Sci-Fi Saturdays #12: Existence (Cycle Drive Part 2)

Issue #012 October 17th, 2020

Hey there. Thanks for checking out another issue of Sci-Fi Saturdays! I recently got a wave of inspiration to continue the story of Humphrey Brockhill from my very first issue to Sci-Fi Saturdays.

The Curious Symbiosis on Venanti IV will be considered Part 1 of a larger story called Cycle Drive.

I’ve got an epic story arc planned, so head back and refresh yourself on Part 1, and then dive into Part 2 right here:

Existence

            The alarm Humphrey had programmed buzzed in his ear and he let out a sigh of relief and sat down in the coarse dirt next to his sled. He’d gotten away from the drones hardly any useful survival gear, but he was trying to make the best of what he had. In his pack he had climbing rope and carabiners, a knife, icepick, camera, pencil, and paper.

            Humphrey had filled his sled—the hollowed out chromatic shell of a native tortoise-like creature –with carved meat from said creature, and whatever small leaves of vegetation he was able to scavenge over the last two days.

            Two days. He thought. How am I doing this?

            In those two days (two days of Earth time, Humphrey had yet to see the sunset on this planet), Humphrey had relentlessly marched westward dragging his shell, only ever stopping long enough for the murderous drone ships to begin to catch up. He’d done some calculations—assuming a steady pace that stayed on a direct westward course—he determined that for every hour of walking, he could rest for forty-five minutes before he was in any danger of being slushified.

            That’s largely how he began, taking short breaks every few hours, studying his predators and desperately trying to create a plan. He rationed and sipped from the nutrient system built into his suit.

            His water and nutrient paste ran dry four hours ago.

            Humphrey set up his camera on the ground pointing at his makeshift camp and pressed record. He was sure to frame the shot well, but the spacesuited man and his meager belongings were still dwarfed by the vast, barren landscape around him.

            “Once again, this is Humphrey Brockhill reporting from Venanti IV… this might kill me, so I figured I might as well get it on video.”

            Even his own nihilist humor couldn’t make him smile now.

            “I made the executive decision early this morning to walk for ten-and-a-half hours today. This means I can now rest for eight hours before the machines catch up to my position. I’ve run out of water and nutrient paste in my suit, and I will now attempt to eat.”

            He held the bag full of meat up to the camera. The once-white fabric was now stained purple with dried blood.

            “The chemical composition that was analyzed from the Cycle Ship indicated many biochemical signatures that are a part of a balanced human diet. So, it’s possible that this will be edible and maybe even nutritious. It seems there is very little microbial life on this planet. The meat has not shown any sign of decay despite being exposed to the air for the last two days. This makes me confident that it won’t be harboring any parasites, but it’s easy to be confident of that when you’re as hungry as I am.

            “I thought about cooking it. I’d be able to start a fire easily enough with the supplies on hand, but frankly I don’t remember the composition of the atmosphere. I remember there was oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and dioxide. At what levels, and what else is here, I have no idea. I can’t say for certain that sparking up a fire wouldn’t cause my entire camp to combust.”

            Humphrey transferred a few handfuls of the meat from the cloth sack into a small clear plastic bag that he happened to have in his pack.

            “Now, I can’t really pop my helmet off and dig in, because of the unfamiliar atmosphere, but I have a plan. I’m going to make a little airlock around my hand and pull the food into my suit that way.”

            Using his left hand, he unzipped the outer seal of the glove on his right hand. Then, he reached into the bag and grabbed the meat with the still-gloved right hand. He squeezed as much air out of the bag as he could, and then began duct-taping the opening around his forearm. Once he was satisfied that he had a good seal, he retracted his hand from the glove and slowly unzipped the second inner seal, allowing his hand to reach freely into the bag.

            As soon as the seal was broken, a strong smell of sulfur filled his suit, reminding him of geology class at his primary school. It was unpleasant, but it was just the residual air from the bag, not a breach to the outside world. His suit’s air scrubber whirred to life, cleaning out the contaminates.

            Among his suit’s many amazing qualities was its ability to stretch. He easily pulled his arm out of the sleeve and brought the meat into the main body of his suit, leaving the right arm hanging limp, still wrapped in the plastic bag.

            “Here goes nothing,” he said.

            He carefully raised a small chunk of the meat up through the three-inch gap between his faceplate and chin, and he tossed it into his mouth. He bit into it and was immediately struck with a metallic taste. He felt like he was being electrocuted through his teeth.

