Atmosphere: We Don't Orbit but Fall the Same

By Garth Bunse All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 9

The shimmering planet, newly named Ettiquin, loomed in front of Splinter Sixty-Six. The freighter fired retro-rockets in quick blasts of green flame. Its solar sails flared fully, and the craft began to spin on the axis of its spine, corkscrewing towards an unknown blue. The bright whites and azures of the planet refracted off the crystalline hull, and it came alive like a disco ball. After such a cold, dark glide, even the black grooves between the solar arrays sparkled and fluttered. The freighter’s choreography across time and space continued as it twirled delicately towards its partner, its inertia immaterial in the face of insurmountable mass. And with each inevitable twist, the Splinter drew deeper into Ettiquin’s tempestuous embrace.

Everyone that could justify it, tried to gain access to the main deck and the singular view it provided, and Phlox got his chance two weeks before orbit-lock. A third of the planet’s right side was an eclipsed vacant black. The rest was a dusty indigo, blooming with white swirling clouds with edges that seemed to flash toward lighter blues. He stood in the center of Navigation, having just reported to Kinsal a repetition of what they had discussed earlier that morning in the gymnasium. The doctor’s tail twitched and his mouth hung open. Ettiquin-JNT, as it would be officially inscribed, was huge and filled more than ninety degrees of the one hundred-eighty degree line of sight. The planet in full panorama captivated. None of the malans, regardless of how many deep sleep missions they had endured or how many jagged and colorful rocks they had walked on, could resist talking about it. He continued to stare up, dumbfounded and grateful as the planet blinked back. Azure lights flickered in erratic pulses at the left side of its circumference and seemed to intensify the longer he stared upwards.

The captain barked orders to someone and Phlox lowered his head, adjusted his belt and bounded for the lift.

He was falling unconscious more than ten times a day. The fits were, however, shortening in span, and Phlox was learning how to adapt. He was no longer falling over and hitting his head. Instead, he was training himself to fold softly or to sit down immediately, as he could sense the arrival of many if not most of the narcoleptic attacks. Intense green fields or foliage might fill his head, or the direction of his thoughts might shift dramatically, but it was not his mind wandering. At the deepest level, he was being overrun and his very thoughts invaded. After each attack, he was also waking faster, shaking off the grogginess and immediately proceeding with whatever activity he had been pursuing.

For more than a century, his people had been perfecting medicines, first distilling flower-nectar to quiet the dreams and then developing the technologies to extract dreams completely. Swenno, having been dropped again into primordial waters, had to sink or swim. When eyelids fold down, dreams abound. Phlox woke up with a start. Dreaming in general was not what he found so disturbing, but sometimes he felt like the voices or the images that arrived in his dreams were from somewhere else completely. Unfamiliar with its artistry, he could not comprehend what the unconscious mind could invent, or how this side of his nature could choreograph metaphor. These images are not mine.

Under a night sky full of twinkling stars, something unseen stirs. There is a loud crunching of dry brush, the rhythmical fall of many feet. Swenno’s heart beats fast. Lying in the dark, he tries to scream, but he can’t. He knows that his face is taut, his mouth a wide circle and that something is rushing out, but there is no sound except for the roll of feet across twigs getting louder and quickening in tempo. He holds perfectly still, and the footfalls come closer, then they inexplicably turn away and grow faint. He dismissed it all. It’s just a dream—wasted energy escaping to space.

During Tii’s bulking session, Phlox asked, “Have you been sleeping alright?”

“Yeah, as well as can be expected. It takes a long time before it’s the same again. The brain doesn’t forget all those years of extra sleep.”

“Look Tii, can I tell you something and trust you?”

“Honestly, it depends on the thing.” Then he looked over at Phlox. Maybe it had only been a joke, but after seeing the way Phlox’s cheeks puffed and the short hairs shifted on his brow, he changed his own facial expression. “Of course you can trust me. Do you think I’ve got a pact with Kinsal?”

“Well it’s like this: I have no problem sleeping, whatsoever. I fall asleep about ten times a day. It lasts for just a minute or two. Then I’m awake and alert again. No matter what I use to medicate, I can’t stop it, and it keeps increasing in frequency. Last week, it was only eight or nine times a day. I’ve run all the tests, but I can’t find any explanation.”

“Any other symptoms?”

“None that I can pinpoint.” Phlox lied quickly. He just couldn’t tell Tii about the dreaming. It would be too much. It would bring his sanity into question, and he might think that the narcolepsy was made up, just part of the delusional state.

“Well, I’ve seen you looking really tired, but I guess you’re hiding the attacks pretty well, and everyone looks strong because of you. Are you getting all your work done?”

Phlox nodded.

“Don’t say anything until it effects the freighter.”

“The captain called me to Navigation; I was late because I fell asleep and he went ballistic.”

“He was probably just happy for an excuse to blow up. I’ve never heard of this happening before, but how serious can it be? I’ll be sure to let you know if I catch you dozing off.” Tii jumped off the table and headed for the door, passing the next patient at the doorstep. “I’ll be back at eighteen hundred core to stab some malans with needles.” Phlox nodded and smiled.

Phlox, thicker and stockier than before, was in his lab running a final analysis of the muscle-building when the intercom switched on, “Swenno, to Navigation.” He headed to the central corridor, excited by another opportunity to see Ettiquin, and found the captain in one of the sling-chairs staring up at the navy blue of the planet waning towards night. Phlox closed the distance to the empty chair next to him and stared up at the dark orb, stars glittering at its edges. He heard a screaming in his green head, tried to stay awake, but stumbled to the ground.

