Spirit in the Sky
Victor felt terrible. He hadn’t felt this bad in years. His tumour had been growing, he knew that, and he knew that sooner or later it would get worse, much worse, and he had the awful feeling that later was arriving.
His wife, Marjorie, was worried, which was natural. She hid it well, usually, but today it was plain on her face.
‘You can’t go to work,’ she said, ‘not in that state.’
‘But…’ Victor started, but Marjorie was having none of it. She pushed him, gently, but firmly, back into the pillows, and he accepted the order. He sank back into the bed and let her pull the covers up.
‘I know it’s a big day, dear,’ she said, resting her hand on his forehead, something that always made him feel soothed. ‘But I’m sure the launch will go on without you.’
‘But today the Chancellor’s going up,’ said Victor. It was a very big day today, and he really didn’t want to miss it, couldn’t miss it. ‘They’ll need the new codes I’ve been working on.’ But his wife was still having none of it.
‘The Chancellor will blast off, I’m sure, and she’ll get to the space station, and she’ll do her speech and everything, and they can use your new codes on the next mission. You’ll just have to watch this one on the live video stream, like everyone else.’ She smiled at him. He smiled back, a feeble smile, but a heartfelt smile. He let his eyes close.
He knew that by now the rocket was ready for launch, he could imagine it, standing on the launch pad. The space station was ready, circling the Earth. It was a pity he couldn’t be there, to see the Chancellor climb into the capsule, to blast off and rise into the heavens. It wasn’t every day the Government’s chief finance minister went into space to deliver her budget speech. Victor’s mind drifted to the codes he’d been working on, the results of modelling gravity vectors, producing inertial correction codes. And from there he soon drifted into a deep and peaceful sleep.
Marjorie, however, was not so peaceful. She was more worried than she had let on. Victor hadn’t looked this ill since before his surgery. She needed to speak to Victor’s consultant, but of course, the consultant wasn’t available. She managed to reach the consultant’s secretary.
‘I’m sorry, but Mrs Smith is in her private clinic at the moment,’ said the secretary. Marjorie had to suppress a sigh since Mrs Smith was never available.
‘But I need to talk to Mrs Smith about my husband,’ said Marjory, ‘he’s getting worse and needs the new medication Mrs Smith told us about.’
There was a pause. No doubt the secretary was looking for the records of Victor’s last consultation. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the secretary, in a way that left Marjory in no doubt that the secretary was not in the slightest bit sorry. ‘But your husband’s insurance doesn’t cover the cost of that particular medication.’
‘But he needs it,’ implored Marjory, ‘we’ll pay for it, if the insurance company won’t.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not an option, that medication can only be provided by the manufacturer to an insurance company approved medical facility.’
‘But my husband needs it, to get to work, he’s got codes…’
The secretary cut her off, abruptly. ‘What is he? A spy?’
‘No, an aerospace engineer,’ said Marjorie, in a rather meek voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the secretary again, not sounding sorry. ‘But the insurance company knows best about who to provide medicines for, and if your plan doesn’t cover it, then there’s nothing I can do.’
The line went dead. Marjorie knew full well that “knows best” meant “makes most profit.”
She went to get the laptop computer. She could take it upstairs and set it up for Victor. He could watch the live streaming of the launch, but of course, they’d have to pay for it.
The limousine threaded its way through the traffic, the police motorbike ahead keeping its blue lights flashing, and only using the siren to carve a way through busy junctions. In the back of the limousine, the Chancellor was oblivious to all this. Her aide sat next to her, laptop open, mobile phone always at the ready.
Alison Poe held her own phone to her ear. This call had been slightly unexpected, and not at all welcome. She had a busy day ahead of her. It wasn’t every day a Chancellor got to go into space, and today wasn’t a day she wanted to spend time arguing with the Chief Executive of the NHS. The sooner she could do away with the NHS and this infuriating man, the better.
‘Sir Kenneth,’ she said, trying to be firm but not harsh, ‘I understand your concerns, and I do empathise with you.’ She did not understand him (nor wanted to) and certainly did not empathise with him.
‘Madam Chancellor,’ said Sir Kenneth Lamb, ‘I am gravely concerned that any further reduction in the NHS budget would be disastrous for many of the less well-off in this country.’