            “Of course,” he said, through labored chews. “The turtle incorporates metal into its shell, so there is a lot of heavy metal floating in its blood.”

            He eventually managed to swallow the bite. At moments, there were flashes of normalcy, where he could imagine he was eating meat or sushi. Humphery let the meal sit for a few minutes and to his surprise he did not become violently ill just yet. The fact that he was stomaching it made him crave more.

            He had to pace himself. Eating too much could lead to toxicity from the metal, or a high dose from some unknown pathogen. For now, this would have to do.

            “I’m going to bed now,” Humphrey said unceremoniously to the camera. Saying the words suddenly made it real. For the first time in two days, he had a chance at over six hours of sleep.

            He activated the airbags in his helmet, which normally would be used to protect his head and neck during bumpy takeoffs and landings. Now, they were a pillow for the lone man on Venanti IV. He laid down and pulled the shell over his body, blocking out the sunlight, and possibly saving him from death, should the drones somehow sneak up on him.

            He closed his eyes and the time passed instantaneously. He awoke to the alarm he had set, but it was quieter than expected.

            The airbag must be muffling the speakers, he realized.

            He opened his eyes suddenly. He began hyperventilating. On his heads-up-display inside of his helmet, he saw a timer counting up; the time since the alarm had started.

            55:10

            He’d given himself eight-hours of break time. He spent nearly an hour eating and recording footage, and he’d just slept for seven hours.

            Humphrey rolled onto his shoulder, using the motion to lift the shell up off of the ground slightly. He looked to the east. They were there, the serpentine black drones, flying in straight-line formation and raining blue death on anything that dared live in their path. They were closer than they’d gotten to him in their first encounter.

            It was time for a choice: Trust the shell, the product of a million years of evolution against the enemy. Or, trust his instincts, which were now screaming at him to use his legs and run. If he stayed and survived, he may have a chance to make it back to his ship. But, was he sure there wouldn’t be more waves of the drones? Was this the only threat sweeping the planet? If he ran, to what end? How would his story end? Why run just to earn a few more days of suffering before the inevitable.

            He’d already waited too long. Humphrey kicked the shell off of himself, got up and began filling it with his belongings, which were strewn about the camp from the night before. He stepped a few paces away to collect the camera, when everything turned blue for a moment. He turned into the blinding light to see that it was reflecting off the shell. He wasn’t hit directly, but he was next.

            With only the camera in his possession, Humphrey ran. Twice, flashes of blue filled light radiated from the ground behind him before he was comfortably out of their range. He continued running until they again disappeared over the horizon.

            Humphrey stopped to catch his breath. He took stock of his belongings. He had the camera, the contents of his pack—minus the knife which he had left on the ground after cutting the meat—and a few chunks of turtle meat stinking up his suit.

            No water, no shelter, no hope.

            I’m done, Humphrey told himself.

            He stood for a long while, but as they had done a few days ago, his legs betrayed him. He once again started the march of existence.

            “Why won’t you fucking die!” he shouted at himself.

            He knew the answer. It was one of the great truths that every cadet learned after a few cycles. Creatures—like the turtlebats—evolve through a cycle of countless deaths and minor improvements, but sentients—races like humanity that reached high levels of cooperation and intelligence—adapt. Without the luxury of billions of deaths to evolve a new respiratory system, humans built dome cities to survive on a dying planet. The Cycle Drive program had discovered similar examples of drastic sentient adaptation across the galaxy.

            Creatures evolve. Sentients adapt.

            Humphrey was ready to add a third point to that statement.

            Evil persists.

            Humphrey continued marching, compelled by the duty to adapt.

            Suddenly, a metallic spear burst from the ground, its sharp tip narrowly missing Humphrey’s thigh.

            He took a step back.

            The spear retracted and then shot out of the same spot again at several different angles, sometimes wiggling in the air, trying to find the target.

            Humphrey carefully shuffled his feet, making small movements toward the spot where the spear had appeared. He pushed his toe down into the sand and inched it forward until it hit something solid.

            “A trapdoor,” he whispered.

            He shuffled his feet again to get leverage and then began pushing the large square door forward. He began hearing sand fall down into the crevice, and soon he could see down into the foxhole. He gave the door another solid kick and then stood back, making sure he wasn’t at risk of being impaled.

            Finally, he reached down and pulled the door up off the ground and tossed it aside.

            In the hole, a gray biped stared up at him, holding the spear with one hand, and shielding its narrow eyes from the sunlight with the other.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you have a wonderful Saturday. I’ll see you soon with Part 3!

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