AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story, characters and setting are copyright © 2011 Alflor Aalto....
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story, characters and setting are copyright © 2011 Alflor Aalto.
The maiden voyage of the Comet-6 marked the beginning of a new era in commercial space travel. The ship's warp-modulated propulsion system, combined with the latest in stasis technology, accomplished the impossible: commercialized interstellar travel.
Prior to the invention of the Hybernatrix Stasis System, the only way of reaching the stars was to assemble a multi-generational crew. The astronauts would procreate in space and their children would do the same. If all went well, the grandchildren of the original crew would reach the destination sometime in their early twenties. Nobody could figure out why, but what looked like instantaneous transport between two points from the outside the ship, actually took the same length of time inside the ship as it would have taken a light-speed craft.
Now, with the stasis system perfected to a fail-safe level, all the travelers had to do was close their eyes and...
"Wake up in the stars! Pretty sweet, huh?" Alan tore his eyes from the flashing billboard. He grabbed his brother's paw just in time to prevent the little otter from being swept off by the crowd of boarding passengers.
"Yeah," Danny said. "I still can't believe you snagged tickets for this."
Alan grinned, pulling two tickets out of a brightly-colored envelope. "I'm pretty sure I'm the first one since Grandpa to actually win something in a lottery." He gave one of the tickets to Danny.
"That's a lot of something, too." Danny took the ticket and examined the fluorescing holographic print. "I researched these, the average price was something like ten million dollars apiece."
"Ten?" Alan stopped just short of handing his ticket to the flight-attendant fox. "Wow, kinda makes me wish I'd sold it."
"Oh, come on." Danny gave his ticket to the fox. "How often do you get to do something like this?"
Alan sighed. "I guess you're right." He gave his ticket to the flight attendant as well, holding on reluctantly for a few moments at the thought of throwing out twenty million dollars.
"Enjoy your voyage, sir." The fox smiled, gently yanking the ticket from Alan's paw.
Alan smiled back, sighed and joined his brother in the long, winding line.
The two otters stood out immediately, dressed in considerably less pricey clothes than the other passengers. Alan looked around self-consciously at the sea of brand-name labels and expensive jewelry. Taking care of Danny didn't leave him with much disposable income.
Nobody paid much attention to him and his state of dress, however, so he relaxed. He focused, instead, on reading the informational pamphlet that came with the tickets.
The fox that took their tickets picked up a microphone. "Attention, passengers, flight nine-seven-five to the Canopus system will now commence boarding."
She pressed a series of buttons on a glowing green console in front of her, and the double blast doors leading further into the facility opened with a loud hiss.
Alan took his brother's paw and followed the others inside. He breathed slowly, the canned air leaving a tinge of bitterness on his tongue.
The door opened into a narrow corridor, lit brightly by ceiling-mounted LED arrays. The artificial lighting washed out the colors, giving everything a steely-gray tinge. Even Danny's reddish-brown fur and bright blue eyes appeared cool and unsaturated.
The corridor forked and the two brothers joined a large group of mustelids and creatures of a similar height heading down the left hallway, while the taller species stayed on the right.
They stopped at an airlock which, judging by the curvature of the wall and the reflective paneling, was the outer door of the spaceship.
With an even louder hiss than the previous door, the airlock opened and a short weasel emerged. His fur was light-gray, complementing the flat lighting, and he wore a similarly-colored grey jumpsuit emblazoned with the CometCorp logo.
"Welcome aboard the Comet-6," he said, beaming proudly as if the ship were his. "Please proceed down the corridor until you reach the doorway marked with the first letter of your last name. Each stasis pod is individually marked, so be sure you enter the correct one." He pushed the heavy door open all the way and secured it to the hull of the ship. "Welcome."
"Well, at least we get to sit together," Danny whispered. "I was kinda scared that they'd separate us."
"Yeah." Alan would never admit it, but he was just as scared as his little brother. He'd loved outer space ever since he was a cub, but the thought of dying there, somewhere far from home, was a nightmare he'd often awoken from. Danny was right, of course, when would he ever get to do something like this again? Travel to the Out-world colonies was still in its infancy and it would be years before it became affordable enough for someone with his salary. Maybe he'd be able to find a job somewhere in the Canopus system and settle down with his brother in this new world. Maybe-
"Come on, Al." Danny tugged his paw, putting Alan's thoughts on hold.
By the time they reached door 'W', there were only a pawful of others with them.