‘Sir Kenneth, no final decision has been taken about budgets,’ she lied, ‘but in any event, we will be making extra provisions for you to provide services through a greater range of alternative specialists.’
‘You mean you’re going to divert even more money to the private sector, so they’ll make even more profit and treat even fewer patients.’ The anger in Sir Kenneth’s voice was becoming more apparent.
Poe took a slow, controlled breath in, and forced a smile. ‘Sir Kenneth, the market is the most efficient means of deciding where best to target our limited resources.’ She continued without pausing, denying Lamb a chance to interject. ‘Profit is the motive which spurs providers to supply the most cost-effective solutions in the most efficient way. Your budget is limited, all budgets are limited, and by including the free market in your business model we ensure that we as a country get the best value from our healthcare providers. Thank you, Sir Kenneth.’ She ended the call.
She looked at her aide, eyes narrowed, smile gone. ‘If that twat rings back, ignore him, I don’t want to speak to him again until I’m back.’
‘Certainly, Madam Chancellor,’ said the aide, and took Poe’s phone for safe keeping.
Poe looked out of the window but didn’t see the world outside. Her mind was preoccupied, as most people’s minds would be were they on the way to take a rocket up to the Space Station, and from there deliver the most important budget speech this Government had made.
She was in no doubt how important this speech was. UK Space Tech was a shining example of the free market at work, profit driving innovation, and no doubt a well-paid directorship awaited her on her eventual retirement from politics. But the population was nervous. Free market economics had delivered some spectacular successes, and another term in office would see the end of public sector dinosaurs in broadcasting and health care. It would be a big step, and not everyone was convinced. They needed to win this election, secure another term, and what better way than for the Chancellor to deliver the budget address from on board the Space Station. What could be better?
The Space Centre was impressive. Poe struggled to maintain her composure. The car and police outrider glided up the driveway towards the main buildings, and to the left, in the middle-distance, she could see the rocket standing on the launch pad. She maintained her game-face, but inside she started to feel the pangs of nervousness. Ahead, she could see the mêlée of press and Space Centre crew waiting to welcome her.
Before she knew it, the car had stopped, and the door was open. In a whirl, she left the car, a calm and confident (but not arrogant) smile, waves in various directions (make sure all the key press and online video teams get good pictures), a handshake with the UK Space Tech Chief Executive, and then through the doors into the calm of the building (large and stern looking security guards keeping the press outside.)
‘I’m sorry about the press and the cameras,’ said the Chief Executive, a tall man with an imposing presence. Chancellor Poe waved his comment away. She was used to the press, they had their uses.
‘They’re useful,’ she said.
‘They’re profitable,’ he said, ‘the media division of our parent company sells subscriptions to the online video streams of our launches.’
The Chancellor smiled. The private sector was a most marvellous animal. They walked through the main hallway of the Space Centre, a wide and brightly lit avenue with glass walls on either side giving views into the various workspaces where white-clad technicians prepared impressive pieces of space hardware for launch. As they walked, the Chief Executive outlined the preparation process for the Chancellor; suiting up, the drive out to the launch pad, the blast off. The Chancellor had, of course, undergone the mandatory one-day space flight preparation course, and so was quite familiar with the process, or at least with the description she’d heard of it.
The Chancellor stopped and stared through one of the windows. The room beyond was dimly lit and filled with tall racks of computer equipment. Indicator lights blinked in the gloom. It looked almost pretty.
‘SPIRIT, Madam Chancellor,’ said the Chief Executive.
‘I’m sorry?’ she said.
‘SPIRIT, it stands for “Share Price Index Risk Indicator and Tactics”, it’s our primary tactical management decision-making system.’
‘I’m not sure I follow,’ said the Chancellor. She had the impression this was an important piece of equipment, but she needed something more than techno-speak.
‘It’s a prototype, an experiment. I have my executive team who make the strategic decisions for the business,’ the Chief Executive explained, ‘and we have the technicians who do the work. SPIRIT takes the day-to-day tactical decisions for the business.’
The Chancellor stared in awe at the hi-tech computer wizardry in the room beyond. The company had used computers to do away with middle-managers? The possibilities made her almost giggle.
