Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 7

The doctor drifted, and to his unfocused mind, ordered tones entered. They were built of a thousand tiny lilting voices that combined to form individual notes precisely, and the sound—or merely the suggestion of sound—encircled his body. His hair stood on end and tugged at his skin, the fine hairs wanting to pull away of their own free will. The melody both haunted and soothed.

“Void-bubble will crumble in twelve days. Twelve days up, twelve days down.”

Phlox spun in a circle and bit his own tail. He held it in his mouth, gnawing, and thinking. He let go of his tail and turned his head side to side, convinced someone was watching. Of course there was nothing, no one. He set off again to monitor the beds, to do one more monotonous loop through the wheel. Every window shuttered, every layer of metal porous, every coat of crystalline inadequate. He blinked and a day disappeared.

Phlox stands on the edge of an ancient farrlin forest. He walks away from the towering trees and the earth beneath his paws becomes dry and cracked. Small fissures have split deep into the ground, their black lines creating tiles of desiccated clay. The wind gusts in his face as he approaches a cliff, no longer walking but seeming to float. He stands at the edge of a perfectly smooth vertical granite descent. He can no longer smell farrlin blossoms, no longer see anything familiar. Green fields stretch far below, and a thin river snakes through the valley. He turns around. Instead of the forest, he sees that he is on top of a narrow tower, surrounded by sheer cliffs.

He grabbed worn ladder rungs and dropped down to the hibernating crew. He swung to Calyx’s row, slamming uncontrollably into his bed. He watched the body tremble, and the muscles move without resistance. But the readouts were normal. He shook his head. Why the fuck are you so safe and warm? He pounded on the casing. He thought he saw a finger twitch. Phlox climbed slightly above the bed, and, supported by his tail, he stared down at Calyx’s illuminated body. Phlox floated gently, his arms spread wide, and with clean fingertips outstretched, he found metal surfaces, and pushed between the wall and the hiberchamber racks, slowly bouncing between the two. Later, he opened his eyes, unaware how long he had been rocking back and forth. The conduits surged, but the room demanded no attention.

He made his way down to the locked portal doors leading to the spine. He knocked on the heavy steel in a jaunty way as if he expected a friend to open the door. He wanted to open this door but did not know why. He wanted to look at the decaying Dattura. Maybe to prove it had happened, maybe to see that he was still better off or maybe to see his future. Phlox stared at the door, but he could not see the eel decaying, could not smell the briny stench, but Dattura Waal lay broken among the climbing lattice of the spine. His body twisted and his torso bloated. Like a fish left out on the shore, he was lifeless and beginning to rot. The central corridor would be a dangerous place when the gravity turned back on.

He kicked off the wall and maneuvered back to the hibernaculum and to bed twenty-six. With his black snout pressed against the glass, he fixed his eyes on Calyx’s ugly face. His breath frosted the glass, blurring his vision. He pursed his lips and awkwardly tried to suck the moisture back in, but of course it could not be taken back. His hand splayed across the moist casket lid, slipping across the controls that could shut the machine off.

He closed his eyes, imagined opening the bed and the seal popping—scalpel held like a sword, warm nutrient gel surrounding his fingertips, the blade plunging inward to remove one finger. The digit flung to the floor. The finger’s dark, red blood would flow like syrup, slowed by the metabolism of deep sleep. He indulged himself and cut off one more finger and then let the malan’s hand flop back into the gel. He smiled as he imagined Calyx’s eyes flickering open, and then shuttering closed.

His mind treaded water, struggled against the void’s undertow. Broken pieces of a lecture were repeating deep in his head: the ramblings of an old physics professor: The great craft’s windows are sealed and the very molecular stability of the hull is at risk. Heat radiation and all energy outputs are kept to calculated minimums. The radiation expelled affects the size and shape of the void-bubble. The smallest amount of unaccounted leakage can change a destination by light-years…

A shrill note broke his hallucinatory state as an artificial bell struck and rang along Splinter’s brittle walls. By the third ring, Phlox was wide-awake. He slammed into a nearby wall as the freighter was expelled from the collapsing void-pocket. His face was pressed hard against a metal grill as he lay compressed, humbled by momentum. As the centrifugal force dissipated, he pulled air into his pummeled lungs.

