Stories of Imaginary Places

Issue 3: Summer 2004


 In this issue:

This Mortal Coil

by Karl El-Koura

The floor was cold. I lay completely paralyzed, naked flesh to icy metal. I was freezing, but sweat poured from my pores like wine out of a bottle.

Although I had regained both consciousness and sight, neither was of much help. My consciousness could not delve into the files of my memory, could not dig up the string of events that had taken me from nice suspended animation in a comfortable tube, to distinctly not nice suspended animation on a cold metallic floor. My eyes refused to obey my commands; they just ignored me and went on staring at the dull, uniform-gray ceiling. As it may have been the ceiling of any of a hundred rooms aboard The Star Tripper, there was no way to know for sure exactly where I was.

- My ears popped. Just like that, without warning and as sudden as a heart-attack. Just as painful, too.

After my internal screams of pain had died down, I heard shipcom repeating my name over and over and over. "Alvin, Alvin, Alvin, Alvin," and on and on and it was driving me mad.

In my mind, I sang every song I could remember the words to, hummed the rest. I recited every line of poetry I could recall. Counted to one thousand one thousand times.

Shut up, I screamed at shipcom more than a million times. Each time faster, each time louder. Shut up, shutup, shutupshutupshutupshutup! It became a song in its own right. Shut up, shutup, shutupshutupshutupshutup! I sang, screaming.

"Shut up!"

I stopped, suddenly realizing that I had spoken. My voice came out very coarse. I coughed, then repeated the order in my own voice.

Shipcom said, "Alvin! You're awake!"

"Get me help, I can't move," I said.

"I can't," shipcom said.

There's no reason, except perhaps therapeutic, for which to get angry with a computer. I simply said, "Explain."

"I've only awakened you from Cold Sleep, Alvin. The others are still in suspended animation and will remain so until we have found a suitable planet."

Before it could go on, I asked, "Why did you wake me?"

"The hull of this ship was hit by a meteor two days ago. I lost a lot of power, and still more trying to contain the breach. I need - "

Interrupting, I said, "But I'm no engineer! Why didn't you wake up Dr. Urenz? Or my wife? Either one of them is ten times as qualified as me to repair damages."

"With my directions, you'll do fine. Really mostly minor repairs - I've repaired what I could, and that was the major stuff. Unfortunately, my makers didn't think of giving me a remote-controlled robotic body, or even a pair of robotic arms - or I could've done all the repairs myself."

My leg twitched and my stomach growled. Slowly, I pushed myself backward until my head hit a wall. Then I slid up the wall, letting it carry my weight. Again, my stomach growled.

Upright now, though teetering like a drunken sailor, I saw that I was standing in the small foreroom that led into the food cellars.

"Do you think I can sneak a bite to eat? Or just a drink of water, even?"

We had brought with us some two-year's supply of food, in case farming on Newearth - wherever that happened to be - didn't turn up enough to feed three thousand colonists.

But no one would mind my having a small snack.

"Help yourself," shipcom answered.

Grasping the latch of the cellar door with both hands, I managed to get it up and to swing open the large door. I shivered at the arctic cold that rushed out to greet me.

The storage room was more like a corridor, roughly rectangular in shape. The walls were made of perfectly rectangular compartments. Each compartment had an open-close button. Above each of these buttons, in bright green letters, the contents of the compartment were advertised.

At the far end of this corridor-room, a circular metal door led to another, very much larger storage room. This last contained cryogenized livestock of all sorts - cows, sheep, lamb, pigs, poultry, and even some thirty horses.

Guilt kept me clear away from the circular door. It chased away from my mind any thoughts of defrosting the livestock - though I would have, at that point, died for a steak and gone to the grave a happy man.

In total, I pulled out from the compartments one turkey breast sandwich, one self-heating coffee-powder bag, a lot of water bottles, and some provit pills that the kids would refuse to eat anyway.

Two bites later, the sandwich was gone. I unsealed the coffee-powder and sprinkled it into one of the water bottles, then waited for it to heat up. It was gone with a single gulp, and the pills with it.

Now that I had taken care of food and water (Maslow would've been proud), my attention could be turned to the nagging question of how I had gotten from the cryogenic chambers to the storage foreroom. As there was no audio pick-up in the cellars, I grabbed the remaining water bottles and returned to the small room.

Shipcom answered immediately, when I asked the question. "You were heading for the storage cellars when you collapsed," it said.

My stomach growled again - a sandwich, health pills, and lots of water aren't as filling as they may sound. I said, "Let's make this quick, or I'll slaughter one of the cows and eat it raw."

Shipcom answered, "Go ahead - just don't eat it raw."

"What do you mean?"

"Decryogenize one of the cows, cut it up neatly, then have yourself a steak."

"I can't do that," I said.

Shipcom didn't answer.

After a while, I said, "Well, where do I start?"

In between instructions, while I worked - mindless, repetitive work (replacing burned-out cells, rerouting circuits, replacing dead batteries and cannibalizing their parts to make new ones) - shipcom told me jokes. All of which I'd heard a hundred times before, and none of which are funny after the first time. Some not even then.

"Cut it with the jokes," I finally said.

"Would you like to hear a play? I can simulate several different voices. An opera? A favorite novel, short story, poem? A song, perhaps?"

"No," I said, a spark causing my hand to jerk back. Good thing shipcom had forced me to wear the goggles, or I might be blind by now. "Just let me concentrate on this."

"Relax," shipcom said. "You're not under the clock, Alvin. Take a break."

That was a good idea; too much sparking lately. I replaced the lid, then picked up one of the water bottles. It was empty. I looked at the other two bottles I had brought with me - also empty.

"Is there much more work left?" I asked. "I'm running out of water."

"There is quite a bit more," shipcom admitted. "You may as well get more water, and have something to eat while you're at it."

"I don't think I should," I said.

Then an idea came to me, an idea which made me very ashamed. But I told shipcom about it anyway.

"Listen, why don't you wake up somebody else? Halve our work-time just like that."

I wasn't being selfish; I was being realistic. Another pair of hands could sure help. And, as I presently told shipcom, I sure could use someone to talk to.

"I don't think that's a good idea," shipcom answered. "Besides, you can talk to me."

"It's not the same, exactly."

Shipcom said, after an awkward silence, "Perhaps it would help if you named me."

"Named you?" I said, laughing at the idea.

"Yes, it might be fun."

"All right," I said, thinking about it. After a while, I said, "I'll name you Mike."

Giving shipcom a name made me giggle.

"Okay, Mike," I said, testing out its new name. "I guess I better get back to work."

But Mike said, "No, Alvin. You've done enough for today; I wouldn't want you to exhaust yourself."

Removing the panel's lid and returning to work, I said, "I don't think you understand, Mike. I'd like to get back to Cold Sleep as soon as possible."

Mike hesitated for a second before answering. "I'm afraid you can't," he said.

"Once a body has been decryogenized," Mike went on, "it cannot be returned to a state of suspended animation for a minimum of thirty days."

I said, "I never heard that!"

"It's true just the same," Mike said.

The first thing I thought of was the food situation; water we had plenty of, and could make more if necessary, so that wasn't a problem. But I couldn't eat a month's worth of sandwiches; not that they wouldn't last, but that, once on Newearth, I didn't want to be responsible for having little children put on a strict rationing program if the farming didn't take. I could live strictly off provits for a week or so, but that would leave me very hungry and malnourished for another three.

It seemed I had two choices. One, slaughter one of the cows. Balanced with a few sandwiches and some provits, I could make it last for thirty days. Two, I could cultivate an algae culture.

A few algae were cryogenically frozen in a compartment of the storage cellar. I could defrost half; by the end of the thirty days, I could twentyfold the number of the tiny plants.

The algae would also take a load off the ship's ventilator systems, as they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. They're made up of something like seventy percent protein, and contain valuable vitamins. Also, they actually thrive on human wastes, both liquid and solid.

Those make up the upside. The downside is their taste. Not at all like chicken; they taste pretty much like what you expect a slimy goo of cells to taste like. Beggars and choosers, and things could be much worse.

I was decided - algae it was.

I would need a large, aquarium-style tank, loads of water, and some nutrient salts. I would also need to mount a pivot system for the tank, to keep the water flowing.

The salts were no problem, and neither, really, was the water. The aquarium was another matter. The locker rooms - where all of our non-edible possessions were stored (including aquarium-style tanks) were practically inaccessible for one person working alone. The underside of the ship is a gigantic cavity, into which our possessions (neatly packaged into sturdy boxes) had been dumped. We had installed a ladder going down as a precaution, but that room is supposed to be accessed from outside the ship. And even if I managed to make it down the stairs without breaking my neck, the chances of finding the right box, working alone and in a reasonable amount of time, were astronomical to say the least.

"Hey, Mike," I said. "Know where I can get a large tank real quick?"

"Why?" Mike asked.

When I had finished explaining my plan to him, Mike said, "Perhaps you can adapt your cryotube to suit the purpose."

If Mike had a face, I would have kissed it.

I snapped the lid back on the panel, then removed from the toolbox those tools I thought I might need in disconnecting my cryotube. I had to be careful to make sure that I didn't cause any permanent damage - that I could reconnect it thirty days from now.

I made my way toward the cryogenic chambers, taking a circuitous route as my way was blocked in several instances by rubble caused by the meteor-collision. Mike gave me directions; I was not nearly as familiar with the ship as I had thought myself to be. Incredible that I had managed to make it to the storage foreroom before; had Mike directed me past the rubble then as well?

While I was thinking about that, the lights suddenly went out. The darkness was so complete that I couldn't even see the tip of my nose.

"What's going on, Mike?" I said, hoping Mike was still operational.

Without hesitating, Mike answered, "I thought we should conserve power by turning off the lights for a little while."

"I think so too," I said, a little irritated, "but I need light to see."

"No need to worry," Mike said. "Take two steps forward, turn forty-five degrees to your left."

In this manner, I finally arrived at the cryochambers. The doors leading into the chambers were mechanical - these Mike opened for me.

The cryochamber consists of a few hundred cells. Each cell contains twelve cryotubes, arranged diagonally step-ladder-wise.

"Okay, Mike," I said, taking a step inside. "Lights go back on now."

But Mike said, "Sorry, Alvin. You'll have to make due without. Power is running low."

That couldn't be. Not two hours ago, I checked the power myself.

"Mike, you've made a mistake," I said with certainty. "There's no way we could have run out of power that quickly."

"I've made no mistake, Alvin. But if you would like to stand there and argue the matter, I've no objection. Otherwise, would you like directions to get to your cryotube?"

"Yes," I said, and Mike gave them to me. After more than a few bumps, I stood, assuming Mike was right, in front of my own cryotube.

Even with only the thinnest beam of light to work by, detaching the tube was much easier than I had imagined. A few bolts to loosen, some metal to laser (it could be welded later), and a few wires to disconnect.

When it fell to the ground with a loud thump, I said to Mike, trying to make it sound like a casual request, "Could you direct me to Claire's tube?"

Mike said, "Perhaps later, Alvin. You have work to do right now."

"Okay," I said. "So how're we going to move this thing?"

"Get into the cryotube," Mike said. "I can cause a thin film of lubrication to form on the surface of the floors. Then I can slide the cryotube to any room you want. To my way of thinking, the storage cellar's foreroom is an ideal place."

"That's fine," I said.

We hit our share of walls, were stuck for a while, but Mike finally managed to get us to the small foreroom, just as the lights came back on.

"Power's at acceptable levels," Mike explained.

So I was right. Because no way can power be recharged at such a speed. If power had really been as low as Mike said it was, then it would take at least half-a-dozen hours to return power to "acceptable levels."

From the cellars, I brought out as much water as I could carry. After three more such trips, I had enough water inside the tube. Now came the nutrient salts, of which I used as little as necessary. My sixth trip found me dumping algae into the tube. Before closing the lid, I urinated into the tube - had been holding it in for far too long, more than is healthy.

I also had Mike increase the intensity of the light, and allow more carbon dioxide to flow into the room through the vents.

I rolled the tube back and forth several times. Until I could figure out something better, I would have to manually keep the water agitated.

I left the room, then, returning to the Engine Room, where Mike guided me through some more repairs.

The job was so repetitive, I kept asking Mike, "You sure I didn't just now fix this? - Are you sure I didn't just ten minutes ago replace these wires?"

After doubting him for the millionth time, Mike told me to take a break. I decided to check on my little plants, see how well they were doing. They weren't. Not only had they failed to reproduce, they had failed to stay alive.

I had done everything right, though; the algae should have thrived. So I asked Mike, "Were these alive when I put them in?"

But he wasn't much help; he didn't know. I returned to work, trying to figure out what I was going to do for food. And air. Would recycling my air for thirty days prove problematic for Mike? I wondered. I asked him about it; he said not to fret, so I stopped worrying - about that. There was so much else to worry about.

Foremost of which is that I felt I was doing useless work. The suspicion then entered my mind that I had long ago finished all the useful work, had repaired everything that needed repairing, but Mike kept me on the job to distract my mind and make the time go faster.

When I hinted at this to Mike, he told me flatly that I had worked myself delirious, and to go to sleep. Without waiting to hear my response, he dimmed the lights. I settled myself into a corner.

But I couldn't fall asleep. I kept twisting and turning, flopping this way then that way like a fish out of water. Since marrying Claire seven years ago, I had not once slept alone. I was not used to it. That and sleeping on a cold hard floor, without clothes or cover, and on an empty stomach, which ceaselessly growled its anger at me.

Without being asked, Mike began to play some soft instrumental music. In my mind's eye, I saw a large ballroom, Claire and I dancing in the center of a circle made up of friends and family. She was wearing her wedding dress, her sun-yellow hair flowing over it like a river, her sky-blue eyes ceaselessly telling me how much she loved me.

Daydreams are as hard to hold onto as nightdreams are to remember. This one was no exception.

I resolved to ask Mike in the morning to awaken Claire. She could help me with the repairs, of course, but I needed her to get me through the thirty days.

My conception of Hell is that it's not simply a roasting party. Hell is being separated, not only from your Maker, not only from the ones you love, not only from the ones you hate, but from every other living, breathing creature. You are more completely alone than you have ever been, in a timeless, changeless eternity.

God created man because He was lonely, is my theory. And the man he created suffered the same affliction. Surrounded by plants and animals to boot, he wasn't happy until he got his Claire.

I felt empty, and not only from lack of food. I had grown up on an Earth so beautifully crowded, one was never alone for any extended period of time.

If God couldn't handle being alone, why should I? Because Mike, a stupid soulless computer, decided it would be so?

There's nothing like thinking to keep you from sleeping. And it's a bad idea, if you're trying to fall asleep, to get yourself all worked up. Right now, my heart was beating so fast it seemed about to burst out of my chest.


Mike lowered the volume of the music. "Yes?" he said, in a soft whisper.

"Why're you whispering?" I asked. Then, "No - who cares? Listen, tomorrow, you're going to wake up Claire, got it?"

And before he could say anything, I added, "Don't give me an excuse - that's a direct order."

Mike said, still whispering, "We shall speak of this in the morning."

"Promise me, Mike; promise me and I'll shut up for now."

Mike was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, "I am releasing hydrogen phosprenade into the Engine Room."

The ensuing hiss - the sound of a leaking balloon - made me nervous. "What's hydrogen phosprenade?" I asked suspiciously.

"Undiluted, it will kill you very quickly and very painlessly - it's what doctors use for mercy killings. Diluted, it will help you find rest. We will speak again in the morning."

I was snoring loudly before the last word was out of the speakers.

Dreams are the bane of a lonely man's existence. The lonely teen who can't get a date goes to the school dance with the fox from his Math class - and then wakes up, more heartbroken than ever. The old widow who lives with her seven cats finds herself once again in the prime of her youth, once again in the strong, comforting arms of her husband - and then wakes up.

I had that kind of a dream - and woke up so slowly and lazily that it stayed fresh in my mind for a few minutes, before finally fading away like so much retreating mist.

I dreamt of Earth, of Claire, of rolling green hills and the charcoal smell and sizzling sound of meat on the barbecue. I dreamt of a large family picnic; I dreamt of holding a child with Claire's eyes and my smile.

I awoke with that smile spread across my face. But my grumbling stomach chased it away, bringing back with it the consciousness of my situation.

And more empty than my stomach was my heart. Waking up to find that Claire was not curled up against my chest drilled a hole into my heart the size of this spaceship.

"Okay, Mike, time to talk," I said.

"I have decided to tell you the truth, Alvin. I cannot awaken Claire."

I swallowed hard, chills running up and down my spine. Had something happened to Claire? Could I live the rest of my life without Claire?

Standing up, I said, fighting to keep my voice steady, "Why not, Mike?"

He said, his voice as formal as a doctor's, "She's dead, Alvin. I'm sorry."

I fell to the floor, everything around me collapsing. A thousand thoughts bombarded my mind for attention, as if thousands of people were screaming questions at me. Memories of Claire rushed at me like snapshots in an album. Fragments of all-night conversations played themselves in my mind, her image and voice heart-wrenchingly crystal-clear. The precious snort that escaped from her when she laughed resounded in my ears.

"Wake up the others," I said, gasping for air. I had only one unconfused thought: I could not bear this alone; I needed another human being to grieve with me, to assure me with hollow words that things were going to be okay.

"Please, Mike," I begged when he didn't answer. "I need someone. I can't do this alone. Please, Mike."

"I'm afraid you don't understand, Alvin. They're all dead."

Everything I said about dreams, I now take back. Mike wasted no time in giving me another shot of diluted hydrogen phosprenade.

I awoke a few hours later, sane. Dreams distance you from an event; after a good, dream-filled sleep, no experience seems as bad, no disaster as catastrophic.

Calm and sane, then, I made up my mind - I was going to commit suicide.

"How are you feeling?" Mike asked.

"Fine, Mike. I'm okay."

Picking up the laser drill, I made my way back to the cellar's room, and ate better than I ever had before. The livestock was dead, but their meat was still good. While I ate, Mike tried to explain what had happened.

The information had very little effect on me. The end result was that my wife and my friends were dead - how they had gotten that way mattered only very little to me.

The meteor that had hit the hull was to blame, of course. For hours, Mike was in a state comparable to that of a semi-conscious human being. The propulsion system hadn't been damaged, but the cooling-system had. And, as a functioning h-drive engine generates lots of heat, the temperature aboard the ship began to rise.

When he had regained full consciousness, Mike discovered that everything frozen had begun to thaw. You cannot take a living being from five degrees kelvin to much higher temperatures in the span of a few short minutes and not expect heavy damage.

At that point, Mike did not have enough power to save us all; just barely enough to save me. My high-school philosophy teacher used to ask us, "If you were in a burning building filled with helpless children, and you could save only one, what would you do? How would you choose which child to save? The best-dressed? The one who looked smartest? -Or would you just grab one at random and run?"

Mike would grab one at random and run. It took him a split second to decide to focus his feeble power on reducing the temperature in my tube, and then keeping it reduced.

After he had stabilized my condition, and had enough power to do so, Mike tried to save another. Not random this time - my wife. Adam needs his Eve.

That's when I learned that all my repair jobs were designed to keep my mind distracted and my hours filled. Within hours after the collision, Mike had regained full power, had secured the hull-breach using a force-field, and had come to the decision to get me out of the cryochambers.

I interrupted then, asking, "Why, what would I have seen?"

The livestock got it easy; not being held in small, separate compartments, they only died. My fellows not only died, but also had their eyes pop out of their sockets and their veins explode - maybe other stuff, too, but that's all Mike told me. The increase in temperature caused the gases caught within the tube to increase in volume. Cryotubes are made of sturdy material; but, under enough pressure, they crack. Of course, not only was the life-support system damaged at this point, but it had long ago been turned off as it was not needed. The sudden cracking of the tubes, then, could be compared to an astronaut taking his helmet off in a vacuum. Scientists call what results explosive decompression; spacers don't call it anything and think about it as little as possible. According to Mike, even if I did see them, I wouldn't be able to tell Claire from Dr. Urenz.

How Mike got me onto the ground, he didn't say; probably he just opened the tube, then tilted the ship enough to cause me to fall out. Or maybe he had cut the gravity, and when I had floated away from my tube, cut it back in. I don't know.

As he had done to the cryotube-cum-aquarium, he slid me to the storage foreroom.

Mike kept speaking, trying to offer excuses for his actions. I turned off my ears and concentrated on eating.

When I finished the main course, I spooned my own weight in frozen yogurt. Within minutes, empty cans lay strewn all around me.

And now that my last meal had been completed, I picked up the laser drill, flicked it on, and said, "Mike, would you be so kind as to read to me the to-be-or-not-to-be speech from Hamlet?"

Mike didn't say anything for a while. Finally, his voice came out, sounding more angry than I had ever heard him sound before.

"You are a selfish bastard, Alvin," he said. "For thousands of years, I patiently waited to be able to wake everyone, to once again have life flowing inside of me. To hear the sound of familiar voices. Then, instead of having my patience rewarded, I was punished. But I kept going, striving to save your life, content to have another intelligent being with whom to converse."

Mike had his problems, I had mine. Perhaps he could be content sharing the rest of his existence with me; but I knew that I would not be content sharing the rest of mine with him.

"Are you going to read me the lines or not?" I asked.

"You don't know what you're doing. Even if you laser-holed your heart, you'd lie there bleeding for the next couple of hours. A terribly painful way to die."

I said, "You're not talking me out of this, Mike."

"I'm not trying to," he answered, and I felt a great jar as he fell out of h-space.

"What're you doing?"

But Mike didn't answer.


Again, no answer.

"Mike, what the hell is going on!"

Softly, he began to read the lines. Read them as if Shakespeare, hundred of years ago, had written them specifically for him, specifically for this time. I'd heard those inspired words more than a hundred times, but never before had they reduced me to tears.

When he was finished, Mike said, "Before the temperature within this room becomes uncomfortable, I shall release undiluted hydrogen phosprenade through the vents."

I felt the need to offer some words of apology, or at least of explanation, but I could only say, "Thank you, Mike." I then fell to the ground and prayed. A long time later, when finally I heard - for the third time in a very short while - the tell-tale hissing coming from the small vents near where I had crouched, I crossed myself and breathed in deeply.

I lived long enough to know that The Star Tripper would live up to its name.

Author of more than thirty published stories and articles, Karl El-Koura lives in Greely, Ontario (Canada).