The Chief Executive continued, ‘the system is tied into the stock market. It monitors our share price, and for each decision it models the effect of each option on the price and on our profit-and-loss accounts. It evaluates costs and outcomes and risks and makes the best, most profitable decision for the business.’
‘For example?’ asked the Chancellor, still imagining all the areas of government where she could apply this.
‘For example, your launch into space. There’s a ninety-minute window in which we can launch. SPIRIT modelled the income from viewing and advertising revenue, calculated the costs, and decided that 6 pm was the appropriate time.’
‘This is marvellous,’ said the Chancellor. She stared at it in awe. Decisions made about profit and loss, uncontaminated by emotion or compassion, pity or sentiment. Ideas formed in her mind. The trip to the Space Station, the speech, were no longer the most important thing on her mind.
‘It was a lot easier to introduce this with your support for private enterprise and free market economics,’ said the Chief Executive.
‘If this is what you can do, I can promise you a lot more support,’ said the Chancellor, ‘provided you can give me a public enough platform for the budget speech.’
‘Oh, we can promise you that, Madam Chancellor.’
They walked through the doors into the astronaut preparation area. SPIRIT continued blinking away, calculating and deciding.
The Chief Executive sat in the bright and antiseptic meeting room. The heads of each of the mission specialties sitting around the polished table, laptops open in front of them. The Mission Director was giving the final briefing. The rocket was on the pad. Fuelling was in the final stages and on schedule. Launch programs all set. All crew ready to go to the rocket. The mission specialist (in other words, the Chancellor) in final preparation (in other words, getting squeezed into her spacesuit) and on schedule. Sales of the live video stream of the launch were rising according to predictions, advertising revenue on track, space station…
The Mission Controller in charge of the space station stopped, checking something on her laptop.
‘Ah, we don’t seem to have the latest version of the inertial correction codes,’ she said.
‘Why not? They were due to be loaded this morning,’ said the Mission Director.
The controller scrolled down her screen, looking for facts.
‘It seems the technician who was updating the codes was off sick, due back today, didn’t turn up.’
A silence hung in the air.
‘These codes?’ said the Chief Executive, ‘can we carry on without them?’ He looked at the Mission Director. The Mission Director looked down the table at the Mission Controller, a quizzical look on his face.
‘We could,’ she said, with little certainty, ‘they’re not crucial to the launch.’
‘What do these codes do?’ asked the Chief Executive.
The Mission Controller answered. ‘Basically, the space station is orbiting only just above the atmosphere, and the atmosphere expands slightly when it warms up. The codes programme the space station to make minor adjustments to its attitude to avoid brushing the atmosphere, they’re a precautionary measure.’
‘So, no problem in launching without the codes?’ asked the Chief Executive.
‘No, no problem,’ said the Mission Director, ‘we only need them if we’re expecting any significant atmospheric expansion, and we’re not.’
‘What does SPIRIT say?’ said the Chief Executive. There was a pause, the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards.
‘SPIRIT’s conclusion is the most profitable scenario is to launch as planned,’ said a technician.
‘Good, so does anybody give a “No Go”?’
There was silence in the room.
‘Then we are Go for launch,’ declared the Mission Director.
The Chief Executive sat in the row of chairs at the back of the control room. The room was big and impressive, the wall opposite dominated by screens and displays and readouts. Rows of controllers and specialists sat at large arrangements of screens and keyboards. The Chief Executive was aware of the video cameras, small and discrete, but noticeable to anyone who cared to look for them. Everything was on video, they had a paying audience to satisfy. He looked at the tablet computer he held. The video stream was now live, covering the last few minutes before the launch. Next to the image on his tablet’s display of the rocket on the launchpad, was the graph of audience figures and advertising revenue from the sale of the video stream. Both graphs were going up in a very pleasing fashion, and he felt only very slightly nervous that this was a launch with such a high-profile crew member and a key piece of system configuration was missing.
The countdown entered the last minute, the seconds ticking away. The Chief Executive lifted his eyes and watched the image of the rocket on the big screen. Next to that was the image of the Chancellor, strapped into her seat in the passenger module at the top of the rocket. She looked every bit the professional astronaut. She even gave a smile and thumbs up to the camera, but the Chief Executive had an idea of just how terrified she probably was. He had to give her credit, though; loathsome, opportunist, lying and deceitful pond-life of a politician though she was, she certainly knew how to get the public’s attention.
