Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 6

Something deep within the Sixty-Six flickered. A flash of blue light surged through the ice cold interiors from the foot of the vessel to its head. Then darkness. There was a brittle pinging like a tin cup being knocked against rock. The sound of ceramic shattering, the echo of the sound resonating louder than the incident. Then all sound and light ceased.

Dr. Swenno’s foot twitched. At first the movement was imperceptible, but it grew until his whole leg shook. Then it stopped as quickly as it had begun, and four tiny bubbles blew from his nostrils, drifting in slow motion within the liquid. There was still no gravity, and the bubbles lumbered through the thick gel in slow spinning circles.

A pain pierced Phlox’s head. The threshold between sleeping and waking, even after five years of the former, was still surprisingly instantaneous. There is only a wavelength thin line between the unconscious and conscious, between life and death, and Primalans can hover near the line, redrawing its boundary, but the meta-awareness of consciousness is completed in an instant.

He could not see anything. Was it another black, swirling dream? No. There was a piercing headache that convinced him he had crossed into consciousness. He tried to lift his arms; he could not. Blind and unable to move, he struggled to realize what thoughts were truly his own. He hovered in imagination and speculation as mad as a dream.

His mind moved, but his body was inert. Even his tongue could not respond—if that dead weight in his mouth was still his tongue. He laid still, all but his mind paralyzed. Eventually, he could feel the tip of his tongue, distinguish the base of the lingual muscle from the palate. But he could not move it noticeably. He snorted and felt large bubbles leave his nostrils. Across indistinguishable increments of time, Phlox drifted between dizziness, the all too familiar sensation of falling, and moments of clarity. I’ve had a rough winter.

Vibrations deep and profound. Thump. The pounding moved closer. Phlox panicked, but he still could not move. He tried with all his might to move his right arm. It responded with pulsing pain, then contractions, and then numbness. When he tried to move his left arm, the pain was unbearable, the muscles tense and unresponsive, but there was a stirring along his spine, and he swore that his tail had just twitched. The muscles of his arm screamed. But the physical world punishment was real, outside of any dream, and there was joy in knowing that his limbs were his own.

Something dense yet organic, like a log, hit the lid of his bed directly. It rang in his head, crashed like thunder. Then a brittle cracking sound. Another knock farther down the line. Silence and then the dull whack of a lead bat. He struggled to open his eyes, but they were sealed shut. He could feel the muscles of his eyelids pulling, but it had been so long.

He lay in his hiberchamber for hours, perhaps a day, alternating between panic and exhaustion. His limbs began to twitch but would not follow his commands, and pain still stretched and burned throughout. Sometimes he felt he was going to pop, like he was being crushed in a giant press.

The machines were sending micro-electric currents to massage his major muscle groups, but he could tell the doses were off. Pain shot up and down his legs, but with the pain came that comfort: he knew they were his legs. He received larger doses of specialized ultraviolet light therapy to stimulate hair growth, and minute flashes of visible light to excite the endorphins. Spots—bright blue and red—danced on the canvas of his primary eyelids.

The warm salty gel still surrounded him, but Phlox was able to open his eyes to tense slits. Blackness gave way to washes of vague gray shapes. A last round of osmosite drugs began to thin the nutrient gel, and he drifted once more from the ocular world to something near sleep. Later, he opened his eyes wide, and this time the difference was dramatic; light and shapes swam before him. Is that the corner of another bed? His mind raced, and he felt dizzy from all the incoming information, but the wash of dreams persisted like a hangover. He wished he could move his body to distract himself from the residue of hallucinations: the Cortt circling above his head, the small bones poking through moist soil.

Phlox’s stomach was cramping. The hibernation monitors had moved the tube into place, but the feeding system was dry. The computers were not dispensing the syrups! He remembered that there were four backup protein-cups taped below him. Moving his arm slowly above his head, he strained to reach a packet. His aching arms and thin fingers fumbled but obeyed, and he grabbed a pack and brought it to his mouth. The tasteless mush had the consistency of toothpaste, but he sucked it in and pushed it down his throat.

Artificial daylight streamed into his bed. These were not the micro flashes of the machines, but something else. Soft music played in his head—or was it a chanting composed of hundreds of musical chords blending? Then the organic vibrations harmonized, pulled to dissonance and then coalesced again. He thought the pulsing music was inside the pod, vibrating through the thin gel as its mutations created strange and delicate melodies. He wondered if the introduction of music was designed to help the blood flow faster. He twisted as the sounds surrounded his body, stroked his fur. Was this the latest technology? Modern Primalans shunned melodic music. Anything other than traditional, percussive ritual songs was considered too ethereal, too irrational. The more complex a melody meant the more it was to be distrusted—the more it was associated with the magical. Even though he knew something was wrong, these intricate sounds dulled the panic in his mind, and resonated deep inside his body.

