[Cosmic Horror/Sci-Fi] The Further We Soar Into Madness by Jordan Anderson [Part 1/3]

in fiction •  2 years ago

NOTE - I figured for my first Steemit post, I'd give out a free story from my horror fiction collection titled The Things That Grow With Us, available here for purchase. It is too long for one post so there will be separate posts to get all of it in. The other parts will be linked at the bottom of this one. I hope you enjoy it.
NOTE NOTE - There may be some formatting mistakes as I had to go through the entire thing and format it for this medium. Don't judge.

The Further We Soar Into Madness [Cosmic Horror/Sci-Fi]

"At this horror I sank nearly to the lichened earth, transfixed with a dread not of this or any world, but only of the mad spaces between the stars.” —The Festival, H. P. Lovecraft

"Mr. Jamison?”

From one of the three red cushioned chairs in the dimly lit lobby of the Pratt & Rochester building, a young man glanced up toward the voice. The neon blues and oranges of the datapad he held in his lap shined like a kaleidoscope in his piercing eyes. He stood, clicked the datapad to sleep and slid it into the leather bag hanging from his shoulder. He did not respond to the inquiry but simply walked toward its source at the south side of the lobby.

The light on the wall just above the elevators illuminated with an off-hue orange. The young man could see the woman who had spoken his name standing underneath. As he approached, she took a breath before beginning her spiel.

“Mr. Jamison, on behalf of us here—”

“What floor?” he interrupted.

The practiced expression on the woman’s face was stunned momentarily. When her expression threatened a sour look, the young man’s indifferent gaze did not falter or lose its focus. He simply stared at her.

“Uh, oh, uh, right. Yes. This way, please,” she stammered. Her words and her movements were frantic with a type of anxiety that set the young man’s irritations on fire by proximity alone. Being near any individual void of real confidence was like listening to a baby scream at the top of its lungs. It was like being near someone sick with a type of infection, like one could smell it on a person if one paid attention. “You’ll be meeting with Mr. Rochester, himself. He personally handled your father’s estate.” She reached for the elevator buttons and the fake smile had returned to her face when she looked back to him. The button labeled ‘23F’ was the only one lit amongst the dormant rows of plastic bulbs. At the bottom of the panel, below B1 and B2, was a button labeled LIBRARY - C12 ACCESS ONLY.

There was a ding and the doors opened. The young man followed his escort into the elevator. His expression did not change but the fingers of his right hand extended and contracted at his side and his teeth ground the entire way up. When they reached the top floor, he didn't wait for her but simply stepped out of the elevator and moved toward the large oak door at the end of the hall. The woman followed quickly after.

“Here we are, Mr. Jamison,” she said, speaking as if he wasn’t already moving toward their destination. “This is Mr. Rochester’s office. If I may, can I get you anything to drink or someth—”

The young man reached his hand out, turned the knob and stepped in. He shut the door and the woman’s face disappeared along with her voice behind him.

The man in the chair on the other side of the wide oak desk was already watching his guest over glasses that sat low on his nose. He wore a white button up shirt with a dark red tie. In his hands, he held what appeared to be some old parchment, laminated for preservation.

“Ah, Edward,” the man said. He removed his glasses and motioned to one of the two leather chairs in front of the desk as he stood. “Please, have a seat.”

The young man did not move but remained where he was just inside the door. He regarded the man standing behind the desk with a calculated gaze. After a long moment in which only the air conditioning whir and the patter of rain on the windows was audible, he spoke:

“You must be Rochester.”

“That I am, good sir!” The man moved around the desk toward his guest with his hand extended, gold rings glinting on his middle and ring fingers, accompanied by a wide greasy smile on his face. “Walton Rochester, son of Albert Rochester, the very man who started the original firm over forty—”

“I don’t care.”

The man stopped in mid-step and went silent, his hand still extended for a brief moment before slowly lowering. His expression was one of surprise, then of irritation. “Now you listen—”

“No, you listen to me.” The young man’s eyes were vicious, almost predatory. “I don’t give a fuck how many clients your firm has or what font the letters of your name are on the side of the building. A series of phone calls and I could have you on the corner of Welsher Avenue begging for street change by lunch hour. I am here for one reason and one reason only. You know who I am. You know who my father was. Do not waste my fucking time.”

A tense silence lay between them in the air. Rochester looked stunned. His mouth moved a few times as if he were going to say something else in retaliation, along with his face exhibiting no less than five different expressions. After a long pause, he sighed and nodded with a forced smile. “Yes, Mr. Jamison."

A few moments later, Rochester's assistant left a small safety deposit box on the oak desk as well as three folders of various paperwork and files. Edward Jamison stood behind one of the two leather chairs, staring at the items that had been delivered and laid out before him.

“And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, Mr. Jamison," Rochester said, "but do not hesitate to ask if you need anything and, uh... I’m sorry for your loss.” At that, the lawyer cowered out of his own office, gently closing the large door behind him.

