Wake Up by Jason P. Burnham
Coming out of cryosleep never got easier. Captain Mariah Kylma blinked blearily, the brightness of the ship’s status monitors assaulting her optic nerves. The alarms were muted through the biometallic walls of the cryosleep chamber, but she knew they were going off by the fire red flashes on the monitors. Multisystem failures—life support (the fire red), power at critical levels (intermittent blue flickering).
She yanked off her extracorporeal oxygenation connectors before the terminal cryoweaning sequence had a chance to finish. It was a mistake, she realized as she stumbled out of the chamber, catching herself on nearby equipment. Perhaps half a mistake, she thought. Every second she spent lolling about in the viscous solution could mean the difference between her ship and crew’s obliteration and survival.
Her head swam and her breaths were labored. The crew around her was waking, but abiding the recompression protocol (unlike her) and staying in their chambers. She knew they were seeing the critical failures too—heart rate and blood pressure alerts blared incessantly from the central medical monitoring pillar.
Mariah slumped her way into the main control conduit and furiously punched in diagnostics requests. The ship was functioning as designed—wake her up when power reserves dropped below fifty percent. It should never have happened with intermittent solar recharging, but something had obviously failed. The purpose was to awaken her so she could turn on the backup generators instead of just letting the ship turn them on without figuring out the root cause. If that happened, they might all wake up at five percent power with no way to fix it.
But the whole crew was not supposed to be revived to swap out a battery. Only deterioration of life support systems could do that, i.e. the “all hands on deck” portion of the algorithm. Oxygen and nutrient resource levels were critically low. Mariah initiated the backup oxygen tanks and the seed germination protocol. Must have been an impact event to mess with solar recharge and life support. There had to be a leak somewhere.
“Computer, give me a report of all hull integrity breaches.” Mariah spoke haltingly from disorientation and post-cryosleep fugue sickness. Her mind raced frantically to catch up to all the years that had passed it by.
“Captain Kylma, good morning. I am happy to report that hull integrity is presently at 100%.”
“Then what happened to life support and power?”
A deafening shriek pierced the air, obliterating the ship’s response.
Mariah’s gaze shot from the computer conduit to the source of the sound. She suspected someone else’s fugue sickness was worse than her own. As her eyes adjusted from short to long-range focus, she saw what had caused the otherworldly cacophony.
Littering the floor around the cryosleep chambers were mangled, decaying corpses. Human corpses. Another shriek came from the chamber next to Jensen.
In a flurry of sound, secretions, and emotions, the seven other crew members took their turns awakening, surveying the macabre scene, screaming, vomiting, and crying.
Mariah let them take in the information at their own pace, all the while performing the deep breathing and anti-emesis exercises she had been taught in captain’s training—she had to remain calm and get the ship in order. Whatever or whoever the bodies were, they were dead and posed no more immediate threat than the ship’s critical oxygen and nutrient stores.
She remained at the conduit, typing instructions and running additional diagnostics. Eight crew, including herself. All accounted for. All alive. Until now, nobody had been awakened since leaving Earth.
Then who are the bodies?
All embryos were in the green—human and animal. Seed stores intact. The major failure was the energy reserves. She looked at the feed to the live gardens and even the most practiced breathing exercises could not prevent her breath from catching in her throat—the gardens, their nutritional life raft, were completely destroyed.
In a pulsating, sobbing huddle of solidarity, the crew tried to comfort one another. Mariah looked up when it appeared they had come to their senses and done a headcount. Eight living crew meant that none of their comrades numbered among the lifeless bodies before them.
Mariah glanced back to the disaster that was the live gardens. They had been designed to proliferate during the journey to generate ample crops for the ground crew to eat and plant while the embryos were gestating in their artificial wombs. Small, self-repairing harvester machines had been programmed to water, trim, and store the crops, but nothing moved on the feed to suggest that they remained operational. Mariah wondered whether they had shut themselves down when there was nothing left for them to cultivate.
The gardens have been harvested to death. Is this spectral crew cluttering my command deck responsible?
“C-c-cap!” Jensen had been first out and was the first to speak to Mariah.
Along with everyone else, Jensen was bald and paler than usual from being in cryosleep, but as captain, Mariah had memorized the irises of her crew’s eyes and the timbre of their voices. Mariah detached herself from the conduit and approached the seven crew and the grisly remains nearby.
Definitely look human.
“P-p-permission to speak freely, Captain?” stuttered Williams through chattering teeth.
“Cap, what the fuck is going on?” It was a half cry, half shout.
Mariah looked intently into Williams’s amber irises, trying to ignore the sickly cryo-gray of her normally black skin. “The ship is following its protocols appropriately. Power and life support dropped below fifty percent and woke us all up. I started the backup generators and initiated the germination protocol. The live gardens are gone, so we will have to survive on protein rations until the first germination protocol harvests. All animal and human embryos are green. The hull is intact and obviously, all of you are here.” She scanned their faces.
“Well that’s all fine and dandy. Real kum-ba-ya shit. But who are all these dead bodies?” asked Jensen.
“I am still working on that. I did not want to overload anyone, so I was quietly performing diagnostics while you all dealt with your fugue sicknesses.” And my own, she thought.
“We better figure it out!” Jensen said, exasperated. She averted her eyes from Mariah’s stare.
