Part 2

Warning Lights

Captain Kobaknov sat in his command chair on the bridge of the Sartorious – his two-hundred-foot-long galleon of discovery. He scrolled through some pages of data on a small screen next to his right arm and then nonchalantly flicked it off with a sharp prod of his sore, dry-skinned index finger. He gracefully eased back; the padding of the seat creaking and squealing beneath his frame as it welcomed him.

The bridge was the most sophisticated part of the ship, the most “finished” part as it had been jestingly referred to by its construction crew. The floor was covered with a short, bristly carpet – this in opposition to the harsh metal deck plates which laced the rest of the ship (the only other room offering this relative luxury being the crew mess). There was a large, rectangular window at the front of the compact, square room and several large monitors and data terminals along the side walls. On either side of his chair Kobaknov had a row of key pads and controls which were used to access information, navigation data and other such diagnostic intelligence pertaining to what precisely he could not recall at that moment.

It was warm on the bridge and Kobaknov enjoyed this escape from the cool – sometimes icy – temperatures on the rest of the ship (depending on how efficiently the environmental controls were working that particular day). A few goosebumps rose on his forearms as he basked in this welcome shift in temperature and wriggled joyfully in his chair. Intensifying this sensation was a series of spotlights on the ceiling which offered a soothing pallet of colour reminiscent of lights in a domestic home, unlike the harsh, clinical white lights found throughout the Sartorious. The parts of the walls that were visible amongst the screens and controls were a clean white colour and glancing around Kobaknov opined to himself that there were no intrusive pipes or wires in this room either; even in the medical pod there was a clutter of cables fixed to walls as well as the ever-present serpent of pipes whipping around the corners of the room.

Kobaknov sat contentedly and for a brief moment of farcical conjecture he wondered why he ever bothered to leave this part of the ship; she was running efficiently today also, all the gauges on the screens to his left showed steady horizontal lines and green graphics: Air pressure: Green; Engine efficiency: 83%; Power levels: 79% efficiency. “A good day”, the captain whispered, pursing his lips and nodding approvingly.

Closing his eyes briefly, he laid his skull back in the head rest of the chair; the ship vibrated softly as it charted its unerring course and the air circulated around him, ruffling his fringe intermittently.

In an instant though, a thought flashed through his head; a cold, uneasy thought. He felt alone and somewhat ostracised aboard the ship and in that specific place. There was, of course, logic to that given his position, but yet there was an odd feeling inside of him which stirred whenever he neglected his duties. There was a presence near him, lingering around him uncertainly; not the feeling of a person perhaps but another being in his vicinity. Kobaknov sprang his eyes open in a flash and jerked forward in his chair, leaning his forearms on his thighs – his heartbeat spiking momentarily.

Nothing. The console bleeped steadily and the ship hummed with stoic regularity.

“How long have I been alone?” Kobaknov asked the dark vacuum which stretched before his eyes. He remembered in that second why he did not savour spending long durations on the bridge. The ambience was assuring but there was something unsavoury about him being there; something lodged in his mind which tugged at him. He shook his head vigorously in an attempt to regain some composure and flicked his eyes to his right upon the empty chair which ominously sat alongside his; unabashed and unhesitant – emptily sitting there demanding some intrinsic final component essential to its existence; just as a glove patiently awaits a hand.

       

                                             II

WSEA – or “woosie” as the acronym was quickly translated as amongst the more sceptical portion of the population – was rapidly conceived and inaugurated in the aftermath of the Mars mission’s discoveries being publicised.

Browsing through the morning newspapers on a bright May morning, a studious and canny political advisor to the British Prime Minister was at once struck by a headline and its subsequent article in the Daily Telegraph, written by one E. E. Smith:

RED PLANET OFFERS NEW HOPE OF CONQUEST OF SPACE, the thick black text roared optimistically.

Immediately identifying this apparent miraculous discovery as a potential solution to the escalating World unemployment epidemic – then standing at some 500,000,000 within the superpowers – he hastily guzzled the last of his coffee, raced to the offices of the Prime Minister and that morning instigated a series of events that culminated – some four months later – in WSEA.