The room fell once more into silence and Edward remained still. Behind the ornate desk, wide panoramic windows looked out over the damp sprawling metropolis. Rain flowed in streams down the cold glass. The sky was grey and overcast and the other skyscrapers in view appeared monochromatic in comparison to the warm glow of the wall lamps inside the office. The carpet below the young man’s shoes was a deep blue and the walls were painted burgundy, with various achievements and certificates framed and hung on either side of the entrance at his back. He moved around the front of the first leather chair and sat down, eyes still fixated on the grey world outside. For the greater part of a minute, he let the dull overcast light saturate his sight, feeding his stimuli with a cold meditative comfort.

The latch of the deposit box clicked loudly before he pulled open the lid. Laying against the bottom of the container was a manila envelope and on top of that was a data card and an object wrapped in a thin magenta cloth. The piece of fabric was smooth to the touch and practically dripped off of the object when he picked it up, revealing what was actually two items concealed by it: a small stone sculpture of some kind and a large amulet, encased in worn gold and attached to a rusting necklace chain. The gem in the center of the amulet was immaculate, glinting deep emerald green in the low office light. The small stone sculpture was brown in color and the rock it was made of was porous, ancient. The shape roughly resembled that of a human skull except that it was missing the jawbone. Instead of two normal incisors among the few that were etched into the thing, it had a single large one that protruded from the center of the mandible under the nose like some long fang. It was a depiction of a type of deformity or some imaginative dogma. Edward placed both the amulet and the stone effigy onto the table next to the storage box then removed the data card, turning it over in his fingers before placing it on the table as well.

The manila envelope was sealed with a hardened splotch of black candle wax, emblazoned with the relief of his father’s ring. He recognized the image of the ram’s head from which familiar horns spiraled and the wax crumbled as he ran his finger along the inner flap, falling in bits to the table below. He slipped his hand into the envelope and returned with a stack of handwritten pages bound together with a hard plastic clip. The pages were crisp and the handwriting elegant.

It was his father’s handwriting.

He removed the clip and tossed it onto the desk. Before he read the words on the pages, Edward let his fingertips glide over the indentations in the paper from the writing. He glanced back over his shoulder toward the door. There was still no one else in the room, so he turned back to the letter and began reading.

Edward,
I hope that in the twists of my letters and in the slope of my handedness you may see only what I offer: honesty, and a promise of power no other can possibly give you. I admit that I was not the type of father a child needs. Not only was I neglectful, but, frankly, I had things of more importance to do. I didn’t claw my way through the grime of this fetid world only to be shackled by the products of my biological faculties. This is a world of chaos and any expectations held upon me are those of a society I do not care to address or be a part of. You may be the fruit of my loins but you have yet to show me your worthiness of the fruit of my labors.
I fear any other type of offspring would’ve thrown this letter into the trash by now but I know that you will still read on. I have always known you, Edward, even if our time spent together was intermittent. It does not matter that you spent much of your youth in private schools. I threw as much money as required at the best education I could find. Even outside of school, I tried to give you the freedom owed to a son of the Jamison house. Yet, I could always see it in your eyes, that same apathy that I, myself, have felt my entire life.
These petty wars between the East and New West are the games of children’s minds in adult bodies, of rats and of squabbling infants with no sense of existential relevance or evolution. This whole world is a stockade, writhing with the piglets of consumerism, victims to their own mammalian greed and animalistic instincts. Money, luxury, sex, status, fame... It means nothing without true power. I know you, Edward, because I know myself and I believe we seek the same thing. We seek an answer to the unanswerable. We seek purpose in a world without it.
What would you say if I told you there were things much older and more cosmically relevant than money or notoriety and that I could show you the Path that leads to a true destiny? Where does one even begin when attempting to explain the unexplainable? How does one describe the color of the void or the smell of the vacuum? Alas, it will be a difficult endeavor, for certain, but an endeavor I will take nonetheless for, if anything were to happen to me, in you rests the immortality of our bloodline.
After founding Dynam Industries those years ago, I have invested my life and sacrificed much to achieve the level of knowledge that I have, to find meaning behind the seemingly mundane subsistence of this life. I have spent endless nights reading sensationalist “accounts” of occult knowledge for any bit of truth. I have poured over antiquated texts and spent a fortune on artifacts that are hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years older than we are.
It has finally paid off and I believe it’s time to make you aware of my true work.
My son, I have found our pilgrimage.

The airlock that led from the main corridor of the crew quarters into the room labeled LONG SLEEP CABIN hissed as it slid open. Captain Phineas Washington stepped through. The airlock slid closed behind him. Fluorescent lights above shimmered off the obsidian skin of his muscular chest and shoulders as he moved a towel around his body, collecting the sweat generated from an hour on the cardio bikes. It was the same routine he had done every morning for the last couple weeks, once he'd recovered from the atrophy. His tendons and joints had been sore, his bones weak and his head pounding, side effects of the long naps. After a few hours of cardio each day, though, and a couple of painkillers when needed, his body had begun to feel somewhat normal.

His mind on the other hand...

‘Phi’, as his old Navy mates called him, reached to the panel left of the airlock and clicked the fluorescents off. Except for the blue glow of the StatHUD screens on the front of each vertical cryotube and the cool pink radiance of the embryonic fluid in which the rest of his crew slept, the room dimmed into darkness. The captain stared down the middle of the two rows of bodies in liquid suspension.

