Submitted into Contest #243 in response to: Write a story about a character who wakes up in space.... view prompt


American Science Fiction


The Shuttle

He opened his eyes and knew, immediately, that something was amiss; no headache, no blurred vision, no sluggishness of his central nervous system, no disorientation of any kind. With growing trepidation, he turned to his right and, swallowing his anxiety, gazed at his digital, countdown screen: frozen at 9 years, 5 months, 3 weeks, 6 days and 19 hours. He had been in cryosleep for just 5 hours!

What the f**k!

Glen Thomas, Commander of Deep Space Shuttle, Commodore V11, noted for his coolness under pressure, began to perspire and panic at the same time. Sitting up, dressed only in khaki briefs and t-shirt, he looked across at the other two cryogenic sleeping pods alongside him and saw the red, illuminated screens of his colleagues ticking down the seconds and minutes in perfect harmony, unlike his own.

Flight Engineers, Helen Jones and Matt Weitz slept peacefully inside their transparent cocoons, their body temperatures maintained at a perfect 32 degrees C, in a state of natural hibernation, heart beats slowed, hormones and composition of blood, breathing, cell replication and brain activity all altered for the next nine and a half years, when they would awaken as Commodore V11 reentered Earth’s atmosphere- as he, too, was meant to do. For some reason, his pod had malfunctioned!

As the man in charge of this mission, Glen had an intimate knowledge of his ship and understood that, once set, the timing device of a stasis pod could not be altered.

Nevertheless, heart thumping, he eased himself from the pod zone to the bridge of the craft, floating weightlessly, using his hands to push off bulkheads, hatches and overheads to reach the command centre of the shuttle where all typed modules relating to the workings of the ship were stored.

Breathing deeply, trying desperately to calm himself, he pulled down the tome that related directly to the cryogenic chambers and began to read. Within a few minutes, his worst fears were confirmed; the operational clock, once triggered, could not, under any circumstances, be recalibrated. For him, the ability to not age for the next nine and a half years was no longer an option.

Okay, okay. Stay calm. That’s not the end of the world, he told himself. Helen and Matt would get a shock when they snapped out of hibernation to find their commander almost a decade older than they remembered, sure. And life for him would be pretty damn unbearable in the interim but he could do it; would do it. Hell, he’d be a hero when they got back; maybe even secure a book deal.

Food! Jeez, he’d forgotten about how much sustenance he was going to need to make it through. These shuttles were not overstocked with nutritional products as the majority of travel time was spent in natural hibernation and space food, whether dehydrated, irradiated, freeze dried or thermo- stabilised, still added hugely to fuel costs for every pound stored on board. Time to calculate.

An hour later, having entered the nutritional info of every single item of food he had located in the shuttle into the command and data subsystem, including Helen’s specially packaged must haves, Cheetos, and Matt’s, similarly wrapped, Hershey Kisses, and allowing for a ration of 0.58 kilograms per day, he realised, heart plunging, that he had only enough fluids and solids to sustain life for just twelve months!

A year later, an emaciated, stinking, full bearded commander entered the pod zone for the first time in weeks. Initially, and for several months, he had checked on his colleagues several times per day but, as time had passed, he had limited himself to a once a week visit, the effort involved just too much for his weakened body. This time though, he had another reason for entering this part of the ship: the knowledge that, within the temperature controlled systems lay several litres of much needed water and he was going to figure out how to drain it. With all food having been consumed, although estimates were varied, it was believed that man could extend one’s life by up to two months living on water alone and there was no reason to maintain the perfect 32 degrees C that his hibernating colleagues were dwelling in.

The year had been the toughest of this man’s life. Having nothing to look at except the darkness of deep space that remained unchanged constantly outside the window of the bridge, nobody to talk to except himself, he had, slowly, drifted into semi-insanity. Unable to wash, shave or brush his teeth, with every drop of moisture being so precious, he had, knowingly, allowed himself to become a savage. Wild thoughts entered his mind and he would spend endless, comatose hours debating the rights and wrongs of each. Many, many times, he had considered cutting the power to his colleagues’ cryopods. If he had to suffer so, then why not them, too?

