Saturday, 22 August 2015

Where it all started - episode 3

Here's the third instalment, which takes place on the Ulysses spaceship, humanity's third attempt to reach Eden (the first two didn't come back). It starts with a nightmare. Well, maybe it's a nightmare...

Chapter 2


Kat heard the footfalls pounding behind her, getting louder, closing. She sprinted towards the Lander, cropped black hair glistening with sweat, muscular arms punching through the gritty breeze. Her slate-grey eyes remained locked onto the desert terrain five meters ahead, like she’d learned in the Falklands. She dared not look back, partly because she might trip, but more because she would freeze if she saw it bearing down on her. Two hundred meters. The open hatch promised sanctuary. Zack – be there!

She ran full throttle, clutching her helmet in her right hand. She’d seen the scalpel-sharp claws: one slash and she was history. She flung the helmet over her right shoulder, and counted. One – Two –…  She winced at the crunching noise. As if it was egg-shell, not carbo-titanium, for God’s sake!  How far behind? She couldn’t work it out. It didn’t matter; the hatch was barely a hundred and fifty meters away. She raced, ignoring the muscle-lock cramping her lungs, the strain in her thighs begging her to slow down. Go to hell!

Pumping her arms harder, she drew in a breath, and vaulted a table-height rock, grazing her left knee and almost losing footing as she landed hard on the other side, arms flailing to maintain balance. As she got back into her stride, the ground shook as the creature hit the deck behind her without missing a beat. Her legs finally got the message – she increased her speed.

*          *          *

"Now would be good, Pierre," Zack bellowed. He watched Kat’s mouth twitch, her thin lips pull back in fear, eyes darting wildly beneath pale eye-lids. His instinct was to place one of his stocky black hands on Kat’s shoulder to comfort her, or else shake her to bring her out of it, but he stopped short – they’d agreed not to wake her. Pierre strode in as fast as the synth-grav would allow, deftly manoeuvring between the stasis cots in the cramped second compartment, pianist-length fingers meshed in a tangle of short black hair even a crew-cut couldn’t subdue.

            "About time," Zack said.

Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.

            "Will it calm her down?" Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.

            "No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it."

            Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit-scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. "Her vitals okay?"

            Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. "Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster."

            Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.

            Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. "Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?" He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.

Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. "Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre." He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.

"I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –"

"Whatever." Zack gave him a sideways look. "I thought you liked Kat?" 

Pierre hung there for a moment, fish-mouthed, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit.

            Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. "Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can."

*          *          *

Kat felt a pricking on the side of her neck, like an insect bite. Her cheeks and scalp burned. It was the signal she’d rehearsed, so she knew she was in the nightmare again – the same one she’d had every night for the past week – injected with the stim as planned. But it didn’t help – just because she knew she was in a nightmare didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified. Yet she needed to see the creature, to bring back details that would be flushed away as always, moments after waking. She knew what she had to do to control the dream: hold her hand up in front of her face and see her palm. That was all.

Even as she began to raise her right arm, a bone-shaking roar erupted from the creature. Her ears shrivelled in pain. The wake of the primal howl hit the back of her head. Though she didn’t think it possible, she increased her pace one final time, as if her transition from mortal fear to pure panic allowed one last gear-shift. But it was right behind her. She wasn’t going to make it. She tried to believe it was just a dream, telling herself: Look around! See it before you wake up! But she couldn’t – she imagined its claws raising, ready to strike.

For the first time she noticed that although she was in a desert, the light was a ghostly green, like an old radar screen. Why? No time to figure it out. Zack was at the hatch, beckoning wildly with one hand, levelling the shoulder-mounted cannon with the other. She tried one last time to turn to see the creature, but her neck refused. "Get down!" she heard Zack shout, just as the creature swiped her feet from under her, and she fell, flying through the air like a high diver in slow motion, before sprawling downwards, crashing through the desert floor into blackness.


Kat sat up sharply and hit the rubber pad above her cot with her head. "Shit! Every –  bloody – time!" She collapsed back, breathing hard. She drove her fingers through wet, matted hair, and laid her forearm over closed eyes, waiting for the tremors to subside. She was safe, back on the Ulysses. Not that she’d left it in the past three months since they’d departed Zeus Orbital. She breathed out slowly to bring her pulse under control, and tried to recall. What had been chasing her? What had been so important, aside from the obvious – to escape? She couldn’t remember. Vague, receding thoughts uttered muffled cries through a thick fog in her mind – something about colour – something was green. But what? And why did it matter? By the time the mist had dissipated there was nothing but the distant low grumble of Ulysses’ engines, cushioned by the susurration of the aircon, with its attendant hospital-like smell. The nightmare, along with all its secrets, was gone, as usual. Her shoulder and neck muscles unwrapped, and she let out a long sigh. She wanted to sleep more, but not at the risk of nightmaring again. She heard the scrape of a mag-stool and left her forearm in place. "You babysitting me again, Zack?"

