This work originally appeared in a slightly altered form in Aphelion. Reader’s caution: some harsh language appears within.
Corey slept well, dreaming of Megan and their honeymoon in Aruba, right up until the alarm went off. He had felt the heat of the sun on his skin and the water under his feet. He could smell the salt in the air. Megan was just a few feet away, all bronzed and gorgeous. He had taken a step toward her when the first klaxon rang.
He raced to his wife, the blare of the siren echoing in his skull, desperate to touch her hand before he awoke. Megan’s green eyes glinted in the tropical light. She called out to him, frightened. Her hand reached out to Corey’s, but the mechanic was too slow. Corey tripped over his own feet and fell to the sand. Except it wasn’t sand. It was the floor. Consciousness hit Corey like a two-by-four to the face. His head swam as the stasis hall materialized in front of his eyes. Red lights flashed, and it took a few seconds before Corey realized that they weren’t a hallucination but were a part of the room. Red lights meant…
“Level One Emergency.” The feminine voice of the windmill’s CPU stated the announcement matter-of-factly. “Level One Emergency.”
Corey wretched onto the floor as Jackson popped out of his own hold. Neural cables detached from Jackson’s back and whipped back into the chamber.
“Level One Emergency,” the computer repeated in its placid tone. “Level One Emergency. Level One Emergency.”
“Fuck. Level One? Fuck,” Jackson said. He stood up on wobbly knees, but immediately fell back to the floor.
Corey stumbled to the wall and smashed the computer button with his palm. The siren went mute though the beacon kept on flashing. Corey leaned against the bulkhead to find his bearings and start-up the system. “Thomas Corey. Code one-one-five-one-bee. State the nature of the emergency.”
The wall lit up in an instant. Computer scan readouts sprang to life on the side. Diagnostics ran two hundred seventy billion checks on vital and non-vital systems in about ten seconds as windows opened and closed. Corey swore. He could see about a dozen systems in the critical zone already. Blue type cascaded down from the top of the screen as a diagram of the Atlantic Basin High-Altitude Wind Plant burst onto the display. Three areas were highlighted: two on the turbine-deck – hydraulics, big but not life-threatening – and then the granddaddy down on the tethers that attached the entire station to the earth, far below.
“Micro-fracture length two-point-five, Jackson,” Corey said. ‘On tethers alpha, beta… and gamma.”
“Oh, no way. No way.” Jackson stumbled over. He fumbled at the display at the fracture point, enhancing it by a factor of twenty. Calculations illuminated to the side. “Oh. Fuck. All three? Fuck fuck fuck.”
“Don’t worry,” Corey said. He blinked his eyes and read the details off of the screen. “It’s probably just a simulation from Bedford. The odds…”
“Yeah, but it COULD be real. Then… then… oh, Jesus.” Jackson ran his hands through his hair. His breathing was no longer deep, but raspy.
“The odds are…” Corey paused, thinking of the odds, but his mind was still reeling. He tried to clear the last of the haze out of his brain and failed. “The odds are very, very low. Let’s just get our suits on and…”
A metallic groan echoed through the hall. The floor pitched a few feet, then righted itself. Somewhere, something long and sinewy snapped.
“Shit, man,” Jackson said. “Shit.”
“Pull it together!” Corey yelled. He took a few trembling steps across the floor to the hatch and wrenched open the handle. Corey’s heart pounded in his ears, but the mechanic held onto his façade. He forced his muscular frame into the EV suit, threw on his helmet, and sealed himself in.
Jackson stumbled after him. His lips mumbled something incoherent, but his eyes were wide with terror. Corey tapped the com-link on his wrist and threw Jackson’s suit to the technician. “I’m opening the airlock in twenty seconds, whether you have that suit on or not. Come on.”
Jackson nodded and began to put on his suit. Too slow.
Still, Corey waited.
