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level_head in colony_crisis

Chapter 17: Ascent into Darkness

The land around was wide and open, but he was in a narrow stairwell. Most of the ground surrounding this spot was flat, but he had climbed more than three thousand steps so far. The toxic gases of old Earth were being gradually absorbed and replaced with fresher air, but this place had been deadly until the day prior: closed, contaminated, and rank with the cloying smell of decay, and worse.

Now it was better; the upward rush of air was a constant roar in the man’s ears. Still, the space seemed reluctant to give up the grip of death that had held it for nine years.

The brilliant sun never reached this spot; he climbed in eternal night with only low-power red emergency lighting evident. He’d shut his handlight off hours before; there was little to see.

He stopped to rest more frequently now. Somewhat overweight, but not as he’d been nine years before, he suffered the effects of this exercise as well as the increasing altitude and reducing oxygen. In the dim red light, the markings on the doors were visible as he passed. He was above, finally, the lettered decks of the engineering spaces, and far above the Stem.

Deck 20 at last, the doors now held open by the constant wind. The man staggered through the double doorway, propelled by the air rushing behind him.

The dim glow he’d grown used to for many hours was abruptly gone. He blinked in the dark, senses hammered by a howling sound that was not just the wind behind him. The emergency lighting in the stairwell had been only a meter or two away, and made a constant red gloom; now the same red pinpoints were dozens or hundreds of meters distant, and did nothing to break the black monotony. Or the grinding roar.

He looked up at the source of the sound, but could see nothing. There was only a presence, a sense of something big. And moving.

Suddenly, he felt it moving toward him. The sound, already deafening, increased. The hairs on his arms and neck rose, as did the pounding of his heart. He knew nothing of his pursuer but ran headlong into the darkness ahead, legs still unsteady from the long climb.

The jolting handlight he carried struggled to illuminate objects in this Stygian gloom, and he barely avoided several collisions. He steered away from the emergency lights. The man went a hundred meters before tumbling across a chair lying across his path that his light had missed, but he had not.

The man lay where he fell, fearful and panting. Minutes passed. Eventually, the noise receded slightly, and he staggered painfully to his feet and moved away from the sound and toward the only point of reference he had.

He was at the floor level of a mighty space extending still hundreds of meters above his head. Calmer now, he remembered what this looked like, illuminated, from his last time here nearly a decade before. Though he’d subconsciously expected something similar this time, only red emergency lights in the “sky” told of the dimensions here. The weird starfield of bloody constellations on either side, marking abandoned shops and apartments in the dark, receded into the distance still two kilometers ahead of him. Directly overhead was only blackness.

The Axiom, once the jewel of a mighty fleet of starliners, was a different place now. He squinted into the faintly red-dotted distance, and could make out a dim glow in the direction he knew was forward. That was his destination. It was the one place from which the light from outside could penetrate into the great interior atrium. Even so, the light through that small bank of far-away windows was swallowed up in the gloom.

The noise behind him that had dominated his senses and emotions gradually faded into the distance somewhat. It now seemed to echo from the all around him, and was a tolerable background. It was time for a break.

He sat, and used his handlight to fish out two foil packets, one of shipfood and the other of water. He opened the shipfood packet and munched contentedly, alert to changes in sound. There were kilometers left to go, but at least this stretch was on the level.


The circular sloping ramp only went up some ten meters in a hundred meters of length, but it had taken a lot out of him. Finally, he was able to push through into the Executive Foyer.

There was enough emergency lighting in this space to make out, dimly, the dust-covered floor. No footsteps had disturbed this place for years. The control keyboard on the left remained, but the large robot that once operated it was long gone.

He’d hoped that somehow the elevator still functioned, this most important of elevators — but it was not to be. His face reflected strangely from elevator doors, red of skin with brooding, blood-tinted eyes, distorted and menacing in the curved glass. The effect was disturbing; the stretched face seemed to both mock and accuse him. He shook his head, and looked away.

He moved left in the crimson glow, to the small door past the typing console. It was unlocked, to his relief, and led into a narrow stairwell. He played the handlight across the back of the door he’d just come through: “Executive Foyer, Deck 24”. Nearly sixty more levels to climb, he remembered. It was time for another break.


At Deck 70, suffering from the high altitude and thin air, he reached the first level of the Captains-Emeritus quarters. The ship’s design had provided these cabins for the retired captain and his predecessor, if still alive. He’d never lived here, of course, and resisted the impulse to go inside now.

