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Von Texas in the Great Beyond

by Jordan Rhys 2 months ago in Sci Fi
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Chapter 1

“Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.” Von looked up from his prone position at the source of the phrase, a used mopbot that answered to the name Bill. “That’s a bit morbid, isn’t it Bill?” Von grunted, untwisting the maze of cleaning lines in the bot’s undercarriage. “Is it?” Bill replied, puzzled. “I guess I just thought it was true. I’m still learning small talk.”

Von wrung his hands, smeared the residue on his apron and stood to face the bot, shining a light through its optics. “True though it may be, Bill, around here we try to keep it light,” Von asserted, though his own eyes betrayed him.

He shuffled over to his inherited workbench, pushing old books and discarded drink canisters out of the way as he rummaged through the drawers for a part. At the end of the workbench, his oldest friend Ralph stood and admired the new addition from afar. “You know, I think Bill’s going to fit in just fine,” he smugly declared, as Bill waved awkwardly from its position in the checkup bay. Other members of the cleaning bot crew, affectionately-termed the Misfits, started rolling in, taking a long look at their new recruit and muttering to one another.

“You’d think of all people, a janitor would have a clean workspace,” Von alleged, and shoved a pile of junk to the floor. A few members of the Misfits swiveled around to see the commotion; the most primitively designed bot, with an aged “OSCAR” logo on its back, pulled forward and gently deterred anyone from whirring over to assist.

“You know, they say organization is overrated,” Ralph asserted between sticky handfuls of pea puffs. “Many geniuses you know and love had poor hygiene, messy rooms, messy everything, really.”

Von cast a perturbed look his way as he flung open another drawer. “Is that so?” He countered. Ralph kept on, unfazed.

“Yep…that’s so,” he said, and crumpled the pea puff pouch back into his jacket pocket. “They just brought something new to the universe that nobody had seen before, so we give them a pass for the rest of it.” Von didn’t respond. He shook his fists in frustration at the haphazard array of parts and labels.

A familiar voice rattled the tiny speaker on the station wall. “Texas! We’ve got a situation on Deck 7 in the Preservation Hall. Some kid tried to eat strawberries right off the display…turned out he was allergic. There’s…there’s just shit everywhere, so you better come quick,” Gunnar, his boss, growled.

“On our way, sir!” Oscar volunteered from the corner. The speaker rattled again: “Is that…is that that sweepbot freak?”

There was no reply. Oscar simply shrugged and spun a swift circle, fluttering his optics. A few bots giggled and mock-swooned. “Well just…just get up here now!” Gunnar barked and severed the comm with a violent click.

After a pause, Ralph leaned closer across the workbench. “I’ve got some good news,” Ralph teased. “I’m not going out with Kathy, Ralph,” Von snapped back. “I’m busy.”

Oscar and the fellow Misfits rolled by to the exit door, winking and waving as they left. “We’ve got it this time, boss,” Oscar assured. Von barely even looked up. By the door, the old bot slowed, paused as if to turn…but then whirred away slowly.

“Better than Kathy,” Ralph enticed. Von at last recovered the missing washer from beneath an oil can at the very edge of the workbench. “Like I said, Ralph…I’m busy,” he replied, and turned away to reroute Bill’s pressure lines. Ralph hung his head low and gently touched a photograph on the wall on his way out. The photo held a very young Von, nestled in his father’s lap and beaming, with the Misfits posing alongside.

“Vance,” said Bill. “This room has no windows in it.” Von nearly chuckled, though his face remained blank. “You are correct, Bill,” he replied, leaning back down with his washer. “A man needs a window,” Bill declared, as if quoting from memory.

Later that evening, Von rolled a dingy metal cart down an empty hallway. He slid the cart into an opening in the wall and dumped it on its end. As the oil seeped from the cart into the reservoir at the basement of the Prospect orbital colony, Von crept up to the massive window at the end of the hallway and gazed upon the endless expanse. The radiation doors were always held open for exterior crew inspection this time of night, with which Von’s oil recycling just happened to coincide.

