Sustainability One: Chapter 3 – The Chair
The world is on an unsustainable trajectory towards a dire end. Sustainability One explores the exploits of a team of astronauts as they attempt a mission to save the world. Missed a chapter?
Click here for Chapter one.
Click here for Chapter two.
Chapter 3: The Chair
Francis Compeau didn’t feel like a captain. He felt like a failure. He had no thoughts of martyrdom, that everything was his fault, but as captain he was responsible. Everything that went on inside the ship, the mission, was on him. It was his fault that they weren’t going to reach their destination or save the planet. “How in the hell did she get pregnant anyway?” He said aloud.
Francis hammered his fist on the steel grey walls sending him floating down the long corridor towards the cargo hold. Useless piece of crap ship won’t do anything if we don’t make it, he thought.
The ship wasn’t designed for comfort. When he and his crew lifted off from earth, they docked with a much larger cargo vessel that had been orbiting earth. They dragged it now on their way towards Mars. The cargo hold dwarfed his tiny vessel, but in space rules change and one didn’t have to be Atlas to move the earth.
When Francis reached the end of the corridor, he looked back towards the bridge and brushed the tears from his eyes. It didn’t matter that he was a forty year old man balling his eyes out. His first officer had just informed him that everything was for nothing, that thousands of people had died and trillions of dollars had been spent for nothing. And earth, he added silently. Earth was lost.
They’re all going to die, he thought has his body was wracked in a spasm. Everyone on Earth was doomed to die without clean water. They would likely die from the asphyxiation as the dirty air choked them and left them sprawling on the ground on their way home, their families wondering what had happened. And all because two people decided to do the nasty in space, Francis thought.
“They knew. They knew,” he said through clenched teeth. His first officer knew how short their supplies were. They were living in a bathtub with no possibility of finding another kitchen. There was no more food to feed a young one. No air to share. No water to spare without shorting the mission. But all of that aside, the radiation that Francis and his crew were exposed to every day would be enough to kill any chance of life. Should have killed any chance, he thought.
“The Chair,” Francis said aloud as he reached the end of the corridor and turned the handle to enter the cargo section. He shivered as a blast of cold air rushed into the corridor while he slipped through. With practiced ease he swung the hatch closed before pulling a parka over his shoulders that floated on a peg within reach.
Francis didn’t know who’d built the cargo section of the ship. It was obviously different, the walls built of some corrugated material to shield the ship from the majority of the radiation pouring out of the sun and the rest of the milky way. In a perfect world, it would have been enough, but not for Francis and his bridge crew. They returned to the bridge and engineering through the day, risking exposure to the harmful radiation as the made minute changes to their trajectory and checked for any communications with earth. And it’s not like we can just live back here, he thought and shivered again as he pulled a pair of gloves from the coat pocket.
The technology of the cargo hold was barely compatible. From the bridge, he could check the vitals of the section; air, temperature and pressure and even the crew as they went through their experiments in the lab built at the far end of the hold. But beyond that, it might as well have been Chinese. Likely is, come to think of it, Francis thought. China had been hit hard by the dust storms, their air quality already compromised. The space station they had orbiting the earth wasn’t enough to keep them all safe. That station likely had its own resource issues.
Francis floated down the rows of cargo containers, gravity a luxury of the past. The cargo hold wasn’t heated like the bridge section; it didn’t need to be. The steel and plastic components housed within didn’t care if it was cold, nor did Francis’ crew when they got in the chairs.
Thinking of the chair brought Francis to the chamber where the machines were housed. Francis soon found himself staring down at the chair itself. Why do we call it that? he wondered. It wasn’t built like a chair, but a bed with a retractable glass roof. Within was a viscous liquid that he couldn’t name. It was a magical creation of some scientist on earth. When sleeping in the goo, Francis and his crew were healed from within. Any cuts and bruises disappeared as they were continuously being healed by their beds during their sleep.
“Francis,” the voice was quiet like a child’s, asking for permission to speak. “Captain.”
“You know what’s happened, right?” Francis asked without turning to look at his first officer. Of course she knew. She was a doctor. She UNDERSTOOD what the chairs were for more than anyone else. They were the reason she was aboard; HER mission.
“The chair,” She whispered as she floated into the room, her own parka crinkling as she moved. The room housing the three cryochambers was sparse, with only one computer terminal on the far wall displaying three human forms with various pieces of information. The chamber walls were white steel with a bank of LED lights hanging low on metal rods. The room itself was just another cargo container that could be moved from one section of the hold to another or placed down on the planet when they reached Mars.
“How long have you known?” Francis asked as he caressed the smooth glass top of one of the chairs.
“Less than an hour. The chair rejected me.” she said. Without looking her way Francis knew she’d been crying herself. The chair shouldn’t be rejecting anyone. There was no sentience in it. It closed and healed.
Francis opened his mouth as though to speak, but then fell silent for another minute before finally asking, “Shouldn’t it have healed you, Chelsea?”
“I don’t know,” she replied after awhile. “Someone … someone … The chairs weren’t designed for this. They were designed for Utah.” The word seemed explanation enough. The Utah Station was for the breeding program, the national re-population strategy. The chairs would have been designed to increase the chances of pregnancy.”
Chelsea sighed. “They found me in Utah. I was part of the breeding program. It probably would have taken a few tries, but my body was a good candidate for the program.” It was only half surprising to Francis to hear the news. The woman was healthy, very healthy if she’d managed to secure a place on the mission. She had to be. On earth, if you weren’t barren, there was little choice.
The chairs had been reprogrammed for the mission, designed to heal for injury and long term exposure to radiation. There should have been no way for it to revert to its original
programming. But you are only have the equation.
“And Zack?” Francis asked. “Was he the same?”
