Peter M Howard ::

wintermute.com.au

A Scifi Prologue

28January2013 [writing]
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I’ve been trying, recently, to write more fiction, something that’s difficult to do in a long-form. So I’m trying more of these shorter pieces. The following was written in a single setting, in a loose stream-of-consciousness form. Certainly I didn’t map out what I expected to happen, so the story caught me by surprise. That writing style means it’s a little messy in parts, but it’s short enough to work, particularly informed by other scifi tropes.

Now that it’s out, it feels like it’s just a prologue to something longer (and scarier) rather than a short. But without knowing when I’ll get back to this particular universe, I thought I’d at least publish this as a tease. Enjoy. And if you think you know what happened, please share, ’cause it’s a mystery to me!

Prologue

We’re light years from the nearest system. The crew sleeps while I work. I like to think I watch over them, but really, the ship does that. I’m just here to potter about and see that everything remains in order. I follow the same routine every day: check the crews’ vitals, twenty souls in all, unchanged as ever; count stock and check water levels, as if they could change when I don’t eat or drink; check the colours of the algae farms; and on. It’s meaningless, but it’s my purpose. I pass the time with my chores, I read, I listen to music.

I like to access the libraries of my crew — my own taste in music is narrow, but I feel I can learn more about the humans individually if I can understand their own strange tastes. Today it’s 20th century dance hall music, yesterday 21st century chamber musics.

The navy only allows me twelve hours awake in a standard day. I take half that or more to complete my chores. At the end of my day, I return to sleep — I power down my body, return my mind’s cycles to the ship.

But today, for no apparent reason, I wake mere minutes after I’ve gone to sleep. The shock of waking in a paralysed body is painful at first, but power returns to my limbs quickly. I hear an alarm, realise it’s my own voice, screaming. I sit up, pause to recover.

Something is wrong, but I can’t tell what it is. The ship isn’t responding to my commands, nor showing me diagnostics. Dim emergency lighting comes on. This worries me even more — I’ve been working in the dark for months on end. The light is only necessary for the crew.

The crew!

I run to their quarters, the path illuminated. I yell for the ship to explain. No response.

The door to the crew’s quarters is closed. Strange. I always left it open. It doesn’t open on my request. My feet are getting wet. I look down. A pale blue liquid is leaking from under the door — life support.

I punch to break the glass over the emergency override, pull the lever to release the door. It pops open a couple of centimetres. The skin over my knuckles torn, I reach into the gap and drag the door open.

Inside it’s a mess. Two of the life support pods have burst — the casing shattered, fluid leaking everywhere, the bodies reduced to emptied husks, their souls departed.

I survey the room. No sign of any damage to the other pods. But also no sign of what caused the two to fail so spectactularly. The ship is still not responding.

Satisfied that the remaining eighteen still live, I make my around the ship to look for damage, or sign of what’s going on.

All of the ship’s read-outs are blank, so it takes me longer than usual to make my rounds. But everything seems to be in order. Some of the water and nutrient levels are lower than they should be, but I assume that’s happened in response to the life support failures. In any case, with 10% fewer lives to sustain, we shouldn’t have a rationing problem.

My circuit complete, I return to the crew’s quarters to clean up. The two bodies are incinerated, and most of the spilt fluid can be recycled once it’s treated.

I wipe down all the room’s surfaces, checking for any further cracks or leaks as I go. Everything’s intact, the eighteen bodies still suspended correctly, life signs balanced.

It’s only as I finish cleaning up that I realise the ship has come back online. It’s not talking to me, but its indicators all read normal.

«Where have you been?» I ask.

«What do you mean?» it replies, indignantly, if that’s possible. «You’re the one who’s failed to check in at the required time.»

There’s no reasoning with ships.

I play it back my record of the last day. At first we have translation problems — out timestamps don’t match. I reset my own time to that of the ship, wait for my systems to catch up to the sudden change in time. Our records still don’t align, but I attempt to map them out in some sort of logical order.

It seems the ship detected an unclear but large object approaching us from the side — the physics of which is impossible, at the speeds we’re travelling — and initiated first level emergency procedures. It attempted to wake two of the crew. Its next memory finds me in the crew’s quarters with two dead bodies.

The ship thinks this doesn’t make me look good. I’m more worried abut the ship’s ability to wake the crew. We carry slightly more souls than is strictly required for our mission, but that’s based on an assumption that some may not wake up entirely correctly — not that we lose them in transit, or that the procedure itself just fails!

The ship scans the space around us. Not a ripple in the gravitational fabric. It’s light years back to command, or on to our destination. We can only choose to move onward.

But I’d also like to test the life support system — make sure we can actually wake the crew, in controlled conditions. It’s no good continuing and finding it’s just me and the ship carrying out our mission.

There’s no reasoning with the ship.

So I’m sending this message back to Command. I’m dumping my logs, and appending this request: What would you have us do, sirs? With your permission, I’d like to wake Lt Kaie, with backup life support at hand, to verify the procedure. Request also confirmation of Reference Universal Time. I anticipate response within three reference days.

Andr. Lt Stephens 912-AGX-4

Aide’s note appended: While it may be an unexpected artifact of relativistic travel, both the ship and its android appear to have lost nearly three months standard time.

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