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“Power Loss Shift Three Report” by Michael Albers

“And they have an extra eye on the forehead and long fangs to tear your flesh off with.” Danny held a rounded hand to his forehead, emphasizing the eye.

April’s eyes grew round as she shrunk back from the older boy’s story. Angie bit her lip to hold back the laughter from the sheer terror on April’s face – the same terror which had undoubtedly filled her own face a couple of years ago when she’d fallen for the same story. And the trouble her cousin had gotten into for telling her the story when she woke up screaming with nightmares. It was the same pattern that had gotten her: lure the young kids down to the power end of the habitat, right against the wall that prevented access to the fried drive and scare the bejesus out of them with stories of monsters living in the sealed off engineering space. Oh, well, she wasn’t telling the story and these two kids were Danny’s cousins, not hers, so she’d be safe when April woke screaming.

Angie looked almost straight up at the large rough patch on the end wall of the starship, working to hide her smirk from April and the other trembling kid whose name she wasn’t sure of. The wall rose in a slightly indented cone across the entire fourteen hundred yards of the habitat. On the wall about 200 yards directly above her was a large patch, slapped together with many odd-sized rusted sheets of steel welded together. The metal surrounding the patch was fire-blackened, buckled, and twisted. Although the patch was over a hundred yards across, it was dwarfed by the almost mile diameter of the entire ship. She shook her head, trying to imagine how anything could make that big of a blast.

The explosion had occurred almost 100 years ago in Great Grandpa’s time. Not that Angie remembered any great grandparents, but Grandpa George liked to repeat his dad’s stories of the blast: scary stories of smoke so thick you couldn’t see, of days wearing breathing gear, of crops that failed and food shortages. And heroic stories of people who died saving the habitat. But no stories of three-eye monsters.

“And when we get to Dalgon’s star, we’re going to build a new ship and let the monsters have this one. The adults hope they’ll light off the drive and just fly away.” Danny leaned toward the young kids, “But maybe they’ll come get us on our new ship and take that one, too.”

The young kids stepped back.

“Well, my dad says we shouldn’t even be maneuvering to try and get into Dalgon’s star orbit. We’re better off just the way we are and should keep going to the planet we were supposed to go to.”

Danny straightened and whipped his eyes toward Byron. Monster story forgotten, the two boys glared at each other, fists clenched.

Danny waved his hand toward the patch. “Dope head, this place is kinda falling apart.”

“But Dalgon’s star doesn’t even have any habitable planets. Just a couple hot Venuses, a gas giant, and a bunch of rubble they think we can use. If we keep going, at least we’ll have an inhabitable planet.”

Angie spoke up, “It doesn’t really matter. We’ve been having those stupid no-power days for months while we maneuver. We’re all but in orbit now and can’t get out. It’s like the captain says, we voted, we’re committed, and now we need to all pull together.”

“The vote was rigged. My uncle Charles says so.”

“There’s not really any monsters. You’re just saying that.” Everyone turned to look at April; hands on hips, she glared back.

“Yeah, there are. Really. It’s just—”

Partial darkness enveloped them as all but the center rail lighting and emergency lights went out. Angie felt the gravity vector shift from slightly off perpendicular to straight down. She knew that shift; the drive reactor had tripped again. Only the habitat spin-induced gravity was left to hold her down.

The entire group had started to move even before the announcement: “Reactor trip. Casualty assistance team two report. Power loss shift three report.” An ear splitting warbling alarm sounded and the announcement repeated.

“That’s me,” Angie said. “Gotta get to hydroponics.” Her voice sounded extra loud without ventilation fans to talk over. She never noticed them when they were on, but it was so quiet without them.

“You on casualty assistance team 2 now?”

“Yeah, right. Dang, my mom is though.” Angie had eaten lunch with her mom after her shift as a reactor operator before heading out with the other kids. They had made plans to watch some old movies later after Dad went on-shift. Wouldn’t happen how.

“Me too, I got aft fan bay work.” Danny took off, running straight spinwise.

Angie looked at Byron. “You work this shift?”

“No.”

“Then make sure these two get to their school shelter. And not eaten by monsters.”

“There are no monsters,” April yelled back.

“Who died and made you Captain?”

