A long time ago NASA used to be the big shot in space travel, then an entrepreneur called Teddy Carlson came along and turned it into a tourist attraction. While the other agencies were concerned about comets and distant planets he set his sights a little closer to home, taking baby steps to get to the larger goals. That’s why he became the success story that outshone the professionals. Suitably impressed, the European Space Agency partnered with him, he might not be a man of science but he was interested and he did have money. They brought his team on board and together they started seriously considering travelling to Mars.
So the authority in space travel became the ESA. They fronted everything, from orbital missions to fighting jets. As they grew more popular and colonisation on Mars a reality the European Space Agency became the Earth Space Agency. Ever since war became a likelihood the agency made a very subtle shift from a science haven to military outfit – they still had their brains but they’ve surrounded it with brawn. Not only were they at the forefront of space exploration, they were also in charge of defending our planet with whatever force necessary. From here, politics was the natural progression. The agency on Mars was always left catching up, the tech it uses always just one step behind the ESA – like the battle between Apple and Samsung way back when, only on a much larger scale.
Which explains why the official name of the training station is the Carlson Development Centre and pretty much every surface was branded with the ESA logo. A constant reminder of our history and why we were there in the first place, when I initially stepped off the shuttle it was impressive. The welcome court was spacious and packed full of stores that could be found at home. There wasn’t really much need for Internet shopping here because it was so enclosed, plus a few psychologists got together and thought it would be better if we went out and experienced a social life in reality rather than virtually. So the welcome court was pretty much a cross between an airport and shopping centre.
Instead of departures being featured on the electronic boards it was the schedules for different regiments. What was the point of having fun if it wasn’t rigorously organised? At the moment the closest screen flashed ‘Welcome to the Carlson Development Centre regiment EE66.’
We only got to crane our necks as we were ushered through the court and into an industrial lift, we glimpsed just enough to know that there was more to see. The lift sped silently past the floors until it came to the one we were to alight at. Here were our sleeping quarters. We each had our own room and bathroom facilities but that would be the only privacy we had for the remainder of our training.
The rooms were already assigned, when I found mine I crossed the threshold with relief. After a long journey with mostly complete strangers it was nice to be somewhere without another person in view. I was about to collapse onto the stiff looking bed when I caught sight of laminated paper resting on the pillow. I scooped it up, dreading some sort of first day induction and found something much worse – an appointment with a doctor.
When space travel became a common occurrence the ESA and its medical team developed an unhealthy obsession with, well, health. Before being herded onto the shuttle we were given a full check over and now we were at our destination we were about to get the same treatment. They were paranoid the journey would have an ill effect on us and that meant getting all space travellers checked up regularly no matter how it interfered with their schedule. My presence was requested at 15:25 for a full physical check-up. A quick look over at the digital interface on the wall opposite the bed said there were a couple of hours going spare before I needed to leave.
Shrugging off my pack I threw it onto the bed and unzipped the upper compartment, dragged out a change of clothes and grabbed a towel from the amenities rack before jumping into the shower. The water massaged my skin, washing away the aches of a long journey and bringing some much needed energy back into my being. It was refreshing and reinvigorating and gave me the sense that I could face whatever was to come next.
Heading to the medical wing meant finding a different set of lifts. In fact, unless travelling with a large group of people or transporting goods, the industrial lift was out of bounds. While I waited I looked out at the infinite sea of space and wondered if I was looking at Earth. Was I even looking in the right direction? Part of my mind was just completing a thought that went something along the lines of ‘everything out here just looks so constant’ while another was chastising the first with ‘of course it isn’t constant, it’s just infinite’, when my eyes interrupted the argument with a ‘hey look, what’s that flashing out there?’
I had to strain my eyes to see properly but there was flight training going on outside. There were single person fighter crafts whizzing around and shooting targets stationed around the centre. When we started colonising Mars the environmentally conscious part of the human race actually came to the forefront and ESA scientists managed to create indestructible metal, so when we practised destroying stuff we wouldn’t be littering space with the debris. I think this Good Samaritan attitude came more from the fact that extra detritus floating around in space meant there was more chance of something falling to Earth and causing damage, rather than a genuine concern about pollution. In comparison, Mars was far more concerned about environmental issues than Earth was ever able to be.
It was beautiful to watch, nothing may have been blown to pieces but when the jets of light hit the metal they burst into random patterns and it was fascinating to see. Like fireworks. All too soon the lift turned up and I was forced to step into it or be late for my appointment.
