Friday, 30 August 2013

Pictonaut Aug '13 - Voyage to the Planets - The White lies of Pegasus.

Another instalment of wordascope challenge goodness from the inspiration that is The Rogue Verbumancer's pictonauts. My title for this one, The White Lies of Pegasus, is by far the longest I have given anything I've written that wasn't an academic paper (they have much longer titles). I hope you enjoy.

--------------------------------------



A shadow drifted past Ai Niu Cho's field of vision, a dark blur that floated somewhere beyond the bright haze that, for the moment, made up her world. It was fast, already free and fully alert. The next was slower, more defined, but had no less an aura of urgency around it. As her vision returned, her limbs began to twitch and pulse, her heart to beat strong and fast, and her breath came naturally and instantly, as though it had never ceased. She had never felt the cold. Not once. That was what struck her first. Cho had really believed that stasis would feel chill, but instead, it was nothing, like death; no thoughts, no feelings, no Cho. From here to there had been all but instantaneous to Cho, yet she felt she had been missing for such a long time, and she was thrilled to be back.

A familiar face appeared before her capsule and beamed at her, a neat row of pearls beneath a flop of golding, mousey brown fur. Marcus punched a control, and the clear plastic shield slid away to release Cho.

"Come on, Kiddo!" he said at her. "Enough beauty sleep. It's Planetfall!"

The man's pep spilled into the corridor around him and infected all it touched. But it wasn't his alone. This was truly an exciting time, the beginning of a new life, a whole new world. And she was here, amongst The First. Work to do! Cho accepted the large, freshly trimmed hand that was offered her and allowed Marcus's full force to propel her rapidly out of the tube, catapulting her into the corridor and into destiny. She took the energy he offered and ran with it, all the way to her station, his beaming grin on her lips.

Cho had been last out of the Sleep of the command team. By no plan - it was the luck of the draw - yet it meant she had ground to make up in her preparations for dropout. But friends first, contact, people. People she had wished well on their journey not minutes before, and had not stood beside for countless years. Ai Niu fell onto the bridge of the Pegasus, staggering forward into the embrace of her large, gentle friend, Ivan Stepanovich. He chuckled, as he steadied her, at her clumsy attempt at feigning the deliberate trip.

"Woah, careful!" he cautioned. "You are over stimulated, I think."

Cho slipped away from him and onto her chair, at the console beside Ivan's, the science team finally reassembled, after all this lost time, after only minutes apart.

"How long?" Cho asked. The impatience in her voice was palpable, she was well aware, but the time and place for hiding such things was back on Earth. Any social contract had been left far behind, a new order was rising.

"Till what?" Ivan mocked her in response. It was a short retaliatory strike that Cho delivered, but it had accuracy, and a bright red sting shot up through Ivan's arm along his distempered nerves. He laughed all the same.

"Ok, ok," he finally conceded. "Pegasus is," -- checking a monitor -- "Four hours from dropout and so just five from Planetfall. And we have a lot to do before then."

The air shifted, and something within Ivan dropped, pulling his expression with it. Cho's features mimicked Ivan's frown in sympathy. Ivan leaned into Ai Niu and she instinctively followed suit.

"Did you dream?" he whispered to her. Cho was taken aback by the sudden mood change in her friend, and yet she knew, without question or hesitation, what his purpose had been in this question. She said nothing in response, but lightly shook her head.

"I think I was dead," Ivan concluded, almost as much to the spacecraft's thin air as to his friend. “It was… peaceful.” Cho nodded just as lightly before and moved away to her own business, a glimpse of infinity fresh in her mind.

----------------------------------

Tsukiko Wakahisa placed down her implements with care, exhaling with deliberation; she would not lose her patience.

"Blindness," Tsukiko said.

"What?” The viscous mixture of Scotch and Gaul did little to hide the bile with which this word was spat. Juliet McGivern had steeled herself for an argument. A single, uncontextualised word she had no offensive strategy for.

"Blindness first, followed by a weakness of the limbs, then, intriguingly, a sense of great foreboding. Most people who suffer from reanimation sickness slip off quite quietly in a matter of days. But if you're sure that there's nothing wrong with your equipment, there's the door."

Juliet considered her position and discovered it unsound.

"Fine," she conceded, rolling up her sleeve. "Do your tests, but they'll be negative. My stasis caps are flawless." A few needle pricks and button pushes followed.

"Ok," Tsukiko said. "You're fine."

"Just like I said. Right. Do you wish to waste anymore of my time or might I be allowed to do my job?"

Tsukiko's smile never wavered. "No, no," she allowed. "Off you pop."