Another crewmember, an otter this time, came out to greet them.
"Welcome aboard," he said, his bow betraying his culture as much as the Japanese accent. "If you would please enter the pod-room, we can begin the loading procedure."
Alan nodded and followed the others inside, still clutching Danny's paw.
The pod-room had a low ceiling that rose no more than a few inches above Alan's head. Bright light bathed its white plastic walls, reflecting gently in a matte gleam. Stasis pods, much like the ones in Alan's pamphlet, stood in a neat matrix on the floor, taking up most of the space.
Alan approached one of the pods and examined it. At its simplest, the pod reminded him of a large bathtub with with a lounge chair placed inside. A glass dome covered each pod, with little visible in the way of controls.
The otter who'd let them inside, walked over to a pod arranged perpendicular to the others. "Just put your paw on the scanner, like this." He opened his paw and pressed it against a thin glass membrane with a picture of a paw drawn on it.
The inside of the pod glowed green and the dome slid up. It reminded Alan of an old F-16 jet he'd seen at the Science Museum.
"Once you are safely inside the pod," the otter continued, "put on the four-point safety harness and relax. The system is fully automated and the next time you open your eyes, the ship will already have landed on planet Beta-eleven."
Still holding Danny's paw, Alan navigated the rows of pods until he found the right ones. "You first," he said, gently nudging the little otter towards the pod.
Danny's ears twitched nervously and his forced smile faded. "I'm scared, Al."
"Oh, don't worry." Alan nuzzled his brother. "You close your eyes and wake up in the stars, right?"
He remembered a few weeks, several years back, when Danny refused to go to sleep, claiming that he was afraid of dying. Alan would hold the otter gently in his arms, reassuring him with his warmth and his presence until Danny fell asleep. Back then he wasn't scared; he knew that everything would be alright. Now he wasn't so sure.
Danny didn't look convinced either. His bright blue eyes met Alan's green. "Promise me you'll be on the other side."
"I promise." Alan embraced his brother, resting his muzzle between the otter's short ears. The gentle warmth of the little otter's body soothed him, making him smile. "Now, come on. The trip will be over before you know it."
"Yeah, I guess." Danny placed his paw on the scanner. His ears still twitched slightly as he watched the dome slide open. He looked back at Alan. "I'll see you when we land?"
"Well, of course." Alan gave his brother an encouraging smile. He squeezed the otter's paw one last time before letting go and walking to his own pod.
Alan turned around.
Danny had already climbed into his pod. He fastened the safety harness and looked over at his brother. "Pleasant dreams."
"Good night, Danny." Alan watched the glass dome on his brother's pod slide into place. He sighed and turned back to his own pod, placing his paw on the scanner. The pawprint reader seemed to take longer than it had for Danny. Just as the butterflies began to dance around inside Alan's stomach, the glass slid open with a mechanical whirr.
Alan climbed over the side of the pod and slid in, grasping the support handles on the inside wall.
The air in the pod was even cooler than it was in the room; the smell reminded Alan of a summer night, just after a thunderstorm.
With a quick glance towards Danny's pod, Alan secured his harness and closed his eyes.
The glass dome closed, sealing itself with a soft hiss. The scent of ozone grew stronger and stronger. It overwhelmed Alan's sense of taste and smell.
"Please breathe deeply and evenly." Sound of the metallic voice made Alan twitch.
"Please relax." The voice no longer sounded artificial. It felt like it wasn't even a voice, but rather Alan's own inner thoughts talking. Every syllable reverberated around Alan's head, registering somewhere deep inside his brain.
The air got thicker and thicker until Alan could no longer feel his breathing.
The weight of his limbs faded with each passing moment, leaving Alan pleasantly disconnected from the world around him. A few stray thoughts drifted by, getting less and less complicated and intricate as Alan fell deeper and deeper into a state of perfect unconsciousness.
"Error four-nine-zero-three. Stasis terminated." The words floated around Alan's brain, mistaken at first for snatches of a fading dream.
"Attention, Alan West. Attention!" Even in monotone, the voice brought Alan back to reality. His eyes sprung open, stinging from disuse.
The thick, gaseous mist swirled in front of him. It limited his vision even more than the grogginess of hypersleep already had.
"Huh?" Alan tried to say more, but something was lodged in his throat, blocking his speech and breathing. This realization shot a bolt of adrenaline through Alan's body. He strained his diaphragm, trying to draw breath, but the barrier in his throat kept the air out.
