Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 2

The only light in the room came from the inside of hiberchambers that were stacked three high. The pods were solid on the bottom and topped with curving transparent lids. Inside dewdrops coalesced, streaked in wide lines on the inside of the glass and dropped into a sticky yellow gel. Phlox Swenno paused in front of one of the chambers and stared inside at the Primalan who lay just below the surface of the bright amber liquid in an absurd spectacle of death, a permanent state of drowning. He hated water—all Primalans did—yet they had all chosen to be here. He pivoted and viewed more bodies distorted by the combination of concave glass and thick, nutrient jelly. They were dead fish hanging with distended bellies.

Days slipped before his unblinking eyes.

He descended from his quarters and returned to the curving room full of sleeping malans. The hibernation machines had at first displayed multiple warning lights as vital signs vacillated between extremes, and he had leapt back and forth addressing every alarm, making manual adjustments here and there. But the veterans had steadily normalized, and by now even the rookies had adjusted to their deep winter. He shuffled on to bed number thirty-four where Tii floated, grotesque like the rest, encased in yellow jelly with tubes running from his torso. So many bodies surrounded him, yet they were cold, still-life images.

Phlox limped down the double row of mechanical wombs starting another countless circle. He stared down at his own body as if it didn’t belong to him. He was walking with a limp and couldn’t remember why. The white fur of his torso was dingy and matted. He touched his bloody knuckles to his chest and remembered the attack, the weight of the artificial lung, the burn of tubes being inserted. But as he ran his hands down and across his belly he felt the ripples of forgotten scars. He pulled his hands up quickly into fists. He was unwilling to read that troubling Braille. He continued the unbroken routine, his striped tail, slick and sweaty, trailing behind his small wiry frame.

At night, the lean smooth-skins rose from the calm waters. “At night our forefathers hid in the trees. Hid in the trees like mice in their holes as those amphy fuckers stalked the undergrowth. And it wasn’t enough.” His grandfather’s voice. The violet lasers would cut through the darkness, the canopy, the branches, striking deep into the cortex. They would annihilate the life force of Primalans and trees in a single sweep. Minds were left blank and branches desiccated in an instant. Thick bark sloughed off, enervated before it crumbled on the forest floor. “There was no mercy. They hunted us not to eat us. We were not their bush meat. They came to enslave us.” They lugged huge generators deep into the forest. The blast of the cannons blew ear drums out. The canopy would tremble and blossom petals like feathers coiled down.

He paused at bed number twenty-six. Calyx Swigg’s yellow glazed body floated inside. Phlox banged on the glass and looked disappointed when the brainwave data remained steady. He thumped the pod with his tail as he moved on down the row. At one point, he jumped up and stomped all over the casements, bouncing back and forth from either side of the double row. It was idiotic, but he didn’t care. He swung down and punched one of the hiberchambers. His knuckles stung sharply, and he wondered if he preferred it this way, if it was easier to respect them when they were quiet and not shoving him around. Somewhere iron struck iron, and the deep tone reverberated through the walls. The freighter’s solar panel wings had begun to fold and now he heard thick plating drop across every window.

Splinter Sixty-Six became a silent dragonfly.

Phlox Swenno’s olive eyelids rose slowly. He stretched and began another monotonous day. He took yet another tour of the few open corridors, looking for something out of place, anything of interest. He shook his head and turned towards his quarters, his slow plodding feet drawing a path through the fine white dust that had begun to settle.

Phlox’s mind spun. Too much time to himself, to his own thoughts, to worry about the unnatural winter. To hibernate was to risk dreaming, and in Primalan society dreaming was taboo, the dreaming state was viewed as losing control. Dreaming led to sleepwalking, and it stirred memories of smooth-skin invasions and their hypnotic-like control. He found himself obsessing about their extinct enemy: the sea dwelling creatures that had hunted the Primalans for centuries. It was especially unsettling because here in deep space, the mind was allowed to dream. Hibernation machines sensed and mapped dream fragments, and REM churns rearranged and adjusted their amplification. With hallucination as stimulus, the brain was spared the decay of coma, but dreaming too early or allowing them to blossom posed a great risk. His grandfather had experimented with hallucinations and been idiosyncratic in so many ways, but had he been crazy? Phlox didn’t know.

He was placing himself in danger, but he couldn’t understand to what degree because every malan’s brain worked differently, and the variance of neurological function always peaked uncontrollably after coming off the suppressants. Add to the complexity, that the recording process itself was obtrusive, and the very presence of the machines was one more mathematical variable in the emergent bioscience of deep space hibernation.