After the wonders of the outside the lift was positively dull. There was a thumb print scanner and a microphone that activated upon authorisation, just above those was a step by step guide of what to do in case the station was damaged. Cheery reading for sure. Probably the most useful of all was a real time map. Every floor I went past it displayed the floor plan and came with useful labels pointing the hapless wanderer in the right direction. As it slowed to let me off the relevant map popped up and I memorised the way to the medical wing.
People who had never studied the training station would be confused by the layout. Not only was the medical wing on this floor, but it was accompanied by the first of three hydroponic farms. The architect’s logic was that patients in the wing would need medicine, which could be produced from the medicinal herbs grown in the farm next door. There was also a laboratory hidden away somewhere here that developed medicines and treatments. They obviously needed more than plants to make their cures, they relied on goods they could get from the two planets. Mars was the better provider, medically the Martians were more advanced because they had access to natural materials Earth didn’t.
So when I found myself walking down the main corridor it was clogged with tropical smells that seeped from the farm and echoes of the clamour that crept out from the warehouse. Not the most relaxing environment.
A little way up there was a door that mimicked a hospital entrance. It opened automatically to accept and dismiss patients. Part of me expected it to be like a doctor’s surgery, the sort that came with uppity receptionists and months old e-mags to flick through and an annoying radio station that wouldn’t quite fade into the background. Instead it had some of the same grandeur as the Welcome Court, the floor was spotless and the walls immaculate. There were screens dotted around the foyer that kept anyone waiting updated about what was going on. They proudly boasted that the second year recruits were undergoing their flight tests, meanwhile specialists had fixed the virtual reality training system so it was business as usual from 05:00 tomorrow morning.
There was a smiling receptionist waiting opposite the doors. He was logging something into the wing’s computer system, which would undoubtedly be absorbed by the training station as a whole. I strode up to him, poised to say something.
“Ah, you must be one of the new recruits. Do you have your appointment paper?” He said robbing me of the opportunity to speak first.
“Yeah,” I replied, brandishing the paper over the desk. He plucked it from my hand and placed it against the smart screen behind him. In the blink of an eye the paper integrated itself with the screen and disappeared into a cloud of code that told the hospital another patient had arrived.
“If you go down the left hand corridor and follow the blue line you’ll find the right place,” he said with his robotic cheeriness before getting back to tapping away on that screen of his.
I did as instructed and kept to the line.
Something else you might want to know about me; I’m a keen reader. I’ve pretty much devoured all the sci-fi classics, although now they’re just considered fiction, and it seems to me that most people back then thought a lot of jobs would taken up by robots or replaced with other bits of tech by now. Scientists did try to experiment but failed, there were just too many things that could go wrong so they decided the future of robots wouldn’t be replacing humans in what they could already do, but helping them with what they could not.
In that respect the future was very different to what a lot of people in the past predicted. I think one of the main reasons the ESA never considered robotising their training centre task force was a lot to do with psychology. As recruits we were light-years away from home, where our friends and family were, so for the only people outside of the military to be human was a way to keep us at ease and relax in our downtime.
The blue line ended in a clinical waiting room, but no one was sitting down. There were three separate doctors’ offices and each of them had a queue outside. I joined the one for Doctor Andersson and preceded to people watch. Always an effective way to pass the time. I was surprised to see only a few familiar faces; not everyone here was on the same shuttle as me. Eavesdropping on a few bits of polite small talk I gathered that two more had arrived just before us, one from Earth and one Mars, and another Martian shuttle was offloading now.
While the governments on both worlds were trying to keep up the illusion of cooperation the training centre was still a joint venture, but everyone knew that if the relationship was strained so much it snapped this would be Earth’s in the divorce. Likewise, there were other facilities that would belong to Mars.
The queue ticked down and one by one patients were seen. It wasn’t until I was the next in line to see Doctor Andersson that I realised Terra was in the next one over. Her feet were no longer tapping in excitement but she was looking around in bright-eyed wonder. Given the sparse decoration of the waiting room there wasn’t much for her to take in but she absorbed it all anyway. When those eyes finally settled on me she offered an awkward wave. Having sat next to each other for the journey here it would’ve been rude to ignore one another, but we didn’t know each other well, which left us in the strange social position no one likes to grace.We were saved from small talk when I was called in for my appointment.
