Frisson, a science fiction short about three thrill-seekers who find themselves adrift thousands of light years from civilization.
Nicholas P. Oakley
Serge peeled the dust-caked suit off, wriggling his feet free of the skin-tight membrane. He flung it carelessly into the locker, thumbing a button to begin the cleaning cycle. He turned and walked past Ren, who was lying awkwardly on one of the camping packs, his eyes firmly closed. Serge grinned as he passed the prostrate figure still suited up and covered in yellow dust.
“Was going to get going now. Want us to wait?”
“Nah,” came Ren’s amplified voice. “Just going to lie here a while.” With that he reached up and tugged his helmet off, giving Serge a tired smile. “Go on,” he said, gesturing with a weary hand to the door. “Just don’t start the jump yet.”
Serge nodded. He clambered up the narrow corridor and through the airlock toward the front of the shuttle. His back and thighs still burned from the climb, but he was eager to get off this moon and on to their next destination. His muscles could recover later, in cryo.
Ino had already started prepping the shuttle for launch, his fingers racing busily across the AI interface as the thrusters came online one by one, sending ripples of vibration through the floor. Ino nodded at Serge as he settled into the adjacent seat, before returning his focus to the control panel.
“Yeah, he’s just taking a breather back there.” Ino’s eyebrows lifted marginally. “It was a tough climb. Fun, though.”
“Yeah. Glad we stopped here. Guess the scans were wrong after all.”
The thrusters finished their initial cycles with a throaty roar, and Serge felt himself being tugged down into his seat for a moment before the grav stabilisers took over. Ino pressed a beveled button, releasing the control column, which slid up gently to his outreached hand. Serge’s own eyebrows arched a fraction.
“If we have to wait for Ren I’m going to manual it. Been a while, and I could use the practice.”
“Okay.” Serge really wasn’t in the mood to argue – if Ino wanted to get a quick thrill from piloting the shuttle to the jump coordinates, then so be it. It was usually the least exciting part of the trip anyway. Coming back to the shuttle was always a downer. The few seconds before the hyperdrive rattled into action still gave him a small tingle of excitement, but the short grav-stabilised thruster ride out of orbit was inevitably tedious after the excitement of their planetside adventures. Serge settled into the chair with a barely suppressed sigh.
Glancing back through the itinerary, Serge noted with surprise that the next planet would be exactly their six hundredth stop. He called up the current date with a gesture, and let out a small whistle. It was easy to lose track out here, with so much time spent in cryo during jumps. Serge smiled to himself. Two hundred years. Two hundred standard stuck in this can with Ren and Ino, clattering around the galaxy, hunting for the next buzz.
Ino had offered them this expedition into the unknown, and as Serge pulled the straps over his shoulders, he knew that nothing back home could beat it. A trip where the only thing that mattered was where the next adventure was going to come from. One where they actually had something to lose, for the first time in any of their lives, a thousand ly away from help. That realization, that hazard, was what gave everything out here a special edge, that made the thrill they craved all the more satisfying. The dry mouth and the lurching stomachs were real, unsimulated.
And it was addictive.
The moon’s yellow surface began to drop away in on the display in front of them, Ino’s hand pulling the control column gently towards him as the thrusters sent them hurtling out of orbit towards the stars. Serge let the memories of those past adventures drift over him. A faint smile crossed his lips, and he settled a little more deeply into the seat as he remembered.
The blast was astonishingly loud. Serge felt his ear drums perforate and the sudden rush of air pelt his uncovered face, pinning his head and neck to the back of his seat. Bright flashes filled the cockpit, and Serge’s stomach lurched as he felt the grav stabilisers fail and the shuttle spiral out of control. A searing pain ripped through his legs, but he couldn’t budge his face to assess the extent of the injury, and they quickly – alarmingly – went numb. He felt the straps digging into his shoulders, cutting off the blood to his arms. Serge managed to force his eyes open for a few seconds against the relentless onslaught. He saw Ino in the seat next to him, his own face pinned back against the chair.
The whites of Ino’s frighteningly wide eyes were the last thing Serge saw before he blacked out.
* * *
Serge awoke and almost passed out again when he opened his eyes.
The entire rear section of the cockpit was missing. The chair had somehow remained fastened to the floor, with Serge still in it, but it had spun around to face the huge breach in the hull. Only, it wasn’t simply a breach. Beyond the small confines of the cockpit there was nothing, only a dizzying, blurry array of stars. The rest of the ship was gone. Serge was looking out into the blackness of space. He clamped his eyes shut to avoid throwing up.
He was still breathing, and he hadn’t been frozen or had his eyes pushed out of their sockets or his lungs explode through his ribs. Yet. He peeled open his eyes, trying and failing not to look at the stars as they streaked by. It was only after a long few seconds that he eventually saw the faint blue hue covering the hole where the rest of the ship had been just moments before. An energy shield. Somehow, however unlikely, the AI was still operational. He was safe, at least for the moment.
