Every Planet We Reach is Dead #2

The airlock of Junko is bright, fluorescent light painting everyone in unnatural shades. Joan watches as Lin Pei steps onto her suit printer before the others and freeze stiff. The woman’s lungs are still pumping back to life, her joints ache, the cold slowly seeping out. And now she’s getting wrapped up again.

The printer coil surrounds her, starting from her boots. Warm synthetic material covers her from bottom to top. She doesn’t flinch. It’s like body paint, a vitality giving inner layer for their spacesuits. She is finished first and steps back to receive the exosuit. Junko is soft in her touch, clamping, slotting and clipping the suit around Lin’s limbs and torso. It’s over in thirty seconds. Lin reaches into the collar and retrieves the earpiece.

‘And you’re live, Lin.’

Joan’s voice reach Lin, then the others as they each suit up, reading all the vitals the nanotech of the inner layer is feeding her, checking them off like a good pilot. Cams, audio, heartbeats – they’re all available to her instantaneously, thrown up by Junk.

We ready to do this?

Rigel turns to prep the boarding team: Lina and the twins, Hotham and Jay.

Alright crew, we have arrived. It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve gone over our training procedures. We’re entering an atmosphere-less hulk so we take it easy until we can boot her.

Joan’s mind wanders. She flicks cameras to the Major, who has retreated to her station. Joan brings the screen closer. More machine than person, the Major is connected to her personal hub at the other end of the ship, lost in her own objectives. Behind her the massive 3D printer is constructing something. Joan has already tried to dig into the Major’s past and reasons for being here, but it’s virtual block after digital deadzone. She’s untouchable.

The next camera goes to Unaipon, the scholar, also busy doing whatever it is he does. He seems to flit from one stations to the next, never happy with whatever he is working on for longer than a few minutes. Or he’s working on each simultaneously.
It feels like yesterday since she saw these people last. Of course in reality it has been about 250 years. Joan grips her holds, white knuckles. The abyss of the time period baulks her at the best of times. A voice yells in her ear.

Joan.

She switches back to the airlock.

‘Yes captain?’

I need you awake, pilot, I know you’re good but you’re not do-it-in-your-sleep good.

Someone laughs.

‘Even if I were out cold, I’d still do a better job than you, sir.’

She sees him look directly at the cam and give a smile.

Right, are we ready to do this? Hotham, Jay, take point. I’ll follow and Lin, you’re last. Joan, hit it when you’re ready.

The boarding party gets into formation, sleek suits ready for their first run, bulky equipment in strength-enhanced arms. Joan hits the release.

***

Lin watches her compatriots disappear into the yawning dark ahead of her, the separation of life and death. She steps in behind them automatically, not wanting to but it’s why she’s here. To go where almost no one has been before. Or at least to discover why those that did go before went quiet.

Her headlamps come on automatically as she crosses into the lifeless hulk. The light captures her crewmates before she turns to look around. The space seems like the evil twin of Junko, a leviathan with the life crushed out of it. They all cross into what had been the living area.

The whole ship is similar, but smaller. The tech is older, less sophisticated. They can only dock because all ships have been made retroactive. Quite the foresight, Lin thinks. Then she thinks what inventions and foresights have been made in the intervening years. She veers slightly, head going light. She shakes it off quickly, forcing a release of hormones to focus. Rigel’s voice suddenly comes over the comms, crisp.

Looks like everything is mostly intact. Joan, are you receiving vid? Good. Anything loose will have gone to suck, but I don’t think the control panels are damaged. Hotham, can you get her started?

Lin takes it all on board and keeps wandering through the ship. It’s like being under water, like being in training all those years ago. Seawood-esque wires wave at her as she moves slowly through, her grav boots operating in time with her movements.

OK Jay, close down the hatch. Joan, we’ve done a sweep and there doesn’t appear to be any hull breaches. We’re closing the doors and going to boot her.

Lin snaps out of her dreaming. Looks around. She’s in the cryo-chamber.

