Calculation

From the movie “Ex Machina.” Seemed appropriate.

(Hello everybody! As it turns out, I’m going to be scampering off to Colorado for a little over a week. As such, the Den’s going to be a little quiet for the next while…but that also means today you get a special treat. Who here’s in the mood for some sci-fi? Everyone?Good. Now let’s play a game.)

Xiangqi was commonly referred to as Chinese Chess. While the name certainly captured the motivation behind it, it hardly did the game justice in terms of execution. Xiangqi was to Chess as Chess was to Checkers: essentially, a more complicated version of a series of moves designed to pique the human interest and measure its strategic capability for micromanaging.

Two figures considered the game. On either’s chest was pinned a name. For the one: “Victor.” For the other: “Ursula.” They had but two things in common: both had spent entirely too many hours with this particular game, and neither had chosen their name at birth.

Victor was something of a prodigy when it came to the game. His country was known for its love of this sort of game; but then, they loved to play games at nearly every level of life’s offering. Some people (other people, that is to say) tended to find it disconcerting. Both at a personal level, and an international one.

When Victor leaned back, it wasn’t to relax. It was to size up his opponent.

As soon as the shadow of a hand had secured its move, he countered, sweeping a scholar along its predetermined lines to block access to his marshal. But here he tittered, though he tried not to let his trepidation show. Game after game, he had watched the number of moves it took him to dominate the board lengthen and lengthen. Now, he was actually on the defensive. He could see the outcomes laid before him in a sort of Robert Frostian choice: Ursula could move, she could strike, or she could have him pinned with the most delicate of military operations. It would take coordination, foresight, and most importantly: imagination.

Ursula seemed to imitate him. It was not like her. When he looked up from the board, he found her watching him, no trace of emotion to mark her face, but still. Her eyes were not on the board. She was reading him, rather than doing the mathematical calculations that carried her game against so many others.

This, he told himself, was not the little girl he had first set out to fool when she was nothing more than a series of code strings and a monitor in his parents’ basement. The form had changed since then. So, too, had the code.

It was odd to feel nervous doing something that had always been his mode of relaxation. He imagined this was how thousands of young American minds must have felt, years before, when they had first watched the Watson computer system decimate its opposition on live trivia TV.

But all Watson had to do was cross reference information. It didn’t consider the people it competed against.

Unpredictability. That was what he was testing here. Not the ability to conquer.

“Victor,” Ursula said. “I believe you are over-analyzing.”

He blinked, nodded. “I’m just waiting on you, darling,” he lied.

Ursula cocked her head to one side and smiled. She liked to smile. Then she shifted her final chariot to snare his scholar. It was the easiest path, the most sensible path. It left his marshal briefly open, but it would sacrifice her most powerful piece and, inevitably, cost her the game. Victor sighed heavily and the crowd, seeing what he had seen, answered his counter with a series of low-grade applause. The eyes of the nation were watching.

Ursula nodded as he picked off first one piece, then another, her own pieces countering deftly, but not enough to stem the tide. When he took her general, the crowd cheered. They loved to see how far technology had come, but they loved it all the more watching mankind still triumph over it.

With a practiced smile, Victor stood and took Ursula’s hand in his. She answered, leaning over the board toward him.

“You are pleased, Victor?”

“Of course I’m pleased, Ursula. It was a good game.”

She shook his hand and twisted toward the enthusiastic crowd. Unlike with people, her lips did not need to move to reply to him.

“I thought they might like this better.”

For an instant, he must have looked like a fish out of water for the cameras. But he forced the stiffness out, and kept waving his hand for those watching. Victor had his part to play. He knew this. But so, apparently, did Ursula.

(Like what I do with Sci-Fi? Then you might also consider “New Frontiers,” a space story out on Kindle Singles. Others of this type of fiction are set to appear in A Bleak New World Anthology and in a collection published by Evil Girlfriend Media later this year.)

New Frontiers, Part Five

All things come to an end, though the light at the end of the tunnel may not always lead to sanctuary. Discovery–is it worth the price we pay to reach it? That is for each to decide their own selves. As for the Angeion and its crew, we come now to the end of their story, and the revelations it brings…

What have you thought of this glimpse into futures far from realized?

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…
For Part Four, is salvation anything more than a dream?)

New Frontiers

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor. I knew not which was her, in truth. All the pods were laid before me, and all watched behind their looking glasses, but I could not see in. “Wake them. Please God wake them.”

