A Look Into Another World: Between Scylla and Charybdis

The long nap. They call it that but if you ask me, they should rename it to the short death. Why? Because when you’re in cryo, you don’t dream. You can’t. The body’s core temperature is lowered to near-hypothermic levels, inducing a state of torpor where brain function is almost completely suspended. Your brain shuts off, your body shuts off, and you become a statue, a relativistic meat missile traveling over 4.37 light years across space until the wirehead flipping your switches decides it’s time to wake up. Just more cargo to be hauled. Another lump of carbon strapped to the back of a rocket tearing through the interstellar medium like a cosmic pinball, praying against all odds that whatever cable car you’re sleeping in doesn’t hit a nickel-sized lump of rock traveling at 92% of c and turn your short death into a long one.

But if we forced them to tell the truth about space travel instead of lying wherever they can get away with it, half of marketing would start formulating a murder-suicide, so we call it the long nap.

My eyelids flutter in my tube. The first thing you need to know about space travel is that space is weird. It’s like there’s no concept of the passage of time out here whatsoever. You just black out then wake up a second later, almost five years older but none the wiser, and everyone you knew back home might as well be dead. Good thing I don’t have anyone back home I’d really miss.

It feels kind of liberating, y’know? Just the feeling that all the stupid bullshit you used to care about doesn’t matter anymore, like paperwork or monthly injections. Not that I’d call this a new start, by any means. Everyone I hated in my work-a-day life may be in a completely different solar system save for one, but the fundamentals of my life are still all the same. My name is still Rokuro Asahito. I still work as a project manager for the Hato zaibatsu. And I’m still a noncon. No matter where I go in the universe, those facts never change. It’s just same shit, different planet.

Consciousness returns as my core temperature stabilizes, and my body begins the long process of recovering from being preserved for my last five birthdays (technically just one birthday if you account for the effects of relativity inside a moving spacecraft). Wonder if I’ll get any cake.

The pod’s autodoc accesses my corneal implants, displaying a list of options for my recovery. Blink once for anabolic accelerants (that’s for if I wanted to be the first one to be back up on his feet again and also enjoyed the sensation of being numbed by heavy doses of painkillers), blink twice to be put in a medically induced coma until your body has fully recovered from stasis (this time you may actually dream), or blink three times to be put back under (this is for if the wireheads made a mistake and woke you up too early, although they never do). Patching into the ship’s logs, I confirm they didn’t undershoot my resurrection date, which means I have to pick between options one and two. Or more practically speaking, try and resist picking option two and going back to sleep.

I do my best to look around outside my pod with my body’s atrophied muscles, watching with keen interest as rapid eye movement signals the awakening of all the other noncons. They get to choose between options one and two, so most of them will be going back to sleep shortly. Me on the other hand, I’m “essential to the mission”, although I’ve heard that line before. That means I can’t go back to sleep. I have to be up and running as soon as possible so I can begin my duties as supervisor.

I blink once, and immediately the pod floods with a chemical cocktail designed to quickly regenerate lost muscle and bone tissue in just three days. It’ll make you want to scream so loud you crack the acryllic glass of your pod, but that’s the price we pay as a spacefaring species. I start feeling nauseous right away, but the machine pricks me with needles full of painkillers to inhibit the signals coming down from my nervous system, and I immediately dive into a confused, restless stupor.

——-

My tube dumps me out onto the cleanroom’s cold, sterile floor gasping and sputtering like it’s the womb of an uncaring electronic mother delivering its preterm fetus. Five days have passed. I’m behind schedule, and my head feels like I have aerogel plugged between my ears. A light and airy but firmly impenetrable fog surrounds my thoughts, and I try to focus as hard as I can so I can get back to work.

“Gotta find clothes…” I mutter. The thin drawer underneath my tube delivers. A stark white uniform that’s paper thin, not unlike a hospital gown. Made of hydrophobic nanofibers so it doesn’t cling, but it doesn’t do much for how fucking cold the cleanroom is. It’s a good thing the cellular regeneration matrix has an extremely low freezing point.

