Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bill Can't Sleep in Space by Jim Red Ryder

Bill can't sleep without the orange pill. He twists and turns on his sleeping mat. His sleeping compartment is no longer a comfortable, molded, padded little cocoon; instead the air is at once too dry and terribly clammy. He hates the idea of dragging through his work shift sick with fatigue. So Bill washes down the pill with a sip of ration-water, then settles back to watch his cartoons and reruns of ``77 Sunset Strip'', enjoying the rapid descent feeling while going to sleep in his snug little compartment aboard the drug tug CCVS, traversing the outer sline of the Rabicus System.

Bill is groggy in the morning so he takes a bright yellow ``sunny'' pill and another sip of ration-water before cleaning off with the slippery stone and pulling on a soft gray work suit and soft boots. His hair is stubble short, so there's no grooming there, and he only shaves his spare beard once a week. Bill's pale, strangely round, pale and drawn face stares at him like a disturbed person from the small mirror on the bulkhead.

He goes into the molded, padded passageway, a slightly darker tone of gray than his suit, and heads to the galley. The galley is several machines set into the bulkhead. Bill takes yum-yum wafers, veg pills, and erz coffee, which resembles Earth coffee in spirit and color, and has vitamins and minerals in it. The crew of three aboard CCVS drinks erz coffee and the ration water, and they are always thirsty by the time they come in for refit. Other than being constantly thirsty (even though they capture and recycle every drop of moisture with a body harness, it's really not enough), life aboard is comfortable compared to working in a mine on the surface of one of these dreadful, blowing planets they glide past. The captain, Margery, blew off the topic at a crew meeting. ``By the time your kidneys fail they'll replace us with robots, so learn to live with it or go live on one of the colonies. Ugh.'' The all shuddered. While Bill had his breakfast, he was joined by another crew member, ``Dino'' who should have been on his sleep shift. Dino had insomnia, but for some reason was up like he was working a second shift.

``Take your pill, Dino, and get some sleep,'' Bill said.

Margery's voice came over a speaker. She had been monitoring the ship from the flight deck.

``Dino, why are you awake? I hate it when we get off program.'' Margery's voice, when annoyed, sounded the same as all her moods. Tight, faintly hostile, monotone. She knew everything about running a drug tug, from raw materials to engineering to navigation to dealing with pirates.

``I'll just have a word with Bill, Margery, and then I'll turn in.''

There was no answer from the flight deck. Dino turned to Bill, and put his keen pale face close to Bill's blank, round, stubbly face.

``Bill, have you ever had real coffee?'' Dino asked, with great intensity that was almost suffocating. Bill made a mental note to write in his ``Dino'' diary after shift. Dino was ``funny'', and it had to be documented.

``What do you mean by real, Dino. And back up. Why are you so close?''

``Coffee made of real beans, from Earth. I was born on Earth.''

``You lived there a month'', Bill said.

``But at least I was born there.''

``Well, that's something to cling to, Dino.''

Bill didn't understand the point of this, nor did he care about Earth. Bill was born on Base Mobus, and Captain Margery was born on the India Star. They had never been to Earth. And frankly, Bill thought, who would want to? Insane, collapsed hell hole. And the emigrants who made it out, conned by the old emigrant bait of a new life on a new star, got a rude coming-to when they woke from their space slumber to find they were going to work in a Holdenite mine, or worse, on a planet that called 200 mph surface winds breezes.

``Dino, turn in! That's an order!'' Margery's voice shook them both back into real time. Bill went off to fill prescriptions and Dino moved off as if to go to his compartment.

Sometime later, Bill was returning from his break to his pill station where he place completed scripts on a go plate and they zoomed off to the customer. He was surprised to see Margery there when he returned. Her spiky hair was spikier than normal. It seemed to be twitching.

``Dino's hiding'', Margery said. ``He's gotten funny. I'm keeping a log on him.''

``Some am I,'' Bill said.

Actually, they all kept log on the other two. They all thought the other two was ``funny'', and needed to be dealt with.

They found him at the rear cargo bay, staring through a large guide window set in the bulkhead at an unidentified craft trailing their ship. The giant UFO looked like a glowing piece of crumpled metal that occasionally throbbed, like a human heart.

``What do you think it is?'' Bill asked.

``They want drugs,'' Margery said. `There's nothing we can do if they pull something, and we're too far away from any help. We'll wait and see,'' she said, resignedly. Then she turned on Dino.

`` Get in your compartment and sleep, Mister. Or I'll have you put under heavy sedation.''

This command got through to Dino, and he moved off in the direction of living quarters.

Bill went back to work, trying to assume Margery's nonchalance toward the alien craft trailing them. But she was right. What was to be done except to carry on? He was full of dread, just the same, and had a weird, vibration feeling as if a low grade electric shock was passing through him and every surface he touched. Bill took a purple pill with a swig of ration-water, and waited for the wave of relief. There was nothing he had ever experienced that delivered well-being and vitality like a purple, and as a testament to its power and versatility, it even work on other species. There was data on it, and Bill remembered it vividly from pharmacy college. In fact, he was remembering everything vividly. When he was done with the shift, he was weary but still elevated from the purple. He stopped and had an erz coffee. He even chatted with Dino, who was back now for his shift in the pill-hold. Dino was drawn, dark under his eyes, pale, stubbly.

Bill went back to his compartment and watched cartoons after taking an orange pill. Soon, he was asleep. He was awakened by a something, and when he saw it, he knew that it was the feeling of another presence in his compartment that had awakened him.

Something that looked like a bearded man with a shiny metallic plate in his head, a shock of silver hair and luminous white skin hovered above Bill, levitated several inches above the deck with toes pointed down. At first, Bill thought the thing was an angel, but the death mask face was not in the least angelic.

``Who are you,'' Bill asked, ``And what do you want?''

``My name is Abraham Lincoln, and I want drugs. Take me down to where the drugs are.''

They were heading to the hold, down the passageway, Bill padding along in sleep slippers and the apparition of Abraham Lincoln following, gliding along.

Margery, who was a awake on the flight deck, picked up the image of Bill leading Lincoln on her screen, and she hurried down to where they were heading.

``What do you want?'' Margery demanded. Dino stood behind her, his face paler than normal, speechless.

``As I told Bill, I am Abraham Lincoln and I want drugs.''

What kind of drugs?'' Margery asked.

``Purples'', Lincoln said. ``Prepare one Jovian ton and send it via you go plate to out vessel that waits abaft.''

``One Jovean ton will seriously deplete us, but we can manage,'' Margery said. ``Are you going to pay us?''

Lincoln seemed to consider this question, the silver beard working as the jaw chewed over the question.

``What is `pay'?'' Lincoln answered, finally.

``That's it, boys, we're getting robbed.''

``We better get busy,'' Bill said to Dino.

It took the three of them the rest of the shift to complete the order. When the last bin of pills was sent to the ship, Lincoln, who had hung over the work like a supervisor suspended on stage wires, asked for a purple pill.

``So, you probably assumed the image of Lincoln because you thought we'd recognize him immediately. You probably don't really look like Lincoln.

Lincoln swallowed the pill, closed his eyes, and opened them.

``Of course I don't look like that, `` he said. ``I look like THIS!!!''

Margery and Dino were screaming when something resembling a tentacle curled around Bill's leg and started dragging him away.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sharon, from Upstairs

The most frightening thing about Sharon's taking over was that she came onto the floor without an entourage. She swept in alone wearing a gray suit, carrying a thin attaché. She was tall, slender with medium cut ash blond hair. She went into her office and began talking on her tiny phone, tapping notes into her thin device as she spoke. We all watched her from the floor. Her office wall was glass, and looked out onto the sales floor. The other bosses had kept the curtain drawn, but not Sharon. She wanted to be seen, we thought. She didn’t sip from a cup or a water bottle.
“Go to work, you bastards,” Harding said to everyone. He was retiring, had seen it all before and knew that the best thing you can do is go about your business while the new boss settled in.
The next day, a large man in a gray suit came in and began work in the secretary station. He looked like a paratrooper who had wandered into Barney‘s for a makeover.
“Sharon’s secretary,” Lisa said. “A guy, that’s so great.”
The secretary was Jim. He was polite, but silent, and set about running Sharon’s office. Her phone rang continuously. Jim managed the calls and Sharon’s calendar. No one breezed in past Jim to talk with Sharon. She took her coat off, and worked in a white blouse. Her nails were the color of wedding ribbon.
The third part of Sharon’s team came in. Jack Busby, from Accounting. He smiled and looked shaved, showered, powdered and ready to downsize. Busby left a curl of cologne behind him as he swept by on his way to Sharon’s office. We watched him in with Sharon through the glass. She spoke and he listened. He was getting some orders, and he was paying attention, the bastard.
“That’s it. We’re dead,” Wolcott said. He stood there in his charcoal gray suit with sherbet tie. He suddenly looked like he needed a shave.
“Accounting. Christ, Jesus,” Tony said, getting ready to go out on the road. “Nice knowin’ you pricks.”
“Anybody going out make you're you’re back by three,” Harding said, affably, nodding at Tony. “Sharon has called a meeting in the big room. Goals. Get your ducks in nice rows for Sharon. Poor bastards.”
Everyone hated Harding. He was retiring, and he was enjoying this too much. Everybody hated him.