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Pictures Within Pictures
September 7 2009

By Carl Macek
From an Idea by Stan Slavutsky

According to the digital readout displayed on the inside of Orlan2893’s EVA faceplate, he had been on the job for over 37 hours. His gauges showed that he had enough compressed air and nutritional supplies for at least another 21 hours. He was nearly finished examining the 165km fuel pipeline that stretched from the Maginus A crater to the Maginus C crater in the central southern region of the Moon’s Earth-facing surface and had chosen to slow down to prolong the process. Orlan2893 had been working on the Moon for over eleven years and during that time had grown to appreciate the solitude and isolation of his particular job. He was a small man, just under 5-feet tall, and perfectly suited for this type of work. The handful of people who had worked with Orlan2893 on the pipeline construction team began calling him “Plunger” a few years back and the nickname stuck. Orlan2893 wasn’t sure if the moniker was affectionate or a subtle put down – but he liked it better than his official ID. When he finished this current inspection tour, Plunger was scheduled to begin a mandatory month-long furlough back on Earth as part of the program’s highly regulated health policy. Moon colonists needed to maintain a balance between the various gravitational and biotechnical factors associated with prolonged extra-terrestrial travel. This would be the fourth time he had returned home since he arrived here nearly a dozen years ago. But he was still working on a plan that needed a bit more tweaking. So the longer his job took to complete – the more time he’d have to work out the last few details of what he hoped would be his masterpiece.

Plunger had stopped following the news coming from Earth soon after he had arrived on the Moon. As far as he could tell, it was always the same. And besides, he was convinced that everything presented as “news” was fabricated by The Government to keep the masses in the dark about the real reasons for the current push for extra-terrestrial colonization. Rather, Plunger preferred to spend his time doing research by carefully hacking into the Government’s mainframe computer at the central work habitat. And the more he learned, through his illicit research, the more he became convinced that nothing was as it seemed. In fact, on his second trip back to Earth he had carried out a simple act of social disobedience – he sent a drone into the sewage canal below the Department of State to clog up the waterworks - just to see if it would be reported in the news. It wasn’t. On his third trip back to Earth he upped the ante by copying classified documents and posting them on an unsecured, pirate Internet server. The information, for those that chose to read it, documented the extent to which the Government had gone in order to keep the truth about the planet’s sustainability in check. Plunger had no idea how many people had stumbled upon his exposé, but he knew that eventually the Media could not ignore his efforts. Plunger had long since returned to the Moon before the pirate server was found and destroyed by the GIB – the Government’s investigative division.

Like everyone else on the transport shuttle, Orlan2893 spent most of his time on the trip back to Earth having mandatory wellness tests and getting re-acclimatized to the correct pull of Earth’s gravity. The screenings carried out by the onboard medical team were designed to look for abnormalities in bone density as well as test for excess particulate matter lodged in the lungs – both side effects of prolonged exposure to low-gravity living. Usually the results were negligible, because the Moon habitats had been designed to approximate eighty “percent of the Earth’s gravitation. However due to the nature of his job, the doctors took special interest in the findings of pipe inspectors like Orlan2893.

In his free time, Plunger kept busy by logging onto the ship’s onboard computers as he worked out the final details of his latest plan to test his theory about the secret agenda concocted by the United Earth Government. Unfortunately, as the transport ship neared Earth orbit, Plunger got some bad news. A nurse informed him that he would not be allowed to return to the Moon following his month-long furlough. And what was worse, his actual furlough was going to be rescinded while he was admitted to a medical facility for further testing. She presented him with an incomprehensible array of test results that showed that he had lost significant bone mass during this particular tour of duty on the Moon. The medical staff was concerned that any further long-term exposure to low-gravity habitation would be irreversible. It was the consensus of the doctors onboard the transport that Orlan2893 should be sent to a medical facility where he would be given additional tests to determine why the bisphosphonates that he had been taking did not work as planned. (Plunger thought it unwise to bring up the fact that he had deliberately stopped taking his meds after his return to work three years ago. He refused to blindly sit back and take their poison like everybody else.) This latest snafu could throw a major monkey wrench into his plans. After he thought about it for a while, Plunger concluded that the GIB had actually figured out that he was the one responsible for the illegal information dump and, if they were as smart as they thought they were, they probably knew he had messed up the State Department’s plumbing as well. This whole thing about his bone density was just a clever ruse to get him into quarantine. They may have won this round, but as far as Plunger was concerned, the war wasn’t completely lost. That was when the sedative kicked in.

