ORIGINAL FICTION: "Curse the Darkness" (Part 2)

Kevin Long
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(This is part two of the story. Part One is here http://www.republibot.com/node/5872 )

Space travel was common enough and safe enough now that no one bothered to wear pressure suits anymore. Strapped to what was essentially a board, stuck between a windowless wall on one side, and a large metal parody of a human form on the right blocking his view of the aisle, he had a brief bout of claustrophobia, which eventually gave way to boredom. He struggled to get comfortable against the straps, which were doing nothing to support his weight, then finally just gave up. After an hour or so, the entire vehicle lurched, and started tilting up on end, amidst much disquieting creaking and wobbling. He squelched his nervousness, until a woman in the very front of the cabin shrieked, and then he himself grunted in fear.

Across the aisle, eclipsed by the fire-robot-thing’s bulk, Arav took pitty on the boy. “Talk to me Jal. Keep your mind off of it.” “I can’t think of much to say.”

“Ask me anything.”

“Uhm….ok….how does this thing work?”

“The shuttle or the Sacred Fire Device?”

“Device…uhm….fire, sacred, yeah.”

“Oh, it was an interesting project you guys presented us with. How do we keep an ember glowing through four or five days of weightlessness? We had a very limited budget, and some very strict limitations from the ISRO. Do you remember what they were?”

“…uhm…” Jal said through a dry mouth.

“Think, boy. Concentrate. Distract yourself from the fact that you’re sitting atop a six-million-ton firework.”

“Calling it that is not helping. Uhm….ok, the device could be no larger or heavier than a man, it had to be self-contained, it had to be internally powered, and it could use up no more life support than a man.”

“Correct. Which is why, in the end, we decided to shape it like a man. More or less. Just easier to get it around that way.” The creaking and wobbling stopped. The shuttle was now perfectly vertical, standing tall in the Sri Lankan sun. It looked much like an ancient NASA space shuttle perched atop an even-more-ancient Saturn V rocket. The nose of the vehicle was more than four hundred feet in the air. The irritating backboards were now rather comfortable bunk beds stacked twelve high. Jal calmed down.

A voice came over the PA, “This is the Colonel. We have received flight clearance and will be lifting off in ten seconds.”

“So how does it work,” he asked.

“…nine…” the Colonel said.

“Basically we’ve got a hamster wheel in there, a little centrifuge. It spins to provide up and down for your embers, and we filter a trickle of air over them to keep them from going out. The centrifuge gives a little sense of up and down in there, though ‘up’ is towards the hub, and ‘down’ is outward. So the CO2 and the smoke – such as there is – heads away from the heat source and is sucked up by a tiny exit-vent. The right leg of this monstrosity is the oxygen tank, the left leg is where the waste CO2 is stored.”

“…Seven….” Arav had been talking so loudly, Jal had missed part of the countdown.

“Oh.”

“…Six…”

“I foresee only two potential areas of trouble.”

“…five…”

“Which are?”

“…Four…ignition sequence start…”

“Well, we’re going to get jostled like crazy on liftoff, which could easily snuff the flame or break the device.”

“…Three….”

“It could?”

“…Two…”

“Sure. Then there’s the long haul to the moon, during which this half-assed thing could simply break.”

“…One…”

“Uhm…”

“…LIFTOFF!”

The padded bunk slammed into Jal’s back as though he’d been dropped off a two story building, and the pressure rapidly increased. Dimly, through is fog of fear and discomfort he could hear Arav saying something, but he couldn’t make it out. His chest constricted as though a fat man were sitting on it, then two fat men, then three, then it steadied off at around three-and-a-half fat men. The indicator on the back of the bunk/seat above/in front of him said they were holding 3.5 Gs acceleration. He’d never reacted well to roller coasters, and to keep himself from screaming, he tried to do some math in his head. He normally weighed 150 pounds, under this acceleration he weight was around 525 pounds.

He wished he hadn’t worked that out. Knowing just made things worse. The entire vehicle was shaking like a paint-mixer. The seatback in front of him was a blur. He could see a large digital display counting down something, but he couldn’t read it well enough to tell what it was counting down to. Someone screamed, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t him. Several other people screamed, and he knew that couldn’t be him. He couldn’t scream in three-part harmony.

Someone in the seat in front of him made a gurgling sound which, Jal realized, must have been ridiculously loud to be heard over the roar of the engines. Then he realized the roar had died down a bit, but the imaginary fat men sitting on his chest hadn’t moved. Were they traveling fast enough to outrun their own sound? Were they simply above most of the atmosphere, so there wasn’t much sound to be heard? He didn’t know, but pretty clearly the only noise (Apart from random screaming, crying, and disconcerting gurgling) was coming from aft, and not from all sides as before.

Suddenly the sound stopped entirely, there was a huge “Bang,” and he was falling! No, not falling, weightless. He instantly realized there was no real difference between the two. The vibration was gone, too. He could make out the display in front of him. “Flight Time: 2:01,” it said, “2:02, 2:03,” and it kept crawling upward. Had it only been two minutes? It felt like an hour! Another light said “First Stage Separation.” Another clock said “Countdown to Second Stage Ignition: 04, 03, 02,”

“What did you say, Arav?,” Jal shouted, larger than he’d intended.

“I said, ‘But it’ll be fine, nothing to worry about. Now relax.’”

Another indicator flashed “Second stage ignition,” and Jal was slammed in the back again, as hard as if he’d been rear-ended in a car accident. The imaginary fat men returned to sit on his chest, though not as many as before. Perhaps only two or two and a half. Although the thought of himself weighing a mere 375 pounds as opposed to a quarter ton was less disturbing, it was only barely less. After another three minutes they reached orbit, the second stage fell away, and about a third of the people in the cabin started puking. In the old days, they’d had barf bags for this, but space travel was so common and space sickness was so ubiquitous that suction vents were simply built into the seat backs. These gradually slurped up all the disquieting fluids and semisolids drifting about the cabin, though they didn’t do much for the smell. It was obvious several passengers had soiled or wet themselves.

“Space travel is not a glamorous business,” Arav volunteered.

“How do you like weightlessness, kid?”

“Not. At. All.” He choked out.

***

An hour passed, and Pari re-entered the cabin, and made eye contact with a pretty graduate student type in the front row. She smiled, and the girl smiled back. ‘Work comes first,’ Pari reminded herself, and floated back to her charges: “How’s our tin man?” She asked.

Arav checked the old-fashioned needle-gauges on the side, “Seems fine. Spinning is good, temperature is good, CO2 outflow is good.”

“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” Jal breathed in relief. It was the credo of the Zoroastrian religion.

“We’re still an hour or two away from being able to dock with Kaksaganva, but the Colonel has given me permission to bring you two up to the flight deck. You want to see earth?”

“Gave you permission?” Jal asked.

“Yeah, I’m just deadheading on this flight, I’ve got no authority here. But he said it’s ok.” By the time they got into the flight deck, they were passing over the Pacific Ocean.

“The California coast is coming up,” Colonel Balasubramanium said, then helpfully pointed to it as it came over the edge of the world. They were only two hundred and fifty miles up, and could make out a lot of detail, including several forest fires, and the perpetual smog cover of Los Angeles.

“You know, I spent a summer in Portland, Oregon, when I was sixteen,” Arav said. Pari looked at him inquisitively.

“Missions trip from my church.”

“Really? I didn’t know you were a Christian,” she said. He shrugged.

“What was it like?” She asked.

“Oregon is just like anywhere else in Mexico, I guess: Abject poverty, ignorance, violence, religious oppression.”

“Religious oppression?” Jal asked. His voice was a foul-smelling wheez. He had nothing left in him to throw up, but was still looking rather green. The stewardess had given him a breath mint and a Space-Sickness patch to stick behind his ear, but their respective effects hadn’t really kicked in yet. “I thought Mexico was a Christian country?”

“Catholic country. I’m a Protestant. They don’t really consider us Christian. Still, we were bringing humanitarian aid, building little plywood houses for the homeless, so they begrudgingly allowed us in.” California passed beneath them, and they swept over the Midwest.

“I had a layover in New York City, once,” Pari volunteered.

“What was that like?” Jal asked. “Canada is Canada, you know? They don’t really like non-Caucasians like us. They don’t care about religion, though.”

“I hear Dixie is nice,” Balasubramanium said. “My wife’s got a thing for Gone with the Wind. She keeps bugging me to go there for vacation sometime.”

“True, I’ve never been, but I’m told it’s the least-awful country in that neighborhood,” Pari said, “But that doesn’t get us around the fact that North America is the poorest continent on earth.”

“Hard to believe, the United States used to pretty much rule the world in the twentieth century, isn’t it?” Balasubramanium said. This was quite literally ancient history, as well-known and irrelevant as the Roman Empire. And like the Roman Empire, not a single bit of it remained as a political entity.

“Yeah, well, they stupided themselves out of existence,” Arav said.

“Yes they did,” Balasubramanium agreed. “You folks should be getting back to your seats now.” As they made their way back, Pari excused herself and started chatting up the pretty female passenger.

“So how far up are you going?” She asked.

“The moon,” the girl said excitedly.

“Really? Me too,” said Pari.

“There’s not that many ferries to the moon. Maybe we’ll be on the same one?”

“I hope so,” the girl said. “My name’s Priyanka, by the way, Priyanka Soni.” They shook hands.

Meanwhile, drifting back to their seats, Jal said, “So what’s the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic?”

“Too much to go into, but basically they believe the Pope has the supreme authority over all Christians, and we Protestants disagree.”

“What’s a ‘Pope?’”

“The leader of the Catholics. Lives in the Potala Palace in Tibet. The Chinese gave it to their church after the…unpleasantness.” Jal was too embarrassed to ask what this meant. The way Arav said it, it felt like something everyone should know about, but he wasn’t much of a student of history.

***

Whereas the more genteel Chinese and Russians had built very large, wheel-shaped space stations that rotated to simulate gravity, and the Japanese were endlessly tinkering with a massive O’Neil sunflower in low earth orbit that would probably never be finished, every other space agency in the world had opted for pragmatism over comfort. Most space stations were random hodge-podges of huge tin cans, solar panels, spheres of random sizes, and massive inflatable sections. Kaksagarva, the ISRO space station was far and away the largest of the bunch, and was considered the gateway to the solar system. Someday, if there was ever to be a manned mission to Mars, it would doubtless leave from here.

There were several hundred people in it at any given time, and spacecraft coming and going every few hours. Docking was briefly delayed owing to an argument with a North Korean food transport, but they got in to port no more than a half hour late. Since their connecting flight to Luna wouldn’t leave until tomorrow, there was no real inconvenience.

As soon as they docked, Pari made a bee-line for the nearest Smokers Room. Arav fussed with the Sacred Fire Device, and pronounced it ‘ok.’ They checked in to their hotel rooms, and Jal tried to sleep. He couldn’t get over the terrifying feeling he was falling, and somehow being in the coffin-like room made it worse, so after several hours he just gave up and made his way to the cafeteria-lounge. It was a house-sized inflatable ball made up of transparent Kevlar. It offered a stunning view of earth. Pari and Priyanka were there, drinking coffee out of insulated squeeze-bulbs. They saw him, and Pari waved him over. He laboriously made his way through the crowd, banging into several people, and cartwheeling ass-over-teakettle, until a waitress grabbed him, and just hurled him at his friend.

When everyone (Excepting Jal) was done laughing, Priyanka said, “the major here was telling me some fascinating stuff.”

“Ah, it’s nothing,” she said. India was passing below them, gorgeous and sprawling and green and blue, with huge white clouds. Beautiful, except for an unsightly brown circle. Pari pointed it out. “That’s where New Delhi used to be,” she said, “I always think it looks like Shiva stubbed out a cigarette there.” Priyanka, evidently a bit more religious than Pari, expressed discomfort.

“Sorry,” Pari said, though she wasn’t, really.

“It’s nothing,” Priyanka said in a tone that indicated just the opposite. She looked at her watch, and excused herself. She drifted away into the crowd.

“Are you and her…?” Jal asked.

“Just a fling. It’s a long drive to the moon. Nice to have company.”

“Ah,” Jal said, politely trying to keep disapproval out of his voice. Homosexuality was an unforgivable sin in Zoroastrianism. “She said you were being interesting? What were you talking about?”

“The moon. Back in the twenty-first century, and even the late twentieth centuries, everyone assumed we’d mine the moon for Helium Three, then we’d use that in Nuclear Fusion reactors to power the whole world, and end our reliance on fossil fuels. I read a lot of old science fiction, and this was a pretty common trope.”

“Yeah?” Jal said, mostly because he felt he was expected to say something.

“Yeah. That didn’t work out so good. The simple fact that everyone chose to ignore was that no one knew how to build a fusion reactor of any sort, much less a HE-3 one. We’ve been tinkering with it for a hundred and fifty years now, and still the only artificial fusion reactions we’ve ever been able to make are thermonuclear explosions.” She paused and took a sip of her coffee. “Mind you,” she said, “Helium-3 does make jim-dandy bombs.” She waved her hand theatrically to indicate the huge charred-black swath of land that had been Pakistan, once upon a time. “That was about twenty-two years before I was born,” she said.

“You and Arav are about the same age, right?” Jal asked. He laughed, then wished he hadn’t. It was too late. Pari took the bait.

“What’s so funny, kid?”

“I’d just assumed you and he were…uhm….together until just…well I guess”

She laughed, “That is funny. But even if I wasn’t into chicks, I didn’t even know the guy was a Christian, kid, how close could the two of us be if I didn’t know that? No, we used to work together groundside years back.” She took a sip of her drink. “So have you availed yourself of the local specialty entertainment?”

“I saw a theater, but I don’t…”

“No, I meant hookers.”

“What’s a …”

“Prostitutes.” He winced, “That would be immoral. We strive for good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. I don’t expect you to understand, but that would most definitely not be a good deed.”

“Just checking,” she said.

“Checking what?”

“Whether or not you really are a very idealistic young priest.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone’s got their character flaws, and priests tend to have more than most. As a class, I don’t really like them very much, but I kind of like you. I’m not sure why. I guess I’m just hoping you won’t disappoint me.”

“I’m not a priest of your religion, would it matter?”

“I’m not a huge fan of priests of any religion, and, yeah, it would matter.”

***

Continued here...

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Copyright 2014, Kevin Long

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and has a fourth one coming out any week now. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!

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