“I need you at the top of your game, man. I can’t do this alone,” Corey said. The structure groaned again, this time more distant. Jackson paused, listening. Finally, he threw himself into his suit and sealed himself in. Corey tapped off the com, no longer needing it now that they were both in the suits. “You’ve done this a thousand times before, both simmed and real. Don’t think about it.”
Corey nodded. He frowned at his co-worker, then keyed the “open” code into the airlock.
The silence shattered with the howls of the gale outside. The hydraulics should have opened the door nice and easy, but they were gone. The airlock gate whipped aside, slamming into the living quarters’ hull.
Hundred yard-long windmill arms swung overhead, creating a strobe-like effect with the sunlight, all of it dancing on Corey’s visor. Clouds whisped through the ailerons, dancing through the aerodynamic pipes and formations that made up the turbine decks. It was hypnotic with the wind and the white cascading around the structure, dancing with the shadows of the mill blades. Far, far down below, beyond the transparent decks, the water of the ocean glinted in the sunlight.
Corey broke himself from his reverie and stepped out onto the ultra-light wing deck. His boots clicked, the magnetic charger locking them into place. He clicked the actuator on his left palm, releasing his left boot. A step. He clicked the actuator on his right palm. A step. It always took him about ten steps to get the rhythm down, but by the time he had crossed the wing, he was walking almost normally.
Jackson was having a harder time of it. His knees shook visibly, either from the wind or his nerves. He couldn’t and didn’t mind the sight of the ocean six miles below–the conditioning during training and deep-sleep took care of that–but it was a harder thing to get rid of mortal terror. The tethers were failing. If they snapped…
Well, that would be it.
“This way,” Corey shouted over the gale. He waved.
Jackson nodded. His steps were slow and methodical. It took about five minutes for Jackson to walk the fifty yards out onto the mill apparatus.
“That’s it, that’s it,” Corey said. If he could have hopped impatiently, he would have. He patted Jackson on the back as the technician finally made it into the “safety” of the pipes. “Okay. First thing’s first. You head to level five and check the readouts. I’ll head down to the generator.”
Jackson nodded. He locked his safety cable onto the bars and ratcheted his way up the ladder. Corey made his own way down to the hydraulics. Once he made it to the substation, he waved his palm over an instrument bar. It sprung to life, opening and thrusting tools out at the mill’s mechanic. He took everything that would attach to his suit and then opened the primary hydrolysis casing.
Carbon dioxide gas poured out like the shaft was on fire. That was not good at all. Corey dove in and switched on the fan. In seconds, it had cleared out again. The mechanic wiped the fog from his visor and hit the scanner. Down below, he saw his problem.
“Jackson? What’s the readout up there?” Corey called over the communications channel.
Jackson’s voice was on the edge of panic. “Uh… we have breaches in the coolant matrix. Conduits seven, eight, niner are all down.”
Corey shook his head. The terminal overhead had confirmed what the mechanic thought he saw below. Several pipes were completely out of alignment.
“A storm must have knocked them loose. Maybe some upper-atmosphere interference,” Corey said. “I’m going to have to go down. See if there is a computer malfunction, just in case.”
“Check,” Jackson said.
Corey shifted his weight and threw his boot down the long, thick pipe that connected the several hulls. He clapped one boot and then the other onto the piping. Before his mind could tell him to stop, Corey had forced himself over the edge, walking vertically down the cerametallic surface.
The pipe wasn’t purely cylindrical: it couldn’t be if it was going to be aerodynamic. Corey was a minor disturbance, adding drag to the side that he walked down, but Jackson was supposed to watch the flows and compensate manually from his station overhead. Of course, Jackson wasn’t in the best of minds.
“Everything okay up there?” Corey asked when Jackson didn’t give confirmation or warning to Corey’s descent.
“Fine,” Jackson said. Corey pretended he didn’t hear the lie.
The structure strained again, shifting awkwardly sideways, against the wind. Corey’s one foot was loose and he flopped like a rag doll in the wind, but only for a second. With all of his might, he pulled the leg back down and clicked it onto the pipe.
