Chapter 6

Confinement.

I been sitting on my bunk in this tiny room for a good 24 hours.  Katya was allowed to come in to reseal my wound and change the biotape, since my cut had re-opened during the fight and was making a bloody mess.   But she didn’t say much—probably told not to.  Nastez came in too and ripped me a new one.  He now officially hates my guts.  I ain’t never felt more alone in my whole life.  Except when Pops left.

I hadn’t noticed the thrumming sound of the carousel revolving around the pivot room when I was here before but now that my ears have attuned to the silence, every little sound is bugging me.  It never stops, just a low shoosh shoosh every couple seconds.

I’ve slept about as much as I possibly can.  Now I have to deal with the boredom.  The network is cut off in my room so my wristy can’t talk to the ship’s servers.  Can’t send or receive messages from Macy and Mason.  Nothing to read or watch or listen to and no games to play.  Just plain white walls and the maddening, unceasing, never-ending sound of the carousel hub.  Argg.

I’ve been playing my guitar on and off, going over songs I’ve known for years.  Just something to do.  I don’t need the stupid network to play guitar.  Thank god I brought it along.  But each song I play gets more melancholy.  I got nothing happy to play about.  I just don’t belong here.  I don’t belong nowhere.  Just a fact.

My hands stop moving and I wonder: how did I end up like this?  Why am I always getting in trouble?  I think back to my younger, happier days when I had family, living on the ocean.  My memory ain’t too good that far back but I remember water—everywhere you looked.  And tall buildings and sky.  Hard to believe.

But then the Alliance came in their ship and hoverplanes.  People were running this way and that; everyone was afraid. And Pops was away on business.  Don’t remember much about my ma; I remember she was worried but tried not to be, I remember her kissing me goodbye and crying and somebody putting me on a plane and getting off the plane in Brazil.  It was hot and humid and the airplanes were loud out on the tarmac and the heat made wavy lines in the air.

But me and Pops left Brazil for Luna a few days later.  I was only eight.  Going to the Moon!  I remember feeling so excited I wanted to burst.  All Pops would ever say about Ma was that she was a hero and would come to us one day.

We settled in to a little apartment in Shacktown.  Pops was sad, I remember, but he was always working on something.  He was going to make everything better.  He was always in meetings, always making plans.  He helped put together the first asteroid mining mission for the Consortium.  They gave him the bracelet as a token of appreciation, made from the first batch of asteroid steel.  It was a big banquet over at Tycho, and I walked with him up on the stage.

I remember his rough face.  I remember making fun of him doing his dance with that funny headset on.  Not everything is as it seems, he told me.  But I didn’t understand until he let me see what he was doing in his virtual world.  It was the first time I had ever put on a virtual reality set.  I remember him holding a circuit board in his hand—in his virtual world it was like a bluish-green plate with holes and projections as I recall, but my memory could be wrong—and he folded it like paper until it fit into the little box he was designing it for.  Then he would pull down a virtual slate and scribble some equations, then the slate would vanish.  It was like a game to him.

With his hands moving this way and the visor and gloves and that bracelet jingling on his wrist, he really did look like a slow-motion dancer.  But in the multi-colored wireframe virtual world in which he spent so much of his time, he was a creator, swimming confidently in an ocean of complexity I could not begin to fathom.

The next day the print shop delivered the physical circuit board to the apartment.  I was fascinated by it, the tiny components shining like a jewels and perfect in every way.  That was when I began to realize what Pops did.  He was my hero.  Ma faded from my memory.  I was just a kid.

He had to go on one of his trips.  That was the last I ever saw of him.  I’ll never forget Mrs. Kapoor’s face when he’d been gone for days and she told me—so painfully—that it looked like Pops wasn’t coming home.  Ever.  From then on I was an orphan.  The city took custody of me and I ended up living in the Children’s Home, always wondering why Pops left, wondering if I would ever see Ma again, crying to myself whenever I was alone.