He had even thought about opening the pod of Matt Weitz and, while he was still disoriented, pulling him from his sleeping chamber and taking his place; sure that lifting the lid of the pod would not affect the countdown clock. But, always, the still rational part of his brain would win through and talk him out of this murderous act.

Many, many times, he had told himself that he should accept his fate, climb down into the sealed exit hatch bay and eject himself out into the void and, twice, had entered this part of the ship, fully intending to do the honourable thing. But, each time, something, whether an inbuilt survival instinct or a fatal optimism, prevented him from carrying through with his plan. He knew that he only had enough food and water to sustain him for twelve months; that death was inevitable. Yet, he could not quit; had to claw on to life, hoping, believing that a miracle might occur. His experience in space had confirmed him in his atheistic outlook and he did not, for one minute, give any credence to the existence of a God but, still, he found himself repeating the mantras that had been drilled into him as a child, brought up in a Christian household.

Now, as he drained the water from the tubing that surrounded all three pods, the brownish, foul smelling water seeping into the container he had brought here for this purpose, he looked, once again, at his two colleagues, sleeping peacefully, completely oblivious to the torment that he was going through and, against his better impulses, angry and envious thoughts flooded his brain. Why did his pod have to be the one that failed?


Breaking News

“We go now to Independence Square, NASA HQ, where NASA Administrator, Bob Nelson, is waiting to talk to us with the latest on the ill fated shuttle. Bob, thanks for coming on. What can you tell us?”

“I can now confirm, Mary, that our inquiry has shown, beyond any doubt, that the oxygen supply for the craft had defaulted and was responsible for the demise of our three brave astronauts”.

“Did they suffer, Bob?”

“No. All three were in hibernation, completely unaware of the system breakdown. They would all have died peacefully and painlessly in their sleep”.

“What about their families?”

“Well, none of our deep space astronauts are actually married, have children or are in relationships, Mary. It’s not something that is common knowledge but, I’m sure you’ll understand, they are away from home for a very long time. In this case, for example, Commodore V11 was on a twenty year voyage to Pluto and, while the cryogenic sleeping pods ensure that the occupants of the shuttle age only a year or two, the same would not apply to any relatives left on Earth. For that reason, we only train men and women who are prepared to forego a family life, at least until their later years”.

“Well, thanks for sharing that, Bob. Makes me wonder why anybody would want to put themselves through that though”.

“Mary, these are a very special breed of human; pioneers, if you like. They undertake only one deep space mission in their careers and they are expanding boundaries for the human race and, of course, they get extremely well compensated for it”.

If they survive, Bob. If they survive”.


Human Health and Performance (HH+P) Medical and Clinical Unit Secure Ward, Johnson Space Center

“Okay, doc, let me have it”.

“Well, there’s no way to sugar coat this, Bob. Deep space, deep psychosis. It’s that simple”.

“Is he coherent?”

“Depends on what you mean by coherent. I can understand what he’s saying but that doesn’t mean he’s talking a whole lot of sense. He’s cognisant of his actions and, in many ways, as repulsive as they were, he was simply reverting to the human’s inbuilt instinct for survival. Throughout history, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar happenings where cannibalism has been a last resort. That plane crash in the Andes, for example. If they hadn’t made that choice to eat their former comrades, those guys would never have survived...”

“Difference is, doc, their comrades were already dead. Commander Glen Thomas chose to eat his living colleagues. Big distinction!”

“So what now, Bob? That’s the fourth time this has happened in recent years.”

“Well, we can never let this get out. It would decimate our entire deep space program budgets. So you know what to do, doc. Same as before. Just make it painless for the poor sap”.


March 28, 2024 01:43

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Patricia Casey
18:06 Apr 01, 2024

Hi Charles, Wow! Your ending was a surprise. I guess we never know what we're capable of until we are tested. Good suspense throughout your story. If you use Roman numerals, use the letter 'I' instead of the number 1: Commodore V11 should be Commodore VII. Patricia


Show 0 replies
Mary Bendickson
16:07 Mar 28, 2024

Extreme measures, indeed.


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.