ORBITAL LOVE: A Short Story
Here is another science-fiction story. It's written in the same week (partially on the same day!) as the last one I published - whatever that says about it. I'd be happy to hear anything you'd have to say about these two stories as I'm writing them as a bit of a rehearsal for something else and would like to know what works and what doesn't.
It's called ORBITAL LOVE and it's 3000 words.
It's windy today, perfect for reading. Hope you're having a nice day wherever you are.
I sit down in my quarters. The tears are stale on my cheek. I am not allowed to cry. So I’ve managed to not let go when I’m around others. I know how to keep a straight face. He wasn’t mine to morn. It is not my place to be sad.
Isn’t that the worst thing in the world?
Reaching out for the recorder I find it meets me halfway, the computer coming to life even before I manage to tell it to.
“What can I do for you, Maggie?” it asks me in a low, caring voice.
I chose a male voice for it. Now I almost regret that and find myself crying again. The tears flow without me being able to stop them, my body aching and flailing in agony as if this sorrow isn’t just in my mind but in my body as well. I grab at my chest and find myself wailing like someone hysterical.
It's new for me, all these negative feelings. All this hurt. Had the others seen this behaviour I would be done for. My work in the orbital station would be over and I would have to go back underground and work in the so called mines again.
It’s not easy to try and calm oneself. I push a button on the remote to bring up my encrypted journal. The journal system is simple enough. There are official journal entries and there are private ones. The private journal entries are however not as private as one would like and so I have an encrypted one, with an extended password that only I know of. Journaling has always been a way for me to make sense of things and so I push the button. I need to get this out of my system.
“He is dead and now his body is being buried below. Though of course we stopped burying corpses a long time ago. Now they’re just pushed out of airlocks, sometimes they’re shoved into shallow air so the body will descend onto the earth after a while of roaming around in orbit. His memorial was yesterday, his family has theirs today. And it’s almost too much to bear.” I push the button again when I find the tears approaching yet again. When they don’t come I push the button again. “He told me to be brave and to continue with his work. I’m not sure I can.”
And I’m sobbing again, like a small child because in the confinement of my own room I can do that. Out there I have to be ice-cold and professional. No sign of weakness is allowed. My work here is too important. I have to remember that the smiles do not mean that I have friends here.
He always told me to follow the rules, only break them when it was absolutely necessary and then only when I knew I wouldn’t get caught. And never for personal gain but for the gain of those we served. His principles were important to him and one of the reasons I loved him. He really believed in the cause.
Our relationship wasn’t necessary for the cause of course, except that for me it was. It's hard to explain. It was what got me out of bed in the mornings. Pathetic as that sounds. After having worked my way up and out of the underworld, up to the Orbital station, what gets me is this man with the dark hair and brown eyes. The way he bit his lip when he was thinking was endearing. The way he looked at you, really looked at you when you were talking as if he was really interested in what you had to say. That got to me.
I always thought I was the lucky one. I got to be the one to be with him all year round. I was the one who got to meet him every day, to be with him every day. I was the one he listened to, who had lunch with him when there was time and I was the one he talked to when he needed advice on important matters.
I was the lucky one.
Except now it doesn’t feel like I was. Because down on the ground there is a woman, with two kids and one of those kids is his, one that of her other husband. They met on holidays and when he had vacations, which wasn’t often. He talked to them every day over link, for five minutes each day he got to watch his kid grow up. He always said it was his great regret that he didn’t get to see more of them. It always puzzled me why he chose to be one to have a child, but it is our prerogative, when you become an orbital you get to breed. One biological kid is what you get.
Most don’t get that much. And most don’t use the perk as they have very little chance to ever following up on the kid, know what will become of them. Why put a person in the world when all they have to look forward to is the underground mines?
We spent time in each others quarters. A lot of time. He came to mine after everything had gone quiet. People around here knew. It wasn’t a big deal. Two co-workers blowing off steam. They would have frowned if they knew that half of what we did in each others quarters was talking. Sure we had sex, but it was different from the way it usually is. We connected. We did more than connect. We weren’t just two co-workers spending time together.
It was love.
There, I’ve thought the thought. Now I just have to say it.
