A tale of customer service..
The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.
“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.
“We have a hull breach on decks three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”
“Can’t you just fix the hull breach?”
“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”
“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a good idea,” Oates said.
“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”
“Yeah, do that.”
The ship gonged again. Kath was in the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one. It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but it ended up just being confusing.
“We’re third in the support queue,” ANDREA said.
“The wait is less than eight minutes.”
“What is the status of ship’s systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs somewhere.
“The ship is losing air. I recommend sealing the basement.”
“Kath’s down there.”
“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.
“I didn’t know we had a deck four,” said Oates.
“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”
“I see,” said Oates.
“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”
“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.
“Sir, support is picking up.” Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”
He returned to the main deck and strapped himself in.
“Good morning, passenger, how are you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”
“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells me there’s a hull breach.”
“For quality assurance purposes, this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”
“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better word, he thought. Protruding into space.
“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?
“Have you upgraded to the latest software?”
“I don’t know…I thought we signed up for automatic updates.”
“Let me check that for you. You’re running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download that now?”
“Wait. I thought I had to be docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”
“Sir, I can’t do any remote analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”
“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said. “I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in performance during the download.”
The lights in the cabin dimmed while the screens displayed a progress bar.
“While the system updates, would you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”
Except for the screen, the ship went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.
“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.
“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have a hull breach on three and four.”
“And you’re quickly losing air. Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the leak.”
“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”
Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.
People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?
“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.
“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed off decks three and four while you think things over.”
“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”
Amir continued, “Try to maneuver your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”
Oates pressed the gas pedal, a silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.
“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA said.
“Let me troubleshoot that for you,” Amir said.
“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered and a little bit lightheaded.
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said, cheerfully.
“Can you fix that?” Oates said.
“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.
“You’ll need to go down to deck three and manually repair the line.”
“I see,” Oates said.
“Put on your approved space suit.”
“My space suit…”
“Your space suit,” ANDREA said, “is in the basement.”
“What do you recommend?” Oates said.
“Eject?” Amir said, for the first time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.
“Eject?!? To what?”
“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said, her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”
There was a knock on the basement door. Then a pounding.
“Oates, let me in. Open this door right now.”
“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”
“Of course, it’s me. Who else would it be?” Kath said.
“Opening the basement door will result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.
“I thought it was you, but your voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”
“I’m wearing a space suit. Like you’re supposed to.”
“Great. Yeah, I should have thought to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.
“Ask her to fix the leak in the fuel line,” Amir said.
“Kath, did you hear that??
“What? I have a splitting headache!”
“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates said.
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m locked out of the basement. I can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”
“Do you think Kath can take a moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”
“It’s really hot down here,” Kath said.
“That’s just the atmospheric friction,” Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you a survey.”
“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.
But Kath, now helmetless, drifted by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and disappeared in a flash.
“Your warranty covers catastrophic failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit toward a Model 10.”
“But Kath’s gone. What difference does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.
“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.
“Listen, you don’t have much time, I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”
“Question 1: On a scale of one through five, with five being the best…”