The Isolation Simulation by Desiree Matlock

For Blake

That damn raccoon just stole my sandwich… again!

An empty zip-pack stares up at me innocently from beside my instruments on the top of the rock I’ve been using as my table, not even a crumb left inside. A tiny smidge of mustard on the top flap is all that proves I even had a sandwich. At the sound of scrabbling feet, my gaze shifts from my makeshift table to the fig tree a few strut-lengths away that the raccoon had apparently scurried behind, laden with vines. I won’t bother chasing him down, he is amazing at hiding. He’s been stealing my food for the last eight days, and at this rate, I only have two more days of food in this chamber with me, one if the raccoon keeps stealing my food. I needed to do a better job not letting myself wander from task, especially at lunch time.

I stand up and curse myself internally for being so absent-minded, glaring up briefly at the countdown clock. The timer anti-climaxed at 00:00:00 four days and some-odd hours ago, but long habit of looking at it a few times a day hasn’t yet been broken.

Not knowing what time it is out in the rest of the station is only the first visible symptom of the problems the clock’s idleness signifies.

I start walking in the direction of the crate that supplies me with food, on the other end of the chamber. Slow and steady, since time stopped mattering four days and some-odd hours ago.

It was supposed to be a twenty-eight day iso test. Twenty-eight days of isolation, not thirty-two. There were other things that I was supposed to be doing right now to prep for the excursion; part of a rigorous timeline until mission date. Yet, here I was, still in the box, and definitely not isolated enough. Damn raccoon. Why hadn’t the seals opened? Why was the test running long? Had I passed? Had I failed? Fuck if I know, or even care at this point. I just want out. I want dinner at the mess, surrounded by noisy, sloppy people chattering about station business and gossiping about their kids’ latest stunt. I want to hear Ty laughing about the stress on the struts of the observation deck being from horny teenagers using the area to fool around.

My empty stomach drops, I miss Ty so much. He’d be great company. Hell, any other human being would be great company right about now, but that damn raccoon is all I’ve got. And I have no idea how he got in here. It’s supposed to be an ISO exercise, meaning I’m to be completely alone. So far: no people, no dogs, no ship rats, no roaches — just the damn raccoon.

They told me to expect a simple sim of the kind of solitude I could expect down on the surface. Not to scale, obviously, because the surface was supposedly over a thousand times bigger than the station. And flat as a pancake when you were on it. Even though it looked as round as home from the observation deck. Hard to fathom. They’d made this room have a totally flat floor, to sim that aspect, and it had taken some getting used to at first.

I hop over the low waterway that zags across the massive chamber diagonally.

I approach the wall, and ignore my momentary flash of vertigo, holding the wild, directionless branches of a willow for comfort as I decompress the cool metal door of the storage compartment. The 90-degree angles weird me out. I spent the first week clinging to the center of the room, avoiding the walls. It’s gotten much better, but I still feel, illogically, like I’m going to fall off the room if I get too near the edges. I grew up as a deck hand’s child, and rose to hull walker. Obviously, both trades are completely free of right angles, aside from the occasional brace or strut. They might have put me in here to test my ability to deal with isolation, but to be honest, I didn’t start missing my mates for a good three weeks. I’ve managed that aspect way better than the unnatural flatness.

I check the display. Yup, there eight more food items available. That’s about two days. For whatever reason, I’ve favored sandwiches. They just feel more “adventure-y” than any of the other possible orders. And I want to eat what I want to eat. I key in the order for one turkey club, then open the crate’s hasp, and the vacuum hisses as the next very flat, hot sandwich pops out of the base. It will need a minute to hydrate before I can open the zip-pack. During which minute I sometimes daydream or forget to stay put, resulting in nasty thievery by tiny furry hands. Suddenly, it occurs to me how I’m going to get out of here. I’m relieved to realize that this also means I’m going to get another activity. There had been twenty-eight days only of activities planned as part of the test. I’d been twiddling my thumbs, bored out of my mind, since then. Today, I’d already repeated the activities from day three, just for the hell of it, which was why there was now a too-pruned set of rose bushes clustered somewhere along the starboard wall.

I walk back over to the rock, sandwich pack growing in my hand and cooling to ambient temperature as it expands and finishes forming. I scoop my gear into my pants pockets, wait until my lunch is ready, and open it. I eat half my sandwich and pull one edge of my crust off. I tuck my half-sandwich into my pocket and seal the velcro. The bit of crust goes on the rock, and I walk over to stand closer to the spot where I think the raccoon heads to — the far wall, just under the countdown clock. I give the clock one more look and then huff at myself. I really need to stop wasting effort looking at that clock.

