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Science Fiction Sad Suspense

Captain Silas Mart felt his bare feet press firmly on the ground. He knew the sensation well. Reinforced steel that fit together like a nice hardwood floor. He took a deep breath of the stale air that felt like metal shavings in his lungs. Crisp, sharp, and painfully dry. The room felt cold, but not miserably so, still he couldn’t control the violent shivering that suddenly swept over him. He didn’t resist the urge to rub his arms on his elbows to warm them up. Waking up from Cryostasis had come a long way since its advent, but it still was a far cry from anything considered a luxury. His standard-issue one-piece, grey jumper hardly made a sound from it’s wearer’s rapid motion, that seemed to be the only thing it was good for. Not breaking the complete and utter silence on the ship, save for the intermittent metallic warping spikes that shot hurriedly, but gently, through the main structural supports like the sounds of a distant star fight. Probably, meteor strikes on the bow. A 6000 foot intergalactic human ark is prone to getting struck by a stray rock from time to time.

After a few chilly moments, he finally and very carefully opened his eyes. His eyelids cracked and popped as the ice broke away from them and the skin slowly flexed. The cryosis room looked the same now as it had 100 years ago when he had entered it last. An assortment of grey hoses hung from the ceiling and connected into random parts of the walls. Most led to the wall directly behind him where a tall, cylindrical pillar rose up from the floor. The anti-grav chamber where he had slept for so many years.

He instinctively reached for his watch that sat next to the picture of his two daughters. For a brief moment, he hesitated at the sight of their picture, but he quickly dismissed the haunting thoughts of his own inadequacy that threatened to consume his entire mental space. Need make sure I haven’t overslept. Need to complete the mission. What? Dead battery?! He frowned, the salesman had explicitly told him this watch was good for 5000 years. Even in the 53 century, a ship's captain can’t get any good technology. Even those blasted tourist ships have A.I. hologram assistants. He muttered under his breath as he began suiting up for the death watch. A knock at the door caused him to hurriedly finish tucking in his ancient, worn-down, white shirt. While finishing throwing on his jacket, he activated the motion sensor for the door.

The dulled metal panel squeaked noisily as it opened, like a chair being dragged across a polished floor, causing Silas to cringe. A cheery girl, dressed in a similar garb as her captain and as thin as the worn-out bristles on his 60-year-old comb, skipped into the room. Her apprentice seemed, for a moment, almost overexposed. He rubbed his dry, sensitive eyes which crackled under the pressure, then her image stabilized. Her dark brown, double ponytails bobbed synchronously with her excited motion. Though her face was as pale as the northern star, her expression glowed as vibrantly as an aurora from the legends of ancient Earth. 

 “Awake, alive, and Ready to start death watch, captain.” she saluted sloppily as she almost stood at attention.

The Captain groaned inside. 50 years experience on a starship and he’d been put on an intergalactic cargo mission with a bunch of cadets. He rubbed his temple in frustration. The Earth high command trusted him to get the last ship off of the trashed planet and to the new colony in Augmus 9. Everyone left on earth was dying of radiation poisoning. They trusted him to do it no matter how difficult the circumstances because no one else could do it. No one including competent Bowmen. And he was going to do it despite his crew.

The large, brown eyes of this sprightly young orphan, rushed into this thankless position before her time, stared up at his, waiting like a sad puppy to be acknowledged. He tried to force a smile which came out more as a scowl. Sighing dejectedly, he returning her salute respectfully, “Well, I don’t feel very alive this century. Let’s get a move on.”

The Captain strode past the cadet, fighting to hide the pain that his knees were causing him at that moment. The young crewmate skipped lightly next to him as they entered the main passageway.

“Do you at least remember what to do this time, K’tau’la?” The captain asked gruffly.

The girl frowned as she desperately searched her empty mind for the answer to his question. Then her expression exploded into happiness once more as the simple instructions came racing back to her “yes, oh, yes I remember! We need to check our status at the bridge, then walk the ship and inspect it for any damage to make sure the ship is running correctly while everyone sleeps. ‘Cause the center for galactic traffic control mandates a human check the systems every 100 years.”

“That is correct. They do. Which is the worst. But that’s beside the point. Is there anything else you think we should check?” Captain Silas shook his head as he rounded the corner onto a central pathway to the bridge.

K’tau’la bit her lip anxiously, “ah, well, check the software, ah check the hardware, and ah check the…. Oh, you said it last time.”

“Check the cargo? Maybe?”

She smiled in dawning realization, “oh yes! We need to make sure the cryo-bays are working correctly.”

“There we go. Easy as that.” The captain frowned, but not at his poor crewmate. This tunnel connected almost every major room in the ship, making it so well-traveled that divots had developed in the floor from eons of pedestrian traffic. Automated lights should have come on by now. The only light in the metallic passageway glimmered came from a white dwarf star that shone through the transparent ceiling. The captain scowled more deeply. They shouldn’t be passing this close to something that dense. He picked up his stride as he marched toward the control room. Probably some unmapped, rogue stellar body that had drifted into their path. Nothing to worry about. A quick thruster burn on the deck side and they should be well clear of that. Unless.

