Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Jordin stared at the sentence. A steady tapping filled the room as he nervously tapped his pencil on the desk. The other students looked up occasionally, staring in his direction. He didn’t notice.
He pondered the statement and tried to decide if it was philosophical or warning. Maybe both. For the last eight weeks, he and the other recruits had been training in all manner of zero g work. His favorite had been welding, however he’s sure he’ll end up in non-destructive testing or environmental recycling.
The mere thought of spending months in a lab testing nuts, bolts, steel, aluminum, and all manner of hybrid metals made his skin crawl. His least favorite place was recycling. Near an air scrubber all day working with filters and water collection sounded boring. Being on a rig, welding in the vacuum of space, and watching the universe expand to infinity was just the kind of job he could see himself doing until retirement…or death, apparently.
The only thing standing between his dream and today is this essay. He starts to write. His mind races to a movie he’d seen as a kid with his uncle, about an alien monster that kills a crew of explorers. He remembers being extremely frightened. He smiles. Thinking of the intense feelings of suspense and dread, and his uncle. Crazy Uncle Carl.
Uncle Carl was a pioneer, one of the first wave of recruits. When he was 30, he signed up to work on the platforms. A huge undertaking, meant to be the refueling and supply stations for the outer system. The commercials were everywhere, four times an hour. The pay was high, the benefits were amazing, and you got to work in space.
I’ll never forget the conversations my mom and grandma had with Uncle Carl. He thought. They were fixated on the Line of Duty Death clause.
Next of kin had to sign it and agree with your decision. Most people signed it without debate. But my family, they had been watching the news feeds. Scores of recruits lost to terrible industrial accidents. Sub-par vac suits, malfunctioning equipment, poor situational awareness. It’s the Wild West!, Grandma yelled.
She was right, it would turn out. Uncle Carl would vidcall us nightly. We’d talk for an hour, until his boss would advise of ‘lights out.’ He would have stories of his coworkers being mauled, crushed, vac’d, and skewered. He promised he wouldn’t be one of them, that he listened during his training and had a good group with him that looked after each other.
One night he didn’t call. We knew he was working on a stabilizer rig and had been putting in long hours. One night wasn’t scary. Three nights, though, we began to worry.
One morning we received a vidcall from his company, it was a high level manager we’d never seen before. Uncle Carl had been working and during his shift a micro-meteor storm struck the platform. His suit was pierced sucking the atmosphere out and killing him. We all imagined instantly. It turns out there may be a full minute of consciousness while you slowly boil and die. What a horrible death.
Jordin shakes his head rapidly, trying desperately to remove the image of his beloved Uncle dying in that way.
He finishes his essay, stands from his desk and walks to the front of the room to drop it in the collection bin. He leaves his pencil, turns and walks out of the room. His best friend, Phil, is waiting in the hallway.
“Well?! How’d it go?”, he asks excitedly.
“Eh. I guess it went alright. The essay question really threw me. I don’t even know what I wrote.”, Jordin says with a heavy shrug.
“Don’t sweat it Hermano! Welding requires no writing!”, Phil grabs Jordin’s shoulder and shakes him wildly. “Let’s grab a beer and await the results.”
Later, Jordin hears the news he’s been waiting for: he’s been accepted into both Recycling and Welding. It’s good to have options, he thinks, knowing full well which he’ll choose. The orders show he leaves tomorrow on the next transport to the lunar substation. Mom isn’t going to be happy with the short notice, but she knew it was coming. She already signed the paperwork.
Jordin’s comm device is an older model, the chip in the upper left corner has been there so long it’s actually soft to the touch. Filed over months of use and abuse. The crack that leads from it hasn’t distorted the screen yet. His comm chirps while it attempts to connect to his mom’s comm.
She picks up immediately, “Tell me J-din.” He tells her all about the test, the anxiety of the day and how he and Phil went for drinks after. Her patience is thin, but her facade is unwavering. She listens and adds excited sounding responses. There’s a pause.
“So…I got the results this evening…” he’s sure she won’t be happy. She appears so still, he starts to wonder if the connection dropped and image is frozen. She blinks. “I got into welding and they want me to leave tomorrow. The transport platform is nearby in Winter Port. I don’t have to be there until 9am, so we can have breakfast.” He finishes.
The weight of her lower eyelids appears instantly heavy, then the tears fall. She sobs uncontrollably for a few minutes. He just listens. What can I say?, he thinks and fidgets with his comm. When she starts to calm, he offers words of encouragement with little effect. Her baby is going away. Perhaps forever. For 18 months at least, longer if he gets a permanent spot on a freighter. That time is just enough to get to Mars one way. There’s a chance she could become an old woman and die before he ever returns. To her, he will be gone.
He awakes and puts the last articles of personal effects in his bag. He never really thought about the probable permanence of his new job. He takes a holographic projector from his desk and shoves it in the bag. Hopefully, it’ll help with the homesickness. As he steps to the door of his room, he turns to look around. Posters from movies, figurines from his favorite manga, toys he’s long forgotten, and a perfectly made bed. He turns off the light and shuts the door. He turns, rushes in and grabs the anti nausea meds from his dresser…you never know!, he thinks.
He stops at the front door and gives his mom a huge hug. She squeezes him so tight he hears a rib pop. He pretends not to notice and takes a quick gasp. He kisses her in the cheek, says goodbye for the hundredth time, picks up his bag and walks out the door. He turns every two feet to wave and say “I love you!” As he jogs to the cab. He gets in and closes the door, he stares out the window soaking in every last detail. Tears well in his eyes, a soft sob breaks the silence in the cab. He gathers himself and wipes his eyes.
When he arrives at the launch platform, the bustle of the crowd reminds him of ants crawling around a piece of watermelon. People everywhere, all seemingly with a purpose. He heads to the work gates and shows his ID to the Port Authority. He gets through security and makes his way onto the transport ship.
The inside is brightly lit and sleek, but the design is old. Blue and white with areas of color splashed in and accent lighting that changes color in flowing designs along walls, floors, ceilings and seating areas. The ship had been a luxury cruise liner from a time when companies thought the Earth was populated by billionaires with desires to see space. They did, for a while. Turns out it’s kind of boring for a tourist after a week. Most billionaires were old and really couldn’t handle the launch. Millionaires were more eager, but the costs were most of their fortunes. The industry all but dried up, most of the ships were repurposed as transports for long hauls. It’s still nice, just in need of some updating.
Jordin finds his seat and stows his bag. Before he lets go, he removes his ear jacks so he can listen to some music, or tune someone else out, or both. He grabs his charging dock and takes his seat. While he situates his jacks and dock, he overhears some conversation from a few rows up. A couple of thugs are trying to strong arm a family into paying for something. It’s too far to hear what. He puts the jacks in his ears and starts his music.
The seat next to him is suddenly filled with a body. The explosion of the pressure of this person sitting so violently has made a dust cloud out of the old seat cushion. Jordin waves the dust away from his face as he turns to look at who might be such an animal. It’s Phil. Of course it’s Phil, he thinks as he removes one of his ear jacks.
“I thought you were delayed?”, asks Jordin.
“You’ll never believe this! I was told I would leave in a month. Yesterday on the Lunar Orbiting Station, an oxygen tank exploded. Nine people blown out to the void. Nine. This morning, I get a vid telling me to pack and get to the port. Here I am. Can you believe it?!”, Phil barely took a breath, “Did you say you got Welding? Damn! I got Atmo. I’ll be inside while you cowboy walk all over the box. One promise: I’ll always make sure the air is clean. You’ll know it’s me too! I’ll be sure to fart…right..in..the air scrubber. Just for you!!!”
“Hahaha! That is the kind of dipshit thing you’d do! Just my luck, I’ll be stationed on a box that smells like candle wax, cumin, and garlic. Not sure if that’s a good thing or the kind of thing that makes you wish for the void.” Jordin said.
The flight to the Sea of Serenity Lunar Port was nearly uneventful. Several people were accosted in the shower rooms by thugs. Most people banded together and went in packs, this helped cut down on the robberies. Where do these opportunists even come from? Jordin and Phil managed to link up with some other classmates and remained vigilant. On docking, everyone gathered their belongings and made their way to the customs station.
Long ago, there was no such thing. There was no call for security checks after leaving port, because people wanted to experience the travel. Now, like anything, people find ways to disrupt the norm and inconvenience society. This was no exception, all bags and bodies searched. All devices scrutinized. One mistake here and it’s a total loss.