I shiver. First order of business is to manually confirm the physical condition of all the other noncons. In a world not run by syphilitic gibbons this job would be delegated to the wireheads, just like everything else. But nobody trusts them enough to leave them in charge of civilian cargo anymore. Not since Proxima b. So here I go, scrolling through the readout on my implants and starting the ridiculous process of personally double-checking the life signs and various states of muscle degradation of over nine thousand noncons to make sure they match up exactly with the wirehead’s information. Just another step on the ladder of corporate bureaucracy.

“Vasquez, check. Nakata, check,” I droned on and on. “Spindel, check. Sarasti, check. Keeton, check. Taka, check. Kanoe, check. Kozlov… czech.”

I run down the list, passing tube after tube of human specimens preserved in the cellular regeneration matrix; just more mammalian dill pickles with tiny little robotic limbs exercising their shriveled muscles. They open and shut via voice command, so they follow me like a blue metal wave, sliding out of their storage units then slinking back inside once I give them the okay. So far everything checks out. It always does.

“Tanikaze…” I mumble, staring at the screen. I look up, and immediately jump back, crashing into the opposite row of drawers with a dull thump. The sensation is not dissimilar to smacking your hand with a hammer after you’ve been sitting on it for an hour. Feels like it should be painful, but it isn’t.

I get back up, staring at the magnificent specimen stored in front of me. Not a human. A bear. Old-fashioned, 20th century grizzly bear, before all the gene tampering and inevitable attempts at de-extinction made them too pitiful and ugly to bother keeping alive.

“What the fuck?” I asked myself. What the hell was a bear doing on the list of noncons? Doesn’t the company have a strict rule against importing wildlife into foreign extraterrestrial environments?

I look closely, and see the tell-tale signs of surgery marks. Implants. Ah. I see now. This is someone’s prosthesis. Odd that they’d choose to go for a partially organic body when a more traditional cybernetic one would be easier to store and transport. Then again, it was odd to see a full-body prosthesis to begin with. Most people in those kinds of catastrophic accidents don’t survive long enough for a successful transplant to be prepared, and if all you want is to be superhuman, your cape is just a few subdermal implants away, maybe some new arms and legs if you wanna go really hardcore. This guy must just be a grade-A weirdo.

“Wouldn’t think a noncon would have the kind of money to afford that kind of procedure,” I said to no one in particular. “Okay, Tanikaze- excuse me, Dr. Tanikaze, let’s check your vitals.”

Numbers read 55 bpm, 268 kg, <10 uV.

“Heart rate normal… for a bear. Bone and muscle loss within acceptable parameters… for a bear. Brain activity is… normal,” I said, then quickly added, “for a bear. Everything checks out.”

Ticking Dr. Tanikaze off the list, I keep moving down the rows of tightly packed tube lockers and drawers. Christ. This place is claustrophobic as hell. How is that possible when the clean room is supposedly a hundred meters wide, the size of a goddamn warehouse? Cubes of human storage units, that’s how. Just cubes as far as the eye can see. Five meters tall, seven meters wide. The tubes are about 30 inches wide and seven feet long, so once you subtract a little space to account for all the tech needed to keep the cubes running, each stores about 105 people (must be cramped for the bear man). All in all, we’ve got a cargo of about 150 pallets of preserved human bodies on five different levels, for a crew just shy of 16k. The perfect number for colonization.

I look up at the civilian super above me through the transparent plexiglass floor. From here the cleanroom’s sterile white light makes them look like a tiny shadow, an ant under a magnifying glass. Or were we both ants, and I was just the one beneath the glass looking up? Hard to tell in space.

They scowl at me, then continue about their business. My attitude sours, but just before I can call them an asshole in my head, I remember I’m a noncon now. Non-consensual labor. A non-convict. Someone who broke the company’s laws and is now paying the price. This was just part of that price.

