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Hope in the Long Dark

by Danielle N. Gales

part 1 of 2

Karen’s feet left the deck a moment after the light fizzled off and the steady, reassuring drone of the engine sputtered out. She was floating alone in the dark. Fumbling at her belt for the emergency light, Karen flipped the switch to no avail. “Oh, come on...”

Only two days away from her destination, the Elpis had died.

The cramped corridor was an endless sea of nothing. Reaching out wide on both sides, Karen touched the narrow bulkheads, stabilising and reassuring herself, I’m still here.

“Um, hello?” Her miniscule voice resonated alone in the dark.

She stilled herself and thought, Options, options: Core components run on auxiliary systems, a generalised hiccup shouldn’t pull so many systems offline all at once... Total failure of the main engine... No, no, the backups should have compensated within seconds... Scrubbers and O2 freeflow probably offline too.

She blinked sudden sweat from her eyes. Not worth dwelling on. Best to make back for the flight deck and hope that Jenkins could work his magic. For once, she was glad the Elpis was so cramped; hard to get lost in.

Spinning herself around slowly with cautious fingertips, she launched forward, not at all gracefully as in the training vids, but she’d never grown comfortable with the thought of all that digestive acid floating free. Flat palms out, she awaited the inevitable collision.

Her bare hands met the hatch hard, sending stinging needles up her wrists. A quick squeeze of fingers in palms, and then she was ratcheting the override, forcing the hatch open little by little.

“That you, Karen?” a deep, friendly voice issued through the crack. A faint green glow filled the flight deck and illuminated its single occupant.

“Can’t tell you how happy I am to hear your voice,” she said.

“Hold on, let me see if I can help.”

The stiff hatch groaned aside. Storn was reduced to a hulking silhouette before the mist of several scattered glowsticks. Karen smiled, taking his outstretched hand.

“I suppose this is where you say ‘I told you so’.”

“That would hardly be gentlemanly,” Storn said, a strong Norwegian accent filling the small space.

“Any more where those came from?”

Always ready with the low-tech contingencies, he grabbed another stick from his belt and spun it towards her. Karen snapped the tube, illuminating his square jaw and neat beard. She scanned the consoles: Silent boards... No master alarm... No flight control...

“Could be an EMP,” Storn said.

Karen shook her head. “All the way out here?” It can’t be, she thought. Or we’re already dead and don’t even know it. “So where are we at?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I was checking over the deceleration calculations when all the boards went silent. But that’s nothing... Look outside.” He indicated the forward viewport.

Karen choked a gasp. Nothing. Starscape replaced by impenetrable gloom. No engines... No course correction... No deceleration... Flying blind on pure momentum.

It had been a year since they had said goodbye to Earth, a year spent tumbling through empty space, alone. With each passing day, excitement and dream intermingled. Something unknown had been waiting for them, they all knew it when they signed on. It seemed they had found it.

Karen bit her lip. “Where are we?”

* * *

In the beginning, the Elpis had sat berthed in a bay twice her size. Karen shook her head at the sight; an ugly giant rectangular sleeper chamber with engines, cockpit and measly living quarters bolted on as an afterthought. For a suicide flight to Elysium, about the best that could be expected. Three hundred blessed lunatics bottled up in their cots, and a crew of four easily amused, glorified caretakers. Everything the job required.

She barely had a chance to shake her crewmates’ hands before they were ushered off. A perfunctory “Godspeed” from the Althaea Corporation controller and then they were rising into cloud-streaked blue.

On the monitors, the city was blighted by the immense Stazione Centrale di Firenze. The Hermes had been in the berth next to their own and would doubtless be away soon, off to join the multitudes calling Edenia Minor home.

Rachel was already aboard, no doubt.

Karen felt that unwelcome twinge: Oho, not now you don’t! Too late though; the ascent of the Elpis was pushed aside by thoughts of the day when dreams had dared come true.

* * *

Perched against the Shaftesbury Memorial, Karen had swept a few loose strands of hair behind her ear against the cool breeze.

A studious Althaea patrol car trundled past, eyes unseen, all-seeing. She stifled a curse; they were everywhere these days. Up high, giant Monico holo-boards squawked their mantra: Your safety is our priority.

Rachel was nowhere to be found amongst the throng of commuters and tourists. The sooner we’re away, the better. M32-597, the growing myth, Elysium, was out there. It may as well have been non-existent but for a couple of promising pings from the Europa deep-space probe before it went silent.

A garden world, verdant, rich in potential, free from prying eyes and greedy hands. Not enough to pique the interests of Althaea beyond a smattering of failed scouting expeditions. Besides, it was too far off the beaten path, too remote for a reliable investment.

For the few brave, desperate or crazy enough though, that same distance was worth risking everything. The promise of Elysium persisted in wistful dreams and whispered potentials, as if anything more substantial would crush the elusive legend underfoot: Throw away your life on me for a glimpse of heaven.

Ridiculous, reckless, irresponsible, but the one single hope she held for true freedom for Rachel and herself. A leap of faith, offered by one visionary, Jonathan Finch, who had the resources and connections to arrange the venture: three hundred people and change, heading out to join Althaea’s venture on Edenia Minor... At least, that’s what the paperwork said. The main chair is yours, Finch had said. If she could only get the license.

A touch on her shoulder made her start. Rachel greeted her with a warm hug and a quick peck.

“Sorry it took so long.” Sandy hair danced on her slender shoulders as she failed to conceal her warm, teasing grin.

