Hope in the Long Dark
by Danielle N. Gales
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Over an hour in the void without change. The Elpis hurtled on.
Karen braced: any rung now. She descended the narrow shaft, hands and feet finding exaggerated purpose at each rung. Thick silence and sickly green light accompanied her every movement. Stuffed blind inside the vertical tube and dreading gravity’s sudden pull with each step, her only comfort was Storn’s heavy breathing several feet above her. A dim light beckoned below; the Nursery’s backups were doing their job. Karen blew a relieved breath.
“Well,” Storn’s voice resonated down the expanse. “At least we know what happened to all the other missions that came out here.”
“Some comfort.” Karen moved down a rung and felt the sudden unnerving tug of gravity. “Switch point’s here. Watch yourself, it kicks.”
Now under the effects of the Nursery’s gravity, Karen nimbly shuffled down the last remaining stretch of the ladder and into the comforting glow of halogen emergency bulbs. Doc’s unmistakable voice, raised in anger, pealed through the deck. Karen and Storn made their way inside and found Jenkins already present.
“Glad you two made it down here,” Doc said without turning her head. “To bring you up to speed, our dauntless engineer was just elaborating on his plan to use the Nursery backups to jump-start the engines. Just so we’re all clear, you’re suggesting bleeding the Nursery. How many cots do you suggest we switch off to bring the rest of the ship back online?”
Jenkins gestured wildly with his hands, eyes darting this way and that. “There’s no need to be so dramatic.”
“Who’s being dramatic? I’m asking for a simple number. How many are you willing to sacrifice?”
Storn stepped forward. “We don’t even know if it will make any difference at all. Whatever knocked out our power could still be affecting us.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Jenkins said. “I’m saying a few now or everyone later.”
“Out of the question,” Doc cut in, hands firm on hips.
“Do you even know what hypoxia feels like?” Jenkins asked, removing his cap to run a hand through greasy hair. “Auxiliary breathing units only go so far, if we’re even lucky enough to get that far before the heat drains and we become ice cubes.”
“Not if we stay in here,” Storn suggested.
Karen sighed. “We can’t.” All eyes turned to her. “Jenkins needs to be ready in the engine room, and someone has to be on the flight deck to initiate a restart.”
Jenkins sniffed. “Restart? What restart?”
“We’ve got no frame of reference for whatever this dead zone is, so I’m open to hope.” Karen ran a clammy hand over her forehead. Compared to the flight deck, the heat down here was unbearable. “I don’t know about everyone else on this ship but I didn’t come this far to lie down.”
Storn folded his arms and looked upon her with a curious expression. “I can do that on my own.”
“It’s my job.”
“Then we both go. Take some extra breathers, sit and wait.”
“Okay. If we get out of this thing, there’s no telling what’s waiting on the other side. We’ll all need to be ready to rechannel the pulse output just in case.”
It was settled, for what it was worth. Doc would stay put, Jenkins would head back to his engines, and the two of them would go back to the flight deck. Business as usual, but for the pall that hung over all of them now. Doc Hardy had been right; Karen didn’t like feeling powerless... Just as powerless now as she had been on that day Rachel had told her the truth.
* * *
“I thought we both wanted this,” Karen had said, motionless, blood draining from her face.
Rachel stood in the doorway, eyes downcast. “I did. I do.”
Home was a utilitarian shoebox lodged precariously in the outer ring of the Kent Arco. Garden of England indeed. Outside the window the sprawl stretched all the way to those no longer quite so white cliffs.
Their front room was a sparse affair: a ragged two-seat sofa, a blank glass coffee table and a large wall-mounted flatscreen, everything the modern economic unit needed, and none of it theirs. Karen couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to actually buy something; almost everything was rented, licensed, leased or subscribed to. Everything fed the hungry beast. She hated the place.
Supporting herself on the back of the sofa, Karen threw Rachel an accusatory glance. “Then what’s the problem?”
Rachel gave her a questioning look right back. “Come on. Elysium? It was a dream. A fun dream. But did you really think...”
Karen turned away, fingertips rubbing throbbing temples. Edenia Minor? Proxima Centauri? Just another couple of Earths waiting to happen. Sanctioned, safe outposts, always ready to funnel their treasures back home so Althaea could continue to hold the people by the throat. “What other options? To keep paying for the privilege of drinking treated water they wrecked in the first place?”
“It’s not that way out there.”