But I can’t do that. Not even in my own private journal. The one I’m pretty sure no-one will read before I die and hardly anyone will care after I die. Love was erased out of our vocabulary a long time ago. Not because they thought it was bad for us, it wasn’t banned, people just started to isolate themselves. Relationships became casual and friendly, instead of loving, passionate and therefore sometimes hazardous. Claiming to love someone these days will not only get you banned into the underworld, it might get you killed. It’s a dangerous emotion, they say at least for the likes of us. I don't know about the others. They say we become unreliable monsters. Start doing unpredictable things, become unstable. People are convinced these days that love in orbit is more of a disease. Sex is alright, it keeps people happy but people have been sent down underground for even remotely liking the people they have sex with.
Down in the mines people are too gloomy to care. Maybe it is a better life after all, despite the darkness, the pit and the hard work. At least there they don’t care what kind of a person you are, as long as you do your job.
I put the remote down and the light on the screen dies out. I stand up and wash my face. A keen eye will tell that I’ve been crying, but most won’t notice or care. They know we were friends, maybe they won’t think it’s strange that I cry for the man on his memorial day, will they? The thought of going back on duty is unbearable though. He is no longer there. I am the new commander in chief. I have to be the one to tell the others what to do. I have to be the one listening to advice and then making decisions, sometimes directly in opposition of the advice given. I have to be strong.
I put on a new uniform, a white jumpsuit. We all wear them. Everything in the orbital station is white, as if it’s trying to contrast as much with the underground as possible or the open space for that matter. Down below everything is dark and dirty. Here everything is white and clean.
Maybe getting back into the pit wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it’s better than this pretence.
I walk into the command-station and greet the people on duty. There are just two of them in there. It’s a slow day.
“No docking today?” I ask.
“Only a freight from Moon station expected in about two hours,” Ahmed tells me. He’s looking at me.
“Good,” I say. “No surprises?”
I take to my desk, stand in front of the screen where he used to stand and I find that I am on the verge of breaking down. I am seconds away from becoming a blubbering idiot.
I take a deep breath, but it doesn’t seem to help. The tears start flowing.
This is unacceptable.
“Forgive me,” I say. “My hormonal balance must be out of whack, maybe I should see the doctor.”
The other two are quiet. I see them exchanging glances. Then Roberta stands up and walks towards me. She puts her hand on my shoulder in a way that’s not just inappropriate between friends, but completely unacceptable to do to your commanding officer. It’s a show of complete disrespect and I’m taken aback, but her touch feels comforting nonetheless, soothing.
“I know this is unorthodox,” she says and glances back at Ahmed, who nods his head. “But it’s alright for you to grief him. We won’t think less of you.”
And I think that this is the bravest thing anyone has ever done around me, for me. This is the single bravest act of kindness I’ve ever witnessed. Or it's the meanest trap I've ever heard of. I don’t know what to say, although my initial thought is to brush it off, scold her for being sentimental and tell her not to let it happen again.
I don’t have it in me though. I should, but I don’t have it in me.
Instead another tear trickles down my cheek.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” is all I can muster up.
Roberta looks at Ahmed again and he nods his head yet again.
“It’s not weakness to mourn the man,” she tells me. “You had a very-,” she hesitates and then continues as if she’s walking the plank with fear in her eyes. “-a very loving relationship. You have every right to mourn him. We won’t think less of you. Not me, not Ahmed and not anyone on the location crew. We will keep your secret.”
I just stare at her. Is this some trick to get me to admit our relationship? To get me thrown down into the pit so that someone else can take my place? I’ve never been treated this way, neither off nor on duty. The people here they all look down, afraid of their own shadows, afraid of being cast aside because there is always someone keener, someone better waiting to take their place. My weakness is just the right thing to pray on.
“I thank you for the kindness,” I tell her and try to focus on my job. Try to shake the uncomfortable closeness I feel with these people who shared so many hours with me and with him.
“We’re here for you,” Roberta says and walks to Ahmed. “And we want you to know that you and the commander, you have been our guiding light. The station hasn’t been the same since the two of you started running things and we certainly hope that the same form of regime continues.” She reaches for Ahmed’s hand who takes hers.
I just stare at them. She is holding his hand, gazing at him as if she is deeply infatuated. The look alone could have her sent down. I should sent them both down.
