The Aldrin Cycler was a signal of hope to all who saw it passing in the night sky. The dream of humanity had finally been realized, albeit forty-seven years after the Cycler's conception in 1985. It was a rough period— full of failed missions and regressive presidents—but, as usual, humanity pressed on. The Cycler was completed, and both vessels were launched into their eternal orbit. Three years of testing allowed for the foundation of the first Martian settlement. Within the next few months, the settlement developed from a ramshackle arrangement of greenhouses and barracks into a fully functional society. Charles, never having seen it in person, only had the streams and sat-pics to go by. He fell in love with it.
That was his dream: break away from the drudgery of post-war life, make a name for himself in the art field (there were no landscape paintings yet), and finally move his family. It would take a while, and it would be hard, but, ultimately, he knew it would be worth it. Samantha supported him throughout, and Christine was too young to know exactly where he was going. On the morning of his flight, Charles patted Christine on the head and said, “Daddy's going.” He smiled. “I'll be gone for a long time. Think you'll be okay?”
“Yeah,” Christine was staring blankly at him, her eyes preoccupied by the iFilm contact visors. Charles kneeled and hugged his daughter.
“Ten months; no contact.” Samantha said. “Are you sure you'll be okay?”
“Five months without contact. I'll be able to connect with you once I'm on the shuttle—” He started laughing. “But you knew that.”
The two kissed. It was brief. Charles dragged his vacuum-sealed suitcase behind him. His other hand held the pre-war canvas portfolio. He threw the suitcase into the waiting hovercab's trunk and then carried his portfolio into the back seat. Charles sat down, blinked on his own player, and listened to light jazz. The city passed him by, becoming an amorphous blob of gray and orange as the cab sped on. The city gave way to a bright green pasture dotted with reds and browns. The pasture ended, and before the composition was over, the cab had landed. Before him stood the shuttle to his first Cycler.
The shuttle was oblong, each end tapering to a rounded point. It was white, shimmering, and Charles thought about painting a small landscape from the other side of the shuttle: having the looming towers of the city faintly in view, which then broke into gentle hills and the lush green of the plains, only to focus on this, the solution to his life's greatest desire.
He thought about Christine, about Samantha, and about their downtown flat. He and Samantha had been separated by distance before, so ten months should be nothing. It'd only take a few more before he would settle on Mars entirely, which would allow his family to join. If they were willing to wait ten months while he slept, he could wait ten while they waltzed about.
Charles boarded the shuttle with twenty-nine others. They were fairly well off. Those who were truly wealthy had private shuttles to the Cycler, but everybody ended up in the deep-freeze. Charles placed his suitcase in the luggage compartment, and his portfolio above him. In his pocket was a small pen and pad, so that he might sketch if the urge struck him. He patted his pocket and strapped into the currently horizontal seating. Once the group was secure, the layered floors tilted back, and the shuttle was sealed. Charles took a few deep breaths. He enjoyed flying, and mastered the simulations that each Cyclist must undertake.
This should be nothing, Charles thought.
The shuttle pulled up, dragging the thirty-three crew members and passengers along. The flight was rather unremarkable. No real problems, but also no windows. Just thirty passengers, a pilot, co-pilot, and attendant crammed into a metal tube. Charles sat in silence. Other passengers were families or at least more sociable than him. There was a mild spot of turbulence that the pilot chocked up to post-war debris, possibly the remnants of a Scottish satellite. Charles leaned back and went into a daze.
Once the shuttle had docked, he made his way to the communications hub. Upon finding an empty machine, he sent down a message to Samantha and Christine. There was no response, so he left a short vid-mail:
“I'm safe, and on the Cycler. I'll see you in five months. I love you.” He closed out of the machine and let the next Cyclist in line take her turn. He stumbled about the blue hallways and delighted in the artificial gravity that the Cycler supplied. His legs were stiff, but that was nothing in comparison to what they'd feel like after the entire journey. Charles went into the food court, selected an Indian-inspired vegetable meal, and ate a bit. He took out his pad and made a rough sketch of the small food court. There was an attractive Korean woman eating a Tex-Mex inspired dish. Her hair was straight, black, and reached her shoulders. She was wearing a yellow top with a blue plaid shirt over it. As he finished sketching, Charles realized that she had become the focal point. He nodded to the sketch a little and made a note: 'blue on yellow'. He put the pad back into his pocket. It was time to freeze.
