See the Stars With Major Tom

“Again? My god, Davi, that’s the third entry you’ve screwed up today. Where’s your head?”

“Sorry, Ri,” Davia Gran answered. “I was out kind of late last night and I guess I’m still a little foggy. Flag it and I’ll fix it with the others.”

“Never mind that,” Rianara said, even as she did what Davi asked. “Tell me about last night.” She gave Davi a knowing grin and said, “Was he cute?” She paused a moment, then continued, “Or one of the nerdy types you usually go for?”

“Hey now,” Davi protested, “one does not necessarily preclude the other, you know.” She took a second to double-check the entry she was working on. “Nerdy guys can be cute, too.”

“Maybe,” Rianara said. “But I don’t see them being all that capable where it counts.” She paused dramatically before adding, “If you know what I mean.”

Davi sighed. “I always know what you mean, you slut,” she said with a knowing smile of her own. “But that comment shows you’ve never hooked up with a nerd before.”

“Oh?” her friend said. “Did this nerdy boy throw it down so good that you can’t think this morning?”

Davi laughed. “Unfortunately, things didn’t get that far. But, I’m hoping—” She stopped abruptly because their boss, ship’s purser Solmon Brax, walked into the office. Brax was an anomaly among the company’s managers: he actually cared about his staff and treated them like living, breathing humans instead of automatons. But saying the man was uptight was like saying Neptune was cold. It was true but an understatement of massive proportions. Hearing about her—or especially Rianara’s—sexual escapades would mortify him and he’d be weird the entire 3-month trip. “Good morning, Mr. Brax,” she said as cheerfully as she could manage.

“Everything going well this morning?” he asked.

“Oh, yes sir,” Rianara piped up. She was Brax’s polar opposite and making him blush was her favorite pastime. Davi cringed at the thought of what she might say next. She hoped it wouldn’t have anything to do with their current conversation but with Rianara, you could never tell. “We wanted to get a jump on logging the inventory before the passengers start arriving.”

“Excellent,” Brax said, beaming. “Well, you girls keep up the good work and I’ll check in on you later.” He turned and left the office.

Davi breathed a sigh of relief and Rianara laughed.

“Were you worried I might spill the beans about your wild night with Nerd Boy?” she said.

“Always, bitch,” she said, “But thanks for keeping quiet. I know how hard shutting up can be for you.” Ri stuck out her tongue, then laughed at the dig. Davi, meanwhile, got back to the task at hand. “Let’s get this done so I can catch a nap before the passengers start showing up. There is no fucking way I can handle those privileged assholes the way I’m feeling right now.”

All the way back to her cabin, Davi was praying that Camla was still at work. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her cabinmate. They actually got along well to be as different as they were. But Camla was so chatty. It was her first time out and it seemed she felt an overwhelming need to fill Davi in on every minuscule detail of her life up to that point. Opening the door to find the cabin empty filled her with relief.

She needed some quiet time, both for the nap that she told Rianara she wanted and to process last night. While she hadn’t lied to Ri, she hadn’t exactly been truthful, either. She’d let her friend believe that spaciness resulted from a raging hangover, but that wasn’t quite true. It came from something the guy she’d met last night told her. He was indeed a “nerdy boy”, she thought as she kicked off her shoes and slid out of her skirt. To be precise, he was a post-grad history student and nerdy post-grads were her weakness. She hung the blouse and skirt in the locker at the foot of her bed, pulled out a pair of yoga pants and a college t-shirt, and slipped them on. She threw the covers back and slid into bed. As she often did, she spoke to it, pulling the covers up around her.

“Hello, bed,” she said. “I’ve missed you soooo much.” The crew’s quarters on the ship were small and rather spartan. But, the beds were, she thought, exceptional. As she snuggled in and got comfortable, her mind drifted back to Baely, her “nerdy boy” from last night.

“So,” he’d asked, “What do you do? Are you in school? Got a job? Do you troll bars plying poor post-grads with liquor so you can have your way with them?”

“Sadly, none of those,” she said, laughing. “Although that last one has promise.” She took a sip of her drink. “Technically, I’m a student at Guilford Technical Community College majoring in IT. But, I’m taking a few semesters off to work and save up some money. G-Tech’s expensive and I don’t want a ton of debt hanging over me after I graduate.”

“Good idea,” he’d said with a smile that didn’t exactly make her melt, but she didn’t hate it either. “What kind of work?”