When he reached Deck 76 though, the temptation to look into the Captain’s Quarters was strong. He pushed through the unpowered door into a small square anteroom with doors on each wall. He opened the left one, which led down a corridor and out onto a high balcony.

On a better day, he would have appreciated the view; the balcony on the port side of the bridge tower looked out into the port side of the great atrium. Now, there was only a pattern of distant red pinpoints, hundreds of meters away and below.

He leaned against the glass railing for a minute, catching his breath, then explored further. Down the balcony were entrances to other sections and rooms; he was close enough to the front hull only tens of meters away to see it curving out away from him in the gloom before being lost in the distance.

A bit uneasy, he leaned out in the darkness, craning his head and straining his eyes to see once again the shape of the structure he was on. Not far to his left, the wall curved away from him; this was the straight vertical face of the elevator tower leading to the bridge, and the stairwell he’d spent the last hour in. To his right, the wall was not straight at all. It curved away from him, forming an arching ceiling that blended into the bridge itself, but extending away from him, forward, in a long sweeping curve. The area behind the tower stretched to reach the curved hull, taking on the shape of a billowing sail with the bridge tower as the mast. At some sixty stories tall, this shape was far larger than the sail on any Earthbound vessel.

Earthbound. Well, this vessel certainly was, now.

The next level up was smaller, he knew, as the inward sloping hull cut many meters from the living space. He went up one more flight, thinking of the past and the future, as he explored the long-unused amenities.

These two levels were still the most luxurious quarters on the Axiom, without even counting the Captain’s Den above.

Back into the stairwell and up, past a door marked “Equipment, Autopilot, Authorized Personnel Only.” It was locked; it was still supplied by emergency power. Good, for his purposes.

At the next level, no light leaked from around the tight seams of the stairwell door, so the man was unprepared for the assault upon opening. The glare stunned him, forcing him to close the door again, eyes watering. It took minutes, backing into the brilliant light with eyes initially covered by his hands, before he could finally see the space around him.

At first, he had little interest in the old den, and his attention was dominated by the brash light of the outside world. The sky was hazy, still, but largely blue above. The intensity of the sunlight profoundly contrasted with his day prior to this moment. His stomach clenched as he cautiously approached the windows; the view down the sloping white hull to the ground more than a kilometer below unnerved him. Gradually, he was able to move up to the leaning glass and look with greater attention at details of the view beyond.

The ship faced north, more or less. His still-watering eyes could see to the far right only the northern edges of the Colony, and could barely make out parts of the old city beyond. The glare of the broad white expanse of hull sloping down from his windows was powerful. The hull broke out of the shadow of the overhanging bridge only meters from where he stood. In the distance, most of the view from this kilometers-high vantage point was lost in the still-hazy murk.

He turned, finally, crossing the small space to look into the interior of the great ship. The glare was too much; he could see nothing but his own shadow slicing out into the dust motes. The wet bar and other amenities here in the den caught his attention briefly, and his eyes slid over the portraits of prior captains of the ship, lingering of course on the last one.

So much had changed in the last two days…

He turned again, looking out into the world. It was the world of the Colony; the world of humans once again making a go of it on the planet of their origin, striving for a cooperative balance with nature and human needs.

With any luck, he was about to bring that world to an end.

Comments

Section 1

Par. 6: I think "howling sound" is redundant, if not bad semantics. "Distant" seems stilted compared to "away" in this case.

Par. 13: Delete "the" before "all around him," or else add a noun in between.

Par. 14: I think the first comma is a little too much of a pause.

Section 2

Par. 1: I'm not sure what you're saying in the first clause. Is the ramp angled such that every ten meters walked brings him one meter higher? And why would a ramp be circular?

Par. 3: "Red of skin" sounds stilted to me. I would delete the unneeded "both." The last comma is too much of a pause.

Par. 4: I'd delete the first comma here, too.

Section 3

Par. 2: Put a comma before "though."

Par. 3: Consider changing the semicolon to a colon. I think the second sentence would read better without the first comma.

Par. 4: I would put commas around "only tens of meters away."

Par. 5: Going by Merriam Webster, "earthbound" is lowercase even when specific to Planet Earth.

Par. 11: I would delete the comma before "still."

Par. 14: Add a period, since the sentence is complete.

Par. 15: Change the semicolon to a comma.

Par. 16: Now that's a hook. Does he simply want to leave the planet and live as before, or has the struggle been so maddening for him that he wants to end humanity?
Hmmm. Depending on what sort of world he's planning to bring about in its place, that might not be a bad thing. >:)