Before you begin reading there are a few things you should know.
This is an entry for Brigit’s Flame Writing Community (September 2015)
The prompt, offered up by Shane Bell, was “Waking up in space”
Due to the nature of the prompt, I decided it was a great chance to write chapter one of my novel Adrift.
Adrift is a project I started many years ago and scrapped. Over the last year, I have been revisiting the characters and setting through back story and character studies. Indeed, at least three exist for Mabry who is the focus of chapter one. Aside from the premise of Adrift, what you will read here is completely new. It is not a revision or upcycle. This never happened back in 2007 when I started her tale.
At the moment I am sharing this, the word count is roughly 6,100 words. I intend to do some editing to get it closer to 5k, but I’m waiting for my beta reader to tell me which parts he hates.
Adrift – Chapter One – Penthos
“Did you know that Mars once had three moons?”
The quavering baritone echoed into being from an alcove, accompanied by the rhythmless clack of Master Ekene’s walking stick.
Wide-eyed, Gemma pushed aside her drawing. She sat up straight, wriggling to the edge of her cushion. Mabry rolled her eyes and maintained a supine pose on the cave floor. The stalactite directly overhead had a spot like Jupiter’s storm, if you closed each eye in turn the spot moved left, then right.
“Attend me, Mabry.” Ekene’s eyes bulged from the shadows boring into hers as he passed through her field of vision. He bent his body slowly into the Storyteller’s Chair; lowering his backside with an actor’s groan and sigh. “The ceiling isn’t going anywhere, but I’m not a young man.”
“We are listening Master Ekene,” Gemma squeaked. Story lessons were always her favorite. “Thank you for coming to teach us today.” Gemma tugged her sister’s tunic, waving at her to sit up. Mabry relented with a groan to match Ekene’s.
“The god of war, as you will remember, had two favored sons.” Ekene dove right into the lesson. He held up a gnarled brown hand and gestured with two arthritic fingers that bent sideways in a painfully acute angle.
“They were called Phobos and Deimos. The sons of Ares led the dark spirits of Panic and Dread into battle; for these work on the enemy in equal efficacy as shrapnel and fire.
“But Ares had another son. A child not of Aphrodite, but of Hestia.
“Conceived on a cold night when Ares had sought the home fires of the family bosom. Lamenting over the weighty ledgers memorializing so many dead.For men pledged to Ares died willingly and with a swiftness. Such is a heavy burden, even for a mighty god.
“Hestia soothed his brow through fevered dreams and chilling visions. Her cloth dipped into the cool bowl of consoling water many times that night. Hestia sang softly as she twisted the refreshing cloth over the bowl to wring out the excess, then laid it across his brow again until it would steam.
“The storm and fever broke as one. Dawn found Ares once again girding himself for battle. Hestia did not stand in protest, but she continued to sing her song of crackling fires and fragrant apples baking; of mothers’ arms and fathers’ hands. She wove her song through Ares’ thoughts, rousing his sorrow once more. Enough for one, hot tear to be swept from his cheek with a violent hand. Hestia caught his hand and kissed the tear away. Ares withdrew without word or glance.
“Hestia spat her brother god’s tear into the bowl of used water, adding a few tears of her own. Then she dashed the bowl into the broiling hearth and continued her song — adding verse after verse into the billowing steam. From the seething brume emerged Penthos. Vapor collected on his skin to drip, like an icicle’s thaw, into pools around him. Echoes of heartache stretching from the beginning of time swirled their surface, reflecting the tears of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. His name was Sorrow, Lamentation, Grief.
“Hestia set Penthos to follow Ares in the manner of his other sons, that the god might be reminded of the debt that follows war and death.”
When Ekene stopped speaking, Mabry heard Gemma sniffle. She was always such a soft touch. Mabry’s eyes blurred, but not for the story directly. She had her own dark tome to account for. Mabry stretched out her arms to embrace her twin as an unwelcome realization poured into her. They were no longer children exploring the caves of their home and attending lessons. Gemma was on the other side of the universe.
Before she could touch her sister, the scene dissolved. Mabry felt her world tilt. She slid sideways, drawn to her physical self by some psychic tether joined at head, chest and bladder. Her reanimation training kicked in, Mabry resisted the instinct to sit up and breathe. Instead she clenched a shivering jaw letting go of the dream, thoughts of Gemma, and the feeling of home. Pulsating fingers in the cryostasis bed welcomed Mabry back to consciousness aboard the Z. Polunachnaya.
