Here’s my writing exercise from the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. Each of us was assigned to work up a piece for a notional short story anthology, as well as given a surprise toy that had to be included. My anthology was “Poe 3000”, a sci-fi homage to Edgar Allan Poe. My toy prop was… well, I bet you can figure it out.
The Annabel Lee at Ganymede
Sam Ryoshi asked once more, to make sure. “You got her a nose?”
Kishore Patek nodded, eyes flickering over the thruster display. “A plastic one–”
“A plastic one…”
“With a sharpener inside it.”
Ryoshi studied the copilot before pushing off the wall and floating over his head. “So do you plan on ever having sex with her again?”
“What? Yes! I mean of course. Dude, it’s a novelty item –”
“It’s a nose.”
“- It’s a gift.” Patek continued. “I got it at Mare Imbrium. It’s from the Moon. She’ll love it.”
Ryoshi settled into the pilot’s seat and pulled himself toward the steering yoke. The HUD released a spray of bouncy phantom alpha-numerics. “You got it at a kiosk in the Arrivals Concourse, Terminal C. It has a pencil sharpener up one nostril.”
“Bita is a writer,” Patek exclaimed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Ryoshi leaned forward and tapped up the main display. “Right. ‘Cause nothing says ‘literary’ like a plastic nose pencil sharpener.”
Ryoshi at the helm, the large flat screen at the front of the cockpit cabin bloomed to life. Software enhanced and colorized the bow camera’s view. Ganymede’s cratered surface filled the lower half, an arc of pocked granite slashed with jagged ice-white lines. The display’s upper portion was inked in deep black with a scattering of hard, bright stars.
Ryoshi zoomed in on the center field until the orbital appeared- a knobby spindle topped with a spoked wheel of linked hab-units. At the tip of the spindle at the wheel’s center he could make out the white blister of the Command Module. It’s hull lights illuminated the bristling comms array. Everything looked intact.
He moved the reticle down to the bottom of long knurled axle. Mining drones rose and fell from the moon’s surface – ‘Hop Frogs’ in company parlance – swarming like silver gnats around the lower collection bay. Everything seemed normal there too.
So why was there no answer? Why was the docking arm still retracted?
Ryoshi adjusted the focus one more time; the docking lights were still blinking on standby: yellow-red, yellow-red, yellow-red.
He frowned and tapped the bow thruster icon to slow their approach. “Hail him again, Kishore.”
The copilot complied. “UMC facility ‘Raven 119-09’, this is the UMC supply ship ‘Annabel Lee’ requesting permission to dock. We’re here for your three month check-up. Over?”
Ryoshi waved for Patek to try again.
“UMC facility ‘Raven 119-09’ this is the supply ship ‘Annabel Lee’. We’ve got that fresh food and water you’ve been waiting on. And beer, Raven 119-09. We brought beer. Sorry for being late but we are on approach now, and requesting permission to dock. Please respond. Over.”
Both men craned forward expectantly. Silence.
Patek leaned back and shrugged. “Maybe he’s in the head.”
“He’s supposed to have his comms on at all times.”
“Can’t a man shit in peace three-hundred ninety million miles from home?”
Ryoshi peeled off a thin smile. “We’re five days late. File says it’s this guy’s first rotation on a mining station. Solitary type or not, ninety-plus days alone in a can floating in the Big Empty, I’d be climbing the walls waiting on my resupply. Even if it was just to get a twelve pack and see our mugs for twenty-four hours.”
“So then he’s down in the drone bay,” Patek suggested. “You know, actually earning his pay and fixing something.”
The Annabel Lee was closing fast and the station was expanding on screen. Ryoshi zoomed the display out and grabbed the steering yoke with both hands. “Usher Mining Company redundancy the shit out of all their deep-space platforms. B-grade A.I., mining robots… the place runs itself. Supervisors are props to comfort investors. Management is convinced the human touch adds confidence. Creates the illusion constant oversight. Plus the photos give quarterly profit reports that ‘rugged explorers on the final frontier’ vibe.”
Patek pumped his fist. “Onward robot exploiters.”
“Exactly. Ah! There we go.” Sam Ryoshi pointed with his chin toward the screen. “He’s back.” The docking lights had turned steady green. The umbilical began to unfold.
Patek grinned. “Last stop, here we come.” He hunched over his work station and began queuing up the Annabel Lee’s automated cargo transfer.
Ryoshi hit a series of buttons on his own console, then released the steering yoke to let the ship’s autopilot guide her in. “Hey – maybe you can get her something from Jupiter. Something romantic. Like, I dunno… a pen shaped like a –”
“Dude – Shut. Up.”
Patek squeezed past Ryoshi in the docking tube. “Nah, this isn’t creepy at all.” He peered toward the spindle’s central shaft, then turned back, eyebrows lifted in mock alarm. “What the hell is he doing?”
No one was waiting in the docking chamber when they disembarked. The entire level was dark. And silent. Red emergency lights smouldered every six feet along the narrow passageway, and the hiss-thunk of the airlock sealing behind them had actually echoed.
“What’s this guy’s name again?” Patek asked.
