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The Importance of Being Human

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    Brian Stansell
    @obrian-of-the-surface-world

    Back in July of 2017, I began writing the beginnings of a science fiction thriller, but kind of abandoned it partway through.  It seemed reticent of the kind of scary space stories of the 1980s era movies when Alien and others were so popular in theaters.

    I thought I might drop a little bit of it here to see what you guys think of it.  Is it worth continuing?  I kind of doubt it would do well in the modern sense of what is going on in the world.  I could not have known its relevance back in 2017 to the last two years.

    I wanted to explore a story where the main character was forced to come to terms with what it means to be human and to risk losing that.

    For lack of a better title, I am just calling it: “The Importance of Being Human” (sorry Mr. Oscar Wilde)

    Here it is:

    My name is Colonel Jeff Wheeling.  I am the Commanding Officer of the Nova Horizon Roving Space Station in Alpha Quadrant 3 dash Victor Bravo Epsilon.  My condition has been worsening.  I am recording this log for posterity’s sake.  It is my spoken journal… and my full confession, if you will.  All remains to be seen considering what success I may have.  It is my hope that I can find a way to reverse what is happening here.  To find a cure or at least a way to inoculate the crew against further infection.  To give us all a hope of a safe return to Earth.  If this log is recovered, it should be known that I am responsible for what happened here.  I do not believe in shirking my responsibility or casting blame.  I was raised to know better than that.  My parents are honorable people.  They raised me to own up to responsibility.  What follows may lead you to suspect otherwise, but please hear me out before you judge me.  Give me at least that.

    I should have known that no wetness should exist in the vacuum of space.  Coming through the airlock, the depressurization chamber, passing through the UV antimicrobial light, there should not have been droplets on the outside of my space helmet.  From inside the helmet, it did not look to be on the outside of the face shield.  I had thought it only CO2 condensation vapor from my exhalation.

    May God and the others forgive me, but I dismissed it.  It’s my fault that all my crew are now in deep hibernation.  Quarantined and comatose.  In stasis until a cure can be found in time to reverse whatever damage has been done to them.

    I didn’t know what else to do.  It is possible that putting them in stasis may have killed them already.  Heaven knows, whatever virus-like creature this is, it did not need a host to survive.  Its survival skills are already at an apex level.  How long could this, whatever it is, have survived drifting through the void of space, subjected to extremes of heat and cold, piercing star glare and utter darkness.  Did it survive the burning and tidal forces of a supernova?  One cannot know.  The only thing I do know is that I brought it onboard…and now my crew may all die because of it.  Because of my carelessness.  If I can only find a cure.

    I cannot figure out why my reaction to this alien microbe is so different from theirs.  Why did they get sick and feverish, and I just feel cold and lethargic all the time?  Are they changing too?  I go into the hibernation room every few hours now to see.  Their bio-readings are normal.  Respiration low but steady.  Hyperbaric pressure is constant and sealed.  Their skin is pale, but that is normal.  We all look that way in cryogenic sleep.  Translucent white in the dim florescence.  Flakes of frost at the corners of their eyes.  Sweat beads frozen in mid-drip to their skin and forehead.  That would happen to someone with a fever and pallor who was put under.  I mustn’t make anything of it.  That’s normal.  They look so peaceful lying there.  Almost serene.  If only I could get some rest too.  But I cannot.  I must stay awake.

    Being the CO and the Medical Officer, I was the last scheduled to lie down in cryo, but I did not.  Nor do they suspect it.  There have been some…new developments in my worsening condition.  I should have conferred with Dr. Mika, but…  Am I a coward for not doing so?  Am I hiding my shame that I compromised this mission for not thoroughly checking my suit upon re-entry into the airlock?  This mission means so much to everyone.  A medical emergency is one thing, but an alien sickness is quite another.

