Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

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Chapter 8

The plastic shell made a cracking noise as the seal to the hiberchamber was broken and Tii’s eyes rolled beneath sticky lids, sealed shut with dried nutrient jelly. When his eyes finally opened, they were non-reactive. They pointed blankly ahead. The incursion of real light waves was a shock to his optical nerves and unprepared mind.

Later, Swenno stood above him; “Forget about the feeding tubes. That first week’s slush is crap. I made this. Drink up.” He brought a straw to Tii’s lips. The bedridden malan sipped some of the milky brown concoction, tried to smile, then gently threw it up all over himself.

“I know you won’t be able to answer for a while, but listen.” Phlox’s voice was dry.

“Try and shake your head or raise your tail. ’Cuz I went crazy here.” Tii nodded his head slightly. He held his eyes closed and opened them emphatically.

“Yeah, even an experienced sleeper like you can’t get used to it. When I woke up, I thought I was dead, and frankly I am not the same. I will never be the same… ”

Tii tried to speak. His mouth opened and his tongue remembered where to curl, but out of that dried-out and underutilized esophagus, came an empty rush of air. Wrinkling his forehead, he shook his head slightly. Phlox could tell he was embarrassed at being so exposed, so vulnerable.

“Your body can’t remember how to walk, but your mind remembers shame. Are you frowning?” Phlox was asking out loud what he had intended to keep to himself. He decided to give Tii a little space. He re-adjusted the straw down to touch his pale, wrinkled lips, and shouted over his shoulder that he’d be back.

Between the monitoring of the other malans, Phlox returned to cleaning. Now that the gravity was normal, he could repair the damage from his cabin-fever rampages more easily, but he was not able to leave Tii alone for long. “Your muscle tissue looks good. Your heart rate and brain wave readings are normal. Problem is, you look like shit, but yeah, that was already a problem for you.” Tii twitched his nose, and Phlox thought he could hear something. He leaned closer. Tii’s breath grew stronger. It now formed a distinct “shh” sound. “You told me to shut up, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Do not fuck with the crazy doctor. You wouldn’t talk like that if you had seen all the shit I’ve pulled.” He turned to face the computer linked to Tii’s bed and said calmly, “The electro-stimulators will grow more intense. I’ve customized the routines.”

Suddenly, the Sixty-Six shook violently. A pressure built against the doctor’s temples and crashed in four successive waves as equipment rattled in the lab and the lights flickered on and off. He thought he heard Tii shouting. Then the freighter was still, and the vice-like grip around his head quickly unwound.

Phlox ran to the nearest navigational feed in Lab One, and there didn’t seem to be any significant irregularities or damage. His hair stood on end as he yelled at the computer, “Did we hit something?!” The data-stream indicated that large unclassified electromagnetic bursts had struck the nose of Splinter and traveled down its entire spine. The four energy-waves had come from outside of the freighter, and the bursts had not been detected until they had enveloped the hull. Navigation was reconfiguring to detect future electrical abnormalities with similar energy signatures, but pointed instead to a more disturbing set of facts: “Estimated arrival to target cannot be calculated. Closest star system is not a programmed destination. Proceeding to X24-JNT. Awaiting further instructions.”

Medical alarms sounded from the hibernaculum. He bounded to the sleeping crew. All of the computers had crashed and rebooted in the wrong mode. They were prepping to administer various medications even though all life signs were within a normal range. From the master hibernation controls in Lab One, Swenno was able to simultaneously restart all the computers, and they began to operate normally as if nothing had happened. Phlox went to some individual beds and looked at histories of activity. On some computers, he could see four distinct spikes in brain wave activity. They started and ended at precisely the same times. Phlox went back to the navigational computer and these brain wave spikes synchronized almost exactly with the time and duration of the unknown electrical magnetic pulses that had struck Splinter.

Phlox returned to Tii’s bedside where the immobile malan’s eyes begged questions that his vocal cords could not. “I’m sure the freighter is fine.” He saw Tii’s tail twitch, and decided not to tell him that there had been a destination error. It was just an unclassified burst of electromagnetic energy. There was no damage reported.

Exhausted, he went to his room to rest, and for the first time since hibernation, he fell into a substantial sleep. When he awoke an hour later, he felt strange. But that did not surprise him: normal sleep patterns were disrupted for weeks for even the most experienced veterans. Phlox checked Tii’s vitals and predicted that the malan would be out of bed soon.

Phlox continued to erase the damage he or Dattura had inflicted throughout the ship the best he could. Where metal sheeting was bent by his attacks, he leveraged it back into place. Where plastic walls were cracked and broken, he used a torch that left traces of discoloration spreading like fingers. He hoped that when the captain woke, he would be so preoccupied that he would ignore the extent of his vandalism.

“Do I look different to you?”

Tii took a long time to answer. “No.”

Maybe the second engineer wasn’t really paying attention. Two days had passed since he had awakened, but he knew that the post hibernation haze hadn’t cleared. Phlox stood up and began pacing. “I feel different. I think I smell different. Fear has altered my flesh—changed the code that makes curly hair grow straight.”

“Not different,” Tii took a deep breath from the effort. “Still ugly.”

Phlox laughed. It didn’t matter that Tii couldn’t say much. Phlox liked a conversation where there were surprises, where he didn’t have to make up the questions and the answers.

“I did some crazy shit. I had to kill a demented crew member! Then, when I was all alone and exposed to the void for more than three weeks, I must have really lost it. At my worst, I was hearing voices outside of the hull, breaking windows and anything I could find. Beds malfunctioned and malans started dying. My mind came unwrapped. There are still messes I cannot clean up. Look over at that corner of the lab.” Tii could move his head and wiggle his fingers, but he couldn’t lift his arms or curl his tail. “Can you see the cabinet door hanging at an angle? Maybe you can’t. It’s pretty dark. Yeah… broke a lot of lights too.”

Tii turned back and looked straight at Phlox. He didn’t say anything. Phlox leaned close, tried to ascertain what the malan was thinking.

“I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. Just want to know that I’m going to be okay.”

“You’re alright.” He paused. “But make yourself useful. Bring me some milk.”

All the malans had entered the initial level of rejuvenation. They were all still asleep but no longer at comatose levels. Now the doctor had to manually select the patients that looked most responsive to the new chemical levels and push them into second-stage resurrection. Kinsal’s amino levels and heart rate were imperfect but he decided to speed his recovery. He would still have to explain why Tii had wakened first. He could tell a plausible story about a more careful recovery time for cardiac arrest patients.

He lies on a bed of grass. It tickles his sides. Sunlight, white and hot, warms him to the bone. Lazy and content, he listens to the sound of falling water in the distance, and it feels like home, although the exact flower season eludes him. Tiny finger-like motions apply pressure to the side of his leg and move towards his knee, and he bolts upright, flicking wildly at his knee. A small gecko rolls and runs quickly away. Phlox’s heart races and his skin crawls with hereditary repulsion for moist, smooth, skin.

These were not the temporary hallucinations of a mind coming off of years of hibernation. They were dreams, and now they came rushing in every time he slept. And now whenever he first woke up, the last cycle of visions seeped into his conscious mind. During his working hours, he was exhausted, stretched thin by trotting dreams. Each sleep session was a mental marathon because his creative mind was painfully out of shape. These intricate and detailed hallucinations were tremendous work for an unaccustomed mind.

As Swenno made his rounds, he could see that the gel was getting thinner. He could clearly see the facial features of each sleeper, and their bodies began to jerk as muscles came back from atrophy, tadpoles stirring and stretching. Pale and etiolated, the skin on their backs and chests was the most gruesome, especially for half a dozen crewmembers where the hiberchamber UV lighting had failed on one side. Imagine not getting any sunlight for a year or more. Their skin was like grass trapped under a rock—gray and lifeless.

“You said you had to kill Dattura. How many crew members did we lose altogether?” Tii asked as he rubbed his shriveled thighs.

“Besides Dattura, we had two others expire: Luud and Calyx. They are both in cryogenic mode now. Everyone else is progressing within normal limits.”

“I didn’t know Dattura very well. Calyx? No tears here, but Luud was a good malan.” Swenno felt Tii searching his face, looking for a clue, seeing if Phlox would share more, but he maintained a blank expression until Tii looked away.

Then Tii said in an uncharacteristically low voice, “You do look different. You look older.”

At that moment, Swenno decided that to tell Tii what had happened with Calyx was better than being alone with his unfiltered guilt. Tii listened, nodding his head.

When Phlox finished, his friend looked up at the ceiling. Then he said, “Given the chance to be alone with that fucker, I might have done worse. And you don’t know if what you did or didn’t do could have saved him.” Phlox didn’t know if he believed him, but he was thankful for the kind words.

Tii took less time to gain his motor skills. “Tii, from the moment you gained consciousness, you took thirty-three hours to climb out of bed, and then you went straight to the exercise room.”