His grandfather had told him stories of how the beams fried the brain’s higher functions and of how loved ones were reduced to drooling automatons. Families would try to keep the stricken at home in the trees, but these newly made zombies would break free. Walking, always walking, in circles. And the smooth-skins would regroup and return, their huge fish-like mouths gasping for air as they struck ever deeper into the forests. Eventually the dripping skinned amphibians would find the inflicted, round them up and march them into the sea. Never to be seen again. But this was not the worst of it. Later the Primalans would learn that those slimy assholes were keeping the Primalans alive. Creating coral reefs of living tissue: for what purpose they never understood.

In the unflinching dark of space, there were no defined pauses or breaks in his workday—just mindless hours to remember his grandfather’s horror stories. With the entire crew stabilized and safely in level-one hibernation, he did not have enough left to do. He wandered aimlessly and his footfalls ricocheted through the freighter’s increasingly cold frame. The humming from the Hyyperbolt engines had deepened, and it was worse in the long halls. The polymer paneling throughout the vessel amplified the vibrations like the skin of an audio speaker’s, and where the structure was thinnest, the wires and tubing most constricted, the electro-organic conduits funneled the sound.

His grandfather’s stream of consciousness saturated Phlox’s numb mind. “It wasn’t a laser to burn us. It wasn’t a blade to cut the farrlin down, but heat that could control your mind. They enslaved millions without laying a finger on us. An invisible ray raped our minds and images would spill out. Uncontrolled thoughts. They mined us for our souls. Don’t know if they plumbed us for the buzz of our life force. Cables ran up from the waters, along thin wharfs and out to the forests. We fed their empire, their underwater towers and the very weapons that enslaved us.”

Controlled hibernation allowed the freighter to conserve food, water and energy, but Phlox knew that there were other benefits to putting everyone under. Exposure to the pure void was toxic. Could this unstable bubble draw on the body’s electrical charge, the static of brain waves? Now I’m rambling about metaphysics, smooth-skin magic. Could too many minds grinding away choose direction? Swenno shook himself. Paranoid questions, but it started to make sense to a cabin fever mind. The Primalan mining companies would offer the void a little less than death, so it would drain only a little life.

He frantically searched Lab Three for any stimulants, anything to break him from the unending haze. Shouldn’t he, the freighter’s only doctor, have access to all supplies? But the lab’s pharmaceuticals contained no narcotics that he could access, and the rest would be released only after the void-bubble collapsed. His mind was starved for input, and Swenno tried to stay vigilant, telling himself that manual intervention, a real doctor on duty, was still important. These deep-sleeping malans now had metabolism rates so low that it wouldn’t take much to cross the line between life and death. It was the reason he was here—all alone with his cabin fever mind, and unable to outrun his own remorse.

Phlox watched the monitor above him. The phase one blast was only fifteen minutes away. The engines were whining, and the air strummed. He was crouched above his own bed, rubbing his teeth with his big toe. His mother used to hate that. He jumped down and opened up the bed’s damp lid. It creaked when he broke the seal. It was warm inside and smelled salty. He hopped in and stayed standing in the knee-deep gel, feeling its slight warmth squeeze between his toes. It was a repulsive feeling to be surrounded by liquid, but it also offered a reassuring sense of touch, almost like someone’s warm hands around his calves. But after a minute, he couldn’t feel it, and the rest of his body felt cold. He sat down, placed the breathing tubes in his nose, and grabbed the lid with one hand and sank into the nutrient gel. Vibrations within the viscous fluid held the grind of the engines close to his body so that he couldn’t hear when the lid clicked shut. The pressure inside the pod increased, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to stay submerged, to shut down.

The vibrations rose in pitch, metal grinding raw against metal. Phlox was slammed against the floor of his chamber, the slow fluid giving way surprisingly fast. He couldn’t expand his lungs. He saw sparks of hyperventilation, and just when he thought he would pass out, there was a brilliant burst of radiation. Even with his eyelids clamped tight, even through the heavy gel, a bright white light saturated his body. He was translucent, and for a moment his skin, and even his core muscles, tingled as if bathed in sunlight. Then suddenly the pressure and the grinding stopped. Phlox relaxed his jaw, let the mouth guard slip, pulled in a deep tug of air and heard the rush of oxygen as it whistled through the plastic tubes.

Phlox’s body relaxed, and a moment later, he realized he was weightless. The pressurized gel had muted his sensation of gravity. He recalled that generating a false gravitational zone was never fuel-efficient. And with the large engines silent, gravity was a luxury, a norm that he would have to do without.

When the lid automatically unlocked, the doctor was startled by the sound and then annoyed by the interruption. He had enjoyed being encased and knowing there was nothing he could do to resist it. The nutrient gel slurped as it was quickly sucked from the chamber, and he floated weightless inside. Stubborn patches of gel clung to his fur. He pushed the door open with his foot, removed the plastic tubes, and inhaled cool, stale air.

