Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus

Part 2: Perdition’s Wake

By T M Romanelli

Lysirah dreamed.

They had been told about the strange imagery encountered in cryosleep, an effect of altered cortical processes during suspended animation. She found herself moving effortlessly through a deep blue ocean, awash with specks of bioluminescence that were the stars carried on a cosmic current. The horizon was endless, and even though she felt small and fragile as she drifted onward, there was a presence that reassured her that she was not alone. Pleida remained with all of his conservators, even throughout the long night of the Deus Aestiva, the cortical interface projecting his eidolon across space and time. It was serene.

The tide abruptly changed, becoming a roiling tsunami that churned the ocean, swallowing all the stars in a thunderous roar that drowned everything around her. She was nauseous for the first time, and wondered if this was a part of the exercise meant to test her stress response. Her body was buffeted by a surging wave, and she felt her arm brush the interior of the chamber as the platform began to rise. A dull sound permeated the fluid that surrounded her until she broke the surface, when it changed into the shrill pitch of a fire alarm. A voice penetrated her fogginess.

Wake up. wake up now, Lysirah!

Pleida was communicating with her through the interface, the direct link becoming stronger as the torpor from cryosleep receded. She sat up and promptly struck her head against the chamber’s lid, which had not fully opened. A series of racking coughs swept through her as she expelled the preservative fluid from her lungs, finally able to draw a normal breath, and although her vision was blurry she saw enough to know that something terrible had occurred.

I cannot link with Ferran or the others. Are they with you?

The room had undergone a chaotic transformation, leaving pieces of medical equipment overturned and heavy shelves ripped from the wall mounts, spilling their contents. A part of the ceiling had collapsed, exposing broken pipes, torn wires and twisted supports. She could see the next level up through the jagged hole, and a bright plume of sparks cascaded down, the embers skittering across the floor.

“Hello!” she shouted as loudly as she could, spitting out cryofluid as thin streams dripped down her face. She pushed tangled mats of dark hair away from her eyes. “Is anyone there?”

There was no answer.

Pleida, there’s no one here with us.

Ferran or one of the medtechs should have been present during the emergence, because the occupant was often disoriented and sluggish. Why she was the only one awake? Lysirah struggled to haul herself over the lip of the cryosleep unit, as globs of congealed preservative splashed onto the floor. She tried to keep her balance as she came down on the far side but landed on her naked bottom with her back braced against the machine. The floor was freezing.

Putang ina! she cursed, as her mother had on rare occasions.

Report your status.

Sorry, I fell. She rubbed her backside. What’s happened?

Something… unprecedented.

Pleida’s hesitation worried her, but she found some comfort in the strength of his virtual presence, even though he occupied a different orbit.

Six hours ago, the Mariner Observatory reported gravimetric quakes originating from the solar core. There is flare activity of historic magnitude.

God’s blood.

The electromagnetic surge disabled mercury’s orbital network, severing communications. I thought the interference had disrupted the link, too, but then I was able to initiate contact with you.

What should we do?

assemble the others and prepare for evacuation. a coronal mass ejection could happen within the hour. If it strikes Mercury’s surface, nothing will survive. The entire System Fleet is mobilizing for rescue operations. I am also sending ships to collect our people. Be ready.

Understood, she nodded to herself and immediately regretted it. The emergence had left her feeling drained and queasy.

Lysirah felt a warm trickle run down her leg and saw blood weeping slowly from the large needle still lodged in her shin, its tubing sheared off as she had crawled out of the chamber. She gripped the trocar’s hub with wet fingers and extracted it with a sharp jerk, grunting with the effort. She tossed the needle away, where it landed nearby in an expanding pool of perfluorocarbon the color of crimson. Lysirah stood up slowly and took in the scene before her with growing horror.

No, no, no…

Tell me what you see.

A massive beam had fallen across the row of cryosleep units, rupturing their seals and crushing those inside. Her own machine had been spared the full force of the impact, although some wreckage had settled against the lid, preventing it from fully opening. She picked her way carefully through the debris, checking the monitor on each device and finding the same message: critical system failure. All vital telemetry registered zero. In an instant, her adopted family was gone.

Matthias.

Jord.

Daidre.

Lysirah wanted to believe that she was still in cryosleep, tortured by a fever dream that would eventually end, but the carnage possessed an undeniable quality that she had witnessed before as a young girl. She stood there, defenseless against the irresistible pull of memory that brought her back to Cypress Station and the violent death of her parents. This could not be happening again.