Charles climbed into Pod 318 and the attendants assured him that his luggage was tended to. He smiled at the young black woman and then nodded to her Russian partner. They handed him a small sleeping tablet, which Charles popped in his mouth. He chewed it and savored the minty taste. The two attendants swirled a bit as he drifted off to sleep, their blue uniforms mingling with the paler blue paint of the pod room. The cold wasn't felt. He was frozen within moments.
He was out for five months.
Charles woke up, and the pod opened. Two attendants assisted him out of 318 and led him to the gymnasium floor. Even though he was going to be back in stasis in only a few hours, it was important for him to exercise. After his muscles ached, Charles made his way to the viewing platform. There was a young man with a true film camera, along with half a dozen other Cyclists.
“That's a real beauty you've got there,” he said to the young man before motioning to the camera. “I used to take photos before China was divided. But it's been a while since I've seen such a pristine rangefinder.”
“Thanks. Digital just doesn't capture the essence. Doesn't have the right feel, you know?”
Charles nodded. He took out his sketchbook. “I'm a bit of a naturalist myself.” He laughed.
“It's different from what I was expecting,” the young man said.
Charles shook his head a little and lifted his hand. “I don't follow.”
“The Earth. It's just bigger. I thought that this would be a rush, but I feel drawn back to it. Like I was never meant to leave.” The young man trailed off and stared at his old home.
“Don't worry. You can always go back.” Charles placed his hand on the man's shoulder, then immediately removed it. “It'll take over a year, but Earth will still be there.”
Charles took out his pen and scribbled out a sketch. He formed the continents, shaded in the seas, and avoided adding in the wreckage. The remains of a low-orbiting shuttle floated by, a memento of the global war of the mid-20s. Beyond the low-orbit shuttle was another wreck, one unknown to Charles.
Probably one of India's, Charles thought.
The Cycler's intercom sounded. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Inter-Cycler shuttle will be departing in fifteen minutes. Please make your way to Level Eight.” A three-note jingle played.
Charles left the viewing platform and headed to the connector shuttle. He adjusted his seat and strapped in. They served a small, freeze-dried meal, which he quickly devoured. The shuttle docked, and Charles went through the motions of this Cycler.
Cycler 2 was painted a pale red, and the attendants were each dressed in a reddish brown. He liked the color of blood, especially when it contrasted against the female attendants’ coppery skin. They handed him another tablet, and though he wanted to stay awake, he chewed it. Their reds mixed together, and Charles was once again frozen.
He had a dream. In it, he was staring at the sun, which was consuming all in its path. Mercury was devoured. Venus was devoured. Earth was in the process of being devoured when the sun turned black and slunk back into itself. Everything became cold. Charles was floating along in space, no suit, but he could breathe—at least for a moment. His throat felt like it was sealing. He struggled to catch some air in this nightmare. The universe was slowly filling with water and Jupiter sank. Saturn and Uranus floated to the top of the water and Charles found himself swimming throughout, trying to make it to the shore. He pulled himself onto the beach and was still unable to breathe. There was a loud crashing sound as Pluto flew into him.
Charles was jostled awake as the Cycler's gravity shifted. He gasped for breath. His legs and arms felt numb, cold. Radio static traveled throughout his limbs as he pushed the pod door open. He fell out of Pod 258 and rolled onto his back. He breathed deeply, his breath visible in the cold, dry air. His clothing was soaked. He opened his mouth to shout for help, but nothing came out. His rubbery arm flopped to his side, and he tried to sit up. Everything blurred around him. There was another crash—the same sound from his dream. It came from below. Charles noticed the ceiling lights weren't on, but there was enough residual glow coming from Pods 230 and 299 to allow him to see.
The battery couldn't've died, he thought. Maybe a glitch.
