Lifeboat: Part 2

Part Two: Gulf Two Piñata

Alan had never understood people who devoted their lives to science. Especially weird, abstract areas of science like quantum theory. After all, how did that knowledge help you advance in everyday life? Did it help you hold a job, make friends, meet girls?
Now Alan understood.

His main instrument display reminded him of an old oscilloscope of his father’s, something that had fascinated him as a child. The first pulsing green wave depicted, in electronic form, his proper time and place in the universe. Superimposed on top was a taller wave representing the enclosed environment of the pod. As he manipulated the controls, the two waves became separate. A counter next to the screen flicked through a number sequence, the last four digits cycling so quickly that they were just a blur. The sickening motion and noise of the plummeting aircraft came to an end, as soon as the two waves moved out of alignment. He hadn’t been prepared for that. He had expected a gradual fade, even a bang, something appropriate to signify the destruction of humanity.
According to one interpretation of quantum theory, there were many parallel worlds, representing every possible course of history. They existed as a ‘multi-verse,’ a giant tree, with each world occupying a separate branch. And new branches were shooting off all the time; Alan had created several during the tense moments before his launch. In another universe there was another Alan, dissolved into dust on the floor of the Hercules like every body else because he had hesitated too long.
Differences between adjacent branches of the tree were likely to be infinitesimally small. It was when you moved further out that things became wilder and weirder.
He, and the pilots of several dozen other pods, were counting on the fact that there was an Earth out there, an Earth the same as the one they’d just escaped from, but for one minor detail: there were no fireflies.
Presently Alan watched his new branch, his lifeline, come into view as an erratic squiggly line near the top of his display. It was possible that there would already be an Alan at his destination, happy and healthy. Or an Ashley. The thought triggered a pang of some unidentifiable emotion. His heart rate quickened.
The lifeline bowed in the middle, as if being weighed down by some imaginary force, and finally broke.
Alan stiffened in his seat. It hasn’t worked, he thought. “Something‘s wrong.” His voice echoed around the contours of the drum.
He managed to head off the onset of panic and remember his training. Check your readings. Find out where you’ve ended up. The camera feed to the exterior of the pod showed a slab of dimensionless black. He could be anywhere, from the floor of the Mariana trench to the depths of space. He scanned his other instruments. There was no electromagnetic radiation of any kind. Nothing on sonar. No atmosphere. No sound. No motion. Nothing!
The skin on the backs of his hands started to squirm. Not nothing, he corrected himself. Look at yourself, Alan. You’re sitting in your chair, not floating around the cabin. There’s gravity. That’s something.
Then the remaining green squiggle dismembered itself and was flung past the limits of his display. The lights went out with a pop. His whole instrument display shut itself off, leaving a phosphorescent after-image in its wake. Alan sat in complete darkness. “Oh, fuck,” he said, with feeling. He groped under the console for the toggle switch to activate the pod’s emergency battery. The switch made a stale click and did nothing.
The torch in his emergency kit was also dry. “Fuck.” His voice broke. A squeal in a drum.
He rose from his chair, uncertainly, to see if moving around would destabilise the floor at all: it didn’t. That meant the pod must be resting on something. He jerked his head upwards towards the hatch, his eyes straining to give his brain something to process about his dark, new world. There was gravity, and solid ground. He had to be somewhere. He clasped the ladder, letting his body heat radiate through the cold metal. But images of asphyxiation and death by de-pressurisation quashed his desire to open the hatch. He held his wrist up to his face, but the hands of his watch were invisible. Until he got the power back on, there was no way even to check the time.
“Fuck, Alan.”
He fumbled his way through his first foil-wrapped meal, chewing rapidly in the dark, being careful with the crumbs out of habit. He thought of Ashley, and slept.

He awoke to what he took to be the sound of someone thumping on the hull from outside. But this proved to be false, a remnant of a dream mixed with a stranger reality. “Get the power back on,” he commanded himself. There must be a fault somewhere. Things didn’t happen for no reason.
He spent an hour, perhaps two, perhaps a whole day, working feverishly amongst a rat’s nest of invisible wiring. “Got you, bastard,” he cackled finally. Now certain that he had corrected the fault, he felt around for the toggle switch. Only the battery switch wasn’t there, because it was on the opposite side of the cabin below his instrument display. It took him a further hour to realise that he’d just re-wired the water reclamation system.
Alan jammed his thumbs into his temples, hard enough to make his eyes water.
This time he didn’t care about the crumbs. He left the rubbish from his meal where it fell, and drew his blanket up around his chin. He didn’t dream.

Alan spent the next period of wakefulness pacing, hugging himself, and whispering the lyrics to an old folk song. There was only enough floor space for a simple circuit: three steps forward, around the ladder, two more steps, avoid crashing into the small toilet, pivot, one step, repeat. He empathised with the predators he’d witnessed in zoos, roaming from one end of their cage to the other, endlessly. Nothing happening. No input. Create your own. Don’t go insane.
Alan swore at his situation, ate another meal, and blacked out.

Immediately after waking, he became convinced of another presence in the pod. He made defensive movements with his hands, fully expecting a physical attack. There were low animal sounds coming from beneath the storage locker. Breathing. Alan lay frozen on his bunk for an indeterminate period. With his anxiety reaching a critical mass, he pitched himself across the room, flailing his arms and screaming the most primitive of war cries. He tore through the contents of the locker with psychotic fervour. But of course there was nothing hiding there. A hallucination. Not real. Nothing was real. He sprawled himself on the grated floor in breathless agony. After a while he began to beat his head against the base of the ladder, using each ringing impact to keep the time.

The battery was now certainly connected, and should work. It should work under any conditions, because it had even been shielded against the unlikely event of an EMP attack.
Alan was baffled.
He swiped at a blotch of red cloud that was sliding down his cheek. He tried visualising the pod’s schematics, but the ghostly pathways insisted on melting together. No, power couldn’t be the problem. Maybe the pod had taken him too far into the outer, to a wild section of the tree, where the very laws of physics had come unravelled. Alan cringed. The drum was a perfect conductor of sound. It gave the horns and strings of the band a metallic edge that he found unsettling. He wished they’d stop playing; it had been going for hours now. He was shaken by a particularly loud crash of percussion. It just kept growing in volume and malice, evolving into something with intent.
Alan folded himself up in his bunk and formed a protective cage around his head with his fingers. The only way he could find to muffle the music was to concentrate on something else. Daylight. He flooded his mind with it. Tearing along the beach in summer, blinded by the glint coming off the water, hounded by a jazz band from purgatory.

Air was becoming a problem. He had been stranded for about five days, judging by the growth around his chin. He tried to use as much oxygen as possible from the emergency bottle, but even that was probably running low. As for the air in the pod, he reckoned there was half a day’s breathable matter left. Alan slept again. He slept a lot, now.

A hallway filled with moths. They fluttered in and out of his vision, decaying even as they flew. Every open door was a rolling cauldron of volcanic ash. He stretched his hands out as he toed past every junction, to ward off danger, but his fingertips were invisible. Something grotesque loomed from the door of a classroom: a disfigured man bearing a saw. But he was just a paper cut-out, nothing to fear. Alan drifted with the moths, further along the hallway, towards the pale, smouldering core at the far end. He drew in deep, measured breaths, but found no nourishment there. He drew in only stale dust that stuck in his airways. He peered through the grey snow at another cut-out, the visage of a piñata composed of knives and scrap metal. He made to brush the cut-out aside, finding to his horror something cold and sharp.
“Let’s talk about bones, Alan,” the monster rumbled.

Alan jolted off his bunk as if he’d been launched from a gun. Blood thundered in his temples.
“Hello,” the voice called again. It was watery and indistinct, like a voice from the bottom of the ocean. It was coming from the radio.
“I say again, this is Gulf two, Cowra. If anybody is receiving this, please…”
Alan tripped over the console, clawed his way up, snatched the microphone from its cradle. “Gulf seventeen. Coburg, Coburg, Coburg!”
“Sweet mother,” said the voice from the other side. “It’s bloody good to hear your voice, Coburg. I’ve been trying for four days.”
“You’re here?” Alan cried. “You’re real?”
“I’m here,” said Cowra. “For what it’s worth.”

Lifeboat: Part 2

AndrewJP

Burnie, Australia

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Artist's Description

Warning: strong language
A story about a young man who flees to a parallel universe after his world comes under attack. It describes the experience of being trapped in a dark, enclosed space for days on end, and is supposed to invoke a sense of menace and foreboding. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded there, so any feedback would be welcome.

Artwork Comments

  • Arcadia Tempest
  • AndrewJP
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