5 - Debriefing phase

Following the immersion into a hyper-awareness of time you can’t help but drift in an and out of your current surroundings, sometimes even stopping mid-sentence to muse on things and activities that before might have seen menial or boring or anything else but note-worthy.

The mental care facilitators encourage you to try a wide variety of focus-inducing effects, but you shrug off their constant attempts to force chemicals down your neck because you know this state of yours, like many other things in this world, will soon pass.

And much like waking up after a dream, one day things go back to being their own dull selves, no longer revelatory or extraordinary, but simply there. You have another Test Phase coming up, you should get ready for whatever will be thrown at you or will be thrown into. A parcel is delivered to 8-B hall, under your specific number, 36-8-B.

Inside the brown yellow-ish envelope is a simple card, specifying the time and place, nothing more, nothing less. Unusual. Information here is usually relayed in a direct manner although the timing might sometimes be off.

The room specified is in Wing Epsilon. You know this because it was the Wing you were in when the details of the Program were presented to you on your first visit. You encounter no troubles getting there, no hidden traps or riddles to solve or maze-like corridors, no, you are on your way and there effortlessly.

Still expecting something to happen, you can’t help but stare at everything going outside of the hall, from the passers by to the flickering neon lighting to the other candidates, forlorn and worn out, some nearing the very precipice of their ambitions only to fall ingloriously into obscurity.

But enough of that, others seem to be eager to be there, waiting almost cheerfully. There’s 14-7-C, he used to be an actor before the mad dash towards Pluto that started the greatest space-age project of mankind to date. He looks alright, he’s probably not as much muttering to himself as he is getting into a character suited for whatever he expects might come next.

Just above the entrance to the room, the speaker comes to life and speaks through the droning voice of a bored office-lady: “Debriefing for Nautilius A in room 47, Wing Epsilon to commence in 3 minutes. Debriefing for Nautilius A in room 47, Wing Epsilon to commence in 3 minutes. Thank you.” The loudspeaker cuts off just as abruptly as it turned on.

There is a general murmur and restlessness about the corridor now, candidates are wondering just what hidden meaning Nautilius holds. ”Wasn’t that in a story somewhere? A ship or a submarine?” asks one inquisitively “No! It’s a species of sea snails,” says another convincingly.

It could be all of these things together or it could be nothing all, you muse. Perhaps it’s a name like any other or perhaps you will be thrown into the depths of the ocean in a pressure suit on some absurd worst-case scenario mission. You do feel a slight chill, thinking about all of this, but somehow you retain your cool.

An acquaintance of yours, 13-5-B, drops by to see how you are holding up. She looks somewhat worried and sympathetic at the same time.

“Hey, 36, how are things?”

You notice her staring at your new arm, almost feeling her pity touching the metal layer. You would like to give any number of impressive responses but just as you open your mouth, so does the room door open wide right on cue.

“I’ve been through worse”, you mutter just before entering the room with the rest of the candidates scheduled for the debriefing.

13-5-B smiles and nods although somewhat forlorn. You give her a second fleeting look, just before awkwardly waving while being pushed inside by other candidates rushing in through the door.

The room looks like any conference auditorium, 6 rows in 3 sections forming a half-circle, all seats facing a stage at ground level. The walls, curiously enough, are adorned with framed space-themed posters, each showing off an idealised version of missions past. One in particular, shows a square-jawed man in a retro-spacesuit looking intensely and pointing one thick kevlar-woven finger to somewhere above and behind the viewer and the caption reads: “We are reaching the stars, one celestial wonder at a time!”.

What the mission the poster is showing, is nothing more than a routine supply drop to the Mars I Observation Unit-1 on Phobos, the red planet’s satellite: an asteroid captured, slowly nearing towards the Roche Limit only to be torn apart in a flimsy ring of space dust, but the poster showed it as being a formidable stepping stone in mankind’s ever-increasing steps into outer space.

“Welcome to the debriefing concerning the Nautilius test, dearest candidates, I am sure this will be very informative for all of you.”