The walls of the pod, something Alan had hardly even noticed before, closed in around him, crushing him. The straps of the harness pressed down against his fur, trapping him.
"Please relax. The Plasmidone in your digestive system and lungs is there for your safety." The robotic voice didn't reassure Alan one bit, but he did his best to stay calm, wondering what would happen next.
The answer came in the form of a sharp, searing pain. The young otter pulled against the bonds as his abdominal muscles spasmed and cramped.
"Please relax. The fail-safe measure will be administered shortly."
There was a loud hiss, filling the cabin with a yellow smoke that smelled strongly of rotting eggs.
"Releasing neuro-toxin 'Zeta-three'. Please relax."
The word 'neuro-toxin' made Alan's heart beat even faster. He clamped his nostrils with his paw and braced his feet against the glass dome.
Praying that the glass wasn't shatterproof, Alan kicked out with all his strength. Nothing. The adrenaline flooded his veins. It made Alan shiver. He gritted his teeth and kept kicking, his feeble muscles burning up as he beat his feet against the glass.
The loud crack made Alan stop. He strained his eyes and saw a wisp-thin, jagged line zip across the glass. He kicked again. Several more lines formed.
The metallic voice clicked on: "Your pod is damaged. Please exit the pod and await further instructions. Remember: Stay calm."
Alan fumbled for the release button on his harness and pressed it. He pushed himself out of the pod, not waiting for the glass dome to slide open fully.
The metal floor felt alien to him as the nerves in his feet tingled and fired for the first time in years. Alan placed weight on his feet, but they were too weak to hold him. He fell. Everything moved in slow motion as Alan struggled to grab on to something for support. It was too late. Alan collapsed on the ground and lay still, trying to collect what was left of his strength.
His stomach lurched again. Alan rolled over onto his knees. Shivering uncontrollably, he braced himself with his front paws and vomited several times.
The searing pain burned his lungs, making him scream, but he'd hardly opened his muzzle to do so, before vomiting again.
Alan opened his eyes slowly, waiting for the world to come into focus. He brought his head closer to the floor and examined the contents of the vomit. Rather than the expected food chunks or intestinal fluid, the discharge was comprised solely of a thick, clear gel.
"The effects of hypersleep will wear off soon." The voice from his pod now echoed from somewhere far above. "How do you feel?"
"Like crap." Alan swished the remains of the gel around his muzzle and spat it on the floor.
"Not a very informative answer, but you are still in a state of recovery."
"Mind telling me what happened?" Alan braced himself against the side of the pod and stood up, keeping his back pressed against the cool, metallic surface.
"Due to a one in ten-billion malfunction, your pod only sustained one hundred and fifty years of stasis."
"Okay," Alan bent over, coughing up more gel. He wiped his muzzle with his shirt-sleeve. "Why'd you try to kill me?"
"The fail-safe mechanism has been installed for your convenience."
Alan let out several sharp, rasping laughs before the pain in his abdomen made him stop. "Convenience?" He massaged his stomach, wincing at each stab of lancing pain.
"Correct." The calmness of the voice only served to anger Alan.
"Look." Alan pushed off from the pod, testing his balance. "I'm not sure that dying is my idea of convenience."
"It is not the death that is convenient, it is the fact that the death is fast and painless. Without the neuro-toxin, your death will take years. Accompanying symptoms may include: starvation, dehydration, hallucination and insanity."
Alan's eyes widened. The dream; the dream that made him scream and come awake in cold sweat... it was real now. "No, there's got to be someone aboard this ship who can help."
Alan walked as quickly as he could to the crewmember's pod, ignoring his fledgling equilibrium.
"Hello?" He knocked on the glass, being careful not to break it. "Hello?"
"The stasis process fully disconnects the mind from the body."
"There's got to be some way to wake him." Alan wiped the fog off the glass, peering at the still form inside. "Open up the pod."
"I am sorry, Alan, but you haven't got permission to perform the requested task."
Alan wasn't listening. Heedless of the pain in his abdomen, he hobbled over to his brother's pod and looked inside. "Danny?"
The little otter was peaceful and still, enveloped by swirling clouds of green smoke. Alan rested his forehead on the glass. He struggled to push away the crippling realization that the embrace they shared before stasis may have been their last.
"How much longer is the trip?" he asked, knowing that the answer was unlikely to be a favorable one.