Years later I read the detective’s report, saw the pictures of him leaving Shacktown, in Malapert buying the ticket on the Earth shuttle, the passenger manifest of his flight, bills from the trip over, landing at the spaceport in New Mexico, his flight back to Brazil.  They could track him to a point but eventually the trail went cold.  Maybe my mother is actually still alive and out of prison and they are together somewhere on the Marble, where people bask in the sun and breathe without helmets and trees grow wild and birds fly and the sky is blue.  In any case, Pops made a new life for himself.

It all seems like lifetime ago.  I’ve been through so much crap since then.  But part of me never grew older from that moment when he left.   It’s an ultimate betrayal, a scar branded deep in my guts.  I hate him.  But I wish I could talk to him again.  I would ask him why, then when he told me I would kill him.

Dark thoughts.  It’s times like these that I pick up the guitar.  Sometimes when it’s quiet, a tune will float into my head, some melody I’ve never heard before.  I don’t know where it comes from.  Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.  It’s always different.  Sometimes even lyrics come with it.  As I’m sitting here staring at the blank wall I hear a tune—like a dirge, breathy and wooden, minor-key and slow, with my fingers scratching gently against the strings before they even know what to play.  I select record on the wristy and try to catch the tune before it’s gone.

There’s a piece of my heart that’s missing

Since that day you never came home

It’s that piece from the center, that held me together

And I don’t understand why you’ve gone

Maybe I never did understand you

Thought you were one that I could count on

There’s a hole in my chest, since you got up and left

And I don’t understand why you’ve gone

That’s as far as I get.  Ain’t a complete song, just an idea.  Maybe I’ll fill in more later but just singing it to myself makes me feel better.  I stop the recording and hit playback.  I ain’t never cared for the sound of my own voice, it always sounds so thin in recordings.  And the song sounds embarrassingly emotional but I play it again—nobody will ever hear it but me so why not.  The thing about writing songs is that there is never a right answer.  It’s always about taste: what feels right.  Does it need more verses?  Maybe a bridge?  I play the recording back again.

But it plays back different.  I can’t put my finger on it, but after hearing the recording play I try to strum it again on the guitar and realize that the recording has somehow shifted to a different key.  That’s weird.  Is the wristy broken?  I play back the recording again.  Now it’s in yet another key, and there’s some kind of sound, a thin, wispy sound, like some kind of electronic instrument.  It’s right there in the background of the recording.  Am I using the software right?  I look around in the help screens but nothing matches my problem.  I play the tune again.  This time it plays through in the original key, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

But too soon: at the song’s end, it doesn’t stop—it repeats!  Then it plays itself backwards, then the electronic voice comes back—now the synthesizer is playing the melody by itself, and has broken into multiple voices.  The singing comes back, and the whole thing is going at once in a bizarre cacophony of random sound.

OK, the wristy is definitely broke, or has brought up some software routine I ain’t never encountered before.  Wow.  I laugh, I shake my head.  I take off the wristy and hunt for a pin in my bag to hit the tiny reset button recessed into the back.  I find one, and push the button.  The wristy blinks and goes dark, then a little icon comes up to indicate the reboot is happening.

But…now the music isn’t coming from the wristy. The music is in my earpiece even as the wristy is rebooting.  That’s impossible!  I feel a powerful chill and rip the earpiece from my head and throw it against the wall.  I am physically shivering.  My mind races, searching for an explanation.  There ain’t no explanation.  Nobody to talk it over with.  Just walls.  Who would believe me anyways?  Everyone on board hates me.  I am alone on a strange spaceship with people who hate my guts and only a thin steel wall between me the vast deadly void of space and something’s happening that I can’t explain.  Something that’s impossible.  I cannot explain it.

*       *       *       *       *

About the time I stop trembling I hear a knock at the door.  “Yeah,” I say.

The door slides open.  Louis is looming in the hall, arms crossed over his chest, a stern expression on his face.  “Cap’n wants you in her quarters.”

“So am I done with confinement?”

“Don’t know.”

I get off the bunk and step carefully to the mirror, straighten my hair and my flight suit, grab my wristy from beside the bed and go to leave.  Louis is still standing in the hall, watching me.  “Are you supposed to escort me there?” I ask.

“Nah,” he replies, looking away from me.  “I just wanna…I just wanna say I’m sorry.  Katya don’t belong to me.  I had no right.  I started it.  You went and took the blame.”