The disembodied voice seems to be coming from everywhere at once, until someone shouts and points at the desk in the middle of the auditorium, from under which a figure was slowly dragging itself out. A mess of black hair reveals nothing save for a pair of glasses perched among strands of hair. Much like a ghost, the figure then straightens out and puts the tangle tuft of mess in a slight bun that might burst at any moment. The face revealed is remarkably attractive, with striking jet-black eyebrows.

“My name is Dr. Sybil, thank you for arriving on relatively short notice.” She coughs lightly and changes the pitch and volume of her voice to a more powerful effect.

“You are all aware that, even though this Program is based on your abilities, wit and resourcefulness for each Candidate separately, teamwork is unavoidable and so for the good of your development here you will be assigned into teams. You will be working together and maybe entrust your lives to one another.”

Candidates are looking somewhat distraught as until now all the tests pointed toward individual hardships and challenges, some bordering on the fringes of how much a human being can go through without breaking. Teamwork and camaraderie had never been an issue until this very moment. All Candidates were solitary islands with each singular hardship and challenge taken alone and struggled with on own terms.

 “Now, as you very well know, we have up until this point encountered an alien lifeform, first contact has happened and it was… underwhelming for everyone, to say the least. I am talking about the Exotrylocites, the bacteria found on Ceres, just on the fringes of the habitable zone and snug warmly under a vast freshwater ocean. We had finally found proof that life can exist outside of the confines of earthen atmosphere in an environment untouched by man.

Unfortunately, no matter how far we searched further in the ocean beneath the dwarf planet, we found no other lifeform that had yet to evolve from bacterial form.” There was an almost tactile sadness to her words.

“And yet we were elated, it was a small triumph but a triumph holding proof that there was life outside Earth and suddenly the Drake equation didn’t seem as daunting as it had before, there was renewed hope. We would press on ever further into the cosmic beyond in search of knowledge and races we would perhaps call peers, equals, sharing wisdom taken from different corners of the galaxy.The knowledge you are about to hear next is privy only to the upper echelons of the MIMA and people involved in the Zeus I mission. Yes, the mission which was finally going to bore into the icy crust of Europa and reveal what we thought was hiding in the ocean beneath after all this time; life. And what we found surpassed even our wildest expectations: intelligent life.”

You wince at the dryness of your own eyes. A quick glance reveals others much like yourself, are awestruck with their lower jaws hanging between disbelief and amazement. Intelligent life was something so rare on the cosmic scale of things that finding signs of it in our own solar system would be like finding the lost city of Atlantis in your own backyard.  But why wasn’t this made known to every denizen of the world? Such a revelation would reverberate and change the culture and future of humans everywhere.

Another light cough. Dr. Sybil is now facing a massive whiteboard and at the slightest flick of the wrist, the lights start to dim. The whiteboard lights up. While you can no longer see her face, you notice a sombre and almost weary tone in her voice:

“Intelligent life was for a brief period right on the other side of the fence. The things we could have learned from each other were limitless in possibilities...

Shortly after it entered planetary waters, the Zeus probe noticed that all the elements were present and that the oxygen and iron levels were astoundingly high, much over what we had until then encountered in any body of water, frozen or otherwise.The first few days were quiet for the probe, until an error in calculation caused the probe to go deeper than designed, being unable to properly adjust to the surrounding water pressure. That caused a few of the systems on board to malfunction, among which was the lighting system.”

“While I do not undervalue the collective intelligence of the people here in this room, I still feel inclined to remind everyone of the Morse code and how invaluable it has been in the past for seafarers while using luminous signals. Many experts believe that the irregular flickering must have been interpreted as a message, how eloquent we may never know, but it did however elicit a response from… them.” 

The lit whiteboard reveals the image of an octopus-like creature. Its head not necessarily elongated but smaller, rounder and with thicker tentacles, ending in...lights?!

“The malfunctioning lights triggered a twinkling of faint light, equally irregular. The lights were immediately disregarded and led us to believe that the optical cameras had also been damaged. However, what happened next changed everything. They came in a blur, only stopping for a few seconds at a time to transmit luminous signals to the probe. What you are seeing right now on the screen is one of them in the brief moment of communication.”

