Homebrew - Chapter Three
Learning the Ropes
This is going to be a good place for kids like him to learn the ropes. And there's going to be a lot of them out here.”
"... you've got to remember to check the seals on the gloves. If you don't, you could have a glove slipping off just enough to allow your skin to balloon out, making it darned hard to get the glove back on and causing a massive bruise on your hand as dozens of capillaries burst from the expansion. It will be painful and you won't be able to work for several days."
"Won't you die?" one person in the back of the group asked, a worried tone in her voice.
"No. Your skin is sturdy enough to keep the blood from leaching out, and your hand is small enough you won't suffer nitrogen bubbles. Now if your abdomen or a large portion of your thigh were to be exposed, no longer restrained from expanding in the vacuum, the ballooning would probably give you the bends. I've seen it happen." The instructor looked off into the distance, his face settling into a grim expression.
He snapped back to the present. "So don't make me go through it again! Practice what I teach you and remember; don't let your guard or your teammates down," he glanced up at the clock, "Okay, we're done for the day. I expect you all to practice getting into your skinsuits so you'll be ready. Tomorrow you get a treat. We get to practice everything I've been teaching you in the 'can'. If you have been paying attention, you'll have a lot of fun. If not, well, pain is a great teacher. Class dismissed."
With that, they all stood and headed to the locker room to strip and change into their baby-blue jumpsuits. The coveralls weren't really uniforms, they didn't have name tags, the photo ID cards hung on cords around each person's neck sufficed for that, or rank insignia. Rather they were indicators of their status within the project. Newbies, trainees, 'fresh meat', that was all shown to the rest of the trainers and other staff members with a single glance at their clothing.
Dora and Ellen met up with J'Shawn and Dermot in the hallway. This had been their last training session for the day; they were free to pursue other activities. From experience, they knew the cafeteria would be crowded and noisy, swamped with their fellow trainees as well as the minority of other employees and visitors who chose to eat 'on campus'. However, for those who had private transportation - the buses running to and from Las Cruces made their last round trips at 9:00 P.M. - another option was available, leaving the grounds and going to Las Cruces for dinner or other activities. And while they were only receiving a 'minimum' wage during their training, all trainees also received basic meals, housing and clothing free of charge. This left many trainees with a surplus of cash.
Both Dora and J'Shawn had chosen to keep their cars. J'Shawn did so because he'd invested much into creating a powerful, tricked-out street racer with a top-shelf audio system. Until he could find a buyer in the area willing to pay what the car was worth, he was not letting it go. Unfortunately for the friends, his street-racing modifications and high-end audio gear took up much of the rear seats, allowing him to only carry one other passenger. On the other hand, Dora's car, a sensible four-door sedan, had plenty of room. She was willing to part with it when training was finished, and she'd already made arrangments with her friend, Monique, to come and pick it up the day after 'graduation'.
"So," she said, as they piled in, "where do we want to go?"
"I"m up for anything but turkey tetrazzini," Dermot replied. "That's too close to the turkey lasagna they used to foist off on us in college." He shuddered. "Sure, it was healthy, nutritious and filling, but it was bland. Oh so bland!" He shuddered again.
"Stop shakin' the car, fool!" J'Shawn begged. "You're fakin' it so hard, Dora can't get her keys in the ignition. But I'm with you. We had the same stuff, but I think ours came from military surplus meal kits, it was so old."
"Get out of here," Ellen said. "It wasn't that bad. Mystery Meat was the meal of choice for weeding out 'undesirables' at our school. I swear the local gull population experienced a noticeable drop whenever they served it. I vote for that new Thai place."
"Milady has many refined qualities, forsooth." Dermot mugged. "Yet, I wonder if she might be taken by an evil spirit which doth delight in tormenting mortal folk with the consumption of evilly spiced foods. Assuredly, she wouldst rather spare your kith and kin the pain of yon fare? Perhaps she might consider making her way to the Olde English Chop House for a repast worthy of a lady?" He grinned and waved his hand out, palm up.
"If a 'brother' can take the heat, surely a scrawny white dude, even if he's from white-bread Colorado, can stand it. I vote with Elle." his roommate said.
"And I make it three to one. Sorry Patrick, your poor stomach is just going to have to endure thai food tonite," Dora said, starting up and heading for the main gate.
* * *
"OOoohhh..." Dora moaned. Then she thought better of it and raced her own vomit to the oversized trough before her. The vomit won, splattering down the front and onto the floor before her, spilling against her knees. That set a chain reaction off amongst her neighbors kneeling left and right of her. Some succeeded in hitting the trough, most didn't.
