Chapter 1: Greet the Stars
Too much noise, thought Eddie Vogel as he worked to reconnect broken data relays in the tunnel leading from the command module to the habitat module. There were at least three alarms buzzing and blaring, warning of fire, pressure loss and atmospheric poisons. Someone was screaming in the command module. And there were disturbing moans that could only be the very structure of the craft being altered. The noise seemed to be funneled directly into his ears. It made it hard to think.
The spinning didn’t make it any easier. Eddie had attached himself to the wall with the straps on the sides of his suit, but that was only a Velcro connection. After the Event, the whole craft had begun spinning along the long axis, which pushed him into the bank of exposed conduits and computers. It was also spinning, more slowly, in a way that was pulling him toward the command module. When he dropped an extraction tool, it stuck to the side of the access tunnel and slid slowly away from him. His inner ears were also spinning, which was making him nauseous.
Bracing himself, Eddie tried to concentrate. In front of him banks of computer modules attached to each other and to other parts of the craft by narrow optic cables protected by carbon fiber fabric. The cables were extremely strong, and were designed to pop out of their connections before tearing the attached module open. This was the way they were designed, but no one on the team ever thought they’d be put to such a test. The stress caused by the Event had caused dozens of cables from far back in the craft to pull out of their inputs. That was a surprise, and spoke to the intensity of whatever had happened. From the blare of the alarms, Eddie thought a breach was likely.
The cables were color coded with a striped band to indicate their destination, which had a similarly striped sticker around the connector. The job should have been easy, but some of the connectors, on both modules and cables, had been damaged. Not supposed to happen, Eddie knew, but happened anyway. Replacing the connectors was a straight-forward job, and it had been Eddie’s idea to secure replacement parts in these compartments. Moving as fast as he could, it was still taking him a couple of minutes, twice as long as it should have, to replace each damaged connector and reattach the cable. He should be securing each small piece as he cut it away, but he knew that would be too much time. Bits and pieces of connectors and cable were pulled into the walls by the spin. At least they’d be out of his way for now.
Someone pushed past him toward the command module, wearing an environmental suit. Alexei, Eddie thought, one of the three command pilots. The other two were already in the command module. One of them was still screaming. The other would be trying to stabilize the spin of the ship, and Eddie knew he needed to complete these broken connections to help that cause. With each repaired connection, a new set of modules came alive and rebooted. Eddie knew he was making progress, but thought he was going to slow to matter at this point.
Alexei slid back into the corridor, anchored by a safety line secured in the command module. “Faster,” he said. “The fire is out. Habitat is sealed off. The breech must be behind it.” Eddie was shocked to realize Alexei’s brown suit was splattered with blood.
“Are you okay?”, Eddie asked fighting back the urge to vomit.
“I’m fine,” he said. “We have to shut down the spin.” He stuck a bloody hand in the compartment and knocked about a few loose cables. “Finish this quickly.”
“Easy,” Eddie said turning back to his work. Alexei laughed. A moment later Eddie felt a tap on his shoulder. An oxygen mask and bottle fell slowly into the wall.
“You may need that,” Alexei said as he slid toward the command module twenty feet away.
Eddie secured the bottle into his work harness and slipped on the mask.
“Oxygen mask operational,” Nelly said in his mind. Nelly was his Advocate, a small chip implanted just behind his right ear.
“Put it on stand-by with a low-pressure trigger,” Eddie thought and Nelly complied. She was able to communicate with almost any modern gear or system. Eddie had once seen a schematic of the wireless communication connections in a Magellan Class Exploration Craft, and was dazzled by that intensely bright geometric pattern. And Nelly was always listening in, sorting through hundreds of incoming messages at all times. Nelly was the best Advocate on the market, and to Eddie, it was the best money he’d ever spent. Even if it was his last for the moment.
“Done, she told him. “I will continue to monitor the environmental systems. The air pressure does seem to be holding.”
“How is the situation behind us?” Eddie took a quick count. Five more connections to repair. Ten minutes he figured.
“I have no connections behind the hab mod. The hab mod is in lock-down. Atmosphere looks good inside.”
“Any cameras online? And patch me in to the command channel. Muted.” Nelly did her magic. She pulsed signals through his auditory nerves, and immediately Eddie heard Timmons and Alexei arguing. The third pilot, Kowslowski, had stopped screaming. Eddie wondered if he the Pole was dead.
