Cruel Sky

Cruel Sky

Mez watched the Windslipper 4 disappear from the Command screens. The data streams ended abruptly with millions of zeros trailing each other homogeneously. The humans and mimicrons gasped but their horror didn’t last long. The Jovian Commission’s Fusionjet Program had already gobbled up hundreds of mimicron pilots and eighty-two human explorers. Mez guessed they had grown accustomed to the fatalities. What they weren’t used to was the price tag for this particular launch. Tacacorp, a quasi-government outfit that operated Callisto, was seeking to gain the commission’s contract and had sunk a lot of development into their Windslipper Project.

This deficiency in empathy didn’t stop Mez feeling sadness over Natan VanWehl’s fate, a one-time colleague at the Goliath Project, a friend, and a human.

“Why do humans do this when we have mimicrons?” Mez had asked him once.

“Because it’s there, staring us in the face, challenging us, daring us one-percenters to abandon our slavery and face this nasty, sublime universe.”

With the value of human labour and life at historic lows, Mez understood why authorities had recently switched policies to allow people back into space exploration. Mimicrons, as it turned out, were more expensive and less intellectually and physically agile than homo-sapiens.

Mez ordered a copy of the data, but he’d have to wait until after the official Tacacorp briefing. Competitors received this, hours after, so Mez had to make do with what he saw on Command’s vast public screens, paying attention to the error alerts.

Forty-eight seconds of atmospheric deployment.

The fusionjets didn’t even ignite.

Less than a minute, he pondered.

This sudden cut in data meant that the Windslipper blew up as it attempted to ignite its fusionjets. The majority of missions matched the same result, each lasting only a moment inside the harsh Jovian sky. Other failures were attributed to bad deployment during atmospheric entry, or fusionjets failing to ignite, causing the aeroskaphes to plunge into the planet’s interior where it would melt and disintegrate into atoms.

Mez retired to his cubicle on the X-axis wing of Ehricke City. At 0.7 gees, the sector was considered prestigious among Galilean intenturees. Mez slept, waiting for the Windslipper mission results, hoping to get some rest before his own mission starting in forty-nine hours

The cubicle’s A.E alerted him of an incoming call. Mez jumped up, allowing the simulacrum to materialise.

“Mez Tanar,” said an executive when the simulacrum took shape.

“How can I help you?”

“My name is Jorn Equos from Tacacorp.”

“I know who you are,” Mez gave the simulacrum a frown. “Are you personally giving me the Windslipper’s results?”

“No, I’m going one better. I’m making you a proposal.”

Mez should have known better. They had poached Natan, and now the man was dead. “I already work for Goliath.”

“No, you don’t. Not as a pilot. They’re dropping humans and are now using mimicrons. I guess the cost-to-benefit ratio has poisoned their minds. Tacacorp remains firmly pro-human. We want flesh and blood to fly those things, and last I heard, you’re dying to do so? What do you say?”

Surprised by the revelation, Mez searched the Interportal for that information. The news had broken minutes after the Windslipper’s demise. “I’ve invested too many years on the Goliath’s subaerine. I can’t just flip over on a whim.”

“Subaerine,” spat Jorn. “You aren’t going to achieve buoyancy, not at those speeds. We are testing fusionjets, not dirigibles. We’ve successfully tested plenty of those. There are thousands of them down there, floating around aimlessly, with nowhere to go. I understand the principles behind what the good engineers at Goliath are trying to achieve, but it’s not going to work.”

Mez read a section about his own mission.

Postponed.

Despair and relief shredded his heart.

On one hand, his lifelong ambition to achieve greatness, to stamp his mark on human history, even if he risked death, eluded him once again. He’d attempted a bright-side crossing on Mercury, only to have it end in disaster. He climbed Mons Olympos, only the sixtieth human to do so. He applied for a sun-dipping expedition, to see how close technology could send a man into a heliosphere, but the introverted Mercurian government canned it, citing security concerns.

On the other hand, Mez knew what pending suicide missions do to one’s psyche. Akin to death row, waiting years to take on an extremely high-risk venture caused considerable mental damage and pain. Yet, the relief made Mez feel guilty.

“You’re not going anywhere,” said Jorn, “Goliath’s got you grounded. But we have Windslipper 5. Mission launches in fifty hours.”

Mez’s head swam. “I can’t fly an aeroskaphe.”

“Sure you can. You’ve been skipping in and out of Venus’s stratosphere your whole life. You’re the best pilot in the Jovian System. Flying an aeroskaphe is no different than any other Venus or Earth shuttle, except, instead of rockets, they have fusionjets, and other niggly bits, but the same nevertheless.”

“Who were you originally planning on sending?”

“Some mimicron, but then the results came in. We won’t be broadcasting the data publicly. The JC has permitted us to withhold it. The results demonstrate a breakthrough, but you need to be on board if you want to find out. That’s why we thought of you. This is looking good.”

“Wasn’t Natan VanWehl the best? And you burned him up.”

“VanWehl was second best. What do you say? Look, if you decide to do this, you’re gonna want to make the best of the next fifty hours. We can always go with a mimicron, but where’s the glory in that?”

Fear of missing out prompted him to say, “I’ll do it.”

The simulacra smiled. “Nice.”

“But only if the engineering makes sense.”

“You’ve got clearance. Meet me at our training facility when you’re rested.”

Within ten hours, Mez found himself inside the emulator, testing the Windsplitter 5. “Why so soon?” he asked.

“Tacacorp is spending whatever it takes, for obvious reasons.”

As the hours ticked by, Mez examined every aspect of the mission.

Jorn reported, “We’re increasing initial coolant pressure by eleven per cent. It’ll keep the fusionjets stable during ignition.”

“What about the aeroshell deployment,” asked Mez. “87 kilometres into the troposphere looks like the right drop, at an angular entry, aligned with wind direction, say 200, 220.”

“That’s pretty much the standard. The three-centimetre titanium aeroshell can withstand up to 20 million rads. Should keep all the A.E-controlled navigation systems from glitching.”

“What about the booster?”

Jorn paused, then said, “There’s no MHR.”

Horror purged the confidence out of Mez. “How am I supposed to reach escape velocity?”