“We couldn’t believe what was happening, a race more advanced and more refined, millions of years ahead in evolution from the algae-eating bacteria we were expecting. And they were trying to communicate with us, hairless monkeys from a different planet! The next week was spent analyzing patterns and light intensity on the entire spectrum of light, formulating a possible alphabet through which we could communicate both ways and relay a coherent message. By the end of the week we had grasped the basics of their bio luminescence-based language and surmised that we could use impulses outside of the visible spectrum of light. This seemed to trigger a response although not as enthusiastic. And so, we turned off the remaining lights and used infra-red emitters.”

“We didn’t speak as much as we whispered: “Hello” says Dr. Sybil.

“They called the probe Wounded-Metal. The constant flickering was interpreted as a cry for help and the manner in which they spoke was very much matter-of-fact. They didn’t understand that the probe wasn’t a living being but still they kept asking if it was hurt and how they could help.”

“As you know by the time of Zeus I, human spaceflight was more than viable and astronauts on board were very much the norm. Mission Control suggested that one of the two astronauts submerge himself in one of the pressurized diving rigs which would have been deployed at a later stage in the mission, just so that the Luminoids understand who or what we were. They signaled no signs that would be normally interpreted as aggression but displayed remarkable care and concern for a being unknown to them believed to be hurt.”

“Captain Mark Maji volunteered to go down and greet them using their own language. And so, after gearing up, he entered the second probe and followed the path already laid out through crevices of radioactive ice. First Contact, the First Real Contact was imminent.”

The silence in the room was denser and heavier than a chapel vigil.

“After reaching a depth of 65 km, just a bit above the first probe, Cpt. Maji activated the light signals in wait for them to come. A little over an hour they appeared, graceful and curious. They responded, “Who are you? What are you? Friend of Wounded-Metal?”

“Maji was by this point transfigured; there he was, talking to a race intelligent enough to communicate their thoughts in a coherent and organized manner. The plan was for the Luminoids to see the man inside the metal can and understand who they were communicating with, not the cylinder surrounding Cpt.Maji. However, Maji, without any prior clearance, put on the deep-dive pressure suit and emerged from the manned exploration module.

“The Luminoids were shocked to see another being coming out of the belly of the being they were talking to. The same being was now beckoning them closer to greet them in the earthliest way: a handshake.”

“Maji stretched out his hands and through luminous impulses said “I greet you from the blue dot above the ice.” “We believe the luminoids must have understood that the gesture implied some form of salute as one of them reached a feeler to Maji’s outstretched hands.”

“Contact was lost swiftly after. We neither saw nor heard from the astronaut or any of the Luminoids again, nor will anyone ever again.”

“Subsequent data analysis revealed what we had feared, the Luminoids somehow became aggressive as a massive electrical discharge tore through most of the circuits and the deep-dive suit of the astronaut.

It wasn’t until a week later that we realised what had really happened once the exploration module woke up and used the exo-arm to retrieve Maji’s body. As it turned out, the tips of the fingers on the right arm had been contaminated with what we later realised were… remains of a virus, transmitted through… mucus, the captain had recently recovered from a cold and he must’ve sneezed at some point during an EVA prep and so contaminated his glove with germs, germs which when in contact with the fleshy, almost translucent tissue of the Luminoids caused a violent reaction.”

“Just a week after the last contact we noticed the concentration of iron absurdly high in the water levels and that it had become a few shades darker. Only one Luminoid could be seen drifting towards the first probe, now no longer the object of attention. The last Luminoid was unlike any of the others spotted until then, it was white and almost transparent. It flickered feebly the following: “The green mist is eating us, the great end. Run.” just before dissolving and leaving a blue stain behind.

 “The greatest achievement mankind could’ve attained in modern history as a spacefaring entity, gone, on an impulse.”

You’re seating a bit too far away and the room is still dark but you’re almost sure she is holding back a few tears.

“Reflect on that.” she says, before each candidate is handed a sealed envelope.