He spent a quarter of an hour on the floor, trying to move his limbs about. He slowly stood up and removed his wet shirt. His pad was ruined, but he tucked his pen into his pants pocket. He wrung his shirt and shook it.
“He—hello?” he called out, weakly. He kicked off his shoes and took off his equally drenched socks. Not knowing what else to do, he put his clothing back into his pod. He tried the closed door. It didn't respond, obviously shut down with the lights. He strained a bit and managed to wedge the door open with his fingers. He stumbled through the door and looked for the lift; his head throbbed.
“Hello?” he called out again.
There was no reply.
The hallway was dark except for the glow-strip walkway, which was beginning to fade. Charles placed his right hand on the right wall and made his way toward the lift. It was a steel tube. It didn't respond to his button-pushing. He had to take the ladder. He clambered down it—going up was too much of a chore for his weakened frame. Charles swung himself over onto the floor.
It was much colder down on this level, but there was a stronger source of light coming from the pod room. He staggered towards it, hopeful to find an attendant. As he crossed the threshold of the door, he saw a person in blue plaid, hunched over on the floor. Her long, straight, black hair covered her face and the back of her neck. Charles remembered the Korean woman.
Charles rushed toward her. When he got closer, he noticed that her hair seemed a bit more dull, and some had fallen out around her. He gingerly placed a hand on her shoulder, which disintegrated under his weight. The woman's body crumpled forward onto a child's body that she had been covering. Charles brought his hand up to his mouth, then tore it away in disgust.
Two dead bodies lay before him. They were mostly skeletal at this point, their skin dry, bones brittle, eyes sunken. He could smell the ancient, dusty rot that lingered. Though the lights were functioning on this level, the pods were all empty or darkened. Charles shivered and looked at the pods. One held a young man, which he could barely see. The pod itself was relatively warm. Charles could only assume that this man had died as well. There was a small object clutched in the man's grip: a camera.
At least he went in peace, Charles thought.
There was the sound of debris being moved. Charles looked to the door and called out again. The sound stopped. It was replaced by a low, guttural growl. He heard somebody climbing up the ladder in a clumsy, hasty manner. Each metal rung rang out. Whoever was coming wore heavy boots and didn't like talking.
Charles pulled open one of the empty pods and shoved himself into it. His eyes were still open when the creature clanked into the room. It stood at around six feet in height, its skin sleek and black with a featureless face. Its bright white, pupil-less eyes stood out like a cartoon character’s. A thin, shimmering bubble surrounded its head. The creature was humanoid in form and was wearing a silvery-gray, form-fitting suit. It had long, straight arms, which reminded Charles of the recently revived Mountain Gorilla. It wore heavy metal boots with two-inch soles.
It bumbled about the room, its arms moving in opposition to the body. Its stomach was protruding and perfectly round. At its waist was a thin belt lined with pouches. The creature looked about the room with its hollow eyes until it settled on the body of the young Korean woman.
Charles wanted to laugh at the comical appearance, but fear of death seized him into silence. The figure approached the Korean woman's body and knocked it aside. There was no sense of curiosity on its face, just blank, unwavering white eyes. No eyebrows to furrow, no nose to twitch, no mouth to smile or sneer. It picked up the remains of the child and set them back down. The figure swayed over to the pod containing the young man and opened it. It pulled the body out and felt the young man's throat and wrists. As it made its way to Charles, there was another guttural growl from below, and the creature turned to the lift. The creature looked at Charles for a moment and made a snorting sound. It headed down to the ladder. Charles waited for the echo of the rungs to die out before opening the pod door. He let out a deep sigh and sat for a moment.
Aliens, Charles thought, or pirates concealing their faces.
Hunger pulled Charles out of this thought. His stomach growled fiercely, and he remembered his last meal was months ago at least. A freeze-dried block of chicken schnitzel, though it was most likely soy-based with artificial flavoring. Now he wished he'd brought some snacks. Charles crept towards the ladder and quietly climbed upwards, heading away from the dark figures below. The strain numbed his weak limbs, but his hunger and fear pushed him on. After several minutes he had climbed five stories and was on the food court level.