***

In a pit of snakes, squirming and wriggling, Walcot drags himself up. The snakes fall away, their bodies leaving his in relief. Not tied back by gravity, he shoots towards the sky. A horrific face appears, all teeth and pale skin, and Walcot feels a sudden terror in his stomach he hasn’t felt in a very long time. The thing opens its mouth and…

Gas jets into his face. He tries to scream but a tube is shoved down his throat. He gags, hands floundering to get a grip on the tube. He pulls it out, vomiting up whatever liquid lingered is his esophagus. The gas is still jetting into his face. He tries to push past it but is met by glass. Something wells up inside him.

Walcot screams. He screams and it feels like he is forcing his insides out his mouth. He feels his mind leave him, leaving only a screaming husk. But only for a moment.

The glass disappears as if magically dispersed. Something lets his feet go. Walcot falls face first, still screaming. But he doesn’t hit anything. Instead he just floats out. He stops, shocked. Then he tries to breath again.

A rancid and metallic taste assaults him, but no air.

ohfucktheresnoatmosphereFUCK

He squeezes his eyes shut, convulses, and wishes he was back in the pit of snakes.

***

Lin stares at the man writhing in front of her. He’s suspended in midair, his body wriggling in a ball. Her fingers twitch at her side. She almost takes a step back. Instead she rushes at the man as fast as her grav boots allow, oxygenator in hand. She screams into her vox.

GET IN HERE, TO ME!

Lin’s body takes over from her mind, like she’s left herself. Reaching for the man, she tries to pull his limbs apart so she can wrestle the oxygenator on to his face. The power might be back on but the air is going to take a little while, if there even is air left. Lights flicker like a nightmare. Forcing her suited arm between the man’s limbs, Lin finally manages to get the rebreather over his mouth. She switches her vox to external, hoping there’s enough reclaimed atmosphere by now to carry her voice.

‘BREATHE.’

Part 3

Every Planet We Reach is Dead #1

Somewhere, distant. Two specks close-in like mating bugs, one a luminescent dominatrix, the other a silent receiver. Their rings are immobile, frozen before the life-giving connection. The receiver is clearly older, its batteries long dormant. A single ring surrounds the engine, a giant, bulbous antiquity. The incoming arrival is long and slender, two rings at either end, one contracted and waiting. New and old will unite.

In the distance spins Vega, sputtering and spurting its gases, waves of radiation washing the vicinity in random bursts. So it has been for millennia. It has not seen life for a long time, but then, what does it care? There is no old or new, just forever and perhaps an end. At its core it rumbles.

***

Suspended in the Bulb, Joan Lewis sweats despite the cold. She doesn’t notice. A dozen displays surround her, move into her vision when needed. A stream of information bounces within her retina, half visual and half fed into her mind. The ship’s computer, Junko, works diligently to keep her completely up-to-date. Drugs surge through Joan’s veins, heightening her reaction times and thought processes, overclocking her body. Her hands rush around like erratic moons, and her facial expressions do the rest. Her feet are locked in on the pilot’s platform as the embodiment of Junko rotates and twists to suit her needs. Joan is suspended in symbiosis with the ship.

Behind her is the captain, observing, but also stepping in to bring up information when needed. His eyes dart back to Joan and a smirk breaks out as he watches her, watches her dance. Her work is better than his ever was. His body suit is warm, but he has his face free to feel the cold of the Bulb. Past the screens and the frenetic Joan is space. Endless space. Just creeping into the peripheral is Vega burning its blue-white brightness. The eagle has landed, Rigel thinks.

Rigel notices Joan focus, stiffen up, and her movements become longer and attuned. The time has come. He’s watched her do this a hundred times in the sims, but it’s always impressive, more so now that it’s for real. He can make out the other ship now, the Indomitable, as they come perpendicular to it. Slotting it between the two rings of Junko. Junko has come knocking to discover what conquered the unconquerable.

‘How does the airlock look?’ Rigel says to Joan. She doesn’t look up, instead shooting off a data byte in his direction. He brings up the info.

The Indomitable is intact, no holes or damage. Except for the airlock. Signs of expulsion are evident, pipes drifting lazily out of the opening like an anemone. There are scars where heavy objects would have struck as they were jettisoned. An error or on purpose? Rigel can’t see anything that tells him one way or the other. If the hulk had been ripped open it’s going to make boarding difficult.

