Cascade Failure

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Prologue

It’s not like I didn’t know anything about how a spaceship was supposed to function. Granted I knew that in space there was no oxygen or gravity, so it was the ship’s job to provide both of those luxuries. I had never really thought too much about just how it accomplished those feats though. If I thought back to the movies, news reels and space corps propaganda that I had been subjected to since I was about fifteen years old, I could just about piece together some of the basics of artificial gravity, carbon scrubbing and the like, but I was certainly no rocket scientist.

I’d signed up for the space corps when I was just seventeen, along with a few of my friends and we all thought it was a great idea – exploring the known universe with the people who meant the most to us, battling previously unknown alien species for the safety of the galaxy, or so the advertising campaigns had glorified and dressed up as heroic confrontations (in reality we were yet as a race to ‘battle’ an alien race). We had all even had matching tattoos put on our right shoulders the night before we enlisted. It was such a shame when we were all assigned to different roles in different ships in different sectors of the universe; nothing ever seemed to go to plan for us.

The truth was that the space corps didn’t like it when friends joined up together. They thought that it would create groups and cliques within the ranks and as it was, they made it a point to split up friends and acquaintances to form rank after rank of strangers, who should grow with each other into tightly knit family units. It was probably for the best but it wasn’t something I had particularly enjoyed. It kind of made sense to me as I could imagine the difficulties that could arise in a combat situation where you’d need to make a choice between a friend and a commanding officer – something that didn’t bear analysing in too much detail, the bonds of friendship in my mind usually winning the internal battle that ensued.

Six weeks of what they called ‘basic training’ flew past in the blink of an eye, but that was mainly because I was so exhausted throughout the entire ordeal I think that my memory of it probably just faded somewhat. They kept us working on a maximum of four hours sleep a night, with PT – that’s physical training to the layman - running around a track, doing pushups, pullups or another of a long list of exercises. It didn’t really constitute much hands-on or specialised training, rather just something to ensure new recruits would fall in line, and condition them to do what they were told, when they were told and how they were told. We also carried out weapons training with the old fashioned SA80 assault rifles, firing them down a range, loading and reloading them, and stripping and cleaning them. I liked the idea of target shooting but there were only so many times you could get excited about hitting a paper target from fifty metres away.

As much as this all sounded like a militaristic operation - and it was for the most part - once you arrived on board your posting to one of the space corps’ finest Intergalactic Personnel Carriers (IPCs) everything seemed to just calm down. There weren’t constant drills to be carried out, there weren’t three AM alarm calls to get you to do your daily quota of one hundred jumping jacks or something else just as inane like unmaking then remaking your beds just to prove you could do it properly and quickly. Everything was just kind of…life as normal, peaceful even.

The thing I always found most fascinating was that an IPC didn’t need constant manning of every station to function properly, so the ship’s complement really didn’t have much to do for the most part, and as much as I should never have even let the thought cross my mind, it could get kind of boring after a while. Really boring.

Don’t get me wrong. There was always plenty to do on the IPC Wanderlust, where I had been stationed for the past two years, but being confined to one ship – even though it was the size of a small city – could get very repetitive and mind-numbingly boring. Not to mention the fact that the few thousand people who you shared this existence with could get very, very annoying. How one person chews their food or how another hums as he or she walks the halls could be enough to drive a person crazy – if you let it get to you of course.

Do you ever feel as though you need a tiny bit of variety, just to keep you sane? I did. That’s why when the captain asked for volunteers to answer a distress call from a stranded ship, I was among the first to raise my hand. Nineteen other people had the same idea and together we were commissioned to form a ‘search and rescue’ party to head over to the floating derelict which was tantalisingly ‘unidentifiable’ and ‘of an unknown design’. Seriously, it was enough to make my mouth water after a total of ten years of space travel with nothing more exciting happening than seeing a few rocks and the times that crew mates finally got so annoyed with each other they had resorted to fistfights in the hallways.

Ten years. I could barely believe how my life had changed since that day my friends and I were so hopeful of our future. If I could go back right now I’d shout ‘don’t do it!’ to send myself on another, possibly more exciting, path. Something where I could be subjected to real gravity and air that hadn’t been recirculated through some filtration system and a lot of other bodies. Oh well, you can’t change the past. ‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’ as my father used to say. My parents were always supportive of my choices, though I missed them after being away for so long and I often wondered how our lives would’ve been different if I’d stayed on earth and worked in a normal job, seeing them every Friday night for dinner or whatever. A life in the space corps wasn’t for the weak of heart, that was for sure.