This surprises me.  Up to now he’s seemed like dangerous-looking but simple soccer jock; now I ain’t so sure.

“I get a little crazy sometimes,” he says.

“Ah…yea, yea you do.  What’s up with you and Katya?”

He looks down at the floor.  “I got it bad for her.  Have for a long time.”

“She feel the same about you?”

“Nah.  She thinks I’m…stupid or something. Don’t know what I gotta do to get her attention.  It’s eating me up.”

We just stand there, silently.  I know what it’s like to want something you can’t never have.

“She’s right pretty,” I say.  “For what it’s worth, I got no intentions on her.”

Louis nods his head.  “Yea, thanks.  I know it don’t make sense.”

“Ain’t no logic to it…you want what you want.”  I strap on my wristy and head again towards the door. Louis steps aside.

“Guess I better git,” I say.

“Yea, guess you better.  You don’t want to keep the Cap waiting.”

I walk through the door, then turn around.  “Say, Louis, one thing…were you messing around with my wristy?”

“What?”, he replies, mystified.

“I’m talking about the wireless link between my headset and the wristy.  It’s like someone’s been hacking it.  So it’s not you?”

“No, ain’t me.  I wouldn’t know how to do such a thing even if I wanted to.  Not my domain.”

“Yea, I believe you.  Sorry—had to ask.  It’s busted or something.  See ya.”  And I head down the hall, wondering if I need to keep my distance from Louis or what.  I ain’t a good judge of folks—I consider that my handicap, probably owing to the fact that my relationships with others have always been strained on account of what Pops did.  I figure I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt but keep an eye on him.

The captain’s quarters are off Carousel A so I have to take the elevator belt down to the pivot room and ascend the other spoke.  All the while I’m wondering does she know about my transmission?  Is that somehow connected to what’s going on with my wristy?  There are all kinds of possibilities, none of them pretty.

I wander down the carpeted hallway and find the captain’s quarters.  I take a deep breath: one way or another I gotta to get this over with.  I knock.

She tells me to enter so I do.  She’s sitting in a chair behind a desk, her back towards me.  She tells me to sit so I do that too.

Her office is much bigger than any of the chambers on Carousel B, with space for two desks and a couple of guest chairs.  There’s a door at the far end, it’s open showing the personal head and bedroom, laid out shotgun style.  The plush carpet has a big inlaid logo of the Corps in blue, gold, and black.  Everything smells new.

The captain is concentrating on a pad on her work desk, surrounded by comm gear and situational displays.  Her desk is littered with pads and instruments I ain’t never seen before; the shelves above her are equally littered with trophies and plaques from God knows what.  To her right is a cabinet, to her left a small combination safe.

She swivels in her chair to face me, her eyebrows low over her gray eyes.  “Yuuta, are you going to be a problem for me?”

I’m going to guess she’s talking about the fight with Louis.  “No ma’am, Captain, I will not.  That will never happen again.”

The sleeves of her flight suit are unzipped, showing her slender but muscular forearms.  There’s a big tattoo of a skull pierced by a dagger on her right arm.

“What really happened been you and O’Neil?  You two having some kind of pissing contest?”

“We had a misunderstanding.  We talked it over a few minutes ago.  There will be no problems between him and me, Captain.  Honest.”

She locks her trademark glare on my eyes.  She’s sizing me up.  But that’s OK, I got nothing to hide; just bein’ truthsome.  Kind of.

Her right eyebrow peaks up.  “Just so you know, Yuuta, I could throw you out the airlock and there would be no questions asked.  Some people would thank me.  And I won’t hesitate to do that if I feel that you have become a danger to this crew or the mission.  That is both my right and my duty as captain of this vessel.”

“Aye, captain,” I say, blanching at the thought.  Every luney has nightmares of dying with empty lungs.  “Like I said you’ll get no trouble from me.”  And I’m wondering if she would toss me out the airlock if she found out about my fake meds bottle and who I been transmitting to.  Keep it frosty, I tell myself.  She doesn’t know.

Her eyebrows relax.  “All right Yuuta, I believe you.  For now.  You’re off report and can move about the ship, but you’re still on toilet duty until further notice.  And by the way, the piss-pot is about due for a refresh.”

