Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus
Part 6: Deus Aestiva
By T M Romanelli
The oculus opened and closed so fast that the cycle could hardly be said to have occurred at all, and the superluminal conduit formed by the displacement drive immediately collapsed behind the vessel. The reentry into normal space was violent, dispersing the particles that had accumulated on the leading edge of the ship’s induced gravity field. The excess energy from this mass transfer was instantly converted into a brilliant flash of heat and light that should have alerted a number of outposts along the system surveillance grid.
But no one was watching.
Every colony, naval installation and semi-autonomous relay had focused their spectrometers and advanced optical assemblies on the solar eruption, oblivious to the maiden voyage of Pleida’s most ambitious endeavor. The comm channels were saturated with distress calls and fleet deployment orders as billions of people verted into the media networks and tried to understand the scope of the unfolding catastrophe. The Interworld Governments had committed every civilian and military resource at their disposal to the ongoing evacuation efforts, and even if they knew of the clandestine project or its potential importance, there were no assets left that could search for a solitary ship so far removed from the exclusion zone.
The turbulence created by the subspace shear had wreaked havoc upon the ship, twisting its keel and skewing the engine alignment beyond delicate tolerances. A number of the aft hull sections had buckled, sending a spider web of stress fractures across the plating, some of which vented thin streams of fuel and hydraulic fluid from ruptured lines. The primary sensor and comm nodes had been ripped away from their mounts, leaving the ship blind, deaf and mute. The vessel drifted near the far edge of the system, spinning slowly in an expanding cloud of its own debris.
Avalon would never fly again.
Lysirah’s eyes fluttered open, her vision coming into focus as she regained consciousness. The instrument display in front of the acceleration couch was populated with red warning lights that competed for her attention. Alerts originated from every station, merging into a piercing cacophony that prompted her to slap the master alarm reset as soon as she could reach it. The drive module was the only console that was silent, and its steady green indicator presented a single, reassuring message at the center of the screen.
==Transit Sequence Complete==
The first time she tried to move, Lysirah felt a sharp pain in her left shoulder, and knew instinctively that it had been dislocated. There was some mild soreness across her chest and lower abdomen where the retention harness had held her tight, but a quick body exam failed to elicit any other obvious injuries. Judging by the condition of the ship, they were lucky to be alive.
Magda moaned softly, her arms gently bobbing in the microgravity environment of the command deck. A fine cloud of crimson globules hovered around the chief engineer’s face, leeching into the ship’s atmosphere from her nosebleed. She stirred and made eye contact with Lysirah, but seemed disoriented and sluggish.
“Did you… break my ship?” Magda asked in a raspy voice. Lysirah started to laugh, but stopped abruptly as a thunderbolt of pain swept down her arm. “What about the others… everyone else OK?”
The remote diagnostics showed that Avalon had lost power when the main reactor scrammed during reentry into normal space. The auxiliaries were sufficient for now, but non-essential functions would have to be shutdown soon in order to ration whatever power remained. At least the medical section was intact and functioning properly, and the vital signs summary showed that the cryotube occupants had weathered the transit far better than its pilots. Lysirah needed to perform a full damage survey if she hoped to keep the core systems operational and attempt some basic repairs, so the first task was to get herself fixed.
Releasing the harness, Lysirah spun around and wrapped the couch straps around her left wrist. She unhooked a length of tether from her drivesuit, cinched it around her bicep and drew the other end under her leg to create a fulcrum. The next part was going to hurt, so she disconnected the suit’s pneumatic cable and bit down hard on the woven material. After a couple of deep breaths, she planted her feet on the edges of the acceleration couch and pushed out with both legs while keeping her back straight. The motion stretched her arm and rotator cuff, making her grunt as she fought the resistance of knotted muscles. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead, and she gradually pulled on the tether until the humerus reseated into its socket with a painful but satisfying click. Lysirah released her arm and flexed her fingers, drifting through the cabin as she loudly enunciated every syllable of her discomfort.
“Pak- shet- ako!”