The command flashed three times across the screen. Processing. Each time, processing. I hit it. “Wake them.” System failure. I hit it again. “Wake them goddamnit.” I was finding my voice, but the computer was not. Angeion repeated the system failure, big bold red letters emblazoned in my mind.

Then: Non-essential crew decommissioned to preserve power. 4 years, 8 months, 22 days.

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bo...

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The words hit me like a punch in the stomach. I cursed God and Hell and every saint I could remember, right along with the computer and the company and anyone else I could think of. I screamed my voice hoarse. I beat the screen, tore at another, howled and screeched and stamped my feet as I tried feebly to tear the captain’s chair from its welded binding on the floor. The computer watched, and waited, and the silence listened to the sounds of a grown man breaking, like I was nothing.

This was the mother of the children I had never had. I could picture them at night, sometimes, when I would sleep. They always had her eyes. The woman I had called my own since that first final. Gone, just like that. She wasn’t human. She wasn’t even necessary. Yet somehow, some ungodly way, I supposedly was. These hands, that knew nothing. This mind, that saw nothing. These were necessary. These were “essential.” The system was broken.

That was it then. The screen scrolled a final detail, but it was meaningless. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. I woke, as we were all supposed to wake. This was the moment of our revival, the time when all the world was supposed to be before us. So it was, but before me, not them. The ship dipped forward into peril, and I could but watch, a broken man, leaned into the emptiness of a chair. I had never seen anything so blue before.

I thought of all the people back home that would never know. My parents, Jane’s parents, our brothers, sisters–they would never know what happened to us. The company would send a letter, one page, detailing how sorry they were, extending their condolences without ever saying anything more than “accident” to state how we had gone. That was their way. It was just as well. When you don’t know, you assume it’s quick. You hope it was quick, because you don’t want to reconcile suffering into your life. It’s bad enough to lose them–you don’t want to put that extra horror into it. It was best to leave them that small mercy. Let them think I had gone to my end with grace and dignity–or quietly in my slumber. The rest. . .well, I didn’t even want to know the rest. It was bad enough living it.

Thus rode the hours on a railway straight to Hell. The stars slipped away into the dark, and inch by inch, this planet rose before me, until it encompassed all that I could see. It had been nothing once, a thought, a dream beyond the edge of knowing–and now it was everything, and I was nothing before it. The computers blinked and screeched in protest. Alarms rattled as the final preparations began. Warning bells, demanding staunch resistance to our own decay. Yet there was only I, and I could do nothing to prevent it.

The cold came, gave way to heat. Lights flickered into dark across the board–only the engines burned, only the bridge remained. The ship lurched to one side as we struck the air–we would not merely drift. The ship was too precisely aimed. All the calculations were in check. It was merely the human factor we were lacking.

Fires flared around the edge of my vision, frost broiling off with bits of steel–wings, frame, mass. Some clattered against the glass and fell away, others became mere blips along the dying monitor, another sound, another memory. We were being devoured by our own ambition, the world itself rising up against us. I saw her in the flames. Dancing. The lovers waltz, two flickers, moving as one amidst the devastation. The glass fragmented as the nose dipped–the resurgence of pressure forced me back into the chair, a puppet caught, pulled taught against his strings. I felt as though my flesh would surely tear itself from my bones, that everything would be torn and burned by the memory of those lovers intertwined, burning into nothing as the air consumed us.

Jane never could dance, and nor could I. We never did learn. I suppose we’d always meant to.

Amidst the pop of blood vessels, the cracking skin and the flaming chill–such fire is this!–I beheld all salvation’s taunts. Through the clouds, the mountains loomed tall and proud, black as night, their caps tipped with the snow of antiquity. I saw all the veins that ran beneath, the rivers and the rock, strength of nations and of notions not before beheld. I saw the foundations she would have loved, the top and the core, all manner of life brimming through the depths of this hallowed unknown. Beneath us swam the rivers and the oceans, the grasses blowing in the wind, stretching beside the sea, growing long beside canyons, the trees. All was glowing emerald life, and sapphire breath, a world of possibility, unknown, unseen by all but me besides.

Before me laid paradise, and I, the first eyes to see it, though they tinged all possibility in scarlet. Behind me laid all the fire and force of Hell, and I brought it burning on that ride, to Heaven. It would die as it had lived, unknowing of the pains to come. They say an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. All in nothing. Nothing but me. I am become Alpha and Omega–the Beginning and the End of Eden. Yet I am Man, just Man.