“Where am I?” Plunger asked with a sense of panic when he saw an unfamiliar face starring down at him.
“Well, well, well… Sleeping Beauty’s finally awake,” the hospital orderly replied in a breezy tone. “ You’re in Medical Ward 1746A, Mister…. Ah…?” The orderly checked Plunger’s ID band to make sure, “Mister Orlan2893.”
“No. I mean, where am I?”
“I told you. Medical Ward 1746A.”
“Am I on Earth?”
“Where else could we be?”
“Seriously?” Plunger was shocked.
“Trust me. If it were up to me we’d be anyplace else. But unfortunately I’m not the guy in charge. If you know what I mean?”
“Now we’re communicating! Where on Earth?”
“Springfield, Virginia. Just outside the beltway.”
“Springfield? That’s where the GIB’s located?
“Actually, the GIB’s in Fairfax.”
“But it’s close, right?”
“I wouldn’t want to walk there. At least not this time of year.”
“Too much snow.”
“Snow?” Plunger tried to sit up but was stopped by the restraints that bound his wrists to the hospital bed.
“When I left the Moon, summer wasn’t even half over.”
“The good news is you’ll be awake for Christmas.”
“Christmas? Are you telling me I’ve been asleep for 6 months.”
“Not quite.”
Plunger pulled on the restraints and let out a feral scream.
“Now, now, Mr. Orlan2893, let’s not get carried away.” The orderly approached Plunger and carefully began removing the wrist restraints. “Now that you’re awake, we won’t be needing these.”
“Am I a prisoner?”
“No just a patient.”
Plunger looked around and rubbed his wrists trying to accelerate the circulation to his fingers. “So, I’m not in jail?” The room he was in was small, but it didn’t look like a prison cell.
“Should you be?”
The look on Plunger’s face was indescribable.
“Just kidding!” The orderly said with a forced smile as he stepped back. “Maybe I should get one of the doctors to come talk to you.”
No sooner had the orderly left then Plunger tried to get out of bed. He couldn’t. The orderly had removed the wrist restraints but failed to unshackle his feet.
By the time the staff doctor came to talk to him, Plunger had convinced himself that he would go along with their current pretense for as long as they did. If he couldn’t pull off his original plan, at least he could frustrate them by feigning ignorance to the real reasons as to why he had been incarcerated in the first place.
He tried not to listen to all the technobabble spewing out of the doctor’s mouth while he repeatedly interjected that there was nothing wrong with him and that he wanted to go back to work. Plunger was hoping that the doctor would be the first to “blink”. When the frustrated physician finally ordered that he should be relocated from his “solitary confinement” to the facility’s psychiatric ward, Plunger knew that he had won round two.
Plunger wasn’t one to be easily fooled. Their so-called “psych ward” was just governmental code for the prison’s general inmate population. Once he was among like-minded individuals, Plunger was certain that he’d be able to pull together a crew and break out. And as soon as he was on the outside, Plunger would find a way to make them regret their decision to start messing around with him in the first place. He would become the true terrorist they thought him to be.
However, Plunger never counted on the fact of how hard it would be to gain the trust of his fellow inmates.
Most of the people in the psychiatric ward were old and appeared to be suffering from dementia. The younger “patients” either claimed they were not crazy - to anyone who showed even the mildest interest in them, or acted catatonic. Plunger didn’t put it past the GIB to plant a spy among the inmates, so he had to be careful when he interacted with them. One false move and his goose would be cooked.
“You know, there are pictures within pictures.” Plunger said to one of the younger patients. It was a line he’d come up with as a test. How the person he was talking to reacted, would prompt him to deepen the conversation. So far everyone he approached ignored him, or began talking about something completely different. If they were acting, Plunger thought to himself, they were pretty good at it. But this time he got the response he was looking for.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Joss1134 replied, “There are pictures within pictures for those that know how to look.”
“Do you know how to look?”
“Listen man, I’ve seen it all.”
“What’s your name?”
“Joss1134. What’s yours?”
“Plunger. What are you in for Joss?”
“They got me here ‘cause they claimed my gall bladder burst.”
“Did it?”
“How would I know? Do I look like a doctor?”
“Well, did they operate?”
Joss1134 pulled down the waistband of his hospital pants and showed off a fresh scar bulging with proud flesh.
“They did that?”
“Well I didn’t have it when I got here.”
“Do you feel any better?”
“Not really. How about you?”
“I feel like crap.”
“No, I mean what you in for?”
“Weak bones. I’d been working on the Moon for too long or something.”
“Really? What are you some kind of astronaut?”
“No. I guess you’d call me a glorified plumber.”
“I get it now.”
Both men laughed at the absurdity of the situation they found themselves in. Plunger spent the next four days delivering an unending diatribe about every Government conspiracy theory he’d ever uncovered. Through the course of their conversations Joss1134 never once told Plunger what he did for a living. Joss1134 sucked up Plunger’s disjointed information like a brand-new vacuum cleaner. Friendship was uncommon for most people, and Plunger was enjoying the camaraderie.