The captain waved his hand over the sensor to the door. It also squeaked violently as it opened. K’tau’la grasped at her ears at the harsh noise and looked at the captain pleadingly.

“I know, Maintenance should look at them, but they only wake up every 600 years unless there’s an emergency.”

K’tau’la trotted into the spacious, semi-circular bridge and began flipping switches and pressing buttons. This is probably the only thing she was good for. Those rotten Earthian schools didn’t teach much in the way of common sense, but they sure did drill technology into these kids’ heads. Lot of good it does ‘em, robots could do this anyways if we had the budget. The Captain walked up to his red chair in the center of the room. Not a speck of dust sat on it. It looked like it always had. His heart filled with pride in memory of the great battles he had fought sitting in that chair, “I love having perpetual air filters.”

K’tau’la muttered something under her breath and sprinted over to another control panel.

Captain Silas plopped down in his chair as he turned and grinned at his subordinate, “did you hear that, K’tau’la?”

She glanced up at him with a worried expression. Captain Silas sat up and grasped the hand rests as if what he was about to hear would blow him out of it. If he had learned anything from working with this girl, it was that she never looked worried, “what is it, crewmate.”

She continued to look at him bewildered. Slowly she spat it out, “sir, what year is it?”

The beginnings of a knot crept into Silas’s throat, “5731, exactly 100 years since we last woke up to do this nonsense last time in 5631.”

She shook her head. 

The holographic display directly in front of the captain flickered to life. His stomach clenched, “This can’t be correct. Restart the system.” 

“I have, three times actually. This is the correct year.”

Captain Silas rose to his feet and roared, “You Cannot Tell Me we have Overshot our Destination by 1200 years, and Expect Me To Believe It!”

The girl trembled by the control deck. She clenched her hands together as she tried desperately not to cry. “That’s what the computer says. We are also dangerously low on electrical power.”

Captain Silas pointed to the navigation console, “check our position.”

The girl quickly complied. A map appeared on his screen.

“This isn’t a sector I recognize. Where is it?”

The map zoomed out a moment later showing the surrounding area. Augmus 9 came into view. Thousands of light-years away from their current position. Had the stasis chambers really failed to wake them up? What had happened to them? He looked up at the poor, inexperienced crewmate, who was wiping a tear from the corner of her eye with a bony hand. If he was worried, she was petrified. Silas regretted that he had raised his voice at the child. Taking a deep breath, he calmed his voice before trying to calm her.

“Look, this isn’t the end of the world. It’s possible one of the power couplers shorted and our cryo-cell clock power depleted. We were lucky enough to pass this star and solar recharged the clocks. That’s it. Starlite command section 93 states that a ship must carry enough reserve fuel to correct for an overshoot or an oversleep. This kind of thing happens all the time.” His voice became more confident the longer he spoke, “All we need to do is wake up Maintenance and they will get the cryo chambers fixed. Maintenance’s chambers can’t fail. They are the most important staff on the ship. And just like that, everything is fine. It’s not like anyone in Augmus 9 is expecting us considering we’ve already been on this rotten ship for 3200 years.”

K’taul’la nodded and stood up straighter, “right, so nobody will care if we’re six hundred million years behind schedule.” Her lower lip quivered slightly, but she had begun to recompose herself.

Captain Silas stood from his chair, “My job is to protect this ship. As long as we are alive, I promise I will keep you alive, I will keep this crew alive, and I will get us to Augmus 9 on time.”

K’tau’la jumped up and down and clapped her hands giddily. Captain Silas resisted the urge to slap his forehead. He turned sharply and headed down the corridor to the cryo-sleep cells.

Maintenance was on the far side of the ship, With the power dangerously depleted, it would probably be wisest to go on foot. Still, they walked briskly down the hallways. When on a galactic voyage of this length and magnitude, it didn’t make sense to try and get there any quicker by running. The captain’s joints were old enough that he didn’t care for that kind of activity anymore, anyway. A couple hours in the span of a millennium made no difference.

“We’re going to pass cryo bay 2 and 7 on our way down. We should stop and check in on them, save us the trip to this side of the ship. The sooner we can get this mess sorted and I can get back in my cryo cell the better.”