It had been almost six months since he'd spoken to any of the crew, five months while he slept in stasis alongside them and three weeks since his own AutoVive process went off. It had also been six months since he'd had a drink... The only communication he’d experienced since having been awake was with Dynam Flight Control back home and even that was only scheduled for once every five days, per their established procedures. Messages took three hours to reach Launch Control from the distance they'd come, which was leaps and bounds ahead of the prior technology, but it still didn’t satiate his cravings for what lay back on Earth. He thought the conversation was what he missed but his heart had ached for whiskey. It was the only thing his body desired in order to stave off the inevitable succumbing to whatever it was that seemed to be knocking at his psyche in those first few days after he awoke.

There was a heaviness, too, he hadn't been able to pinpoint, resting somewhere on his heart or in his lungs, a physical manifestation of the unfamiliar life he'd awoken to find himself in. He’d kept a cool head throughout all of it until he left cryosleep this last time around, until he awoke from the mucosal glass tube to a silent ship in the dead of space. He couldn't say that he'd sobered over the long nap. He'd just existed in unconscious numbness. Initially, upon waking, it had felt as if he was animating someone else's body using a mind that still hadn't completely found itself out of the darkness that it had slept in. Sometimes, while performing evaluations or even taking a piss, Phi's mind slipped back into that numb darkness and he knew that void somehow. It was recognizable, something that had left traces of itself inside of him during the cryosleep, maybe even existed from before those months spent dormant. Some days, it crept back into him like a warm death, intoxicating as well as terrifying, creeping along the musculature under his skin and behind his eyes and in the contours of his flesh.

Phi had done the long naps a half a dozen times during the supply running for the military but never for more than a week or two at a time, and only on the extensive trips for the occasional distant delivery. In the black of the vacuum, if a man found himself in confusion, or irrationality, he could regurgitate everything he'd been taught about the universe and space and physics in search of respite, in search of a way to weather the storm of unearthly nothingness and confusion. The truth, however, was that he had no clue as to what influences were truly at work out here and what kind of effects these influences could have on a consciousness suspended in artificial sleep. Though his losing consciousness and regaining it felt to be no different of an experience than those other previous times, in the aftermath of this one he felt something else. He wasn't only plagued by that which had come with him from Earth. He was sure something else had found him out here.

An hour ago, the alarm went off from the datapad on the stand next to his bunk. It chimed with an alert that today was the day in which the crew was to have their AutoVive procedures initiated. These processes were on an automatic system if manual initiations did not occur. In the Naval Law and Astro-Maritime Statutes guidebook, however, the book that all captains were required to practically memorize in the Navy, it was recommended that every step of the AutoVive procedures for the standard crew are both initiated and overseen by the captain for two important reasons. The first was simple: liability. The captain's responsibility is not only to manage the ship and its crew but to maintain the integrity of the operation and the health of the people involved in it. Watching over a process as intricate as a multiple crewmember AutoVive was almost a necessity, no matter the advancements in automated tech. The riskiest step to all of it, Phi knew, was the initiation of the Captain's waking for, if something were to go wrong, no other crew member would be conscious to help.

The second reason for the captain overseeing the process was a bit more complicated. Even with the latest technology, the effects of cryosleep still varied too greatly. Sometimes, the worst of it was mild nausea and having someone already there with a bucket to vomit in was necessary. Other times, it was atrophy or pinched nerves from the involuntary coiling of muscles and tendons over time. There was something else, a secret that the Mil-Tech giants kept hidden from not only the general population but most military personnel. Phi had never witnessed it himself but he'd heard of high level Navy intelligence having documented proof that a small but significant percentage of service members involved in cryosleep were going insane upon waking. The higher-ups in the Navy’s space program were well aware of this particular side effect. It had been mentioned in the contract they made the recruits sign upon completion of the academic program prior to employment, except that it was on page one-seventy-four of a three-hundred page packet, with about a thousand places to initial and sign. It was apparent there were things they wanted buried in the intricate trappings of “legalese”. Instead of the side effect being labeled as insanity, the verbatim text said increased or altered emotional intensity.

It had all been a blur when he'd skimmed through his own copy of the contract back when he’d first joined but, frankly, he hadn’t given a shit. Whiskey had been in his blood, as it still was now, and his heart cried for it constantly. It had ruined his life or he had ruined his own life and whiskey was simply the vessel. Phi didn't think it mattered which was the truth. Joining the Navy at thirty years old was, at the time, his only idea to get sober.

This wasn’t the Navy, though. This was private work. After the shitstorm in Del Santos four years ago, when he'd punched his fleet admiral and received a dishonorable discharge, Phi had gone from being Captain of the cargo runner NSP Regulus, moving supplies and trade goods between the three major space stations (the ISS, the ATG, and the 8V out of Norway), to being unemployed, washed out and having nothing to show for it. Military pension would have been stable but they took that away when they kicked him out. The economy was horrendously inflated and had never recovered from the Debt Crash of 2023. The military had become the most stable employment for a citizen but that was no longer an option for him, unless he tried to join the UN Army. Phi had no intention of becoming a lackey for an oil-mongering organization but he also didn't kid himself, that even in the Navy, he knew there were secret motives saturating every mission and private money flowing like rivers behind it all. At some point, a man had to make a decision, though, no matter how late in the game.