The relaxation of Juliet's glower was short lived as the intercom sputtered into life with a ghostly, dead-radio crackle.

"T-minus two hours until dropout." Captain Khari Kiprotich's deep, commanding voice informed the empty halls of the slumbering spacecraft. "I want you all on the bridge."

Tsukiko shrugged and gifted McGivern with a sardonic grin as she swept passed her and out of the infirmary. Juliet cursed as she followed.

"Ah, the good doctor," the Captain greeted Tsukiko as she stepped onto the bridge. "All the team are well I trust?"

"Physically fit," Tsukiko replied with pointed meaning, nodding back at McGivern as she entered.

"You can keep your personal opinions thank you doctor." Tsukiko was deflated a little by this chagrin and slipped with a modicum of sheepishness into a chair besides Marcus. He gave her a wink as they made eye contact and she smiled back at him, uplifted by his boyishness, but not fooled for a second. Centuries in the ice had not changed him. It had changed none of them, as though it had never even happened. It had not, she supposed, to them.

"What's the status on the rest of the capsules?" Captain Kiprotich aimed his dark stare towards Juliet.

"All in operation and functioning. I foresee no causalities, Captain." Juliet could not conceal her pride in her ship, but she had her turn for Khari's scorn coming.

"Are you the doctor now, too?" he asked of Juliet. "Better let her speak for herself, I think."

Tsukiko piped up. "She's not wrong. No vitals to speak of. No fluctuations. No signs of life." It felt so strange to her to give such a report positively. "All quite normal and positive for stasis."

Juliet nodded in triumph and moved to her own position on the deck. Marcus tapped the chair to his right with his palm, Tsukiko sitting to his left, and grinned.

"You just keep your goddamned hands to yourself." Juliet chastised him as she passed.

"Marcus," the Captain cut in to prevent a scene. "Are we ship shape for dropout?"

The pilot ran his finger around a small, round, white control. "You give the word, sir, I push the button."

"Good, good. Science, are you prepared?" Ivan and Cho responded positively.

"I can't wait to see it, sir," Cho said. "It's going to be so pretty."

"You'd better hope it's pretty," Marcus scoffed. "You're going to die there."

"Well that's a very positive view, I'm sure," Ivan said. Marcus seemed unperturbed.

"I wonder what the fauna will be like," Tsukiko offered.

"I wonder what it will taste like," Marcus countered with a smirk.

"Marcus!" There was shock and disgust in Ai Niu's exclamation.

"Yes, love?" his cheeky response.

"Marcus!" Khari concurred.

"Yes, sir," the pilot said, in an entirely different tone.

"They'll be no room for your sentimentality when we arrive," Juliet explained to Cho. "We shall all have to get used to butchery as well as husbandry."

"Ok, Juliet," Khari said. "That'll do." And then to Cho, "I'm sure it will be beautiful."

---------------------------------

The space through which the Pegasus sailed was so much more than merely nothing, the quiet more than silence. Her great solar panel wings collected no light, her circular field generator, almost as large in diameter as the ship was long, produced no drag. It did, however, produce the field that kept the ship in the endlessness of Second Space, and it did this without a sound, with not-a-sound, with anti-sound.

Silence might have been less tense than the hushed activity on the bridge of the Pegasus, minutes away from dropout. But around Khari's orders and the responses of his crew, it was those things not being said that filled the empty space.

"Time to dropout?" Khari. Are we there yet?

"T-minus three minutes." Marcus. It's so close.

"Engine status?" Khari. Will we make it?

"Six minutes to overload." Juliet. We're cutting it close.

"ExoGeo systems check?" Khari. What will we find?

"All systems functioning and awaiting input." Ai Niu. I can't wait to find out.

"Physics?" Khari. Are we safe?

"No anomalies. All readings nominal." Ivan. For now.

"Prepare for dropout of Second Space in five, four, three, two, one." Khari pointed his finger to Marcus, barely perceptibly, not wanting to move in case the fragile dream they all shared of their future home was shattered. There wasn't a noise, not a tremor as the Pegasus’ great field collapsed, anti-sound became mere silence, the darkness became filled with points of light and the spaceship glided effortlessly from Second Space back into our reality.

"Dropout successful," Marcus informed his captain. The air grew denser from the audible sighs all round. But this was just the first uncertain footfall on this new ground. There was so much more to come in the following seconds, the tension was only increased.

"Ok," Khari continued down the list. "Release drive system."

Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, the white-hot glowing core of the spacecraft span in its chamber, suspended in its own magnetic field. A brief buzz might have been heard, had the chamber been safely habitable to human life, before the tiny sun slipped back into Second Space, leaving its payload, the Pegasus and her crew, behind in the first, the original universe. Somewhere in a now inaccessible dimension, there was an explosion that would shake worlds, had there been any there to shake.

