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This began life as a stand-alone short story, but to be honest, I've never considered myself much of a short-story writer. So under the assumption that it would otherwise never see the light of day, I adapted it into a scene in Episode 7 of Racing History, my science fiction novel series (available on the Amazon Kindle Store). Thought I'd share the original version here. It was written in the early 1990s -- and intended as sort of an homage to those great problem-solving stories of sci-fi's Golden Age -- as well as the "story-within-a-story" traveler's tales of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yes, I wrote it in college.
Interplanetary Homesick Blues
by C.A. Scott
In its regular voyages on the routes between the planets a spaceship carries a varied company of passengers, a cross-section so to speak of the general population of the Solar System. They're not all moneyed tourists and scientists. On the contrary -- upon leaving Earth on one of these vessels, you'll find yourself amongst representatives of every world colonized or built by Man... and if you have any interest in people you'll find yourself looking out at the starscape less and less as your trip goes on.
I speak from experience, having been a traveller on such a ship more than a few times. My job takes me all over the System, and being a journalist I have a natural interest in what people are saying and doing.
I've seen, in the same lounge area: a black-clad Catholic priest and an atheist cosmologist, a high-tech cloud miner sporting a Jupiter Mining Co. patch on his impeccable travel-suit, and his grubby ice-mining counterpart, whose overalls were decorated with the same patch, albeit faded and frayed at the edges.
In the same place, too, I have seen an accountant on holiday (making "The Grand Tour" a la Carl Sagan) and a nervous mother on her way to Mars for her daughter's wedding. The woman seemed quite uninclined to believe that separate planets existed at all, much less that she was between two of them at the time. Then there was the rambunctious two-year-old whose parents proudly boasted that he was born on an L5 Space Station and doing just fine thank you, and an 88-year-old man who had decided to "go up" just once before he died.
I have to admit, though, that it was on my last trip that I met the most interesting fellow yet. I was sent by the magazine to cover the archaeological research at the Cydonia Site on Mars. The trip from Jupiter L1 was only a few days. I spent most of that time doing research for the piece, reading books and trade journals in my room or the ship's lounge area.
It was in the lounge, surprise of surprises, that I met Jim Doran. From Earth. Born and raised in Queensland, Australia. He's one of those half-machine, half-crocodile men we journalists like to call "consummate explorers," or some stock phrase taken from an old Star Trek episode. Just as comfortable in sterile quarters on some Lagrange Point Space Station as camping in the wilds of Africa. Just as good at piloting a small shuttle as riding a stubborn horse. Just as happy wearing jeans and sneakers as a space suit. The ultimate adapter. At home both in the harshest/grittiest, and most technical/nerve-wracking of situations.
That's what I would say if I were writing a feature article on "Jim Doran, Interplanetary Jack-of-All-Trades." But, of course, I'm not; I'm simply going to relay what he said to me.
We got to talking when he saw that I was reading about Cydonia. He made a point I would eventually use in my article regarding the big mystery as to why the Whoever had left a rough sculpture of a human face on Mars could have a very simple answer. They wanted to get OUR attention; we would never take a second look if it looked like, well, like something we'd never seen before.
"Thehre's somethin' thehre," he said, tapping the bar meaningfully with one finger, "that we were meant to see." He had the faintest leftovers of an Australian accent.
Jim had been in space stations, underneath extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, and onboard starships for the past ten years. Now he was going home. I asked him why, and he told me it was a long story. I needed a break from my research, and so persuaded him to tell me.
He was going home because he was tired of outer space.
"It's really my last job that did it to me," he explained. "I was troubleshooting for S.M.C. [Author's Note: similar to Jupiter Mining Company, only based at Saturn] out at their new Ithaca Chasm Site on Thethys. The job shouldn't have been much of a change from my last one, at the Amata Ice Fields on Dione..."
I knew something about the Ithaca Chasm mining towns, and asked about the new one.
"The first four are going so well they decided to open up Number Five," Jim told me. His voice sounded bitter, as though he were speaking of an old friend who had betrayed him. It was this tone of speaking, and his very presence, that held me almost completely silent for the rest of his story.
