Take 2: Goldilocks #716
“There should be mention of the headaches.” Shera held her head in both hands. She didn’t want to follow the blaring instruction to swing her legs off the table. She didn’t want to breathe. It hurt too much. Swirls of pain gripped her head like clamps with extra-deep probes. She remained in the foetal position, cold and naked, panting, holding her head on.
The sides of the ovo-pod hung below her bench. The thin strands of the stasis chalaza that no longer held her body confined leapt and twisted like live electrical wires. That was her juice being wasted. Shera tried not to vomit, failed, held her head as still as she could while the last of the fluids ejected from her lungs and stomach.
She was no longer on any form of life support.
“Begin format exercise,” the machine voice droned into the hollow space.
So loud. Did they think the gunk filled their ears and made them deaf? Well, it didn’t. Shera groaned.
“Am I alive?”
Shera startled, stopped as her head felt like it flew out into the space beyond the circular window to her right, turned in careful increments to see who’d spoken with a human-sounding voice.
His pod was the same size as hers, but he was much bigger. More muscle, larger head, taller by several centimetres. And definitely male.
“I’m Shera,” she said.
“Damasc.” He snapped his mouth shut and grabbed his head. “Oh, let me die.”
“It’s just a headache from the changes to the bloodstream. It’ll pass.” Shera hoped she was right.
She lifted each of her legs and placed them so they hung over the side that faced Damasc.
“Do you feel up to testing your nex?” She spoke before the hum of the loudspeaker changed to the booming voice again.
“Please commence your preparation for physical reparations, exercises zero-one to zero-nine. When complete, enter your code to be issued with the subsequent instructions.”
Damasc’s groan echoed hers, continued for several minutes in between bouts of vomiting and choking.
“Noise doesn’t help. Or does it?”
“No, but … yes, maybe.” He slithered his legs off the bench and struggled to lever himself into a sitting position. “Have you tried your nex?”
“Next on the list, regardless of what tin-pot says.” She pushed a finger to her neck just below the left ear. The lump under the skin felt like a tight muscle. She pressed harder – her nex connection clicked, the sound clear on that side.
“It’s on,” she said, squinting at the bright flashes of light in the air before her eyes, “but it’s hard to see clearly. Maybe we should do the physical stuff first.” The holograph might need a background surface until her body returned to whatever passed for normal.
Sweat poured from their naked bodies by the time they’d done the requisite three reps of each exercise. Shera’s nose was the first sense to reach peak, even above hearing. Her body odours were rank and sour and fetid. She found the cleaning cabinet, but there was no spout, no connections or fittings. She stood in it and pressed the coloured tiles until the hiss of moisture filled the space. She closed her eyes, but didn’t have time to rub or scrub or bend or turn. The almost-mist stopped.
“Not even one minute.” She stepped out and Damasc stepped in.
“Which one?” he asked.
She shrugged. Let him figure it out. If he came out cleaner than she felt, she was going back in. Her skin dragged with the layer of salt that remained. Or was that still the storage fluid? She couldn’t remember what it was, whether it was a homeostasis fluid, or … what did it matter? She was out, and had time to find out. Later.
“What’s next on the list of reqs?” She pressed her nex again and stood in front of the only blank wall in the pod. It took an inordinately long time for the screen outline to clarify.
The top entry was the Ship’s Log. Made sense – it couldn’t hurt to know a bit about the where and what. She hard-blinked to start the playback.
Entry # 1078-22-3581-0021-02. Authorised entry code for – she squinted, but couldn’t make out the shapes, too dense and squiggly. An AI, certainly, and it must be authentic, or the number would be different.
Entry # 21-02 for pod 3581. Release date: GL 716, star distance within parameters, time-code 0010011-01. Code for release: 02-0021-1078.
None of it made sense, but it was only the opening coda. Shera blinked again to go to the next record.
The audio button flashed.
“You have been awakened as per instructions of Directive 10-1101 of initiating project parameters. Your body has been in storage for—” Shera’s head spun at the number – so long! “Please ensure each member of your module undertakes the exercise program to confirm proper functioning of the organic materials.
“Medical cabinet insertion, duration 30 seconds, is required to check for atrophy or tissue degeneration. Substandard organics will be deleted. Failure to test physical suitability will abort mission.
“If you experience physical or psychological problems, press the large red square top right on the main console.