The captain returned his gaze to the cryotubes ahead. Their pink glow almost shimmered in the darkness. The only other light came from blinking plastic buttons covering the wall behind the row on the left—stat monitors for the health of the ship, oxygen levels, energy consumption and the controls to maintain them.

There were four cryotubes on each side of the center aisle of the room but only seven of them had been occupied with inhabitants. The first tube on Phi’s right had been his own before the AutoVive process woke him. Though his faculties and state of mind seemed to have repaired themselves from the initial side effects, he experienced vivid dream states when he slept each day. He'd awoken from sleep many times these last few weeks, jolted and gasping for breath. His mind's eye displayed a reality in these dreams, one in which he was stuck inside the cryotube without an oxygen mask, the pink liquid watering his vision and suffocating him.

He was the captain. There was no one there to help him.

Phi reached for the StatHUD panel mounted on the right side of the second cryotube. Inside was Natalya Sovikov, the 'Assistant to the Executive', according to her crew profile. Held in amniotic suspension with wires entering and exiting different places on her body, she looked peaceful despite the invasive life-sustaining paraphernalia. Phi punched in the release code and a whirring sound emitted from the base of the tube as the pink fluid began to drain into the grated slots below. It would be approximately three minutes before the tube was empty of the stuff.

He moved down the same row to the next tube and punched in the release code for the Flight and Navigation Specialist, D'Artagnan La Felios, the only crew member Phi had known from before. He'd met the man when he was stationed at the Joint-Spec Naval Base deep in the woods of northeast Canada, before his time on the Regulus. La Felios was in Radar back then. He was a goofy French-Canadian with a raunchy humor, a silly way with women and a laugh the captain couldn’t get enough of.

The final tube in the row was occupied by the Medical Examiner and Psychologist, Eilah Winthrope. Across the aisle was her husband and Systems Engineer, Jeffrey Winthrope, and next to him, Christoph Lansig, the other Systems Engineer. Phi entered the codes one-by-one to start the AutoVive process on each of them.

Back at the front end of the row, across from where the captain had slept for over five months, was the very man this flight was funded by. Floating unconsciously, with veins visible throughout his lean pale body, was the CEO of Dynam Industries, Harold Jamison. The man had hawk-like features and, even in his sleep, appeared to carry a look of discontentment and irritation. The wrinkles on his face did not indicate years of laughter but decades of irritation and malice.

They didn’t bother to tell Phi how they knew so much of his background when they called to offer him this gig. It had been three years since he'd been in the captain’s seat of a ship. Dishonorable discharge... Funny thing was, instead of sobering him up, it only made things worse. Instead of realizing that punching the fleet admiral for making a comment about Phi's very real alcoholism was a bad decision, the event seemed to simply occur without his own conscious thought. After being discharged, Phi drank himself out cold each night that he could. The hours they were giving him with the pipe-laying crew had been dwindling and many of those nights were spent with the old man he knew very well, Old Jack Daniels. More often than not, he'd work the entire morning still drunk from the night before. Then he received the call from the recruiter at Dynam.

Even after bringing up some of the less-than-honorable mentions of his past, they wanted to see him and were offering a decent sum of money just for hearing out whatever proposal they had prepared for him, five hundred dollars just to go to the interview. It was that night that Phi poured the rest of his whiskey down the drain, but not before taking one last long swig of the old man to remember him by. Decisions made in order to save himself were just as easy as decisions made to destroy himself, especially when it came to alcohol. Self-destruction was just as much a part of him as self-preservation and the waves of his life seemed defined by spans of time in which he had given in to destroying himself, events that showed truly how lost he could be, how broken he really was. He was moving into his mid-forties now and yet he wasn't sure if he'd ever come to fully accept that aspect of it all, the part that sat hungrily in the deep recesses of his soul like an addict, shaking and slobbering as it waited for the next taste of that sweet burning misery.

Jamison’s assistant, Sovikov, had Phi sign packet after packet of paperwork (standard liability contracts and reiteration upon reiteration of the non-disclosure agreements) before beginning to even speak of their proposal. Severe legal action for any misconduct was threatened on a few of the pages he was required to sign. He always thought that he had well established standards for the type of work he would and would not do, the questions he would ask about the morality of the tasks he was given, but it didn’t matter the company emblem on the side of the ship or the product in the cargo hold, not anymore at least. Work was work in a time when decent employment was scarce, especially in the nonmilitary sector, and getting to captain another ship was a chance he didn't think he'd get to have again.