“The longer you wait to get up, the harder it gets. You’ve been virtually dead for years, but you get over the shock.”

Phlox stared back at his friend.

“And I wouldn’t waste any time thinking about it now. You tend to the captain, and tomorrow I might even be able to help you.”

Kinsal woke quickly, and he betrayed no emotion when Swenno told him about the heart attack. “I want you to understand that I’ve been monitoring your resurrection personally. I’ve slowed down some of the muscle rejuvenation on purpose. I don’t want to rush your heart. You won’t be the first malan out of bed, but it’s part of the plan.”

The captain nodded but could not speak.

“You are one day ahead of the majority of the crew, and you are making good progress. I want you to drink this. I designed it myself. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” He put the straw in his mouth, turned on his heel, and moved down the row.

Some of the crew looked up with contempt at Phlox, but most just ignored him and refused to make eye contact as he hovered above them. He tried to bring some of them his homemade drink but few accepted it. He made Tii tend to the face time. Without him he could only offer his help and expertise by using passive-aggressive techniques; he pretended to forget drinks in one area, or would trade nutrient drinks when malans dozed off. Tii used a more direct approach. He would bark at them. “You’re drinking like a baby. Pick that bottle up. Hold it like a real malan!”

What he could provide for the crew treated only their physical symptoms. They had to fight the psychological battle of five years of hibernation and hallucinations alone. Drugged since childhood to eradicate their dreams, these Primalan miners had been exposed to them and the void for years. But when Phlox examined a veteran of nine missions named Tamm, his vital signs were strong and showed no signs of a hangover after the long artificial winter. In fact, the Primalan ran off at the mouth and would not stop talking. “I’ll bet those who stay behind get jealous; hibernation’s immortality, malan. When you’re asleep, you don’t age. Nothing gained, but nothin’ lost, I say. When I retire, I’ll be rich and swinging in the trees with my great-grandkids.”

The first time Swenno heard the captain speak, he was howling at Tii. “Where the fuck are we?”

“We exited the void at a deviation of more than three percent of Ranyall. We are entering the wrong solar system.”

Kinsal frowned. “Explain the deviation. I know the initial blast rating was calculated correctly.”

“Captain, the blast was the correct size, force and direction. The bubble was stable. The nav-computer detected some unclassifiable energy blasts, but they were after we exited the void. This cannot be the variable.”

A good part of the crew had climbed out of bed, recuperating even faster than Tii. The process was always quicker for the veterans, and they made a point of showing that they did not need any assistance; they had no clue that Swenno had customized their software settings and monitored many of them manually. Emaciated and with patches of raw exposed skin, they were all as ugly as they were stubborn. Even for the veterans, the resurrection process was still painful and personal. Where they did have fur, it was matted and crusted. They wobbled and shook and refused help even after falling flat on the floor.

Swenno saw Tii across the stack of glowing beds talking to one of the last malans still left in his bed. “You’ll never grow hair on your chest that way.”

Phlox pulled his friend aside and said, “Tii you just said that out loud. When Troi recovers he’s going to kick your ass.”

“Don’t worry about me. You watch your own back. Wait ’til I tell them who made this sour piss.” He shook the bottles hanging from his right wrist.

Swenno walked down the corridor handing out supplements.

“I’ve done this more times than I can count. I don’t need any help from a green doctor.” Noorum Soff’s voice was rasping, and Phlox continued on his way, trying his best to ignore the angry malan.

“Don’t take it personally. That one won’t accept help from anyone. He must have woken up on the wrong side of the hiber-bed.” Tii was walking with a slight limp, but he was essentially fully recovered. Phlox tried to credit himself for Tii’s speedy progress. But he suspected that it had just as much to do with experience.

Two days later, everyone was rotating in and out of the exercise room and fierce independence turned into macho competition. They raced on the virtual bikes, boasted about how much they could lift and shoved each other wherever they walked.

Phlox lay in his room, looking out his small window. Tiny stars, bright and steady, pierced the ink-black vista. He was thinking about how he had tricked the thick-necked Guvvat into taking his supplements, how the reverse psychology had worked so easily, and all it had taken was leaving the right cabinet unlocked.

“Swenno, to Navigation.”

Phlox sprang up like a cat, fingers flared, and the hair on his tail bristling. Kinsal’s voice had sounded so natural, as if he had been in the room with him.

