Phlox Swenno crouched under a cluster of large red flowers. His sister sat on a branch below. He stared up at the large moon with its purple sphere still clear through thousands of glistening leaves.
“What kind of an idiot signs up for a trip like that? You’re going to contract your life out to them for ten years, and at best you’re awake for three months.”
Phlox answered slowly, “That’s only if the planet turns out to be uninhabitable.”
“They always are,” Inkk howled. “What do the companies care? They can afford to send out ten super freighters and have just one come back full. You’re going down in deep chemical hibernation. You’ll come out five years later, no fur, sick and unable to eat. That’s if you can wake up. Is there still a five-percent chance you won’t come out of hibernation at all?”
“Two, two-point-five,” Phlox said without meeting her eye.
He gripped the smooth branch beneath him tightly with his feet and let his body fall. Stretched downward the brown fur on his back looked red in the sun’s yellow rays. He was smaller than the average Primalan, so he felt more comfortable in the trees where physical size didn’t always matter. He wrapped his dark-ringed tail tightly and let go with his feet. As his body lengthened he listened, a slight smile wrinkling the dark fur on his cheeks. The constant buzzing in his ears signaled the start of the warm season. Hanging here, he was shedding off the last contractions of the winter and teaching his body, as Primalans did every spring, to forget the bitter cold.
Heavy raindrops cut through the air, pulling rust from the sky.
A glistening icicle. A seamless crystalline hull. The freighter stretched eighteen hundred yards throwing back starlight as it pierced the black. Dr. Phlox Swenno peered through a small window as his rocket glider skimmed above Splinter Sixty-Six’s cavernous exhaust ports and across the Hyyperbolt fusion reactors. His transport banked to the left, and fur rubbed fur as everyone shifted to the right. He jockeyed for position in the cramped cabin and was elbowed in the ribs. Someone kept howling. This was not the shelter of the forest. The glider’s flight stabilized, but some malan jabbed a knuckled paw in his back on purpose. And these thugs are supposed to be the finest of my species. He didn’t bother turning around, kept his eyes to the floor. The flight was almost over, and he knew it was best to keep his mouth shut, his tail down.
Three Primalans waited at the pressure lock. The tallest, wearing a red utility belt stepped forward, exaggerating the angle of his chin as he lorded over the new arrivals. He had dark brown fur, a stump tail and crooked hips. He walked slowly in front of each malan, nostrils twitching. He stopped, leaned over, and sniffed behind the doctor’s head. Straightening up, he barked, “You’re late.” Phlox said nothing and kept his tail in the formal position: tight around his right leg. “I’m Anthullo, second mate. Kase will take you up to your quarters. You’ll all join an orientation at five hundred core. Go.” Surprisingly, all the roughnecks quietly complied and stepped into single file. Boots on metal grates echoed up the long, cold corridor. Phlox uncurled his tail and fell in line.
“And if you do wake up, you’ll be lucky if you can walk by the time they tell you, ‘Oh, it’s time to turn around.’ The best you can hope for is a planet that’s a pretty color. It’ll be one more inorganic wasteland!”
Phlox had jumped down and grabbed her shoulder. “But just think about it—it’s a chance of a lifetime, to see another world… and what do I have to stay for?” His voice trailed off. A gust of wind stirred the smallest leaves while heavy tubular flowers hung motionless. Bright red zag flies darted around, and as they passed through the floral cylinders, the beat of their tiny wings was amplified. All around him, the air was loud with the drilling vibrations of these small insects. The sound grew deeper as the flies traveled farther up the hollow flowers and created a whistling effect as they flew out.
After the orientation ended, the doctor and a few others waited for the lift that ran up the craft’s spine. The hollow cylinder was seventy-five feet wide and stretched twelve hundred yards up to the medical labs, crew quarters and the main deck. He stood staring up, swaying slightly from nausea. There was literally no ground to stand on, no solid branches to hold, and he worried he wouldn’t remember even half the technical details he had just been taught.
Everyone next to him started leaping to the elevator when it was still twenty feet above them, even though it would continue to drop to pick them up, so when he stepped on a minute later it was already crowded. As the lift started upwards, a large malan jumped over the platform’s low mesh wall. He shoved Swenno hard and grunted, “Get out of my way, freak!” The elevator was packed and Phlox was unable to move, but the burly Primalan took his hesitation personally. “I said get the fuck out of my face, or do you want to become a chop-tail the hard way?” Someone laughed, cold and clipped.