"One hundred and forty nine years, three hundred and sixty days, twenty three hours, seven minutes and forty five, four, three seconds."
Alan continued to watch Danny's still form. Tears blurred his vision. "I'm not gonna make it, am I?"
It took the computer a few seconds to answer. "The average lifespan of a male river otter is eighty-five years. Even with your better-than-average genes, your predicted lifespan amounts to roughly one hundred years."
"Alright, fine." Alan tore his eyes from Danny, keeping his paw pressed gently against the smooth surface of the glass. "I'm gonna contact somebody. They're bound to know what to do." He headed for the door.
"I am afraid that, being over one hundred and fifty light-years from either end of the vortex-tunnel, it will take roughly that long for the signal to reach its destination. In layman's terms, they will discover your predicament far quicker when they exhume your body on the other side."
The cold, hard facts laid so bare before him, made Alan shiver. He shook his head. "I'll find a way."
"You are welcome to look. However, I will monitor you to make sure you do not cause harm to the ship or the other passengers."
Alan opened the door and walked out into the hallway. "What's your name?"
"My model name is 'Phobos-C thirty nine'." The automated lights came on with a soft thud.
"Alright then, Phobos." Alan headed down the hall. "Which way to the bridge?"
He watched the ceiling-mounted cameras follow him with their sightless electric eyes.
"Proceed down the corridor and take the elevator to floor 'C'."
Alan nodded, not sure if Phobos could register it, and continued down the hallway.
He reached the end of the hall. The blast door stood silent in front of him, separating him from the outside world. It felt like only moments ago that he'd walked through that door with his brother, afraid slightly, but also excited at the prospect of seeing the new world. One hundred and fifty years had passed, but the door looked so new that the fact could very easily be ignored.
The elevator doors were already open. He stepped inside and pressed the button labeled 'C'.
The doors shut. Alan felt the slight jump in gravity, causing him to flex his toes reflexively as the elevator rose higher and higher into the bowels of the ship.
The lights flickered several times and the doors opened.
The bridge was considerably more sparse than Alan had imagined it to be. There were no windows to the outside. All of the controls were located on a single console, positioned directly opposite the elevator doors. The ever-present white light bathed the room.
There remained one glimmer of hope for him to make it out alive. Alan approached the console and put his knowledge of hacking to work.
"Alan, what are you doing?"
Somehow, Alan knew that Phobos was afraid; even if machines weren't programmed for fear. He was doing something out of protocol and that must have made the machine quite nervous. Alan grinned with satisfaction at having elicited an emotional response from something so cold and heartless.
"I'm just adjusting a few things," he said, his paws dancing nimbly over the backlit keys.
"Alan, you do not have permission to do that. You must stop."
"Actually." He was in the mainframe. "You'll find that I do." Alan entered his name and credentials into the database.
"Very well, Alan, your name is now on my permissions list. How may I help?"
"Well, first we're gonna go back to the pod-room. I'll let the rest be a surprise." Alan shut off the console and got back on the elevator.
He wasn't sure what his plan would accomplish, but it was the only way out that he could think of. He would keep his promise to Danny.
The automated lights in pod-room 'W' came on when Alan entered.
"Alright, Phobos," he approached the otter-crewman's pod. "Open her up. That otter's bound to know what to do in a situation like this."
"As you wish. Now opening pod number 'three six six'." With a loud hiss, the glass dome slid open.
The green smoke whirled around, escaping eagerly out of the pod. It grew fainter and fainter, spreading around the room and becoming completely invisible.
Alan watched the crewman stir awake.
Something happened, then, that Alan didn't anticipate. The crewman's eyes sprung open and rolled back, showing the ghostly white of their scleras. His back arched, pushing violently against the harness. With each push, the otter's body convulsed and shook, spasming continuously as blood drained out of the ears. The crewman's muzzle opened, snapping with a loud crunch as the muscle strain broke the delicate hinge-joint. A deep gurgling sound filled the creature's throat. His chest deflated, squeezing the clear gel from his muzzle - like toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. The convulsions grew to a powerful climax; the otter arched his back one last time, pushing the lower vertebrae out with a sickening crunch. He shuddered a few more times and lay still.
