“It’s your lucky day,” Moszkowski said to Marley as they strapped themselves in. “I do hope you’re familiar with the instructions on what to do in the case of an incident.” He licked his lips as he said the word incident, as if implying that Marley had no idea at all what he would do should the craft crash, burn up in the stratosphere, explode or do any of those rare things that flying aircraft do when things go wrong.
Moszkowski handed Marley the laminated card that all passengers seated next to the emergency exit must familiarise themselves with. Marley grabbed it absently and craned his neck.
From the window he could see several mechanics prodding away at the second auxiliary engine. One worker threw up a spanner that his coworker deftly caught. The coworker bent his back under the engine and hammered a bolt into place. He threw the spanner back down to his fellow mechanic.
His fellow mechanic had chosen that moment to watch a pontoon full of young girls dock at the Stardust Establishment. If the worker had planned on going there later he would not be doing much dancing: the spanner had fallen onto his left foot and he had just begun the initial process of healing: howling in agony.
Marley felt absolutely no sympathy for the mechanic. He grabbed the laminated safety card in both hands and read it twice, intently.
A crackle sounded from the speaker overhead: “Launch has been postponed for 40 minutes.”
“This obviously has to do with those mechanics!” Marley gesticulated out the viewport.
“This almost certainly has to do,” said Moszkowski, “with OneStar subcontracting the engineering to Mutant Camel Enterprises.
Marley raised an eyebrow. “I did not know of an engineering firm called Mutant Camel Enterprises.”
“Oh there is, Chuck Marley, there is. Three of my graduates are undergoing an internship.”
“One of them is being carried away right now on a stretcher-cart.”
Moszkowski leaned across. His moustache turned down. “Not one of mine.”
“The aircraft in this diagram doesn’t look at all like the one we’re sitting in,” said Marley.
“Of course not,” mumbled Moszkowksi looking at the duty free catalogue. “But the emergency exits are in the right place aren’t they?”
Marley raised two eyebrows. “Is that all that matters?”
“No!” Moszkowski slapped the catalogue on his lap. “But what more can you expect. TeamAlliance have subcontracted OneStar to outsource the maintenance to Skyworld who employ Mutant Camel Enterprises. But we don’t even know those men down below are Mutant Camel Enterprises personnel.”
Marley took a photo of them with his flablet. He zoomed in. “There’s no mutant camel on the lapel.”
“There’s a blue frog on the pocket,” observed Moszkowski. “We’re screwed.”
As if in agreement the speaker voice resumed. “We are sorry to inform you we are delayed by a further twenty five minutes.”
“They could at least do the addition,” Marley started counting on his hands. Forty minutes, plus twenty-five. That’s an hour and five minutes late!”
Moszkowski returned to the catalogue. All sorts of gadgets promised miracle solutions to minor problems. Moszkowski mumbled to himself as he read, “Angular mirror lens for round the corner shots; hat with periscope; pen with traditional ink; surveillance fly on the wall; microspiderbot with holographic projector…hmmm.” He scratched his chin.
Marley stopped reading the safety instructions and retrieved his catalogue. It buzzed static before switching on. As Marley put his finger on the home page it shut itself down.”
An attendant witnessed the malfunction.
She put her hands on her cheeks. “I am awfully sorry, let me get you another one.”
“Don’t bother,” said Marley a little too harshly. “I’ll read the paper one.”
After discovering tomato sauce on the table of contents and a brown smudge on page three, Marley put the catalogue back in the slip. As he did so some pasta fell out.
The monitor in front of him came to life. Marley looked at the menu and pressed “Games.”
Three games were available. Tetris, Arknoid and Mahjong. For 38 ark-coin you could unlock more games, classics like Call of Wolfenstein, Science Girls and Burger Time.
Marley opened the cryptocurrency summary on his flablet. He really wanted to play Science Girls but only had 35 ark.
He was about to order more credits and convert them to ark but he decided Science Girls could wait. He was very close to unlocking a bonus level that would grant him three more costumes for Daisy. In a few hours he could play in a more romantic environment, his bedroom, which offered more options for expression.
