Providence Episode Two

Posted: March 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

Previously on Providence…

We are introduced to the engineering and maintenance crew aboard the Human Expansion League Colonial Space Station Providence. Thomas and Hank share a certain amount of professional rivalry, while their supervisor, Stacy Munoz, is the object of Thomas’s unrequited affection. We open with what seems a pretty normal shift for the crew until Thomas discovers an anomaly with the station’s atmospheric scrubbers. After every automated diagnostic has failed to identify the problem, Stacy orders Thomas to go check it out in person. And bring back some food from the new Valhallan restaurant while he is at it.

Now, dim the lights, and prepare yourself as we delve once again into the passageways of horror with episode two of Providence!

3

Fuck Marco!

Even after stopping by Sci-Lab to get some empty sample containers, Thomas was still preoccupied with the Stacy situation. Thankfully, the Sci-Lab people weren’t the type to notice. Engineers that worked in the control room often seemed a little disconnected, but they were a pack of roaming debutantes and playboys compared to the denizens of Providence’s Scientific Studies Laboratories.

Still, Thomas thought the lab geeks were more distant than usual. The change was significant enough for him to forget about his problems with his boss and her boyfriend. He wondered what it was that had all the labcoats glued to their microscopes, then he remembered that the Europa expedition had just come back. They probably had all kinds of interesting rocks to ogle.

Sci-Lab was like that. They’d sit there and study something like rocks or preserved ice chunks for days on end. Eventually they’d claim some major scientific breakthrough, and just when you thought it might be something interesting like actual proof life existed on the moon, what they invariable gave you was a very long winded explanation that ultimately ended in them admitting they still haven’t found life but have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that life may have existed. Thomas liked science, but the kind of science the labcoats got into was just not very interesting.

It definitely wasn’t interesting enough to take his mind completely off of Stacy and Marco.

Fuck Marco. And fuck Stacy too, for that matter. If she was just too blinded by Marco’s stubbly chin and long hair to see what Thomas had to offer, that was her fault, not his. He could do better!

He stopped at a T in a maintenance tunnel. He could be at Scrubber-8 in a couple of minutes if he just took a right. Another couple of minutes to grab some samples and do a quick visual inspection, a quick jaunt to Dabo’s, and Thomas could be back at the control room in half an hour. Back in the control room with Stacy.

Thomas took a left.

The problem was, Thomas didn’t think he and Stacy could be good together. He knew it. They were good together. Not that they were ever actually together, but that first six months…

She’d transferred to Maintenance and Engineering from Propulsion and Orbit. Stacy Munoz was a name that got around. Three post grad degrees in engineering, applied physics, and chemistry, there wasn’t a single technical department onboard Providence that wasn’t out trying to head hunt her. A couple of off station private firms even docked and interviewed her. But she stayed on Providence, and after only a year had been promoted to Thomas’s boss.

Tom didn’t mind having a female boss. He knew some guys did, and that never made much sense to him. As far as he saw it, the human race had long evolved beyond the point where one gender was better than another gender at anything beyond being that gender. That the new boss was a petite woman with light cinnamon skin and a smile that could stop his heart from across the room was, as far as he was concerned, an unexpected and welcome surprise.

But they clicked. Guys in Maintenance and Engineering tended to be a little bit, to be polite, uncultured. Tom often felt a little out of place around the likes of Hank, or the Booker brothers, or even old Alice. Stacy, was different. She had a subtle sense of humor, which was a whole new world compared to the typical control room humor that usually involved as many bodily functions as one could cram into a sentence. They quickly discovered they liked a lot of the same authors, and their frequent book talks led them to discover that they liked the same kinds of Interactives as well.

Within a month, they were doing Interactives together almost every night (over Providence’s datanet, of course. They never shared an interactive in either one’s home). They took turns bringing special lunches to work to share while the rest of the crew just rolled their eyes and sniggered.

Thomas turned another corner, barely even noticing where his feet were taking him as he replayed his first few months with Stacy. He remembered when her mom died—the way she sobbed quietly in his arms for hours as he sat on the edge of the work bench and gently rocked her. It was one of the most confusing moments he had ever had—filled so completely with sadness, and yet, he was happy, because he was comforting someone he had fallen so terribly in love with. Seeing her cry was torture, but suffering it felt like something he was built to do.

It was supposed to be her. Tom and Stacy. And that was exactly where their trajectories were taking them until one day there was a localized outage on the fourth deck. A whole block of businesses had lost power, and they’d sent the owner of a small garage for Personal Mover repairs to report the problem.

And that was when Marco met Stacy.

A person who was born on, and spent their entire lives on a colonial space station doesn’t think about the ground quite in the same way as someone born on a planet does. A planet-born person would probably liken what happened next to the ground opening up at their feet, slowly, sucking them in as the world closed up around them, stealing the sunlight away. But to Tom, the gravity was always artificial, the ground was just some metallic decking underneath, and the sun was a giant bright ball in the dark of space. He wasn’t sure what it felt like; everything on Providence was artificial in one way or another.