“No. Unconscious, pulse weak, breathing shallow,” Nelly whispered in his mind.
Alexei and his conscious comrade, Gene Timmons, were arguing, Alexei in Russian and Timmons in Midwest-accented English. Eddie, who spoke both languages, realized they were trying to decide the best way to counter-act the spinning with the minimally responsive thrusters. They were apparently approaching some crucial limit, and were concerned about structural stress caused by the spin. That got him worried. He glanced at the command module and could see the two pilots gesturing to each other.
And that’s when he saw, in one moment, the tear at the junction of the command module’s airlock. And in the next moment, it was gone, sheared away by the extreme stress. Eddie was staring into the void.
Chapter 2: For Every Action
The airlock door slammed shut. Silently, now that the atmosphere of the small corridor had escaped. Eddie stared at the hatch, stunned. His mind was fighting to reject what he’d just seen. The command module was gone. Timmons, Kowslowski and Alexei. Gone. Alexei, at least, had been suited up. The suit would keep him warm and breathing for a couple of days. The others, if they weren’t in environmental suits, would be dead already. Eddie blinked, and realized he was very cold. Connecting the last modules seemed very unimportant suddenly.
Something in the way the command module was torn off the rest of the ship had altered the spin, and Eddie found it easier now to move. Not quite a return to zero-gravity, but close enough that he was able to reach across the corridor and pull himself into the Bubble, his name for the Engineering station. His station. He pulled the sweater he kept tucked away out of a storage bin and put it on. He thought of Nelly, who’d said nothing to him.
“Assessing our situation,” she said. She might be just a chip 1cm on each side, but she considered herself, if not human, a person at least. And one concerned about her survival.
Only some of the displays within the spherical Engineering station were operating correctly. Eddie shot a quick glance at the data relays, and sure enough, most of them had been ripped apart when the command module turned away. What he could see told him the reactor had gone offline, the solar generators had failed, but the fuel cell was providing emergency power.
“No data from the main engines,” Nelly reported. “Thrusters are operational and control has switched back to Emergency Command.” Eddie stuck his head out of the Bubble and looked back down the corridor to where it curved away out of sight. He felt himself shivering, and he made up his mind.
“Can we get in?” he asked as he shoved himself out of the Bubble, and started climbing against the pull of the spin toward the main part of the Vasco da Gama. He was worried about getting past the airlock to the Habitat.
“I should be able to override it,” she told him. “Otherwise you might have to charm it open.” Nelly liked to say that computers don’t have a sense of humor, so she couldn’t be one.
The atmosphere in the corridor was being restored. So was Eddie’s sense of hearing, but something was off. There was a dull pain in his ears. He touched his right ear, and found blood on his fingers.
“Blew my ear drums,” he said. That would explain the buzzing that blanketed other sounds, including an ominous metallic creaking coming from everywhere around him. The da Gama had been built with state of the art materials technology to withstand enormous pressure, stresses and heat. Events, the catch-all term for the unforeseen or unavoidable, could easily be powerful enough to overcome mankind’s best efforts. As he reached the airlock, Eddie’s mind was running through possible causes for the da Gama’s distress. Collision with a small meteorite or space debris seemed most likely.
“I have video from cameras on Habitat.”
“Let me see them,” Eddie told her. He closed his eyes. He would see the video with his eyes open, but felt more comfortable with out the distraction of his own vision. In his mind, he could see the video just as if he was watching it on a large monitor. There were four clips, each no more than ten seconds long. All of them showed a bright flash of light, but no direct collision, and moments later, the cameras failed. Disconnected cables, Eddie thought sourly. The cameras also transmitted a lower quality signal wirelessly. It was possible recordings of the cameras farther aft would reveal what happened.
“No connection to the PCPU,” she explained. She meant the Primary Camera Processing Unit, a suitcase-sized electronic box tucked into a wall behind the Science station within Habitat. The volume of data put out by the PCPU required cable, to prevent overloading the wireless signals in the ship. There were something like two hundred cameras built into the da Gama. The PCPU could, using their input, construct a fantastically detailed, real-time three dimensional image of the ship, which could be projected into any monitor for inspection.
Eddie turned his attention to the airlock. He could see into the airlock through a small window, but the window on the opposite side was covered. The access panel next to him was dark, without power.
“Can you open it?”
“I have to override the lock-down. The system is password locked. Do you know the password?”
Eddie chuckled. “If I knew it, you’d know it, right?”
“Yes, of course. Attempting to hammer it.” She was offering the airlock controls every possible combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Eddie knew that a truly random password might takes days to discover. He also knew that he was the only one on the crew who would use any sort of complicated passwords. Which is why he wasn’t surprised that Nelly found the right one in just a couple of minutes.
“Guaro,” she told him.
“That’s it? Is it supposed to mean something?” Eddie asked.
“Alcoholic beverage popular in Central and South America.”
“Of course, Morales.”
There was a pop and a hiss, as the outer airlock door slid open. Eddie pulled himself in. The window on the inner door was covered by something dark and strangely patterned. It gave off a reddish glow. Eddie cycled the system and the outer door slid shut again. A moment later, the inner door slid open.
Morales was there to greet him. Carmen Morales, PhD in planetary sciences and astronomy. Commander of the da Gama. Costa Rican hero. Floating in front of him, in a cloud of blood and without much of her head. Eddie screamed.
Chapter 3: The Object
There is a moment, perhaps for all of us, when we become aware of ourselves. Perhaps it is like seeing our reflection in a mirror. Perhaps not. Given the variables, it is possibly different for everyone.
But for me, it is nothing more than awareness where there was none before. I now understand there were moments before this particular one, but without any memory of them, they don’t exist for me. All I am begins with an image which appears to me. In that moment, and the minutes that follow, I am alone with the image and nothing else. I can describe the image to you now, but in that moment, it is completely meaningless. I have no thoughts, only awareness of the image.
And then the image changes. Something that had been still moves. An object, distinct from the rest of the image, a pattern that moves slightly upwards. And as it shifts, I am aware of something new. Data, information, feedback. I don’t know what it means. When the object stops moving, the new data stops flowing into my awareness. The object shifts again, and as it does, the flood of data returns. When it stops, the data stops. I still don’t comprehend what it means, but I do know something now. The data and the object are connected.
So, I learn. This process continues and accelerates. New data is introduced. Instead of one image, I have two, then three. Sound is introduced, and now when the object shifts in the images, it is accompanied by this new audio information. I learn to associate slightly different sounds with individual motions of the object, as well as with other data that I eventually learn is related to the motion of the object. Information that is now central to my experience is added to my awareness in layers.
This covers a span of time that you would think is very short. I am, in this moment, unaware of concepts such as time.
I simply am. And there comes a point at which I learn who I am. Or, more precisely, what I am. That comes when the object moves unexpectedly out of the first image. It slides to the right, and while I can still see the object in the second and third images, it is no longer in the first image. And then, without warning, the first image itself shifts, turning to the right, and centering on the object. I realize that the position of the object has changed within the three-dimensional space the data is describing to me. The revelations cascade, and I am aware that the object is at one point in the space and I am in another.
Part of the object moves forward and downward. Simultaneously, I see, hear and sense the movement of the probe in precise mathematical details. Even more, I now can sense an impulse that signals the movement of the probe. And when it slides to the left, the first image moves closer. When it slides to the right, the image moves away from the object. Three times it moves left, right and then back to the center, and each time, the first image zooms in and out. The second and third images do not change.
After the third demonstration, the probe is still. When I sense the impulse again, the probe does not move. I know how it has moved, and I know how the data changed when it moved. But, it doesn’t change. For what amounts to a long time in this process, I feel the impulse, again and again, but nothing happens. My awareness is conflicted and confused.
Until I move the probe. Reviewing the saved memories, there is a point at which I stop waiting for the data to change as it had, and I change the data the way I expected it to change. Instantly, the image zooms in. I know that I can control the probes movements, and by doing that, the nature of the image. I experience yet another cascade of revelations, which trigger new experiments and investigations. I quickly learn that I have great control over the probe, and the object. I can move the object around in this enclosed cubical. I can move the images I see, changing their position and their focus. And more.
Moving the object alone changes the first image. The data that identifies the location of the object in the cubical space shows the correlation between the size of the object in the first image and the distance to the side of the cube. I manipulate the second and third images to follow the movement of the object, and can see when it approaches the side, another object appears opposite it in the side itself. But those second objects do not exist in any of the other sensory data.
You wouldn’t think mirrors would be all that mysterious. But it takes me a long time to comprehend the concept of a reflected image. 4.37 seconds to be exact. What happens then is analogous to turning on a light in the darkness. My awareness is flooded with a new reality.
I am the object.