After an endless procession of meetings, conferences, seminars and policy enactments, the premiers of the leading nations – by this point buoyed further by reports of progress in faster-than-light-travel experiments at the IIR – concluded in an ostentatious conference – televised around the globe and confounding many sceptics with its haste and unmitigated tone – that space exploration was the new “number one priority” of the planet.

Disgraced former U.S President and confessed ‘spaceophile’ Hubert O’Brien had captivated space enthusiasts and enraged the growing mass of isolationists within the U.S Senate twenty years previously by his announcement that America would again “Pave the way to Space” by building a gigantic space station to replace the lost International Space Station – left to decay and smash into Earth’s atmosphere in the wake of the Shuttle incident. O’Brien was roundly chastised by the opposition in the following weeks, labelled a “idealist dreamer out of touch with the needs of the nation” as well as a prominent newspaper branding him “Reckless and foolhardy”. The results of the following year’s election – in which O’Brien was trounced in his re-election bid – affirmed such opinions and put paid to any notions of space for the foreseeable future. The incoming President quickly identified herself as a bona-fide “Earthist” and the unsavoury details of O’Brien’s post-political career soon eclipsed his status as a space rebel and radical optimist.

Now however, many years later, O’Brien’s optimistic words were echoed by the incumbent U.S President who, standing alongside his counterparts from the other leading nations on an overcast September afternoon in Washington declared:

“Today is a grand day for the Earth. This is day when we will solve the problems of our planet by committing ourselves once more to the exploration of the Universe. We envisage a new agency, a super agency which will administer and control this new World-Wide Space exploration program”. The Premier of China then continued, adding that they proposed a fleet of spacecraft to be constructed on a huge scale, creating unlimited opportunities for ambitious individuals throughout the World.

After the speeches, the choreographed handshakes and the unveiling of the swiftly prepared WSEA logo – A golden image of Icarus straining toward the heavens with the flags of the key nations in the background, framed in a neat circular crest – the dignitaries retreated to a more private locale to finalise the small print of WSEA’s mandate.

Reassured by the knowledge that no opposition would emerge from their political opponents given the poor (almost terminally ill) health of the economy, the Premiers and their advisors glugged champagne triumphantly, congratulating one another on the solving a “rather trying issue” as one British aide described it. It was quickly agreed that all construction and manufacturing personnel be drawn from the best Universities in each nation – all of whom would draw their assignments from the work of Professor Schwartz and his team at IIR. Likewise, the labourers on these massive projects would be drawn from those countries with the most pressing unemployment problems first. It was, naturally, agreed that under no circumstances whatsoever, labour or production be transferred to nations outside the superpowers; this opportunity was not to be wasted through the mistakes of the past.

After several hours of taught negotiations, the respective parties made their leave, agreeing heartily that most of the details could be handled at a later date by their offices.

 

Reminders

Captain Kobaknov was in urgent need of some details too. He woke up irritably after an uncomfortable and restless sleep; a loud shimmering noise was pounding through the starboard side of the Sartorious, causing him to leap up from his hammock as a nearby picture in a simple wooden frame crashed to the floor.

“What The Hell!?” he squealed, toppling from his bed onto a large chest of personal items which he had stowed under the adjacent shelving on his arrival onboard. Upon rousing himself and picking up the frame – a photograph of his Mother, Father and sister posing in the family garden some years past – Kobaknov sniggered self-deprecatingly; no matter that he had been alone for so long now, he still spoke aloud often and realising this momentarily amused him somewhat.

The noise resonated throughout the cabin again though, reminding the captain of the reason for his abrupt awakening and souring his mood afresh. Pulling himself to his feet he grumbled at the ongoing chaotic state of the ship and levered the sighing steel door open which led into the starboard serviceway. Only wearing his underwear, the harsh deckplates of the corridor were cold against his bare feet and he flinched violently as he stepped out into the disorganised web of wiring and tubes.

Situated toward the centre of the ship (its designation as ‘starboard’ was slightly misleading even though it was nearer the starboard of the vessel than any other access point), the view from the doorway offered a view splintering off in opposite directions and Kobaknov flicked his head from side-to-side, peering down the vast, tubular enclosure in an attempt to ascertain the source of the intrusive din which continued at intervals.

