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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 4

"A Rock And A Hard Place"

written by

Brian Koukol

"A Rock And A Hard Place"

Written By

Brian Koukol

"ALS," his doctor had said, and he'd been okay with that. It would take a lot more than three little letters to intimidate Commander Peter Stein. But then the doc spelled it out for him--Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis--and Peter realized he was in trouble. Oh, and those muscle twitches he'd gone in for?




How could any man hope to overcome so many syllables?


After the appointment, Peter got home. Somehow. He probably drove, but he couldn't be sure. Whatever the case, he was home now, reclining in an Adirondack chair that overlooked the rock garden he'd constructed to balance the stresses at work. He was a test pilot; a singular human being. Or had been, until today. Now he was a cliché, waning and withering and wasting away like so many others had waned and withered and wasted before him.


He glanced across the combed sand, his eyes flicking between the familiar stones. He could've named them, like pets, but that was stupid. Rocks didn't get names. Rocks were inert, inanimate, inconsequential. He wasn't a rock yet, but it was only a matter of time. That's what Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis did. It turned healthy, vibrant people to stone. Soon enough, he'd be unable to move. Or eat. Or breathe. He'd been spied by a Gorgon and there was no cure for that.


The phone in his pocket vibrated and Peter realized he'd been sitting in the rain. Not bothering to seek shelter, he answered it.




"Stein? Aguilar."




"I think we're past ranks now, Stein, don't you?”


"Yes, sir."


Aguilar sighed. "Everyone at NASA thinks you got a bum deal, son. You were their pick for Hyperion from day one. Mine too. Straight out of the Armstrong mold, you were."

Neil Armstrong. Peter tried to recall an old quote of his--something about rocks remembering. Well, of course they did. What the hell else did they have to do? Certainly nothing productive.


Aguilar was still talking. "The reason I'm calling is that the Coalition still wants to send you up--as a civilian, of course. But you'd get to see the spacecraft up close before the mission. Would you like that, son?"


What kind of idiot would ask such a question? Why in the name of creation would anyone think that Peter wanted anything to do with Hyperion after today? Up until a few hours ago, he was to be the first human to achieve .999c, the theoretical closest anything that wasn't a photon could get to the speed of light. In the length of a diagnosis, his trajectory had shifted from the fastest entity in the universe to a stationary and irrelevant pebble and this joker wanted him to go up and see exactly what he'd be missing? He should tell Aguilar to swivel.


But that wasn't what a pilot of the Armstrong mold would do. No, good old Neil would've taken what he was given and do what needed to be done with it. Besides, the trip would give Peter something to reminisce about with his new igneous amigos as he petrified in the garden over the next few years.


"When do I leave?" he asked.




The trip up barely registered with Peter. Once he'd been sealed into his pumpkin suit, the outside world fell away and took the solemn euphoria of the day with it. Saqr Al-Battani, his former understudy and a captain in the Emirati space program, was headed up to put Hyperion through its paces, so they let Peter share his bus in exchange for enough feel-good photos to make the housewives cry. Saqr was a calm and capable pilot. And a friend.


Like all visitors to the station, they were allowed to bring up to a kilogram's worth of personal items. Saqr brought a misbaha of olivewood prayer beads and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, amongst other things. Peter, a small stone from his garden.

They were greeted on board by a dizzying array of disparate accents from the international crew. One of those accents belonged to a sturdy taikonaut who shook Peter's hand with a grin.


"You are lucky to call this one a friend," she said, motioning to Saqr.


Peter forced a smile. "We did have some good times together in training..."


"If not for him, you would still be confined to Earth."


"What do you mean?"


"He insisted. He would not ascend without you."


Peter glanced at Saqr. "That true?"


The captain pushed off from the wall and wrapped an arm around him.


"It hardly seemed fair to leave you down there, brother. Not after all we've been through."


After ditching their pumpkin suits, Peter and Saqr headed back to the docking module that held Hyperion. Only one astronaut would fit through its umbilical airlock at a time, so Saqr let Peter go first.


The interior of Hyperion looked just like the simulator--the view was the same as well, owing to a dearth of windows. An acceleration pod filled much of the available space and faced a forward hatch that connected to the descent module. While Saqr wouldn't be using its descent capabilities on his voyage, the module doubled as a necessary shield at near luminal velocity.


Accelerating to .999c would take Hyperion two weeks, so Saqr's entire trip was set to take eight. Due to the properties of special relativity, Earth would experience those eight weeks as twenty-six years.