“Okay,” she’d said, “This may sound a little cheesy, but I’m an assistant purser on a cruise ship.”

“No, it’s not cheesy at all,” he’d said. “I know a lot of people think those things are shallow junkets for rich people, but I think they’re cool.” He took a sip of his drink. “At least the one my parents sent me on was, anyway.”

The fact that he was a rich boy didn’t turn her off as much as she thought it might. She had a feeling that he was from money since working-class people rarely got as far as grad school. She’d only gotten in at G-Tech because she passed an aptitude test with flying colors. Along with her dad, a decorated veteran of the Guards, pulling some strings. But, he had a nerdy vibe that pulled her in (he was a repository of information that regular people didn’t give a shit about). And, that smile? Together, those two things covered a multitude of sins. He broke into her reverie.

“Which cruise line are you working for?”

“Major Tom’s Solar Cruises,” she’d said. Then, she’d noticed he’d gotten a funny look. “Do you know it?”

“No,” he’d replied a little too quickly.

“What?” she’d asked. “I know it’s not the nicest one but the pay isn’t bad and I’m getting to travel all over the solar system. I’ve gotten to see Saturn’s rings up close and in person. That’s something I’d never be able to do if I wasn’t working for them.”

“It’s not that,” he’d said. Then, he’d asked, “What’s the name of the ship you work on?”

“The Space Oddity,” she’d replied. His “funny” look took on a more serious tone. “Okay,” she’d said, “That’s the second time you’ve made this weird face. What is going on?”

He’d sighed before saying, “It’s probably nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Then, he tried to change the subject. “What did you think of Saturn?”

She’d tried to let it go, answering, “It was so cool. None of the pictures have done it justice.” But, it kept nagging at her. “Look, if you know something about the company or the ship, tell me. Please. I’m going back out tomorrow and if you don’t tell me, it’ll bug me the whole 3-month trip.”

He’d looked down for a moment before finally saying, “Okay, I’m sure it’s nothing but I just… I don’t know. That name is not… great.

She’d remembered thinking that was an odd take. “What do you mean? It’s just a name.” She paused for a second. “Isn’t it?”

He’d hesitated a bit, then said, “Maybe. Like I said, this is probably nothing. But I just can’t not think it’s a bad omen.”

“Why?” she’d asked.

“Okay, you know how I said the focus of my study was 20th-century pop culture?”

She’d smiled at him, saying, “You didn’t, really. But, I kind of figured it might be.”

That had surprised him and he sat back a little. “Really?” he’d said. “Why?”

She’d laughed at that. Nerds could be so clueless about intuition. “Because a little earlier, you dumped a ton of information about late 20th-century popular music. That’s not your average topic of conversation, you know.”

He’d looked a little sheepish and said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I get so caught up, I forget that most people aren’t all that into it. Sorry,” he’d said with a shrug.

“Don’t be,” she’d replied. “I enjoyed it.”

“Really?” He’d been so surprised by that.

“Yes,” she’d said. “I learned some stuff and you were kinda cute going on about all that old music.” He’d smiled at that. “Now, what does that have to do with my ship?”

He’d gotten serious again at that point. “Okay,” he’d said, “Get ready for another info dump.” He’d paused like he was trying to gather himself. “So, back in the 1960s, 1969 to be exact, a song came out from a singer named David Bowie. It was titled ‘Space Oddity’.” He took another pause. “It was about an astronaut—you know what an ‘astronaut’ is? Or, was, really.”

“Yeah,” she’d said. “It’s they called the first people who went into space.”

“Right,” he’d said. “Okay, so this astronaut, named Major Tom, goes up and there’s a malfunction and he ends up just hanging out in space, unable to get back home.”

“Oh,” she’d said. “Okay, so it’s not great, but I don’t think it really applies here. I mean, we’ve made dozens of these trips without a problem.” She thought for a moment, then corrected herself. “Well, without a problem that couldn’t be easily handled.”

“Yeah,” he’d said. “But it doesn’t end there. In the 80s, like 10 or 12 years later, a German artist did a song that kind of a riff on ‘Space Oddity’ called ‘Major Tom’—and in parentheses ‘Coming Home’. In this one, things also go wrong and Major Tom stops responding and just flies off into space.” He looked down at his drink. “Like I said, it’s nothing. Just an old song.” He paused again. “I am surprised that they chose that name. For the company and the ship.”

“Why?” she’d asked. She didn’t think it was a problem but he had piqued her interest.