“It’s a weight loss issue,” answered Jorn. “Don’t worry. This isn’t a suicide mission. We have dropped a metallic hydrogen rocket down to a dirigible-cluster floating on the surface. It’s operated by mimicrons, all of them survivors of failed missions. Once you achieve ‘stable flight’ with the fusionjets, they’ll deploy and attach the MHR to the Windslipper. Tested it on Venus, works perfectly. It’s all in the simulation. You still got another thirty hours.”

Feeling inspired, Mez continued working on the simulator.


“Hello, Mez.”

Mez looked up and saw Niad Seffin standing on the platform outside. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he told her.

“You’re an indentured subject of Goliath Enterprises,” said the CEO. “And you are in breach of your contract.”

“What use am I to you now?”

“That’s beside the point,” Niad answered.

“That is the point. What are you going to do? Slug it out with Tacocorp? Go right ahead.” Mez knew a legal tussle with the Callisto government would take resources and time, and he only needed a few hours. She could use force, but Goliath, despite its moniker, was terribly outgunned by the space-mining conglomeration.

“Let me remind you, that all operational data is the property of Goliath Enterprises.”

“We don’t need your data,” shouted Jorn from the control room. “And your ex-hotshot pilot is right, go right ahead.”

“Why did you shut me down,” Mez asked her.

“To put an end to this one-percenter madness,” said Niad. She leaned over and spoke under her breath. “We have solved our mimicron problem.”

“That still doesn’t help me, does it.” Mez knew she had a close relationship with Natan VanWehl, but he didn’t expect his death would have clouded her decision making. He wondered what motivated her, but time was running out. “Where’s the second drogue parachute?” he called out as he waited for CEO Niad Seffin to leave.

“There’s only one drogue chute,” explained Jorn when Niad finally retreated from the platform. “We need to hit the atmosphere harder, to ignite the fusionjets earlier.”

It made sense. Goliath had been creeping back impact pressure in the last three missions, with incremental success. Jupiter’s winds were harsh; it’s ice ammonia clouds, brutal. Easing the fusionjets into ignition was a logical conclusion.

When launch time arrived, Mez spent the remaining hours meditating, his mind still wondering why his ex-boss would take such an emotional stance.

“It is time for launch,” said the Command’s A.E. “Good luck.”

Mez sealed his titanium mesh suit and entered the Windslipper 5. The aeroshell closed around him as he waited for the countdown to begin. With not too much fanfare from Ehricke City Command, the Windslipper launched from Galileo’s Gate. It sped into the darkness, emerging from Ganymede’s shadow to face the king of the solar system. Mez noticed the radiation levels rise. The Windslipper picked up speed to about 40 kilometres per second. Maz wished he could see the gas planet with the naked eye instead of relying on fragmented visuals from sensors under constant subatomic particle attack.

Cocooned for the next thirty-six hours, Mez ran further simulations, particularly the critical atmospheric deployment of the aeroskaphe. Next on his critical list, were the fusionjet ignition procedures.

As the Windslipper edged nearer to Jupiter’s exosphere, Mez noticed the radiation spike again. This, he knew, was the last radiation belt he would endure. He hoped the titanium mesh, its crystalline structure, would be enough to protect the majority of cells inside his body. Mez touched the hundred-millimetre thick helmet shielding his head.

The drogue parachute deployed.

Radiation, he thought.

The Windslipper went into rapid deceleration.

Mez recalled a secret Goliath research program regarding how radiation disturbed the neuronetic brains of mimicrons, causing errors of judgement, memory loss, and even delusions. The real reason behind why humans were allowed back into the program, was due to the high dysfunction rates of mimicrons. This data was never released publicly, Goliath wanting to use it as an advantage over the competition. Instead, they lobbied the Jovian Commission to lift the ban on human pilots.

At Mach 50, Windslipper 5 slammed into the troposphere, with a peak deceleration of 304 gees. The aeroshield lost half of its total mass before it prepared for deployment.

And here I am, he thought, relying on a bunch of stranded, brain-damaged mimicrons to get the MHR’s to me.

He glared at the distorted visuals, praying that the fusionjets work, so he could at least get a chance to see a glimpse of Jupiter’s unforgiving, merciless sky.

*first appeared on Wattpad

Proxathlon

Agent Nasani felt the impact on her chest. The freefall suit could withstand a beating, but the human catapult formed by Team Artemis smashed Nasani so hard her weightless body was sent back to the periphery.

Thirty seconds.

The crowds standing on the arena’s inner surface went into a frenzy. The Proxima supporters counted down the beats as Nasani gasped for air, waiting for Coach Sklep to fly closer. Sliding up her faceplate she yelled, “I can’t get to the centre.”

Sklep clasped her by the biceps. “Suspect’s tissue sample came back positive.” The dread in his eyes confirmed her worst fears.

Phero Virus.

Genetically engineered to wipe out a society, the bio-weaponised retrovirus attacked the neural system, incapacitating healthy humans within days, rendering them brain-dead within weeks. Stubbornly airborne, mutatious and deployed during the Great Solar War, Nasani knew of this virus’s capacity for devastation from studying the glorious Proxima Capital Archive. Judging by her senior agent’s dismay, this banned pathogen seemed to have caught the PSS off-guard. “We believe the entire Artemia team’s been infected.”

“Then stop the tournament,” yelled Nasani.

Nasani and Sklep look down towards the core, just in time to witness the first proxathlete make it into the valve.

“Impossible now,” Sklep said as he shoved Nasani back into the spherical arena. “Do everything you can to stop them.”

Nasani plunged back into the sporting void, reassessing her game plan. Social infiltration now redundant, her assignment as an information extractor had changed to that usually assigned to the Assassination Corp. Nasani hailed her Proxima team members who immediately flew to her vicinity. They were followed by members of Team VEMA, her counterpart leading the way.

“What’s happening?” asked Charleston, a spy from VEMA.

“No time to explain,” she yelled. “I need to get through to the next stage.”

Players from both teams agreed; few knew what the stakes were, most wanting to win the prestigious Proxathlon.

“Offensive catapult formation,” cried her teammate.

“No,” yelled Charleston. “With both teams colluding, we’ll be disqualified.”

With time bleeding away, Nasani glared at the spy, “I don’t give a roid’s ass if we get disqualified. Get me through that valve.”

Charleston winked back at her, “Ladder formation. Perfectly legal. Get there faster.”

