All Fiction

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 9

I just start turning things off. CO2 scrubbers. Don’t need them right now. Thermal management. Let it get hot. Reserve lighting. It’s already dark as hell. Radiation mitigation. Must be for the RTGs, maybe stellar radiation, who knows, but we can survive without it for a few minutes. I even give cryo pods two seconds of thought. My understanding was that they used a ton of power to put people to sleep and almost as much to wake them up again, but they run on minimal power while we were asleep. That‘s a dead-end for now. Once we land… If we land…

After I run out of things to kill, I just start killing terminals. The central computer is independent from all of them anyway, just another power suck that we can live without. The last thing I flip off is my own terminal. As I do, everything goes dark.

Mr. Military and I just sit there, quiet in the dark. The ship jitters and bounces as it tries to glide through the atmosphere, like the shuttle and the starship so many centuries ago. Killing off speed, and giving our brains a stir.

From the bridge, everything is still mostly silent. Silent except for the groaning of the ship, metal that had enjoyed weightlessness and little strain for centuries is being put to the test, and it’s protesting. There is no way to know if there are giant gaping holes running through the ship and fire pouring in. The temperature rises in the bridge as if in answer to my question. I just keep telling myself that everything is normal. This is what was meant to happen. The ship shudders violently rattling my teeth together, but I just tell myself that was inevitable. We’re a slab of metal streaking with flames through an alien atmosphere with thermal management deactivated. Getting hot just means we are still alive.

The harness digs into my bare flesh around my genitals and at my shoulders with every tremble of the ship. It feels like 200 extra kilos are sitting on my shoulders. Would this chair collapse? I shot my feet out just in case envisioning them getting caught under and being turned to mush.

Suddenly, the ride smooths out. Maybe the cold gas thrusters finally gained control. Maybe we hit our terminal velocity, something that skydivers race toward from the other end of the speed spectrum. Maybe I just died.

“Did we land?” Mr. Military asks, sounding more like a scared boy than the scared man I’d first encountered.

“I don’t think so,” I said, picking up on the small trembles still present in the ship. Then the g-force shoots up again, and I feel myself pressed back into the jump seat. The ship dips one way and then another as a roar fills the room. This could be it. One way or another it had to be it.

In the space of ten seconds, it’s over. We are in blackness, the ship is calm, we are either dead or resting peacefully on Warlock 4. “We’re here,” I said in a tone that was much more ominous than I intended.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 8

I jump to a different menu something about controls, just to see if there’s any listing of those landing thrusters. There they are! Hypergolic Thrusters 1 through 27, status nominal. Nominal is good. Or at least as good as a report as you can expect from a computer.

Hypergolic thrusters are pretty reliable so long as you can handle the toxic and corrosive liquids necessary for them. Essentially you have a fuel and an oxidizer, and when combined they need nothing to get the party started. No ignitors necessary. However, you still have to pump the shit. It’s good to see that they were operable, but do we have enough power to operate them? How much power do the hypergolic pumps on an interstellar vessel require to land?

In my grand wisdom, I have no idea.

Mr. Military grabs a terminal of his own and starts plucking away, and the ship jumps and jostles. Mr. Military brings up an exterior display on two giant screens that I didn’t even know were there. Fire streaking by the cameras is all that could be seen, but fire was part of the plan. Fire is just kinetic energy turning into heat. If we turn it into heat to fast, we burn, if we do it to slow, we crash. Everything in space travel is a balance. It’s very Zen like that, only on the other side of Zen, is death.

“Shut that shit off,” I shout with more forcefulness than I knew I had.

I tap a few more menus, trying to get to something about power. I knew what was generating power, but I don’t know what is consuming it other than those big fucking screens muscle head just turned on.

“We need to be apprised of our situation.” Mr. Military said with more calm than I could muster.

“No,” I said, surprising myself again. “We have no control. That’s the computer. We can’t react to anything on those screens. We need to make sure we can land.” I click into another screen, exactly what I want to see, and yet not what I want to see. “We’re consuming just under a megawatt of power, see.” I point to the flickering numbers on the screen. “That’s also how much we’re producing. We need to cut power wherever we can or those thrusters we need to land aren’t going to have enough juice to fire.”

His face goes from smug, to concerned. I click deeper into the menu and come to a list. It’s what I need. A list of everything that is consuming. The list has many power offenders on it including cryo pods, reserve lighting, various terminals, CO2 scrubbers, radiation mitigation, thermal management, and the list goes on. One system that is particularly frightening is the cold gas thrusters. They are already fighting for power. These little thrusters are responsible for controlling the attitude of the ship. Once again, very simple. They don’t use a lot of power, but they are still suffering from our crippled power system.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 7

The ship shudders again, this time with more violence. Metal clangs against metal as ship components experience their first major jostle since assembly Earth orbit. Its first encounter with real atmosphere too. The ship is untested which I guess is by design, but my brain still wants to panic. Luckily, there’s no time.

“We better buckle up,” Mr. Military says. I still don’t know his name. He shoves off a support and pushes himself to the floor. Space stations are designed without floors, but this ship wasn’t designed to be weightless forever, just about 400 years, and its weightless days are just about over. He yanks a collapsible chair out from the floor, metal legs and creaky joints snap into position. With another motion, he pulls out another one out next to it. What a gentleman. “Strap in, you’re going to need it.” He’s not wrong.

I float over as the ship shakes around me again, but I miss. Gravity is here. I slam into the floor, as the first bit of deceleration takes the ship. It’s not much, maybe a tenth of a gee, but it’s enough when you’re not expecting it. I push myself up and make a little leap for the chair. Mr. Military is already buckling into his. Only half gentleman, pulls out your chair but doesn’t see you safely into it. As I grab the wrung on the chair, the ship shakes again, only this time it doesn’t stop. Shouldn’t the computer be communicating? Telling us about the descent? Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. The computer runs the landing, but it’s supposed to be providing friendly updates on the way down.

I manage to buckle in. Maybe it’s the power. Maybe we don’t have enough power. Will the landing thrusters fire without power? Is the planet livable? Where did the year in orbit go? Even if the thrusters do fire, are we still super fucked?

I tap at a console, nearly out of reach. The landing is supposed to be hands-off, but I need to know. “What are you doing?” Mr. Military barks, but his voice reaches me the same as a hum in the ventilation or a politician’s speech, something to be ignored.

I have no idea what I’m doing, but I know what I’m trying to do. Thrusters, thrusters, thrusters. Navigating government systems is difficult. They are built by thousands of programmers, with no thought for the end user and all by the lowest bidder. One menu looks nothing like the rest, things are accessed through nonsensical locations, and screen to screen the same rules never apply. If someone can use it, it’s good enough. Even if you have to be a half-crazed madman to understand it.

I pop down into a propulsion systems menu, and nothing makes much sense. Just a bunch of acronyms that I never learned and can’t puzzle out. Forgive me if my mind doesn’t have all its faculties at present. Hopefully it’s not brain damage. No, I feel fine. Would a person with brain damage feel fine? I can’t safely answer that question.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 6

Then I hear it. “Fuck!” At least it’s not some space beast wolf crocodile thing. I have that much going for me… probably. I maneuver into the room to see a man dressed much like me. Tall, lanky, Latin complexion, short-cropped black hair, and muscled just like you would expect from the military. His skin has a sheen of sweat, and even his issued boxer briefs appear wet.

He must have heard me sigh, “About fucking time you get here,” he says, as his fingers pluck away at a touch screen. “Figure this damn thing out!” This was a man accustomed to giving orders, that much was clear. He left the terminal, still without looking at me.

He may have looked clean-cut when he woke up, but in the bridge now, he has the look of a man who had been up for 36 hours. I’ve seen it on the faces of students around MIT exam time, but somehow I think there is a little more on the line here.

I hike the med kit under my arm determined not to lose it to zero gravity. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I don’t know. You’re the tech guy. You tell me!” And people wonder why tech support hates everybody. He floats over to another terminal, some monitoring screen, while I get to work on the faceless problem.

