Chapter 2

The room is official-looking.  It’s sterile and stern and gives me an uncomfortableness but I reckon I best stay.  At least it’s warm.  I open the top snap of my coveralls.  The man at the desk looks at me with disapproval, then I realize why: dust from the mine is still clinging to my pant legs.  I pull out a sticky-roller from a pocket and give it a few passes.  Nobody likes dust.

The letters above the front desk say Merchant Astronaut Corps, then below that, in smaller letters: A Division of the Cislunar Consortium.  Everybody in Shacktown knows about the Consortium.  They had a big hand in populating the town.  It’s that collection of companies that has built all the major space structures out there, like the huge satellites that supply Earth with power and the space colonies hanging at the L2 Lagrangian point.  Making big things requires lots of steel, so a few years ago they went into the stroid mining business.  Pops was a big part of that.

Once the Earthers decided to sell the Big Scope and the crater facilities to the highest bidder, the Consortium snapped it up.  Then they changed it around to a commercial enterprise, invited folks to move in, and started water-mining in a big way.  But things went downhill in a big way.

I look around. The walls are peppered with space posters.  Each ship in the small fleet has its own artistically rendered image.  There’s also pictures of stroids they have mined, as well as old Apollo pictures and a collection of vintage movie posters: Star Wars and Star Trek are two that I recognize.  There are three men and two women sitting in chairs by the wall, passing time by reading the displays on their wrists, two of them reading something on larger pad displays.  All of them are older than me.  One of the women looks up at me, and of course once she sees the bracelet she looks back down.

“Name?” says the doughy signing agent seated at the desk.

I turn to face him.

“Oh never mind,” he says before I can answer.  “I know who you are.”

He frowns, makes a few rapid finger-punches on his pad, and squints at my file.  “Yuuta, Yuuta…here it is.  You have completed the coursework I see.  So that’s good.  All right then…”  He hands me a pad.  “Here’s the written test.  Time limit is three hours.”  He shows me to a small exam room off the waiting area.  Meanwhile I’m thinking that I really should have prepared better.  Too late now.  I sit down at a little table and start in.

For two hours I click boxes and fill in answers to questions, struggling to remember all the stuff I learned in the coursework.  Once I get rolling, it kinda comes back to me and I don’t have much trouble.  Finally, I’m done.  I check my work over and hand the pad back to the man behind the desk.  He enters a code into the pad.

“I’m surprised you didn’t use the whole three hours.  And your test score,” he says, “let’s see how you did…”

His eyebrows pop up and he does a classic double take.  I may from the wrong side of the tracks but I ain’t stupid.  Come to think of it I’m not sure which side of the tracks is the wrong side.  It’s an Earth thing I picked up from an old movie: Dirty Dancing, I think.  Need to look that up.

“Um, acceptable,” mumbles the agent, his eyes glued to the pad.  “Have a seat and you’ll be called in for the next set of tests.”

The men and women that were waiting have all gone.  I take a seat by myself and wait.  And wait.  I tap my shoes on the carpet, look at the posters, put my head back and remember the sting of getting fired for no good reason.

I pop out of my day dream when a woman storms in from one of the back rooms; I recognize her as one of the women sitting here earlier.  She strides past me, her face all crabby and red.  She yanks on the door to the outside and is gone in a jiffy.  A youngish man in a sage-green lab coat comes from the same back room.  He walks to the front desk with an oh well expression on his face.  He lays a pad down on the desk and exchanges a few quiet words with the agent.  He picks up another pad.

“Yuuta?” he asks, looking at me with a question in his eyes.

“That’s me,” I reply.  He motions for me to follow.  I walk behind him and his lab coat through a set of double doors at the back of the office suite.