The first hour of the interview was spent reviewing his history, just him, Ms. Sovikov and her stack of files. She had a list of talking points ready beforehand, praising him (eleven years as Captain of the NSP Regulus, certification in all four standard AstrOS architectures, excellent flight aptitude at the age of fortytwo, plenty of training and experience in emergency ship handling). There were others that weren’t so flattering (parents deceased, no kids, divorced, discharged from the navy for assault, alcoholic). A part of him felt ashamed at the time, especially because 'alcoholic' being the last on the list seemed to make it stick in the air more. It breathed more. However, he had simply nodded in agreement and occasionally responded with Yes, ma’am. He thought for a moment that she was simply listing the reasons as to why he wasn’t what they were looking for and began to prepare himself for a denial. She eventually moved on to the mundane details of his childhood, education, work history outside of the military. And then, right at the end of the hour, the door to the interview room opened. That was when Phi met Harold Jamison for the first time.

Europa... That was their destination.

Phi tapped the code into the keys of Jamison’s StatHUD display and the radiant pink amnion drained from the tube in which the tycoon slept.

The mess hall of the Artorius was on her port side, imbedded in the aft quarter of the ship. A long window with retracted blast shutters looked out to the dark sea of space. Phi sat at one side of the octagonal table in the center of the room, closest to the Med office doors, and La Felios, Lansig and Jamison sat on the stools to his right. The lone halogen light above the center of the table burned brightly in the dark hall. The airlock hissed and then closed behind Ms. Sovikov as she entered, still drying her hair off in a towel. She sat to Phi’s left, between him and Systems Engineer Winthrope. Winthrope and his wife, Eilah, were mumbling low words to each other as they held hands and ate their protein soup.

Not many words were exchanged as the crew filled their stomachs. La Felios mumbled something about the instant coffee he was drinking but each of them kept to themselves for the most part. A few of the crewmembers still looked groggy. It didn’t appear to be anything other than the normal fatigue of extended cryosleep but Phi made it a point to keep an eye open. He was reading over the same mission report he’d read many other times throughout the last three weeks and he remembered having read it prior to mission launch but the words had barely registered back then. At the time, the paycheck was what he was concerned with... that, and getting back into a captain’s seat where he belonged.

His eyes scanned once again over the document glowing from the datapad's screen.

15:21 08.15.2046
To the crew,
First and foremost, welcome aboard the Artorius. This ship has been part of a project of Dynam Industries and its subsidiary joint operations for over twenty years. It is a labor of love, of passion and, most importantly, of man’s continual need for exploration, to throw himself into the unknowns of reality beyond his wildest imaginations for the sake of life, itself, and spreading our conscious experience. She’s the second rendition of our Solar-Sail transport prototype, equipped with both launching and relaunching capabilities, due to the thrust-recycling technology onboard. I couldn't be more proud of her or the team that helped build her.
You’ll find all of the details attached in separate documents to this message. Twenty-one days after launch, the automated dropship will follow us, carrying with it two more members of the Dynam team as well as the supplies we need to set up the secondary excavation dome.
We should count ourselves among the most privileged in all of time, ladies and gentlemen, for we are traveling to the far reaches of our solar system. Our eyes will bear witness to horizons no one else has ever seen. Ours will not be a public fame, though. Only we will know of our travels to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for the immediate future.
Fret not. We will make history. It’s simply all about the timing.
Sleep well.
H. R. Jamison CEO Dynam Industries

Phi sat there with the glow of the datapad pouring into his eyes. It played with his sight in the dark mess hall as he regarded the crew around him once more, observing the different unique lives and how they intertwined. The gravity of the mission he had signed up for, after all these miles and months of silence and sleep, finally settled into his bones then like hardening plaque. There were questions, unanswered inquiries he had about the inner workings of this whole mission. Sure, he had the ability, just as anyone, to put on some show or simply follow protocol in the face of fear or doubt. And, when he thought about it, Phi was sure he'd still rather be here than back on Earth. Back home, emotional debts came collecting quite frequently in the night and the bottle still waited, goading him into Old Jack's warm embrace. There was something about this mission, though, about all of this that Phi just couldn't place. He'd felt it the moment the interview with Sovikov had come to a close. There was some kind of tension behind every moment of those two following weeks leading up to mission launch and the inevitable cryosleep, like walking toward a guillotine that he had volunteered himself for. That was the problem, that the entire process was effortless and the steps seemed taken for him. He knew he was a drunk. What he didn't know was why Jamison had chosen him over any other captain or ex-pilot candidates from the Naval Veteran's Staffing Agency. In fact, he was sure that the Agency shredded the resumes of those who were dishonorably discharged.

Yet, here he was.

After being kicked out, he'd ended up back in southern Mississippi. The lines at the Unemployment Offices had been disheartening. He'd taken work where he could get it near his home town, doing mostly labor and construction. He rented a place in the trailer park near the gravesite where his mother was buried eleven or twelve years ago. Being able to visit her again was one good thing to come out of the whole mess, at least. It had been quite a few years since he’d gotten to come to her grave and talk with her. When he spoke to her in his mind, he said things like It’s alright, Momma. I’ll be with you soon enough, and sometimes he would smile because he could swear she heard her voice respond with It better not be any time soon, boy.

He heard her now. Phineas, if you don't stick up for yourself, them boys at school will never let you be.

A light chuckle escaped his chest.