The screaming changed to an animalistic wailing and then to a grating hiss. Spinning deep that metal splinter.

As he woke, he heard the sound of Kinsal’s voice. “Doctor, what the hell are you doing? Don’t fall apart, damn it—I need a report on the condition of the crew.” Swenno shook his head. It was easy to hear the captain, but his body was paralyzed by sleep and couldn’t respond. He struggled, but even though his cerebrum was never unconscious, his stubborn eyelids would not open.

Kinsal kept ranting, “Even a rubber spine breaks. Knew you couldn’t handle it. You are just a big brain with tiny bones.”

Phlox saw the captain’s words as if printed and floating in the air. And to his complete fascination, the conviction and sincerity of each word had been uniquely color-coded—their truths recorded with the accuracy of a polygraph. Finally, he found the strength to sit up and open his eyes, and he knew that the captain was being as sympathetic as he knew how to be. He had read his mind.

“Do you think my malans are ready? Are you ready?” He stared down with squinting eyes.

Phlox nodded as he slowly stood up.

“Good. The first exploratory pods will launch at nine core. And you, we’ll see if you’re able to hack it. Go get some real sleep. You’re confined to quarters for six hours. Go sleep.”

The captain got up and walked away. The three other Primalans in the room were watching, waiting. Swenno walked quickly away, but held his tail high. He went straight to his room where the door shut automatically, and an electric dead bolt fired loudly.

At first he paced his tiny quarters; taking three strides forward, turning on his toes and repeating the motions. He did not feel tired, but angry. He dictated a letter to his sister. But he could only stammer vulgarities and insignificant information. He stared out his tiny window and watched the edge of the planet flip into view. Just when he was on the verge of screaming, those same misty visions filled his head, and he dropped quickly into a profound sleep.

A thick fog, verdant and lustrous, surrounds his body. He feels cool and clean—the humidity, the sweat of living in a tin can—has been washed away. He is pushed along by a rough crowd of burly malans, but he is not panicked: a confidence flows through him as though he can read everyone’s mind, and he senses no ill will. He even sees Calyx Swigg walk towards him, but his mind and heart remain at peace.

He woke up immediately, aware of the falseness of the dream. Even the sun’s quality of light had been all wrong. In the dream he was happy, but he woke with a sharp sense of something missing. He cursed his dreams, knowing them to be the end of self-determination and sanity.

A medical alarm blared.

Under emergency protocol, his door unlocked. The computer said a bio-alarm was going off in the hibernaculum. Phlox ran with heavy steps, and his mind moved as awkwardly as his feet. Only his ears were alert and perked. Is this a malfunction, or is someone in danger? He jumped up the central corridor in three bounds and ran to Lab One. Empty! He doubled back and dashed to the second lab. It was empty. He knew that he would find the third lab vacant too, so he ran through Lab Two, sliding across its cold smooth floor, and down the corridor to the ring. His head was cocked, tracking the sound, but he knew instinctively that it was Calyx Swigg’s bed. His rational mind told him that some computer or electronics must be malfunctioning, but deep in his marrow he knew that something else was happening. He stared down at the bed and at its red flashing screen. Calyx was in cardiac arrest.

“Impossible. You’ve been dead and fucking frozen for a month!” The doctor pulled the long hairs at the back of his head.

Somehow, the temperature in his chamber was nearly normal. He stood motionless, watching through the glass lid as Calyx’s entire body convulsed. The thin and matted hair on the malan’s face revealed lifeless, gray skin animated by unexplained motion. It reminded him of ancient experiments that used electrical currents to stimulate muscle contractions in Primalan corpses. Maybe if Calyx had still been alive, Swenno would have immediately suppressed the seizure with medicines and algorithmic counter stimulation, but he did nothing except stare with horror and disbelief.

And then there was a flare of green, momentary filling the air like lightning. Swenno ran for the defibrillation paddles. And even though it made no sense to administer a manual shock, he knew intuitively that it was the right thing to do. He popped the lid, ignoring the putrid smell of gangrene and decay and laid paws on Calyx’s chest. He felt a wild beating within, and even through the thick gel, he applied the paddles effortlessly, expertly. The years of excruciating training took control, and he acted swiftly and decisively as he customized medicinal doses. He remained tranquil even as Swigg’s body was rocked by contractions and body-length spasms. Finally, he stepped back, his head pounding. Calyx’s body was still, and there was what appeared to be a heartbeat; a weak but steady bounce registered on a small monitor.

Then Phlox spun on his heel and lunged for an intercom control. He took a deep breath and tried to speak calmly into the microphone. “Tii, please report to the Med Lab Three.” He was sure that he was going to scream, but instead, spun back to face Swigg’s bed. This is insane. I’ve lost it. This is some kind of sick joke. I need someone to tell me this is real.

The floor beneath his feet jumped slightly. The lights along the main corridor began to cascade again, and before the standard lighting returned, he was asleep, slumped against the wall clutching his clipboard. This time there were no verdant mists warning him. He was fast asleep: thin branches parting, the smell of wet leaves burning, and the sound of a thousand voices speaking in unison. The voices are unintelligible, but for an instant they shift, wavelengths harmonize, and he hears, “What are thoughts if not co-mingled?” When he awoke, he could hear echoes of the pseudo voices, but they were again garbled and incoherent. In the dream, he was convinced by the logic, but wasn’t it just his unconscious tiring of the unfathomable?

