Back in Sol Again: Part 8


Packed Like Guinea Pigs in a Beer Can

Simon’s cabin intercom screeched with incomprehensible sounds, tearing him from sleep beneath Lina. She awoke with such a start she nearly leapt to her feet. The sound soon dissipated to Niala’s voice.

“I assume you’re up now. Good. Get dressed and meet us in the shuttle bay. Bring your suit,” Niala said, then added, “You too, Lina.”

Simon and Lina reeled from the jarring wake-up call, no doubt Niala’s idea of a practical joke. Rearden would’ve been in on it too. He’d have used the ship’s internal sensors to locate them, then once realizing where they were, why, allowed her to enact her scheme. Lina gathered what remained of her clothing and wrapped herself tightly in her robe.

“I’ll meet you there,” she said, yawning.

“This… doesn’t have to mean anything i-if you don’t want it to.”

She patted his head, “If I didn’t want it to, I would’ve left last night.”

His brow furrowed confusion, but she kissed his cheek then sauntered away, deliberately throwing him off-track.

The cabin door shut and he snapped into action; showered, dressed still-wet, and grabbed up his gear for EVA. Niala’s call could only mean the outpost was ready for activation. He ensured he had everything necessary for an extended stay, then made for the shuttle bay in the ship’s lowest aft section. Like him, Lina had prepped in record time. They met at the elevator, rode downward for the long walk to the bay, away-bags shouldered.

Unlike before, this activation required an extended stay. Given Gliese’s true outpost was on the far-side of the system, Niala and Ingstrom had decided to release EVA-1 for recon while the backup team followed Homer on its mission. The reasons were two-fold: the ship and its crew still had a job to do, and the fewer people in orbit, the less likely it was an incident would occur.

First contact was assigned to Niala and her team on the basis that they were the foremost experts on tech and EVA aboard Homer. As such, it was assumed they were also the foremost experts on making that tech seem less magical, more mundane. EVA-1 was also designated the foremost recon unit aboard Homer as a result of all but Lina’s presence during the investigation into the ISC theft. Somehow, that bit of Solsian detective work made them qualified for first contact duty; supposedly, as a result of their ability to decode and discover things.

In other words, no-one else wanted the job for fear of starting another interstellar war. So EVA-1 drew the short straw, or rather, was given the short straw.

Simon and the others entered the shuttle to launch. Behind them, all manner of supplies and gear, was packed and secured for flight. The shuttle itself looked like a cross between a beer can with its face cut to an angle, and a 747 fuselage compressed to the size of an angle-cut beer can.

That angle as a true-to-life viewport made of something resembling glass with an external repulsion field and an internal holographic display. The latter allowed for the pilot to view various informatics streams, while the former was purported to be a means of avoiding micro-asteroid ruptures, and thus explosive decompression.

Purported being the operative word, of course. As Simon knew, the tech was new, had never been shown to hinder nor hasten explosive decompression. It was all theoretical. So many things regarding Homer and its tech were. Being that EVA-1 were considered a front-line team for all matters, Simon couldn’t help feeling more like a space-fairing guinea-pig than anything.

He could see himself, as if from on high: encased in glass. On all fours. Fat and stupid. Features smushed into the cute, fat-headed shape of a guinea pig. Jaws chattering like pistons alternating on ludicrous-speed. Dullard eyes gleaming. Fur-covered cheeks puffed euphorically.

Then, Simon vaguely recalled the creatures most used in experimentation were albino mice.

Nonetheless, his mental imagery began a slow zoom-out. It widened beyond him to encompass the other, thick-headed, unsuspecting guinea-pigs beside him, chewing as he was. Super-imposing the image of Niala’s Feline face onto a guinea-pig might’ve given him a laugh if he weren’t so consumed with what was being built to.

Soon enough, his mental imager was looking at him through the viewport of his high-tech, angle-cut beer-can as it hung in the emptiness of space. It seemed to speak thousands of words, as images were wont to do, but none coherent. Certainly, none were of any import. Why it was there, no-one would know, its furry inhabitants least of all.

In a way, they were glorious. Beautiful. A picture of perfection. The perfection of ignorance. The perfection of gleaming, dull-eyed complacence. The perfection… of idiots.