There were no windows at this junction of the ship and Kobaknov suddenly felt a twinge of claustrophobia; his artificial world instantly seeming fragile and confined. Forgetting the cold which enveloped his semi-naked frame, he stepped fully out into the corridor; the steel door clanged shut without his body to wedge it open. In keeping with his thoughts lately, he felt threatened and alone. Isolated and alone. His stomach knotted with tension.

Yet, despite this sensation, there was another presence about him, but one which he could not picture satisfactorily within his mind. He pressed his eyelids together delicately, striving to clear his mind and return to the matter at hand – that infernal shuddering noise. The image of the vacant, hollow corridor ahead of him lingered though; his mind generated a perfect facsimile but now it was filled with an encroaching darkness, spreading from the far end toward him and creeping slowly. Kobaknov perceived the edges of the black veil as hands and claws, straining to reach his location, gradually dragging themselves towards him. The air felt illogically hot now, he could feel beads of sweat forming across his furrowed brow and clinging to his ungainly hair. He breathed rapidly and stepped back from this abyss, his feet slapping against the unforgiving steel.

Kobaknov sprang his eyes open and in an instant was confronted by the empty, brightly-lit passageway receding into the distance. He stretched out his arm and placed his palm against the rough, unevenly welded metal wall in order to re-affix himself within the tangible reality of the ship. With his right hand he mopped the sweat from his forehead and exhaled deeply before straining the door to the mess open and finding solace in the warm surrounds within.

Kobaknov quickly slithered into his standard-issue WSEA apparel: a pair of heavy, dark green cotton trousers, his much-worn navy-blue sweatshirt (complete with a WSEA logo which hung tentatively by its last few threads) and the slip-on shoes which he wore around the ship – primarily for comfort.

Still fumbling his left arm into the creased sweatshirt, he swung his right hand down below the bottom of his hammock and scooped up a battered silver toolbox – the act of doing so nearly unbalancing him – before he barged through the door in one ungainly motion like some poorly-skilled amateur figure skater.

Successfully avoiding any thoughts of the serviceway and that creeping darkness, Kobaknov shuffled off in the opposite direction, towards the starboard maintenance terminal and the engine room – his trusted toolbox rattling precociously amongst the recurring shudders to which he was now fully attentive toward.

Upon turning a corner in the corridor and negotiating his way past a stack of unopened plastic crates marked ‘ENGINEERING’ in reassuringly large printed characters, Kobaknov entered a tiny doorless cupboard. No bigger than a coffin standing on its base, this hollow was a regular haunt of the captain as it housed a series of screens which offered critical information pertaining to the cabin pressure, hull integrity and other environmental considerations in that specific section of the Sartorious.

Kobaknov used the back of his hand to flick a cluster of notes which had been affixed to the edge of one of the monitors – the upper-most of which was a ragged yellow piece of paper which read ‘Valve 204: emergency cut-off code 1901’ in barely legible handwriting. Placated by the positive figures and block-like charts on offer, Kobaknov lowered his eyebrows a little in bemusement as the irritating noise continued to rumble about him.

His mind deep in speculation and increasingly avid conjecture as to the noise, he meandered slowly back towards the mess. He briefly imagined it to be some catastrophic hull breach and saw himself sucked out into the endless darkness which carried his vessel. To his own surprise, a wry smile flashed across his face at this thought. He imagined himself floating away, the Sartorious fading from his view forever. His thin lips and eyebrows rose fractionally at this image in particular. He shuddered momentarily on concluding his visit with this fiction though, presently disorientated by what he had visualised and felt. Maybe he had dreamt something similar, he wondered, because it seemed oddly familiar; peculiarly harboured someplace within his backwater memories.

On returning to the mess, Kobaknov acknowledged to himself that the noise was most definitely louder here than anywhere else. Commencing an impromptu investigation, he began to leap erratically about the room, peeking into cupboards and pressing his ear to various pipes and sections of wall. His frustration rising like the mercury in a sun-drenched thermometer, he flung a stack of books and magazines out of his way in order to get to a low-lying drawer; a well-thumbed copy of The Left Hand of Darkness took to the air like a flailing bird, landing with its pages spread open. With no success in this drawer of utensils either, Kobaknov abated his miniature concerto of rummaging and slid down the side of the kitchen unit, parking his backside heavily on the floor with a thud. Sitting cross-legged he looked around with dismay:

“Where the fuck could that sound be coming from?!” he mused exasperatedly, hoping for some miraculous additional information which might be afforded him by his verbal outburst. Raising his hung head, he finally confronted the inevitable line of enquiry which he had thus avoided; hoping answers would be found elsewhere. Anywhere. He fixed his eyes upon the other door which exited the mess room where he had taken to sleeping recently.

