They had an old phrase back on Earth, ‘starving artist.’ Before I left the surface, neither term applied to me remotely. Now, I sit here at the ship’s bridge under flashlight, stewing in the knowledge that I’ll starve to death before week’s end. There’s no preventing it, barring a miracle, and miracles are scarce, especially when nobody knows you need one. I figure I might as well fill out the archetype. I’ve got a terrible eye for illustration and sculpture, so that leaves the written word.
Just as well. I’ve got a hell of a story to tell.
Pulling the Plug, by Jade Avery
It took me a few tries to pull myself out of stasis.
My eyelids would slowly drift apart, and I’d feel an itch surrounding the chip in the back of my neck. Then I’d look down at the tubes inserted at the crook of my elbow, which carried nutrients and anti-degeneration solutions, and I’d pass out. My squeamishness nearly doomed me to a grounded life, but the crew of the scavenger ship Matador needed a pilot. And a pilot I was, if little else.
There was a single red flash in the pod, and I expected an alarm to blare, but that never came to pass.
It was curious that nobody prevented me from falling back into stasis. Emergencies excluded, one could assume that their sudden rise from torpor was initiated by another crew member at a scheduled interval. We rotated this way, splitting the longer voyages into digestible chunks.
But the datetime interface in the wall of the pod showed that I was coming to my wits nearly three weeks past due. So where was Callahan, the man meant to take my place?
My joints were stiff, my muscles struggling against an unseen force. To remove my oxygen mask and IVs on my own turned out to be the devil. I didn’t watch the needles tugging on my skin as I yanked them free, but my imagination did the trick. It was a good thing I’d planned ahead for such a moment. I sank down to the bucket situated beneath me, scooped my long black hair into a bun, and vomited spastically. Then, feeling empty, I emerged from my pod.
The Matador was carrying thirteen when I argued my way aboard, making me the fourteenth. We’d lost only Murphy between then and the last transition period. I was first down, so twelve witnessed the initiation of my stasis. The next transition period had apparently come and gone. As such, one in my position would expect to find eight occupied stasis pods and three wakeful watchers.
I walked the whole ship. I rounded the ring of pods below deck, peeked into quarters and mess, and at last took the lift to the bridge, all the while counting heads.
I got to two. Including myself.
Callahan was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the bridge, thoughtfully circling his thumbs against the smooth brown jacket laid over his lap. He did not offer so much as a glance of acknowledgement. Apart from his thumbs, his body was incredibly still. I’d watched Callahan deftly perform a number of complicated surgeries. He had a similar intensity about him there in his corner.
“Doc. Why didn’t you wake me?” My crackling, unpracticed voice echoed through the empty cabin.
Callahan’s tightening fists wrinkled the jacket. “There was nothing I could do, Ms. Avery. Nothing.”
There was another red flash, but again, no accompanying alarm. I dismissed this, believing it to be a malfunction of some kind. Callahan looked up at me as the red haze faded. His bloodshot eyes and sallow cheeks suggested illness of some kind. He had to be twenty or thirty kilos lighter than the last time I’d seen him.
I pressed a red button on the comms panel. The interface lit up and spoke with an insultingly sultry feminine voice.
“To cancel, release the button now. To send a simple distress signal, release and tap again. To encode a message, hold the button down until you hear a beep, then speak. When you are finished, press the button again to stop recording and send your signal.”
I held the button down until I heard a beep. I tried to sound authoritative and professional, but was undermined by a slight tremor.
“This is Avery, navigator and acting captain of the Matador. We are in need of immediate rescue and quarantine. Lethal disease on board, onset two weeks heretofore. Two survivors, one in stasis. All confirmed cases are deceased and have been ejected.
“Faulty fuel cell necessitated grounding and repair at the trial colony on Gliese-667Cc. Repair deemed impossible. The Matador was forced to remain grounded during a search for parts for the fuel cell’s replacement. Facts indicate initial exposure occurred on the surface.”
Another lonely red flash, this one dulled by welling tears.
“If you’re hearing this, please. While our oxygen is plenty, many of our rations have been compromised. We will not survive the month.”
Callahan was checked out, and the direct comms proved useless. All I could do was send out our steady, weak distress call, and if I’m being honest, hope to expire before the rations did.
I spent the next few weeks in solitude. I must have cleaned every surface two dozen times, but my worry that the virus still lingered somewhere on board never faded. The rest of my waking hours were spent waiting by the comms board praying for a sign that help was on the way.
