“How about you start by telling me what happened the other night?”
Her pen hovered over the clipboard on her knee. I sat in a large armchair across from her that always sunk too low to lean back comfortably.
“I was in the airplane,” I began. Her pen scribbled. “Everything was fine at first. Then they closed the doors. I heard the airlock hiss and then the vents--” I paused. The scratching of pen on paper stopped.
“Then the vents turned on,” I continued. “You know, the ones that blow air above every seat? They say recycled air has no smell, but it does. At least to me it does. Dusty. Like old photo albums, or an attic, or…”
“Did this trigger something for you?” she asked as she finished writing down a sentence. I nodded.
“Can you walk me through that memory?”
I nodded again. “I can try.”
I was 28 years old and had been training with the space station for 15 years. They started us young to ensure the vetting process would take only the best. Out of 30,000 applicants from all over the world, only 10 remained. I was one of them.
That morning, I’d said goodbye to all of my friends and loved ones. We were set to go on a mission into deep space. No end date. No promises to return home alive. But none of that mattered. I’d been waiting almost half my life for this day and it had finally arrived. My hands shook so much on the elevator ride up to the hangar that I pressed the wrong elevator button three times.
By the time I reached the hangar, my other 9 crewmates were already getting dressed for the trip. The doors opened to a quiet room with everyone more or less concentrating on their own preparations. Maybe an occasional handshake or greeting. The thing about starting off with 30,000 trainees and narrowing down to 10 is that a lot of us had never actually met each other. Of these last 10, the only one I’d met before was Angel, and that was only because we shared a training session during our last year. She stood on the far side of the room in front of an array of space suits on the wall.
“Purple or cyan?” she asked, eyes on the wall.
“Purple,” I said. “It’ll go well with the dull grey of the ship’s walls.”
She smirked and grabbed the purple suit off the rack, tossing the cyan one to me.
The space suits made for this mission were different than the ones used for any other kind of space travel. They had to last longer and endure extreme temperatures unlike anything in our solar system. One of the side effects of making such a robust suit was that the helmet was completely opaque. Something about blocking out harmful radiation. So, in order to distinguish one astronaut from the other, the suits were different colors.
Pretty soon, all of us were suited up and ready. Our instructors had warned us there would be no time to get to know each other before the mission and they were right. As soon as the last person’s suit was on, the hangar doors hissed open and our lead walked us out and toward the ship. For now, we would address each other by our colors. Cyan, Purple, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Red, Green, Black, White, and Brown.
We filed into the ship one by one and took our seats in the navigation room of the ship. There were ten cockpits, one for each of us, each fitted with a navigation module. The ship was so large it had to be piloted by all 10 of us. Then, once in orbit, the ship required that all of us complete specific tasks every day to keep everything running smoothly.
“You look like a blue raspberry popsicle,” Angel’s voice buzzed in my ear. I turned to look behind me and saw Purple, who cocked her head and waved. I rolled my eyes and then remembering she couldn’t see me, tapped her name on the LCD screen on my suit’s arm to send a private voice message.
“You look like Barney The Dinosaur,” I said with a thumbs up.
The next voice I heard was that of our lead from the intercom above our heads.
“All right, crew. This has been a long time coming. You know your training. You know your mission. Godspeed.”
The voice clicked off and our cockpits came to life. The navigation modules in front of us hummed. Screens turned on. Restraints from both sides of my seat emerged and locked over my lap and chest. The ship beneath us shivered, then roared.
The rest of the launch was easy. Our training had been so rigorous that the real thing felt like just another training session. The only difference was that if I popped my helmet off here, my head would explode. Once we were in orbit and the artificial gravity kicked in, it was time to get to work. As I made my way to my first task, I noticed White was following close behind as well.
“Storage?” I asked.
I busied myself by filling up canisters with oxygen. White sat down at a station to upload data. I finished before him and moved on to my next task in the electrical room. One thing about the protective tint on our helmets was that it sometimes made it difficult to distinguish between colors, so the normally easy task of connecting wires together proved to be extremely annoying. It didn’t take long for someone to join me.
“Need help?” Purple tapped on my shoulder.
“Angel!” I said, grateful to have a distraction, “You finished with your tasks?”
“Getting there,” she said, “just wanted to make sure you hadn’t lost your marbles yet.”
I chuckled and finished connecting the last wire.
“Got it!” I said. “Well I seem to be doing okay for myself so far,” I started to move toward the exit when Purple stood in front of me.
“Oh? What’s next on the list, then?” she asked.
“Looks like…” I scrolled through the LCD screen on my arm, “Admin! So if you don’t mind, I’m gonna--”
“Hey, guys!” Red said as he walked in, “I didn’t get an invite to the party.”