There is no salvation here.

New Frontiers, Part Four

The Angeion, exploratory vessel, a hope to mankind and a vision of the future. But hope is a frail thing. When the darkness looms, what is it we will remember of the past? How did we get to this impasse?

As ever, feel free to share your thoughts, and enjoy the third part of New Frontiers, a sci-fi short set in the age of space exploration…and an exploration, in and of itself, as to whether a story beaten down by rejection can find new life on the blogosphere.

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…)

The spacecraft New Horizons launched in 2006 t...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even worse: I still didn’t know what it meant for the rest.

Beaumont Tower, from Michigan State University.

I thought of college, of all things, in that moment. Technical school–I’m a mechanic, not a doctor. All those eyes on you, watching, scribbling, waiting for the moment you panicked, the moment you crossed the wrong wire or welded the wrong plate. You felt as though the whole world was on your shoulders, and for all the people all around you, it was only you that mattered. You. You. You. One mistake and the world itself would come crashing about your shoulders. Funny, when one is young, how they equate such mundane trials to such great disaster. Funnier still, how easily distracted they are from them.

We undertook large chunks of our real hands-on training up on one of the space stations. It was the best place to get a handle on some real ships. We still spent most of the time on the ground back then, though, where I could easily escape the mundane VR simulations and the classes three hundred thick and find refuge in real life–in the city, and in familiar faces. I thought of coffee shops along the river bank, and Jane, with her mocha and her laptop, my little hipster scientist. That was when she went through her writer phase. To think, then, I thought I would surely go mad without her.

And here I was.

The computer screen blinked back at me, waiting for my next command. The question led to the cause–the ship rumbled gently as it tilted ever so slightly. I thought of asteroids, tiny little asteroids, plowing through the hull in some insignificant spot I’d never see. Little green men pulled at the wires in my mind, damning us all to Hell with their cruel, anti-human intolerance, and all the while smiling like tigers to the kill. Bloody racists.

Perhaps, most elaborately, there came an intricate image of a spy on board, some saboteur that had been paid off. As I’ve said, I prided myself a logical man. That one went away quickly. After all, for such a man to willingly tamper with the ship in such a way was to damn himself as well. Then again, there were kamikazes. There were suicide bombers. Was this so different? Pay a man enough, or threaten the right people, promise the right things. . .he’d do anything. People didn’t wage war anymore. They stabbed one another in the dark, their battles of the shadows in the grimy halls of corporate espionage. I shifted in my seat, loathe to think of any of my colleagues in such a light.

Alien

Little green jerks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d have rather it be the aliens.

Yet it wasn’t any of those things. The ship brought up the schematics, showed me the time card that told exactly when and how it had happened.

Something had caused a power surge, simple as that. A circuit shorted, breakers tripped, the ship flickered into dark, and rebooted itself. The ship lurched, time held itself. Locked in our chambers, we never knew a thing. Still, the auto pilot rebooted. The surge passed. Yet in its wake, some of the rebooted systems didn’t actually reboot. Wires had fried, something had blown out in electrical. Chang would’ve known what to do. He was the computers expert. I was a novice at it. Hull work, the physical stuff–that was my end of things.

The numbers flashed at me again: 4 years, 2 months, 7 days operation time. 1600 hours. The moment of my waking.

Following procedure, the ship ran a system analysis and had attempted to wake essential crew. The command was issued first to the captain, then the first mate, then to me. But the surge had corrupted something in the system. It didn’t come back right–it didn’t come back all together. The system malfunctioned. Power faltered. Some of the pods hadn’t come back online. The captain’s was among them.

It got to Kate’s–but for whatever reason, that had led to her death, rather than her salvation. The ship couldn’t tell me why. The date repeated itself.

But that wasn’t right. If we had woken at the same time, there was no way. . .

I checked the time stamp. A chill prickled along my arms, ran down my spine. My shaved head bristled. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. Ten months had passed between waking procedures and the time I had actually woken. It hadn’t reached me, then. For some reason, I had remained trapped but alive, caught within the coldsleep, the computer unable to reach me. Yet it had reached Kate. Her door jammed. Or something gave out. But she was stuck, one way or another. She had woken, only to die–and God help me, I thought of her face, her once rosy face, and God I knew, that she had woken, only to starve to death in that steel coffin, trying to claw her way out of her own tomb. It had killed her in trying to wake her, to save us.