The walk took longer than the mechanic would have liked. The station pitched several more times, but Corey had slowed his pace, shuffling his feet and keeping as little space between the bottom of his boot and the hull as possible. The turbines were still running beside him – that was a good sign, at least, that not all of conduits had failed. The arms spun endlessly around and around as Corey finally made it to the first intersection. He tapped a few fingers on the cover and it popped open. Beneath, the cables and conduits had warped out of alignment, twisting and wrapping back in on themselves. Corey swore.
“What? What’s the problem?” Jackson asked.
Corey’s mouth screwed, but he bit his lip and went to work with his wrench. “Nothing. It’s fine. Just some warping.” The first pipe was always the hardest. With the wind blowing at his back, Corey spun the shut-off valves and pried the housing clear from the regulator. “Just some warping.”
“Just some warping?” Jackson asked. His fear hadn’t gotten rid of his usual sarcasm. “Oh, that’s all.”
“It’s nothing I can’t fix in a minute.”
“Just be careful, for your sake and mine. This doesn’t look good at all.”
“Calm down,” Corey said. The second and third pipe came out much quicker. “It’s just a simulation. We haven’t run a Level One in almost a month. Bedford’s just making sure we’re still green.” Corey snapped the piping back into place and screwed the casings in.
“Okay,” Jackson said. The word was almost spat out. Vomit would clog his intake valve. He would choke before Corey could reach him. Corey gulped himself, fighting down panic. “Just keep talking, okay?” Jackson begged.
“Okay,” Corey said. His mind was still blank. The dozen super-massive wind turbines always had that effect on him. With the sound drowned out by the wind, and the sun beating down overhead, it was paradoxically calming. Instant death could be found in every single centimeter of the mill–stick out a neck too far, and it would be lopped off, or failure in a stress beam could take out a whole deck in milliseconds–but as always, Corey found all his worries disappearing.
Almost all, at least. The mechanic licked his lips and went back to work. “I was having a dream about Megan.” He didn’t know why he said it, but as his hands found the joints and bolts that held the hydraulics in place, he found he couldn’t stop. “I was dreaming of the beach again. Back on the beach, where I first met her. In Aruba.”
“Isn’t that underwater now?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah,” Corey said. “Mostly, yeah. I don’t like to think about.” His hands slowed down.
The mechanic didn’t feel his mind slip away from him. Like his boots beneath him, he felt in complete control. But the rhythmic whooshing of the blades overhead… the way the arms circled endlessly, over and over, dancing in the sunlight.
Bad memories bubbled to the surface. About Corey’s old job, at the plant. Yuri, his supervisor. The asshole. Who made Corey’s life a living hell. Bad enough that he had to put up with an hour-long commute to and from work, but that he had to be berated for his shit-pay job?
That led to drinking. Which led to fights with Megan. Corey was sure that she was sleeping around, that she could no longer stand to look at him. Yuri commented on it one afternoon, made a reference to a birthmark on Megan’s ass. Corey lost his job for a single punch, but it felt so good, the cracking of the man’s face. And the knowing.
Which led to Corey buying a gun. It was only for self-defense, but the court didn’t see it that way. Illegal purchases at a pawn shop don’t look good on the record.
The mechanic fought off the dream before it could settle in any further. He had a job to do. He looked up into the sun, finding the outline of Jackson amongst the ailerons of the mill’s superstructure.
“Do you always dream about the same place, Jackson?” the mechanic asked.
“Kind of,” Jackson replied. Even from five stories below, Corey could see Jackson shaking. And it definitely wasn’t from the wind.
“It’s always about my Dad. He left when I was a kid. I don’t remember his face so much. I always see it when I dream, but then I forget it when I hit the deck.”
“Anything else? From when you…” embezzled from your company. One hundred eighty-five thousand dollars. “…nevermind.”
