Last Shuttle Down
by Michael J. Albers
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
On my left, a wide grassy park followed the aft side of the water belt, which wrapped the entire way around, splitting the ship into a front and back half. Overgrown fields ran up to the water on the forward side. For a moment, I worried how we could keep growing food as we got older.
On my right was a grove of large walnut trees. Netting had stretched between the trunks to catch falling nuts, but now most of it hung limp. I walked a few hundred meters, my eyes roving around the grassy area between me and the water belt and the clusters of man-high bushes scattered around the park space.
I looked up and down the deserted circle road and grassy area. Not a person in sight. I’d never been alone here before. I can remember those times of snuggling in the bush clusters with various boys. Back when I was a young woman just coming into my curves. We’d half-watch through the branches, on the lookout for people walking too close to our hiding spot, as we traded kisses and light touches.
Downstairs does not have any land-based life, only water-based. Poor kids downstairs will have to wait for bushes to grow before they hide within them. But with all that open space, space that made my stomach knot just thinking about it, I suppose they just walk away from everyone until they are alone. No three-eyed monsters to eat them.
What a strange concept: not having anyone close by whenever you are out of your room. I realized I liked it and would have years to enjoy it. Years to sit alone by these bushes and trees. As long as those Dalgren’s Star people left me alone. They only had two eyes, but were they the monster that would try to eat me?
I walked under a tram track, which ran the length of the ship. I had never seen this tram run. I think it was the first of the six garden level trams raided for parts to keep the others working. Now none of them worked; even before everyone started going downstairs, a working tram was a rare occurrence. I had machined lots of tram parts over the years, but couldn’t help with the non-metal breakdowns.
Breakdowns worried me. Except for the 150 or so Dalgren’s Star people, who I didn’t want to think about, there would only be a couple hundred of us, mostly old folks, not going downstairs. Things would continue to break. Did any of us know how to operate the garden machines or fix the kitchen equipment? I could learn, but who would teach me? And there would come a point in about 30 years or so when I’d be too old. When we’d all be too old. Upstairs? Downstairs? What a choice.
I continued to walk along the road and came to an area where my friends and I had spent lots of time. A large tree loomed over the grass, branches spreading over the road. I stopped and stared at it for a moment before walking toward it. I collapsed onto a bench under its branches, a few meters from the road, but hidden from it by thick bushes.
When had this tree gotten so big? So many years and so many times I’d walked past here. It was so small the night we sat under it and celebrated getting our job training acceptance notices. All three of us with our new letters, a couple who had already gotten theirs, and a few feeling anxious as they waited. The training people said all the notices were sent together, but we questioned how they could consider “together” as within a 10-day spread.
Philmore and I both got accepted as drive engineers. We planned to become Head Engineers. Philmore made senior engineer and he went downstairs early to supervise the initial power plant set-up. The math and theory part of the training proved too difficult for me. But that was a problem for the future. We were still young, and we still believed everything we dreamed would come true. In the end, not being a drive engineer wasn’t so bad.
I moved on to the machinist training program. It’s a good job: the feel of a heavy and solid object in your hand when you finish. The tree had been small then, and now it was taller and wider, just like me. It had seen so much during its life. Can a tree notice that there are only a few people left to enjoy it? Would it survive under Dalgren’s Star control?
A murmer of voices yanked me back to reality. Two men, wearing blue Dalgren’s Star shirts, walked past in the same direction I had been going. Bushes mostly obscured me from them. I strained to hear what they were saying, but their voices were too soft. In the distance, two loud noises came from what sounded like the Dalgren’s Star area. From the road I heard laughter. And not the laughter of a good joke.
I shook my head, wondering about the sound. It was loud but definitely not a metal on metal crash. What had caused it? The laughter bothered me. They knew. I turned my head to look at the men’s retreating backs, barely visible through the bushes. For the first time, I actually felt afraid of Dalgren’s Star.
The men’s voices faded away. The dining area was about a third of the way around back from where I had come, still easy to see below the now night-dimming centerline light. I hurried back toward the cafeteria. Fear kept driving me faster, until I was almost running.
Gasping for breath, I entered the cafeteria to find it in an uproar. I went up to the closest group. “What happened?”
“A few people went to try and talk some sense into Dalgren’s Star. They shot one of them. Somehow, they’ve gotten guns.”