I look down at the level below me, hoping to see another noncon waving up at me. Of course there isn’t one. All I’m doing is reminding myself I still have two more levels to check before I’m allowed to take a break.

I sigh. Guess I really am one of the pariahs now.

The work takes me nearly thirteen hours. Any time I felt like I had to go, I just held it. By the end I was going through it as fast as possible, and damn near felt like I was ready to burst. Finally I reached the end of the bottom level, and that’s where I found something odd.

“Teresita Hibiki Montero,” I read aloud, staring at the upright storage unit that was less a pod and more a frozen cage, or perhaps a meatlocker with chains. The woman being kept restrained inside is a lightly-tanned Asian Hispanic (los latinos asiáticos) with bright red hair whose clothes hadn’t been removed before the preservation process, so she’s still wearing a fur trim jacket and wifebeater with a leather skirt. In fact, she isn’t even submerged in the matrix. Further inspection explains why.

Her arms are each dark black, and what I had assumed were the stockings covering her legs is just more of the same material. Her limbs are cybernetic. Advanced prostheses too by the looks of it. I take note of the slightly off way her skin sticks to the contours of her face, the unnatural perfection of her features and unblemished skin, and conclude she must be another full-body.

“Wait…” I think aloud. Chino Latino, full-body prosthesis, and bright red hair. That’s when it hits me. I realize just who I’m looking at.

La Sombra Pelliroja…” I whisper. My fingers involuntarily make a fist. This woman isn’t just a noncon, she’s a wanted corporate terrorist, on the warpath with Hato for years now. She’s sabotaged and blown up more of the company’s facilities than I could count, hacked hundreds of corporate bank accounts, divulged sensitive company secrets and funds to outside parties, and directly or indirectly killed more of my coworkers than karōshi and the cola wars combined. All in all she’s cost Hato trillions in damages over the last ten years, and yet here she is, right in front of me. They’d finally caught her.

I slam my fist down on the wall between us.

“You’re the reason why I’m here.”

My gaze drifts to the pod’s touch-screen, to the controls that are keeping her human brain alive.

I could kill you right now, I think to myself. It’d be so easy. Just a drop of a few degrees in your core temperature, maybe an accidental overdose blamed on the wirehead. No one would even know as long as I passed a few thousand dollars into the right hands.

I half-expect her eyes to snap open and to be choked to death by bundles of synthetic muscle fibers and cold carbyne coils, but of course there’s no response. Why would there be? Her brain is completely under. Full-on long-term preservation until we reach Alpha Centauri. With no muscles to atrophy, we can afford to leave her to rot with minimal care. And with no brain activity comes a total lack of movement. Cybernetic muscles don’t twitch or spasm, not even involuntarily.

I sigh, forgetting my momentary fantasy. Killing her doesn’t do me any good at this point. It wouldn’t even be satisfying, not with her lying preserved and motionless like some sort of lab sample, completely unaware of what’s going on around her. It’d just feel petty. Besides, if she’s here, the company already has their own plans for her. That’s worse than death.

“You’re a lucky girl, chica,” I say directly to her, pressing my forehead up against the glass. “Maybe if you were awake I wouldn’t be feeling so merciful.”

She’s very pretty when she’s asleep, though. Almost like an angel. Eventually I realize I’m staring and I move on.

“Rodriguez, check. Lambert, check. Parker, check…”

————

Finally I finish and I’m allowed to go to the bathroom, grab what passes for a cold drink, and relax in the command module. Super’s privilege. I may be noncon but I can still pull rank on somebody at least. That’s always a relief. You work for Hato, you live and die on your ability to outrank people.