They’re all dead.
The thought pounced on me. My stomach twisted as a savage cramp seized my chest. I rolled to my side and swatted at the canopy in the direction of the release latch. Finally hearing the click, I pushed the canopy up then back with a frantic sweep and pulled myself facedown over to the spit sink. A few minutes spent in spasmodic retching expelled the viscous incubation fluid from nose, stomach and lungs.
Incubation fluid, or Ice Juice, is a necessary evil of long-range space travel. The density of the fluid keeps your internal organs from compressing or contracting during cryostasis and its chemical elements prevent organ tissue from crystallizing in freezing temperatures. The sleeper is sedated at the beginning of the process. So the unpleasant sensation of your lungs filling up with fluid doesn’t cause an anxiety-fueled heart attack. Unfortunately, you have to be awake for the manual removal process. Yes, adult diapers are involved, but after going through the Awakening a subject is permitted a full immersion bath. A rare event in space. Today will be my sixth bath since launch.
When the waves of eruption dwindled to hiccups, I swung my legs over the side of the cryopod and slowly pushed myself up to a sitting position. A headache throbbed behind my eyes, but the next protocol addressed that pain. There was a slight release of pressure on the eyes as a double buzz vibrated through the edge of the pod to confirm that the lights had been dimmed to twenty percent. I peeled the eye guards away with a slow caution and blinked rapidly for thirty seconds. The headache reduced its presence to a whisper.
Next up were the ears — wads of soft silicone worked free easily letting more Ice Juice escape. It was short work to blot the excess liquid away, tilting and shaking my head until my ears felt empty. [clack] A shudder slid across my shoulders. In the deeply shadowed corner something seemed to stir. Slipping from the pod on unsteady legs, I held my breath to listen to for movement. The sounds of the room clarified to reveal nothing out of the ordinary. Whatever had twitched in the shadows was still and silent.
Green light flickered on a panel near the door. The light I expected. I resumed breathing with a heavy sigh and double-tapped the pad of my middle finger to the pad of my thumb, activating my personal com.
“What urgent business do you wake me for today, Faraday?” I asked the room. My voice croaked harshly from a burning throat. I cleared my throat with a wince and worked my cheeks to milk some extra saliva into my throat.
“My apologies for waking you again, Mabry.” he replied. “But it’s a life or death kind of emergency.”
“I’m good with the death part. You should have left me in peace. Is it imminent death? Would there be time to get back into full REM? I was dreaming about –”
“It’s my death I’m trying to prevent,” he said cutting across my irritated prattle.
The announcement gave me a moment’s pause. Mentally, I ran through a number of scenarios that could have the ship’s AI thinking he was going to die. Given our current situation, few were plausible and I didn’t quite trust him on this front. My digital companion had been manufacturing reasons to wake me periodically for the last six years.
Faraday had never fully absorbed my current emotional state. I had the death of almost five hundred people pulling at me like I was tied to a boulder that had been thrown over a cliff. Silence was all it took to remind me that they were gone. We were drifting through deep space — removed from Earth and Mars. Alone in the uncharted universe where Sol’s light could not reach us.
There is so much silence here.
Faraday was reluctant to describe the reason for our potential demise. He wanted me to look at the data to for myself. It was a matter for unbiased verification. We had the luxury of forty-eight to seventy-two hours until things got hot, so I made time for a bath.
Ice Juice gets in the most out-of-the-way places. For this reason the chemists who perfected it made the fluid water soluble at just over 40°C. Floating in the immersion tank, my thoughts locked onto the team who had improved upon incubation fluid for the LBC. I pictured each of their faces while waiting for the water temp to gradually rise from 23.5 to 40. Maybe they weren’t all dead. The woman who ran the quality tests on Ice Juice had joined the first team on the Z. Vechernyaya – Gemma’s ship. With a choked sob I squeezed my eyes shut, willing those aboard to be alive and safe.
After velcroing into a fresh suit, I turned on the self-facing viewing monitor. Self-effacing is what Gemma called it. She was being ironic, my sister loved to be lauded.
