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Chapter 1: The Volunteer

By Véronique Racine Published 6 months ago Updated 6 months ago 24 min read

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.

But in the vacuum of space, no one is alive to scream, so this phrase is a contradiction in itself.

Wherever there is air, wherever there are people, there will be screams and noise if something goes wrong.

Especially in space, the ultimate boundary, the last frontier to discover and tame.

In spite of the gs of pressure, the nauseating spin that wasn't buffered anymore, everyone was screaming at full lung power.

Terror had a way of bringing out the child in everyone, even the toughest, most hardened men who thought they had seen it all. Done it all...

Many vomited as the ship lost more altitude without any kind of control. They were thrown in their restraints, their bodies submitted to so much unusual pressure that they could not resist the onslaught and each and every one of them fell unconscious.

It seemed impossible that they would survive this crash-landing, hoping seemed ridiculous. There was no time for hope... then again hope had died and left the side of the galaxy a long time ago...

Yet this voyage had felt like hope, his last hope for a life of some kind... Another deception?

Standing in that crowded street, feeling dizzy and nauseous, when he had seen ( been engulfed) by the promotional hologram, he had felt this was his destiny.

His path.

Leading to this pointless death? Why wasn't he even surprised?

The world became stygian blackness as his brain was incapable of handling the stress of the uncontrolled descent into the atmosphere of ZT-714.

He hadn't thought it would hit him so hard. To see Rycik go like that. They ha been comrade-in-arms, yes, friends, yes, but Anders had never felt such a strong bond with his fellow officers. He had done his duty, he had tried not to get too attached.

All his life he had tried not to get too attached to anything, for fear to see it taken from him.

But after battling with Affliction8 for 6 months and actually coming out of it... to be purged and terminated because the medical bill outweighed his Cast privileges?

The sheer uselessness of it weighed on Anders so much he felt stifled in the traffic of the mid-afternoon. No one was giving him any special attention; he was dressed inconspicuously, black shirt, black trousers, not a hint of the concentric gold band that was now his hard-acquired right. The gold marker that would have made everyone swerve and give him room on the sidewalk.

But he didn't want to draw unhealthy attention to himself.

He readjusted his bluelight glasses, iridescent in the harsh sunlight, absolutely necessary to protect from 8 G radiation, ultraviolets, and other visual contaminants that could turn one blind in just a few unprotected hours, and tried to walk briskly to get to the TrailStation in time for the 4 o'clock Trail back home.

He wished he was home already, away from all the bustle and the noise. Those in the Network barely realized the amount of noise around them; caught in their personal holo-bubble, they were blissfully unaware of almost everything that happened in the real world... until it hit them full force.

Rycik' s last wish imposed itself on his mind and he felt a little dizzy, having to lean against the nearest wall to regain his composure.

" Don't let them turn you into me, " he had said before his eyes had glazed over for good.

Worse thing was, if he was completely honest with himself ( which he normally was, unfortunately for him ) Anders almost felt envious of his old friend. Rycik's fight was over, nothing left to prove, no decision to be made, no choice... Life seemed much scarier than death in that moment.

That was when the promotional hologram deployed, engulfing him in the simulated reality. First reaction was panic to be thrust in a completely realistic space-like environment. Then he removed his glasses to be able to see first-hand what was being shown.

And he could not take his eyes away.

" Zenith147 awaits you! Always dreamed to see untamed land, unseen scapes, to discover, to set foot where no sentient being has gone before? This is your chance! All Casts accepted, no discrimination in the new realm. The chance to become everything you ever wanted to be! Sign up to be a pioneer and participate in the greatest endeavor of humankind! Conquer your fear and conquer the New World! Zenith147 awaits! "

The images were simply breathtaking, the space, the landscapes, things he could not even name, as he had no idea what they were or supposed to be.

But the weight he had been feeling seemed to magically vanish. His heart was beating so fast in his chest, but not from fear.

He wasn't sure he had ever felt this emotion, he didn't know what to call it...

But as soon as the holo was over, he spotted the recruitment center and dashed inside, barely taking the time to readjust his bluelight glasses.

The recruitment officer was sprawled on his chair, looking bored, trapped in the realm of the Network. It was nice and cool and quiet in the center, barely a hallway,really, but it was much better than on the streets outside.

He barely reacted until Anders cleared his throat; that brought him back to 'real' reality." Yeah what? "

" Your holo, " Anders said, having trouble to find the proper words.

" Oh yeah, sorry, hombre, I am bound by law to have it active at least 6 hours a day. If it interrupted your Network bind, it will come back in a few secs, no worries. "

" How do I sign up? " Anders put to him.

