Strawberry Blue

It's so tranquil here, floating in a metal and plastic box high above the Earth. The gentle blue curve of the planet fills the small viewport and I can spend hours watching the graceful swirl of the everchanging weather patterns. I'm going to miss this view when I return.

I'm one of the three technicians needed to run this relay satellite. The work isn't hard, most of the processes are automated but the human crew is here to keep an eye on things, just in case. There's three satellites in this particular chain of communication. I'm stationed in Strawberry Blue, above the Earth; Strawberry Red is in geostationary orbit around Mars, hovering above the fledgling colony there, and Strawberry Black is positioned in deep space between them, linking the two. And why Strawberry? That was the name of the designer's cat, apparently. Humans are strange creatures, naming technological feats after their family, friends, pets. Perhaps it's a way of keeping the new or unusual close and familiar.
       We're a disparate trio, my co-workers and myself. Danuta is Polish, a tiny, fragile-looking woman with enormous pale-blue eyes. She looks like a doll, with her fine blonde hair and delicate skin, but I have never met anyone with such fierce determination at heart, or such a wicked sense of humour! Cooba is a Koori, an Australian aboriginal. His name means 'small black bee' but there's nothing small about him. At over six-foot tall he just scraped in under the maximum height requirements but was so keen to get into the program I think he would've happily had a couple of inches of bone taken out of his legs if necessary. Cooba's skin shines like dark chocolate, so do his eyes. At the moment his dark auburn hair is cropped short but he says when it's longer it grows into waves, almost curly with gold highlights if he stays in the sun for any length of time. I'd like to see that, it sounds beautiful. Of the three of us he's the most laid-back, nothing seems to faze him.
       And then there's me, Deidre, a plain name for a plain woman, taciturn and focused. Average height, average looks - neither pretty or homely - ordinary brown hair, ordinary blue eyes. I first heard about the relay satellites in my last year of primary school, when they were in the planning stage, and I was immediately gripped by the idea. My life was crowded with people: I came from a large family, living in a small space in an old tenement building filled with other such families. The tiny park I had access to was always crowded, as were the shops and streets where I lived, even my classroom was overfull, all of the students jammed together like fruit packed in a crate. The thought of being somewhere away from everyone was so appealing, so pleasurable it was almost sexual. I applied myself over the years, studying hard and eventually excelling in the science-based subjects I needed to join the high-orbit programs. The day I was accepted for the training was the proudest, happiest day of my life. I cried and cried and cried. Being accepted was just the beginning though, there were more hurdles to surmount, more challenges to overcome. Hard physical training, hours spent in bizarre contraptions that mimicked the weightlessness of space... I'd never have believed I could vomit so much! But I won through, was deemed acceptable physically, and my psychological profile - which had been dragged out, picked through, analysed and classified - was stamped 'favourable'. I was in.

The new recruits are allowed to mingle freely and our interactions were watched closely. There were some who objected to this scrutiny, thinking it obtrusive. I didn't mind, I understood it was part of the process of evaluating potential teams. After all, if you're going to spend six months cooped up with only two other people for company you want to be sure you can get along with them.
       Danuta and Cooba were in my intake and I think they became sexually involved within hours of their first meeting. There was a lot of sexual activity amongst the recruits - when we had the energy! - but I kept myself aloof from it. Oh, I had offers, a surprising number, but I've never been comfortable with physical intimacy, finding a good, deep conversation more stimulating and satisfying than any sex I'd ever engaged in.
       The last stage of the training was intense, physically and mentally. We were divided into groups of three and randomly switched about during this time. This disruption served its purpose, it's hard to be civil to someone you don't like when the pressure is on but we acquired a certain amount of tolerance and flexibility because of it. Not all of us passed this final test. Of the initial group of fifty recruits from that year's intake there were only sixteen of us left at the end of the training. A large number had been weeded out early on and we lost a few more here and there as the training progressed and became more difficult. At our 'graduation' the head of the program congratulated us warmly: apparently we were one of the few intakes who hadn't gone below three-quarters of its original number.

Three satellites, three technicians per two shifts of six months each, a total of eighteen people needed to staff the relays over a year. Blue's roster is fairly straightforward but those stationed on Black and Red can be away from home a year or more because of the travel time to those remote locations. There are always teams in transit to and from Black and Red.
       Our names were added to the roster of active personnel and as 'virgin' technicians we were advised that our first posting would always be Strawberry Blue. The attrition rate for the program is quite high, not everyone signs on for a second tour of duty after the first, contractually obligated one. It was exciting to know I'd get my chance in space soon but I also wondered if after six months of almost solitary confinement I'd want to sign on again. I'd have accrued enough pay during my posting to live comfortably for a year or more, probably even enough to buy a small flat, but then what? I'd spent my whole life working towards this point, I'd never thought about what might happen afterwards.
       Danuta, Cooba and I were teamed together and we continued honing our skills, as a team, while we waited for our posting to come around. We got on well, the three of us, our individual skills and personalities meshing seamlessly. Of all the teams we were the only one comprised wholly of 'virgins', usually there was always at least one 'old fart' included to help the new techs through. We three, apparently, were considered competent enough not to need that safety net - the notion was both ego-boosting and unnerving...

The night before lift-off I was unable to sleep, literally quivering with anticipation. I spent a little time talking to my family but the tearful admonitions from my mum to 'be careful' eventually got on my nerves and I ended the call before my impatience got the better of my good manners. Full of nervous energy and with no idea what to do with myself I wandered down to the rec hall, not really surprised to find Danuta and Cooba there already. We talked for ages over coffees and sweet biscuits, the conversation washing back and forth between us about all sorts of things. It occurred to me then that these two were my closest friends.

The trip to the satellite was exhilarating. First the immense thrust squashing us back into our seats and then, quicker than I would've thought, the change to the quasi-familiar discomfort of weightlessness.
       I know all care is taken and safety procedures followed rigorously but still, as the shuttle donged softly against the relay's hull, I couldn't help remembering that between me and the deadly void there was only a flimsy barrier of metal. It was a sobering thought.

During our training we'd spent considerable amounts of time in a mock-up of the satellite, trying to get a feel for living and working in an area roughly the size of a small dwelling. Believe me the reality isn't anywhere near as claustrophobic as its gravity-bound doppelganger. Unlike on Earth, in zero-gravity you can move in three-dimensions: forwards and back, side to side, up and down. Being able to utilize the space above your companions is very convenient.
       I love zero-g, it's liberating like flying. No, it's like swimming, swimming without the drag of the water pulling against your body. Danuta took to it straight away as well but poor Cooba... Those first couple of days in space were a bit bumpy for our friend thank god for modern pharmacology!

There's a 'hand-over' period during the change of personnel, generally twenty-four hours. This gives the departing techs the chance to bring the new team up to speed on the relay's operation and warn them of the latest quirks it's developed. It's also a chance for the two groups and the shuttle crew to socialise and have a bit of fun before the new team take over. I enjoyed the hand-over, our predecessors were an entertaining bunch but damn I was glad when they left. I was itching to get to work, and the satellite really isn't big enough for nine bodies. Once the extraneous personnel had left the restricted space was subjectively palatial for a time.

There's another aspect of high-orbit living that can't be replicated ground-side, it's the flat smell of canned, recycled air. You get used to it though, remarkably quickly, unlike the view which has never become so familiar I don't notice it any more. The first time I looked back down at the Earth I unknowingly held my breath, tears starting in my eyes. My home, so, so beautiful. Even now, after almost six months in space the sight of the Earth spinning slowly beneath me affects me as deeply as that first time.

