Hello there! Recently I started what I called “The Bad Idea Exercise,” in which I would write big long things that I knew I could never use, mostly because they were horribly contradictory to established canon, or because they were involving plot-lines that I’d dropped. I realized that doing so was actually sort of a waste of time and energy besides superficially improving me (much like real exercise). One thing that I really liked, though, was getting back to the way I’d written The Book of Deacon, which was largely a chunk-by-chunk writing process without any clear idea of what exactly should come next, just the vague sense of a few things I wanted to happen.
Then they moved me at work, and suddenly I discovered I no longer had the capacity to sneak some writing in on my lunch hour without jumping through some synchronization hoops. That’s just asking for trouble. So I brushed off two of my bad ideas, crossbred them, and wrote the result over two lunch breaks.
This is the beginning of a brand new experiment, no doubt destined to annoy a great many of you. From time to time I’m going to post a little snippet of a story. At the time I post an episode, chances are good I’ll have no more than one or two sentences written regarding how I want the next one to go. Chances are good I’ll eventually ditch the project, leaving the characters within to hang in limbo until I eventually decide to rescue it, but until then I hope you like my first Bad Idea Exercise. I’m calling it Between, and it does not currently have any ties to anything I’ve written… yet. ENJOY!
Philo opened his eyes. Everything around him was dark and still. He spent a few seconds trying to figure out if that was good or bad. Darkness and stillness aren’t the worst things to wake up to, all things considered. Fire and screaming, for instance, would have been much worse. However, since he couldn’t remember what he had been doing before he fell asleep, it was distinctly possible that darkness and silence were bad. He chose to be cautiously optimistic, at least until he remembered a few more details. Nothing major, just little things like where he was and his last name.
“Okay,” he said out loud, noting that he was able to speak and breathe–two more things to add to the “good” column. The sound of his voice had a muted, close quality to it, as though he was in the center of a very small space. “I am sitting in a chair.” He tried to stand, unsuccessfully. “Strapped. I am strapped in a chair. And I can’t see anything. Either it’s completely dark, or I’m blind. I’m going to hope it’s the first one.”
His arms were free, so he felt along his chest in search of buckles to release himself. By probing along with his fingers, he found that the straps holding him in place weren’t part of something as simple as a racing harness. They disappeared into the cushioned chair behind him. Whoever had done the strapping had been extremely thorough, too. Straps crisscrossed his chest and held each of his legs to individual leg rests. The only things with any freedom were his head and his arms.
It briefly occurred to Philo that awaking in an unfamiliar location, strapped to a chair, with no memory of how he ended up in such a state was the sort of thing that should at the very least make him nervous. He set aside that thought, reasoning that a lack of panic was just another thing to add to the good column. This good column was really filling up!
At either side of the chair were armrests, and along the front edge of one armrest was an array of buttons.
“Oh, good. Buttons. Those usually do things,” he remarked.
There were five buttons, one much larger than the others. He picked the big button and gave it a press. The straps released with a quick sequence of clicks.
“Right, strap release button. So that means I’m either not a prisoner, or I am a prisoner, but my captors are extremely trusting or inept. More stuff for the good column.”
He tried to sit up and immediately slapped his face into something. Whatever it was swung away when he struck it, then slapped him again on the return swing. He leaned back and grasped blindly until he found the culprit. It was light, roughly rectangular, and dangled from a springy coil. The front of the object was smooth, while the back had a matte finish. In his investigation, his fingers brushed a small button near the top corner which caused the glassy front to spring to life. It took on a dull glow that caused him to squint and turn away until his darkness-adjusted eyes could tolerate the light. When he could look at the screen without pain, he turned back to it. There were words, black text on a white background: Test Subject Philo Middleton: Post-Phase Instructional Materials. Tap to Continue
“Oh, good! I thought I was going to have to figure everything out on my own.” He tapped the screen. The text vanished, replaced by a video of an old woman with thick glasses. She was dressed in clinical attire and had short white hair.
“Hello, Philo,” she said. “You may be experiencing some confusion and disorientation. This is normal. Your faculties should return within twenty minutes. At this point, you may not remember me. My name is Darva.” Her voice was rather impressive in that it was entirely devoid of anything even resembling enthusiasm.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Philo said.