Jackson didn’t reply.
“Sorry,” Corey said. He swore as he dropped a multitool. It hit the deck with a clang, but held fast. Corey pulled against the magnetic field and went back to work. “Keep talking. Keep your mind on your work. Just let the words flow.” He popped a pipe back into place. With a twist on a valve, green anti-freeze poured through the pipes and flowed back up into the gears overhead.
“I… I don’t know what to say. I miss him, I guess. Maybe if he’d stuck around, things would have turned out differently for me. I guess it’s my own fault. Who can tell?” Jackson sputtered, then stopped. A few more times, the technician started to say something, but he never got further than single syllable.
“We’re going to die up here,” he said finally.
Corey ignored him. “I’m almost finished.”
Neither mentioned what was next. They both knew. The inevitable.
The frame of the windmill groaned and then pitched about ten degrees. Both of the mill’s indentured servants rocked off-balance, but their boots held strong. The gyros deep in the heart of the station re-adjusted, and in a few seconds, the deck went level again. “We need to finish up here,” Corey said. Jackson, up above, nodded to the sky.
Both hurried, Jackson running three or four analyses at a time while Corey tossed out and threw in new pipes as fast as his hands would move. Finally, the two finished their work and ran to the winch as fast, actuators clicking like stilettos.
The tether that secured the windmill to the anchor several miles below shuddered as the two windmill attendants approached. Something snapped far below, making the tether twitch, jolting the entire station.
Before Jackson could say anything, Corey grabbed him. “Right. Prep the drone.”
“I don’t feel good about this,” Jackson replied.
“Fine. Go sit and wait for me,” Corey said. There wasn’t time for arguments. Jackson stumbled onto the elevator that clung around the service line. Corey watched him go before he opened up the elevator’s diagnostics. Everything seemed normal: odd, considering the stress that the tether was under.
Yet the elevator wouldn’t start automatically. Corey punched the button several times. He turned to look down at Jackson from his perch.
“Jackson, I’m going to have to sit up here during transit. Something’s off.”
“What?” Jackson squeaked.
“Just sit tight.” Corey punched a few keys, shutting off his protesting coworker from the open channel. He grabbed the manual-start switch, pulled, turned, and placed it back down. A small alarm went off, ringing in Corey’s skull just as the elevator lurched into motion.
Three red flags popped up immediately on the monitor that lit from the hull. Corey adjusted them as fast as he could, aware that a single miscalculation on the holo could shatter the drone’s hold. Sweat dripped off of his face faster than his helmet could whisk it away. Whenever the fear got to be too much for Corey, he imagined Megan–not how it turned out, but before, when everything was fine–and then he calmed down.
The drone clicked rapidly on the micro-fiber and rocketed down the tether. The station dwindled almost to the edge of sight. Corey and Jackson sat, silent, ignoring the false weightlessness that gripped them. When the elevator slowed to a halt less than thirty seconds later, Corey stood up. They had reached the fissures.
“Computer. Locate compound-stress and illuminate,” Corey ordered. Both of the custodian’s visors flickered to life. Two twirling squares centered over twin regions in the tether.
“Magnify,” the mechanic said. The squares expanded. The fractures sprouted up like weeds in the mechanics visions. Definitely a Level One. One of the cords within the triple-inlayed cable snapped.
Jackson grabbed onto Corey’s shoulder, manually re-establishing communication. “No. I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t do it. Don’t make me. Please.”
“Shut it.” Corey turned on the technician with a shove. Jackson slammed into the seat, his boots attached to the hold, a terrified expression on his eyes. “I’ve had enough of this shit. You either do your job or I’ll put in a report. You’re gonna get re-assigned to Antarctica. Or maybe you’ll go back to prison. You like that? You want that?”
Jackson remained silent.
“Then get your ass in gear!” Corey yelled. He went to work on the lower fracture. It was definitely less safe. Jackson didn’t argue with the decision as he crept up to the higher rupture.
Corey ripped open the casing to the alpha cable. The fracture showed up without magnification, splintering in a thousand different places. Corey paused when he realized that both other cables had the same fractures. In two places. And his co-worker was on the edge.
“Shit, this is bad…” Corey mumbled. He got to work without another word.
Alpha went slowly; it was the worst. Every time Corey thought he had finished, another crack appeared. In desperation, Corey plastered as much temporary sealant as he could spare around the cracks and moved on. He’d have to come back to it later. Slowly, the mechanic came to the realization that he could hear sobs over the roar of the wind. He glanced up and watched as Jackson stood to get a better angle on the fractures. Corey forced himself to turn away and focus on his work. “Okay,” Corey said. “Okay, okay.”
Megan’s face jumped into his mind when the drone lurched. The way she looked when she left him that one afternoon. Tears down her face, her sister’s car out front. She looked gorgeous, even then, but Corey had been too drunk to feel anything. Megan had had enough. But Corey hadn’t. The next day, when he’d sobered up enough to feel anger, he called Yuri’s assistant and told her that Megan was waiting for the supervisor at home. The assistant promised to pass on the message. A fifth of Jack at his side and two glasses of it already in his gut, Corey sat down by the front door and waited. And waited.
Finally, after several hours (and two cat naps), the former Hudson Valley Aeronautics Plant associate chief engineer heard a car roll into the driveway. Corey had cocked the gun, waited. Waited for the handle to turn. It did. The door opened. And Corey had emptied three rounds before it had even swung open the entire way.
“Okay,” Corey repeated to himself once more. Back on the tether. “I can handle this. Keep it together, Cor.” Corey gulped down. “Keep it together.”
It happened in a second.
Jackson pushed his actuator, but didn’t push it again to turn it on. His finger might have slipped. Or his mind might not have been in the best condition to remind him. It didn’t matter.
The technician went to take another step, and when he did, his feet fell out from under him. He smacked his head and slashed through the air. His boot caught on the edge of the seat, ripping the fabric in his seat. Vapor whisked out of the crack as Jackson screamed in pain.
“Jackson!” Corey yelled. He leapt up, but the computer shrieked at him. A fracture point on beta began to reform. Corey grit his teeth, unsure. He took a step toward Jackson. No. He fell back to his work, tools whirling over the fractures.
“Don’t let me die!” Jackson wailed. He was openly crying. The technician tried to reach up and grab a better handhold, but slipped further off the drone. He twisted like a kite. “Corey!”
“Hold on! It’s just a simulation!” Corey didn’t believe his own words. Bedford would have shut the sim down in such a dire circumstance. Or he should have.
The gale reached a deafening pitch around Corey, but that only aided his concentration, drowning out Jackson’s howls. The only thing that mattered was the tether. Corey re-doubled his efforts. Slowly, the cables began to snap back into place.
“It’s just a simulation,” Corey said again, as much to himself as to Jackson.
The technician held onto the side of the cart, desperately trying to get his boots back within their magnetic range of the metal. “Corey! Help me! Corey!”
Corey pretended he couldn’t hear him. He zipped up the tether’s coating with the self-healing polymer that squirted out of his glove and shifted over to the gamma cable as fast as he could. Jackson sobbed. “Come on, come on,” Corey said. His muscle memory kicked in. The line opened before Corey knew what he had done and sat nearly completed in a third of the time as the one before. Just one more… “Corey!” Jackson slipped. His arm flailed. The wind caught his body and hurled it over the drone. By luck alone, Jackson remained onboard, but then the wind picked the technician up again and whipped him toward the edge. That should have been it.
But something grabbed the technician’s arm.
Jackson looked up to see Corey staring down at him, holding on. Slowly, Corey pulled the technician back onto the safety of the elevator. Jacksons’s actuators clicked just as the drone shuddered.