I breathe.  Didn’t realize I had stopped until I started doing it again.

The captain sits back in her chair, lost in thought.  After a few seconds, she reaches into a desk drawer below her and pulls out a bottle of Malapert whisky, plants it on her desk between us, along with two shot glasses.

“You a drinker, Yuuta?”

“No ma’am, Captain.”

“You are now.”

She pours the whisky expertly, guiding the twisted stream of fluid to the center of each shot glass in spite of the odd Coriolis effect from the pseudo-gravity.  She hands me a glass.

“Here’s how you do it”.  She tosses back the whiskey in one motion and the glass is empty.

I do the same.  The whiskey hits the back of my throat and yeow it burns and a I cough and gasp and clear my throat and it finally all settles down.  My throat feels radioactive.  I like it.

She pours more, then pulls out a bundle of knitting stuff.  She blasts back a second shot of the whiskey, then sits back in her chair and knits away with the big needles, her hands moving in practiced motions on a tiny blue sock.

“My daughter is having another kid.  That girl is a damn rabbit.”

More Earther talk.  I ain’t sure what rabbits got to do with grandchildren.  The rabbits in Shacktown are much too dangerous to be near kids.  Could this be a variation on stork mythology?  Mental note: need to look that up.  I chuckle as if I understand an inside joke but I don’t really.  “Where did you learn to do that?” I ask.

“Mother taught me, when I was a girl back in Norway.  Her hands would move so fast they were a blur.”  She looks up at me.  My bracelet catches her eye.

“Ah, so that’s Hiromi’s famous bracelet,” she says.  “I was at the banquet when the Consortium presented it to him.  I remember you on the stage.  Hiromi wore that thing everywhere.  Did he give it to you?”

“He put it on my wrist that last day,” I reply.  “Said he would make me one of my own when he got back.”

“And he never returned.” she says.

“Nope, never did.  That was the last time I saw him.”

“Hmm.  You know, Straker, I knew your father.”

“I’m not my father.”

“I know that; that’s not what I’m trying to say.  I was shocked—everyone was—when he left.”

I take a gulp from my second shot glass.  Doesn’t burn as much this time on account of my throat is already numb.  “Yup,” I say, “Everyone says that.  Surprised a lot of people.”

“I was an investor too, you know.  When he disappeared, I read everything that was written about it, hoping they would catch him.”

“He’s somewhere in Brazil, last I read,” I say.  “They say they’re still looking but it’s a big country.”

“It sure is,” she replies.  “I still can’t figure it.  I know he’d been through a lot, what with the takeover of the seastead and his wife going to prison.”

“I just remember living in a city on the ocean.”

“Well, it was a great place.  I was there a couple of times.  It was terrible when the Alliance moved in.  A disgrace really—money grubbing assholes.  But it’s ancient history now.”

“I don’t remember much about it.”

“You must have been very little at the time.  Something turned Hiromi around.  But I don’t care how bad it was—to just leave your kid alone on the Moon?  To skip out with all that money?”

“Most people hate his guts.  My guts too, just for being his son.”

“Well,” she says, “you can’t really blame them.  He’s a terrible man for doing what he did.  He had only been on Luna a year or so and had the big success with the first asteroid mission.  So it was easy for him to convince everyone that he was working on some new invention that was going to make everything better.  He was charismatic in his own way.  But he kept his secrets, and now everybody knows why.”

“Hmm,” I say, and toss back the last of my whiskey.

“He stepped out with a whole lot of other people’s money,” she continues.  “Life savings wiped out, families ruined.  Hurt the whole Consortium.  And you know…you look just like him.”

“So what am I supposed to do?  Change my face?  Change my name?”

She looks at me straight in the eyes.  “You’re not supposed to do one damn thing.  It’s not your fault.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

Easy for her to say.  She doesn’t have to live with the constant remarks, the evil looks from total strangers.

“Get that chip off your shoulder, Straker,” she continues.  “We’re a small crew.  We’re on a critical mission.  I need your heart in it.”

In spite of myself, I feel myself buying in to it.  Don’t do it, I tell myself.  This is salesmanship, nothing more.  I pinch the skin on my forearm–hard—as she looks away; the pain helps me stay focused.  Life is pain and I gotta remind myself sometimes.