“If you are viewing this video rather than being debriefed personally by laboratory staff, then you have successfully advanced beyond the first phase of the experiment. On the leading edge of the right armrest of your seat you will find five buttons. Please depress the large central button to disconnect your restraints.”
“Way ahead of you, Darva,” Philo said, proud that he seemed to be overachieving.
“Depressing the left-most button should activate interior lights in the test capsule. Please activate these lights and prepare to perform a systems check.”
Philo squinted in preparation for the brightness of the lights, then pressed the indicated button. Two rings of light appeared, one above him and one below him, illuminating his surroundings. He looked around. It was certainly a very interesting place. The room was spherical, or at least as near to spherical as the designers could manage, and was maybe eight feet in diameter. Hemispherical metal braces divided the walls into slices like the sections of an orange. The wall behind them was covered in a strange, rough-looking black fabric. Strung between the braces were bundles of wires and conduit that connected various junction boxes and panels. The assorted gadgetry all had familiar shapes to them, but like most of the thoughts in his brain at the moment, he couldn’t quite wrangle them into the light of comprehension.
Next he looked down at himself. He was dressed in a white and blue jumpsuit. There were suction cups attached to his temples, wrists, ankles, and chest. Wires ran from the cups and connected to a medical monitor on the wall directly in front of him. To the left of the monitor was a rectangular door. No, it wasn’t a rectangle, because it was on the surface of a sphere. What was the name of a thing that would be a rectangle if it wasn’t on a curved surface? He mused about this for a few seconds, then realized that the video hadn’t stopped playing while he was admiring his surroundings.
“… Seventy-five degrees clockwise. This is crucially important, as failure to do so could result in stasis failure,” she continued.
“Whoa! Hold on Darva!” he said, pulling down the tablet screen and tapping it a few times. He was able to make it pause and start, but not rewind. As continuing to try to figure it out would only mean more missed information, he left it paused.
“Okay. Let’s finish looking around before we get back to pushy ol’ Darva,” he said.
He looked up and saw that the chair he was sitting in was suspended in the center of the sphere by sturdy steel struts; one stretching up from the top of the headrest and one each leading out from the four corners of the seat. It was actually a very comfy chair, far nicer than the sort of thing you’d expect to find among such scientifically-inclined apparatus. The very bottom of the sphere had a platform creating a small floor, covered with the same black fabric as the walls. He leaned over the side and noticed a few cases securely strapped to the floor, but while he was trying to read the labels, the rings of light started to flicker and fade. Just as he looked up to them, they cut out entirely, and a moment later red lights illuminated the capsule.
“Red… red light is bad. We’re putting this in the bad column. Talk to me Darva.” He tapped the screen to resume the video.
The woman on the tablet screen continued, running through procedures involving assorted control panels and mechanisms around the capsule that were blacked out and nonfunctional. Eventually she got to a sentence that was actually relevant.
“In the event of failure of primary power, yellow backup lights will illuminate…”
“Those are red lights, Darva. Get it straight.”
“… Emergency equipment and procedures can be found in the area beneath your seat. Beside it will be a panel displaying a fault code. Refer to the matching section of the emergency manual to correct the indicated fault. When you are ready to proceed, tap the right side of the screen. If you need to repeat this video, tap the left side of the screen.”
“You couldn’t have started with the emergency stuff?” he said, swinging the tablet out of his way and sliding from the seat.
He dropped to the floor. The cases strapped there were silver, and the color of the stenciled labeling was red, which made it very difficult to read in the glow of red emergency lights.
“I’m blaming you for this, Darva,” he muttered.
A bit more inspection turned up the emergency case, which was the size of a large suitcase. He clicked it open and found a small LED flashlight, a pile of sealed envelopes, and a few smaller cases. One of the envelopes was labeled Emergency Procedures. He tore it open and found a spiral bound Fault Index booklet.
“Let’s see here,” he said, eying up the area beside the cases. “Fault code, fault code…”
There was certainly a small, square panel where the video instructor had indicated, but there didn’t seem to be any code. Unless a complete lack of any visible information was one of the codes, which might make sense if it was a secret code. But if it was a secret, Darva probably would have been more coy about it. He shrugged and flipped to the index, reading aloud as he slid his finger along.