4 - Test Phase #18

You find yourself walking towards a different section of the Omni-Testing Facility now, to its deeper colder bowels, where the Isolation Test will begin shortly. You are scheduled for 1 p.m. sharp. You are somewhat early and there is little to distract yourself with in the empty and very poorly-lit waiting room. Other than the faint ornate whirring noise coming from your yet-to-be-properly adjusted arm there is no other sound save for your own breathing, heavy in anticipation. There are some rumors among the candidates that this Test tends to separate one batch of Test Astronauts from the others, but how exactly is anyone’s guess.

1 p.m. sharp, the door opens and with steam and light pouring outside, two burly men clad in facility personnel overalls emerge dragging a limp old man, head down, feet dragging from behind. Did they accept candidates this old? The form said something along the lines of 20 to 45 as far as age was concerned. No matter. You’re up.

The room outside the waiting area is not much bigger but is littered with what appear to be some sort of capsules. Each with their own hazmat-suited statue, peering at the occasional screen to check on data.

“Ah, you must be 36-8-B, the one with the new arm”, you can just barely understand through the muffled noises of one gas-masked facility worker. “This will be your chamber for the next 4 hours,” he points to a vacant capsule. “Have you heard anything related to this test phase so far?”

“No, not really, I just figured it would be something more difficult, but waiting for 4 hours doesn’t sound that bad, considering what I’ve been through so far.”

The gas-masked technician might almost be smiling, judging from the creases around his eyes, but they might just be wrinkles of happier, different times.

Bad is not exactly the right term for it, but different, yes, indeed, very very different, unlike anything you’ve experienced so far,” the sealed man muffles.“Now, please enter the chamber. At some point you will feel a slight sting as the needle administers the accurate dosage based on body-mass index and metabolism. After which you can just relax and… take your time.”

The last three words seem to linger more than they should in your mind. The hatch-door closes and is sealed shut after several turns of the wheel. A small prick in your left wrist announces the start of another boring test-phase.

The capsule starts to slowly fill with vapors, they feel cool on your skin and breeze through your clothes, small tendrils of almost blue smoke just barely graze your chin, soon they will envelop you. You close your eyes, from somewhere deep inside your brain you can almost feel a surge of electricity, and a deep piercing pain courses you, your hairs stand on their ends, skin gathers goose-bumps. You open your eyes again expecting to convulse and writhe in anguish, but nothing happens. All is still, the tendrils of smoke just beneath your chin a sea of faded blue toffee, swirls no longer, but is frozen. You try to look around only to discover that you can’t!

“What is going on!” you would scream if you could, but again, nothing happens as thoughts course through your mind and bounce off the thin layers of your skull in brownian motion, only to rebound at an ever increasing rate to the conclusion that, yes, the flow of time is simply no more.

Thoughts, your own thoughts, seem to surpass the trappings of time and so you turn you eyes inward, towards all the choices that have led to you to this point of absolute mute stillness.

You let the thought sink in and permeate your skin and much like a stone statue, you only stare dumbfounded ahead into the visor of the capsule.

 

In what seems to be a span of days just staring blankly ahead you remember all the mishaps and failures of efforts past, all the spurned desires and aborted plans for change, the pain of losing your loved ones, the void and scars they left behind. The regret of accepting that no, you are not prime aviation material, we’re very sorry to inform you, no, no matter how many sleepless nights you will toil away hidden in the cramped attic loft, the end sum of all your collated research on centrifugal tidal forces is equal to Zero, as the Grant Approval Committee already went with a different applicant this year, but do try again, no, rent is due now, you failed researcher, no, we cannot at this time approve your request for a personal loan, no, no no.

You would scream, how you would scream, if only you could, as man always does when left to his own devices and realises just how inexorably pitiful and pathetic he is in the much grander state of things in the Universe. In this case though, time or the extension of it by which humans experience it is lost to you, the maddening dread of it all closing in on you in pitch black streams until you’re drowning in ink inside a bottle.

