Welcome to the future of privatized exploration!
Dear God, take off your red shirts, people, we’re about to hit the space front. “New Frontiers,” presented in the first of five (count them, 5) 1500 word segments to come over the next few weeks (why, probably five weeks to be exact–what a crazy random happenstance, no?) is a sci-fi short first penned in early 2010. It has, since, made the rounds of the literary front, and been met by the wall of rejection on every front. As such, I’ve chosen to fore go those continued rounds, and make the whole story available (in segments) here on the Waking Den, for you to take and enjoy or loathe at your leisure.
Critique is welcome. Thoughts are craved. But your enjoyment is what is most desired. So without further adieu…
Some people don’t dream in cold-sleep. They’re the lucky ones, I think. Long as I’ve been flying I’ve had the nightmares. I could sleep for days just fine in my own bed, but you stick me in one of those metal monstrosities and it’s a freaking guarantee my subconscious is going to have a field day with me. Captive audience, you know—it’s not like I’m going anywhere.
The bits and pieces are dissembled, hazy. I see myself running, and it looks at first like I’m hunting. Deer, maybe. They look like animals but they’ve got the faces of all the people I left behind; all the people that should be rising with me about now. It looks like I’m chasing them, but they don’t seem afraid, and they never get any nearer.
This tiger, though, keeps chasing me. Isn’t that the damndest? Doesn’t even make sense. Never seen a tiger that wasn’t in a zoo or on TV. Guess they stuck with me though. There sure as Hell aren’t any tigers between the stars.
Still, I try to hide, I try to shoot at him, but I never manage to hit him. I can’t even rightly see him, but on he comes—I know it, in that way only hunters and dreamers can know, just as I know beyond all reasonable doubt for no reason that it’s a he. It’s always a he.
I’m running and running and he’s getting closer. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs for anyone to help, but then the trees themselves seem to rise up against me, and the vines grab at me, and this thing—this monster, it just tears into me like I’m a four course buffet and he’s the fat man the waiters have kept waiting for four freaking hours waiting for a reservation.
That was the first thing that popped into my head as the glass lifted, and the fog with it. I groaned as I woke.
I’ve always wondered why I never screamed. Just kind of a silent, grumbled resolution to my fate. I knew it getting in. They trained me to make sure the ship’s in running order. A dozen, a hundred people—but in this case, just fifty—depended on whether or not I did right by my calculations. With pressure like that, a few bad dreams are the least of my troubles. If I couldn’t handle them, I should’ve gotten in a different line of work years ago. It’s not like space is the only place for a good mechanic.
Wiping at the migraine the waking process always left me with, I wobbled, naked, into a sitting position. I gave it a few moments before I dared stand. A friend of mine once split his head on an overhead getting up too soon. Fifteen stitches, and mid-flight, too. Not exactly my idea of a picnic.
The floor was cold as my feet touched the ground. I could feel the ship’s metal sucking the heat out of my feet even through the smooth tile. No grass. No tigers. That was my first thought as I emerged from my cocoon. Yet it wasn’t just the floor—the air was cold. I blinked away the final chains of sleep, shaking the stiffness from my joints as I slapped a bit of blood back into my cheeks. I shivered a bit, but that was natural. Spend five years locked in a 7 by 3 refrigerator specifically designed to leave you with all the countenance of a popsicle and a little chill seems appropriate.
My clothes were in the locker across from my cocoon. Everybody had one. Standard issue. I gathered them up and put them on—also standard issue: a full-length baby blue jumpsuit with a pair of boots and a spiffy baseball cap with the TASRE logo on the front. Technically, I suppose, we’re all employees of the SENCOR Group, but the government technically is a part of this still and technically it’s their name on my paycheck so they won the honor of the cap.
Besides, I think it sounds better saying I work for the government than the guys currently getting sued by three different countries for anti-trust violations and employment of illegal labor.
Given, I couldn’t imagine what it would’ve been like to try and fly without SENCOR. The government just didn’t have the dollars, either to pay for the machines or to buy the minds that SENCOR could. TASRE—the Trans-national Administration for Space Research and Exploration—was a mostly bankrupt institution, there as much for show as anything else. It couldn’t meet costs, so private enterprise did the work. It had been that way for more than a hundred years. That was fact. I didn’t understand the people that still griped about it.
Speaking as the man who has to fix these buckets of bolts: do they want us all flying inferior machines that can’t pay for their own repairs? Love or hate the company—they’re the only way we’d ever get off the ground.
Drama. It’s what’s for breakfast—but all I could think about, all I could dream about, was coffee. Sweet, delicious coffee. That, and getting to it before anyone else. I shambled over to the machine we’d set up before we went under, plugged her in and fiddled with the grounds, set a pot to boil. It didn’t even occur to me that no one fought me for the right.
Modern medicine had extended the average human lifespan to about 120 years. We had ships that could crack apart asteroids and small moons to suck out the rich, mineral filling within. Yet I still had to brew my own goddamn coffee. Where’s the justice in that, I ask?
Only slowly did the silence creep into my awareness. So at home had I been with it, lo these many months, that its assault was a subtle sort of insidious. It was a tingle on my neck, a spreading numbness, sharp, that wormed its way between my shoulder blades and plucked me like a chicken. Waiting for my coffee I realized it, that concrete feeling of nothingness—the absence of motion, of sound, even smell. In the void, I twisted and found my pre-conceived world devoid.
I was the only member of the crew awakened from their cocoons. For that matter, I was the only person awake at all. Likely, that meant there was a little mechanical problem somewhere onboard the ship. No need to wake the others when I was the only one able to do a thing about it.
No one was to wake alone, though. Standard operating procedure guaranteed that even in my single-purpose waking, the captain and the first mate should have woken with me. They did not, and I knew it—their pods were right next to mine. Coffee forgotten, I wandered toward the cocoons, only lately aware of how pervasive the chill was, and how it clung, remorselessly. I began to feel a pinch of unnerve, for all my efforts to ward it off.
That could have meant a malfunction in the pods themselves, or the ship’s primitive “A.I.” Artificial intelligence was a little much to describe it, but there was no better way. It was just a computer that ran processes while we slept. An over-glorified auto-pilot, nothing more, though some putz had given the machine a voice.
I knew some people that might have immediately jumped to the conclusion of a crazed, bloodthirsty uprising of robotic proportions at the heart of this particular terror. Being a sensible man, I didn’t even entertain the thought.
A thick pool of white mist remained wrapped around the bottom of the pods. I ran my fingers along the glass, trying to peer inside. I went to the captain first, wiped away the frost that hid him from me. Eyes closed, he slept soundly still, or seemed to, white-faced, gone. I pressed the pad alongside his pod, trying to utilize the manual release. It made no sound of recognition, no sign that it drew life either. It was cold, and that was beginning to become a little disconcerting.
“Angeion,” I called, hoarsely at first, not realizing the state of my own deteriorated voice. The second time it came more clearly. “Initiate defrost on the captain…get him up.”
Silence. Even more disconcerting. I repeated myself, but the response from the computer was the same. Angeion gave me nothing, nor any sign she ran at all. The only sign that anything functioned at all was the gentle, yet somehow not reassuring flicker of the lights overhead, which, I noted, had dimmed since my own departure from the pod. Furthermore, they weren’t the yellow-gold lights that marked the day-to-day operations. Everything was basked in a bitter white luminescence, shallow, pale—the emergency lights. The backups.
Things were worse than I’d assumed, then. That could explain Angeion’s lack of contact. If the system had gone down, we might need one of the techies up and running to get her up and running. If she was down that would be an impossibility—and that logic applied to my waking as well, meaning that she couldn’t be down. Greatly reduced in power, perhaps.
Disconcerting, very disconcerting.