Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Life - Chapter 1

Check the suit. Iris hated checking the suit.

The suit, as the engineers kept reminding her, was her only shot at surviving the many ugly things that could befall an exoatmospheric vehicle. They also reminded her not to call it a "spaceship" at every turn. These are the kind of things her Master's in Exogeology degree had glossed over. They make you study alien rocks for a year, a whole year of your life spent on nothing but looking at alien rocks, talking about alien rocks and thinking about alien rocks - and all of that on top of her Bachelor's, with a Geology major. It had gotten so bad that Iris couldn't even go for a walk anymore without pondering what had shaped the ground beneath her feet, the hills on the horizon or even Earth itself. Of course, after that this particular level of indoctrination had been achieved, the first thing they'd done to poor Iris - she of 16 years and still in possession of her bleach-blonde hair - was sign her up for an environment that was so rockless as to be a mockery of her profession.

They reminded her of the suit again. Pay attention to the drill, Iris. It's about the suit.

For all intents and purposes, Iris was as much wearer as inhabitant of the suit, and had been for the last 3 months. That was a strange thing, because those 16 years of living on Mother Earth had taught her to change her clothes every day, lest they get dirty and sticky, and who would want to wear the same thing every day? Oh, they did build clothing like the suit, which didn't get dirty or sticky, but what was the point? Most people changed their clothes every day, no matter what, so why make things complicated? Worse, it made her feel like one of the socials. Government-issued smartclothes and no money to spare for the real thing, not to mention that jumpsuits don't really look all that good. In theory, the suit - her suit - might've sounded like a more attractive thing, a unitard of sorts, given that it was supposed to mold itself to the wearer, but that was mostly on the inside layer. Watching Iris in her suit suggested that she had curves, but didn't really show them off. Like a quantum theory of fashion, wearing the suit was neither modest (because there was the next big disconnect: no underwear!) nor particularly flattering. The great egalitarian ideal of Government Issue: makes everyone look equally stupid. In this case, the torso armor (no, wait: protective plating!) and life support backpack obscured anything remotely interesting.

There was no excuse to take off the suit, even. It wasn't uncomfortable, because it fit you perfectly, it carried its own weight - in fact, it made Iris's exposed skin (her head) feel that much worse in comparison, given that it wasn't enjoying the suit's regulation of skin temperature and humidity. You didn't even have to take it off for bodily needs, and so it wasn't designed to be taken off easily, period. It was locked onto you and there it stayed. Instead of dealing with the inefficiencies of the human digestive system (and the engineers wouldn't shut up about that, either: ew! gross!), nutrients and hydration level were regulated by the suit. Direct bloodstream injection. The result was a constant sort of low-level churning in her guts as carefully-dosed drugs told her colon to keep working, lest it shut down. Clearly, dignity wasn't in the budget. The chewing gum in her mouth was losing its flavor, and even worse she couldn't indulge in her childhood habit of swallowing it, either - this was just for flavor, for keeping her jaw muscles working. They showed her the payload calculations for old-school consumables - they made her eyes water. The ship - she persisted in calling it that - would've been four times bigger, with real food and showers and more than the emergency toilet. Clearly the engineers were furious: stupid humans! They need to use their muscles to keep them in working shape, dumbest thing anybody could ever come up with! They were working on this, she felt. Whipping up a strain of humans who don't break down their muscles and bones when they're not used. The greatest problem with human spaceflight was including humans, but sometimes you didn't have that choice, and Iris imagined that this is what inevitably snapped the mind of every engineer in exoplanetary R&D. It made them crazy, and then they twisted that into some sort of punishment for what they couldn't keep away from their beautiful mechanical spaceship. Whip the apes to remind them that they're not welcome. Like with the helmets.

They were getting to the helmet part. God, how she hated the helmet part.

It wasn't enough that she'd left her hair on the floor of the spaceport ("Do you know how much it costs to boost your ponytail into orbit, Miss?") and arrived with a close shave; at least that was convenient when she couldn't really wash her hair, and reducing the number of things that could get stuck between your helmet and the suit collar when you're depending on the two forming a vacuum-proof seal, that was a good thing. (Engineers say that the seal isn't vacuum-proof, it's atmosphere-proof since it keeps the air in. Iris nods. She doesn't feel like fighting over this.)