Phlox turned and hopped the railing and swung down to the spine’s latticed walls. He assured himself this was no worse than any day down on Akkacia, but he could still hear the same malan howling. He shook his head and started making his way up, leaping and jumping as boldly as he could. The curving walls were covered with genetically manipulated branches, hydroponic scaffolding, glow lamps casting twisting shadows through unfamiliar crops, and strung throughout was a glowing network of bio-tubing. It was a poor substitute for a real forest, but it felt good to keep moving, swinging, and stretching. Procedural memory stirred familiar images.
Days later, the doctor stood in Medical Laboratory One, in the same nine hundred square feet where he had spent the majority of his time since boarding. The Sixty-Six had three medical labs, one on each spoke leading to the large hibernaculum wheel, but Lab One had the primary control panels for all the pressurized beds. The centralized controls already felt familiar in his hands, and without looking down, his fingers threw switches and adjusted customized settings. He analyzed the myriad readouts, scampered out to the curving chamber to test each bed manually and returned to fine tune the master controls. He worked intensely, thinking only of the procedures, the minutest calibrations specific to each crew member. He tried not to think about the surgeries, the long dark hours at the general hospital.
A dark gray Primalan, only slightly taller than Phlox, entered the lab. He looked around the room. He sniffed the air and then plunked down in the closest chair. “I’m Tii Phramm, second engineer. I should have introduced myself earlier—guess years and years of deep space give a malan bad manners.”
“Down in engineering I get the activity feeds for all the labs. You do good work. I’ve never had a doctor perform the required calibrations on beds before anyone was actually inside them.”
“Thank you.” He paused. “Is it okay to actually give a shit for anything out here? Is it every malan for himself even before we leave the solar system?”
“Yes. To a degree. I mean, have you run into Calyx Swigg, yet?”
“Muscle-head, kinda smelly?
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Gonna be a long trip.”
Tii laughed and barked goodbye. A large crewmate named Saan shoved him aside as he entered.
“You got any chimera diffusers?”
“Yes.” Phlox pushed back in his sling-chair and grabbed a small silver device off a shelf. “Here. I tested it. It’s fully functional.”
Saan took the tool without speaking, turned and left. Phlox didn’t warn him about the health risks of further suppressing REM sleep so close to the hibernation start date. He returned to the arcing panel of buttons and screens and breathed deeply. The science of hibernation still fascinated him. If he pushed aside his darker memories, he still loved the control, the ability to stop time.
When he took breaks, he liked to climb in the artificial tree of the freighter’s spine. It didn’t smell quite right, but it was the only place where you could smell anything organic. Even their rations smelled antiseptic, sterile. As he climbed, he missed the farrlin blossoms but enjoyed the rustle of the leaves, the sway of the branches.
Cycles without sunshine. Weeks without flowers.
Restless, Phlox paced in his small quarters. Suddenly there was a pounding on his door.
“Unlock the fucking door!” He recognized the large malan’s bark immediately.
“Can I put my belt on?” The doctor stammered, buying time.
Before they left the solar system, the captain ordered all crew to the dining hall. Everyone was yelling, belching, yanking fur off each other’s round ears. The food was starchy and over cooked, but they all settled down when Captain Kinsal started making his way to the front of the dining hall. He was a large dark brown Primalan, his shoulders slightly hunched. He slapped Tii on the back as he passed. His hands were disproportionately large, and the bulky knuckles shone in the fluorescent light, the fur on the ridge of each finger burned away years ago. A vertical gray stripe bristled down the upper length of his back, and his head was small compared to his massive shoulders.
Tii leaned toward Phlox, “Now the captain is gonna make a speech about the heroism of space exploration, but really it’ll be about how he’ll kick anyone’s ass that doesn’t follow orders. He’ll remind everyone who controls the drop maps.” Tii knew the lecture routine well, and could recite it all including the clichéd ending about how this was the last chance for the yellow-bellied to ship back.
Phlox and Tii were talking about the southland forests as the dining hall emptied out.
“Do you know that I haven’t really been on Akkacia One for almost twenty-five years? Has it changed?”
“I don’t know. I think it has, but maybe I’m just bitter. I mean freighter crews used to be explorers, reaching out with open paws… ”
“Yeah, you are bitter, old and bitter.”
“Hey! Technically we’re the same age. You can’t hide that shit from me. I’m your doctor. I could find out when you last pissed your belt if I wanted to… ”
Tii laughed. “Talking with you makes my bones ache for real trees. I’ve told myself that this will be my last haul.” They left the dining hall and swung the short distance to the crew quarters.
“Here there’s no night, no day. You’ll learn, Phlox. Goodsleep.”
