Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dooley wakes up.

Chapter one

Dooley wakes up…

One by one the crew was awakened from stasis, head-space, as their duties were required aboard ship. In some cases, decades had been spent in cold storage, with only their dreams for company. As the starship got closer and closer to the home world, the video, radio and laser-casts became ever more recent in date of origin, and ever more current.

Presumably, the data was ever more relevant to the actual situation as it existed on Earth. Down there, the present day was circa 14,059 anno domini. Their faster-than-light journey lasted three generations. Twelve thousand years of history had passed. Avid study of the signal spectrum was crucial to the survival of the passengers and crew of Ark One. They had the dubious honour of sitting in review, objective observers in accelerated time, as the future unfolded in reverse out of the past.

At the time of departure, radio had been in existence for a century and a half. The outer edge of Earth’s bubble of electromagnetic radiation dated back to a time when signals were faint, sparse, and sporadic. Under deceleration there was plenty of time to listen in and catch up on the news. Analysts were fascinated by the evolution of the languages over the centuries. The officers in charge of the ship determined that society had crashed shortly after departure, from chaotic environmental degradation and a worldwide economic collapse. This led to revolution, war, famine, disease, with a sudden consequent die-off of humanity and many higher animals. The closer to home they got, the more worrying and darker in tone the news feeds became. And then they slowly began to wink out and fade from the airwaves, and one day there just wasn’t anyone out there anymore. The world had re-entered a darker age of human experience. Or perhaps human life had gone extinct.


“Jesus Christ, I’m only twelve thousand years old. Why do I feel so tired all the time?” Dooley Peeters had a kind of never-ending internal monologue.

His top-priority briefing ended. Nothing he hadn’t already guessed. Now it was all out in the open. The corridor was as cold as a witch’s tit as soon as he opened up the door of the compartment. He scuttled along on wooden-stiff legs, shivering and cursing aloud. The room wouldn’t let you out until you were briefed. You never got used to it. Thankfully his quarters were only fifty metres along. As soon as he got in, the room lit up and the heaters kicked on. Feeling the quivery belly tension that comes from near-hypothermia, he bolted for the shower stall, grateful to strip out of the rubber suit, with its itchy and sometimes painful plug-ins, inserted into veins in wrists, ankles, groin and neck. You wanted to be careful not to accidentally yank one of the little stoppers out, and leak to death. It was quite difficult, and his patience was tried by the urgent need to get warm, but he had to be careful pulling the tubes out of the suit’s reinforced circular openings.

The rush of negative emotions was pretty intense, and some training in bio-feedback and mood control was essential. You had to become objective about yourself, and learn to control your passions. Everybody felt the same way when they came out of the suit.

“The one common element in all of human experience is suffering.” The briefings always ended the same way.

We suffer for the common good.

Complete with feet and mitts and a hood, like a baby’s sleeper, the suit protected against ice-up. His skin was pink, wrinkled and moist as he clambered out of it and disposed of it in the chute. The first lukewarm drops of the shower spray stung like a sandblaster on a sunburn. He gritted his teeth and thought about what came next. An unwelcome glimpse in the steam-fogged mirror revealed the deep-set lines from where the face-rig clipped on with elastic straps. The sphincter-like ring in the hood left a solid blue line, crinkled around his forehead, under the chin, and along both cheeks. He looked like death warmed over, but then they all did after wake-up. There was never any provision made for psychological or physical recovery. You were expected to be on the job a half hour later. Why the machine couldn’t wake you up the day before had always remained a mystery to him. The drain on life support wasn’t all that great. In a ship of this size, there had to be so much air in the system just to fill the vessel up to the proper pressure. Whether or not anyone was there to breathe it was quite secondary.

He wanted a shave and a hot meal. Men complained about the way they felt, oddly enough, when talking about the experience later. Women complained about the way they looked. Or was that just bullshit, from the secret little book that women passed around, amongst themselves, and never letting a mere man get a look at it? He wondered what the operating manual for a woman’s mind looked like.

Based on past experience, it would be two or three days before he could take a dump.

He needed some clean pants, a shirt, a cup of coffee and a smoke. Dooley Peeters had his priorities in the proper perspective. The damned plug-ins still itched, especially with the sting of hot water and soap on the red-rimmed Fluid Entry Points. The fluid was based on the paw-pad antifreeze of the Siberian husky breed of dogs, distilled from tissues grown in an industrial-scale in-vitro process. This was mixed with a blood-plasma replacement rich in oxygen, due to the low temperatures and therefore the slow pace of chemical reactions under hibernation.

He wasnted to remove the Fluid Entry Points as soon as humanly possible. He had lived for that day, when he was feeling a little down. For a moment he reveled in being grumpy, as he began lathering up his hair.

The scary part was when you had to put the mask on, knowing full well that a few seconds later a sickly-sweet, pungent smell would come through, and you would be knocked out. Certain thoughts never left, they even showed up in semi-conscious dreams. Dooley noted his heart begin to race at the thought, and carefully cleared his mind of animal fear. Good posture and long, slow breaths were the key.

It took real guts to suit up, after a while. The first few times were all right. But that was before he had all that time to think, and to calculate on the odds.

Statistically-speaking, sooner or later you wouldn’t wake up.

You could only tempt the odds so many times, and he accepted that part. What scared him was the possibility that your number would come up on the very first roll of the dice. It might not be an entirely rational fear, but it was his, and his alone, and he just had to live with it. It felt very reassuring to button up a clean white cotton shirt, and feel the rug under the soles of his bare feet. With luck, he would never have to put the mask on again.

The key thing was to make no mistakes. All he could do was to pray for luck, and prepare for the worst. Dooley liked living, and the notion that the universe could just as well do without him was a distinctly unwelcome one. At last he could have a smoke and a half-decent cup of coffee.

Dooley feared that random hit of bad luck.

END   This is the first part of 'Horse Catcher,' coming on October 1/2012 or thereabouts.   Comments are always welcome. Photo credit: NASA, artist impression, public domain.


  1. I like it, but then I like science fiction. I'm so glad you made him normal. Coffee and a cigarette, yes.

  2. I just put that in there to tick off the purists. Someone once said that smoking in a high-oxygen mixture didn't make much sense and the scrubbers wouldn't take care of it. But think of some poor astronauts frying onions or something. The air purification system had better be able to handle certain eventualities.

    1. Are science fiction writers supposed to tick off the purists? I agree about the scrubbers, but I don't think they'll be frying onions or meat. When the MacDonald family leaves Earth for Thalia in Before We Leave, MacDonald limits the smokers (it's 1949) to one sealed room. At the end of five years that is going to be one smelly room, but they might be out of cigarettes by then.

    2. What we would eat on a mission of years or centuries is a good question. For a very small crew, kept in stasis for much of the time, a store of frozen foods, including meat, might be a better option than sludge tanks making yeast-based foodstuffs, (or something like that.) There might be a lot of freeze-dried foods, but real food, something resembling bacon and eggs would be wonderful for psychological reasons. This is supposed to be a serious book, but some of the previous books were definitely parodies.


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