“‘Fault Code 01: General Relay Fault.’ … No, not that.” He flipped ahead. “‘Fault Code 1d: Fleisher Circuit Misalignment.’ Hope it’s not that. That sounds complicated. … ‘Fault code FF, or missing Fault Code.’ There we go.” He flipped to the indicated page. “‘In the event an unknown error occurs, the fault code will read ‘FF.’ Such a fault cannot be repaired from inside the capsule. Contact qualified technicians over the radio link located on the left armrest.’ Oh nice, a radio. Another one for the good column.” He read on. “‘In all other instances the display should read 00. The only exception is if there is a complete failure of both primary and backup power. This status can be confirmed by the presence of the red standby lights instead of the yellow backup lights. The emergency lights will remain illuminated for approximately five minutes after total power failure. In this event, gather the Disembarkation Kit and consult the dedicated Disembarkation Manual immediately.’ Well, at least there’s a plan.”
The next case down appeared to be the Disembarkation Kit.
He snickered. “Disembarkation. Sounds like a surgery for a noisy dog.”
Inside the kit was a variety of equipment: cold weather clothes, warm weather clothes, something that looked like a scuba suit, and the instruction manual for something called an “EVA Suit.” He looked at the diagram, which looked like a cross between a space suit and plate mail. The first half of the booklet was assembly instructions, indicating that when properly constructed, the contents of a pile of cases and bags occupying nearly the entire portion of the capsule behind the chair would form an air-tight pressure suit with propulsion, life support, and illumination.
He cleared his throat. “To assemble the EVA suit, first identify the bag labeled EVA Assembly Tools and Fasteners. Inside you will find a set of Allen keys, sixty M5 machine screws of the following lengths…'” He sighed. “This is getting dull in a hurry.”
The sheer amount of documentation was daunting, so he set it aside and flipped through the various pages and booklets looking for something interesting, or at least something he could comprehend. If the video instructor had been right about the twenty minute timeline for his ‘faculties’ returning, then he was a bit behind the curve. Either that or he was short on faculties to begin with, which seemed fairly likely at this point.
His search had turned up a few interesting goodies, including an audio/video headset, a 9mm pistol and a few clips, and a handy multi-tool with pliers. He was busy cataloging the many attachments the tool had–and bemoaning the fact that it didn’t have a toothpick or a corkscrew–when the emergency lights faded.
“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll get a move on,” he said, fumbling for the flashlight. He flipped it on and found the Disembarkment Manual again. “Blah blah checklist, blah blah EVA Suit. Blah blah suffocation.” His eyes widened. “‘If disembarkment is due to total power failure, care must be taken to escape the capsule quickly, as lack of power will prevent the life support system from processing oxygen.’ Now that seems like the sort of thing they’d write on the first page.”
Perhaps it was just the power of suggestion, but within moments of learning of the suffocation risk, the air around him began to feel stuffy and close. “Disembarkment procedure… page one of sixty!? Nope, we’re doing the quick version.” He flipped through the pages. “Ah. ‘To manually open the door, firmly grasp the central wheel, give it three full turns clockwise, then pull the lever toward you.”
He pinned the flashlight between his head and shoulder, then stepped to the door. There was a tag warning him not to open it until he’d completed the mandatory safety checklist, which he promptly discarded.
“I’m blaming you for this too, Darva. Next time make the important stuff more interesting!” He said.
The wheel was stiff. It took all of his strength to turn it. As he did, he gave himself a pep talk. “Okay, Philo. We’re going to open this door. You still don’t remember anything, but that’s good. No expectations means nothing is unexpected. Just get the door open, get some fresh air, and whatever it is, go with the flow.”
A loud grinding clank rattled the workings of the door as he finished the third full turn. He quickly pulled the lever and hauled the door open, revealing… nothing. Outside the door was nothing but a featureless void of white. He leaned out the door, holding tight to the grip opposite the door’s hinge, and looked down. The outside of the capsule was as spherical as the inside. There were assorted greebles speckling the surface–electronic nodes, looping wires, and spidery antennae–but for the most part it was nothing but a metallic ball not much larger than its interior. It also wasn’t supported by anything above or below. It was simply adrift in an endless, vertigo-inducing white space.
“Okay,” Philo noted appreciatively, “Didn’t see that coming.”
That does it for episode one. All I know is that episode two will have another character, and Philo will get bonked in the head. Thanks for reading!