The lab is a large, echoing room with a high ceiling.  The upper portion of one wall is glass and I can see technicians sitting at consoles, drinking coffee and chatting.  In the middle of the room sits a sort of lounge chair.  The technician motions for me to sit in the chair.  He asks me to roll up a sleeve.  “We’re going to put you through a series of tests,” he says, like he’s reciting from a memorized script.  “The tests are run through an immersive simulation.”  He takes a hypo and small bottle from a steel roll-around cart and fills the needle.  “This is a mild psychotropic,” he says.  “It will make the simulation more realistic and help you react more normally.”

I didn’t know I’d be getting a shot.  Not real fond of those.  “So I’m taking this test high on drugs?” I ask.

“No,” he says, with a wan smile.  “It doesn’t work like that.  It’s very mild, really, and it only lasts for a short time.”

He wipes a spot on my forearm with a cotton ball.  I smell the alcohol and feel the pinch of the needle as he expertly injects the drug.  He makes some notations on his pad, then asks, “Do you have any metal on your body?”

“Well I do wear a metal bracelet,” I say.

The technician inspects my wrist.  “Oh, that’s right.  You’re Straker Yuuta; I just made the connection.  So that’s the bracelet.  It’s really interesting looking.”

“Thanks I reckon,” I say, taking it off and putting it in the tray he’s holding out.

“Wrist instrument too, please,” he says.  “Do you have any metal inside your body?”.

“No, I say as I lay my wristy in the tray.  “I’ve had a few broken bones but never needed no metal.”  I leave it at that; don’t think he needs the details of my genteel upbringing.  There were a few—more than a few—rough patches through the years.  Needed stiches sometimes, but no metal.

“All right, that’s good.”

The technician picks up an oversized helmet and shows it to me.  Where I would expect to see a visor, there’s a thick transparent plate.  A fat umbilical cord trails out the back of the helmet, connected at the other end to a royal blue rack of blinking, humming equipment.

“This is a type of imager that will show us the activity in your brain,” he says.  “It is also a virtual reality device.  Once I put it on you, you won’t be able to see or hear anything except what the test wants you to see and hear.  Are you OK with that?”

I nod.  He places the helmet on my head and spends some time adjusting the fit.  I can see through the plate but I can’t hear nothing but the muffled sounds of him fussing with the straps.  There’s a crackling noise and he asks “Can you hear me?” over the built-in headset.

“I hear you,” I say.

He puts a small instrument in my hand with a button.  “That’s your panic button, press it to end the test.”

“If I press it, I flunk, right?”

“Yes, of course, so try not to.”  He guides me up off the couch to the large machine that dominates the center of the room.  We walk up a couple of steps to a platform beside the machine. The tech guides the helmet’s thick cord behind me as we walk.  The machine has three massive, interconnected circular gimbals surrounded by thick bundles of electrical cabling.  In the center of all of that is a man-sized compartment.

What have I gotten myself into?  I think.  I stand on a platform passively as the attendant connects the helmet to an extension arm that branches out from the machine, taking the weight of it off of my neck.  He backs me into the compartment and methodically straps my wrists, waist, and ankles into their harnesses.  My hands are placed in oversized sensory gloves.  I am locked in, effectively a part of the machine.  I can’t help but feel a mite freaked out, but I concentrate on relaxing.

The tech presses a button on his wrist instrument.  The gloves on my hands shrink to fit my hands.  Then I feel a scratching sensation coming from within the glove.  “Do you feel that?” he asks.

“Yup,” I say.

“Does it hurt at all?”

“No—kind of tickles,” I say.

“Good.  That’s just a calibration step for the gloves.  Now you’re going to see a test pattern,” he says as he pushes another button on his wristy.  Immediately my helmet’s thick visor turns opaque and I see a series of finely-spaced concentric circles and lines.

“I see it,” I say.

“All right, we’ll get started.  You’re going to experience some scenarios.  Try to forget that you’re in a simulation and let yourself react to them normally—that will improve the accuracy of the readings.  I’ll be watching from the control room.  Remember to trust us: no matter what happens or what you see, you are safe.”