"What's so funny?" asked a soft accented voice.

"Hm?" Phi glanced up from the mission report that he'd been staring at, not reading, for the last ten minutes now. Sovikov was eyeing him with something that looked like indiscriminate curiosity. Phi chuckled once more and clicked the datapad off before sitting back in his chair. "Your parents still alive?"

"No."

Her abruptness gave him pause, then he said, "Same. Funny thing, trying to remember them on a daily basis, keeping them in your thoughts and all that. Most of the time, it doesn't work. The memories... fade. But then, out of the blue, you sometimes hear some sort of response to your thoughts, or a memory of something they had told you at some point, more vivid than anything else."

They sat in silence a moment as Phi looked back toward the datapad and clicked it back on.

"Maybe that's just me," he mumbled.

Sovikov was silent for a long moment before her features relaxed a little and she said, "Who did you hear?"

Phi stared at the datapad, the words on the screen burning into his vision but he did not see them. His thoughts were elsewhere. "My mother. She was sassy but wise beyond anything I could imagine. Sometimes I remember what she says, and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I just see her face."

"When did she die?" Sovikov asked.

Phi took a gulp from the lukewarm coffee in the plastic cup in front of him. "A little over ten years ago."

"I was raised by my aunt," she said. "My parents were lost in The Conflict."

"Was your home near the Russia-Kazakhstan border?"

She nodded.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Phi said. And he really was.

There was only one war that people, even in the New West, referred to as The Conflict. The New Syrian Conflict had been the result of the Syrian Islamic State resurfacing back in 2026 and 2027 with more power, influence and weapons than any time in the last two centuries. Through a series of monthly, if not weekly, terror events, with casualties in countries like Russia, France, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Armenia, the earth had entered a neo-Cold War. Since then, Doomsday propaganda poured like bile from all media outlets, as if a great pustule had burst over the whole of everything and the human race had simply lifted their mouths to take their fill of the shit being fed to them.

Yet, how petty the conflicts of the world seemed this far away from it all. There was no propaganda in the dark of space, no law or enforcers of it, and yet strangely it wasn't freedom Phi felt out here. Every inch of the void around them crushed against the outside of the ship and would seep through any crack in the seams to kill them, sucking the oxygen from their lungs with the smallest chance it could get. They were human sardines in a tin can sailing across the ether, trapped among nothingness and death, real enemies, not those created by some hive of political rats.

Sovikov cleared her throat. "Well... My aunt's voice is what I hear at times."

Phi's own memories were a tether back to a home that never let go and he thought it might be the same for her. Maybe both of them were still ruled by the memories of the past and the ones they'd lost.

There wasn't much talk amongst the crew after that. Once the carb-loaded protein food had been eaten, they'd disbanded throughout the ship. The digital HUD interface embedded in the front of Phi's work station glared with blue and teal colored text and half a dozen mission files glowed up on the screen. He sat up from the Captain’s chair, tapping the HUD closed, and walked toward the thick glass of the front viewport. The shutters had been opened and Jupiter, massive and foreboding, was suspended in the black abyss ahead of them. The ancient Romans had named the planet after the king of the gods. Being so near its massive size, Phi couldn’t blame them. If only those ancient astronomers and philosophers could’ve seen it from this distance, been this close to it. The flowing storms of gas made rows of different colors across the entirety of its surface. Some of the storms were the color of rust, others white or grey or a sickly yellowish hue. The layers appeared like sediment, as if the planet wasn't gaseous but rather some gargantuan sphere of rock, perfectly cut out of billion year old sediment. And then there was the eye, the red-orange spot seemingly placed off-center by some crazed demigod supposedly the size of Earth. Phi tried to imagine himself on the surface of the giant, standing in the center of an Earth-sized storm. Its color was rustic and its ocular shape surreal. He wondered what it would be like to be swallowed by it.

This truly was a place for the gods, out here in darkness. Humans held no dominion in the black of this vacuum and, as Phi looked upon the king, he couldn't help but lose his thoughts. The sight of it vexed him. Standing there, behind the thick glass, he couldn't stop himself from witnessing its power.

What does it mean for knowledge to be ‘forbidden’? Can there even be such a constraint put on an abstract thing like knowledge?
After having spent much of my fortune and even more of my time into the study of an alternate path of knowing, one that could bring meaning and fulfillment and, more importantly, true power, I discovered something that had exchanged many hands prior to my own and, ultimately, caused the insanity of each who had held it before me.
I have searched through many books of the occult, of rituals and sacrifices, séances and incantations, but all were misleading... until I had found the book in the black Canadian forests. And within the book I had read such wondrous things, my son. The back cover of the tome was a slab of wood an inch thick. Embedded into a diamond shaped profile was an amulet. “The Eye of Blood” is its name, as I found out later. I’ve left you the sister piece, named “The Eye of War”. I will not mention the tasks I endured to obtain this other amulet, so simply understand that both are required for their part in all of this. Sacrifices have been made. Prices have been paid.