The two turned just in time to watch the tethers snap one by one. The two ends fluttered by single thread for a second. They wrenched apart.
Corey and Jackson fell with the drone. The upper section of the mill flew off into the sky. In seconds, it looked smaller than a dust mote against the clouds.
The power from the station evaporated. Alarms blurted and then went silent. The two stewards, screaming, floated free of the deck as they crashed towards the ocean below. The back-up power in Corey’s visor screamed at him. Corey couldn’t read the altitude numbers that flashed in front of his eyes; they were dropping too fast. Jackson yelled, holding onto Corey with a grip that felt like a vise. Corey’s mind had gone blank. It was only after a few seconds of falling through the air that he realized that he was screaming as well. His mind drifted back to Aruba, now under a dozen feet of water.
No, not Aruba. Megan. Dead. Lying in a pool of her own blood, having come back to see if she could work things out. She’d never even slept with Yuri. But that didn’t matter. Not anymore.
The gale went silent. The sensation of falling ceased as Corey and Jackson landed…
…back onto the stasis hall’s floor. The neural-induced simulation ended. Corey looked up and saw the wall display light up. “End Simulation Number five-zero-three,” said the CPU.
Doctor Nathaniel Bedford, the project manager/warden of the Plant, glared back at the two custodians. Behind him, a few specialists were busy at work running the data and projection of the Level One Emergency Simulation.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Dr. Bedford said.
Jackson helped Corey to his feet and murmured something that resembled a greeting.
Bedford sighed and adjusted the glasses on his face. “I am very disappointed in today’s performance. Had this been an actual emergency, not only would the both of you died, but the entire station would have been lost. A five hundred million dollar investment and power to the entire Norfolk-Richmond metro area… gone.
“I don’t need to remind you both that you volunteered for this assignment. Your qualifications made you perfect. The government only agreed to a reduced sentence because of my insistence on this point. And this is the best you can do?”
Jackson went to say something, but Corey jabbed him in the stomach. The mechanic nodded at the doctor. “Sorry.”
“Apologies are worthless. We’re going to have to run and re-run that situation for the next month.” Bedford typed something on an unseen tablet. “I’ll be extending your sentences by thirty days to compensate for lost time.”
Corey bit his tongue and turned away from the screen. His body shook while his mind turned back to Megan. Another month of dreams, another month of waking up and realizing Megan wasn’t there. Bedford looked at the both of them, his eyes drooping in disappointment, his mustache curled into a grimace.
“Is there anything else gentlemen?” No. Nothing else. The two attendants just stood there, digesting what had just happened. “Good,” Bedford said. “Take a minute if you want, and then load your neuros back up into the network. Terminating broadcast.”
With a beep, the bulkhead returned to cerametallic normalcy. Corey kicked the bulkhead and yelled. He yelled until his lungs gave out, and then he kicked the bulkhead again. He could only stand there, shaking his head at nothing.
Jackson eyed him from across the room. The technician walked up to his friend and patted his shoulder. “Hey, man. I’m sorry. Thanks for…”
But Corey cut the man off by grabbing his windpipe. Jackson’s eyes bulged as he clawed at Corey’s grip. “Don’t touch me, asshole,” Corey said. “The next time you’re in the shit, real or sim, you better watch out for yourself. I’m not carrying your ass anymore.”
Corey dropped Jackson on the floor. The techie crawled away, hands massaging his throat. He coughed a bit, a little blood falling to the floor, while Corey watched. When he’d had enough, Corey walked back to his station and leaned back against the hold. As the cables snaked out and re-attached to the nodes in Corey’s scalp, the mechanic prayed that he wouldn’t dream of Megan before he had to go back out into the shit. Just once, he’d like not to be reminded of his crime, of his sentence, of the deal he’d made to reduce it.
But Corey knew that his prayers were worthless. Soon enough, after the mechanic had been rendered into dreaming unconsciousness by a neural wave, the simulation ran again.