The Proxima and VEMA teams dispersed, using the clasp and swing manoeuvre, and each other’s centre of gravity, to haul towards the arena’s centre. Once passing the halfway zone, the red freefall suits representing the VEMA, joined up to form a human rope. Team Proxima, with their green suits, formed a spearhead, using it to barrage through a defensive phalanx put up by Team Jupiter.

As the scattered bodies grabbed each other to form clusters, Nasani began climbing the human rope, pulling herself from body to body, irrespective of colour, each leap increasing her velocity. Once she felt her momentum reach a potent speed she let go and dove towards the valve. As soon as she made contact, Nasani positioned her body into the chamber. The valve, positioned in place by two structural tubes running along the arena’s polar axis, hissed with escaping air. Nasani braced as a jet of air flushed her into the northern tube. She knew she was able to breathe, but she held her breath the entire twenty-second trip. Suddenly, she panicked, realising she forgot to activate her suit’s pressurisation, but when deep space greeted her, no alarm systems threatened her.

Automatic, she remembered.

Nasani looked up at the purple planet. Her brain alerted her that she was in fact upside down. No matter how expert in antigravity sports, ground, however far, always felt like down. Even the Xenopis Sports Arena, orbiting gracefully around Proxima, couldn’t compete with the sheer eminence of a planet.

A circular platform surrounded her, graced with rocketbikes, each sporting the colours of all the competing nations. Fifteen states were represented at the Three Hundredth Olympiad. Thirteen from the far-flung Solar Realm. One from the Alpha Centauri Protectorate. And to celebrate the trinarium the games were given to Proxima to host. The political machinations behind these Proximalympics kept them all employed, but Nasani believed that these same forces also threatened her homeworld.

Stage two, she thought.

As officials assisted her to her rocketbike, she noted the five that had already launched, three of which were Artemidean.

The Astropolis of Artemis, a breakaway state from the Asteroid Federation, was a known hotspot for all dissidents, outlaws, and unaligned corporations; its economy depended on it. When the government of the Venus-Earth-Mars Alliance presented intelligence to the Proxima Secret Service, that the Hades Syndicate were planning to destabilise relationships between the Solar Realms and the ex-colony, a mutual partnership formed. Neither side trusted one another, but the Hades Syndicate had proven deadly to both nations.

The use of mass extinction weapons had also elevated the threat to a higher level.

Nasani launched her rocketbike, holding on to the controller, not wanting to fall off the glorified torpedo. Used by miners, these were ideal for manoeuvring around asteroids. It took great skill to fly trans-asteroid, hence its development into a sport. She’d practised this extensively, though she doubted she could complete a circuit in good time. Her competitors, most likely born and bred on the Solar Belt, would arrive at the last stage before she could get within killing range.

At the first waypoint, one Artemidean circled back and made an attempt to tackle Nasani, who was too busy calculating a trajectory that would accelerate her past the prox-moon, Tuomi. The Artemidean nearly intercepted her, coming within metres. Instead, he fell back losing momentum and time. The PSS would eventually pick him up.

“Stuff the Proxathlon.”

It occurred to her, given that winning a palladium star wasn’t for the taking, that she could simply bypass the waypoints.

Proxima is thought to have been slingshot to its current orbit by its rival, a Neptunian-sized planet christened Voutes. All of Proxima’s four small moons were considered hitchhikers during the planet’s long migration from the system’s outskirts. Proxathletes must encounter these small moons, using their weak gravity to execute a tight flyby, before they can move on to stage three.

Nasani corrected her trajectory to fly below the prox-moon, Shapley. The record was under a prox-hour so she hoped to cut the leader off within ten minutes.

“You missed your waypoint,” said a voice via her commset.

Dixon.

“It makes no sense, what you’re doing?” she said, tracking the remaining Hadian terrorists.

“To you, yes,” replied Dixon. “I expect as much.”

Nasani wondered why the Artemideans were keeping to the route. Then she noted two blips changing course. Until that moment, the syndicalist’s were maintaining their subterfuge, but now the duo headed lower, toward the purple glow of the atmosphere, passing the orbital city of Amanta.

Nasani eased the rocketbike downward, hitting point zero eight megameters per prox-hour.

She arrived at the last waypoint, a low orbit station, docking at one of the jump platforms. The two rocketbikes were already being collected by the proxathlon crews.

“It’s not an easy thing to lose your home,” said Dixon. She spotted the white diving exo-suit standing near the edge opposite the circular platform. Proxima filled the void beneath, with her crimson clouds swirling across the horizon and lavender mountain ranges scaring the terminator line. Nasani understood what Dixon meant. Even if the Proxima Capital Archive was inherently biased, she knew well that the history of Proxima’s early colonisation was steeped in treachery. The Pluto Nova Consortium that first reached and explored the Proxima Centauri system was illegally upstaged by refugees fleeing the devastating aftermath of the Great Solar War. The PNC fought them for a century but they could not compete with refugees who were backed by the old-world states. Defeated, the PNC degenerated into a quasi-terrorist outfit. They controlled a vast segment of trans-Neptune trade but have never let go of their right to claim Proxima Centauri.

“You will be murdering thirty million people. Do you value some long lost exploration covenant over so many lives?

“Stopping me won’t change a thing.” Dixon dove off the platform and plunged into the mauve haze. Nasani floated into the airless capsule and raided the space diving exo-suits.

Something moved above her.

She knew how to react. Nasani grabbed the Xinuflux helmet and swung it, pressing her whole body against the bulkhead to exert as much force as she could. The head-gear struck the assailant on the faceplate. Instead of shattering, the glass recoiled, pounding against the assailant’s face. The blood splatter obscured the proxathlete’s vision, allowing Nasani to disable the respiratory system. She didn’t need to finish off the Hades operative, a quick death was assured. Nasani instead focussed on getting the diving exo-suit on.

She then scavenged the capsule for an energy pack, a 500UI, and rigged it by short-circuiting its contact terminals. Carrying the homemade time bomb, Nasani hopped back outside to the rocketbike waiting to be collected by the robox-arm. She deactivated the lock and launched it, unmanned, out into the void, only to pause a moment before she too stepped over the edge.

Space-diving was jovially considered one of the safest sporting activities known to man unless one contemplated space-diving a gas giant. The sport proved most popular with many Proxii, having become a national sport during the past two hundred and eighty years since independence.