Slipping into the work routines was easier than I'd anticipated - being drilled over and over and over at a task until we could function in our sleep might have had something to do with that - and the three of us settled down very quickly. It's funny, but being so far away from the planet's surface I thought I would've had a sense of isolation, but I didn't. We were really only isolated physically, by distance. Communications with groundside is fast and efficient and as this Strawberry is part of the array that handles the inconceivable amount of telecommunications happening across the planet at any given time, we could watch practically anything that was being aired. Contact with friends and family was only the equivalent of a video-call away as well, but I could choose not to communicate if I didn't want to. I could simply walk - I mean propel myself - away to my small cabin, shut the door and do whatever it was I wanted to, in peace. Cooba and Danuta respected my need for privacy, as I respected theirs, and we all got along very amiably.

My companions continued with their sexual relationship though they were as discreet as it was possible to be in such a confined space. I didn't envy them their closeness, and it was a long time before I stopped resisting their gently teasing invitations to join them.
       It was my birthday and I was feeling a little odd, a little low I think. I'd just finished talking to my family and was closing the connection when Danuta floated up beside me.
       "Come, Deidre," she held out a diminutive hand, "Let us love you."
       I'd never heard sex couched in such a gentle fashion before and it was because of that, I think, I suddenly found myself with an overwhelming desire for a tender touch.
       The largest open space on the satellite, aside from the work area, is the 'gym'. This is where we keep the exercise equipment we need to utilize to keep the calcium in our bones. As comparatively large as it is, the gym is still a tiny area and with the three of us in there it's crowded.
       I drifted into the room, skimming slowly over the exercise bike, to be greeted with Cooba's brilliant smile.
       "Finally!" he said and I blushed.
       "Don't tease," Danuta reprimanded, then she twisted to face me, wrapping her arms around my waist and gently pulling me to her. "We couldn't make you a cake so you can think of this as your birthday surprise if you like." I couldn't help laughing, a little breathlessly, at Danuta's wicked grin.
       "The crumbs would've gotten everywhere." I added, tongue in cheek. "This is a far more practical gift."
       Danuta laughed then kissed me, just a soft, fleeting brush of her lips against mine but it ignited a flare of long-dormant arousal in my groin. Cooba was behind me now, his warmth blanketing my back. I felt his nuzzling kiss on my neck and giggled at the slight rasp.
       "You need a shave."
       "Later." he chuckled. Danuta kissed me again, with definite intent this time, and someone - I don't know whose - hand slipped in past the elasticised waistband of my trousers and I shivered with a sharp surge of lust.

All I can say is that I'm glad my companions had had plenty of practise at sex in zero gravity; I didn't have a clue! They'd discovered the trick to keeping a body close and tight, and not going vectoring off into a wall with an unguarded movement. I learnt the tricks too, eventually, but that first time was as funny as it was satisfying...

Our posting here is finishing in less than a week - the new team is already being prepped groundside. It's company policy for returning teams to have a three month break before they need to make the decision to continue or not on the program. I've already decided - I'll be putting my name back on the roster the moment those three months are up. At the moment the thought of being earthbound forever is just depressing! Danuta and Cooba haven't made up their minds yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if they rejoined. I hope they do, and I hope we can be reteamed.

Naturally, the three of us have talked about what we're going to do when we return to Earth. High on all our lists is a hot bath bathing in zero-g, chasing gobbets of water around a coffin-sized shower unit is only fun the first few times and spending some time with our respective families. We're going to keep in touch with each other though and arrange to meet somewhere picturesque and warm once we've all had our fill of familial duty. For my part I can see me wanting to get away within two weeks! After the past six months of seclusion I honestly don't think I'll be able to stand the enforced, cloying closeness that's natural to my family.

Nothing's been said as yet but once we're groundside I'm almost certain Danuta and Cooba will continue to invite me to join them in their love-making. I won't decline this time, it's not just on the job we mesh agreeably. Besides, I'm... curious to see how they handle sex in full gravity...

© 2004 June 15th Lutra

© 2004 WordWrights

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