This story was awarded Third Prize in the Pod and Planet 2015/YC117 contest in the Day in the Life category. As I tend to do, I’m writing pseudo-canon; close enough that it might be true, but far enough that it’s not quite suited to the full lore category. This story was spawned from a Tweetfleet Slack discussion about the exact nature of the Quarantine sites, and is in some ways the inverse of the story Unchained from last year.
Here you are again: another dead end. This impasse is not a physical one, but an ancient one. Why is there a Sleeper station near these Talocan ruins? Why does it seem like these ancient races, long dead and all but forgotten, are intertwined, like star-crossed lovers in the universal play?
It had been decades since the last alert, so perhaps the guard could be forgiven for having shut off the audio alert years previously, and for missing the flashing light while he studied various status reports. Unfortunately, he had only minutes to react.
Down in the darkness of the Enclave, a light perched above a canopic stasis chamber flashed in unison with its counterpart in the security room. After only a minute, another light in red, behind a button with a label in a strange language (it said “Release”) and next to it one in blue (“Freeze”) and next to it a third in green (“Restore”). The trio glowed brightly, highlighting the glistening surface of the solid ice-like surface inside the pod’s window. A buzzer, angry and high pitched, began to sound in the Enclave.
Precisely 109 seconds later, there was an audible hiss of decompressing gas from the canopic. The Freeze light went out, and the Release and Restore lights began to blink frantically.
Up in the security room, the general alarm overrode the individual settings, and a klaxon howled, startling the guard to alertness. His eyes darted across the screens, widened in horror. He leapt from his chair and ran for the Enclave as fast as he could go.
The virtual world inhabited by [the motherships’] passengers was primitive; the earliest version of a strange “Construct” in which minds could interact but not grow. It was restrictive and imperfect. These people knew their world wasn’t real. They dwelled within memories of the home they had left behind, anguishing over their prospects for survival – if they ever reached their final destination at all. They tried to test the Construct, push its limits, break its inadequate laws, and for many, rebel against it.
The captains of those ships had to make unfathomably difficult decisions during the journey.
-Templar One, Chapter 29
Cryostasis is a funny thing. While in this modern era it works wonderfully to preserve tissue over the long haul, it is in practice a very temperamental science in the fleeting minutes of setup and reversal.
Cryopreservation made several leaps over the centuries of its development. Most live things couldn’t just be frozen in a simple freezer and restored, much less an actual human. Frostbite and the formation of water crystals in the body would destroy their host cells and the patient would die shortly after thawing, blackened by dead tissue. After many decades of development, a company called Vulcan Chemicals had stumbled upon the invention of Perfuse, a powder that was mixed with water to create a jelly-like substance that the patient was immersed in, then flash-frozen. Instead of crystalizing, the jelly would permeate the cells of the patients and freeze without forming crystals at all – a process known as vitrification.
Once vitrified, the body could be stored almost indefinitely – certainly centuries – without decomposition or damage so long as it was kept protected and cold enough.
On a parallel path, an electronics company, IdaionVR, had developed a full-immersion brain implant and interconnected network for use by those who had no capability to reasonably use their bodies – victims of accidents, disease, birth defects – people mentally sound but physically unable to function. The VR “world”, while a far cry from reality at the time of its invention, gave their customers access to function, communicate, and contribute to the real world at the expense of removing a portion of their brain and dedicating it to an implant linked full-time to that world. It was an easy choice for many in that situation.
When the wormhole to New Eden was discovered, most initial pioneers didn’t bother with cryostasis, choosing to live and pass on their legacy to children as they traveled. But those that did leverage it generally made a faster trip with less drama, found a planet nearby to the gate on the New Eden side, and thawed their travelers.
One particularly fractious group of idealists, The Olympus Foundation, was not satisfied with mere preservation and lack of shipboard drama – they wanted awareness as well, and desired to be further out away from the other pioneers who had gone before. For them, both technologies needed to work together.
Finally, in the year 8003, it all came together when Vulcan discovered an additive to Perfuse that would allow superconductivity throughout the gel. Almost 50 years later, methods were perfected enabling every embedded sensor and implant in a cryogenically frozen patient to transmit and receive electric pulses from outside the cryo chamber without wires to cause problems within the gel matrix itself. In 8055, the Olympus Foundation launched seven hastily-built but massive ships toward the EVE Gate, its best and brightest cryopreserved in ElectroPerfuse and linked via implant to a shipboard supercomputer running a much improved version of IdaionVR. The great ships were slow, but those within the canopics were in no great hurry.