“Because people in that kind of work, pretty much anything dangerous, tend to be a bit superstitious. I wouldn’t think they’d want to be associated with a story like that.”

She’d tried to make out with him after that, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was still cute but that earlier stirring she’d felt had morphed into something a lot less arousing and she’d begged off, promising to look him up when she got back. She shook her head, thinking this is stupid. Why am I so bothered about a 300-year-old song? She did her best to try and sleep a bit but it was no use. Maybe if she went down to Engineering and talked to Colemin, he might be able to put her at ease about this. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than lying here stewing about it.

As she made her way down to Engineering, she realized it was the second scenario her (possible) newfound boyfriend had mentioned that bothered her the most. As she’d told him, they’d had malfunctions on other trips but nothing that left them stranded out in space. But, the idea of flying off into God-knows-where? That was different. Partly because she wasn’t exactly sure how the ship did what it did. She knew they traveled using the constant acceleration method but that was the extent of her knowledge. She’d tried to read up on it but physics wasn’t her thing and after a bit, it was like trying to decipher hieroglyphics. Hopefully, Colemin could put it in terms she could understand.

She found him sitting at the control panel, an ancient “video game” displayed on the screen before him. She couldn’t understand why anyone would prefer a screen to the holograms available nowadays, but Colemin was like that. He claimed that something was lost in generating a hologram, that the image—even though it was 3D—was somehow “flatter”. According to him, the colors didn’t pop as well and things looked a little muddy. At the moment, he was deep into something called “Wolfenstein: The New Order”, set in an alternate world where the Nazis won World War II (something else she could talk to her new friend about) and you played as a U.S. special forces operative fighting against them. He noticed her standing in the passageway and paused his game, saying, “Hey, Davi. What’s up?”

She walked over and sat on the desk next to him. She knew Colemin had a thing for her and, while it felt wrong, she had decided to use that to her advantage. Within the company, engineering types tended to be a little cliquish and didn’t associate with other crew members any more than they had to, so any little bit might help. On the way down here, she’d been worried about what she might have to do, but she realized she’d been worried for nothing because just being close seemed to have him flustered. This might be easier than she thought. She gave him her best smile and said, “Not much. Ri and I got done early, so I thought I’d pop down here and see how you were doing.”

“Really?” he said, surprised. “I kind of thought you didn’t care for me all that much.”

Ouch, she thought. She really ought to be nicer to him. And, he was kind of cute and had that nerd thing that did it for her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I keep my distance because of the non-fraternization policy. I wouldn’t want either of us to lose our jobs.” It wasn’t a complete lie. If it weren’t for the rules, there might have been a chance for him.

“Oh,” he said. He sat there for a moment, processing things, then perked up. “Okay. So, how was the break?” Major Tom’s ran three ships, with one outbound, another inbound, and the third undergoing refit and resupply so it was ready to head out. That meant each crew had a 6-week layoff while any heavy maintenance was taken care of before returning to help get the ship ready for the next trip.

“It was okay,” she said. “I did hear something weird, though.”

“What’s that?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to bother you with it.”

“No bother,” he said. “I love weird shit.” He grinned Tell me.”

“You sure?” she said. For a moment, she felt bad for playing him like this, but when she thought about it, she realized she wasn’t playing him. She was uneasy about asking. “You won’t think I’m crazy?”

He smiled and it was almost as good as Nerdy Boy last night. She sighed and said, “Okay, here goes. Have you ever heard of a song called “Major Tom Coming Home?”

“Yeah, I’m aware,” he with a little chuckle. “This is like, what, your third trip?” She nodded. “And, you’re just now hearing about that?” He shook his head. “That is surprising.”

“It is?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Most people find out about it during training. Hell, it used to be a part of training but they stopped when they realized it was freaking people out to the point they were quitting.” He pulled a mug out of the cabinet over the desk, saying, “I need coffee. You want some?”

She shook her head and said, “No thanks. It can upset my stomach and the anxiety that’s already eating at me doesn’t need any help.”

“I gotcha,” he said, popping a pod into the machine and hitting the button. “So, you’re worried something’s going to go wrong and we’re going to go flying off into space, right?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I know it’s stupid, but…” she trailed off.

“Not at all. Like I said, everyone—and I mean everyone, yours truly included—goes through this. It’s kind of a rite of passage,” he said with a shrug.

“Okay,” she said “So…”

He smiled. “There’s nothing to worry about. The Space Oddity alone has made this trip dozens of times without a hitch.” He removed his coffee mug from the machine, then added, “Mostly without a hitch.”

“What do you mean, ‘mostly’?” she said.

“Well,” he said, “There was one time, on my second trip out, when there was an issue with making the flip.”

“That what?”

“The flip,” he said. “You understand how we get out there, right?”

She sighed. “Kind of. I tried reading about it in the company manual but I think I only understood about every third word.”

“Was it in the engineering section?” She nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. It’s really not that hard to understand though. Basically, we accelerate out at a constant speed and then, at the halfway point, the ship flips over and decelerates at a constant rate until we get to our destination. Make sense?”

“Why didn’t they just say that?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “All I can think is whoever wrote it was getting paid to make it as obtuse as possible. I mean, shit, I’ve got an engineering degree and I have a hard time understanding it.”

“Okay,” she said, “What about this problem with the flip you were talking about?”

“Right. So, all of that is handled by the ship’s computer because the calculations are pretty fu— I mean, damn, precise. There was a software glitch we were unaware of that delayed our deceleration. Things were kind of wild for a few minutes but we got it under control.” He took a sip of coffee. “But don’t worry. That issue has been addressed and it’s not a problem.” He smiled. “Feel better now?”

To her surprise, she realized she actually did. She hadn’t held much hope that this visit would help, but Colemin had delivered big time. “I do. Thanks.” Then, “Hey, when do you get off?”

“1700,” he said. All the ship’s clocks were 24 hours and set to Eastern Standard Time, the same as company headquarters at the Petersburg Space Port.

“Want to grab some food when you’re done?” He nodded eagerly. “Okay, message me when you’re ready,” she said over her shoulder as she stepped through the hatchway.

It turned out to be an uneventful trip… until it wasn’t. Things had gone smoothly most of the way. There hadn’t even been many issues with the passengers, something that was a very rare occurrence. A trip out to Saturn’s rings wasn’t cheap and took almost 3 months. That was something the average working person just couldn’t pull off. Which meant their clientele tended to be rather wealthy. And, as rather wealthy people, they had very specific expectations of the level of service their money had bought. But, this time, everyone was lovely. This trip had gone so well that Davi had almost forgotten her earlier apprehensions. But they came rushing back when she got the all-hands alert calling everyone except the duty crews to the conference room. She and Rianara made their way down, bumping into Camla on the way.

“Hey guys,” Camla said, coming up beside them. “Any idea what this is about?”

“Not a freaking clue,” Ri answered. She ran hot and cold on Davi’s roommate and was in one of her frosty periods, much to Davi’s dismay. She always wound up in the middle when that happened.

“Yeah,” Davi said. “It must be important though. They almost never call them.” She thought for a moment. “The last one I remember was that time the ambassador to Gleiese died in bed with a Vu’ulian comfort droid.” She shook her head. “God, I hope it’s not something like that again. Cleaning up after that was not fun.”

“Why?” Camla asked. It was her first time out and she was more than a little naive.

“It wasn’t just that he died,” Ri answered. “Davi’s sugar-coating it. The comfort droid malfunctioned and went berserk. It tore the ambassador apart. Literally. We picked up his pieces and put them in a bag to send home.” Davi noticed the hint of a smile playing across Ri’s lips as she watched Camla go pale. Then she went in for the kill. “There was blood everywhere. I even found his member up in the light fixture. I’m still not sure how that happened.” The graphic description had the desired effect and Camla ran for the nearest restroom. Ri just laughed.

“Why do you do that?” Davi asked.

“It’s fun,” her friend answered.

“Yeah, well, your ‘fun’ is probably going to keep me up all night,” Davi said. “She’s going to want to talk it through and that means very fucking little sleep tonight.”

“Sorry,” Ri said. “Sucks to be you, I guess.”

“Yes, it does,” Davi said as they entered the conference room.

They were met by both the captain and the Chief Mate and Davi realized that this was a big deal. Maybe even a bigger deal than the death of an ambassador. They had just found a seat when Camla came in, staring daggers at Rianara. She may have been naive but she knew the game Ri was playing and she wasn’t a fan. Great, Davi thought, not only am I going to have to help take her mind off the terrible imagery Ri left her with, but I’ll get to help deal with her anger. She was about to give Ri some hell for that when the captain stood and cleared his throat.