The pressurized fluid drained from his bed. It slurped in sounds reminiscent of a marsh frog calling through the mist. A coolness began across the tip of his nose. Air, slightly cooler than the gel, tickled his olive skin: tactile pleasure after so many dark, dormant years.

He ran his quivering hands along the door’s seam. The protein packets were empty, and the auto feeding tube was still dry. He pounded on the casing—the walls of his casket—but it achieved nothing. His fist hit the hard smooth lid but the pounding was stifled, muffled.

He tried to scream, but he could not even whisper. His throat was dry, taut and inelastic. “Enough already!” Only an aspirated “f” sound misted from his lips. But it was a projection that extended beyond his head, and it was, oh, so very concrete. His gasp, his dried up voice, was a real vibration that he had let loose into the world.

A warped, blood curdling scream! His head rang with the sound of it. Something was wrong. No one else should be awake. Nothing should be out there.

All the gel was gone, and he floated weightless in his chamber. He could hear that dull meat noise knocking about somewhere down the long line of beds. Was someone up? How long had they been out there? A small box bounced up against his pale leg; he could feel the sharp corners like a fingernail poking him, but when he grabbed for it, it was always knocked out of reach. With effort, he rotated his entire body, but then he spun too quickly and didn’t have the arm strength to slow the spinning. He spun for several rotations, feeling the box hit his body, but he was not fast enough to grasp it.

His eyesight improved, and the lid became translucent while the room’s lighting steadily dominated. The dark mass of the hiberchamber above Phlox’s seemed to grow as the darkness from the corners of the room retreated. Throughout the room, the distinct colors of the walls, the ceiling and the wiring came into focus: a metallic gray sliced by chrome, glowing green conduits, and blinking red lights of the medical controls. There were palettes he did not remember, colors distinct and clean—not the stuff of dreams.

Now he could see his tiny box floating in a corner by his foot. He folded his legs and used his arms to slowly push down towards it. He didn’t want to move too fast for fear of generating a wave of air that would push this memento out of reach. He grabbed a hold of it tight in his right hand, caressing its smooth top with his thumb.

A muffled sound like a whale crying out. It was close by, its vibrations funneling through the hollow chamber. A shadow passed across the top. Phlox held his breath. He stared hopelessly toward the ceiling, studying the flow of the bio-communication lines transecting the room—the surge and flow, the veins of a flexing beast. They responded organically, shades of coloration flowed in boiling rolls, the colors forming currents in a stream where data patterns bubbled like exhaust.

What was out there?

Suddenly, there was a brittle click as the seal of his lid released, and Phlox pushed out of his cocoon. His body crumbled as it collided with the bed above. He knocked on the cold surface with his strange hairless knuckles, and the dull thud was reassuring while the slight echo it made as it bounced through the room increased the size of his world geometrically.

His nose filled with the horrible scent of wet infected bandages. Every doctor learns in his training what a septic wound smells like, the damp moldering diseased flesh, lacerations so suppurated with infection that they will never heal. He pushed away from the bed’s underside and floated toward the dark ceiling, but collided with that too. His body compacted and rebounded slightly. He didn’t have any strength left to maneuver.

Upside down he struggled to understand what he saw. It was a crewmember but was more fish-like than Primalan. He was naked, nearly furless, covered with red and black oozing sores. He arms flayed around uncontrollably, but his body undulated with amazing fluidity as if it had always known how to swim, always lived in water. Phlox was terror stricken and disgusted at the same time. His people did not swim. The creature in front of him had been malan, but everything he was seeing was wrong. He stayed as still as he could, praying that he would not be seen as it wiggled away slick and serpentine. One arm was twisted, broken and bleeding, while its tail followed its body—an undulating, symbiotic eel.

It passed smoothly through a portal towards the Medical Labs. He heard a soft thud as the creature rammed into a wall some distance away. He needed to get to central control and try to find out what had happened. How long had that malan been exposed to the void? Panic and loss of muscle mass made taking action nearly impossible. All he could do was keep his ears pricked and huddle in the corner.

Somehow he got through the unlit hall and up to Medical Lab Three. He entered to find the room filled with debris and floating glass. Several supply cabinets were smashed in, cracked, torn and pillaged. The doctor made his way to an unbroken set of doors. With his code, they opened easily. Inside, were neatly stacked rows of thin clear plastic jars. They were nutritional substitutes designed for specific periods in the rehabilitation process. He folded a pink container tight in his fist. It was so cold it burned his hand, and he brought it towards his lips with a quick jerk that sent his body spinning out of control. He slammed into a wall, but his childlike reflexes held tight to the food.

His head rang. In pain, fear and ecstasy, he was awake. This hard-edged world did not bend to the mind’s creations.

