"The word is LODESTAR."
Even imagining the word, scrawled on that little scrap of paper, made his head begin to pulse with pain. He'd found the paper in Spencer's desk, a curiously analog anomaly in a station full of technological interfaces.
When his eye first fell on the word it had sent a spike of agony through his brain and he'd flung the paper away in terror. Since then, the mere thought of the word made the pain begin to surge again and he'd learned to refer to it, even in his mind, as only "the word."
He had little hope of delving to the bottom of that mystery, however. He had only just figured out his own name from viewing the station's personnel records and looking at the name patch on his uniform. Carl Jackson, maintenance technician.
It hadn't taken him long to put together a few more details about the situation. A thorough exploration of the station didn't take long - it was a bare bones outpost - and revealed it to be completely abandoned, himself the only sign of life. The personnel records indicated there should have been three other crew members: Rachel Spencer, the scientist, Steven Crisp, the computer specialist, and Timothy Wen, the commanding officer, all gone without a trace.
A quick check of the escape pods showed that both were missing. The only puzzle was, if he was reading the scanners correctly, that the nearest habitable destination was far out of range of any escape pod. But then again, maybe he'd forgotten how to read scanners too.
The last reliable memory he had was leaving for the station. He didn't even remember arriving, or any of these people he'd apparently been working with for six months. When he reached back to that time in his mind, he felt that strange pulsing feeling rising again, and... the word, and the pain that came with it, threatening to surge back into the foreground. Hastily he cleared his thoughts and brought them back to the present.
The first thing he could remember that belonged to the present, to his new reality, was waking up in the eerie dim lighting of the control room, the pale pinkish-red
MINIMAL POWER MODE message glowing on the top of every console display. Other than that gently ominous warning, all the displays were blank, save one, which contained only large green digits that appeared to be a countdown timer. It was set to 72 days and change, and was counting down by the second.
He still puzzled about the word, but he steered gingerly around it, wary of thinking it. Even thinking about thinking it brought the dread back, not just the physical pain but an inexplicable foreboding he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Besides, he had two other immediate mysteries to dread: the countdown timer and the missing crew.
What was the timer counting down to? Good or bad? Rescue or doom? Or nothing at all? Had someone just fumble-fingered some buttons while being struck down by the calamity that had taken the crew?
And that was the second ominous mystery, the disappearing crew. No matter which way you went with it, it was unsettling. If they'd taken off on the escape pods, why hadn't they taken him? Each pod was a two-seater. And where would they have gone? Repeated scans had shown no viable destinations in range.
And if they hadn't taken the pods... what had happened to them? And would it happen to him? He might not make it 70 more days. He had to try to find out what happened, and find out how to protect himself if necessary.
He decided to start in Spencer's lab, where he'd found that mysterious slip of paper, with... that word... on it. He rubbed his head uneasily. What kind of science did she do, anyway?
He browsed through the local files and drafts on her terminal. It was all highly scientific and all above his head, but he slowly gathered it was something to do with psychology and brain science. That explained why there was a glass jar of fluid on one shelf, which according to the label, had once held a brain. It was empty now.
He couldn't make head nor tail of what kind of brain science she was doing, and was getting a completely different kind of headache now trying to puzzle out all these highly technical terms.
He found his way back over to the common area where he helped himself to a ration packet and managed to reboot one of the secondary terminals. It was stuck in low power mode like the rest of the station, with most of its functionality disabled, but he was able to start up Minesweeper, which kept him busy for the rest of the day.
The rest of the first week saw a couple of setbacks and a triumph. From rifling around the quarters of Steven Crisp, the computer specialist, Jackson had managed to discover that there were crew log entries stored in the station's local network, but that only Crisp and Captain Wen had access to them.
Neither of them had been dumb enough to make their password "password" or anything easily guessable, so Jackson had gone digging through their personal effects, hoping to find a family member or an important date. It was no good. He typed in all combinations of names and dates he found in their personal effects but it was all denied.
Finally, on a desperate long shot, he decided to try... the word. It seemed like someone or something didn't want him to remember it. Seemed like exactly the kind of thing you'd do with a password to something you didn't want anyone to find.
He first tried to log into Crisp's account. It took every ounce of willpower he had, the pain escalating with every letter he typed, until finally he finished with the R, hit enter, and blacked out.
When he awakened, he scrambled back up eagerly to look at the screen, which informed him that the username and password didn't match. He groaned, his head still thundering, now with an added wave of nausea. He rushed to the bathroom to vomit and spent the rest of his day in bed, his brain furiously punishing him for his inconsideration.
It wasn't until the next day that he felt well enough to try the password again, this time with Captain Wen's account. It didn't work either and led to another day of bed rest.
The next day he found himself ruminating up in the control room, gazing out into empty space, pondering the insignificance of humanity, until he got bored and started walking around. Close to the window, he peered down and around at the station itself. It seemed like directly below him, almost out of sight, were some signs of damage, perhaps from a passing asteroid.
He tried to check the computers to see what section that was, but the screens only continued to uselessly inform him that the station was in minimal power mode.
Frustrated, he went back to the window and for the first time spotted some lettering on one of the station's beams: THETIS-14. Yes, he remembered now, that was the station's name, and as soon as he had that thought, a sharp pain shot through his head, but quickly passed.
