Written by Allen Crowely
Story by Mike Acerra
“The sea is a vast reservoir of nature. It was through the sea that the earth, so to speak, began.”
Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
Athena Tripi’s stomach lurched with anticipation.
Following Dr. Ben Geminus through the oval hatch from the medical bay she was shocked to discover a cavernous space. She was taken back to her days serving on the carrier USS John F. Kennedy. It could easily have been an aircraft hangar. Light came from all surfaces, including the floors, which appeared to curve up. In fact, nearly every surface curved in one direction or another. It was like the inside of an internal organ. Tubing large and small branched off at acute angles in the translucent bulkheads and ceilings. While she suspected they were plumbing, ventilation ductwork, and electrical or fiber optic conduit, they looked more like arteries and blood vessels. They were constructed out the same odd material as everything had been in the medical bay.
A cool wind brushed against her face. The place seemed to have its own weather and all she could hear was the whistle of the wind through the hatch they had just exited. At about eighty meters the floor started to disappear into the ceiling. And she could smell a familiar scent from her childhood. They began walking across the open area toward the opposite wall.
“My God. Are we in a cylinder?” She asked.
“Yeah. A pretty big one too.” Replied Geminus, slowing to walk with Athena side by side along the massive corridor.
“How big is the complement on the Proteus?”
“Good question. Proteus normally has a crew of three hundred.”
“You’re not on normal Proteus. She’s a research vessel. Last month we embarked on what would have been a three-year mission to explore Venus. When she was recalled to earth nearly a third of the crew was reassigned. We dumped the Venus landers, the science labs, and a couple of cargo discs to cut weight and make room for our new cargo. We basically dumped the science team in orbit around Venus to set things up on their own.”
Geminus looked strangely at Athena as if he were trying to figure something out. “Now we're high tailing it to Mars. Here, let me show you something.” He veered to his left and abruptly parked in front of a smooth section of the pearl-colored wall. He spoke to it. “Proteus schematic.”
Ink black lines, as if being drawn from a quill pen by a ten-handed artist, raced along the wall’s iridescent surface. Tripi continued to muse on the beauty of this place. The lines branched and intersected revealing an object part machine, plant, and animal. A large bulb grew first, like an eyeball or a root. Numbers scrolled across the wall indicating diameter, length, width. She noticed that wherever she focused the drawing seemed to sense her gaze and this area would be especially highlighted with more statistics, dimensions, and colors. She noticed large metric measures like giga-this and tera-that.
Geminus pointed to the wall. “We’re here …” The screen responded to the doctor’s pointing as if a pebble had fallen into a clear pond. Details emerged at the location, floors, decks, bulkheads, and those strange networks of vein-like plumbing branched throughout the vessel. “… and we’re going here” he pointed at what looked like the lens in a cut-away view of an eyeball. Even though their trip remained in the forward area of the ship, the lines continued to fill in the rest of the drawing. From behind the bulb, grew a stalk with two rows of discs nested into it like hexagonal leaf patterns around a stem. He took his finger away. “Come on.”
“Where is everybody?” She looked around as she picked up her pace to keep up with the doctor.
“We’ll probably find more people as we get close to the spine. Right now, it’s our third shift. Most of the crew is asleep or in their quarters. We try to be strict about sleep regimes. Believe me, night and days are confusing here. If you need meds to sleep, you only need to ask.”
“Who, the wall?”
“You could, actually. But I meant me. ‘Doctor’.” He smiled pointing to his tag. “Ok, on our way. So now let’s say you are alone and need to find your way somewhere. He stopped at a clear patch of wall again. “SOLA!”
“Yes, Doctor?” A voice of a young girl softly startled Tripi. It felt like the voice was coming from right in front of her.
“I don’t believe you’ve met Gunnery Sergeant Athena Tripi.”
“Hello, Gunny. Or do you prefer I call you something else?” Said the voice of a child.
“Gunny’s good. Are you a computer?”
“Yes. I’m the Proteus’s AI.”
“Sola is way more than a computer, or a standard AI, and she has a body too.”
“Thank you, Doctor. I like to think of it that way.” The childlike voice responded.
“Where is your body now, SOLA?”
“I’m 264 degrees, 1350 meters by 364 meters.”
“You're testing me, aren't you? Let me see. Would that put you...Are you outside of the ship again?”
“Very good, Doctor. That was fast, for you.”
“There,” he pointed again to the drawing. “That would put you out by the disks. Here, near the echo disk.”
“You sound so close and not like you’re speaking through a comms unit.” Said Tripi.
“Interesting. I’m not really speaking at all. My thoughts are emitting from the wall interface at your location. I’m not using the vocal emitter on my body at all. How am I coming through?”
Athena responded, “Five by Five.”
SOLA giggled. “I like that. I will say 'five by five’ more often.”
“You two will get to know each other. We’ll be in space a while. As I was saying, if you need to find your way around the Proteus, SOLA can make it easy for you. SOLA, will you please make a path for us to the bridge?” Asked Geminus, looking at Tripi.
“Of course. Just follow the yellow brick road.”
Suddenly a goldenrod-colored brick path emerged on the deck leading to an emerald green door about 20 meters away.
“Thank you SOLA.” He laughed and looked along the path to the door. “After you” Geminus held out his hand in a courteous gesture.
Tripi canted her head a bit and marched ahead following the image laid out on the floor in front of her.
As they approached the emerald door it opened and a woman’s voice with a British accent prompted them “Please prepare for a rapid decrease in gravity. It may help to clench your abdominal muscles. Nausea may ensue.”
The green door shut and Geminus said “Alpha deck.”
“What’s on Alpha deck?” asked Athena.
“It’s the spine of the ship. Schematic please” The image of the Proteus came to life on the wall of the lift. “The decks are alpha-numeric. As you go out from the spine, Alpha, each deck gets the next letter. We were on Yankee deck. Zulu deck is normally 1G. It is where the living quarters are located. It’s where you’ll find the dining facilities, gyms, gardens, even a swimming pool.”
“Sounds nice.” Said Athena just as her stomach fell into her pelvis. A wave of nausea enveloped her. Somehow swallowing brought her innards back to their proper places. She refocused on the schematic.
The drawing began to slowly rotate on its z axis. As it did various geometric forms appeared inside the plant-like things. Next emerged a larger bowl-shaped flower structure. From inside the bowl a long stem grew and a mushroom-like cap finished it. Then the cap sprouted flower-like hoods making it resemble a lupin.
Tripi pointed to the emerging flower. “What’s that?”
“That's Houston our VASIMR plasma engine.”
“Supposedly it generates enough power to keep Houston Texas cooled down during a heat wave. It was also designed just outside in one of the suburban zones by the Ad Astra Rocket Company. So, Houston.
“What’s in those disks?” Asked Athena, pointing at two sets of six disks, each wrapped concentrically around the spine of the Proteus.
“Remember that cargo I told you we picked up? The Proteus can carry up to twelve CDs, container disks. They are used to haul supplies, labs, and passengers. Whatever people can pack into them.”
“Passengers? Besides the crew?”
“Oh yes. Proteus is carrying six containers rated for human transport. They even have their own independent spinning carousels for artificial gravity like the Proteus. Plus, power and life support so they can stay in orbit on their own. Like we did with the science team we abandoned at Venus.” He paused as if remembering something. “So, with a crew of 200, and about 300 passengers, we have just over five hundred souls on board.”
She could not detect the lift having stopped. Its door opened and she realized that her feet were floating just off the floor.
“Your shoes are magnetized and will grip any surface onboard. It won’t feel natural at first.” He took her hand and gently pulled her to the floor.
She felt the click. “This is nuts!” She bellowed. Her bobbed haircut now began to stand on end and she had the feeling of falling. It was like a slow motion roller coaster. It felt wonderful.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?”
They stepped out of the lift to a round platform. The entire center of the ship was a long cylindrical space that went about 500 meters in either direction.