Maybe, it was like he had finally found something real in this artificial world, and it had been taken away from him.

Tom and Stacy still talked. At least at first. But Marco’s name started popping up, and Thomas hated the way her eyes got a just a little bit wider every time she said it. The name became more and more frequent, and before he knew it, Thomas was talking to the woman he loved about her falling for another man.

When Marco asked her out on a date, Tom was too numb, too shocked, to even feel it. He just remembered thinking, Why didn’t I ever get around to doing that?

That was quickly followed up by what Tom called, “The Revelation.”

They were sitting in the lunch room, eating roasted chicken sandwiches that Tom had marinated for them. Stacy had long since stopped making lunches, but Tom persevered. He didn’t even remember what they were talking about when she just stopped. Stacy’s big brown eyes were dancing with an inner light when she suddenly said, “I’m in love with him, Tom. I mean… love, Tom.”

Thomas had smiled at her. He said supportive things. He pretended to be happy for her. The whole time he realized one thing; that special light had never shone in her eyes for Tom. They never would.

Thomas stopped and leaned a shoulder against the wall. He wasn’t going to cry. He knew that much. But he felt like he had to do something. He rubbed at his eyes and looked up. Just down the corridor, all tiled in seafoam green and dark blue, was the hatch that led into Atmospheric Scrubber 3. He had just enough time to read the letters tiled over the door before the lights flickered and went out.

4

“Dammit, Hank!” Thomas hissed in the darkness. “Took care of the light outages my ass.”

Tom shook his head while he unhooked the Virtual Multi-tool from his belt. It wasn’t that Hank was a bad mechanic—he wasn’t. Hank, as far as Tom could tell, wasn’t even lazy. He’d seen the cowboy take in double shifts, and work around the clock to get things fixed without the faintest hint of a complaint. Hell, there were times when Hanks crude jokes kept the rest of the crew going when they were tired and frustrated and ready to walk off a job that needed to get done. Hank was actually a pretty decent part of the team if you looked past his poor hygiene and disregard for personal boundaries.

Hank wasn’t invested; that was the problem. He had no sense of ownership and would rather spend the slow hours on the clock trying to patch into the security camera network so he could spy on the girl’s changing rooms or having phone sex with his girlfriend Lucianne. Hank didn’t care about the little stuff and as a result Tom felt like much of his job had turned into picking up the little messes Hank always left behind.

Thomas flipped a switch on the Mult-tool, and a beam of white light cut a neat hole into the surrounding blackness. He sighted it on the door to the Atmospheric Scrubber bay, and made for the door. Just off to the right of the door was a card reader, and Tom was just about to unclip his badge from his coveralls when a tinny voice squawked in his ear.

“Tom? Where are you? What’s taking so long? I’m getting hungry over here,” Stacy said.

He sighed as he tapped at his AI-1 earpiece. “Easy, Stace. I just got to Atmospheric Scrubber 3.”

“Three?” she said, a little annoyed. “Why didn’t you just go check out eight? You could’ve been done and back here already. We should be eating Valhallan and talking about the new Interactive that came out.”

And that’s what made it hard. She was still his friend. “Except what if there was nothing in eight? I’d have had to come here anyway so why not just get it over with?”

“Good point,” she admitted.

“I’m occasionally capable of making good points now and then,” Tom said. In his ear he heard Stacy giggle and he bit back the emotions her laughter stirred within. “Hold on. I gotta buzz myself in and go through decon.”

“Okay,” she said. “Ping me when you get through.”

Tom swiped his card, and the heavy access door to Atmoshperic Scrubber 3 unseated itself from its frame and smoothly slid out of the way to the sound of a soft hydraulic whisper. He stepped through into a small room. Embedded in the walls, he knew, were several dozen sensor arrays that scanned anyone trying to gain access to the Scrubber bay. They would silently scan him for any materials that might damage the scrubber assembly, and if they found anything, they would spray him with an atomized mist designed to neutralize most of the contaminants. And if that didn’t do it, the doors on the other side of the room simply stayed closed.

It was dark in here, too. Lighting in the whole damned bay is probably down, he thought, and frowned. The job was already annoying enough without having to stumble around with only the Multi-tool to light the way.

The sensors must not have detected any of the forty-seven different contaminants it was designed to watch out for, because after only a few seconds, the doors granting access to the bay slid open with a hiss.

Tom was right; the lights were gone in here as well. “This is going to be a bitch to fix,” he whispered in the black. The white circle of light from the Multi-tool slid first from the smooth blue tiles of the floor, to the sea-foam green walls, and finally over the monolithic baffles that comprised the outer shell of the Atmospheric Scrubber construct. Shadows leapt and slid out of the way as the light moved, patches of intense black outlining the curve and crest of each of the ridges that lined the Scrubber’s surface.