Rising and hesitantly creeping across the room, he reached out an uncooperative hand and wrenched the door handle downward. With even greater stiffness than usually expected from a door aboard the Sartorious, it creaked open and a heavy air threw itself upon him and filled his lungs – scent of aftershave, toothpaste and re-cycled, stale air. The automatic lighting flicked on dutifully and Kobaknov heard the noise again – now unbearably louder. Shifting his eyes to his left he regarded a steel plate which had come loose from its mounting on a pipe – evidently an air circulation pipe. Intermittently, air would rush through the conduit, causing the plate to blow outward before springing back violently and causing a reverberating crash which rang around the network of intrusive pipes in the room.

Kobaknov stepped back into the other room (relief flowed through him) and duly returned with his large screwdriver and a set of long steel screws. He leant down and gripped the red wooden handle of the reliable tool, straining to twist the replacement screws in quickly before the next cycle of air would cause the panel to erupt again.

Completing the task in time and basking in the relative quite he had created, Kobaknov turned, sitting on the floor against the piping, examining his wrist which he had slightly jarred in his haste to fix the panel. Glancing upward he suddenly flushed hot and gulped audibly. He was reminded vividly why he had felt compelled to leave this room previously and relocate. In front of him was Mathers’ vacant hammock, tidily made, staring desperately toward the captain. It almost appeared to be swinging gently in the breeze of the air-conditioner; a sinister lullaby rocking its invisible inhabitant to sleep.

 

Trials

Professor Schwartz wished that he could wholeheartedly share the optimism of the grinning politicians as he nervously sat in his home – a glass of scotch nursed in his left palm – and watched those grandiose speeches concerning humanity’s future. The tests of his new faster-than-light-travel technology had not been proceeding as well as had been advertised.

There had indeed been tests, with a great amount of success; but there had also been failures, failures with varying degrees of catastrophe. The Professor sat deep in thought and then, finishing his drink, flicked off the television and sloped out of the living room.

Schwartz’s team had long awaited a breakthrough in interstellar technology or the return of political support for the space program and had been tentatively designing and testing a new spacecraft which they perceived as the future of space flight. Now, in what appeared to be some divine and improbable convergence of events, they seemingly had both at once.

A great departure from the previous orthodoxy of manned space-flight (primarily the ‘capsule-on-a-missile’ technology of the 1960s and 70s), their new ship concept was more of a multi-purpose cargo vessel which was powered upon takeoff by advanced combustion engines, consuming less fuel (thus lower cost) and with zero wastage. No part of the vehicle was spent or jettisoned during the lift-off or re-entry manoeuvres, resulting in a fully-fledged and re-usable space-craft for the first time in humanity’s history. The return of the now famous Mars exploration had provided the catalyst for concerted flights of this prototype vessel to proceed and little time was wasted in advancing the test schedule.

Early orbital flights had passed without due concern or consternation for Schwartz or his team. Shrewdly drawing upon the experience of the now extinct U.S and Russian programs, the Institute utilised their many thousands of successful manned space hours – adapting and updating these old launch strategies and heat-shield re-entry technology for their new craft – minimising risk and, just as importantly, conserving time.

The next stage, however, the serious business of the hour, was to test the fledgling FTL technology which the Institute had rapidly developed and waited with drooling mouths to test and see actualised before their own eyes.

In another reversion to the operational philosophy of the space-age, military test pilots Samuel Jonsen and Michelle Baleyard were selected as the crew of the inaugural FTL flight and launched under a veil of relative secrecy (although there would have been negligible interest had the public been aware) on a humid evening in the barren desert outskirts of Dubai.

After a “textbook launch” (as one technician labelled it), the Roderigo moved into a high Earth orbit two days into its mission and Baleyard – the commander – signalled to the ground with confirmation that they were ready to test the FTL engines.