The flight attendants walked down the aisles advising everyone to put on their seatbelts. Some of the passengers broke into half-hearted applause.
To quell the mockery and silence some of the wailing children, the flight attendant handed out Pudges to all of the passengers, regardless of age.
These robotic fluffy toys could be anything you wanted them to be, from a bedtime companion to a doorbell. They could be customised with paid upgrades including clothing and personality scripts. Unofficial add-ons, like weaponry, could be purchased on the dark market.
Marley put his Pudge next to the catalogue.
The receding pillars indicated that the SpaceBus had finally disengaged from the station clamps, and was edging its way towards the flight path that would take it back to the Reticulum landing fields.
Marley dozed off. The routine inflight announcement woke him: “Passengers and cabin crew, please take your seats. Prepare for descent.”
Moszkowski’s nose was in the air and a trail of spittle dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Half of the people on board had adopted this pose in some form or another. The tendency of humans to doze off just before take off and landing had been widely documented and extended to many forms of transport, from trains, planes and spacecraft to the warp drive.
A passenger eight rows across noticed Marley awake and gave him a knowing wink. He was now a member of the exclusive “Awake During Descent” club.
The descent was rougher than usual: they hit turbulence that should have been impossible to sleep through. Marley awoke with a start. He reflected with surprise that he’d actually fallen asleep. Another rough patch of turbulence made him bang his head on the wall. He didn’t have time to reflect that this was what had put him to sleep initially.
The Spacebus shook violently as it entered its final descent trajectory. No one on board looked comfortable, not even Marley’s fellow “Awake during descent club” member.
Many of the passengers were shift workers that spent half the week in space. They were equipped for sleep, with noise cancelling ear muffs and travel pillows. Some popped sleeping pills.
The heavy vibrating blurred the view outside. Leaning close to the window was hazardous – a sudden jolt could lead to a bump on the head. This was not Zeen’s Thundercat.
But Marley should get used to it, as it would be awhile before he could afford a Thundercat, if ever.
Moszkowski’s mouth opened. A droplet trickled down his chin. He smacked his lips before saying, “You should get used to it,” as if echoing Marley’s thoughts. He opened one eye in a wink, before closing it again.
“Why should I get used to it?” said Marley. “I’m never going to ride the SpaceBus again, not if I can help it.”
“You may ride something similar, and just as old.”
But either Moszkowski was ignoring him, or he had fallen asleep again. His lolled to one side again and another droplet ran down his chin.
Marley wished he could sleep so easily. Perhaps if he banged his head enough on the fuselage. He leaned closer. The craft jolted and he got the bump he deserved. But it didn’t put him to sleep. It hurt. Soon he would have more bumps on his head than brain cells. Humans only used 20% of their brains – up from 10% a millennium ago. Marley wasn’t sure what he used the extra 10% for.
He was almost back on aimless Crete 581d. With life expectancy being close to one hundred, a quarter of his life had elapsed. But who knows, he might live to 140, whatever that would look like.
As he plummeted, he recalled his experience with the hooded counsellor. Maybe he needed to see him again. The PanelMate built in to his quarters monitored his biochemistry, designed to detect any micro-changes in his health by analysing his waste matter and dirty dishes.
As fell back to his old life, now that he thought on it, he realised that no one else had ever mentioned visiting a psychologist like that. A hooded figure, with nothing beneath the hood!
Maybe his vision of the hooded figure was a hallucination, a dream brought on by his medication. But he had taken the medication after he saw the figure, he was sure of it.
A massive rumbling jolted him back to reality. He realised he had been semi-sleeping, his subconscious running thoughts into each other.
The SpaceBus had landed and people were rising. The man who had initially commended him on being awake during descent wiggled his in disapproval.
Marley’s blurred vision cleared just in time to see Moszkowski get up. Two attendant’s cleared a path for him.
“Hopefully,” said Moszkowski, “It’ll be many years before you’re eligible for priority treatment.” He let himself be escorted out of the cabin. “Speak soon.”
Marley had no idea how soon this was supposed to be.