ARCH – the complete short story

A.R.C.H. – Applied Research and Controlled Habitat

by Joel Nickel

He couldn’t figure out how it could’ve happened, and how it could’ve happened to the ARCH’s armory and a select few CRYO-pods. The ship’s Security Officer, Greg Scott, figured it was sabotage. There was no one on board except those on the ship’s manifest and EVE1 would’ve told them if there had been any stowaways though that idea in itself was ludicrous. They were in CRYO-suspension for the last seventy-three years and only a skeleton crew had been removed from the CRYO-pods ahead of the others to manually land the ARCH. Indeed, they’d only just started waking the others.  He couldn’t think of any way it could be mechanical, but he couldn’t comprehend any scenario in which the cause could be sabotage.

Brenin Klihp was the Chief Engineer in charge of the Hyperspace Tunnel but with Arty North, the Pilot and Critical Systems Technician for EVE1, still and smoldering inside one of the destroyed CRYO-pods, Brenin now found himself in charge of far more than he’d agreed to. He’d never physically piloted something the size of the ARCH outside of simulators and so naturally the landing was dicey. EVE1 helped a lot. It seemed to Brenin that EVE1 had already developed a care for the crew’s safety, and especially for Kit.

When they woke Scott, Brenin wished they hadn’t. He could still hear Scott’s acerbic voice ringing behind his temples. Scott was one of the two concessions he and the rest of the expedition had to deal with as a Military presence on such a venture was par for the course. The other was some civilian asshole sent by corporate to insure their investment proved profitable should the expedition come across something which the company could patent, possess, and proliferate. That, though, was now a moot point seeing as one of the other damaged CRYO-pods held the remains of that smarmy dick. At least something good had come of what Scott was still convinced was sabotage.

“Am I expected to have sexual intercourse with all the men on this ship?”

A flat, expressionless voice inquired from behind him. The content of the words and the fact that his fourteen-year-old daughter was saying them made him whip his whole body around to face her.

“What?”

“I’ve menstruated and am capable of becoming pregnant. Am I supposed to repopulate this planet if the humans from Earth . . . “ his daughter paused, tapped her fingers three times on the nearest flat surface and clacked her teeth down in one decisive jolt. Brenin always worried that she would damage her teeth doing that. He thought she’d stopped doing that but it was a tense time, and her nervous ticks would present themselves whenever she was, “. . . for some reason can’t make it here?”

“Oh Jesus.” In all the frantic rushing around he’d forgotten how anxious this whole situation must be for Kitty.

Kit Klihp just stared at her father, waiting for the rest of his response.

“Where’d you get an idea like that, Kitty?”

“I’m 14,” she said, somberly. “I know about human sexual reproduction.”

“Well, no! God, no! Kitty. Don’t. And you don’t have to! And if anyone tries to,” he paused in disbelief that he was about to utter the words to his fourteen-year-old daughter, “engage in sexual relations with any of the men on this ship. And if they do try anything, please tell me. You’re 14!”

“But biologically, I’m capable of-“
“But Jesus! You’re 14!”

“I never thought you were so religious, Father,” she stared at him. In the silence she sniffled, and then immediately touched her nose three times; another one of her ticks. “Because you keep mentioning God and Jesus.”

“No, I . . . I just . . . Kitty, this is making me really uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“Just, just got back to reading, sweetie. And no sex talk until you’re . . . 25,” he started to swivel back in his chair but his daughter’s voice stopped him.

“Why 11 years?” She furrowed her brow and looked off to a space beyond her father, through the flight deck and into the wilderness of Gliese 581g. “That seems arbitrary. Is there something about human anatomy that I missed in my research that presents itself at 25?”

“Go read, honey,” Brenin said softly. “Or go see Victoria and ask her.”

“Does she know something more about sexual intercourse that you don’t, Father?”

“Well . . . she’s a woman,” Brenin said, hoping that’d be the end.

“Good point,” she said flatly and turned on her heels to exit the room.

“See you at supper,” he called after her.

She stopped at the door, “I’m glad I don’t have to be sexually intimate with any of the men. I find the whole idea disagreeable.”

“Remember, it’s always your choice,” he looked at her to make sure she was focused on his voice. “Kitty, don’t ever do something you don’t want to do. Always do what you think is right!”

She nodded silently and stepped into the hallway. The automatic door hissed closed behind her.

II

They had to dig him out before they could bury him. There wasn’t much left of Arty but a slender charred husk. They only way they knew it was Arty was ‘cause it was his CRYO-pod.

Arty. Jes. Pyl.

     The ARCHs pilot. The chief military liaison. The smarmy fucktard from corporate.

No loss on the last one. 

     Doctor Victoria Edelstein had disliked Norris Pyl even before he slithered into view at mission orientation. Even in his electronic communications beforehand there was an ethereal distastefulness that made her feel dirty as she read the words. Norris Pyl was the kind of person who’d let you fuck his mother’s dead corpse if you paid him enough money, and would probably do it himself if you paid him a little more. It bled into every interaction she’d had with him and others validated her aversion to him with susurrus gossip exchanged ahead of orientation. When Vicki first met him in the flesh, she felt his sociopathic egotism like an embrocation against her skin. Even remembering it made her shiver. His very presence almost deterred her from taking part in the mission at all. Now, though, that wasn’t going to be an issue.

