Experience the charm of gravity assists, they said, but all I was experiencing was the charm of my churning stomach as it bounced back and forth between my throat and my bowels. I can see now why this is touted as a once in a life time trip. They claim it’s because Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune only line up once every 175 years, but I’m sure the real reason are those damn gravity assists. Experience them once and you’ll never want to experience them again. Unfortunately, using the gravitational field alignment to sling our space shuttle from one planet to the next was the only means of interplanetary travel that we had this far out in the solar system. And I was at its mercy. Why couldn’t we visit some nice, easy to get to planet, like Mars? Most people say the architecture is amazing, a modern wonder of the solar system, but I hear that it’s the night life that is truly out of this world. Not that I would know, Pioneer22 never stops anywhere fun. But even we did stop somewhere interesting, it’s not like I could get off the ship to experience it anyway. Well, not without risking capture by the Planetary Police. Luckily, their jurisdiction didn’t reach this far out, what with us being in interplanetary space. The ship offered further protection, but only if I stayed confined within its walls. For now Pioneer22 was my home, no matter how boring the places were that it visited.
“Mission Specialist Smith, you’re needed in the Cargo Hold. Immediately,” the Commander’s voice had a sense of urgency as it filled the living quarters, which caused the resting crew to stop their card game and look at me.
“Ooooh, you’re in trouble,” cooed the Johnson twins in unison, taunting me like I was a teenage boy being called to the Principal’s office.
“Shut it, you two,” Engineer Jones said.
But they kept on making noises, causing him to smack the closest one on the back of the head with his hand of cards.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said with a sign. Well, hopefully nothing, unless the Commander found out what I was running from and why I was really on this ship. “I’m sure I’ll return soon.”
“Famous last words,” the Johnson twins said again, causing Jones to reach over the table and smack the other one upside the head.
“I said shut it,” he scolded once more. “Besides, it’s my turn. Read ‘em and weep, boys. A Straight Flush,” he said, beaming with pride as he held his cards out, face up, revealing five clubs ordered in sequence from five to ten.
“Oh yeah?” Jason Johnson taunted, an obnoxious grin spreading across his face. “That still doesn’t beat my Royal Flush. I think you might be the one to, how did you put it? ‘Read ‘em and weep, boy’?” The words barely left his mouth before both of the twins erupted in a cackle of laughter. Jason held his cards out face up to verify his claim.
Jones stared at the cards, his face growing as red as the suit of hearts Jason was holding. “The probability of you having that hand in the same round that I have a Straight Flush is —”
“0.00032%, give or take,” Joe Johnson said, interrupting Jones.
“You little cheat,” Jones said from between clenched teeth. His face grew redder still, a sign that he was about to reach his boiling point. He flung his cards at Jason, but the lack of gravity on the ship simply caused them to bounce off the table and slowly drift over the twins heads, off to some unknown corner of the living quarters. Jones wrestled with his seat belt, his anger causing the velcro strap to be more difficult to remove than it should be. Finally, he unlocked himself from the chair. It was about to get ugly.
I turned, leaving the room before I had to play referee. I don’t know why they play that stupid Earth game anyway. It always devolves into Jones accusing one of the Johnson’s, or both, of cheating before escalating into a heated debate, or more often, a physical altercation. Jones was strong, but he was often no match for the twins coordinated efforts, and I was in no mood to pry the three of them apart and force them to separate areas of the ship. At least this time I had a good reason to leave the living quarters before I had to intervene. Maybe working it out themselves was just what they needed to do to finally put this rivalry to an end.
I could still hear their angered voices arguing as I slowly made my way to the Cargo Hold. Despite being on the ship for over 20 days, I still had a hard time getting used to life in zero gravity. It was like my limbs didn’t know how to coordinate their efforts when gravity wasn’t there to add some resistance. I would never be one of those astronauts who quickly maneuvered around the ship, and I certainly would never be like the Johnson’s, who took turns racing each other to see who could make it from one end of the ship to the other the fastest.
With both hands on the wall, I slowly guided myself along until I reached the Cargo Hold. I punched in my code, and as soon as the door opened, I was greeted by the grimacing faces of the Commander, and my boss — the Chief of Mission Control. My supply bag was on the floor between them, open. It was obvious they had been rummaging through the contents. Immediately, my stomach dropped. They knew. My brain raced trying to come up with logical reasons why I was on the ship — reasons that involved something other than being a fugitive stowaway turned pretend astronaut.