Purple and I laughed then walked out together. I took a left towards the garbage chute. Purple went the opposite direction.
I walked into the admin room and checked the map to see if everyone’s suit was working properly. Cyan, Purple, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Red, Green, Black, and Brown. Wait, something was off. I counted again. Cyan, Purple, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Red, Green, Black, and Brown. 9 crewmates. Where was White? I just saw them in storage during my first task. Maybe something was wrong with their suit.
Just then, the room went dark. A red emergency light began to flash.
“Electrical failure. Electrical failure,” an automated voice from the intercom blared.
“Great,” I muttered. I could deal with White later.
We were warned that this ship was so large we might have persistent electrical issues. The fix was easy enough, just a simple switch on the breaker, but it was concerning to have an issue on our first day. I made my way to one of the electrical panels and out of the corner of my eye saw Purple sprinting my way.
“Whoa! Easy. I got it,” I said.
“What? Oh, right. Lights. Thanks!” she huffed.
I flipped the switches and the red lights were replaced by normal lighting.
“There we go. By the way, have you seen White recently? I checked the admin and it looks like their suit’s acting up,” I asked.
“I haven’t. Last I saw them was in the cockpit with you.” she said.
“Well, if you see them, let them know I’m looking for them,” I said as I walked out. Just as I turned the corner, I remembered I wanted to ask Purple advice on how to do one of my tasks that she excelled in during our training together. I turned around , but when I peeked back in the room she was gone. I was confused. There was nowhere to go. The room only had one exit. Had I just missed her? I stepped in the room to look behind the door and almost tripped on a loose vent grate on the ground.
“What?” I grumbled to myself as I kicked the vent back in its place.
The rest of the day went by smoothly, except I still hadn’t seen White. Throughout the day, I passed by Yellow, Brown, Green, and Black, and none of them had seen White either. It’s possible White realized something was up with their suit and fixed it. I went back to the admin to see if his icon on the map was working, but when I pulled it up, I only saw 6 icons.
Cyan, Purple, Yellow, Red, Black, and Brown.
Where were White, Orange, Green, and Blue? I navigated to White’s name on my communication device to send a private voice message.
“White? You there?”
“Orange please respond upon receipt -- it’s urgent”
Static. No luck for Green and Blue either.
I walked out of the admin determined to find them in person. I remembered that I saw Purple and Red in the cafeteria on the map, so I made my way there. I went to push the doors open but stopped to peer through the small window just in time to see Purple pierce a knife through Red’s torso.
My hands went numb. I froze, said nothing. The smallest sound would have revealed my location. I watched as Purple crouched next to the body and disappeared into a vent on the ground, out of site.
I knew Red was dead as soon as I saw the pool of blood. The moment I could tear my eyes away, I bolted through the doors, making my way across the room. I needed to get to the navigation room. I needed to turn this ship around, warn my leads on earth, warn whoever was left on this ship. I desperately tried to remember who I saw on the map in the admin. Purple, me, Yellow, Black, Brown...who else? There was one more. I charged into the weapons room and nearly bowled over Black, who was making their way out.
“Hey! Watch it!” they said
“Purple! Red is-- Purple got-- HELP,” I sputtered.
“Whoa whoa, easy there, champ. From the beginning. What’s going on?” he asked.
“PURPLE MURDERED RED,” I grabbed Black’s hand and yanked him into the navigation room with me, slamming and locking the door behind me.
“Hey! What are you--?”
“We have to get back,” I said, furiously pressing buttons and rerouting the ship.
“What are you nuts? We can’t just--”
I leapt back and shoved Black against the wall.
“LISTEN,” I hollered. He shut up. I explained everything I’d seen since the day started: that we were missing 5 crewmates, that they probably suffered the same fate as Red.
“An...an imposter?” Black stuttered.
“I don’t know”
“All those years of training…”
“Just for this,” I finished. Then I turned around and punched in new coordinates into the navigation system. “We have to get back to earth.”
“Cyan, wait,” Black said. “There are five crewmates left out there. We can’t just leave them like that.”
Without tearing my eyes away from the navigation module, I asked, “Black, what is our mission?”
“What do you mean?”
“Our mission,” I repeated. “What is our mission?”
“To return home safe as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible,” we said at the same time.
“If we go back out there,” I said. “We might not make it back.”
A moment passed. Then Black nodded. He took a seat next to me and fired up the engines. In order to operate the ship, the two of us would have to do the job of 10 people. I sent out the new coordinates and waited. Before long, the nose of the ship tilted. The engines roared. We were heading home.