He looked over at the other chair. To his relief, Ino was also still strapped down, but his head was lolling back against the headrest of the seat, and his nose and cheeks were startlingly blue. There was blood on his lips and chin. Serge started to unbuckle his straps. As he fumbled with the release, he half-expected to be pushed out of his seat and thrown off through the hole into space. But he wasn’t, and for the first time he also realised that the gravity was still normal. He lifted himself out of the chair and placed a foot down tentatively on the floor, feeling the familiar tug pull him down.
Then the pain hit, and he fell.
Ino was roused by Serge’s cry of pain.
“Ren,” he mumbled through bloodied lips.
Serge looked away from his gored legs, where hundreds of small steel shards protruded from their entire lengths, and where great chunks of tissue and flesh were missing from his left. The pain was incredible, but it was forgotten in a moment. Ren, he thought, looking up into Ino’s distraught face. They both looked out at the stars through the gaping hole.
“Was he wearing his suit?” asked Ino, looking away.
Serge tried to pull himself back on to the chair, but the pain surged through him again, up his spine and into the base of his skull. He collapsed back onto the floor in a heap.
“No helmet,” he managed to mutter.
Ino didn’t say anything for a moment. He wiped the crusted blood from his face, gingerly touching his numb cheeks and nose with a gloved hand.
“Thruster blew, ignited the rest. He probably…” Ino said, not needing to finish the sentence. The thrusters were on the rear of the ship, attached to the airlock and cargo bay. If one had failed, then Ren would have been obliterated before he even knew anything about it.
“How are we…?” began Ino, confused.
“AI must have enlarged its anti-rad shield. Surrounded the cockpit. Or what’s left of it.” Serge grimaced; even his teeth hurt. “Grav stabs working too. And I assume at least one of the O2 recyclers, as we’re still talking.”
“Didn’t know it could do that,” said Ino.
“The AI. Expand its energy field like that. Did you?”
“No. But I wish it hadn’t.”
Ino frowned. “What? Why?”
Serge nodded toward the hole. “We’re spinning out of control. We don’t have the suits. The AI or power might fail at any time, only this time when the decomp comes we’ll probably be conscious.”
“The AI won’t fail.”
“No? Even if it doesn’t, the recycler might. Or the heat. Or we will just die of dehydration or starve, if we don’t die of hypoxia first.” Serge felt the bitterness and the panic rising up in him, but couldn’t suppress it. “I can’t move my legs, and it looks like you are suffering pretty bad barotrauma,” he added, noticing the fresh blood trickling from Ino’s nose, the whites of the his eyes laced crimson. “Why the AI didn’t just…” Serge trailed off, his thoughts returning to Ren.
“Just what? Let us die?”
Ino stirred. “Well let’s ask it.”
“No, don’t.” Serge said. “It might overload it.”
“You just said it could go any moment anyway. Might as well know what it was thinking when it decided to save us.”
Serge struggled to get back into the chair, as if being strapped into it might be worth a damn if the shield failed. Ino didn’t move to help him; he’d swiveled around and his fingers were already dancing upon the interface.
“Non-responsive,” Ino said after a moment. Serge had managed to lift himself into the seat, and re-engaged the buckles. “Only three cells in this part of the ship. Must be using every last scrap of power to keep that field up.”
“Any idea how long it’ll last?”
“Nope, can’t tell. Most systems are down. Sensors, comms included. Can only control the lighting from here, everything else is AI.”
“The lights?” Serge let out a low laugh, but it caught in his throat and came out as a growl. “Well I’m glad we’re not completely impotent here. Say, turn them down a bit, will you?”
Ino didn’t catch the joke, and the lights dimmed a fraction.
“So, what now?” said Serge. Ino ignored him. His fingers continued to race across the interface. Serge watched him for a while. “Just leave the damn thing alone, Ino,” he eventually snapped. “We’re done for, and there isn’t anything you can do to change it by playing with that thing. It’s hopeless.”
Ino bashed his fist down, startling Serge. “Don’t you think I know that?” he shouted. “At least let me try.”
“Well sorry for being a bit fucking nervous. Our ship just blew up leaving us stranded half way across the galaxy from the nearest orbital. We’re fucked, Ino, and there’s nothing you can do on that half-dead terminal about it.”
Ino’s head snapped up. “Not necessarily,” he said after a moment, suddenly calm.
“What? Do you need me to get the map out, Ino?” Serge heard the sarcasm in his voice and hated himself for it, but he was unable to stop.
“We aren’t stranded.” Ino gestured to the console in front of him, as if in explanation.
“Are you going to get out and push? For fuck’s sake Ino, stop talking nonsense.”
