The John Nimerc Website

The Space Station

Chapter 1 - Coming to the Station

Book Cover

The engines throbbed their perpetual rhythm as the ship made its seemingly slow and ponderous progress through space. They drummed a constant low volume din which provided an interminable and unpleasant background to the inter-stellar life of the ship’s crew and passengers. Functionary 1027331ab12 lay with his back against the metal cabin wall, ruminating on the tediousness of space travel. The entire atmosphere appeared filled with a repressive boredom sweated from the ship's thirty souls and perhaps from the innumerable others who had filled its spaces on previous journeys. Functionary had, unsurprisingly, experienced space travel several times before. Even on those former, shorter journeys, lasting no more than a few months, he had concluded that routine space travel was a horrendous waste of life, devoid of the thrill and excitement which the planet-bound would, almost universally, have envisaged it as entailing. Functionary, however, had enough experience to appreciate that space travel entailed months of dull routine, imprisoned in confined spaces and drab surroundings. Given the constraints placed upon the movements of most travelers, this applied even to the largest of ships and this ship was not such a ship. Old-fashioned science fiction tales had people hibernating or, alternatively, flicking through space in an instance. The modern reality was less impressive, if the long-dead might have wondered at the achievement of travel between solar systems. Clearly, the ship travelled very fast as it progressed through space. Yet, the reality of long-distance interstellar travel between planetary systems was still of many months cooped-up in the limited confines of a few similar, dreary metallic rooms with little to entertain or distract most of the crew never mind the paying passengers forced to pass many empty months until they reached the objective of their journey. But this was the longest voyage Functionary had taken by far, stretching out for a full nine months. The ship was three months into its journey and there was another six long months until it reached its goal. It was a journey Functionary would rather not take, to a place he did not wish to go4 and, to a posting he did not want to fill. He was pessimistic and hopeless about his future. He was heading away from where he wanted to be and what he wanted to be. Thus, he did not even have the solace of the ultimate journey's end. Lying there awake on his bunk, Functionary reflected with petulance and frustration on the waste of life that was inter-stellar travel.

The ship droned-on through space. Functionary drowsed restlessly on his bunk in the warmth of the ship, every now and then waking fully as his head jerked downwards in an unintentional nod. Normal day-time hours mattered little in space, as there was no star to order the process of waking and retiring, but ships ran on something called “earth-time”. This was a historical reference to the planet from whence humans had originated, although, Functionary had never been there and knew little of it save what remained in his head from school history lessons. Following this routine of “earth-time”, most of the ship’s inhabitants would be asleep and few would be wandering the corridors or occupying its public spaces. Only those crew members whose watch it was would be awake and out of their rooms and they would be tasked to man the bridge or one of the other closed-off control spaces, such as, engines and communications. Seized to take advantage of this likely absence of sentient presence, Functionary jumped from his bunk, went to the steel basin in the corner of the cabin and, waiting for the water to run truly cold, cupped it in his hands and forced it into his face. Fully awake now, and quickly dressed, he touched the button that slid open the door of his cabin and stepped out into the corridor beyond. The corridor was just like his cabin and the rest of the ship, in that there was the ever presence of metal structure and riveting coated in a plastic paint of a dull pastel shade. There was the same cozy, rather sleepy warmth. There was the interminable drone of the distant propulsion units and, closer, the more irregular sounds of mechanics and electronics. Salient against the pastel blandness of the general decor, the floor was marked with lines, punctuated with arrows, indicating the headings for common destinations. More generally, the floors and part of the lower walls had coverings of various colours indicating who was entitled to be there. The dark grey of the flooring of this corridor indicated that it was common space open to all on the ship. Functionary's path coincided with a green line which ultimately led to a relative large space which doubled as mess, lounge and observation deck. Indeed, for Functionary, who was merely travelling upon the ship, this was the limit of the ship's public space. Whatever his official capacity elsewhere, here he was merely one of the travelling public and had no authority – a fact which, to functionary, emphasised the pass to which his life had come.

Entering the mess, Functionary wandered over towards one of the small windows which gave a view back across the aft of the ship from whence it had come. Functionary gazed over the ship’s improbable structure which betrayed its zero-gravity existence. This ship was never to enter the atmosphere of any planet. Stretching out from the inhabited module in which he stood, a thin connecting filament led out to the throbbing engines consuming their poisonous power source that slowly infected everything with which it came in contact, no matter how remotely. Ultimately, this propulsion unit would be replaced with a new unit just beginning its life cycle of poisonous colonisation, while this unit, with its associated superstructure, ended its existence dumped into the sucking gravity of some conveniently nearby star.

Now looking beyond the engine module, the gaze of Functionary refocused to penetrate further into the depths of space, in the direction from whence the ship had come. Barely now, and with some limited knowledge of the galaxy, Functionary could make-out a particular star and could see, or rather imagine, the system of planets which revolved ceaselessly around it. There, a large gaseous planet slowly revolved around the now distant star and around that planet, in turn, a small, cold, stony moon orbited. That moon had been Functionary's home, for the past five years.