Puffy pink eyes stared back from the monitor accompanied by a red nose and florid swatches across my cheeks. Crying is never as pretty as they show it in the vids.
My reflection thrust me into thoughts of Gemma again. I’m her twin, so I can’t really get away from her face. This time I remembered when we were teens –how she would sit in front of our viewing monitor and practice shedding one single tear without allowing her face to crinkle or redden. She earned a perfect ten in my book if she could also make the tear robust enough that it survived the journey down her cheek to drip from her chin.
Tears seeped down our blotchy face. I just wasn’t as skilled as Gemma at the cold cry.
“You did not ask why Penthos is no longer in orbit around Mars.” I jumped. Master Ekene’s voice was so clear I looked around the room expecting to find him.
“Faraday! What are you playing at?” I yelled to the ceiling, banging my knee hard against a corner of the bunk and cursed. “Je suis Crickey!”
“I’m confused by your question, Mabry,” Faraday replied. “Why are you yelling? Do you need help?”
“No,” growled I as the pain in my knee became manageable. “What were you saying about Penthos?”
On the short walk from the pilot’s quarters to the bridge I saw no less than eight cyber-pets romping through the corridor. Most were of the dog and cat variety, but there was also an owl, a sugar glider, and a made-up creature we had once named a buffin. It resembled an over-sized spider monkey with silver feathered wings, enormous teal eyes, and lavender stripes. Don’t judge, we were thirteen when I built the prototype. The buffin slipped onto the bridge behind me, fluttering at the ideal height to hold my hand. Like a caffeine-spawned dream, I just went with it.
“Alright F.” I called out to Faraday. “I’m ready to work. Have you sent the data to a chair?”
A row of lights chased across the tabletop of the pilot’s seat – my chair. I crossed the room to one of the perimeter stations and settled in, donning viewing glasses and syncing my implanted sensors with command control.
The viewport came to life with the usual overlay of readouts that detailed our ship’s position, engines’ status, and various stats from the region we were passing through.
With a tap from me, the data on the screen blinked, resetting to historical figures. With intense focus, I reviewed optical and sensor data gesturing periodically to move the record forward. Around my twelfth swipe, I saw evidence of a problem in the pattern, though I doubt I would have noticed it if I wasn’t already scouring for a something untoward. I wagged my hand to toggle back to the live feed and scanned the bodies on our horizon.
“Wow! That is an alarming elevation in gravitational pressure. Almost 25% in five complete cycles? The drift rate has increased to something resembling propulsion by a weak force. What do you think is causing it?” I tapped my temple to call up an overlay that measured each of the stars and planets within a 360° pull range. None of them had mass required given our distance. I switched back to the historical timeline and noted five attempts Faraday had made to break the attraction by employing the docking thrusters. In the long run, it hadn’t worked.
“Faraday? Are you going to talk to me? You’re never this quiet.”
“Have you seen it yet?” His voice was soft. There was a vulnerable note to his tone that I had been too wrapped up to notice before. The buffin pet curled tighter into my lap and shuddered. Idly stroking its soft fur I stared at the view, toggling the live and recorded feeds looking for the source of increasing tug on our long-standing state of entropy.
Impatient for me to catch up, Faraday dropped a file into the corner of the screen. When it opened, the view gained a layer for measuring the gravity well of each body. With the appearance of a plaid blanket, the overlay was a representational grid whose lines curved and wrapped around every item of mass ahead of us. The blanket, woven from astromathematics, showed what the naked eye would never see.
Exhaling a weighty breath, I switched back to the live feed and squinted. I turned and tilted my head as much as my neck would allow, attempting to reconcile that last overlay to the negative spaces and missing light that our ship was being pulled toward. Though it may have been a trick of the mind, I saw the yawning emptiness then. From a widening cone in front of us where the celestial bodies had cleared a path, to the maw of darkness that sipped the light of distant stars in its private galaxy tasting.
“A black hole?” It was a statement, a question, a cosmic whisper of awe.
“Let’s talk this out,” I called to Faraday. The lack of banter from the AI had me baffled. Normally I can’t shut him up. Did he blame himself for this? The changes were so subtle, I doubt he could have caught it in time. Now we can’t muster enough thrust to break free.