A sudden flash of inspiration hit and he tried accessing Crisp's account again, this time using THETIS14 as the password. No good. Undaunted, he tried it with Captain Wen's account and... success. Crisp would have been disappointed with the captain's security practices, thought Jackson, and then wondered why he knew that, and then had to clench his teeth as another spasm passed through his head.
He forgot immediately about the pain as it passed, as he found himself looking at a screen containing a long list of personal log entries. Jackpot!
His initial elation turned to disillusionment quickly when he realized all recent logs had been erased. Everything that remained only went up to 3 days before the incident, or whatever it was, when his current memories first started and the countdown timer read 72 days.
He went immediately to the most recent available logs and found nothing of use. It seemed like business as usual. Crisp talked about ordering some equipment from headquarters and complained it would be outdated by the time it arrived. Captain Wen talked about his wife and some personal gardening project he was working on. Spencer was waiting for a few journals to get back to her about research papers she had submitted.
He also found one of his own logs. He had written a song and was playing it on the guitar. It was surreal not to remember any of this.
In any case there it seemed there were no immediate answers to be found here as to what had happened. He figured he could spend some time going through the older logs to see if he could pick up any hints, but first, there was another avenue he wanted to explore.
In his earlier investigations, he'd found several locked and sealed doors, and now, as he made his way down to the area where he estimated the damaged section should be, he confirmed it was behind one of these doors, labeled "TERRARIUM."
It was a solid door and there seemed to be no chance of physically forcing it open. Any locking or unlocking functions seemed to be unavailable from any of the computer terminals, probably another casualty of minimal power mode.
There was a very good likelihood that the other locked doors also led to other damaged sections, possibly sealed off for safety reasons. The terrarium, if that's what it was, was just the only one he could see from the control room window.
Two of them were escape pod doors, and it was pretty easy to see through their portholes that the escape pods were gone, as he'd discovered earlier. Another locked door was labeled "QUANTUM COMM". Like the terrarium, it had no windows.
It seemed like there was nothing more he could do on this front for now, so he decided to go back to the logs. Time to snoop around in his crewmates' private lives.
He'd found a spiral-bound paper notebook, its simple physical nature somehow comforting in this ominous world of blank-screened machines that seemed to begrudge him the smallest tidbit of information. He wrote down what he felt were some of the most important questions and observations in his journey to piece together what happened, hoping that seeing it in written form would give him some insight.
Besides, if whatever caused him to lose his memory happened again, it would be invaluable to have it all written down somewhere. He'd seen a movie about this once. So far he'd written:
- What happened to the crew? (Spencer, Crisp, Wen)
- What is the timer counting down to?
- What happened to my memory? (Is "the word" related?) (
- Escape pods (2) (gone)
- Quantum Comm
- Minimal Power Mode warning everywhere
- Countdown timer
- Short range scanners
- Minesweeper, Solitaire
- Personal logs
- Brain scientist? Memory loss related??
- No boyfriend
- Kind of frigid
- Bad security practices
- Avid gardener
- Has a wife at home
- Computer expert
- Cranky, neat freak, grammar police
- Musically talented
The first logs he'd dived into were Spencer's, hoping to find out more about her research and how it might be related to his memories. For this, he started from the earliest logs, about 6 months back. This got a little derailed when he found her calling him a "creeper" in one of the first logs, which drove him to go find his own log from the same day.
From his own account, everything seemed perfectly friendly and harmless. In the log he said he'd introduced himself and made small talk by asking if she had a boyfriend, and what kind of guys she liked. Just friendly chit chat. When she seemed to bristle, he'd made it very clear he wasn't hitting on her by saying he wasn't attracted to girls with short hair. It really seemed like she was overreacting.
Most of her logs were about her work, however, and it didn't seem very promising. She was spending most of her time reviewing other people's papers and officially was here to perform some kind of long-term study on the effects of deep space isolation on the brain.
"It's pretty obvious this is just a bunch of pointless busy work made up to keep me out here in purgatory," she said bitterly in one log. "I wouldn't be surprised if all the results I'm sending back are going straight into the trash."
In another entry she went into some detail about her duties, which did sound suspiciously like busy work.
"Collected another round of questionnaires from the crew today," she said. "Another exciting day of data entry. This is really starting to cut into my Solitaire time."
After sifting through a number of similarly mundane entries, Jackson stumbled on one that made him sit up.
"Appeal for reinstatement rejected again!" she said in frustration. "I don't know what more they want from me. I have multiple copies of all the paperwork. I crossed every T and dotted every I. I received fully-informed consent from every subject. There was third-party review at every step, they can confirm each volunteer was given the option to opt out at any time, and they were very amply compensated. No one felt they were harmed, no one filed a complaint. Even in the worst case, it was only a temporary loss of a few days' memory."
Jackson put down the ration he was chewing on, rewound the log, and listened again. And again. This was it. It had to be.
What had this woman done to him?
He'd started to fall into a kind of routine. The lighting never changed and the only clock was the countdown timer, but he'd decided to try to force a daily 24 hour routine to preserve a sense of normalcy and keep his sanity as long as he could. Midnight started when the countdown timer ticked down a day. He'd wake up every day at 1000 hours (solving mysteries was hard work, he needed his rest), have a morning ration, and go through a few logs.