Due to the Government’s drastic measures in regard to population control, the traditional family unit had been eradicated nearly a century ago. Therefore nobody ever came to visit anyone in any government-run facility. There was no point. Friendship was fleeting, and most, if not all, close associations were regulated by Government order. If someone dropped off the grid, there would be no reason for alarm from fellow co-workers. It was just the way things worked. But Plunger had a different take on the subject. Given enough time and research, he had constructed a scenario that smacked of mind-control and sinister motives. Until he met Joss, he kept his theories to himself. Now that he had someone who had the time to listen to his theories, his mind went into overdrive. Joss1134’s appetite for knowledge was almost as great as Plunger’s imagination and deductive reasoning. So that when Plunger woke up one day and found that Joss was gone, something inside him snapped.
Plunger knew that Joss’ disappearance was not coincidental. It was all part of the Government’s plot to expose Plunger’s acts of terrorism. Joss might be undergoing brutal interrogation at the hands of the GIB at this very moment. It was just a matter of time before he would be broken. And once Joss confessed what he knew about Plunger’s involvement as a terrorist, he would be the next to disappear. If Plunger still planned on winning this war against the Government, he would have to act first, before they figured a way to eliminate him.
Years of crawling through narrow pipelines on the Moon gave Plunger an idea. He knew it was a long shot, but if he could get into the air conditioning ducts he might be able to escape. But before he could do that he had to deactivate the GPS chip implanted under his skin. For the past 40 years, everyone underwent this electronic tagging at birth. It was the way the Government had chosen to keep track of the huge population. Plunger was convinced that he’d never be allowed back to work, so it didn’t matter if he was on the grid or not. He knew that if he could locate a hot water pipe, he could press his back into it and fry the chip.
Finding the hot water pipe wasn’t hard. He waited until everyone in the psych ward was asleep and then he went into the shower room. Plunger got to the plumbing through an access panel, and quickly wedged himself between the narrow hot water pipes and leaned back. He used his legs to push himself into the pipes. The pain was excruciating, but Plunger knew that there was no going back. He could feel the pipes bend under his continued pressure. He waited until the smell of his burning flesh filled his lungs before making his way back out into shower room and up into the air conditioning ducts. He was surprised that his efforts to escape did not trigger an alarm. He had no idea where he was, so he chose to climb up. If he could get to the roof he knew he’d have a chance. So whenever he had the opportunity, he went up. Eventually the vertical connections stopped.
The pain in Plunger’s back was not letting up. He knew he needed to find a place to rest. If the chip in his back had truly been fried, then he’d be safe. He found a spot inside the duct just above the generator room to sleep. He was small and he didn’t think the prolonged weight at this point along the duct would be a problem. He woke up cramped and hungry. The pain had become a dull ache. Plunger knew how to take care of the cramp. He was used to confined spaces seeing that he had spent well over half his time on the Moon crawling around in pipes with diameters ranging from three to four meters. But the hunger was another matter. On the Moon he was hooked up to a nutrient drip, here in the ducts there was no food. He should have thought it through and taken provisions.
Plunger lost track of time as he crawled aimlessly through the tunnels searching for a way out. At the very least, if he couldn’t find an exit, hopefully he’d be able to find a cache of food. At one point he thought he could smell coffee but he could never find the source. It was like he was a feral rodent trapped in a labyrinthine maze of interconnecting ducts. It soon became apparent to Plunger that if he didn’t stumble on a way out he would die.
What Plunger couldn’t understand was that ever since he’d fallen asleep near the generator, he had not heard anyone or anything. He kept thinking that maybe he’d made a wrong turn somewhere and was now in a wing of the hospital that was under construction. He was no stranger to solitude but this was something else. At least on the Moon he knew he had a support team. Here he was on his own. When the panic finally set in, the only thing Plunger could do was scream. The echo of his wailing cry was answered by the sound of something that resembled subtle hollow laughter.
“I knew it!” Plunger yelled at the top of his lungs as he raced through the duct. “You got me. You got me good!” He was moving so fast, and the duct was pitch black, that he did not stop in time to keep from falling into a shaft that seemed to appear from out of nowhere. When he hit bottom the force of the fall caused him to rip through the duct. Plunger spilled out into a dark, empty room. He wasn’t sure but it felt as if his left arm was broken. Wherever he was, the smell of kerosene (or maybe it was rocket fuel) was strong. He crawled until he found a wall, and then edged along it until he came to a door. It wasn’t locked. He slowly pulled the door open and fumbled around for a light switch.