“That looked… like fun,” Magda commented. The chief engineer still hadn’t left her acceleration couch, so Lysirah floated over to her station.
“Congratulations, Dr. Nabakova,” she said, trying to their bolster their morale under grim circumstances. She examined the integrated biotelemetry on Magda’s drivesuit and was immediately concerned by what she found there. “You just made history with the first displacement jump.”
“We made history… but my name gets listed first,” Magda answered with a weak smile. She saw Lysirah’s guarded expression. “How bad?”
Magda’s pulse was steady but slow, and her right eye was completely bloodshot. Lysirah worried about DCel syndrome, a pattern of injuries caused by extreme acceleration changes. Despite the existing technologies that had made spaceflight mundane, minor errors or malfunctions could create an incredibly hostile environment. Broken bones, ruptured organs and brain hemorrhages were just some of the potentially fatal conditions associated with DCel syndrome, and each required specialized care that was beyond the scope of their experimental vessel.
“Let’s get you to medical, and we’ll see about getting you fixed up,” Lysirah said, trying to sound more positive than she felt.
“Not the encouraging endorsement… I wanted to hear,” Magda answered, as Lysirah gently released the harness and helped her from the couch. “But I already knew that. I don’t… feel so good.”
The medical section was located behind the command deck, connected by a passage that housed the wardroom, pantry and AI matrix. Single-occupancy capsules lay flush within the passage walls, ceiling and floor, and were used by the active duty crew during scheduled sleep shifts. The entire habitable interior was encased in an armored shell at the center of the vessel, a common ship design that afforded protection from radiation and micrometeorite impacts.
The medical section was divided into two areas, the larger of which housed the cryotubes and their maintenance sub-systems. A basic surgery and diagnostic imaging were contained within the smaller infirmary, but the equipment and pharmaceuticals were only meant to stabilize a patient long enough for a transfer to an advanced care facility. Lysirah maneuvered Magda onto the AutoMED and gently strapped her in before activating the unit. The MRA showed a slowly expanding epidural hematoma, confirming Lysirah’s worst fears. The triage support program instructed her to start a hypertonic saline IV, administer Omnisone and apply a Pressin patch to maintain cerebral perfusion. Magda heard everything as Lysirah followed the prompts from the AutoMED to stabilize the engineer’s condition.
“Pilot, warrior… and now a flight surgeon,” Magda quipped, an attempt to distract herself from thinking about the severity of her prognosis. “How lucky can I get?”
“I’m a terrible cook,” Lysirah confessed. “Helena would always cringe when it was my turn to prepare our meals.”
“Sorry about your friend,” Magda said, reaching out and squeezing the younger woman’s hand. Lysirah squeezed back. “What do you think… about our chances?”
“I need to get an idea about the damage first. Figure out what systems are working and which ones can be patched. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can try to call for help,” Lysirah answered, as she mentally prioritized her ‘to do’ list. “Will you be OK here on your own?”
“Don’t worry about me… I’ll be alright,” Magda said, almost believing her own words. She pointed to the cryotube units. “Daenni will keep me company.”
Lysirah synced the biotelemetry feed to her own drivesuit so she could monitor Magda from any part of the ship. She rechecked the IV and transdermal patch, zipped the thermal shroud to keep the chief engineer warm and gave her a squeezie full of water before leaving.
“Wait… do you know where we are?”
Lysirah didn’t need the onboard AI or sophisticated avionics to know where the superluminal conduit had terminated. She had seen the image on an external cam before she moved Magda from the command deck. An azure orb, streaked with thin clouds of methane and ammonium sulfide condensates, moved eccentrically across the screen. A hazy trio of fragmented rings circled the ice giant, its atmospheric bands marred only by the iconic Great Dark Spot.
“Neptune,” she replied, not bothering to hide the trepidation that had crept into her voice. “We’re on the far side of Neptune’s orbital path, Magda. Here be dragons.”
The solar eruption had forced Avalon to depart far too prematurely.