The damn raccoon doesn’t come from where I thought he’d be, he turns out to be much closer than I expected. His brown head pops out of a hole in the ground beside the base of the fig tree, one I’d never noticed. What had the eco-mech told me that was called? Oh yeah: a burrow.

As he scrambles over to the rock to inspect the bit of crust, I walk up to his burrow, pulling an ore-sample scoop from my pocket. I extend it and start digging up the burrow.  The raccoon chitters at me to scold me then runs away with his crust, and he’s suddenly gone. Blast. I needed to know where he was going, but I can’t be two places at once. I keep digging at the burrow, and the air fills with the smell of ionizing soil as my digger cuts in. I’m at it for about 30 minutes before I clear the area and reach the sloped metal of the deck beneath. I stop digging at the first contact with the deck and switch instrument, using my metal stress-tester to check for flaws in the deck. I’m sure there must be, otherwise how did the raccoon get here to interrupt my privacy? The test comes up clean, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been unhappy to see that result. A perfect deck floor. Well damn. That theory is out. I lay back onto the dirt briefly, contemplating how the hell the little pest got here? He was much too large to slip between panels.

I’ve tried not to cut into the roots of the fig, but they’re quite a complex mesh. I use them like rungs to climb back out of the sizable hole I’ve made for myself. As I reach the top, the raccoon appears at the far end of my hole, chittering at me to complain.

I wipe my hands on my pants, and say, “How’d you get in here, little guy?” My rasping voice frightens both of us; we are utterly unaccustomed to language. The “little guy” starts walking away.

“Look,” I continue, “we both like sandwiches, apparently. I’ll share, if you’ll show me how to get out of here.”

He cocks his head, probably able to tell that I don’t mean it, and runs off. I run as fast as I can to keep up with him, but he’s gone faster than I can catch up. We’re not too far from the aft wall, so I run my scanner over it, and find nothing. No flaws in the wall. I decide to walk the perimeter checking for stress anywhere on the outside walls, and find none. This is apparently the best engineered room in the whole damn station. Well, I’m fucked. There’s no way out of this place.

I give up on the problem for the moment and decide to take a nap. I lay back down onto some ferns at the base of another tree, which I idly think might be a eucalyptus. I realize I walked every wall in the place, and never felt even a little dizzy. Not too shabby. This hull walker (sixth class) might just make a good surface walker after all.

If I ever get out of here. I drift off into sleep quite discomfited by that thought, but too tired from the day’s activities to care.

After my nap, I carefully avoid looking at the countdown clock. To hell with the clock. It’s time to get out of here, is what time it is. I realize I haven’t yet checked the pre-existing ingress points, the ones engineered into the room. The decks might be pristine, but the shafts are all weak points.

I study the ceiling at length until I spot the right place. It’s been holo’d to act like sky, but obviously there have to be mechanics behind that holo. I spot the point where I’d have chosen to place the projector, and I start climbing the tree just below it, a very large mata palo. As I reach the tree top, the holo fades. It’s hot up here. The tree’s highest branches are now shown to be practically brushing the ceiling. Being a hull walker means I think of thin struts, practically wires, as walkable, but this trees branches are weak and brittle. They almost snap under me until I grab a handful of smaller offshoots and pull them together. Squeezing them between my legs as I shimmy and sway, I can barely reach the ceiling, but I manage the scan, check the integrity of the projector’s hook-up, reading the controls, wiping sweat from my brow. The controls aren’t coded, since they hid them well. If I wanted to, I could change the sun,, but I don’t see the point in messing with that – it won’t get me out any sooner. The connections are fine.

Damn. I mean, great for the engineers. They did a good job, but bad for me. I didn’t really think that one through anyway. What did I think, that the raccoon would have fallen into the room from above? Not likely, and he certainly wouldn’t have jumped that far, would he?

No, he probably came in through the walls. The perfect walls. Huh.

I notice that the light is fading, and I never ate my dinner. I climb down, and sit on the widest part of the tree’s trunk while I eat the other half of my sandwich. Then, I walk over to the food crate, and order all of my remaining seven meals as sandwiches. I pop them all into my pockets for later.

The raccoon is watching me from a ways away. I can feel his beady little eyes on me, even though I can’t see him. Well, he’s not getting these sandwiches.

I start walking the perimeter again, this time using the right equipment to check for faults in the few shafts that released into this room. None of them should have been insecure in any way, but I have to check. The raccoon had to get into iso somehow.

I can hear the animal chittering away, so I look behind me at the low waterway running at an angle through the room, where he’s washing his hands. Dip. Scrub. Dip. Scrub. He can be kind of cute, for a little thief.

I continued circling the room, looking for flaws in the points of ingress into the room. I manually check every point where there are controls. Apparently, I need a passcode to adjust the temperature or humidity. Great.  After circling the room yet again, I’m too exhausted to continue, and there are still no ways out. The only area I can control appears to be the hatch behind which my food crate reposes, empty and useless.

I’ll check it in the morning more thoroughly. Meanwhile, I’m going to sleep. This is a wasted day, but at least I’m not sitting around doing nothing. I check to make sure my pockets are locked, and curl up against the wall. I’m asleep before you can say boo.

I dream of Ty and I on a hull walk, enjoying banter, checking the plating for debris. My mags cut out and I slip out into space, floating away silently. I can’t breathe. I can see Ty, and he’s watching me calmly. How does he not know I’m outside the atmo? I wake gasping, crying, in the dark. I really want to get out of here. Where is everyone? Why am I still in here?  I try to go back to sleep, but can’t. I wrestle with my thoughts until the holo gives me dawn. Day thirty-three begins.

I stand, stretch, and run my hands through my hair. I’m out of ideas. This has to be it. I open the hatch, pull out the food crate, and inspect the entire area. I spend an extra hour on it. There’s no sign of a way out, and I need to eat again.

I spend most of the rest of the day rechecking everywhere from the day before, with no different results, except now I’m down to four sandwiches.

There are no holes in this room. But then how did the raccoon get in?

The raccoon is at the waterway again. I watch him fastidiously washing his hands, and decide I need a bath. Not a shower. A bath. A nice, relaxing soak. They’re a rare delight, and while I can’t adjust the temperature of the water, I can at least climb in.

I wander to the water’s edge, and the damn raccoon scurries off again, no doubt to a brand new burrow. I follow the water’s edge looking for a deeper spot. I reach the wall, where the water gets sucked through for filtration, and there still hasn’t been a deep enough area to bathe in. I walk back the way I came, finally finding a slightly deeper spot, near the origin point of the water. I undress and wade in, then sit down. I hold onto a rock half-submerged in the water while I adjust to the change. The water is cold and refreshing, and I eventually settle myself, laying down in the water deeply enough to cover my head all the way to my brow. It feels great. It sharpens my senses, and I find a nice peaceful moment.

It’s a lucky thing the water is filtered. It must get sucked into the sub-deck, scrubbed and pushed back out at this end. If I sit here long enough, I’m bound to feel the same water run past. I didn’t see any controls for the waterway around the perimeter, but maybe over here near the origin point…

Suddenly, I get it. I figure out how to leave. I have no idea how the damn raccoon got in, but it doesn’t matter. I know how I’m getting out.

I scramble out of the water, get dressed again, letting the water drip down my body. I don’t care, it will hardly matter. I check my pockets. Oh hell no. I’m missing another sandwich!  That damned raccoon ate another one!

My blood boils. This is getting ridiculous.

How did he even get into my locked pockets? Whatever. I lock my few remaining sandwiches away, check that everything else is there, and wade back into the water about a foot and turn around, squatting in the mud.

I run my hands everywhere along the banks, both sides, between the deep spot and the origin point of the water. I know full well where I would have placed the controls if I were hiding them, and I find them not too far from there, tucked in beneath a few mangroves. I brush away the silt and stare at my luck. As I suspected, the controls were hidden, not coded!

I turn up the temperature — I’d need all the warmth I can get — until the water is almost too hot to stand, then I adjust the controls. No scrubbing, just dump it. I turn up the volume so it will rise to its highest possible level. I continue to tweak settings but the water is so high I almost can’t keep a foothold. I grab onto a mangrove root, and adjust the water’s speed, at which point the volume increases even further, and the forest floor is totally submerged. Dirt is churning into a thick muddy soup around me.

As I let go of the mangrove root, the water starts carrying me away, along with everything else not anchored. I hear loud chittering. The raccoon doesn’t sound happy. He’s almost certainly about to get swept downstream with me. A raspy angry screech confirms it.

Sorry little guy, you might die, and so might I, but it’s better than starving to death slowly in here.

The water is difficult to keep my head out of, and I take big gulps of air in preparation for what I know is coming, hot water rushing around me, towing me under.

As I approach the far wall, I take the deepest breath I can, and then completely submerge myself, hoping the systems won’t see me as me, just another part of the muck. As I pass through the far wall my nose passes too close by the field’s edge — that was close. The beam tickles and I force myself to keep holding my breath.

I’m being carried through the sub-deck, and I continue to hold my breath, sometimes semi-surfacing but not long enough to trust it. The water spirals down the pipe, and I feel a slip of fur slide past so I grab onto it, just as it’s almost past my reach. I shove the raccoon against me, tucking him under my arm while he wiggles relentlessly. We both get smacked into by something hard, but nothing’s broken. At least on me. I shove my unlikely traveling companion more securely under my shoulder, wishing I could harness him. It would limit mobility to hold onto him, but hey. I can’t just let him fly off into space.

Great, now I’m going to drown in deep space because I couldn’t help myself, I had to save a stowaway. The pipe releases into a larger channel, and I am now mostly above water, so I grab a few fresh lungfuls of air before I’m submerged again. The raccoon’s struggling has calmed down. He must be too confused to care about me holding onto him.

I measure out the distances between this subchamber and the hull, watching in my mind’s eye as various key spots rush past me. I’m already aching to breathe. It’s only been a few seconds, but my adrenaline state has me using up my oxygen faster than anticipated.

I’m at the hull before anticipated, and I have barely a split second to reach out and grab at the metal before I leave the containment field and enter zero atmosphere. My arm slams into a brace, and it slows me but I slip to the farthest beam as the water bashes into me. One handed, I’m in raw space for less than a second before the raccoon panics and scrabbles, clinging to my chest, holding on well enough for me to use both hands to grab the support, at which point, I’m back into the hull atmo, back where I know what I’m doing. Clinging to the very edge of home. And suddenly quite dry and quite cold, my hair staticky and wild.

I climb my way past the rushing water as it thrusts itself out into raw space and disperses, misting me and warming my fingers. I’m sorry I had to waste the experiment’s water ration, but damned if I was going to die just to follow rules. The paperwork on this is definitely going to be a bitch, though.

I climb, raccoon-chested, up to the closest portal, cold seeping through my clothes again.  I key in the station’s access code and the seal opens. One hull walker and one terrified raccoon back in the real world. There’s a potted fern in the wall recess of the seal, as per usual with the business district’s lobby spaces, but I’m unable to look at it without laughing. This tiny entryway is just looking too much like my home of the last few weeks. Just me, a racoon, a few sandwiches and one too many plants. I slap the button to seal me in and open the door. No damned codes. Thank the gods!

The door hisses open, and the raccoon instantly jumps off me, running away into the station. Well that’s gratitude for you.

There’s no one at all in the lobby. I’ve never seen an empty hall this big. What the hell?

I walk through to the far end, dread building up in me. Where is everyone?

As I open the door at the far end, to the section L communications center, I see ten people lined up. Oh, thank the many gods. I leave the door wide open as I run in. I drop to my knees and cry-laugh for a moment, tears unstoppable. I’m just so glad to see people that I don’t even care how I look to them.

I am so tired now, I sink to the floor.  Ty comes over, looking concerned. “Are you okay?” He says, faintly, as darkness swims in front of my eyes.  What’s Ty doing here? I realize that the other people here are all uniforms, related to the isolation test.

The brass crowd around me. The oldest one pipes up, loudly, “Well done, hull walker sixth class. You just became a surface walker second class. You passed the raccoon test. And you’re the only one who did it without killing themselves or the raccoon, so that means mission captain, and a skipped class. Congratulations, citizen!” He pins something sharp to my breast.

What the hell was the point of that? I want to ask, but am just too fatigued. As I nod my acceptance, eyes half-closed, down on the soft blessedly dirtless carpet, I turn my head, absently scanning for the countdown clock. I roll my eyes at my pointless habit again.

No way. Against the far wall, I see my raccoon friend, turning another sandwich in his hands, nibbling on the corner. I can’t help it, I crack up.

“Must be emotional stress from the test,” the nearest officer says.

I’m drifting, but I hear Ty pipe in “…be fine in a few days, I’m sure…” I drape my tired hand across my chest, feel the sandwich pocket, unlocked. Two sandwiches left. I pull them out and toss them to Ty and the bigwigs. I am way too tired to eat, but gods be damned if I am giving them to that damn raccoon.


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One response to “The Isolation Simulation by Desiree Matlock

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