Simon snapped from his mental wanderings. The shuttle’s comm sounded with a voice Simon wasn’t familiar with. It was nonetheless soft, soothing, formal in its way but nowhere near harsh. Simon suspected the woman had been chosen to (wo)man the comm for those very reasons.

“EVA-1, you are free of the bay. We have you on external sensors. Proceed to bearing eight-eight-point five-nine and accelerate to ten meters a second.”

Niala confirmed the instruction. A compass with 360 degree markings appeared near the viewport’s bottom. The stars outside hung motionless above and beyond it, a frosted-glass effect only slightly visible directly beneath. As she angled the ship around with minimal thrust, the stars pivoted along the horizon.

The shuttle slowly came about to match bearings. A flicked switch subdivided whole numbers into decimals between one and nine, then further again with another flick. As it did, Niala’s movements became less refined.

Simon knew, though he’d largely ignored the memory, that with finer compass settings came a finer shift in the maneuvering system. The thrusters fired differently. Otherwise mouth-sized plasma jets along the shuttle’s hull engaged their telescopic nozzles. The nozzles tightened, their plasma streams narrowing to allow finer control of the ship’s heading.

The system was capable of going from fist and head-sized openings to pinhead sized ones in micro-seconds. With it of course, the shuttle went from angling between planets to angling between flea’s tits just as quickly. Currently, it was set somewhere between those two extremes and rotating to view the nearby outpost.

Unlike the other outpost, this was meant to be a temporary fixture, thus was much smaller than the others. It was also more modular, in the event that it needed to become permanent. As a result, it looked like a series of interlocked cylinders and rectangles. Stylistically, it appeared more like inflated descendants of the original ISS and Mir Modules than the “true” outposts. Those were much less modular, much larger, and much more like the Jacks of their eponymous game.

True outposts were also more accommodating for more people. Indeed, the trio were sure to have enough room to roam and survive, but the temporary station lacked many of its bigger sisters’ luxuries. Its essential systems too, were scaled down versions. Like most things in astronautics, the reason was as much space-saving as mobility and ease of use.

A true outpost may take only a few people to activate, as EVA-1 knew first-hand, but it took over a hundred people to keep running over each day-night cycle. That was, if no-one on the team was given time off. Then, it was two to three times that. That was part of the reason Homer had so many people aboard, and had disgorged so many in Proxima Centauri. Traveling and visiting space were one thing, living there for extended periods was another entirely.

The shuttle crossed the void of nothingness between Homer and Gliese-Beta, the unnecessarily official name of the outpost. Provided it became permanent, the name would remain in an official capacity, with a more colloquial name in quotes. Had he’d been bothered to think about it, Simon would’ve found it a bit of bureaucracy as colloquially “pointless” as the bureaucrats demanding the moniker in the first place. Solsian life was like that; packed with redundancies and unnecessary speed bumps on roads to progress.

Simon unconsciously gripped his seat. The top-side, or rather, one of the circular faces of the station came into view ahead. The whole cylinder rolled sideways, its top-side perpendicular to the shuttle’s path. Just as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. The shuttle had angled to face away from it. A live feed from a stern cam appeared, centered in the viewport with a variety of information.

Ahead, Homer and its massive rear-end were only just visible. The majority of its nearly 2 Kilometer length was still hidden to the right, but it remained a sight to behold.

Simon suddenly felt small. Immensely small.

Lists of facts and figures concerning the ship bubble from somewhere in his mind. That he’d designed most of the colossus’ engines and drive systems was overshadowed by something greater; Homer and its ilk might end up his Magnum Opus, but even that behemoth of scientific and engineering prowess; that symbol of Solsian progress from primordial ooze to star-fairing genius; was barely a speck in the infinite immensity of the universe itself.

It made him marvel and shudder in fear, awe.

Niala made a move that re-focused his attention. He suddenly realized he’d missed their docking. Evidently, only part of him though, as his fingers still clutched his armrests like a cinema-goer at a too-real horror-flick. He wasn’t as afraid of their docking as he was acutely aware of his current, guinea-pig role for unproven tech. That it had been tested and rated didn’t matter. Each part could pass all the tests it wanted, he was just as much a frozen, floating corpse if it didn’t work together right.