After two hours, Phil and Jordin make their way to the docks to meet up with their new boss. The walk is long, mostly because their tethers continue to get hung up on support rungs. There’s a trick to it that experience will hone, but for now inconvenience is the name of the game. Every six feet the tether line meets a support rung and requires a fine dance of the carabiner to traverse. It makes for slow travel down the corridor. Without them, the wearer would end up suspended in the middle of a room with little hope of travel in any direction. On the moon, the device isn’t honestly necessary, however all travel modes off world, except cruises, require expert understanding of the devices.
Phil seems to have unlocked the secret of the tether and is sailing along. He looks back and taunts Jordin at regular intervals. Is there no end to this man’s jabs?, he thinks as he fumbles with yet another support obstacle. The trick seems to elude Jordin. He manages to work the carabiner past the obstacle on some and others trip up the works.
Every thirty feet, there is a large window with a view of the lunar surface and a star field that is vast and nearly impossible to comprehend. The solar reflection is bright, however the glass coatings have managed to block and polarize the brightest of light. Still blinding, like staring at snow for an hour.
They were advised to keep gazing out the windows to a maximum of 10 minutes without eye protection. Jordin has grown tired of looking. Every view the same crater wall. The same distant boulders. It’s grey and white and black. The stars though, mesmerizing. He’d love to see the Earth, but considering the orientation of the corridor and the windows, it would be impossible. Without a window on the roof of the corridor, he won’t see the Earth for over a month. By then, he’ll be very busy, maybe even nowhere near the Earth’s orbit. He keeps crawling along the tether line.
It took an hour to get to the docks. Phil actually got there sooner, but came back and tried to help. Jordin managed to get the hang of the tether maze on the supports and started making some time. Their boss met them and advised they could untether. They were escorted to a conference room where they found several tables set up with equipment of all types.
The first table they were lead to was the vac suit table. Each fitted to the wearer and customized to specific jobs. Jodin’s suit was grey with fluorescent orange striping. The stripes had LED lighting in them to help make him visible in the void. The helmet fitted to the suit and locked in place. The visor had a triple coating and electroshielding. The helmet had its own power source and would automatically change to a welding shield at the activation of the welding trigger. The visor also came with a very basic HUD and a solar visor.
The next table had gloves. Jordin needed dexterity. He picked up a set of gloves and analyzed them by touch. He put one on and flexed his hands a few times feeling the weight and movement. They felt light and thin. He picked up the next pair and put one on. The weight was a little off. They were heavy, he flexed his hands and found the movement smooth and easy. He picked up the other glove with it and found he could feel every detail of the glove. He could make out the texture of the material and feel the seams. Impressed, he stares at it in front of his face and checks the thermal rating: Interstellar. Good. His hands won’t freeze or melt while he’s working and he can feel his tools and work surfaces. These are perfect.
His next stop was for harness fitting. Every suit needed one. All work needed tether and all ships had work. He chose a medium weight harness with ergonomic tool attachment hangers. He liked the buckle devices too. Easy to operate and similar to the ones he’d used back home.
At this point he’s got his new belongings stuffed under both arms and being cradled by his arms and hands. He sets them down and stacks the pieces on the floor near him. He skips to the boot table and looks around. He has no idea what environmental boot would be best, as he doesn’t have an assignment specifically, he chooses a multipurpose boot. Great surface traction, magnetic coupling for box crawling, interior use.
The next couple tables are accessories. He picks up flashlights and signaling devices. He checks out Rescue breathers and magneto-winch systems. He can’t decide what is necessary and what is just cool to have. He bounces lightly back to the start of the accessory table and collects two flashlights and rescue breather. He grabs the winch and looks at all angles. It looks heavy and cumbersome. It’s funny to think something is heavy here, he smiles. He puts it down and walks back to his stuff.
When he goes to pick it up, he finds his helmet is missing. To teach him a valuable lesson, the boss has removed it. He looks around and asks if anyone has seen where it went. Not wanting to be the one to give up the gag, no one tells him. He goes back to the helmet table and sees his helmet on the table. He goes to grab it and his hand is grabbed.
“If you want an extra helmet, you’ve got to have credit. You already used yours.” says the Chief Petty Officer.
“I think there’s been a mistake, that helmet was just on my vac suit and while I was looking at accessories, it was placed here.” Jordin explains.
“Are you calling me a liar?” asks the CPO, changing his tone to one of stern condemnation.
“N..no. No, sir. I just don’t understand how my helmet managed to get back here” Jordin says, becoming more confused and embarrassed.
“I’ll enlighten you. While you were distracted, you allowed your safety equipment to be taken. You have a job to do, don’t you? You need this equipment to do said job, do you not? Have you even noticed that while you have been telling me about your helmet that the remainder of your gear has been taken as well? Let me tell you something: your momma ain’t here. She will not be able to wipe your ass and make sure her little cherub has all his vac suit gear for work. If you can not keep track of your gear, how can we trust you to maintain it and not suck vacuum the next time you exit the lock?” The CPO chastises loudly for all to hear. After a long, lingering moment of silence he continues.
“You may collect your gear from the tables, under one condition: you will be on waste management duty for two weeks. During that time, you will maintain all vac toilets and assist the master plumbers on all clogs and waste packaging. Consider this both punishment and training. Failure to appear for your new duties and your normal assigned duties will result in further discipline. We own you. We pay you to do a job. You will do it without question and without mistakes. You signed a contract, you will honor it. There are no exits prior to contract expiration. Get your gear and report to assignment.” The CPO finishes.
Jordin collects the gear he had once and lost. His face beet red. He looks down and refuses to look anyone in the eye. As he leaves the room, the CPO demands he look him in the eye. Jordin stops, he reluctantly looks up and looks at the CPO’s face. The CPO nods and dismisses him. He nods back.
After he leaves the room, he is lead to another room. He is directed to put his vac suit together and try it on. Phil enters the room while he is sorting his gear for assembly.
“Damn, dude. That was intense! You sure know how to make an impression! Haha”, Phil says as he places his gear on the floor.
“I didn’t expect that. I feel so stupid. Shouldn’t have put it down.”, Jordin says quietly.
“Bro, there’s no way you could’ve predicted that. Hell, I was thinking about it when I heard the commotion of you trying to get your helmet”, Phil says. “I can tell you one thing, we all learned something. You definitely helped twelve people understand the importance of keeping an eye on their gear.”
Jordin assembles his suit and adds the accessories. The boss enters the room and tells them all to put the suits on. Hahahahaha, now what, thinks Jordin. He flips the suit and unzips the back. He gets his feet in and realizes the boots and gloves shouldn’t be attached at this point. He takes his feet out and lays the suit down. He detaches the boots and gloves and tries again. The suits slides on easily and comfortably. He steps into his left boot and secures the seal at the ankle. He steps into the right and repeats the process. He puts his gloves on and seals them. He grabs his helmet and realizes he can not attach it with gloves on. He puts the helmet down and takes off his gloves. He thinks back to the tech school he attended, they didn’t have this kind of suit. All they had were older units that were mostly one piece. Helmet and body suit. Easy.
These are much nicer, and more expensive as well as complicated. He puts his helmet on and tries to seal the coupling. It won’t budge. He doesn’t seem to have the threads right. He takes it off and tries again. No luck. He looks at Phil, who points to his back. Oh! The zipper! Duh. thinks Phil. He reaches back and grabs the zipper tether. He pulls it up sealing the body suit. He grabs his helmet and finds the seal works perfectly. He completes the coupling and stands ready. The visor fogs up quickly and becomes opaque due to condensation. The HUD is on, but keeps flashing with a red light in the lower left.
The condensation begins to run down the visor. His clothes are already soaked with sweat. Why is this so uncomfortable? he thinks. He starts cycling buttons on his left fingers, searching for an answer. He can’t decide what is happening. As he searches, he begins to realize its very hard to concentrate. He feels lightheaded and a little nauseous. His head is beginning to pound. “What is happening to me?” he asks out loud.
The boss watches as one by one, the room full of grown adults becomes disoriented and dizzy. Each one slowly going to their knees. None of them understanding that they failed to collect an oxygen supply. Some lessons need to be taught in the hardest way possible. When lives depend on it, there’s only one way to force a habit: cause a very uncomfortable memory. He walks to the first and uncouples their helmet. One by one he pops seals. Each one instinctively grabbing their helmet and removing it. Once he has all of their attention, he tells them: “you are all dead.”
He gives them all some time to recover and tells them to collect their oxygen supplies from the closet. He has them figure out where it goes without instructions. Some of them figure it out after ten minutes, others work together. Doesn’t matter how they do it, as long as they get it. Most understood that taking the suit off was necessary to attach the main supply. That all rescue breathers were attachable with the suit on. Some took one bottle. Others took two. Still fewer took one for every connection on their suit.
When they all finished connecting their supplies, he walked around the room. He touched the shoulder of Phil and Jordin. Had them stand in the middle of the room. He asked the class if they had connected everything correctly. The class was a mixed review. The boss pointed out their supply as being adequate. A main and a back up. The boss grabbed two others and did the same. They had chosen to attach bottles to every regulator. The boss pointed out the genius of this plan and advised that all planning should follow a worse case scenario. These two were most likely to survive a catastrophic event until rescue. Their supply being close to 12 hours of air.
The training continued to introduce the buddy system. It wouldn’t be necessary to pack out every employee with all bottles. A few would suffice. Each was advised they should at least take three to maintain a three hour window and a thirty minute rescue plan. The group worked on buddy breathing and hot filling tanks for the better part of the afternoon. They learned how to refill their tanks and check for damage. They would each get a certificate in bottle maintenance for their files.
After a late dinner, they made their way to the locks. They had been warned the first day was one of the longest they would endure. They can see why. There is so much they didn’t know, mostly because it can’t really be taught in the safety of free atmosphere and gravity.
In the normal operation of the station, the locks are used for cargo transfer and sometimes waste disposal. Today, it’s training. Each member lined up along the wall outside the lock, vac suit on and oxygen supplies attached. Each looked nervous. They should, this isn’t the classroom. Any mistakes could mean death. Each has practiced checking over their buddy’s suit and ensuring it is ‘tight and right’. The boss takes a walk down the line and checks them over himself. They look ready. He orders the inner lock door opened and for them to standby. As the door opens the noise of the gears and joints is loud and echoes through the corridor. It can be felt in the floorboards, through the boots. The boss orders them all inside the lock. They walk in moving their tethers along into the lock. They stop and form three lines of five. The boss joins them and before he puts on his helmet he gives a few last orders.
“You are about to experience the hard realities of hell itself. There are no do-overs. If you fuck up, that’s it. You are to ensure that your buddy and your buddy’s buddy is G to G! Do you understand me?!”, the boss’ voice echoing in the lock chamber.
A disjointed “yes, sir” returns. The boss demands better. In near unison: “Yes, Sir!”
“Outstanding! Seal yer lids and activate comms! Keep an eye on your oxygen level..you should all know it as that indicator in the lower left. When it is red, you’re dead. Solid is your last ditch, blinking…you better be good at breath holding. Call it out when you get to half. No heroes.” he says. He puts his helmet almost level with his face, “See you in hell!”
A series of coupling sounds and the steady hiss of oxygen flowing into systems is heard in the room. The boss puts on his helmet and locks it in. He turns and signals to the lock master they’re ready. The lock door closes.
Jordin notes the feel of the door closing but realizes the sound is very muffled. Must be a good sign. He looks around. There’s a lot of nervous energy around him. Fidgeting and wild eyes looking every which way.
A red strobe begins to flash and spin on both sides of the upper portion of the door. The outer door lifts and each member can feel the rush of air move past their legs. It is strong, but not strong enough to pull them. They must’ve vented most of it prior to opening, thinks Jordin. It hits him: he can’t hear anything outside of the gentle hiss of his oxygen supply and his own breathing. There’s a slight crackle from the comms system. A voice suddenly breaks through the silence and the crackle: WELL! DON’T JUST STAND THERE! LET’S TAKE A STROLL ON THE MOON!
Jordin feels a sudden rush of adrenaline and excitement as he takes his first step outside the airlock. His first action: look up. There she is. Mom and Earth. He waves, as though she would see him. As he looks around, he realizes just about everyone did the same thing. He and the recruits explore the surface, get used to their suits, and working in the vacuum of space. He and Phil bounce around outside the lock looking at everything. They press their helmets up against the glass of the corridor windows and yell obscenities just to see the reactions of the people inside. Surprisingly, they figured out the people CAN hear them…as long as the helmet remained in contact with the glass. They test it with each other’s helmet and find communication is possible this way as well.
Jordin can’t wait to call his mom. She’s gonna love to hear all about this.