"Good thing we placed that rubber mat there, else you’d have head-butted a hole in the hull by now."

Kat nudged her forearm upwards just enough to reveal Zachariah Katain, his large, oval black face grinning downwards, framed by wire-mesh eyebrows and a gleaming bald pate. His jaw stuck out, as if permanently mocking life. His eye-lids were a different story – they always seemed to be a fraction closed – alert, as if targeting something. She’d met other vet attack-pilots who’d had that same perpetual hunter look, like they couldn’t switch it off any more. It reminded her that although Zack appeared to be a regular, jovial wife-and-two-kids guy – because he was – he also had that killer instinct just underneath the surface.

He beamed. "Been dreaming about me again, babe?"

The banter was part of their routine. It helped. "Course. But you know it’s not that kind of dream. Your weapon was bigger this time, though."

He belly-laughed, mock-punching her shoulder with his fist, then grew more serious. "Well?"

Kat replaced her forearm blindfold. The dream had gone again, sunk back through the crevices in her outer cortex to the inaccessible, squishy middle regions of the brain.

"Don’t worry, kid. Next time."

She heard him pad back out to the cockpit. She decided to rest a while longer; still had an hour off duty, not that there was anywhere to go, or anything to do, as far as leisure was concerned. A day in the life of an astronaut. An image of her four-poster bed back in New Oxford flickered seductively, but she rinsed it from her mind. No point. She’d made her choice.

She closed her eyes, determined not to sleep.

*          *          *

Zack ducked his head as he entered the cockpit the Ulysses’ chief designer had once explained to him was "compact". He squeezed past his Captain and their Science Officer – Blake and Pierre as they’d become after three months of sardine-can intimacy. Busy, as usual. Both working separately – ditto. Pierre was in virtual again, immersed by his visor in data slipstream analysis, oblivious to his surroundings.

From the back of his pilot’s chair Zack caught his reflection and sighed. He’d have traded his cobalt one-piece uniform for his old flying jacket any day of the week. The one consolation was the golden-winged image of Daedalus – the wiser father of Icarus, now employed as the Eden Mission logo adorning the crew’s chests. The crests glinted in the cockpit spots, especially Blake’s, since he polished his every morning.

Zack plumped himself into his servo-chair at the front of the cockpit, to the left of Blake and in front of Kat’s empty comms station. Three men and a girl in a tin can. But then he’d seen the early Mercury and Apollo craft, the Endeavour, and even the Mars Intrepid – those guys would have wept over such luxurious real estate. He fingered the two multimode joysticks that made him one with the ship, and felt his mood lighten. He couldn’t manoeuvre with the warp online, but once they decelerated… He could barely wait.

He stared out at the black velvet of deep space, punctuated by random pinpricks of ice-cold light sliding towards him with a glacial grace. Constellations that’d been his friends since childhood were gone. A girlfriend had said one night, a lifetime ago, that as long as you can see the stars and their patterns, the Big Dipper and Orion, you’re never lost, you’ll always find your way home. Zack’s substantial bulk, maintained despite space rations, shuddered.

He glanced across to Blake, his Captain and vet War buddy for fifteen years, studying a small-scale hologram of ship integrity. It showed the cockpit near the front end of the fifty metre long Ulysses, resembling a hornet’s body, its four sections and two back-up conical ion engines and dark waste exhausts at the rear. Zack frowned. The energy exchanges going on in the back of the fourth compartment were measured in yottawatts, off the imaginable scale. Only Pierre really understood it, but even he’d admitted that if the engineers had got it wrong, they’d be dead in a picosecond. Zack thought of the crew of the Heracles, lost with all hands. He’d known each of them personally.

The harsh red flicker from the Ulysses holo reflected off Blake’s rusty hair and chiselled features, lighting up the bow-shaped scar above his right eye from hand-to-hand combat in Thailand, and the pockmarks on his left cheek from the gassing at Geronimo Station. Blake had lost a lot of men in the War, but always got the job done.

"Seventh nightmare in the past week," Blake said, in his Texan drawl. He didn’t look up from his display.

"Yep," Zack replied. It was starting to affect morale, his own, at any rate; superstition and ill omens made lousy companions on long, confined trips. Seafarers had known it for millennia. Space was like the sea, just infinitely less forgiving.

Blake swivelled his chair to face him. "Anything new?"

Zack understood the implied question: was it like that screwed-up mission ten years ago, where one of their marines kept having nightmares for two full weeks beforehand? He shook his head. Blake resumed his work.

Zack toggled the forward screen control and with a flick of a finger, a single star changed to red – Kantoka Minor, Eden’s star, dead ahead. One more week, he mused; one more week before setting foot on another planet.

Before seeing if Kat’s nightmares have any substance.   

He kicked back in his pilot’s chair and pondered: neither the robot-based Prometheus nor manned Heracles missions had returned. Prometheus had arrived three years ago on Eden, but stopped transmitting after an hour. A year later, the manned Heracles had exploded, just five days before arrival, the list of possible explanations long and wild. Still, as they approached the nebula where Heracles disappeared, he was getting edgy, spending more time in the cockpit than was good for his spine; they all were. He glanced at his holopic of Sonja and the kids, smiling and waving, tucked into his console. He tried to smile back.

Kat slipped into the cockpit, furtive as usual, as if she’d just stolen something.

"Anything exciting happening?" she ventured.

Pierre stowed his visor and responded. "I’m afraid so. I’ve been checking and re-checking for the past hour. There’s no mistake. We’re losing oxygen."

Blake collapsed the holo. Kat halted mid-step.

Zack reached base first. "You’re kidding, right? I mean, you have no sense of humour, Pierre, but this time?"         

Blake interrupted. "Data."

Pierre handed Blake a holopad. "There’s a consistent one per cent oxygen depletion rate per hour. I don’t know where it’s going. Not outside, otherwise there’d be transient ice micro-crystal formation on the outer hull, inside the warp shell, even at this velocity. The air purifiers are working well, unless the sensors are malfunctioning. But I don’t think so."

Zack joined in. "Why the hell not? This wouldn’t be our first sensor glitch."

Pierre continued to stare at Blake, as if the Captain had asked the question. "I looked at the increased rate of carbon dioxide build-up in the recyclers, and also the growing power usage of all three independent gas exchange systems, and I used Kat’s breathing rate while asleep – before the onset of her nightmare – as a baseline. The covariance is undisputable."

Smart, Zack had to agree. He and Blake hunched over the pad to check the calcs, but Zack had no doubt – Pierre was never wrong when it came to facts and figures. After the second check, he sat back. He’d wanted something to relieve the monotony, but not this. The data stated flatly they were losing oxygen, but there was nowhere for it to go. It didn’t make sense, but unless they worked it out…

Kat piped up. "Well, if it’s only one per cent… I mean there’s a whole planet-full of oxygen on Eden, and we’ll be there in a week." She looked to Blake.

Blake handed back the pad. "We’ll be dead in two days." He turned to Pierre. "You sent this to EMC?"

"No, Sir – I wanted to be sure. I’d assumed it was an anomaly of some sort – calibration drift of the sensors, for example – but I confirmed it in the past hour. Then I ran some simulations to consider ways of conserving oxygen, but none of them will be sufficient."

Zack shook his head – Pierre ought to have informed Blake from the start. He just never did get military protocol, never understood the chain of command.  

"Very well," Blake said, "this is how it’s going to be. Kat, you check those purifiers by hand, just in case it’s a local sensor problem. Zack, you work with Pierre to see how we can either increase oxygen output or cut down usage. Zack, I’m looking for some of your usual unorthodox suggestions." He stood. "Answers in two hours, people. I’ll handle Comms and send the transmission – the turnaround time for messages sent back to Earth at this distance is currently two days, so I don’t have to tell you we can’t count on solutions from home. I’m hoping we can find the cause before then. So, let’s – "

Pierre butted in. "Captain, there’s one more…" he paused, the end of his sentence wilting under Blake’s glare.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Well, Sir. Whatever this is, I don’t think it’s a normal abnormality, if you understand me. What I mean is that we have seventh generation redundant and diverse systems here, and the engineers took account of all credible, and to be frank, some highly improbable independent and common mode failures. So… it’s just… this could be sabotage – something done to the ship before we left."

Zack scowled. It had been the number one Heracles theory, and for good reason. Despite Earth being on the brink of environmental collapse, the terrorist group known as the Alicians – anti-tech and anti-Eden – argued the War had been a sign for mankind to work out its problems on Earth, and return to a simpler life-style. Not content with rhetoric, they’d assassinated the original Ulysses crew during a training flight.

Zack’s security background extrapolated Pierre’s proposition to the next level – what if one of the crew was involved? He buried the idea, knowing it was a shallow grave he’d have to return to later.

"That’s why Zack’s going to be working with you," Blake said. "You may be the best science officer there is, Pierre, but Zack can smell a rat at fifty parsecs. So let’s get to it, our air’s burning."

Zack stole another glance at the holopic of his smiling family, taken the day he’d left. He’d looked at it hundreds of times before, but now, for the first time, he sensed the look of worry behind his wife’s sunny smile. He thought about the crew of the Heracles – is this what happened to them? Sabotage? But this was different. No explosion this time – just a painful, slow asphyxiation.

He shifted over to share Pierre’s console. There, the Frenchman opened up all his holo-data portals so they could inspect them together. Zack spotted a digital countdown of oxygen depletion rate in the corner of the screen: Time till irrevocable loss of consciousness: 42 hours, fifteen minutes, thirty-six seconds. He ran a sweaty finger around his collar.

And then the irony hit him – for the first time he hoped Kat’s nightmares of being hunted by a creature on Eden were true. Not that he believed them for a moment, but at least that way they’d die on their feet and have an enemy to fight, rather than arriving on Eden as canned corpses.

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