art by Shothot Designs
by Ross Willard
"Do you know what the real trick to life in deep space is?"
Doctor Bennett, Cassandra to her friends, scribbled something on her notepad as she replied, "What?"
"The real trick to life in deep space is justifying yourself."
"It's different up there." He pointed to the sky. "I don't expect you to get it. Hell, most of the people in my time didn't get it." He paused, "Won't get it, I mean. It's weird talking about your life in future tense."
"I'd imagine so."
"Here." He tapped the ground with his foot for emphasis. "Here on Earth, everything is so vast! Resources are almost endless, actions are like pebbles thrown into a lake, the ripples going on and on and on... you can only guess how far they go. Trying to track everything, trying to quantify what you do, trying to place a value on it borders on the absurd."
"But not in space."
"Well, not in deep space. If you're working in the solar system there's a little bit more leeway. You're still in communication with the world. It's a bit delayed, but it's still there. And people come and go on a regular basis, so you're still connected."
The man paused, a smile flitting across his face. "I worked a lot of different jobs in-system. I started out on a solar farm. Most people do. I mean, most people in my time will, the ones who want to get off planet. It doesn't take much training to work the collectors, or the harvesters. Most of the collectors are in earth orbit, so the contracts are only for a few months. After that, if you find out you don't like it, you just don't re-up. But me? I loved it. Zero gees was like... it was like living in a hot tub, but without raisin fingers. It only took me a couple of months to learn some basic engineering. Enough to transfer from harvesting to equipment maintenance."
"That sounds exciting." Cassandra said, continuing to jot on her pad.
"Not the word I'd use. You deal with the same problems over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. On the rare occasion that something interesting actually comes up, the senior mechanic pulls rank. Don't get me wrong, I've had worse jobs, but the work itself isn't that exciting. It does, however, get you some amazing opportunities. That's the thing about work in space, there is always equipment involved, and equipment will always need to be fixed. After my time on the solar farm, I got a two-year gig on one of Jupiter's moons. After that, a five-year stint working for mining companies in the asteroid belt." He paused, his eyes distant. "The things I've seen, you can't begin to imagine."
"If the future is so exciting, so amazing, why leave? Why come here?"
"Back to Earth, or back in time?" The man asked with a grin.
He leaned back with a sigh. "I took a job I shouldn't have. Like I said, deep space is different. You spend a year or two just to get to the job, a decade, maybe more, working, then a year or two going home. So, for twelve to twenty years, you're in a closed system. Depending on where you go, you might have some resource in abundance, maybe there's a water planet, or a planet with plenty of oxygen, but you have to bring the vast majority of your resources with you. Anything that gets used, or lost, takes years to replace, so everything is measured. Everything is quantified. And since it's a corporation that sent you out, everything has a price tag attached to it. Everything. Even you. The work I do, the number of jobs, the speed at which I do them, the cost of supplies and the cost of the time I spend, this one added, this one subtracted, that one multiplied by time it took and divided by the time the company thought it should have taken. My life became a calculation, updated on an hourly basis. And in the background, always in the back of my mind, the fear of what would happen when my number dipped too low."
"What do you think would happen?"
"Recycling." He answered without hesitation. "The dirty little secret. The sad truth. It's entirely illegal, of course, but out this far, who's going to enforce something as silly as a law? Corporations make money. It's what they do. If you make money for them, they're happy. If you lose money for them, if it takes more resources to keep you alive than you produce for them in profit, then you have a problem, because the truth is, the things we need to keep us alive, the resources required for us to do our jobs, we're made up of those resources. If you're worth more than you cost, they invest in you. If you cost more than you're worth, they invest you into other people."
"That's a bit disturbing." Cassandra said in a calm, soothing voice. "I can see why you'd want to get away from that."
He nodded. "I had to. I had to come back to Earth, back to a safe place. Unfortunately, my contract is binding. If I had just come back to Earth, they would have found me. They would have made me finish the job, or liquidated me. So I came back here. Back to a time before they even existed."
She crossed her legs and pursed her lips, thoughtfully. "And how are you enjoying it? I'm told you've kept yourself busy."
"Oh, absolutely." He grinned. "Old habits, you know. And there's so much mindless work to do."
"Well." The old man asked.
"He's delusional, clearly." Cassandra answered.
"Clearly." The old man glowered. "But what do we do about it?"
"What do we do about him being delusional? Nothing."
Cassandra smiled and slid the electronic pad across the table. "There is nothing to indicate that he's a danger to other people, or any of the company's equipment, and he's still meeting his work quota. The corporation does not have any policy requiring its employees to be sane, just productive. If his behavior becomes erratic or destructive, or if he dips below his quota, recycle him. 'Til then, let him have his little fantasy."
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010