His head was splitting in two, the pain electric and sharp. This narcoleptic attack had been especially rapid and powerful with none of the typical warning signs. The migraine was accompanied by a high-pitched, rhythmic beeping. He pushed off the floor between two hiberchambers. He recognized the sound as the beep of a cardio monitor. He stood up, sure that he was still dreaming, because Calyx registered a strong and steady heartbeat. Even if the programming of the bed was helping, it couldn’t explain his fully-functional cardio-muscular system. It was impossible, but he stared down, unable to blink, unwilling to look away. He threw back his head and howled. He could not hear his own voice.

Ladin, who was climbing down the spine, heard his high-pitched calls and yelled from the labs to the arcing hibernaculum.

“What are you howling about?”

“Come here. I need someone to see this.”

Ladin bounded over on thick rippling legs and loud pressurized boots and stood across from him. He stared down into the unlocked bed, and his normally hard facial features were softened by utter confusion.

“He’s breathing Swenno, and that’s his own goddamn heartbeat isn’t?”

“Yes.”

“Did you just bring this fucker back to life? You’re a mad genius!”

Phlox stammered, his barks mere puffs of air.

“I mean he must be really messed up. But those are brain waves too, right? Right?”

The doctor was still experiencing the tunnel vision of shock: he hadn’t taken the time to look around. He jumped over the bed and stared down at the monitors on that side. Multiple lines of brain waves bounced across the screen. It showed brain activity in the lowest spectrum. On a primitive or animalistic level, Calyx Swigg was truly alive.

“I’ve got no idea what kind of state his brain is in. Earlier, the monitors had shown no activity above the medulla oblongata. How can he go from zero rhythms to this?”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, it’s working! Maybe you can bulk up his mind like you’ve done for our pecks.”

“I’m not fully responsible for his recovery. This should be impossible.”

But Ladin wasn’t listening: He was leaving with a slight bounce in his heavy boots. Phlox stood in a daze, and he heard Ladin’s bark bouncing off the walls and spreading in the direction of the spine. “Fucking amazing! The doctor is incredible. Tii, take a look in there. He’s fully resurrected Calyx. Turns out this malan is a hero.” Tii answered in low and noncommittal barks as he jogged up to the beeping bed.

They both stared down at the yellow tank. Tii’s mouth fell open with shock, and it stayed open. After a few minutes, Phlox looked up. “Help me bring him to the lab. There’s no reason for him to be in this hiberchamber any longer.”

Tii ducked under the network tubing to stand next to the doctor and patted him heartily on the back. “You sure you want to do that? At the very least, that’s gonna be one hell of a stinky malan in there.” Tii joked as if there were nothing fantastic occurring, but his mouth was still hanging open, and he held the fur of his brow straight, his eyes locked on the bed.

Phlox sighed and slowly reached out a finger towards the controls. Then he breathed in abruptly and quickly and entered the right code-sequence to drain the nutrigel. A motor wound below, and a sour, putrid smell filled the room as more of Calyx’s flesh was exposed.

In tacit unison, they both took two steps back while never taking their eyes from the occupied bed and the undeniable rise and fall of Calyx’s chest.

“Phlox, how’d you do this?”

“I don’t know. Believe me, I don’t know how it’s possible or why the body was even allowed to thaw.”

They watched the thin nutrient gel pull away from Calyx’s emaciated limbs. Then they raised his light body onto a stretcher and carried him to Med Lab Two. Phlox set up all the standard monitors, and Tii helped make sure they were linked correctly to Splinter’s communication systems.

“You want mobile capabilities, right? We’re going to be doing the same thing to monitor the flex-levels of the bolt engines when we’re on the surface.”

Phlox, who had just finished inserting color-coded intravenous tubes, nodded to Tii. “Yes, I’m almost done. I just want to set up the physical therapy machines. Remember, it’s a lot of customized settings and some non-standard devices. Can you make sure that it uploads correctly to the bio-network?”

“Can do, Doctor.”

There was a beeping sound, and Phlox looked down to see that Calyx’s breath, already weak, had just slowed. He set up an electro-compulsion field to act as a ventilator, but Calyx’s breathing stopped completely when the powerfully concentrated electric field was turned on. And for Phlox, the room turned bright iridescent green.

The sparks of concussion dance in peripheral vision, then sparks turn to drops, and he is underwater. It’s ice-cold, he can’t breathe, and he struggles uselessly to get to a green sky above.

He hears Tii shouting, the buzz of an old motor, and then the emerald hues faded quickly. “Are you still with me, Doctor?”

“Yes.” He looked up to see Tii standing above Calyx, squeezing a manual ventilator firmly in his left hand.

“Did you mean to switch off the dakkon compression ventilator? I mean, it looked like you did it after you fell asleep.”

“Yes, I wanted that off. It made things worse.”

“Will the motorized ventilator work? I didn’t know how to set it up.” He paused, but then started squeezing the ventilator bag again. “Damn, if you haven’t gotten me personally involved with saving this asshole’s life.” Phlox raised his head and stretched his arms high above his head. Then he went quickly to the monitors, adjusted the pharmaceutical levels, and after a minute asked Tii to remove the ventilator. They both watched Calyx breathe unassisted.

“Is he going to make it?” Tii asked, scratching his furry neck.

“The readouts say his body is healthy. I need more time to see if there is anything left of his mind.”

They both leaned back on their tails for a minute without talking.

“I’ll be working on Hyyperbolt Four. Let me know if you need help.” Tii started for the spine as Phlox adjusted intravenous tubes. “You know, with your luck Doctor, Calyx is going to wake up, and he’s going to remember everything.” Tii laughed in loud friendly barks and Phlox did too. But he was nervous; he worried that Tii might be right.

Listening to the very real and breathing, the doctor leaned against his desk and imagined the future. He closed his primary eyelids, counted the beats of the heart monitor and tried to take in what was happening. Calyx had been arrogant and righteous before—what would he be like now? Hell, if he wakes up, he’ll revenge his own death. Failure to monitor dangerous levels? He won’t believe a fucking word! He listened to the shallow escape of air from his patient’s throat, the slow rasp from a previously abandoned path. He stared at the protruding data-feed wire, and the chrome fingers of the muscle therapy stimulators running up and down his sides, pressing into his anemic body, and finding skin that indented too easily.

Phlox leaned back, and without taking his eyes off Calyx, he opened a line to the captain. “I think I’ve got some good news. Come down to Lab Three.”

A newly optimistic captain ordered the first reconnaissance craft to drop. Crewless and fully automated, they spun loose from the docking rings and sheared the atmosphere like thin pieces of shale ricocheting on a calm lake, then pierced the illusionary water and sank below the clouds. The freighter rumbled as if under attack. Sparks flew and metal creaked. The lights flickered once, and a quivering like an earthquake rolled along the spine and threw crates and tools in disarray. Then Splinter Sixty-Six fell silent as machines went offline or shut down, and the entire crew stood still except for Phlox, who dropped to the floor of Med Lab One in an especially quick fit of narcolepsy.

A dream of a hundred tiny red mouths: they have no teeth but they suck and tear and pull at individual strands of his hair—each pluck a slight sting, but the pain accumulates quickly—until he is bald. The small crimson mouths begin to disappear except for a handful that triple in size and snap their toothless lips open and shut. Held down and exposed, his hairless skin blisters under the direct sunlight of an immense star.

The dark blue planet now filled the windows of the main deck. Due to Splinter’s orbital position, three-quarters of the planet was in darkness, but along the brightly lit edge of the sphere, massive gray clouds swirled. They blurred and faded as the planet spun to pure black.

In the midst of the system-failure, the corners of the medical laboratory were obscured by dark shadows while the bright side of the planet washed the center of the room in a lilac tone. Phlox felt incredibly weak and feverish. He stumbled across the floor to the room’s only light source as Splinter shook one last time. At the wall below the lab’s window, he pulled himself up and looked out. He saw a shimmering effect across the dark side of the globe and could not take his eyes off it. Tiny bursts of light spit on and off. The sparkling danced periodically along the entire sphere, condensing in pulsing fluctuations like a spectrograph or crackling lightning, flashing bright and then disappearing.

“It’s got an incredibly strong magnetic field.” Ladin had leaned slightly in Swenno’s direction as they talked in the cafeteria. “We think that’s what’s causing the electric fluctuations throughout the craft. Taauk thinks it’s responsible for the scattered light shows too. Might be some kind of persistent aurora borealis kept alive by a super-strong magnetic environment.”

“But it doesn’t explain why it flickers on just one side of the planet.”

Phlox’s eyes hurt and blinking his nictitating membrane did nothing to help, so reluctantly he closed his eyes tightly and rubbed his eyebrows. A minute later, he looked down at the planet again. Its scattered clouds and rich blue color made him homesick. He thought he would be relieved to see clouds and evidence of land, but it just made him feel farther away from Akkacia. Lights, in the upper atmosphere of the dark globe, caught his attention as they grew bright again, snapping on and off in a frenzy of energy. They sparkled and shifted, gathering and twisting as they circled towards the north pole. Then the lights pulsed three times before disappearing completely—the pitch-black of the dark side.

Phlox was asleep, again.

Overlapping voices, a chaos of over-stimulation as sound frequencies bled into the visual range. A chattering rises and falls, and he sees nothing except a green swirling fog. Then in unison a multitude of voices hiss, “Splinter, Splinter, Splinter.” He opened his eyes. The room was dark, but the shimmering across the planet’s horizon continued and it cast an amiable, organic light that danced and sparkled vibrantly across the laboratory’s ceiling. Then the monitors around him flickered and the overhead lamps snapped on.

He lay on the floor without moving, listening to shouting from the crowded center of the freighter; stir crazy malans ready to land. He had to prepare Lab One and Two for the bulking schedule, so he pulled himself up off the floor. The door to Lab Three was open, and he could see Calyx’s pale body stretched thin on the table. His skin crawled with gooseflesh. Curse or miracle? Either way, there was nothing he could do. His patient’s breathing had never failed since they had moved him, but his low-level brain wave readings stayed exactly the same: unsustainable and hovering just above the vegetable.

After performing twelve hours straight of muscle therapy, he left the labs and climbed slowly to his room. He curled in a tight ball and slept, eyes twitching.

He stands below towering farrlin trees that stretch toward a light, blue sky, their flowers folding in deep maroon blossoms. Phlox bounds easily toward an outstretched branch and swings upward across three more. He is home but not calm. Although every tree, every bough that shapes his house is familiar, he feels disoriented. It is the feeling of walking into the kitchen or bathroom and forgetting why you had come. He feels confused but at the same time safe: it is a feeling of safety that he has not felt for many years. He swings unencumbered towards the top of the largest tree, coming out from under a thousand leaves into bright sunlight. He tilts his head slightly and sniffs a fragrant, dark flower. It is spent, overly ripe, and there is salt in the air.

A branch far below him snaps. He drops down through several layers of branches and hangs from his tail, but cannot see anyone or anything. Near the ground the forest is somber: light and sound have fallen from the sky and cannot escape. Humid air drifts up, bringing with it an unfamiliar smell. There is a pressure in Phlox’s stomach that dampens his spirit. Above him there are no howls along the treetops, no call of birds. He pulls himself back up and climbs again. From the very crown of the farrlin, he sees the ocean in the distance and feels the cool breeze of late afternoon across the fur of his face.

Gray Floks, Phlox Gray, I see your dreams.

“Green, Kora Green, I feel you sleep.” Phlox hears his own voice say.

You dream naïve, you disbelieve.

“You are not real but me recycled; you are only a muse in my bipolar realm.” He heard his own voice inside his head but they were not his words. Concentrating as hard as he could, he strained to speak. “This is a just a new dialect, an inflection of the disease. I want to wake. I will wake from you.” But he was not confident. He was not alone inside his own head.

Phlox’s eyes opened. He was fatigued, like he had been bingeing on nectar wine all night. He sat up, wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air. It was the same bland computer regulated temperature and fragrance-free mixture of gases. He was alone; his room was empty. He laid down again, drifting towards a hypnagogic state, and he felt delusional. He was sure that somebody had been in his room, a pheromone trace left hanging in the air. He stirred and opened his eyes wide. His throat was sore, and although the tide of dreams was now receding, his head was still bobbing. “Kora Green you swim in my dreams.” He mumbled, unedited and in free association, in the way a child talks before fully waking.

He rose partway out of bed and looked out his brightly lit small window. Splinter had recently stabilized its orbit, speed and distance, and the sphere below was a bright mirror of sunlight. They were orbiting at twice the speed of the planet’s rotation so night and day came twice in a thirty-hour period. It lent to the feeling of time running out, and he already had so much work to do. He crawled out of bed and went directly to the labs. He worked efficiently, because at any moment he might fall asleep, and he was never sure how long he would be out, or how many narcoleptic attacks he would suffer in a workday.

He didn’t want to, but he checked on Calyx. He looked like a cold eel, completely hairless and pulled taught on the cold metal table. Only his chest moved, rising and falling slowly, causing the wires and thin tubes running from his torso and limbs to vibrate like porcupine quills. The medical computers hummed and readouts flashed. Apparently, Calyx’s heart rate had fluctuated wildly and his amino levels had bounced out of control all night. He had stopped breathing on his own and was relying completely on the mechanical ventilator.

Phlox took a sharp breath and held it in while applying a thin gold device across the malan’s brow. He didn’t want to touch it, to touch him. But this strip would better analyze and transmit all ranges of cerebral activity. The TC11 tag began registering and sending data immediately, but the brain wave readings were complicated—they were displayed in multiple colors across a four dimensional graph. It looked as if his patient now had some readings above that of the vegetative state. He compared the readings to a variety of illnesses and injuries, but nothing was a match. At times Calyx’s readings didn’t even appear to be Primalan. Not since medical school had the doctor resuscitated anything from a cryogenic stasis, and this case had so many anomalies: Calyx had been brain dead before the freeze and endured unregulated pressure increases while in the hibernation cycle. The recent seizures that had rocked his body only further complicated the analysis.

Phlox wished Calyx was still down in his frozen hiberchamber. He looked dead and smelled like putrefied meat. He was a permanent vegetable: an eyesore and a guilt-sore. He forced himself to put in the time to monitor and tweak the bio-rhythmic controls. He hated to be around him, to smell his vinegar, salt skin. I wanted to kill this asshole. I messed with the settings, the bed’s hermetic seal. When the pressure built up, I helped everyone else first. When I ignored his bed, did I know what I was doing? I wanted him to smother. Even if he comes back from the dead, even if I can help him survive now, I’m liable.

The doctor knew that no one ever gets a second chance like this. So he continued to make manual adjustments to the medical controls and kept the brain-dead malan’s readings as normal as he could, but it was impossible to know what treatments were proper. It was all a terrible experiment. He called the captain frequently to update him regarding his patient’s progress, but the Kinsal came only once, and did not know what to say. He left barking that if he did wake up he would be nothing but an animal. There was no science to support the captain’s claim. But then there wasn’t any cytology or neurology that could explain a brain being reborn out of cold silence.

During a break with his bulking sessions, he looked closely at Calyx’s brain wave readings from the first day. They had been very weak, but over time they were getting slightly stronger. There were still times that his patient’s wave activity dipped down to brain-death comparable levels, but it always bounced back. The neural activity often peaked at the same times every day: early in the first and last shifts. It was beyond explanation. It was impalpable, but his brain appeared to be healing.

The chair seemed to dissolve, the normally bright white floor wrinkled and turned black. Phlox began to slide, and he gripped the edge of the table as he tried to hold onto consciousness.

