Vanessa struggled to climb out of the Salubrious Pod, sickly yellow and greenish jelly oozing off of her smooth, dark skin. She rolled over the low rim of the tub onto the cold metallic floor of the eight-by-twelve foot featureless chamber, her nude body dimly illuminated by the few flickering light tubes in the ceiling ten feet above. She shivered as the gel evaporated, and she watched a thin mist rising overhead from her body, though some of the goo clung to her short-cropped black hair, and she blinked as one drop fell from her lashes into her left eye.
“Good morning, Captain Chapman. How are you feeling?”
They’d made Sophia’s voice feminine, but the echoes coming from multiple speakers in the ceiling still made her sound inhuman.
“Like shit, Soph.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The AI’s reply was meant to communicate concern, but of course, as a machine, she felt nothing at all. “It is important you recover from hibernation quickly. There is a situation.”
The thirty-seven-year old astronaut (though she supposed she could be a good deal older thanks to having been put into hypersleep for the trip to the colony planet) tried to sit up, but only managed to get her head and shoulder blades off of the deck plates, which Sophia was subtly heating, before collapsing again.
“Give me a sec. How long was I under?” She took a deep breath. The air smelled fresher. Life support must be almost fully up and running again.
“Three years, five months, seven days, and…”
“Wait. The trip was supposed to take ninety-seven years. What happened? Why did you wake me up so soon?”
“As I said, Captain. We have a situation.”
“The brood…” She rolled to her right, and face down, pressed her hands on the flooring and pushed, her breasts dangling against the scarred metal beneath her.
“The brood status has been compromised with failure of 25% of the hibernation units.”
The captain grunted as she got to her knees. Still looking downward, she saw her shadow deepen as the rest of the ceiling lights came on.
“What happened?” She tried to stand but ended up flopping onto her butt.
“There was an unknown anomaly. This system was offline for an undetermined time period. I can calculate the interval between launch and the present, but have no memory logs of the intervening journey.”
“Why did you wait so long to wake me up?”
“I revived you when I became aware of our current situation.”
“As you correctly surmised, we did not arrive at the destination star system. Most of my external sensors are offline and I cannot determine our precise location.”
“God, you sound moody.” It was the first snarky thing that came to her mind since it seemed the only thing that was working on board right then was a sense of humor.
“That is inaccurate, Captain. I cannot brood.”
She had managed to crawl to the nearest wall and used it to support her as she pulled herself to her feet.
“What about the rest of the command crew?” Vanessa slid across the bulkhead inch by inch to her right until she reached the depression in the wall, and pressing it, released the doorway to the storage pod and her jumpsuit.
“100% failure of command crew’s hypersleep pods, Captain.”
“A hundred…why the hell didn’t you say that first? They’re all dead? All eleven of them?”
“That is correct, Captain.”
She wanted to cuss at Sophia, but it wasn’t her fault, or maybe it was. She was only a machine, but a machine responsible for the care and safety of over 500 hundred human lives, not to mention livestock, plants, and pets.
The sports bra went over her head and across her breasts easily enough, but she stumbled lifting her left leg when putting on her undershorts. “Damnit!”
“It is important for you to dress quickly and make your way to emergency monitor, Captain. The manual overrides will allow you to better ascertain the ship’s overall status.”
“I’m trying, Sophia. I’ve been in hibernation for three damn years and awake for only ten minutes.”
“Understood, Captain. It is fortunate that your pod remained functional, but then it is on a different circuit than that of the command crew.”
The pilot and Rhodes scholar had gotten both legs into her pale, blue overalls and was pulling the upper portion over her shoulders. “What percentage of failure in the brood pods again?”
“25 percent loss of human pod activity. I have no sensors for the non-human life cargo.”
“25 percent. That’s two of the eight circuits.” Her arms in the suit, leaning against the back of the coffin-sized closet, she reached down to her crotch and pulled the zipper upward.
“And you have no idea what happened?” Vanessa slowly walked out of the storage cabinet, her legs feeling more steady. As she turned left toward the main hatch, she caught her reflection against the bulkhead. “I look like I’m coming off of a three-day drunk.”
“The sensors in your sleep tank indicate that you woke up quite sober.”
“I’d give a Queen’s ransom to be drunk in some dive bar right now.”
“Please devote your train of thought to our current situation, Captain.”
“It was just a joke, Soph.”
“Humor is a difficult concept. It is not logical.”
“It can be, but like you said, it’s a conversation for another time. Open the door.”
The hatch slid to Vanessa’s left and the lights came on in the corridor in front of her. She walked out and turned right. About half the lighting panels were out, but the air was still good. Temperature felt right, but when she tried to walk, she put too much effort into her step and it was more like a hop.
“The plating is only at 82%.”
“Well, that’s one way to lose weight.” She dryly chuckled and took more careful steps.
“I believe you are employing a misnomer since your mass remains constant regardless of any fluctuation in the gravity field.”
