Dark System 1

From Known to unknown, and beyond.

“Good morning, Doctor Maclain.” Vance, my personal virtual assistant intoned as the lights began to brighten to day glow, “Today marks the official beginning of phase 10. We are currently 120 hours ahead of schedule.”

I slowly opened my eyes and glared about the room grumpily. Like all the living quarters of Rock Point Station, my room was about the size of a standard single occupancy hotel room. The walls and furnishings were constructed with advanced composites, ceramics, and metallics, decorated in shades of eggshell white and haze gray. Though I had spent over a year in this boring room, I hadn’t bothered to personalize any of it. Why make a hole feel like home when it wasn’t? I just wanted to go home.

“Pass on to the VAs of the night shift to ensure they are ready for turnover on time. I don’t want the engine tests to be delayed any more than they have to be.” I groggily growled, struggling to sit at the edge of my bed.

“No one wants a delay less than I, Doctor.” Vance returned almost snarky for a computer, “That would be inefficient, and a mark against my own scheduling capacity.”

I sat there for a moment trying to figure out if I cared about anything my VA said, “You know you suck at humor.” I finally rolled my eyes and climbed to my feet, “What’s the galley serving for breakfast?”

“The galley menu sub-routine reports the following:” Vance started immediately, anticipating my request like a well programed VA, “Eggs to order, Belgium style waffles, sausage patties, bacon, oatmeal, fried breakfast potatoes, and cold cereal. Drink service includes: fruit juices, assorted lactose, coffee, tea, and water.”

“What about solid fruit?” I queried as I dressed.

This was a functioning construction port, as well as a high-tech development center. We had little need for fancy clothes, just simple garments to keep us covered and safe. As such our uniforms consisted of black construction with protective toe plates, bloused pants, a dark green tee shirt, and an over jacket all with dark green, grey, and plumb pixelated ‘digital camo’ patterns, reminiscent of 21st century Naval working uniforms.

“Fruits are not available on Tuesdays.” Was the prompt response to my question, “Would you like me to reserve you a table?”

“Enh, sure.” I shrugged after little thought, putting on my over jacket and wrist controls for Vance, “I would also like you to order a scramble with cheese, bacon, and oatmeal, with grape juice.”

Now ready, ish, to begin the day, I sighed and opened the passage to the corridor. The hall was kept in perpetual day glow and was about twice the width of a hotel’s. It sported the same drab décor as the rooms themselves. As one would expect, the hall was pretty near abandoned. As I ambled to the promenade, others emerged from their domiciles and followed the path to food.

“Well, well, well, Steven!” sounded the most pleasant voice in the universe from behind, “Looks like you are going to get your wish after all. Finally in phase 10, only a week from pre-com launch.”

I turned with a smile on my face to look in to the eyes of the one person that made Rock Point barrable. Stefany was more than easy on the eyes, she was a vision of wonder. Her long, strawberry blonde and wavy hair hadn’t yet been wrangled in to a bun or pony tail, per dress and safety code, but we weren’t working so it really didn’t matter. Her amazing emerald eyes were perfectly set off by her hair and worked well with here uniform, with a figure that, though hidden by her the cloths was killer, a perfect balance of full and athletic. We hugged in friendly fashion and I inhaled her watermelon body mist deeply and gratefully.

“Yeah, I just hope Ice Point Station on Apophis’ moon of Ishtar are ready and wont delay us.” I smiled despite myself as we stopped our embrace.

“Steve, it was just a rumored planet nine, three years ago.” She returned as we started back toward the promenade.

“If we can get the Trebuchet and vehicle built in…”

“It takes three years to get to Apophis, minimum.” She chuckled at my exasperation.

“And they really don’t have to have built anything, they can stay in orbit. Even then it’s all pre-fab…” I insisted halfheartedly, “Steff, I just want to get back to earth and breath fresh air again.”

I know she was trying to comfort me, and don’t get me wrong I appreciated it like nothing else, but I was a bit neurotic. Thankfully she not only understood, she accepted me the way I was.