Phlox lies on his back. His weight is supported by warm water that laps against his fur as he floats in a shallow pool. Green mists swirl around him, softening the navy blue sky above. Miniature flowers, like tiny bubbles, float around his body, caressing it. They stick in his fur, but he doesn’t care. A haunting melody—currents in that same water—surges and washes around Phlox, inundating him, tugging at his limbs and then washing out again.

Do you have a star of your own? Is it dwarf, yellow, giant red? How can you be so far from home, with dreams that stay inside your bed?

Phlox woke up startled, feeling like he might drown, feeling his race’s natural fear of water and hatred for smooth-skins living below the surface. As he stood up, he marveled at how in his dream he could have stayed afloat and how it was possible to have been covered in water yet to have felt so serene. He was disturbed by his own peaceful reaction. He felt like he was turning into someone or something else. It was delirium: a Primalan who enjoyed his hallucinations, who relaxed in water! What if this continued unabated? His culture could not tolerate these encroachments.

“These dreams are madness. They are as meaningless as they are infectious!” Phlox jumped at the sound of his own voice shouting out words that he did not fully choose. He looked down and could have sworn that Calyx’s head jerked as if reacting to the sound. It clearly did not move again, but right now he was sure of very little.

The brain wave patterns were not revealing, so he looked for reasons why Calyx’s brain might be receiving extra stimulation at regular intervals. A measurement tool always affects what it observes, so he made sure that it was not the computers themselves that were causing the excited brain waves in some sort of organic feedback. He randomized their scanning modes, adjusting them so that none of their activity would peak at the same time. With Tii’s help, he moved Calyx to a table in the lab’s farthest corner, insulating him from the central corridor’s power cables and bio-network, postulating that these could somehow cause interference.

Unable to find a causal effect, he widened his search to the functioning of the entire freighter. He searched out the head engineer to theorize about power fluctuations. Tamm led him deep into the stem of Hyyperbolt Three and directly to Barjkus who in the end would not discuss the subject for even five minutes.

“I’m too busy to worry about one malan, what with the abnormalities we’re detecting in both the conventional engines and the bio-networks.

“Listen to me. He spikes on regular intervals: two times every seven hours and then about fourteen hours with no activity.”

“Like I said, that’s one malan and he’s far gone. I don’t care what others are saying; you can’t save him, even if you had all the time in the world. Get your shuttle ready. Get your mind on that world.” Barjkus pounded his hairy foot on the floor grating in roughly the direction of the planet.

Every crewmember needed to prepare his own descent craft. The preparation process was labor intensive, but so far Phlox had not even made the trip out to the reopened docking rings. All the engines had to be charged, tested and retested. Following routine protocol, most took their shuttles and flew two ovals up and down the length of the freighter before returning to the docking rings.

Phlox was eating in the cafeteria, and Tii flicked a re-hydrated berry at his down turned face. “You know, you look like shit. Still taking your little naps?

“Yes. It hasn’t gotten any better. I’m just better at hiding it.”

“Hey, Malan, have you prepared your shuttle?”

“No, I haven’t had time. I haven’t even been down to look at it.”

“I’ll prep it. I know you’ve got your tail in a knot, and I don’t think there’s anything more I can do for you up in the labs.”

“Thanks. That will help.”

While working in Lab One, Phlox heard a noise coming from Lab Three. It was the resonating sound of water and flesh, almost the sound of gargling. Could it be coming from him? It grew in volume, and he dashed through the corridor to see Calyx’s head thrown back, his back arched, and muscles contracting. His eyes opened and then pinched to mere slits. He coughed hard and deep. There was a strange squeaking like wet flesh rubbing dry. Then his chest fell rapidly as if his lung had been punctured, and his spine flattened and lengthened. Then his body was as still and unreactive as before. But now he could see him breathing deeply.

He turned off the ventilator; the computers could still apply it automatically. He administered drugs intended for the comatose. His patient’s breathing continued at a strong and rhythmic pace. He set the machines to begin a more standard muscle rejuvenation sequence for the chest muscles. He paced, watching as Calyx Swigg’s animated torso rose and fell, and then the monitors started beeping loudly as his brain-activity spiked. There was no evidence, no clue as to why. Phlox paced through the labs and stared through the small windows of the rejuvenation room that was filled with Primalans running in place while Splinter Sixty-Six slowly rotated, the long curving row of windows just beginning to point towards the planet’s darkened hemisphere. Dr. Swenno saw the black horizon spreading, growing larger as the freighter continued its roll. At some unknown depth, sparking white lines and snapping blue and white lights continued at irregular intervals without cohesion or rhythm. None of the theories for the phenomenon had endured. The magnetic field turned out to be minimal. He would have preferred to work on that data, but instead he had a previously dead Primalan on his hands.

Calyx’s muscle regeneration was progressing rapidly, not as fast as his brain, but faster than medical sciences could explain, and the next day, he opened his eyes. They stared up, vacant and wide. He coughed up bile, blood, phlegm, and more bile: the slow accumulation of years of mucus. His lip curled. They were angry coughs, the bodily mechanics of spite, fermented emotion being ejected, as the slime spilled from his mouth and slid down his chin. But intent was absent from his patient’s large round eyes. He was not conscious, and the anger was mimetic, a copy, of a copy that the muscles of his face remembered. Soon his features softened, his eyes closed, and his head slumped over.

