“Change of Fortune” — Episode 07
by Michael Azzolino
Arven was not a fan of sleep. More often than not, his subconscious would torture him with feelings of anxiety and regret, flaunting every traumatic image stored in his memory, forcing him to witness them again and again. As a young man, Arven didn’t require much rest. He maintained a regular lopsided schedule avoiding the downtime terrors. Eventually, he would turn to Stims to combat fatigue on the job. He regularly flew long hours for consecutive cycles at a time, facilitating a steady decline of his mental health. At the time of the first accident, he was averaging between three and four hours of sleep per week. Calling it sleep was a bit of a stretch. It was more like passing out into a non-responsive, coma-like state.
This felt different.
Arven could taste the drug’s bitterness in his mouth. Somehow, he knew he wasn’t conscious, but he was lucid. He felt a strange comfort in this landscape of dreams. This place had a familiar madness to it. An almost inviting vibration, lying just under the surface of everything. A place populated with the horrors Arven had spent the greater part of his life avoiding.
“What in the fu…” Arven watched the waveform of his speech erupt from his mouth and snake up into the air. It joined with other soundwaves, flocking like birds and swirling in a dance of colorful, chaotic patterns. He watched for a moment, mesmerized by the sight. The colorful image suddenly vanished, replaced from one edge of the horizon to the other with a black and white static pattern. It spread like a swarm of angry, agitated insects, rolling across and blocking out the entire sky. Frustrated, Arven tried and failed to scream. Everything went black as void. Only the vibration remained, more familiar now than ever. He focused on the oscillation, matching his breathing to its rhythm. Suddenly he realized what it was — an active Nexus Unit!
“Not surprised,” he thought. “I’m dreaming of being in space, or am I?”
Arven opened his eyes. He was face-down on the cold deck plating of a ship’s cargo hold. The vibration of the Nexus Unit thrumming against his cheek made his teeth chatter slightly. He lifted his head from a puddle of saliva to look around. He recognized specialized life-support gear in use, concluding that there were Adaro on this craft. The Adaro were an aquatic race that breathed a mixture of air and water. Adaro ships were fitted with this additional equipment to control the precise and complicated mixture they required.
“It’s unusual to see it installed in a cargo hold, generally a fixture in engineering,” Arven spoke aloud. The absence of visuals helped solidify that he was no longer in a dream state. His head felt thick and foggy, likely a residual effect from the drugs. He struggled to concentrate. “What the hell did Zebb do? Where in Known Space am I? What the fu….”
Someone or something was coming. He heard heavy metal boots hammering the steel deck plates, getting louder with each step. He was out of time. Arven leapt up and bounded toward the closest maintenance hatch. The bottom hinged panel was barely large enough for a person to fit. He crawled headfirst into the opening. The last technician working here left the door open. It was a small triumph of opportunity. He recalled these doors were nicknamed ‘oven doors’ by the crew who used them regularly. The thought made him shudder. He reached back behind him and closed the door just as the huge bulkhead door began to open.
Arven held his breath. His knuckles white upon the handle, unable to set the latch in time. The thick hatch was insulated well enough to block out most of the ambient noise of the ship. He held the door closed tight with all of the strength he could muster. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours to Arven, the huge door into the hold closed. He carefully timed turning the latch in his hand to coincide with the massive thump of the bulkhead coming to rest. Satisfied that he was safe for the moment, Arven crawled deeper into the tube, searching for an interface to access.
Crawling deeper into the bowels of the ship, it became obvious to him that this craft had been heavily modified from the standard specifications. He saw unconventional-looking equipment installed wherever it could fit and pulsing lines of fiber and power connecting them to the core systems. He was impressed with the quality of workmanship. A few more feet into the tube Arven reached an intersection where he could finally stand in the confined space. Directly in front of him, he discovered the console for the emergency communications system, a redundant system rarely used and only in the event of a cascading failure of the primary systems. “Another stroke of luck for the good guys!” He spoke barely above the volume of a whisper. His hands rested on the keyboard. For a moment, it was like shaking hands with an old friend. He began working his magic, creating boxes within subroutines within worms, laying down a virtual web of real estate between himself and anyone seeking to uncover his activities on the network.
With his electronic footprints covered, Arven began to look around. Almost immediately he uncovered an encrypted folder hidden in a communication diagnostic routine. The level of encryption didn’t slow him down for long. Inside the folder he found a recording of an old transmission:
“Flight logs show…[static]…Sector…[static] presumably lost. I take it? That’s Shadow territory, Ben…[static]…your PAL, directed you to the…[static]…Hub…[static]…I have bad news. You left…[static]…the warp. How skilled are you as a gunner?”
The playback was louder than he had expected or desired. He cranked the attenuator down to its lowest setting. Arven held his breath again, but not for fear of being heard. He recognized the distinct voice on the recording. He played it a second time and then a third. No doubt about it. “It’s me.”
(To be continued…)