 

 

You open your eyes, you seem to be sitting on a stool, your legs can’t reach the floor so you just let them dangle. Just a bit to your right you hear a sliding sound, fsssshhhh, it goes at a rhythmic pace, your nose itches ever so slightly from the smell of sawdust, wood being sanded down made smoother. Slowly the figure ahead of you becomes clearer, rough tanned wrinkled arms start from one end of a wooden pole and make their way to the other with deft movements.

“Eh?! What do you think boy? Want to give it a try?”

The old man hands a sanding cloth, you touch it, it feels rough, abrasive in your delicate child-sized hands, you shake your head, at a loss of what to respond and you give it back to the old man. He picks it gingerly from your hand.

“Well you’ll be here for a while kid, what do you wanna do in the meantime, can’t just sit there all day! Your mom is going to give me an earful if she finds out I let you dawdle all day without anything to do. So what do you wanna try then?”. The old man in striking resemblance of your late Grandpa looks at you attentively through bushy unkempt eyebrows.

You feel your face warming up so you look away, you look at the many shelves lining up the walls, almost reaching the rafters of this small cosy workshop. Glancing over the many baubles and trinkets, your eyes lock onto one singular item: a tiny ship, inside a glass.

How could it be in there? Makes no sense, you wonder as you reach your index finger in its direction.

“Oh, you want to try building a ship in a bottle eh? Well your hands are small enough to handle pliers at least.”

He gets a ladder and places the bottle in your hands. You tinker with the bottle, trying to see where it separates in half, but you see nothing out of the ordinary. It is smooth and clear. Inside the bottle is an old ship, with sails, but no crew. You peer closely. The level of detail seems unreal, there has to be a trick to it.

“Aha! I thought I had another set of these lying around”. The old man places a box with the image of an imposing ship before you. ”Now this ship design here is thousands of years old, it’s a galley! See there the long pole with the sail on it? That is called the mast and there is only one of it on this kind of ship. And see the tens of little sticks pouring out of it? Now those are paddles, and depending on the time period they were either manned by free-men, sailors, pirates, pillagers or slaves.” He pauses.

“Now point being, what makes this type of ship so unique is its sleek long hull and really low draft, and the fact that because it had so many rows of paddles that meant it was never really at the mercy of the winds and could move extremely precisely.”

“So here, try assembling it on your own, take your time” he says, and pauses for a longer while. “Nothing worth building is built faster than it needs to be built. It takes time, patience and a pair of skilled hands and some brains. Now go on then, show me what that ship really looks like.” He pats you on the head and resumes his woodworking activity, leaving you eager but also confused.

The parts are divided in sections in their little respective bags. You put them aside and slowly, methodically start putting the main deck from the bow. Then you make your way to the back of the ship carefully put together tiny planks and seats for tiny people to eventually row the ship to great sights far away. Then you put the mast together, carefully handling the cloth of the sail and tying strings together to keep it steady as much as you can.

All this takes a lot of concentration and patience and there are times when you want to stop, not knowing what area misses which piece but then you realise the layers on which the old 14th century galley is built on and you understand. Slowly you press on, until the final piece is missing, the figure head, the torso of a man in armor with a spear in hand, piercing the way forward for the rest of the ship to follow. You set it into place and there it is, was it always supposed to be this big?

You look in awe at your own work. You want to show it to the old man, so you scamper over to him and tug at his pants. He peers over inquisitively.

“What is it? Need help? Let’s have a look.”

As he nears the ship that your own tiny hands have built he stops in his tracks in admiration.

“You know kid, I couldn’t have done it better myself.” One hand reaches and messes your hair after which he gently puts a hand covering your entire left shoulder and suddenly hugs you.

You can smell the sawdust on his clothes but it feels comforting even though your nose itches. And a new smell fills your nostrils, cold and somehow it stings, you open your eyes to see blue smoke pouring through the windows and from under the entrance door.

You mean to jump on the workbench but the old man still holds you to his chest.

“It’s ok kid, you did good,” he whispers and disappears in the ever-thickening cloud of blue vapor.