The last seconds both dragged and sped by in a strange bending of time, but before he knew it, the Chief Executive was watching the huge cloud of smoke and fire erupting from the base of the rocket. In moments, and not a moment too soon, the rocket was climbing into the sky, accelerating away from the ground. The Chief Executive realised he wasn’t breathing and exhaled sharply. The Mission Director looked over at him, also red-faced, he’d not been breathing either.
The five-minute flight to low Earth orbit took an eternity, it seemed. The time was punctuated, for the Chief Executive, by frequent glances at the tablet in his hands, and the ever-increasing counters of audience size and revenue earned. SPIRIT had timed the launch to perfection. The auto-scheduled online advertisements had caught the public’s attention. The growing audience size had caught the attention of the mainstream broadcasters around the world, who paid a handsome fee for access to the live video-stream. If the Chancellor wanted an audience for her message, she had certainly achieved that.
He looked up at the video screens and saw the images from the rocket showing its approach to the space station. Ever more slowly, the rocket approached the station. The Chief Executive knew that the rocket was under computer navigation control, and he couldn’t help but wonder if SPIRIT was also guiding the rocket, slowing its approach to eek out the audience engagement.
After what seemed like an age, the rocket docked with the space station. The Chief Executive knew that what would follow would take even longer. The computers would verify that the dock was secured, would equalise pressures, release the locks on the hatches. The Chancellor would be helped out of the rocket and into the station. She would spend time acclimatising to the weightlessness and would get settled in, ready to prepare for her budget speech the following day. Audience figures would soon drop, revenues would drop, and SPIRIT would discontinue the video feed for the day.
The Chief Executive nodded to the Mission Director, who was deep in conversation with one of his specialists. The Executive stood up and walked towards the door. The Chancellor’s voice cut through the air of the control room.
‘I can only describe this,’ she said, ‘as a triumph for the private sector space industry in general, and for UK Space Tech in particular.’
The Chief Executive stood and watched the screen as the Chancellor, floating around the interior of the docking module like a hot-air balloon on a summer’s day, launched into her impromptu speech.
‘It is only through the ingenuity and creativity of the scientists and specialists of UK Space Tech, driven by the competitive spirit of the free market, that we have achieved this in such a short time.’
The Chief Executive dropped his eyes to his pad and had to blink to make sure he had read the numbers correctly. Audience figures were rising still higher. Advertising revenue was climbing as SPIRIT scheduled the most relevant online advertisements and charged ever higher fees. Who needed middle managers? A data-driven free market, there was nothing it couldn’t achieve.
The Chief Executive realised he hadn’t actually been listening to most of the Chancellor’s speech, and nor need he, it was nothing but vapid sophistry. The actual speech was tomorrow; details of cuts in interest rates, tax breaks, laws to make private enterprise even more free of control and hindrance.
The shrill squeal of an alarm and the flashing red lights inside the space station jerked him out of his pondering.
As he turned round to look at the big screen, he could see the mission specialists working furiously at their computer terminals. The Mission Director was talking quickly into his headset. On the screen, the Chancellor was gripping a grab-handle for dear life, and to her eternal credit was still looking remarkably calm, more calm than the crew-member floating behind her.
‘What’s happening?’ asked the Chancellor, in a voice that was almost controlled, but betrayed a hint of the anxiety she must be feeling. It was the question at the front of everyone’s mind.
‘All hands,’ said the Mission Director, ‘abandon the space station.’ Everyone in the room could hear the words echo from the loudspeakers onboard the station. Immediately the crew started pulling themselves towards the hatch leading back to the rocket.
‘What’s happening?’ demanded the Chief Executive.
‘The space station has brushed the upper atmosphere,’ said the Mission Director without looking up from his screens. ‘It’s causing an uncontrollable sheer on the rocket, it has to disengage.’
‘Well, for God’s sake get the Chancellor back on board first,’ said the Executive.
Now the Mission Director looked at him. ‘She has to get herself to the rocket, there’s nothing I can do.’
