Thursday, June 9, 2016


Stint on the Vine
By David Castlewitz

The viewport showed the Earth's curvature, a hint of the sun, and the blue sea below dotted with patches of green and brown, but the scene lost its appeal after a handful of days into Jared's three-month-long stint, a job that subtracted twice as many months from his three year prison sentence for embezzlement.

The monotony, broken by the arrival of only a single robot-driven ship bringing ore from the distant asteroids, grated on Jared's sense of worth as day after day he monitored the space elevator, a delivery system rooted in the Pacific Ocean at the equator and reaching past the Earth's outer atmosphere into near space. Freight cars collected ore from the depository beneath Jared's cabin and rode the steel and plastic cable to the Earth's surface. Further out in space, beyond what Jared could see, an attached counterweight provided momentum to keep the system in geostationary orbit.

A second ship didn't boost his morale. And the once-daily ritual of speaking to some faceless man in the control room bobbing in the Pacific Ocean didn't help. After a week, a collection of seven endless days with the same view, the same dawn that wasn't dawn, Jared didn't want to talk. He grunted. He hummed. He coughed, but the invisible communications manager at the base of the space elevator insisted he make his report.

"All clear and ready and able," Jared said. No wonder so many of his predecessors attending to the ore carriers walked out of the hatch. The monotony begged for suicide as a release. He had a thousand books on an eReader, a library of trendy movies to watch, and puzzles to challenge his mind. But reading gave him headaches, movies made him long for the outdoors depicted on the tiny screen attached to the wall above his bunk, and many of the puzzle pieces weren't magnetized and they floated around the cabin.

"We want to try something with you."

Jared pictured this communications officer as a mechanical man with a pointy head.

The man in control continued. "There's this experiment we've been working on."

Jared peered into the blinking lights across the face of the control board. He grabbed the bullet shaped microphone.

"Do you want to know about it?"

Jared nodded, and then realized that the man at the base of the elevator -- what newscasters and pundits called The Vine -- couldn't see him. Why didn't they have video communications? Why voice only?

"What's the experiment?" Jared asked. "Video? You're sending up a video module?"

"No. We tried that once, but the sitters -- you folks up there -- objected."

"I wouldn't object."

"We have something better."

Jared waited to hear more.

"We'll need to try it tomorrow, though," the droning man said.

Jared didn't think the man in control sounded sorry about the wait. He should sound sorry.

"There's a lot of interference down here. I need to sign off until tomorrow."

Jared squeezed the microphone. Shook it. But not even a feedback squawk broke the silence that filled his room. He floated to his bunk bolted to the curved wall. He caught sight of himself in the mirror above the sink next to his bed. He shut his eyes. He didn't like how he looked.

Was this why previous sitters-on-the-vine objected to video?

An alarm -- a triple clang followed by a soft whistle -- jolted him awake. An ore ship docked. So automatic and robotic that Jared had nothing to do with the sequence of steps that pulled the ship in and locked it in place. He watched on a monitor. Afterwards, he used a joystick to maneuver a camera to scan the area for loose stones or other debris that might obstruct the next carrier.

That's the job, he'd been told by the recruiter. After the ore ship unloads, check for debris. The robotic scanners miss the tiny pieces, the dime-sized shards that clog the works. Scan with the camera, then clean with a robovac.

With the arrival of several ships spaced within an hour or less of one another, he had little time to bemoan the loneliness of the job. But then "busy" ceased, waiting returned, and the communications officer again told him about the experiment that would soon be sent up.

"You'll see," the man droned. "It'll be something you'll like."

Jared clung to the promise. Even when he stared at the hatch that he could so easily open, the double doorway designed for extravehicular activity -- space walks -- the thought of the promised experiment kept him from ending the monotony.

He had something to look forward to, much as he had as a child when his mother promised him a trip of one sort or another, or promised summer camp with fishing and hiking and new friends, or promised promises that he'd like what's coming.

Alone in his capsule, waiting for the next ship to bring ore to the space elevator, Jared toyed with the idea of what the promised experiment might be.

Not video. He didn't want people to see him.

A virtual companion? That would be great.

Some special food producing machine would challenge him to be creative with breakfast and lunch and supper. There'd be more than just ready-to-eat-meals in a paper package.

Puzzles pieces that didn't float away and movies that absorbed instead of teased would be welcomed.

As he neared the end of his stint-on-the-vine, Jared prodded the droning communications officer to send up the experiment before his time in the chamber came to an end and he returned to Earth.

"We're perfecting it, this experiment," the droning voice said. "Be patient."

Jared nodded, enthusiastic about the promise and patient enough to keep waiting, with never a thought of walking outside and ending his life as so many sitters had before.

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