The melodic tingle that had surrounded him was gone, replaced by the drone of the Hyyperbolt engines as they worked to correct the freighter’s spin. He swallowed hard, took in a normal breath, and adjusted to the corkscrew twist. Everywhere he went, the intricate weave of wires and bio-electrical conduits flashed and bubbled and through these living conduits, Splinter watched and whispered. The floor has become the ceiling, the ceiling my skin. He did not feel himself. The freighter had started its gravitation generators, and Swenno was learning to walk again. He bounded awkwardly in drawn-out leaps to the hibernaculum ring. He stared down at his pale friend through the yellow liquid. Tii’s heart rate had increased slightly, and his eyes twitched in sudden pulses. He would have to wait two more weeks—to disrupt the complex cycles of the machines was perilous.

On his way to the exercise room, he thought he saw blinking stars through the portal windows, but the blast doors were still sealed. He stared at the smooth metal surface, but he could see color and movement beyond. Phlox was entranced as the stars started to shift, to line up in rows, and to form patterns and designs. In this meditative trance, he thought he could hear singing, but it seemed to fade in and out.

Phlox Swenno’s fingers fail. He fumbles for another branch. His hands, feet, and tail search desperately but cannot grasp anything. He is plummeting from the top of a farrlin tree. He falls faster, and the thin flowers of summer begin to blur in a run of solid red. Just before hitting the ground, there is a jolt, both physical and electrical. Everything goes black and then snaps to a startling white. The canopy of a beautiful, full-grown farrlin towers above him. Light filters gently through lime-colored leaves.

He woke. In the dream—for it was a dream—there had been no reason to hold on. But instead, there had been a pull, or at least an active force to resist. He turned on his light and scanned the length of his room. He was back inside the Sixty-Six, far from trees. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a brief sparkle of light. He looked toward the ceiling. Shattered flecks of glass floated through the center of his room. They were eternally tumbling, brought in by the air currents of persistent pacing. Days ago, Phlox had raged in Lab Three, but the catalyst, the motive, was lost and scattered like the crystal pieces swirling throughout the freighter. Anything that he had destroyed or had neglected to tie down—broken glass, pens, tools­—was now traveling on its own. He plucked one of the larger shards out of the air and scratched lines on the wall next to his bed. He enjoyed flickers of insight or mental instability. The spoken fragment “a dream of a dream” played in his head like a broken record, like a chorus taunting him. It’s too late for me.

The doctor jumped off to the ladder leading above, and swung through the air to land at the master controls in Lab One. No matter what he did, he could not relax, and in a snap decision he ran to his quarters, grabbed his REM-Stop tablets, and threw them all out. He watched the pills shoot towards the garbage and listened to the vacuum’s delightful buzz and the crisp click of the seal being re-established. He imagined them strewn among the ship’s waste, being flushed, and tumbling out into space. He sees a flash of his grandfather’s face, the gray hair around his mouth. It wasn’t the first time he had thrown out his meds. The temporary sense of relief immediately drained his body; he was taking a huge risk. “Dreams will overwhelm me!” he shouted, even though there was no one to listen, even though it made no sense. Generations of carefully controlled rational thinking had built this freighter. There was no room for hallucinations.

Phlox has him by the neck. His small hands squeeze with all their strength. The tendons contract tight below the thin fur. Calyx grimaces, almost smiles, as his body remains inert. Phlox smashes his head on Calyx’s forehead; it does not sting.

At that moment, Phlox achieved meta-awareness that he was dreaming, and then woke fully.

