Through some of the stories in this year's project, I've started to build together a unified world - this week represents a return to that idea, and an attempt to flesh it out further. Dave Keen is also back in action!
Milo woke with a start.
All was dark in his cabin. The low rumble of the engines beat distantly below his head, away somewhere, lost in the cavernous belly of the ship. He let the sound bring him back to life, slowly bleeding reality into the sleep-filled corners of his mind.
He had dreamt of a wide mountain, and a gaping crack at its centre. And darkness, punctured by blue.
In the corner of the darkness, a flashing red light. Milo sat up, and peeled off the breathing apparatus that he wore strapped to his face. Coughed slightly as he sucked back in the ship’s dry atmosphere. Switched off his ventilator, which silently retreated on thin aluminium tracks, back into the cavity below his bunk. Milo felt at the marks on his face where the straps pressed into his skin. Remembered faintly what it was like to sleep without it. Years ago, on Alpha – a lifetime and a galaxy away.
Milo leant forward, pressed on a display switch by the flashing red light.
Graves appeared on the communicator, freshly awake. He looked angry, his cracked, fifty-five-year-old skin more puckered than usual.
“Kid. Get down here. Shit’s pouring out all over the power couplings.”
Milo tapped his fingers three times on the screen. Click click click.
“What do you mean?” Graves snapped.
“I’m not blaming you. I just need you to help me fix the fucking thing,” Graves barked into the pickup before switching off the call.
Milo rubbed his eyes. Saw stars in the dark.
He wandered alone through the quiet ship. The enforced sleeping cycle meant everyone was in their bunks, dead to the world. Artificial clocks helped keep everyone sane in the long, endless night. Milo would sometimes reverse his cycle, sleep during the pitch-black day while everyone else worked, and go weeks without seeing anyone. Graves had put a stop to that a few days ago. Told him it was weird, alien. Told him, “just ‘cos you’re a lifer doesn’t mean you have to give up.” Told him he wasn’t going to watch him slowly disappear.
As Milo went lower, down metal staircases and shallow ladders, the rumbling of the engines got louder, and was joined by a hissing. The sound was angry and boiling, and the sleep in the recesses of his mind hurriedly slipped away as he got closer to the source. His movements became quicker. The urgency was clear. Not a disaster, but not something to be left for long.
Can’t leave anything for long out here, unchecked. If you did, it would slip out of your grasp. Quickly a lost cause – like a quiet lifer, wandering aimlessly through empty metal halls at night.
He strode purposefully down a maintenance corridor. At the end, the power relay room – a tiny box full of switches and thick conduits packed with pulsing wire – was a mess of steam. Milo stepped back, unsure what to do, before Graves emerged through the fog.
“Fucking cooling system went down for three minutes, and one of the exhausts ruptured right in the middle of the fucking relay.”
Milo said nothing. He leaned his head forward, slightly left.
“No, nope, stay out there. I’m holding a few of the power throws down so we don’t lose juice to the brain. Need you to go reroute the exhaust. I’m getting covered in this shit, fucking superheated chemicals on my fucking boots.”
Milo said nothing again. Tapped his left shoulder with two fingers from his right hand.
“Yes, right now! Jesus fucking Christ, kid…”
Graves disappeared back into the fog. Milo ducked back down the maintenance corridor, and pulled at a hatch in the floor, heading further downward into the belly of the ship.
In truth, Milo never said anything.
Couldn’t. Spent too long off-world, and a return to Earth after some years on Alpha had seen sickness sink into his respiratory system like a dead weight. That kinda thing happened to some twitches – former colonisers. Couldn’t spend too much time in either atmosphere anymore. Body evolved to fit only in the middle, spiralling. That’s why Milo slept with a ventilator and took pill after pill every morning. Sometimes, when he squeezed his eyes shut, he didn’t see stars – he saw pills, tumbling over his retinas and into his bloodstream.
That’s why they called him a lifer. Doomed to drift back and forth on an infinite loop.
He coughed, and kept going.
Milo slipped through a complex web of mechanical mania and made his way to the nearest coolant substation. Heaved open a panel, set to work. Turned wheels nearly fused shut in the stillness of space. Banged on switches long neglected. The Arctor was an old ship, and she was showing it. The cooling system hiccup wasn’t surprising, or uncommon, but normally the old hauler could ride those kind of bumps out, keep on inching forward. Not tonight, apparently.
Milo had everything in place. An old green ceramic switch, cracked with age, showed the barely visible remains of the letters VENT. Milo pressed it.
Above him, somewhere, he heard Graves bellow in pain. Milo’s heart raced, zipping forward. He wished he had his pills. Graves yelled again. Milo tried again. Missed the button in his panic.
He sucked at the air around him, and felt himself begin to suffocate. He was imagining it, but his lungs believed, and that was unfortunately enough.
But, again, the button wouldn’t work. Over and over, Milo jabbed at it. The bellowing continued upstairs. He thought he heard his name, too, slipping through the grated floors.
The next substation, and the next opportunity to vent the boiling coolant away from Graves upstairs, was at least a two-minute crawl away, through cramped, decaying ducts. Too far. Milo wished, willed, pressed and pressed. Nothing.
He stopped, suddenly. Leant back on his heels, and stared at the uncooperative switch. Listened to the cries of pain above. Let them press into his ears and sink into his lungs like that sickness all those years ago.
And Milo stopped thinking about it.
And as he did, the switch sunk back of its own accord, and stayed there. Lights flashed up above, dimly orange through the dust and oily grime of the ship’s bowel.
Milo opened his eyes. Above him, the sounds of pain, and the hissing of steam, had stopped. Calmly, he turned away from the substation, closing it behind him as he made his way back upstairs.
This was what it felt like.
Step after step.
At the power relay, Milo leant in through the hatch, carefully, one eye at a time.
Graves sat on the floor, gripping his hand, breathing hard as the steam dissipated.
He looked up as Milo entered.
“Took your fucking time,” he grinned.
Milo wandered over, and took the old man’s hand. Graves winced as he did. Milo pulled at calloused fingers, opened the curled hand wide.
The palm, the base of the fingers, burnt raw. Red and white and quivering. Muscle poked through missing skin.
“Had to hold the pipe away from the fuses. Thing gets fucking hot, turns out,” Graves laughed. “Ship’s still running though, you’ll note.”
Milo stared hard at the burn. Couldn’t take his eyes off it. It was so cold out here, in the dark. And here was a burn, still so hot he could feel the heat radiating up onto his face.
Milo pulled his eyes away and looked up at Graves.
“I’m alright.” Graves nodded, solemn.
Milo let his hand go, and turned back, wandered out of the power relay room. Felt warmth on his fingertips, and for the first time in weeks, longed for everyone else on the ship to be awake.