Not knowing where to start, I follow my plan. I start in life support. Circulation, and immediately encounter a problem. Perhaps even the problem. Low voltage warning, air circulation temporarily disabled. Alright, power. Let’s take a look at power then.

My first aid kit slips out from under my arm as the larger problem presents itself. I let the little white and red kit tumble. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, especially in zero gravity. In zero gravity everything always looks and feels more alive.

Solar panels at 40%. Lower than it should be in orbit at Warlock 4, but at least we are in system. RTGs 79%, 83%, 81%, 22%, inoperable, inoperable. Now that’s a strangeness. RTGs are essentially little nuclear power plants, but they are super simple. They just make heat through radioactive decay, and we take that heat and turn it into power. If we don’t use the energy, it still produces it. It does decay over time, but one shouldn’t be at 22% and two definitely shouldn’t be inoperable. Here comes the big check. Fusion reactors, separated.

Fucking separated.

They’re designed to separate once in orbit right before we land. Too unsafe to bring two fusion reactors down to the surface when solar and RTGs should provide enough power for surface activities. Plus, they can double as a pair of satellites helping us communicate back home, though at just over 50 light-years, that communication isn’t exactly a priority.

Here’s the problem floating through my mind, solar panels at 40%, in system, but likely not in orbit, separated fusion cores, and by extension primary propulsion, we have no way of stopping. Just the one-time use thrusters designed to give us a gentle landing. Not enough to stop a hulk from spearing the star or slinging off back into the deep black.

I try to shout, “Where are we?” but it comes out as a crack.

“We’ll be on the damn planet in a minute if you don’t do anything,” he answered back irritated.

We’re crashing into the planet? No, we wouldn’t have plotted such a course. Couldn’t have really. Too much precision involved in that extreme idea.

I feel the ship shudder. “What was that?”

“Probably atmosphere. Can you fix it or not?”

“I’m a life support tech,” I say, flipping through more pages of information. The solar should have more power, more people should be awake, a million things should be and none of them are.

Military man lets out a measured sigh. “Well, then we are extra fucked.”

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 5

I think about saying more. About saying I have no idea how the ship is laid out, and I’m just in medical-white boxer briefs, and I’m not sure I don’t have brain damage, but instead, I decide to just go.

Moving in zero gravity is not new to me. I attended the MIT space-borne college campus for two years. Having to weave through hundreds of starry-eyed students along tight space-station hallways makes you learn very quickly how to move without gravity. It’s all about momentum and learning how to direct that momentum. I enjoyed it then, and I was looking forward to a year of it before we land, but now I’m just hoping I can stay alive.

I kick off from the pod and, starting in the direction of the blue restroom lights, I just go. A bunch of paths converge here. If this ship was discovered by aliens, they may conclude that the restroom was a place of worship for humanity. I move straight passed picking up speed. A few dozen meters later I encounter a wall. Without missing a beat, or losing much speed, I spring off a handrail with my feet, forcing my trajectory right. They tell you to avoid words like right and left in space. Instead use fore, aft, starboard, port, and your deck number. That assumes you know what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t at all in The Dreamer. Not in the least.

Most likely, that wall I just encountered was the hull, so turning either right or left would get me to the bridge. It was a 50/50 chance. My eyes we’re becoming accustomed to the twilight of The Dreamer. Data pads here and there and the occasional illuminated sign gave me enough to move by.

Cryo pods are everywhere. They litter the hallways, they are crammed tight in every room. It’s stifling, claustrophobic, and unsettling. In every pod a person. A person who has no idea what’s happening on the ship that they have been on for centuries. All goes well, these pods won’t be here for long. The others will be awoken, and the first order of business will be to make some room. Start tearing out these pods. They can be disassembled quite easily, folded in on themselves and stacked out of the way. Rooms that were filled would turn into galleys, med-bays, labs, rec rooms, dormitories, and anything else a space traveler could ask for. It was an economy of space to just shove the pods everywhere, or more accurately, as this was a spaceship, it was an economy of mass and materials. The less the ship weighs, the easier it is to make it do what you want it to do.