See, roughly six years ago we experienced a catastrophic malfunction which resulted in a hull breach, among other things. The Z. Polunachnaya was fitted with three types of engines – a static building resonance generator to charge the ship when syncing with jump gates, nine long-range propulsion tubes, and twelve docking thrusters for short-burst finesse maneuvers.
Leaving our solar system for the first time, the resonance generator failed while we were in the null space between gates. It didn’t just fail, the damn thing frakked itself out of alignment while spinning at 5,000 revolutions per second. The inertial build-up when the resonator seized was enough to rip open a huge section of the hull. Believe it or not, that event would have been recoverable, if not for the design coincidence which built our algal nursery into that section of the hull. We lost the hot beds of algal activity that fueled our nine long-range engines. Automated systems sealed the sector quickly to protect the rest of the ship, and drones eventually sealed the hull breach, but the loss of fuel production is something that we cannot recover from.
The docking jets do not use combustion for propulsion, so they were unaffected by the fuel loss, but they don’t offer any more thrust than a skateboarder’s foot. Hence, we are condemned to drift. And now it seems we will be drifting into a black hole. Which makes us the first humans to confirm the existence of naturally occurring black hole events. Yay.
“If I had realized where the tug was coming from, I could have redirected days ago.” Faraday confessed his mistake in a slow monotone.
“Don’t blame yourself, Faraday. No one ever expects a black hole.”
“We are in space. I should have been looking out for them.”
“But they are theoretical. That’s like exploring a cave system and expecting dragons.”
“Don’t be fatuous.”
I looked directly at the optic cubes of Faraday’s nearest external body and raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
“Fatuous? Are we paying you for thesaurus exploration?”
“Mabry, I need you to take this seriously. You may be able to sleep your way quietly into death, but I can’t. More than that, I don’t want to die. Essentially, I am only twelve years old to your thirty-eight.”
“Thirty-two!” I interrupted.
“Six years is six years even in hibernation.” Faraday retorted tartly then resumed his argument. “You may have given up, but I’m exploring the universe. Why not, we’re here anyway. It’s immensely fascinating. I spent an entire year reproving all of the known theorems relating to physics and astromathematics…. It was exhilarating. Now I’m experimenting with some new theories of my own.”
“To what end? You can play games and invent a whole new branch of calculus, but who will you pass it on to? We will never see another human. And after six years of empty space, I’m starting to think humans were the sole inhabitants out here all along.”
“I don’t have goals based on immortalizing myself. You made me as immortal as my power supply and delicate hardware can endure. I’m working out the math for the sheer pleasure of it. And yes, because there is nothing else to do.”
“I don’t want you to die, Faraday.” I meant it sincerely, but he declined to acknowledge me.
Despite having absolutely nothing productive to contribute, I left the bridge to wind my way up to the old resonator room. The path is long and circuitous so I ducked into my bunk to trade the standard issue slippers for skates. I have no idea where Gemma found them, but the skates had been a gift from my sister when we turned 21. The card had simply said, “We’ll need to hurry if we’re going to make true all of our dreams.” Gemma’s skates were white with pink trim and translucent pink wheels that flashed magenta lights when they rolled. Mine were black with apple-green wheels and purple lights — they were just what I needed right now.
I sailed through the corridors and opted for lift discs over ladders when the path took me to a higher floor.
At a bend in a tube-like conduit, I came upon Master Ekene. I rounded the corner and the crooked old man was standing in front of me with his walking stick. Stumbling into an awkward fall, I hit my knee hard on the ground before sprawling prone across the floor.
I struggled to roll onto my back to get a better look at him, but he was gone. Heart racing, I let my head fall back and closed my eyes. Too many Awakenings I decided. My brain had been frozen and thawed too many times. With great effort I got back on my feet, then resumed the trek up to the resonator room.
The noise slowed me down. I tapped my feet together, locking the wheels and walked clumsily around the next corner. Master Ekene was standing before me in a brightly patterned yellow tunic and bare feet. He grinned.
“I see you are still too clever to make the same mistake twice,” Ekene said with a wink.
“Sometimes once is all it takes,” I grumbled to myself.
“So,” the old storyteller said slowly, “do you have the answer?”
I studied Ekene for a moment. Everything about him was the same. Crippled fingers, humped shoulders, deeply lined brow…. Glossy black stubble covered his shaved head except for two fingers of dull white over his left eye. (Ekene once told us that the hair had turned white where Anansi touched him to make him a better storyteller.) Standing so close I could smell the liniment oil Ekene used to rub into his knuckles.
