This is a serial novel, so if you’re new to Sol, it’s best to start at the beginning.
My pod pivoted quickly around its central axis so the Earth was no longer visible in my screen. The darkness of space lay in front of me, stars no longer winking as they did through the atmosphere on Earth, but constant and steady, a stark contrast to the stars seen through atmosphere. But I knew it wasn’t true. There was nothing constant in those stars. Somewhere out there was a world waging war, a child lost without her parents, a star on the brink of collapse and a civilization hoping to outrun it. In my life, I would see those events play out before me, on worlds that were mere specks to me now.
A triangular orange outline appeared in the pod’s viewport, the silhouette of a grey ship barely visible in the light reflecting off the Earth thousands of miles away. “Wedge,” the ship’s name, appeared above the craft. If I had been drinking something, I would have spit it out when I started laughing. The pilot’s name appeared. Raj. If nothing else, the pilot had a sense of humor or he was a Star Wars fan.
A green outline appeared around the rear of the ship. My pod slowed until I made contact with the docking collar and the wall of my pod disintegrated. A balding, slightly pudgy Indian man was waiting on the other side. He had on jeans and an Aerosmith t-shirt, but over that he had what looked like a synthetic skeleton, bright white, the same color of the Manhattan Project before its metamorphosis. It was form fitting and pliable, yet strangely hard. A thick collar of the material was collected behind his neck like a neck brace.
“Rick, right?” Raj reached out his hand.
“Yeah.” I held his hand as I stepped out.
“Your pod doesn’t have a name. You should give it a name.”
“I didn’t know it was mine.”
“It is. This is Wedge because it’s wedge shaped. Get it?” Raj raised and lowered his eyebrows winking like he was having a fit of comedic brilliance.
“Makes sense. Should I call my pod, Spheroid?” I said without humor.
“YES!” Raj’s excitement was more than I expected for something so simple.
The interior of the Wedge was small and the ever present amber light of Ensari tech emanated from the ceiling. There were two identical chairs, more pedestals than chairs, that sat next to each other at the front of the craft. Each had a back about the width of a human’s spine rising to the height of my seated shoulder blades. Ergonomic experts would have had a fit. There were no instruments in front of the seats. There were no controls for Raj to hold onto. There was no view outside either. We were in a tube floating through space. A tube big enough to hold only the two of us and the equipment that kept us alive or moved us about. I was suddenly claustrophobic.
“There are no windows.” I stated matter of factly.
“Not exactly true.” Raj grinned like a kid who had discovered fire for the first time.
He stiffened up slightly and the collar on his neck extended over the back of his skull. He looked distant for a split second and then the tube we were in disappeared. The blackness of space, the Manhattan Project, the Earth; all appeared without distortion. Our feet floated above the stars below.
My head started to spin and I instinctively held my breath. My blood coursed in a full blown panic. Raj was unphased.
“It’s a lot to take in. First time was a bit hard for me, too, but I’ve been turning it off and on for the last hour or so.”
He flipped the view on and off quickly.
“I think I’m getting used to it. The skeleton helps. I think it keeps me from gettin’ dizzy.” He screwed his mouth into a puzzled grin as he tapped the collar around his neck.
I was hyperventilating. I knew Raj was talking, pointing out things in space, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying above the beating of my own heart. I reached out for the sides of the ship I could definitely feel under my feet but could no longer see. I had to lean forward to touch the curved wall my brain knew was there and it gave me the awkward sensation of falling into blackness. I broke out in a cold sweat. I was convinced that I was about to run out of air, that I would freeze, that my blood would boil, that I would succumb to radiation. A million problems where the only solution was death.
“It’s pretty wikked, right? Oh, sorry.” He punched up his Boston accent when he said Wicked. His eyes glazed over for a moment and the ship returned, the only view of space, upfront. “Prime said to give this to you.”
Raj handed me a solid white block. It was as light as a thick book, but three times as large.
“Take off your clothes and hold that against your chest.” Raj stated nonchalantly.
“What!?” I said as the sweat dripped down my back.
“Prime said if you want to keep those clothes, you should take them off.”
– Prime, are you serious?
– But what is this case, Prime? What’s does it do?
