Othryades Lost – Marooned on a frozen planet plunging towards a star, the last surviving human has only Herodotus and his AI Capsules for company as he attempts to weather the Sunstorm to come.
The story is available as a PDF here.
A Rat Inside an Oil Drum
I open my eyes. It’s morning. I hear the metal of the hull creaking under the pressure from the storm outside, and a shaft of blue sunlight pierces my window, etching itself high on the ribbed metallic wall opposite. Everything else in the hollow cylinder that is my home is dark and still.
I sit up in bed and reach out through the darkness. Finding my helmet, I switch it on. Two thin beams of light shoot out in front of me, and I use them to find and climb into the rest of my suit. It’s cold outside my mound of heated covers, and I breathe thick clouds of vapor into the hollow air. Dressing quickly and shivering, it’s all business at this point.
Every movement I make makes an echo in my home. It’s comforting at times, maddening more often. Once I’m all suited up, I stop shivering. The heating comes on-line quickly, and now the only part that’s cold are my fingertips. Lost the gloves a while back, and made myself a pair that don’t work nearly as well, but fuck-it-to-hell…which, incidentally, is where I live.
Today I need to go out into the storm to the shack and get another canister of oxygen. Starting to run low, but the next batch is almost done. I had a brainstorm last night about how to speed up the process, and on sober reflection it’s not a bad idea. I’m going to spend the rest of the day in the lab tinkering with it. Tinkering is interesting but not really fun, since my life depends on it. I always look forward to nightfall, though, when I have my relax time, and listen to music for a while, or write in my journal. If I’ve had a particularly memorable day, I allow myself a shot or two of grain alcohol, on the house. I learned to make it shortly after the oxygen, but, luckily, I always produce more than I really need. If I die, I can at least die drunk.
But first, the storm, and the lab, and the oxygen. Before that, breakfast. My footsteps echo down the cylinder to the pantry. Now the shaft of sunlight is directly above me. The crate slides open with a rumble, and I extract my tub of breakfast, scoop out a slop of yeast, and return it to the crate. Close with a rumble and I climb a set of rungs going up the curved walls and sling into my Hammock, which I have next to the window so I can watch the newly risen sun. My eyes squint against its pale blue light.
Outside, everything seems deceptively calm: a barren, windswept plain, a cloudless, maroon sky, pinpricked by stars, and the sun on the horizon, a brilliant but tiny point of warmth in the bleakness. Everything seems calm, that is, until you happen to see a jet of vapor blown by at ridiculous speeds, or hear the gusts of wind slam into the hull. Still, the sun is nice, and its blue rays feel warm on my face as I down my yeast and ignore the taste and the cold and the bad memories.
In the Bowels of a Dying Ship
In my old life I was a planetologist. There were five of us aboard the Halifax. There was also a doctor and a security man, who died first. He was outside the ship when the asteroid hit. A piece of shrapnel from the impact got him, and we all heard his screams in our headsets as we cringed against the ground through the hurricane wind that sucked everything about us into the void. The sudden depressurization was terrible, pounding at our ears and faces, but it was nothing compared to what would happen once all the air was gone.
We all activated our emergency suits and scrambled, hugging the deck, towards the decompression hatches, slowly rotating closed like the inexorable promise of death. They boomed shut, and the sudden silence that settled was impossibly thick, punctuated by the sound of six terrified people breathing.
All the lights were out, power was down, and the familiar hum of the Halifax was gone. There was the stunned moment of the dawning realization of fear, broken by a deafening groan, metal twisting somewhere hubward, followed by the wavelike compression echoes as the hull warped and twisted around us. The dissonant sounds of metal under stress were rich with hidden undertones and harmonics, almost beautiful, and pregnant with dark promise.
We were running through a nightmare as the once solid corridors flexed and howled while the steadily weakening centrifugal gravity would sometimes return with a vengeance, throwing us against the walls or ceiling like rag dolls. No one said it, but we all were headed for the scouting bay. Two of our transports were somewhere on-planet running automated analyses. The only transport aboard would fit four. We were six of us left at that point. The math was ugly, and we were all doing it in our heads as we ran.
It must have been only minutes that seemed like hours before we came to the airlock and stood by the door in silence. There was a small port window through which the four seats were dimly visible in the emergency lighting. Outside the transport, we could only see the small patches of area illuminated by our suit lights, and the darkness was oppressive. We all looked up at the ceiling again as we heard more metal tearing and rending.
I remember William’s voice, terrified and ruthless. I had never heard anyone sound quite that way before.
“I’m getting on this transport.”
Silence followed, punctuated by our breathing and the groans of a dying ship.
“Does anyone have children?” Mellissa asked. Her face was inscrutable in the glare of my lights on her faceplate.
William shook his head in the suit, and it struck me as absurdly comical the way his whole torso moved. I remember grinning stupidly, glad none of them could see my face.
“I do,” Jarvis, our doctor, said. His voice was melancholy.
“So do I. I have three.”
I said this, although it’s not true.
“So does Mellissa, and so do I. William, Ping, you two are staying behind.”
Devin’s voice was authoritative. He was the senior planetologist and the ranking SciCorps officer, and deep space skippers mean business when they have to. I hadn’t learned that yet about Devin, but I was about to. William was growing increasingly hysterical, panting in the corner in the steadily weakening gravity. He shook his head furiously, wagging his suit again.
“All you ever cared about is the fucking data. You couldn’t have at least two transports docked at all times? No, you had to have them all on-planet. So now me and Ping have to die?”
“The Halifax was designed to withstand all but a major asteroid collision. The probabilities of which were marginal. How the hell was I supposed to know-” Devin slammed his fist against a bulkhead, but William wasn’t about to be shouted down.
“Well it sure as shit looks like we had a major fucking collision, Captain!”
“You’ll have your suits, we’ll come back and pick you up.”
William laughed hysterically.
“Before we burn on reentry? You’re going to lie to my face and tell me you can pick us up before we cook alive?”
We all heard him take a deep breath, and then he kicked hard off the wall, making for the airlock. Melissa, Jarvis and I went to hold him back, and there was a clumsy suited scuffle in the bowels of a dying ship.
William was wild with fear, and he knocked me hard enough on the faceplate to jar my teeth against my Comm array. Hot blood filled my mouth, and I rebounded off a wall. The hull groaned. Melissa flew by in the near zero g, spinning slowly and flailing at the air. Then Jarvis and William spun past, arms locked like wrestlers, hurtling each other against the walls in a macabre, almost-comic spectacle. I turned away and licked the inside of my mouth, wishing I could pull my hand through my faceplate.
“I’m sorry, William.”
Devin’s voice cut across our headsets, deliberate and authoritative. There was a burst of static over Comm, and I looked up to see William’s helmet suddenly pop open, along with his head. Devin took his hand away from a small red button on his wrist as droplets of blood, bone and brain splattered through the vacuum. Jarvis pulled away from the slack corpse, letting out a suppressed primordial groan and floating away to slump against what had once been the ceiling. The hull groaned as well, and in that instant it felt like something finally gave way. The walls started spinning.
“Captain’s mutiny keys, folks.”
Devin was punching numbers into the airlock.
“Ping, I need you to make your way to the bridge and do what you can to transfer our observations from the core to this transport’s mainframe. I’m sorry it has to be you, but I’ve made my decision.”
“Yes,” Ping’s voice was tight. “I will die for our work.”
I wished I could see his face. Instead, I saw the airlock swing open and we who would live floated in and buckled ourselves into the padded seats, bathed in the red glow of emergency lighting. The Skipper came in a few moments later, closed the hatch, and popped us free. The air hissed with recompression and I remember blood pooling in my lower lip even as sweat dripped down the suit to collect around my lower back.
The skipper flipped the boost switch, and we were all pushed brutally into our seats as the transport surged away from the Halifax.
Othryades the Spartan
I’m done with breakfast now. I climb down to the pantry and dispose of my plate, scrubbing it with a clean rag. No soap, no water. The stuff is worth its weight in gold around here. Not that gold would be worth much anymore.
I like to exercise before I go out of my home, because it makes the cold more bearable. I do some sit ups, some push-ups. I do a handstand and walk around on my palms. I’ve been practicing that one. It’s easier than it would be on Earth. I jog around my dwelling and sort of roar, filling the hollow cylinder with my animal-ness.