Tripi had to adjust her eyes to the immense expanse of the kilometer-long column. It seemed that either way she looked was up. She looked again and both ways were down. For a second, she was looking up at the aft door to the engines and a second later she was looking down at it. Her stomach lurched. She knew she hadn’t moved, but the sensation overwhelmed her. With a little effort she could change the perspective at will, but still felt queasy when she did it. That odd new voice in her head, the one that didn’t quite seem like her, gave a soothing unintelligible whisper and her body relaxed. Now the other end of the spine was simply, over there.
When she looked at her feet, she noticed strange objects moving through the yellow cobblestone displayed on the deck. It was glass filled with water. And not only water, but a coral reef of spectacular color. Beams of sunlight cascaded off the coral and the dazzling array of undersea life. In a glance she saw a half dozen fish, clams, seahorses, and sponges. She couldn’t see the bottom. That smell! Now she remembered. It was the John G. Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago. That odd humid odor of sea life under glass.
“Why is there an aquarium on a spaceship?”
“Oh that? We call it the Protean Sea. You'll have to ask the environmental engineers about that. There is a sealed layer of water around the spine of the ship. It replicates the environmental forces that clean the air and water on earth. The reef is a kind of barometer of the health of the ship. It's also calming for the crew.”
Geminus pointed to the different directions of the hollow tube that was the spine. “Look here. Forward. Aft.” He paused and looked at the wall like he was reading graffiti that she couldn’t see. “Just get in the habit of checking the signs before you leap. Sometimes your body will trick you about which way is up. First rule of thumb; in space there is no such thing as up and down.
Geminus pointed to the yellow brick road which followed a conveyor belt that traveled along the side of the cylinder. “It’s safe to shove off and float to the bridge if you’d like. Or you can use either ladder.” He pointed out the two ladders. Then his attention returned to the conveyor belt. “See the strap by the platform’s edge? Just grab a strap as it goes by then step on the platform and off you go. Stepping off is a little trickier, but I'll go first to demonstrate how to get on and to pull you off at the other end. Ready?”
Tripi nodded. She was convinced she was on a spaceship. But also began to seriously consider whether she might be in a dream or a virtual reality simulation. She could not fathom the depths of how any of this could be possible. She wanted to ask the doctor how this could be real but held off. Just observe for now. Maybe they knew what they’re doing and this little walk through the ship was the best way to ease her into her new situation.
Doc grabbed a strap and stepped on a platform. It was big enough for two, but she allowed it to go by opting for her own strap. She wanted to try it on her own. ‘This is the lesson to learn here’. She must have grabbed too late. She was dragged with her feet dangling in the void. Panic flooded through her. She knew that there was no gravity and she wouldn't fall the length of the ship. But height is height, and hundreds of meters is still an intimidating distance to look “down” into. She pulled her feather weight onto the platform. Ah, much more comfortable.
The lift accelerated and the aquarium went by in a blur of bright colors and motions. She noticed a school of yellow fish racing after them. She saw an eel and a fish she had only seen in books. Strange creatures that made their own light. The sensation of utter beauty swept over her and raised the hairs on her neck and arms. The breeze from their rapid ascent to the bridge cooled her face and made her happy. So many memories associated with open car windows, boat rides on the Missouri river, and open hatches on Ospreys. ‘Could this be heaven’, she pondered, smiling.
Geminus stepped off with a little shuffle of his feet. She was racing by. He grabbed her forearm and helped her onto the landing. Her internal organs wanted to keep traveling up but her bones were pulling her down. Like floating in water, her body found its equilibrium without her input.
“That was quick.”
“Yeah, it seems surprisingly fast for first timers, it will start to seem abysmally slow eventually.” He swept his arm in a gesture that encompassed the entire cylinder. “Well that's the spine, now we’ll transition into the main area of the Proteus, onward to the bridge, and you’ll get to see the brains of the operation.”
She stepped away from the slot where the conveyor disappeared into the bulkhead like an escalator only to exit on the other side of the tube to travel the opposite way, aft along the spine.
“I'm sure you will have a million questions when we get to the bridge, but it's the command center, so just stay quiet and observe.” He gave her a wink, “Like a good Marine.”
“Aye aye, Doctor Ben.”