    The rash is spreading up my arm.  My skin is beginning to turn darker.  Almost like a purplish bruise.  And the flaking.  Like psoriasis only not.  It is almost as if I’m molting like a bird.  There is a strange hardness just below the epidermis of my forearm.  Like some sort of webbing or subcutaneous scales.  Like a reptile.  Yeah…very much like a reptile.  O Lord, what is happening to me?  How long do I have before this change makes me no longer recognize my face in a mirror?  Why do my eyes seem strangely dilated?    What is this goldish edge on the inside of my iris and cornea?  It is almost luminescent.  Like a cat’s eye.  Flecks like tiny bits of crinkled gold foil.  Ambient light refracts in it, and I sometimes see dancing spots in the corners of my field of vision.  It is strange, but it is like this has improved my night vision.  I am relying less and less on light in the space station, so I am able to conserve more power.  Not much.  LED lighting has become far more energy efficient.  The solar skin outside the LEM module and the spiraling plank arrays help give us more energy than we could need for thirty more years of space missions.  I must avoid the cameras, however.  They are all over.  Like Big Brother watching our every move.  Very creepy.  I cannot purge without someone over a million miles away knowing about it, analyzing it and perhaps…yech!…seeing it and sampling it as health “research” for future missions.  I must find a way to disconnect the biological scanning equipment before they suspect something is wrong with me.  That lie I told will only buy me a few more days.  I had to file and abrade the camera lens in the main lab, so that they could not clearly see me or what I had to do.  If they suspect something, they are keeping cool about it and covering it well.  But it is only a matter of time.  They will eventually send a team here and not wait for the 3 month scheduled rendezvous.  Logan is going to have a fit about it though.  It is not in the budget funded for this routine stay.  He will have to get appropriations and special approval for it, and there will be questions…loads of questions.  They will want to know why we need 30 billion more than planned.  This is the one time I wish Congress would stay true to tradition and drag their feet.  Cause I’m going to need time to figure this out.  Time to work it through.  Since the others are sleeping and telemetry feeds from their monitors are steady, the boys and girls back home should not be worried yet.  I check the beds regularly and have been recording enough feeds at intervals that if something shows up, I can patch those feeds over to the recorded data and buy me some more time.

    It is so quiet here.  The preternatural silence of the station is unnerving, unsettling.  But I need the quiet to assure myself of complete secrecy.  Can this be called a mutiny if I’m still the CO in command?  So far, we are still on mission.  I am the only one not following protocol, and I will accept full responsibility for it…if it ever comes to that.  I cannot risk bringing back an alien parasite.  The labs are fully equipped with all foreseeable technology to aid in biological research and study.  We have germs on board that are deadly enough to kill every living person within a large city.  We have hydroponic nurseries of plants from all over our world to test how they might fare if planted in alien soil.  No animals are aboard.  Thanks PETA!  We are the only guinea pigs here.  Human test subjects.  We certainly wouldn’t want a single rat to die to save all of humanity.  No.  Spare the rat!

    What did we get for our medical tests?  Cockroaches.  The most resilient creature on earth.  Survives a week without its own head.  So we reach an arid, airless alien soil and what does our space administration expect us as emissaries to the new world to do first?  Start an infestation!  See if the little buggers will survive.  Monitor their progress.  Measure how long they survive and adapt to those harsh and toxic conditions.  See how long it takes for the roaches to starve or forage on something that they could eat and sustain its remarkable metabolism.  These little ugly emissaries are fitted with nano-tech.  Micro-sized monitors to track them and get some video approximation or semblance of their points of view.  Better stop this.  My heart rate is going up.  Signs of stress will register on the somatic sensory equipment.  They will be questioning the readings.

