First Chapter - The Wildering Ascent of Cobalt Avarus



Cobalt knew a few things about fire.

Specifically, that the danger it posed varied widely depending on the context. Campfires were pleasant, so long as one kept one's distance. On Old Earth, he’d been a practiced hand on the grill—fire was the primary ingredient in man’s most delicious invention, the medium-rare porterhouse. Open, uncontrolled flames ran the gamut from mildly alarming to panic-inducing, while setting fire to a buildings tended to pose a health hazard to its occupants.

In the cold vacuum of space, both with fire and generally speaking, things got progressively worse. On even the most state-of-the-art spacecraft trawling the infinite dust, fire spelled almost certain death. And on a colonization yacht, it meant the yacht was about to become the dust’s most efficient crematorium.

So when the first things Cobalt noticed after Ennervium hit his central nervous system like a palm full of pinwheels were searing heat and a blinding, flickering orange light, it understandably caused him to reflect.

The spaceship, he reflected, should not be on fire.

The fire twisted with a yellow grin. “And yet,” it seemed to say.

A trauma surgeon by occupation, Cobalt knew he shouldn't be concerned that the fire was talking, since the side effects of Ennervium included heart palpitations, diarrhea, mild hallucinations, temporary memory confusion, and (he realized quite suddenly and with some alarm) parkour.

Cobalt told himself that the anti-hibernation drug swimming hard laps through his aorta had nothing to do with his beating heart as he removed the IVs from his wrists. He scooted to the edge of the cryo-pod, clenched to keep from shitting himself, and pushed off. The metal clanged against the hardening soles of his five-toed vibra-shoes. He dropped to a squat to cushion the impact further, though his knees and ankles still screamed in protest. Thank the empty sky the Ennervium dulled the worst of the pain.

“Parkour,” he announced, because it couldn’t be helped.

The colonization “yacht” was an example of something given a name fit to be emblazoned on invites to fancy parties but showed up to them dressed like a hobo. You could call it a yacht all you wanted, but that didn’t make it any less what it was—a giant ferroplastic dildo hauling frozen homosapiens in little containers attached to the sides of its hollow innards. Count on a stellar corp to strap a thermonuclear engine onto a metal phallus and market it as a luxury cruise.

Precise copies of the pod he’d just vacated stretched on for several dozen feet in either direction, packed tightly next to each other and lining the grated catwalk on which Cobalt now stood. He caught a glimpse of a face in one of the frosty viewports. He reeled, almost sending himself lurching backwards into the smoldering abyss, before realizing the face was his own. The sight of that standard space jockey buzzcut on a head accustomed to a full mane of meticulously groomed brown hair was jarring. His jawline had softened despite the best efforts of the pod’s muscle regulators. It still creased in all the same places when he clenched his teeth, at least. And empty sky, his skin was pale.

Then there were his eyes. One of them was a familiar hazel flecked with bits of gold. The other shimmered iridescent. Cobalt stared for two heartbeats at the bizarre development (Some side effect of the cryogenic stasis? A chemical mishap?) before cataloguing it for later consideration and shifting to the more pressing matter. Fire in a spaceship.

A quick inventory of the immediate area revealed his predicament.

Another two identical rows of pods stretched above him, and three below. Through a curtain of smoke, he glimpsed another wall of pods that perfectly mirrored this side of the chamber, with the notable exception that the better part of it was ablaze in tongues of ardent flame.

Ablaze in Ardent Flame would make a good band name, Cobalt thought.

Then he thought of the ones who hadn’t known they were falling asleep for the last time, and that people didn’t appreciate it when you acted flippant about their deaths no matter how certain or impending it might be. He knew that, because the HR department back at the hospital on Old Earth had made him sign a bunch of forms indicating that he did.

As for Cobalt, he didn’t think much about his own death, except to remember that someone on Old Earth was depending on him not to die. He still had labor left in him, and it would be spent making sure Orion lived to see her teens.

He blinked. The Ennervium lit up his synapses, and he remembered. That was it. That was why he’d let some corp-washed bootlicker pump cold hibernation into his veins and slingshot him halfway across the dust. He remembered how they replaced all the surgeons with ferroplastic and software, left him out on the street with a thank you and some paperwork outlining the steps to apply for basic income. Since he’d been displaced by automation, they said, he’d be taken care of. Then Orion’s diagnosis, and the cost of a transplant, and Cobalt had only one thing that would foot the bill—the balance of his remaining labor, signed over to a stellar corp.

In a sharp rush of clarity as the spaces between his brain cells were stitched back in place by the post-hibernation chemical cocktail, Cobalt remembered what it was like to try say goodbye to a four-year-old girl whose only chance at seeing double digit years was to grow up not knowing her father. Remembered it in crystalline detail, like it was fucking yesterday. Thanks, Ennervium.

Adjacent to the thought of Ennervium, Cobalt observed two additional unnerving details—the yacht's fire suppression hadn't activated, and he’d been the only one to come out of cryosleep. And since he preferred solving problems over remembering the look on Orion’s face or imagining what it would be like to burn alive inside a hibernation pod, he pursued that thought.

He needed to figure out a way to turn on the defective fire suppressors, he needed to know the extent of the damage, and he needed to know how the damage had impacted navigation and power. And he knew something that could give him all three.

Determined to not find out what fire looked like when it was exposed to a vacuum, Cobalt set off along the precarious length of the catwalk at the fastest clip he dared to find out if the giant space dildo came with a computer.

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