Peter squeezed his pebble. Twenty-six years. The captain could very well be returning to a world cured of ALS--and, most assuredly, of Peter Stein as well. The blood drained from Peter's face. Goosebumps rippled his forearms and he braced against the dry, chill air of the station. He knew what he needed to do.


"It looks just like the simulator," a voice said behind him.


Peter grabbed a roof handhold and pivoted to face Saqr, who'd finally made his way through the umbilicus.


"Agreed," Peter said. "And I've seen enough of it."


Saqr sighed. "Alright. Meet you at the cupola?"


Peter nodded and the captain slipped back into airlock. The second the hatch had closed behind him, Peter locked it in place and initiated Hyperion's startup sequence at an adjacent console. Depressurization warning lights flashed in the umbilicus and Saqr twisted to face Peter, alarmed.


"What are you doing?" he demanded, his voice muffled by the windowed hatch separating them.


Peter squeezed the pebble in his hand again. "I won't let myself become a rock," he said.


"A rock? What the hell are you talking about?"


"I'm taking the ship, Saqr. I need the future. I need a cure."


Suddenly, the captain understood. "I won't let you do it, Peter. Hyperion is for all mankind."


"Thirty seconds to depressurization," Peter said. "You'd better go."


Saqr crossed his arms and glared at him. "No. If you do this, the whole thing falls apart.


The Coalition. Unity. Peace. It's all over."


"If I die, it's all over anyway. For me." Peter jabbed an angry finger at the window that separated him from the captain. "And if you don't get out of there it'll be over for you too."


Saqr broke eye contact. "Your future will come at a cost," he said, latching onto a handhold in a stubborn refusal to clear the umbilicus. Peter threw his fist at the window.

And again. Until his blood painted the glass. "Go!" he shrieked.


"I'm your friend, Peter. Your brother."


Peter felt his former understudy's words in his chest, but then his scowl smoothed.


"Rocks don't have friends..."


Saqr's eyes flicked up to his, cutting through the window with an icy rage. And then they were gone, obscured by the disturbed dust of flash depressurization.


Without glancing at the body floating on the other side of the airlock door, Peter detached Hyperion from the station. Once at a safe distance, he ran through the same protocol that he'd practiced a million times on the ground, but with one small difference. Twenty-six years wouldn't be long enough. Humanity had a short memory, but it was still measured in generations. He'd killed a man. He'd stolen the future. It would take a while for the human race to get over that. But not too long.


Peter plotted a path that would bring him back in two hundred years on the dot and then turned for the acceleration pod. Hyperion would handle the rest. Before he could slip into the protective cocoon, however, the navigation console chastised him with a disapproving grunt. A quick glance over his shoulder showed the word "Obstruction" in red. Peter gnashed his teeth together and thrust himself back to the console.


According to the machine and its imprecise sensors, there was a 20.4% chance that his programmed course would result in collision with a rocky object in the Kuiper belt. Peter had trained for this very issue and that training was quite clear--anything above .001% was unacceptable. As he began once again the tedious motions of pathfinding, the radio came alive.


"Hyperion, this is Ouranos Station," a man with a Russian accent said.


"What is your status?"


Peter ignored it and rushed through some calculations in his head.


"Have you experienced a disaster?" the voice asked. "We have found a corpse..."


Saqr's incensed, disappointed eyes flashed in Peter's mind. He shook his head, trying to free himself from the vision, and finished entering the new course with the stroke of a key. The console voiced its displeasure. The chance of collision had jumped up to 28.6%. Peter cursed under his breath. If the station would just leave him alone for a second, he'd be able to think.


"Hyperion, this is Ouranos Station..."


With a growl, Peter punched the radio module. "Shut up!" he shouted.


"Do you require emergency assistance?"


Peter tightened his fist around the pebble in his hand and winced at his sore knuckles. Shimmering beads of crimson mounded on them in the microgravity. Punching wouldn't get him out of this mess, he knew, but he couldn't think of a better tactic through the incessant yapping coming from the station. At last remembering its presence, Peter twisted the maintenance release on the radio module and swung down its face to expose the chaos of wiring beneath. He grabbed a hearty handful of them.