Problem being, she’d never space jumped before.

Small propulsion jets sent Nasani towards her homeworld. She used minute air-friction to fly to the unmanned rocketbike, coaxing it down with her. Within minutes, Nasani and the rocketbike were picking up speed as gravity began its deceivingly gentle tug.

Her eyes focused on the mauve vista in front of her, a colour palette due to the red dwarf star burning behind her. Tidally locked, Proxima always had one hemisphere facing the sun. She could spot the massive canyons and deep crevasses dominating the planet’s near-side, a geological feature due to tectonics driving the crust towards the far-side, a forever dark and frozen region interspersed with titanic volcanoes.

Nasani saw the shiny reflections of human habitation and contemplated that, if Proxima hadn’t such an active surface, life on it would have been impossible, the PNC mission would have failed and the Great Solar War would have proved a colossal disaster for humankind.

A small white dot, Dixon, tumbled into the stratosphere. Nasani used the rocketbike to speed up and get within spitting distance of him. She felt the energy pack heating up and knew it would explode soon. Once she reached a distance of a kilometre, Dixon turned to intercept her. Instead of slowing, as she intended, Nasani sped up even faster, figuring that the rocketbike could double as a weapon.

She aimed for his centre mass.

There was nothing Dixon could do to avoid being slammed. The collision may have killed him, but Nasani knew the diving exo-suit would preserve the Phero Virus. She pulled his body to the free-falling rocketbike and strapped it to the fuselage. Then she shoved the energy pack into the exo-suit and pushed herself away.

Her own exo-suit began vibrating, indicating that the sound barrier had been broken.

Alarms blared in her helmet.

Time to think about parachutes, she thought and deployed them.

The rocketbike exploded nearby, creating a meteoric plume of smoke.

Within a few seconds, the drogue parachute ended her free-fall. Nasani guided her descent towards the Sea of Cassiopeia, a geographical feature most elementary students could identify.

She made splashdown at the centre court of the Proximalympic Watersports Venue, her exo-suit floating to the surface swiftly after. Multiple tournaments were underway. Thousands of spectators crowded the flotillas and terraces. A squad of officials rode the waves towards her. When they got within earshot they yelled at her, “You’re disqualified.”

Nasani smiled and looked up at the dark crimson, almost black sky. The sight of the pink sun, its two sister stars and four small moons comforted her.

Entry into the Wattpad Scifi ‘Proximalympics‘ Challenge

first published Wattpad

The Sargasso Void

To his chagrin, I volunteered straight away.

Emmetrius wanted nothing else but to lay low and wait this out. Stranded fifty megaparsecs away from civilisation, I couldn’t understand his logic. I guess he didn’t trust me one bit, believing I would make some pointless attempt to escape his custody.

“It’s your fault,” I told him. “You’re the one who wanted to take a shortcut through the Sargasso Void knowing they had a 35 per cent failure rate.”

Travelling through intergalactic voids was a faster way of getting somewhere, especially when going between superclusters. But if something interfered with your galaxy-ship, such as a strong gravity wave, and forced it to gain inertia, then you’re stuck out there without a catapult. That’s why most galactic shipping traverse waypoints along populated cosmic filaments. Sure, it took a few hundred years to get from the Tarentum Gates to the Andromedean String, stopping and starting at a hundred or so catapult stations, but for some immortals, this felt like a tedious endeavour. Emmetrius was not a patient enforcer, nor did he enjoy intergalactic travel. To him, all civilised systems were the same. Made no sense for an enforcer whose business was to go out to these remote regions of the cosmos and bring rebels like me to justice.

“Now we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in some sterile galaxy with nothing but pirates and castaways for companionship.” I stuck it to him, mostly to beguile him into a false sense of security.

The dim brown dwarf, known as The Rogue, orbited a lonely, unnamed void galaxy. When we arrived, we joined the hundreds of stranded galaxy-ships mingling amongst the asteroids which ringed the failed star. Many of these were lifeless hulks. Others were turned into junkyards and industrial stations. The vessels that were still in good shape were clustered in low orbit around The Rogue. These castaways were locked in a ten-thousand-year war with pirates who’ve settled the tubular galaxy below. These pirates poached anything that ended up stranded in the Sargasso Void. They were busy building their own civilisation, whilst the castaways were busy building a catapult. No one in the known cosmos knew of this place and these pirates wanted to keep it that way.

“You seriously think you can take on these pirates?” he grumbled. “Salvaging that sub-cruiser won’t be easy.”

“Why do you think you’re taking me back?” I asked him.

“To be punished. You are going to be imprisoned for a long, long time. Until the end of the universe.”

“I singlehandedly conquered the entire Santerxis Galaxy, that’s nine hundred outposts. I am not being dragged back to be punished. I’m being forced back to do this again on some other far-flung outpost. I am older than you think. You have not been completely informed about my skillset.”

“Why help them if you don’t want to go back? Besides, there’s no way they can build a catapult, not with this level of technologic capability? Not in another ten thousand years.”

“I understand that.”

Emmetrius looked at me, aghast at my audacity. “You scheming miscreant.”

Entry into Striking13.com’s flash fiction contest. “Theme is, journeys”

first publiched on tablo.io.

Ice Hangar

This short story won 1st prize on TheNextBigWriter → Locked Door Contest


The ephemeris data seemed healthy enough. The storm, on the other hand, ripping across space from the comet’s horizon, appeared hazardous. Transiting through the comet’s coma the shuttle vibrated slightly. Carl Reagle knew the outgassing from the bright-side lacked enough violence to cause any serious problems. The comet had just emerged from out of the frost line, so the sun’s rays were not harsh enough to feed a fully-fledged tail.

“Manual control in thirty seconds,” said the Ixion’s chief navigator, Jasmine Lambright.

“Standing by,” said Reagle. “I have the ice hangar in sight.”

“Be cautious of the rebound, Commander. The landing pads are inactive. Go in too hard and you’ll bounce off all the way to Jupiter.”

Reagle looked at his screen. “I’m easing in at 2.7 kays an hour. I have manual control.”

“We’ve had two months of dead radio. Get confirmation on conditions down there and get the hell back here.” There was a hint of urgency in the Gi Corp hireling’s voice. Reagle intended to do just that, having spent the entire trip from Ceres in an anxious state. These kinds of jobs tended to rob him of sleep, especially when clients like Gi Corp gave him little information to go by.

