Cause and Effect
Two laps. The circular balcony overlooking Avalon’s central hall equaled just over a mile, less than a third of what she’d have to run for the upcoming physical. Cassidy pressed her hot forehead into the soothingly cool, transparent material of the dome and desperately attempted to catch her breath. She had run two measly laps.
Her flat hand slapped into her beeping wrist connector and she groaned. “Yeah, yeah, I know my heart rate is over 150, I’m not having a heart attack! Where’s the exercise mode on this thing...”
“Want me to show you?” She jerked around when someone placed his hand on top of hers, to gently tug at the wrist connector. “You’d just have to give me the actual tablet.”
But Cassidy shook Eitan’s hand and retreated a step. “I’d just have to switch it back as soon as this nonsense is over.” She swiftly swept the mess of dark curls that had loosened from her hairband out of her face. “Maybe I should get a new band for the connector, what do you think? Red or gold would look nice. Or blue.” She gazed down at the off-putting light green she found clashed with the warm copper of her skin.
Eitan laughed. “Is it that important? More important than the exercise mode?”
“You know I don’t exercise”, she hissed and pushed off the wall, to give into the necessity and resume running. “I just have to give this thing back to Leah and the stupid tram to sector l is being maintained so I hardly had a choice.”
“Oh!”, Eitan laughed as he came up behind her, “And I thought I’d gotten you to spend some actual quality time with me for once. With that... lunch we had earlier, and all.”
Cassidy stopped so abruptly he nearly ran into her. “What?”
“Oh, you know...” With something like irritation, she took in his hand on her shoulder felt almost alien. “I mean, I understand your head is currently orbiting around your entry exams, but I’ve only genuinely seen you three times, this last month. And the monthly physical is coming up so I thought it would also count as... well, preparing. Even if not for the entry exams.”
“Yeah but... you were counting...?” A surge of guilt hit when she realized she hadn’t been.
“Of course I was.”
“Only because you already passed your exams.”
Eitan laughed. “No... because we’re still... together, right? And I care a great deal about you. Despite what they always preach, grades and careers, and innovations aren’t all there is to life. You know, back on Trappist-1d we have a different mentality. We –”
“You’re all a big, happy community, I get it.” Cassidy sighed, before turning to gaze back into his friendly face, framed by the strands of messed, red hair, that seemed much too concerned for her liking. “But Eitan, I’m not like that, okay? I know you don’t particularly like it on Avalon, and that, in your professional field, a mentality like that is going to get you places. A grounded, humane doctor is, even statistically, still the doctor people prefer. But I’m not like you.”
“No... you just want your wrist connector to match your outfit, you name every single of your lab plants. And you definitely talk to them when nobody is looking.” He broke into suppressed laughter and barely dodged when she raised her hand to punch him. “I’m just saying, they didn’t totally strip you of your individuality yet.”
“Nobody is stripping anybody –”
“Is... this a bad time? I can come back later, you know?” Both of them spun around and Cassidy’s face lit up as she spotted, against the black void of space beyond the dome, the petite, freckled shape of a girl with bright-pink hair. She raised a pair of oversized, round glasses to shove them onto her tiny nose as she stepped away from the Televator capsule.
“Absolutely perfect timing, actually.” Cassidy slid the last couple feet and fingered at her pocket. “I really have to get back to my lab. At this point, Professor Kent almost expects me to live there, as I’ve been doing, recently. Though I am curious”, she raised the handle and unlocked, then flipped a switch. Before their eyes, the device unfolded and snapped into position until it loosely resembled a cross between the CEB gun Cassidy had fired during field week and a strange type of wrench. “What the actual space hell is this?”
Leah laughed. “That, dear Cassie, is just about the most useful, most ingenious tool a mechanic could call their own. I bet a plant pot or something heavy broke in your lab, right?”
Cassidy nodded confusedly and thought back to Professor Kent’s dire face when he had asked if she had any friends who specialized in mechanics. Or we’ll have to get a new one, he’d sighed, and these pots cost a fortune if you want them with pre-made soil.
Leah opened her mouth yet before she could speak, all their wrist connectors simultaneously gave a short beep, then a long one, and another short. Cassidy froze to solid ice.