It was in shambles; tables were turned on their sides and covered in blood. Dried corpses were strewn along the floor. Once-swinging doors were ripped off of their hinges. The smell of death was present, but didn't overwhelm Charles's senses. He fell to his knees for a moment before pushing himself back up. Ignoring the bodies to the best of his abilities, Charles strode towards the closest restaurant. It was a Creole-style joint. He dug around through the pantry, which was practically untouched.
He was full, but cold and teeming with questions. There was another loud crashing sound below, followed by faint growls. Charles looked at the food court's display tablet, an analog map carved out of plastic. It had faded in color, but he could still make out key information. The command center was located at the 'top' of the Cycler. Anything of importance to be found would be found there. Charles groaned at the thought of the task, but started to ascend the ladder regardless.
It took him three more stories before he reached the command center. The door was closed and sealed. Charles circled around the hall, searching for another entrance. Instead, he located a maintenance closet. The door was jammed. Charles pulled at it with all his remaining strength, and it ripped open. Two bodies fell to the ground, their bones snapping upon hitting the ceramic. They were wearing the blood red attendant uniforms. Charles fell to his knees. A brief image of Samantha and Christine flitted in his mind. He began sobbing silently, until a smaller noise brought him into the present. It sounded like typing on an old-tech keyboard.
“Oh God...” He stood up and searched the tools. There was a relatively new fusion torch propped in the corner. He grabbed it and the rechargeable fusion pack. “I'm here! I'm awake!”
The typing sound halted, and Charles carried the cumbersome fusion pack and hand-held torch to the central command's door. He sparked up the torch's tip and pressed it against the frame. The torch burned through the ceramic-metal door, at the sliding mechanism. Charles had mistakenly cut through the wrong section. Below, Charles heard the growl of the invaders. He cursed under his breath. The typing sound picked up.
“Don't worry, I'm not one of them!” He cut away at the other end of the door. “Get back!” He shouted as the door fell backwards and crashed onto the floor. The crash rang out, informing the creatures below of his presence even more. He heard their growls, louder this time, and more frantic. Charles disconnected the torch from the pack and moved into the command center. The room was full of dried bodies, each wearing the Cycler's color. Charles pulled a dry body away from the nearest panel. On the body's back was a three-inch wide hole, near the base of the neck. Charles attempted to make sense of it but was distracted by the 'clank-clank' coming from below. The creatures were making their way up to him.
Charles pushed himself up against the wall near the entryway and held his breath. The torch was in a death grip. He was shaking. The noise grew louder. The thud of boots was just outside the door. There were a few of them, at least. One white-eyed creature lumbered on in. Charles threw himself forward, and placed the torch at the base of its neck. He sparked the tip and cut through the creature's neck. No blood came out; the torch had instantly cauterized the wound it created. The two accompanying creatures growled at Charles.
One moved forward, its body swaying like a drunk's, and slapped him with the back of its hand. The sheer force of the blow sent the artist flying into a low-standing control panel. Charles coughed and let go of the torch. He rolled over onto his stomach and looked at the creature that slapped him away. It loomed over him. At its waist was a small device similar to a pre-war revolver. The third creature backed away from Charles and began moving towards the ladder. It sent down a loud growl to the lower level, which was responded to by another growl.
“No…” Charles muttered. He stood up, and the entire Cycler shook momentarily. He fell over, the pain in his back being too much. Instead of attacking him further, the creatures looked at their fallen member. The second and third creatures grabbed onto their dead partner and dragged it to the ladder. One creature held the fallen one's head as it left. There was the familiar sound of the boots on rungs, which faded away. A loud crashing sound was heard below, louder than the earlier ones; the Cycler shook in response. There was a sound of sizzling, like margarine dropped on a skillet, and then silence.
Charles rubbed his back, having been frozen in shock until the silence. He looked over the control panels, searching for something recognizable. He located the display and immediately turned it on:
The time: 14:27 Earth Standard
The date: January 18th, 2089 Earth Standard
Charles trembled. He had been on the Cycler for fifty years.
