Jardel paused outside the maintenance tube and placed her helmet on. She tucked her hair in and the helmet magnetically aligned itself with the suit as she put it on and snapped into place. She felt the counter-rotating seals lock themselves to the suit, causing her ears to feel as if they were going to pop. She forced a couple of yawns and her ears adjusted to the pressure.
“All systems online,” Sally, the suit’s A.I. said. “Shall I perform a diagnostic?”
“No,” Jardel said. “It’s just a maintenance tube.”
She opened the door to the tube and floated in. The door slid shut behind her and Jardel grabbed the metal ladder. Soft lights flickered on in her immediate vicinity. The tube went straight up and straight down at least a thousand meters in each direction, but she could not see past ten meters.
“Turn on the lights to the tube, Sally,” Jardel said.
“I’m sorry, but the jump is in less than eight hours,” Sally said. “Power conservation rules are in affect.”
Jardel sighed. She wasn’t scared of the dark, she just preferred the light. The autonomous lights above and below her would keep up with her, no matter how fast she climbed up the ladder, but it reminded her of driving down a dark, country road. You never knew when a deer or a pedestrian or worse would suddenly show up in your headlights and if they did it was usually too late to do anything about it.
“Start timer,” she said as she grabbed the metal ladder and furiously climbed up. The lights in front of her moved with her and as she glanced down the lights beneath her followed close behind, only illuminating a few meters. She had looked around a little too quick and got a little dizzy. She had to check herself as there was no easy way to orient without gravity. She could be going the wrong way. She paused for a moment and double checked the labels on one of the utility conduits to make sure she was going up toward the Norizian deck and not down toward the inner levels.
Satisfied, she pulled herself quickly up the ladder, climbing a new level with each downward stroke. As always she was trying to break Steadman’s record and she was slowly getting better. The trick to low gravity ladder scaling in a maintenance tube was to keep the inside arch of your boots barely touching the outside of the ladder and the outside of your boot barely touching the inside of the wiring conduits. Just let them ping pong gently off the ladder and conduit while dog-paddling the rungs furiously. Seen from the below, it almost looked as if you were being propelled up the maintenance tube by an silent, cosmic fart. Seen from above it looked quite ridiculous.
Jardel climbed and climbed, the lights keeping up with her, illuminating a brief space before her and below. She got in a good rhythm and felt really good. For a time she forgot all about the jump and just was. After several thousand meters she reached the Norizian deck and jammed her feet into the boot stops.
“10 minutes 47 seconds, my champion,” Sally said.
Jardel yanked open the visor on her helmet to get some fresh air. “Dammit. That’s two seconds worse than last time and five seconds worse than Steadman,” she said, slightly out of breath.
“Well, you have increased your intake of ‘Bill’s Belligerent Barleywine’ by an average of 4 percent each night since the hull breach.”
“You’re right,” Jardel said, still unhappy. “From now on Sally, I want you to address me as ‘Fat Ass’.”
“Okay, from now on I’ll call you fata sssss,” Sally replied.
“No,” Jardel said impatiently. “Fat. Ass.”
“Never mind,” Jardel replied, loosening the strap around her glove. “You suck.”
“Initiating Sexual Routine 3,” Sally said.
“No! I just need a shower,” Jardel yelled.
“Not yet!” Jardel mumbled.
Jardel was in the process of pulling off her glove by biting the fingers with her teeth when Sally closed her helmet shield to initiate the shower routine. Since the glove prevented the shield from closing all the way, the routine should have been aborted; however Jardel had long ago jimmy-rigged the dead man switch because she couldn’t stand the sound of that damn dinging bell in her ear whenever it didn’t close properly due to her illegally smoking or eating or snogging the cute intern. True, sometimes not having the warning did cause problems, such as when she inadvertently wandered outside the ship, but you could always regrow lips and eyelids, so she figured it was a good trade-off.
But when there was a shower routine involved, it meant that a lot of hot water sprayed out of her visor like some supernova sneeze, which of course set off the water detectors. Uncontained water on a starship was as big a concern as uncontained fire.
Several things happened at once. A beep much louder than the one she detested beeped, a bright strobe light flashed (not sure how that helped anyone), the tube was instantly sealed above her head and below her feet, and all the air was sucked out of the area she occupied. Since the glove was still stuck in her visor, a lot of the air was also sucked out of Jardel.
Fortunately, Sally detected the problem, took over Jardel’s suit, opened her visor, and reached up to remove the glove from it. Unfortunately, Sally was never as accurate as her maker boasted and so Sally overextended Jardel’s hand so much so that Jardel punched herself in the face several times before Sally got the distance right and swatted the glove out of the helmet. The visor shut down and the water alarm, having sucked all the moisture out of the air, also abated.
After gasping for air, Jardel screamed, “Why didn’t you just shut off the alarm?!”
Sally paused for a moment as she compared Jardel’s suggestion to her previous actions and a few trillion other possibilities.
“Subroutine updated. From now on, I’ll cut off the alarm before taking over your suit. Do you still want a shower?”
“No!” Jardel said, trying to grab the free floating glove. “Just wash my stinky parts and apply deodorant.”
“Fatas, the majority of your body is a stinky part. May I suggest it is more efficient to do a full body…”
“Okay, Okay, just… let me get out of this death tube. Open the deck door please.”
The deck door opened and Jardel moved quickly onto the Norizian deck. She felt better there because it took much longer for any alarm to evacuate all the air in such a space.
“Okay, shower please,” Jardel said.
Sally started the shower routine and in just a couple minutes Jardel had been lathered, rinsed and dried all within the confines and privacy of her uniform. She felt the need for a cigarette and lifted her visor.
“How long to scan this deck?” Jardel asked.
“6.732 hours, based on your average scanning times.”
“Damn. How long if I huff it?” Jardel asked.
“Huff it?” Sally inquired.
“Yeah, if I double my walking speed.”
“Your rate of travel has very little to do with your predicted time to scan. On average you only spend two of the six point seven hours locomoting. You spend the remaining four hours smoking, drinking, talking, and defecating.”
“So if I cut out all that other stuff, it’s still gonna take me two hours?”
“At least,” Sally said with a tone that Jardel didn’t much care for.
“Motherfucker!” Jardel said. “I’m tired. To hell with this goddamned power conservation, I’m taking the elevator when I’m done with my shift! We’re all gonna die anyway.”
Jardel had stepped out of the maintenance tube and was in one of the many parks scattered around the Norizian deck. In this particular park there was a small crowd of adults and young children gathered to watch the jump from one of the enormous view ports. The port was one of the biggest windows on the ship, probably fifty meters wide and a hundred meters tall and through it you could see hundreds of the other commonwealth ships preparing for the jump by clustering together into a tight, mesmerizing formation. It was an incredible display to behold, but none of them were looking at the spectacle. Instead, they were all staring at Jardel in such a way that Jardel knew they had heard her profanity laced tirade. Two of the parents turned their kids away so as not to see or hear anything else Jardel did.
Jardel responded in the usual way she did when she found herself in an embarrassing situation. She presented the onlookers both of her middle fingers and informed them that they should all go have sex with themselves. This resulted in the rest of the parents turning their kids away and moving closer to the screen and farther away from Jardel. A few of the men yelled obscenities back at Jardel, but she simply closed her helmet visor. The men could only see small, distorted versions of themselves in the reflective gold solar visor.
Sally sighed. “Would you like me to play some really loud music so you don’t have to hear them?”
“Hell yes,” Jardel said. “Hell. Fucking. Yes.”
Sally cranked up the music and Jardel stared at the giant view port, impervious to their taunts.