Thousand Words a Day for August 3, 2017

Johnny “Cruiser” Paddington sat slumped in the dark in the command chair on the deserted bridge of the eight-billion-dollar Artois Jacksonville asleep. A wide variety of lights and panels quietly flashed and winked around him, punctuated by the occasional unobtrusive and easily-ignored beep or click. Some of these circuits monitored crew health, for the crew members still in sleep mode; some panels displayed results of internal ship diagnostic tests. The centrally located panels indicated basic course and navigation information: where the ship was, and when. Engine condition and status panels showed that the engines were shut down, and the fuel languished in its exterior tanks in cold sink, which was safer than having that stuff inside the wall. Cruiser’s mouth hung open and a thin thread of spittle dangled for this bottom lip; it slowly stretched and finally dropped into his lap.

Then a light flashed on the arm of the command chair. This did not disturb Cruiser. The beep that followed the flash did–he awoke with a start, confused, not quite sure where he was right away. There had been a voice after the beep that had said a few words, but Cruiser had not caught them.

“Cruiser, you there?” the voice said again after a pause. The voice was soft and female, one of those voices that are immediately connected to an attractive, young woman. Cruiser was still looking around, trying to orient himself. He wiped his lip with his hand and looked at the speaker in the command chair’s arm from which the voice was coming. All of a sudden, he seemed to come to his senses, and he pressed a button near the speaker.

“Yeah, Tammy, I’m here.”

“Okay,” the female voice responded. Nichols’ breathing is a little slow, and his O2 level is a little low for some reason. Can you have a look from up there?’

“Ah, yeah, sure,” Cruiser said. He flipped a switch on a display and studied it for a moment. “It’s within range,” he said.

“Yes, I know,” the female voice responded. “But no sense risking brain damage, right?” It was so hard to know when she was kidding, Cruiser thought. He decided that while it didn’t really matter that the oxygen level in the sleeping man’s blood was a little on the low side of normal, there was no reason not to give his respiration rate a little boost, nor was it a problem to give Lieutenant Commander Phillip K. Nichols from Syracuse, New York, a little extra oxygen. “Whatever. Bump him up to four or five, if you want,” he said.

“Yeah, I think I will,” Tammy said. “I’m going to give him the shot, and let’s put him at five for a couple of hours.” A pause. “You getting all this down, Cruiser?”

“Do your own damn notes,” he said.

“Oh, come on, sweetie,” Tammy answered back, her usually hidden and controlled Tennessee accent sweet and syrupy. “If I do them down here, I’ll have to transfer them when I get up there.”

Cruiser signed. “All right,” he said. He swung around a keyboard and typed a few lines. “Tam? I got it,” he said.

“Thanks,” she answered back. Her voice was out of Southern-Belle register now, but the approach had worked–again.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cruiser noted a panel tucked on the far side of the long counter that the command chair faced, right along its edge. Then a panel right in the center flashed red, its perimeter turned red and held, and then a high-pitched alarm squeaked twice loudly and a siren light mounted far up on the wall began to turn, pouring an amber beacon across the bridge. “Jesus Christ!” Cruise said. “Tammy, there’s something happening up here.”

“Yeah, I see it,” she responded. Cruiser stood and padded over to the far side of the long counter and studied the display carefully.

“Tammy,” he said loudly, projecting to the microphone on the chair, which he was now about ten or twelve feet away from. No response. “Tammy!” he repeated.

“What?” the speaker on the command chair’s arm responded weakly. “I can’t hear you.”

Cruiser pressed a nearby button on a panel, reached over to grab a headset, and put it on, swinging the microphone boom around to his chin. “Yeah, Tam, you got me here?”

“Rog,” she answered.

“Okay, I’ve got alarm activations on Barnes, Doornbos, Richardson, and Fite,” he said, his tone suddenly businesslike and precise. “All low oxygen, all depressed respiration. Barnes and Richardson are both at two, and Doornbos is–” he looked hard at the display. “No, that can’t be right.”