Schwartz, in eager mood at mission control – along with his senior colleague Dr Nina Pichon – watched frenziedly as the signal was given to activate the FTL drive units for the first time in the vacuum of space. After a few moments of suspense – as the engines warmed up inside their long retracted housings – the pixel blot representing the position of the ship suddenly vanished from the tracking monitors hundreds of miles below amongst the now swirling desert sands.

An hour later, the sensors identified the Roderigo re-entering Earth orbit and hearts collectively raced at the re-emergence of that precious digital blob; the era of faster-than-light travel had apparently encroached upon the human race. Mission control hailed the fledgling craft:

“This is IIR, do you copy Roderigo? Over.”

After a momentarily pause which a clammy Professor Schwartz perceived as many lifetimes, a crystal-clear reply rang through the speakers of the spacious control room:

“This is Roderigo IIR. Crew are a little disorientated but in good shape. Ship functioning normally. Over.”

Rapturous applause engulfed the room at these concise utterances; hugs were exchanged until ribs were almost squashed and hands were shaken until numb. The radical unknown technology had apparently been proven successful and Schwartz’s mind immediately turned to the future; swathed in ostentatious visions.

Upon landing, the crew was subjected to a thorough battery of medical examinations in which they exhibited no physiological nor psychological abnormalities other than some nausea, dehydration and fatigue caused by the sudden shifts in time. Their brief, historic flight had taken them to the boundaries of the solar system. Further than any known life form had glimpsed since humans had risen up from primitive creatures, perceived their own potential and first scanned the stars.

Whilst Baleyard and Jonsen consigned themselves to the months – and possibly years – of psycho-evaluation and interviews which awaited them, Schwartz, Pichon and the IIR team excitedly prepared for a follow-up mission. The Roderigo was stripped down and every bolt painstakingly analysed. Indeed, it was confirmed that it had performed sturdily as Baleyard’s communication had attest to. The superstructure indicated no undue stress given the extreme forces of FTL flight and system diagnostics similarly conveyed a message of solid performance and durability throughout the extraordinary flight. Minor deterioration within the integrity of the engine was noted as an area of concern but this was perceived as only a point of secondary importance which could be eradicated in due course.

The Banquo was launched to much anticipation within the walls of the IIR the following month. It was an identical design to the Roderigo; a slender, grey train-carriage-shaped hull with two prominent maroon-hued engines rumbling at its rear, and just as its predecessor did, it triumphantly traversed into orbit awaiting its orders to defy all physical laws.

Standing proudly in mission control, his chest pronounced in front of him and his favourite exquisite red-and-silver tie firmly noosed about his scrawny neck, Professor Schwartz observed as the order was passed-down to proceed. His eyes glistened and flickered imploringly – reflecting the myriad of screens and monitors which buzzed frenetically all around. A hushed silence ensued; the air at once dragged from the room by the collective inhale of nervous lungs inside fervent bodies.

Just as before, the tracking system lost the Banquo as it flashed instantaneously from humanity’s tender grasp. The room exhaled; Schwartz unbuttoned his suit jacket and tentatively licked his dry lips as a handheld pad of digital information was efficiently thrust before him by an engineer.

The ‘Mission Time Elapse’ clock unapologetically flicked over once more and read:

3:00 HOURS 21:00 MINUTES.

The Banquo was late.

Dr Pichon removed her glasses from her slightly hooked nose and inspected their fine glass lenses for the eighth time in as many minutes, holding them up to bright lights which hung above the gantry. Cautiously pressing her weight on to one foot, she leaned towards Professor Schwartz who stood alongside, ensuring that she concealed her mouth from any opportunist lipreaders nearby as she began to speak in a wispy voice. Schwartz – slightly startled by this interruption to his sentinel-like state – unfastened his leaden body from the fixed posture it had occupied for the past hour and leaned towards his friend in reciprocation.

“What are you thinking Joe?” Pichon whispered with delicate curiosity, eyes directed to the ground.

“Perhaps they encountered a problem with the navigation system”, Schwartz replied covertly, the dubiousness of to his own assertion shrouding his tone “or a malfunction with the drive unit itself.” At this he offered a meek shrug of his deflated shoulders and twisted the ball of his foot nervously as if subduing a tiny cigarette butt.

“What do we do? Is there any way that they can – “

“No”, Schwartz interrupted tersely, as if anticipating the end of any question she may ask. Pichon pulled away slightly and fixed her gaze on Schwartz who slowly shook his head before pulling his eyes away from her searching gaze and scanning the ground.

No, there was no way of recovering the crew or attempting a rescue. There was no way that they could attempt to regain contact or conduct any repairs. There would be no recourse for the tardy spacecraft; no hope of effecting any salvage attempt from the confines of Earth.

There was also no way they could allow this news of a problem to escape their grasp either; not now, just as the world had once again opened its collective eyes to space. Of course, Dr Pichon knew this already. She had computed all of the same figures as her friend and had found identical and bleak answers. She raised a minuscule flaccid smile of painful resignation and acknowledgement before calmly walking back along the observation gantry, pausing to discuss a technical matter with a scarlet-faced, beleaguered engineer.

There was to be no more news from the IIR mission control that day, or indeed the next. After many hours of pacing and discussion, the increasingly desolate and dejected crowd thinned until only a clutch of senior staff and officials remained. Eventually, only crushed polystyrene cups and crumpled papers littered the evacuated floor of the building.

The Banquo never did re-emerge; disappearing into infinity like a flame is extinguished from a candle – the secrets of its failure forever safe from the trembling hands of human curiosity.

 

After a short period of mourning and reflection, the program was advanced ahead once more, with word spread to the Institute that prominent political figures from Germany and France were seeking frequent updates on the successes of the IIR’s missions. The tragic disappearance of the Banquo had evidently not slowed or ceased the activities of the Institute, far from it; things were hastening forward at an ever greater pace.

There was one more successful test-flight when Chinese crew members Wei Lou and Chu-yu Kwon returned safely after a brief return journey to Mars, but again the program was marred when the fourth mission ended prematurely with an expected FTL engine failure causing a cataclysmal and fatal explosion killing pilots Roman Korolev and Anders Johansson. Initially, the cause of the ship’s failure was uncertain – technicians arguing back and forth over various hypotheses. Greater scrutiny of earlier lab tests and failures indicated a undeniable focal point of the investigation however. There were serious and mounting issues with the stability and integrity of the embryonic technology which the IIR held so preciously to their chests.

The net result of all of these early days of experimentation was an, at best, sketchy and soiled track-record which the IIR had excelled in hiding, taking full advantage of the hitherto lukewarm public interest in the events of the Dubai desert. Such issues though – the buried demons under the floorboards of the Institute’s vast buildings – were now to be examined with the closest scrutiny due of the imminent explosion of publicity which accompanied that momentous press-conference in Washington.

 

Professor Schwartz moved inattentively into his study, apprehension gripping him as tightly as a rock-climber grasps handholds on a sheer rock face. Slipping into his huge, cradling, forest-green coloured chair, he spun round to face the panoramic square window which provided a soothing view of the harbour.

The colourful evening lights of the promenade sprinkled down on the deep blue waters beneath, forging a kaleidoscope of purples, whites and yellows which shimmered and frolicked. A small, gallant yacht gracefully lanced through this canvas of colour; splicing a temporary crevice through the stupefying simplicity of the scene. A soft breeze ruffled a nearby tree whilst an umbrella on the veranda tingled as the steel hoops of its tether tapped the wooden pole.

Schwartz gazed unerringly at this almost utopian visage; his eyes swelled and glossed over as he was presently reduced to nothing more than an insignificant figurine hopelessly pondering the mysteries of existence with what felt like a porcelain brain. He knew, ruminating within his bones, that it would not be long before there was a call. After those capricious and extravagant speeches, there would need to be answers from the IIR – the guardians of WSEA’s ambitions. Detailed information on the tests conducted so far. Organisational breakdowns. Future timescales. Production costs. Fatality estimates.

He spun his chair back around to face his desk; an expensive antique oak slab which was laden with papers, pads and files. His computer monitor flickered expectantly at the far end – awaiting his input. Glancing up, he was reminded all too indubitably of his status and the expectations this entailed; expectations this demanded. His academic certificates and awards adorned the beige wallpaper, regularly interspersed with photographs of himself and various dignitaries; politicians, Sheiks, Royalty – a younger, tanned and vibrant version of himself grinned inanely back at him from everywhere. A mosaic of pomposity and resplendence which chastened and taunted him at that moment.

Schwartz leaned back and thought of the Banquo; obliterated from human perspective. He thought of Korolev and Johansson; lost in a blazing inferno. He thought of Samuel Jonsen and the difficulties he had suffered over the past months; insomnia, disorientation, amnesia. He wondered, for the first time – the first occasion he had ever let such thoughts seep into his attention – if this new form of space travel might just be something other than a flawless dream. Was it too dangerous, too reckless?

Was humanity just not destined to move beyond its habitual, solitary planetary body?

The telephone rang, startling Schwartz who was becoming all too easily startled lately. Leaning forward across his desk, Schwartz hesitated momentarily before yanking the silver receiver upward promptly – almost with mechanical rigidity in his manner.

“Hello…Yes…Hello Mr Jameson…Yes I did…very impressive…oh yes we are all very excited over here, overjoyed you could say……..Are you? Tonight?…yes of course I can, I’d be delighted….one hour?….excellent…..see you then.” Robotic responses. Metronomic refinement. Well-practiced civility.

He dropped the faux-antique-style phone back on its hook, creating a dull clanging noise. Without procrastinating further in his forest of conjecture he sprang up from his chair and headed towards his bedroom – operating without cognition like a marionette. He hoped that he could locate that favourite red-and-silver necktie and his wife had not moved it someplace or washed it unexpectedly – he would be in need of it tonight and any charm it still retained.

“Could be a long night Joe”, he muttered to himself as he rummaged through his wardrobe seeking a clean shirt.

 

Maintenance

Some days in space appeared to last longer than others for Alex Kobaknov. Some days seemed as though they never ended, merging seamlessly into the next. This morning he sat recumbent in his hammock watching an old recording of an ice hockey match on a video screen which dangled above his head. Intermittently, he tentatively slurped from a fruit drink contained within a foil pouch and occasionally plunged his bandaged hand into a bag of mixed nuts; rummaging avidly and then chomping and crunching artlessly. They were something he had been saving for a day such as this. Occasionally he smoothed his hand across his weathered face, caressing the scuffs and burns which were gouged the length and breadth of his cheeks and forehead. He had decided that barring any life-threatening scenario, he would squander this particular day right where he was; a perfect monument to reticence.

The preceding day had been one of those long and trying durations which made Kobaknov quietly pray for a life-threatening scenario to turn ugly. The morning began with the fairly routine clean and repair to an engine plasma conduit. Leaving the mess with his bag of equipment to tackle the task, he sarcastically joked that these procedures were never meant to be routine – only The Sartorious and its temperamental innards had decided that they would be.

Highly flammable, corrosive and toxic plasma was fed into the engines of the ship at high velocity and temperatures, forming part of the internal combustion process which kept the Sartorious motoring along merrily under sub-light velocity. Occasionally (or indeed regularly) these vital pipes could become blocked and damaged, decreasing engine efficiency and increasing the risk of unwanted incineration which might render the vessel a beautiful, spectacular firework display. One which its crew would not have the pleasure of being spectators of.

Kobaknov stretched and strained himself into the specialist engineering suit required for the job; a combined rubber and Teflon set of overalls to shield the human frame from the fierce temperatures, combined with a helmet complete with oxygen supply. The captain made his lumbering way from the engineering supply room, swaying and staggering in the heavy, sweat-smelling, archaic gear – his own breathing his only audible input within the confines of the bulky helmet.

Standing outside the room which offered maintenance access to the plasma manifolds, Kobaknov eventually flipped open a small control panel next to the door; his gloved fingers struggling to grasp the fine plastic cover as he did so. After limiting the air supply – thus decreasing the risk of explosion – he prised the door open with even less grace and poise than usual – a grotesque bulk of rubber and metal melding into a suitably ineloquent ballet – and set about his morning’s travails. Inside, with the door firmly slammed shut – an action that caused a shaking that momentarily rocked the suited figure – Kobaknov placed down with a groan the large toolkit which he had strenuously dragged down the long corridor with him.