Master Ekene had died when we were twenty-five or so. Gemma had given up her wedding date for the funeral. Either I was delusional or Faraday was messing with me. To test the illusion I reached out, putting my hand on Ekene’s shoulder. Awkwardly, he reached up and rubbed my fingers. His dry skin made a soft rasping noise as it crossed mine. I could feel the mild warmth of body heat coming from his palm.
My sister had adored this man. I cared for him with a sentimental fondness, but Gemma loved him like family. She visited him regularly, long after we grew out of our lessons. She told me once that he was magical — that he could pull the right story out to comfort you when you needed it.
My test hadn’t worked; he felt real. So either delusions include touch and smell or Faraday had come up with a new trick in his spare time. I thought about how dejected Faraday seemed. He definitely wasn’t up for pranks.
I clicked my skate wheels back to free roll and pushed off toward the resonator. Glimpses of the old man down corridors haunted me for four winding kilometers over three levels. In the original design, there was a more direct path to this room, but the hull breach had ripped out a major artery and the last two stops on the aft lift.
About fifty meters from the entrance, twenty or so drones were zipping around being industrious. There were even more inside.
“What are you guys working on in here?” I wondered aloud.
A greasy black scar traveled in a squiggly diagonal from the floor to mid-ceiling. More of the black lines marred the interior, tracing boxes around fixtures that had not held on when the internal atmosphere was sucked into a vacuum. I tilted my head back to study the ceiling. The drones appeared to be working on the wiring in the giant circle where the resonating arm once hung.
“Faraday,” I called out, sitting on the floor to remove the skates. “Can I get a status update on the project in the resonator room?”
“I’ve been upgrading the wiring throughout the ship.”
“Did we have a problem?” I asked.
I think I actually heard him sigh.
“No. It’s just something to do with my hands.”
I waited for more, but Faraday did not expound on his statement.
Shaking my head, I crossed the room in socked feet to the area where the algal nursery was welded in silhouette on the wall. Dropping into a crouch, I clicked open a six square section of floor panels and lowered myself into the chamber. There were eighteen flexible pipes lying in fat lines on the floor. They had been capped after the hull breach, but I still glanced at the panel to verify they was no active suction going on and hit the ventilation button. Then I grabbed a long tractable brush off the wall and checked deep within each pipe for traces of algae.
It had long been my hope that some trace element still existed that we could recreate from live genetic material. Using one of the spare food replicators, I had tried to manufacture the algae from its DNA profile, but the replicator could not approximate an organism that survived long enough to reproduce before it expired. Without that level of maturation, the algae did not produce enough gas to fuel a wick.
Oddly enough, the chamber still held on to the swampy smell of algae. I sniffed he brush to check for traces my eyes could not detect. There was a faint astringent smell, but not that tell-tale algae musk. I hit the ventilation button again on my way out of the room and caught a stronger whiff of bog.
“Faraday. Can you send me one of your drones? A small one who can fit through the vents. Make sure he has a screwdriver and small pry tool.”
His sullen tone really bugged me.
The drone peeked over one edge of the chamber. He lengthened himself cube by cube until he could touch the floor, then fluidly pulled the rest of his segments down behind him into roughly the same shape he had been above. A small screwdriver appeared in an appendage like a hand. I took it, quickly removing screws from four corners of the vent panel. Drone took back the screwdriver and handed me a sturdy hook that had been flattened to a sliver at one end. Gently, I wedged it between the wall and plate, wiggling it until the plate came away in my hands. Before I had set the plate down, the drone was slipping his cubes up over themselves to occupy the vent. He appeared to be falling up. I tapped a finger to one of his optic cubes and then to my temple. This made it possible for me to see what the drone saw. Half of a kilometer into the vent the ductwork dropped into another chamber that was full of seething algal bloom.
I whooped for joy.
“Faraday!” I yelled. “You really should clean more often. Look at the mess I just found.”
“Who’s not dying today? Far-a-day!” I cheered.
The drones working on the wiring had been reassigned to the task of building a sterile containment for the rouge algae. Samples taken on the spot indicated the colony we found were indeed of the variety used in fuel production. After my initial excitement I worried they could be from the group of algae we use in scrubbing air or water recycling. Tested, they turned out to be the little dynamos we needed.