Sweating now, that’s no good, I sit cross-legged by the door and listen to the wind howl until I’m dry. I get up, jogging in place, and pull down my suit’s faceplate. It clicks shut and I can see my breath on it as I lean over to pick up a pair of empty oxygen canisters. Three twists of the knobbed wheel unlock my door. I push it open with all my strength and the cold and wind and ice come rushing in. I push through the force of it and slam the door closed and I’m outside. Me and my empty canisters.
The wreckage of the Halifax is scattered all around and into the horizon. The carcass of the Mainhull towers over the plain behind me, smoke-black against the maroon sky. One of three storage cylinders half buried in snow and ice is my home; another is my lab; the third is in pieces on the barren plain. I used some of them to construct my storage shack, where I keep the oxygen I’m not using, as well as the precious twelve shielded cubits of fissile Econo-fuel, which I use for cooking and thawing.
The shack is one hundred meters from my dwelling, built alongside the wreck of the Mainhull. I jog over through the furious wind, dragging the empty canisters, which still weigh a considerable amount. It’s beyond cold, the sort of temperature that kills you without your even noticing, as you lie in granulated ice and drift off into blissful coma. My teeth are chattering inside my suit as I push open the door to the shack and stumble inside, dropping the canisters.
I try jogging around in circles, but nothing really helps. My hands are completely numb, awkward fingers as I roll a pair of full canisters over to the door. I have to roll these back one by one. This is always the worst part. I close my eyes and swallow.
In a moment, there will be furious wind and pain, but for an instant, crouching there, I can taste the smell of spring in my nostrils, and I am transported. I am home; I am in love with the rolling green hills of Earth. A warm breeze and billowing clouds on a wide blue sky…Sometimes on Earth, you can see the moon in the daytime, like a mirage in the heavens. It’s so beautiful.
This planet has no moon, and when we came to study it ten years ago it had no name. I mean, ITX10742398 isn’t much of a name. For a place like this… I’ve thought long and hard about a good one. I’ve settled on Thyrea, and with good reason that may not be immediately apparent, unless you’ve read Herodotus.
I was acquainted with the tale of Othryades the Spartan during my Academy years, and it has stayed with me ever since. I don’t know if it ever happened or not: I’m not sure anyone really ever trusted Herodotus enough to give the man complete credence on any particular point. He was more a bard than a historian, and just as lost in the shroud antiquity as the fearsome eras of the ancients he attempted to chronicle.
Sometimes I think it’s funny, the last man alive reading the father of history and laughing sardonically at how it all turned out. Or crying at the tragedy of it. And Herodotus just smiles back, telling me of things mystical and wondrous in an age of heroes long past. In some ways, his tales are more true than a realist history might have been. He captures something of the human essence in his myth that transcends time and culture.
Othryades was a great warrior living in the proto-Greek city of Sparta, on Earth. It so happened that at the time, Sparta and Argos had something of a dispute running over who owned a bit of land called Thyrea. The Argives came to the place with a horde of hoplites, prepared to invade it. The Spartans came with their spears, prepared to defend it.
Being rational Greeks, the two armies negotiated, and decided that rather than engage in a full battle, each side would select three hundred of their finest warriors, and these six hundred men would determine who won the land. It’s known in history as the “Battle of Champions”. Othryades was among the three hundred Spartan champions who stayed behind and joined fierce battle, while the remainder of both armies left, so as not to interfere, or be tempted to join the fray.
The six hundred men fought long and hard. Screams of the dying filled the air along with the stench of opened bowels and blood. As the sun set, only three men of the six hundred were left standing, Othryades and two Argives, Alkenor and Chromios. Now, Alkenor and Chromios, maybe not seeing Othryades, maybe pitying him, or, perhaps, fearing him, took off to go announce their victory to their comrades. Othryades, last man standing on a field of six hundred, stayed among the corpses under the moonlight, and, still bleeding from his wounds, set about collecting trophies.
At dawn both armies returned, each claiming victory. The argument got heated and degenerated into a vicious melee. So the full battle was fought anyway, and many more died, and the five hundred and ninety seven picked champions were made to have died in vain.
In the end, the Spartans prevailed, Thyrea remained theirs and they went home, all except Othryades, who took his life after the battle, unable to bear living when all his comrades had died. I admire such love, and such courage, though I have never really had either. I do have one thing dearly in common with Othryades. I too shall not be leaving Thyrea.
A lovely planet
I’m back in my dwelling now. Dizzy. My suit’s supply of oxygen gave out halfway through rolling the second canister back. The air’s still thin in here, and frozen. Always happens after you open the door. I crank one of the canisters and sort of collapse next to it, so my face is near the visible stream of gas escaping into the hollow air. I drink it.
… Just a little more … better. Much better. I crank the flow down to a small trickle and refill my suit’s supply, then plug it into the air diffusion system I rigged up that first year, in the throws of a lifesaving brainstorm. It’s hard to believe this precision machine used to be essentially a set of filters, a timer, and lots of valves.
The hollow air fills quickly, and I perch in my hammock, listening to the wind battering the silver corrugated surface. I look around the cylinder, listlessly, like a rat inside an oil drum. The wrecked mast of the Mainhull groans somewhere outside. I’m cold and alone.
After a while, I shake my head.
“You’re not insane. Not really. Not yet.”
The parched raspy sound of my voice makes me laugh, hoarsely. I need to remember to drink my ration of water. Instead, I crank open the door and trudge over to the lab.
This lovely planet of Thyrea has a number of peculiarities, some of which we were sent here to study, some of which we discovered along the way. What initially interested SciCorps was the erratic orbit. Most planetary objects have orbits like elliptical hoops around their sun, with the star as one of two foci. Thyrea’s orbit is all lopsided, with the vast majority spent in deep space, far from the sun, and then a brief and furious few months where the planet falls to within a million kilometers of the sun’s surface and whips around and out of the gravity well, defying a number of laws of physics.
No one can explain it, really. That was supposed to be Melissa and William’s portfolio for the mission. The orbit lasts one hundred seventy six Sol years, and we timed our arrival in the system ten years before the planet was due to approach the sun. I can see that the sun is larger in the sky than it was those terrifying first days, after the crash. I can see that the Sunstorm is coming.
“No hope of rescue, you know that!”
I snarl this out into the cold air of my lab like some kind of bearded dragon, breath steaming all about me, like villages in flames. I shake my head furiously, and something rolls around inside. Last night was one of my grain alcohol binges. Too many of those, lately.
“But things aren’t really looking good for folks back home either. Not really.”
The last transmission one of the LSS Capsules picked up was a mayday from Space Naval HQ. The poor bastards were trying to evacuate Earth, Mars, and all inner system colonies. Sol was giving every indication of going nova, thanks to a sect of Neo-Apocalyptic terrorists and some really devastating applied stellar physics. After that, nothing. If Sol went nova… well, I’ll never see the fireworks.
So, there is no hope of rescue, and for all I know I am probably the last human being left alive. Provisionally, that is. After all, I always have my genes to splice. I can breed thousands of little clone bastards, if I survive the Sunstorm. Have the little fuckers procreate and propagate a new race of humanity in my image. Time enough to worry about the ethical implications of that, if I survive. And if I don’t? Then there’s no point to anything, is there?
If I hope to have any chance at all, I need a deep, well provisioned bunker. I have already begun digging. The ground is frozen and every inch is a struggle. I still need to find a way to refrigerate, but I figure I’ll dig the burrow first and cross bridges when I come to them. So, for now, I dig, and splice algae genes in the lab in my spare time. I’m always willing to try new strains. Eventually, one of them will have to be palatable, if only by sheer force of numbers.
No such luck today. Come nightfall, I trudge back to my home, and, removing the suit, crawl into my heated covers to read a well thumbed copy of Herodotus by the light of my helmet. I still can’t believe I sacrificed my weight allowance to bring it. What incredible, inspired luck. Without Herodotus, I may have gone completely insane by now. The words are like a lullaby, a reminder of all that has come before me. After all, even if I am the last man, humanity’s had a good run for its money. Who really cares if it all ends? Do I? Perhaps. I may not live to know the answer.
I kill the light, remove the helmet, and shiver myself to sleep, living my life one tub of yeast at a time.
A Falling Star
I wake up from a nightmare with a terrible sucking of air sometime in the night. The sound of my awakening terrifies me, echoed in the hollow air. Not so much a nightmare as a memory… not much difference lately.
The scouting transport had just crashed. Another asteroid got us soon after the burn. Melissa was already dead, her severed torso blood red and torn in the ice. Jarvis was badly wounded, pinned down to his console by a shaft of metal from someone’s chair. The Skipper and I were practically intact. The night was cold and dark, and specks of ice were driven, horizontal, into our faceplates, already smeared with blood from the inside.
We figured it best to just have Jarvis’ suit cauterize the wound and leave the bar in there, and used our suit’s lasers to cut him out of the wreckage. Devin rummaged around what was left of the transport and found a spherical container that is the only thing that has made it possible for me to survive this long: an Emergency LSS Capsule.
The 7th degree Semi-Sentient Standard Navy Life Sustainment System, top of the line model, has four masks attached to it by long rubber chords and three handles by which you can pull it along. It has a wide variety of retractable arms tucked away inside its smooth carapace.
Inside an LSS capsule’s three feet of diameter, there exists everything a man can reasonably expect to need if he is to live out the rest of his natural life without any resupply on a barren, lifeless planet. Everything from seeds to viable yeast, algae, tools, medical subroutines, encyclopedias, novels, and 3D holofilms.
It hovered in mid air, clicking quietly. That was wrong. It was supposed to power down and go into hibernation mode to conserve energy when you weren’t using it. Unfortunately, it soothingly informed us, it had been damaged during the crash, and was down to seventy-eight percent capacity. Worst of all, its communication systems were irrevocably off-line. I was eventually able to get some reception, but the transmitter was utterly fucked.
We ordered the Capsule into action and set it to work on Jarvis while we sat around in shock. At some point I asked the Skipper if he thought they’d come to rescue us. I remember feeling angry that he did not answer.
Later on, we saw the Halifax fall. To the naked eye it was just a shooting star, but on full magnification, our suits revealed to us the rapidly spinning ball of fire. We calculated its rate of fall and angle of descent and the LSS capsule extrapolated a thousand kilometer triangle of probability for the crash site. Devin and I decided to set off just after midmorning, and use the capsule as a sort of buoy to carry Jarvis. We could hear his ragged breathing in our suits, despite the wind outside.
No matter how bad the Halifax may have crashed, we reasoned, her core would be intact. It was designed to incredible tolerances. There was a good chance her Comm systems might still be functional, or at least repairable. The thought of this gave us some reassurance as we huddled in the wrecked transport the forty-two hour night, but not much, and when the sun came up, it was just a hollow blue star on the horizon.
On that thin first morning planetside, we discovered that Jarvis had died during the night. Cold hunger like frozen butterflies in our bellies, we left his body behind and set off. Used the LSS capsule to carry fifty-two cubits of Econo-fuel instead. Melissa’s form could barely be made out as a mound in the granulated ice as we trudged off.
We walked for three Thyrean days and nights, taking turns pulling the capsule. On the third nightfall, Devin fell down and did not get up. When I shook him he seemed to be asleep, but the capsule assured me that he was dead. Cerebral edema, probably due to the numerous depressurizations we had experienced. I left him to the ice as well, and walked for another three days, and at last I came to the strip of land, littered with debris and wreckage, that would be my home for the next nine years.
Sure enough, the core, the Mainhull and two storage cylinders had remained intact. The entry angle had been sharp enough that they were within sight of each other. I immediately found shelter inside one of the cylinders, and huddled inside while what was left of the Halifax cooled from re-entry. Somewhere in all the wreckage, I knew, were the ghosts of William and Ping. Their company was cold solace that lonely night.
I have not written in several months now. Time clicks by in its methodical way, and now the hollow sun is not so hollow. It smolders, giant blue, like some evil eye on the horizon. There’s plenty of light, and around midday it’s almost warm enough to go for a hike on the plain. There are a series of cliffs and rocky bluffs in the distance. I’m thinking about making a daytrip out there. The suit can hold enough oxygen for it, now that I’ve made the patches. I’m growing to really appreciate the beauty of this planet.