The helmet. Iris slipped it over her head and felt the helmet come alive around her - the flickering lights of the display built into the faceplate, the clicking interlocks at the collar, the soft test tones of the loudspeakers.


Yeah, you too, helmet. Missed you really bad.

The helmet was a particularly strange piece of, if not technology, then doctrine. One size fits all, exchangeable, with a good deal of helmets to spare for emergency use. Iris considered the payload penalty of that and shivered. She found that she could think of fifty things, little comfort items, that they could've brought for the same weight and volume as a single spare helmet, but apparently this was the right amount of redundancy from a safety engineering perspective. Worse, they smelled. Not overtly, but subtly, because Iris's nose wasn't getting much of a workout and frantically latched onto any recognizable smell. No body odor on the suits, obviously, no other discarded clothing, but the helmets were regularly brought out for drills, at complete random, and then put away and forgotten. They didn't get dirty as such, but they did get used. Iris had heard that cleaning out helmets after drills was actually a job, a viable job, on the big deep exploration vessels, but on a small scoutship like this, mission duration didn't make it necessary. Or maybe the cleaning gear weighed too much. Either way, helmets smelled. Iris could smell the Chief in this one, and worse, she was desperate enough to think this was a good thing.

Boring piece of shit, this expedition. The helmet didn't come off. The engineers laughed.

"That's how we should all walk around," one of them said. "Massive weight savings if you don't keep the vehicle pressurized..."
"Not funny," Iris managed to say; the helmet microphone caught this, the AI determined that the lack of code words precluded it being intended as radio traffic, and instead routed it out of a small, pipsqueaky speaker built into the helmet. The engineers laughed their asses off. It was like talking to someone over a can & string "telephone".

Then there was a horrible tearing noise, and it was all the worse because Iris didn't hear it so much as feel it. The deck under her feet groaned. The engineers had good reflexes, pushing themselves towards the next equipment locker for their helmets, but it simply happened too quickly. In a flash, half the metal around them was gone, and everything was hot and bright. Iris couldn't see much of the brightness, because the helmet darkened the visor at once, shielding her eyes from the intense light and shifting the cooling into overdrive to keep her cool inside while the outer layers of the suit slowly radiated the heat it had absorbed. The gloves of the suit bombarded Iris's fingers with little pricks - radar information, converted into tactile input. She could feel/see something slip past her rapidly and grabbed it, still blind; with the help of the suit's abrasion-resistant material and strength augmentation, she managed to hold on to what had to be a rogue safety rope. The zero-G drills finally paid off; she managed to hold on and clip the rope into the utility harness she wore over the suit. All the while, the suit increased its pressure on her, keeping her blood going to the important parts of her body against the acceleration she was under. Something smashed against her leg, and even the suit couldn't protect her from that one - suddenly, she only felt pain from her right side, but a few seconds of that seemed to confirm that her leg was still attached. She screamed even as the helmet calmly told her that it was activating the distress beacon, and eventually she stopped, not because she wasn't in pain or not afraid, but because she knew that she was wasting air.

You never know how deep the drills stick until you use them.

It felt like minutes until the visor cleared again. Iris barely recognized the ship she was still tethered to; it drifted in the distance, torn asunder into multiple sections that were already spreading away further than she could see them. A look down at her leg showed it sitting at an angle a leg should never sit at, but again the suit did what it could and fortified her blood with a generous dose of painkillers. The material of the suit seemed worn, but not breached, and despite everything else, it looked like she'd gotten off easy.

The helmet should've told her that it was picking up other distress signals. That's what they told her in the drills. Find other survivors, huddle together, share resources.

"Suit..." she managed to say, "I need you to tell me where the other signals are."

One thing the piece of scrap had hit on her torso armor, the one thing, and it had to be the radio assembly. Iris felt like screaming again, just to make a point.

Why did she have to pick exogeology?

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