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

Part 5: Dark Endeavor

By T M Romanelli

Lysirah quickly led the group through the empty annex and back to the runabout. When everyone was aboard, she stowed the equipment cases and lowered the mesh crew seats from the cabin wall, making sure the team had secured their harnesses properly. Magda sat at the copilot station so she could help identify the apartment complex when they flew over the Lakelands residential precinct.

She strapped herself in and gave a headset to the chief engineer so they could communicate during the flight. Lysirah brought the engines to full power, sending the craft airborne before the ramp had fully closed. Once they cleared the annex rooftop, she banked sharply and opened the throttle, picking up some speed. Karl gripped his harness tightly and started to complain about motion sickness, but Reika told him to shut up and turn his head if he was going to vomit.

The programmed route took them over the Lake, one of the three large bodies of water that made up the alternating land-sea architecture within Kepler’s sculpted interior. The Lake, Lagoon and Loch ran the length of the spinning cylinder and contained a series of perforated subsurface baffles that controlled the simulated current. This volume of liquid water was essential for the habitat’s climate control, and also served as the primary reservoir for the photosynthetic biomass that scrubbed carbon dioxide from the colony and replaced it with precious oxygen.

Without the AutoNAV network, Lysirah had to rely on her own piloting skills and ability to navigate by line of sight. She also had to compensate for the colony’s Coriolis effect, frequently correcting the craft’s heading as they naturally drifted from their flight path. The most direct route to Magda’s apartment complex was a straight line along the chord that cut across the microgravity zone, but Lysirah considered this too risky because of the heavy traffic and tumbling wreckage there. They followed the curve of the interior surface instead, guided by the FlightCOM’s three-dimensional projection and several landmarks. She scanned the altimeter and the heads up display as the craft flew out over the Lake, kicking up twin rooster tails of water beneath the engine exhausts.

The usually tranquil Lake surface now roiled with whitecaps that were over a meter tall, interspersed with ominous dark green patches from churning algae blooms. Perhaps the flow control mechanisms had malfunctioned or the gravimetric quakes from the sun’s core were creating spin turbulence, but whatever the cause it was another sign that the colony’s structural integrity was quickly degrading.

“God’s blood!” Magda cried out, and shifted forward against her harness to look down through the windshield. “Are those people in the water?”

They flew above several small boats that had been swamped by the harsh currents, the capsized hulls surrounded by drowned passengers and crew. A few people were treading water, but not for long.

“Maybe we can put down somewhere and-”

“If we stop now, your daughter dies,” Lysirah tersely interrupted. “I was ordered to evacuate your team and leave her behind. I disobeyed, and I’ll have to answer for that. But I can’t rescue everyone, and I don’t have time for your katarantaduhan. If you want to be a merciful Samaritan you’ll also become a grieving parent.”

“You’re right, of course. Sorry,” said the chief engineer. After a brief pause, she asked, “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?”

“That’s a fair question,” Lysirah said, repeating Pleida’s words from years before. She looked directly at Magda. “Let’s just say it’s as personal for me as it is for you.”

During the flight, Lysirah asked Magda to describe the apartment complex. The building had a landing platform on the roof, which was reserved for the personal hopper of the executive who resided in the penthouse suite. Magda lived two floors below, but she wasn’t sure about the service elevator or its security protocols. A plan began to take shape as Lysirah asked more detailed questions: they would set down on the roof, descend by elevator or stairwell to the flat and retrieve Daenni and the holocode keys before their final retreat to Dockside.

It was a simple plan, but anything could go wrong.

“Magda, I really hope Daenni is there,” Lysirah said. “There’s no time left to search if one of your neighbors took her to a shelter. We’re gone once we have those keys. Do you understand me?”

The chief engineer looked away, but nodded slowly.

“Good. Now, tell me all that you can about the Avalon.”

Magda was hesitant about sharing classified information and cited numerous non-disclosure agreements the team was required to witness. But Lysirah already knew through Pleida’s link about his special access program Dark Endeavor and the test vessel the engineers had created. Her real concerns were more practical.

“Let me ask you a question, Magda. Are you a pilot?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, truth be told, this runabout is the largest craft I’m officially rated to fly,” she confessed, and noted that Magda paled with this revelation. “So I’d like to know everything I can about an experimental starship with a prototype engine that I’ll be   maneuvering through a coronal mass ejection. That information would help improve our odds from abysmal to merely not-so-good.”