"That's it." the man next to her said. "I can't take this. I don't want to take this, not any more. My wife is right. If man were meant to be in space, he'd not have to go through this." Shaking, he staggered up and away, heading to one of the instructors. Dora sat back on her heels, more to get away from the stench rising from the trough than anything else, and watched as he talked with the person, alternately pleading and demanding. After a bit, the instructor pulled out a clipboard and had the man sign a form. He then waved the trainee over to a pair of other employees, who walked him from the hall.
"Who was that?" Dermot asked, from her other side.
"I don't know. He was from that other group they brought in.”
“Even with their group, there aren’t as many of us as there were on the first day of orientation. At this rate, I don’t think more than 30 of us will make it through.”
“Oh God. Don’t say that! At least the four of us are still here.”
“Well, the two of us are here. J’Shawn and Elle’s group haven’t been let out yet.” he looked over to the massive, sealed chamber perched on a set of gimballed stilts. They had seemed interesting before he’d gone inside. Now they just brought forth urges to throw up.
“If you don’t think about it, you won’t get nauseous.” Dora said, startling him.
“How’d you know what I was feeling?”
“Wasn’t hard. You moaned and looked a bit green around the gills for a moment.”
Before he could respond, the chamber ceased it’s gyrations and whistling rush of air could be heard flooding the inside. In less than one minute the noise stopped and the door swung open, far faster than it had when their turn in the machine had ended. Even before the door completed it’s travel, four instructors wearing Red Cross patches and carrying equipment cases ran up the ramp and into the opening. Dermot’s eyes met Dora’s and they started to rise, mimicking the actions of the other trainees.
“Stop! Hold it right there!” the nearest instructor shouted. “You don’t know enough to help. You’ll all just get in the way.” He waved them all back, away from the hulking device. Already, many of the group that had been inside were being hustled out and down the ramp; those who could walk encouraged to walk faster, the others being dragged from the chamber by instructors.
Dora took a sharp breathe when she saw J’Shawn was one of those walking under his own power. Well, really more of a stagger, but unassisted nonetheless. He managed to make it to the trough before dropping his helmet and upchucking. She knelt beside him and placed a light hand upon his hair, holding a cleansing towelette package in her other one.
She heard a soft gasp to her left and looked up and back just in time to see Dermot race forward to catch the other arm of Ellen, who’d finally reached the bottom of the ramp with the aid of one of the staffers. Ellen was pale, and her suit showed that she had not been able to control her stomach. As they approached Dora and J’Shawn, she shrugged loose of their grips, dropping down to kneel beside Dora.
“I’m all right,” she said, although her reassurance sounded weak in Dora’s ears. But she took the proffered towelette package from the instructor with steady hands. “It just caught me off-guard. I mean, he was just sitting there across from me, holding on as tight as I was to the bars. Why he pulled off…” Ellen stopped, looking back and forth between Dora and Dermot, face going even paler. Then she collapsed backward.
Both Dermot and the instructor knelt beside her, Dermot grabbing her hand and the instructor breaking open an astringence stick and waving it under her nose. She coughed and tried to sit up.
“Take it easy,” the woman said. “It’s not every day someone sees that kind of thing. Let yourself regain your balance.” She paused. “You did well in there. I’ve seen others panic after an accident like that.”
"Accident?" Dora asked. J'Shawn looked at her and mouthed, 'Later', but Ellen flinched at Dora's words. Behind her, the instructor's gaze swiveled from Dermot to Dora, gathering them in. She shook her head.
"I'm sure it will be discussed in your classroom tomorrow, but we're..." She was interrupted by the clatter of a gurney being wheeled down the ramp. The person strapped on was not totally covered by the sheet, and he had a tank of oxygen on his chest with a hose leading to a mask over his nose and mouth. "He's made it this far," she continued. "Let's hope he fully recovers. Even if he does, I don't believe he'll be staying."
"What do you mean?" Dermot asked. "Why wouldn't he stay? If he gets better, what would stop him?"
"Listen, despite all the training you're receiving from us, we're not here to expand your horizons or help you achieve personal growth. We desperately need more workers topside; we can't coddle someone for months until he or she is mentally recovered from such a traumatic event. Sure, our medical coverage will afford him the best psychologists and psychiatrists he can find, but he'll no longer be an employee, even as a groundhog. Learn from this. Yes, shocking things can happen, but the worst accidents happen because someone panics when there was no reason to."
* * *
Each of them had been unwilling to discuss what had happened during dinner. And none of them felt willing to eat much more than a bowl of broth and a few crackers. They remained quiet and withdrawn even after they reached Dora and Ellen's dorm room. But the pressure grew until Dora had to speak.
"What exactly happened in there? I mean, it's clear something went wrong. But what?" she asked, not directing the question at Ellen, rather she focused on J'Shawn. "Did you see everything?"