K’tau’la nodded and the two-headed down a smaller tunnel to cryo bay 2. This time, the double sliding bay doors opened noiselessly as they should. Captain Silas stepped into the bay and marveled at the sheer size of the space. He had stepped into bays like this for going on 5000 years and he had never gotten tired of seeing the people in his care sleeping peacefully. Unlike his vertical cabin, each one of these pods was horizontal, more like a bed, stacked on top of each other into great towers that reached into the heights of the ship. This room housed thousands and thousands of small pods, glowing blue from the light of the dying dwarf star and the other twinkling stars from the endless expanse of space. The towers stretched from the skylights four stories above the catwalks at the very bottom of the ship four stories below. Captain Silas wandered into the room and imagined all the passengers waking up at the end of the trip. That thought put a smile on his face

K’tau’la called the captain over, her voice filled with worry once again and sounded stretched in concern, “captain, I don’t think I’m checking the diagnostics correctly on this cell.”

Captain Silas wandered over and crouched next to a pod at floor level that the poor cadet was trying to check, “what seems to be the issu-” his voice trailed off as the screen turned bright red. A single word appeared on the display that caused his blood to run cold.

“No, no, no, no, no.” The captain frantically rebooted the pod. The fan quit running and then restarted with a grinding whirr. The system rebooted. The captain carefully followed the steps to check the biometrics. Red flooded his vision for a second time. He rushed over to the console and entered his security clearance. He knew it would drain power, but he had to know. The next pod in the line slowly booted to life, flashing the manufacturer's logo. After a few seconds, it too turned red. And then the one next to it, and the one next to it. Like clockwork, screens came to life and then changed to red. From skylight to support floor, every single display flashed red.

K’tau’la let out a small whimper as the room gradually filled to the brim with the eerie blood-red light. Captain Silas couldn’t believe his eyes, “we need to get to maintenance. Now.”

Without another moment passing, the two rushed into the hallway. Silas booked it to the nearest transport station and jumped in. K’tau’la raced right behind him, her face streaked with tears. Silas booted up the transport and plugged in the coordinates. As the transport capacitors charged, K’tau’la swooned and collapsed against a wall.

Silas crouched down next to the girl, “Crewman, get a grip on yourself! We are the only souls on this whole blasted ship who can do anything about this. We have to remain calm and collected. Do you understand?”

K’tau’la tried to blink away her tears, “All those people… And under our watch” she was becoming hysterical. The transporter finished charging and with a brilliant flash of light, they arrived on the other side of the ship. Silas bounced up and down on his toes as he desperately waited the 6 seconds it took for the doors to automatically open. Without wasting another, he rushed into the maintenance bay. The two ran across a large hangar filled with random bits of this and that, from metal posts and exterior paneling to replacement toilets and communication equipment. Despite the hangar having a large glass view out the rear, the ship had slowly drifted so far away from the star that the light barely illuminated the door to the cryo bay on the other side of the room. Silas waved his hand over the sensor frantically like he was waving at the president of Augmus 9 for a promotion. The doors slowly creaked open. He rushed in. Without a second thought, his heart sank. The pods had cracked open at some point in the last millennia and the stasis fluid had long since leaked out and evaporated. There was nothing left of the Maintenance crew save a single pacemaker and a few fillings. Silas wandered back into the storage room like he had been hit in the face with an electro spanner. 

He plopped onto the ground and stared out the back of the ship at the star that steadily continued to float away from them. K’tau’la sat on the ground next to him and stared at the dimming light, like some kind of mixed-up sunset in those prehistoric western movies.

“Are we going to die?” Her shaking voice barely held a tone.

He looked back at maintenance’s failed cryo-cells. The rusty doors, the pods, his watch. A haunting conclusion began to dawn on him. The clocks on the bridge were broken. They hadn’t been trapped out here for 1200 years, It had been much, much longer. He took a hard, long looked at K’tau’la. Her outline shimmered like she herself was emitting light.

In the fading light of the dying star, he reached out his hand to his crewmate, “Take my hand.”

The timid girl stretched out her’s. Their glowing hands passed right through each other. Silas felt his heart kick as he tried to force back a tear. K’tau’la slowly came to the same realization and looked at him with confused, distressed eyes. He shook his head. There was nothing he could do. He had promised that while they were alive they would save the ship. He hadn’t lied. The lights slowly began to dim in the ship as the solar power faded in the absence of the star’s light. K’tau’la wiped her eyes and glanced back at the tired, old captain. Her tired, old captain. 

With one final glimmer of hope in her childlike eyes, she smiled, “I guess I’ll see you when we pass the next star, sir…” she sloppily saluted her captain as her holographic projector slowly powered down and her image scattered.

The captain smiled, “till the next star, my friend.” As the last glimmer of his artificially preserved consciousness faded, a single thought rushed through the microprocessor. Next time, I won’t fail.

August 19, 2021 03:29

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2 comments

John Hanna
01:58 Aug 26, 2021

Great story Jacob! I like the way you use words. I find simple lines like - Red flooded his vision for a second time - thrilling. The story was good, the spelling and grammar are good, the flow was good and the ending got to me. There is one small thing - you mentioned 1000 light-years like that was a long way. It certainly is but intergalactic travel is way, way, way more. Great writing!

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17:23 Aug 24, 2021

Wow, that is a really good story.

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