"The worst thing about technology," Jim said, "is the more of it you have, the more there is to go wrong. And it does go wrong. Frequently." He chuckled, but it was a laugh without humor. "They used to think it was a big deal when things went wrong on the original Space Shuttles. That was just the beginning. Everywhere you're dependent on high-tech, you've got to have troubleshooters. I've done the job at Outer Planet mining sites, Lagrange Point Stations, onboard starships and asteroid hoppers. And that's only in six years. My first few years off-planet, I was a rock-miner, and a shuttle pilot, and...
"...Well, just take my word for it, I've been around. And I gotta' tell you, this last one beat 'em all. Seems like the company scraped the scum off of every other mining op in the system and dumped 'em all at Ick Five.
"The miners had a few other names for the place," he explained. Jim Doran had the charming chauvinism of your stereotypical male Aussie. I could imagine a few of the names the rough types might have for the place.
"I'll just call it Ick Five," he went on, "if I ever even find myself thinking of that place again..." Again, the bitter tone of voice. "I'm tellin' you the story 'cuz it's still fresh in my mind. But I don't believe it'll be among my fonder memories...
"When I got there they had just finished building the place and getting all the people in. They couldn't start up ops 'til there was a troubleshooter on premises. Company Policy. I was the first one to arrive. I told them to wait for the rest of my team; the place is big, there were supposed to be a dozen of us on it, minimum.
"'Well, we've got good equipment. Everything here's been tried already. We've got experienced people. You're just a technicality.' What they had was used equipment, every bit of it castoffs from other sites, and burned-out miners just waiting for their pensions. There was no telling what could go wrong. But I couldn't point out any specific problems, and so things started up the day after I got there. A week ahead of schedule."
Jim's mouth twisted, and he stared into his drink for a moment before taking a sip. "They thought they were getting off to a great start. Since I was the only TS there, I had to man all the stations. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, the ten-hour work day without a break. But then, ask any of them and you'd think a TS doesn't do anything but sit around all day anyway...
"Nothing went wrong that first day. A minor shutdown of someone's primary thermal control, the backup kicked in no problem. That was it. All in all a successful day, as far as anyone else was concerned. And my argument was dead. I wasn't quite as optimistic. I still had four days left to work without any help.
"The second day was like the first, and the third and the fourth. It wasn't 'til my last day alone that anything happened. Of course, it was only a matter of time. We were running on luck by then. That luck finally ran out.
"It started out simple enough -- a leaky seal in the coolent line on one of the big melters. Something I could have fixed by remote with no problem, had I been sitting at the right station at the time. Just bypass that coupling, rechannel the coolant through the redundant system at that point, and..."
Doran waved his hand idly. "Doesn't matter now. I didn't know anything was wrong until an alarm went off to tell me the coolant level was dangerously low on Melter Seven... By then, most of it had leaked out. So you had gallons of this stuff all over the place, freezing when it leaked to the outside of the melter, and more leaking every second, and the hotpot was just getting hotter and hotter...
"There was nothing I could do but shut the whole thing down. I called the men down there to tell them to hold off for a while 'til I could get things fixed. Figured there would be one of them at least who could help me, but those miners don't know anything but their own machine, whichever one they work on. Either that or they were all too interested in half a day off with pay, while I did some 'actual work for a change.'"
Jim Doran again scowled at his drink and took another sip. "So I suited up and headed down there in a mountain sled. Met the guys coming up. They left me to myself, and the damn melter. It was a hell of a mess to clean up. I had to spend the night in the sled and finish up the next day. That was Saturday. Supposed to be my day off, and everyone else's too.
"Well, it was their day off all right. When I called in to report, I got the voice-mail and had to leave a message. Of course no one ever called me back...
"I finished up pretty late on Saturday, so I had two choices. I could drive back up to town or get some sleep and go back the next day. The last thing I wanted to do was spend more time than I had to with those people, so I decided to wait and go back on Sunday. I called and left another message, and then bang! just like that, my power shut down.
"The sled's power just completely gave out. Nothing worked. The com, the engine, even the lights. A total failure of the hydrogen burner. And it wasn't 'till then that I realized that the emergency batteries were completely dead. No one had bothered to notice it in the garage when they gave it to me.