When he needed a break, he might play his guitar (apparently he still remembered how), or play some Minesweeper, or read a book. Crisp had some paperback novels, mostly Stephen King, which Jackson helped himself to.
He'd eat lunch up in the control room, gazing out into space, and then do some exploration, picking a room and going over it in detail. He turned up some pretty private details going through personal belongings but he figured his crewmates were either dead, in which case they wouldn't mind, or they had abandoned him, in which case they deserved it.
He then allocated some time to trying to see if he could get the computer to do anything else, but he had little luck. Even with the captain's password, he couldn't seem to get it out of minimal power mode. He wasn't even sure if he should. If he was waiting for rescue, it was probably best to conserve as much power as he could.
He did manage to bring up the communications window one day, but it seemed to actually be broken. It wasn't a problem of access, it just simply didn't work.
He had also found that the system's short range scanners did work, but limited usage to one scan a day. He'd usually do it just before dinner. Needless to say, the results were the same every time. Nothing.
Dinners would usually be in the common area, keeping lunch in the control room, so they'd feel more like separate meals. Every day felt monotonous enough already. All he had to eat were the same foil-wrapped ration packets, so all he could change up was the location and his routine. Lunchtime was for big thoughts and idle philosophy while gazing into space, and dinner was for thinking about his immediate plans.
It was a good time for him to reflect on what he'd dug up during the day and try to put all the pieces together and have a good think.
Things were pretty quiet and thought-friendly in there now that he'd unplugged all the machinery - there was no need for the refrigerator, the microwave, and the ration packet processor since he had no fresh food, just packets. He initially had tried microwaving the ration packets for variety's sake but it didn't improve the flavor. So he just shut down all the kitchen gadgets and enjoyed the peace and silence in the one room without blinking warning lights.
After dinner, he'd relax with a game or a book before heading to bed.
He gave up for now on getting anything from Spencer's logs. All the technical talk was giving him a headache. He promised himself he'd go through it more thoroughly later.
He was now slowly making his way through Crisp's logs. This was arguably just as tedious and skip-worthy because it seemed Crisp's side project was writing an epic fantasy trilogy, and he was reading the entire thing as he wrote it, into his personal video logs.
Crisp's epic was very badly written and hard to follow, which Jackson did not like, but it had a lot of sex, which he did like. Most of the sex was had by attractive women and elves with the main character, who seemed to look a lot like Crisp, and was for some reason a computer specialist, even though this was a medieval fantasy setting.
When not reciting his story, Crisp had some interesting theories about hypothetical scenarios, like who would win in a zombie apocalypse. At first Jackson thought this was easy - the zombies, of course - but then he realized Crisp wasn't talking about the humans vs. the zombies, but about the surviving humans, and what kind of person would be willing to do what it took, no matter how horrific, to rise to the top in such a scenario. In Jackson's opinion, Crisp seemed to put much, much more thought into this question than was warranted, considering the nonexistence of zombies.
Crisp claimed to have brought his pet topic up at dinner, and said "a spirited discussion ensued." Jackson wondered if everyone else had enjoyed talking about worst-case zombie scenarios at dinner. He paused Crisp's monologue and began to look at other logs for the same day.
"Crisp was going on about zombies again at dinner," said Spencer, rolling her eyes. "He really seems to get off on grossing everyone else out. Jackson literally turned green and ran out of the room. Although honestly Jackson seems like he'd pass out at a papercut."
Jackson frowned but he thought she might be right. He'd had to stop reading the Stephen King novels for a bit, they were giving him nightmares. He was pretty sure his ten year-old cousin had been reading Stephen King and loving it, so this was probably an extremely embarrassing thing to admit.
"I try to see the good in everyone," said Captain Wen, "but Crisp is a real - and pardon my language here - a real asshole. Every time he addresses me as 'captain' he does it sarcastically. I don't even know how he has the energy to keep it up so long. Today at dinner he went on one of those rants about how man is just an animal and when survival is at stake, all of this civilization stuff turns out to just be a pretense. All this tough guy Darwinian struggle stuff. Great dinner conversation, right?
"He was going into detail about some story involving a bear trap ripping someone's head open somehow? And maggots? And the person was still alive." Wen screwed up his face as if smelling something bad. "Very distasteful. And not plausible at all, really. Jackson looked sick and ran out of the room. Poor kid. Crisp just laughed and said he'd be the first one dead in the zombie apocalypse. I said he was being an ass and he just said, 'Maybe, but I'm not wrong. Zombie could be coming straight at him and he'd drop his gun and cry at it. Tell me I'm wrong.'
"Then Spencer said that Crisp would be the first one dead because if they ever needed a diversion everyone would unanimously agree to throw him to the zombies to buy time for an escape. Crisp abruptly left at that point and said he had to go work on his novel. I'm thinking of banning any talk of zombies at dinner."
Jackson frowned. Crisp, he thought, seemed like a dick.
He found his own log for the day, which didn't seem to add much information. "Crisp seems like a dick," it said.
But apparently that wasn't the end of it. In a log a few days after the dinner incident, Jackson talked about recurring nightmares.