“Doornbos shows one down here,” Tammy said. “I’ll bump him first, and then we’ll look at the others.”

“What the hell?” Cruiser muttered. “Tam! Our life support in here is fogging up too! What the hell is going on?”

“I see it,” Tammy said, her voice also suddenly precise and businesslike. “I’m on it.” Down in the sleep room, Tammy was seated at a long control panel, working with several display screens and controls. Behind her, the white coffin-like containers that held the sleeping crew were stacked three-high. A variety of hoses and tubes fed into them, and status lights flashed and blinked here and there to indicate the condition of the crewmembers inside. In all, there were forty-five of them. Some were scientists, some were technical experts, some were Artois home office personnel put on the ship for who knows what purpose. Richardson was one of the company men. Tammy remembered him, and she remembered being surprised at how old he was.

“Sixty-seven, is that right?” she had said to the Artois official who was transferring crew history to the ship’s medical staff.

“Yes, that’s right,” the man had said. “He’s in better shape than I am.”

“Hmm,” she had responded. She hadn’t wanted to call attention to the man’s age; she liked to think that Artois wouldn’t put someone on the crew who wasn’t able to make the sleep and do the job. But sixty-seven had to be pushing it. “Do you have blood mobility work on Mr–” she had to look at the file to get the name. “–Richardson?”

“Yes.” The man seemed to understand her concern, and he didn’t argue. He gave her a piece of paper. “Here you are, doctor,” he said. “Blood mobility was four millimeters per second for eight seconds,” he said.

“Um-hmm,” Tammy responded, studying the sheet. “That was from arterial blood. What about venous?” she asked.

“Ah, yes, I have that too,” he said, fumbling around with papers. “Here you are,” he said. passing the test result over. “That one is also four per second, I believe.”

“Okay,” Tammy answered. After she had studied the man’s medical history, she asked to meet him, and he showed up in her office at the designated time.

“Hello, Doc,” he said as he stepped into the room. “I’m Doug Richardson, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Richardson,” she had said, shaking the proffered hand.

“Mister,” he repeated, smiling. “Well, that does take some getting used to, I’ll tell you that. Please call me Doug.”

“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to one of two chairs set at an angle some distance away from the front edge of her desk. She came around and sat in the other chair; conversation was easier that way, and besides, technically–at least until recently–Richardson had outranked her.”

“Thank you,” he said. He sat comfortably and smiled at her; he was handsome, and it was clear to Tammy that in his youth, he must have been quite an attractive man. He was clearly past his forties, but he appeared to be in good shape. Tammy knew from his medical record that he was indeed–he had the heart of a healthy twenty-five-year-old, and enviable blood lipid numbers.

“How long have you been retired, sir?” she asked.

“Doug’s fine,” the man repeated. “Nearly a year now. I hit my high year as a two-star, you know, and it was getting to the point where more opportunities for someone my age were present outside the service instead of inside it.”

“I see,” she said.

“I think I know why you asked to see me,” he said.

“You do?”

“Sure.” He had a way of talking that made her feel comfortable; it was like talking to her own father. “I think you are wondering what an old guy like me is doing getting on a boat to Saturn.”

“You’re not old, sir,” she said.

“Doug.”

“You’re not old, Doug,” she repeated, feeling vaguely uncomfortable calling a retired major general–and a man old enough to be her father–Doug. “Mid-sixties isn’t nearly as old as it used to be, and you seem to have maintained yourself pretty well, according to your numbers.”

“Yes.”

“Of course, artificial hibernation is hard on everyone. Humans aren’t bears, and even if they were, sleeping for twenty and thirty months at a time is a little beyond the pale.”

“This will be my eighth sleep,” he said. “The first two or three were really terrible–the process wasn’t as good as it was later, and certainly seems to be getting better all the time.”

“When was your last long sleep?” she asked. She knew the answer, of course, but she wanted to get him talking and work him around to her concerns.

