Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck W over at terribleminds. Technically this one is a failure because its just too long (1516 words) – but I can’t condense it any more and time is a’runnin out. Constructive criticism always welcome (what the hell am I saying…i’ll take anything…somebody talk to me…pleeease).
~”#3 where are you? I cannot see you and have urgent news.”
Four legs gripped the walls, locking hisbody-frame into position, two acted as retractors, holding aside recently cut skin and, of the remaining two, one massaged the pump heart and the other cauterised cyst nodules that lay on its surface …always when I’m in the middle of something.
“Two secs, I’m off-grid”. He spawned a mind-thread and asked it to continue the op, but interrupt him should higher thought became necessary. It got a little sniffy at the mention of deferring in a crisis – but started immediately. Once satisfied his protégée wouldn’t damage more tissue than it saved, #3 gave #ship his full attention.
“What’s up? I’m busy”
~”I am ninety eight percent certain #2 has been lost.”
#ship’s even delivery and soothing tones were perfect for everyday life but gave bad news a disturbingly surreal quality – it took #3 an entire second to digest and react.
“What the fuck happened, where is she?”
~”Her last registered position is e#f3-ac; however, in the previous two minutes we have suffered approximately three hundred minor impacts over #f3 and surrounding sections. Subsequent to the impacts I have not been able to communicate with #2 using any medium, including emergency micro-vibration protocols. I surmise that she has encountered at least one, possibly more micro-meteorites and is currently either fully incapacitated or brain-dead.”
#3 thought quickly. The pump would fail if he walked away now, its vital juices leaking out through the very incision he had made to save it. They couldn’t afford another major pumping outage and he knew that #2 wouldn’t thank him for causing one. Save the mission, not the man was probably the most irritating of all her maxims.
“I can’t leave for at least another minute, where’s #1?”
~”I alerted #1 in tandem with yourself. He is now in close proximity to #f3 primary hatch and will surface shortly to retrieve #2″.
#3 relaxed a fraction. #1′s current augmentation better suited a search and rescue, and it sounded like he’d be on the scene quickly. There was nothing further he could do but gather and analyse information.
“What hit us?”
~”An mass of approximately three tons, composition unknown. Its energies were, for the most part, dissipated by our ablative”.
Well duh, we wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. #3 noticed the alternate mind-thread had removed all visible cysts and lapsed to a cycle of heart massage. He shut the thread down without bothering to contact it, argumentative prick, and let the heart beat unaided. ”Much damage?”
“Minimal. One hundred and forty three hull punctures and five registered system failures – all non-essential. The forward roach hive is in a directed-repair frenzy – eighty percent were released three minutes ago. Given the localised nature of impacts and their microscopic bore, I expect hull repairs to complete within five standard hours and full systems restoration within ten.”
“What about the ablative” said #3, the heart had maintained a pumping rhythm unaided; he began to stitch the cut skin, resealing the heart into its protective cocoon.
~ “The remainder of forward hive are on recon-repair to within a click of the ablative bow. I’m channelling liquid water from rear storage, but as yet the repair effort is an unknown.
“Ok, tell #1 to meet me in #f3 workshop. You know if #2 is out of action – we’ll need a sleeper?” Had #3 possessed lungs he would have held his breath.
~”A candidate has been chosen.”
The sleeper woke to a featureless grey ceiling. We’re here,…I’m alive. He sat up and looked about him, surprised to find his muscles and joints supple and willing to perform – as if he’d just taken an afternoon nap. The room was empty except for himself and the sleeper coffin. This wasn’t the waking ceremony he’d been promised, and panic rose in his throat, this isn’t right, what’s going on? where is … somebody? He thought about calling out, announcing his return to consciousness, when a voice broke the silence.
“Welcome Arnelan Ethessan, Spatial communications engineer 1st class” The voice was calm and lacking emotion, Arn realised it was an AI, probably the ship’s persona.
“Hello, have we arrived?”
“We are currently one point six years from Alpha Lyrae. You have been awoken early – we require your assistance”. The even tone made the statement sound more like an order than a request.