"It's... really messing with my sleep. I think it's because of that story he told, with the brain maggots and everything." He shuddered. "What's even worse is, he sent me some clips from, I guess the movie he got it from, and I opened it without knowing what it was. It was... really not cool!
"One thing though, is that Spencer was actually really nice about it, she said I wasn't looking well and asked if I was okay. She said if I came by the lab maybe there was something she could do."
Jackson furrowed his brow, and begin to watch intently as he forwarded to the next log.
"So I saw Spencer about, you know, my problem, and, it was actually really quick, and I think the nightmares are gone. I don't even remember what they were about. I don't even remember that, I guess, Crisp started it off with a gross story or something? Spencer had to tell me about it. She said you could set the thing on pretty shallow and it would just get mostly back-of-your-mind stuff for just a few days. I guess I'm a little bit fuzzy about some of the last 3 days but who cares, it's just the same crap routine as every day. Man whatever, anyway, I'm going to go sleep like a log."
Things seemed to go south just a few days later.
"I was doing my kitchen round today when I got a red diagnostic light on the ration packet processor this morning so I opened it up to fix it, only, I completely forgot how to do the repair! I know I just did one last week. I went back to Spencer about it and suddenly she was this cold bitch all over again and said that wasn't possible, and maybe I just forgot how to do it on my own. I said I was going to talk to the captain about it and suddenly she turned white like a ghost and started talking nice again.
"If you ask me, I think she wasn't supposed to be doing that kind of stuff at all. Gonna keep a note of that for later, it might come in handy. Anyway she said she'd do some digging into what might have happened, and also she was going to look up the ration packet processor repair instructions and take care of it for me until I got my memory fixed, and any other repairs I forgot. Yup... definitely doing something she wasn't supposed to be."
Spencer seemed to confirm this.
"I can't have him going to the captain. If this gets to the board I'm done. But I don't know what... there's no mechanism by which he should have forgotten a long-term memory. It's impossible! It can't have anything to do with the procedure, it's likely just normal forgetfulness. Of course, I could try using the keyword on him but that'll probably bring back his nightmares too, and then he'll get mad about that and go to the captain. Anyway I suppose I'd better start figuring out how to fix the ration processor, we've got a pile of fresh vegetables going bad."
Keyword? thought Jackson. It had to be... "L-O-" he began to think, and the pain rose alarmingly like a tidal wave. "No!" he said to himself. Not now. Not blindly. He had to learn all he could first.
In the next entry, the drama seemed to have moved on to a different topic. "Walked in to lunch to see the captain scolding Spencer and saying that blowing someone out of an airlock isn't very professional and she was looking daggers at him so I turned around and walked right back out."
Jackson's own log left it at that so he eagerly pulled up Captain Wen's log.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm running a kindergarten," Wen said, rubbing his head. "Spencer and Crisp had some kind of lover's quarrel or another and one thing led to another and the next thing you know, she locked him in the airlock and was threatening to blow him into space!
"I mean, we are professionals here! I understand Crisp can be a bit much sometimes - I've reprimanded him myself several times, but only in a professional and appropriate manner. It speaks to a real lack of self-control and rationality to resort to this kind of dramatic gesture. I may have to formally write her up."
It did seem like pretty bizarre behavior. Jackson pulled up Spencer's log to see what she had to say for herself.
"Either I'm taking crazy pills or everybody else is. Jackson is a harmless enough creeper minus the blackmail thing, but Crisp straight up grabbed me from behind today and... went for the goods. I managed to shake him off but he kept coming back so I opened the airlock door behind me and flipped him into it and shut it before he could get up.
"Then he started going on about how I was a bitch and I was overreacting, so I told him I'd show him overreacting, and I put my hand on the outer door button and then he changed his tune real fast. He was peeing his pants and explaining how it was all a misunderstanding when Captain Wen came by and ordered me to let him out.
"I tried to explain what happened but he seriously pulled a 'You both need to go to your quarters and think about what you did'! As if he was talking to some squabbling children! I tried to sort out the captain at dinner but he seemed very grossed out by the slightest mention of anything sexual - I've noticed he's a bit of a prude - and said he didn't need to hear about what people did in their own time but that here we must be professionals."
Juicy, thought Jackson, but it apparently hadn't impacted his life in any way, except maybe showing that Spencer had trouble getting along with people. This fact came up almost immediately again when he got back to his own logs.
"I didn't tell the captain anything!" he was almost shouting. "I guess Spencer got busted for her research and she keeps accusing me of being the snitch! I didn't say shit! Why would I? I still need her to fix my memory holes!" He took a couple of deep breaths. "So anyway, between that and the airlock thing, she's on double secret probation or whatever they call it here, and she's just super pissy all the time now. Good luck getting that ration processor fixed, everybody. Hope you enjoy raw greens."
Spencer was indeed pissy.
"That idiot really just went and did it," she said. "What was he thinking? Forget getting any help from me now. The captain took away my rig and locked it the storage closet. He seriously gave me the 'very disappointed' speech and told me he was going to write me up. I'm seriously going to blow them all out of the airlock next chance I get."
Jackson gave the situation his best unbiased assessment and decided that he believed himself. But how did the captain find out? He wouldn't stumble on the answer until two days later.