    It hasn’t been easy these last few weeks in space.  Who would have ever thought that a potential international incident could have been started over watching 70-year-old programs on TV Land channel or that one of my crew members would lose two ranking bars over an indecent exposure incident on Google Live Stream from space?  What a bunch of yahoo ninnies my team of fellow scientists could be.  Sergei Kravochek, nicknamed Surge, by the American crew, had remarked on Bill Rhodes’s resemblance to some TV actor he had seen recently, but he couldn’t quite place it.  Bill was and is a character.  He’s one of these Type-A personality guys that is only pleasant in small doses.  Very small.  He is a prankster and the type who dishes it out but cannot take a joke himself unless he can find a way to one-up the person who feeds it back to him.  He never knows when enough is enough, unless he is ordered by rank to knock it off.  Thankfully, I outrank him.  Bill did deserve his come-uppance.  After the prank he pulled on…[air quotes]…”The Russkies”.  Sergei found the ultimate running joke that so irked Bill that he could not come up with one better.  Being how he was, a deep-seated resentment was brewing, and it almost came to blows on a few occasions afterwards.  One evening in the commons the TV was playing in the background, and Sergei had procured an image of Bill and was watching and fast forwarding through re-runs of TV Land programs trying to get a fix on what actor Bill most reminded him of.  He slowed on an episode of “The Monkees” and the girls joined him.  At first, they remarked how Bill looked like actor Mickey Dolenz the clown of the American quasi-fab four.  But then a commercial of another program intervened and they all bust out laughing, which caused others to gather around the video screen.  It was a brief commercial for an old western comedy program of a crazy and campy Calvary unit called F-Troop, starring Forest Tucker, Ken Berry and the ever-zany Larry Storch.  With Bill’s image up, it was clear that he was a dead ringer for the comedic actor, and once all had seen the uncanny resemblance, none of us could unsee it.  Bill heard the laughter and walked in at just that moment.  Like an episode of “Cheers”, instead of greeting his entry as the program did for George Wendt’s “Norm” character, everyone chimed in unison “Larry!” and broke up laughing.  Seeing his image super-imposed next to the goofy face of Larry Storch in some bit episode preview of F-Troop, Bill tried to play it down and be a good sport about it, but I could tell it irritated him.  After that, pics of Storch in his arrow struck calvary hat started showing up everywhere.   I tried to not let it get out of hand, but perhaps, I didn’t try hard enough.  A part of me is revealed to have both him and Sergei down in stasis.  I shouldn’t say that.  But you don’t now how it’s been lately… A veritable powder keg with a shorter and shorter fuse just waiting for the tiniest spark to blow.  The specs on this space conveyance did not call for a squaring off place so that two grown men, who ought to know better, could duke it out.  Having the female crew aboard did not make it any easier.  I would expect some level of maturity from them, but perhaps that is just my sexist assumption.  Male pride, and bruised egos tend to get a lot worse playing out before a female audience.  And they egged it on.  Yes, they did.  They so enjoyed seeing Bill get his karma or whatever the heck it was.  They planted the pixel-pics around his workstation consoles, sleep quarters and rigged the pop-up videos in his email and data pad app start sequences.  They even cleverly vid-meshed a hologram on his bathroom mirror.  What a bunch of clowns my fellow crew turned out to be.  Of course, the continual joint teasing of Bill, worked to cement the jovial relationship between my American team and the international crewmembers.  Perhaps, I had let it go on too long.  There are certain things you never are taught in OTC.  These things you have to pick-up along the way.  Morale building is one of the very delicate balancing acts that no one, no matter how long you have served under or in command gets exactly right.  Human behavior is an ever-changing variable with an advantage of its unpredictable ingenuity.  Both Bill and Sergei were…are good men and are good at what they do.  But anger and resentment make people careless and a joke carried too far brings both.  In space, carelessness and distraction are deadly.  And this current situation we are in serves as ample proof of that.