           

 

A stinging pain courses through your entire body, you break into spasms but you’re held tightly by metal bindings.Your head feels like it’s about to burst and you start shivering all-over, just as the gas-masked technician appears in front of you in the hatch door. He says nothing and his hands are akimbo. The pain subsides almost as quickly as it first came and is quickly replaced with a weariness unlike anything you’ve experienced so far. The bindings come off, you try to make a step forward and get out of the chair, but you stumble and are unable to control your footing.

The gas-masked technician catches you and supports your weight. He is helping carry you out.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, your brainwaves were the most stable I’ve seen yet. How were you able to process such a vast amount of time?!” You can’t really tell through the mask but he is showing genuine amazement. “More than 2 months frozen in one place! ”

“I… was… I was..building a ship, a galley…”

You feel your consciousness becoming looser and you let it drift. You pass out and enter perhaps the best sleep you’ve ever had since enrolling here.

3 - Recovery Phase

It’s been almost 2 weeks and still the odd lingering itch of a phantom limb now replaced with a motorized metal shell bothers you to no end. Twitch. At the slightest intention the arm jerks into motion, the fingers shaking much like the spiny legs of an insect. Every now and again goose bumps litter your skin, remembering just what remained of your left hand after one hastily made move turned it into a fleshy mess. Twitch. You find your new metallic fist shut tight, both in rage and in possible malfunction.

While the rehabilitation technician assured you again and again that this is only a temporary feeling, your brain learns to accept it as natural part of you. Looking more closely, you can’t quite shake off the feeling that somehow this dull white and worn amalgam of plastic, metal and wiring reflects more about your current state of mind than anything else at the moment, but hey, at least now losing a keychain or spare change is no longer an issue.

“The Dextero 2 Model B carefully imitates the movements of a normal human hand without the problems of rigidity the human wrist normally imposes. You can now turn your wrist to a full rotation how many times you wish as the main titanium bone is untethered. As an added bonus you can also…”

“Can I feel anything I touch?” you hear yourself blurt out.

Not being used to interruptions, the technician blinks rapidly and says nothing all the while maintaining a somewhat puzzled look.

“What I mean is, does this new… hand allow me in any way to realize what I’m touching without me having to look at it?”

“It has magnetic properties.”

“What?”

“The arm has an inner electromagnet that continuously discharges in small pulses, these pulses act as a sort of… radar if you will, but on a much smaller scale, the pulses then take the shape of conductive surfaces such as metal and water, feeling the surface area. Other types of materials are perceived differently. So while you do maintain a certain degree of awareness over your left hand-side, the feeling will be marginally different from what you perceive as a tactile impulse.

“Also…” his smile turns into a somewhat pained one “there might be minor side effects, as the parietal lobe in your brain gets used to this new feeling while it is learning to interpret electromagnetic impulses. Now, does that answer your question”… he looks in his file “36-8-B ?”

“In a way, yes… thank you.”

“The added bonus of having an intrinsic magnetic field is that it allows you to both stick to and repel conductive material such as metals or iron rich rocks for example. Such a function is usually only found on the new Mark V suits, made for deep space mining, and electromagnetic shields on the more advanced ship hulls. This is the first time it’s been applied in such a way, your accident was almost fortuitous, one might say. I doubt you would be hit again in a High speed maneuvering environment again. What you have there as your arm is bleeding edge technology. I almost envy you, 36-8-B.”

Envy he says, this foreign object pretending to be a part of you, cold metal grafted onto skin and bone. Envy! The possibility of ever playing an instrument again or even tying a knot now of a difficulty tenfold to what was before something simple and intuitive.

As you walk down the dimly lit corridor of the facility, the candidate quarters just in sight, you hear a slight clink. You look down and see nothing. Something on the sole of your shoe? No. Your turn your arm to see, just on the backside of your “new and improved” hand, a shiny metal coin. Looks almost like silver, doesn’t it?

“Must be my lucky day” you hear yourself say and in the cold blue neon light you might almost be smiling.

2 - Test phase #16

“Candidate 36-8-B! Begin evasive maneuvers now!” Not one second later after Frau Prugel gives the command that a giant metal sphere just barely grazes your left shoulder. you can hear the familiar crunch sound of bones turning to crisps just before Candidate 27-1-F screams in agony somewhere behind you.

The Test this time, aptly named “High-speed Kinetic Maneuvering”, includes one of the worst possible scenarios: you are to evacuate the surface of Pluto with the clunky launcher probe, all the while avoiding death raining from above. By death it is meant that countless debrisare falling from the Hyperion after having impeded the wrath of a more advanced space-faring species, or any kind of hazard that might completely obliterate the main spaceship. The probe has to survive at all costs as the data carried within could advance mankind to unknown feats of technology.

All of that comes as little to no comfort to you as you desperately avoid giant metal balls all the while wearing a cardboard replica of the probe and counterfeit shoes. It is usually strongly encouraged that you become one with your surroundings and tools and here they mean it literally, the astronaut becomes the tool in order to fulfill his role.

“Someone bring a stretcher and take 27-1-F away before he gets hit again and leaves an even more unsightly mark!” you hear Frau Prugel say.

“Increase output to 200 km!” The projectiles are now more of a giant blur of screaming metal as opposed to oversized bowling balls rolling forwards.

 Sideways half-step! Duck! Roll to the side! Quick! Lunge before your head gets torn off!

The exit platform is just within reach when you feel the most annoying itch on your right temple and as you raise your hand to subconsciously subdue it for the most fleeting of instances, you feel as if you could touch the incoming projectile. And you do!

The dull-gray bullet seems to be gently stopped by your hand?!?

Elation and new found power, you have surpassed your human condition, mountains can be moved now, the vastness of space in the grip of your hand as it flies away splat against the concrete wall behind you.

When in a situation so dire, the human body reacts by releasing a surge of adrenaline throughout the entire nervous system. Among others, your reaction speed and perception of surroundings is dilated to such an extent, that time, seemingly, comes to halt. But while adrenal responses give rise to the most amazing of bursts in the human strength, you are just a frail human: in front of high speed metal fragments you might as well be made of paper.

Before you can get used to your new stump, you pass out and fall down at the exit ramp,

twitching and bleeding.

1 - Test Phase #7

There are always reasons for contemplating the simple act of disappearing, of going away. Some are more benign than others; let’s say those bullies from ages past, warriors of parental neglect and spurned affection who always called you this or that and always made sure to wait for you at the end of class “just for a chat.” Those little tyrants are now either balding with a crappy job and depressed, having never really done anything with their lives, and they just bump into you whenever you’re back home visiting your folks, coming from one of your many trips. They’ll most often fall upon the familiar “yeah man those were the times” and you can almost hear their silent whimpers as they retreat further inside themselves.

Meanwhile you’re thinking about that damned seat, finally getting that damned seat on that damned shuttle leaving at the beginning of next year and just hoping it won’t burst into flames the moment you step on it.

“Candidate 36-8-B, please report to Mental Inspection in Wing Beta, Kane Office.” The immaculate fake leather couch creaks just a bit as you get up and map your path to Beta Wing. Your butt-mark recalls your presence there until the next the person decides to make another reverse-effigy using their asses.

Getting around in government testing facilities always feels like a test in itself, the mouse can sniff the tasty cheesy morsel but has to navigate through dead ends and door that never lead anywhere and ask people whose responses range from “I’m not allowed to disclose that type of information.” to “Hey man got a cig?” So you’re left with patience and obscure wall signs which you tend to believe are just gibberish, put there to mess with you.

“Sit down, you’re late.” Saying that Kane Office is sparsely decorated would be an understatement: one single wooden chair waits empty in the center of a milky white-tiled floor.

The only other presence is a tall thin man, equally dressed in milky-white pants and shirt and those slippers doctors are always fussing about during their shifts.

The Examiner has a face which would normally be instantly forgotten if not for the odd pair of red-rimmed glasses that tend to make you focus on his cold leaden eyes.

“You are given a large umbrella but it’s sunny outside and you even feel yourself starting to sweat a little. An ominous cloud formation can be seen at the horizon, but that won’t reach you much, much later. A family of 3 is there as well waiting at the nearest bus stop. What do you do with the umbrella until then?”