Guns! That was the loud noise I had heard. I had help machine 125 guns to put down the coup downstairs two years ago; machining was faster than the fabricators. My spine tingled, remembering the damage they did to the test targets and picturing the ripped-out flesh. My teeth clenched and I growled, recalling Branston’s flippant shrug at last week’s transition meeting when asked about the offline time of the fabrication units in his area. He claimed to know nothing, but now his smirk was clear. The systems hadn’t been offline enough to make many guns, but then, they only needed a few. Why had the system allowed them to be fabricated?
I nodded. “I was just sitting on a bench, hidden from Bailey Circle Road when two of them walked past. I heard a loud sound, probably the gun shots, and they laughed about it.”
“Big Fire. We’ve heard rumors of different stunts they are planning, but nothing like this.”
“Toss all of them into a lit drive exhaust.” General mutters of agreement passed through the group.
I tried to eat dinner, but only picked at it. Images of Colter Branston smirking while pointing a gun at me spun in my head.
Making guns made sense, in a twisted sort of way. Dalgren’s Star didn’t have any engineers; anyone smart enough to be an engineer didn’t believe their rants. They needed guns to keep the engineers onboard. Did Dalgren’s Star truly intend to somehow restart the drive? I couldn’t understand the orbital math details, but I believed the Command Board when they said one engine might achieve escape velocity but never interstellar travel velocity. Something about friction of the ram-scoop balancing a single drive’s thrust. Plus, I had overheard an off-hand comment from an engineer who said the drive would be permanently disabled before they went downstairs. Bad spin! If they tried a restart, they might blow it up. They might blow up my home and me.
My blood went cold. I was the only machinist left, so I expected to repair stuff, but I would never help restart the drive. Of course, with guns, could I refuse? Would they ban downstairs communication, like that group who tried the coup downstairs had banned upstairs communication? I still wanted to talk to Katrina and my grandkids even though I had no desire to go downstairs. Deliver us from the Big Fire! I wanted nothing to do with people like that, and, yet, I looked to spend the rest of my life with them in charge.
Conversations about leaving swirled around me. I tossed the mostly untouched tray into the recycler and went back to my room.
I lay in bed, staring into the darkness, when the door buzzer sounded. I opened the door and stared blankly at the man standing there looking at his tablet. I recognized him by sight but had no name for him.
“TeeLynn. If you want to go downstairs, pack now and be at the Blue Texas cafeteria in an hour.”
“Downstairs?” My stomach clenched at the idea of that flat space. I clutched the door frame as suddenly my legs could barely support me. “But I thought you were leaving in a week.”
“We were. Dalgren’s Star needs engineers. And machinists,” he added, looking square into my eyes. “We need to get out now; they plan to use their guns to stop us. If you are leaving, head to the Blue Texas cafeteria. Go there quietly. Otherwise, you may find jumping into the Big Fire easier than life here.” He turned and hurried off.
Go downstairs? My knees trembled at the thought of the open space. I stumbled back and collapsed onto my bed. I couldn’t go down and live in that open space. My stomach gave a violent twist and I ran for the bathroom. I almost made it.
Panting, with sweat on my forehead, I clung to the bathroom door frame. My mind replayed the men’s laughter after the gun shots. Images of Dalgren’s Star guns pointing at me squeezed me against the wall, setting off another round of sickness. I remembered the torment the coup downstairs had inflicted. When the drive needed new parts machined, I would be forced to make them and forced to do whatever they wanted.
Back against the wall, I took several deep breaths, calming my racing heart. At the rate it was pounding, I feared a heart attack would save me from any decision. Slowly my heart and thoughts calmed to a fast spin. This was turning into a repeat of that bad years-long relationship with Kirby, who had been hell-bent on destroying himself and everyone around him. I’d bailed out just in time. It was only, maybe, three months, before he’d gotten arrested for beating the crap out of his next girl. I was so glad we’d never followed through with a child request and that Katrina wasn’t his. He was abusive, but Dalgren’s Star people showed every sign of being worse.
I had always refused the easy path. I had fought to the end to be an engineer and then had worked extra hard to be the best machinist. I never took the easy road. Never until now. I sighed, realizing that my decision to stay was a cop-out, the easy choice. Refusing the agoraphobia desensitizing treatments had been a bad choice. Now my choice was simple, deal with bad people with guns or deal with impossibly big spaces without treatment.
“Spin it,” I said to the air. “Open space. Guns. Big Fire and bigger fire.” I shook my head. “I can’t deal with Dalgren’s Star. Spin it. I’ve got too many years to live, and I’m standing in a lit exhaust nozzle either way.”
Copyright © 2019 by Michael J. Albers