    Most of us are single.  I brought six American crewmembers with me.  Devin Havershem, our sergeant at arms and equipment technician is divorced.  Melanie Strather is the scientist from Cal-Tech, a Botanist.  She almost married but her boyfriend and would-be finance flaked out on her when he heard she had been selected for this mission.  Guess he felt he couldn’t compete with NASA.  He didn’t give her an option to refuse.  Just decided that she would accept it or forever resent him afterwards for giving up the chance.  Kara Vishalapret, perhaps would have or might have had someone waiting for her back home, but she is a shy one.  She is the MIT grad.  A brilliant mathematician and computer programmer and entomologist.  Numbers and equations seem to give her the confidence she lacks in interpersonal relations.  She appears to blossom before your eyes upon the subject.  And she tries to make clear the relationship between the behaviors of insect colonies and mathematical theory, but it is beyond us.  She was the only one who did not join in the teasing of Larry, I mean Bill.  She seems intensely focused on the mission.  The others could use some of her focus.  Pete Polichek is the master payload wrangler.  The mechanic.  The handy-man.  The jack of all trades.  He was born to handle both wrench and caliper.  Earned his engineering degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He can operate heavy machinery with the finesse and precision of a brain surgeon.  Very congenial, and the one you want with you if you get in a jam or a seemingly no-win situation.   He designed the solar arrays and is a Texas A&M engineering grad.  I’ve mentioned Bill.  He is Navy.  A fighter pilot who flew a number of hot sorties back in the Middle East wars, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria.  He served on the Gerald R. Ford Naval Carrier during its first few years at sea and helped put down the threat of the dictator in North Korea.  Bill is a hero.  You wouldn’t think he had anything else to prove to himself, but he does.  He is full of himself, craves attention and has no back down gear.  He joined the mission team as a last-minute assignment from higher brass at the top.  I like Bill, but as I said he is best taken in small doses.  Show boats are reckless.  Last but not definitely least is Sarah McCandels.  A Systems Engineer and oddly enough, also a Xenobiologist from Michigan State University.  According to her, the money was in the Systems Engineering degree, the fun was in being a Xenobiologist.  She is a regular firebrand.  I think both Kara and Melonie follow her lead perhaps too much.  She has that impish intelligence that can be both annoying and endearing.  Between her and Bill my hands are full just reigning them in.  They pick at each other, tweaking each other’s noses.  She resents his arrogance, and he resents her harp-tongued intellectual outmaneuvering.  Just my luck they’ll probably ask me to marry them before this mission is over.

    So, the international team members are Sergei Kravochek, born in Belarus back during the Cold War under the Soviet Union USSR.  He grew up in that paranoid era thinking the West would initiate a nuclear strike and that they would retaliate in kind.  In theory it was a stalemate that precariously balanced the two superpowers of the world on the edge of a knife called mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.).  What he didn’t know as a young man growing up was that the U.S. was just as fearful of the Soviets launching a pre-emptive first strike and delivering their destructive payloads to vaporize all of our urban centers.  That hiding under a desk with a rubber facemask rebreather would do no good for either the children of the USSR or the US should the real test ever come.  Witnessing the tragedy at the Chernobyl Nuclear plant sobered him to that reality.  Dangerous radioactive clouds drifting towards them from the Ukraine only 500 kilometers away in the south.  They left because they had heard of the horrors of the people fleeing Pripyat.  They feared starvation during the coming hard winter because of planted crops that they could not eat for fear of radioactive rain poisoning them.  Fear drove them to move to the east towards Russia via cramped trains over frosted landscapes and forests.  He grew up wanting opportunity and only to find a safe place to live far away from such potential destruction.  He distinguished himself in school and earned double doctorates in both aeronautical science and engineering from Moscow State University.  Sergei was entering his freshman year on a full state scholarship when the Soviet Federation broke up and Glasnost was declared.  He became enamored and enthralled with western culture and learned English and followed the technological advances as communication became more and more open with the west.  Sergei loved American television of the era when he was under the false impression that the Americans were obsessed with killing them.  He claimed that he obsession was merely recapturing the carefree sense of the age in which he lived his younger life in fear.  I was given extensive dossiers on each of our world crewmembers, and we spent some time in team building exercises and social mixers to see how our teams would gel respond to each over the longer course of the mission confined aboard a roving space station.  The teasing of Bill over the TV Land character was one point of contentions between the crewmembers, I admit, I did not foresee.

