The Climber

… continued from Ascent to the Void


The terminator, dividing day from night, advanced westward across the oceanic expanse several hundred kilometers below, though from the cab’s altitude the sun continued to shine through the large, curved left-hand window, illuminating the interior. That window automatically dimmed its view, providing relief from the otherwise relentless solar glare, and Anna noted among the console dials she had earlier designated as probable environmental controls that one of them slowly adjusted its color bar in step with the window’s dimming. Satisfied they were not immediately about to die, she turned away from the console.

Ca-Tren remained glued to the view through the windows. Laxmi and Jaci, however, both appeared to have succumbed to exhaustion from their near-constant stress. Each had claimed a lounger and stretched out upon it, sleeping or perhaps just resting. Anna moved to the inner wall of the cabin to investigate the four small doors set into it.

This was the only straight wall inside the cabin. Behind her, the main outer wall curved in nearly a complete semi-circle, closely matching the outer wall beyond of the tubular cable up which they traveled. The inner wall, a bit more than twenty meters wide, bisected the diameter of the cable, or nearly so. The cable was closer to thirty meters in diameter, so Anna figured the cab took up a bit less than half of that cross-section. Perhaps the answer to what took up the remainder would lie behind these doors.

Three of the four doors were ordinary circular Kwakitl doors, modern-looking but otherwise similar to doorways she had experienced since landing on this planet. The fourth, next to the bar alcove in the center, was smaller, and essentially identical to the maintenance hatch she had found in the departure lounge, the one leading to the utility closet and electrical control panel. She tried that door first, but there was no obvious way to open it, no mechanical handles to pull, push, or twist, and no indented sockets she could fit a hand into. There was, however, a small palm-sized circular area in the center where in other doors she had found handles, outlined in a muted dull maroon, as though not trying to draw attention to itself.

She pressed her palm to the circle. The maroon color brightened for a moment, then faded back to its previous dull tone, but otherwise nothing happened.

“Locked,” she muttered quietly to herself. “No surprise there. You don’t want ordinary passengers getting in here, do you.”

Anna left the locked door alone for the moment and tried the next door left of it. This door also sported a similar circular press me area in the center, though it was a dull yellow in color instead of maroon. When Anna touched her palm to it, the yellow turned turquoise, flashed brighter for a moment, then faded back, though retaining the new color. The door opened inward with a slight hiss of equalizing air pressure, and a light came on in the chamber beyond.

Inside she found a small room, about four meters by three, further compartmentalized by what appeared to be smoked glass or translucent plastic dividers, each with their own hinged doorway of the same material. A cupboard with shelves was set into the wall beside her, though the shelves were bare. Beside that was another protrusion extending from the wall at a low height forming an upward-facing cavity. With a start, Anna realized she was looking at a basin, a sink, and indeed there was a sort of spigot extended over it and a closed drain plug in the low point at its center. Over the basin, in the wall, was a mirror. Apparently Kwakitl needed to check out their own appearance just as much as humans did. She gazed into it, realizing she had not seen her own reflection in over two months. Her hair, usually pulled back into a neat bun suitable for zero-g back aboard the ship, now was in complete disarray. Her skin tone had tanned from weeks under the Kepler 62 sun, something she was not used to seeing on herself, and she could see the lines of stress marking her face. She spent several moments looking into her own eyes, ignoring the dark circles of exhaustion. Soon, soon she would let herself rest, but not just yet.

She turned her attention to the glass compartments, and quickly deduced that she was looking at a Kwakitl-proportioned shower and toilet. She had definitely found the lavatory. That would prove useful for a five-day trip. The shower appeared to have some sort of touch-sensitive controls, much like the doorway. Standing as far back out of the way as she could, Anna experimented with pressing one. Would there be water?

A thunk sounded somewhere behind the wall, then several more. Well, she reasoned, it had been several centuries, at least, since anyone tried to get water flowing through these pipes, so the plumbing might be a bit rusty. Several small filtered vents in the walls and floor opened up and began sucking air out with a quiet sibilance. A moment later, water began to flow from an overhead outlet, raining down into the chamber, then quickly sucked into the vacuum-assisted drains in the floor. The water definitely had a rusty brown look to it, accompanied by an odor that nearly caused Anna to choke, but after ten or fifteen seconds the water turned clear and the odor faded, efficiently pulled out by the vacuums. Anna pressed on several more controls until finally she found the one to shut off the water.