"So there I was, sitting in the dark. And it didn't take long to realize I was in a hell of a lot of trouble. My last message had told them all was well, and I wouldn't be returning until Sunday morning. If anyone even bothered to check the messages, they still wouldn't expect me to show up 'till then. The mountain sled had no power, which meant as soon as I used up the air already in there I had to get out. My work-suit only had power reserves for four hours.
"In other words, I was going to die. There was only one thing I could do. I figured I might be able to walk back up to town in my work-suit. It was a two-hour sled ride, which meant I just might make it. It would be a hell of a climb, but still better than just sitting around waiting for some miner to come find me just in time for a company funeral.
"I suited up and left in a hurry. No time to waste. Luckily it wasn't too dark, with Saturn glowing orange straight overhead. I had two choices again. Take the road back that I came down on, or try to go straight up the side. Climbing up could take maybe an hour off my time, if I was lucky, but it was also dangerous as hell. I needed all the time I could get, so I started up the side.
"Tethys is made up almost entirely of water ice, with a little rock and dust. The sides of the chasm aren't as steep as the face of Half-Dome or anything, but they're slippery in spots and uneven. I had to hurry before my power ran out, but at the same time I had to be careful in the climb.
"That was probably the longest hour of my life."
Jim downed the last of his drink and ordered another. He did not speak further until the new glass was handed to him and he had taken a good long gulp. The brown liquid stained the ice in that glass a color I could not help imagining to be the same as that of the frozen cliff face he had worked his way up. Part of me was amused, thinking this whole thing his way of trying to impress me into bed. Another part of me was too interested to care.
"All the way up, I was getting madder and madder at the other people at Ick Five. All the miners, all our bosses... all of 'em just sittin' around enjoyin' their weekend while I was out there risking my life just so their business could go on. Then I started on the company itself, and whoever designed the mining towns, and whoever wrote ops procedures... I slipped a few times, once fell about ten meters down until I caught onto a boulder. Tethys doesn't have much gravity to speak of, or I'd be dead. Just sat there on that rock for a few minutes then, breathing and trying to get my heart to slow down. A sharp edge could have caught on my suit just right; there's so many ways I could have died on that climb...
"When I got to the top I had to take a few minutes to rest. I could see the town in the distance; it looked like just more ice jutting up there, only with lights all over.
"I stood on the edge of the canyon, looking down and wondering how in hell I made it up. If I hadn't never believed in God before then, I sure would have started thinking about Him then. Saturn was so huge in the sky, almost like God's face looking down. And the only thing I could think was, 'Jim Doran, you better get on home.'"
Jim looked at me then, for the first time since his story began. "Home wasn't my quarters back at Ick Five... and I don't think that was just my voice talking to me." He looked away, with an almost embarassed smile. "But you can think what you want.
"I wanted to run back to town, but at the same time I just wanted to stand there on the edge of the moon looking up at those golden rings and all the stars and... it was like realizing for the first time that no matter what big things people do, they'll always be people. We'll always be just a little piece of nothing out here while everything else just goes on by..."
He sort of faded off there for a moment or two, neither looking at me nor at his glass. Awkwardly, I glanced in the direction he was so intent on. The lounge port. The stars outside. He blinked, turned back to me with a sad smile and a tired shrug.
"Yeah, I got back to town all right. With power to spare. Just bounced along like those guys in the old NASA films... I stowed my work suit, went to my quarters, and started packing my stuff. Monday morning I walked into my boss's office and quit the job." Doran laughed, this time with just the faintest sparkle in his eye. "He was pissed as hell. Whining that I was messing up the work schedule and all this... Told me I'd never get a job with SMC again. That was fine with me, I told him, and walked out.
"Shuttle came in that day, bringing four more troubleshooters to town. I said hi to 'em and wished 'em luck as I was going past 'em onto the boat. Took off; the last thing I saw of Tethys was Ithaca Chasm, like a smile on somebody's face staring up at me."
We parted that night, not to speak again. The next morning we arrived at Mars orbit, and I shuttled down to Cydonia while he went on to Earth.
I picture Jim Doran today, alone with his thoughts on the dark side of the Earth, staying at some out-of-the-way campsite near Ayers Rock... lying next to a campfire and looking up at the stars from what he would surely now call "the right angle." And I wonder, now, if he's happy.
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