After I take a quick shower, I sit down in my cubby with a lukewarm beer in my hand and a towel with the words “HATO 重工業は株式会社” sewn into it draped over my shoulder. No point in going to the commons or what laughably passes for a viewport. Even with the biggest windows on the ship you can’t see much, not with the artificial gravity keeping your module constantly spinning, and the planet’s still four million km away anyway. No, I think I’ll stick with my sims, and maybe take a nap while we wait for the ship to finish decelerating.

I say that, but I can’t deny I’m curious. After spending five minutes fruitlessly trying to decide on what my next digital wet dream will be, I decide to patch into the ship’s sensor arrays and get a good look at my new home.

The picture I get isn’t of a planet, but rather a series of meaningless bright smudges on a radar screen. Right. This is what the ship sees. I want anything useful I’ll have to reformat it.

I play around with the files a bit. Slowly an image starts to coalesce. A bright blue planet with green splotches of land spread randomly throughout an enormous ocean. Anthemusa. Just a little over one-fourth of Earth’s mass with .66 times Earth’s gravity, it orbits its binary parent stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B at a distance just shy of 1 AU, similar to our little blue planet. Its deeper into the system than we’ve ever explored, having already mapped out all of Proxima Centauri and half of Alpha Centauri B. No moon, but its orbit is surprisingly, thankfully stable. The gravitational influence of its parents might have something to do with that. Because of its slingshot orbit around both stars, it also receives the questionable benefit of constant sunlight from both of its parent stars. They say it’s a planet where night never comes, no matter where you are.

I take a sip of my watered down beer, remembering the earliest planning meetings for this expedition. The meeting that decided on the name for this planet had pretty much gone as thus: they’d given us instructions to come up with a name for the planet that fit the Greek naming scheme that had become popular in the 20th to 21st centuries, and then told us the names of the other bodies in the system. That was it.

Brian, being the unoriginal fucking mouthbreather he is, suggested we call the planet “Pandora” for like the fiftieth fucking time. That name had been used so much by now it’d lost all meaning. Our planet would just be another serial number on a long list of Pandoras both real and fictional; hardly befitting of what might become Hato’s most profitable venture into deep space yet. The heads of the project shot him down immediately.

Feeling coy, I jokingly proposed we call the planet “Anthemusa”, thinking they’d find it funny. They didn’t. In fact they loved it. Apparently I gave them too much credit when I assumed they were at least intelligent enough to figure out my cute little jab at their stupid naming conventions.

It is a good name though, if you know what it means. I flicker through an array of files by moving my pupils, eventually finding what little remains of the video recordings taken by the drones before their destruction. They depict a lush jungle planet beneath a dark blue, almost purple sky, with trees of such size and girth that they’d be impossible on Earth (from what I hear, our scientists think they might actually have circulatory systems). Unusual chirps, cries and mating calls from the local fauna dominate the background noise, and atmospheric readouts indicate a gaseous composition of 35% oxygen, 61% argon, 1.07% carbon dioxide, and .93% arsenic particulates, with a dew point of 26 degrees celsius and a relative humidity of 73% on average. Sorta like a prehistoric jungle designed by Satan if Satan was a disaffected antisocial teenager with an undiagnosed personality disorder.

A low growling unlike any animal found on Earth cuts into the feed, and something strikes invisibly, dragging one of the drones into the shadowy undergrowth with frightening speed. There are no mechanical beeps, no electronic cries for help, just the sound of an oversized pop can being crushed as the armored surveillance drone is chucked back into view, damaged beyond repair. The noises intensify from multiple directions until the camera starts shaking wildly, and the probe is dragged into the forest, the feed abruptly cutting off.

I close the video file. This is all we know about Anthemusa so far, one of the very few planets we’ve discovered to date that actually supports complex multicellular life instead of just pond scum and algae. It’s hot, damp, has an atmosphere that’s very nearly poisonous to breathe without protection, and the wildlife is capable of eviscerating armored surveillance drones without breaking a sweat. That is no mean feat. That’s like an elephant trampling an M1 Abrams tank. Either this planet is populated by mega-dinosaurs, or we’ve actually plotted a course to fucking Krypton. I’m sure the superhuman physique of these creatures poses a very exciting research opportunity to some company scientists, but you’ll excuse me if I’m not exactly looking forward to meeting these things myself.