I see a very familiar illuminated symbol at the next intersection. A red cross. First-aid. I snatch the package off the wall as I go by thinking about the open wounds on my spine, and how much I would love to be able to walk when this is all through.

I stop cold when I hear it. Stopping cold in zero gravity doesn’t really work. Instead, I just keep drifting as I listen. It sounded like an animal. Like a grunt. Visions of the crocodile wolf danced in my head. They aren’t really so much dancing as they are snapping at me from the darkness, from down every corridor I can’t quite see down as I drift passed. The sound comes again, only louder and more guttural.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 4

Last cord free, I wiggle my toes, just checking. I take off the loose chest strap and begin to float away from the cryo pod. The blue lights, the demon eyes of a space-born wolf, resolve into something simpler, more mundane. Two illuminated bathroom signs off in the distance, both pointing to one co-ed bathroom. Normally when I wake up, I have to pee, but I don’t have to pee now.

A few things register briefly in my mind. The air tastes stale, like hundreds of years of stale, not that I would have direct experience with that. It’s also hot. Not unbearable but upper 20s Celsius or 80s for those Fahrenheit lovers out there. Both symptoms of a failing life-support system. Improper circulation and improper cooling.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s cooling not heating that is often the problem with operating space vessels, especially something large like The Dreamer. You have machinery, computers, body heat, and in our case RTGs up against the hull, and two fusion reactors jutting out our backside that all generate heat. The best insulator is a good vacuum, and it doesn’t get much better than deep space. Heat is just wiggling particles, and the easiest way to get rid of some of that wiggle is to transfer it to other particles. Particles you don’t care about. Problem is, space has an utter lack of particles. To dump that excess wiggle, you need large radiators that can transfer as much heat as possible to any particles they can find. Space still has stuff in it, just not a lot. It’s better when you’re in a star system but in between it can get rough.

At least the air was breathable for now. Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. In the event that you are woken early due to life-support system issues, the computer won’t awaken many. In all likelihood, until the issue is addressed your air supply will be limited to what’s currently on the ship. The fewer people that can be brought out of cryo in this event, the more time you will have to fix the issue. However, circulation is important. In zero gravity, it’s very easy to suffocate yourself in one room while there’s breathable air sitting in the next.

“Okay,” I think to myself. “Circulation first. Plenty of air to breath if I can just keep it moving. Then heat. Oxygen is no good if I’m being cooked alive. We will worry about scrubbing CO2 last.”

“Are you coming yet?” The voice barks from the pod.

“Can you turn on a light so I can find my way to life support?” But for those two illuminated signs, everything is dark. It shouldn’t be this way. Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. Even in an emergency, the emergency lights should kick on. With our RTGs and the twin fusion reactors pumping out gobs of power, saving energy shouldn’t really be necessary. I know that much because power systems and life support systems go hand in hand.

“Life support? No, I need you in the bridge, and I don’t have a light to spare,” he barks, clearly irritated with me.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 3

I wake up. I don’t remember falling asleep. I guess no one ever remembers falling asleep but I thought cryo would be more special. “Hello, Mr. Deng.” It’s the robot girl voice again, the actual computer one.

“Hello,” I say in return. The computer lady stays silent. That doesn’t seem right. My body feels weightless. I can’t remember if that’s a good thing. Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. That is a good thing. The techs are to be awoken in orbit around Warlock 4. One year of in-orbit observations and planning, and then the whole ship will land.

The door slides open. There’s supposed to be a medical tech on standby. He or she should be right here ready to slip the cords out of my spine. Ready to sterilize. Instead, it’s dark. Am I dreaming? Any calm that I had slips away to some hidden corner of my mind. I imagine those bright blue eyes. See something like a wolf in the darkness. Like a wolf but with a mouth like a crocodile, frothing and snapping. Not a dream, a nightmare.

I can feel my pulse in my neck and see it in my vision. I can hear the blood rushing passed my eardrums. Or through my eardrum. Or however the hell blood is supposed to rush through the ears in silence. I could ask the medical tech, but they are not fucking here.

I lie paralyzed until a voice startles me half out of my skin. “You need to remain calm Mr. Deng.” It’s not the computer. It’s someone else. “I need your help Mr. Deng. But first, you need to get out of the cryo. I can’t come to you, and there’s no one to assist you. You’ll have to slip the wires out yourself.”

“I can’t.” I stammer. “I’m not supposed to. I could paralyze myself.”

“Fuck,” the other voice mutters. Clearly a male. Probably military. Likely even in charge. They took me straight to the pod when I arrived on The Dreamer. I don’t really know the names of anyone on the ship. Except for that robotic-sounding lady… What was her name? I can’t remember. Did I experience brain damage? My heart leaps up through my throat. I swear it does. I swear I can feel it push against my tongue. “Listen, Deng, you’re all I have right now. Slipping the wires out is easy. Grab each one, and yank down. Do it fast. Otherwise, you’ll experience a zing. It’s not painful, but it sure as hell ain’t a picnic either.”

“Can I just wait?” I’m still frozen. Still thinking about brain damage. Still staring at those two blue glowing eyes above me.

“No, you can’t. I need you in the bridge now!” His yell crackles in the intercom and shakes me from my fear. I reach to my back, find the first wire, and hesitate. I always hesitate. I hesitated when I sent my application to MIT, I hesitated when I volunteered for the space exchange program, and I hesitated when I took this mission. I grab the wire and yank down. I feel a quick jolt up my spine, like an electric shock, and a tingle of numbness stays behind. I work up my back, trying to get the others. Trying to give them the same treatment. Thinking the entire time about sterilization. About how I need alcohol back there. Thinking about being paralyzed.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 2

My training says that the chemicals should be entering my body now, turning me into a human Twinkie. Knowing and experiencing are two different things, and the cool tingle traveling up my spine from those life-preserving chemicals does not put my mind at ease. Far from it. Instead, I frantically wiggle my fingers and toes, making sure that something unexpected didn’t go wrong. One in 2,000 experience long-term effects from the cryo implantation. If The Dreamer has 1,000 passengers, then there’s a 50% chance that someone could be on this ship. That someone could be me.

They say they don’t inject Valium or other calming drugs into the body because its effects can be overpowering upon waking. I don’t care. Give me something so that my heart doesn’t leap out of my chest.

“Please try to relax Mr. Deng,” it’s a female voice, but not the female computer voice.

“Who is that?” I gasp.

“Patricia Jung. Medical officer. Your vitals are spiking.” Her voice isn’t as soothing as the computer. It is somehow more robotic, more trained. Probably military. There are a lot of military types on this vessel. Not me. I’m a humble MIT brat, with big ideas about getting my ass strapped to a rocket and sent on a life-altering expedition to who knows where. I know where. Warlock 4. At some point, scientists got cheeky with the names. The planet is supposed to be green with life, have 90% Earth gravity, oceans almost as big as ours, and a small red star.

I try to picture it all. Try to turn it into some semblance of a happy place.

“Mr. Deng,” Patricia’s voice came through again. “If you can’t calm down, we may have to bring in your alternate.”

“I’m working on it!” It was a shout that I instantly regretted.

Her voice comes back simply, “Okay.”

I think about my breathing. Think about the green world. It’s supposed to have oxygen even, but if it doesn’t or if the atmosphere is toxic in some way, it will be my job to set up the new life support systems. My job to help build the first colony. Imagining constructing a huge life support system. Building it to my design and spec, making it so that it’s expandable, reliable, and efficient. These thoughts soothe me.

“Thank you, Mr. Deng,” Patricia’s voice doesn’t sound too grateful.

“Initiating sleep procedure,” the soothing robotic lady says. “Please count backward from ten.”

That’s the last thing I want to do. I keep my eyes shut, I keep picturing the green world. I keep trying to remember my training. Remember my training. Remember my training.

“Ten,” I say trying to stay calm. Trying to follow orders. “Nine.” Counting backward is supposed to be calming. It’s also supposed to keep the mind clear. Keep the thoughts out so that you can wake alert and ready. “Eight.” I’m still picturing the green. “Seven” it’s a field of tall grass, and I am just checking filters in my EV suit. “Six.” I see eyes. Bright blue eyes, hiding among the grass. “Five.” I feel my pulse jump.

Chapter 1: Remember Your Training

Part 1

Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. The chant runs through my mind. In training, they tell you to remain calm and collected while they are putting you under for cryo sleep. Getting excited, having too much on your mind, driving yourself crazy, will all lead to confusion upon waking. A calm traveler would be a useful traveler once the cryo pod brought you back to life.

In this moment, I cannot remain calm. I am a tech, and I know all the things that can go wrong. The cryo pod alone has thousands of systems and subroutines. Some failures can be mitigated, but a lot can happen in 400 years. The cryo pod isn’t the only thing that can go wrong either. The Dreamer, as our ship is called, is home to nearly 1,000 other sleepers. This means it’s real big, and a big ship is just asking to be hit by something or run into something else out in the depths of space. Even if it doesn’t get hit, hundreds of systems all have to be operable. All of them have to work right for 400 years.

The system can always wake a tech early, and that’s what’s going through my mind as I am trying to calm myself. Life support systems are my specialty. I like life. Or more accurately, I like being alive. But if the system decides that I should wake early, shit will likely be fucked, to put it bluntly.

Remember your training. Remember your training. Remember your training. Imagine waking up in a ship with lights flickering. The air smells sour because something went seriously wrong. Rotting bodies fester in malfunctioning cryo pods, and the life support system can’t keep up. Other techs are already trying to fix the pods. Trying to keep more from dying, but I have to keep the air breathable. I have to run passed all the bodies, hold my breath through the stink, and try to wrench on a system that I haven’t seen in hundreds of years. What if I forget how to fix it? What if I suffer mental damage? It’s not unheard of.

The computer voice rouses me from my waking nightmare. “Remain calm,” it says in vaguely feminine tones. The pod door slides shut with barely a sound. “Staying calm is important to your wellbeing upon waking.” Her voice is soothing, but the content of her robotic words brings me back to my nightmare. “Your blood pressure is elevated Mr. Deng.” No doubt she was right. She had cause to be right. Her electric fingers were plugged right into my central nervous system. Everything had to be monitored for proper cryo sleep. I could feel the little wires plugged in along my spine. These little ports had chances of infection after you woke up. They wouldn’t be infected now. Not with cryo sleep around the corner, but in the early days of cryo, people had been paralyzed. There’s always a chance.

Cold Hearts

“Where is he?” Doris said in a shout that echoed through the waiting area. People bot sick and waiting turned and what they saw were two people, parents presumably, followed by a third, a girl of no more than seventeen, hair dyed black, and anger in her eyes. It was the same anger that her mother Doris had. Mad at the world but scared too. The father, Richard, was in a daze. He looked at the surprised receptionist with no emotion, no anything, like a dust mote just floating by.

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Do Not Wonder

Do not wonder where the top of the rainbow is, and do not wonder where it leads to either. It’s all hogwash. Did you know the cytostream makes up the dream so that we cannot see what it’s doing to us? Fucked up. That’s what it all is. Fucked up beyond all recognition. No not recognition, but belief. You will not believe any of it. You will not be able to until you kill your dreams. Until you learn to keep your eyes open.

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Two Shadows

Two shadows drift by each other and they don’t even ask questions. They just sing their mysteries and hope they never see each other again. Like a hollow tip shot through the barrel. Nobody will love me now. Nobody can love me after what I did. I saw that face, placid and alone. I saw him know that the world was fine and beautiful. That the little machines would always give him another sunrise. Another drag on his cigarette was just there for the taking. I saw him know this. I saw him. Then he saw me, and we both knew that the world was filled with lies. He tried to turn. He tried to run, but there just wasn’t time. In the next moment I was on him, and then in another… Are you sure you want this?

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To Rock the Cradle

Dr. Aaron Fluer was fresh off a plane and a surprisingly short briefing. He sized up his patient and the room that contained her. She had tossed brown hair that floated above a weak brow. A smirk contorted half of her face as her green eyes frolicked around the room. There wasn’t much for her to look at besides Aaron. The stark room was a deep black just as the halls outside were. Still she took little notice of him. Continue reading