“Why would the captain want me?” His voice rushed out uncontrolled, almost a shout. Now that the crew was awake, he had to admit that he had been talking out loud without the ability to self-regulate. Damn it, my tail’s twitching. Phlox held his mouth closed and the words inside.

At the top of the freighter, he waited at the portal for the first set of doors to open and the small lift to drop down. He stepped onto the platform. He concentrated on the mechanism, how effortlessly it glided, never bouncing when he stepped in. It accelerated without notice, and it was the solid walls around him that seemed to be dropping. Then the lighting level shifted and dimmed just barely. Someone else would not have noticed. Not once during the pre-hibernation portion of the flight had the lights or electrical system displayed even the slightest glitch. Even disabled by years of cold sleep, he knew he had witnessed something physical, something measurable.

He stepped out of the lift to the still control room where the dome shielding had been dropped and thousands of stars shone brightly. In the sparse room, twin sling-chairs faced upward. Ladin sat looking towards the brilliant stars. His chair was rotated so that Phlox saw only the top of his head and the back of his hands as they worked methodically, almost casually, the navigational controls. The malan’s hair was very thin at the top of his head, and Phlox caught himself wondering why he cared, why he would notice.

Someone grabbed Phlox’s shoulder from behind, and he flinched even though it could only be Kinsal. Phlox had forgotten how the lift opens in the center of the circular room, and how the captain’s deck stretched behind him.

“Phlox, take a seat. It’s worth a spin.” He pushed Phlox towards the empty chair. The chair responded gracefully, adjusting perfectly to his weight and size. The computer’s control pad activated and arced down into position. But the captain pounded his stubby finders at a switch, and the multicolored controls powered down and swung away. He blew air from his dry cracked nostrils and stared up at the sky. A bright orange star, larger than the rest, held his gaze.

“It’s some view. That’s no void out there. Look straight up; that’s our new destination.”

“It’s beautiful. The sky’s so full.”

“Do you see JNT, the large, slightly orange one right up there?”

“Yes. Brighter than the rest.”

“It’s gonna get brighter every day. Real sunlight will grow back the fur on your hide,” he paused. “We’re several star systems wide of the mark. Ladin, take a break. Phlox and I will fly for a while.”

Ladin looked at Swenno with one eye closed. “Have at it.” He hopped out of his chair and jumped onto the lift, which descended immediately.

“Captain, low-resolution surface scans are complete.” The third mate, Achlis, shouted from across the room. “Shit, eighty-five percent surface water.” He pushed back from his desk, his face wrinkled with disgust. “All this damn way and we’re gonna have to go swimming in the ocean!” Kinsal sprang across the bridge and slapped him in the face. From the sudden blow his torso whip-snapped and bent as if blown by gale-force winds.

“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re not on vacation, Boy. Even if we’re off course, we’re out here for one thing. Idiot. No water? Then no flowers!”

“Phlox, switch the nav-computer on.” The captain was still barking loudly as he moved to stand right behind him, as the controls once again swung within reach. He had no idea what their leader was up to, but he obeyed and kept his chin tight to his chest.

“Those up there are our original coordinates,” he barked as he pointed off-center. “I’ve analyzed the data, but I can’t pinpoint why we went off course. Void-surfing can be tricky—they say there’s a risk every time. So Eckorr always chooses targets in rich clusters, and luckily we’ve dropped into a system with viable planets.” He paused again. “Soon, we need to angle out slightly to catch the fifth planet in its apogee. Increase our speed Swenno.”

“What? I don’t know how.”

“Come on it’s easy. Drag the fusion levels up a notch.”

Phlox did what the captain said, and the sensation of acceleration was imperceptible, but the captain began to strut a little, to stand taller. Then he turned his head slightly and stood still. “Do you feel that? That’s real power. I can feel Splinter humming. Do you know what it takes to stop a freighter this size? Even if you could get the engines to power down in the quickest order, the momentum staggers the mind. It would take more than a battle carrier to stop us.” He stared up at the stars, his hands on his hips. “Does it make you feel strong, like you’re in control?”

Phlox stared ahead and clenched his teeth.

“Remember this feeling. Because I put you in that seat. That’s the way it works around here. Everybody works for me. We’ve confirmed six planets and I get to put names to them. Nobody else.” The captain’s mouth closed on tight lips.

Phlox held his tail limp at his side. He tried not to move at all.