He looked out into the black sky, hoping to get a glimpse of the spacecraft. He saw nothing. The Ixion orbited opposite his position, beyond the jagged horizon.

The shuttle made contact with one of the three landing pads. Ice gravel and black sand scattered as the module bounced several times before sliding to rest a full three minutes later. With the locking mechanism on the landing pad inactive, the shuttle ended up precariously near the edge. Thirty meters away the cave entrance to the ice hanger cut a deep scar into the sloping surface. Lights illuminated the interior in stark juxtaposition to the frozen night of space.

Reagle suited up and exited the shuttle, hitting the slippery frost-covered gangway awkwardly, the warmth of his life-suit sizzling frost-covered gangway. He hopped onto the gravel which crumbled like charcoal, his boots sinking knee-deep into the surface. He continued hopping, a painstaking task, to the entrance employing, small, soft pushes with his toes, calibrated by the pressure suit. Use too much force and in no time you end up orbiting the comet. Closer in, a series of blue-sticks provided him with a secure handrail, assisting him all the way inside the vast cavern. Mechanical monsters lay dormant in the artificial 4000 kelvin light.

Excavators. Drillers. Nukepumpers.

Along the left side wall, a tall cylinder towered above him labelled with the red and white nuclear symbol. “Power generators appear active. No sign of damage inside the hangar.” Reagle wiped frost from the yellow-painted alloy of a mechanoid. “No sign of any activity, either.”

He headed for the airlock, a platform sized elevator situated towards the rear of the cavity. Below, safely embedded deep within the comet, Lapith/2183 G7, the living and command quarters waited, like an ancient tomb.

Two months.

But the air-lock control refused to comply. The lights were alive, but the ice-encrusted buttons cracked when pressed, doing nothing to activate the elevator.

“Air-lock inoperable,” he said.

“Try hooking into the EAI,” said Lambright.

“Ixion, I’m patching into the local interface.” Reagle uncovered the JX408 portal and plugged his optical line into it. “Should synchronize any second now.”

He waited, studying the hangar around him, auditing the slumbering industrial space machines.

Nothing happened.

“Ixion, what’s the EAI’s name?”

The clarity and closeness of Chief Navigator Lambright’s voice soothed his nerves. “The environment control entity is called Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. It’s a clone of the master entity at the Gi Corp HQ.”

Reagle gave it a go. “Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. Do you copy? Does anyone copy? Hello, somebody.”

“Let me try the maintenance portal.”

Reagle felt cold. He knew his life-suit was good for another ten hours, but the inactivity, plus the frozen stillness around him, sent chills along his skin.

“I’ve got a response.” Her voice sounded excited.

“Is it from any of the crew?” His voice matched her excitement.

“No. Hesper responded.”

“Ask it what happened here? Where is everybody?”

“It… doesn’t know. It’s telling me that all systems are normal. It’s asking me if something’s wrong. It doesn’t know.”

“Tell it to open the airlock.”

“It’s asking for authority. I’m punching in the codes as we speak.”

Reagle looked up at the electronic eyes planted everywhere. “Can’t it see me standing here?”

The platform shook and started to descend.

“It says it lost its audio-visual and sensor-array functionality. Speaking of which, we will lose contact once the airlock closes. I suggest you find…”

The massive doors grumbled shut above him. The pressurization process began sending steam at him like a hurricane. Icicles of carbon dioxide and methane boiled and evaporated instantly. Reagle took advantage of the manual override to access hatchways. He kept the life-suit on as a precaution as he entered the staging hall. He noted nothing out of place. The storage compartments were neat and tidy. The low-grav training quarters were lit up but empty. He made a mental note to check the equipment in there, though his first priority was to re-establish contact with the Ixion.

The command centre.

Designed to withstand anything, the central nexus of the outpost would be the most likely place to seek refuge in case of a disaster. Reagle made his way there, hopping and bouncing off the walls. He knew where to go; these Gi Corp rigs were all based on the same template.

He found the hatch sealed, yet its port window remained transparent. He peered inside only to find the unmistakable red liquid splattered over the white interior walls and trim. He expected something like this to some degree but felt totally unprepared for the grisliness he faced. Blood and tissue. Warped, flattened bodies. Crushed bone. Mostly stuck to the walls. Pieces of human littered the control panels.

Reagle fought hard not to go inside, but his range of choice was limited. He needed to access the communication network. When he opened the door, the air disturbance sent a quiver among the shredded pieces of flesh and ruined uniforms. He stepped inside and thought about dimming the bright lights. He located the comms and punched in the channel code. “Carl Reagle to Ixion. Do you copy, over?”

“We copy, commander. Any luck with the crew?”

Reagle struggled to find the words. “Negative. Situation is not good. There’s been some kind of… accident.”

Radio silence followed. No one wanted this type of outcome. They expected it, but optimism felt like the right attitude to have. “I repeat. The situation is not good at all. We have multiple fatalities. Cause unknown as far as I can tell.”

“How many? There were six crewmembers on the manifest.”

Reagle looked at the mangled mess. He knew he had to be clinical about it. He counted the separate bloodied masses, trying to distinguish the different uniforms. He saw body parts; fingers, ears, shredded skin, but he chose to sort out scalps instead, differentiating between hair types.

Between the uniforms and scalps, he counted half a dozen individuals. “I have six.”

‘That’s….”

“That’s all of them.” Reagle counted again to be sure. “Are we certain this is how many got on this rig?”

“When the mission launched, six human beings entered the Lapith 7 outpost. We’ve sent no other manned missions to this comet ever since. This outpost would have been constructed by robotry before the crew got there. When this 80 kilometre-wide comet began its propulsion sequence, the chances that another third party interfered with the mission are as remote as the space this chunk of ice is hurtling through.”

“That’s all I needed to know.” The implication, that this had been a tragic accident, weighed heavily on his mind. With not much time to establish the cause, he needed to move fast.

“Telemetry update has just come in,” announced Lambright. “Looks like Lapith 2183 G7 is off-course. Instead of hitting Venus orbit, this ice mountain’s going to end up closer to Earth’s backyard. Our options have narrowed down.”

Reagle paused to let this sink in. “Just come in, my ass. You knew about this before you enlisted my help.”