Focused on this particular question, Jackson did a quick skim through of the logs, but it seemed like neither he himself nor Spencer ever figured this out. He looked through Captain Wen's logs more carefully but he also never mentioned his source. His account merely began with a portentous, "It has come to my attention that Dr. Spencer has been conducting unauthorized research," and added very little information, being mostly a rant about values and professionalism and disappointment.
Either the captain had done a little independent snooping, or, Jackson decided, it was the last suspect, Crisp. He sighed and screwed up his courage to go through Crisp's logs again, trying to carefully skim past his manuscript readings without missing any useful asides. It was in the middle of the chapter on the island of snake-women that he struck gold.
"I did some reading on snake anatomy and this might not work, so I might end up deleting that part. Oh, fun little fact, by the by: I have found a little bug in the data deletion code where if the task happens to be interrupted, the data is not actually deleted and can still be easily accessed by someone with the proper know-how." He tapped his forehead proudly. "I was going to fix it but then I said to myself, maybe we can think of this as a feature, and not a bug. With things the way they are it might be a good idea to take a look at the very things other people don't want you to see."
He never explicitly talked about ratting out Spencer but in the very next entry he did say, fingers steepled in self-satisfaction, "Lock the bull in an airlock, get the horns."
Jackson finally found what he thought might be the "rig" that Spencer had talked about. In her lab, looking like it had been kicked carelessly under a table, was a small skullcap with protruding wires. These all led to a desktop-sized device with its own small screen - not connected to the station network, which made sense, if she was trying to keep it on the down low.
It was off and stayed off no matter what he did. Either it was broken, or he didn't know the right combination of switches and buttons to turn it on. "Just like a girl!" he said out loud to nobody. The ventilation system continued to hum quietly. The station terminals continued their steady, gentle blinking.
The most prominent control was a large dial, turned all the way up. If he was remembering right, the device was on a very low setting ("pretty shallow," he'd said in his logs) when Spencer had helped him with the nightmares. Maybe it had been used again... or maybe he was just looking at the wrong dial.
In any case, it seemed she'd been able to get it back at some point after the captain had confiscated it.
While he was visiting scenes of crimes, he decided to go check out the airlock as well. Disappointingly, neither the inner or outer door would open. There didn't seem to be anything seriously wrong with either as far as he could see so he guessed this might be a result of the "minimal power mode."
He peered through the window, not sure what he expected to see. The pee puddle from when Crisp was cowering in fear and begging Spencer for his life? In any case, it was completely empty, which made sense for an airlock.
He was about to go when he spotted the faintest hint of something on the opening edge of the door. A dried liquid between the door and the frame, only the smallest edge of which crept out beyond the seal. It was dark and red-brown and almost certainly blood.
He wished this was one of those fancy science stations with the computers where you could just pop in a blood sample and it would tell you the blood belonged to a 48 year-old male of South American ancestry who had dark hair and a predilection to alcoholism and walked with a limp. Or matched it to a crew record, or something. In any case, there was nothing like that here.
All he knew was that there was blood on the door. Perhaps it was something sinister or perhaps someone had got their hand caught closing it. He felt no closer to answers, only more disturbed.
His return to the logs was rewarded with only an unpleasant episode that fulfilled no other purpose other than to make him feel bad about himself and dislike his crewmates even more.
It started with a sort of slime mold found in the storage room. It was one of those weird, disturbing kinds often found in deep space, with moving tentacle-like protrusions that made them seem extra alive. This one was a fleshy pink and apparently made sounds, both the standard "squish" sounds and something multiple crew members described as "like a screaming cat".
It was agreed unanimously that someone needed to clean this out, and it was agreed almost unanimously that Jackson was the one to do it.
"I'm a maintenance technician, not a janitor," he complained in his log. "It's not my job to clean stuff, but they don't seem to care. I mean, I thought these bases were supposed to be self-cleaning, and I guess it is mostly, but when it comes to something that... uh... alive... it's kind of not up to the job.
"I tried to argue that Spencer should do it because it's a lifeform and she's a scientist, but she just said she wasn't that kind of scientist, and the captain actually took her side on this - for once - and said she wasn't allowed to do scientist stuff anymore anyway. Crisp just laughed and said this was my chance to get my first kill and finally become a man... NOT HELPING!"
Spencer, in her account, seemed unsympathetic.
"He actually tried to argue with me that it might be sentient because it was moving and making noises and I had to explain to him that a thousand species of space molds have been studied already, and they all move, or scream, or both, and it's been proven beyond a doubt they have no brain or central nervous system, you might as well get worked up over bathroom mildew.
"He came back an hour later, covered in goop, with this whole thousand-yard stare going as if he'd been in an actual war, for Christ's sake, and going on over and over again about how he'd heard it scream as he shot it out the airlock. He said he'd never be able to forget those screams.
"Maybe it was a little harsh but I said, 'Wow, if only we had some kind of device that could do something about that.' He didn't say anything, just went off, I'm assuming to cry. I don't know, maybe that was kind of rough but he should have known better than to open his big mouth about my research. I'm the one that has to deal with my whole career being destroyed! He only has to deal with... having to clean up a slime mold."
Captain Wen also did not have, in Jackson's eyes, a great response.