The good food long gone, I resorted to the mealy emergency nutrition bricks. That is, until my body began to reject them. Soon enough I’d lost seven kilos, which was far too much for my short, wiry frame. Everyday tasks became difficult. I couldn’t understand it; my arms were visibly thinner, but hung a great deal heavier. It often felt like I was struggling against restraints.
All this was tough, but the worst was the neverending itch surrounding the chip in the back of my neck. I remember fuming in the aftermath of another red flash, believing the itch was the reason I couldn’t get any rest. Not true.
The ship was quiet, I realize now. Far too quiet for sleeping in.
I sat in the mess, counting nutrition bricks, performing the grim calculation of how many days I had left to live.
The intercom notified all hands--in this case, just mine--to report to the bridge. Finally, radar had picked something up. It was something enormous and straight ahead, according to the blinking indicator on the navigations panel.
I looked starboard through the grand oval window. It wasn’t the rescue ship I’d hoped for, nor was it an asteroid or anything else covered by my training or experience. It was an enormous black square, a shape discernible only by the field of lights it occluded. It was an absence of stars.
A flash of red light.
The absence simply widened out into a rectangle, but having been in the business a while, I knew instinctively what this meant. The absence was a ship, and it had turned to bare its cannons.
Two brilliant white bolts came out of the absence like shooting stars. Before I could get to the manual controls, the bolts collided with and scattered across the primary shield, rocking the ship on its axis. The Matador’s shields were strong, but a couple more hits like that would drain the fuel cell and leave the main structure vulnerable.
I’d undergone extensive training to remain calm in such situations, but I have to admit, I was a little rattled. Then again, eh. Needles were worse.
I took the Matador’s controls in my hands, said a silent prayer, and charged head on, weaving through oncoming bolts. The closer I came to the absence, the more dramatic were the movements required of the Matador. A moment came when the bolts arrived too quickly to dodge, and another struck the shield.
The lights on the bridge flickered, signaling the rapid draining of the fuel cell. Another hit would be fatal. I pushed the pitch control as far forward as I could, narrowly avoiding a bolt as the Matador cleared the bottom edge of the absence. Now gliding along its underside, I slowed down to scan for weaknesses.
I saw none.
Four apertures opened above, making way for long, clawed, steel cables, snaking out of the black like tentacles. Before I could reaccelerate, the Matador was in their grip. We were pulled into a blinding white opening and laid to rest in a sterile hangar. Figures cloaked in red emerged from a sliding door carrying long black rifles.
Unsure of what to do, I ran to wake Callahan. But when I opened his pod, he was missing. There was another flash.
I turned around, and a red cloaked figure was upon me. He lifted the butt of his gun and thrust it into my forehead. As I fell unconscious, there was a moment of relief. I’d been so tired for so long.
That’s when things got strange.
I awoke feeling a bit dizzy and weak in my quarters on the Matador. There was a deep red hue to everything, letting me know that the main power was off, and the emergency protocol had kicked in. Indeed, I followed a foul smell to the engine and found that the fuel cell had shattered.
The itch at the back of my neck was unbearable. Don’t play with your chip. That had been drilled into us since we were young, but I couldn’t help it. I went to scratch my neck, but before I could, my fingers collided with something cold and solid. I felt around--it was a cylinder of some kind, maybe the size of my forearm.
I plodded over to the mirror and looked at it sideways, but there was nothing there. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it. I yanked the cylinder away from my neck.
In the doorway between seconds, I remembered the absence of stars, and suddenly I was no longer aboard the Matador.
I was sitting in a cave, small enough that the flame of the lamp at the center of the room danced against every surface. I looked down at my limbs, all but one of which were entwined in slimy red tentacles. My free hand was hovering behind my neck, holding--I looked back--a tentacle dripping crimson. My blood.
I looked around the room. One, two… twelve men and women in the same position, all of them prune-like from being drained. I fought my way free of the tentacles and crawled over to Callahan, removing the tentacle embedded in his neck, but it was too late. He was cold and blue.
Emotions are useful in space travel. Fear keeps you safe, guilt and shame keep you honest, so on. At that moment, they wouldn’t help anything. I reached up and double tapped my chip, and the emotions subsided, and I knew what I needed to do. It was a sort of last resort.
I sat back down against the black cave wall, grabbed the squirming tentacle, and set its suction cups back in place.
After I had returned to the Matador and double tapped my chip again, the emotions came rushing back. They were too much to handle; I had to get them out somehow. That’s what I’m doing now, on the bridge, under a flashlight. When I'm done, I'll go down to the stasis pods and rest a while.
It’s quiet here. Too quiet for sleeping.
All I hear is the soft scratch of pen against parchment.
There was another red flash just then, so quick I almost missed it by blinking.
That's how I hope to go.