After some time, he felt a new sensation in the center of his body: the pangs of hunger reflecting back to his brain. His world was no longer the hypothetical, the hallucinogenic a priori. Hunger represented hope in his ever expanding world. This time he moved the liquid slowly to his mouth. He popped off the spout cover. He sucked some in, and it chilled his tongue and gums as he let it warm in his mouth. He was reminded of the smell of turpentine, the flow of paint. It tasted horrible, but it was one more pure sensation, a hundred times more tangible than dream invention. He cocked his head, listening and felt the slow liquid circulate around his teeth.

His stomach cramped, and he threw up in a fine mist. The vacuums hummed immediately: vomiting after hibernation is a calculated response. He carefully entered Med Lab One, checked that it was empty and slammed both exits shut. His head was spinning, but he was thinking clearly now: he needed to protect himself, protect the crew. He grabbed the largest scalpel he could find and tucked it in his belt. He loaded two syringes with toxic alva. He was so weak. Even taking full breaths was a strain. He floated. Tried to eat, tried to think.

He forced himself to drink from another one of the supplement packs and suppressed the need to regurgitate. He felt along the length of his tail. It was rough, hairless, and except for the tuft of fur at the tip, it felt like a giant rat’s tail. Other patches of his body were also bald, and the skin below wasn’t olive but a pale green.

Eventually he logged in to the medical database and determined that it was Dattura Waal who had birthed too early. Four months ago hiberchamber seventy-four had erupted in what appeared to be another unexplained pressure issue. Somehow the rookie had survived, extracted himself from a prematurely broken shell which had not been programmed to revive him or even to unlock. His brain would not have had time to unfold from deep hibernation. His body would have been acting on its own. His lacerations would have been from his own self-extraction. Had he gnawed on his own wounds, and that’s why they had never healed? The computer couldn’t verify his location, couldn’t track him through his subcutaneous implant. Had he chewed that off too? Had it been in the arm that was broken?

Phlox put down the food pouch. He did not feel sick. There was a loud pounding on the door and a screaming that was infantile and chilling. He panicked. Could this door be kicked in too?! He braced himself, expecting the worst. But of course the doors did not open, did not budge.

Had Dattura smelled the food? What else could be driving this brain-damaged skin and bone?

But there was no time to dwell. The thump of poorly aimed flesh farther up the corridor, then silence. Phlox packed three pouches of the most pungent stew. He held a syringe tight in his right hand and punched the door lock with his left. He floated, listening. He grabbed a nearby handle and thrust himself towards the circular hibernaculum and then sped up the corridor, but he couldn’t slow his momentum and his head slammed into the adjacent corner. It rang out with a dull thud, as his body compacted into a fist of limbs, and the knocking sound continued reverberating in his skull. He tried to straighten his body, but the major muscles in his legs trembled.

With aching limbs, he managed to squeeze through the main portal leading to the spine and to lock the thick door. He didn’t want to kill Dattura. Didn’t know if he could. He hoped instead to lead him here and lock him in the cold spine away from the crew that would wake weak and vulnerable. He opened the pouches and tied them to the lattice close to the open door. He set the motion controls to warn him if the afflicted malan entered the spine.

He maneuvered to the top of Splinter with no sign of Dattura. The main control room was silent, the computer screens were dark, and the windows shuttered. This was all wrong. He should be on the other side of the bubble, and above there should be one-hundred and eighty degrees of brilliance and depth. Phlox’s legs trembled as he drifted. You can’t swing through the trees with your eyes closed. His grandfather’s voice. He reached out and circled his finger across the smooth indentation of the button that controlled the window shielding. Then he darted away but quickly bashed into the wall behind him. There were no forces to ground him while the old voices echoed in his head. Never look into the void. Was it just an irrational fear of exposure—a fear that staring into the nothingness might wipe your own mind clean?

He pushed back to the main navigational computer. It was slow to respond, to wake from its own hibernation. Destination coordinates eventually flashed on the screen. He found a triangulated and pinpointed destination star. It blazed a dramatic red on the computer screens, but it appeared only slightly larger than the surrounding cast of stars and meant nothing to him. But what caught his attention and made him stare in horror was the total travel time. Only five years and one week had elapsed. He knew far too well from the hibernation settings and calculations that the trip had been set for five years and two full months. The computer also confirmed that the freighter was still within the folds of its original void-bubble. He had seen firsthand what raw exposure could do. No one, nothing, should be outside of the hermetically and electrostatically shielded beds. The exposure was too powerful!

The doctor focused his thoughts. He knew that he could not return to his bed. Even if it could be reprogrammed, going back under at this point was too dangerous. He had only one choice: void exposure. It would wear him down. Cabin fever would lead to paranoia. But he would fight. He would not become another Dattura, another malan turned eel.

His watch beeped three times. He was in the spine! Phlox sped down the corridors, armed with a needle.