"Jackson came to me saying he had nightmares that the mold came back, and I told him it had been his professional responsibility, out of respect to himself and to others, to make sure he got all of it, and bleach all the surfaces, and if it did come back, it would be a good life lesson about making sure to do a task thoroughly. He seemed more inclined to wallow in self-pity than to take advantage of this teachable moment but I have a feeling that this wisdom will sink in eventually."
Crisp was, unsurprisingly, a dick about it.
"Ten thousand years ago when men were men, when the only people who passed on their genes were brute force survivors willing to do whatever it takes, this guy would have been populating the belly of a sabertooth tiger. All this technology is filling the human race with these useless soft balls of dough. I can't wait for the next cataclysm to weed them all out."
With some trepidation, Jackson went back down to the storage room, to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Despite everyone's carping, he'd apparently done a great job. It was eerily clean, the metal surfaces spotless. Not a single sign of a terrifying mold creature. This, thought Jackson proudly, was indeed professional-quality work.
He was rifling through Spencer's lab again, trying to see if there were any clues as to how to get her "rig" working, when he found, in the desk drawer, that paper again. He'd completely forgotten it was still there and now found the familiar handwriting staring him in the face, and read it unthinkingly before he realized, too late, what it was.
"The word is LODESTAR."
A pulse of pain shot through his head and he tensed up, prepared for the worst, but though it surged unbearably for a few seconds, it suddenly faded, with him still standing.
And an image flashed into his mind. A memory. A circuit diagram, and a series of steps.
How to repair a AgriCorp 3-in-1 Ration Packet Processor (RPP-124).
He drew in a breath. Perhaps... he had to try. He spoke, hesitantly, in a whisper, "Lodestar..."
The pain struck again, harder, and he fell to his knees this time, but something was coming back, flowing into his thoughts. Something dark, and unpleasant. A bear trap. A brain, maggots, a man who wasn't quite dead. "No, no, no," he said, shaking his head and then his whole body, trying to disrupt his train of thought with mindless, vigorous action. He banged his knee on a chair and it hurt so much it managed to push aside the awful thoughts for the moment.
But it kept creeping back throughout the day, and he had to keep warding it off by banging his fist on the wall, loudly singing nonsense songs, and other desperate distractions.
After dinner, he went back to the lab, reached into the desk drawer, eyes averted, and crumpled up the paper.
After he was able to think clearly through the incident, he came up with some guesses. The first memories that returned were the ration processor repair instructions and Crisp's awful anecdote, which were the first things Spencer's device had helped him to forget.
Obviously, he'd gone on to forget a whole bunch more, probably due to the device being used on him again. It stood to reason that if he tried the word again, he'd probably start recovering the next things he'd forgotten. At some point he'd get back the final 3 days that were missing from the logs. But he'd have to go through an awful lot of stabbing headaches and months of what sounded like terrible memories to get there.
Perhaps, he thought, he could do a little bit every day. It wouldn't be so bad in small doses, and he had time.
He tried to prepare himself this time. He ate his lunchtime ration packet, used the toilet, played a bit of guitar to relax, cleared the bed, and sat down. If he passed out, he wanted to make sure he landed safely.
"Lodestar," he said firmly.
Thoughts came in a rush - of a flesh-colored slime mold, tentacles reaching out, something that he could swear looked like an eyeball! And the screaming, the screaming, not like a cat at all, but a human in torment.
His precautions turned out to be a good idea, because he passed out.
When he came to, he decided to put this experiment on hold indefinitely.
The nightmares were back, of course. "Good job, Jackson," he told himself. The screaming mold, the festering maggots, and Crisp gloating over Jackson's discomfort, telling him to "grow a pair already." This last part, as far as Jackson remembered, wasn't in the logs, which meant it might be his actual memory. It wasn't the most useful of memories but it gave him hope that he was on the way to getting more back.
He tried to counteract the new horrors living in his thoughts by filling his mind with the most offensively boring content he had access to, Captain Wen's logs.
He sighed almost in relief as he watched Captain Wen describe what he'd learned from a management book he was reading. He finally summarized excitedly:
"Just from these case studies, it sounds like one can see some really remarkable changes in team dynamics when going from two team updates a week to three. What I'd really love to see is if this applies equally to written updates versus in-person."
Here he sighed.
"I can't wait to get back to an assignment where I can apply some of this stuff. I've tried my best with what I have here, but you can't help people who don't want to be helped. I've done my best to instill values of professionalism and civility and a big picture growth mindset, but they've completely lost themselves in self-pity and petty squabbles.
"I try to tell myself it doesn't reflect on my leadership skills and that mentor-mentee relationships are a two-way street, but it's wearing me down, dammit! I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I get heated over this.
"My Wisdom Calendar's quote of the day is 'This too shall pass,' and what could be more appropriate. All I have to do is hold on and continue to do my duty to the best of my abilities, for 98 more days. Once the relief ship arrives, I can hand off this mess to another poor soul and it will be their trial to bear."
Jackson squinted and paused the playback. He checked the log's date, today's date, and the countdown timer. He did some calculations on his fingers. He double and triple-checked to be absolutely sure before allowing himself to hope. Because zero on the countdown timer perfectly coincided with the expected arrival of this relief ship.