“I’m sorry, is this the right room?”…”I wasn’t exactly sure what this was about but…”

“I am afraid that type of answer does not award you any points. Moving on to the next question: in the aftermath of a giant explosion on the orbital space station, your mission is in grave danger; several crew members are caught in their personal pods. Dave, your best friend since childhood who has been looking up to you, has also managed to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut alongside you. Dr. Schneller, who is a world leading pioneer in applied quantum physics who has single-handedly spearheaded the research efforts that made your mission possible. And lastly, Cpt. Deckard, your team leader and also the one who has navigated the far reaches of space, mapping vast amount of space on his many expeditions, thus becoming a hero of the new space age to mankind. Who do you save?”

“Well, can it be only one?” you ask.

“At the rate at which your hull is depressurizing you can barely save yourself and one other,” the examiner responds poker-faced.

“I’d save the physicist even if he would be tough to handle. Humanity as a whole would stand a better chance in space with him further investigating quantum physics.”

“Wrong answer: Dr. Schneller becomes increasingly erratic after the event which nearly killed him. His moods grows worse and soon he is unable to function as a crew mate and just stays in his personal quarter most of the time mumbling to himself. The last time you see him, he is bare-chested and with tribal paint all over his face, chanting “All praise Belphegore”. He later kills you and all of the crew by causing an explosion in the main life support station, which eventually burns out all remaining oxygen and everyone else in the process. Your charred lifeless bodies are then ejected into space as you slowly approach the atmosphere of the planet only to be turned to ashes. Next question: You encounter two bunnies who appear to be sentien….”

“What was the right answer?”           

“Come again?”

“Who should have been saved first?”

“The collected data.”

“But that’s not a person.”

“No, but it is more valuable.” The examiner’s eyes have a strange glint to them as he says this, and he might almost be smiling, but his milky features show not even the slightest of changes.

“Was there any way to know when Dr. Schneller would go nuts?”

"No, but if you were to really know your crew mates you would be aware that he is the most susceptible to emotional instability regardless of his shining mind."

"So what you’re saying is, it was going to happen eventually."

"That is correct."

"So what’s a “Belphegore”?"

"That would be a deity, Dr. Schneller’s addled mind came up with as he feared the vastness of space."

"You’re being oddly specific about all of this. All of this sounds like it may have happened before."

The Examiner simply stares, his eyes betraying nothing.

"Next question: how many uses does a shoelace hold? Time of answer: 30 seconds."

Once again you remember the many stars strewn across the sky, littered by some vague deity or again, some kind of cosmic happenstance. You feel a slight chill, as the roof tiles of your grandparents’ hut fill up with the night-time cold. All those tiny dots, worlds far different from anything mankind could comprehend.

And you would draw the most outlandish and overly complicated contraptions that surely you could not do without on your many perilous space adventures. Like a clockwork canine with added licking and fetching functions, just in case you got a boo-boo and it needed to get you things when your motorized spacesuit would run out of battery. In those adventures you would reach far beyond any known stars, limitless in the barren solitude of space.

And yet here you are, your mind racing from one point to another much like a pinball, darting without much choice, between shoelace versatility and rose-tinted childhood dreams, trying desperately to get that just that one spot on the Hyperion ZHD (short for Zero Hyper Drive). The one ship able to finally escape the termination shock, to go past the Oort Cloud. Where among all the frozen mountains and chunks of rock, the secret of life could finally be uncovered and how it came to us, to Terra.

Hell… If nothing too important blows up, mankind may even reach the nearest twinkling in the neighborhood: Proxima Centauri, the smaller, less important sibling of the Alpha.

“I must remind you that this is an examination and I like to remind you that a clear focus is paramount at this very moment, as this is just one of the many things which will be required of you as you hurl yourself through space in a confined metal enclosure filled with some of the best minds and bodies humanity has to offer.”

“I apologize,” you hear yourself say, “I merely drifted off for a bit, please continue…”