When they were first installed centuries ago, Thomas knew, the outer shell was a pristine white color. But time had stained it with streaks of brown and yellow. Tom shook his head and chuckled to himself, generations upon generations of burps and farts, all stored right here, ladies and gentlemen.

Thomas tapped at his AI-1 and said, “All right, Stace. I’m in.”

“Good. You want to patch me in?” she asked.

“Sure, give me a sec,” he said. Tom’s finger slid over the top of the plastic piece in his ear until it reached the back edge. Here he pressed against the AI-1 firmly and held it as a small gold wire slid out from the earpiece directly in front of him. Extending out only a couple of inches from his eye, once the wire reached full extension, a tiny circular loop of wire unfolded itself so that Thomas could look right through it. The space inside flashed with yellow orange light before displaying a miniature interface.

This was one of the AI-1’ best little tricks. If looked at directly, and a special part of the AI-1 was held down, a user could navigate the operating system by tiny movements of the pupils, and blinking to activate items similar to the way ancient computers used a mouse and mouse clicks to activate icons. But if the user focused on anything else at all, the entire assembly faded into the fuzzy recesses of peripheral vision, the only hint that there was something there at all being a goldish blur.

Tom directed his attention to a camera icon in the display and blinked. A small icon in the corner indicated that the AI-1 was now recording video. He then blinked at another icon, and his display was immediately filled with Stacy’s face, rendered in shimmering gold and shadow.

When he first patched in, she was biting her lip and looking at something off screen. “You’re on, Stace,” he said and she looked directly at him, smiled, and waved.

“Why’s it so dark?” she asked.

“Uh, lighting’s out.”

“That’s weird, did we have reports on it?” she said.

Tom scrambled. “Yeah, we just got the reports in. Haven’t had time to work on it yet. The corridor’s out too. We’ll get right on it after this.” A part of Thomas wanted to tell Stacy the truth, to tell her that Hank completely spaced on the lighting outage report, and that he usually spaced on a report at least once a quarter. But Thomas just never could bring himself to pull the trigger.

That right there was his big problem. Tom realized in that moment that this was why he sat on the sidelines while Marco got to spend his nights in Stacy’s bed. It’s why Hank walked all over him in the control room. Thomas was too nice. Not the right kind of nice where he did things for people because he liked to, but the kind of nice where he was too afraid of doing bad things to anyone because he worried about what they might do back.

“Ya ain’t got no balls there, partna,” a little voice that sounded exactly like Hank said in the recesses of Tom’s head. “Yer never gonna get the girl, cuz even if you did, you’d have nothin’ to stick in her! What’s the point?”

The voice cackled and spit while Tom clenched his jaw.

“All right, Tom, let’s take a look at her,” Stacy said, jolting Thomas from the jeers he was being subjected to from inside his own head.

Tom skirted around the ground level of the scrubber. The Multi-tool’s light slipped and slid over countless columns of dingy ridges that reached upward into the black. It was as though he had been transported into some of the pictures he used to study in school about the deep caves back on Earth with curtains of stalactites hanging down like fangs against a hungry black backdrop. Here and there, the baffles would be stained darker brown, in other parts, just urine yellow.

“This, boys and girls, is why we don’t smoke,” Stacy scoffed.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in a 3D recreation of Hank’s mouth,” Tom said.

The laughter that came through the AI-1 made Tom wince. His eye moved back to the display where Stacy’s face was buried in the crook over her elbow while her shoulders shuddered up and down. When she finally looked up, her eyes were dark, downward facing crescent moons and she gasped for breath.

“Hank would kick your ass if he heard you say that,” she finally managed.

“I’ll just wave a toothbrush at him and he’ll shrivel up and die,” Tom smiled.

Stacy exploded into another fit of laughter and Tom’s heart swelled. He could do this all day—make her laugh. It was a drug to him. Some were addicted to coffee, others cigarettes or, in Hank’s case, just being generally gross. Thomas was addicted to making Stacy laugh. When he made her laugh like that, he could almost convince himself there was something resembling hope.

“All right, Tom. Come on, let’s get this over with. Is that all of the bottom level?” she said after the laughter had died down.

Tom swung the light around back and forth to be sure, sending the shadows racing to and fro, darting into cracks and corners and diving under the giant scrubber. “Yeah. Nothing unusual down here. I’m heading up to the next deck,” he confirmed.

Thomas made his way to the metal staircase, aggressively ignoring the way the shadows crept and lurked in the light cast by his Multi-tool. If he thought too much about it, he might dwell on how these kinds of shadows always felt like they were lurking, like they were watching you, and if you let them out of your sight for too long, they might just…

Fear of the dark was not common among people who were born, raised, and spent their entire life onboard a colonial space station. There were more rational things to be afraid of—decompression, life support failure, etc. Living in space makes one acutely aware of just how fragile one’s existence really is. By contrast, life onboard Providence, with its huge bay windows that overlook the garden quadrant, and the Promenade where all the high end shops were located, regularly reminded people that the universe they lived in was mostly darkness with patches of light occasionally thrown in. Thomas was no different from the rest of the denizens of Providence in this regard, except to him the darkness that hovered on the boundaries of his little beam of light felt somehow alive.

His boots clanged against the metal steps, echoing out into the bay and coming back to him in quiet, distorted, metallic whispers. The acoustics in the bay were strange, and the effect of hearing his own footsteps made it feel as though someone was following up the stairs. Without even thinking, Tom quickly turned around just to check, but the light revealed only the black metal steps and the rust-colored baffles.

“So I got this new Interactive last night,” Stacy said.

The feeling of being followed lingered in Tom’s spine and he held in a shiver as he replied. “Yeah? Which one?”

“Journey’s End,” she said. Thomas let himself focus on the image of her at least until he reached the second deck catwalk. She was staring at the screen that he knew would be displaying the images from the AI-1, and picking idly at her fingernails.

“Haven’t heard of it,” Thomas said. He slowly made his way around the catwalk, letting his Multi-tool light sweep up and down along the baffles, scrutinizing the centuries of human exhaust that had soaked into the outer baffles.

Stacy moved onto a different fingernail. “Supposed to be really good. It’s about a girl who goes into a magical dreamland to save her sister from some evil guy,” she said.

“Ah, so I take it you are taking the lead on this one?”

“Well, if you want to join me, I suppose.”

Rounding a corner, Tom felt a slight pain in his heart as he said, “Only if Marco isn’t doing it with you.”

Stacy looked into the camera and blew air out through her lips. “He only does the shoot-em-up type Interactives. You know how he is.”

Why are you even with that guy? Is what Tom wanted to say. He wanted to just scream that she and Marco had nothing in common, they’re horrible for each other. He wanted to make her understand that she should be with Tom, not some idiot garage mechanic that spends most his evenings in those stupid military Interactives. What Thomas did say was, “Yeah, I know. Sure, I’ll pick it up by this weekend.”

“Great!,” she said, smiling at him in her shimmering swaths of gold. “Should be fun. Okay, I didn’t see anything on this level, did you?”

There was a horrifying moment when Tom realized that he wasn’t really paying attention to the scrubber, instead focusing on the image of Stacy etched in gold and black before him. On the other hand, he was sure that even if he was distracted, he would have noticed anything that would cause the kinds of decrease in operability that they were seeing. “No, nothing here. I’m going up to the third level. I really hope we don’t have to crack the scrubber open. That’ll be such a pain in the ass.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, her words not quite drowning out the clanging of Tom’s boots against the steps. “Think how I feel, I’m starting to get really hungry over here, and you promised me Dabo’s!”

“Oh, poor you,” Thomas chided.

“No, poor you,” Stacy corrected him. “You know how cranky I get if I’m not fed on time. I don’t envy you the rest of your work day if I don’t get my lunch soon.”

“Yes boss!” Thomas saluted, only realizing after that she couldn’t actually see him.

He scanned the top deck of the bay with his Virtual Multi-tool. Giant man-sized holes punctuated the ceiling overhead. These inlet plenums piped in used air from all over Providence. This air was sucked in through the outer shell of the scrubber by a slight vacuum generated on the inside. This forced air to go through the various layers of filters and ion exchangers eventually producing clean air that was filtered back into the ventilation system via a giant pipe off to Thomas’s right.

The circle of light from the Multi-tool stopped at one of the inlet plenums. Even shining the light directly into it, Tom couldn’t help noticing that the hole remained black, like it was devouring his puny light until there was nothing left. Despite himself, Thomas cringed and redirected the light back onto the baffles. Slowly he walked around the catwalk, sweeping the Multi-tool back and forth. But what he was really paying attention to was Stacy.

He loved her. He loved just looking at her which, he admitted, might be a little on the creepy side, but then, just look at her. How could anyone not want to gaze at that face? Besides, this was gazing, and gazing, unlike leering, was socially acceptable, wasn’t it?

“Wait! What was that?” he heard her say.

“What was what?” he asked.

“That,” she said, and he watched as she pointed at one of the display panels before her.

“Stace,” Tom said impatiently, “I can’t see what you’re pointing at.”

“Oh,” she said, and he could see the embarrassed look creep onto her face. “Uh, to your right.”

The light from the Multi-tool swept to the right, and he saw it for just a glimmer of a second before it was swallowed back up by the dark. Slower, he slid the light back to the left until he saw exactly what Stacy was talking about.

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