Knowing full well that the other crew members would have called him a pansy for it, Jackson broke down in tears. After watching the ominous numbers tick down for so long, it was such a relief to know that they were ticking down to rescue, and not to doom.
The nightmares were actually getting a bit less terrifying, slowly decreasing in horrific imagery and increasing in strange, unimportant-seeming memories. Little snippets and phrases. After a really bad zombie scene, one dream faded into Crisp calling him "pathetic," reminiscing about prehistoric times when "men were men," and then smugly proclaiming, "The data is easily accessed by anyone with the proper know-how," upon which Jackson suddenly woke up.
He felt like he'd heard something important but struggled to parse it out in his woozy half-asleep mind. "Deleted data," he said to himself. "Accessing deleted data."
He jumped up and got back into Crisp's logs, skimming around to find where he'd talked about that. It took an hour but he finally located it. Crisp explained the trick with a great deal of technical talk that went over Jackson's head, and it made sense why he'd ignored it the first time around.
This time he grabbed some technical books and notes from Crisp's room and went sentence by sentence through Crisp's explanation, looking everything up, until he finally felt he had a handle on the idea.
If he understood correctly, this was a bug that didn't apply to all deleted data, just a really small fraction where the system had a hiccup during deletion. The system was supposed to detect any hiccups and try again, but because of a mistake on Crisp's part, it didn't. The data would just remain there, unlisted. A deleted log wouldn't show up in, for example, the log list, but if you knew the exact place to look (which involved a jumble of numbers and letters), the computer would show it to you.
Unfortunately, finding the proper jumble of numbers and letters sounded like it would take an entire course on computers. Fortunately, he had some time.
He was really starting to enjoy learning about the ins and outs of computers, courtesy of Crisp's library. He'd been intimidated from learning this sort of thing his whole life, as he and everybody around him just took it as a given that it was only for brainy college types. As a sort of half-measure, he'd decided to take a machine maintenance course, figuring it was the closest a normal guy could get to the glamorous high-tech life.
But it turned out there was really nothing magical about it at all. All it came down to was giving a computer a bunch of instructions and making sure you did it exactly the way the computer wanted to hear it, otherwise it would find a loophole and do it wrong. Sort of like making a deal with the devil.
When he got out of this jam, he figured, he might get serious and take some computer courses. Crisp made three times what he did, and Jackson had a feeling he wasn't one of the better computer specialists. It didn't seem too far out of reach at all for Jackson to get at least a certificate, double his salary, and maybe start working on a real degree part time.
Thus motivated, he slowly put together the foundation he needed to solve the whole deleted data problem. He built a little script that was able to find a few pockets of undeleted data and tell him exactly where to find them.
He pulled up the first one. It was a porn video and it had been deleted by Crisp. He began to delete it and then hesitated. After a few more moments of evaluation, he moved it into his own directory, saving it for later.
He pulled up the next one. It was one of his own logs, from the deleted 3 days. He was disheveled and crying, and the lighting was dim, like it was now, unlike in all the previous logs.
"Everything's gone wrong. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It can't be. Someone's got to figure out something, right? They've got to. I don't want to die. I can't. I just don't want to die. I just can't. I just can't. I can't do it."
It went on like this, expressions of his wish to not die alternating with terrified, pitiful blubbering. It was painful to watch but Jackson bit his lip and stared intently, scanning every frame. He had to know if there was anything further to be learned. It turned out there wasn't, and the only real outcome of the whole exercise was to feel worse about himself again.
At some point he came to a decision that he was going to drop the past and focus on the future. A rescue ship was (probably) on its way. If he could make it til then, someone else could figure out what had happened. Whatever it was, there didn't seem to be any immediate danger, and any lurking danger had had plenty of time to show itself.
In the meantime, it was probably more worth his time to study up on computers or get better at guitar than to give himself more nightmares or force himself to look at more unflattering examples of his cowardly character.
He was still watching logs, but now he decided to focus on the personal, trivial details, trying to get to know these strangers he'd apparently worked with for so long.
Spencer talked a little bit about her family in brief moments where she wasn't focused on her research and her grievances with the board.
"Got another message from home. Dad wants me to give it up and go home, be a dental hygienist or something." She smirked ruefully. "I gave it a good try, he said, but maybe some things aren't meant to be. I just wish... I think I could show them, I think they'd see, if I could only get my papers published, I mean, there's never been anything like it. I'd get headlines in regular papers. A prize. Maybe even an appointment at the Science Federation.
"As soon as I can just get... even just one major publication... I think I could go back for a visit. Go back, and hold my head up, and just enjoy the time, and see them and see Ella and not have to hear anything about dental hygenist schools or teacher training programs or any other backup plans."
One of the deleted logs was just Crisp being vulnerable. He had styled his hair in this video, and it looked ridiculous. He seemed to be somewhat aware of this and kept self-consciously rearranging it.
"Trying to put together a new photo for my DateNet profile," he said, tugging at his crisp collared shirt. "I think it's time to give it another try. I now think the reason I never got any bites on my last one was not any deficiency on my part but simply a misunderstanding of the common unspoken signals in the dating market.