“You had the empty-space fever.” Phlox started to shake his head. “Don’t screw with me, Doctor. The damage is extensive. Dattura can’t be blamed for everything. You are on a few of the cameras.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I lost… ”

“Save it. You know what? You’re not special.” He reached down and flicked a control on the computer panel. “You’re not the first. It’s happened before. You’re weak that’s all; I’m surprised you lived through it.” Phlox stared at the star field. Immobilized, he winced and closed his eyes, waiting to be punched or kicked. Swenno listened to the palpitations of his own heart, and for the scrape of the captain’s boot.

“When I saw all the damage you had done, I thought I’d just leave you to die on one of these new rocks. But I like your rehab work, Malan. The crew is almost at full strength. How did you do that? I haven’t seen muscles rebuild this fast before.” He paused. Phlox sat still, his mouth slightly open. “I guess you’re doing something right.”

“I’m just doing what I was trained to do. I used to work in the Magenta forests.”

“Don’t care. I read your report about my heart attack. You probably saved my life. That leaves us with Calyx. I know he was an asshole, and that he had kicked you around. Maybe you wanted to hurt him back. Was it really just neglect?” He tapped a thick finger against the back of Phlox’s chair. “Don’t answer that.”

“If Eckorr Industries doesn’t ask any questions about him, then you’ll be in the clear. And if our haul is decent, they don’t tend to ask questions. But, so you know, if there is an investigation regarding his death, I won’t back you up. Instead, I’ll let them see the footage of you rampaging through the medical labs, smashing wall panels.

Phlox lowered his head. “I did experience void-fever… but I was… ”

“Don’t talk too much Swenno. Something stinks about his malfunction. I can’t prove you did anything to him, but I don’t think it was a coincidence.”

Phlox climbed out of the sling-chair and stood there staring at the smooth floor panels. There was a flashing pulse across the navigation monitors.

“I’ll be overriding the hibernation controls when we return. You’ll be the first to be put under and the last to come up. You’re free to go,” he said as he flicked a switch. “Ladin, come back. We’ve got more of those strange energy pulses headed our way.”

Phlox felt he should salute, but he knew it wasn’t right. He squeaked out a, “Yes sir,” and descended.

As the small lift came to a rest, Phlox lost his balance and the lights along the entire spine shut off in a rapid cascade. Emergency lighting quickly snapped on in a yellow pulse that pursued the dark band of failing lights. Phlox’s stomach cramped and his neck muscles contracted, then relaxed, in uncontrolled spasms. Twenty seconds behind the power surge, the standard lighting returned. Although still feeling dizzy, he wanted to move under his own power and swung down to the first branches of the hydroponic farrlin tree. With one hand outstretched, he lurched and immediately fell unconscious as if he had been struck with a club. His tail instinctively wrapped around the nearest limb, and he dangled there for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes a moment later, he was dumbfounded. A light melody played in his head. It only added to the disorientation.

He pulled himself upright and breathing fully, he blew out the residue of vertigo. He concluded it was only stress, and he continued to climb down the combination of tree and lattice.

He stood in empty Lab Two and reached for a dose of dream-suppressants that the computers had just unlocked. The room lost light as one color at a time was drained out from the spectrum, tunneling down to a white focal point in front of him. He wilted to his side. His knees buckled, he leaned forward, but did not pass out. His body lingered instead, somewhere before unconsciousness. His pinpoint-vision opened back up to a vibrant iridescent green tunnel. Then the emerald curtain was shot with dancing, melodic sparkles and opposing bright pinks raced through the green saturated walls around him. And then, as if nothing had happened, he was staring at the sterile, white ceiling lights in his lab. There was no motion, no swirling, no music.

He climbed into his sling-chair. He looked down; a vial of Dream Out was clutched tightly in his hand. He was out of breath. “Tired. That’s it. I’m just stressed and tired.” But Phlox couldn’t convince himself. He turned to his computer and began a search of his symptoms. The very temporary loss of consciousness and vibrant color-displays were not unique enough symptoms.

He connected to another machine where his respiratory, cardiac, and immune systems still showed no abnormalities. He turned to the medical database. The lights flickered in the lab, and the doctor fell asleep where he sat, his head hitting the back wall. Ideas, postulations, and fragments of his research flashed and broke apart. When he woke, the lights were still flickering. He stood up, crossed the room, stopped, wondering what he was doing.