A twitch of the fingers and Ryoshi’s data pad flared with a company mug shot, personal data, and clearance levels. “Perry, Edgar A. Temp contract. No immediate family. Middle-of-the-road psych and performance evals. Degrees in robotics and low-g engineering. No surprise there.”
“Well, big surprise here,” Patek exclaimed. “Edgar A. Perry, sci-nerd and all-around loner turned out the lights.”
Patek exhaled and jutted his chin at his breath plume. “Turned off the warmers too. I say that psych eval missed something. I mean, what brand of stupid turns off the heat eight hundred million miles from the Sun?”
“Good question.” Ryoshi crinkled his forehead. “Same kind that buys his girlfriend cheap novelties in spaceports, maybe?”
Patek grinned. “Mock away Sam, but chicks dig sensitive guys.”
“Oooh, so that that’s your secret.”
Ryoshi pointed toward a ventilation grill on the ceiling. “Well Casanova, the air is still on, so Perry must be here somewhere.”
An enormous metal groan cut him off. The station shivered, then a mechanical thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump started up, like someone was tapping a hammer on the hull. The beat echoed throughout the station.
Patek’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second. He started breathing through his nose. “Water transfer,” he said after a moment. “I set Annabel to auto-trans once she’d hooked into with the station. That’s what that is.”
Ryoshi spit out a laugh. “I think I peed a little.”
“Me too,” Patek said. “So we leave now, right?”
“In the movies, two ‘creepy space station’ cues means our heroes are pretty well hosed unless they bail right then.”
“Except we’re not in a movie.” Ryoshi nudged the copilot with his shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go find this poor bastard. The sooner we find him, the sooner we can leave.”
Patek let himself be nudged along. “A stray micro-meteor holed one of the rechargers, forced Perry to scale down to critical systems. That’s why it’s dark, right? He’s in one of the hab units, eating cold ramen, wrapped in a foil blanket.”
“Exactly,” Ryoshi said.
Patek kept talking. “I mean, I’m living the astronaut’s dream: playing hide and seek in a deep space meat locker with a recluse engineer.”
“Oh, the places you’ll go,” Ryoshi said. “At least this way, you can tell Bita you’re a real hero.”
Patek squared his shoulders. “Heh. Like I’m not already.”
A dozen more steps and they reached center shaft. A wide, heavy-duty ladder was bolted against the interior wall, the cord in the space station’s spine. The aluminum ribs of its safety cage blushed in the dim blood-light before disappearing into dark holes above and below.
“Heaven or hell?” Ryoshi asked.
Patek swung out and grabbed a rung. “Cargo Bay of the Robotic Damned for me. You can scour the heights for our wayward sheep.”
“Fine. Keep your comms on though.”
Patek threw up a quick salute as he started down.“Aye aye, captain.”
Ryoshi almost returned it, then stopped. Ceremony doesn’t carry in a vacuum, he reminded himself. Only competence.
He waited until Patek’s head vanished, then started to climb toward the Command module.
Sam Ryoshi was three rungs shy of the hab-ring when Patek’s voice sounded in his ear. “I thought UMC was digging for low-g mineral formations.”
“So why is there ice down here?”
“You mean space chill?”
“No,” Patek said. “The bay is filled with ice. The Hop Frogs are bringing up blocks of it. Not rocks.”
“You sure?” Ryoshi asked.
“I’m looking right at it.”
Sam Ryoshi reached up and grasped the hatch handle. He pushed it open, then climbed into the hab-level. “Ganymede’s got a huge subsurface ocean, but last I knew, the Froggies were scraping the Gula and Archelous craters.”
He sat on the rim of the hole, legs dangling, back against the upright hatch. “They shouldn’t be bringing up ice.”
“I’ll tell them,” Patek said. “Any sign of Perry?”
“I just got here. I went up, remember?”
“I would make a ‘climbing the corporate ladder joke’ but that would be tacky.”
“And that’s one thing you’re not,” Patek said. “Hey, that’s strange.”
Ryoshi stood, one hand on the rim of the hatch. “What’s strange?”
“The ice is melting weird.”
Ryoshi stepped back and let the hatch fall shut. “Weird how?”
“… — sticky. — ‘ll over the –ace. I can’t–…” The rest was static.
Ryoshi grunted in disgust. Of course they didn’t take inter-station comms into consideration – it’s a one-man operation.
“Kishore, forget the ice. If you find Perry, bring him up. If not, come up in ten minutes. He’s got to be here, somewhere.”
A hiss of static, then Ryoshi’s earbud went silent.
The lights were off in the hab-ring as well. It was colder too; his breath puffed out little red-tinged clouds. Space was seeping in. Heat was the priority, otherwise they would be astronaut-sicles in a few hours. More emergency lights glowed on the curved ceiling of the connection tube, vanishing around the bend in each direction. No clue which way to go first.
Right, he decided. Counter-clockwise. Not like it’s far.
The thump of the Annabel Lee’s pumps was softened up in the hab-ring. It became a measured beat he heard as well as felt, a pulse in the decking under his boots. Ryoshi walked in time with it, probing the gloom with his flashlight beam, careful and thorough as doctor checking a wound.