“But it will be!” Once they got their hooks in, they never pulled them out. Everything commodified, everything a figure in a ledger. Water, air, information. People themselves had become an expendable resource so subtly that nobody even knew it had happened until it was too late.
And there was only one way to opt out.
Rachel moved close, fingertips brushing Karen’s arm. “Just the two of us, remember? We can make our lives whatever we want them to be out there, even if we have to ignore the sign on the door. Are you really willing to throw it all away on a pipe dream?”
“You always seemed willing enough before. What changed?”
“I grew up. Maybe it’s time you should too.” The gentleness of her voice was horrible, almost pleading.
Karen trembled, her throat closing in, vision turning blurry. Stop it. She refused to let her emotions ruin her now. Fighting back the tears, she took a deep, shuddering breath and slowly turned. Sweet Rachel. This was supposed to be for us.
“Just promise me,” she said, taking Rachel’s delicate fingers in her own, “that you won’t make any decisions yet. We still have time. I can’t lose you.”
Rachel smiled that annoying, irresistible smile of hers. “You won’t, I promise.”
* * *
Away from the comfort of the Nursery and back on the flight deck, she felt the Elpis was ever more a tomb. No power, no heat, no air, no course control; but if there was one thing the Elpis had in spades, it was zero-G ration packs. Storn was gulping down his fourth in eight hours. Karen had managed half of one a few hours back, but her stomach still wasn’t settled enough for much more.
Now she sat with pencil and pad, the blank page in front of her refusing to be anything other than blank. Every time she dipped the pencil to begin, that same stray thought held her back. I made a promise. She glanced over to Storn, still merrily squeezing the ration pack dry. So passive, so unaffected, as if reality broke itself on that granite exterior.
“Did you leave anyone behind?” she asked.
“Hmm?” He swallowed. “Oh, no. Just me.”
“Nobody at all? Family? Friends? Nobody close?”
“Eh, only child. As for the rest, I’ve never had much time for it.”
“Oh.” It was the same story with Jenkins and Hardy both. She idly wondered if their cargo all shared similar stories. Shaking off her reverie, she put pencil to paper and laid out a rapid scrawl.
I know I made you a promise. I’m sorry. I’m stupid and sorry, and hate myself for it more than you could possibly hate me right now. This was all a terrible mistake, and I was an idiot for letting you go. If you read this, please don’t
The pencil stopped dead. She read it back to herself, squinting in the half-light. That just wouldn’t do. Not as if Rachel would ever read it anyway, but it wouldn’t do. There was little else but to sit and wait. Outside the viewport, the impenetrable wall gave no clue to its scope or magnitude.
“Dead zone, huh?” Storn glanced over towards her. “Sounds about right. I still don’t understand how I didn’t see this coming our way. How can we go from a starfield stretching out forever to this?”
“If it’s got a beginning, it’s got an end,” Karen replied. She hoped. “What was our speed when it hit?”
“A hundred thousand miles per hour, give or take.”
Karen nodded slowly. “We weren’t far off our destination when this happened. It has to end sometime, otherwise the Europa probe never would have transmitted back all those years ago.”
“So you’re thinking it’s just a matter of whether we can wait it out? That’s a big assumption.”
Karen sighed. Her breath was feeling short. She pulled the top sheet free of the pad, screwed it up into a ball and let it float free. “It’s all we’ve got.”
“It’s not much.” Storn barked a sudden laugh. “Always the optimist, huh?”
Karen smiled and nodded along. No, she thought, there’s a reason no other ship ever made it back before. And they all knew it. They all knew they were dead. But she’d be damned if she was going to prove Althaea right quietly. I’ll be damned if I’m going to break my promise so easily.
* * *
They had stood in the spaceport concourse short hours before departure, together for the last time. All around people buzzed and darted, hummingbirds in a gray metal garden, oblivious to all else in the world.
Karen didn’t have any words. From the pall cast over Rachel’s fine delicate features, she couldn’t find any either.
Karen sighed. “How did we get here?”
“Does it matter?” There was an acid bite on Rachel’s tongue.
“Not as sorry as we’ll both be once you get out there. It’s a one-way trip and you know it.”
This was going all wrong. Karen shook her head; she wasn’t going to do this again. “Take care of yourself.”
Karen turned, only managing one step before Rachel tugged her arm. She swung around to face furious green eyes turned liquid.
“Is that all you’ve got to say? Really? You’re going to die! I love you and you’re going to die!”
Karen gently removed Rachel’s hand from her arm, giving a gentle squeeze. Somehow, she managed a smile. “I have to see this through now. If I don’t...”
“I know,” Rachel said, running her free hand over her face and sniffing.
“I’ll see you again.”
“That’s not a promise you can make.”
Karen brushed Rachel’s cheek, wiping away tears. “I’ll see you again.”
With no further hesitation, she turned and walked through the terminal, not looking back. Rachel’s gaze burned a hole in her back all the way across the huge room, she could feel it. Then turning a corner and out of sight, she shuddered, eyes squeezed tight against the oncoming flow.
One life ends and another begins. She resumed her pace through the terminal towards the berths. The Elpis and Elysium awaited.
* * *
Karen’s eyes drifted under heavy lids. It was becoming hard to hold onto a single thought. She saw a streaking rainbow star part cold nothingness, sparkles dancing in the void.
Empty breather tanks floated lazily under the boards. She no longer knew how long they had been sitting here, buckled up, thermal blankets doing a terrible job of keeping in what little heat remained. Cold, dark, airless. Is this what dying feels like?
That damn song Jenkins always played was lodged in her skull. Faux-Latin rhythms reverberated through her mind. Over and over and over. To blazes with feeling the engines; they were dead and still the song played.
Light and dark pirouetted, the dance continued, the song played on. She could see Rachel’s face, haunting, mocking, taunting. You’re going to die. And still the song played on.
The flight deck span. Rachel’s face dissolved into a murky green spiral, a singularity swallowing up every gentle curve and line. The rhythm became indistinct, a thudding bass the only element still going strong. It was all going away now. Rachel was leaving her. She was alone.
* * *
The door had slammed, and Karen had been left alone.
The apartment was quiet now, like she had the universe to herself. The sun dipped low, casting the room in a deathly pall.
Well, she thought. So much for all that. Rachel’s words echoed in her ears, the anger and the betrayal, all so visceral and immediate. You’ve made your choice. I’ve wasted my time.
“Huh,” Karen grunted involuntarily. Wasted her time. That hurt more than she imagined it would.
She stood on numb feet and took a slow walk around the modest home. Dark, empty rooms, devoid of personality and meaning. She really did hate this place.
She went into the small bedroom and lay down on top of the covers, staring up at the blank ceiling. I’ve made my choice, she thought. Yeah, but you made yours too. She hoped, for both of their sakes, that their respective choices had been the right ones.
Only two weeks until all of this was gone for good, and yet it was not how she imagined. For so many years she’d dreamed of what was coming to her right now, the pure exhilaration of ripping free from the bonds that held them all in subservience, of getting out there and making her life something extraordinary. Yet now, she felt nothing but a cold dread clenching her stomach in an icy grasp.
Turning onto her side, Karen slapped the annoying red blinking lights of the alarm clock out of her sight. She closed her eyes and prayed for merciful dreamless sleep.
* * *
Karen tilted her head, a great swell of pain wracking her skull. The cabin was dark, cold.
Something was different.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
A little red light on the controls. The indicator pulsed wildly, swimming in Karen’s vision as she attempted to lean forward. Beside her, Storn was out cold, buckled up, thermal blanket hanging off his chair. She pushed her own away, muscles complaining from such a small weak effort. Fingers that refused to obey fumbled with the clasp on the belt.
Pop. She was free, floating up and out of the chair, pushing forward towards the tiny signal flare lit up on the dash. Through blurry eyes she strained to identify the indicator:
INITIATE RESTART READY
It couldn’t be. She reached towards the adjacent switch with a lazy, uncooperative arm, only then noticing what lay outside.
A sea of stars, flickering and sparkling, smiling for her.
The dead zone had receded.
In the window, a large form dominated. A dark sphere, bright light cresting its atmosphere. M32-597 was reaching out from beyond the new world, bathing the void with ribbons of welcoming starlight.
A smile creased her lips. Rachel. Her face was getting harder and harder to see. I did it. Cold aching fingers danced on the switch, straining against the miniscule effort.
Elysium. A paradise hidden beyond a veil of life and death, and on its surface a promise of endless possibility. So close Karen cold touch it. So close she could smell the crisp, clean morning air and feel the cool, refreshing waters trickle down her skin.
Knuckles twitched and rebelled. Skin grazed the controls. Impotent fingers refused to obey.
One last breath. One last push. Karen flipped the switch and smiled.
Copyright © 2013 by Danielle N. Gales