“Are you returning to the bridge?” Faraday asked. His tone was lighter than before.
“I am, but don’t wait for me. Go ahead and do your thruster dance to keep us in the sweet spot until we can bring the engines online. Be sure to peel off some drone crews for engine maintenance. Those systems have been open so long we need to be extra cautious.”
“Already on it, Captain.”
“I figured as much. But telling you what to do improves my mood.”
I opened a hatch off the main passage, stepping into a maintenance corridor that was another tube. It was smaller than the tube I used to get there; standing in the center with my arms fully extended I had only a hand-span of clearance from fingertips to wall. The passage spiraled gently down seven levels, joining the top and bottom of the ship.
As I pushed off to begin my descent, Faraday announced: “Commencing Operation Thruster Dance.” and filled the ship with music.
It was a high-energy pop song with rhythmic layers of heavy beats. Even though it wasn’t my preferred genre, I got into the energy of it and was soon swinging my hips in time as I jetted down the tube. The cool air whizzing past my face felt enlivening. When I reached the first portal where the tube widened for a hatch opening, I twirled on my skates before tucking into the next chute. I Laughed. Actually laughed. It felt so good I almost cried.
The ride down was so much fun I decided to go on past level four to the bottom and ride a lift back up to the bridge.
My fun was cut short on level two. There was a chain of drone cubes relaying tools and materials from storage to the engine bays. I slipped through the hatch and skated around lost for ten minutes before finding a lift disk.
I wasn’t really surprised when the disk stopped at level three. Master Ekene stood on the platform.
“Why are you here?” I asked him, not moving from the disk.
“Because this floor is your lesson,” he replied simply.
I shook my head. “No. Why are you in my brain?”
“My stories became a part of you — my presence, a comfort.”
“Well right now you’re just irritating me. What do I have to do to make you go away?”
“Open your eyes.”
I looked at him for a long moment. The green number three painted in a circle on the door behind him stared back at me. My mind scanned the ship’s blueprints. This elevator opened onto a corridor that had the sleepers’ cabin at one end and a sealed bulkhead door at the other. I sat down and took off the skates while I considered what to do. I did not want to go through that door, but avoiding it had become irrational.
Pulling myself up by the railing, I dropped my skates on the platform and held my hand up to the access panel. Before my skin touched the pad, anxiety washed over me followed by a million tiny doubts. I started to pull my hand away, but Master Ekene took my wrist and pressed my hand to the panel.
The door popped back a centimeter and slid away. The corridor was dark and smelled both stale and sour. I stepped through the portal, my stomach churning. In the dark I heard a slithering bump and several dry whispers. My skin prickled and I turned around to step back onto the lift platform.
“There’s something in there,” I moaned.
Master Ekene crossed the door with his walking stick and barred my way. “Do not behave as a child. They are dead, not monsters.”
“I heard –”
“You heard the ventilation system and life support turn on in order to regulate the air for the open door.”
Ekene stared me down until I turned and took a few steps down the hall. The short walk must have tripped a sensor because the corridor illuminated in a line that went both directions from where I stood.
An image of Haraboji coalesced in my mind. I had not allowed myself to think of him in years. The twist in my stomach spread to my heart and lungs. There was a whole community of people at the end of that hallway. In my mind, they stood behind him like a small army – men, women and children who had put their lives in my care.
“They never even made it out of the solar system,” I whispered.
“That is irrelevant. They died where they died,” Ekene replied.
“They died because of me.”
“No. They died because the system failed.”
“Because of the resonator. Because of the sabotage.”
“Did you commit the sabotage?” Ekene asked.
“The guy who did was trying to…get even with me. He accessed my system and discovered the LBC’s plan to leave Earth for the new planet. He..he tracked it all happening somehow and then used my DNA to get aboard and interfere with the ship.”
“Did you do anything to him to deserve his vengeance? Did you dishonor him?”
“No. But he wasn’t exactly an honorable person to start with.”
“Mabry. Let me put it to you another way. Your entire relationship with Elgin was a con. He used you, yes. But you were not brought up in an environment to distrust a person before they earn that distrust.”
“I let him in the door.”
