Not, as in 'I don't like it' but it comes with the territory. What you say?"
"Why not? It's not every day that I get to dine with a celebrity. What time?"
"How about I send the car about eight?"
We make small talk before pulling into the guard post at the entrance to her high-rise apartment house. A guard stops the limo to run our identification cards through their scanner before admitting us.
"You want help getting upstairs?" I offer.
"I can make it," she says, grasping my hand. "See you tonight."
That was how I met Janice. The evening went well. Like fattening a calve before slaughter, the government gives me a good life between trips. I'm a large investment. If something happens to me the entire ship will have to be scrapped, maybe the next mission, so they strive to keep me happy.
"I told you about myself, Janice," I ask, "but you never said what you do for a living?"
We're sitting on my lanai, idly watching the moon silhouetting security guards walking their patrols on the neighborhood wall. It isn't unusual for gangs of unemployed to break into such enclaves to raid homes. Security has to be tight for the wealthy. Of course, the government gives my home special consideration.
"You won't believe this, John, but I work on your artificial intelligence system 'Donna'. The control program companion on your next trip will be partially my coding." She grins, a lovely sight, and continues, "Not the voice part, but in controlling temperatures throughout the ship. I visit the ship often to inspect thermostats and check a few instruments. That coding is delicate."
"You're raising my temperature right now." I clasp her tighter, leaning over to kiss a cheek.
"Why don't we go inside and see about correcting that bit of external coding?" she says, getting to her feet.
Our SupComps say your best launch date will be next Thursday," George, the mission chief, tells me. "Better wind down your commitments here. It'll take a projected eight to ten years before you're back from Callisto. The milk in your fridge is bound to go bad."
"I'll be there on time, boss." Talk about commitments. With the ship formed as a second skin for me alone, billions of dollars would be lost if I didn't make it. Then there're hundreds of highly-trained people in the Control Section here on Earth that would be out of work. Although I'd rather quit to stay here with Janice, it isn't really an option.
At least I won't have to tell her I'm about to leave. As a small cog in the process, she'll know soon enough. That was on a Wednesday. She takes off work on Friday and we spend the weekend together, me taking every moment as though it's the last. Thanks to excessive recording of my actions, much of my time with her is on RecButton for me to go over during the long trip. I recall her last words were something to the effect that she might have a surprise for me. That never happens, as we both oversleep on Monday morning.
The last few days are hectic, with no time for myself. We still manage to talk often by phone until George absolutely forbids such distractions. As it is, I need thirty hours a day for final processing.
Much of the time is spent in small adjustments between the ship and myself. Even the control chair needs a new part, the old one a few millimeters too thick and too heavy for specs. The only real sleep I get is under sedation, that deliberately ending three hours before final flight ceremonies.
Bands play and cameras flash at my final interview and to watch me climb in and shut the door. By that time I'm exhausted by the hectic activity, about ready to collapse in the entryway, having to force myself into my bunk to strap in. The silence inside is deafening.
I hardly notice the rumbling of mighty engines engaging far below. I lie in relative silence as Control takes me up and away, as Superman would say it. Until I reach our destination, I'm more or less supercargo, there in case something needs personal attention. Hopefully, that will never happen.
My first days, weeks, months, and close to a year are spent in idleness. The only contact is in daily conversations with Control. That is really only to make certain communication channels are still working and that I haven't gone crazy since the last one.
At first, they refuse to let me talk to Janice. I finally have to threaten Control. "Look," I tell George, "I've had it. Either you put her on tomorrow or I'm cutting communication from this end. It's been a year, so don't tell me you still can't find her."
"Brace yourself, John. I was hoping you'd forget that woman. She quit work the day before you launched. We honestly can't find her."
"Well ... keep looking." I don't know what to say. Wiping my eyes, I click the radio off before my voice breaks. I sit in silence for hours, though time has little meaning at this job.
For another year, I settle into a routine. I read, watch movies, sleep, eat, and think about Janice.
The routine is broken when, during one of our daily conversations, George has more bad news for me.
"…. So you see, John, there's no way we can help you. It was a computer glitch, one we had no way to foresee." For a change, his voice comes through clearly, unmodified by normal static this far from Earth. It has just pronounced my death sentence. No way we can help you? I'm a member of the walking dead, was what he meant.
I have two real choices. The first to continue into outer space, relinquishing any return to our solar system in my lifetime, my tomb going on a one-way journey to infinity. Or, I can put the ship into a long curve, billions of miles long, eventually returning to the vicinity of the Earth, probably long after mankind has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
A recent computer check has shown that one of my steering rockets would fail to fire, at least not anywhere as long as I need it. The fuel is defective. The others can be controlled.
"John. John, do you read me?" I make no reply. Why should I? What would it matter. The old double whammy in action. Emotionless, holding it in, I simply click the switch to "off", cutting his voice in mid-question. I'll think about it later, think later or not think at all. I take a powerful sleeping pill, debating while holding the bottle up in front of my face, wondering about taking them all? Feeling the effects, I stagger to my bunk. No hurry, those pills will still be here tomorrow.
It's the second, but not the only bad news I've been given in the past month. The first being about Janice. My mind struggles to stay awake, hearing beeping sounds indicating Earth calling back, incessantly, even as I pass into blessed oblivion, alone, so very alone in space.
Such are the medications that I dream, and am aware I'm dreaming. I dream of Janice, not in death, but in the prime of life. It's almost like standing outside my body, disassociated but intimate, both at the same time. I remember that last night...
"Please, honey. Give me a break. A man can only do soooo, much."
"I'll help. We have two more hours. Time enough for another one, dear. Do it for the camera, to take with you."
"I can't. I simply can't. How about making faces for it? OH. That feels good. More of that. It feels good and gooder."
"See? I told you I'd help."
"It'll fall off. One more time and that thing'll fall off."
"So? You can pee sitting down for the next ten years."
Before leaving in separate taxis, we hugged and she whispered something in my ear about seeing me soon….
"Damn! Damn. Double Damn," I scream into an echoing metal coffin. I've been going over our recorded antics, bringing Janice fresh to my mind. Looking to the side, at a polished aluminum panel, I see a shrimp of a guy gone fat from inactivity. No reason for personal hygiene here. I can't smell myself.
I'm out of dependable radio contact with Earth. When I feel the urge, I send sporadic messages back. There's been nothing important in them, so far. They do the same and still haven't located Janice. Damn, but I wish she was here in person. We could look out at the stars, our sun being only one of billions, no brighter than the rest.
On a whim and because I happen to be sitting at the computer console, I bring up schematics of my screwed up fuel system. They consist of both straight and squiggly lines interspersed by numbers and symbols. It's been a long time since I passed a course on reading blueprints and schematics, but I can still make my way around if I go slow.
The fuel tanks are located at the rear of the ship, four of them between some sort of partitions. I suppose that's to contain leaks. Bringing up an overlay of the electrical system for that area, I can see I'm correct. Each section has two sump pumps to pass leaks thorough filters before going back into the tanks. No doubt because of the danger of settling, they're also equipped with stirring mechanisms.
I study the diagrams for hours, looking for some way to pump fuel between tanks, but can't find any. Figures beside the tanks show only one has a different - deadly to me - composition. They're also inflatable near the top and that one is almost overflowing, at a critical level, in fact. One of the pressure readings is in yellow.
Remembering that Janice has been involved in heating various installations and rooms throughout the ship, I superimpose a greenish layer showing temperatures in the fuel storage area.
It doesn't take me long to notice another yellow figure. There's a heater out in that one partition. The one containing defective fuel.
My brain kicks into overdrive. I key in a request for explanations on my fuel. Hell, I don't even know what it's called. A mixture of some type, all components comprised of long Latin names.
Getting the list, I check it for effects of freezing. Most of the fuel components freeze at sub-spacial temperatures ... and expand as they freeze. It occurs to me that frozen fuel might be my problem. Without the heater, that compartment is cold ... very cold. A little heat must be seeping in from other sources, including the other heater in there, but it could still be below freezing for some fuel components.
Suited up for deep space for safety reasons, I can barely make it to the aft-end of the ship. At two points, it takes me hours to get out of the suit, push it ahead of me through narrow maintenance passages and put it on again.
My heart threatens to fail when I find stashes of food crates thrown around in supposedly empty maintenance corridors, some broken open. Then come plastic drums of drinking water and other human supplies. I hope I won't find what I expect to find. I sincerely hope and pray I won't.
As I come closer to the fuel tanks, I find broken crates of women's clothing and necessities.
"No!" I cry into the metal echo chamber. I can't go on. I can't. Please God, I can't. But it's the only way I can possibly save myself.
At the door to the faulty fuel section I stop, one hand on the latch, to wipe tearing eyes and blink several times. I don't want to open that door. I CAN'T open that door. But I must. As bad as it will be, it will be far worse to go back, leaving it closed and never certain.
Steeling myself, I twist the handle, at least glad that no evil smell greets me in my suit.
Yes. I find her ... and she's dead. Probably since takeoff. The takeoff in one of these ships is abrupt, from zero to ten "G"s in only a few seconds. I find Janice in a spare spacesuit, one I noticed missing when I took stock but didn't think anything of at the time. I also noticed a much higher supply of re-breathing supplies. Figuring Control cataloged that stuff, I had no reason to be suspicious of a stowaway.
Her body lies sprawled across that errant heater, keeping it from working. The temperature is far below freezing in here.
She must have been standing at takeoff, thrown onto the heater with "G" forces killing her. It would have seemed like being hit with multiple sledgehammers. That was what she meant by those cryptic comments about having a surprise and seeing me later.
Before taking her body to my living quarters, I manage to restart the heater. Within a week, the fuel is unfrozen and mixed to normal consistency. I only wish I could do the same with Janice.
I could eject her, but can't bring myself to do it. For the rest of the trip, she can keep me company, both of us going over our taped mementos while sitting side by side, her frozen in a spacesuit and me in my undies.