A single alarm sounded from the hibernaculum, and without hesitating, he shot through the oval portal and into the long, dark curving room, but he could not imagine why there was an alarm going off. No one was down here. He ran fast, past empty pods and honed in on the blaring bell. It was Calyx’s bed. He cringed, waiting for this error to trigger the life-support siren. But the alarm remained isolated to the dark bed in front of him. Phlox barked, “He’s not a sleeper. He’s a vegetable.” He looked carefully at the bed’s controls and the monitor confirmed that there was no heartbeat, brain wave readings were non-existent, and that the bed was still in standard cryogenic mode. “This malan’s frozen solid!” He was shouting into the stale air. No one was listening. Then the alarm stopped for no reason. Phlox stomped away, up through the spoke and out to the freighter’s center.

In the spine, dozens of malans were making their way up or down the climbing structure, and the hollow core echoed with their howls. A crewmember he didn’t recognize nodded in his direction. There was no warmth in the gesture but also no hostility. Kinsal could’ve locked me up. Everyone knows it. I’m lucky I’ve still got my fur. The words of this internal chatter reverberated in his head. Had he said that last line out loud?

After eating in the cafeteria, he went back to check Calyx’s bed. He hoped to see some proof that these glitches weren’t just figments of his own destabilized mental state. And the scientist deep within him wanted to understand the cause of the malfunction. There were other concerns: It would look suspicious if the preserved body—evidence of his malpractice—was decayed to the point that no one could determine the cause of death. Arriving in the curving hibernaculum, he saw that the alarms were inactive and the room silent. He stared in at Calyx’s cold, black nose.

He turned away and swung back towards Med Lab One, but the corridor slipped into darkness. Green stars flickered. They spiraled inward, closing his vision before he hit the floor. He felt the walkway grate pressing cold against his face, and then he lost all sense of feeling.

Sometime later, he opened his eyes, pushed up off the floor and stumbled to his desk. How long was I out? Cool beads of sweat had gathered on the soft hair of his forehead. He stared down at the pads of his numb fingertips. He clenched his stiff fingers to form a fist, then released them and spread them wide.

He began a full medical exam. He drew his own blood, re-monitored his cardiovascular system, and scanned his immune system, checking for reaction times. Everything registered normally and in alignment with the exam he had undergone shortly before departure from Akkacia. The laboratory’s powerful diagnostic computers were spinning his blood through a litany of tests the last of which would finish tomorrow morning. He would have to wait.

Phlox sat up in bed. He had awakened suddenly, and his head still leached dreams of a lush valley with a deep, languid river and the air heavy with mist. He had been walking in thick, short grass that had tickled the worn pads of his feet. There were no trees, only low broad-leafed plants swaying gently and a high-pitched tone like wind through stiff reeds. Somehow the environment, or maybe the sound, was familiar—though both were impossibilities. It was not the landscape of his home planet, those haunting sounds were wholly foreign.

“Swenno. Please come to Navigation.” The general intercom snapped on and then was silent.

“Kinsal said ‘please.’ How civil.”

Phlox quickly washed his face and smoothed the hair on his tail. It was growing back in thick inflexible strands. Then the comb fell from his hand and he folded over slowly.

Bright images of Akkacia fly before his eyes. Smooth cinnamon-colored branches span the afternoon sky. They stretch and race, ending capillary-thin one hundred feet from the tree’s center. Jutting from thick trunks at ninety-degree angles, they stay level with the ground—their very stature defying gravity. The farrlin’s branches weave with the neighboring trees and form a flowing stratum, a multilayered landscape high above the ground.

The visions skew iridescent. Phlox stands on top of a tall, rock pillar. Grass and reeds grow rapidly between his feet, through his widespread toes. The grasses keep pushing. Soon they are pushing past his shoulder, curving and twisting and aiming forhis eyes. Along the length of each blade, small tooth-filled mouths open and close, mute but dangerous.

“Doctor. To Navigation immediately.”

He opened his eyes. Something was different. Groggy, he pulled himself up and stumbled through the door. He started to feel better as he bounded fast to the top of Splinter. As the lift opened into the main deck, the captain barked, “Where the hell were you? I’ve been waiting twenty minutes.”

“Sir, I was running some medical tests. I couldn’t leave them during that crucial cycle.”

“No! If I call you up here, you respond. You know protocol. Don’t pull that shit again.” The captain turned sharply and began pacing.

Phlox nodded and kept his tail in a submissive coil. Why did I lie so quickly? Shouldn’t I just tell him what happened? No, never let them know you’re sick. Best to wait and figure out what is happening to me. There will be plenty of time to get better, and to tell the captain later.

Meanwhile, Kinsal had stopped pacing and had jumped back into his chair. “Listen. We’ve done a preliminary sweep of each planet. One is gaseous. Three are dead. We’re unsure about one. It might have some sort of thin atmosphere. But the fifth planet looks good. We’re getting high organic read-outs: complex organic structures are present. The atmosphere looks to be compatible. The problem is, we’re looking at one-point-five gravity at least, and the atmospheric pressure is going to be high. My crew is going to be sluggish down there. What are you going to do to prepare them?”

“Well, we’ve got the right nutrient supplements. I inventoried them last week. We can start vigorous physical training. How many weeks do we have?”

“Less than four. We can’t increase the artificial gravity on board; we don’t have the fuel to waste. We need more than workouts. We don’t have enough time, and I want to maximize our time on the ground.”

“We could boost the electro-steroid levels.”

“Right. Give’em the maximum. You’re in charge. I want my malans bulked up.”

“I know how I can override the stimulation safeguards on the physical therapy machines. I can set the parameters to increase muscle growth. It’s been done in tests.”

“Sounds good.”

“I think I can administer the procedure safely.”

“Like I said Swenno, I’m putting you in charge. I’ll announce it at cycle’s end that everyone has to meet with you. We’ll go by crew number. And you can bet that I’ll also be in the exercise room personally, cracking the whip.”

As Phlox turned to leave, he pictured Kinsal with a real whip looped at his side. He’d carry a smooth-skin leather whip. He sees himself like that. This time he made sure that his voice stayed in his head, and as he swung down to his lab, he held his tail a little bit higher.

The next morning, his completed diagnostics revealed nothing abnormal. He decided to re-administer the tests, compare them once more with the results prior to departure and before hibernation, and cross-reference the findings with others on Splinter if he needed to.

Meanwhile, he had to set up the mechanics for the crew’s electro-chemical stimulation routines. He kept busy and was able to treat the second and third mates, Anthullo and Achlis, in quick succession. He sat at the controls, his third guinea pig, Ladin, was stretched out on Lab One’s diagnostic table and spliced into the computer, when Swenno quickly lost consciousness. Similar visions flooded his head, but this time the alien landscape was blurred by a swirling emerald mist. When he was able to open his eyes, he could tell from the stimulation machine that his green-out had lasted two minutes.

Ladin, still strapped to the table, was staring at him. “I looked over and I saw you weren’t moving. I heard something—it’s why I bothered to look up. You were humming something, Malan! Don’t fuck with my treatments or I’ll kick your long tailed ass.”

“Sorry. Haven’t been able to sleep. All your read-outs are good. At this stage, the machine mostly takes care of itself.” Phlox was congratulating himself at the fluidity of his lie when he realized the truth. He had been sleeping without any difficulty for cycles of eight or nine hours, and during the day he wasn’t passing out as from some physical blow to the head, but experiencing something more organic. Over the course of the last two days, the losses of consciousness, while still uncontrollable, had become quite gentle. He was simply falling asleep. Narcolepsy.

He changed the subject. “I hear we’ve just penetrated the solar system’s edge. Do you think we’ve synchronized with the orbital plane yet?”

“Yeah, Captain Kinsal likes a traditional drag line. It’s a straight shot from here. Three weeks, four weeks tops. Think you can make it?” Ladin said coldly.

From then on out, Phlox made a point of monitoring the stimulation machines from the next room. He didn’t want to appear weak. He knew the risks of appearing different, the importance of masking his ailment.

After the crewmember’s treatments filled Swenno’s work rotations, Tii agreed to help him for two hours during the evening cycle.

“The basics for bulking aren’t difficult, but there’s no one else that I can ask to run the… ”

“Stop right there. I’ll do it for you, but don’t get mushy on me, Malan.”

Kinsal’s assignment helped Swenno to stay clear-headed and being active, both mentally and physically, helped to shake off the last vestiges of his enduring hibernation hangover. He wanted to stay alert and reverse the negligence that had killed Calyx. And it quelled his guilt when the crew had to come to him, had to trust his skills, if they wanted to function on the destination-planet. This was different than when he had monitored their hibernation state or their rejuvenation process. Now, even the veterans needed his help.

The next day, he looked carefully at the new results of his blood work. It displayed elevated levels of melatonin. It was still in the normal range for a healthy Primalan, and that’s why the first computer analysis had ignored the spike, but the current melatonin levels were much higher than the levels he had registered just two days before launch. It made no sense. Within the confines of Splinter, where diet and environmental exposure where strictly monitored, there should not have been any uncontrolled variables. This neurohormone should only increase due to external variables or natural doses of sunlight.