“Perry? Where are you, Perry? It’s Sam Ryoshi from the Annabel Lee. Can you hear me?”
The only answer was the ping and creak of cooling metal, and the deep throb of the pumps below.
There were signs of the man everywhere: stray tools, a t-shirt, a stack of food trays. Every door on the hab-ring was wide open. The storage units, supply, mess, rec-room, medical, even the hatch to Perry’s sleeping quarters was toggled flat back against the bulkhead. Ryoshi understood. He’d had done that himself his first tour – and the next two. Anything to create the illusion of room, more space.
If you didn’t have claustrophobia when you signed up for a supervisor stint, Ryoshi though, fifty-fifty you had when you left. A mining orbital was huge, but the liveable environment was less than two-thousand square feet. Sounds like a lot until you’ve paced, crawled and climbed every last inch of it. Then it was like being stuffed in a tuna can.
The agoraphobia was worse. After his first bit, it took him eight days to work up the nerve to go to a park. Thank Christ his wife had pushed him to enter UMC’s pilot program. Maybe he’d pass that on to Perry. It didn’t look like his first experience was going all that good.
Ryoshi was three-quarters of the way around, approaching the door to the Command Module.
It was shut.
He smacked the knob with the palm of his hand. Nothing. Again. The door held fast. Puzzled, Ryoshi backed up, slipping as he did. He played his flashlight across the steel grate.
The deck was slimy. Dotted with smeary footprints. “What the hell?”
Ryoshi raised his foot, watched thick gunk stretch and snap. The slime was thick like hydraulic fluid, only clear, with the oily rainbow shimmer of snail mucus.
He peered in the door’s viewport. The lights were off in there as well, but data scrolled furiously across the system monitors, jumping from one station to another.
Ryoshi glimpsed what looked like A.I Core programming, but it the viewport was small and the chunks of colored data volleyed too fast to be certain.
The data flow silhouetted the command station. Someone was in the chair with their back to the door.
Ryoshi pounded on the steel hatch. “Perry, open up.”
“Perry. C’mon. Quit fucking around and open the door.” Ryoshi’s words made a string of angry clouds in the chilled, metallic air.
Nothing. Not even a twitch.
Ryoshi fumed. This shit was definitely going in his report. He pounded on the door again. Still nothing.
“Fine,” he muttered, and tore the cover off the knob casing. “Be that way.”
Ryoshi had locked himself out of a supply closet four months into his second tour over Io. UMC modules all used the same lock – the blessing of low-bid standardized construction.
Static hissed in Ryoshi’s ear bud. He yanked at the lock’s wiring. “Never mind, Kishore. I got him. Genius locked himself in the Command module. Playing some kind of game. Come on up.”
There was a squawk, then a garbled crackle of white noise.
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep the beer for ourselves.” Ryoshi said.
The temperature was dropping and he shook himself to ward off the chill that fingered his bones. Quickly, he fished in the junction box, twisted the red and yellow leads together, then touched them to the connector behind the knob. The door popped open.
“So there,” he murmured.
He ducked inside and went straight for the chair. Frantic data-lightning played across the computer screens, the thump-thump of the pumps rang the chamber like a deep, distant bell. Perry sat perfectly still.
“What the hell? You playing some kind of–”
His fingers gripped, slipped on the back of the chair as he swung it around. His mind registered the slime on the cushion, on the floor. He saw it quivering on the system terminals. Some part of his brain was half a second ahead, knew without words what he’d find.
The chair spun. Perry was dead.
The engineer’s body was locked in mid-twist under a coating of iridescent gel. An insect in glassine sap. Agony contorted his face. Confusion. His mouth gaped in one last moan, or scream, a runnel of clear viscous slime oozing out over his lips, across his stubbled cheeks, slipping down his neck.
Patek screamed. Ryoshi’s earbud squealed. “-ot me! –elp! For —- sake, get —”
Ryoshi spun, lurched back toward the hall. Behind him, a flurry of data leaped between the monitor screens. Over the door, a red light blinked three times before it thunked shut. Ryoshi heard the gasp of pressure seals.
He slid to a halt, began pounding the steel panel in time with the beat of the pumps.
“Kishore! Kishore! Answer me. What’s happening? Kishore!”
Another spasm of on-screen data made Ryoshi turn back around. The door’s steel ribs were hard and cold against his back. Before him, Edgar Perry’s rictus howled silently as long chains of commands, blocks of logic structures stormed through the displays, flitting like vicious faeries from station to station, morphing and growing as they lashed through A.I. command system.
Ryoshi stared in horror. Panting frantic plumes in the flickering, throbbing, red-lit room, he saw the clear, alien fluid gather and slip ever so carefully towards him.
Outside Raven Station 119-09, the Hop Frogs went back and forth from the Ganymede’s frozen oceans, swarming, merging, scattering like quicksilver mites winking on the infinite deep velvet of space.
After many days, the running lights along the smooth white hull of the Annabel Lee lit up. Slowly, silently, it detached from the mining orbital, pirouetted, and headed back the way it came.
copyright Patrick Todoroff, Oct. 2015
VP19 Exercise “Poe 3000”