The doctor ran more tests, but he could not determine anything new. He returned to his quarters tired and confused.

The next morning at seven core the intercom crackled. “Scans report high florescence readings. Phase one harvesting will begin.” The captain’s voice was animated as he over-enunciated each military cliché. “The first shuttles will release for descent at nine core. Good luck and good fortune. Noses to the ground, Malans.”

Phlox got out of bed and made his way to the medical labs. He started to review his patient’s medical data from last night when he felt an odd sensation tickling the back of his ears. There was a humming in the air, melodic yet familiar. He looked around the room and caught Calyx’s eyes flying open. This time, they quickly focused, first on the ceiling as his pupils widened, then they turned to see Phlox and tightened to tense points. His arms and legs waved wildly—so violently that he was thrown halfway out of bed, his chest extending and his head bobbing. A few wires and tubes ripped out and fell spraying thin clear droplets across the floor. He stared down at their prismatic effect—medicine spilt on a sterile floor. Then Calyx sat up tall, and began to try to thump his chest with his fists. But his muscles were not ready, his arms trembled and his paws, still in tight balls, missed widely, hitting the edge of his bed and snapping off the chrome clamps of the rejuvenation machines. He hit his own head multiple times as his fists flew around without reason.

He rolled to his side, and his chop-tail wiggled then stopped suddenly. He wet himself in a long burst, the piss going everywhere. As he watched—he was unable, or unwilling, to take action—his patient fell completely off the bed. Swigg lay still for a minute, and then his legs kicked spasmodically, spinning his body in a slow ticking circle. Sympathy? That’s not what Phlox felt.

During the entire incident, Calyx tried to howl, but he was a surgically debarked dog with horrible voiceless rasps stifled by amnesiac vocal cords. He opened his mouth wider, trying to compensate for a lack of sound and the empty shape of his mouth was terrifying: his yellow teeth, crooked but sharp, and the brown and pink skin of his mouth pulled to a dark and thirsty hole.

Fear held Phlox in place.

After falling to the floor, Calyx seemed to point directly at him and focus on his eyes for a second while moving his dry lips rapidly. His body attempted to vomit, his muscles tensed and then rolled in tremors. More bile, dark and anaerobic spilled out drenching his face, still Swenno did nothing to help. Even after Lann and Taauk came into the room, Phlox stood uselessly watching until the spasms stopped, and Calyx condensed into a small mound, his matted fur rippling slightly with the rise and fall of his thin-ridged chest. He had been so large and now he was diminutive—a small ball of fur, foul with the smell of anger, phlegm and piss.

Phlox was in shock, and Lann and Taauk were disoriented. They staggered from the lab, and Phlox locked the door.

“Well, I guess raising the dead is some messy business.” Lann said waving his hand in front of his nose.

“Can’t help clean up: we’ve got to get down to Docking Ring One.” Taauk gave a glance back, looked quickly at Phlox, and then they were both gone.

Phlox Swenno walked to the portal leading to the spine. The freighter was filled with the sound of excited barking. Up and down the entire central corridor, they had opened even the deepest of the blast seals, and both lifts were running full speed. The amped crew was busy scampering up and down the freighter’s interior. They all wanted to get out of the confines of the Splinter, to walk on solid earth. He hoped for trees to swing in and thin grass to massage his toes. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement. Everyone had their own predictions regarding conditions on the planet. Some of the crew had even engaged the doctor in wild speculations of the amount of flowers and crystals they would find.

Swenno was still falling asleep uncontrollably, and he was trying his best to cope with all the related symptoms. He was dreaming every night and sometimes during his daytime narcoleptic attacks. During every episode, the imagery was very realistic, but it was too much to process. He did not want to guess what the long-term effects were going to be. If it was simply madness, then he would continue to try his best to suppress them, or ignore them as best he could.

“Dr. Swenno, are you ready for your intro to the shuttle Trotuul?!” Tii was shouting from somewhere near the spine, and Phlox, deep in thought reviewing hours of Calyx’s brain wave data, was caught off-guard by the formal reference. He almost didn’t recognize his name. Tii swung from the doorjamb and landed in front of him. “You need pilot training, ’cuz I am not sure you know how to ride a bicycle let alone fly a T-series shuttle.”

“Yes. Let’s go. I need something else to think about.” He said to himself more than Tii. He paused, and then said directly to the engineer, “Calyx is making progress that I can’t believe. He’s demonstrating high-level neural processes. I really don’t have a clue what’s going on. Hell, at this rate, he may fully recover.”

“I don’t know, but Kinsal thinks you’re some kind of medical genius. First, with the great bulking procedure, and now he’s convinced you’ve brought someone back to life.”

“I’ve been clear from the start that it’s got little to do with me.”

“Listen; cool it with the ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ speeches when you’re around him. Let him think what he wants to. He’s gonna do it anyway. And the humble acquiescence is going to get you zero respect.”

They paused awkwardly, and then Phlox said, “The way the crew talk, you’d think they were ready to prep Calyx’s shuttle.”

“I think they might as well. It’s a good way to honor the dead. And if the dead are on their way back, even better,” Tii laughed. “Besides, if he were to walk out of that lab, we’ll want to keep him busy with something he loves more than kicking others around.”

“He won’t walk again, let alone fly a lander.”