She exited the lavatory and tried the next door to its left, at the end near to where the inner straight wall met the outer curved one. This one, too, immediately opened with the touch of her palm to the control, and inside was another chamber of similar size. Instead of a lavatory, however, this one appeared to be more of a dormitory, with empty closets and two columns of bunk beds, three high, set into the back wall. To the left, the small chamber sported its own window to the outside, facing eastward, showing the expanse of night-darkened planet below and multitudinous stars above. Vertically bisecting the view, the ring station appeared as a bright line extending from far overhead until it disappeared beyond the planet’s horizon. They had far to go yet before any details of the station would be easily visible, but it was there.

A wave of exhaustion hit Anna and she first stifled then gave in to a yawn. Looking away from the window, she eyed the bunk beds. They were a bit short for a human, but she climbed into a middle rack anyway and curled up. For a Kwakitl they would be spacious, so she only had to bend her knees to fit and found it quite comfortable after recently sleeping on thin mats and blankets, though in truth she still preferred the hammocks from their time at sea. A low level of light came into the room from the window and the open door, and she thought about getting up to close the door, but the thought was as far as she got. Instead, she turned away to face the wall, and moments later, she was fast asleep.

She slept deeply, though she dreamed of being cold, half thinking she should find a blanket, but too tired to do anything about it. Then she dreamed of voices calling her name, and she was no longer cold. At one point, she half awoke to find the light from the open door had dimmed, and then she realized she was not alone in the bunk. At some time in the night Jaci had climbed in and curled himself beside and around her, and she was holding onto his arm over her like a blanket. She awakened fully then, and carefully turned herself around to face him. He did not awaken, and though the room was mostly dark, she could just make out his face, inches from her own. He breathed deeply, seemingly at peace, no longer appearing so stressed, and Anna wondered if her own stress would fall away so easily. She could not bring herself to wake him, so she put an arm lightly over him and just watched his face for a while. His breathing hitched, and he half-muttered her name, but his eyes did not open and soon his breathing again became deep and regular.

What to do about this? The two of them had had a brief affair during the long journey to Kepler 62, but that was more than a year earlier, closer to two years earlier in fact, and it hadn’t lasted. His irrepressible enthusiasm, his silly sense of humor, his apparent lack of seriousness, all had at first attracted her, seeming like a welcome distraction during the long, dark months when she could do nothing, could see no stars, could only watch the clock counting down to arrival. Eventually, however, the same light-heartedness that had attracted her turned her away. Anna was first and foremost mission-focused, and while she knew at an intellectual level Jaci was as well, and that for all his playacting he was indeed a most serious linguist, working diligently on the question of the alien communication that first drew them on this voyage, she nevertheless ultimately could not reconcile this difference between them at an emotional level. She retreated to her observatory, taking solace and finding peace in her own thoughts, running calculations and scenarios for their eventual arrival over and over, all while dreaming of the moment when she could again see stars outside her little bubble.

What’s more, during the voyage she had not been in command. She had been the pilot, the navigator, and the frustrated astronomer, but David Benetton held the solitary post of captain. She was only second in seniority, which meant nothing for a crew of five. As long as nothing interfered with their duties or with the integrity of the crew, she and Jaci had been free to pursue whatever relationship together they desired. It was only when they departed on the shuttle to investigate the ring station that David had placed her in charge of the away team.

She remembered being surprised that it was Jaci who caught her attention, and not Takashi, the systems engineer whom she worked more closely with. Takashi had always seemed serious-minded to her, much like herself, and a very good engineer. Almost certainly he would not have made any mistakes in repairing the shuttle, mistakes that caused their catastrophic engine failure and eventual descent to the planet’s surface. But by that time, of course, he was already dead, and now his remains would lie forever beneath a deserted sandy atoll on this unimaginably distant exoplanet. Ah well, at least it was a beautiful spot, even though Anna had generally felt too busy and too stressed to much notice while they were on the island.

Now Anna was in charge, at least until they determined David’s fate. Was she being irresponsible, allowing Jaci to get this close? Probably. Come morning, she would need to talk to him about it, set proper boundaries and expectations. For now though — she yawned again — she still needed more sleep, and she was not about to disturb him. Her eyes closed, she snuggled in closer against him, her breathing slowed and deepened, and she slept dreamlessly, at peace.


… continued with Coffee and Control

header image credit: Alex Myers / via Pixabay License

© Matt Fraser and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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