“I’m not. You need to calm down and think about this for a moment.” Ino looked up from the console. There was something about his face that frightened Serge; a cold, measured determination.
“You can give me that look until the air runs out. But I’m not exactly at my best right now. Care to give me a clue?”
“Cryo,” said Ino.
Serge laughed. “Cryo? I hate to break this to you Ino, but turn around. The whole ship is gone. Including the cryo pods.”
“We don’t need the pods. We can do it here. The cockpit is small enough.”
“Are you serious?”
“OK, even assuming that is even possible – what then? We just float around waiting for the power to go out? I think I’d rather just pull the plug now.”
“If we survive the process then the cells should be able to function indefinitely, as long as their structural integrity wasn’t compromised. If that field is anything to go by, I don’t think they were damaged.”
“This is madness.”
“I disagree. Would you prefer to starve?”
“No, of course not. But cryo–”
“I’d say our chances are better than the alternatives.”
“Our chances? What chances? The chance to float around space for the next ten thousand years as an ice-cube?”
“I have access to the star charts.” Ino tapped the console again.
“So we can plot a course.”
“I think you really do need to take a good long look behind you. The whole ship is gone, not just the bloody cryotubes.” Serge’s voice was raised, nearly hysterical. “We don’t have the thrusters, let alone the drive, Ino. So yeah, plot your little course, but we aren’t going anywhere other than the closest star.”
“We can jury-rig a basic propulsion system using the O2 recyclers and the grav-stabs. Then the AI plots a course home, making course adjustments when necessary.”
Serge’s mouth dropped open. For a moment even the pain in his legs subsided, forgotten in the face of the absurd words coming from Ino’s mouth.
“Fuck, Ino. Home? That’s over 2k ly away.”
“If we can maintain our current speed, and assuming the guidance system works, about 40 million standard years,” Ino said, without flinching. “Give or take.”
Serge laughed his growling laugh again. “Ino, do you hear yourself? 40 million standard? This is your plan?”
Ino nodded, his face blank.
“No-one has ever been in cryo for longer than five hundred standard, and that was in a specialist cryo facility. And you want to try and do it here, in this, with an AI that is barely functioning, and a cockpit with a massive hole in one side?”
“I see no reason why it wouldn’t work. There might be some pain involved, but we should be able to achieve cryostasis within a couple of hours.”
Serge took a deep breath. “Okay, Ino, I know we’re both in shock, and we’re both scared, but this creepy ultra-rational shit is driving me crazy. Cut it out. 40 million standard. We’ll have turned to dust in a fraction of that. Even if we somehow make it back and avoid plummeting into some star: 40 million standard,” Serge said, enunciating it slowly. “They will have all evolved wings or second heads or disappeared into the ether. Have you thought about that? There might not be anyone there to wake up for, and if there was they wouldn’t speak Concord, they won’t even… Oh, why am I even bothering?” Serge through his hands up into the air in exasperation. “The whole thing is ridiculous.”
Ino didn’t move. “I see no other option,” he said.
“No. There is an alternative. One that will actually work.”
“Please enlighten me, then,” Ino snapped.
“We call them up.”
Ino’s eyebrows shot up. “Out of the question.”
“This is off the table? I’ve listened to your half-baked idea, now it’s my turn.”
Ino faltered for a moment. “We don’t even know if it still works.”
“It’s worth a try though, isn’t it?”
“Even if it does, do you realise what it’ll mean?”
“What’s the difference? Both plans have the same outcome. We get home. Only my plan shaves – oh, let’s say 39.99 whatever million years off of yours.”
“I won’t allow it.”
“Oh, you won’t? Well I won’t allow you to freeze my brain and shunt my body across an entire galaxy for the next 40 million standard either.”
Ino took a moment before he responded. His nose was still bleeding freely, and his shirt sleeve was black where he had tried to stem the flow. Serge himself was beginning to feel a little light-headed, too – the after effects of being exposed to space creeping over him. He had no idea how long it had been between the decomp and the AI expanding its protective energy shield, but judging by the colour of Ino’s cheeks it had probably been a while.
Ino finished wiping his nose, and swiveled his chair around so that he was facing Serge. “We have turned our backs on that. We all agreed,” he said firmly.
“Sure, we did,” said Serge. “But that was then. The moment that AI played that little trick on us all of that went out of the window.” Serge grimaced. “Along with the Ren and the rest of the ship,” he added.
The two men said nothing for a while. Ino finally broke the silence. “Nothing has changed. Even Ren. He knew, we all knew, what we were doing, what we were getting ourselves in for when we left. To cry for help now, after so long-”
“That’s the point,” interrupted Serge. “Back then when we agreed that we all knew, sure. Though none of us expected to last longer than a few decades. If that. We always expected to die out here, Ino. And when it came it would probably be quick. Maybe a jump fail, strewing tiny bits of us over five systems. Even a massive decompression that we don’t survive because the AI keeps its fucking nose out of things.”