Edward’s eyes shifted from the pages he held in his hands to the oak table in front of him. The amulet lay on the cloth it had been wrapped in, reflecting the gentle lambency of the wall lamps off of the green stone in the center of the thing. There were ridges carved into the rough gold encasing, as if it had been put through some sort of machine, marring the edges with the scars of an unknown grinding.

Deep within the thick pines of northern Canada, your uncle Brenton and I tracked down the mossy ruins of a cabin, hundreds of years old and swallowed by the forest long ago. It was there that I had found the aforementioned book, hidden in the cellar under stacks of other literature. It was filled with notes a previous owner had written on the matter of the amulet embedded within, possessed by madness if the cadence of the writing was any indication.
In the margins of the pages, there were scribbles of ancient jewel-crafting, of cosmic forces and dark realms of forever shifting unreality. They must have been insane to make such claims of the unknown without connecting the pieces together. However, as I continued to read, I began to understand. I began to see where the ones who came before me had lost their way, where they had treaded upon the grounds of the Cosmic, yet did not truly understand what they sought as I did.
It was then that I realized that it wasn't simply that I had stumbled upon a process that would've occurred, regardless of the man who decided to make it his life's work to seek this energy. This was my destiny. The years of my life, of my experience and conscious will, were the other pieces to this puzzle. I understood then just as I understand now that it had to be me. The nights of reading book after book, translation after translation, the faith I had in my own will, to find the truth of it, served to place me in a position of knowing the True Path. You will come to know, as well, that our bloodline is the vessel to the awakening.
In the book, in the space at the end of a particular chapter, someone had sketched a pattern onto the page. The red ink had bled into the paper, with three lines parallel to each other while one streaked across all of them like the horizon. It was a symbol, the same that was carved into the gold encasing of the amulet in the back of the book—three lines with one crossing diagonally through them.
A man does not inherently become mad from exposure to the amulets or the occult writings. No, the men who held it before me undoubtedly went mad because they lacked the technology to reach the final destinations of the Path, to fit the final pieces of the puzzle together.
A specific scroll I had purchased, antiquated and fragile as a newborn, spoke of the 'resting place of the ritual, at the feet of the Lord's most faithful subject.' All of my research, up until that time, pointed toward the 'Lord' mentioned here referring to Jupiter, the Most High. Yet, Jupiter's most faithful subject was unknown to us. In my research, I studied Jupiter, both the mythological figure as well as the astronomical body. I studied the dozens of natural satellites of the great planet, especially the Galilean moons. Io, Ganymede and Callisto produced nothing of interest. However, I came upon spacecraft fly-by photos of Europa. There were images of the great rust-colored lashes across its iced surface, hundreds of miles long and tens of thousands of years old. I later discovered shots of the lesser photographed side of that moon and then another piece of it all fell into place.
Words cannot describe the feeling that came over me when I saw the pattern of lashes at her Jovian point. They were in the same shape as those drawings in the book, the same as those etched into the gold of the amulet's encasing.
Salvation awaits on Europa, Edward.
Imagine having the very key to immortal power resting in your hands only to see the final step is 365 million miles away... I fear that would drive any man to the brink of insanity and push him right over. The time in which we live, the capabilities of our technology, all point toward the fate of this endeavor being certain.
I am the one who will obtain this power of true cosmic potential. At the time of our exploration, I had neglected to tell my brother of my discovery of the amulet. I simply removed the backplate and the jewelry before sharing the texts with him. Being as arrogant as always, Brenton took the responsibility upon himself to pursue the only lead he believed we had discovered—the markings and notes scrawled in the books all pointed toward Europa.
As I said, though, each piece of the puzzle has its purpose.
Do you remember when your uncle Brenton left two years ago? Not that you were ever close to him but that was his final trip, Europa his final destination. He took with him the first version of our Solar-Sail transport, a ship called The Acolyte, along with 6 crew members and a vague idea of what he would find there. He thought that scavenging through ancient texts was my job and that the information he received was accurate and detailed. The truth was that I simply chose what information to give him, leaving out bits of data here and there that I thought would aid him too well.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother. He followed the Path in his own way, just as I did, but true power comes with true sacrifice and nothing will stand in my way, not even my own blood. You would do well to remember that upon my return.

The ventilation systems and pipes that ran along the rafters down the central corridor of the ship crooned and whirred with the recycling of oxygen and thruster fuel. The airlock to the Captain's Quarters hissed open and Phi stepped out of the room. His boots clanked against the grated floor with each step. When he reached the bridge, he was still tightening an arm strap on his H.E.T.E. suit.

D'Artagnan La Felios looked up from his monitor. “We’re about fifty minutes out from initiating the landing sequence. Trajectory is locked, pressures are stable, and we’re looking real good on the ATMUS. I’ve bounced our signal through the Kaliopi satellite and used its tracking data to establish our main route for descent. She’ll land just fine but, while we approach, I'm going to run through the sim once more.”

Phi sat down into the captain’s chair. “Thank you, Specialist.”