“He loved you, we all saw it. You loved him. Though that wasn’t always as apparent,” she smiles. “But we knew it and he did too.” She nods her head as if to accent her words. Then she gives Ahmed a quick kiss before she returns to her station and continues her work. “This won’t affect our work, I assure you madam,” Ahmed says. He looks a bit concerned, but he’s smiling kindly.
And I know it won’t affect their work. I know the efficiency needed in the job won’t be overly affected by two people liking each other. In fact when you’re on this side of the fence, the thought seems ridiculous. But I know the sense of security is false. We just need a single person to witness and disapprove and the whole crew might get replaced.
I smile at them. I feel like I’m on the verge of tears, but something inside me refuses to show them further weakness and so I get through the shift and when the Moonlander has docked we are able to greet the crew with smiles on our faces.
“I heard about the commander. Sorry for your loss,” the commander says. He doesn’t play by the rules of the station. He’s been doing space runs for so long that he no longer remembers what it’s like to be stuck here, nor does he know anything about what it’s like to be underground. He is a wildcard, never played by our rules. Was never apart of Earths orbital culture and is therefor treated like a foreigner despite his ancestry. We act polite but distant.
“He was a good guy,” the captain says and pats me on the shoulder. It’s a hard slap, but it’s meant in a comforting, friendly way. I smile and agree that he was a good man and that we will miss him, but that life goes on.
He looks at me and shakes his head. “You people puzzle me. Cold as ice, they say, and despite all you continue to spout this nonsense you’ve all been forced to swallow with your mother’s milk. You should do a run with me, loosen up a bit,” he says this in such a casual way that I don’t know how to respond.
The thought is ludicrous and yet when I find myself in my quarters at three o’clock unable to sleep that is all I can think about. To go out with him into the unknown, far away from this planet, this place. That would be an adventure.
I don’t know what makes me get up. I don’t know what makes me walk down to the second dock to see if they are still there. I don’t know what makes me knock on his quarters that I can easily find on my watch.
He answers in his underwear. His body is full of scars and I can’t help but to wonder what it must take for him to be in such a good shape, despite being in a ship most of the time. They must have some form of training equipment that keeps them from deteriorating, but still. We do have our equipment here, but most of us are rather slender.
“Come in, come in,” he says and waves his hand ushering me into his quarters. It’s a small one, just enough for a bed and a table. I stand by the table and he sits down on the bed.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m sorry to wake you,” I say and I feel like a little girl. I haven’t felt like this since I was five years old and being scolded for running out into the wells.
“Do you like your job?” he asks me.
“I used to,” I answer frankly.
“I never understood you tools,” he says, “Spending your days hiding everything you are, and for what?”
“It’s an honour to serve here. We follow the rules and we get to breath fresh air and-,”
“And push down every urge you ever had. Come sit with me.”
And I find myself sitting with the captain, looking at his muscular body. He smells of sweat, it’s a manly smell, a personal smell and it reminds me of the nights I used to have. The memory is almost excruciating.
Meanwhile the captain leans forward and kisses me. It’s raw and it’s quick and it’s not apologetic in any way.
“I won’t pretend I love you,” he says as he withdraws, “but I like you. Come with me. I’ll show you how to live.”
The thing with personal journals is that they are never 100% safe. The thing with personal feelings is that you can never be 100% sure that what you are feeling isn’t just a reaction to something within your body that’s unhealthy and unnecessary. But I find myself kissing him. I find myself having sex with him, wildly riding him like there is no tomorrow, tears streaming down my eyes and afterwards I nod my head.
“If I feel like this the next time you’re in town,” I tell him. “I’ll go with you.”
He just nods his head. Doesn’t seem shocked by my behaviour at all, doesn’t seem to judge or think any less of me. In fact he seems to respect me more. There is something in his eyes that tells me that he never really saw me as a real human being before, but that now he does. Now he’s realised that I am not just a biobot, but a real person with real feelings.
And as I wave him goodbye in the early hours of the morning I have already made up my mind. I just have to hope that I and the rest of my crew won’t get caught before he comes back, hope that the little speech in the command-centre earlier wasn’t just a rouse to get me to confess. I can’t wait for the captain to get back. I can’t wait to be out there, living life in a way that’s different from this. Living life like it was meant to be lived, on the edge, dramatically from day to day, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, not afraid to show the people you love that you really, truly adore them.
I can’t wait for that second chance.