He floated awkwardly across the rows of beds and crashed head first into the wall. He shook his head and straightened his limbs. He heard an alarm going off and saw a monitor flashing. He struggled awkwardly banging his head repeatedly before reaching the alarm. He pushed downwards and checked the screaming hibernation machine. Inside his pod, the crewmember Luud was wilting in a slow expel of death. He had suffered an aneurysm with massive cerebral herniation—the shock of the phase blast even while hibernating—and his brain was already permanently destroyed. Dr. Swenno switched off the alarm. But the room was still screaming, and a blue light flashed somewhere down the curving hall.

He pushed off, and flew between the rows, maneuvering with increasing efficiency as he searched for the alarm. Corrlin’s computer was blaring, but the readouts were very different from Luud’s: brainwave activity had risen to high levels. They were not harmful but were close to those expected from someone wide awake. Phlox administered a low dose sedative. He turned down the wave analyzers and watched the monitors carefully; sometimes the machines churned too hard. He checked all the other crewmembers and then returned to Corrlin’s bed. The pinging sound of his brainwave activity dropped steadily toward the normal hibernation range.

Back in his room, he pushed off one wall and sped to the next. Small objects knocked against his body. He clumsily stopped himself from spinning and saw that he was colliding with random objects that had not been tied down: items of various sizes that had been ignored were now projectiles. He slowed himself with his arms and pushed back like a spring hoping the exercise would tire him. This was the trick: stopping the motion you have already started. No matter how hard he pushed or how many times he ricocheted back and forth, he was still wired. He punched the door release, contracted into a small ball of fur, and spun through as the portal opened. He sped through the hall and out into the open spine. The air was thin and cold.

Clad in a thermal suit, Phlox floated in the bitter cold spine. The farrlin leaves had fallen, some still floated in the air. He pressed his fingernails against the rough bark. It was not soft but swollen and impenetrable. The bare branches were knotted and brittle. His humid breath streamed out in powerful jets, its expansion no longer bound by gravity. He wondered what snow would look like in zero gravity. Even though the tree had now grown ugly, dead within its own coffin, he tried to relax, to enjoy moving through a different environment. This was his last descent. Soon the portal to the spine would be sealed.

Eventually, he returned to Luud’s bed, shut the wave churn off and coded the machine for cryogenic preservation. He pushed his feelings aside. This was not his fault. This was not Juun.

In the wake of a phase one blast, there is nothing: no light, no heat, no radiation, no dark matter of any kind. Zero Kelvin, the perfect absence, the purest black. Except here was the splinter of a ship, a dormant seed, an insect caught in dark amber. If anyone, anything, was out there, it would not even see the craft. It cast no light, and it received none. The Primalan vessel had no velocity because there was no evidence of conventional motion. And in this bubble it hung forever, in the time of never.

His body jerked and twitched. His fur was damp, and instinctually he knew that his neurological rhythms had been altered. Something glowed hot behind his eyes although he couldn’t remember a single image. He wanted to sit up, but there was a feeling that mental ghosts had gotten loose and that they remained in the room, stalking. Sleep physiopathology: every Primalan youngster learned the dogma that surrounded this regrettable biological residue. If dreams encroached, they could commandeer his control, the choice to swing to the left or step to the right. Their amphibian enemy had long since been beaten back, but they remained fearful of dreams and hallucinations. Primalans had experienced what happened when they lost control of their own minds and the anxiety endured through generations. Swenno had seen firsthand what happens to those who admitted to dreaming. A kind of hysteria could still be whipped up—a witch trial of sorts that would smolder around the accused—and as a doctor, he was especially vulnerable to ridicule, to a questioning of his scientific methods. Fortunately, no one had ever found out he hadn’t taken the proper childhood vaccines to eradicate the hallucinations, or that his grandfather had been a free-dreamer.

The lift to main deck denied his access code. Hadn’t he just been up here? When did the node computer lock the portal? He returned to his ingrained route through the icy and vacant freighter, floated past the same cold corridors, and slipped through the rows of deeply sleeping Primalans to find his own hiberchamber dark and locked. He slowly returned to his quarters and locked himself in. He started three or four games with the computer, ending each quickly. His anxiety was intense, irrational. He tried to write a letter to his sister Inkk, but he didn’t know where to begin. She could not understand why he had run away, or why he wanted to turn himself over to machines.

He returned to the rows of beds, going through the motions to care for the crew. He spun, flipping slowly head over foot in the air above the rows of hibernating malans. His mind wandered, twisting like his body—in no particular direction and without friction. Often he thought he could hear music, an intricate melody that couldn’t be Primalan, but when he stopped and listened carefully, it would disappear.