The first thoughts which came to Functionary of the existence he was leaving far behind on that small and insignificant moon, was of his personal life. Functionary had actually been born elsewhere. It was the lot of a Space Functionary to move great distances leaving behind the life they had, with relatively little chance of ever6 returning. Yet, despite his vocation and relatively solitary nature, Functionary had put down a few roots during his time on that now distant moon. He had made a few friends and what he had thought was one special and potentially long-lasting friendship. Now, he was unlikely to see any of these individuals again. For most people, space travel remain a profoundly unusually and irregular activity. Many would never leave their home planet and would never travel between planets let alone planetary systems. Others might experience space travel once or twice in their lifetimes. Even for Functionary, the chances of any further immediate space travel in the next few years had now become very unlikely and, with all the hundreds of potential postings, he was very unlikely to retrace his steps when his chance to move on did come.

Functionary reflected with a mixture of sadness and intense bitterness on the woman he had left behind. As someone with whom he had shared a living space for over two years, it would have been possible to arrange free travel for her to accompany him to his new post. Yet when he had explained about his being moved on by the administration, described the new posting and, broached the issue of her accompanying him, she had said "no". Little apparent thought had been required and the answer had come without pause or a moment’s reflection. No effort had been wasted to disguise the speed and ease with which she had been able to come to her conclusion. Brutally, referring to how his career had failed to make satisfactory progress, she had baldly stated: "I am not travelling millions of miles for the prospect to spending the rest of my life in cramped living quarters on some desolate planet, the wife or partner of some non-entity." With such comments she had made it clear, if there had ever been any doubt, that her love and loyalty was conditional on his career status as a functionary singled out for potential fast promotion to the most senior ranks of the service. So as his vocational potential had diminished so had his former partner’s love fallen away, if ever her attachment could be so labelled as “love”. Clearly, the speed with which she had been able to make her decision not to follow him partially reflected the fact that for a long while, it had been increasingly evident that his prospects within the service were diminishing. Once the end of the possibility of fast promotion and the occupancy of senior ranks was formally signalled by the communication of his forthcoming appointment, so her love was decisively and speedily terminated. She was gone from the apartment before he had left the moon. Resentfully, he remembered her doing the rounds of clubs and bars frequented by service personal, a little too obviously looking for someone else who might take her off that moon towards better things.

Nevertheless, whatever the instrumentality of her love, her assessment of his career and of his future prospects had been horridly correct, if perhaps a little overstated in its brutality. The service had many functionaries running planets, moons and isolated space stations throughout the explored star systems. Constituting the bulk of that force, were many service employees recruited locally into low-grade manual or administrative jobs. Above were numerous middle ranking administrators who were recruited by the central service. Their careers were managed by the central service and they had to go where they were sent. Yet, once appointed to a post, these middle ranking functionaries were likely to stay in that post for many years. For many, this could mean many years in a desirable and secure posting which compared well with the life chances of most outside the service. Yet some could face a very long appointment in some deserted or dangerous part of space with little prospect of recall. Functionary now faced such a predicament. At the top of the Service hierarchy, were the most desirable senior posts which unsurprisingly offered rank, status, superior pay, regular advancement and other rewards, such as, better accommodation and regular free travel for both the holders of these offices and their immediate relatives. Importantly, the members of this cadre were frequently moved from post to post, so if one did find oneself in an undesirable, isolated or dangerous posting there was always the consolation that one would soon be moved on. It was to such a person that Functionary’s erstwhile strategic friend clearly wanted to hitch her future life and, reflecting on the life prospects for many beings within the system,8 Functionary could not entirely bring himself to blame her from this ruthless intention. Experiencing many of the benefits and prestige of the most senior ranks were those individuals, recruited and marked out for rapid development and potential promotion into the senior ranks. Functionary had been one such person over the last decade of his life. This had seen him rapidly moved around the system, progressing smartly through postings of increasing seniority, responsibility, status, opportunity and advantage.

Yet, Functionary's early high potential had ultimately delivered relatively little. For sure, there had been progression within the Service hierarchy as Functionary was given experience in a series of increasingly demanding jobs. With speedy promotion had come enhanced status and rewards and, looking back, Functionary thought that his partner had suspiciously materialised at what now appeared the period when he had shown the most potential and his career the most promise. Reflecting on that point in his life, as an individual who did not make friends easily, it now struck him that he had had an unusually largely number of friends. But the good times were not sustained and his career went into a slow and, at first, imperceptible decline. In so far as a Service functionary's life is insuperably entangled with his or her work, so his social life appeared to have similarly fallen into a trough along with his career. Thinking ahead, he fancied the number of friends he would have in his new life, in his forthcoming posting, would be much diminished from that he had grown accustomed to in the life he was now leaving far behind in the blackness of space.