“Citizens of Avalon, make your way into your designated sectors and living quarters, or a marked safe zone, immediately. Remain until your APA confirms conditions have stabilized.”
Cassidy released a shriek when the ground beneath her thin, synthetic soles suddenly quaked. The very air around her vibrated and she instinctively leaned on the inside of the dome.
“We are experiencing external difficulties. Rest assured that the station is designed to withstand such difficulties without major structural damage, though we do apologize in advance for any trouble, delay, or harm caused. Do not leave your current deck, and do not attempt to use any teleporting device. Follow the instructions of your APA, first and foremost. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”
Not a... when had it been, the last drill? Two weeks ago – an image flashed before Cassidy as her heart pounded out of her chest, causing her wrist connector to resume beeping, except it wasn’t of physical exertion this time. Her hand pressed into the cool, transparent dome. An image of the bored safety instructor who had, in a monotonous voice, rattled off the rules any child on Avalon could name in their sleep before they even went to school –
“An actual short-long-short!” Eitan had Cassidy’s arm before she could bat an eye. “We have to get to this deck’s safe zone! Come!” Cassidy nearly dropped Leah’s device as she was dragged along, out of the hallway. Had it been empty before?
Their steps echoed eerily, and her head instinctively raised. The transparent substance the dome consisted of was designed to grow denser the harder it was impacted. Nothing had ever broken it by force. Yet Cassidy still gave a shrill shriek when right next to her something the size of her head crashed into it. The dome hadn’t cracked, but where the meteor had hit, it had become milky and dull. She lost her grip on Eitan’s arm to prevent Leah’s device from falling. In case of an emergency, do not remain in the hallway or near any potentially harmful equipment, do not risk your safety for any of your possessions, the instructor’s voice repeated in her head. She shook it.
“Cassie, where are you going? We aren’t supposed to use the Televators!”
She only stopped when a deafening crash nearly knocked her off her feet. Cassidy stumbled into the wall next to the Televator-capsule and clutched Leah’s device with all her might, barely thinking to switch it back into carrying mode. She thought she could faintly hear the echo of Eitan’s voice, calling for her, yet her ears were ringing. Her hand smashed the activation button. Where to?
My sector, her spinning head managed to focus her eyes on the selection pad. But no... she couldn’t go to her sector because... because... Another quake vibrated the entire capsule and her elbow painfully smashed into the wall. Because... the tram was being maintained. And this Televator wasn’t connected to anything outside its sector.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Listen to your APA, first and foremost. She shakily raised her wrist connector. But when she told it to indicate the nearest safe zone, she froze in horror at the alert – Station structure severely compromised by external source in this sector, dome integrity compromised. Access to all safe zones cut off. Current position relatively secure. Do not activate the Televator, but remain where you are until the crisis has passed.
Cassidy stared at the connector with bewilderment. She was to... remain? Listen to your APA, first and foremost. She glanced up. This wasn’t just a short-long-short rule. This was a station-wide... perhaps a SNU-wide rule, preached over and over, by parents, educators, teachers... Listen to your APA. Through the tiny capsule window, she could see the outskirt of the poster. Get your Automated Personal Assistant up to date! C.S.D.A. presents the brand-new APA 10, available for free for any registered user.
Her eyes read the words her screen still displayed, but something in her brain didn’t properly process them. Remain where you are... remain... Cassidy blinked. Proceed to the escape pod bay on the lowest deck.
She stared at the screen with bewilderment. The text now and then flickered with a type of blue static, and she could have sworn it had read something else moments ago. Her hand hovered over the selection display.
Please proceed to the escape pod bay on the lowest deck. You can not remain.
Is that where my brain got the “remain” from, she wondered for a heartbeat, then shook the pesky thoughts. Listen to your APA, they said? Fine. It was as good an option as any.
As soon as she had selected her goal, Cassidy perceived the distinct ring of the Televator and her vision instantly went fuzzy and blank, as though she had disintegrated into trillions of particles, before reassembling. She barely stumbled out of the capsule without falling, as multiple impacts vibrated the ground closely after each other. The... escape pod bay. It didn’t help she had only been here once, during the mandatory station tour in fifth grade. Launch pod ASAP. Everything else will be taken care of.
