Thursday, 3 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 1

McLean idly watered the tub of hydrangeas, humming to himself. The arboretum was constantly humid and the climate maintained precisely, so there was no real need for him to be here; but doing things yourself can be so therapeutic. One of the reasons he was all the way up - out - here was to get away from it all, but sometimes even that became too much and he had to get away once more.

Tending to the flowers helped to soothe his busy mind: They can't talk back, and they always seem to thrive on listening. Now however, the chamber was almost silent save for his humming and the hiss of the sprinkler system; the warm glow of the heater lamps made a welcome change from the clinical walkways and gantries of the rest of the ship. Perhaps he should put some peonies in a vase for the Bridge?

Drops of moisture condensed on his face and began dripping off the end of his nose - his damp black hair was plastered to his forehead, and for the last few minutes his attempts to puff it out of his eyes had been in vain. He blustered upwards once more and blew water into his eyes.


"Yes?" McLean sighed deeply, aware that his reverie had come to an end.

"How are the hydrangeas?" Bartlett had this unsettling habit of trying to put him at ease with an irrelevant opening gambit.

"The hydrangeas are fine, thank you Stephanie. They are blue, as expected," he raised his eyebrows, "and growing uncommonly well for this time of year." He sighed again and examined the dirt-stained fingertips of his gardening gloves. So much for a day of solitude. "How may I help you?" he said, looking up.

"Well Commander," Bartlett answered, hesitantly. Had she sensed she was unwelcome? "One of the proximity alarms is firing. Would you care to take a look?" In truth, no. But he was in charge, and so, Yes. McLean nodded somberly and tossed his gardening gloves to the floor.

"Let's go."

He sloped wearily along the walkway that fed through the centre of Arm B of the spacecraft WSC Long Distance Relationship and Bartlett, a good foot shorter than him, scuttled along beside. Halfway down, McLean paused at one of the viewports and gazed out at the hull still 150 metres away, and beyond into the black. Would he ever get tired of looking into that distant nothing?

"Please Commander, I'm a bit anxious," Bartlett stressed, looking up at him through worried eyes. She was often a bit anxious, so this gave McLean little cause for concern. They walked on.

Commander Anthony McLean and Stephanie Bartlett were two of the four person crew aboard the spacecraft, and it frustrated McLean that even after sixteen months he was yet to persuade Bartlett to call him by his first name. Their mission was purportedly "of historic importance" and "a vital strategic milestone", but he had long since come to terms with the reality - that it was motivated by petty rivalries and long standing jealousy. It was the dubious honour of McLean and his crew to be the first humans destined to inhabit The Jupiter Rally Point, mankind's deepest large scale foray into the Solar System. This space station had been assembled autonomously over the last ten years at near incalculable expense by what had become known as the Western Space Coalition, and even as they were in flight final preparations were being made by the sizeable force of automata in attendance.

The Western Space Coalition was really a worldwide conglomerate of nations, monikered Western merely as a poke in the eye to the Chinese, who still resolutely refused to be part of anything involving the Americans. The ribaldry had continued in earnest, both sides taking cheap shots at the other for no discernible reason or advancement. The West had established the first inhabited base on the moon, the Chinese the first on Mars. The next logical step, in the eyes of the controlling forces of the WSC at least, was an outpost even further out: The Jupiter Rally Point. McLean always felt a sinking feeling inside when he considered this quite frankly ridiculous outcome.

The problems began - if you can really consider this a beginning - when it turned out that the Chinese had planned all along to allow the Rally Point to be built, and then take it over by force. The space station was never designed as a weapons platform (Upon whom would the weapons be trained while orbiting Jupiter?) and so in reality would be all but defenceless. And so the schedule was accelerated, and sixteen months previously the construction of the WSC Long Distance Relationship was completed to a not inconsiderable fanfare.

In truth, she was an odd looking craft, and McLean always wondered where the aesthetic design budget went during its construction. Three arms extended away at irregular angles from the elliptical main hull, which was all engine and fuel and supplies. At the end of one of the arms was the arboretum which until recently was where McLean had been passing the time. Its designed purpose was to serve as a natural air scrubber but he had misappropriated it otherwise. Obviously on the craft's inception the propaganda machine whirled into action and it was hailed as the greatest spacecraft ever created by humankind, but now it felt like a well-worn, well-loved dog toy; dirty and battered by sixteen months of radiation and debris, chewed up and spat out by the harsh climate of deep space.

McLean could taste the difference in the air as they arrived in the cold blue light of the Bridge: Sterile, lifeless, and all too serene for his liking. The light desaturated his skin and gave his face the deathly sheen of a cadaver. He thrived in the chaos of the organic, not this dry, rasping atmosphere and it was at that point that the Commander realised he must have been having some sort of moment when he agreed to do this mission. Still, here he was and he was making the best of it. McLean turned to the long range threat alarm which gazed tirelessly over the surrounding five million miles and delivered its verdict through its slow, measured, blinking screen. Five million miles - not a great deal to be worried about after all, but after a year and a half together McLean had learned Bartlett's foibles well.

He leaned in close to the the screen and its red glowing symbols warmed his face back into the land of the living. "Stephanie, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," he cast offhandedly, "Probably a rogue asteroid or something." Never much of a People Person, McLean hoped Bartlett understood his foibles too.

"Sure thing," Bartlett muttered, unconvinced. She lingered for a while, to see if anything would change. Nothing did, and she wandered off to her bunk. McLean remained, unmoving, in the Bridge as the Long Distance Relationship powered its way silently and swiftly towards the stars.