“I see your point.”

Magda was pleasantly surprised to find out that Lysirah held an honors degree in applied spatial engineering, making their exchange more of a conversation between two people that spoke the same language. Until recently, the most advanced interplanetary engine was a distortion drive based on the Alcubierre metric that created local space-time gradients to simulate faster-than-light travel. Although the technology had matured, several issues remained. It was expensive to operate, had limited range and needed reactor mass replenishment after a few transits. The distortion field collapsed when exposed to any substantial gravity well, so chemical thrusters and bulky liquid fuel stores were still needed. Most vessels relied on gravitic slings for rapid acceleration between orbital paths, and only the System Fleet and authorized commercial vessels were equipped with distortion drives. None of them were capable of traveling beyond the light of Sol.

Avalon was different.

The vessel was outfitted with a novel displacement drive, which created a collapsing Krasnikov superluminal conduit that could propel the ship far beyond the Kuiper Belt with a single transit. Magda called it a Chasm Jumper, and it would usher in a new age of stellar exploration and colonization.

“If it works,” Lysirah said in a skeptical tone.

“Well, yes,” Magda conceded. “But all the simulations demonstrated very promising results. We were preparing for the next phase. Avalon is ready for her test flight.”

Lysirah felt a tap on her shoulder and she turned to find Reika and Peiter squeezing in between the command and copilot stations.

“Karl feels like he’s going to throw up,” Reika reported, loud enough to be heard clearly above the ambient cabin noise.

“Are we there yet?” Peiter inquired.

“Pakshet ka!” Lysirah cursed at them. “Stop behaving like little gago children! Get back in your seats and stay strapped in! We’ll be at the LZ in two minutes.”

The water got less choppy as they approached the artificial shoreline, and Lysirah increased her altitude to reconnoiter the building. The streets in the residential district were mostly empty, but they saw more bodies and a few smoldering wrecks of hoppers that had crashed. Magda pointed at her building and Lysirah banked the runabout gently, completing two orbits while she scouted the roof. The landing pad was smaller than she would have liked but it was free of debris.

“Roof looks clear,” she announced. “Everyone sit tight. We’re landing now.”

Lysirah looked between the FlightCOM display and the bubble window by her left foot as the runabout slowly descended. She adjusted her pitch as the landing gear fully deployed, and reduced power to maintain a safe glide path. They all felt a soft bump as the craft touched down in the center of the pad. Karl retched loudly.

“Magda, you’re with me,” Lysirah ordered as the ramp lowered. Everyone else had released their harnesses and stood up. “Where do you think you’re all going?”

“Listen, I’m sorry for being an ass,” Karl said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “But I’d feel better if we stayed together. I’d also like a chance to make myself useful.”

Lysirah agreed and they set off. A security panel prevented them from using the service elevator, and the roof access door was locked from the inside. Lysirah retrieved her tools from the runabout and prepared the cutting torch. She advised the engineers to turn around and shield their eyes from the glare as she donned her goggles. Cutting through the hinges quickly, she pried the thick door from its frame with the Halligan bar. The plan seemed to be working.

Then the lights went out.

Everyone stood frozen in pitch-black darkness, caught by the sudden and total failure of the colony diffusion lenses. Lysirah waited for the whine of the back-up generators but there was nothing. There were still one or two chemlights left and she could use the torch itself to guide them through the building, but flying the runabout would be nearly impossible.

The lights flickered on, but seemed dimmer than before.

“Heilige scheisse!” Peiter proclaimed loudly. “We have to get out of here right now!”

“No!” Lysirah snapped back. “We’re getting Daenni and those keys! You can stay on the roof if you want. Magda, lead the way.”

The group, including Peiter, moved down the stairwell and exited on the floor that contained Magda’s flat. She pressed her palm to the panel and the front door slid open. It was very quiet, and they fanned out from the hallway into the kitchen. Magda called out for her daughter, and was soon answered with the pattering of little feet as the twelve-year old bolted from a bedroom into her mother’s arms. She had short, dark hair and bright blue eyes rimmed with tears. There was an old scar that ran along her left jaw. Magda hugged the young girl, telling her repeatedly that mommy was here.

“Magda, we need the keys,” Lysirah pressed the chief engineer.

“Yes, yes,” Magda said. She reached into her tunic and lifted a chain from her neck that held two engraved obsidian blocks the size of polymorphic chips. “Sorry, but I was desperate, and figured this was the only way you would help me get Daenni.”