“I’m guessing you all know there’s an issue since we don’t call an all-hands for just anything,” he began. “This time, well, this time is bad. Maybe the most dire all-hands I’ve ever called.” He paused, looking down at his hands. After a moment, he continued. “Chief Clarx and I spent a good bit of time trying to decide how to break this to you all, looking for the easiest, most gentle way. And, there’s not one. So, we’re going the other direction: to the point. Blunt, even. I’ll let the Chief explain the issue.” He stepped back and let Clarx have the podium.

Okay, we’ve got a malfunction in the drive system and we are unable to begin deceleration. Worse, we seem to be speeding up. And, we can’t turn or do much of anything else except continue on our current trajectory. The closest thing to a silver lining in this mess is that the faster we go, the less fuel we’ll be able to pick up so, eventually, we’ll run out. Unfortunately, Engineering’s calculations say that won’t happen until we’re out of the system and past the wormhole. Our situation is not good.” He turned the dias back over to the captain.

Captain Francol cleared his throat and began. “The bottom line, folks, is that we aren’t going to make it back home. Barring some unforeseen happy accident, we’ll be stranded somewhere out beyond the Oort Cloud and that will be the end of it.” He sighed heavily. “I’m sorry to have to tell you all that, but you deserved to know. An announcement will be made to the passengers in a few hours, so you’ll have some time to absorb our new reality and be ready to help them. You’re a great crew and I’m sure you’ll do your best for them. That is all.” Then, he and the Chief Mate walked out of the room.

Davi waited outside for Colemin. When he came out, she pulled him into an alcove and pinned him to the wall. “Goddamn it, Colemin! I thought you said this wouldn’t happen.”

Her anger seemed to have caught him off guard and he stammered. “I—I, I didn’t think it could! Hell, I told you what they told me.”

“So, what the fuck is going on? Is this another software glitch? Can’t you fix that shit?”

He shrugged. “We don’t know.”

“What the fuck do you mean, ‘We don’t know’? Isn’t it your job to know?” she gritted out between clenched teeth.

“I mean that we don’t know. Nobody does. From all the readouts, the diagnostics, every-fucking-thing we’ve done, none of this should be happening.”

“And, there’s nothing that you can do to fix it?” she asked, letting a little spark of hope flare a bit.

“Maybe,” he said and the spark got brighter. “I mean, like the captain said there could be some unforeseen accident and we figure it out before things get too far. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up.” And, the spark died.

“Shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit!”

It had been six months since that all-hands meeting. The ship had finally run out of fuel well past the Oort Cloud. They were far enough out that they’d be long dead well before any help could get to them. Davi tried to tell herself the trip hadn’t been a total loss. She’d gotten to see things a lot of people couldn’t even dream about, being bound to Earth like they were. And, after a bit of kerfuffle early on, the passengers had calmed down and the able-bodied ones had started pitching in to keep things running. There was even some occasional downtime now and then, something she was enjoying when her door chimed. She looked at the screen and saw it was Colemin. She keyed open the door.

“Can I interest you in a bit of bubbly?” he said, brandishing a bottle of champagne and a couple of flutes.

“Where did you get that?” she asked.

“I liberated it from the first-class dining room,” he said, looking around furtively. “You better let me in before I get caught.”

“Oh, shit,” she said and motioned him in. “So, you stole a bottle of champagne and immediately thought of me?” she said.

“Pretty much,” he admitted. Then, “Well, it’s a little deeper than that, really.”

“What do you mean?”

He hesitated a moment, then said, “Life support crapped out a couple of days ago. The only thing keeping us going are the batteries and we’ve got a just few hours left before they die. Then, we either freeze to death or suffocate.” He looked down at the bottle. “I think I want to be at least a little tipsy when that happens.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s— that fucking sucks. I mean, I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know it would be quite this soon.”

“Yeah, I get that,” he said, tearing the foil off the neck of the bottle and twisting the muselet loose. “Although, I’m not sure I’d ever be ready for this shit.” He popped the cork and poured. He handed her a glass and said, “Let’s get fucked up.” Then, he drained his flute in one quick gulp.

She laughed bleakly and followed suit. Looking him over, she had an idea. Camla was on duty and wouldn’t be off until well after everything went to shit. And, Ri? Well, if she knew Ri, she was probably doing what she was about to do. And, what either of them didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. As Colemin poured them each another glass, she looked at him. “A minute ago, you said ‘Let’s get fucked up’. How about we drop the ‘up’ from that equation and go out as nature intended?” she said with a wicked smile.