“And where are we? Did we make it to Pelastus?” Williams was at least hopeful.
“Hadn’t gotten that far yet. Computer—please give our current location.”
“Computer, give our current location.”
“I’m sorry Captain Kylma, I’m having some trouble figuring that out at the moment. Is there something else I can help you with while that determination runs in the background?”
“How about telling us where all these bodies came from?” Liranski said with a detached coolness that can only come from mental and physical shock.
The others remained silent, save the occasional chatter of teeth. Mariah studied the irises of her crew, finding a rainbow of colors but uniformity in fear.
The ship obliged Liranski. “Certainly. These bodies represent the last members of the humanoid race that evolved during our journey. They expired over the last few weeks when the live gardens’ food supply ran out. Though they originated from Homo sapiens DNA, they had evolved to the extent that it would have been unlikely that this crew could have interbred with them. As such, they likely would have been classified as a new species. If you would like, we can study their remains and be the first to identify them.”
Everyone stood or sat, wordless. The fire red alarms still flashed, their alert muted now. The occasional hiss of air reprocessing was the only sound to break the stillness.
Mariah finally spoke. “They evolved during our journey? How is that possible?”
“Captain, I’m not certain I understand your question, but let me answer what I think you are asking,” said the ship. “Our journey has lasted considerably longer than was originally intended. While we were, and still are, on course for Pelastus, we have yet to arrive.”
“What does ‘considerably longer’ mean?” Jensen asked, voice steadied by anger.
“As you may recall, this journey was originally intended to last fifteen million years. However, due to lower than anticipated vehicular efficiency, automated course corrections, galaxy expansion, and avoidance of fatal impact trajectories, our journey has now lasted approximately one hundred trillion years.”
No wonder it was hard to wake up.
The ship continued. “With the aid of cosmic ray induced genetic mutations and the accidental presence of viral transfer vectors, human debris and materials in the live gardens merged and resulted in the eventual evolution of this humanoid species that you see here. Much like the population of Earth, their numbers exceeded the capacity of their environment to sustain them. Wars were fought. Civilizations rose and fell. Eventually they burned themselves out and only a few remained. Those that survived had an unsustainable food supply.”
“Why didn’t you help them?” Mariah asked, uncertain if she wanted to know the answer.
“My duty is to this crew, Captain Kylma. Besides, they never asked. While I eventually learned their language by listening, they never thought to ask me to help them.”
Mariah’s head swam with questions, none coalescing coherently enough to be asked.
“Can I answer any other questions for you, Captain?”
A hundred trillion years. Civilizations rose and fell around us while we slept. What did they think of us in our chambers?
A haunting thought crept into Mariah’s mind. “Why can’t you figure out where we are?”
“As I said Captain, we are most certainly on course for the last known location of Pelastus. However, given the incredible passage of time since it was last detectable, I cannot be sure of exactly how close we are.”
A flash of understanding crossed Williams’s face. She was coming to the same truth that Mariah was struggling to believe.
“Are you trying to tell us we can’t navigate anymore because the universe has expanded faster than we could get across it?”
“I believe, Captain Kylma, what you are trying to ask is whether the universe has reached maximum entropy?”
“That is correct Captain. Maximum entropy. Colloquially referred to as the ‘heat death of the universe.’ I do suspect that it will get quite lonely out here. For humans, that is.”
Mariah looked around at the crew, their faces impassive. What else could be their reaction besides paralysis?
“So that’s why the power systems are failing. No more starlight.” Mariah shook her head.
“Correct again, Captain.”
She had to ask, even if she didn’t want to hear the answer. “How long do we have left on our current power reserves?”
“At the current rate of energy expenditure, about six months.”
“Will we arrive at Pelastus before…” Jensen trailed off, realizing the futility of her inquiry. The ship did not respond to the truncated question.
There won’t be any energy there anyway.
The crew looked at the floor silently. A tear hitting the metal reverberated through the stillness.
Mariah studied the decaying remains around her. And the corpses too.
“Computer, did they know they were going to die? You said you understood their language.”
“What did they do at the end?”
“They shared stories of their lives, their ancestors, and lamented their inability to ever successfully leave the ship to see what was outside.”
“They knew they were confined inside a spaceship?” Mariah asked.
“By the end, yes.”
There was a long pause.
“Computer, do we—do we have any chance of long-term survival?”
The logistical programming of the colony ship was unmatched. Mariah knew that if there was any possibility for them to live, the ship would figure it out. All eyes were on her, as if the computer were going to speak through her lips.
“At current usage, the probability of survival reaches zero in six months standard. This number can be extended to eighteen months if only one person remains alive, but no further.”
There was a collective whimper from the crew.
Mariah knew what they had to do.
She held out her hand, pointing to the humanoid cadavers littering the deck. “We should do as they did. Share stories, share histories. But when humanity has nothing left to say, we will come to a different end. We will not be left wondering what is outside the ship. Computer, when the time comes, I want you to prepare the escape pods. Who is going to follow me into the dark?”
Jason P. Burnham is an infectious diseases physician and clinical researcher. He loves many things, among them sci-fi, his wife and son, metal music, Rancho Gordo beans, and equality (not necessarily in that order). You can find him on Twitter.