Functionary’s mind once more turned to the progression of his past life. After a while, Functionary had become aware that his career was not advancing with the alacrity with which it had previously, progressed. At first he could not make out the reasons for this vocational deceleration. It did not appear to him that he was inept and, indeed, while he could have been deluding himself about his own performance, he seemed to be achieving all the obvious objective criteria for success. He was meeting the performance targets and requirements demanded of him. He was succeeding with manifest ease in the increasingly challenging tasks he was set by his seniors. More subjectively, he felt that he was not an embarrassment to those who were ultimately accountable for his work. No, Functionary's problems appeared to lie beyond how well he performed his immediate job. In the world of the Service, even at the height of his apparent popularity, Functionary was always somewhat of an outsider. Functionary was ever so slightly a misfit. He got on well enough with his seniors and with those with whom he had to deal, but most of his relationships were somewhat superficial and strictly constrained to limited contexts and times. His relationships did not leak out into other periods of the day or to activities which were not strictly work related. In particular, he observed how others in his work place passed more pleasantries and time together. The interactions between them frequently fulfilled other broader and longer-term functions extending beyond the communication of immediate work-related concerns. When Functionary dealt with others, it was more often than not to effect some immediate work-specific task he needed to complete. Especially, those personnel, like himself, singled out for accelerated advancement clearly spent more social time with their superiors and with each other. Yet he avoided the round of sports, office parties, and off-day events at the quarters of superiors, clubs, eateries and fashionable “watering holes”. Functionary, had no problem with hard work to achieve the immediate goals of work and the Service, but he just could not find the motivation to invest time and effort in socialising with work related superiors and equals. When the work was done, he wanted to leave its environment far behind. Yet, he gradually became aware of how important these relationships were to advancement in the Service. Related to his loner character, was another trait which was probably of equal importance in explaining the diminishing momentum of his career. He was again, slightly a misfit when it came to his perception of things, the questions he asked and, the conclusions he reached. He was all too inclined to ask awkward questions about why things were the way they were and this clearly led to him having a reputation for being a little awkward and eccentric. As time moved on, he even began to fear that others perceived him as a little dangerous in his thinking and, at all sorts of levels, as not altogether reliable. Clearly, some of his superiors became a little irritated by these features of Functionary’s character. His partner had clearly tolerated these aspects of his character and behaviour while there were the compensations of his status and, more particularly, his potentiality, but as the latter dimmed, so did her apparent understanding, loyalty and attachment. Increasingly, her tolerance waned and Functionary became aware of an irritated exasperation in her reactions to his behaviour, to his statements contradicting the normal way of understanding things and, as time moved on, merely his presence.

Functionary remained a fairly senior middle-ranking official likely to be given postings of significant responsibility with accompanying pay and status. In the scheme of things, Functionary appreciated that there were many reasons why he should be thankful for his lot and optimistic about his prospects. Both his present and his likely future were both a good deal better than that most others in the System experienced or could expect. Nevertheless, whatever he could logically understand, Functionary just could not embrace his present or his future in a positive or optimistic light. There were some good objective reasons for this pessimism. Comparatively and dynamically, his life was changing for the worse. While, if compared to many others in the know universe his life could be seen as both better in terms of his material conditions of existence and in terms of the opportunities still open to him, it was the case that his own prospects had now moved from a promising fast tracked career to a more pedestrian and grinding vocation which hinted at the possibility of limited promotion and a rare movement between posts. Thus he had some status and seniority and a little opportunity for betterment. But, in comparison with what he had known, it was not enough. He would have some freedoms and control over his life that others did not possess. He would have enough rank to have some command over others and to have control over his day-to-day work. He would have enough income and status to ensure that he would have reasonable accommodation and be able to procure a reasonable standard of life. Nevertheless, he would not escape the stress, responsibility and vexation of having to account regularly to an immediate superior. Ultimately, he had not enough status to avoid being at someone's beck and call. He would have to watch-on from the sidelines while others around him came and went, fast-tracked onwards to bigger and better things. Clenching his teeth, bitterly he reflected he had not enough status and prospects to "get the girl". Not enough status to avoid being sent to some dim and distant planet, to some lonely space station with little chance of retrieval for many years. Again, "she" had been right in her analysis of his condition. Self-deprecatingly, he considered that she had probably been right-minded to desert him, to abandon him to his future lifestyle as an administrative eunuch serving others, more empowered, better paid and, undoubtedly better sexed.

Waking from his reveries, Functionary turned and walked across the across the observation deck and looked forward to where the ship was heading. There, dimly, he could see a small star, around which orbited his new home. There would be several months yet, while the spaceship oozed its slow way through the apparent treacle of space, before Functionary arrived at this outlying planet. This was plenty of time for him to contemplate his past, his present and his future.