Niala reported back to Homer. “Comms, we’ve made connection. Beginning ingress to activate the station. Will radio again on full power-up.”

Ingstrom’s gravel begrudged them an affirmation. “Sky’s blessings. See you on the other side.”

The mention of another side didn’t help Simon’s floating-corpse fears, but it did remind him to double-check the seals on his space-suit. He lifted his helmet from his lap, examined and patted its seals and latches, then fitted and locked it. He rose for his air tank with his female companions doing likewise, and fitted and checked them. With thumbs up, they formed up beside the rear door.

Niala radioed over their short-range helmet comms, “Equalizing in 3… 2… 1…”

Blasting air gave way to a minute loss of gravity marking the millisecond shift between Earth-Normal and the activation of their magnetic boots. Immediately after, the lights in the rear-cargo section winked on and off, then glowed red. The rear-door unsealed, then sank. Their head and chest lamps switched on, illuminating the freshly constructed interior.

“Control should be just ahead,” Simon reminded.

Unlike the other outposts, this one was controlled by a single room running off battery-power charged by solar panels hidden within the station’s rounded faces. They stepped forward in slow-motion, every breath echoing over the comms. Rearden led the way, its flexible lamp and optical sensor throwing its beaming gaze along the corridors.

The eerie terror Simon had during the first activation returned. Along with it came an undeniable fear of something more lurking beyond. He didn’t fear the station, nor the darkness. This time, he feared the outpost’s activation; as if Homer leaving were a trigger to something larger. It might well be, he knew.

With Ingstrom and the ship out of reach, they’d be utterly alone. Anything, good or bad, was on them. The good was just as likely as the bad. While the shuttle was stocked with emergency provisions, if something happened to it there was nothing they could do. Even if they managed to alert Homer of any distress, they might not return in time to save them.

A million things could go wrong, but a million more would if he worried too much.

He steeled himself as best he could and followed Lina to the control room. Ahead of them, Rearden’s light fell over a doorway ahead of Niala. It proceeded inward, the room rather more average than Simon had expected, despite the various monitoring and control devices, it was hardly cramped. No doubt the space spared here would’ve been taken from elsewhere.

Rearden led Niala to one of the consoles while the other two awaited instructions. With the turn of a knob and the flick of a switch, the station came to life. Gravity returned, automatically disengaging their mag-boots. It would take a few minutes, but soon enough the station would have air too. For now, Niala reported in to Homer.

Homer, this is E-V-A-one; happy to report we’re in the green. Oh-two rising steadily, and station otherwise fully-functional.”

The soothing-voiced woman sounded again. “We read, E-V-A one. Will contact you again in seventy-two hours. Until then, keep yourselves safe.”

“Will do, Homer, same to you,” Niala replied, giving herself a crooked smile. Their communication ended with Homer’s sign-off. She turned toward the others. “Alright, we’ve got a job to do. Rearden, send the bots to scour for any possible issues. Meanwhile, I’ll get the water running. Lina; solar station. Deploy the panels and check the batteries. Simon, start an inventory of all food and medical supplies aboard, make sure nothing is damaged or missing. Keep in contact and report anything out of place.”

With that they broke for their various duties. Simon had, again, pulled a short straw somewhere. He figured it his lot in life. He’d done it so many times he was no longer sure if the game was even rigged. Nonetheless, he began his long, tedious, boring job. Still, it kept the nagging fears away.

Perhaps, had he trusted his instincts slightly more, he’d have realized what was going horribly wrong. All the same, he soon found himself face-to-face with it. Or rather, a mirror image of it.

He’d long since become utterly bored with his job, but tedium had a hint of meditation to it. One he found enjoyable in the absence of anything else. Inventory seemed pointless the more he did it, but he knew it could become crucial later on. Having an accurate count of food and medicine might save their lives. How, he wasn’t sure, but he guessed it had to do with being stranded. He didn’t like the idea, even less when it wouldn’t go away.

He took a break to use the bathroom, found himself parched from still-dry air. The O2 was flowing nominally, but the humidifier would take time to fully saturate the station.

He bent to drink from the faucet with a cupped hand and splashed water at his face. He rose with just enough time to swallow, then caught the one-eyed face of a Feline behind him. A flash of swift movement preceded sudden, persistent blackness.

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