The terminal coordinates of the first test flight were selected for their discretion, located within a blind spot of the system surveillance network. A support ship, manned by a tech team and several Conservators, would have left months before to arrive on station and participate in the flight analysis and recovery. The final testing of major subsystems had not yet been completed, nor had the ship stores been stocked. Their current position placed them beyond the range of normal rescue craft, and even if Lysirah could have jury-rigged the thrusters to provide partial mobility, it would take them months to reach the nearest outpost.
The structural damage was worse than she had thought.
Avalon’s propulsion section was located aft of medical, accessed by two armored bulkheads at the end of a long corridor. A dim blue glow emanated from the small viewport set into the thick door, where hundreds of compact fireballs drifted slowly through the atmosphere, rebounding off the machinery surfaces as some merged into larger spheres. Her drivesuit was made from flame-resistant Kymex, and she donned the attached respirator and safety hood before entering the compartment to extinguish the zero-G fire. Two of the three auxiliary power units had been destroyed, and the remaining one was insufficient to restart the reactor.
Although the secondary comm array was still operational, it lacked the broadcast range needed for a distress signal. Lysirah also considered the wisdom of transmitting their coordinates on an open channel, and tried to find a balance between maintaining secrecy and achieving rescue as soon as possible. She compromised and reset the distress buoy transponders to an encrypted frequency used by the Conservators before deploying them through an emergency airlock.
The pantry was bare save for two boxes of protein supplements and a container of polyvitamins, but the lack of standard calorie packs was not an immediate threat. Four stainless steel tanks, each with a capacity of one thousand liters, carried all the potable water for the ship’s complement. They were installed and interconnected around the crew quarters for additional radiation shielding. Lysirah hoped that the meter had been damaged in the transit, but the check-valve spigots were bone dry.
Every tank was empty.
Even if the emergency water were rationed, they would succumb to dehydration long before her most optimistic rescue estimate. Avalon carried a large volume of water-based cryofluid, which theoretically could be broken down into its constituents, but the ship’s recycler wasn’t rated to handle the osmotic load. The energy-intensive reclamation process would also stress the last APU, which was the only power source keeping them all alive. Lysirah found as much reassurance in the life-preserving properties of cryofluid as a person dying of thirst would find in a picture of water.
Magda wavered between lucidity and somnolence as her condition deteriorated over the next few hours. Lysirah attended to her closely, following the instructions of the AutoMED while knowing that she was only delaying the inevitable. The chief engineer was brave in her own way- she did not complain about her obvious discomfort or abandon hope that rescue would come from an unlikely quarter. She would move her lips in silent prayer before falling into a fitful sleep while Lysirah tried to mend what she could of the crippled vessel.
“Mr. Ardennes isn’t his real name, is it?” Magda inquired, catching her companion off guard.
Lysirah considered the gravity of their present situation and saw no sufficient reason to lie to her friend. “No. It’s an alias. I presume one of many.”
“Is he a good person?”
“Yes,” she replied, without hesitation. Despite their final exchange before the solar storm had isolated them, she sincerely believed that Pleida’s work would bring great benefit to all. Although many of the details of his grand vision were kept from her, she was content to play her small role within it, and realized how much her feelings about him had come to resemble something akin to faith.
“Will he come for us?”
“This ship was very important to him,” Lysirah sighed. “Someone will come to recover the displacement drive.”
“The drive?” Magda asked, with mild surprise. “What about the navigation system?”
Lysirah appeared confused, and the women looked at each in silence.
“You don’t know,” Magda concluded. “It was a brilliant maskirovka. A deception.”
The doctor explained that her field of expertise was limited to a very small community, and although there was intense competition among her peers for prestige and financial reward, it was almost impossible not to know a little about everyone’s research despite any non-disclosure agreements. She suspected that her work in propulsion dynamics was not as unique as Mr. Ardennes had claimed, and on two occasions he had delivered a dataset or design modification that rectified their stalled progress. Reika once gossiped that there were several teams working independently on the same goal, without direct knowledge of the others.