‘I can still make it, the lock gates aren’t incompatible with ours. I’m going in.’

Rigel throws down the scans.

Joan’s movements speed up, red lights flashing as she goes too far one way, then the other. On the hull spurts of gas pop at random, guiding them invisibly. Then a moment of silence, the warning lights cease.

‘Could be a bump,’ says Joan right before she makes contact.

In the gravity-less Bulb it isn’t an issue as the ship shudders around them. In another instant the ship is rigid again, with an additional appendage. In an instant they are one vessel, the Indomitable now a cancerous growth to be healed.

‘Easy,’ says Joan, ‘now comes the really fun part.’

She disengages from the various wires and inputs, pushes off towards Rigel. She glides towards him, her eyes locked on his and intent on only one thing. Rigel catches her as she comes close, and she latches on to him.

‘We’ve got an hour before the rest of the crew wake up,’ Joan says, a mischievous smile springing to her face. ‘And I’m all worked up.’

Rigel grins. She grabs his hand and pushes off back down towards the tunnel and the bunks. He loves it when she takes control.

***

Slowly but surely the crew awakens. Joan watches them in the corner of her eye, a distraction while she comes down off the cocktail of amphetamines and sex. Their bodies shake as they are reanimated, blood pumping back through empty veins and stirring organs. The worst part is the full-body pins-and-needles sensation, thinks Joan. Thankfully it only takes a few hours before the body is back to full capacity.

She stretches up, bones cracking for the first time in decades. Rigel lies in bed, his eyes glazed over as he flicks through pre-boarding checks.

‘Come, play a game with me,’ she says. He comes back to reality. ‘We’ve got a little time.’

She sits down at the table, bringing a game of chess up. The pieces materialise and she chooses white. Rigel saunters over, his skin suit crawling over him. The ship is still cold from the aeons.

‘I’ll probably be rusty, even if you give my AI a handicap,’ he says, coughing and easing himself into the seat.

‘It’s not about winning, dear,’ Joan says, even though a competitive glint is etched into her eyes. They begin, rapidly at first before slowing into a rhythm.

‘Ah, you’ve got a response to everything I throw out, says Rigel. ‘Never mind being two steps ahead, you’re at least five. For such a mirrored game it becomes asymmetrical so quickly.’

‘No different to anything else in nature or humanity. There’s an equal and opposite reaction for everything, you only have to be ready for it.’

Rigel grunts in amusement.

‘I just need to think outside the box then, beat you back with randomness.’

‘I’m plenty used to randomness, too.’

The AIs they were using would throw out multiple moves per turn, a thousand calculations a second. Junko watches from a distance, mostly disapproving of all moves chosen by both parties.

‘Have you ever played vanilla chess?’

Joan looks up. ‘No, I haven’t actually. No point.’

‘I have. It’s remarkable the patterns a computer chooses over a human. For one thing, humans like repetition, familiarity. But it’s all a simulation, no? It’s the same principle as docking this ship, just a tad more complicated in the types of calculations that Junko has to come up with. That right Junk?’

The lights dim in response.

‘Such a quiet thing. Sometimes I wonder what Junk thinks about in the downtime.’

‘What downtime? Me, I wonder if the AI can distinguish between a game and real life, or if both have equal weighting.’

‘Either way, they offer us the best possible result. We just have the courage to take it. Check.’

‘Such the inspiration, Rigel. But we’re all pieces in the larger game. Us in particular. Moved to the farthest reaches of known space on the back of some vague hope.’

‘Sometimes I don’t mind being manipulated. We’ve got the chance to change the future of humanity after all.’ He gives out a grim chuckle.

‘You know as well as I know the only reason we’re here is that it’s better than home. And that it gives the only people worth a shit a slight chance of a good time.’

‘Hey, I think you’re worth a shit. That’s why I brought you with me.’

‘Don’t kid yourself, I came because you’re useless without me.’

He laughs at that.

‘By the way, checkmate.’ Joan leans back, satisfied.

‘Well fuck me, that came from nowhere.’

‘Don’t mind if I do.’

‘Do what?’

‘Fuck you.’

Part Two