04 December 2009

"On Orbit"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Someone," Don said, "put poison in the Coke machine?"

"Well, technically, the poison was attached to the water intake," Thomas said. "It's a good thing Richard could taste the difference. And then complained about it."

"How is he, by the way?"

"Nic says he'll be fine. She doesn't want him going EVA for a few days, so I put David into the rotation. We're checking the rest of our water supply now, but it's going to take a while."

Don shook his head. His white hair pixelated with the motion; the low-bandwidth videophone wasn't designed to support much more than talking heads.

"Right." Don tapped at something off-screen. "We'll send more potable water rations in the next supply run. Anything else go wrong this week? Alien body snatchers? A new strain of drug-resistant bacteria?"

"That was a rhinovirus," Thomas said. "And no. That's all the bad news." He tried and failed to hide his smile.

"Oh, boy," Don said. "You did it, didn't you? You nailed Penny."

"Don! I'm offended." Thomas waggled a finger. "And Penny would be, too. She much prefers the terms 'banged,' 'knocked boots,' or 'played hide-the-sausage.'"

The white-haired man sighed. "Is this a space station or a soap opera?"

Thomas shrugged. "Hey, I just work here."

"Seriously, Thomas," Don said, "I can't have you sleeping with anyone in your chain of command. It's bad for morale, not to mention just plain unprofessional."

It took Thomas a moment to process what he heard. "Wait. What are you talking about? We're not even in the same department. I'm Engineering, Penny's Bioscience—"

"You're being promoted," Don said. "Congratulations, Thomas; we're making it official. You're the new Station Chief."

"No." Thomas' finger came up again, this time threatening. "No. You can't do this to me, Don. You don't want me in charge. Cynthia! Give it to Cynthia. She's better at logistics anyway."

"Station doesn't need a log," Don said. "Station needs a leader. That's you."

"Oh, come on! Just because I happened to remember where the emergency supplies were that one time—"

"You know, most people are happy when they get promoted at work."

Thomas shook his head. "I'm flattered, Don, really I am, but this isn't what I want. Not right now." He couldn't stop thinking about Penny—her smile, her lips, her smooth, pale skin. He didn't want to stop thinking about her.

"Too bad." Don's eyes glittered under a scowl. "What everyone on station needs is more important than what you want. It's out of my hands anyway. The board voted yesterday. I'm just the messenger."

"I never wanted your job, Don," Thomas said softly.

"I know. Believe me, I know."

"'Chain of command,'" Thomas muttered. "What are we, a military shop now? Am I going to be issuing uniforms and sidearms next week?"

"I'm hoping it won't come to that," Don said. "But you've still got a—what's the term?—'locked room mystery' on your hands. We need to deal with that first."

"Yeah," Thomas said. "Let's hope it doesn't turn into a murder mystery."


Photo: mission patch from my trip to SpaceCamp in September, 2003.