"Naw, I hardly saw any of it," he replied. They put me all the way at the other end from Elle. What's worse, I was on the same side as that guy."
"Be thankful," Ellen whispered, not raising her head, or moving her eyes up from the spot on the floor where she stared. "Be very thankful you didn't witness it."
Dermot moved closer to Ellen. "Do you feel up to talking about it? If you don't, we'll understand. However, I think it might be better to discuss it, let it out, so to speak." At that, Ellen started, then she met their eyes. They each nodded to her, encouraging her.
"All right. I guess that's all right. But I'm going to need some water."
"I'll get you some," said Dora, bouncing up, snatching a water bottle and heading for the water fountain in the hall. The others waited in silence until she returned.
"Here you go," Dermot said, taking the bottle from her and handing it past J'Shawn to Ellen. She took a swallow, sat back against the wall and paused.
"At first, well, you all know what the first minutes were like, just like practice in the classroom. We all pulled our packs and gloves on, then our helmets. The woman next to me and I checked each other's seals and signal lights. Then we did the radio checks. Everything worked fine, so when the instructors gave us the order, we sat down and strapped ourselves in. I thought I'd pulled them tight enough, but when the instructor came by to verify, she yanked them in at least another inch, or so it felt." She looked at J'Shawn, as if seeking confirmation.
"Yeah, I would have sworn my harness was tight enough, but my instructor pulled another two inches more. And he gave me a look that asked me if I was a wimp or something." he said into the pause.
Ellen then took back the thread of her story. "Unh-hunh. And then, we all felt our skin getting all bloated and we could all hear the air being pulled out. Of course, it didn't matter because my gear was on right. The woman next to me didn't have her gloves quite secure, so when they'd dropped the pressure down to one-half atmosphere and the instructors came by to check again, my instructor pulled one of her gloves off, almost without trying. She told me, I think her name was Pam, Pam Poggiani, if I remember right, she'd never felt so embarrassed."
"Then they dropped us down to vacuum and started bouncing us around, swooping and jerking the capsule. I've always liked roller coasters and the other tumbling rides at the fair, so this didn't really bother me all that much. I could tell Pam was having a hard time of it, she kept reaching up to hold her helmet with both hands, but she refused to signal the instructors."
"All of a sudden we could hear the guy screaming over the radio, 'Make it stop! Make it stop! I got to get out of here! Make it stop!' And then he unbuckled himself, punched the quick-release, just as we'd been shown. Of course, we were still tumbling like mad and he fell out of his seat and into me. I could see his face..." she stopped.
"But he was still suited, right?" J'Shawn asked. "I mean, from where I was sitting, it looked like he was still suited up."
"Yeah..." her voice came out as iron, as if it were being dragged across rough stone. "He had his helmet on and everything. That's when they cut the radio circuits, because his voice stopped coming out of the speakers. But I could still see him screaming. That's when he did it."
The quiet grew, and stretched out even longer.
Finally, Dermot asked, "Did what?"
"I think he thought the instructors couldn't hear him. That must have been why. I mean, nothing else makes sense. Why else would he have ripped off his faceplate?" She fixed on us, the horror of the memory graven on her face.
"He what?" Dora managed to get out. "No! This wasn't while you were still in vacuum, was it?"
"It was," J'Shawn replied. "From what I saw and felt, they must have slammed open the air pumps just as they saw him reach for his helmet."
"Oh my God!" Dermot's eyes grew huge. "He didn't, like, start bulging out the way they did in Total Recall, did he?"
"That is just SICK! He was on the floor right in front of me! I couldn't help seeing him, lying there, trying to suck in air that wasn't there!" Ellen screamed as them. "Oh my God. He almost died. And I didn't do anything; I just sat there..."
"Elle," Dora said, "you're being too hard on yourself. What could you have done to help him? J'Shawn just told us he ripped his faceplate off, completely. Did you have a spare helmet? Did you have a sheet of plastic? Did you have the controls to shut down the machine and bring the air back in?" With each question, Ellen shook her head, the first time barely noticeable, but stronger with each response. "Then given the training we've had and the resources at hand, what could you have done? What could any of us have done?"
"But I felt so helpless. I know I couldn't do anything, but that doesn't make me feel any better. Maybe I'm not cut out for this."
"Maybe you're not," Dermot said. "Maybe none of us are. Still, I think coming to that conclusion right now, when we haven't had time to deal with the shock, when we don't know if he'll be all right or if we're imagining the worst, that's not the best time to make a decision."
"He's right, girlfriend. You've invested too much effort and too much time in this to make a snap decision. So have Dora, Patrick, and myself. The best thing we can do is go do something fun. I think we should watch a movie, eat some popcorn and when we're good and tired, get some rest. They're going to want to discuss this tomorrow, and I'll bet they even offer counseling for those who want it."
"You know, that's a good idea. I could stand a good comedy right now." Ellen stood. "Thanks, guys. I don't know what I'll decide, but I'm not going to sit here and mope around feeling sorry for myself. C'mon, let's find that movie."
* * *
"Everyone here knows something of what happened yesterday." the group's instructor said. "However, no one has quite the complete picture. In order to fight rumors and exaggerations, we've made available a transcript of the event in each person's e-mailbox. You may read through it after this session. Even so, we felt we should pass along the news that the trainee involved, a Joseph O. Buckley, is making a full recovery and is adamant he wishes to remain in training. Assuming he can pass the psychologist's examination and he get's a clean upcheck from the doctors, he will be resuming training tomorrow."
"You mean he wasn't kicked out?" asked one of the women from the second group. "I would have thought doing something that dumb qualifies for being kicked out."
"No, at this point in your schedule, we've invested too much time and resources to waste someone without strong evidence of mental instability or physical problems." The instructor paused and made eye contact with every member of both groups. "I want to stress that you can choose to quit the program at any time prior to completion of your training, without incurring any commitment to the project. Once you've completed this educational process, you will, of course, as it was explained to you before it began, owe us at least one year of basic service, most likely in groundside support. Each additional level of training incurs yet another year of service, but those positions will probably be in orbit. If you have any doubts as to whether you want to work in space, now is the time to exit the program."
Dora, Dermot and J'Shawn glanced at Ellen. While she had remained silent during the lecture, she met their questioning looks with a calm face. She shook her head and turned back to the front.
"All right. We're through here, you can proceed to your next class."
With that, the groups began filtering out. Ellen folded her notebook and headed out the door ahead of her friends.
"Ellen!" J'Shawn called, "Wait up, girl!" He and the others rushed to catch up with her.
"What? Why are you guys dawdling? If we don't hurry, we'll be late for the next session," she responded. Then she recognized the question in their eyes. "I'm not dropping out. I thought about it last night and I realized something. I want to go into space. I've always wanted to go into space. I've known for years that doing so could be dangerous. Okay, so what happened yesterday wasn't pretty. Frankly, it scared me. But I got over letting my fear control what I do." Drawing closer to them, she began to poke her finger into each of their chests. "You. Don't. Get. Rid. Of. Me. That. Easy."
"Thank goodness." Dermot replied. "I was beginning to think it was my breath."
"Nope. It's my rugged good looks. I told you she likes her men with muscle." J'Shawn flexed his left arm, rippling the biceps and the tribal tattoo on it.
"Get real! I'm the one who likes bulgy, mindless mucle-bound, steroid-pumping freaks. Elle prefers pale, geeky types with thick glasses like Patrick won't admit to wearing."
* * *
"So," Dermot asked as they left their last class, "are we a team? I mean, according to every one of our instructors, we are almost through the basic training program. And if they're telling us truth, they're encouraging teams to form."
"I was wondering about that myself. I mean, you and J'Shawn are big and strong enough, but Dora and I are small and flexible. That means we can maneuver around better. Plus, we can do finer work with our hands." Ellen waved her fingers in a complex arpeggio. "A definite plus when trying to fish out a nut or washer lost by those hams you guys call hands."
"Speak for Patrick, my hands are virtuoso instruments, of work and of loooove."
"Yeah right! Elle," Dora replied, "back me up here, wasn't J'Shawn the one who dropped a milk-carton just walking to the table last week?"
"All right. All right." Dermot sighed in embarrassment as they entered the cafeteria. "Maybe we are giant hulks, but the question still remains on the table."
"Ah don't see no question. Not on any of the tables. All Ah see are mounds of Mystery Meat with heapin' helpin's of Mom's Home Slop! Ah done told y'all we shoulda made a break for some soul food. A brother cain't help but starve to death on this... whatever it is. It ain't food, that's for sure."
"Give us girls a break. If we ate even one soul food meal a week, they'd kick us out for terminal butt-itis!"
"That's fine by me. Patrick might like 'em skinny, but I looooove meat on a girl."
"Just answer my question and stop pestering the ladies."
"How come Patrick calls us ladies and you call us girls? Aren't we ladies to you?"
"Yeah, you corner him, Dora. I'll help. Us 'ladies' have to stick together."
"First, both of you know you are special ladies to me." J'Shawn swept into a low bow and waved them forward to the line. "Second, to answer the question, I'm for it. I believe we'll make a good team. If you two fine women agree, I'm signing on."
The two women looked at each other. Ellen nodded.
"Elle agrees. You, Patrick, her and I are a team."
"Now, you feed them, Patrick."
They all laughed and proceeded to take their meals.