"Hyperion," a voice with a thick, southern drawl intoned. "This is Mission Control. We understand that you all might be having--"


Peter jerked on his handful of wires and the voice mercifully stopped. He took a deep breath. Now he could concentrate. He glanced at the navigation console and froze. It was blank. Dead. Before panic could set in, his training reasserted itself, for he had trained for this eventuality as well. The radio and nav display were indeed connected, he remembered, but only the display. He couldn't manipulate or visualize his course, but he could enact it.


It, and its 28.6% chance of catastrophic failure at the hands of some distant space rock.

Peter's lips retracted, exposing a lopsided smile. Saqr had called him his brother, but it wasn't true. They weren't even the same species anymore, or at least not for long. Peter had more in common with the asteroid Hyperion had warned him about than some squishy human being.


The space rock was his brother now, and brothers kept each other safe. He thought again of Saqr--no, definitely not his brother. Trusting in his new, distant relative, Peter overrode the fail safes of Hyperion and initiated his new course, then slipped inside the acceleration pod. Even without his newfound certainty, he had no choice but to roll the dice. He'd come much too far already for anything else.




Three months of hibernation later--pushing the limits of what the ship could safely do--Peter woke up. The joy of his survival was quickly overwhelmed by the recollection of his affliction. His entire body was stiff, useless. He panicked. Had his ALS progressed while he slept? Was he already a rock?


Over the course of the next hour, his mobility returned--an experience nothing less than miraculous. Contorted, sclerotic limbs unfurled into usefulness. Spasticities eased and then lifted. As if a cure could be that easy. He checked the exterior camera console. Ouranos Station was gone. The Earth, hopefully 200 years older, spun beneath him. Maybe his cure was that easy now--if the prerequisite of being the first human to round-trip interstellar space and achieve near luminal speed counted as easy.


Communications were still out, thanks to his hasty departure, but that didn't much bother Peter. It was two hundred years in the future--people probably talked through electronic telepathy or something far superior to obsolete radio technology by now.

Impatient for his cure, Peter dragged himself into the descent module and separated from Hyperion. Moments later, the first faint hint of vibration struck the cabin, rising in tenor and temerity until finally exploding in a crescendo of violent climax. Without windows, the scorching whips of flailing plasma that shed a spiraling wake of sundered ions and electrons were nothing but an imprecise fancy to Peter--a magmic force hot enough to will earth from void. He could only imagine the maelstrom of fire and frictive wrath bombarding the module as the hungry claws of atmospheric drag raked its insignificant shell.


In an instant, the cacophony broke and he plunged toward the surface in a whisper, like a great albatross on the wind, silent but for the sporadic calls of his guiding retro rockets. Eventually, with one final belch, they eased him to the ground.


He had planned to wait an hour for the exterior to cool down and off-gas before he got out, but, thirty minutes later, there came a knock at the hatch. A good sign. Peter gave the pebble in his hand a squeeze and popped the lock. The explosive bolts fired, but the hatch no more than shifted. He threw a shoulder against it, repeating the maneuver until finally breaking through the crusty rime of his descent. Then he stuck his head out, ready to regale these modern geniuses with his quaint stories of adventure and exploration.


But what met him wasn't modern. Or a genius, apparently. A bearded and bedraggled man with wide, stupid eyes stared at him in shock. Behind him stood a handful of his compatriots, equally disheveled, sporting crude weapons and cruder clothing.


"Hi there," Peter said.


The man screamed, dropped his weapon, and ran toward the quickly dispersing rank behind him. Peter flopped out of the module after him but collapsed into the sand thanks to the lingering effects of his hibernation. Or was it his ALS?


By the time he made it to his feet, the greeting party had hopped into a wooden outrigger and were paddling into the surf along the crooked pylons of a ruined pier. Peter called after them, but the sound only spurred them on.


He turned away from the outrigger, confused. And then fell to his knees.

Immediately in front of him stood a line of devastated, abandoned storefronts. Behind them, perhaps half a dozen miles away, stood the pitted and partially collapsed remnants of a once-ambitious metropolis.


Civilization was toast.


Peter let the pebble in his hand drop to the sand. He felt a spasm in his thigh. Check that. A fasciculation. The death of hope is supposed to be a mental process, but Peter felt it in his guts. He wondered if his actions in stealing Hyperion had anything to do with the skeletal remains of human progress displayed before him, but the concept was too large to unpack.


His gaze dropped to the small pebble half-buried in the sand against his knee. Craig, he'd call it. That was a good name for a rock.


Almost as good as Peter Stein.


Time traveler. Cliché.

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