“Zack,” Chelsea repeated. “No. I should have known better, but I didn’t realize. He was …”
“He was a last minute substitution,” Francis finished for her as he slapped himself in the forehead.
Chelsea had floated into the room and was nodding when she said, “Yes. He didn’t go through the same protocols. The chair wouldn’t have been fully adjusted to his physiology.
“Could his chair affect yours?” Francis asked. His mind was moving beyond the implications of failing to achieve their mission to whether they would survive past the day. The chairs could have been compromised enough to cause minor damage or they could have been affected enough to kill.
Chelsea averted her gaze for a moment before shaking her head. “I don’t think so, but I’m not an expert.”
“So you don’t know if one chair reverting will affect others. If his wasn’t properly set then could it affect yours?”
Chelsea huffed before nodding her head. “They’re designed to work in concert to attain the optimum chance of conception.”
Francis glanced away, angry at his superiors for sending them into space with a half-cocked plan, first officer for not realizing she should have been more careful, and at himself for blaming anyone else when he should have been more diligent. As the ship’s mechanical engineer, Zack would be exposed to the worst the cosmos would throw at them. When the time came, it would be Zack hanging off the hull of the ship with nothing but a thin space suit on a tether keeping him safe. The chair would have to work harder, expend more resources to keep them man healthy.
“Chelsea,” Francis asked as a sinking feeling grew in his stomach. His face felt warm as he matched his first officer’s gaze. “How far along are you? The machine must have known before now.”
“What?” Chelsea asked as she shook her head.
“The chair must have known you were pregnant unless you’re only just now less than a few days.
“Uh,” Chelsea began, but fell silent as she thought. her face contorted as she tried to break his gaze. “Six weeks.”
“Six weeks?” Francis couldn’t help himself from yelling. “You must have known yourself by now.”
“No, I swear. I thought everything that I was feeling was because of the chair. I promise. I promise.” If there was any gravity in the room, the woman would have been kneeling on the floor as though praying. Instead she looked ridiculous as she floated on the far side of the cryochamber sobbing into her gloves.
With the birthing legislation of twenty thirty-seven, a woman so far along would be forbidden to destroy the fetus. Even if Chelsea wanted to just make her problems disappear, on earth she would have been imprisoned for the act. When the child was born she would have been tossed to the wolves, her child raised in one of the hospital complexes in Utah, the only safe breathing air to be found in North America.
Here on the ship however no one would know. Chelsea was the medical doctor and would have both the tools and the knowledge to make it easy to continue on with the mission. But you didn’t, Francis thought. Chelsea hadn’t make that decision because the chair hadn’t told them until now. She’d come to him because she didn’t want to make the decision herself.
“How long has Zack known?” Francis asked through clenched teeth.
“I swear, I came straight to you. I only saw him on the way. I … I …” The woman fell silent.
“You wanted me to force you to destroy the fetus,” Francis whispered so quietly he wasn’t sure the woman heard him. “You didn’t want to make that choice and so you thought you didn’t have to. Just let the captain decide the fate of the unborn. You wanted me to force you into it. How dare you? How dare you?!”
Francis pushed himself away from the chair and spun around as if to leave. When he reached the hatch door, he found Zack waiting. The boy was grinning from ear to ear as if he’d won the lottery.
“This is your fault Zack. If I had the choice I’d space you right now.”
“What?” Zak asked as if oblivious. “We can make it through this.”
Francis shook his head as he said, “You stupid fool.”
“What?” Zack asked again. “We can find air and water. It’s just a little child.”
“Didn’t you hear her, Zack? Chelsea can’t use the chair any longer. The radiation floating around the ship and through the ship is slowly killing us and she can’t use the chair to repair herself. The medical doctor. You get it? The one person tasked with opening the other three hundred beds to let everyone wake up from their long sleep is going to die of radiation poisoning before we reach our destination. And yes, she is going to use more water and the child will use more air and we’ll use more resources. Did you really think a ship like this was prepared for a child?”
Francis pushed his way around Zack and back down the halls on his way to the observation chamber, the only place he found solace in the long night. Before he’d moved ten feet he stopped and returned to the room where Chelsea and Zack floated silently. Children, he thought. He was escorting children through space.
“I’m not going to let that stop me,” Francis said aloud startling the others who thought him gone.
“What?” Chelsea asked as she shook her head.
“I said, I’m not going to let your screw up stop me. I’m not going to let those people down in the medical bay or the people on earth. And you know what? I’m not going to make your decision for you. Keep it or not, that’s not my decision, but if it was mine, I’d make you keep it.”
Chelsea let out a small yelp as though a dog beaten by her master. When Francis turned again to leave, she whispered, “Why?”
Francis turned back, forcing a wistful smile to his face. It felt good to smile, almost normal. “Because,” he took a deep breath, “Because it’s the reason why we’re up here in the first place.”
They all fell silent for a minute before Francis cleared his throat again. He wasn’t going to pretend that everything was perfect. The decision he was forcing Chelsea to make would either reset their course or send them down a new one. If she chose to keep the child then things were going to become almost impossible. Almost, Francis thought. BUT, not completely.
When Francis spoke, he was Captain Compeau, the leader of the expedition to save the earth. His tears had dried up and he was no longer lost in his thoughts. “When you’ve made your decision Chelsea, go down to the other chairs and wake Dr. Jones and Agatha.
“Why?” Zack asked as though he could change Francis’ mind. Waking more people when their supplies were already limited? It seemed counter intuitive.
“Why?” Francis repeated. “Because when we lifted off from earth we all knew this was a one way trip, that we’d likely die out here trying to save earth, our supplies depleted and bodies destroyed by the radiation. And now … now we’re changing that directive. And also, because I can’t trust you to do your job right anymore and those two are smarter than the three of us combined. If we’re going to make it out of this then we’re going to need help.”