“About time you got here,” said Chief Braxton. He had a stern, disapproving look on his face. “You do know what immediately means, don’t you?”
“Jones and the Johnson’s were…I’m just…I’m…sorry,” I said, stammering. “I just haven’t quite gotten used to the quirks of moving in zero gravity. It takes me a while.”
The Commander was having none of my excuses, steering the conversation back to the reason they called me here. “Care to explain this?” he asked. He thrust his leather gloved hand toward me, his fist clenched around something.
It was as if time slowed down, and all I could hear was my heart pounding in my head as I waited for him to reveal what he found. Why was I stupid enough to leave my real ID in my supply bag? I could have easily shot it out into space during one of the garbage dumps. No one would have been any wiser. My fake ID was already registered, they would have no reason to question who I was or what I was doing here.
“It was foolish of me to think you wouldn’t find out,” I began.
“You’re damn right it was foolish,” said the Chief, interrupting me. “There’s nothing that goes on aboard this ship that we don’t know about. Frankly, Smith, I’m surprised you’d even try something like this. You don’t seem to be the type to smuggle alien life.”
The smuggling type? Alien life? What was he insinuating? I didn’t smuggle anything anywhere. “Excuse me?” I asked, seeking clarification.
The Commander opened his glove to reveal a small, sparkling blue orb resting in his plan. “Where did you get this?” he asked. “And how long has it been aboard the ship.”
“My water container?” I asked, puzzled that something so mundane would warrant this kind of concern from the Commander and the Chief.
“How long has it been aboard the ship? Don’t make me ask again.” His voice was uncharacteristically flat, his face stoic. Clearly, he wasn’t happy with me.
“I found it in Jupiter, when we were resupplying the ship.”
They had forced me get off the ship and help load cargo. I was sure that the moment my feet made contact with the space station, the Planetary Police would swoop in, sirens blaring, and capture me. But nothing happened. Throughout the mission, I was a paranoid mess, dropping things, bumping into the crew, who was already grumpy with me because my nervous fumbling was making the mission take about three times longer than it should have. Finally restocked, we were about to reboard the Pioneer22. I stood on metal platform between airlocks, waiting for my turn to board, I chanced looking down into the vastness of space below me, and that’s when I saw it. A small, blue orb wedged between the bearing bars of the metal grating. Someone must have dropped their water container. These things were hard to come by, and since I was the one to find it, I took it as an sign that I made the right choice to flee into the depths of space.
The Commander and the Chief stared at me, not saying a word.
“I really don’t see what the big deal is,” I said. “It’s just a Simple Flexible Fluid container. Does it really warrant breaking passenger protocol to rummage through my belongings without cause?” It was a bold statement coming from a fugitive like me.
“The big deal,” said the Chief, “is that you don’t know a Podultent Life Replicator from a Simple Flexible Container. What are they teaching you in training now days? It’s like they don’t prepare you for the realities of space travel any more. This offense is enough to have you decommissioned. Do you want that?”
Would he still ask me that if he knew that my credentials were forged? “Podulent Life Replicator? Decommissioned? What are you talking about?” I asked, trying to play dumb. “It’s just a Flexible Fluid Container, look —” I reached out and plucked the orb from the Commander’s hand before he had time to jerk it away. As soon as I did, both the Commander and the Chief went white, their eyes wide as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “Watch,” I instructed, bringing the orb up to my lips.
“Nooooo,” they shouted in unison, reaching out at me, but it was too late. I had already drank the contents of the orb.
“Ahhhh. Nice, cold, refreshing water. I’m sorry, where are my manners?” I asked, shaking my head, “I should have saved some for you. It was delicious. Water that fresh is hard to come by out here in the far reaches of the galaxy.”
The orb, now flat and clear, rested in the palm of my hand. I held it out for them to see. As I did, the orb began slowly inflating and changing colors from clear, to misty gray, to sparkling blue.
“Hmmm, okay,” I said, a little puzzled, “so it’s a refillable Flexible Fluid Container. That’s a new one on me. But seeing as there is about to be more, you can have some if you want. It really was refreshing.” I pushed my hand toward them, offering up the now refilled container. They both took one step back from me, as if I was trying to give them something radioactive.
The Chief shook his head as he turned to face the Commander. “I’m sorry,” he said, sheepishly, “I am usually very thorough in my screenings, and I am certainly not in the habit of employing idiots.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I’m at a loss. Whatever decision you make on this matter, I will uphold.” The Chief looked defeated and scared as he spoke.