Please tell me this is a test, Pleida! Just tell me this isn’t real!

There is no test here, my child. They are beyond our help. What of Helena?

Helena’s chamber was at the end of the row, damaged beyond recognition, but the fluid that pooled around its broken frame was untainted. Lysirah dared to hope as she picked the monitor off the floor, trying to decipher its output through a shattered screen. The crash-out protocol had been activated, so it was possible the unit was already empty when it was destroyed. She looked around the room and saw an irregular path of wet footprints that led towards the main entrance.

Helena… I think she… Helena might still be alive.

Find her. Quickly.

Lysirah was shivering from exposure, and she briskly rubbed her arms to warm herself. Her stomach rumbled ominously, and the earlier queasiness could no longer be ignored. She bent over and vomited three times before the sensation passed. There was a growing discomfort lower down, and she moved to the suite’s lavoratory as quickly as she could without falling over.

There is no time for-

I just need a minute to myself, Pleida! One damn minute so I can go pagdumi! If I’m going to die, it won’t be with a cryofluid enema!

Her anger burned bright, and it was easy to lash out at him when she was fighting to keep so many feelings in check. Fear. Uncertainty. Sadness. Pain. For a moment she was thirteen years old again, ashamed of her own silence as Uncle yelled about how worthless she was to him, wishing she had the courage then to defend herself.

Lysirah entered the closest cubicle and slammed the door shut as she dealt with her most pressing need. Taking some deep breaths she forced herself to think clearly, assessing her options and devising a plan. The current situation wasn’t much different from the one on the Maglev years ago, when she exploited her emotional turmoil to overcome a defeatist mentality, a life lesson she never forgot. If there had been enough time, she would have relished the sense of déjà vu.

When she left the stall, her attitude had completely changed, and she moved with a purpose. Lysirah quickly rinsed the remaining preservative from her hair and tied it in a ponytail, then used some towels to wipe off the gelatinous residue that clung on her skin before she returned to the lockers to get dressed. Her clothing was practical, and she was already feeling warmer by the time she donned her flight jacket. The queasiness was gone, replaced with a grim determination.

I’m going after Helena. If she’s still alive, I’ll find her.

I will assist you in whatever way I can.

Lysirah found a data slate and universal connector, using them to access an undamaged terminal. She quickly scanned the security feed, hoping to find where Helena had gone. There! She replayed the portion that showed Ferran helping her from the unit, just before the two of them left together.

Only eight minutes had elapsed. They couldn’t have gone far.

I need to get some things first.

The emergency closet was stocked with all kinds of useful implements, but she only wanted the essentials so she could move at speed. Lysirah took a traumakit and several chemlights, throwing them into a small backpack she scrounged from another locker. She ignored the fire axe but took the Halligan bar, a versatile tool that she could use to breach doors and break reinforced glass, as she had no idea how badly the facility was damaged or what obstacles she would find in her way. The data slate was added to the pack before she pulled the straps over her shoulders.

Lysirah had almost reached the armored door of the main entrance when she felt the rising wave of heat. There was a harsh buzzing from the other side, which grew louder as the door began to warp and its shiny finish bubbled and peeled back. She had seen this once before during her midshipman cruise before graduation.

Plasma fire!

Her path blocked, she consulted the data slate for another route as she grabbed a respirator from the closet and secured it across her face. Lysirah sprinted away from the entrance before it failed against the growing pressure and intense heat behind it. She found the maintenance hatch past the row of cryosleep units when the door finally collapsed, blasting a shower of molten fragments deep into the medical suite, setting it ablaze. The inferno advanced rapidly until the suppression system activated, saturating the room with a dense miasma of inert gas to deprive the fire of oxygen. If it weren’t for her respirator, she would have passed out and perished. The air was already so thick that she could barely see her own hands in front of her, and though it could not extinguish the expanding plasma, it granted a few precious seconds to pry the hatch and then seal it behind her when she was safely inside.

She had retreated to a storage compartment that contained several large liquid helium tanks used to operate the cryomedicine equipment. The enclosure had reinforced walls designed to contain an accidental release of the pressurized, super-cooled refrigerant, and offered a temporary sanctuary from the insatiable fire on the other side. An explosion shook the small room, sending Lysirah to the grilled floor as the lights flickered and went out, casting her into a pitch-black darkness. She reached into the pack and felt around for one of the chemlights, and after pushing the plunger to break the interior capsule, shook the thick tube vigorously until the space around her was filled with a soft glow. The hatch remained intact, for now.