A yellow sticker slapped on the top of the case – half torn away – read: ‘Gui…Fai…’ Kobaknov strained his eyes to attempt to extrapolate what it read before giving-up and flipping the lid open. He peered inward, evaluating the tools he would require against those that were worse-for-wear and might prove ill-advisable as a selection given the nature of the job. Then, making his decisions like a contestant on a grisly game-show, he carefully opened the cover on the large vertical tube which ran the whole height of the room and hissed angrily as he ripped part of its anatomy away. The captain reached inside and began to explore where the latest blockage lurked; feeling around like a student doctor learning the composition of an unknown species. This exploration required him to poke his helmeted head inside the tube – an act which instantly raised his pulse-rate and caused his back to sweat profusely – even though he had ensured that this particular tube had been temporarily deactivated and the engines shut down.

As he examined the blackened, charred piping, he imagined a blast of plasma suddenly racing down the tube, incinerating him in a flash of furious heat and light. Kobaknov quickly dispensed with this line of thought – especially given his recent fragile psychological state – and instead refocused on the job; such visualisations were much too easy for him to compose and labour within the midst of. Presently though, continuing with his obligatory work expeditiously, he discovered an expected build-up material – a standard by-product of the process taking place within the conduit – and returned to his toolkit to fetch a suitable set of tools to clean and repair the area.

An hour or so later, after painstakingly cleaning the pipe – scooping and scraping lumps of tightly fastened toxiferous debris and depositing them in a waste container – then sealing the hatch, Kobaknov emerged from the maintenance room, hot and tired. Irritably, he elected to quickly unscrew and dismiss his protective helmet, allowing himself to breath in the comparatively fresh air of the ship and eradicate himself from the ferocious dankness of the inside of that prison. After ruffling his hair enthusiastically and flicking a few splashes of sweat from his face with his now de-gloved hand, he placed the helmet on the steel floor of the corridor and stepped back into the now re-oxygenated room to drag out the toolkit and bring to a close the arduous period which had just elapsed.

As he bent down to grasp the handle of the cold metal box, he heard an imminent fizzing sound behind him. Before he could react – flinch a muscle or burst free – a blast of ferocious plasma hurtled down the freshly-cleaned pipe, bursting through a paper-fine crack in the maintenance cover. Kobaknov instinctively dived towards the door but tripped in the heavy boots of the suit, a spray of the plasma splashing about him. Choking and spluttering through the noxious fumes, he pulled himself out of the door, throwing it shut with all his strength.

Outside in the tubular passage, Kobaknov strained to drag himself up to the control pad next to the door and stabbed at the keys which commanded the conduit to shut down. Half-blinded from the toxic gases, he lurched down the series of tight passageways and the portside serviceway to the ominous medical bay where he fumbled and stumbled to tend to his wounds as best as he could and place an oxygen mask over his face to revitalise his burnt, poisoned lungs. Slumping onto the examining table – which shifted and wheezed under the force, smashing a nearby test tube – he lay for a time, breathing heavily and spluttering incessantly – before falling into some amalgamation of sleep or unconsciousness – he was unsure precisely which.

When he awoke, startled and bemused, Kobaknov ripped the oxygen mask from his chin and checked his watch – the digital figures emerging from an opaque, misty filter which his reddened eyes provided. Seven hours had passed. He looked down at the spacesuit he was in; it had spots and blotches of blood splattered across it and the legs had black and brown burns scattered about which he picked at inquisitively, revealing torn strands of Teflon and discoloured warped rubber.

Rising up, he gingerly stretched his arms and manoeuvred his jaw in a circular motion; pain rang out with every movement, his head throbbed and his throat was coarse and raw. He coughed heavily, expunging a hefty globule of mucus which he spat into a kidney dish. Relieved, he realised he had escaped lightly given the situation despite the barrage of uncomfortable sensations reverberating through him.

“Ahhh”, Kobaknov wheezed groggily, slipping from the white table. Craning his neck from left to right and holding onto a nearby surgical trolley for balance, he involuntarily shifted his attention to the bright sterile lights of the observation room. Limping across the room, knocking into the various instruments and equipment which was stacked around in untidy clusters (Kobaknov often felt this room more a storage cupboard than a medical facility) he made his familiar pilgrimage to that perspex window.

Mathers lay in his default position; medical gown on, arms by his side, face expressionless. Kobaknov turned away in dejection and made his retreat to his familiar haven of the mess. Completing what remained of the engine’s repairs could wait a day or two. After-all, it was often hard to tell one day from another anyway.

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