“We didn’t enlist your help, Commander Reagle, we bought your service from the Ceres Port Authority.”

“You also knew I would not be leaving here without an answer to what happened. Gi Corp launches ten of these monsters every year. The terraformation business is in full swing. We can’t have accidents like this without knowing the cause.”

He received no response.

He said, “I have eight hours of life support at least. You have months to sort out this trajectory.”

“What part of this don’t you understand? This is a 20,000-ton meteor aimed at Earth. In a month this thing will be close enough to heat up. The coma storm will make this cube a difficult, unstable intercept. We are here, we are doing this now.”

“What? Correcting trajectory?”

“No.”

He knew what she meant. He suddenly had little time. Destroying this comet would require him to mobilize and activate all the nukepumps. “Have you uploaded the data syncrode from this place?”

“I’m looking at it now. All audio-visual content went blank at the time of radio silence. You want me to go through ten months of recorded media.”

“No.” Reagle avoided looking at the bloody entrails and focussed. “Can we track oxygen levels?”

“There was a sharp load drop off at the time of radio silence.”

“How sharp?”

“Within the space of an hour, 30%, then to 100%.

Reagle considered the ramifications. “That means all of Lapith’s crew exited the compound. How long?”

“No atmos activity till your arrival.”

“The incident must have happened someplace outside. How the hell did they end up in here?” He tried to rub his forehead but the helmet prevented him. “When did the EAI lose visual input?”

“According to the logs, two hours before the first event. Server went into fail-safe mode.”

“Did somebody do this?”

“The logs indicate an abrupt shutdown. Without accessing the server, we can’t know for sure.”

Reagle looked at the terminal. The server ran all the domestic sensory inputs for the crew and Hesper. “I’ve gotta talk to this AI.” Using his Sideral-tool he opened the panel. He un-patched the mini-powercore, force-booting the terminal and waited for the sequence to commence.

– corrupted xentro.sys file –

“Jeezes, this piece of shit won’t boot up.” He wanted to talk to this machine brain. Reagle found a comm-portal and began typing awkwardly with fat-gloved fingers.

>Hesper. Why did you not activate the emergency beacon at the first sign of trouble?

>There is no emergency.

>Have you not noticed climate parameters indicated that you have had no inhabitants for two months?

>Climate systems are normal.

>Are you not responsible for the wellbeing of the habitat?

>Yes.

>Then why are the crew splattered on the wall in here?

Reagle waited the epic seconds for an answer.

>There is a slight increase in humidity, 3 per cent above normal. Sanitary system is normal. Thermal system is normal.

>You haven’t noticed anything out of order.

>No. There is nothing out of order.

Reagle wondered how Hesper would react if it could see the carnage. He spoke out loud, “Hey, Lambright. Any clue as to when this comet’s trajectory got altered?”

“Not yet.”

“Hey, Lambright. Any chance this EAI could have gone bomb20 on us and did something fucked up?”

“Can it hear you?”

“AV server is dead. This thing can’t see or hear anything.”

“Answer to your question is, no. Environmental AI’s are physically disconnected from the navSystems, heavy mechanoids, and this comlink, even if they were somehow connected, the languages are incompatible. Hesper uses a vastly different programming language than automatons do. Even if it learned the language, there is no interface to bridge them together and allow it to accomplish something like this. The course correction was man-made. A nukepump rig would have to be manoeuvred into position and ignited. As for the deaths, I have no theories. How did they die?”

“Terribly. They were crushed, almost shredded.”

A thought entered Reagle’s mind. How long before flesh decomposes? He resisted the thought but he needed to know. He unsealed his helmet and removed it, expecting that horrid stench. Instead, it smelt like a slaughterhouse. “These bodies are fresh. This happened recently. I’m checking out the rest of the outpost.”

He left the death behind and headed to the rec room. There he found nothing out of order.

They left in a hurry, he thought. Yet everything here is clean, tidy — lived in, yet not messy.

He looked up at the ceiling at a robotic arm tucked away in rest mode.

Articulated Envirobots.

Every living module had one built in. Each was controlled by Hesper. Reagle noted to investigate these robots, but he postulated that if clues existed they will more likely be located somewhere outside. He returned to the airlock and headed back outside. “Lambright, are you still with me. You haven’t left me here?”

“No, I haven’t abandoned you yet. I’m tempted.”

“What is on the manifest in regard to heavy equipment?”

“Two rocket dozers, a digger/cutter, one borer, a Snake-class platform drill, four nukepumps and a buggy.”

Reagle accounted for all except… he was missing a pump and the buggy. “There are only three pumps here. Nukepumps are used to propel this chunk of ice, right? One of them must have been deployed.”

“By whom?”

“Or what? Can you spot it from where you are?”

“We are lookin’.”

Reagle hopped across the hangar toward the entrance. Outside, darkness reigned. He surveyed the landing pads, relieved to see his shuttle still there. Not being secured to anything, he was paranoid it would float away into space.

He looked out into the void, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. The gray ice dust and charcoal slush covered a broken, rocky surface. The landscape glowed under the twilight. A series of blue-stick markers lit up a trail heading down a steep depression. The uneven, bending horizon unnerved him. He spotted no tracks leading away from the hangar. Another mystery he could do without.

“Who’s a mining expert?”

“What do you need?”

“I got no tracks. If a pump’s been deployed surely there’d be tracks.”

“Not if it kicked up a snowstorm when it ignited.”

Makes sense, he thought. “I’m heading out there.”

“We haven’t spotted anything yet.”

“I’m following these markers.”

“We see those. They lead to nowhere.”

“I’m running out of time.”

“You are. We need to deploy the other pumps.”

He knew what this involved. The nukepumps were going to be used to drive the comet into meltdown. “Not before I find out what happened here.” Reagle launched down the depression, skipping over cracks and fissures. Each step took a minute. He would lose his balance on occasion but the blue markers were linked via cable, allowing him to hold on to something as he made tiny hops down, or what felt like ‘up’ the slope. Remembering his comet-skipping training, one mistake and he’d be flying off into deep space. Indoors, one could bounce off the ceiling; out in the open….

He kept thinking about the conundrum he faced.

Was it an accident?

Was it far more sinister? A deliberate act? Not knowing compounded his hyperarousal, as the thought of losing his footing frightened the hell out of him. He floated across a sublime yet jagged landscape, the blue glow of the markers enhancing the experience.

An act of nature? No force could do that to human beings. Not without disintegrating this tiny planetoid. What monstrous entity lurked out here in the cold shadows? Fear and paranoia plagued his thoughts. Without answers anything was possible. Reagle ascended a ridge made of a pitted and brittle compound. He spotted the sun in the black sky above. Just a bright star, even at half a billion kilometres away he felt its power radiating through the shielded faceplate.

The comet’s horizon glowed, illuminating the ground before him. He crossed a dune and marvelled at the ripples in the black sand caused by minute winds. For this small solar system body, which spent a few billion years out beyond the frost line, untouched by the sun, this type of erosion was a new phenomenon.

Beyond the dune, the flat terrain appeared scarred and blackened.

A burnt-out crater.

Even in the monochrome landscape, the spot seemed unnatural compared to the rest of the terrain. A rigging arm, embedded deep into the dark cold rock, stood at a slant. A broken, twisted shaft of metal. He spotted other rigging arms, the type deployed to stabilize the nukepump, located around the rim of the crater. But he saw no pump.

In its centre, Reagle noticed a pit, burnt deep into the ground. That is what pumps do, he reminded himself. They plunge a superheated fusion-rod into the ice, the ice melts violently and the ejection of mass basically turns the comet into a rocket. It can change the comet’s velocity, its trajectory, turning it into a gargantuan spacecraft. It took ten years of gravity-assisted manipulation to get these Jupiter-family comets to speeds and trajectories that would ‘safely’ send them to Venusian space. Once there they were broken up and scuttled into Venus’s thick atmosphere.

The terraformation of Venus; a monumental project for the space corporations, but considered a controversial issue by most Earth-bounders for the obvious risks involved. And here Reagle was, gawping into the abyss, the catalyst of a titanic disaster. His instinct was to look up. The nukepump, whatever happened to it, would have been blasted into space.

“The pump’s gone.” Reagle turned back. “Ixion, stand by with the pump deployment procedure.” Remembering his training, he paced himself back to the ice hangar, not wanting to join the pump in space.

“Standing by, Carl.” Again, he was relieved to hear Lambright’s voice, more so than ever. He looked up into the Milky Way and spotted the red star moving across it. The Ixion, orbiting the comet once every two days, disappeared appeared behind a ridge, reappearing again by the time Reagle was in sight of the hangar.

He watched it pass through the Jovian System. “We have a deceased crew of six inside the command module, each crushed beyond recognition. We have an EAI that hasn’t seen or heard anything, or too stupid to notice other sensory data. We have a missing propulsion nukepump, most likely destroyed. What else?”

“We have a copy of the control hub database. Somewhere in the operational data is the information you need. Now deploy those pumps and get the fuck off that block of ice .” Her voice sounded desperate. Reagle could not fathom why.

She had time.

As he climbed up the slope, the red star glowed rapidly brighter in the sky. The Ixion suddenly exploded into hundreds of little stars.

Carl Reagle’s heart sank.

He did the rough calculations. The nukepump, or heavy fragments from its disintegration, could still be orbiting the comet?

“Ixion, come in.”

The enormity of his situation spurred him on.

How did they not… It dawned on him. She knew about the danger. They probably located the orbiting junk but decided not to tell him.

Who knew what else she withheld from him?

He resolved not to think about it, nor mourn his colleagues. Marooned as he was, millions of kilometres from anywhere and travelling at fifty kilometres a second, his mission now focused on averting a disaster.

When he returned to the hangar, he felt alone. To ease his apprehension, he headed out to the shuttle and secured it to the mooring clasp. He easily lifted the normally half-tonne vehicle into position. A needless action but it made him slightly less paranoid.

Back at the hangar, the airlock frustrated him. Without some kind of keypad interface or audio capability, he had no way of getting Hesper to let him re-enter the facility. Containing his panic, he resorted to scavenging. First, he hit the nukepumps hoping to find any useable life support material. He entered the cockpit of the nearest pump and activated its airlock. As the cabin pressurized and the lights went from amber to white, he observed it right away. Food wrappers, clothing, and sanitation packs were strewn everywhere.

Hope and dread seized his throat.

They lived out here in a harsh, airless environment the whole time.

For two months.

Reagle could not begin to fathom what kind of ordeal these Lapith 7 crew had endured. For the first time, he felt their presence.

He booted up the pump’s systems and checked the logs.

Reagle found confirmation that the pumps were deployed at the time of radio silence. He looked at the tags. The command script was labelled ‘trajectory rectification’.

They were trying to correct the comet’s trajectory, he thought. He looked at the activity spreads. Each task had been completed. Reagle attempted to piece together what went down. The crew was acting on some information that prompted them to instigate an emergency course correction, yet the outcome turned out to be the negative result. Had they been given the wrong information, he wondered. That data would be still in the NavSytem, inside the habitat.

I need to get in somehow, he told himself, pounding his brain for ideas.

Reagle felt something under his boot. He looked down to his feet and noticed several cylindrical objects rolling around. He also found a pack of blue-sticks wedged under his seat. Their use seemed obvious enough, but the cylinders…?

Upon closer inspection, he figured out what they were. Quite heavy considering the low gravity, these were battery packs. The label read, Lasedrill. He knew right away what the crew was up to. Anyone familiar with the Rig’s engineering and stranded outside would come up with the same game plan. Most mining habitats orbit around the host asteroid, but during planetoid displacement operations the habitat is generally embedded inside the celestial body, inside ice caves, strategically carved into vertical inclines located on the dark side of a comet. In Lapith projects, the habitat modules are buried under the ice in a donut shape linked together, and join to a central axle, the airlock lift, by radial tubes. They do this to protect the habitat and equipment from the comet’s volatile environment. These modules all have maintenance hatches, accessible manually from outside.

Reagle ventured back out again, wasting no time. He knew what the crew was up to. All he had to do was find evidence of excavation works. A hexagonal container caught his attention so Reagle crossed the hangar with one long leap. He opened and entered to find it well-lit and stocked up with everything a space miner could ever need or want. Tools, perishables, all neatly stacked in storage rails inside the hex.

Blue-sticks were scattered everywhere.

What is it with these markers?