As he surveyed the glittering waves of stars and began tracing their constellations again in his mind, a familiar set of footsteps echoed in the hall. “Looks like those new welds on the eastern door have held,” Von bluffed to the approaching Ralph.

Ralph snickered. “Yeah…Exterior Crew…we’re legends for sure.” Von pulled away from the window and returned to inspect the dripping oil cart. “So, Von…” Ralph intimated to a seemingly distracted Von. “I…I put you in the recruitment lottery.”

Von froze. Then, he slowly turned to glare at Ralph. “You did…what?!” He thundered. “I shouldn’t have done it, I know. But you’ve been so out of sorts, I knew you’d miss the cutoff date. So I just did it for you.” Von broke eye contact and turned back toward the oil cart. “…I wanted no part of it!”

“But…but you made the cut!” Ralph exclaimed. Von froze again, trying to hide his shock. “You’re the next Starspear mission pilot!” But Von didn’t respond; he simply rubbed the back of his head as a nervous tic and returned to the window as the Exterior Crew drifted out of sight and the radiation doors began to close.

Ralph drew closer. “I know you stopped waiting, Von. You’re done. I get it. But please…this could actually be your chance to finally get out there!” Ralph signaled emphatically to the last glimpse of starlight as the radiation doors locked shut and shook the entire hallway. The last sliver of light from the window left Von’s face, and his expression further soured. “My place is here.”

Ralph shot out his arm and slapped him dead in the face. Von stumbled backwards. “Grey would be…ashamed!” Ralph roared. Von, enraged at the very mention of his father’s name, whipped a slap back across Ralph’s cheek.

Ralph fired back. Von shoved his friend. They tumbled to the ground in a heap, tugging and smacking each other like children in a scrap. Ralph suddenly twisted out of Von’s vice grip and struggled back to this feet. “Fine!”

“Fine!” Von hurled back. “But you don’t get to say that!”

Ralph was confused. “Say what…’fine’?! You just said ‘fine’!” Von paused for a moment. “No…say what he would think of me.” Von slowly rose to his feet and attempted to straighten his jumpsuit.

“I’m…I’m sorry. I just know he always wanted to see you out there, that’s all,” Ralph pleaded. “I’m sorry, Ralph,” he replied, brushing some dust off Ralph’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have slapped you.”

As he tipped the oil cart back to its wheels and began the long push back to the janitor station, Ralph accompanied. “So who’s running missions now that I.A. has washed their hands off it?” Von asked, bending down to wheel the cart around a corner. “As far as I know, I’ve just got a name: Ganymede Corp.” Von’s brow folded. “Really? I thought they just mined. Never pegged them for pioneers. “

As they returned to the janitor station, the Misfits were teaching Bill a few gestures and vocabulary to help him adjust. “So that’s it? Do I just wait for comms or something?” Von parked the cart back into its spot, and began peeling off his jumpsuit near the corner row of lockers.

“Well, they did tell me, emergency contact that I am…” Ralph tugged on imaginary lapels and Von rolled his eyes. “…that they’d be here in four days to collect you. And that was, two days ago, I think? I don’t know, what are hours out here off-world anyway.”

Panic struck Von like lightning. “TWO DAYS?!!” From the corner, Bill piped up. “More than one day, less than three.”

Von stood at the far end of the shipping dock with his meager duffel bag and scanned the horizon for approaching ships, beyond the haze of the atmosphere barrier. “Are you sure you told them the commercial dock?” He worried aloud to Ralph. Ralph chuckled in response and threw his arm around Von’s tightly-wound shoulders. “Because, it’s just easy to get confused with a station this size and—“ Ralph shook Von a bit playfully, and grinned.

“They’ll be here,” he reassured.

From the collection of Misfits nearby, Bill stretched out a metal arm and exclaimed, “That’s it!” And truly, an impossibly sleek escort craft floated through the air like a feather and slid up to the grimy loading dock. A gullwing door rose from its side and extended a short ramp to the dock surface. Von struggled to bury the rush of electricity within.

“Please come back,” Oscar leaked out. After an awkward pause, he followed: “You know, so we’re not stuck with him forever.” He gestured toward Ralph and spun his metallic head round and round to lighten the mood.

Von wrapped his arms around as many Misfits as he could as they all crowded in, voicing care and well wishes. “Could you take some scans on the other side, when you get through? I’ve always wondered what else is out there,” Oscar pined, and pulled Von in close for the quietest whisper above silence a bot could make: “He would be very proud.”

With a tumult of emotion beneath the surface, Von calmly waved goodbye to the Misfits, gave Ralph one last passing hug, and stepped onto the escort craft.

Von’s transport approached silently in the shadow of a massive space carrier. The word “GANYMEDE” stretched the full length of the far side of the glossy, rectangular-shaped behemoth, the thick black letters glistening in the light of the distant sun. In the shaded underbelly of the carrier, a slit opened up and the tiny craft drifted into a landing sequence.

As they pulled into the enormous hangar, rows of lights cascaded down the walls and ceilings to their designated dock point. Von’s eyes pored over the dozens of spacecraft in various levels of completion spanning the docks, as teams of researchers and fabricators moved like ants across the half-skeletons of the growing fleet.

Just a few feet from the dock, a tall, slender woman in her late 30’s with emerald hair stood with a clear plexiglass tablet cradled in her arm, waving politely at Von and his driver. As the pressure released in bursts through the vents and the gullwing door opened up, the woman eagerly approached and motioned for Von to follow.

“Von Texas, I presume?” She asked, projecting over the clanking of the escort ship’s outriggers locking in place. Von simply nodded, walking alongside and trying to maintain composure at the dreamscape weaving around him. The woman led him to divert through a smaller set of doors, and they entered into yet another cavernous lobby, pearl white and brushed silver with glass cases of artifacts flanking the main walkway. Noticing Von’s mystified face, she turned and offered, “I guess I have a flair for the dramatic,” and winked.

They passed two sturdy black-clad guards and disappeared through a materializing doorway in the right side wall, entering into a comparatively minute room. It was sparsely decorated, save for the two chairs facing each other near the center. The woman sat at one chair, and gestured for him to take the other. “I guess you may be wondering where you are at this point,” she said with a chuckle. Von tried to feign a polite grin.

“I’m Constance Ganymede, and you’re aboard the Pegasus, the first and only privatized space carrier in the solar system.” She extended her hand, and Von shook it nervously. Constance smiled, and made a short slash on her plexiglass slab. “Nice to officially meet you, Von Texas. We’re happy you’re here.”

Von couldn’t remember the last time someone said that. He tried to bury his reaction in a blank stare, but she consoled. “It’s alright to feel, Mr. Texas. I know you don’t get much positive human interaction on that colony of yours,” she said, and pressed on a corner of her tablet.

Von could hear and feel a low, subsonic rumble fade into the room, rising in frequency as it seemed to beam into his very body. “In lieu of a typical call-and-response psychological evaluation, I’ve invented a new system: the Oracle. Yes, I know, the name is cheese…but I just like it, I guess. I’m a connoisseur of classical sci-fi,” she disclosed, pressing and sliding a few more points of the tablet.

Von could feel the frequency beam settling into his bones, his veins, his mind. “Oracle is our resonant mind-mapping algorithm that can directly access your psyche, no verbal evaluation needed.” Von was slightly unnerved, starting to sweat. “What if I’m not comfortable with this Oracle program?” He stammered, stealing glances at the exits. “Well, we already know that. It doesn’t seem like you’re comfortable with much of anything, to be honest,” she replied, leaning in slightly as his brain map began to populate on the clear screen.

“If you’ll just trust me for a minute, I’ll get the information I need, and you can head to your quarters for some rest before your physical exam and flight training,” she assured. Von sighed, and tried to ease himself back into the seat. Constance fiddled with a small eyeglass-earpiece apparatus to initiate the mind map sequence.

All her senses went black and silent, as she felt herself floating through some empty and starless cosmos…until flashes of color began to strike like lightning in the distance. As they pulled closer, or she pulled closer to them, they slowed, and spread into kaleidoscopic impressions of time and space.

Von’s early memories murmured in the corners, lumbered about, chasing and calling. His father, Grey Texas, peered into a holoscreen from some towering height above as the newscaster continued their special report on Project Starspear, the first joint mission program of the Interplanetary Alliance. She saw through child Von’s eyes at the colossal Grey, his eyes glistening as he marveled at the wonders to come.

She veered into another recess of his mind, and felt Grey’s arm around young Von. Von’s narrow hand blurred as he waved to an untarnished Oscar; the bot waved back, attempting to add a crooked smile.

Constance crept forward through his years, watched his vantage point rise, felt his gait shift. The silver corridors of the Prospect colony came rushing by, as he weaved in and around the bemused crowds walking upstream. He looked left, trying to keep pace with Oscar as the bot zoomed along the periphery of the path. Then the screen began to twist and phase, dipping toward the floor. The bot was instantly by his side, shouting cloudy fragments and shining a light into his eyes. The screen went dark.

“Was this when you found out you had Hassan’s?” She asked, peeling back the apparatus to see Von’s distraught face. “Yes,” he replied curtly, and twisted in his seat.

She returned to the immersion, and felt the stiff back of a medibay bed. Her vision drifted in and out between the strained whispers of Von’s mother and father. “You know we can’t afford a Bioheart,” the mother admitted. “I know, Myra. But we can’t just give up. Have you…have you reconsidered the ACore?” Grey gently inquired, his hands trembling.

His mother moved farther away from them both, biting her nails near the glass edge of the room as she watched the formless impressions of medical staff glide around their unit.

“But Grey…he could die,” she disclosed. He stepped close behind Myra and carefully touched the edge of her shoulders. “I know…but he could also live.” Tears flowed as he bowed in strain.

Back in the examination room, adult Von reflexively touched his chest and faced the floor. Constance removed the apparatus again and tried to catch his eyes. “Did you know that you’re one of the only successful ACore transplants in the entire system?”

“Successful is a strong word,” he muttered, wishing she would move on.

She hesitated, before slowly reattaching the viewer and going back in. She found and entered the memory: adolescent Von hunched over a table spread of flight manuals, in the school library. Through the glass floor, he could see his classmates bounding up and down the sport courts below. Leaping, sprinting, diving to intercept shots. A sharp pain narrowed his vision, and he reached out along the connective tube to the med unit to bring the fire in his chest back to a dulled ache.

Constance pulled out from the Oracle for the last time, and set her apparatus on the ground beside the chair. “How long did it take to recover?” She asked, concerned.

“Eight years, give or take a few months.” Von shifted in his seat. “I learned to run again on my 17th birthday.” Constance couldn’t find the words.

“What? Surely you know. That’s why they denied me five times in a row…because of this.” He pounded his chest. “Android cores aren’t compliant with Fleet regulations…PERIOD.”

“Yes, I knew that. I just wasn’t…,” she trailed off. “Your Oracle exam has concluded; please allow Morris to accompany you to your quarters.”

She dismissed Von, and he shuffled off to unpack the contents of his duffel bag aboard the vast and empty Pegasus.

Later that evening, Von emerged from his quarters in the supplied linen loungewear and met Ms. Ganymede for dinner on the terrace.

In a maze of clear tables and compacted chairs, she sat nearest to the viewing window and sipped on a glass of wine while the surface of Jupiter tossed and turned in the reveal. Von’s footsteps bounced off the edges of the massive dining hall as he came to find his seat in front of her.

“Nice pajamas,” he teased, nearly forcing a smile. She grinned sheepishly and raised her wine glass into the air. “Formality never worked for me,” she replied, and grabbed a slice of bruschetta.

Aside from the occasional clap of a doorway in the distance, they were alone together in silence. After having his fill of seeing Jupiter spin, he leaned in to ask: “What’s your story, Ms. Ganymede? Thanks to your Oracle, you know me better than most, but I know almost nothing about you.”

Constance smiled warmly and cleared her throat. “The last name was a change. I learned to hate the legacy my parents left me…so I started a new one. Ganymede was the company I inherited, sure, but it was also my opportunity to be someone else, to be better.” She shifted in her seat slightly as an attendant brought them the main course.