“I believe in giving people a chance.  But you need to step up.”

I nod.

“All right.  Remember your honey-pot duties.  Do it soon—I feel a big load coming on.  Now get out of here,” she says with a sly smile.

“Thank you captain,” I say, hoping she can’t hear the trembling in my voice.  Maybe it’s the whiskey, maybe it’s because she’s been poking me in a tender place, but I’m starting to see why she’s such a big deal.

Guess my dad wasn’t the only charismatic one.

*       *       *       *       *

Officer Nastez showed me what it means to be Captain of the Head.  It’s mostly cleaning the communal water closets with pleasant-smelling disinfectant and emptying the trash and stuff like that.  Very similar to the kind of chores I had to do back in the orphanage.  The only really disgusting part is cleaning the waste collection bin, AKA the honey-pot.  By the time I go to empty it, the machine has drained off the liquids to the reclamation system and exposed all the remaining nastiness to vacuum for some time.  So the residue is mostly dried out.   But the system ain’t perfect and usually some of it is gooey fresh.

Taking the accumulated bodily sludge of five people out to the ejection portal and then cleaning the bin is just nasty.  Plus, somebody on board has intestinal issues; I’m guessing it’s Louis.  Can’t be Katya, her behind is too…but I ain’t gonna think about that.

I gag a little and bitch to myself but I get the job done.  I learn when to breathe and when to hold my breath.  Like anything else, you get used to it.  But I’m done with that for the moment.  I’m back on the flight deck, seven bells into morning watch, sipping coffee to stay alert.  Nastez has spent most of the watch grudgingly tutoring me on ship’s emergency and backup systems.  Then he assigned me reading material and I’m going through that now.

At some point there will be a qualification test so I’m trying to memorize the steps to take in emergencies, the layout of the Allgood and its history, the history of the Consortium, other stuff, bla bla bla.

I’m supposed to monitor the displays at the same time.  The main thing we’re worried about are micro-meteoroid showers.  They can come at any time, and statistically on a voyage of this length, Nastez figures it’s even money we get smacked by the zippy little rocks at least once.  The anti-collision system will automatically sound the alarm when space debris is detected by radar.  But both Nastez and the captain believe that the software ain’t reliable for small objects moving fast.  They say that sometimes a human can pick out patterns that a machine might dismiss as noise.  Yea, I know, it’s kind of dumb.  But they’re officers so I do what I’m told.

Nastez has gone back aft to work on unpacking EVA suits—the heavy, long-duration suits that we will wear on Hrothgar—so I’m alone.  It’s getting late in the watch and I’m bored.  I take a moment and compose a note to Macy and Mason back at the Home.  I tell them how exciting my new duties are; I start to leave out the part of being Captain of the Head, but then decided to tell them about it anyway.  I know Mason will think it’s funny; Macy probably will too but I can just see the big show of crinkle-nose disgust on her face when she reads about it.  What a little firecracker she is.  I remind them that they can send me messages too, although it’s possible the orphanage is making it hard for them.

That done, I look for something else to do.  Nastez don’t seem to mind me fingering my guitar on the flight deck to pass the time so I’ve been doing that off and on.  But without the headset I can barely hear it over the hum of the flight deck.

I study the little headset, tucked into its little nook on the side of my wristy.  I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look at it—but then I laugh at myself.  It’s just a dang headset!  What the heck, I figure, even if the it bugs out again it’s not like it’s going to explode on my head. So I put it on.

Everything seems to work fine; I pluck a few notes and I hear a few notes.  The same ones I hit this time.  So I start going through some scales just to warm up my fingers.  But when I stop, the sound of the strings don’t stop.  I hear extra notes that I didn’t play.  Then a few more notes when my hand is totally off the fretboard.  Then my previous recording plays back through the headset and we’re back to the races with weird harmonies and electronics and something that sounds like a didgeridoo…do I hear bagpipes?

This is really creepy.  I tap on the headset and look at the wristy.  It’s not even broadcasting to the headset; the transmission is coming from somewheres else.  I shake my head and rip off the headset.  Nothing is making sense no more.