I scoff. And we’re supposed to set up a colony here? I’d joke about it being a suicide mission if I didn’t know for a fact that that was exactly what it was. We’re just the first wave. All we’re expected to do is lay the foundation for the next group of colonists; doesn’t matter how many of us die. They’d definitely, 100% sent me here to kill me. I’d agreed to it. After all, it was better than the offworld labor camps, if only marginally.

And Hato seemed to agree with the science-types, because they’d poured everything they had into this mission. Top of the line nanofabricators, a full complement of scientists, colonists, noncons, and construction and mining drones, a 10km, 100,000 tonne Valkyrie-class with a 200 TW positron engine, the works. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that it’ll be at least twenty years before they see a return on their investment, they want what’s on Anthemusa badly. And what might that be?

I pull up a log of our mission objectives. Yup. C-zero. Short for compound zero, slang for zero degrees celsius, also known as the new black gold. Room temperature superconductors. First discovered in the mid to late twenty-first century, C-zero makes the electromagnetic Penning traps that allow us to produce and store antimatter possible. Possible and safe. Which is good, because without them we wouldn’t be seeing any of that sweet, sweet Jovian ice any time soon, which would be a real bummer for those cylinder folks and all the poor bastards back on Earth who ran out of fresh, uncontaminated water a few hundred years back. Filtered seawater picks up the slack but really, it just isn’t economical, and with all that ice and iron out there just waiting for us in our own neighborhood, we’ve come to depend heavily on the resources that can be bled from beyond the red planet, especially the spacer types who’ve lived offworld on company stations for most of their lives.

Up until now nobody thought C-zero occurred naturally in the universe, but you see, that’s why Anthemusa is special. It’s an exotic little vacation destination, and I mean that literally.

We suspect that, billions of years ago, Anthemusa was actually the rocky core of a gas giant, a mini-Neptune, that orbited its mother star just a little too closely by gas giant standards. Over the course of about two billion years, the planet lost its gaseous atmosphere due to proximity to, well, Proxima, a flare star whose intermittent outbursts accelerated Anthemusa’s transformation into a cthonian planet as solar wind stripped away its atmosphere. Eventually things settled enough to the point where all that remained was the core and an atmosphere just thick enough for microbial life to develop. Then photosynthesis happened, Anthemusa got a new, oxygen rich atmosphere and more complex life started to develop. Just not normal life.

Proxima’s frequent outbursts are very energetic, and while this is only idle speculation, our scientists suspect the energy was high enough that on the occasions when Anthemusa was directly in the line of fire rather than just in the neighborhood, the amount of high-energy particulates and stellar radiation it was exposed to were great enough to stimulate the creation of exotic matter, similar to what happens when a distant, distant planet is exposed to the tail-end of the high-energy jets of a hypernova. This would later become C-zero, and whatever other types of exotic matter that helped make the present day Anthemusa a reality.

I stared at the innocuous-looking sphere suspiciously. On Anthemusa, you can mine expensive room-temperature superconductors that it takes labs millions of dollars to produce like it’s pig iron or fool’s gold, and that’s just the start of the cornucopia of wonderfully physics-defying compounds and forms of matter the techies hope to find on Anthemusa. Maybe even the fabled “negative matter”, which would solve the FTL problem and make Hato the richest motherfuckers in all of time and space (more than they already are, anyway). And it’s even habitable and hospitable to life despite orbiting two suns and a red dwarf, making it home to all kinds of alien wildlife with potent biochemistry just waiting to be exploited for profit? This planet seems too good to be true.