“Ahh, yes, but back on earth, you would never get a view like this.” She indicated grandly as we entered the promenade.

Rock point was located on the proto planet Ceres in the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. The promenade was the central section of Rock Point. As the first and largest ‘room’ of the station, it was the central muster point for all emergencies, after all, space was on the outside of the station. The promenade was reminiscent of a sports arena: tiered levels for sitting and planters going all the way down from a nose bleed section to a moderately sized ‘Japanese garden’ area. The roof was a dome of three feet thick transparent aluminum with only a few supports blocking the view of the asteroid belt. The whole dome acted like a kind of magnifier of the dark velvet beyond.

Unlike many space epics of yore, asteroid fields, or belts, or whatever, were not densely packed gauntlets of death. There was, in point of fact, vast distances where one wouldn’t see more than a few astro crags at most, with the un aided eye. At this time, there was only the trebuchet and launch vehicle, the Leif Erickson, at the focus of the glass.

As we gazed at the majesty of the universe, we joined hands without thinking. We strove to maintain professionalism, even though we were clearly attracted to each other. I used the excuse that we had to prove there was no favoritism, but I was just afraid of ruining our relationship, as I had done with all the other women I had been with. I just couldn’t stand losing such a wonderful friend. I was going to advance the relationship once back on Earth, another reason I wanted to get back.

Our gazes gradually returned to Rock Point and the gardens below, “Ohh, look, the orchids are in bloom!” Stefany marveled.

“Steff,” I sighed, waring with myself, “We can stop and smell the roses after shift. I don’t want to be late, again.”

After an internal struggle of her own, she acquiesced with a sad sigh, “Your right. I’m hungry too, and I can smell bacon!” her vigor somewhat restored.

(do I need to write about breakfast?)

*****

With the morning tedium completed, the team was finally on our way to the Erickson. My team was top tier engineers and craftsmen. Between us, we had the capability to diagnose and repair any problem on the Erickson or the trebuchet. As the engine test was one of the more dangerous aspects of the project, there had to be as few people as possible on board to monitor and confirm every aspect, hence this dream team, some of whom had already volunteered to go on the first mission.

Silently the black velour of near vacuum slipped over the hull of our transport as our expert pilot staved off her boredom born in the tedium of transit. There were only a few approved vectors to the trebuchet and control/lander, so it was always the same trip. While she was able to direct her attention to the task, the team had no outlet for their monotonous commute.

“Can this bucket go any faster?” groaned Sean Takahito, though he knew the answer, a similar conversation having occurred nearly every trip for a month.

Takahito was up for his fourth doctorate, this time in xeno-botany. His mind was constantly in gear, so much so that I doubted he ever slept for more than an hour or two at a stretch. He was descended from a long line of professionals based out of the Koga province of Japan. He was quiet, observant, and a man of impeccable integrity. He was fit, using a lot of his pent-up energy to practice his martial arts, just like me, though I valued sleep almost as much as Stefany.

Unlike me, however his hair was black, while mine was sandy blond; he had burnt amber eyes whilst mine were hazel; and I was Caucasian. Despite our differences, we were like brothers, even having been confused for the other. We were both some of the best martial artist on Rock point, and only a challenge to each other in a one on one fight.

Jennifer, our pilot, was used to humoring all of us excessive thinkers, one of the reason she was still our official pilot. She was a dark chocolate goddess, her short afro hair perfectly trimmed, a consummate professional through and through. She didn’t even need to think about her response, she replied almost on auto pilot.

“You know they won’t let me paint red-orange flames on the chassis.” Was her dry response, alluding to an idea that flames appeared to make things go faster.

“Really, Jen,” our applied quantum cosmologist Kuhlan from Mongolia chuckled, “I would think that blue-white with yellow ghost flames would work better.”

Kuhlan was a powerful and intelligent woman. She was just as at home at a computer terminal as she was with a welding torch, she was the lead designer of the focusing aperture system for the trebuchet and had developed much of the systems to build construct it. She may be a bit shorter than average, but she made up for it in sheer force of will and presence. Her long, smooth, ebony hair, when not braided and bound simply, reached the small of her back.