Ignoring Byron, Angie took off up the road in a trot, brown ponytail bouncing. As she ran, she looked up at the arching cylinder over her head. Let’s see, where am I? She had no choice but to go the quarter length up to Barrel Circle, but which way to turn then? She mentally sighed after seeing the large red park pavilion was only a short distance reverse-spin on Barrel Circle, and stairs behind the pavilion lead almost right down the three levels to the hydroponics bay she was assigned to. Not too bad. Last time her and Jenni were hanging out at the front wall, forcing her to run three-quarters length and half way around the world.

She jogged up the road almost 400 yards to reach Barrel Circle since with the power drop the trams were nonop. She passed a stopped tram where a couple of people helped an old lady from the elevated track down to walking level. The other riders had already scattered to their respective no-power locations. She had seen the tram working earlier and had hoped to ride it back home – a rare event since they only seemed to work when they wanted to and not working was becoming the norm. Along the road were fields of various vine-y food plants, too big and bulky for easy hydroponics growing, many of them wrapped around wire meshes so they looked like poorly pruned bushes with big variously colored flowers. None of them were producing yet, so she didn’t know what they were. Probably zucchini, since it seemed every other field was zucchini. Angie hated zucchini, but there was always so much of it and Mom and Dad both loved it cooked 8000 ways.

Before Angie was half way to the pavilion the light had faded to almost full darkness, making the pits in the road hard to see. Down the centerline of the habitat ran a huge tube which was both part of the drive system and the main lighting. With the reactor trip, the ram scoop had collapsed and the light, which was a by-product of the hydrogen ions from the scoop being funneled down the tube, went away. She snapped on the flashlight hanging from her belt and kept on running. She could see other spots of moving lights in the cylindrical arch over her head and the bright places which merited emergency lighting. The bouncing lights almost looked like the fireflies that lived in the forward meadow park.

Turning onto Barrel Circle, one of nine roads which fully circled the habitat, she ran with the fields on one side and a chestnut and walnut forest on the other. The trees formed a solid wall along the road. Wispy grey webbing hung between the trees above head height to collect falling nuts. Reaching the pavilion, hands on knees, she gasped for breath before descending three decks to the second level.

When she arrived, the hydroponics bay was dark except for the two emergency lights, one in the far corner and one by the cycles. A sweet fragrance from some flowering plant filled the air. Cory was already at work at their station . One chain lay on the floor between the cycles and the pumps and he was struggling with a second chain stretched from one of the cycles to a system pump.

“Hi, pull the cycle wheel forward so I can get it over this sprocket.”

“Nice day to you too.” Still panting, Angie held the wheel release while giving the cycle wheel a tug and heard Cory grunt as the chain dropped into place. Early on, they had always waited for some of the adults to do this, but lately, they had started doing it themselves. Adults could do it faster, but they had other stuff to do and took forever to get there. It was quicker for the kids to just do it themselves, especially when they experienced a reactor trip, rather than a planned no-power event. Or more precisely, a planned all-possible-power–to-the-drive-so-we-can-get-into-orbit-around-this-star event. She slipped the second chain over the cycle hub of the other cycle and rocked the cycle wheel forward while Cory dropped the chain into place on the pump. Then they each climbed on a cycle and started pedaling. In the dim light, they could see the plants at the near end slightly sway as the water circulation resumed.

For over a year, this had been Angie’s power-loss station. Getting casualty position assignments had been her 10th birthday present just like every other 10 year old. About 19 months before, after the navigation team realized they needed more power to slow down to insert into stellar orbit, a plan was concocted to use all available power for 18 out of the 24 hour day. They really wanted all power, but some things simply had to be powered each day, such as the growing lights on the massive hydroponic farms on the second level. Without those plants, it didn’t matter if they went into orbit since everyone would starve. And the plants in the hydroponic bay needed water circulation if the pumps were going to be off very long. So, Angie got assigned a six hour shift riding a cycle during the no-power time. Her mom had told her that with the toned legs she’d get, the boys would be going crazy for her. She couldn’t believe her mother had said that, and in front of her dad, too.

“You got here quick,” Angie said.

“Yeah, I was sitting under a walnut tree just across Barrel Circle watching bugs crawl up the trunk.” Cory finished wiping the chain grease off his hands onto a towel and tossed it over to her. “I brought us some nuts for a snack.”

Angie laughed; how totally Cory to be watching bugs. “You’re stealing food supplies? I’m going to tell.”

“They were on the ground. Any on the ground are fair game. Besides, if you eat any of them you’ll be an accomplice.”

Cory was a complete nerd with almost nonexistent social skills, but he was able to talk about a huge range of topics. He considered everything worth learning about and really did try to be nice, even if he was clueless about how to do it. After a few weeks of disbelief that she had to be stationed with such a total dork, Angie realized she actually liked him. At first he had made a bunch of insulting comments, but then she realized he really just didn’t know how to talk to her. Eventually, he had relaxed and really wasn’t that bad to talk to. They did their math and science homework together. It passed the time while pedaling and they were both quick studies and helped push each other.

Plus, Cory was a much better teammate than Kevin, the third member of their team who was supposed to rotate positions with them. Instead, he was a lazy jerk who barely pedaled during his turns and didn’t even show up half the time. And when he did show up, all he wanted to do was play games with his tablet and complain that he had to game solo since online connections dropped during a power outage.

Cory’s tablet glowed from the table on the front of the cycle. “You got your tablet?”

“No. I was out bumming with other kids. It’s sitting on my desk.”

“Bumming. Sounds like fun.”

Well, yeah, bumming around was fun. That’s why you did it. But did Cory? Angie wasn’t sure if she had ever seen Cory hanging out with other kids. Granted with 75,000 people in the habitat and him going to a different school, she didn’t see him much outside of this room. But still, she pondered if he did actually go out bumming. Had older kids scared him with the drive monster stories? Would it be bumming to sit with him and watch bugs crawl up trees? Strange, she actually sort of felt like she wanted to do that.

Cory tapped the tablet screen. “I can share. We just shan’t read any novels.”

“We shan’t? I do believe my heart shall break.”

“Can I dissect it then?”

Cory ducked as the greasy towel flew past his head.

“Now you two, no horseplay while you work. Throwing stuff around will only get you hurt. Did you hook up the belts by yourself again?”

Angie rolled her eyes. “Yes, Ms. Waterton, we hooked up the chains.” Of the three adults who worked this set of hydroponics bays, she was the worst one. None under 30 should be working as far as she was concerned. She felt they had to be supervised every second and felt no hesitation telling them that. Not to mention that she considered the plants her personal responsibility and any deviation of light or water flow was capital crime. These cycles barely made a quarter of normal powered-pump flow and she feared for the plants lives.

“You could have gotten a hand caught without anyone to lend medical help.”

She had said the same thing last time and the time before that. “Both of us were here,” Cory said, “the other one could have called for help. Just like the buddy system they teach in school. Plus, we both know first aid.”

Ms. Waterton glared at Cory for daring to disagree with her.

“Well, someone adult should be in here with you in case of trouble. I would stay but simply must go check on other bays. I just don’t think you are old enough to be putting on the belts by yourself.”

“Bye, Ms. Waterton,” they said in unison. Angie made shooing motions with her hands at Ms. Waterton’s retreating back.

“If she tried to put the chains, I mean belts, on, we’d have to call Damage Central for her after she got all tangled up and went around the sprockets a few times.”

“Cory, you’re not supposed to pedal after she gets caught and before you call Damage Central.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’ll get it right next time.” They both laughed.

“You two have gotten up and running already. That’s so good.”

“Hi, Mr. Young,” they said together. Mr. Young was by far their favorite of the adult supervisors. He both trusted them to do the job and talked to them as adults. The other supervisor, while not as bad as Ms. Waterton, also didn’t think they could be trusted with anything besides pedaling.

Mr. Young shined his light on the flow gauge. “Good flow. If we just had lights, these little plants would be so happy.”

Cory’s tablet beeped. “Uh oh.”

“What?”

“They just sent out an announcement that this is a major reactor problem and it may take almost a week to recover. They’ll have the fission reactor online in about 6 hours for vital bus loads. Shut down any non-essential vital bus equipment…non-essential vital equipment? Whatever. Plan on full-time no-power rotation for at least a week.

“A week,” Angie moaned. “That means Mom will be gone at least twice that. She says all shifts work until they collapse, sleep a few hours, and do it again. It took her days to recover after the last time.”

“Mr. Young,” Cory said, “is it true we’re the last generation if we don’t make orbit?”

Mr. Young raised his eyebrows. “And where did you hear that?”

“It’s on some of the unofficial news sites. I mean, we keep having worse and worse reactor trips. Trams and other stuff have been broke for longer than any of us have been alive.”

“I’m only thirty-four; not quite as ancient as I may seem to you. But yes, I’ve heard those same stories on the unofficial news sites. That’s one way to describe them: The drive reactor is a problem. You do realize it’s been going for over one hundred years, since the explosion, without an overhaul? It’s supposed to have a full overhaul every fifteen years.”

“Every fifteen years!”

“Yes. Shut down one reactor for a year long overhaul while using the other two for power. Unfortunately, when one blew up and took out the second, that made it rather hard to do a long term shutdown. Or anything but emergency maintenance. So we get what we have now: Increasingly major emergency maintenance or regular maintenance done under less than ideal and often down right dangerous conditions. Such as with Angie’s mom working extra shifts still fixing stuff after power comes back. They have to rush start-up rather than getting everything fixed and then bringing the plant up.”

Angie and Cory were silent. They had never heard it worded quite like that. Angie made a mental note to ask Mom when she finally got back home and finished sleeping. She figured her mom would honestly answer; at least, she rarely tried to hide or sugar coat answers to Angie’s questions.

“Have either of you see Kevin?” Mr. Young asked.

Two heads shook no.

“If he’s not back when I make my next round, I’ll write up another complaint. That boy has got to learn some responsibility. Last time his mother swore he was here working the entire time. He had assured her was.”

“What, no way!” Angie said. “He wandered away his first break and never came back. Didn’t they catch him playing arc ball?”

“I know. But he has close family friends here.” Mr. Young sighed. “Well, Angie and Cory, I’ve got other bays to check. Keep up the good work. This is going to be another long grind. We can only pray they don’t get much longer. And remember, take your 1 in 3 breaks. You need the breaks to still have leg strength at the end of the shift.”

“We will.” Cory and Angie waved. “Bye, Mr. Young.”

They pedaled in silence for a few minutes. Cory spoke, “How about if we work on the bio-swamp sim. That should be easy with only one tablet. And I think last time we almost had figured out how to shape it into a self-sustaining ecosystem.”

Angie pedaled for a few seconds before replying. “This habitat really isn’t self- sustaining, is it?”

“What?”

“Well,” Angie paused, collecting her thoughts, “it’s mostly self-sustaining. I mean, it’s lasted over 200 years since it left Earth and however many generations of people during this interstellar flight already. But things are breaking more and more. If it was self-sustaining, that shouldn’t be happening. Is anything really self-sustaining?”

“Oh, I get what you mean.” Cory thought for a while, “No, I don’t think so. Even on Earth, evolution and climate changes would change the environment, forcing any perfectly balanced self-sustaining ecosystem to adjust itself. After the adjustment it may not be perfectly balanced or self-sustaining anymore. Sort of like that ice ecosystem we had to simulate a few months ago.”

“But that was sim of ice and animals and water circulation. There was no technology. None of the sims ever have any technology. Why don’t we try a sim that includes technology and see what happens?”

“None of our sims include people either, now that I think about it. And this place is all technology and people. We have lots of energy… when it works. But our material technology runs down and wears out. We’re supposed to be able to rebuild everything, but somehow stuff is breaking faster than we can fix it now.”

The three tone general announcement sounded. “This is the Captain. Astrogation says we are currently in orbit around Dalgon’s star. However, they also say it’s a highly elliptical 600 year orbit with a perigee that is too far out to be useful for solar power or anything else. And we’re 213 years from perigee anyway. Well, people, we are here and we are here to stay. Once we get the drive back up, we’ll maneuver to get into an orbit closer to the asteroid belt. The initial maneuver should only take about three or four weeks of our standard no-power sequencing to move us into the right trajectory.”

Angie and Cory high-fived in the air between the cycles since they couldn’t reach each other. “Yes, in orbit.”

“Of course,” Cory said, “I think an asteroid belt orbit is something like five to ten years away.”

“Good, it’ll be time to pick a career then. I think I’ll be an engineer building the new habitat. Hey, let’s sim the new habitat.”

Cory tapped his tablet a few times. “Ok, what are the basic parameters going to be?”

“Well, we’ll need a technology failure function.”

Angie and Cory smiled at each other as they pedaled.


About the Author

Michael Albers most of his time writing academic prose as a technical communication professor at East Carolina University. Thus, although he has a bunch of published work, this is his first fiction publication. Other important aspects of his life all seem to revolve around his Old English Sheepdog and keeping her happy.

Michael can be reached at malbers@acm.org.

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