When her gloved hand connected with the safety forcefield she sensed but a mild sting. “Alert! Unauthorized break of the safety forcefield in sector e, escape pod bay.”
Do not attempt to launch an escape pod unless directly instructed. At that moment, Cassidy wished for that instructor to be here so that she could punch him in the face. He wasn’t here now. He wasn’t in this situation. He was bored and overworked with minor issues that really only bothered hopeless bureaucrats, who kept themselves busy dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s but never actually solved anything.
And besides... her eyes met her still blinking APA, she had instructions. There was no time to wonder why the assistant hadn’t synched itself up with the AI of the bay, for why there even was an alarm. And launching an escape pod didn’t sound unreasonable in the slightest. Not at the current moment.
Cassidy barely had the will to wait for the safety door to open and the hatch of the narrow pod to release. Then again... she bit her lip as she buckled the seatbelt of the stiff, plastic seat mounted to the pod’s wall. Maybe it wasn’t such a good –
“APA connected, all on-board personnel secured. Launch on command.”
“You know what”, Cassidy tugged at the seatbelts and twitched, “I changed my mind. I want out.” My friends are still out there, it crossed her mind and her heart skipped a beat. And if she launched this tiny, suddenly very frail-seeming, pod now... The only window was functionally small, all she saw was a black spot of space. A cold shiver ran down her spine.
“Cancellation denied. Following directions of the APA. Activated escape pod can not be reset. Launch will proceed automatically.” Cassidy cried when her seat’s backrest suddenly moved forward until her upper body was forced against her knees. She wrapped her arms tightly around her legs, the knuckles of the fist in which she still clutched Leah’s device shone white.
“Watch your extremities, and do not disengage from the seat until the pod has safely landed. Launch in 3... 2... 1...”
The deafening hiss of the escape pod drowned her following scream. Her vision sparked and her nails dug into the skin of her legs. An unpleasant shake ran through the pod before for a moment, Cassidy thought the artificial gravity system had malfunctioned. The sense of weightless hovering violently ended when she was shoved into the unmoving seat. Her eyes snapped shut as the capsule vibrated more intensely.
She thought the pod’s AI was speaking again, yet she hadn’t the mind to listen. What just happened, rang in her head over and over. What in the actual name of space- and earth-hell combined just happened?
Bright light... the greenish patterns the warm, pleasant rays painted on the gray floor at her feet danced in its shine. The air chirped with a strange cacophony of noises. Cassidy took a first conscious breath and the spinning of her head increased from the strange scents. She was... her eyes fixated the floor more intensely, aiming to make sense of the moving, living patterns. She’d fallen asleep in the lab again!
She jerked up from the jolt of fear the thought sent through her spine, yet a strap, tight around her upper body, restrained her. Cassidy let out a surprised yelp and barely prevented her head from smacking into the back of the plastic chair. It had moved back into its original position from before –
Cassidy stared at the dancing green patterns on the gray floor, that had astounded her so, mere moments ago, with horror. Her hand clutched the strap, barely unclasping it. “Hey, pod?”
“Passenger secured. Landing successful. Habitable environment, oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, acceptable temperature. Compiling detailed environmental data, accessible via your APA.”
Cassidy breathed out and her mouth snapped shut. “... what?” She nearly tripped as she finally rose from the chair. Her hand pressed into the warm wall of the pod. “Did you say we are on a... planet?”
“Location – sector X, system 807. Star class K, in a late phase of its life cycle, planet position 3. Planet designation – 807-X3.”
Her nails dug so deep into the wall of the pod it almost hurt. Her eyes blurred with panic. “W... how far are we from the Avalon station?” She vaguely recalled the numbers on the large positional chart in the central hall of sector e. But it had been a while since she had bothered with anything regarding navigation or charting of space.
“Avalon station out of sensor range. Estimated location, system 807.”
“Can I get that a bit more precisely?”
“Avalon station out of sensor range.”
Cassidy audibly exhaled and leaned back, closing her eyes. They’ll come, it suddenly shot through her head. They’ll have that alarm I activated, they must know my APA instructed me to take the escape pod. So they’ll... naturally check the next habitable planet. Then again... her teeth gritted, how would they find her? A lonesome lifeform among... she swallowed and glimpsed at the hatch, most likely other lifeforms. If the atmosphere was breathable, there was probably stuff out there breathing it.
She slouched down onto the hard floor and pulled on her legs, in an attempt to slow her hammering heart. Maybe they would be able to track her implant data... or the pod had some inbuilt beacon, that would lead them right here. Or maybe... her eyes squeezed shut and when something suddenly banged against the pod wall from outside, she nearly choked on her scream. Maybe... they couldn’t find her.
The structure of the station in that section had been damaged. Maybe the alarm hadn’t even gone through. Maybe there was another planet in landing range, or a moon. Maybe they didn’t know where to look for her... or maybe they just didn’t want to look for her. Who was she, even? Her eyes fixated the small window that shone eerily green. A non-essential, struggling Xenobiology student with “lacking work ethic” and “eccentric tendencies”. The words from last term’s report she had shoved down, as to not get discouraged, resurfaced at once. They had no reason to send a whole rescue team down to an unknown planet just for her.
This was it... the realization swept over her like a smothering blanket. Breaking that safety forcefield had equaled a self-induced shot to the chest. If she set so much as a foot out there she was a goner. It wasn’t much better in here though.
With every breath she sensed her panic heighten until she struggled to properly breathe. Her wrist connector soon began beeping again, yet this time she hadn’t a hard time ignoring it. There is nothing out there... she pressed her sweating palms to her eyes yet the image remained – of a horrific alien scape, of an endless void, surrounding her little pod of safety. Of familiarity. A horde of monstrous creatures with wide-open mouths, ready to swallow her whole.
Cassidy released a violent scream when something bonked against the pod’s wall, directly where she had curled up. Her vision sparked and she retched, barely keeping what little she had ingested during that lunch with Eitan down. Something wet hit the gray floor shortly. Another tear followed, and before long she was uncontrollably sobbing. This wasn’t how she wanted to die. Not yet. Not with how little she had done, seen, experienced. Not with how she had never once...
“I can’t die...” She barely processed she had spoken the words aloud. “I can’t die before... before...” There were so many things she meant to list. Before I graduate. Before I make some sort of groundbreaking discovery that will lay the path for the future of terraforming. Before I’ve told Eitan I also care about him a great deal.
She swallowed. “Before I’ve returned this thing to Leah”, she mumbled and stared at the strange device she’d left by the seat. “I have TO GET IT BACK!” She slammed both hands into the wall. The pod slightly vibrated. “Not before I...” Her lip quivered, “I’ve seen a... a...”
Cassidy jerked up so fast she nearly hit her head on the pod’s storage locker. Her eyes fixated on the hatch and the incessant beeping resumed. But not of panic this time. “... A real planet.”
Never had Cassidy felt so torn as now. In her mind, she went back to her biology lab, to the friendly face of her instructor Professor Kent. Do all of these plants really come from different planets? He had laughed vigorously when a wide-eyed, sixteen-year-old girl had taken a first look at his collection and asked the innocent question honestly. “We’re Xenobiologists”, she mumbled and smiled, “we don’t take our plants. We make them.”
Cassidy cried as she stubbed her head on the locker after all. She took a first cautious step at the hatch, then her hand found her actual APA tablet in the designated pant pocket. She took a deep breath. I wanted to go to an actual planet ever since I decided to do biology, she thought and pressed her lips together. Her mind suddenly flashed with images Professor Kent had shown, and Eitan, from his home, his family, back on Trappist-1d.
You can only ever be a true researcher if you engage with the researched object. She squinted. In just theory, true understanding can never be achieved.
That’s right. She took another step though her knees were buckling. How long have I prayed to be permitted a shore leave... once in my life? A shore leave on a known planet with a controlled environment and other people, a voice in her head shot back but she shook it.
“I’m a XENOBIOLOGIST!” For some reason, to yell the words helped steady her legs. “I’ve studied these things my whole life... okay, maybe not my WHOLE life, but still.” She energetically tapped her APA tablet. “What’s a little alien planet going to do to me? It’s fine. I’m fine.” She cleared her throat to suppress the rising hysteria. “Now, if Eitan with his medical skills or Leah with her mechanical training would have stranded here, THAT would be a problem. Me?” She laughed, though couldn’t keep the hysteria out anymore. “I’m the best-est qualified person ever, for this! A self-induced shot to the chest, right!” She giggled on, “Except you can SURVIVE a shot to the chest. So I declare!”
She had to stumble forward to prevent the APA she had theatrically raised from slipping out of her hand. Cassidy energetically wiped at her face, then straightened out her back. What if this was the universe’s way of giving her the long-awaited opportunity? To prove herself, to do what she wanted to do... on an unknown alien planet, with little to no functioning equipment, and barely two years of lab experience. Her mouth snapped shut. It was... fine.
“Whatever’s out there hasn’t crashed through the pod and devoured me yet, so it can’t be that bad. And I mean, it was you who brought me here so...”, Her gaze froze on the tablet. “A... self-induced... but wait, you...”, she shook the APA and suddenly no question more urgently burned on her mind as to what had ever gotten it to instruct an escape pod launch. She even forgot to tremble as she determinately activated it. “Display instruction history.”
Cassidy had to scroll up and down numerous times until she believed what her eyes were showing. Station structure severely compromised by external source in this sector, dome integrity compromised. Access to all safe zones cut off. Current position relatively secure. Do not activate the Televator, but remain where you are until the crisis has passed.
“Remain... but you said...”, she shook the tablet, but the display didn’t change. No further instructions appeared either.
Her head spun with a different kind of fear suddenly. Never before had the APA acted strangely, or given faulty instructions. It was revered to be the most reliable automated assistant in the SNU. How was she here now? Cassidy swallowed, eyes on the pristine letters, glowing in the brand-typical light green.
A few silent seconds passed before she dared address the assistant again. “Give me that environmental data.”
x Class M planet; 57% land/43% sea; diameter 10 344 km (6427 mi)
x Oxygen/19%-Nitrogen/60% atmosphere, with high concentration of Carbon-Dioxide and Hydrogen – breathable, though it is not recommended to physically exert yourself due to lower oxygen concentration; in case of respiratory problems an oxygen tank is recommended
x Supports temperatures between -233K-313K, depending on season and region
x Massive energy readings from close to planet’s core, unidentified
x Supports lush life, botanic and animalistic; no notable traces of local intelligence
x Atmospheric humidity high (88%), the region in this area indicates ideal conditions for swamps and marshes
x May support IX/X-class predators and unknown bacteria; caution and the utilization of weaponry is advised
“What kind of weapons do you have on board?” An X-class predator... she had only ever seen images of beasts from different planets, or Earth’s own prehistoric era. Monsters the size of a regular spacecraft appeared before her inner eye and she shuddered.
“The standard escape pod is not designed for a situation that requires weaponry.”
Cassidy froze. “I... wait, you mean there isn’t a single stupid weapon on this thing? Not even a... a... pocket knife, or something?” She flailed her arms until she nearly dropped the APA.
“Weapons have proven to be unsafe for standard escape pods.”
“You have got to be KIDDING ME!”
“A container with a knife for survival utilization is available. However, your psychic state and stability must first be evaluated before it will be made available.”
Cassidy audibly breathed out. “Where is the damned knife?”
“An extra pocket in the storage locker will unlock as soon as you have passed the psychological evaluation. Would you like to proceed with it?”
Cassidy gave the locker a firm pull. She carelessly scattered the stacks of nutrient pill containers and bags of water components until she spotted a small, locked pocket with a symbol resembling a knife. She gazed around for a moment, then slipped off one of the seatbelts, and determinately smashed the metallic clasp into the pocket.
“I ask you to cease what you are attempting, you are violating protocol.”
It took another couple smashes before the neatly folded shape of a standard pocket knife fell to the floor before her. “Well, protocol my behind!” With one swift motion, she had scooped up the knife and stashed it in her belt. Then Cassidy took a step at the hatch.
“Pardon, I do not understand your command.”
Of course not, she scoffed. Despite how smart they always claim you are, you’re still just a dumb AI. “That’s fine.” She finally grasped the handle and with one firm tug unlocked the bulkhead. It gave a tired hiss and Cassidy squinted against the sudden brightness that enveloped her body as the hatch slid open.
Her hand darted over to the knife, the other raised her APA. But when her eyes had adjusted to the strange warm light, and Cassidy processed what lay ahead, her jaw dropped open.