But the real good news is that I finished building the bunker today. Nine hundred meters deep, straight down a vertical shaft, I rigged up a couple of generators to an elevator and an old meat-locker which I salvaged from the wreck of the Mainhull. It took some tinkering to get the coolant to flow, but by the end of the day it got colder than hell down there. I feel suddenly optimistic. Now I just need to work on radiation shielding.
* * *
Celebrated the dawn today with a jog in the wind. I have decided there is enough sunlight now to think about growing plants. I yearn for a juicy leaf of lettuce, or a ripe tomato. I have seeds for both from all the LSS capsules I’ve collected.
The least damaged of these machines have been indispensable to me. It’s never like talking to a sentient being, but they manage a vast store of information, and are a fountain of practical advice. They have refreshed my memory regarding Hermitage Procedures, which I hadn’t bothered to think about since my first semesters at the Academy. One of the first tenets of Hermitage is that “a stable micro-economy of life sustainment requires green plants, both for oxygen production, and for consumption.”
It never occurred to me, reading those words, back at the Academy, that this might actually happen to me. I should have been keyed into the possibility once they told me it was all you studied your first three terms at SciCorps. It’s not for anything that the history of interstellar exploration is rife with cases of Hermitage, rife with examples of intelligent, lucky men and women who survived to be rescued, and intelligent, unlucky men and women who died. Still, all the books agree, the single most important factor beyond one’s initial material resources is the proper frame of mind, which I’ve got.
According to the LSS capsules, ninety-nine percent of those that have survived in comparable circumstances had viable green plant production within three months of planetfall. Seems I’m a bit behind schedule. I’ve set aside a small area in the lab, sealed it off and stripped off the roof. Tomorrow, I’ll have the capsules rig up some nano-form windows to let the sunlight in. The next day I’ll build some heaters and humidifiers, and by next week it will be time to plant the harvest. Good thing I have blue spectrum modified seeds. Good thing for Hermitage Procedures.
* * *
Not much to do these days, really, except watch the plants grow. I talk to them all the time now. That helps them grow, and it helps me think, so it works out well. When I’m sleeping, I have the LSS capsules talk to them, reading article after article from the SciCorps encyclopedia. Mostly, though, I do the talking. I talk about Herodotus, and about ancient Earth. Or I tell them about my home, in the woodlands of North America, pre-nova.
I tell them about trees and fluffy white clouds, and how the moon looks through the trees at night. All pre-nova. I talk about hope and love and tell them about women I’ve had and lost. Sometimes, I tell them about the Sunstorm, and how it’s coming. I don’t want to alarm them, but I think they have a right to know. I explain how I’ve prepared us as best I can. I tell them we have a good chance of surviving. I don’t mention I plan to eat them all.
Yes, the plants are growing nicely in the sun these days.
* * *
Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset.
Everything’s dreamy from my hammock. I’ve discovered the beauty of fasting. After a while, you don’t feel the hunger at all. Your mind soars to different ways of being. I never liked yeast anyway, and I ate all the fresh harvest. The next one will either happen or it won’t, after the Sunstorm. But that’s okay with me, because the hammock rocks a little while I lie in it and the growing sun does its thing.
At first you wonder what’s going to kill you, the oxygen, the cold, the madness. It takes you a few months, and you learn to deal with these obstacles. Soon you are no longer left in wonder about what’s going to kill you, because you can handle everything this barren planet has thrown at you. You’re not stronger than it, you’ve just learned to bend with it, adjusted and adapted to its laws of ebb and flood, just like any sailor, any student of the sea.
But it’s all for nothing, because the Sunstorm will kill you. You know this, but you just go on living, making small improvements. Maybe, you hope, your bunker design will offer enough shielding…and there’s ten years to make it perfect, and that’s a lot of time… So you let it go at that. I find it ironic, how I have needed to lie to myself to go on living.
But there’s no more ignoring the giant fiery blue furnace in the sky. No way to escape the heat, the radiation … I must be very sick … I can’t seem to remember much of anything, really. I just vomit and sweat, and look at the air waver around me. I’m deep in the bunker I dug out of hard ground that once was frozen, and will be again. I spit on the wall and watch it sizzle.
No more lies, Othryades, no more lies.