“I still don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just water. And besides, violating passenger protocol without warrant is enough to bring you before the Counsel when we land. I’m surprised that a silly water container was enough to risk both of your licenses.” It was an empty threat. There was no way I was going before the Counsel, not with the warrant I had hanging over my head. But they didn’t have to know that.
The Commander sighed. “Today’s routine scan at 1500 hours revealed alien life aboard this ship. Further analysis revealed it was contained in the Cargo Hold. After an extensive search of the area, we determined your supply bag was the source of the alarm.” He nudged my bag with his foot. “And that’s when we found the Podulent Life Replicator nestled inside a pair of socks.”
“Well, I didn’t want the rest of my bag to get soaked if it popped.”
The Commander and the Chief exchanged looks before turning back to me.
“While it may look like a Flexible Fluid Container, a Podulent Life Replicator is one of several means alien life uses to travel through the recesses of space to find a new home on other planets. The easiest way to tell the difference is by the sparkles,” the Commander said, pointing once more to the glittering orb in my hand. “Specifically, it sparkles when the DNA within the replicator is activated, which happens when both gravity and heat are present.”
“But we’re still in zero-g,” I balked.
“Today, at exactly 1300 hours, we leveraged Uranus’s gravity field, allowing the assist to sling us into orbit for Neptune. Gravity was restored to the ship for all of 0.7 seconds, but that time, no matter how brief, seems to have been enough to initiate the activation sequence of the replicator,” the Commander explained. “Furthermore, a slight trajectory error forced us to make an abrupt course correction. It was enough to shift your bag so that it was closer to the outtake manifold. The extra heat from the manifold, coupled with the nice, soft location of your warm socks, was enough to finalize the replication sequence initiation, and as such —”
“You just drank activated alien juice,” the Chief interrupted. “Right now, there are roughly one million particles, give or take, of alien DNA floating through your system, all because you’re too much of an idiot to know the difference between a Replicator and a Container.”
Activated alien juice? But it was a Container, I was sure of it. I had even tripled checked it, scanning it with my space suit’s computer before brining it on board. Sure, I had noticed the sparkle, but I had just assumed that was what Containers from Jupiter looked like. Everything is slightly different on every planet. And now, I was full of alien DNA? But what did that mean?
As if sensing my newfound worry, the Commander addressed my concerns. “Currently, there is only one documented case of ingested alien DNA causing a problem to the host. In all other cases, medical has been able to neutralize the threat before it caused any problems.”
“But of course, other cases are very rare, as most people aren’t stupid enough to ingest activated alien DNA. Apparently, you aren’t most people, Mission Specialist Smith,” the Chief chided. “I could strip you of your ranking.”
“Now Chief,” the Commander said, holding his hand up. “We’re already short staffed on this ship enough as it is, what with the latest funding cuts and all. We might need him for future missions.” He turned his attention back to me, “Just because there is a documented case, doesn’t mean you’ll end up that way too. But as you know, we are short a medical team, along with a host of other crew positions. As such, effective immediately, you are quarantined to Cargo Hold B-16 for the duration of the trip. The Johnson’s will have to pitch in and help with your duties. If you arrive back at Earth in one piece, we’ll have you thoroughly examined by medical the moment we land.”
“But should you get torn apart by little baby aliens, we won’t hesitate to open the Cargo Hold and dispel your body into space,” the Chief threatened. “That is, we’ll dispel whatever is left of you out into space. Can’t have aliens taking over the ship.”
They didn’t allow me to return back to the Living Quarters to gather the remainder of my belongings, or to inform Jones and the Johnson’s of my departure. Instead, they escorted me, my supply bag, and the now full, sparkling Podulant Life Replicator, directly to Cargo Hold B-16 where I was to stay for the remainder of the trip.
Living in Cargo Hold B-16 was far less luxurious than staying in the Living Quarters. Not that I was expecting the same conditions, but jeez, if they were going to condemn a guy to the Cargo Hold for the duration of the tour, they could have at least made it a little livable. The Cargo Hold wasn’t heated, nor was there anywhere comfortable to sit or lay down. It was just an empty box with cold metal walls, a cold metal floor, and a makeshift toilet hastily constructed in the corner of the room. The layout was very much akin to a prison cell back on Earth. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Despite running from the Planetary Police, I still ended up imprisoned in a cold metal box. At least this one wasn’t crowded due to overpopulation.
Luckily, the Commander was nice enough to give me my supply bag, which contained extra clothes. While they did little to help fight the coldness of the room, they went a long way in giving me something soft to lay my head upon. My only entertainment was the small view from the Cargo Hold window, which showed me the blackness of space, and the occasionally passing star. It wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, but it was better than nothing. What I wouldn’t give to be shoved up against the bulkhead as the Johnson twins rushed passed me in their race from one end of the shuttle to the other. Or to hear only lame joke Jason Johnson knew and told at every opportunity. (What time do astronauts eat? Launch time!) As much as I hated it then, I would give anything to be the voice of reason in one of their stupid poker games when Jones accused the Johnson’s of cheating for the millionth time. I wish that they would come and see me, but they were probably under strict orders from the Commander. Or maybe they were too busy, now with their increased workload of having to take over my duties. I was completely without visitors. Every now and again, someone I couldn’t see would slip some food rations through a slot in the Cargo Hold door. That was all the visitation I was allowed. I never thought I’d miss the crew, but in the end, they were all that I could think about.
Well, them, and the alien DNA that had taken residence in my body. Was it possible that I was incubating alien life? I didn’t feel any different, and from what I could tell despite not being able to see myself, I didn’t look any different. It’s not like I had gotten larger as the DNA grew inside of me because my clothes still fit fine. My mind wandered often to the potential outcome of my situation. When you are locked in a Cargo Hold with nothing but the blackness of space to keep you company, your mind tends to wander, and I had many, many days of solitude to ponder all of the possible ways the aliens could escape my body. At first, I thought of comical, light hearted ways for them to exit. Maybe they’d wander out of my open mouth as I was snoring away, asleep on the Cargo Hold floor. Or maybe, I’d just burp them out. But soon, all I could focus on was the most gruesome and fatal ways they would exit my body. Would they rip me apart, tearing out my stomach or some other vulnerable soft spot on my body? Maybe they would tear at my intestines with their tiny razor sharp teeth, eating their way out of my digestive track with the voracity of a starving animal finally finding it’s first meal after days of wandering. Would I even survive? In some ways, I hoped I wouldn’t. If I survived, I would eventually return to Earth, and as soon as medical was done scanning me, the Planetary Police would be waiting, ready to take me to high security prison where I would rot away with Earth’s most dangerous, hardened criminals. My mind volleyed between my current bad situation and my even worse future situation, each imagined scenario one-upping the next until my thoughts became obsessive. It was all I could thing about while I was away, and it didn’t take long for my worries to invade my dreams too.
One night, after a sleep full of particularly gruesome nightmares, I awoke to find myself drenched in sweat, which was odd, given how cold the Cargo Hold was. There was a hazy, pulsing blue light filling the room. The speed of the pulse matched the ebb and flow of the dull ache growing in the pit of my stomach. Was this it? Is this how it starts? I pulled myself to my feet, and as I did, the pain from my gut show down into my left leg, causing pins and needles to radiate out from my foot, making it difficult to stand. I limped over to the Cargo Hold window, and as I did, the pulsing light grew brighter, more intense. Likewise, the pain shooting through my leg responded, radiating back throughout my body, pulsing in an increased speed that matched the light. I looked out, expecting to see nothing by blank, black space, but instead a large azure planet sparkled on the horizon. Neptune. Of all the planets I had the pleasure of seeing, this one was the prettiest. That was the only good thing to come of me being a fugitive on the run — I got to travel and see some of the solar system before I was locked up for good, something that never would have happened otherwise.
Neptune shimmered and glittered like a larger version of the Podulant Life Replicator. Normally, I couldn’t feel the motion of the ship, but today I could feel even the tiniest of movements. The ship was descending, and soon, we would be docking at the space station, ready to exchange supplies. As we traveled, I felt my body growing heavy, like a dense weight pressing down on my. The more it pressed, the stronger the pain in my body grew. I started pacing to give me something to do in an attempt to take my mind off of what was happening to my body, but the pacing only amplified the sensation. The pain in my gut began to grow more pressing too, eventually forcing me to the ground. I curled up in a tight ball, and found the pain, though immense, wasn’t quite as bad when I was curled in the fetal position. However, the feeling of a heavy weight pressing down on me continued, as if I were being squished by an invisible vice.