“The AI acted to save us. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it hadn’t.”
“Exactly. And that’s the way it should have been. But it did, and now we’re-”
Ino cut him off. “You’re just afraid, Serge. We might have easily starved to death on the top of some mountain. We never took the means to call home with us on those expeditions, did we? Not once. We never even contemplated it. If you wouldn’t call for help then, then why now?”
“Perhaps I would have,” Serge said defiantly, and saw the words hit home.
“Then I no longer know who you are,” Ino said with a frown. “All of this, all that we have done, will mean nothing if we press that button. Don’t you see that, Serge? If we were always going to call for help at the first sight of trouble, of real danger, then none of it matters, it was always a fake, a sham. No better than a simulation.”
“The first sight of trouble? Ino, we’re going to die.” Serge’s hands shook as he spoke. Ino’s words cut him deeply in turn.
“Yes, almost certainly. But I want to die on my own terms. I’m going to try my damnedest to get us back there, Serge, but I’m doing it on my own. We got ourselves in this position, and we’ll get ourselves out. Otherwise we’ll be no better than cowards.”
“No, Ino. If we die, then what was the point?”
“The point? There is no point. If we fail, we die as we lived. Independent. Self-reliant.”
“But still dead. They could be here in a month, maybe less if there’s a passing solarscoop. We could be back out here doing this in a few months.”
Ino turned his chair towards the console again, scrolling idly through the data in front of him. Then, suddenly, he reached a bloodied hand up, removing the transparent seal that covered the small red button that had been the focus of their discussion.
“You want a reset button, Serge. I can understand that. All right, think about this. What will actually happen if we press this?” Serge watched Ino’s finger trace the button’s outline above their heads. “Let’s assume for a moment that it works, and it won’t blow the power cells when we push it. What then?”
“They’ll come get us,” said Serge. “Without question.”
“Of course, and unless something has changed drastically since we were there last, then they’ll send a fleet to do it.” Ino held up his other hand to stop Serge from interrupting. “Yes, a fleet. There’s a war on. The beacon will frighten them. That’s all this ansible is, a beacon, an SOS. No other information. They don’t know who we are, why we’re out here, they don’t even know anything is out here. So they’ll pull patrolships from the border, send them out here, to the back end of the galaxy. A fleet for a couple of cowardly adrenaline junkies. That’s three or four weeks jump time, when the security of the entire galaxy is jeopardised. Just for us. I don’t know about you, Serge, but I would rather die than look those men and women in the eyes and accept that I was a fraud, or that my life was worth endangering billions of others for. That we were just children looking for a thrill, who cried for their mothers when the water got too deep.”
“They wouldn’t send a fleet,” said Serge meekly. “As for the rest…” his voice trailed off.
Ino reached down suddenly, grasping Serge’s hand and tugging at it. Serge tried to pull his hand back, but Ino’s grip was like a vice. “Here, press it then,” shouted Ino, his face twisted in anger and grief. “Go on. Press the damned thing.” Ino was pulling even harder on Serge’s arm now, forcing his hand toward the ansible. Tears were rolling down Ino’s face, mingling with the drying blood that coated his chin. Serge thought for a moment that he saw something in Ino’s eyes – that he really did want Serge to press it, that it wasn’t just a bluff. Just as quickly, though, the look was gone. Serge allowed his arm to go limp, and Ino just as suddenly let go, turning his chair away to stare out at the streaked stars just beyond the hole in the cockpit.
In the end Serge agreed to cryo.
It failed. The AI interface flashed red. They looked at one another for an eternity without saying a word. There was nothing more to be said now, though.
Ino slipped into a coma two days later, after several hours of violent seizures. In the hours before the hypoxia really began to kick in he had been euphoric, babbling incoherently. It frightened Serge. He was only able to catch a few words here and there, but it seemed that Ino believed they were close to the summit of some indescribably beautiful mountain.
Ino’s smile was child-like, heartbreaking.
He died two days later.
There was nothing to drink. The thirst was fierce, the pain in his legs now merely a sideshow compared to his longing for water. Serge found himself biting his tongue and the insides of his cheeks just to feel the rush of liquid in his parched mouth. He licked the consoles, the walls, the floor for imagined beads of condensation. He hovered over Ino’s body for nearly an hour before he managed to tear himself away. There was a constant roar in his ears, and it was all he could do to sit still in his chair.
Serge found himself looking at the ansible overhead for undefined periods of time. He awoke several times, realising that he’d been staring, his mouth wide open, glaring up at it, fixated, for hours, days. It was too late now, of course. Ino’s reset button couldn’t save them. Yet there was no longer any turmoil in his heart.
He knew Ino had been right all along.
Serge died as he lived. The final panic as the cockpit began to shrink around him was as thrilling and terrifying in its intensity as it had always been.