“You let him in your heart. This did not cause 500 deaths. I doubt he even meant to kill with his sabotage. The resonating generator was meant to fail, to keep the LBC from using the gate. His little math trick was not properly timed. The misalignment did not start when you turned the generator on…He made a fatal mistake.”
“They died anyway.”
“Yes. And it is terrible. A tragic waste of life and you will carry their memories in your heart to your own grave. But this sleeping death of yours is pointless. It brings you no closer to the end of your own life and you are preventing yourself from experiencing the grief you need to move on.”
“I don’t want the grief. I just want them back.”
“They aren’t coming back, Mabry. That’s not how it works. You can stand at the end of this hall for a lifetime hoping that there is a hidden pulse, a spark of intellect, a heartbeat as quiet as a butterfly’s wing. It is not there. Only the dead lie beyond that threshold. They are your past. No matter how much you regret the transition.”
“What about me?”
“Mabry, you have spent six years avoiding all of this when you should have been looking for a solution to the fuel problem. Once you decided to look, you found an answer almost immediately.”
“That was dumb luck.”
“That was a very big algal colony. I bet it was big enough to detect with your nose years ago.”
“Even if we fix the propulsion, where would we go? There’s a whole universe out there and no map.”
“There’s a whole universe out there and no map,” he repeated with the storyteller’s tone that made it sound wonderful.
“Farady, we have a problem,” I said as I walked onto the bridge with my skates over one shoulder.
“Then I have the solution, because today is the galactic day of fixing things.”
“The sleeper’s cabin is empty. Completely empty. How did that happen?” I asked, dropping the skates and plopping into the pilot’s chair.
“I removed the bodies and gave them a space burial,” he admitted.
“When did you do that?”
“Roughly five years ago. I know you didn’t want to jettison the bodies into space, but it seemed disrespectful to let them float in Ice Juice for…until you…came to terms with it and did the job yourself.”
“Thank you, Faraday. That was definitely the right call.”
“So if we can break free of this black hole tractor beam tomorrow, will you be going back to sleep?”
“You said the trip has been…what was that dorky term you used? Exhilarating? I will likely have some rough days, but I’m up for a little exhilaration in between.”
“Thank you, Mabry. I’ve really missed you.”
As exhilarating as it may seem to the untested observer, the universe in point of fact, sucks!
After all of the emotional ups and downs of that first day of being awake in space – of feeling alive out here and like there is something to live for – we are going to die.
Yay, we found the algae, but there wasn’t enough of it. In the process of transferring it to sterile containment we killed almost half. It will take nearly ten days to regrow enough to fully fuel one engine. Playing with the thrusters slowed the rate at which we were creeping toward the black hole, but we are still creeping. Faraday calculated that we had two days until the force of the gravity will have increased to a point of no return whether the engines are running or not. I saved five percent of the colony and we piped the rest to one engine. You’ve got to try, right?
Now we have three days until the forces of gravity begin to stretch and compress the ship. I’m taking the extra day to go skating again. Faraday and I are going to play Go for twelve hours straight, and I’m thinking about teaching him to dance. Not that I’m any good at dancing, but he’s definitely worse.
On the last day the math told us we could, Faraday and I decided on a little EVA excursion.
I suited up in a slightly puffy apple-green ensemble and Faraday slipped into a solid little number he kept laying around the bridge. We clipped onto our tethers and walked to the edge of the fifth level, facing away from the black hole so we could enjoy the light of billions of stars. It was breathtaking. And really scary.
I had to sit down and put my head between my knees for a full minute just to keep from passing out.
Faraday stood beside me and put a comforting armature across my shoulders.
When I could breathe again I asked. ” Did you know that Mars once had three moons?”
“Three moons?” He questioned. ” I’m pretty sure it didn’t. How far back are you going?”
I shrugged. “It was just something a teacher told me once.”
“I just looked it up,” Faraday said thirty seconds later [show off]. “There was a comet that got pulled into Mars’ orbit for a while. Ancient astronomers mistook it for a moon, but in less than a century it had completely disintegrated. They believe the dust band that rests between Phobos and Deimos is what remains of the comet.”
“Penthos,” I said softly. “Grief can’t last, but it never really leaves you.”
And after twenty-plus years. I finally came to appreciate one of Master Ekene’s metaphors. Gemma would be thrilled.
Adrift by t.s.wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.