The unknown ship that we’d been sent over to was huge. And when I say huge I mean massive, monstrous even. It was at least five times bigger than the Wanderlust in all dimensions and a satellite array protruded from the front of the vessel that could put SETI to shame. It was kind of lemon shaped overall, which wasn’t really out of the ordinary. Spaceships didn’t have to be aerodynamic so, more often than not, when the designers or builders needed to maximise some space or add something on, they would just stick bits on like a Lego fort. That’s also why the bridge tended to always sit on top in its own little pod – the ship needed a bridge, so let’s just stick that there - job done. Also, as ships grew and had technological ‘bolt-ons,’ not only did that unit get stuck wherever, but also additional crew quarters and other creature comforts that accompanied them tended to be placed somewhat errantly too.

My rescue team had progressed well once the two ships were close enough that we could run a line across the gap between them. We quickly made it through the air lock system as it was surprisingly similar to our own. You had to open an outer door with a kind of spinny handle – like on old fashioned boats. No, technology hadn’t moved on from there (if it’s not broke, don’t fix it) then you had to continue into a small chamber, close the door behind you then let the chamber re-pressurise. The only thing that was different in that phase was that the chamber didn’t re-pressurise, but that was to be expected from a ship in distress. The interior of the ship was not pressurised at all so we didn’t need to wait. The downside of this was that there was no lighting, gravity or air in the ship either, so we had to keep our walksuits on at all times. It was basically a derelict, which again was expected for the most part.

We called them walksuits because you’d wear one to go out on a spacewalk. The space corps insisted on calling them Personal External Activity Suits, but nobody liked saying that and the shortened version, PEAS really didn’t go down well. Typical Space Corps - always overthinking things.Why abbreviate everything in such technical terms when you could just say what things are – doors and not hatches, toilets and not heads, windows and not portholes. Things like that could get extremely tiresome and at some point we had to fight back against the ridiculousness of the situation. We had a moral obligation to do so.

It was very dark inside the ship, so dark in fact that if our walksuits didn’t have strong LED lights beaming off in multiple directions we wouldn’t have been able to see our hands in front of our faces. Yes, sometimes the corps got it right, and putting lights on everything was one of those times – after all space was dark!

The corridors looked just like the Wanderlust’s, even down to the little maps at the intersections that told you where you were. It was quite frankly bizarre that the ship was unrecognised by our computer system, as it was quite obviously of terrestrial origin.

The ship was called the IPC Saturn. I’d like to say that I’d managed to hack into the mainframe database in some kind of hacker extraordinaire fashion, but honestly, it was handily plastered on various locations throughout the areas that we’d managed to explore before our two-hour investigation revealed no chance of survivors, no bodies and no power within the ship.

There had been such opportunity for excitement when we had been told about the derelict, my trigger finger could barely control itself for the thought of a few hostile aliens or something of the like.  Even a few bodies with bite marks would have been enough to keep me going, but once again space had delivered a giant pile of nothing. ‘Thank you very much.’

Eventually, once we’d signed off the autopsy of the ship as ‘dead boring’, we had hooked a new line between the derelict and the Wanderlust so that each one of the twenty strong away team could zip back and forth without having to use individual lines that could get tangled and were typically a lot shorter than the tether from the ship’s own reel. I watched as everyone hooked their spring clip from their belts to the line and floated away into the abyss that constituted space. ‘God, even the silence was boring.’ All I could hear was the sound of my own breathing and the gentle humming of my suit.

I was the last to hook my line and I pushed off the steel outer hull of the Saturn delicately, exactly as the others had done before me. With the assistance of a lack of friction due to the vacuum of space, you didn’t need to put much effort into these kinds of movements, you just needed to start the motion and wait until something stopped you at the other end, or you hit something hard.

After about thirty seconds I’d gone a third of the way along the tether and that was when things took a delightful turn and started to get interesting for once. It was hard to see at first, but as I started to look out for it, I could definitely see them. Tiny rocks about the size of sweetcorn had begun blazing past me, all around at unbelievable speeds in utter silence. This was absolutely the wrong kind of excitement for me though, as I was just about to think that if even one of those tiny rocks was to strike me or my suit at any point, I’d almost definitely have died almost immediately, when the tether snapped. I heard that. The silence had certainly been broken and how I wished that it hadn’t been.

I had heard the tether snap because it actually hit my helmet, which if it hadn’t, and thankfully the plastic that it was manufactured from was rated beyond such an impact, I might not have taken any notice at all. I instinctively reached out within my walksuit that was absolutely not manufactured with fine motor control in mind, and grabbed the broken end closest me with both of my hands. I waited in a moment of serenity before it yanked me back towards the Saturn’s airlock. In my haste I had managed to grab the wrong end of the tether, although at least I’d managed to grab something rather than float off aimlessly and helplessly into space.

 

There was only one phrase that I could think of that I could use in the predicament that I found myself in, and use it loudly I did. OH SHIT.