Symbiosis

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Chapter 4 - First Impressions

I slink along the hallways of the ship, staying close to the walls. It’s stupid to be so tense, but I can’t help feeling a bit on edge. Filled with people, these hallways felt lively and safe. Now, devoid of life and movement, they’re eerie and foreboding. The shadows cast by the overhead lights stretch long and seem to leer at me as I pass. Thankfully for my foot, the service elevators were still working. Which meant I didn’t have to torture myself trudging down flights of stairs.

The reactor chamber is physically isolated from the rest of the ship so that the entire section of the ship containing the reactor can be jettisoned off in case of a meltdown. The chamber itself is on the lowest level and surrounded on all sides by a deep chasm, connected only by a wide bridge. The layout is comically similar to that of a castle surrounded by a moat. While I cross the bridge, I make the mistake of looking over the edge to see only an impenetrable darkness.

Once on the other side, I open a storage locker on the access platform and don one of the engineering hazard suits. While the gamma radiation from the reactor won’t be immediately lethal without one of these suits, a few minutes of direct exposure and the long-term effects would be… unpleasant.

With a steadying breath, I touch the access panel and the thickly shielded doors slide open with a whir. The ghostly glow of gamma radiation spills out of the open hatch, causing my suit’s Geiger counter to groan to life. My suit’s HUD shows radiation levels hovering around 200 rad. That’s enough to cause acute radiation syndrome, but it’s not the fatal levels I would be exposed to if the reactor was at full output.

The reactor itself is an intimidating sight, further adding to my unease. The prominent metallic sphere is about 30 feet in diameter and suspended by support struts as thick as tree trunks. Bundled cables and bleed lines extend out of the sphere haphazardly, giving it the impression of a pincushion. Despite its somewhat sloppy appearance, this reactor is the crown jewel of the HSC Arcadia. I’m not easily impressed, but seeing the antiproton reactor in person for the first time leaves me in awe. Just knowing the primordial forces that are at work within that sphere is enough to make me shudder.

You would think that as the main pilot for the entire ship, I would be well acquainted with the device that powers the engines. While I do have a rough understanding of how it works from studying the engineering blueprints, I was never allowed to see it in person. The engineers in charge of keeping it working and stable were the same men and women that spent over a decade of their lives building it with an effectively unlimited budget, courtesy of the Hegemony. God forbid anyone who didn’t help build the thing so much as sees it, lest they break it with their unworthy eyes. Every techie that worked on the reactor guarded it from everyone else like a mother bear would her cubs.

As I draw closer, I scan the reactor for any sign of damage to no avail. With nothing apparent, I’m left a bit stumped. No visible external damage means there’s something wrong internally. While I have the tools aboard to take the reactor apart, I don’t have the knowledge required to fix internal damage. I suppose I could sit around and spend a year or two learning enough physics and engineering until I could confidently deconstruct the reactor safely. But that option is hardly appealing.

All I really know about the actual physics of the reactor, is that it siphons the energy created from matter and antimatter annihilation. One accident is all it would take for the suspension field to fail and shred the ship, and a significant chunk of the planet I’m orbiting, down to its component atoms.

I just don’t understand how the reactor could have functioned perfectly for over a decade, then lost power during the swing by maneuver near the star. It’s almost as if it simply ran out of fuel. Which is impossible because the annihilation releases the entire mass-energy of both substances.

Before we went into stasis, one of the physicists told me one gram of annihilated mass creates around 90 trillion joules, and this reactor was supposed to have nearly 200 grams of the stuff. I wasn’t privy to the details, but rumors among the engineering team said that 89% of the budget for the entire project was spent just on producing antiprotons. This reactor was supposed to be able to last through centuries of constant propulsion. With the exception of the engines accelerating this behemoth to 70.71% the speed of light, fast enough to dilate time so our 16-year journey was 21 years on Earth, everything on the Arcadia is a trifle with regards to energy consumption.

I’m about to give up for now and head back to my cabin to get some sleep, when my inspection pays off, at least, I think it has. I’m honestly not really sure what I’m seeing. It’s hard to see with the jumbles of wires and tubes leading off the reactor but… I swear there’s some kind of distortion in front of the reactor’s surface. It kind of looks like there’s a film of glass five or six feet across floating right in front of the reactor. I take out my plasma pistol and load a charge pack, then set my tool case down and walk forward. I squint my eyes to try and make out what I’m seeing but no more details become apparent.

When I’m within arm’s reach, the glassy distortion suddenly moves. I jump back from the shimmering spot and remember that I’m armed. I hop back another two steps, draw my plasma pistol, switch off the safety and aim squarely at the squirming spot in front of me. The movement of the clear substance makes it look like I’m aiming at the reactor through a pool of water.

It occurs to me how dumb what I’m doing is. It may be that the stupidest way I could have gotten myself killed out here was by shooting a bolt of superheated plasma at a reactor packed with several hundred grams of antimatter. I’m about to lower my gun, when the shimmering spot in front of me turns opaque in an instant.

Before I can register what I’m looking at, the reactor’s glow is overpowered by an intense blue light coming from what I’m aiming at. I feel a dull throb in my head as the light meets my eyes. I shut my eyes tight in response to the bright glow, but when I open them again, something is… different. The blue light isn’t so intense anymore, and it doesn’t hurt to look at either, quite the opposite. The spectacular light travels along a tubular appendage and concentrates at its tip. I can see the glassy limb that the light is coming from, but I don’t care about that. My eyes are involuntarily drawn along the ripples of color traveling up the limb. Only one thing matters now, that sublime light.

The arm that’s aiming the plasma pistol slowly lowers as the rapturous light begins to sway gently from left to right. It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It promises everything I’ve wanted since waking up alone. Companionship, safety, comfort, a pleasure so intense it borders on pain, but most of all, it offers forgiveness. Forgiveness for abandoning my wife and son, for killing Robert, for not being enough for my father. As my vision fades, I know that all I have to do... is let go.

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