The truth was he’d barely heard what La Felios had said. His thoughts were rattled and preoccupied with something he couldn't quite explain, an experience he'd just had while back in his quarters. He'd been changing into the H.E.T.E. suit, had already zipped both legs up, attached the straps from the suspenders to the pants and was sitting on the bed, leaning over his knees and tying his boots up, when one of the buckles of the left suspender broke off from the strap. It flipped and clattered down onto the cold metal floor. Upon seeing this, he stood and moved to a small upper closet, the width of a medicine cabinet and about two feet deep. He knew there to be extra trinkets and clips for a myriad of gear in the storage compartments, so he moved to search through the closest one. The latch to the cubby clicked as it opened and, when he'd drawn the shutter back on the compartment, something flashed in his vision. The small amount of darkness in the overhead compartment vibrantly ebbed back and forth. Phi's faculties had locked in a stasis for a moment that felt like an eon. It wasn't in his physical vision that he saw the thing but in his mind's eye, as if staring into that little darkness opened a portal to the realms of his psyche. He saw the face of his mother, decayed in the box and dress in which they'd buried her. Writhing from the holes in her dead flesh were worms he'd never seen before, grotesque fat white things with strangely human-shaped heads that glistened in a sinister light, some indeterminate glare from deep in the heart of his nightmares.

The captain could still see it in his thoughts. The memory of the experience was still fresh. There was something in the space out here, in the void through which they sailed. His eyes remained cool and collected, staring out at their destination but under his skin was an anxiety, a tension that mounted as Europa and the almighty Jupiter grew within the frame of the viewport.

The airlock from the Maintenance Corridor hissed behind Phi and, when he turned a glance toward it, his eyes caught Harold Jamison’s as the man was stepping through the door. Jamison still wore his clothes and around his neck was a thick gold chain with an amulet hanging from it. It had a rough gold encasing in the shape of a diamond, holding a deep red jewel, much larger than any Phi had remembered ever seeing. Held in the man's left hand was the black handle to an aluminum case with the words DYNAM INDUSTRIES printed across the front of it.

Phi stood and extended his hand. “Mr. Jamison, did you need help finding your H.E.T.E. suit, or are you planning on staying aboard the ship after traveling all this way?”

“Captain Washington,” he said, meeting Phi’s hand with his own. “I apologize for retiring to my bunk so frequently since we’ve awoken but it has not been in vain. There is much research yet to be done. I trust your abilities have led us to our destination properly.”

Phi hadn’t realized until then that this was the first time he'd seen Jamison out of his bunk in almost three days. Jamison’s gaze was determined, almost savage, as he stared behind the captain, out of the viewport to the celestial bodies. When Phi's attention followed, Europa was well within sight. Though so far from the sun, this moon of Jupiter was still lit from its light with a brilliance he couldn’t think of how to describe. Great red-brown cracks, hundreds of miles long, crisscrossed over the icy surface in seemingly random patterns. At the bottom right of the moon, from their view, was the Pwyll crater. In Phi’s mind, a movie of its origin showed the meteor burning through the atmosphere, billowing mountains of fire rolling off of it before slamming into the great shell of ice. He imagined what that type of event would sound like from the distance they were at now, the cataclysmic eruption undoubtedly deafening all that would hear it.

Jamison's free hand had moved to the amulet dangling from his neck when Sovikov approached from behind and whispered something to him. He nodded and responded with, “Go ahead.” She moved back toward the central corridor, typing something into her datapad as she walked out of sight.

“In an email that should arrive momentarily, you will find a letter,” Jamison said loudly, still gazing out of the viewport. “I’d like you all to check it. I have done all of this, spent my fortunes on this operation, this ship, and the execution of this flight, but I’ve intentionally left out some of the details of this mission. It was too important up until this point to prevent the leaking of any of this. I’d like to fill you in on the rest of those details now.”

“What details, Jamison?” Phi’s voice was deep and accusatory.

Jamison retorted with a stern look. “Check... the email.”

Phi turned to his station, opened the digital interface and navigated to the email inbox. He didn’t like surprises and risking the lives of this many people, including himself, in order to hide the true motives of something as dangerous as a space flight wasn't something he'd agreed to. The last thing he needed was to be caught up in some sort of smuggling or human trafficking ring, or held ransom hundreds of millions of miles away from home.

A new message from Sovikov, N., on behalf of H. R. Jamison, with two attachments, glowed in the inbox. The captain expanded the email with a command into the keyboard. The first attachment was a picture of another angle of Europa. It was titled “Europa_sub-jovian_1”. Jupiter hung in the darkness behind the moon. In the far distance of the shot, the sun could be seen shining brightly. Otherwise, the picture appeared relatively unremarkable. The second attachment was titled “Europa_sub-jovian_2”. This one was the same shot, only it had some sort of thermal imaging filter over it. Everything in the picture was cold and purple, save for the white-orange heat from the distant sun... and a small blip on the surface of Europa, almost exactly on the sub-Jovian point.

“I have sources that were able to gain access to the Kaliopi data storage," Jamison began again, "as well as its onboard camera. We took the infrared capture just before the satellite moved around the other side of Jupiter on its last orbit. That is a heat signature of some kind on a world full of ice. It is no coincidence that our landing site is very near this... anomaly.”

[End Part 1]

Part 2

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