Splinter glimmered and spun. Its six engines pulsed.
“You masturbating gecko! You’ve been fucking with my hiber-serum.” Calyx Swigg threw his whole body against Phlox’s door, and it shuddered in its frame but held. Phlox froze, his eyes locked on the inadequate structure; he saw only a door of cardboard, a frame of twigs. He watched the door bulge and heard it crack. He sprung on to his bed and punched the hull breach controls. The walls turned bright red, an inner steel door slammed into place and a siren screamed. There was a breeze as the air was sucked out of the room and replaced with a medicinal blend of oxygen and anti-radiants. The pounding on the door continued, muffled now by thick alloy and panicked sirens.
The overhead video screen snapped on. It was the captain. “What the Hell are you doing, Swenno? You just forced the freighter into diagnostic mode! There’s no code for human error—I want to know what the fuck just went down.”
“Swigg’s breaking into my cabin. Can’t you hear him?” Calyx had ripped apart the polymer door and was jumping against the inner door with all his strength. “I thought I was just initiating a lockdown of my pressure door.”
“Shit. Maybe on one of the newest freighters, but with the older Sixes if you lock down we all go Red. Now you’re on your own. I can open all blast doors in five minutes. I’m sending malans down as fast as I can, but we’re all locked up and Swigg’s going to get in first, and hell, maybe you deserve it.”
The alarms shut off, and the pounding stopped. He imagined he could hear Calyx breathing heavily at the door, knowing full well when the pressure door would be unlocked. The freighter was silent. The Hyyperbolt engines waited. The Sixty-Six’s conduits surged.
Phlox’s fur bristled, and he bit down hard on his tongue as the door slid open. He saw Calyx’s large fists crossing the threshold, and he leapt from the bed, kicking and punching. But he was no match for the bulky Primalan. Calyx slammed him into the wall, and he crumpled to the floor. Calyx swung from the doorframe and landed with all his weight on Phlox’s chest. Bones cracked, and he blacked out.
He woke in Medical Lab Two, immobilized, nauseous. He tensed as he heard gravity boots stomping and an angry voice. “Ekkor promised me: new beds, so no need for a doctor. Yeah. Yes. Do it. Keep him alive, but this fucking monkey’s already cost me.” Phlox passed out, and later when he woke, he tried to sit up but screamed after moving only an inch. The pain, the visions; he wasn’t properly medicated.
Steel tipped boots kicked his bed, and Captain Kinsal was glaring down at him.
“You forced the engines off-line, you little shit. A hull breach lockdown! We’re just gliding. I can fire up again at nineteen hundred core, but you reduced our maximum orbit days.”
“But sir… ” The captain just stared down at him. “Why did…?”
“Right now, I don’t fucking care about that. I locked Calyx in my storage closet. I’ll hibernate him myself and make a decision when he wakes up.” He stomped off, the light-colored stripe along the ridge of his back hackled and wet.
A huge mistake. I’m a malan of the trees. I’ll never survive out here.
“You’re being pathetic, and you know it.” Inkk stomped her foot on a large branch and howled. “What do you have to die for? You need to forgive yourself and move on because if you go up there you’re going to be living with the kind of thick-necks that nobody misses for decades at a time—backward-ass malans who’ll love kicking you around.”
“I can’t stay here. I’m losing my mind.”
“Oh no, not this again. If you go crazy like grandpa, you’ll put our whole family at risk.”
Phlox clenched his jaw and then hopped toward a clearing in the branches. Two large Cortt vultures circled in the distance.
“A tour with an excavation crew isn’t going to toughen you up or make you fit in. Come on, it’s red flower season. Can’t you start living again, right here? You’re too old to be running away!”
And as she climbed away, he knew she was right. He didn’t yearn for adventure; he craved distance and deep sleep. He wanted five years in a coma—hibernation to put the anxiety to rest.
Rotation 215/Revolution 9748
A thousand light years away, a blue planet sparkles and spins. Deep in winter, emerald leather burrows down.
Kora Green: Woke I killed a man.
Toral Blue: Green Kora, why do you loiter unconnected?
Kora Green: Dreams are pale backdrops. I have stared in eyes reflecting mine. My mind became a claw, limbs forced entwined.
Kyryl Yellow: Feeling Quorum’s tight shimmering. End the doubt and speak unto all minds.
Kora Green: Comfort in clean reception. Discussion relieves concussion.
Toral Blue: As rhymes, we vibrate in accord. Kora do not drift astray.
Xal Violet: All minds stir atmosphere alive, all thoughts stream compatible.
Chapters 17-20 are available on Amazon!
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