This is a collection of anecdotes from the fringes of reality, a tapestry stitched together from our dreams as well as our nightmares, from the fears that haunt the collective imagination. These are the symptoms of the sickness known as the human condition.
The Frontier was the largest space hub in orbit. It hung in the sky like a second moon and shined just as brightly. It was a titanium behemoth, with dimensions measured in miles. Everything and everyone that came and went from Earth went through the Frontier. At any given time around fifty thousand people dwelled within its colossal frame and each one of them was just one part of the light that over the years we had come to take for granted on the surface. Because many trips through The Frontier were more often than not, one way the people inside knew it by another name, they called it The Beast.
Everyone inside its walls, the cargo workers, the pilots, the engineers, the construction workers, all the other sorts of laborers had been consumed by it and they were what kept the light shining. And just like any living thing the monster was always growing and changing and it was constantly shedding and replacing all its little cells.
Michael was a young man in his early twenties. He had become a pilot for interstellar shipping for almost no other reason than there wasn’t much else for him to do. He thought it was almost cruel that while he had signed the papers willingly, there had never been another choice.
He sat in a little room deep inside The Frontier’s living quarters. It was his own little microcosm. He would inhabit as long as the Beast decided it wanted him there. His accommodations were meager but adequate. His room had a twin bed attached to the wall and a television that sat atop a small metal shelving unit that looked like something you might see in a laboratory. The steel walls showed signs of rust and corrosion, and the sliding door was a kind of plastic that obscured everything on the other side but didn’t stop the bright ultraviolet lights of the outside from shining through. It wasn’t luxury but he was at least happy to have a space all his own, something he had never had back on Earth.
There were always people walking by and their silhouettes cast themselves against his translucent plastic door. The constant activity outside always served as a constant reminder of where he was and is and so Michael tried his best to stay in his cell. When he left its confines and walked out onto the steel catwalk-that seemed to spiral endlessly up and down the interior of The Frontier’s mighty structure-he realized he was trapped. He could neither see the top nor the bottom. Death or the infinite blackness of space were his only two options for escape. He had signed on as a cargo pilot but he felt more like a prisoner.
In his mind he tried to find out how to escape. What were once simply fond memories of home were now Michael’s only sanctuary, but even those were haunted by the specter of The Frontier. It had its place in the sky as long as Michael could remember and its light could still be seen long after the lights and smog on the surface had all but suffocated the glow of the stars. He remembered what his father had said right before he left.
“That thing is a metal man eater: you go in through one side and it shits you out into space through the other.”
These were the words that went through his mind over four months ago when he first arrived on board the Frontier. Michael had passed through the monster’s jaws on a transport with three hundred others; he was just a crumb on a titanium platter. As soon as they landed they were ushered off into various other parts of the hub and Michael never saw any of them again, and he didn't bother to ask. As a cargo pilot it didn't help to become too attached to anyone on The Frontier; here a ‘cargo pilot’ was a job that was likened to being on death row.
One of the shadows walking by Michael’s door stopped and knocked.
“Come in,” Michael called and the door slid open.
It was Marcus, one of Michael few acquaintances aboard The Frontier. They lived on the same level so it was mostly a friendship of convenience for the time being. He was a pilot from Germany and despite his accent was easy to understand and spoke English well enough for any conversation.
Marcus stepped in and the door slid closed behind him. “I was going to the gallery. Want to come?” He asked.
Michael hesitated for a second and his eyes shifted upward as if he were giving the prospect serious consideration. “Yeah. Sure I can eat,” he replied, swinging his legs over the side of his bed and standing up. “Let me just get my shoes on.”
“Alright. Don’t take too long. I have had nothing to eat today.”
Michael laughed, “How the hell do you know when a day’s gone by?”
Marcus held up his arm and pointed to his wrist. “I keep a watch.”
Michael shrugged, “Alright. Let’s go.” He said.
The door slid open and they stepped out. Being on “the walk” as it was known on The Frontier was something like being on a city street that was inside a prison. The sounds of so many thousands of people in one area seemed to mesh into a single constant source of background noise. Everywhere cell doors hung open as different workers tried their luck at entrepreneurial prospects and turned their living quarters into makeshift stores where one could find anything they needed ranging from bags of chips, to liquor, to porn.
The gallery was up three levels. A distance Michael estimated as roughly two city blocks. They had to walk close together as the walk was narrow and even worse there were always pickpockets and muggers making their rounds. Most people who had come to work on The Frontier were already poor and it didn’t help that they had to use what money they did have buying food from the hub’s stores. A pilot could easily go broke waiting three months to get assigned a mission. If a guy got desperate enough all he had to do was go up or down a few levels and rob someone, given the size of The Frontier and the number of people currently stewing in its bowels pinpointing the person responsible would be nearly impossible.
“Did you hear about Marcells?” Marcus asked, breaking the silence.
“No. What about him?” inquired Michael.
“Last night, he got a ship.”
“Oh really?” Michael replied, a hint of surprise in his voice.
“Yeah, after six months,” Marcus said with a grin.
Michael shuddered at the prospect of being in the belly of the beast for another two months.
“That’s not all either,” Marcus started again.
“What do you mean?” Michael responded, raising his eyebrows inquisitively.
“There was a fuel leak in the supply bay and the whole ship caught fire.”
Michael grimaced, “I guess I’m not really surprised.”
They spent the next moment walking in silence, each of them reflecting on the fate of the pilot they both barely knew, but still resonating so deeply because they both knew chances were good they had something similar to look forward to. They say the young feel invincible but in The Frontier nothing could be further from the truth.
Their contemplation was interrupted and they stopped dead in their tracks when a man a few yards in front of them jumped out of his cell screaming in a tone that was mixed with equal parts anger and hysterical fear. He was a tall man in a jumpsuit and a crew cut and had an accent that Michael pegged as being Eastern European, most likely Russian.
“Get the Fuck away from me!” The man screamed.
Everyone on the level stopped all at once and watched. Another man emerged from the doorway crawling on his knees. After a second, Michael could see that his face was covered in blood. The man on his knees reached out to the Russian man who recoiled and kicked him over. Now on his side the man tried to pick himself up but instead started vomiting.
“Shit!” Marcus exclaimed, “I think he has titanium poisoning!”
No one was really sure what it was but a very deadly and very virulent sickness had been making its way through the living quarters of The Frontier. Not knowing what to call it, the men living here just attributed it to the titanium; they said after spending so much time here, the metal would eventually seep into your bloodstream like mercury.
The man managed to push himself to his knees again. “Help me…” he said weakly as blood began to leak from his eyes. Whatever this was it was nasty. Symptoms began simply enough with headache, fever, basic flu-like symptoms. Eventually though, those gave way to debilitating pain and hemorrhaging, at which point it seemed that the victim had only hours to live.
There was a break in the crowds on the other side as four security officers emerged and surrounded the two. There were imposing figures. They wore black body armor over grey jumpsuits and large black gas masks with blood orange eyes that made them look like giant insects that walked on two legs. One of them took the large Russian by the arm and he snapped around to scream at him.
“This guy has the sickness; you got to take him away!” The officer responded with a calmness that managed to be both eerie and intimidating. “Sir, you’re gonna have to come with us.”
“Why? I am not sick!” The Russian yelled back.
“Sir,” the officer began again.
“Fuck you!” The Russian interrupted, and in a flash one of the officers slammed his baton into the man’s back sending him to the floor. Then the others joined in and they took turns bashing their weapons against the man’s body. Once they felt he had been thoroughly subdued they picked up both he and the sick man and started dragging them away.
“Let’s get outta here,” Michael said. Marcus nodded his head in agreement and they turned and walked back toward Michael’s cell. As they walked, Michael looked back over his shoulder and locked eyes with the large mask eyes of one of the security officers. Michael quickly turned away,
They returned to Michael’s room and waited for the excitement outside to die down. Although Michael was trying to remain calm, the incident clearly had Marcus very worked up. Michael sat on his bed and watched Marcus pace back and forth while he theorized what was happening.
“This thing is starting to get too close for comfort,” Marcus said.
“Well what can ya do?” Michael replied coldly.
“You know what it is, right?” Marcus asked. Michael looked at him a moment. “They released a virus to try and kill off their excess workers so they don’t have to pay to keep them around or send them back to Earth.”
Michael smiled slightly, “You’ve been hanging around the gallery too much; that’s just paranoid ramblings.”
“It’s something to think about,” Marcus said.
Michael just nodded, “Well, I think I’ll head back to my room now; see you tomorrow, buddy.”
“Later, Marcus.” As Marcus left the room, Michael fell back onto his bed. Although he dismissed Marcus’s idea of some kind of biological attack on the employees of The Frontier, he couldn’t shake the building worries he had that were manifesting themselves into anxiety that he could feel solidifying in the pit of his stomach.
Sometime later, Michael awoke and could see two tall figures standing in front of his door. “Pilot number 2471,” one of the figures called out. Michael felt like he was in a nightmare. His first instinct was to cover his head with his blankets. He knew it was a security detail out there which meant one of two things:
They had come to take him away.
Or he had finally gotten his mission.
The door slid open and Michael quickly sat up. The two security officers entered the room. “Pilot number 2471, come with us.”
“What’s going on?” Michael asked, standing up slowly.
“Number 2471, come with us.” Michael knew better than to ask twice. He slipped on his shoes and followed the officers out. Michael was rushed through the process by a frantic crew. They dressed him in his space suit and led him quickly down a red lit hallway. Michael couldn’t feel his legs, he moved along the floor as if he was floating, but the crew continued to push him along. They came to a large steel door with a red light on top of it that flashed to green. They pushed Michael in and the door closed behind him.
A monitor on a large steel arm hung from the ceiling. There was a clicking sound and the black screen lit up. It seemed intensely bright against the red lit room. The monitor began to speak in a somewhat feminine voice.
“Pilot 2471, we ask that you take a minute to read your flight contract and say yes if you accept all the terms therein. Keeping in mind refusal of the terms would constitute a breach of your original employment contract and you would be subjected to the stated penalties including but not limited to a fine of ten thousand credits and up to five years in prison.”
Michael paused for a moment, “Let me guess, you’re not responsible if anything goes wrong?” He said sarcastically.
“Sorry, response not understood, please reply, yes or no,” The computer replied.
Michael rolled his eyes and sighed, “Yes, I accept.”
“Thank you, Pilot 2471.” A door at the other end of the room slid open revealing a brightly lit airlock. “You may proceed and good luck.” Michael slowly approached the entrance. He tried to convince himself not to be scared and that he was only delaying the inevitable. But he couldn't convince himself to walk faster; he was literally becoming crippled with fear.
That entrance was the point of no return.
He felt like he was outside his body but still moving. He watched his right foot as it passed through the entrance, then the left. He heard the door slide behind him and lock shut. The noise seemed to snap him out of his daze and he quickly snapped around and pushed on the door but it wouldn't open. The door on the other side of the airlock slid open and Michael could see the darkened cockpit of his ship.
“Well it’s now or never,” He said aloud, hoping the cliché would make him feel braver. He entered the ship, the door closed and he could hear it detaching from The Frontier. The cockpit was cramped; there was barely any room to stand. Clearly they had done everything they could to save on space and only the most basic of essentials were included. There was a single pilot’s chair that sat in front of a control console that was attached below a large viewing window. A voice came over the com system. It was the same voice as the computer inside.
“Pilot 2471, your destination is the Pulsar outpost, approximately 1.2 million miles from your current location. Estimated time of arrival is four months, two weeks, three days, and nine hours. The ship has detached from the docking bay and the engines will now start up as we begin launch.”
Michael didn’t feel the need to answer the voice, it would have been futile, his life was now in its hands and he was incapable of being concerned about that outcome. He listened to the engines power up as he looked out the viewing window at the vastness of space. This is where his fate lay, in the empty vacuum of nothingness. The engines gradually got louder until they reached a loud pitched hum and he felt a sudden force pushing against his chest as it took off. The ship hummed along for no more than thirty seconds when it suddenly jerked around and went into a spin.
Michael panicked as the lights on the console began flashing red. He tried to get a hold of the steering mechanism but the ship was spinning so fast he couldn't take hold, then after about fifteen seconds it stopped and the ship seemed to be floating quietly.
There was no sound of the engines or anything else. Michael waited for a moment, then asked, “What happened to the ship?” There was no response. He asked again, louder this time. Finally, the computer replied, “Pilot 2471, there was an engine malfunction and your ship deviated from the course.”
“Oh, can we get back on course?” Michael asked.
There was silence.
“Can we get back on course?” He asked, again, more urgently this time.
“Pilot 2471, you have strayed approximately five thousand miles off course and your second and fourth engines are not responsive.”
Michael’s face went stiff and the breath stopped in his chest. “What does that mean?” He managed to ask.
“Your ship is now flying through space at approximately seven thousand three hundred forty-four miles per hour, a diagnostic check has been run on your engines and unfortunately they cannot be turned back on. Pilot 2471, you and your ship have been deemed lost assets.”
Michael felt choked with terror, but he had just enough control left to mask it with anger. “What the hell does that mean?” He demanded.
“Unfortunately, no rescue is possible; your ship’s systems will be remotely shut down and your com system shut off. Goodbye Pilot 2471. Your family will be promptly notified.”
“What the hell are we talking about? Get me out of here!”
The lights on the console turned off and everything went black. Michael pounded on the com system and screamed, “Send someone to get me, you son of a bitch!”
He put his face into his hands and began to sob. He remembered what his father had told him, the monster had eaten him and now shat him out into space. As he plunged through oblivion, he stood at a point between life and death. Although he still breathed, he no longer existed. He would talk to no one and no one would talk to him. He was just a speck of dust floating through the never-ending void. And although he had provisions to last for months, he knew he was already dead.
This story was printed in Skive Magazine's "2011-2012 Young Authors Edition". Skive Magazine always publishes fantastic collections that will have something to satisfy fans of any genre.
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