While Magda credited herself with key breakthroughs in reactor vessel design and tachyon induction without sounding boastful, she did not deny her own reverence for the navigation program provided by their patron. In her opinion, this was the crown jewel of Avalon, and the central feature that would unlock the true potential of the displacement drive. It was, in fact, the most closely guarded aspect of the entire effort. Even Madga’s authority as project director did not prevent her exclusion from the systems integration process. She had never seen the raw code.
“Heisenberg may have erected a temple… on the foundation of uncertainty,” Magda continued. “But those pillars were knocked down… by the genius Mr. Ardennes hired to create the program. How else could we… have hoped to navigate subspace?”
Lysirah remained silent while she absorbed the implications of the chief engineer’s story, which led to an insightful moment. She remembered her return to Alhambra after university, and the discussion with Pleida about her future among the Conservators. In his private study was an antique hardwood desk imported from the Old World, which contrasted sharply with the rows of encrypted servers that lined the paneled walls. Numerous monitors displayed a complex series of equations that Lysirah had never seen before, and she watched Pleida stroll casually around the room, entering notations at various terminals while they spoke.
He was the genius.
There was a book on his desk, leather-bound and worn. She had never seen one up close- most colonists that paid for every kilo of personal effects thought it was an unnecessary extravagance. Why spend the credits to ship a single book when it was far easier to have a data slate that could recite ten thousand literary works? Pleida saw her interest, and invited her to examine the volume. It was a beautiful object, but she couldn’t read the non-Standard language of the text. He said it was an Old World legend about a young king named Arthur, his teacher Merlin and their flawed quest to create a better future.
The name triggered another memory. Lysirah paced the anteroom, waiting for Helena to finish her briefing with Adept Ferran at the design annex so they could take a hopper back to their residence on Kepler for a late dinner. She overheard Helena report that Merlin was behind schedule. It wasn’t important at the time, but Magda’s story placed these disparate occurrences in a new light.
“Magda, stay with me!” Lysirah pleaded softly. “How many teams were there?”
“I don’t know,” she answered slowly, the words becoming harder to form. “We never spoke openly about it… not polite conversation.”
The AutoMED emitted an advisory to redose the scheduled medications and prepare the patient for medivac transfer. Lysirah reached for the pharmakit but Magda asked her to stop. She was very tired, and just wanted something for the pain, so she could sleep. Lysirah shook her head but the chief engineer looked directly at her and said it was OK. After a few moments, Lysirah silenced the AutoMED warning and applied a Cisfentanil dermadot on her friend’s neck.
“Thank you, Lysirah,” she said, becoming drowsy. “For everything you’ve done.”
Lysirah held Magda’s hand and stroked her forehead, fighting back tears.
“And tell Daenni… that I love her.”
Magda died later the next day.
The chief engineer never regained consciousness, but Lysirah found solace in the notion that she had eased her friend’s pain. She gently wrapped Magda in a vacuum shroud, and nitrogen-purged the interior before shrinking the material around the body. This was the standard procedure to slow post-mortem decomposition and limit atmospheric contamination with bodily fluids. Lysirah felt a deep guilt as she recalculated the water consumption adjusted for a single survivor, and placed the shroud in one of the private capsules within the main passage.
Avalon resisted her attempts to stabilize the core systems, and the failures threatened to cascade beyond control. The drivesuit was not designed for prolonged EVAs, but Lysirah managed to deploy the set of emergency solar panels on the forward hull. The effort left her feeling winded, and she was soaked with sweat even in the suit’s chilly recycled air. Something was very wrong.
Lysirah returned to medical, and hesitated before she began doffing the drivesuit. An ugly bruise had spread across her midsection, and she winced in pain as she climbed awkwardly onto the AutoMED unit before activating the clinical station. Within minutes, the scanner delivered its results and the scrolling list of problems removed whatever hope she had left.