The office reflected the waiting room; the walls were white and largely undecorated, displaying the compulsory certificates to reassure patients that they were in the hands of someone extremely qualified. The cynic in me, which was like eighty-five percent of my being, wondered if they were real.
“Good afternoon, you must be Scarlett,” a surprisingly gentle voice came from the desk. A tall woman unfolded herself from the chair and proffered a hand. She barely waited for me to shake it before carrying on with the dialogue she knew by heart and must be tired of repeating.
“Welcome to the training station, I hope the journey was uneventful. I’m Doctor Andersson and for as long as you’re at the centre I’ll be your doctor. Now, I know you were checked before leaving Earth but, as I’m sure you know, protocol demands you go through the same examination soon after your arrival here. I don’t expect there to be anything wrong but I just want to make sure.”
She barely even paused for breath as she ticked her way through the script. I shrugged my shoulders and said; “yeah, sure.”
“Sorry about that,” she smiled, “it’s just the ESA require me to say it.”
“I get it. They need to cover their backs.”
She smiled a small acknowledgement to the truthfulness of the statement but not daring to utter her agreement out loud. The examination started with a few questions about how I felt, if there was any lasting nausea or problems with my vision. After the list of questions was exhausted she brought out her diagnostic gadget; it scanned your body and delivered results almost instantly. At first she set it to only scan my eyes. A non-invasive wave of light swept its way across my vision and sent its readings straight back to the doctor. She made notes on her tablet and started to fiddle with the gadget to get ready for the next exam.
“All looks good so far. I just need to do a full scan. Can you remove your clothes and put them on the chair over there,” she gestured towards a metal chair next to her desk.
The problem with these scanners is that they’re a bit fragile. They’re amazing at looking beneath your skin and judging how the mechanics beneath are faring, but ask them to penetrate anything manmade and they find it impossible. So while they meant no more invasive exams from medical professionals they did mean awkwardly standing in front of your physician naked.
I unbuttoned my newly donned top, careful not to crumple it and started the pile of clothes on the chair, which was topped off with my socks; the rest of my underwear hidden in the middle. I stood back in place as soon as I was ready and the cool air nudged against my bare skin; daring goosebumps to appear. Resisting the urge to rub my arms I waited patiently while the doctor aimed the diagnostic device at me and circled. It beeped steadily and she kept her eyes on the small screen.
“Thank you,” she said once she’d completed her circle. I took that as my cue to get dressed again. I won’t say I wasn’t thankful for the small amount of protection my clothes offered.
“Can you tell me how you came by that scar on your abdomen?” She asked, evidently her eyes hadn’t always been on the screen.
“It should be in your notes, I told the last guy,” I pointed at her tablet, she nodded. “An accident when I was younger, I came off worse in a disagreement with a racing bike.”
She was just humouring me of course, it was a subtle question to test my memory. In some rare cases space travel can cause damage to long term memory, but doctors were still in the dark about what causes it and who is most likely to be affected. So they tested everyone until they could narrow it down some more.
After a couple more inane questions I was free to go. Making sure everything was zipped and buttoned correctly I bid her farewell and headed back outside. It was a testament to the organised nature of the training centre that the waiting room wasn’t any less or any more busy than when I left. A few people in the queues were looking around like I had, and they also found it difficult to find anything of particular interest. I made my way past them and back out to the corridor with the blue line.
The smiling receptionist was still happily tapping on his screen and helping whoever approached his desk. Outside the hospital it felt like taking a breath of fresh air, probably due to the hydroponic farm nearby. I was almost at the lift when I heard footsteps behind, a quick glance round revealed Terra. She nodded.
“Well, that wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been,” she shrugged her shoulders emphatically, it was like she couldn’t help but move. “Still could’ve done without it though.”
“I know what you mean, I feel like it was time that could be better spent.”
We reached the lift, punched the button and waited for it to turn up. The training outside was still going on and I could see Terra was transfixed. Her eyes followed as best they could.
“Isn’t it amazing,” she breathed. “We’ll be out there soon. Crazy right? I’d only ever been on one of those lame orbital missions before getting on the shuttle here.” Her hands were now tapping gently against her legs.
“What about you? Any experience with space before? That’s a bit of a crazy question, though. Do you reckon people ever thought we’d be asking that? I mean there was a time when space travel was so rare, only a few people ever made it beyond the boundaries of our planet, now it’s strange if you haven’t,” she barely paused for breath and I was beginning to sense her frantic movements were a reflection of the chaos inside.
I never shied away from chaos.