“You stupid bitch!” Reika scolded her boss. “How could you risk our lives for-”

“You’d understand if you had a child of your own!” Magda cut her off. Then she turned back to Lysirah. “I did lie to get what I wanted, and I’d do it again. I’m sorry for that. I can’t even imagine how angry you must be with me.”

Lysirah stared at the chief engineer for a long moment, and then smiled.

“I’m not angry,” she said. “I would have done the same. Now let’s get out of here.”

They quickly retraced their path back up the stairwell, with Magda and Daenni at the front of the group. Lysirah brought up the rear, making sure no one got separated as they returned to the runabout. Suddenly she heard shouting and there was some commotion at the exit onto the roof. She caught up with the others and found Reika applying pressure to Peiter’s bloody forearm, while Karl held back a crying Magda who was reaching out towards her daughter.

Lysirah focused on the stranger who stood before them, and the jagged piece of mirror fragment he waved in their direction. His other arm was locked around Daenni’s neck, using her as a shield. Lysirah placed the torch caddy on the ground and approached the stranger as she tried to reason with him. The Halligan bar dangled heavily from her belt. The man said something about taking the runabout to escape, but all she could see was the look of terror in Daenni’s eyes.

“Daenni,” Lysirah called out. “Look at me. Look at me! He’s not going to hurt you.”

The stranger brandished the improvised blade, warning them all to stay back as he tightened his grip on the young girl. Lysirah watched him closely, hoping for-

The colony lights flickered again.

“Karl!” yelled Lysirah, as she suddenly closed the distance and brought the Halligan bar down on the stranger’s wrist, disarming him. Karl grabbed Daenni and whisked the child away from the fight. Lysirah used the tool as an improvised Eskrima stick, beating the stranger into submission with strikes that were quick, precise and painful. She felt a secret satisfaction in the agony she inflicted. He fell to the ground and curled into a protective ball as Lysirah continued to hit and kick him. The stranger mewled like a wounded animal, and she raised the Halligan high above her head with its curved spike pointed downward, poised to deliver a fatal blow.

In that moment, she thought of the algae farm on Mars, and the dark dreams in which she took vengeance upon her abusive uncle. Some feeling she had buried deep inside rose to the surface, riding a wave of emotion that shocked her with its clarity. Amidst all the chaos at the end of this world, she discovered pity for the cruel man she had often wished dead. Lysirah looked down at the stranger, and thinking she saw her own uncle for a second, slowly lowered her weapon. Still breathing heavily, she turned and left the man broken and whimpering on the ground.

The others looked at her with a mix of awe and fear. Magda mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ as she comforted her daughter. Lysirah crouched next to Peiter and examined his arm while Reika watched. She opened the trauma kit and wrapped a hemostatic dressing around the wound, asking him if it was too tight. He shook his head.

“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Peiter said.

Lysirah winked at him, and then spoke to Karl. “Thanks for taking care of Daenni.”

“Are you going to kill him?” he asked softly, nodding in the direction of the stranger.

“No,” she replied, and looked back at the man. “But I’m not going save him, either.”

The runabout lifted off for the last time, ascending steeply towards the microgravity zone Lysirah could no longer avoid. Hoppers and other craft flew in irregular convoys along the central axis towards Dockside, the “upper” region of Kepler where personnel and commercial goods entered the colony from Mercury’s atmosphere. They passed wreckage and bodies floating along the spindle, but the scope of destruction no longer seemed to shock the engineers. The runabout bobbed and weaved through the debris and traffic, testing Lysirah’s piloting skills to their very limit. Magda directed them to a private hangar, and transmitted the security codes that opened the large aperture for their entry.

Gripping the handholds along the walls, they transferred the equipment to the Avalon, an outdated Merchant Marine freighter with a beaten exterior that needed a new paint job. Looking at the battered hulk, Lysirah was about to speak her mind when Magda assured her the façade was a deliberate decision to avoid unwanted attention. They passed through an extended gangway into a brightly lit and crisp interior as if the vessel had just left the shipyard. Lysirah whistled in appreciation.

They changed into drivesuits and Lysirah sped through an abbreviated pre-flight checklist, thankful that most of the vessel was fully automated. Magda made sure Daenni was secured into her own acceleration couch before checking on the others. After the Avalon switched to internal power, the onboard AI module disconnected the umbilical tether and released the docking clamps. The outer armored doors slowly parted once the decompression cycle finished, and the vessel rose silently into the vacuum. The Avalon accelerated, pushing them aback into their seats as the external cameras showed the colony network of the Kadinsky crater receding from their view.

The sun’s betrayal would erase all of these monuments, as if they had never been.

After the ascension burn placed them into stable orbit, the AI module prepared the drive for the first displacement jump. Lysirah and Magda had already discussed the potential risks of the new propulsion system, and agreed that it would be safest if the rest of the crew were placed into cryosleep before the transit. Daenni refused the medications and monitors because she did not want to be separated from her mother after their narrow escape from Kepler. Lysirah sympathized with the young girl’s reluctance, but she couldn’t persuade her despite the fact that the storm could strike at any moment. Magda took her daughter’s hand and whispered to her, and the young girl became silent and then nodded. Lysirah dosed the medication and Daenni quickly fell unconscious on the padded platform of the cryotube.

“What did you say to her?”

“I told her the truth,” Magda answered. “That all of us would have died if it wasn’t for you. And that she should trust you, just like I do.”

The units sealed themselves, immersing the occupants in the life-sustaining cryofluid. Lysirah had wanted the chief engineer to enter stasis as well, but two people were needed to start the final drive activation sequence. On the ship’s command deck, Magda released one of the holocode keys from the chain around her neck and gave it to Lysirah. She turned it over in her hand, admiring the fractal patterns displayed within its matrix.

Magda busied herself at her console, and then issued a verbal order for the AI module to ‘jettison the cocoon’. Secured in their acceleration couches, they felt the vibration from the hull’s explosive bolts as the façade was released in large sections, finally revealing the ship’s true form. They watched through the lenses of the slaved drones as the Avalon underwent a dramatic metamorphosis- the ungainly, pitted freighter became a sleek vessel that would race the very limits of light.

“Ready to make history?” Lysirah asked, and watched Magda respond with a thumbs-up gesture. “Well, you’ve earned it. How far will this transit take us?”

The Avalon would arrive near the Kuiper Belt, a static distance of almost thirty astronomical units. Lysirah thought that was too far, but Magda said the prototype had a minimum superluminal capacity and that was the nearest exit point she could navigate. They both realized they would be trading one danger for another- sudden death in the solar storm or a lingering one at their destination. Stranded way beyond commercial shipping lanes and without adequate stores, they would be forced to enter cryosleep and await a rescue that may never come. Lysirah had other serious concerns but she was interrupted by the ship’s alarm.

“What is it?” Magda asked.

“Checking now,” Lysirah said, as she examined the data stream from her console.  ‘The sensor grid is showing a broad-spectrum radiation spike. Putang ina mo, it’s happening! We need to jump now!”

The alarm changed in tone to become a shrill warble. The AI module had activated the ship’s protective EM field, but Lysirah knew it would do nothing to shield them from the incoming front of gamma radiation.

“Magda, insert your key on my mark!” Lysirah commanded, placing her own holocode key just above its port on the mounted command console. “Mark!”

They inserted the keys simultaneously, and the instrument panel became of kaleidoscope of indicator lights as the drive came online. The drones showed a massive arc of stellar matter rising from the sun’s surface, dwarfing Mercury and casting the planet’s far side into ebony shadow.

“Magda, when my countdown reaches one turn your key clockwise until it clicks and hold it!” Lysirah shouted over the alarm, keeping a vice-like grip on her own key.

Saturated by the blinding glare of the coronal mass ejection, the external cams transmitted bizarre images. Lysirah had the surreal impression of two gigantic arms reaching out to engulf their tiny ship. It was now, or never.

Lord of Light protect us-” Magda mumbled in prayer.

“Three. Two. One. Turn and hold!”

Only when the eruption had receded could the true scale of destruction be assessed. The dual-wave of dense gamma rays and plasma struck every colony and ship in Mercury’s orbit, leaving behind nothing but a charred remnant hopelessly irradiated for millennia. All attention turned towards rescuing the survivors on the ships that had escaped the ejecta zone, and monitoring the residual patterns of radiation and gravitic distortion that would be a hazard for inner system travel. The catastrophe had already been given a name by the casters and avatars that inhabited endless channels of immersive media, and their proclamation metastasized across the networks until it was embraced as lore.

They called it the Perdition.

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