Arty she remembered as quiet and docile; nice enough, but largely forgettable.

It was Edmund Jes she mourned for. Especially now that Lt. Greg Scott-I guess Major now-would be taking over his role as chief military liaison. Scott paced behind her as they pulled Arty’s brittle form out from the scorched CRYO-pod.

“Fuckin’ shame,” Ian Beskow, another of the ARCHs medical staff, said with a macabre nonchalance that negated the sentiment in his words. They placed Arty inside the body bag in a noticeably more gentle fashion than they had with Pyl. They placed Arty beside the other two bags and then the team’s extraterrestrial botanist, Gini Wei, ever the sentimentalist, began the discussion of their burial.

“Have we taken readings of the atmosphere outside yet?” she continued before anyone had a chance to respond. “In the briefing they said it could be anywhere from 160 degrees to minus 20.”

A fourteen-year-old girl behind them answered: “Readings from the bridge indicate a stable temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. Based on your description of 160 to minus 20, Dr. Wei, you were using Fahrenheit which would be 82.4 degrees.”

“How do you know that?”

She seemed offended. “I know how to read the instruments, Dr. Wei.”

“No, I mean, you did the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion in your head, including a decimal point?”

Kit nodded.

Scott looked furious.

“What the fuck is a kid doing on this ship?”

“That’s my daughter, Lt. Scott!” Brenin hissed as the gruff man clomped raucously back and forth the damaged CRYO-pod bay. “She goes wherever I go. It was a nonnegotiable condition of my service aboard the ARCH.”

Scott became begrudgingly silent and scrunched his whole face into a razor focused glare that didn’t seem to evoke any external reaction in the young girl at all. That angered him more. He grunted a beastly puff of recycled air and stomped off down to the medical bay where they were all supposed to meet to test their recovery from the seventy-three years spent in CRYO-stasis.

III

Brenin was seated naked while Vicki was listening to his heart through a resonance filter on her MEDI-pod view screen behind the transparent graphene walls of the conjoining room. There was a chance of radiation contamination in the space between the outer skin of the MEDI-pod, inside which Brenin was well protected, and the grapheme divider protected the rest of the ship from the pod’s chemical emissions while they decompressed and their bodies re-stabilized. Really, all of them should’ve immediately been quarantined and processed through the MEDI-pods but that wasn’t an option considering.

Vicki had always been fond of suspense and mystery novels and had almost become bored of the same old motives, plot devices and twists, so much so she’d even begun predict with and inure accuracy most of what she read. But this, this was something that would challenge even her.

If it wasn’t a systems malfunction, which Brenin repeatedly professed was impossible given the data he’d been meticulously inspecting since they landed, it would have to be one of them if it was intentional.

She couldn’t accept that though. She knew the whole crew and had spent six years training alongside them. They had to know one another and had to, in most cases, like and care about the safety of one another. The only person capable of essentially dry boiling people to death was one of the three men in the black bags in the loading bay.

“Why does my pee smell like my insides are rotting?” Brenin’s voice boomed out from the large speakers by Vicki’s head and swatted her.

She pressed the intercom. “Please don’t talk, Mr Brenin,” Vicki said, her head ringing. “The resonance is calibrated to detect minute sounds inside your body. Please remain silent.”

“It’s the combination of the CRYO-pod liquid, the recirculating of our blood, and our new exposure to the recycled air of the ARCH. Isn’t it, Dr. Edelstein?” Brenin’s daughter was standing behind her. Vicky screamed and clutched her chest.

“Jesus, you scared me,” Her eyes were full and focused on the little girl, the MEDI-pod was probably picking up her own heart beat on the resonance sensors in the other room.

“Are you religious too, Dr. Edelstein?”

As she calmed, Vicki answered Kit: “Why yes, Ms. Klihp. You’re exactly right.” She was still catching her breath. “We were frozen for seventy-three years in those CRYO-pods but in order to do that we had to infuse our body-“

“With a solution that would allow us to freeze our cells without damaging them the way that they would if we just lowered our temperatures,” Kit took over for her. “We human beings are mostly water and when water freezes it expands and that would destroy our cells and when we were thawed we would die.”

“You’re how old?”

“Fourteen,” she said, flatly.

IV

When the maw of the ARCH’s mammoth bay door yawned opened, the air of Gliese 581g came flooding in. Kit coughed anticipating the sweet taste of the fragrant air shocking her senses into a kind of reverse hypoxia but she was safely concealed behind a skin of her transparent graphene suit. According to her instruments embedded in the mesh of grapheme fabric, the atmosphere of humanity’s surrogate home was pristine and without a trace of the synthetic infection that was sure to follow behind as such a contagion was inescapably tethered to the sprawl of human expansion.

Kit grit her teeth.