– You’ll get your job on this ship. Something I think you’re uniquely qualified to do. You will have power and you, along with Rajesh, will be able to start your mission of finding your family and the remainder of humanity.
– Trust me.
– I don’t trust you.
– There are not many options, Rick. This will put you on the front line. You will wield deadly power once you put on this suit and that’s what you want. Even now, the thought of making the Hensie pay drives you forward.
“Wait until you see, man.” Raj looked doe eyed and expectant.
“See what!?” I said angrily.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be able to take it off again. See.” Raj gave me a consoling glance.
Raj held out the palm of his hand and the exoskeleton rippled for a moment, before turning viscous and moving along his back, up his legs and into his hand.
I turned away from Raj and took off my shirt, pants, and shoes. I was about to hold the case to my chest when Raj said under a fake cough “underwear.” He raised his eyebrows and looked at my ass.
“Yeah. If you want to keep ’em for later.”
I lifted the case in front of my chest. It looked glossy and wet, plastic yet metallic, felt alive and warm but looked inert. And for some reason, the block appealed to me more than I feared it. I didn’t hold it to my chest against my will. It was more like I had no will left, so I pressed the warm block against my chest. I remember thinking “Bad Idea” in that split second before the case woke. The previous hardness replaced by flowing white matter, warm and viscous but solid, a living non-Newtonian fluid. It moved over my chest like smooth, white tar. Amber lights marking its surface as it crawled across my abdomen and shoulders, around my back, and down to my hands. For a moment, the flowing material stopped and began pooling around my waist before continuing over my genitals. The warmth of the material felt comforting as it confined me.
I was completely encased from my neck down to my feet. I could feel a bulge forming around the back of my head, and then it moved over my cranium, the temperature increasing as it smoothed down the hair on the back of my head. It continued around my skull and over the front of my face until it ultimately connected to the material covering my neck. I was in total blackness. I instinctively pulled and scratched at my covered mouth and eyes.
I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t see. I was going to suffocate in this alien mask, fooled into killing myself. I was certain this was how I would die. Then I felt a cool, wet pressure in the middle of my forehead, three points along the length of my spine, one above my bladder, and one above my heart. And my world began to expand.
If Prime was a shadow over my thoughts, this was a bright light igniting a dark room. I could feel my brain making connections to something beyond myself. I began to sense my surroundings with more than my vision. I knew distances and how much effort I’d have to put in to get from one place to another, and, more importantly, how long it would take to do so. I knew I had the power to form weapons out of solid fields on my arms. I knew what solid fields were. I knew that I had high velocity and low velocity dumb and smart projectiles and I knew how to aim and fire. I knew that my strength was amplified 200 times and it scared me. I knew this was called a Forward Function Suit. The Ensari answer to being poorly matched in strength and speed to the Hensie. The suit made connections to my brain that meant any thought I had could be answered by the suit’s database and sensors and its connection to the larger network of humanity. All this I knew in .97 seconds, accuracy a new gift as well.
The power I felt overshadowed the rather disturbing shut down of some of my involuntary bodily functions. My breathing stopped. I had needed to go to the bathroom previously, but no longer. I was beginning to get hungry, but the hunger pangs had been pushed into the back of my mind. For the first time since I was born, my chest didn’t move up and down with life giving breath. My body was given oxygen from a chemical cocktail fed directly into my blood through nanofiber strands weaving through and around my heart.
I wondered for a moment what other connections were made and my vision lit up with a real-time view of my body in the suit. Tendrils from the suit wrapped around my spine and penetrated the dense folds of my brain, encased my heart and vital organs, wound through my liver and intestines. Thicker fibers wound around my bones and hardened in place. I was devoid of life giving breath yet still alive. I was completely encased, inside and out, by a machine that immediately felt like an extension of myself.
Then I looked outward. I could see past objects in front of me. The visual spectrum cycled until it resembled my normal eyesight, but clearer and with more detail than I had been able to see before. Everywhere I looked, I was flooded with more information, more context. I could see Raj, but I could also retrieve any minute detail I wanted. How many pores were on his face. 324,945. Cavities? 2. Height? 5′ 8″ or 172.72 cm. Weight? 87.897 kilograms or 192 lbs. And on and on. The same went for everything I could see or sense through the suit. How big was the interior of the ship? 12.084 meters long from stem to stern.