<Patient #00002> <Adult female – 54 kilograms – No Prior Records> Trauma scan results:
Acute vital parameters change- see variance from age-specific normal values
Acute febrile state- 38.1° C
ECG abnormality- persistent sinus tachycardia, intermittent PVCs
Acute normocytic anemia- HCT 26%
Progressive mixed metabolic acidosis- pH 7.33
Acute organ injury assessment:
00.01.02-Sub-capsular hematoma, liver- < 10% surface area
00.01.23-Laceration, liver- < 1cm parenchymal depth
00.02.45-Sub-capsular hematoma, spleen- 30% surface area
00.02.67-Laceration, spleen- <3 cm parenchymal depth
00.03.17-Hematoma + fluid extravasation, small bowel- < 5% surface area
00.03.69-Laceration, small bowel- <1 cm perforation
00.03.44-Peritonitis, bacterial- Probable Gram negative cocci
00.03.06-Progressive systemic sepsis- Proliferation of Gram negative cocci biomass
The AutoMED droned a series of clinical advisories before it finished with its programmed recommendation: prepare the patient for medivac transfer. Far beyond the established lanes of commercial system traffic, there remained little hope of rescue as Avalon drifted in Neptune’s shadow. Whatever time was left to her had already been running out from the moment she sustained blunt trauma during reentry, forcing Lysirah to think about what she would do until the very end. At least she would not suffer a lingering death from dehydration. The AutoMED continued to emit warnings, the incessant tone doing nothing more than intruding upon her thoughts.
Resigned to the limits of her own mortality, she reached up and turned the unit off.
Hours became days, and days became an eternity.
Reclining on the table in the moments after the AutoMED delivered its terminal prognosis, Lysirah considered taking her own life. The ample supply of Cisfentanil dermadots would make it easy, but it was not in her nature to meekly surrender. Even if she could not change her own fate, she could still tilt the odds for Daenni and the others, buying them time for some miracle she would not live to witness.
Time passed, bringing an irregular braid of cabling and flexible conduits that stretched from engineering to medical, where Lysirah had installed portable transformers that connected the APU directly to the four occupied cryotubes. She hacked the ship’s life support, bypassing a number of safety features, and diverted the available power back to medical as a reserve. It soon became cold enough that her breath fogged, and she pulled an insulated coverall on top of her drivesuit. The new consumption ratio added months to the others’ life expectancy, even as it severely diminished her own. By her ethical calculus, it was a fair trade.
The medications that kept her functioning and alert as she went about her quest were finally exhausted, leaving her defenseless. Lysirah returned to the command deck and settled painfully at her station, securing her harness out of habit rather than need. In those final hours, cocooned by a profound sense of isolation, she waited. Rather than yield to maudlin sentiment, she revisited fond memories of her parents and the unusual family that adopted her after their loss.
If she harbored any regrets, it was the absence of closure with Pleida that troubled her the most, as distance and time had denied her the chance for redemption. She would have given almost anything to speak with him one last time, and to explain her actions that had provoked his harsh disapproval. Lysirah wanted to tell him that she had defied his orders for a just cause, that she was grateful for the life he had made possible and that she loved him like a father.
Her breathing became erratic, her eyelids heavy. Heavy… like a weight…
She had kept her promise. There was only one thing left to give.
Wait for me…
At the end of her life, when oblivion finally embraced her, Lysirah felt no fear. The lights from the panels all around her dimmed as the alerts receded softly into the distance. And in the darkness was a voice- strong, familiar and comforting.
I am here.
A brilliant light flashed near the ship’s port beam, spiking the thermal sensors with an expanding sphere of heat that enveloped the derelict before dissipating in the eternal vacuum. The proximity alarm wailed in response to the sleek vessel that had suddenly materialized within Neptune’s orbital path, an exact copy of Avalon but undamaged. Multiple thrusters activated in sequence, correcting the craft’s alignment as it quickly advanced to dock with its wounded sister ship, and the gangway extended from its midsection to produce a hard seal on the exposed airlock. The twin vessels now moved in unison, revolving slowly along a shared axis as distant sunlight glinted off the nameplate emblazoned on the rescue ship’s pristine hull.