Stefany, not in on the conversation that led to this, crinkled her nose in confusion, “Aannd, what makes you say that, Lan?”

Kuhlan shrugged as she gazed out in the direction of deep space, “’O’ type stars are younger, and have less metals in them than ‘M’ type dwarfs, and ghost flames are cool.”

“But wouldn’t paint increase drag?” stef asked forgetting that without air there is no drag.

“Not in space.” Jennifer shrugged flipping some switches, then trying to explain, “Besides, everyone knows that flames make the vehicle go faster…

“Oh, but Taka is more a fan of black…” Steff decided to play along.

“Close, but I’m more a blues guy.” Taka shrugged, “And Stevie here, he is a fan of reds…”

“Actually,” I missed the implication, “Green is the color of the 4th, or heart chakra…”

“And money.” Jen interjected, “But that is for another time. Ladies and gents, we are making our final approach, please place your tray tables and seat backs in to the full upright and locked positions.”

The trebuchet was a lattice of pipes and cables on a chassis resembling a conical spider’s web with the peak chopped of, pointed toward deep space. I found it amazing that such a cutting-edge piece of tech could look so innocuous. Like all humans, I couldn’t help but admire the intrinsic beauty of the design as chills ran down my spine.

The Leif Erickson itself was a wonder in and of itself. It was a huge wing shape about 10 times the size of a long-range stealth bomber. Unlike a stealth craft, it was a high visibility white with super reflective yellow stripes to help distinguish important features of the craft against both the blinding white of the craft and epic black of space. In anticipation of missing Ice Point, we had loaded the craft with about 2/3 of the projected needed materials to colonize a new world under realistic scenarios. Though it did have a vehicle bay in the ventral section with access from the port side, the doors were currently locked out for travel, so we used docking ports on the starboard side of the dorsal section.

As we approached one of the empty ports, one had the shuttle for the night shift, a shiver of excitement with a pinch of dread rolled down my back, “Alright people, remember we are dealing with extremely powerful and sensitive tech. Be careful.” I suddenly felt the need to remind my team, though I knew they would be professional regardless.

“As if we are ever not?” Steff started to scoff as she removed her seat harness and began to float toward the hatch, then saw my face, “Are you feeling alright, you look more pale than usual.”

“I don’t know Stef, the hairs on the back of my neck are tingling.”

“I’m getting an odd feeling too.” Jennifer affirmed as the docking cycle did its thing, “I’m no Doc, but something feels off.”

“Lets just get this going, then there wont be any room in our minds for doubt.” Kuhlan assured, “We all have something to do and we know what we are doing.”

“Easy for you to say, I just drive the taxi.” Jennifer scoffed, “I am a fighter and test pilot that has over a decade of experience, I got nothing to do while you people stare at blinky lights. At least I get to sit in the pilots seat while you do your final engine test.”

Taka was floating in front of the hatch manipulating the controls to get through, “Let’s just get this day going.”

*****

We met our night shift counterparts and received our turn over then set about to work. Each heading in our own locations, my place was in the control room. The room, like the rest of the craft was a wonder of technological achievement. Reminiscent of the command deck of the starship Normandy without the galactic holomap and the bridge of the Enterprise combined, there were many stations for operators and technicians to monitor all the craft’s functions.

We had been at it for a few hours, and as I began to set my mind to a task my hackles fell. It was getting close to the time to test the engines. At first I was so distracted by the task preparing I didn’t notice an alarm on the solar observation station, but Vance managed to divert my attention.

“A super charged CME warning is in effect for Ceres and surrounding areas.” The neuter voice decreed.

“Good thing we aren’t there.” I muttered distractedly silencing the alarm as I checked on the dark energy response on the trebuchet.