That had an ominous ring to it.  I’m supposed to forget I’m in a simulation but remember I’m safe.  Seems like I can do one or the other but not both.  But other people have made it through this, so I will too.  I take a deep breath and brace myself.  And wait.

Everything goes black and silent except for the slight hum of the helmet.  I can feel the drug coming on, like trench-rats scampering around the back of my eyeballs.  I hear the phantom, ethereal melodies hidden within the din of the helmet.

There’s a young woman in front of me.  She has bouncy brown hair and long eyelashes.  She’s very pretty.  Her coloring seems almost too vivid but I think that’s the drug.  We are seated together on a couch in a living room.  She’s turned half away from me; I see her from her left side but I don’t recognize her.  Ain’t never seen her nor this room in real life.  She’s cuddling a puppy.  He’s a furry little guy and he makes sweet little noises.  He enjoys being held.  “Isn’t he cute?” she asks, smiling and looking at me with flirtatious eyes.

Is that all this is going to be? I think.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  Then I remember that I’m supposed to react normally.  “Yea,” I say, “he looks real sweet.  I never seen an actual dog puppy before.”

She turns away, petting the little animal in silence.  Her long straight hair drapes across her shoulder, hiding her face.  She’s doing something with her right hand.   She turns towards me.

To my shock she is enraged, her eyes crazy with anger, her face distorted and ugly.  “And you’ll never see another one!” she screams, “Ever!”  She jerks her torso around and raises her right arm.  I see what’s in her hand too late to react.  She buries the steel point of the scissors in my right eye.

I jerk back and gasp.  I remember that it’s just a test, but the gear and the drug had made it seem so real.  Real enough, anyway—wouldn’t want it any realer.  The scene goes black again. The helmet clicks and hums while I catch my panting breath.

Now the gear displays a pleasant, slow movement of fuzzy colored blobs and I hear soft instrumental music.  “You’re all right,” says a crackling voice in my ears, “that was a test of panic response.  We’ll wait for your pulse rate to return to normal before we continue.  This next test won’t be so dramatic, I promise.”

It takes me a minute to calm down, but I concentrate on relaxing the muscles in my neck and shoulders, and eventually my breathing slows down and my heart stops pounding so hard in my chest.  The helmet goes dark again, then lights up with a scene from a cafeteria.  Oh crap, here we go.

There are dozens of people in the well-lit room, eating and talking in small groups.  I hear the clattering of plates and glasses tableware as well as the roaring agglomeration of colorful conversations going on all at once.  I can smell the food too: meat loaf with potatoes and gravy I think.  My mouth is watering.  I am seated at a table with two women: one with short, dirty blonde hair, the other with a severely cut black hairdo and scalp tattoos.  They are speaking in conspiratorial whispers but I can just make out what they are saying.

They’re talking about the couple seated at another table across the aisle.  The table is occupied by a middle-aged man and a younger woman.  They are laughing about some shared joke, sharing a meal and obviously intensely interested in one other.  The blonde woman at my table whispers to the other woman, “I know him, he works in my department, over in Logistics with Sookie and Sharon, I think.  He’s a married man, and that girl he’s talking to is not his wife.”

The tattooed woman’s eyebrows pop up in interest and she leans forward.  “Oh my God, really?  Oh my God.  Do you know his wife?”

“Yes I do,” says Blondie, “and she’s just the sweetest woman you’d ever hope to meet.  I mean, she’s just an angel: helps out at the clinic, watches other people’s children, cooks for her church, volunteers on dust patrols.  Just the sweetest woman.”

“Oh that’s terrible, I hate to see that.  I really hate that.  She deserves better than to be married to that cad.”

They both sneak looks back at me.  I guess I’m part of their group.  They’re waiting for my reaction.  “Yes, if he’s cheating on his wife then that’s awful,” I say.

The tattooed woman looks back at the blonde one.  “You should tell her.  I mean, she deserves to know, don’t you think?  Wouldn’t you want to know?  I would want to know.  I think you should tell her.”

