Written for the 2007 TIWF Challenge, to write a "fish out of water" story in which one or more characters is placed in a situation opposite what they're best at.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading.
None of these characters belong to me. I'm just playing with them for fun.
Fish out of water
You'd think I'd like it up here.
I thought I'd like it up here. Better than this, at any rate. I mean, it doesn't sound so very different from my old career, and I loved that. Down there, a sealed box in the depths of the ocean, ice cold water and instant death outside. Up here, a sealed box in the depths of space, hard vacuum and instant death outside. This box even has a particularly fine view.
So, what doesn't it have? First, and most obvious: people. Four doesn't have people either, but I'm never in Four for more than a few hours at a stretch. WASP's subs, anything large enough to live on, have a full crew. Too many, at times. Given the choice between this and a shared bunk, I'd take this. Just about. But I do miss people. Talking over the comm system just isn't the same. I miss walking into the living room and hearing Virgil berating himself about getting the fingering in his scales wrong. Listening to Scott and Father discussing a quirk of some plane I've never heard of. Kyrano and Grandma getting quietly heated about the finer points of pastry making. Tin-Tin and Alan whispering as they leave the room hand in hand. Up here I only hear what everyone wants me to hear. I never knew how much I'd miss those random titbits of information.
And to think that I might have been up here on a regular basis. With hindsight, I'm quite sure that it would have been a total disaster. I'd have hated every moment I was up here, and wasted my time on the ground dreading coming back. If, of course, I'd been fit. When I was in a wheelchair and the station was going to be a zero-g environment, being able to get around easily was a huge attraction. I don't think you can understand what it's like to be crippled and dependent until you've experienced it. Two years later, and I'm forgetting how bad it was myself. The mind selectively wipes things it doesn't want to remember, and that experience sure qualifies.
No, this is a one-off, and it's my own fault I'm up here. Sort of. Sure, John's a responsible adult, and he's done a fair bit of snorkelling. But he's not an experienced diver, not like I am. Allergy meds and diving don't mix too well, but he didn't say he'd taken any, I didn't think to ask, and it wasn't until we were close to resurfacing that he said he wasn't feeling so good. Well, we came up real slow, but he still surfaced with a killer headache and a nosebleed we couldn't stop. That took Brains and a cauteriser, and a piece of minor surgery I don't like to think about too hard. And, obviously, John launching in Three the following day was out of the question for after that.
We could have left Alan up there, I guess – but it was his birthday the following day, and I couldn't bear the desolate look on Tin-Tin's face when we discussed the options. No, Alan had to come back as planned. Scott suggested we draw for it, but that didn't seem fair when neither he nor Virgil had been involved. And then there was the small matter of Alan's present from me. I'd already wrapped it, everything was ready to go, and the thought of him opening it with me watching, but completely, totally inaccessible for his revenge, sitting however many thousand miles up in geostationary orbit, was irresistible. So, Scott brought me up in Three, actually getting to pilot that big red lump for once. It made his day, even if Alan did probably push him out of the pilot's seat for the trip back down – and here I am. Nine days into a thirty day shift, and I'm counting every hour.
John's spent a fair amount of time talking to me – partly because he feels guilty, but also because he's not allowed to do much else. Certainly no strenuous exercise until he's fully healed, and no going outside and sneezing his head off either. But we don't have much in common, John and I. We both like diving, though he's much more into snorkelling, but that doesn't seem like a good topic of conversation right now. I asked him what he does up here, hoping I'd somehow missed the cupboard full of exciting activities, but it seems not. He does a lot of astronomy. I've carried on some observations for him, but it's been at the 'now punch the third button from the left' level. The interesting stuff, the analysis, is so far beyond me I can't even start. It's not going to be my favourite hobby any time soon.
He reads a lot. Unfortunately real books are way too heavy to ship up here. John says he's used to reading on a computer screen, but it makes my eyes ache, and I keep losing my place on the page.
Then, there's chess. Sometimes with Scott or Virgil, more often with one of his many e-friends from across the globe. Those who even know what his real name is probably presume he's on the island.
He plays computer games. But they're not what I'd call computer games, they're more the sort of puzzles you could do with pencil and paper if you wanted to. I'm much more into the interactive type: shoot the bad guys, rescue the pretty girls, drive the fast cars. Father says they're a hazard in this situation, because I might miss something coming in on the comms channel. He's right, I guess.
And he does the job he's here for in the first place. He keeps Five running. When it was agreed I should come up here, John was vehement that I shouldn't do routine outside maintenance. I'm glad Father agreed with him, because I wouldn't be safe. It's way too much like diving, but the differences can kill you. I'd be fine with the tanks, the clumsy gloves, not being able to scratch my nose, but my safety instincts are the wrong way round. If something happens, my instincts are to cut loose, cast off lines and get as far away as possible. Do that up here and I'd be in for a long, cold death. There's no swimming back in space.
John talks to our rescuees, too. That's the only part of his job we normally see. Filtering the information on who needs us, where and why. Getting it to Scott in One, to Father at base so he can decide who to send out with Virgil in Two, and which pod they should take. Reassuring the victims that they're not alone. That someone is coming to save them.
I know that just occasionally there's been nothing he can do. Pilots calling 'mayday' moments before their planes crash. People crying out for help who had no chance of survival even had we been right there. I don't know how he faces being the last person to talk to them. I'm really hoping I won't have to.
Alan works up here too, of course. But Alan's approach is different. Alan overdoses on activity and social contact while he's down on Earth, and then uses his month of quiet to recover. That wouldn't work for me either. I need a nice constant diet of people, not a wild blitz and then nothing. Plus, Alan has this vast international network of friends. I dread to think what his cellphone bill looks like. Up here he can sit and chat to his heart's content for free, and from things he's said I think he does just that, sixteen hours a day.
I like talking to people in person, and the phone just isn't the same. Even if it was, I've lost touch with most of the people I'd called friends. The swimmers thought I was mad to pack it in when I did and go to WASP, and my old WASP colleagues aren't comfortable with someone who was invalided out of a job they're still doing. I'm a horrible liar. I always have been, and I avoid having to lie by wearing normal shoes if I go to meet one of them. My right leg's nearly an inch shorter than my left now, and without a built-up shoe I limp like crazy. And at that point nobody asks me what I'm doing now, or what my plans are. I guess they're afraid I might decide they're the shoulder I want to cry on.
It's all been quiet up here so far, but suddenly the air's filled with noise. Sirens and bells. The lights flash red. And the transmission which has got the computer's attention is played loudly over the speaker.
You were wrong, Dad. The computer game hasn't been invented that would stop me noticing this. Then again, it does have to distract Alan from his friends. Harder still, John from his telescope.
I listen to their message, and my heart sinks. Three divers, trapped in a wreck. Five hours of air left, which should be plenty, but they're down deep, and would-be rescuers have already tried and failed to get them out. They're none too clear on exactly what the problem is, but I can forgive them that, something maybe John wouldn't. Pressure makes you confused. I've been trained to make decisions under those sorts of conditions. Unless there's a WASP rescue diver there on holiday, chances are whoever went down there to try to help couldn't figure out where to start.
Four can get these people out, no problem. Forget trying to reopen their entrance route, and cut a diver-sized hole in the side of the wreck. Park right next to it, a bright light illuminating the open airlock door, and even the most confused, pressure-affected diver should be able to figure it out. And if they can't, I could go out and guide them in.
I could. But I'm on Five. Scott's going to be the one doing this, and if I'm a fish out of water, he's a bird under it. Not a penguin, either.
Scott in Four. Heaven help me, trying to stay calm up here. This is going to be the hardest thing I've faced so far.
I reach out and thumb the communications switch, and despite my concern I feel the corners of my mouth twitch in a smile. I've always wanted to say this.
"Father? Someone needs our help."