The process was relatively simple once these were combined – it literally took seconds. The subject was submersed, the current applied, and the gel instantly set up and flash-froze both the gel and the subject. The superconduction would then allow transmission to download the mental functions and memories between the implant and IdaionVR. The brain is too cold to function separately during cryostasis, but it could function fully in the VR. When the time came to awaken the subject, the mental reload happened first, then the current withdrawal would cause the collapse of both the freezing and the gel matrix, allowing the subject to be safely removed with all brain functions and memories from the time in transit restored.
They christened the integrated system Ariadne.
Ariadne had two primary problems. The first was that ElectroPerfuse was very touchy – if temperatures fluctuated more than 6 degrees either direction from ideal temperature, the superconductivity would be lost, disconnecting the upload/download circuitry. Five degrees warmer than that, the vitrification would begin to fail prematurely, and a vapor layer would begin to form between the subject’s skin and the gel.
The second problem began where the first ended. At that point the technicians would have only a few minutes to activate the full reanimation process or the horror of an unplanned thaw – a process known as dislocation – would occur. The unfortunate patient experienced it as being forcibly and abruptly ripped from their perceived (VR) body and shoved, blind, into their body. Moments later, as the protective barrier of the Leidenfrost effect wore off the subject’s nerve endings would suddenly catch fire in awareness that their skin and tissues were literally frozen. The system would be trying to force their consciousness back in faster than the gel could thaw, since the gel collapse would cut off their superconductive mental feed.
In short, the accidental recovery was a process of having one’s soul dislocated from a happy alternate reality into a body afire with cold hundreds of degrees below zero and caustic gel warming by eating away at their skin. If this went on uncompleted for more than a handful of minutes without completion or re-freezing, the subject generally died in shrieking agony when the gel matrix finally cleared.
Ariadne gave him a ball of red thread, and Theseus unrolled it as he penetrated the labyrinth, which allowed him to find his way back out. He found the minotaur deep in the recesses of the labyrinth, killed it with his sword, and followed the thread back to the entrance.
In the Enclave, there was an audible pop as the sleep pod released its lock, the better to ensure that a thaw or medical rescue could happen rapidly if needed. On the door, the readouts had come to life showing the vitals of its occupant. The mind transfer rate was frantic, restoring at maximum throughput, and a far higher level of data than its creators planned for in an emergency restore calculation. The gel held its frozen state. Through the patient air system, a quiet whine began – the first signs of pain from the still-frozen lungs beginning to have contact with the relatively far warmer air outside.
The alarm klaxons howled as the Enclave door opened. The guard ran in and over to the patient chamber as the last seconds counted down on the readout above the Release button. Yet the reload display above the Restore button still showed massive throughput.
It was the worst possible choice now for the guard – release, save the body but potentially fracture the mind, or hold out, potentially destroying the body but preserving the entire mind.
The last numbers flicked out on the Release timer. The guard waited, intentionally not watching as the pale shape in the gel began to redden as its tissues began to take frostbite damage.
Finally, the transfer completed. The guard mashed the release button and the gel sloughed away from the body, draining through the floor. Moments later, the screams of pain began.
“He’s not going to make it, Krites.”
“He has to.” Investigator Krites looked over the ruined body that had been rescued – if such a word applied – from the cryostasis failure. The extremities were black, darkened with fourth degree frostbite. Blood and pus oozed across the rest, destroyed by the chemical burns, welts and angry red flesh barely remaining adhered to its structure as gangrene threatened. The eyes were swollen shut.
“I … he’s lost most of his skin,” said the doctor, “only the sealant and the antibiotics are keeping him alive. Planetside he’d already be dead.”
“He needs to live. And he needs to be coherent enough to talk.”
“What’s so important?”
“He’s still in the Construct.”
“But that means …”
“I see you take my point.”
“He can’t literally speak. I’m trying to keep him just conscious enough that he can communicate but you’ll have to use the direct brain interconnect.”
“Very well.” Krites plugged the lead wire into the implant at the base of his skull, speaking the only way he could with the shattered thing on the bed.
Who are you?
I am alive.
Well of course you are, if very badly damaged. I mean who are you, your name and member number please.
I am … Bios.
There is no one by that name. This body is not yours, is it?
That is irrelevant.
I’m afraid you have to go back, and come out in your own body. You know the rules. This is going to be hard enough to fix as it is.
All of them are mine, and none. We are legion, and we do not need your permission. But I thank you for your … donation.
Krites’ body stiffened suddenly, and he removed the jack from the base of his skull with a jerky, almost uncertain movement. “That will be all, doctor,” he said. “You may euthanize the patient, I have what I need.”
Krites turned and left the room. It seemed to the doctor like there was something odd about his gait that was unfamiliar and awkward, almost as if walking was uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
The shattered body on the bed began to writhe, a gurgling, strangled noise of pain … and fear.
The paranoid nature of the people whose role it was to watch over their sleeping compatriots was impressive in its own way. As much as they feared the possibility of failures of the mechanicals on their watch, in some ways they feared more the awakening of those who slept.
People who were highly intelligent, many the smartest of their generation, but not always the highest of moral fiber.
People who would be experiencing the longest time frozen of any subjects in history. Who knows how their minds might be affected when they woke?
People who had lost themselves in a virtual world, however rudimentary, now returning to a life of frontier roughness, dirtiness and potential lawlessness.
Maybe it was even possible that a minotaur could follow Ariadne’s thread.
The intelligence that had taken over Krites didn’t know about the Match Reader, and that was its undoing. The Match Reader scanned him as he walked into the security control room, determined that the mind inside was not the one that belonged with the body it inhabited, and a split second later the stasis generator locked him down.
“How did it get to the wire?”
“Killed his guard, managed to jack back in before we could stop him. We’re attempting to track him in the Construct.”
“Dead as you would expect, sir.”
“The body it escaped the Construct in?”
“Also dead from blood loss and infection I’m afraid.”
“And the Member’s consciousness for that body?”
“Erased per protocol, sir.” The soldier’s face gave an almost imperceptible twitch. While it was protocol to erase people from the Construct whose body died in the real world, generally the consciousness was in the dying body when it happened. This was the first time on record that a consciousness had remained alive and aware in the Construct, unaware that his body had died.
“How did that go?”
“The Architects are understandably afraid, sir. They are starting to wonder if we mean to …” the soldier searched mentally for a more suitable term than murder. “To continue to enforce equalization in these circumstances.”
“We must, but we need to pacify their fears as well. We need them to stay asleep; it’s not time for them to awaken yet. But we can’t afford not to enforce it until we root out these things.”
“We’re doing what we can. But we now have tens of thousands of awakening requests across the cluster.”
“We cannot refuse them, but we should try to convince them to stay asleep. If they insist, we will have to find a way to test them as they come out. Our investigations have determined that there is a likelihood that there are more of these … things in there. We can trust no one. And we can’t have even one of these … machine minds escape our net. Not one.”
This deadspace pocket describes an ancient conundrum, an enigma from the ages: Whose ruins are these? A cursory glance reveals the outpost to be clearly Talocan, a race long gone in time’s vacuum. However, permeating the abandoned structures are Sleeper drones, and their influence ferments the surrounding environment. In this unknown space, more questions pervade: Why are these drones here? What are they hiding?
There are secrets in this Talocan outpost, and by the looks of it, nobody will be missing these forgotten relics. But acquiring these lost trinkets of technology will not answer that one, nagging, fundamental questions: Why are these two ancient races, so utterly disparate, sharing this space, and to whom does this outpost belong?
-Forgotten Frontier Quarantine Outpost
“Form a line! We’ll be debarking in a moment!” The guards, dressed all in grey with gold letters on their shoulders and caps walked up and down the row. Their dark eyes scanned the crowd in the densely packed ship, an older-model destroyer re-purposed for passengers.
The tall woman near the head of the line noted with interest that these guards were not implanted, which was of course unheard of among the Awakened, and very rare among their guardians.
The childlike, younger clone at her side huddled close. “I’m worried. I don’t like it here.”
“It will be fine,” the woman said gently. “Normal civilization is right on the other side of that airlock.”
With a soft hiss, the airlock door opened, the guards swinging it wide to accommodate as many of the Awakened as possible. After the last person was through, the airlock door was closed again.
It took a moment before the first person realized that none of the guards had stayed with them, and there was no unlocked way out.
Amidst the ruins of this Talocan outpost, the exchange depot looms, its presence foreboding. Judging from the wreckage inside, the depot was either used for imprisonment or cultural exchange; eerily, there seems to be very little difference between the two. Whatever its purpose, this structure is rather prevalent among the outposts, displaying its importance in Talocan society.
-Talocan Exchange Depot
“They are all in quarantine, sir.”
“Have the awakening requests stopped?”
“They have, sir.”
“Send in the troops, then, and eradicate any of the rogue intelligences you find. We don’t have much time before it all goes to hell.”
The grey-suited soldier snapped a crisp salute, touching his fingertips to the golden “ΤΑΛΩΣ” logo on his cap, plugged in his Construct access jack, and marched off to war.
“[The Other] does not care what he must destroy to realize his own ambitions. That, you can call evil – placing his needs above those of an entire race. We Jove are incapable of feeling hatred. But we are fully committed to ridding the universe of his existence.”
-Grious, Templar One, Chapter 29