It’s dream-suppressant withdrawal. I’ll need to increase my dose.

Over the course of the next three days, Phlox doubled his dream-suppressants, but he was still falling asleep, at least three or four times during the work-shift. Meanwhile, he continued to sleep soundly at night. A pessimistic thought began to crowd his waking hours. No one can hallucinate this much and remain stable. He decided to take a closer look at the entire crew’s hormone levels and see if they had also shifted, but when he couldn’t find anyone else with high levels of melatonin, he began to design additional tests to check for other neurohormonal abnormalities.

Swenno spent a night in his own exam room. The table was hard and cold and wires arched from his temples and chest to the medical computer. The machines hummed and beeped, but as uncomfortable as he was, Phlox still slept deeply.

He swings through a giant forest. He is light and agile.

In a tree that smelled familiar, like the blue farrlin blossom, he comes face-to-face with his wife. Dark pools amid pure, white fur stare back at him. She is as surprised as he is. They hug. Her beautiful, soft fur is dense with the scent of pine needles. The two of them sit, tails entwined, and talk for hours, but they don’t really say anything at all. She does not explain where she has been and neither mentions their daughter. Instead, she just smiles wide and grabs both of Phlox’s ears.

Dara’s speech begins to change. She has a foreign, singsong accent, and then it quickly shifts, becoming extraordinary, high pitched and penetrating. And then her voice just disappears, and Phlox is left staring as her mouth opens and closes. There are no words, only the wind whistling between her lips.

He opened his large round eyes. The captain stared down at him. “What the hell are you doing?” Phlox shook his head back and forth to dislodge the sleep from his brain. “I’m doing a full diagnostic. I’m not feeling well. I want to find out why.”

“You’re one paranoid, new sleeper. I just came down to see how things were progressing. Some of the malans look really bulked up. Are you on schedule?”

“Yes. Some malans are responding more positively than others to the treatments.” Phlox could not pay attention; he was worried about his own tests. He did not know what was worse: for the captain to find out that he was narcoleptic or that he had begun free-dreaming. Kinsal turned and muttered something about keeping up the good work and bounded away.

While staring up at the ceiling and the bio-network tubes, Phlox Swenno had a new idea. He tweaked all the life-support monitors to register the sleep patterns of each crewmember. The doctor didn’t ask for permission. He monitored everyone’s sleep for three days, but the spying could not confirm exaggerated margum rhythms or elevated REM activity in anyone except himself. My body is reacting like it has sleep apnea, but I’m sleeping deeply. My brain… Then, mid-thought, his mind spun shut like the thin twisting aperture of an old camera, and he folded into a deep sleep.

The hiberchamber controls were clear: Calyx was brain dead. Technically, he was not completely lifeless for some residual activity—barely perceptible brain echoes leaching away—had been recorded before his body was cryogenically frozen. Perhaps it was proof there had been life, not that there was any life left inside.

Rotation 260/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: Parting grasses, twisting branches, delicate leaves. Something floats in on bright, green breeze.

Kyryl Yellow: Let Vision Legends help us now.

Chorus: Search the pillars for past record. Pluck our collective memory.

Xal Violet: Sites in Dreamscape are quite clear: they’re attackers who bring mind-plague and ride like cankers on our thoughts.

Toral Blue: Could be the sleep of simple creatures. Or animal-like mist from mind’s breath. These are brutal dreams but benign.

Rotation 265/Revolution 9753

Xal Violet: They draw closer, dream no stronger; they are only beasts of muscle and bone. I feel the heat, their dream exhaust and hot steam thoughts.

Kyryl Yellow: But one is different. There is a larva within its cocoon with mind so clipped it is an image turned icicle.

Xal Violet: I feel the slightest twitch of capillaries, flinch of pulse through tough tissue. Is it life or only an echo?

Rotation 266/Revolution 9753

Blue Toral: Why do dreams intertwine with drops organic and fragile? When we envisioned the foreign it was of extra-mental thoughts. Quorum didn’t predict that the very shell was life itself.

Xal Violet: My dreams display tiny mollusks within the conch.

Chorus: The creature as craft for its own Dreamscape?

Rotation 267/Revolution 9753

Xal Violet: What is this weakest wavelength caught within the Final Tunnel? Maybe it’s a baser creature’s dream wallowing in lesser spheres.

Toral Blue: Blood, muscle, bone must move or die. This animal has spilt sentient breath. Does it deserve to live?

Chorus: Lend collective electric and melt this mutant that was frozen.

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