So then what’s the catch? What’s the punchline? In my experience, whenever something looks too good to be true it’s almost always exactly that, plus a complimentary kick in the balls (if male; if female, then a complimentary punt in the cunt). There is no such thing is a free lunch (only a free universe, if you still believe in democracy or those old lectures by that twenty-first century physicist Michio Kaku). So then how do you explain Anthemusa?

Don’t misunderstand me, the planet is a living hell. But that’s the key word, isn’t it? Living hell. This planet supports life, life that by all means should be remarkably similar to ours given the relative hospitableness of the environment. Plants grow here. Animals live here. There’s oxygen, CO2, liquid water and relatively minor microgravity. Sure breathing in the oxygenated atmosphere regularly for too many years will give you cancer. Sure you can literally die a slow, painful death by poisoning in an arsenic rainstorm at any given time if you happen to be caught outside on the wrong day at the wrong time. Sure the animals are big and vicious and sure the planet receives twice as much cosmic radiation as Earth, meaning you’ll have the opportunity to get even more cancer. But none of those things are deal-breakers. They’ll make your life more miserable than any Terran alive can comprehend, but hey, at least the planet doesn’t have hypersonic windspeeds and an atmosphere of pure poison. At least the surface temperature isn’t 1000 kelvin and it doesn’t rain molten glass. This planet is habitable, and on top of that, it’s extremely profitable, filled to the brim with rare materials that otherwise don’t occur in nature.

So I ask again. What’s the catch?

A red alert sign shows up at the fringe of my vision. I’ve got incoming comms. I accept the call, the signal running along various wireless channels until it reaches my ear and activates the tiny implant grafted to my mastoid bone.

“Rocky, baby!”

Oh sweet christ no. Don’t hang up don’t hang up don’t hang up don’t hang up, I keep repeating to myself as I screw my eyes shut at the sound of Brian’s incredibly informal, insulting, and punchable accent and way of speaking. This is the asshole who stole my fucking job.

“Hey Brian, what’s up?” I spit through grit teeth.

“Oh nothing, just thought you should come on down to the commons area. We’re about to have a staff meeting and I thought it’d be a shame for you to miss it. I’d have to put you on probation otherwise, and after everything that’s happened I figured that was the last thing you needed,” he said smugly. He’s rubbing it in my face. “Then again you are a noncon now, so I suppose missing a meeting or two doesn’t really matter to you anymore, does it?”

“I’ll be right there,” I grunt. “Just let me get changed.”

“I’m counting down! Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven-”

Oh screw you!” I shout without thinking as I try to fit my other leg into my good pants.

“Ninety-four, ninety-five…”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” I shout. “Just give me a little more time! I can’t get to commons in a minute and a half!”

“Oh, now that’s not the kind of attitude a Hato employee should have! You need to be a go-getter, not a forgetter! Tell you what, let’s make it sixty and I’ll forget you told me to go fuck myself.”

“What?! I didn’t say that!”

“That’s not what the report’s gonna say~” Brian cooed. “Fiffy-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven, fifty-six, fifty-”
Fuuuuuuuuuuck!” I shout as I straighten my tie and bolt down the hall. Welcome to day one, year one, of my own personal hell. Stuck between Scylla and Charybdis on good old Anthemusa.

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2 comments

  1. And here we go! The first Look Into Another World. I had hoped not to post one so soon but while I was proofreading the next planned chapter yesterday in preparation for release I thought of something that’d really enhance the story and decided to work on expanding the chapter a bit, So yeah, it’s gonna be a little late. Until then however, please enjoy this proof of concept chapter or whatever you want to call it and let me know in the comments if you liked it and would ever like to see this become a full story after Goodfae.

    1. Wow, this is a cool story.

      Just one thing that bugs me, kinda a petty point, considering, you know, sci fi.

      But from what we know of Cryo sleep, you can either be frozen to the point you don’t atrophy, or not frozen enough to stop your body from dying. You can’t be frozen to the point where your muscles atrophy but your brain is fine…

      But again, sci fi, weird chemical injections ect…

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