" How do you what? " the recruitment officer now looked puzzled out of bounds.

" The holo said, all Casts accepted. How do I sign up? "

" You kidding me here? You - you wanna volunteer? " the recruitment officer started chuckling in disbelief.

" Yes, exactly. How do I apply, where? Here? "

" Look, hombre, we are required by law to do this. No one volunteers. All that happens is those on Termination notice get tested to see their mettle. An those who pass the tests are sent. ZTH147 is a semi-toxic dump, no one in their right mind would volunteer to go there. "

" I'm not in my right mind, I want to volunteer, where do I do it? " Anders said with the beginning of annoyance.

" Look you' re what? Having a bad day, right, hombre? It'll pass. Go deep in Network, let loose, it will pass. This bad decision won't. You go there... you die. That's what they don't tell you in the holo-brochure. "

" For the last time, where do I volunteer?" Anders insisted, fisting one of his hands, wishing punching the ineffective man would actually help him get onboard faster.

" You're what, Cast 7? It' s not so bad, okay? You will see more clearly tomorrow. Think it through, hombre. "

Anders pulled the collar of his shirt up which activated the gold band. " I am Anders Tomasz Rysia, I am Cast 4, and I am demanding you let me volunteer! "

The look of shock on the attendant's face was almost enough to make up for all the runaround he had caused. " C-4? I've always dreamed of being C-4, " he said in an envious whisper.

" Just let me sign up now, " Anders replied.

" It' s your funeral, the attendant said in a sigh. You have to sign here, here, here, here, here, and here, and here, and here, DNA sample here, retinal scan here, record your voiced consent to volunteer after the tone... and then all that's left is the test. "

" Test? " Anders asked as he signed and put his initials on half a dozen different documents.

" Yeah hombre, Zenith147 has a nasty atmospheric soup, not everyone can take it. They get filters, but only the toughest can take that, like maybe ten per cent of the population. "

" What's the test about? And what happens if I don't pass it? " Anders worried.

" You don't pass you can't go. You'd fall dead the second you breathe in the soup. Pulling Cast won't change a thing, if you don't pass the test, you don't go. You should pray you don't pass, hombre. Trust me, you do not want to be sent up there. It's Hell, not the good kind, either. "

The first thing Anders became aware of was his lungs.

On fire.

He could feel every last bronchiole, every alveoli... hundreds of millions in every lung. All of them dying from the ' soup ' as was called the atmospheric mix of Zenith147. He wasn't just short-breathed, he was struggling for a tiny amount of air that would not come.

There was 65 per cent nitrogen and 28 per cent oxygen on Zenith147 but mixed with trace amounts of as of yet unknown and unnamed gases. Those gases reacted with the exchange process in the alveoli and made an allergic reaction; their lungs would start producing mucus to protect their fragile membranes and the process would kill them. The strongest of them could last two weeks, maybe, without filters, but the filters could only be installed at the main facility in Zen1th, the planet's capital and sole habitable city.

Anders managed to sit up, wishing the pain would abate a little bit so he could think. His body was covered in bruises that added to the confusion and pain he was feeling. But air! He needed that air!

Something was burning beside him and he crawled away, coughing and regretting it as pain exploded in his chest and threatened to make him pass out.

The ship had crashed... he saw some light in the distance, blood, body parts, shredded metal and burnt plastics, but light...

The hull was breached, which was why the soup was in. The hull had been torn like a tin can and, drawing on energy he wasn't sure he really had, he dragged himself forward to see.

If he died in the next moment, he wanted to see Zenith147 with his own eyes.

The distance seemed insurmountable to cross, that light was so far away... and he had no breath to speak of, nothing to give out anymore.

Their ship had crashed, he didn't know where they were or if anyone else was left alive. He didn't know if anyone would come to their rescue, and these thoughts had trouble forming in his air-deprived mind.

One glimpse would be enough, just one glimpse of freedom...

Coughing and crying, for his eyes were also reacting to the change of atmosphere, he managed to lift himself over the ragged edges of the hull where it had been shattered and torn by the crash... and tumbled down without kindness, as he was much higher than he could have expected.

But for one eternal second before the gravity of ZTH147 took over ( 1 1/3 times that of Earth, meaning he weighed a third more now) he took it all in, the images burned like fire into his brain.

The valleys and mountains, the vegetation, green-grayish and purplish, with hues of iridescent red, everything screaming freedom, space, and what he yearned for most of all, peace.

But everything smelled like death.

He careened down the side of the ship like a rock, incapable of controlling his fall, hitting every asperity and bump there was, or so it seemed to his battered, failing body. The final landing was not as damning as he feared it would be; he landed on the mossy ground that covered close to a fifth of the planet.

ZTH147 didn't have oceans to speak of but some large marshes made of moss and shrubs; they hadn't been explored yet, no one knew just what they held as secrets and dangers.

He was back against the ground, finding just enough strength to blink, nothing else. The poisons in the atmosphere did not give him a second's respite.

The sky was incredible, awe-inspiring. The sky of Earth was so often covered in clouds, so many particles in the atmosphere the sun was almost always veiled, shrouded in red, but here everything was so crystal clear, so pure.

Not blue but turquoise, and glittering as though there were a billion diamonds in the sky. He could see the sister planet, Zenith148, hovering on the horizon, a purple-red shadow that would soon disappear beyond sight... was this the perfect moment to die?

Life certainly seemed impossible with that fire in his lungs, he raised a trembling but somehow not broken hand to his nose and wiped his sleeve with it, revealing mucus tinged with blackened blood.

Perhaps a consequence of his fall but he knew better. This was the first sign of his lungs collapsing under the pressure of an atmosphere they could not process.

The moss was warm, contouring his body, he could have just closed his eyes and let go.

He woke up choking, feeling as though he had just swallowed fire or some sort of poisonous gas. He was reaching for his sidearm instinctively before receiving a slap on the shoulder.

" Well, you may be C4 but you aren't part of the 10 per cent. Count your blessings. "

Anders finally recognized the attendant at the recruitment center. Good thing he hadn't had his weapon in hand because he was pretty sure it would have gone off...

" What happened?" he demanded, not liking the smug tone.

" I told you, you failed the test, your lungs cannot take the atmosphere on ol' Zenith147. You'd collapse in less than a minute. "

" No, " Anders denied.

" Yeah, hombre, sorry to burst your bubble. You can't survive long enough to get filters.These guys mean business, they do that to every newbie. Those who can't handle it well, I guess they go in the remixers faster than the rest, right? " the young man laughed at his own joke. " But really, you're lucky, forget about this. C4, come on, I would give anything to be C4! "

Not give up freedom for 15 years, belong to the government, be an emergency blood and organ bank should the need arise , nor give up the full ' Palette' of the Network... of course they would all give anything to change Cast level...

" What can I do?" Anders demanded.

" Go... home? Enjoy that gold band? You want me to tell me how to live your life of luxury? " the attendant chuckled.

" What can I do to strengthen my lungs, what can I do to be able to support the atmosphere on Zenith147? "

" Are you deaf? " the attendant was getting a little annoyed. " Nothing, just forget it. "

He was picking up the Volunteer papers to disintegrate them when Anders grabbed his arm and jerked him closer, almost over the countertop that stood between the two of them.

All the young man could see were Anders' eyes, twin blue fires that seemed cold as ice and burning at the same time. At the moment, those eyes were particularly terrifying.

" There must be something to do for my lungs, tell me what I can do to adapt to ZTH147 ' s atmosphere. Now! "

" I can't do that, I could lose my job, I can't just - and what's the advantage for me? What can you do to me, exactly? You hurt me you lose your cast status, you go to jail, well that's a fast way on that shuttle! But you still won't be able to survive! Now let go before I complain! "

Anders released his grip, his mind churning. He could not let it go. If he abandoned this chance, he would be stuck forever in the same loop that had consumed his father and was killing his mother without her realizing it.

No choice, there was simply no life if he stayed. Those skies, he had to see those skies with his own eyes.

He pulled out a magnetic key and settled it on the countertop. " Would this be enough to make it worth your while? "

The young man's face lit up with obvious greed. " You are kidding me? You would give that up? "

" I won't need it up there. Help me and I will tie it to your DNA, it will be yours. "

The recruitment attendant went into deep thought... or a quick Network confirm/check.

" Not 100 per cent on this, but it could work. Nasty stuff, and you have to take it twice a day or more... and it might not work, and if you can't pass the test in 6 weeks, it's over. The Shuttle leaves the week after and I can't help you anymore... but I still get your 4-Key... Deal? "

" Deal, " Anders said without hesitation.

Just a glimmer of hope was enough...

Glimmer of hope...

Anders' eyes snapped open. His vision was still blurry, his chest was still torturing him, but he was not ready to give up yet.

He grunted, blood frothing at his lips, as he rolled over to look at the ship more closely.

Half-sunk into the moss, it did not look very impressive. More like a spoiled tin can now, useless and discarded. But the section he was looking for was there.

The supply cargo bay was intact. The chance, the last chance, enough to give him energy to keep on. Crawling forward if he had to, he had a goal now and no reason to give up.

In the supplies he could find filter material, they were carrying a load of those as the filters only lasted 6 months before having to be replaced.

As such, if he could rig something to last a few days... maybe the rescue would arrive in the nick of time.

Dragging himself forward was just as excruciating, the moss, springy and slippery, hindering him more than helping, but he had his plan, his goal, and nothing would stop him.

Not the weakness and pain in his limbs nor the harrowing effort he had to make to draw in the tiniest of breath.

The shuttle seemed so huge, perfectly sleek, how to find an opening, how to get to the storage space and their supplies?

He had tumbled down many meters and now he would have to climb back up. It took a supreme effort of will to rise on his feet again; he was dizzy for long seconds and had to lean against the hull to be able to keep upright.

The lack of air was unbearable and he kept wiping his nose, as it was constantly running with blood-laden mucus. The worst part was, there seemed to be no adaptation, no getting used to it. The pain would just increase until he died from lack of air or the shock.

He had studied the shuttle, he knew its configuration, so he quickly got his bearings and knew where the nearest access hatch was.

Getting there was agony; walking accentuated the need for air.

There was no sense of victory in reaching the hatch, since now he had to open it and get inside, but he was one step closer to that goal.

He twisted the hatch and found it locked of course. It was a manual hatch used for emergencies and evacuations, but perhaps the crash had warped it? Or maybe he had no strength left at all?

He took a second to compose himself; he knew wrapping his nose and face with the tattered remains of his shirt would not protect him but it was for psychological support, psychosomatic help, a placebo, anything to make his body believe it could last a few minutes more. He needed those minutes.

He tried to gather all his strength, then thought he should find something that would give him some leverage to break open that hatch.

His eyes were hazed over by tears and a red veil, maybe his blood vessels had popped... which was a very bad sign.

He couldn't wait anymore. He just jerked as hard as he could, putting everything he had and more.

He felt it move a slight bit and then came the cost; he nearly fell like a heap on the mossy ground, his lungs feeling as thought they were disintegrating on him.

He knew that feeling and it was not a good sign...

Staring at the device Rudy ( the recruitment officer ) had given him and deciding to actually go through with his plan and inhale was one of the hardest decision he had ever made in his life.

But not as hard as, after spending 10 minutes with his lungs and throat burning, vomiting mucus and bile and blood, deciding to take another whiff.

The way to make himself stronger... or kill himself faster. Train his lungs and system to take the abuse by exposing them to an equivalent of ZTH147's atmosphere. Every single day, as much as he could take.

Rudy had also given him all the known documentation about the planet, everything that had been observed and recorded, so he could get a better idea of what to expect, how to be prepared for the path he had chosen.

The reports were fascinating but it was so hard to concentrate with his throat on fire and his lungs screaming for vengeance.

He was about to take another whiff ( eyeing the pen-shaped device with disgust) when someone knocked at his door.

" Tomasz, why is your door locked? " his mother at the door, trying to get in.

Feeling caught, he hastily stuffed the inhaler in one of his drawers and tried to hide the databugs with one of his sweaters.

She had always called him Tomasz, her choice of name for him. That was the problem when people decided to marry only for the advantages of Cast it would bring them...

" Sorry, Mother, I was busy, " he explained... lamely even in his own opinion.

She arched an eyebrow at him. " I want to ask you a favor. Can I have your 4-key, just for one errand? ¨

"What do you want it for? " he questioned.

"A woman I know, her baby needs some of the new metabolizers, but they're beyond her Cast. I know it's a lot to ask but she's a good person and - "

"What's the Cast? " he queried, looking at her.

"7 but that's not what - Tomasz, your eyes! What's wrong with your eyes, what's that smell? I know that smell, it's - "

"It's nothing. Mother, it's nothing, take the key and help your friend, " he said, turning around to find it in his jacket pocket.

When he turned back, his mother had jerked the sweater off his desk and exposed the holos of ZTH147. She looked at him with dawning horror; there was simply no fooling her.

"What is this, what are you doing? Oh, the smell is is ZenCloud, it's the new rave in the underground, do you know how dangerous it is? What are you thinking? What are you doing?"

The problem with his mother was her medical background... he never should have accepted her offer to live with her until he found a new job.

"You want to go there? On Zenith147? " his mother accused before he could find a counterargument: the pain in his lungs wasn't helping to figure out a retort that would satisfy her.

"I am going on the next shuttle, "he answered.

"That's insane! she replied. You are Cast 4 now, you have a future, why are you throwing it all away, all your sacrifices? 15 years, Tomasz! All down the drain to die on a silly adventure! "

"You couldn't understand," he answered. "I have no future here, "

"Your father and I gave up so much so you could have this chance - "

"The chance to what? Marry another veteran?" he put to her.

"Yes! Have more than 2 children if you want, move to any district, any country, have access to more medical supplies than most can ever imagine, and if your children join up, they can become Cast 3, the highest - "

"And do what? Give blood and marrow when C-1s and 2s ask? Give our organs, fight their wars? Protect them with our lives and let them use us? Cast 3s? Until they decide to nullify everything again? And no protest, they did it before! So what future do I have, Mother? Tell me the great opportunities I am missing here! Father's fate, perhaps?"

She looked properly shocked or perhaps just terrified. "If you go out there, you will die, Tomasz. You will die for nothing. Here you can make a difference, out there, it's just a trap for OutCasts, nothing else. "

"If I go out there, I will die free at least, I will die for me, "he retorted, giving her the key. " I will need it back, " he warned.

"Don't give up your future for propaganda, "she said in a stifled sob as she left. She knew how stubborn she had raised him to be.

As she left the apartment, he took another whiff in. Just as nauseatingly damning as the others had been.

The hatch had budged therefore it could open. Drawing on strength he wasn't sure he really had, he ripped it away and plunge inside as though it was salvation itself.

Which wasn't so far from the truth. Just a few feet away from the hatch, the shuttle air was still dominant and he almost collapsed from the relief he felt in his lungs.

Air, finally, air!

But he knew better than to get lost in this moment. The euphoria would not last long and he would be worse off after. He had to get to the supplies, to the cargo area, and find the filter material.

As he crawled forward ( for his legs refused to carry his weight )he went over everything he had read about the filters .

How some had allergic reactions. How some fell dead the moment the compound deployed in the lungs. How the dosage had to be specifically designed for every individual depending on their weight, body temperature, and resistance to the toxic atmosphere. Only experts on the subject could handle the dosages... and here he would attempt to do it, half-dead and out of his mind.

He almost felt like laughing in madness. If it hadn't hurt so much, he probably would have.

Dying for himself... Fate had this way to put one's decisions in their faces. But he wouldn't back down or give up. He would give everything he had and if every single thing leagued against him to stop him from succeeding, well, he was used to that.

Life was thus.

Miracles happened; the cargo bay was intact, and had enough remaining power for the doors to open half-way when he punched the emergency release.

The air inside was even fresher and he definitely felt dizzy from it as he staggered inside; now every time he wiped his nose, he saw blackened blood within the unstoppable mucus coming from his wounded lungs.He tried to get the manifest from the computer but it asked for a password he did not have, making him feel very frustrated. He did not have time to waste on such useless trivialities. He was dying, here! Couldn't they see that, he had to find those boxes now!

He leaned against the counter and vomited blackened blood and bile until he collapsed on the cold metal floor.

His vision was really blurry now and he was worried. That he wouldn't even get a chance to try to save himself. He could accept death, there was nothing hard about dying if he had given his all. That chance to fight and win against destiny.

He got back up on his hands and knees and jerked himself forward. Filter compound couldn't be so hard to find,they had to be carrying a lot. In the medical supply section, he had to use his head!

The medical section was not too far from him, protected by a force field usually, considering the people that were sent to colony planets, but the crash had removed the threat.

He hoisted himself up, barely feeling his legs anymore.

And that was a very bad sign.

He ripped the crates and threw them away until he found what he was looking for, and then hesitated at the sight of the vials.

The compound had to be inhaled through the nostrils to line the whole respiratory system and lungs. Upon contact with the inner membrane, the semi-consistent matter dissolved and went in.

But how much to put? How much was too much?

And with the bleeding in his lungs, was it already too late?

Questions that couldn't be answered with thoughts, only with actions.

He wasn't taking a risk; he was already dead if he didn't act right away.

He put two small blobs of the compound inside his nose and then, closed his eyes just for an instant.

Envisioned the image he had had of Zenith147 before tumbling down.

This was the image he wanted in his mind if he died.

He inhaled as sharply as he could, coughing in near panic as the compound invaded his system,feeling like burning glue,sealing everything,taking his breath away for good.

Or so it seemed for an eternal moment...

Until he could breathe again.

Whatever was next, he was ready.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

Véronique Racine

I am a hobby writer who adores science fiction and intelligent characters and storylines!

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (2)

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  • Derek2 months ago

    Best pioneer, that would be me.

  • This comment has been deleted

  • Jori T. Sheppard6 months ago

    Fantastic idea. Great premise. Very creative and enjoyable. Keep up the good work.

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