"I've watched a few very enlightening videos on this and I think I'm ready to put out a much more successful revised profile. I'm focusing on instinctive signals of reproductive success that women are wired to respond to, such as a more powerful stance, a more alpha gaze, and more assertive, dominant language.
"I really think I've unlocked it this time. Of course, I'm realistic about this, I don't expect to be flooded with responses, or at least, I think I would count it a success if I just got one response, in fact, if I just got one response I'd put it on hold for a bit, just to be fair to the woman, and well, no sense spreading myself too thin.
"This..." he coughed, and then straightened up, standing up, putting his hands on his hips, and throwing his head back. "This is going to be the time. Someone is finally going to see what I've got." And he shot such a ridiculous glance at the camera, simultaneously full of macho posturing and anxiety to please, that Jackson had to laugh.
Captain Wen had a wife, whom he constantly talked about as a "gift" and a "blessing" and generally sounded like the most generic wife in the world. However, he had his moments.
"Darla keeps talking about children, and I'm certainly not against it, but I really worry sometimes about how it might impact our careers, especially when we're still climbing the ladder. And with all the traveling! But she really wants them, and I do think it would maybe be quite nice sometimes to look at a new little person that is like a little her and a little me at the same time, that maybe makes that face she makes when she eats something sour, or shakes his head the way I do... I don't know what's so special about it, but, well I must shake it in some kind of unique way, it always seems to make Darla laugh."
Jackson didn't need to learn about himself. He'd only lost 6 months of memories. He knew why he'd come here, his modest background, and his modest goals. Up until now he didn't really have any particular ambitions for his future, not even Crisp's little dream of getting one woman to be impressed with him. He just wanted to get by.
But now? Maybe he could make something of this computer thing. It opened up so many possibilities. He just had to make it off this station.
His heart was beating like a dance track. His pre-dinnertime short-range scan had picked up an approaching ship. Only moments later, he could dimly make out a visual in the window.
Not long after that, a voice crackled over the loudspeaker. A woman's voice.
"Thetis-14, do you read? This is the U.F.S. Phillip K. Dick."
Jackson scrambled to the microphone. "Yes!" he shouted. "Yes, I'm here!"
"Repeat, Thetis-14, do you read?"
"I'm here, I'm here!" Jackson shouted into the microphone, over and over, flipping switches and pressing buttons frantically.
"It's no good," said a male voice coming from the same speaker. "Look at that. The comm unit is smashed."
"Damn," said the female voice. "Looks like an asteroid strike."
"Oh shit, the terrarium's smashed open too," said the male voice. "Oh my God. When's the last time they were supplied?"
"Harper?" said the female voice. A fainter voice belonging to neither of the first two replied, unintelligible to Jackson. "Damn. If they haven't had a food supply for that long, I don't even know if there's anybody left to..."
"Er, Captain Westin," said the male voice, "the comm channel's been open the whole time."
"It's fine," replied the woman, presumably Captain Westin. "I don't think anybody's listening."
"I'm here! I'm here!" cried Jackson frantically. He tried waving his arms at the window, hoping they'd be able to see.
"In any case, we should dock and see if we can find any survivors or, er, recover any... well, move in to dock. And turn off the comm channel."
The ship slowly approached, looming larger and larger in the window, but it would be a while yet, and Jackson realized there was nothing to do but wait.
He sat back and opened his dinner ration packet, squeezing it into his mouth and chewing contemplatively as he watched the supply ship silently drift nearer. Suddenly his teeth hit something hard. Wincing, he pulled it out of his mouth.
It was a wedding ring.
He froze for what felt like an eternity, horror rising in his throat. Both horror and food. He vomited violently onto the floor.
He tried to push it all away. There was only the now. He had to just stay in the now. The rescue ship was here. He must get up, he must go to the airlock and greet them. Leave everything behind.
His legs would not move. He remained there, on his knees, bowed over onto the floor, clutching his head, unable to stop what he knew he had to do.
"Lodestar," he said between gritted teeth. "Lodestar. LODESTAR!"
Images poured into his brain faster than he could process them. Screams. Human screams. From human mouths. Slammed in the airlock door. With a knife. With a crowbar. The bodies. The kitchen. The ration packet processor. Bloody clothes, debris, stuffed into the escape pods. The storage room. The memory device. Throwing the cap to the floor. Stumbling out of the lab with his last ounce of consciousness and collapsing. Waking up to an empty station and a blank mind.
And an ample supply of ration packets.
Tears streamed from his eyes. The pain had subsided but he still clutched his head as it throbbed with something white hot and ice cold at the same time, something unbearable, unthinkable.
The crew of the Phillip K. Dick finally arrived after a brief hiccup. The airlock door was nonfunctional, apparently due to someone jamming one of the doors with some kind of object at some point. They'd had to cut it open with a laser torch.
A search team methodically explored the station while Captain Westin sent a preliminary report of the situation back to headquarters.
She then went down to the airlock to meet the returning search team.
"It's a puzzling situation," said Serrano, wiping his brow. "No sign of the crew whatsoever."
"No bodies?" asked Westin in disbelief.
Serrano shook his head. "Not a one."
"So much for the starvation theory," said Westin.
"That's for sure," said Serrano. "They weren't low on food at all. In fact, when we checked the common area we found about 150 pounds of new ration packets fresh out of the ration packet processor."