“Well, he does have the best craft and malans willing to fuel and maintain it. No one wants to take it from him. Don’t worry, even though this one’s almost ninety percent ocean, we’ve still got a lot of ground to cover. And even if he learns how to talk again, you’ll be safe in your own shuttle on the other side of the planet.”

Phlox and Tii left the labs. They looked upwards and saw a lift nearing. The Sixty-Six was busier than ever, and soon almost all the crew would head to the surface, and there were lots of preparations to be made. They jumped from across the corridor and caught the lift as it dropped through the spine. They dangled from their tails on the way to the lowest docking ring. On the way down, Tamm and another malan that Phlox knew by fur, not by name, swung from the spine’s latticed side. They both raised their tails in a semi-formal salute.

“Doctor, I’m Dulli. Good to see you getting out of the lab, sir. How’s Calyx coming along? We hear you’re doing a great job.” Phlox glanced quickly at his friend but said nothing. Tii answered for him. “Dr. Swenno says that Swigg should recover fully.”

“I’m doing my best, but we just don’t know… ”

Tamm didn’t let him finish. “I wonder if he’ll still be able to hunt flowers like he used to. Malan, you should have seen him in action—the cockpit windows flung open and his nose twitching and his hands and feet at the controls. He had both mechanical arms stretching and ripping up the plants as fast as he can.” The harvester drew the story along believing in every word, painting a portrait with broad statements—it’s best to leave a hero in bold angles, some unquestioned dimensions. Besides, he and Dulli had reached their destination, Port Ring One, and they jumped off, saying goodbye as they swung away.

Phlox and Tii jumped free at Ring Three. Phlox turned and watched the lift continue down. The platform would rest at the top of the Hyyperbolts and then start automatically toward the top. At the top of its track, twenty feet below the main deck, it would stop and reverse again. As he stared downward, he thought about Dulli and Tamm and how they had accepted him as a true part of the crew. He thought about the last week and realized that more malans were saying hello, talking to him respectfully. At first, he’d dismissed it as a reflection of the improved optimism on board. They could all smell the flowers, taste the nectar of big payoffs. But even chop-tailed veterans were addressing him. Either they respected his ability to resurrect Calyx, or these surly malans gave him credit for the improvised bulking regimen.

As Tii led him down one of the docking ring’s radial spokes, the metal grilled passageway spun green and Phlox passed out. He woke up to find himself in the cockpit of his shuttle.

“I caught you before you hit the floor, and dragged you here. I only slammed your head once or twice getting through the door. Hope you don’t mind.”

Phlox smiled. It was a big deal. Tii could have left him sleeping in the hall. Phlox stood up and peered out the small window towards the right wing of the shuttle. He could see its name painted on the topside of the wing’s dark gray metal. It was not a formidable harvester, but it looked dependable. The cockpit and storage areas together were larger than his quarters but not by much. The back of the ship had rows of cabinets, several pull down sling-beds, food and medical supplies. Tucked behind the cabinets was a small toilet room. The flight controls, and all the windows distinguished it from anything inside Splinter. There were even windows set in the floor at the nose of the craft. Swenno could see the curve of the docking ring arcing out of view and bright, unfamiliar stars beyond.

Tii and Phlox sat down at the controls. Screens flickered on automatically and lights blinked. He did not know where to start. Tii flicked some switches and hummed when he saw readouts that he liked, while Phlox stared out at the planet below. Splinter continued its yaw rotation in relation to the planet, but Trotuul’s position on the ring meant that the lander was now face-down towards the jet-black Ionosphere. Crooked fingers of light danced occasionally across his view. His head was pounding. Tii was speaking, giving out bits of advice, but Swenno didn’t hear him.

“Well, what do you think?”

“I don’t know. Where do I begin? I don’t know what that is. How do I know when to use the calt grip? And how about that? I have no idea what that does. And where are the controls for emergency life-support?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Doctor. Trust me, the auto piloting sequences are going to do almost everything for you.” Tii was teasing, but he was also frustrated. “How could anyone get on a deep mission like this and not be able to fly a simple shuttle?”

Phlox ascended the spine one more time to check on Calyx. Over the last ten hours, there had been no improvement, and there had been no fits of activity as before. This wouldn’t have been surprising in any other coma recovery. He just had to wait, knowing that Calyx could relapse at anytime and remember that it was quite likely he would never improve.


Exile

Revolution Unknown/Days Unnumbered

Kora pulls her slender body from the rock crevice. She draws her long thin tongue across her snout. Early morning sun glints off her thin, round scales. It is already getting difficult to think, but she can still recall last night’s vivid dialogue.

Kora Green: Gray Flocks, Phlox Gray, I see your dreams.

Phlox Gray: Green, Kora Green, I feel you sleep.

Kora Green: You dream naïve, you disbelieve.

Phlox Gray: I cannot see you, only hear you through the mist and sense you among tall reeds.

Kora Green: I see you swinging in the air. Giant plants, like I have never dreamt, stretch thin veins into the sky.

Gray Phlox: These are trees, nothing newly drawn. Have you never seen the twisting trunk and delicate leaves of a farrlin tree?

Kora Green: You fumble in awkward visions as if you can’t share dreams. Are these your first steps in our Dreamscape?

Rotation 268/Revolution 9753

Toral Blue: This trapped moth has dendrites to shape and peal.

Chorus: Concentrate, make these neurons heal.

Xal Violet: Wait, I dream of iron ore, icy fragments, a metal splinter spinning deep.


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