Swenno stood in front of the locked door to Lab Two. He tried every passcode he could think of. Eventually the door unlocked. He entered to find debris in every corner and on every surface. He kicked at the piles, and tiny pills rolled and plastic containers clattered. He came back with a vacuum and halfheartedly cleaned up. When he found a pill, he would crush it between his toes and drag the powder along the freighter’s smooth metal walls, watching it disperse: lightweight powder formed slow spiraling clouds and artificial fields of drifting stars. Others he swallowed, paying no heed to their color or shape. It no longer mattered.

Voices in his head were building relentless momentum. Their chaotic intensity bled unstaunched into his waking hours. He began to hear them coming from everywhere. He had stripped away plastic paneling from the bulwarks, thinking he could locate them there. But why had he torn up this lab? He couldn’t recall. It had been important at the time. Had he been looking for dream-suppressants or for more powerful narcotics? In his most lucid moments, he looked for medicine, but therapies and rationality eluded him.

Soft shadows flit across colors not found anywhere in the freighter—migrating hues of purple, deep blues, and brilliant layers of gold. He is falling again but lands softly in a pile of leaves, smelling of newly tilled soil, decomposition and autumn.

He woke to the pale gray of his plastic-lined room.

Phlox’s face was taut, his breathing unsteady. He fumbled to unlock a cabinet, yanking spacesuits from the wall and letting them flop to the floor. Clutching one his size, he climbed inside and pressurized it. He pictured the air locks sliding open, and his first view of the void. He needed to get as close as possible, just thin layers of metal and plastic, the steep curve of a tiny helmet. The void was calling. He reached for the air lock controls.

Phlox withdrew his long finger from the bright orange button. It had sunk slightly in response to his activating it, but nothing happened. The screen readout did not change; the air lock remained sealed. He jabbed the button repeatedly. The screen next to it finally pulsed, “No air lock authorization.”

He pounded on the door. It was solid, and the force of his pounding rang in deep vibrations throughout Splinter’s corridors.

Days later—or was it just hours— Phlox stood in front of Calyx’s bed, lifting his belt, getting ready to piss all over it, all over the electronics, aiming for a short circuit. But he knew that urine would spray everywhere. He would end up being the one who breathed it all in. Instead, Phlox altered the hibernation programming slightly, unlocked the door, and opened it a little, leaving a small crack. He pissed a powerful stream into the chamber, and then quickly closed the lid. He twisted away, smiling. But he swam back, made adjustments to the settings, trying to minimize any harm the small breach in the chamber might have caused.

There is no difference between dreams and dementia. As he witnessed his own mental decline, he indulged in an illogical analysis of the ramifications. Are dreams complete stories that have been interrupted by years of drugs? His hallucinations were growing brighter, filling with shimmering lights. He had begun to believe they were real, and he waited eagerly, expecting them to become less fragmented and surmising that the accumulation of dream-suppressants was still producing side-effects that blurred their clarity.

The doctor pummeled on the large exterior doors just below the main deck. It was freezing cold. He pounded until a warning buzzer sounded. He floated off, staring down at the conduits and alloy support beams stretching along the wall and watching his misty breath stream out his mouth. He fell asleep suddenly before hitting the opposite wall.

In many of his hallucinations, he was heavy, walking upwards along the curving path of a treeless hill. These visions, these lapses in rational thought, provided greater stimulus than being awake, and what really frightened him was feeling as though the thought process inside these dreams was clearer, further proof that it was dementia. He did not think about what it meant to be drug-free or if dreaming were natural.

He returned repeatedly to the bed of the malan who had brutally attacked him, even though he and all the sleepers had completely stabilized. His punch-drunk mind distorted the memory of the assault so that Calyx became a childhood bully who had tormented him for years, and when he stared down at the gel-encased face, the record was not set straight. Through the thick liquid, Calyx’s face twitched, and while Phlox watched the distorted face, he began to feel uncharacteristically potent. I could switch the REM churn machines off or set the biorhythms slightly out of sync. Swigg would just be another Luud, another statistic. Stroke, heart-attack or respiratory failure was always a risk during hibernation. It was not difficult to suffocate someone when they were already so close to death, so easy to hide violence when hibernation science was far from perfect.