He found the spine’s portal wide open. The pouches were gone: no sign of life in the long corridor. Like an expanding spring, Dattura shot from an alcove above the door. He rammed into Swenno and their bodies crumpled together and their combined mass struck the metal lattice. Dattura held him tight with his legs and his teeth snapped down hard on Phlox’s ear. The syringe had been knocked out of his hand, so Swenno pushed away as hard as he could, endorphins pumping through his wilted body. He couldn’t break free. His attacker had released his ear but was snapping relentlessly as blood droplets spread around their twisting bodies. Phlox grabbed the malan’s broken arm. He pulled it down and applied pressure to exaggerate the break. He heard it snap. The malan-turned-eel screeched, but the doctor pulled harder and eventually Dattura let go. Phlox couldn’t hold the arm and reach his second syringe. They spun apart, and the doctor bounced against the lattice. He managed to pull the last syringe out and prime it. Dattura lunged again, and Phlox thrust the needle deep behind his shoulder. The malan jolted in a massive seizure, and died in his arms, his teeth snapping, chattering the whole time.

He released the limp body, kicked off the wall and shot through the open door. He locked the portal without looking back.

Phlox headed for Med Lab Three and bandaged his ear. He wandered to his quarters for the first time. He had to manually override the controls to open his own room. He leaned in closer to the mirror. There were contusions all over his body, dark blue and spiraling. The short fur on his face was matted and dirty. When he rubbed it, it felt abrasive, foreign, and his white bandaged ear just looked comical. He had shrunken cheeks and the skin directly around his eyes was ghostly pale. Back from the dead.

He strapped himself into an exercise cycle’s reclining seat, but he was so thin that the straps did not fit. The computer asked a few questions, but in general it took control, beginning to move his legs gently while first keeping his arms static. A small robotic arm with rollers moved behind Phlox and massaged his tail, and gently put it through several standard range-of-motion maneuvers.

He un-strapped and let himself drift in a languid tumble. His spine elongated, and he slipped into a strange state, only part way towards the unconscious. His mind was aware yet hallucinatory. It was a blissful meditative state and definitely not sleep. No, he did not need that. He would never need to sleep again.

When the heaving of his chest slowed, he pushed gently against the wall, trying to calculate each micro adjustment. With the flick of his tail against the wall, he increased his speed. Phlox entered the curving room and scanned the embossed numbers on the first row of beds. He remembered that there had been medical problems. Had he lost one or was it more? How many of these deaths are my fault? Phlox’s eyes stung, and tears balled up in his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but without gravity, they were held in place by forward momentum. He wiped them away with the little tuft of hair that remained at the tip of his tail.

Swenno drifted away and slowly up the curving corridor. He found the frozen Luud, pale and immobile, and life monitors that were blank. He found the cracked and ruined bed, eighty-four, where Dattura had wiggled free. The jagged glass edges were covered with dried blood and fur. He completed a survey of the large circular room. All the other malans, including the captain, demonstrated vital signs normal for the final stage before resurrection.

Over the next few days, Swenno’s body steadily strengthened, but he was alone in the cold, the silence, the fracturing void. Splinter Sixty-Six was a cold keep; it had nothing to say. There was no one but Phlox to judge himself. He missed the penetrating hum of the Hyyperbolt engines. He spent hours cleaning the ship, trying to erase the damage caused by Dattura. The automatic fans and vacuums had not been strong enough to clean up all the debris. Phlox chased some shards and small broken pieces through the halls with a hand held vacuum, but it was an absurd attempt in zero gravity. His kicking and waving around just drove the pieces spinning and blowing away. He was, however, persistent—he had nothing else to do.

Phlox drifted through the corridor leading to Navigation. He began to spin, and as he counted the sixteenth rotation, his head smacked against flat metal. He had run into a dead end. He ignored his throbbing head; he didn’t care. He just stared at the tight seam of the huge external portal doors. He tried to remember the exact shape of the Hyyperbolt engines. Then he was suddenly wide awake, and painfully aware that he was fantasizing about the void, could hear it calling. Then he straightened and moved with purpose back to find bed number thirty-four. He re-assigned bed numbers to trick the machines to wake Tii first. This was in direct violation of protocol. Excluding the doctor, Kinsal was to be woken first, and even though it was a month away, he couldn’t bear the thought of being alone with that malan for three days. Phlox would need a friend, and Tii was the closest thing he had.

Line and revolution forgotten/Newfound relevance

Dark wood stretches like I’ve never seen, twists high from where I stand. Its flowers hang in the foreign sky. Long thin bones sticking from damp soil! Though weak, this unique dream did to me speak, streak.

Lines abandoned/The turning between dreams

Something smells new inside old dream—who else sleeps and dreams in broad daylight? What mind forms such fantastic scenes? For the first time since my exile, I look forward to sleep.

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