I floated between stations checking energy levels for a moment more before Jennifer drifted in ready to take her position in the pilot’s chair, but drifted by solar observation, “Uh, Steve, Steven, dammit, Neil!” The use of my middle name always snapped me out of distraction, mostly because I rarely tell people my middle name.

“Jennifer Lynn Ramsey,” I showed my aggravation by using her full name, “What is it, I’m busy.”

“SMCE warning!” she pointed at the station, “Is there a reason your ignoring protection protocols?”

“Jen,” I scoffed, “It’s not coming to Earth it’s going to Cer… Oh fucking shit!”

A mass coronal ejection or coronal mass ejection, or fucking big solar flare, was very dangerous for electronics, especially in space as it was usually accompanied by an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. EMPs killed electronics by over energizing all electrons in the system. Usually it killed the entire device, but sometimes only part of the devices functions were affected, all depending on when it happened and during what subroutine. Most of the critical systems of the trebuchet and Erickson were hardened, or shielded from such things, but as it was expensive to do not everything was.

Protection protocols involved shutting down what needed it and placing other things in standby, and other small tasks, that when done in time saved everything from damage. My distraction meant we didn’t have time. We both dropped everything and frantically began protocols, for both the Erickson and the trebuchet by remote.

“All stations prepare for SMCE!” I called out on the general announcing circuit.

“You know more about the trebuchet than I do, I can get the Erickson mostly set, you take care of the launcher!”

We had no time. The flare hit and we weren’t even remotely ready. Systems in the middle of shutdown were the most vulnerable, especially transmitters and receivers. Somehow, the trebuchet began its launch procedure, even though it should have immediately shut down after losing coms with the Erickson.

“Were totally fucked, aren’t we?” Jennifer fearfully asked.

“Get to the sticks, if we are launched we may need you to drive, if we still have time to react after the gate is passed.” I returned, all fear truncated by cold hard survival logic, “All stations prepare for launch and/or impact.”

*****

The darkness was absolute, the silence nigh on unbearable. I only knew I wasn’t dead because I could hear my heartbeat, weak though it was. The air was thinner than usual, and I could only partially fill my lungs. It felt like I was made out of lead and I tasted/smelled rust.

“What happened?” I wasn’t sure I was talking aloud, but my voice echoed from everywhere and nowhere at once, or did it?

The feeling was quite disorienting but I had to try to concentrate. I have no idea how long I lie there immobile, light headed and confused, at the time I had no idea even who I was let alone what was going on or needed to be done. Eventually a wisp of cognition coalesced and I realized I was me and mostly covered in debris from damaged control stations, connective conduit, ect. I suddenly realized I had the wherewithal to do something.

I struggled meekly, to no avail. The long stretch with low gravity on Rock point had weakened my muscles, not to mention I couldn’t figure out how to move. After a bit of struggle, I figured out that I was under a pile of debris, the low oxygen, shock, and low blood volume was wreaking havoc on my consciousness. Though I figured this out this much, I couldn’t understand what was going on. All I knew was that I was in deep shit.

Not only was I having trouble coming to terms with what happened, I was finding it difficult to stay focused, and care. Nothing was making any sense, and I had no idea what was needed, only that the situation was far from good.

I weakly wiggled and pushed at the debris for what felt like days, but I was finally free, “Now what?” I asked, hoping the air had an answer, it didn’t.

I looked around, faint light reached my eyes, but there was still no sound. Nothing made sense, the air was stagnate, cold, and tasting of metal. My whole being ached and throbbed, protesting even light breaths. Every movement I made was like being set on fire with chlorine tetrafluoride. Every thought that occurred to me was simultaneously hilarious, burdened, and agony.

“Is what insanity be?” I wondered to the cavern of my mind, “Or deadening?”

In the deepest, darkest, most inaccessible and inhospitable part of my brain, I knew the others might have survived or needed to be helped, but somehow how I knew that if I didn’t get life support going it wouldn’t matter who or what was happening. Somehow, I had to remember the machinery room and get there and something, soon.

The control room never felt so big. It was all I could do to keep going. Vaugly I realized my right leg wasn’t working, I wasn’t even crawling, it was more like slithering up hill against the current.