Karen shook her head, laughed. Rachel was never good at these coy little games. “You got it, didn’t you?”

“I got it.”

Karen’s eyes widened. “Are you serious? We’re really going?”

“We are now the two newest holders of the colonial license.”

Karen screeched, grabbing Rachel in a tight embrace. Around and around they spun, tears of joy streaking their faces. The busy crowds, usually so careless and impersonal, swam around them respectfully. Cameras clicked and whirred. Another patrol car ambled along, turning into Shaftesbury Avenue. Karen didn’t care. Soon enough she’d be beyond their gaze.

* * *

The Elpis had left Earth’s atmosphere and departed Sol without incident. Free of the Edgeworth-Kuiper marker and following the steady comm-buoy path to Edenia Minor, Karen almost felt able to relax. They’d have to stick rigidly to the course for a little while before turning and going dark; a few more hours at least, just to be sure they’d slip any pursuit. Long enough to take in the sights, such as they were.

Karen unbuckled and stretched. The steady thrum of the plasma charge inductors continued through the deck; calm as it was inside, she could only imagine how fast they were plummeting into the void now, and they would be moving faster still before the fusion drive dropped to standby in prep for the turn.

Storn seemed able enough a navigator, if a tad... studious. She’d humoured him with his need to plot out the course manually; the Elpis might not have been the fanciest ship she’d ever flown but the navbanks should have proven reliable enough.

He’d have none of it though. She wondered, only half in jest, if he might not have a sextant stuffed away in his belongings. It takes a romantic, she chided herself.

Still her mind lingered on Rachel. Goodbyes said, job done, bridge burned. She decided a quick trip to introduce herself to the others was in order — anything but staring out the viewport at endless space whilst everything she had ever known dwindled into nothing behind her.

Wiry, bespectacled Jenkins ducked and weaved this way and that through the engine room’s array of banks, pipes and monitors, periodically fanning his face with a ragged Yankees cap otherwise stuffed sideways over unkempt hair. He tapped a pressure gauge, then jammed a screwdriver through a confused mess of spaghetti cabling with a curse.

How he made sense of it all was a mystery; the tight quarters, rhythmic thrum-thrum of the ship’s heartbeat, and blaring, hypnotic trance music pumping out of the stereo were enough to set Karen’s last nerve chattering.

“Could you turn that down a little?” Karen yelled under the cacophony.

Jenkins shrugged, pinching up his gaunt face and waving a hand by his ear. Karen moved in closer, only avoiding the trailing cables littered all over the floor through sheer luck.

“How can you even hear yourself think?”

“Think? This gig isn’t about thinking. It’s about feeling. Look around! I start making a habit of thinking about this place and we’re in big trouble.”

He sidled over to the stereo, quickly thumbing through tracks. “Every ship is different; every engine has its own pulse, its own rhythm.” His face lit up as a lively Cuban rhumba issued forth. “Ah! That’s closer now. Hear it?”

Karen’s turn to shrug. Luckily, he seemed to know his business, having already managed to fine-tune the Z-pinch charge inductors beyond spec.

Moving on, Karen threw open the small floor hatch and clambered down into the transitional chamber. She closed the hatch above her head and waited for the indicator on the lower hatch to signal the release of the hard lock. A green flash and skull-rattling buzz later, and she was gingerly descending the narrow ladder to the aptly named Nursery.

Row after row of sleeper pods greeted her, three hundred cots in all, gently nursing the future inhabitants of Elysium. The whole chamber was designed to be independent of the rest of the ship.

Sitting snug in a vast Faraday field, the Nursery featured uninterruptable backups for all vital systems. In theory the human cargo of the Elpis could go on sleeping for weeks after the rest of the ship had died, with just enough rations and O2 to see the ship’s doctor safe with them.

“I’d ask you to make yourself at home,” Doc Hardy said in a rapid sing-song patter, “but this place is homely enough already, and not in a comfy way.”

She brushed off a chair and wheeled it over. “So you’re our fearless pilot,” Hardy said. “Well, fearless or brainless.”

“A little of both.” Her gaze couldn’t break from the long line of sleeper pods, each a human soul, desperate enough to risk everything with no assurance of a happy ending. Through the thick glass of the closest cot lay the static form of an older man, sightless eyes gazing back at her.

“Finch,” Doc said. “The last thing he can be accused of is not walking his talk.”

Karen shook her head in wonderment. “Takes more than I’ve got to get into one of these things, never knowing if I’ll pop out again.”

“Of course!” Doc grinned. “You’re the pilot. You prefer the comfortable illusion you can actually do something about your fate.”

Karen arched her eyebrows. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“Fine. Up here with the rest of us? You’d like to think you’re running towards something, but chances are you’re running away just as much.”

“There’s no Althaea out there.”

Doc nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, we all know the stock story. Why else would three hundred people submit their fates to a loaded set of dice?”

“You make it sound like we’re dead already.”

Doc took a sip from a steaming mug. “Aren’t we? The only difference between us and the people in the cots is that we’ll see it coming. But don’t change the subject. Why are you here?”

Karen didn’t like the way this line of questioning was going. Truth be told, she’d been looking for a fresh start, both for herself and for Rachel. But now... Untethered, floating free, aimless. All the reasons she’d thrown caution to the wind rang hollow in her ears.

She rolled the unused chair back. “I’ll catch you later.”

Doc’s eyes narrowed. “Uh-huh.”

Karen ushered herself back up the ladder with haste. The Nursery was starting to creep her out.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Danielle N. Gales

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