"Core ejected and safe detonation is confirmed," Juliet explained.

"Can we..?" Cho began, but was silenced by a raised palm from Captain Khari.

"Confirm location," he said.

"Andromeda five three two point eight seven two. Position confirmed sir. We've come out in a near perfect orbit of..." Ivan cut himself short as he perused the readings that were displayed in front of him.

"Yes?" the captain prompted.

"Sir, I," Ivan tried again. "I'm not sure sir. But we are definitely in orbit. It's just..."

"I see it too, sir," Marcus said. "We're drifting in a little. That’s all. Compensating now." A short engine thrust was followed by a satisfying ringing noise and a friendly, solid green light display across the bridge's consoles. "There you go, Ivan. All better."

"Ok," finally Khari could give the order he had been waiting for. "Let's see it."

A large black screen that took up one entire wall of the small bridge, curving naturally into the ceiling and floor, sparked into life. The crew stared at the image before them. No one spoke; no one could speak. For a time, the sight was unbelievable, in the truest sense that none could believe what they saw. Tsukiko was the first to break the silence. A single word came out of her thoughts, across her lips and filled every corner of the bridge, resonating with the feelings of all of the woken crew.

"No."

------------------------------------

A faint red glow permeated the bridge. It wrapped itself around Tsukiko's word, taunting it, teasing it out and around the ears of her compatriots. A large ruddy sphere all but filled the view screens, violent electrical storms playing out on its surface, cold, lifeless rocks encircling it. It was doubtless to all that what they saw before them was not the SuperEarth they had been promised.

"It's a fucking gas giant," Juliet whispered, barely audibly, the crimson haze around her mouth making way for the new words with a vicious finality. There was a pause. Then another, and a third. After the fourth, the captain had prepared his shattered thoughts.

"Is there any chance..?" he began. Any chance of surviving on that, was the question he found impossible to ask. Ivan shook his head in response, Ai Niu confirming this with the simple look of terrified disbelief.

"Moons?" Juliet asked. "What about moons?"

"No," Ai Niu responded, tapping at her console. "Three moons. One volcanic. One lifeless rock. One ice."

"Water ice?" Khari demanded. Cho shook her head lightly.

"Dry." The moon was water ice. They would survive there a week before they gradually froze to death, one by one.

"Supplies?" the captain ordered. Juliet hesitated before answering.

"Life support, limitless. Food, a week. Water, hours at best, just with us." The craft could support the full crew for many years. The conditions would be desperate and cramped. Disease would spread like wildfire. Death would be lingered and devastating.

"Marcus?" Khari said.

"Yeah," he quietly replied. "Yes, sir?"

"Can we take her in?" Marcus released the least audible gasp. Tsukiko shed a tear before gathering herself once more.

"Yeah," Marcus eventually said. "Sure. There might be something to see." The ship would be torn to splinters within seconds of hitting the gas giant's atmosphere. There would be nothing to see.

"Ok. Ivan, get a signal out. Inform the next wave." Khari said. Ivan nodded and punched at a button here, a control there, before nodding again to indicate his task was complete.

"Will it make it?" Ai Niu asked. "Will they hear it?"

"Sure," Ivan replied. It would not.

As Marcus manoeuvred the spacecraft into a dive towards the gas giant, Juliet punched up a command and the view on the screen pulled back to reveal the system before them. The grand giant sat in the centre, an ice cloud ring surrounding it, diffracting the weak sunlight into faint rainbows. And around this, the three moons stood out; the orange-black fireball, the crystal and the crusted, rocky world.

"Will it hurt?" Ai Niu asked, with a faint tremor in her voice. Tsukiko shook her head.

"We won't feel a thing," she assured her friend. The agony would be sublime for a fraction of a heart beat, and then there would be nothing.

The crew moved together in the centre of the bridge, Captain Khari at the heart, his body providing a contact, a circuit for his crew. They were one in their shared fate, no longer a group of individuals sharing a mission, but a single thought, an end. All but Ivan. He stepped aside from the others and headed back to his stasis capsule. A second later he was within it, the icy haze coming over him, a contented smile on his face. The crew did not notice his absence. Their minds were blocked to all but their common experience, an experience of fearful awe and gentle relief. The glorious red and orange swirls grew and writhed on the view screen as the ship inched towards the planet, flashes from electrical storms and great fireballs in the sky illuminating faces that could not turn away.

"Marcus," Ai Niu said.

"Yeah?"

"It is beautiful."


"Yeah." Marcus smiled. It was.