“Warning: do not press the button except in case of emergency. A change in procedures will abort the mission.
“Your current status is: pre-release for orbit of GL #716, galaxy 1078. Estimated time until Bzzzzzzt.”
The recording ended. Atrophy must apply to AI recorders, too. Didn’t matter. Shera didn’t need to know more than she’d heard.
It was her turn. She looked at Damasc. Their turn. She blinked through the procedures columns until she reached ‘Disembarkation to suitable habitat planet GL’ and displayed the file.
It didn’t contain much.
A list of enhancements, and other requirements to download prior to disembarkation. She clicked the reqs into her storage icon and waited while the system searched and downloaded each item. The nex buzzed with the activity. The lines on the holo-screen wobbled. Shera jumped when Damasc stepped up beside her. His screen showed the same process as hers. She returned to her own needs.
Enhancements? Did this planet have specific needs? Was that the purpose of the enhancements? The protocol prior to her immersion was that valid biological specimens would not be enhanced beyond that needed for education or necessary adaptations for gravity, atmospheric conditions, diseases – her eyes batted through the list, but she didn’t find what she wanted.
“Do you have any records for vaxes?”
“No,” Damasc’s eyes were moving faster than hers. “Why would they do that? Isn’t it SOP to update the viral and bacteriological knowledge prior to assigning the landing party?”
“What about phages?”
“No, nothing on them, either.”
“Enhancements?” Shera had enhancements, maybe his were the same, they could work from that.
“Yep.” His hand traced the lines in the air. “I’ve got minor intellectual enhancements, music and maths, nothing in the sciences … what about you?” His screen showed the list he was going through and downloading in one column and his list of pre-loaded enhancements.
Shera set up her screen the same.
“I’ve got physical enhancements – muscle?” She shook her head. As one of a crew of – what was the usual number for a landing party? What category was she in? Six, for the explorers, ten for the secondary development teams – she expected science-based enhancements, engineering, bio-sciences, medic-sciences. What did she have? Physical enhancements. Which group had that as enhancements?
“I’m adding weapons and security downloads. What else are you taking on?”
Shera huffed out a breath. “I don’t understand this – why would they give me physical enhancements? I’m a scientist. Have the explorers group changed so much? Or is this planet a low-density, low-grav, low-oxygen rock?”
“We can ask the other members of the landing party when they arrive.”
Yes, she’d do that. There must be someone in charge of the group. She skimmed through the files to find the group allocation. She wouldn’t know anyone, but it would ease her mind to know how many skills would be on-planet for the assessment.
“I can’t find an assignment.” Damasc’s head shook, his eyes blinked faster and faster, the bright lines of the holo-screen slid away like a waterfall of words.
“They can’t send a single pod.” It was against the first principle. Each landing must consist of … Shera couldn’t remember.
“What’s the first principle?” She said it softly, more to herself than to the manic blinker next to her, but if he answered, if he found something before she did …
The pod crunched and spun.
“We’re unhitched.” Did Shera say that? She didn’t recognise her voice. The small port-view window showed black, more black, the bright circle of the planet, and the next wild swing showed Mother.
Shera floated in the middle of the pod. Damasc’s legs floated up next to her. He’d had one hand on his ovo-chalaza and didn’t lose his anchor point.
There were no other pods. The groups were set to be seven pods of two personnel per pod. She pulled herself down to the viewer and twisted to get a look at Mother before they spun away again.
“All the pods are gone.” Where the shapes of the pods would be were hollows. Empty of pods of any description. Mother looked like a heavily-cratered moon. No large base-camp pods, no explorer pods.
“Can you see anything?”
Should she tell him?
“I can see Mother,” she said, “but I can’t see much. The viewer is too small, and everything out there is too … big.”
“Let me look.” He swung down next to her and squeezed his face into the small space.
Shera let herself drift away. The sense of movement intensified. The pod warmed slightly.
“We should suit up,” Damasc said.
“I didn’t see any suits, did you?” The tremble in her legs wasn’t from cold. The tremble in her voice wasn’t fear. It wasn’t. It was against the rules to send anyone into the unknown without the information needed to survive.
Shera clicked through the floating holo-screen and added every item on the list to her download queue. Priority by sciences first, enhancements second, then by memory-cube size, largest to smallest. She wanted it all, everything.
Part 2, Final, next week.