Pleida?

I am here.

Helena and Ferran are dead, aren’t they?

It was several moments before he answered.

Yes. I had thought the solar events were somehow disrupting our link. Sadly, my ability to connect with you refutes that hope.

Lysirah breathed heavily, fighting back tears, knowing this was not the time or place to mourn them. She scrolled through the building schematic on her data slate and mapped a path on the screen with her finger. A conduit beneath the helium tanks would take her to the sub-basement, and if it was undamaged, she could follow the corridor until it led to a surface outlet.

I think I can make it out of here. Then what? Wait for the rescue ship?

No. you must finish the task Helena and ferran could not.

Oh.

I never meant this burden for you, Lysirah, but you are the closest of our brethren. The others will not arrive in time.

Tell me what need I do.

You must gather those assets that are important to my work, and bring them to me safely.

Ok. I can do that. What are these things?

Not what. Who.

There was a subtle change in the quality of their shared link, and as the chemlight glare dimmed and the plasma fire’s roar receded, she realized her sensorium had been co-opted to ease the flow of Pleida’s thoughts that merged with her own consciousness. It frightened her at first, not as a violation of her mind, but because he reserved this form of communion only with the most senior Conservators. She felt unworthy to engage with him in such a manner, but also knew that this was the most expeditious way to receive his message. Under the circumstances, she was not given the opportunity to decline.

In this way it was revealed to her that he had commissioned a small group of civilian engineers to create a new type of drive that would make interstellar transits a reality, bringing the distant stars within humanity’s reach. During their years at the Kepler colony, they had pushed the very limits of Mercurian industrial science, their efforts culminating in a prototype that was ready for its first flight. Although they were not Conservators, and only knew Pleida as a majority shareholder, they could not be abandoned to the growing solar storm. Lysirah’s mission was clear.

The link also made her aware of the important subtext: Pleida would not have shared one of his most closely held secrets if any alternative existed. Whatever confidence he held in Helena’s capabilities died with her, and while Lysirah knew she would never have been the first choice for this assignment, the truth was that she had become the final option. Another person might have been discouraged by the implied lack of confidence, but she became resolved to prove herself.

No one, not even Pleida, could tell her she was worthless.

Have a little faith in me, Pleida. Please. I can do this! I want to do this!

Desire is not the equal of competence. I fear this task may exceed your aptitude. It may even deprive you of your life, and the fault would be mine.

I know you don’t have a choice, but I won’t fail you. I won’t.

There was a long pause in their silent exchange, during which he kept his thoughts masked from her awareness. Despite the blunting of her senses, she knew the room was getting hotter, and the compartment would not remain a safe place for much longer. She would have to leave soon.

I do have a choice. And I choose to believe in you.

Through the link, Pleida quickly supplied dossiers on the engineers she was to shepherd to safety, as well as a concise list of design schematics, field test results and material samples that would need to be secured before the final evacuation. The chemlight grew in intensity as the interface between them returned to normal, and she prepared to move on. After checking the data slate, she lifted one of the floor’s grated panels and descended the ladder beneath it to a ventilation duct that curved away out of sight.

Guided by her map, she followed the path that led into the subbasement, stopping intermittently to check her bearing. Lysirah made steady progress through the facility’s lower levels, doubling back only once when she got lost, until she could see the glare of the colony lights through the grating at the top of another ladder. The Halligan made short work of the locking plate, and she climbed up through the aperture. It hadn’t been long since she awoke into an unfolding disaster, but it already seemed like another lifetime.

She stood on the grounds just outside the Life Sciences Center, where the entire north side of the glass-enclosed edifice had collapsed into smoking ruin. Looking “up” towards the center spindle of the colony, she saw the axial tramway and the mountings for the mirror projection system that spread ambient light throughout the interior. Debris drifted within the core’s microgravity, and pillars of smoke had spread from the other precincts on the opposite side of colony structure.

Alright, I made it out. Kepler’s a mess. What’s next?

Secure transport. recover the team and their materials.

Lysirah nodded to herself and used the data slate to locate the campus landing pad and hopper port. There were few people on the grounds, but the air traffic was thick as colonists tried to reach the safety of Dockside. She started to jog across the quad.

Lysirah. A mass ejection is imminent. I respectfully suggest you quicken your pace.

She broke into a run.

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