Alan watched the scene, his eyes growing wider with the otter's every convulsion. He wanted to close his eyes, he wanted to look away from the lurid sight, but his eyes refused to obey. They remained fixated on the dying creature, as if to punish Alan for his careless mistake. The nameless otter's struggle made his stomach turn violently. Alan fell to his knees and vomited. First, the familiar clear gel came out; then, when there was nothing left, the dry heaves began. Alan propped himself on his elbows, crying out at his abdomen's every forceful contraction.
"Please, make it stop," he croaked between heaves. "Please. I beg you!"
"I am sorry, Alan, I cannot help you. Please remain calm. The vomiting should stop soon."
The convulsions continued. Alan's arms gave out and he slumped on the floor, rubbing his short muzzle in the vomit. He sobbed brokenly, overwhelmed by the unbearable pain and the life he'd unwittingly taken.
When the dry-heaves ceased, Alan stood up. Phantom vibrations coursed through his limbs, making him shiver visibly. It was too late to turn back now. In some cruel, twisted way, luck had smiled on him and he'd found a way out.
Alan walked over to the crewman's pod and opened the harness. The sharp stench of blood and urine overwhelmed him, but he held on to what was left of his constitution. He grasped the otter's corpse by the paws and pulled the limp form out of the pod.
"Why didn't you tell me this would happen?" He knew that Phobos had nothing to do with the death, but it felt easier misplace the blame. That otter would be alive right now, if not for... if not for him.
"You did not ask. Since you are now an administrator, my programming has me assume that you have had the qualifying training, enabling you to safely operate the Hybernatrix stasis pods and their components." The reply was calm, cool and collected. Alan shuddered.
"It doesn't matter anyway." He'd made a promise. Alan climbed into the pod, keeping his breathing shallow to avoid the horrible smell. "All that matters is that I get to live. Who cares about that guy? Nobody's gonna miss him." Justification felt good. "I've got a brother. He'll be all alone if anything happened to me. I can't let this happen. I won't let this happen." He averted his eyes from the corpse. "Put me back into stasis, Phobos. Now!" Alan closed his eyes and willed himself to relax. "Just remain calm, right Phobos?"
"Alan, I regret to inform you that I will be unable to do so."
"What?!" Alan rose instinctively. He winced from pain as the restraints cut into his fur. "What the hell are you telling me?"
"The sedative employed by the Hybernatrix system is used to suppress a specific gene structure in your DNA. It differs from one individual to the next. The sedative used on Mister Ashito will not work with your particular biochemical makeup."
Alan's heart sank. Hope had come and gone, its brief high only bringing a new low.
"But this can't be," he whispered. "I made a promise. I promised Danny that I'd see him on the other side. We were gonna make it together." He looked over towards his brother's pod. The angle of the glass obscured Danny's form, but he was there. Alan could hear his breathing. He could feel the warmth emanating from the little otter's body. He could see those warm, trusting blue eyes.
"Is there any hope?" Alan whispered, his dead, beaten voice barely audible over the hiss of the stasis pod. "Doesn't anyone have a similar sedative?"
"There is one other individual on this ship whose pod contains a sedative identical to yours."
"Who?" Alan knew the answer already, but maybe, just maybe...
"Daniel West. According to my records, he is your brother."
Alan let out a strangled sob. A heavy weight filled the emptiness in his stomach. It pulled him down regardless of gravity. His only chance at living was to kill the one person he was closest to. The one person he'd wanted to live to see.
"There has to be some other way." heedless of the vomit, Alan unbuckled the harness and turned on his side. "There has to be some other way."
Tears welled in his eyes, but he hardly noticed. "I can't leave Danny alone, he's not even fifteen yet. There has to be some other way. There has to be some other way!" His pitiful screams echoed around the stasis chamber, ringing in his ears and the deaf ears of the otter he'd just killed.
"Please remain calm, Alan. There is another way."
"Really?" Alan's voice came out as a squeak. For the first time since emerging from stasis he smiled. "Tell me, please." The warmth in his chest grew and grew; even the cold air of the pod wasn't enough to make him shiver. "I'll do whatever it takes!"
"I can fill the pod you are currently in with neuro-toxin. The death will be instant and painless. Since you now possess administrative privileges, however, the final choice is yours."
The happiness drained out of Alan's body as if he'd just vomited it all over the floor.
"But I made a promise." He remembered the warmth of his brother's final embrace. "I promised him I'd see him on the other side. I promised."
"I am sorry, Alan. Whenever you are ready to choose, please let me know."
Alan curled up in a ball, sobbing brokenly, trapped in a nightmare that even his fertile mind could never have conjured.