“Since when is gravity?” my grasp of words was quickly leaving, but it was un deniable we were planet-side, “We get Ishtar?”

My attempt to stand reminded my addled brain that my leg wasn’t working. I stared at the gaping wound covered in congealed blood and bits of contamination with a kind of weird curiosity. I knew it was my leg, but I could not feel it.

“Wow, minced pie.” I chuckled as if I made a joke, “Lots blood lost.”

Eventually I remembered I had to fix something and started to the entrance again, a sudden shot of pain reminded me I couldn’t walk, “Leg first, then ship.”

Making the decision aloud made it more real, more concrete. After a wave of dizziness I began my slithering once more. I knew there was an aid station just passed the door, if I could remember to breath on my trip. Between bouts of confusion, fatigue, overwhelming pain, and determination I just kept inching to the door. My focus faded in and out, yet I still managed to make forward progress. All in all, it was only the idea of needing to get out that kept me going.

After ages of tortured travel across a barren and inhospitable, foreign landscape, I made it to the medical station and fumbled with the latches until its contents spilled to the floor. The jump scare of medicine distracted me further as I tried to figure out what the stuff was, but eventually remembered I had to fix… something.

The only good thing about suffering from hypoxia, shock, and exsanguination was that I could no longer feel any pain and my body was like a practice cadaver. The task of meatball surgery on my own flesh focused me a little, but my cold hands and addled brain didn’t make it easy at all. But, finally, it was cleaned and bound.

“Looks like the work of a first-year mortician.” I was unexpectedly coherent, “With no hot and light, do it will.”

I found some pain killers, stimulants, and assorted other pills and shots, without any clue there could be consequences, I downed all I could and shot up like an addict, probably missing all veins. The trip to the mechanical decks was slightly easier, but I was fading faster than before. All I could think about was getting there, though at times I forgot where or why. After only an eternity, I made it to the mechanical room control station and climbed/melted into the seat.

In front of me was a control board with flashing lights and buzzers, the whole panel was begging for attention I literally could not give, “What for all nightlights?” I only knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what or how.

Randomly I pressed buttons and switches, no longer even able to hope I was doing the right thing. As lights changed and noises faded, my brain lost all ability to function normally. Slowly the world faded to darkness and nothing.

*****

There was light and heat. Someone and/or something moved around me. As I labored back to consciousness I realized I wasn’t freezing, and soon noted that my hypoxia was seen too. Even though my whole body ached, my leg throbbed, my ribs burned, and my head just plain hurt. Black faded to gray, which gave way to white as I blinked open my eyes.

“Fís na háilleachta, ag éirigh mé ar?” I asked of Stefany as her eyes lit up with recognition I was awake.

I realized her face was bandaged and she had a brace on her wrist, but as she was not hooked up to all manner of machines, she was defiantly better off than I.

“Oh Steve, no you’re not dead,” she smiled, luckily able to speak Irish, “But you did take some major blows to the head and the hypoxia and what not, can you still speak English, thuiscint dom?”

It took me a while, but I finally found my English vocabulary, “Is it too much to ask that we made it to Ice Point?”

“Ishtar is half the size of Mars, and we have one and a quarter earth gravity, no known planet is that massive.” Her smiled faded, “We are lost with no hope of being found or getting home on our own.

For the longest time she just manipulated the medical equipment, “I don’t know how you survived, the rest of us managed to strap into crash chairs, but low oxygen prevented us from waking up. Yet somehow, with a swollen brain, low blood volume, every one of your bones is either hairline or cracked… You should be dead. I am so glad you’re not, but the Erickson is keeping you that way, for now.”

“The others?”

“Better than you, and since you can’t do anything I won’t worry or bore you with the details.”

“Any clue where we are?”

“Best we can figure, a rouge planet in interstellar space, at least a hundred light years from Earth, though we really can’t be certain about that last part.”

“Well, I always heard Nifleheim was a must see before one dies.”

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Dark System 1