    Dr. Perez Mika, an Italian, left a prosperous medical practice as an orthopedic surgeon in Rome to join this mission to the Martian soil.  She served on the outskirts of Vatican City on a bend in the Tiber River.  Unlike most of the citizens of Rome, she was not Catholic.  She was an Orthodox Jew.  A minority.  Part of the 0.1% of the population that represented her Judaic beliefs.  And as such, despite her fine credentials, her brilliant mind, and her world-wide recognition as being on the cutting-edge of bone repair, grafting, and decalcification, she was ostracized by the local community she tried to serve simply because she held to a traditional understanding of how her faith was intrinsically woven into her heritage and the person she was today.  She rarely spoke of her mistreatment, and how despite her expertise, her clinic still struggled financially to survive in a city of over four and a half million people.  The clerics for all of their tolerance of other religions did not live out in practice what they claimed to believe.  In fact, they often prevented their parishioners from patronizing her clinic.  So, when the chance came for her to test her theories in a prolonged zero gravity environment, and prevent inevitable bone density loss during the mission, she promptly closed her struggling practice which she had propped up for years by consulting, speaking, and publishing and cut her losses.  She risked her reputation and livelihood for the chance to be on this mission.  The search committee at first did not believe she was serious when she told them that she was volunteering and submitting her very impressive application for this mission.  Why would she give up her apparent lucrative opportunities for such a risk?  She said she had her reasons and was very private and reluctant to speak of her hidden struggles practicing in Rome.  She said she needed the chance to be someplace where she would be judged only by what she could contribute to the mission, without being precluded by prejudices of who she was.  That was good enough for me.  She was an amazing asset to the mission.  Her findings and research during the course of the mission were sure to become the seminal standard of care and treatment for bone disorders under the most unique extreme and unique set of conditions in deep space.  Already she kept our crewmembers to a daily regimen of bone and muscle strengthening exercises, and inarguably I was the most prime physical condition of my life as a result of her techniques.  She was a devote practitioner of the fighting art of Krav Maga, Israeli army combat techniques involving disciplined physical conditioning and hand to hand warfare.  Though she was born and hails from Italy, she has extended family living in Tel Aviv, many of which are serving in the constantly tested Israeli army.  While Dr. Mika was consummately capable of setting and mending a thigh bone (both femur and tibia), she was equally capable of breaking those same bones in an instant with three measured and precise moves and strikes.

    Fabian Dellarmo, also an Italian, with the classic Roman features and dark curly hard, and bronze complexion was a technician extraordinaire.  He was a walking IT person with encyclopedic knowledge, and had an uncanny symbiotic relationship with circuit boards and computer technology.  As a foreign exchange student, he also earned his doctorate in advance human interface technology from MIT.  Fabian had briefly made the acquaintance of our Kara Vishalapret, but as an upper grad, he was graduating 3rd year when she was just coming in.  Though having similar interests in technology and attending a few of the same classes they moved in separate social circles within the Boston area society.

    Dr. Iyoko Kown, PhD of Japan was the foremost microbiologist and botanist of the team.  I need to stop referring to the crew in terms of the past tense.  This is not helping.  They are only sleeping.  They are not dead, dying or becoming…  No.  There are no signs of any of that.  I have to figure this out for their sake…and mine.

    Dr. Kown is probably the most unknown quantity of all the members of our team.  His dossier was uncharacteristically thin, and many of the projects upon which he worked were classified as top-secret governmental projects.  Of all the crewmembers, he is perhaps the one most suited to help me unravel the causes of my present deteriorating condition.  But there is something about his lack of detail, and the secrecy surrounding his work and contributions to this mission that makes me uneasy, and very hesitant to trust him.  He does not offer much in social interacting situations.  He seems hyper-focused on an objective known only to him.  If I wake him, he is, I believe, the most likely to be the informant who will alert mission control of my condition and have me removed from command and put in stasis for the duration of the mission.  Seeing what is happening to me, I almost can say I could not blame him for it.

     

     

    Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
    I was born in war.
    Fighting from my first breath.

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