Blonde sits back in her chair, a perplexed look on her face.  “Hmm, maybe.  Maybe it would be better to just wait and see.  I mean, we don’t know for sure that he’s cheating, do we?”

“Oh, he’s definitely cheating,” says Tattoos.  “Just look at the way he’s talking to her, all the smiles.  Look at them laughing together, smiling.  He’s definitely cheating.  I can tell.  They’ll probably pop off from here and go rent one of those temporary rooms, you know down by corr F.  Those temporary rooms.”

Blondie looks over at the couple then back to Tattoos and shrugs silently.  Tattoos nods to herself.  “Oh yea, cheating all right.  Probably lying to the girl too, telling her that he’s single.”  She crosses her arms over her chest and shakes her head in disgust.

“Hmm,” says the blonde woman.

“So are you going to tell her?” asks Tattoos.

“I…I don’t know.  I’m not sure if I should get involved.  It might make things worse between them, or maybe he’s not cheating at all.”

Their eyes lock in silence.  They both turn towards me.  “What do you think?” they both ask, simultaneously.

For a minute, I’m stumped.  I can see both sides of the issue.  Telling the wife that her husband is cheating, if he is indeed cheating, may help her pull away from him and find a better relationship.  And she would have a right to know.  But if he’s not cheating, it could create a rift between them for no good reason.  But not telling her risks more heartache for the both of them into the future.  It ain’t easy to find a good middle ground.

I turn to Blondie.  “Why don’t you talk to the man?  Tell him that you know his wife and that you saw him with the girl.  That should be enough for him to either clean up his act or explain how it was all innocent.  Then wait and see.  You can always tell his wife if you decide to, but you can’t un-tell her once you’ve told her.”

The two women turn back towards each other.  My visor goes black and then the scene once again shows colorful blobs slowly sliding around on the screen and I hear the helmet clicking, then music.  “OK, Straker,” says the technician over the headset, “Got a good read on that one.  You’re doing fine.  That was a socialization test; there is no correct answer, it’s all about how your brain processes an ambiguous problem.  Stand by, the next one will start in a few seconds.”

Oh, yea, I forgot…this is just a test.  I’m in a simulation.  Well, I’m glad that last one is over.  It wasn’t as bad as the panic test, but the drama was becoming real tiresome real quick.  So I wait.  Time passes and still all I can see is blackness.  More time passes.  Then the music stops.  I expect that to mean that the next scenario is gonna start, but I wait and wait and everything just stays black and quiet.

This is weird.  “Hello?” I ask.  No answer.  Just black and quiet.  More time goes by.  “Anybody there?” I ask, a little louder this time.  Still no answer.  I sigh and wait some more.  Maybe they’re having a technical problem?  But if they were, I’d expect the tech to come get me.  He would explain, and then maybe we could start over or maybe they’ve got coffee up there in the glassed-in control room and they could give me some.  I like coffee.  I like the smell of it, the way it sounds flowing from the carafe into the cup…

Wait a minute, I’m in a simulation.  There is no coffee.  Where is everybody?  Something is wrong.  I think about my situation, that there’s a real world out there, that I’m in a gimballed rig, with a big fat helmet on my head, blocking all sights and sounds.

Maybe they forgot about me?  Went on a break and got in a conversation and just forgot that they left me out here?  Or maybe something worse: anything could have happened out in the laboratory, it could have blown up or caught fire and I won’t know until the flames start licking my feet, burning off my boots, me jerking in agony, flesh melting from my toes…

Hold on, I think, this is a simulation!

I feel around the helmet with my hands.  There are a set of latches, and after touching around all sides of them I figure out how they work.  I flip them, and the face of the helmet opens with a whooshing sound.  I see the yellow light of the laboratory; there’s a sort of funny haze in the air.  Did dust get in?  Is there a fire?  I sniff the air.  Nothing but the smell of concrete, motor oil and plastic.

I’m facing the rear of the lab, staring at a plain concrete wall.  I pull my head forward and out of the helmet.  I hear the ambient humming sound of the machines standing impassively like rigid sentinels.  I call out, but nobody answers.  I call again, louder this time, but still no answer.

One by one, I unfasten the harnesses from my body.  I duck out under the helmet and carefully step over the gap and onto the platform beside the gimballed rig.  I walk around the big machine to view the glassed-in office on the floor above me.  Nobody is looking down at me.  In fact, I can’t see anyone.  The room behind the glass is dark and looks deserted.  There is nobody in the lab but me.  All I see are walls, machines, electrical cables, and blinking lights.  “Hello?” I shout.  “Hey…you left me here!  Anybody there?”

Silence, but for the echoing of the hard walls and glass.  This can’t be good—something serious, something catastrophic has happened.  And I’m on my own.  I step down off of the platform and walk across the raised floor towards the door marked Exit.  I think it’s the door that we entered the lab through, but I ain’t sure.  I never was good with direction.

I’m at the door.  I twist the handle.  The door is locked, I think, but I’m not sure.  The handle gives a little.  Maybe it’s broken?  I twist it again.  It rotates a little farther this time but stops.  I feel a jarring in my feet, as if the floor has moved.  It reminds me of the unstable feeling in the water mine just before the roof collapsed.  Cave-ins do happen, even in the older sections of the city.

I pound the door.  “Hey!” I scream, “Hey I’m in here!”

There’s a shift in the floor again—this time it’s enough to almost knock me off balance; I grab the door handle to keep from falling.  Is there a moonquake happening?  Is that why they all left?  Maybe there was an evacuation order and they forgot to come get me?  I pound on the door and twist the handle again.  The handle turns a little farther but the floor starts shaking violently.

A loud crashing sound comes from somewhere in the lab, followed by another crash.  The whole laboratory is trembling; the windows above me shatter as giant shards of glass fall, the door handle is a blur.  I look down at the floor; it has developed a huge crack, right near my feet.  In a panic, I pound on the door again, hitting it and twisting the handle with all my might.

The crack opens explosively, spewing dust and smoke into the room; I stumble and lose my footing.  I’m holding onto the handle for dear life now, using both hands; the edges of the crack move away from me and my feet dangle over the hole.  The black maw below opens wider and wider.  There’s no bottom to it.

The handle breaks away from the door.  I fall into the darkness, screaming in terror, the rough rocky walls slipping past me as I tumble head over heels into the abyss, accelerating faster and faster, turning and flailing and yelling in a fit of helpless, hysterical fear.  As I fall, I look at the rocky walls flying past me and decide to try to slow my decent.  I got nothing to lose.

I reach out for a protruding rock.  The rock tears away from my grasp and I feel my flesh stinging but the action causes me to bump up against the opposite wall; then I bump again, slamming my elbows and knees but slowing my fall.  I thrust my bleeding hand out and grab again for another handhold.

This time my grip holds.  My arm nearly pulls out of my shoulder socket and a sharp pain courses through my bones.  Warm blood from my hand above me is dripping down onto my face.  But my grip still holds.  I hang above the blackness by one arm, my legs and feet swinging below me.  I feel around and find a protrusion to grip with my other hand, then find an indentation to place my right foot.  I shuffle my left foot around until it finds a little rocky shelf to stand on.  I am safe…for now.

A buzzer echoes in the distance.

I gasp in surprise as the rocky wall dissolves to become a smooth concrete surface; my hands are no longer in front of me, I feel a tugging at my waist.  The wall slides smoothly downwards as I watch in amazement.  I hear the hum of motors.  I am being pulled up.

“OK, relax Straker,” says the technician in my headset.  “Hold on while we haul the rig up, then we’ll bust you out of there.  Congratulations, you made it through.”