He did not spend too much time thinking about it; instead, he explored the rest of the hangar, searching out feasible spots where the crew could have begun digging and melting their way down to the hatch doors.

Nothing.

He climbed aboard the Snake-class platform and entered the control deck. To his subdued delight, he found an operator controller-pack. He pressurized the deck and hastily checked the logs. All instructions since launch date were instigated by the mechanoid’s autopilot, but the last string of text was entered manually via the unit’s human operator.

– [go to waypoint 6] [trav:net 42|93*]

Forty-two metres? Reagle wondered why such a short distance. He looked toward the back of the control deck, at an open manhole that accessed the maintenance shaft. Without hesitation he dove for the opening, squeezing himself through, feet first. Barely spacious enough to crawl, Reagle managed to slide to the end of the tube, finding an open circular chamber. A sealed hatchway ruled the deck. A lasedrill, cartridges and two life-suit helmets littered the floor.

Reagle opened the hatch door.

A makeshift berthing adapter hissing out atmosphere more or less sealed the access between the Platform’s underbelly and the icy tunnel below. It looked a tight fit, so Reagle unplugged and took off his helmet, hoping the connector would not explode.

Reagle entered the tunnel, leaving the slumbering Platform behind. He looked down at the darkness and did calculations on how much leg power he needed to absorb the fall.

Just do it, he scolded himself and let go.

Reagle dropped, picking up speed. The air froze his lungs while noxious carbon monoxide and ammonia left an unmistakable stench. He anticipated the extreme cold but hoped the pressurized air sustained by the Platform above would be balanced enough to keep conditions safe. Too warm and the frozen gasses would overwhelm and poison the breathable air.

He continued descending, using his arms to scrape against the frosty wall, successfully slowing his flight until he began crawling down — or level, it was hard to tell. When he hit the bottom, blue light greeted him. The tunnel, large enough to crouch in, stretched out into the darkness, horizontally. The ground, covered in ankle-deep icy slush felt different under his boot.

Slippery.

He pressed ahead, paying more and more attention to the ground surface. When he came across an outcrop he put his hand to it. Not ice-rock aggregate but solid rock. Even the surface underneath his feet felt rough and serrated. Reagle lit the wall with his Sideral-tool. The white beam of light revealed aggregation of more reddish rock than water ice.

A rocky nucleus.

“We were wrong about everything,” he said out loud. “This thing is a goddamn centaur.”

Centaur, his mind echoed the word. It began to make sense. A cross between asteroids and comets, these SSSB’s were heavier in mass. The Lapith’s crew were using the wrong trajectory calculations.

The nukepump ran out of frozen ice and blew up, he concluded, but the answers uncovered more questions.

Reagle continued along the rock shaft, its surface brittle and crumbling at places. His heart pumped hard, missing a beat each time he slipped on sludge.

Why would Gi Corp go to the expense to send a centaur to Venus? His mind raced with questions, of grand conspiracies, of sickening allegations. And if Venus wasn’t the intended destination, why the hell would they threaten Earthsiders?

The corpora-politics of it all did not make sense.

He slid into a wider space, a cave, lit indigo by a circle of blue-sticks pegged around a massive hatch. A low, heavy hum greeted his ears, its bass frequency working its way into the centre of his brain.

It’s open.

Reagle did not dither. He looked inside. A colossal black ball moved gradually, purposely around a mirror-finished, ribbed spherical interior. Opposite, another hatch, closed but operable judging by the green-lit touch button at its centre.

A magnetic control movement gyroscope, Reagle kicked himself for not factoring in this device. This was how the crew decided to get back inside. But the triumph subsided when he spotted dark, wet-looking patches on the interior surface. In the blue ambience he could not make out the colour, but he knew what it was. The smear and splatter patterns were unmistakable.

Suddenly the ball increased its velocity, spinning in a wild, powerful orbit around the sphere. Reagle felt the intensity. He swore he could feel the small planetoid underneath his feet shift a little.

Then the gyroscope settled back to normal speed.

“There’s my murder weapon,” said Reagle. As he stood there, dumbfounded, the ball spun again, resettled, and then spun again, at seemingly random intervals.

He knew what to do, but the courage to implement his new plan seeped away as fast as heat escaped from his body. Reagle turned to head back into the tunnel. He would go back up to the platform, find some kind of material, return to the gyroscope and toss it inside. The sensors should trigger an alarm and the system should shut down to allow the envirobots to clean out the debris.

That’s how the remains of the crew ended up back at the command module.

Hesper.

But why dump the bodies in the command module and not the trash bay? Reagle could not say, nor offer an explanation. That mystery would have to wait. His main priority was making contact with the Gi Corp base on Deimos; warn them as best he could.

Reagle stopped dead in his tracks.

There was no way to get back up to the platform. He did not even bother checking. Reagle knew the tunnel was too small for him to climb back up, even with low gravity taken into account. Resolved not to succumb to fear, he trekked back to the gyroscope.

The only choice left for him was to make a dive for the hatch door.

When he stood at the entry the rumbling vibrated his chest. He hoped the green light indicated that the opposite hatch was unlocked. He prayed that Hesper was innocent, just a blind deaf mute, clueless of the situation at hand. He gambled that the NavSystem was sending out random commands to the gyroscope, that it was not pre-programmed for something far more sinister.

Reagle glared at the dark monstrous ball and hoped and prayed one more time.

Mars! One Way

Mars

It’s really hard not to facepalm when confronted by headlines stating that 100,000 have signed up for a one-way trip to Mars. A Dutch, non-profit (yes, that’s right, non-profit) company called Mars One is collecting human specimens, and raising six billion dollars, to send these people some 225 million kilometres, one way, to the planet Mars.

They call it colonization. They market it as a “stepping stone in human galactic expansion.”

Yes, that’s right, Galactic.

Even reading interviews with some of the applicants really drives home what insanity dwells in modern people’s minds. Some even suggesting that this is how the discovery of America come about, others considering birthing and raising children on the surface of this new frontier.

Unbelievable.

I understand completely the allure of the red planet. When the time of year is right I see Mars in the night sky and think, wow, this is a planet just like ours. When I recently came across the Mars Panorama at 360 Cities I admit I was taken aback by what I saw. I can almost touch and feel the terrain. But who are we kidding?

Continue reading “Mars! One Way”