In Lab Two, he opened a small white container. Inside were half a dozen small dark gray cocoons. They were dense and smooth, almost like a shell. Some small insect had been imported with Splinter’s garden and had survived through the rigorous sterilization process. The doctor had found them stuck to the thinnest farrlin branches. They had not wanted to break free. In zero gravity, it had been very difficult to chip them from the delicate and frozen branches. But he had persevered. He wanted them for some reason.

Now he spilled them out on the white table. They were out of place—defiant little pills. He sliced one open with a scalpel. The blade broke the hardened mud encasement and there was a sickening moist crunch. He slid the two halves under a microscope. Inside was a tiny red exoskeleton of a bulbous caterpillar caught halfway through its metamorphosis. The creature did not move, but bled a deep yellow stain across the lit glass of the microscope.

He wandered from the lab out to the curving hibernaculum. His mind was numb and listless again. Suddenly, he gripped the ceiling bars above his head and jumped up and down on Calyx’s bed. Without gravity, it felt more like he was kicking rather than jumping. Phlox found himself wishing that the lid would crack. Just a small crack, anything to prove that he’d been here, and that he could, in a sense, fight back. He stopped kicking. There was an alarm going off somewhere. Caught already? Or is the buzzing just in my head? Phlox floated upside down, listening.

He was breathing heavily, but the siren was real. He pulled himself quickly along the long row of beds and propelled headfirst toward bed one-hundred. The captain’s bio-alarms were screaming, indicating cardiac arrest and a complete flatline. He tied himself down in front of the captain and administered Inrojac and other medications. He busied himself at the manual controls, the years of surgery having taught him a patience that did not come naturally. His thin hands glided across the switches and screens, carefully controlling the medication’s flow. A feeble and irregular heartbeat emerged. After three long minutes, the only beats recorded remained weak, and the ventricle contractions were out of sync. The computer-controlled auto di-fibrillation had no effect. He broke level one protocol and depressurized the bed. He ran to Lab Three and programmed a genetically-altered bacteria-based serum. At the same time, he prepped a liquid surgical nanobot injection to perform a coronary angioplasty. He was back in his element, back in the rhythm of his medical expertise, and confidence flowed again as if from some long dormant gland. When he returned to the pod, it was at an acceptable pressure. He opened the lid and grabbed the captain’s leg. The thick gel mostly stayed in one large clump as he reached high up the thigh and roughly inserted both injections. Under the artificially low pressure, Kinsal’s hibernating body bled very slowly and Swenno sealed the wound before any blood could float free. This was the kind of work he had done for years so when he returned to the main controls, it was second nature to tweak the nano-programming. Even after Kinsal’s rhythms stabilized, the doctor remained vigilant: he knew there was still a high probability for a second attack. He floated calmly in one place. He had purpose.

Later, he floated in his room trying to tie down all his loose belongings, he thought about his sister, about her warnings. “Inkk, you were wrong. I’m supposed to be right here. For some reason, I’m supposed to be right here to keep these assholes safe.” He took a small wooden box out of one of the drawers and placed it gently in his belt pocket. He made his way to his hiberchamber where the screen said it would unlock in thirty-five minutes.

He floated back to Lab One. The captain’s readouts indicated healthy heart rhythms, and he was stabilizing in level two hibernation. He saw that Corrlin’s neurological activity had completely returned to normal. A new chime sounded: the doctor was being called to bed. There was no time left, and he needed to plug in before the lights turned off. He stripped off his thermal suit and grabbed the small wooden box from his belt and curled his tail around it while his bed unlocked automatically. Phlox squeezed inside. He closed his eyes and shut the lid on a count of four. He shuddered as the warm gel poured in and surrounded him completely.

Drinia V

Rotation 13/Revolution 9748

Across a dusty constellation, a large planet rotates its lone continent away from its star. And as the sky turns black, vultures return to roost, lizards drop to their bellies and the buzzing of insects recedes.

Chorus: I dream with you, you dream with me. I dream with you, you dream with me.

Rotation 237/Revolution 9748

Orange beams of light slice low across a vast marshland, and green dreams seep from a granite cave.

Kora Green: Wakemares disrupt the stream. A flood of deeds that cannot be dreamt undone!

Rotation 143/Revolution 9749

Toral Blue: Thank you, gentle minds, for meeting. Take count of our lucid tremblings.

Xal Violet: Dreamscape washed telepathic blue.

Kyryl Yellow: Most frequencies are accounted for: Cyan steady, but again Green burns through.

Chorus: Just one dropped away, just one slipped through, just one.

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