The Mission Director turned his attention back to the screens and to his headset. ‘Madam Chancellor, you need to get back to the rocket, now. It’s about to disengage.’
The Chief Executive, and the Mission Director, and everyone in the room struggled to believe the words that next came out of the Chancellor’s mouth.
‘But I’m here to give a speech, you got me here so I could give my speech.’
‘Madam Chancellor,’ snapped the Mission Director, ‘the rocket is about to disengage, it’s automatic, I can’t stop it, you have to get back on board.’
A very loud, dull clang ended the argument. The hatch to the rocket had slammed shut. On the screen, they could see the space station shudder, and then there was calm.
‘Now what?’ asked the Chief Executive.
The Mission Director checked his screens and then checked with some of the mission specialists.
‘The rocket has disengaged, it and the crew are on a safe descent back to Earth. With the rocket no longer sticking out of the side of the space station, it’s become relatively stable. For the moment.’
‘For how long?’
It was one of the mission specialists who answered, loud enough for everyone to hear.
‘The sheering has damaged the fuel cells, they’re beginning to overheat. They’ll explode in about twelve hours.’
All eyes turned to the screen and saw a sight probably never beheld before. The Chancellor was floating, mouth open, speechless.
‘It’s okay, Madam Chancellor,’ said the Chief Executive, in his most calm and authoritative voice, ‘we have a contingency plan for this, we have contingency plans for everything.’
They all sat around the conference table, the air heavy with the silence. Next to the Chief Executive was a newcomer. She rarely attended operational meetings. The Chief Executive knew her well, but few of the others had ever met the Chief Finance Officer. As the most senior person in the room, it fell to the Chief Executive to break the silence.
‘We do have a contingency plan, don’t we?’
‘Well, no,’ said the Mission Director. ‘The whole point of the inertial correction codes was to compensate for just such a scenario. The codes were the contingency plan.’
‘Well, can’t we just put some more codes in,’ said the Chief Executive, forcefully, ‘it’s not rocket science.’
One of the mission specialists spoke up. ‘Actually, it is.’
‘Rocket science, computing the codes is actual rocket science, that’s why we needed Victor to do it.’
‘Can’t we get some new codes?’
‘No point now,’ said the Mission Director, ‘the damage has been done. The problem now is the overheating fuel cells.’
The silence returned to the room.
‘We have another delivery vehicle,’ said the Chief Executive.
‘We do,’ said the Mission Director,’ but it won’t be ready to launch for another twelve days. This vehicle was supposed to stay attached to the station for twelve hours and then bring the Chancellor back.’
‘We have less than twelve hours before the fuel cells overheat,’ said another of the mission specialists.
‘How quickly can we get the other rocket ready for launch?’ asked the Chief Executive.
‘How quickly can we get it ready within the mission budget?’ said the Finance Officer, by way of clarification.
There was a pause. Several of the specialists consulted their tablets and laptops, then murmured to each other. After a pause there was more murmuring, probably to agree who was going to break the bad news.
‘If we don’t break the bank, about twenty-four hours,’ said one of the specialists.
‘Breaking the bank is outside the project budget,’ said the CFO, her voice cold and hard.
‘What do you mean “break the bank”?’ snapped the Chief Executive.
The Mission Director stepped in, no doubt to protect his juniors from an executive mauling. ‘The faster we prepare the rocket, the more it costs.’ He looked up at the specialist, and asked ‘how much to prepare for launch in twenty-four hours?’
‘It’s irrelevant if the fuel cells explode in twelve,’ said the Chief Executive.
‘It’s irrelevant if it’s outside the project budget,’ said the CFO.
The specialist looked at the Mission Director, unsure whether to still answer. The Director nodded, and the specialist answered. ‘To ready the rocket in twenty-four hours, about one hundred and fifteen million pounds.’
Now the silence in the room was painful. To everyone’s surprise, the CFO said nothing and her eyes defocused for a moment, no doubt as she calculated the impact of readying the rocket any sooner.
‘Well, I’m open to suggestions,’ said the Chief Executive, hoping the amassed brain power in the room would be capable of thinking of some solution, preferably quickly. Silence and blank faces met his plea.