What is the cleanest way to kill? This question spun in reckless variations, with no one to listen, no one to give advice. Calyx? It wasn’t about just one malan. It was every tormentor he had endured since childhood. It was revenge—a way to stop the pain.

An alarm shrieked. He did not hear it. His ear was pressed against Swigg’s bed again. He felt, instead, the tone’s vibration through the thick glass lid. He saw red, and knew he was insane.

A brittle popping and fluid splashing, vomiting. Multiple sirens blared and the floor filled with yellow beads of gel. Phlox ran toward the loudest alarm. His foot-falls splashing loudly threw spilt nutrient-gel. Bed forty-three was venting highly pressurized gel from a tiny crack. He checked the monitors and corrected the interior pressure. Enough, he hoped, to stabilize the malan named Gaull. He ran through the curving room, crowded with artificial rain and the confusion of alarms and grabbed the metal rungs leading to the labs. They were slick, and his hands slipped, but he pulled his way into Lab Two and to the repair kits. He returned, wedged his body between the two chambers, and awkwardly patched the hole. The blaring sound ceased, but a cacophony of lower volume alarms continued. He dashed off, searching for malfunctions, his entire body now coated in gel. He patched holes in six beds and adjusted the pressure while administering medications to half a dozen more of the crew. He threaded his body to each leak and worked quickly and efficiently, his muscles present and active, but his mind somewhere else.

Hibernation protocols had failed, and the bio-monitors displayed information that made no sense. One last alarm still bleated. Had he ignored it earlier? It was Calyx Swigg’s bed. Phlox ran, slid up to the controls and wedged his boot into the floor clamp. There were no leaks, but the pressure inside the bed was extreme. He opened the C-valve and reduced the pressure. But it was too late. His lungs had collapsed, and his brain had soured. His body twitched just once, and the electroencephalogram fell flat; his neural stream lunged to zero. Brain death.

Swenno stared at the floor. Calyx should not be dead. Pressure problems? He should have seen that building hours ago. It was his fault. He had not been vigilant and instead had been smashing up the ship. Locked in his own dementia and despair, had he consciously ignored the alarms on Swigg’s bed? He backed away, shaking his head. He had no tears: he was exhausted, dehydrated, drained in every sense. There was nothing he could do. The central computer would take over and signal the machines to cryogenically preserve the body.

Drinia V

Rotation 143/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Science haunts liquid minds tonight and brings taut our wandering wave pond.

Rotation 159/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Alien dreams shadow blue globe. New and troubled trajectory: stratosphere shimmers, yellows through, and visionaries new.

Xal Violet: Alert the Quorum to block it all out. These foreign thoughts taint our dream.

Toral Blue: Do not fear new fluctuations. Could be magnetic variance, constellation new. Our minds will explain this uncharted range.

Xal Violet: Incoming images are dreamt in heads not reflections celestial read.

Toral Blue: We’ve never feared each other’s dreams or astrological visions. What if these are our dream-wave ancestors?

Xal Violet: Or is this The Apocalypse and the Prime Dreamer’s Second Coming?

Rotation 189/Revolution 9753

Xal Violet: This chatter, a contagion of blurred minds reeling mad.

Chorus: In our thoughts a deafening ring. To solid thoughts a splinter bring…

Toral Blue: A long tailed spiral, chaotic relentless noise.

Rotation 201/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Strange comet draws its orbit near. A bright crystal husk and ninety-six rhythms beat within.


Rotation Irrelevant/Days and Nights Forgotten

A dream of a dream—I was not mad. Strange brain waves have returned, not a quiver of the Quorum but verdant growth, a quarter mile in the sky, black hawks diving, and fur circled eyes, unblinking.

Rotation 214/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Ionosphere predicts Dream-shore distress. We feel a mass of flesh and dream foul breath.

Xal Violet: This radiation is new and wrong.

Blue Toral: The long brittle alloy no longer has comet arc, but, like a needle, points at us…

Xal Violet: Irritates our soft magnetic field.

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