“I hated watching the mining, the proxy wars, the double dealing. I hated watching them take and take from the people in this system, and sell it back to the people in the top decks for 500 times more. After they died…Ganymede was mine to direct. So I wanted to start giving, and giving alone.” Von nodded. “So when the Fleet decided to give up on StarSpear…” She nodded in return and continued:”…I wanted to be first in line to pick it up, to push it forward. To get our species out there, to a sustainable future.”

Von was quiet for a moment. “So…why me?”

Constance paused for a moment before smiling once more. “…Because you believe in it. You have that “thing”, if there’s a word for it. No else applied five times to Fleet. No one else came back from certain death. No one else fought so hard for a chance at becoming a pioneer. Reading about you, I figured as much, but after my probe through the Oracle today…I was right.”

Von’s shoulders bristled. His face soured and contorted. “Well, that’s a very romantic idea, but you missed the part where I was rejected and spent the last fifteen years cleaning toilets.”

“And when Tracer died—“ Von cut her off mid-sentence with a sarcastic chuckle. “Oh, Tracer. Tracer the magnificent! The hero of the galaxy, tragically stolen by the stars! Ms. Ganymede, did it ever occur to you that thirty-seven other pilots lost their lives in Starspear missions before Tracer Arcadia? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t remember that. I guess only Tracer mattered because he was top deck,” Von sneered. “And tomorrow morning, I’ll be the next in line!”

Von jerked to his feet. “At least I’m ready for it,” he said as the air left his chest, and he turned to leave.

“We’re not all bad, you know,” she nervously persisted.

Von whipped around. “When you watch your father spend his whole life trusting…worshipping these people, while literally cleaning up their shit…it changes your perspective,” he growled, and turned his back once more.

“Goodnight, Ms. Ganymede.” He sneered. “Goodnight, Mr. Texas,” she whimpered.

After another glance out at Jupiter, she barked back with unintended force, “Report time is 0700 hours!” Von stopped in his tracks. “0700,” he fired in reply, and left the hall. Constance twisted with regret and hurled her wine glass at the breathtaking view outside.

Von laid in his sleeping pod in his spotless room and gazed out the wall-length window, as two crew members appeared on a large rising platform, and his future Javelin space craft ascended to its destination atop the carrier.

He rolled over, away from the window, and drifted off to sleep.

Von awoke strapped inside his ship, drunkenly reaching for the flight controls as if underwater. Outside the viewport, Heidelman’s Wormhole called to him, a cylindrical, endless tunnel of technicolor bliss. As he lurched forward enough to engage the throttle, he hurtled toward the tunnel in a bizarrely smooth straight line. Soon the tunnel engulfed his ship, and he marveled at the cotton candy swirls and patches of glitter.

Suddenly, warning lights spread across the dash, and alarm bells smashed against his ears. Cracks splintered along the viewport, and the cabin began to shake. Steam erupted from a hole in one side, sparks from another. Von lunged for the controls, but they disintegrated between his hands. Flames rippled like water in antigravity and wrapped around him. He clawed and kicked against the end he had wished for, but it was too late to choose. He closed his eyes and let the wormhole take him.

The alarm gently pulsed through Von’s sleep pod at 0700 hours. His eyes burst open in a panic, searching for his seat buckles, but only found sheets.

Von sat upright and slowly adjusted to the serenity of his room. He admired the artificial sunlight glowing from the edges of the window frame. On the far side, he saw a tailored flight suit hanging from the wall. On the suit’s chest, the name “Texas” was boldly embroidered, just below the official Project Starspear patch.

Von was distant, troubled during his initiation to mission control. He dutifully ran his laps, drank his water slowly, breathed in deep for the doctors. Constance was absent; “running late,” they said.

As the personnel led him into the true cabin of the Javelin, he felt just as much a sleepwalker as in his dream. As they drew down the seat straps to match his frame, he saw their hands dance in slow motion.

Von again peered out the viewport. Velvet blankets of stars stretched out into infinity. On the horizon, Heidelman’s Wormhole hung in the void, a well of dangerous curiosity. Space travelers were specifically told not to fixate on it; the “auto-guidance systems would aim true”. Those strange curls of bent stars, streaking nebulas, and inverted expanse brought madness to the human mind looking for something to understand…

Von realized he was staring, tightened his grip on the curved armrests, and forced his eyes down to fixate on the sprawl of glowing buttons and screens on the control surface before him.

It’ll take about 7 minutes for the launch sequence protocols, so hang tight,” a voice called over the comm system.

Von thought of Ralph, the Misfits, the Prospect. Hateful Mr. Gunnar and all the faceless throngs in the hallways. The last time he saw his mother before she disappeared. The way that precious sunlight framed his father’s face in his own hands as he died on the floor of the Preservation Hall. The last rejection letter from Fleet that he hid behind a drawer full of junk so his father would never see. The way he felt alive when Constance touched his hand. The wonder of seeing the heavens glitter without the veil of basement glass.

No, he did not want to die today. Von Texas wanted to reach the great beyond.

60 seconds remaining until engine activation,” the voice called again. Time seemed to speed up and divide simultaneously. Von’s field of view expanded and sharpened. He reached forward to the control surface, and years of research flooded his mind and took the form of the various systems layouts.

30 seconds remaining…” the voice warned. Von glanced up again at the wormhole, quickly. He rapidly plotted a course in his mind keenly considering the mass, acceleration and velocity of the Javelin.

Engine system online.” The rear of the craft rumbled and shook against the launch deck. The bright blue glow of the helical engines reached the edges of Von’s viewport.

Beginning launch sequence in 10, 9, 8…” the voice became indistinct as Von referenced a dozen manuals in his mind and flicked through a sequence of keystrokes and switches to override the flight path.

3, 2, 1…Go for launch!” The Javelin space craft exploded into motion, ripping across the void between the Pegasus and Heidelman’s Wormhole at astonishing speed. As Von struggled to keep his hands on the controls and begin his path through the wormhole, a different voice came through the speaker.

Von,” Constance called. “Ms. Ganymede,” Von replied warmly, his body shaking from the sheer force of acceleration.

I have a poem I’d like to read to you, one that was read to pilots over a century ago, when they struck out into the unknown.” Von attempted to keep visual on the mouth of the wormhole as he passed through the immense clusters of gases near its entrance.

“Shoot,” he said, and banked the craft into the first massive curve of stretched light and hypnotic color.

The old lights, they call to me

They glitter wild across the black sea, asking for me to join them

Von growled as he whipped the Javelin against the current of the wormhole and tried to stay the course in his mind.

Swirling from bank to bank of time untold

They see my sorrow

They lift my face

They ask,

Von cried in anguish as his hand slipped from the control stick from sweat.

What sunrise did not first climb from the belly of the night?

What sturdy wings were not earned from the woven feathers of life’s arrows?

His vision began to blur from the extreme spacetime pressure. His chest felt like it was going to cave in.

Does that light not reach you and touch you, o pioneer? Does it not call you by your true name?

The kaleidoscope began to dim. He was going blind.

Test the stars, lay hold of the reaches

With his last burst of energy, he flung his left arm toward the controls and shakily held onto the stick. He bellowed and tore through the pressure to return his right hand to the stick, and veered the craft into a barrel roll across the final infinite curve of Heidelman’s wormhole.

And know yourself.

The craft punctured the technicolor wall of gases at the other end of the wormhole, and Von sucked in a massive breath. The silent spectacle of another galaxy stretched out before him, stars and planets innumerable. The craft was quiet, save for the hiss of static from the comms system.

Constance stared at the bank of empty screens, frantically calling for feeds, data, anything. As she pulled up Von’s vital sign data from his flight suit, she finally saw a miracle. “He made it!” She exclaimed to applause across the mission control, her voice cracking from the tears. “He made it.”

Sci Fi

About the author

Jordan Rhys

I love to tell stories and spin new worlds. I've been an absent writer for far too long, and I'm grateful to Vocal for helping me to change that. :)

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Larissa Faulknorabout a month ago

    This is such a beautiful story. Thank you, again, for sharing your heart with us. 🤗

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