The first thing he saw was the face of the company doctor he had spoken to on the Moon-to-Earth shuttle. He tried to take a swing at the man but he couldn’t move.
“Everything’s fine. We just strapped you in for re-entry. You were unconscious and we didn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Where am I?”
“There’s nothing to worry about. We’re just experiencing a little difficulty with the ship’s onboard computers.”
“You mean we’re still on the shuttle?”
“That’s right.”
“We never returned to Earth?”
“How long have I been out?”
The doctor looked at the digital chart at the foot of the gravity bed and then checked his wristwatch. “About 13 hours.”
“I thought the sedative would’ve knocked me out until it was all over.”
“We never gave you a sedative.” The doctor said with concern, referring back to his patient’s medical chart.
“I know. I took a few pills that I brought with me. I didn’t want to be awake when the shuttle came apart.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This ship is never going to make back to Earth. I rigged the onboard computers to malfunction during re-entry. It’s over, Doc. Everyone’s going to know the truth.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” The doctor quickly made his way over to the com-link.
“There’s no way the Government can shove a mess like this under the rug.” Plunger started to laugh. He wasn’t going crazy, after all. His original plan to destroy the shuttle was still in effect.

The fireball caused by the exploding shuttle lit up the sky over North America. Debris from the disintegrating space transport fell to the Earth from Chicago all the way to Washington, D.C. The media coverage was extensive, but brief. Government spokespeople chalked the tragedy up to a hardware failure. There was no public discussion about the possibility of terrorism as the cause of the disaster. Plunger anticipated they’d try to cover up his final act of insurrection. That’s why he posted a video confession explaining how and, most importantly, why he’d carried out his self described act of terrorism to all of the social networks that he was aware of. And even though the GIB desperately tried to eliminate all traces of Plunger’s confession, they were unable to stop his two minute and forty-one second video from going viral.

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