My oversensitivity allowed me to feel Neptune’s gravity grab ahold of the ship, pulling it closer to the planet. Ahh gravity, I had forgotten what you felt like. They say that Neptune’s gravity is about the same as Earth’s, but I don’t remember feeling this much pressure press down upon me back on Earth. Perhaps I’d been in zero-g for too long. Of course, gravity explained the pressure, but not the pain. My clothes began to feel tight, tighter than they should be considering I hadn’t had any rations in a few days. It was as my body was swelling rapidly. My body felt flush. Sweat began pouring off my skin, exiting from every pore on my body. My pulse accelerated until it felt light my heart would beat right out of my chest. It had been days since I had ingested the contents of the Podulent Life Replicator, and I hadn’t felt any different. Until now. And now, I was feeling weird. Really weird. Visions of my messy death flashed through my head. I didn’t want to go out like this, a mess of innards, tissue, and blood, splattered against every surface of the Cargo Hold. I didn’t want to be just another mess the crew had to cleanup. I had already left them with enough to do. And I didn’t want to be recorded as the second idiot to die from ingesting alien DNA.
Even if I survived, would my fate back on Earth be any better? Knowing my luck, it would be far worse than being gruesomely torn apart by baby aliens. My head began pounding. I looked around the room to find something, anything that could help me in my time of need. My eyes landed upon the Cargo Hold latch. Of course, the latch. Why didn’t I notice it before? It was no painfully obvious, staring me in the face, taunting me. If I were to open the door, I would be flung into space without a suit. Still, it sounded better than waiting here to become a puddle of goo on the floor. And it definitely sounded better than life in high security prison, which also had the possibility death. I didn’t know what would be worse, being eaten by aliens, or being shanked by an oaf named Bubba who was offended by something I didn’t realize that I did. If I was going to go out, at least let it be on my own terms.
I went over to the door and ran my fingers over the latch. It seems my sense of self-preservation was strong, because everything inside of me screamed over the pain, willing me not to do it. But, for all I know, that could also be the aliens already gaining control over my brain. They wouldn’t want their host to die before they had a chance to erupt into the world. I had to act now, while I still had command of my body and my faculties. I pulled on the latch and tried to open it, but it beeped at me, a red light flashing on the control panel next to the door. Reaching over, I punched in my code and held my breath. The light flashed green and beeped affirmatively. At least the Commander did me the favor of not deactivating my code from the ship. Maybe he knew there would come a time when I would need it.
Once again, my fingers wrapped around the latch, ready to free me from my impending fate. My heart thumped against my chest. Well, here goes nothing. I took a deep breath and counted to three before pulling on the latch. It didn’t budge. I glanced at the control panel. The light was still green, giving me the go ahead. Steadying myself against the frame, I put some weight behind me. The pain in my leg and stomach flared, surging through my body, but I pushed it out of my mind, giving the latch another go. The latch gave way. The external Cargo Hold door began sliding open. In mere seconds, I’d be floating in the nothingness of space. I found myself debating which would hurt more, being ripped apart by aliens, or by space. They say that when you are in space without a suit, death is instant. I don’t know if the aliens would be as gracious.
Time slowed as I watched the door slide open. The pressure in the room grew stronger, pulling my body toward the opening. I heard a frantic, tapping noise scratching behind me. Had the aliens already found a way out? I turned, to see the Commander and the Chief frantically waiving at me from outside the Cargo Hold. I couldn’t make out what they were yelling, their voices muffled by the thick metal walls of the hold. They must have been notified of my activities when I activated the latch. Although difficult because of the intense pressure in the room, I somehow turned myself around to face them. Standing at attention, I put my hand above my brow, saluting them. This may have been my first space mission ever, but somehow I knew that they were the best crew I would ever have the pleasure of flying with. I stood there, stoically saluting them for a moment, one single tear sliding down my cheek. It was time. The door was open enough to cause the oxygen to leave the room at a rapid pace. I had just a moment to fill my lungs with the last bit of remaining air before my supply bag was flung out into space. Then my body followed.
For a brief moment, my body hung weightless as I floated in space. Quietness surrounded me, and a strange calm fell over me. No longer did I have to worry about what would happen when the Planetary Police finally caught up with me, or what it would feel like when the aliens finally decided it was time to be born. No longer did I have to worry about anything. Instead, there was the simple tranquility of existence, highlighted by the vast nothingness of space. For a brief moment, I was my carefree self again, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I wish I could be frozen here in this moment, forever. Wouldn’t that be something? There was no more running. No more worry. I was at peace. I was finally free. A smile spread across my face. Below me, Neptune shone bright, a big, blue glowing ocean ready to give my funeral pyre of a body a permanent home.
Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory