Interlude – Breaking Henry Backman

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Lars is down. Ben Jones took a dive off Turtle Bridge in a ’94 MX3, like the rolling toad he is. And, as arithmetic would suggest, that leaves only three of the five of us alive and well in the canyons of this darkened landscape of the human condition.

We said we would take this gem to our graves, our hands wrapped tightly around its undulating flesh as the shovels deposited the inevitable blanket of earth over our cold and wicked bodies. I enjoyed the sound of it – the pleasing vibrations of an end to the long and arduous ballet. But, alas, this story is not over.

This story is just beginning.

We were twenty-first century men, alive and alone in the great beyond. Lars inherited a Ulysses Rockhopper from his great-uncle, Yemmi. Lars used to joke that his great-uncle was the last great cosmonaut of the original space race – the last monkey shot into space on the dollars of men, the rockets of blood, breaching the gravity of man’s stagnation. The four of us – five if you consider Lars himself was ever so effective at the art of self-deception – knew the connection was a farce. The old space age had been dead longer than the last new space age had lasted. Energy – the unattainable become available, commercially – was not the hurdle it used to be, and so, it was not unheard of for a middle class, blue-collar family to have had access to a personal starship at some point in the waxing and waning of the interplanetary wanderings of our race.

Lars was ecstatic to test the old spaceheap’s limits, and Titan was not good enough for him. We packed a year’s worth of life support supplies, planning to hit Europa and Triton along the way to the Oort Cloud. It would be the furthest any of us had gone, privately or on commercial spacelines – a mind-bending journey relative to the westward drug-hazed road trips of yore. Gonzo space opera for the pulp western vigilante disciples, a fifteen cent rack of Lovecraft and Howard ridden like Slim Pickens rode a nuclear lullaby to the end of the world.

The Rockhopper was built solid, though the water barrier had tendencies to pocket. For that reason, one of us was always on the radiation dial. Turns did funny thing’s to the pond-shield, and while the ship had the latest virtual intelligence modules, Lars insisted on flying the craft with his hands – and sometimes his feet. Ben was our co-pilot, but when it was his turn to fly, he let the VI take the wheel.

You probably know this, but towards the end of this century of ours, the synthetic psychedelic supernova that blitzed our star system after the Solar Union struck down the last interplanetary ban on the recreational drugs brought an infinite universe of experiences to the human soul. I entered the ship with about a liter of Doctor Karn Segram’s Holy Hell in a Boot, and erupted in a rage of goat-wheezing fury before we even passed the asteroid belt. The trip was a series of rude awakenings from enlightenment and trascendence. Old Billy, one of the three finalists in this tale, died during a seizure and had to be resuscitated by the shipboard medbot. Kelly tells me he’d been popping Jelly Babies and washing them down with Sonic Screwdrivers – a Whovian meltdown, no less. Ben was the lightweight, preferring organic marijuana and single malt scotch – but, damn, was he a violent drunk.

I believe Kelly was the only one of us that stayed sober during that jaunt, and I believe it was a good thing for us to be anchored by his solid stance. Kelly was gravity in the void of space – at the time, necessary, for we were apes of our own momentum bearing force without, spiraling through the deep black of the mind, tending to stay in motion, as the fairy tale goes.

We were just passing the first of the iceberg spheres that marked the boundaries of the Oort Cloud, when Lars bit it for us. Kelly had been taking a nap in the null-grav deck, and Lars was pleasing himself in V-Sim. In the days of motorized land travel, they had something called black ice, and while not the same phenomenon as seen in Earth, our introduction to black ice ended with the same results.

Space plays strange tricks at the edge of and beyond the heliosphere. The sun may always be behind you, but that doesn’t always mean the obstacles before you are going to show up illuminated like New Vegas and Titanshine. In hindsight, I begin to think Lars had us on the darkside of an iceberg, blanking the chunk of ice that nearly ended us.

The initial impact ripped through the pond-shield, dumping a third of our protective water into space. While the VI had the breach iced in less than five minutes, the damage had been done. Old Billy had been in a syntho-psilocybic coma when the accident occurred, so you can imagine the shock of the wakening. We had to split time between checking the ship for leaks, and holding Old Billy down to the deck as he attempted futilely to gore us with his eyeteeth. Ben, being the largest of us, repeatedly punched the maniac, to lure him back to his coma, with little success.

A good hour had passed before the five of us had a good hold on the reality of the situation. We were lucky. Those old wives’ tales of drowning in deep space as a pond-shield flooded your decks flashed through our mind’s at the speed of light. Realizing how easy it could happen, gave it substance, and just the thought of that extreme drowned us in our own fear. But, like I said, the report was more favorable than we deserved.

Lars was a wreck, semen dotted his jumpsuit over a yellowish stain. We did not hear from him for several hours after the initial panic. The VI reported our pond-shield was at fifty percent effectiveness and we had to keep the Rockhopper in a Devon-Wilkes spin maneuver to keep us shielded from the radiation. Kelly and I had already dumped half of our drinking water into the pond-shield to increase its volume, but the breach froze most of this, rendering it useless.

As the ship cycled to night, we sat around the cockpit and discussed our options, of which there were only two. Death was the choice of Old Billy, who was still flying high out of the coma he should have been in. Our other choice was to melt the closest iceberg we could find to replenish our stocks. While the second option sounded best, it also required one of us to go outside and patch the hole. For the pond-shield to reach maximum efficiency, the breach would have to be completely and effectively sealed.

The votes were in, with one vote for death, and the rest for my unlucky ass to don the voidsuit and do the grunt work. In the end, I found the work relaxing. I spent a good deal of time just looking into that dark hole of space, turning my eyes from the star I new so well to those at the far reaches of vision. The patch sealed perfectly and I took my time going back to my comrades.

It was at the moment I begin to turn the hatch release that I spied a peculiar sparkle on our port side. It was a small ice rock, and well out of our circuit, but it looked plenty full to suit our purposes. There was something odd about it then, and during any normal sojourn through the ice fields, I would have avoided it.

Instead, rejoining my comrades, I indicated the object’s position and had the VI steer us to it. Lars had sworn off putting his hands on a flivver ever again. In about two hours, we had the iceberg melted and pumped into the pond-shield. The VI sounded the all clear at a pleasing ninety-eight percent, and we agreed to turn the old Rockhopper back to the inner four.

Just before the Neptunian comm ring, the radiation alarm went off. We were all well sober by that point – our mind-bending intentions straightened by near disaster. According to the VI we had developed a pocket – not uncommon in the model of pond-shield installed. The strange thing was that the pocket did not move with the inertia of our turns. It did not take us long to realize the pocket was centered over one of the intermittent coils which ensured the water providing the radiation shield did not freeze. It seemed unusual, but Kelly was quick to point out that the coil could be overheating, both frying the sensor that would indicate such a fault, and vaporizing any water at that point in the shield.

Once again, I donned the voidsuit, not for exposure to space, but for exposure to the radiation given free reign in the absence of the shield. The VI valved a larger area off, and bled out the excess water, leaving the pocket pressurized to the ship’s interior so that I could access the area via the maintenance hatch.

Poking my head into the pocket, I saw nothing but darkness. I had half expected the coil to have been pumping the pocket with heat, but as it turned out, the sensor was fine.

There was not near enough heat to maintain a pocket like we experienced. The coil was functioning correctly.

I grabbed a lightsphere and cast it into the dark space, letting it ricochet off the walls until it hit one of the valve closures and started back towards me. My brain did not register it at first, though my eyes screamed the obvious to it. And again, in the dark, after a moment of stillness, there was movement.

When my brain finally received the bill, I nearly filled my voidsuit with solid waste excretion. I laugh at the thought now, but at the time, I genuinely believed I felt the thing call to me. Only that sort of mindless belief would have allowed me to enter the pocket and retrieve our god from the prison in which the universe may wish we had kept him.

I cradled the thing in my arms, petting its supple tentacles and allowing it to tease at my gloves with its razor-toothed maw. It had created the void, finding the water unpleasant. The heat of the coil attracted it, and there it had remained, waiting to be found.

My four comrades accepted the god as if it were wholly expected from the moment we set foot on the deck of the Rockhopper. None of us questioned its existence, or our discovery of it. The truth of the matter is that our god had been frozen in that twinkling ice for eternity – either bound by some benevolent force, or hidden there as a trap to be sprung on the fledgling humans in their first tottering steps out of their solar womb. Regardless of its purpose and disposition in space-time, we released it.

And, we brought it home.

Before the Rockhopper quest for glory, I had been nothing. I subsisted on the generosity of females attracted to my physique and pleasing familiarity with the female anatomy. Old Billy and Kelly were con-men, mostly in Russia on Old Toby – our loving slang for the third rock – but, they also had their turns in Martian affairs. Ben had always been a tag-along, no personality but that which vicariously existed through the pursuits of those he followed. And, Lars, our god bless him, had a real job as a bot technician on Titan before this genesis.

After we found our deistical romance with the elder god from the cold void and returned to the planet which had spawned our fated species, we enjoyed a sudden surge of success. Lars was promoted to the highest position in the Ulysses Group’s three largest conglomerates. Old Billy and Kelly discovered a hidden flux of dark energy at the edge of the Oort Cloud that jump-started the interstellar exodus. Ben followed them. And me, well, I found religion. As its first contact, I became our god’s lover, its advocate, its voice in the minds of the humans that would inevitably become its slaves.

This story is just beginning, and though two of us have found ways to sever my lover’s connection and influence, he holds us three tighter for the loss.

I breathe quickly in heaving gasps as I destroy my first planet.

He lets me taste their souls.

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