“Trip to Jupiter, let’s see, it’s been–five years now,” he said. “Hard to believe it’s been that long, but yes. Fourteen months out and ten months back.”

“Jupiter? Must have been to one of the moons,” she said. “Callisto?”

“Afraid I can’t tell you that, Doc,” he said. smiling.

She laughed lightly. “Oh, of course, sir. What was I thinking?” His eyes were twinkling, and for a moment, she wondered if he was kidding, but then she realized that he of course was not kidding. Five years ago he had still be active-duty. If anything, it was probably the military facilities on Ganymede. He didn’t answer back, he was just looking at her and smiling. “And now, you’ll be going to the fusion fuel plants on Titan.”

“Yes, that’s what it says in my briefing,” he said.

“Doug,” she said, “you’ll be the oldest crewmember on the mission by about a decade. You’re fourteen years older than the captain.” She put it out there to gauge his reaction, but his only reaction was a lack of reaction.

“Yes, that’s right,” he finally said, breaking the silence.

“That a problem for you at all?”

“No,” he said. He moved his jaw around; it was a thing he did when he wanted to communicate that he was thinking. “You know, I’ve served in hierarchies my whole life. Once, I was the youngest member of a crew, by nearly a decade, as I recall. It wasn’t a problem then, and it’s not a problem now,” he said. “It’s just the natural other side of things. I’m happy to serve,” he said convincingly.

By this point, Tammy had already decided to give him the medical and psychological clearance. It was clear to her that he wasn’t some sort of cowboy trying to go out in a blaze of glory or a once-was and has-been who would be the last one on the ship to realize it. No–this man still had another trip or perhaps two in him, as far as Tammy was concerned. Richardson suddenly stood and stepped gracefully around her desk; he had seen something hanging on the wall there and moved to get a closer look. She noticed that his movements had an animal grace, and as he moved in close to the wall to examine the photograph there, she observed his trim and tall figure. “What is this photograph?” he asked.

“That’s my medical school class,” she answered. “It was just before our residencies started.”

“I see you here,” he said, and then he turned. “This is you here, isn’t it? Third row, third from the left?

“Yep, that’s me,” she answered. “I look like I’m about twelve years old, don’t it?”

“Well, you were young. You are young,” he said. He had turned back to the photograph. “And this young man here, second row, fifth from the left. I know this man.”

She wasn’t sure to whom he was referring, so she got up and moved so she could see which figure he had spotted. “Oh, that’s Bill Oliveres.”

“Wild Bill Oliveres, yes,” he said.

“Wild Bill!” she repeated. She was amazed that he actually did know Bill–and that he was able to identify him from a tiny image in a group photograph from across her office. “Yes, that’s right. But how do you know that?”

“Bill and I knew each other on Artois Stockton,” he said flatly.

“You were on Stockton?” she said. That little detail hadn’t been in the medical record.

“Yeah,” he said, returning to his seat. “I was assigned there, but they put me off on Mars before–”

“Oh,” she said. She was still looking at the photo. “Yeah, poor Bill. He was a good doctor,” she said.

“Yes, he was.”

Tammy turned around and stood behind her desk. “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Richardson.”

“My pleasure.” He stood and stuck out his hand again. “Have a nice day, Doctor.

“You too,” she said. And then he was gone, and she hadn’t seen him again until just now, as she looked through the small window on the sleep compartment, called coffins by everyone. A bit of gallows humor. He was a lot paler, but there was the same square jaw and the same lined face that somehow signaled experience along with age. She manipulated controls and buttons, working to get some additional oxygen into his system. After she had solved the immediate problem, she intended then to address the systemic failure, but for now, getting Richardson up to at least a two was the priority.

Then she heard Cruiser’s voice from the bridge again, and this time she noted a strain in it that she couldn’t place at first. “Tam, we’ve got another problem,” he said.

“I’m busy!” she answered back. Then she suddenly realized what the strain in his voice had been.

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