By Brynn MacNab
The first time I visited the engine room, I thought I was going to have a panic attack.
The rest of the ship ran to sleek lines, clean corridors, and a kind of quasi-military minimalism. But when I opened the round engine room door, my sense were assaulted with clutter and chaos. Papers hung on the walls and on lines of twine drooping at eye level, weighted with old tea-brown drawings and mechanical diagrams. An ancient, crackly recording of a radio show was playing across the speakers, and the air smelled of recently fried food.
Meechum, the chief engineer, waved from one of three workbenches, where she had a napkin tucked into the top of her uniform and a plate balanced on a fat spool of copper wire. “Welcome! Come on in and have a look.”
I stepped over the loose drawers from a toolbox that looked like it had recently exploded.
“You must be the new blood,” Meechum said comfortably. “I guess they want to get you trained before I go senile.”
“I believe the intent is to provide a retirement for older workers,” I said.
She shrugged. “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” She wiped her hands on her napkin and moved the small gas burner out of her way before standing up. “Let me show you around.”
As she did, I felt my heart rate rising. I clenched my jaw, said nothing, and nodded politely as she explained things, showing me the engine and the supplies. I’d already seen it in textbooks and simulations, minus the manmade jungle of metal scraps, spare parts, rubber bands and bits of wood and string and plastic.
She’d even rigged up the engine itself. What should have been a beautiful, intricate machine had become a web of complicated fixes.
I got out of there as fast as I could, and fled for my bunk. I lay on my back, looking up at the arching metal ceiling and around at the neat efficiency of the drawers set flush into the wall. Beside me the shelf of my bedside table was folded down and tucked away, and the rectangle of short red carpet inlaid in the chrome floor lent my room its only color. I liked it that way. Even the lights were set into the architecture of the ship, their glass faces exactly smooth with the walls.
This was what I was used to: room to breathe.
“All of this information is in the computer,” I said, unclipping page after page of diagrams and pulling them down.
“What if the computer’s busy?” Meechum followed me, twisting her hands together. I was finally in charge, after months of sweating it out in this hoarder’s paradise.
“How often have you needed to look at these? You probably know all this stuff by heart anyway.” I began to roll up the twine that had held the redundant paperwork.
“But you don’t know them all yet,” she fretted. “I’m not going to be here forever, you know.”
The diagrams went to the incinerator.
Slowly, they were followed by more and more of the useless detritus, the oldest duplicate tools, and the broken parts.
One day I held up her portable gas stove. “You should eat in the cafeteria like everyone else. This is a hazard in here.”
She folded her arms. “If you were born planetside, sometimes you’d want something cooked by a person instead of a machine.”
I didn’t want to be ageist, so I let her take it to her bunk instead of throwing it away.
Warning lights flashed white and red as I ran for the engine room. “All non-emergency personnel take to bunks,” came the computer’s smooth, professional instructions.
I felt my heart climbing into my throat. I’d never been “emergency personnel” before.
The engine room door hung a little open. I slipped through and slammed it behind me; an open door is a hazard in a space storm as it can swing wildly, hitting the people in the room. Inside Meechum bent over a workbench, ferreting through her remaining junk.
Before I could reprimand her for her carelessness with the door, the engine began to cough. Meechum hurried to its side, stroking the metal body reassuringly. “No, no, no,” she muttered. She glanced up at me, eyes wild. “Get the copper wire and find me those steel plugs I had. I hope you haven’t been stupid enough to throw any of them away.”
My mouth went dry, and I started to move automatically in response to her tone of command.
But I checked myself in time. I ducked in close to the engine, examining rather than coaxing. “It’s valve A5,” I said.
Meechum glared at me. “I know that.”
“So you know to throw the switch to secondary power and hand me the heat-retardant gloves so I can replace it, right?”
“You shouldn’t—” The ship gave a jerk, throwing us both off balance.
“Do it!” I snapped, rolling to my feet. I ran for the drawers and pulled the A5 replacement—one of two identical pieces, pristine and new, still wrapped in plastic.
Meechum slapped the gloves into my hand. “You’re a young fool. We don’t need to replace that valve. We should keep the backup in storage. There could a hundred more storms like this before we reach port.”
I gaped at her, my mind spinning. This was why the engine looked like it was inhabited by an erratic spider.
Just in case.
“We’re changing this valve,” I said. “And when this storm is over we’re going through this whole machine and making it the way it should be.”
She grumbled the entire time. She told me that I was arrogant, stupid, and a dozen other undesirable things.
The next time the captain toured the engine room, though, he commended me. He must have been happy not to worry, for the first visit in decades, about what he might step in or trip over.
Right after Meechum retired, I used the last A2.
I touched the clean bottom of the drawer uncertainly.
I wished I had her muttering dire predictions at my side so I could contradict her.
I visit Meechum on Sundays, down in Ward 3 where she lives now – the leisure deck. I leave a pristine engine room and walk through immaculate halls to sit on her tiny sofa and eat cookies surrounded by junk. It’s more decorative junk now, but it still makes me claustrophobic.
“It’s nice to have free time,” she says, twisting her hands together absently. “They’re always putting on bingo and sing-alongs for us. How’s my girl doing?”
I don’t really like to anthropomorphize machines, but Meechum is getting to the age where you’ve got to let some things go. “She’s good. Purring along.”
“That’s good. She’s got to get us where we’re headed.”
“She will.” I don’t tell Meechum that I’ve gotten very high marks on my recent evaluation. I get the sense that she made everyone pretty tired with her hoarding. It wouldn’t be nice to bring it up.
She brews another pot of tea on her old gas stove.
I excuse myself and escape to walk through the clean, open halls, breathing freely.
My steps slow as I approach my bunk. I try to think happily of the clean engine room, and the glowing praise I get from everyone who sees it now. Especially if they saw it before.
I open the door to my quarters and close it quickly behind me so no one sees what’s inside. I step over a toolbox to reach my bed. I lie down and look up at the ceiling, trying to ignore the stack of extra, makeshift drawers teetering beside me.
I have started to collect the old parts that break. I think I can fix some of them up, if need be. I’ve started to keep a little extra supply of wire and twine, and some pieces of metal that would be just the right size to bridge a gap in the works. If it comes to that.
Just in case.
I close my eyes and try not to feel like it’s all going to fall on me in my sleep