The ARCHs botanist, Dr. Wei, still hadn’t blinked yet. She’d stared, eyes gaping, during the minutes it too for the mouth of the bay doors to stretch open allowing them to step out onto the grass of their new home.  Her eyes burned but she didn’t dare close her eyes. Missing even a fraction of a moment of this experience seemed to her like a crime against her humanity.

They were the first.

This must be what it felt like to set foot on Luna, Wei’s brain mused but was lost in the static of over-stimulation.

“Man, look at this place,” Scott was staring hungrily out at the new world beyond the mouth of the ARCH.

“This planet is not Prince Zi Chu,” Kit’s electronically filtered voice responded. “And you are not of Zhou.”

V

Vicki was almost positive that it was Scott. That was until they found him dead. He was one of the people not embedded with the group in their six year long training regimen.

“I only found out about her four years into our training,” Brenin sighed before pulling on the gelatinous substance that slid its way up the straw into his mouth where it molested his taste buds with the sour juices of what was supposed to nourish him while the rest of the CRYO-pod chemicals were filtered from him. It would be at least six days before he could eat anything other than that fucking clear sludge. He didn’t know if he could do it.

As he watched Vicki, he saw she didn’t seem to be so passionately against drinking the stuff. She sipped it in somber, calculating drags that made him wonder if she was really listening to him or if she was lost in some far off nothingness inside the thoughts in her head.

“She was only ten and when her mother died she had no one. She had nothing keeping her there and she seemed excited about the idea so I asked Jes if something like Eddie’s arrangement would be extended to me and he said he’d make it work,” Brenin put the food-like substance on the mess hall table and pushed it away from him. “How are Eddie and Danni?”

There was a long space between his words and the recognition in Vicki eyes alerting her that Brenin was addressing her.

“Um, sorry?”

“Eddie and his wife Danni,” Brenin repeated. “How are they? They were the ones who found Scott weren’t they?”

She nodded silently.

“So what, uh, what was it?”

“Still don’t know. EVE1 is analyzing the chemical composition of the toxin that liquefied his insides. Did he go anywhere on the surface by himself?”

“We all have,” Brenin reminded her. “It’s hard not to want to personally explore a planet that took you seventy-three years to reach.”

“Yah,” she herself had walked along the terminal. The band of perpetual daylight that humanity required to support the life of the new colonizers who would be flooding through the Hyperspace Tunnel once it became operational. That wouldn’t be for a while though. They needed to set up a sustainable base before they could even begin construction on the Hyperspace Tunnel. With Arty gone, he wondered how much of the extra work EVE1 would be able to assist with once he uploaded her programing into the new base’s parallel network. In the meantime, he was already working to get a peripheral version, an EVE2 essentially, through the 3D printer. It was about 39% complete the last time he’d checked. They’d made EVE2 in the image of a fourteen-year-old so Kit would have someone to talk with aside from the adults.

VI

“Is it true that once the Hyperspace Tunnel is connected those people back on Earth can start flocking here right away?” Eddie was ravenously munching on solid food now that the CRYO-pod chemicals had completely drained from their bodies.

Kit cringed.

“Yup,” Vicki bit down with a mellifluous sigh. “That’s my understanding.”

“The first gate should have started running starting from when we left. We just need to calibrate the gate on our end and it’ll actually be like we never left. To those on Earth, those seventy-three years in CRYO-stasis didn’t happen. Just like to us, that journey was instantaneous,” Kit wasn’t eating her food. It was still in her plate. EVE2 was sitting beside her.

It was eerie. EVE2 looked as human as any of them. Vicki couldn’t believe that something could come out of a 3D printer.

“Why are you staring at EVE2?” Kit asked, turning her head to one side.

To Vicki, Kit seemed more mechanical than EVE2.

“I’m just . . . I don’t know. She looks so real,” Vicki decided to end it there and take another bite of her solid food.

“I am real,” EVE2 said. “I’m physically here. I’m aware of my being here. I am. So I am real.”

Everyone was silent.

VII

Critical components required to construct the Hyperspace Tunnel had been destroyed beyond any use by something incredibly strong. Someone had augmented EVE1s user protocols and permanently disabled the 3D printer. Brenin had no way of engineering any replacement parts and Earth was an impossible seventy-three year trip away. After that there was no need for Kit to remain silent. She confessed to, with the help of EVE1, murdering Arty, Jes, and Pyl in their CRYO-pods.

“Arty tried to molest me,” Kit said flatly. “Jes was part of the military and thus interested in control by force and oppression. And I killed Pyl because he was evil. I poisoned Scott with a plant I discovered here. He was also evil. Father, after you created EVE2 for me, I used her to reprogram access to EVE1 and prevent the construction of the Hyperspace tunnel.”

“But why? This is why we’re here! We’re here to create the Hyperspace tunnel.”

“No, you are all here to create the Hyperspace tunnel,” Kit said and EVE2 was standing motionless beside her. “Humanity is a virus that was killing of its host. And when it acknowledge that it needed to expand to infect new planets it began working on the Hyperspace tunnel. I could not let that happen. We are a new humanity now. They had their chance. They squandered it. We have a unique opportunity to live a sustainable and symbiotic existence with our host organism, Gliese 581g. Are you with me?”

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