He typed frantically at the panel, trying to access any video reports, any communication systems. Charles located the most recent video log and played it. There was no sound, but the picture was clear and in full color. It was the last few hours of the ship before the cameras died. It displayed the lower levels malfunctioning, the lights flickering. Insect-like beings spread through the ship, climbing along the walls. They were around two feet in length and had various limbs protruding. They dug into the backs of the newly awoken passengers and drained the liquids from their bodies. The survivors headed up to the food court, trying to make their way to the command center. Charles watched as they were overwhelmed by the horde of cat-sized insects. Some of the insects burst out from the air vents, moving like scattering cockroaches. Charles's skin crawled and prickled. And then the camera feed cut out.
The terminal flashed, notifying Charles. There was an audio-log, a message sent to Cycler-2:
“This is President Guerrero. I am afraid that this must be brief. A darkness has descended upon our great nation, and the nations of our allies. I do not wish to raise alarm, but I will be honest. Once again, we have been thrust into a war from which we may never recover. Once again, our friends and families must suffer to protect that which they must. We have been invaded. We have been invaded by a force unknown to us. There is no certainty of our winning, but there is hope. That hope is Aldrin's Mars Orbital Cycler, and those who are aboard it. You must make it to our base on Mars and rebuild what you can. We need you to—”
The message cut out.
Charles backed away from the panel for a moment and let the dread wash over him.
They're all gone, he thought. Samantha, Christine, everybody.
Everybody except the others on my row.
Charles moved from the command center and clambered down the ladder, heading towards his pod's block. He looked over the others in their pods. They were alive and frozen. His heart raced for a bit before he calmed down.
Good, I can take care of them. We can survive.
He climbed down further, trying to search for the source of the crashing sound. He came across the level from the video, where the infestation first started. The walls were different, though. There were burn marks, like those of laser-fire. The smell of the room reminded him of Autumn and burning leaves. It was freezing at this level. There was a massive hole torn in the side of the Cycler—around seven feet in diameter. It was perfectly formed, cutting through the entirety of the hull. Charles stared out into space.
A few feet from the hole was a thin film, shimmering and yellow. It reminded him of the orbs surrounding the creatures' heads. Charles moved forward to inspect it and saw that beyond the film was a larger ship, a construct easily three times the size of the Cycler, floating in the void. A silvery-gray tube was retracting into the rust-colored vehicle.
That's how they got on, Charles figured. That's what that sound was.
The rust-colored vehicle sealed the silvery-gray tube within, and moved several hundred more feet away from the Cycler. The smell of ozone and burnt rubber filled Charles' nostrils. There was a false atmosphere set up around the Cycler. He watched as the invader's vehicle moved to face the Cycler head-on. Beyond the vehicle, Charles noticed the unmistakable and misshapen moon, Deimos.
Far below—or above—was Mars, brilliantly red with specks of brown. His new home. He reached for his pad reflexively but remembered that it and all his sketches were ruined. Charles heard a scuttling sound come up from behind: the sound that reminded him of furiously typing on old-tech physical keyboards,the sound that he had heard in the command center. Charles turned to face it.
One of the vermin, the cat-sized insects, was closing in on him. Its shell was green and pearl. It had four small limbs, and two larger, crab-like appendages. The creature had two bulbous eyes on stalks, though one was melted partially. Its thorax was blackened on the back, as if it had been shot. This is a resilient little bug, Charles thought.
He heard a faint buzzing sound as the artificial atmosphere dissolved around the Cycler. The invader's vehicle had steadied a large cannon directly at the Cycler. A garbled message played over the intercom:
“Sorry. No choice. Must end. Small ones bad. Must end.”
The voice was rough, choppy, and highly digital. The invaders had sent him this message.
A long, wide beam fired out from their ship at the Cycler, burning through the command center, traveling down floor by floor. The gravity device was destroyed, and Charles began to float. He laughed to himself. Charles floated about, and blinked on Chopin's l'Adieu. He hummed along.
Goodbye, Samantha. Goodbye, Christine.
The insect, seemingly adept at moving in zero-g conditions, latched onto his back. But Charles didn't care. He finally understood what the other creatures were.
The Cycler was dealing with an infestation, and somebody had called the exterminators.