Waking from cold-sleep is still one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced. When I signed up for deep space exploration, I was told we would be on the fastest ships ever created, and would travel distances few could even imagine. This boggled my young and impressionable mind. Then they told me the one thing which would undermine everything I had ever imagined about space travel, I could not be awake for the journey itself.
On shorter journey’s within the heart of the Hegemony, between the fast ships and the Precursor Gates, coldsleep is rarely used, the flights barely take more than a couple of weeks at the longest. People mingle, aliens share their stories, and lifestyles depending on whether they are C or NC lifeforms. C life tends to be able to share quarters and tend to have similar if odoriferous atmospheres. NC or non-carbon life comes in so many flavors and needs so many unique environments, most NC life carries its environment with it, within an environmental bubble allowing them motility and life support.
As a Human Scout of the Hegemony, I have the rare honor of flying the fastest ships possible to reach the core of the Galaxy. Even with the speed of my ship and the Master Gate near the galactic core, it will still take me almost two years of travel time to reach the Darkhouse. It’s said the caretaker of the Darkhouse is a bit eccentric and a non-human, making his jokes painful and incomprehensible. He is at least a C so we will be able to share an atmosphere and relatively similar gravity.
Returning to consciousness from cryo-sleep is likened to dying in reverse. You start in a place of supremely bright light as the activation sequence restarts the brainstem near the optic nerve. This mean for a while all you can see is whiteness. No depth perception, no ability to range it, it is a perfect white. You know when you are starting to be able to see when you find yourself experiencing a feeling of falling, slowly at first but soon it becomes a rushing sensation, complete with wind noises. You find yourself falling into a dark pit whose darkness slowly absorbs the white light pushing it backward away from where you are falling.
Then there is the jarring and sudden stop.
No warning, no sense of time or distance. Everything stops and you become aware of coldness, a cold more bitter than anything you remember. No winter day can compare; not even close. You can feel the burning on your skin, the cryotube filling with a saline solution designed to return you to life, slowly, steadily raising both your inner temperature and your outer skin temperature. It takes twenty four hours until you are able to leave the cryo-chamber. Fortunately you are not truly aware of what is happening around you until the last couple of hours, so you don’t resent the lost day.
By the time the chamber is emptied, you are wearing the finest in fiber-extruded clothing and have been fed intravenously. This does not stop you from wanting to fill your stomach with the biggest, juiciest burger you can think of. You don’t do it of course. Your body will have to adjust to eating again, just like it had to get used to not eating. In three to five days, you are ravenous and are allowed to have your first bite. It’s heavenly no matter what it is.
After my first meal, I got to meet Director SunDrinker’s Proxy. He was a tiny creature approximately a meter tall, and resembled a squirrel monkey more than anything. He was definitely less than I expected from a Botani.
“Welcome, welcome, Technical Scientist Sarah Collins. We are pleased you could make the trip. Our preparations for your visit have gone well and we expect you will want to observe the ore samples and the distilled metals as soon as possible. We need to explain some of the rules of the facility and then I will take you to meet Director SunDrinker.”
Looking more closely at the SunDrinker’s Proxy, I thought he was a rather handsome creature. His fur a deep purple, was slightly lighter on his chest and inner thighs and inner arms. His head was a mixture of feline and monkey with a wide mouth and overly large teeth he showed at every interaction. His hands and feet both had six fingers and toes and were prehensile in their appearance. As if to prove the point, he took a bounding leap to the wall and then to the ceiling landing with his feet on the colored pipe-way.
“If you get lost, the blue pipe always leads to SunDrinker’s main facility. Always establish a comm and let him know you are on your way. He tends to leave the shields at minimum opacity so he can enjoy the rare radiant configuration of this area. One more thing,” he locks my eyes with his large golden orbs and I can feel his intensity, “never leave the confines of this facilities artificial gravity without an environmental shield. Ever. Away for even a moment without the proper technology and you will be a molecule thick paste on the surface.” He taps the belt he is wearing and points to my own.
I am sure the look on my face asked the question my lips didn’t but he smiled and swung down the corridor. “Now you get to meet the boss.”
The size of this place baffled me. The technical journals told of a place that was easily nine miles wide, but the habitation area seemed cramped and tight. The air seemed a little under processed for a place with so few C lifeforms. Nothing seemed to make any sense at all. Things became even less sensible in the next five minutes. As we approached the central air processing plant, the Proxy began to brief me again.
“Turn on your environmental shield. It is automatically calibrated to provide you with maximum intensity protection against a completely failure of the solar protection of the facility for thirty minutes. By then you need to be within a protected region of the base or you will be dead.”
“Okay, I was trained in using this technology before I left the Toranor system. I should be able to survive in nearly any environment for nearly a week using this environmental shield. Is this a bargain model?” The Proxy turned to me and activated his shield. He was replaced with a bubble I could not see through at all. Total and complete blackness, a matte black, no edge, no curve, almost like a hole in space.
I activated my shield and the world disappeared. Inside my environmental sphere, I could see a heads-up display which replicated the appearance of the world in outline, so important features were still able to be seen. But the rest of the world had vanished into darkness.
The Proxy’s orb was displayed and he moved into what appeared to be an airlock. I followed closely and the door snapped shut behind me. The metal in the airlock was highly polished and mirrored. There was a mild pressure differential adjusted for and then the door to the inner facility opened. I could suddenly see the Proxy and felt an intense heat and incredibly white light. I looked down at my belt and it was still activated. All the lights were active. The Proxy waved at me. He pointed inward and I could see the Botani. A magnificent grove of trees, easily a hundred and fifty feet tall, dark magenta trunks and leaves the color of blood. Their leaves were broad and each directed outward absorbing light from every direction. There was air purification equipment all around the room. Most of it was in standby mode. Then I thought for a moment and realized with such a large copse of Botani, they were able to act as the primary air processing unit with the hardware only utilized as a backup.
I had never seen such a large group of Botani away from the Toranor system, I wasn’t even sure they could leave their world until now. They were magnificent.
Then the Proxy pointed upward and only then did I notice the vault of the domed ceiling, it was so far away, it seemed to fade into the background. What I saw outside of the vault took my breath away and explained why I could suddenly see even through the environmental suits.
There were nine suns visible at different points in the sky and they filled it with light. There was no darkness, no region of space that was without light. One sun was so bright it filled sixty percent of the sky all by itself. The others had to be fantastically close to throw off as much light as they did. I couldn’t take it all in.
“You should go now, young one. Your time to be here is almost expired. What are you called?” The voice came through the comm but it was not the Proxy who had his usual smile on his face.
“My name is Sarah Collins, Director SunDrinker. Will there be a better time to meet with you?” There was a strange rumbling coming from the comm. When it stopped, SunDrinker continued “You have been with me all day.” When he said this, the Proxy looked at me and waved. “We can meet later after you have had a bit more rest.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, sir.” More of the strange rumbling. The Proxy grabbed me and we ran to the exit. Once the inner door closed, I could no longer see through the environmental shield again. There was a longer period of waiting before the airlock cycled and the inner door opened again.
Once we stepped out of the airlock, the Proxy turned off his shield and I followed suit. “I think he likes you.”
“How can you tell?” I asked. “I mean he’s a plant-like organism, no way to read his expressions.”
“No way for you to read his expression, you mean. What do they tell you in your human academy about the Botani and their Proxies?”
“The Botani are a species of super-intelligent plants whose root systems comprise an organic network computer more powerful than most of the hardware tech used by all but the most sophisticated Sentients in the Hegemony with a degree of accuracy and computational capability unmatched by any machine-tech anywhere. They say the Proxies are a lifeform which evolved in symbiosis with the Botani helping to provide mobility and protection for the plants in their infancy.”
“That was a nice textbook definition. But it is only partially correct. I can read his leaf impressions to determine his mental state, but I can also feel those impressions within my being. Our symbiosis has reached a state where I am able to interpret his thoughts directly as if they were my own. He can also if he chose, control my movement as if I were a remote device. While we may appear to be two separate beings, it is more accurate to call us a single being sharing a dual consciousness in two separate locations. I know he liked you because he was laughing. The rumbling noise you hear was interpreted by the translation matrix. It was his laughter.”
“Oh. I am still tired. Can you take me to my quarters?”
“Certainly. We can tour the rest of the processing plant tomorrow and you can begin your survey of the superconductive materials mined here.”
My quarters were simple, utilitarian with just enough comfort to remind you this was not home, but not enough to make you resent it. I laid my head down and I was still tired to the bone. When I was awakened by a loud clarion and flashing lights, I thought I was coming out of cryosleep.
“Proxy, what happening?” A long minute before he answered.
“Someone is trying to make an emergency landing without the Darklight.”
“Were we expecting anyone?”
“No. Their ship is not registering any recognizable markings or transponders.”
“Not this far from the Hegemony. It’s not impossible but highly unlikely. They would have had to have traveled as long as you have and we would have been informed long before now.”
“Can we ignore them?”
“This far into the Collective, unless their ships are tougher than ours, they should be experiencing distress due to the proximity to the prime star. Our scanners indicate their ship is already showing signs of shield failure.”
“So we don’t know them, and if we leave them out there, we’re murderers.”
“Or at least highly irresponsible. They didn’t have to come here. You have to make an effort to find this place. We are sitting on the remnant of a star surrounded by other stars, it wouldn’t show up on a map. So the only conclusion we can come to is they followed your ship.”
“Without the Darklight, they won’t survive. If we bring them here, we don’t know what they might do.”
“SunDrinker says we have a responsibility to other Sentients. The Darklight is still calibrated for your last heading so it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to acquire a lock on them.”
I could appreciate the Director’s sentiments, but from where he’s sitting, he is in the safest place in the building. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. I know I shouldn’t but I have to ask. “What happens if we don’t use the Darklight?”
“We would have to in any case, even if they weren’t going to land because now that they are in our gravity well, even if their ship were destroyed, it’s pieces would rain down on the base.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Were you listening when I said we are sitting on a star fragment? Without artificial gravity, you would weigh millions of pounds. When those fragments fall out of the sky, they will hit the star and our base with the force of a multi-megaton nuclear weapon.”
“This place was designed by Hegemony standards, a nuke shouldn’t even penetrate the shields.”
“Under any other condition I would agree with you. This isn’t any other condition. We are using our shields to protect us from the light of at least nine close suns and thirty others at more respectable distances but under a light year away. This ship used a jump drive so it appeared in this space from a great distance away and does not seem prepared for the conditions here. But the damage would not be from a single nuke. Every single scrap of that ship would weigh millions of pounds. Together, at the very least they would drop the shield with the hundreds of fragments raining down on us. Even if the building survived but the shield was gone, it would only be able to survive a few hours before radiation stress would tear it apart.”
Great. I am working on the most dangerous facility in the known universe and I am being told I have to save people who didn’t have any idea of what they were getting into. And I have to save them because if we don’t they may kill us all when they die from their own stupidity.
What else can go wrong?
End of Part 1.
Strap on your environmental force shield and jump to part 2.
Star Light, Star Bright © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved