Asylum: An Olduvai Story
Polibus piloted his ship cautiously through the cover provided by the cluster of derelict ships drifting quietly in their gravitational current just beyond the glowing edge of the atmosphere. The vast array of single family pods and titanic frigates were an orbiting graveyard. Thier human cargo having long ago expired waiting to be granted their promised refuge.
This solemn patch of dead man's sky had deemed a forbidden zone. Polibus had to conceal his presence by taking cover among the listless vessels. To stay hidden he had to fly without lights, and autopilot had to be disabled, so he could manually turn off the ship’s ID transmitters. The closest stars did not shine on this side of the tidally locked planet. Even the largest ships were shrouded in the nebulous void. Every move of the ship had to be made with painstaking accuracy requiring Polibus to constantly stop and use the ship’s navigational systems to chart a path through the wreckage.
As he labored over his map his furrowed brow suddenly smoothed, his focused eyes eased, and a smile broke across his face.
“We’re almost there,” he murmured.
Just beyond the massive cargo ship, he was floating beside were the coordinates. His triumphant grin dissipated into a grimace. The last run of the journey was going to be the most perilous. Once he left the cover of the surrounding ships, they would be in full view of the drones that patrolled the skies looking for any runners.
He sighed and turned off the map display. The only passengers with him were his family, but they had to be kept heavily sedated to hide their vital signs from any probing drones. One heart beat was easier to miss than six. Even in their drug induced comas Polibus still made every effort to step quietly. He opened the doors to the infirmary. They were in two row of three on either side of the room. Thier dormant bodies were hooked up to an array of life support machines monitored by the ship’s AI.
Polibus walked over to his wife’s bed and knelt down beside her. He clasped his hands over her’s.
“We’re going to be planetside in just a few hours,” he whispered. Although she didn’t stir, Polibus was hopeful some part of her subconscious might be hearing him.
“I can’t wait to bring you and the kids home, start a new life, or any kind of life,” he sighed.
“I have, to be honest, I’ve heard it’s a little rough down there but I know we’ll make it. Besides I’m pretty sick of space,” Polibus chuckled.
“Well, I’ll let you sleep,” He kissed her on the cheek and laid her arm back at her side.
Polibus Niemand, his wife, and four children were the only known survivors of a disaster that had by the official count claimed over 32,000 lives or the total human population of the colony. It was classified as "colony collapse disorder" a convenient term, but still hopelessly insufficient. The term implies a single instance, a definable moment of perilous and deadly calamity beyond explanation or reason and although colony collapse seemed like a spontaneous occurrence on the surface like anything else the aspects that defined it were precipitated by events well in the past. To the one man who was able to look back with any appreciable hindsight, it seemed their old home had died long before anyone really realized it.
That simple demarcation line between the beginning and the end was a great frustration and almost personal insult to Polibus. One moment everything functioned and the next nothing at all. To Polibus it was a startling glib analysis and one that stigmatized him and the colony his family built and administered as failures with a profound lack of foresight that according to experts should have made the cataclysm end of humanity on his home planet a foregone conclusion. But if that had been the case where were they when there was time to divert extermination?
These armageddons were rampant in any corner of any galaxy humans settled. Colony’s were routinely destroyed by simple mechanical failures. Habitable planets are sparsely hidden treasures throughout the universe most planets could only be colonized with the aid of synthetic modularly constructed automated habitats, places where human activity was severely limited by the very limited carrying capacity.
The scarce worlds with adequate natural systems to foster a human population were always the most desired homes. The people born into these worlds will always be the envy of any sterilized man or woman widdling down their life span in the confines of a domed mining facility or starting through the narrow observation portals of a space station.Helligdom was the one exception.
Helligdom was the dismal result of the first and last ever attempt at terraforming. At its conceptionHelligdomwas the dawn of a new age when humanity would be able to form entire world’s at will, celestial homes crafted with any specifications desired by their creators. Now the planet’s vast wastelands were another eternal monument to hubris.
The gritty barren soil saturating the air stained the world in a dirty shade of nicotine yellow, vomitous retention ponds filled with millions of gallons of toxic waste blemished bile colored terrain. The wind was constantly stirring up and resettling clouds of radioactive particles that had been released from within the planet’s crust during the terraforming process. It would have been abandoned altogether if not for vast deposits of heavy metals. It was not the new Eden the project’s administrators promised, but it could still be salvageable as an industrial site. This desolate hellscape was the last place for interplanetary refugees like the Niemands. None of the planners or panels of experts could ever have predicted the sickening numbers that would face upheaval in the face of the four horsemen that now seemed to be trotting across the galaxy. The facilities on Helligdom were quickly overwhelmed, and even though people were constantly streaming towards the planet, they could only be granted access when it was deemed their resettlement wouldn’t disrupt the miserable but delicate homeostasis that had been achieved. Polibus knew despite what officials told him there was no way he would find a spot on Helligdom before his family starved waiting on the fringe of space. So he looked for a way to slip in undetected. For the price of his life savings, he was able to procure the coordinates of a location where security was lax. If they were caught, they would be killed, but even then there was a better chance of survival than what was offered by passively waiting.
Helena Munsk who arrived on Helligdom when she was just seven years old was among the first to be deposited on Helligdom. After more than four decades marooned in the dilapidated housing blocks, she had made peace with the broken promises the planet represented. She may never get to leave, but her indomitable spirit made her determined to take some control over the place she and thousands of other were forced to call home.
Her family was the administrators of a very wealthy colony. She was too young to understand what happened at the time, but as she grew older, it became clear to her it was her family’s malfeasance that led the world project to ruin.
Thier fortune counted for little on Helligdom. Most went towards so-called administration and resettlement fees, and most of the rest was confiscated as restitution for lost revenue by Singularity on Olduvai. After their fall from grace, most of the Munsk family kept up the descent until there was little left. Her father committed suicide while her mother degraded her mind and body with every available substance. It was mostly the same for her siblings. Many of her brothers went to work in Helligdom burgeoning industries and were either sickened or mangled by their work.
Never without a sense of purpose, Helena went about working to establish the first societal institutions intended for the public good on Helligdom. Her lifelong project was a school for the children of Helligdom. A box-shaped structure once used to house laborers near a construction site was the only hollowed out crumbling building she could convince them to give her.
Education was not compulsory on Helligdom. The school mainly functioned as a space to warehouse the planet's growing number of orphans, but Helena worked to make it a facility used by the general population. Like Helena, many of the children on Helligdom had previously lived very isolated lives in the upper echelons of their respective colonies. The wealthy had better chances of escaping an apocalypse because they were the only ones with the means to do so. They had to be socialized especially if they were going to be absorbed by the planet’s industries. There was no curriculum or standardized lessons. To Helena and the people who volunteered with her, their primary goal was to teach those in their charge how to live the grim life Helligdom offered with some measure of dignity and a greater sense of community.
Around this time the area around the building was usually quiet, but a steadily growing crowd of confounded onlookers had formed outside. Helena pushed her way through the mass of murmurs and rumors. When she got near the front, she saw a colleague.
“Ottocar what’s going on?”
“There was an attack in the school. I’m not really sure of anything else right now,” he explained with a combination of urgency and frustration.
“Ms. Helena, Ms.Helena!” a small voice squeaked.
“Casandra keep moving!” Ottocar ordered.
“Ms. Helena I saw what happened!” the small girl said ignoring the order.
Helena gripped the girl’s shoulders “What did you see?” She asked sternly.
“It was Ajax he stabbed Lukas,” Cassandra gasped.
“Ajax stabbed Lukas?” Helena repeated.
Casandra nodded and wiped her tear stained cheek. “Yeah, Lukas said since Ajax’s parents killed themselves he would never get off of Helligdom. Then he...he,” Cassandra tried to catch her breath, her body trembled, and fresh tears spilled from her eyes.
“It’s ok Casandra,” Helena said calmly. “Now please go find your room.”
The girl nodded and disappeared into the crowd. “I’m going to go talk to Ajax,” said Helena.
“Helena, don’t go in there. The security drones are already on the way,: Ottocar pleaded.
She knew how the mechanized keepers of peace handled violent outbursts like Ajax. If she didn’t intervene, Ajax would be killed.
“I’m going in to talk to him,” she repeated with a steel gaze.
“Helena you know that boy’s already dead,” Ottocar said grimly.
Helena pursed her lips and pushed past Ottocar.
“Helena you can’t save him!” He shouted.
She stopped and turned to face him. “Well, then the least I owe that boy is to help him face his execution.”
Polibus suddenly felt himself being smothered in absolute darkness. His chest heaved from hyperventilating. His muscles loosened, and he was able to move again. The exhausted Polibus wasn’t even are he had nodded off. His brain had burned through its reserves of adrenaline and had little left to keep his body running.
He pulled himself up and shuffled back to the cockpit. He slumped down in his chair and activated his navigational computer. From his present position, his destination was less than an hour away. According to external sensors, they were in the clear.
“Alright just a straight shot,” he reassured himself.
He reached across the console for the engine controls when a crimson light ignited outside the window and bathed the room in the glow of electric blood.
“Oh shit,” Polibus gasped as he laid himself flat on the floor. Polibus held this breath and tried to calm his fluttering pulse
The ichor eye continued to hover just outside. The light spread itself over the floor and moved across the walls and the ceiling. Eventually, the glow started to withdraw as the probe backed away and the blood tide receded through the window.
Polibus clenched his teeth, his head was swimming, and the pressure was building behind his face. He could feel a burning his chest as the air tried to escape his lungs. After another agonizing moment, the light disappeared, and sweet relief washed over Polibus as he resumed breathing.
“That was close,” he murmured. He stood back up and breathed in deeply. It wasn’t a moment before the blood red orb reappeared in the window.
“Oh god no,”
“Surrender your vessel there is no escape,” A disembodied voice calmly explained.
“Shit it’s taking over the ship,” Polibus panicked.
“You have one minute to comply,” The monotone voice informed him.
Polibus had no contingency plan for being caught outside the atmosphere. He only had self-preservation instincts to fall back on, he fired on the engines and tried to outrun the drone.
When she first opened the school, she focused most of her attention on the younger children, but she soon discovered their elastic neurology made them particularly resilient even when exposed to the mind-numbing horrors of societal collapse. The deprivations and the chaos left their scars, and spectral memories manifested into nightmares or drawings. The fissures snaking through the neglected building were covered by drawings and watercolors depicting memories of hell. Fires that engulfed cities, multitudes of featureless people deformed by the deprivations of famine, and mobs that became swarms of monsters with burning red eyes and gnashing blood soaked teeth.
Some had been reluctant to hang those pictures alongside the more hopeful and upbeat ones, but Helena would not allow any attempt to encourage their pupils to try and suppress a defining experience in their lives, even one as traumatic as the end of the world. Even if they never talked about it, it would always be there, and it would always be an aspect of themselves incorporated into whoever they might become in their adult lives.
That was why she decided to shift her efforts towards adolescence. In her view that short window of time was the last chance, a time to make the final effort to ensure her pupils were relatively well adjusted. The third leading cause of death on Helligdom was suicide and the reasons why were obvious. The people who only recently arrived on Helligdom were the most at risk. They were accustomed to a way of life that in many instances had vanished overnight. It was a surreal shift that for many was unbearably severe. To a mind that lives through Armageddon, nothing is certain, and nothing besides misery can ever be permanent.
She met Ajax when he was just eight years old. She had met some far more memorable and remarkable children, but for some reason, the painfully shy boy had managed to leave an imprint on her psyche. She would never forget his face the first time he watched the children who still had their parents leave at the end of the day. The way he stared at the closed door with downcast eyes is a memory her mind always conjured when she heard his name no matter how much time went by. Being the loneliest orphan is a sad distinction.
She found the room where it happened. She quietly walked over to the sealed door and tried to listen through to the other side. All seemed quiet. She slowly pushed the door open, just enough to give her a view of the inside.
The room was in disarray. Desks were overturned onto scattered heaps of paper, and various personal effects were abandoned on the floor. Helena could see Lukas’s body sprawled out near the far right corner. She opened the door a few inches more and crept inside.
“Ajax are you in here?” she asked calmly
“Ajax if you’re here please let me know.”
She walked over to Lukas’s body. He was face down in a darkening puddle of blood. It was smeared on his hands and was matted onto his light blonde hair. She knelt down next to the boy and gently shook him. There was no response. She took him by the wrist for a moment before dropping his limp arm back to where it was. There was no point in checking the pulse he was clearly dead.
She could hear whimpering coming from the back of the room. There was a large desk back there big enough for Ajax to hide under. Helena stood up and cautiously approached.
“Ajax is that you?”
“Ajax is Miss Helena. I’m here to help you. Please come out and just tell me what happened,” she calmly asked.
She could hear stirring under the desk, and Ajax crawled out from around the corner. His eyes were bloodshot and glimmering with tears, and his cheeks were a burning red while the rest of his flesh and lost all color. He was holding a pair of scissors in his right hand, and his left wrist was covered in small rosy red gashes.
“Miss Helena help me,” the boy sobbed.
It was clear despite the chaos outside Ajax was no threat. Whatever homicidal impulse he had acted on had passed, and now he was just a scared kid. Helena rushed over to him and tightly embraced him. He clung to her and sobbed into her chest while she stroked his hair, and calmly shushed him like an infant.
It could only have been a miracle Polibus had managed to elude the droids through the titanium maze of ships. His entire body was shaking, and his stomach felt like it was trying to crawl out through his throat. He gritted his teeth and held back rising nausea. He gripped the controls until his pulse made his knuckles flush red.
He was racing between two colossal frigates, the gap between the ships narrowed the faster he went, but there was nowhere to turn. The drone fired a warning shot that shook the vessel and nearly flung Polibus out of his chair.
“Fuck it,” hissed Polibus. He fed more power to the engines and with a sharp jerk the ship accelerated. He could see the gap closing, and the drone fired again.
“This is it! Go go go go!” He shouted as his vessel narrowly cleared the passage and jetted out into open space. Helligdom was a silhouette outlined by the sun burning on the other side. They were close now he just had to make it to the surface. He dipped the nose of the ship and took a dive towards Helligdom.
Ajax was emotionally depleted. A few moments ago he was in hysterics now he was serene and aloof. Helena was just as drained. Somehow the world had become eerily quiet and time felt like it had ceased its flow. They were standing still in that moment, and for both of them, the inertia was very much welcomed. Helligdom wasn’t a place that promised any bright prospects, but as of now Ajax’s imminent future was something he’d like to have deferred for as long as possible. Landing on Helligdom was the equivalent to a life sentence of hard labor and as final as that seemed it was still more open-ended than death.
“Miss Helena,” Ajax muttered in a monotone voice.
“Yes Ajax?” she replied in an equally subdued tone.
“Was Lukas right? Did I never have a chance to leave Helligdom?”
“No Ajax I don’t think you did,” she replied. “Almost no one gets to leave.”
“Then why does anyone even bother coming here? Why do they bother wasting the rest of their lives here?” Ajax asked.
Helena thought for a second. “Most people will choose to live, even very hard miserable lives before they chose death,” she replied.
“But why? Why go through all that when you don’t have to?” Ajax asked.
“I don’t really know. I guess no matter how bad life might be there is still always the chance to find little bits of happiness. You might work in a radioactive mine but you also might find a wife or a husband, or maybe you’ll discover you love making music or painting. Maybe you will find some purpose in life that brings you moments of sublime happiness despite everything else. I think that chance no matter how small is a part of what keeps people going. They prefer it to the alternative. Where there’s no chance of anything.”
“You mean being dead?” Asked Ajax.
“Yeah,” Helena sighed.
“So I guess I ruined any of those chances?” Said Ajax.
Helena didn’t answer.
“The drones will be here soon. I think you better go,” Ajax said after a moment.
“Don’t worry I can stay with you a bit longer,” said Helena.
“No it’s ok I think I want to be alone for a bit. Besides no point in both of us getting killed by the drones you didn’t do anything.”
Helena embraced Ajax one last time. “I’m sorry for everything,” she whispered.
“Don’t be,” the whispered back.
Polibus had come up against the resistance of Helligdom's atmosphere. A fiery red aura had engulfed his ship as it penetrated the invisible barrier. The drone was still on his tail so he continued to thrust the engines in the hope he could lose it in the meteoric descent. The friction was turning the ship into an oven; sweat was dripping from every pore of his flesh. The perspiration dripped down his brow and stung his eyes, his heart was thumping against his chest, and he had nearly ceased breathing. The vessel was rattling violently. He could hear the alloy controlling from the extreme heat.
“Cmon keep together keep together!”
The clouds came into view, and so did the uneven, dusty ground below.
“We’re gonna make it!” he declared triumphantly.
The drone was closing the distance. It locked on the trembling ship, and two laser shots burst from its guns. The celebrating Polibus couldn’t see the projectiles heading for his ship and when they hit he and his slumbering family were instantaneously consumed by fire, and their ship exploded scattering countless shards of burning jagged Titanium across the sky.
As Helena exited the building, she was swarmed by concerned students and colleagues who wanted to know what happened. The mob was parted by security drones making their way into the building to hunt down Ajax. Helena looked up and saw the glowing wreckage of the Neimand's ship descending from the sky like a thousand falling stars.