Why hadn’t it woken anyone else? Why not me? Why didn’t I wake? Why did some systems restore, others not?

The breaths came on, quicker and quicker. I was hyperventilating. My head spun. Ten months we had been on reserves. Ten months the ship had staggered toward its destination, hemorrhaging power, crippled, with no one to aid it. No wonder it was going dark–and as I watched, another section of the ship did just that. The cold stemmed from the heaters no longer having the energy or the need to continue on.

“Manual distance entered. Auto pilot disengaged. Captain and nav-i-gation officer requested on the bridge.”

Would I die as Kate had, locked around the orbit of a planet that I had no hope of reaching? I remained, like a gargoyle, locked to that chair. I had no idea what I was doing.

The computer scrolled on.

Non-essential systems deactivated to preserve power. 4 years, 5 months, 25 days.

Food storage. Primary lighting. Various programs the computer kept running. Heat, in some areas. Terminals powered off, functions diverted to main drives. Power was centered in the bridge.

I could not take the ship in on my own. I did not know how. I had never flown a spacecraft in my life, let alone navigated one, or landed one, or even learned the technicals of doing so. I could build them. I could give them life, give them the possibility of flight–but I could not make them do so. Without the others, there could be nothing. We would either die, caught among an endless drift, or plummet into the atmosphere of that which we had come to find, and burn in the midst of our discovery. I did not know how to work the heat shields.

I turned from the list, redirected the ship to the place of my rebirth. The commands scrolled out, the release was given. Wake them. I wanted to wake them all, to send me someone, anyone that could tell me what to do. It flickered, waited. Flickered, waited. No response.

Then: critical power loss. Vessel preservation mandated. Essential status revoked. Crew members Valdez, Torine, Chang, decommissioned for preservation of power. Reserve power redistributed. No response from remaining crew. 4 years, 11 months, 12 days.

Revoked.

Decommissioned.

Like one might talk to a machine. The words wrapped around my mind, bound up in a single, overwhelming presence, but I could not look at them. Just like that, the computer decided that rather than wake them, it would end them. People I had worked with years on end. People that knew Kate, people that knew Jane. I knew their kids. Their families. Chang had gotten us our first bloody apartment.

But the computer decided that in the face of certain doom, they were no longer “essential.” Yet others of us were. It ranked us. Some men were more important than others. It ranked us. The company ranked us. Were we numbers? Draw your straw, take your pick–don’t fret if you pull up short. You’re only human, after all.

Medical Officer. Ship Security. Technical Maintenance. One by one. Kate was dead. So was the Captain. Plug’s pulled early–you don’t ever wake. The heart, stopped, merely sags in the warmth, and the body decays. If you’re in the pod, it’ll still preserve you, perfect, like a mummy. But you’re dead. Were they all dead, than?

“Clarke, unresponsive. Dewallte, unresponsive. Dieters, unresponsive. Kalman. . . ”

A white gold wedding ring. Photograph taken by...

Wedding ring. Photograph taken by CLW and released into public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stared at death, and it stared back at me. It looked remarkably like my wife, even smiling as it took me by the hand, and behind it–the planet, this perfect sapphire on the necklace of her dominance.

“Jane. . . ”

The screen paused, mid-sentence. I typed and redirected it to the starboard cryochambers. I activated the camera, diverted power. I entered the command to wake them all. Deactivate the sleep. Give me life.

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor.

New Frontiers, Part Three

Prometheus-logo

Prometheus-logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Angeion, exploratory vessel, a hope to mankind and a vision of the future. But hope is a frail thing. Especially when there are so many little parts, all delicately woven together, on which it rides. It’s never easy when it’s not your hands at the wheel, is it?

As ever, feel free to share your thoughts, and enjoy the third part of New Frontiers, a sci-fi short set in the age of space exploration…and an exploration, in an of itself, as to whether a story beaten down by rejection can find new life on the blogosphere.

(In case you missed Part One of the story, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is… Likewise, if you missed Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion. Though my guess would be from the words “critical system error,” you can already put a few of the pieces together.)

New Frontiers

“A-pol-o-gies. Critical system err-or. Analysis denied. Chief Engineer Jake Felv-min woken at 4 years, 2 months, 7 days mission operation time for analysis and repair operations. 1600 hours. All personnel are directed to the bridge.”

Attempts to access other information were met with similar results. Access from the medical terminal was denied–for some reason, it couldn’t reach the information on the main drives. I was as in the dark as I had been before, only as I struggled with the machine, another rude awakening asserted itself.

Absolute darkness

Afraid of the dark? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Power levels, critical. System shutting down to preserve power. All personnel are advised to evacuate medic. . . .”

I roared my frustration, striking the monitor to no avail. The lights flickered, went dark. The monitor was following quickly after. Forcibly shaken from my senseless rage, I sprang for the doors in a new-found panic. If the bay was shutting down, the doors would lose power as well. If that happened, I would be trapped. Indefinitely. Just as Kate had been.

The doors slid half-open for me, but puttered out there, and I had to squeeze through them, hoping all the while the hydraulic catches didn’t give, and send them slamming shut again with me between them. Several hundred pounds of solid steel force carving through my precious flesh did not sound particularly appetizing.

Slithering from the medbay, I found myself among the eerily silent crew quarters. I was completely blind, but I knew the room. Reminding myself to breathe slowly, I felt my way to the lockers. I groped at them until one opened, and I pillaged it for anything I could. A flashlight was among my finds, and I quickly put it to use. When light greeted my eyes again, I saw that it was Ronesey’s locker. He never could remember to lock up. I said a silent prayer for small favors.

It choked on my tongue as my light swept the room.

Bunks lay straight, empty, though pictures of loved ones hung from walls and bunks and scattered among other mementos that lined the sheets. It wasn’t regulation, but we never cared. The lights didn’t turn on for me here, and I felt the cold all the more deeply then I had before–but still I lingered, caught by my humanity. It pulled me on, like a puppet on its strings.

An old Maxim poster–Tony’s, no doubt.

A picture of the husband–35th anniversary for Chang. A bottle of wine was in either man’s hand. Bright smiles denied all knowledge of what was yet to come. Chang’s husband was dead. He was here. I did not know what that meant.

Then I saw Kate. Brown hair, blue eyes, smile so wide you knew she was faking it, but no one could doubt the look she was showering on her kids. One at either arm, perched between her. Nine and seven, respectively. In the background, her husband flipping burgers–what was his name? It seemed a terrible thing to forget. Ben, maybe. The kids were in college now. That was the only reason she took this flight. Dan? They didn’t need her, but she needed the money, and she always wanted to see new stars. Denny–that was it. They had a fuller life than I.

The picture clung to her bunk. X marks the spot. Here be treasure. There be dragons. I recoiled from it, shaking my head as I tried to reconcile myself to the darkness. A door lay at either side of the room. I moved to the right, stepping around and away from her bunk, evading my own, trying to slip out and away from the madness of memory.

No response. I tried the keypad–nothing. Not even a whir. The door was as dead as dead could be. I ran to the other, tried again. It didn’t heed my voice, but the pad at its side slowly stirred at my touch. It was sluggish, like it had just been woken. It was dying. I worked quickly. The doors slid casually open, and I fled through them, not into the light I hoped for.

“Auxiliary engines offline. Final approach–approach vectors confirmed.”

That stopped me in my tracks. The words jumbled in my mind. I had to reconcile them. Approach vectors? What in the hell were we approaching? My mind fled with the details–four years. Not five. We couldn’t be at the planet yet, could we? Not possible. Four years, though–what did that mean? What had happened? I hadn’t seen any hull breaches. Given, there were rooms to either side of me I did not check–did not feel I had the time to check–but there were no signs of rupture. It seemed to me there would be signs. Things rattled. Items lost. Doors sealed by the bulkheads. Yet, everything was in its place. Only I was out of place–the living man, wandering through a tomb. Idly, I rubbed at the ring on my left hand, weighted myself with the gold.

If it woke me specifically, it was something ship-related. Not pirates. Not invasion. That wasn’t my area. Not any of our areas, really but–the Captain. It would’ve woken him for that. I panicked. Why was I standing? It was nonsense debating with myself. I ran on, the doors flashing by me as I ran, each a seeming porthole to a new and terrible hell.

Then the doors reared up before me. I feared, for a moment, that they would not bear open to me, but they, like so many others had failed to do, slid open at the barest sound of my voice. The thick, welded blast doors drew open with a little pop, as the all-too casual voice of the computer slid over the P.A.

“Welcome, Chief En-gineer Jake. Felv-min.”

It was as though I had entered a different world. Whereas the other sections of the ship were faltering and falling into darkness, the bridge remained the picture of health. All systems were go. The monitors flickered at me, one after another, beckoning me with promises of salvation. The lights came to full at my entry, though they remained the lucid white of the back-up generator.

What’s more: the viewport was open, and beyond it I perceived the impossible. Layers of glass gave way to the perfect blackness of space, but the view, and the ship, were centered upon a single point within that imperceptible darkness, a green and blue mass rising up before all the stars in heaven, and baring itself before our great intrusion. It grew, larger and larger before my eyes, and I could see that we were nearly to the atmosphere. That which we had come to seek now lay before me–final approach vectors indeed.

Jane would love it. It looked, from afar, every bit the vision of earth still lodged within my mind. I could see her there, with me, sleeping on the beach or picking rocks along the mountain base. She loved her rocks. It was her job, her life–the geologist. She made more than I did doing it, and she loved her job more than I could ever love my own.

She would pick this planet over, top to bottom, and squeal at all the signs of something new–or something old, long ago lost to harvesters on earth, praised by collectors a galaxy away. I would take bits of rock from her at her request, turning them over in my hand as she explained every nook and cranny, every subtle shift and turn of pace. . .and I would never know the difference, but still I would smile, and take her by the hand, and, listening to her stories, enjoy the world as only her eyes could see it.

Planet vendor

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there was no one else to share this moment with me. On a deck that usually bustled, I was alone, but for the machines that had failed to do their part. I flung myself at the captain’s chair, my steps pounding out along the steel, echoing dimly in these hollow halls. The machines whirred for me; the computer came to life. I plunged into the seat and already it knew–knew who I was.

“Angeion, status report.”

The screen blinked once and windows on it folded into one another, reasserting themselves a moment later in a haze of red numeric calculations, arrayed against a black screen. The typing came on too fast for me to read, but the ship’s voice billowed forth just after, uttering the fate my eyes could not behold. A technical readout of the ship appeared along with it, the familiar red highlights illuminating disaster. Much of the ship now glowed as such, coarse and dark, like blood smeared across my home. My fingers dribbled across the screen, and it glowed beneath me, brimming hot against my skin.

Fuel levels were normal. There were no signs of trauma to the exterior of the ship. Physically, the Angeion was as it had always been: the model vessel, devoid of error. Yet internally, the ship was hemorrhaging. Power was out across the ship. The main supply was cut, gone. Reserves had been running for God-knows how long, and now that, too, was running out. Non-essential systems all over the ship had been disabled to preserve power, but that didn’t make any sense. Even supposing we had run out of primary power, the reserves should have been more than enough to carry us through to point without trouble. If I had only now been woken to deal with the problem, no error should have been so great as to so deplete us in a matter of hours, or minutes.

This wasn’t right at all, and now I knew what wasn’t right–but I still didn’t know why.

Even worse: I still didn’t know what it meant for the rest.

(BONUS: Extra credit to the person that can tell the class what Angeion means, without looking it up online!)

New Frontiers, Part Two

What is the nature of a nightmare? How do we escape when we cannot wake? The real world is filled with its own fair share, as our gruff protagonist is soon to realize. What do you think is wrong aboard the Angeion? Feel free to share your thoughts, and enjoy the second part of New Frontiers, a sci-fi short set in the age of space exploration…

(In case you missed Part One of the story, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and see a little more of what this flight really is…)

New Frontiers

Floatation Tank

Floatation Tank (Photo credit: cybrgrl)

Disconcerting, very disconcerting.

I drummed along the glass, rapped more heavily at the base, listening to the dull hollow it beckoned from within. I could have screamed my lungs out and the man would have never heard me. I saw the man—my friend—watched his featureless face stare blankly back at me, but my mind drifted.

I saw him, but my thoughts turned to my wife, Jane, a ship’s length away. If the power was out here would it be…? The nonessential crew were housed at the other side of the ship, out of our way. That could mean their salvation. Silently, I prayed that this was just a local short. My eyes tugged a little more fiercely toward the door, but I forced focus. There were more than just the captain here.

I tried the science officer’s pad, but it was as dead as the captain’s. The short little fat man looked on and on, past me and into the darkness. I tried Ronesey’s—another of the mechanics—but no luck. Then I moved to the first mate’s.

Behind the frost stood an image of such abject horror I felt the empty contents of my stomach churn at the sight. Unlike the others, Kate was not passive in her slumber. Her face, her perfectly preserved face, had slunk against the viewport of her pod, her hands, like claws, set to tear upon the glass, and finding no leverage to make their mark. Her eyes, frosted over now, were bloodshot, wild, but half-lidded as though with great weariness. Her body had shrunken since she went in, the skin shriveled. She was an emaciated figure, more skeleton than woman—and she was staring back at me, pleading to me in her silent end.

She had woken, at some point, and by all accounts, it looked as if she had…starved to death in her pod. I felt the reflux burn at the base of my throat, and I flinched away. The computer had tried to wake her, or the process had been disrupted somehow—but the door, the door should’ve opened for her, as it had opened for me.

What if I…?

The implications to that were sickening all over again. Kate had died trying to claw her way out of what had become her cell, and died horrifically in the effort. This skeletal creature was not the woman I knew, and now, never would be again.

I fled. The lights sniggered out behind me. The door still opened automatically for me, and I thought, dimly, at the impossibility of this venture if any of them had lost power as well. The doors were designed to contain blasts, halt fires and completely seal off one area of the ship from another. They were a good six inches thick, and if they were barred to me I held no hope of opening them.

I don’t know how long I ran. I was still winded from my time in slumber, my body out of shape from lack of movement. I suspect it was not far. Yet I had to get out. That was the only drive. The only thought. I couldn’t look at that face—those faces of people I had known, laughed with, shared a brew or a meal with for the better part of the last two decades. They were good people. They had families.

Oh God, the children—Kate’s children. I felt my stomach heave again. What would they do now?

When I found myself again, I was huddled in the hallway, beneath the flickering lights. The path I had taken was dark now—the lights shut off automatically as I moved out from under them, to conserve energy. I stood in a narrow spotlight, ringed by darkness on all sides. What was familiar seemed alien, distant, and not a sound rose to break the monotony of it. I breathed, tried to steady myself.

I might have gone to Jane. My fears demanded it—that I go check on my wife, confirm how localized this disaster was. The loss of my friends was tragedy, the loss of her would be…irredeemable. Yet my fears also stayed me. The problem, I reasoned—I needed to fix the problem before anything else. The longer it was left to fester, the more trouble we could all be in. If I didn’t look, if I didn’t see, my fears remained, but so too did hope. If I didn’t go, I didn’t have to face my nightmares.

Besides, the nonessentials had mechanics and techs of their own. If I could get to Angeion’s controls and initiate defrost I could potentially still find the help I needed.

I needed to get to the bridge.

Yet I never realized how foreboding a place the Angeion could be. In the light, it was all white walls, illegal posters, clean, sterile floors. In the darkness, it was menacing, a roving shadow, full of twists and turns—a maze of frosty tigers, loitering just at the edge of my vision. The automatic lights illuminated my steps, but everything beyond was darkness. The grates, though symmetrically sound and designed toward a graceful, balanced flow, now tripped me up and clung at my legs, like slavering monsters reaching up from the sewers of my terror.

Behind each corner, there were faces—the faces of the crew. Captain. Kate. Even Jane. Silent, watching, reaching out to me—gone. Too much too soon. The mind wasn’t meant to take such things in stride. I had to focus. The walls rose up around me and slid off into the darkness, and I, following as a blind man feeling his way into that familiar sanctuary, slid off after them, retracing my memories to find my hopes.

Fortunately for my ailing mind, the ship design was simple enough. All roads led to the control, and all roads led back. They intersected at numerous points, but there were no senseless cutoffs, no architectural faux pas to slip me up. As long as I kept moving forward, I would get where I needed.

I needed to get to the bridge. Both of the cold chambers were near the stern, where some vessels kept their escape pods. I laughed at that. Most advanced vessel in known space, and the bloody thing couldn’t spring for those. Pointless, really. The ship was built to spring forth man into the great dark unknown—the kind of space where, if anything goes wrong, you bet your ass no one would ever get to you in time to help.

That’s the point.

This was the charter, the exploration, the new frontier. We die, simple enough: that means the place is a no-go. Bad for business. Bad for the company economically, but they took the hit, and they moved on. That was how business worked.

We may have been astronauts, scientists, and godforsaken mechanics, but Christ alive, you better believe we were businessmen too, hats aside.

We were just the ones they sent out to chart new space, mark planets—find new places to strip mine, or if we’re lucky, new homes to populate. Those were rare. The rarest. Hundreds of years since man first reached the stars, and all we’d ever found were two others, like enough to earth. Potentially a third now, if the probes were right. That’s why we were out here.

Out here—no, there was no escape. To jam that false bit of hope onto the tug would’ve been nothing but a drain on energy, and a drain on cost. You screw up out here, you’re dead. Simple enough. No point holding out hope for redemption.

The words were true enough in my mind, but in that moment, they twisted about my stomach like a knot. They were bitter on my tongue—and as I stumbled into the med bay, I had to wonder if the flickers didn’t already mean the end.

I saw Kate’s face again. Wasted thing.

Monitor

Monitor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A monitor flashed as I stepped into this new room, however, in contrast to the shadowed horror of the halls beyond. I rushed it, the barest glimmer the brightest light in mine own eye. My fingers ran the monitor as lovers might embrace after years apart—as I would embrace my wife again—and the screen turned for me, brightened, came to life. The monitor shone white, so hotly it burned my eyes, but I stared anyways, in drunken joy, watching as it twisted from its blank, flickering repetition—“System Error”—to the login. The details flowed easily enough, and the words rolled across the screen, then disappeared, and all the knowledge of Angeion’s universe appeared at my command.

“Welcome. Jake. Felv-min. Chief. En-gi-neer,” the bodiless voice intoned, welcoming me back to life with its vacant, docile expression.

I wasted no time. Immediately, I ordered up the analysis of the ship—the reasons for why I had been awakened. It retreated into itself to find my purpose, and came back quickly enough.

“A-pol-o-gies. Critical system err-or. Analysis denied. Chief Engineer Jake Felv-min woken at 4 years, 2 months, 7 days mission operation time for analysis and repair operations. 1600 hours. All personnel are directed to the bridge.”

New Frontiers, Part One

Welcome to the future of privatized exploration!

Space Shuttle Endeavour landing

Space Shuttle Endeavour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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…

New Frontiers

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.

SVG version of PNG Space Shuttle Logo/Patch.

SVG version of PNG Space Shuttle Logo/Patch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The Other Parts:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

The Unwanted

Today’s post is a recent scribble. A new short story? A new novel? We’ll see how it develops, but know that it’s a touch of sci-fi, and one I do intend to develop further in the future. Outlines and notations are already swimming through my head, apparently moving into the same high-rise apartments as the second novel (in progress) for my Haunted Shadows trilogy…which is a little awkward. For now, though, enjoy the opening to what is presently operating under the working title, “The Unwanted”:

There was a breath of wind before the light went out of Conira. Somewhere beyond, the fires of dying stars burned into the desolation, their flickers like  a dance to someone, somewhere beneath a cloudless sky. But Conira knew only the veil of sunlight, the clouded kiss of the warming.

Before the ships, the Comuratii never knew the shape of a night’s sky–only its cold kiss. Midnight howls.

The wind swept against the frames of pillars carved against a mountain relief. Dust swirled in the roar as artificial fires drew steel to life–the wide, trackless plain, hemmed in by earthen and handmade boundaries alike. It was opaque and red against the pillars and the clouds, a reflective glimpse of color in the ink. The ship’s fires surged against it, bathed in reflections.

Tiny figures slid across the plain’s expanse, in purposed disarray.

Every night, the spaceport came to life as such, even though its walls opened to the celestial ships just ten times a year. Seamless behemoths, broiling with the heat of entry, would descend in threes–miles and miles of metal, welded and made fit to drift the black. Each came hungry, thirsty, and opened themselves to the bosom of this barren earth.

It was 407 days into the cycle, when an eleventh sojourn cracked against the stone.

The Unwanted craned his neck against the chill, and drank the scent of it. Gasoline and death. It settled over the gathered crowd like a frenzied cloud.

Most had stumbled from their homes at the noise of it. It reverberated in the mountain deeps, luring the way but curious Comuratii from their dreams of distant starlight. Most would not guess its purpose, merely stretch their wings and bask in the bizarre moment of the unscheduled. Bask in the heat of other intellects spread beyond their own fair crust.

The Unwanted stretched his long legs, and marveled at the gust of prickled wind on his back, as it slid from the cracked door. Home. He stared out the window and remembered all that had made it so, even as shadows swallowed the world. Bodies scurried down the hall of the ship. The captain swore, in his guttural tongue. But none of it diluted that moment of remembrance.