‘We could borrow the Russian’s delivery vehicle, it’s attached to the ISS, could be there in a few hours,’ ventured one of the specialists. The silence that met the idea spoke volumes about its likely viability.
‘I suppose that will be expensive,’ said the Executive.
‘The Russians will realise they have us over a barrel,’ said the CFO, ‘and no doubt they’ll charge a king’s ransom for the use of their vehicle. It would be far too expensive.’
‘So what you’re telling me is that we could rescue the Chancellor, but we’d bankrupt the company in the process,’ said the Chief Executive. No-one in the room was sure the question needed answering.
‘Not necessarily, there is another way of approaching this problem,’ said the CFO. All eyes turned to her. Her resolve never wavered.
‘Please explain,’ said the Chief Executive.
‘I’ve looked at the revenues from the sales of the online video streaming and the advertising. Especially with what’s happened to the Chancellor, this is easily our most profitable mission to date. The longer this mission goes on, the more profitable it becomes,’ she explained.
‘Until the fuel cells explode and we kill the Government’s Chancellor, live on the Internet for everyone to see,’ said the Mission Director, a sharp edge in his voice.
‘The Chancellor signed all the necessary waivers and disclaimers,’ said the Chief Executive, ‘she knew that she was signing up to a mission which had risks.’
‘This is someone’s life we’re talking about,’ said the Mission Director, ‘we can’t just decide on the basis of profit and loss whether or not to rescue her.’
‘You’re right,’ said the Chief Executive. ‘We can’t. This is a decision that SPIRIT has to take.’
The Chief Executive sat in his office. The wall-mounted screen showed an image of disturbing size of the Chancellor’s face. She was floating in the central section of the space station, holding on with both hands to stop her floating around like a balloon. Dignity was always important.
‘What do you mean you can’t organise a rescue mission?’ asked the Chancellor, struggling to get the words out.
‘I’m sorry, Madam Chancellor,’ said the Chief Executive, glad of the distance between them. This was not a message he would have wanted to give face to face. ‘But it’s clear, mounting a rescue mission would be grossly unprofitable.’
‘But you can’t simply decide based on profit. I’ll die if you don’t get that rescue ship to me.’ The Chief Executive could hear the Chancellor’s struggle to keep her emotions in check and her voice level.
‘Yes, we can decide that. SPIRIT is very clear, televising the destruction of the space station is so profitable compared to the cost of mounting any rescue mission, that it’s a clear-cut decision. And one that SPIRIT has taken.’
‘I don’t care what your infernal machine has decided, get me down from this place,’ shouted the Chancellor, her self-control slipping.
‘It’s a simple free-market decision, it’s economics, it’s capitalism at work,’ said the Chief Executive, starting to enjoy the conversation more.
‘You can’t condemn me to death because it’s profitable,’ screamed the Chancellor, the fear and anger becoming clear in her face and voice. She lost her grip with one hand and started to float around. She waved her leg and her free arm, thrashing around, trying to get a grip. ‘What you’re doing is manslaughter, it’s illegal, it’s criminal.’
‘On the contrary, Madam Chancellor, what we’re doing is entirely in line with Government policy.’ The Chancellor fell silent and stared at the camera, pouring her hate into it and across the distance to the Chief Executive. ‘Your health policy,’ continued the Chief Executive, ‘is to allow people to come to harm if it is unprofitable to protect them, and we’re perfectly happy to defend our position in court.’
‘I’ll fight you every step of the way,’ said the Chancellor, a measure of control returning to her voice.
‘SPIRIT has already determined that our economic argument is entirely in line with Government policy, and therefore you cannot challenge us without challenging your own political and economic policy,’ said the Chief Executive with a smile.
The Chancellor stared, no doubt conflicted with all the thoughts crashing around her head, all mixed up with anger and fear.
‘In fact,’ said the Chief Executive, ‘we’ve already announced our decision and our intention to defend our position in the courts. Advance television rights and advertising revenues have already surpassed all predictions. We couldn’t possibly afford to rescue you now.’
‘This is wrong, simply wrong,’ said the Chancellor, the tears forming in her eyes, her chin beginning to wobble.
‘Look on the bright side, Madam Chancellor, you’re about to become a star.’