“You should sit in the chair.”
Raj’s face was now covered down to his nose. His nostrils, mouth, and chin exposed, his eyes covered. I guessed he saw much like I did, fed through impulses produced by his exoskeleton directly into his optic nerve. I took the right hand seat and faced out into space. As I settled into the spindly chair, my suit reached out with fibrous tentacles and attached itself to the spine-like pole behind me. Once they had purchase, they pulled my back against the seat.
And then the universe exploded. I could feel everything around the ship. The Manhattan Project. Individual pods, other jumps ships like Wedge, their trajectories, their speeds. Earth orbiting satellites and their identifying characteristics. Voyager moving past the solar system’s bow shock. Cassini. Opportunity. Rosetta chasing a comet. New Horizons makings its way out of the Solar System. But it was more than just the knowledge of celestial bodies and man-made and Ensari-made objects. My senses expanded to. I could feel the perturbations in the gravitational fields around Earth as easily as I could touch my leg or feel a breeze. I could feel the power of the ship.
Then I went down the well for the first time, which is what I call it now. As I reached deeper and deeper into the sensors of the Wedge and looked deeper and deeper into space, my feeling of connection to the small jump ship and the reality in front of me frayed. My sense of touch diminished. My vision of Raj and the inside of the ship blurred. If I was breathing, I would have gasped. My view was limited to what the small ship could sense, but it could sense the entire solar system. Any idea, any thought, any question I had, I could explore. What’s the diameter of Pluto? Is the ice on Pluto made up of water? How dense is 1 cubic centimeter of Plutonian soil? What are the chemical bonds present in that cubic centimeter? Information and imagery pounded my brain at the speed my subconscious wandered. The suit gave me access to answer any fleeting thought, chase any daydream. Unchecked, uncontrolled. I quickly lost myself. And just as my mind started asking the obvious question, “where is my family?”, and I found a dead end. A deafening void of information.
– Sorry, Rick. No human knows where the Hensie took your family, so that’s a train of thought you can’t follow. You’ve got work to do. Your wife and daughter and the rest of humanity need to be found. You should start before the trail goes cold.
Prime chased me down the well and pulled me out, bringing my thoughts to the forefront of my consciousness, focusing on the interior of the small craft and Raj who was staring at me through his visor.
“It’s a mind fuck, isn’t it? First time I connected, I looked for every known alien race, which happens to be a big number by the way. There are also just a ton of Hensie in the Universe. Like 30 times the Ensari. I was glossy – that’s what I call it, eyes glossed over, y’know – for just under 10 minutes. Prime pulled me back. What rabbit did you chase?”
“Molecular structure of Pluto’s soil. Not even sure why. I just thought of one thing and then another and then another. I couldn’t control it.” Raj and I didn’t actually speak to each other, just connected our suits and thought back and forth. Effortless and involuntary. I left out the void I found.
“That’s a weird one. I don’t get all of this yet…but it sure is sweet.” Raj drug out the word sweet and added a little extra sugar at the end.
“What’s the mission, Raj?”
“Okay. All work and no play. I’ll send it to you.”
I sensed a connection from Raj. I allowed it, and then I saw a new planetary system. The Kolara System. Made up of 6 planets and once home to 4 billion Kolari. The Hensie were already well into the terraforming process, and there was one ship parked in a stationary orbit at the lagrange point above the blue star. The mission was to infiltrate the ship and collect data on where the Hensie took the Kolari from a hardpoint within the ship. The hope was that it might be the same planet they had taken humanity.
Information security had progressed to such an extent that every ship produced by the Hensie were islands unto themselves, only accepting communications from previously verified sources and locations. So in order to spoof another Hensie ship, you not only had to look and communicate like a Hensie, you also had to be at a specific place and time. Which meant that in order to get information, you either had to know when ships were expected where or enter the ship and retrieve it physically.
I knew my capabilities. I knew the mission. I nodded to Raj and he counted down.
The ship thrummed for a split second, a feeling I would get used to, even grow to love over time, and then twisted under space and time and into faster than light travel. We emerged in Kolara, the blue light of Kolara’s star filled the inside of Wedge.
Our first mission had begun.
Chapter 6: Orientation by Christopher Hazlett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://robotissmiling.com/?p=554.