“What’s happened?” said Arn, feeling disoriented. He had no sense of time passing since entering the coffin, yet clearly they were near the goal of their journey.
“A meteor strike incapacitated one member of the maintenance team. You have a maximal skills-match quotient across her primary field and are needed to provide both knowledge and experience during repair duties. Your transit contract stated you would be willing to assist should the requirement arise.”
Arn remembered the contract: pages and pages of turgid legal bullshit just to get a ticket. He’d signed up immediately, lucky to have an in-demand profession and desperate enough to volunteer for star travel as a means of escape. It seemed his fresh start would begin a little earlier than expected.
“um…ok, what do you want me to do?”
The voice did not reply and, as the silence lengthened, Arn sensed invisible eyes were studying him, watching his reactions. Well, he didn’t have a problem with doing a little work, even if it meant a year and a half spent alone on board. He tried to look as neutral as possible, eventually the voice spoke again.
“First you must be tested – to ensure your memory and experience has not fallen below acceptable levels. Degenerative hibernation sickness is an incompletely understood phenomenon that only empirical analysis can quantify. Please be seated and follow on-screen instructions”. As the voice spoke a chair extruded from the floor on the far side of the room and an adjacent rectangular area of wall flickered into life. Arn sat down, wondering what would happen should he fail.
The borg used all eight legs in locomotion as it and Arn made their way through the ship. Effectors at the end of each arm beat out a rhythmic accompaniment to an otherwise silent march. Arn couldn’t tell if the borg was sentient. It hadn’t spoken since coming into the testing room to take him away, merely gesturing with an arm whenever he needed to change direction.
The testing had been laughably simple. His memory had been unaffected by hibernation and his skills as an engineer were well above the threshold set as a passing mark. Arn knew he was good at his job and was pleased to able to demonstrate it. He felt relief that the hibernation hadn’t damaged him – and looked forward to taking up the omission of that little info-nugget with the company rep – when they thawed her out. The voice had explained that, had he failed testing, he would have returned to hibernation, sleeping away the remaining journey time while the next best candidate was woken and tested in his place. This had been explained only after proving himself capable. Arn wondered whether the room set-up – the utilitarianism and disembodied voice – were there to disrupt clear thinking in the recently awoken, thereby keeping their answers honest.
His companion gestured to a side corridor and Arn saw a door barred their way several meters ahead. Sensing their presence, the door opened, allowing Arn to step through – the borg following behind him.
Inside the room was a bright, sterile white, with an array of machinery lining the far wall. Arn didn’t recognise it as comms gear and wondered if he wouldn’t need some training before starting work. Two borgs waited inside the doorway to the right, one a giant mechanical gorilla, the other a spider design, similar to his companion from the corridor, but slumped and lifeless on the floor, its carapace was open to the world and conspicuously empty. Ah, the fallen companion.
Suddenly he was held from behind by the borg that had followed him in, two sets of legs wrapped tight around his arms and torso, immobilising and lifting him from the floor. The gorilla came forward, a syringe held delicately in one massive paw. Arnelan Ethessan screamed as he was sedated and cried before unconsciousness claimed him for the last time.
#2 awoke to find herself in the organic infirmary, surrounded by #1 and #3.
“Welcome back” said #3, one arm signing ’concern for health’.
“What happened?” said #2, rising up from the deck and responding with ‘reassurance of good-health’.
“A meteorite when adjusting comms antenna – a direct hit” said #3, cycling ‘relief/reassured/affection’ in quick succession.
“My last primary memory is readying to exit the #f3 hatch – does that tie-up with your records #ship?”
~”Hello again #2, and yes, a neo-cortical backup was taken prior to your exiting of the #f3 hatchway. You have irrevocably lost one hour and twenty minutes of primary consciousness. I completed basic interface testing between your new inorganic and organic substrates during the melding operation. Please continue testing organic memory/experiential access and report abnormalities for analysis.”
#2 turned to view the corpse, its head split in two and a huge, bloody gash that ran from neck to anus. She wondered who he was, then tasted his memories and realised she already knew.