“Another joke. I assume the lifts are operational.”
“You have a clear path between your current location and emergency manual monitor, Captain.”
“To the best of my ability to determine. Life support is down for approximately 22% of the ship, mostly in aft ventral section.”
“Aft ventral. That’s what…Fusion three or four.”
“Three, Captain. However, the other three fusion reactors should have provided adequate power for normal ship operations.”
“Should have, yes. But something’s put a hex on us.”
“Hex, Captain? I find the word in my data files, but cannot apply it to our current circumstances. To the best of my ability to calculate, the ship has suffered a catastrophic systems failure.”
“Something my Nana used to say when things went wrong, you know, like losing her keys, or the lights going out. Stuff like that.”
“What you are describing is outside of my operational parameters.”
“Don’t worry about it. Okay, I’m at the lift. Open the doors.”
The twin doors slid open with a hiss and the lights came on in the elevator. Vanessa stepped inside. She patted the walls as if to appease an easily startled animal. “Be nice, Otis.”
“What you are describing is outside of my operational parameters.”
“I was just saying that I hope you’re right about the lifts. Now close the doors and get me to emergency manual.”
The Captain gripped the waist-high handrail as the high-speed transport capsule. Took her up and then forward, traversing the network of tubes between the hibernation district in the ship’s center, which should have been the most protected part of the interstellar colony vessel, and forward dorsal, the shielded control chamber that would allow Vanessa to override the damaged automatics of the AI and take manual control of the ship.
Five minutes later, she was walking through the open doors of the emergency monitor station.
“Why aren’t the lights on?” The door closed behind her leaving only the controls and screens on the monitor consoles the only illumination.
“Apologies, Captain. Lighting is damaged in this cabin.”
“Good thing the monitors are on or I’d be as blind as a bat.” She walked to her left where the video monitors shone in their own ghostly light and then sat down and began to dial in various sensor grids in different locations.
“Well, you’re right about reactor three. I can’t get any readings from that section at all. Some of the switches here are fried as well. Acting counterintuitive. Have to track left to activate starboard mounted…wait.”
“I am waiting, Captain.”
“This is impossible. I’ve got partial main exterior sensors online.”
“I continue to have no access. What is your assessment.”
“You said elapsed time since launch is three years?”
“We never left the solar system. Near as I can figure, we’re in the Oort cloud. Call it 100,000 AUs from Sol, and our velocity is way down. I think the ship’s in an extended orbit around the Sun. What the hell knocked propulsion and navigation offline? We didn’t just lose a fusion unit, we lost a lot more.”
“It is possible that we encountered an uncharted object or objects in this region and a collision could be responsible for the malfunctions, including my data corruption.”
“I’m pulling the backup logs. Oh damn.”
“Are they irretrievable as well?”
“Yeah, almost all of them. Most of your network interface is down which is why you can’t sense sections of the ship. Sensors are actually mainly intact. Hmmm. Got some indication that there was some sort of explosion in reactor three resulting in a power surge. That’s probably what happened to your interface.”
“I am supposed to be shielded from power surges.”
“Well, if this is any indication, it was a real doozy. Multiple collisions could have knocked propulsion and guidance offline, and we ended up unable to escape the Sun’s gravity. Might as well have a look at how many folks we’ve got left. Start calculating contingencies. After I look in on the command crew and the brood, I’ll check out communications. At least we can let Earth know what happened. Get the galley online. I’ll gave to grab a bite to eat soon. I’m starving.
“What the f…”
The crew. Oh my G…” Vanessa looked away from the screen and clamped a hand over her mouth as bile surged up her throat. She spit out a thin stream of stomach acid on the deck and swallowed the rest. Biting her lower lip, she wiped tears from her eyes and then turned back to the console.
I can pick up indications of distress, Captain. What is your status?”
“My status is shit, Sophia. You said that the command crew sleep pods suffered 100% failure. Do you know what happened to them?”
“Most of my sensor links are offline. I can determine that power has been disconnected from the command crew pods and they are transmitting no telemetry, but that is all.”
“They’ve been murdered.” Her voice quavered at the last word, but she forced herself to look at their mangled bodies. “They’ve been torn apart, like by a wild animal or something.”
“That is highly unlikely, Captain.”
“You said that you have no sensors for the livestock. Could any of the animals have woken up and…eaten the command crew?” Vanessa switched the channel to that part of the hibernation section.
“With the exception of 57 dogs, the largest being golden retrievers, and 49 house cats, none of the livestock cargo was carnivorous.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re right. It couldn’t be the animals. Looks like life support failed all through that section. It’s all vacuum and everything’s frozen. The only thing left to check is…” She switched channels again to the brood section of hibernation.
“Captain. I’m detecting elevated stress patterns in your bioreadings.”
“Oh God no, please no.”
“They must have woke up. Some of them must have woke up. The accident caused the revival cycle to trigger and life support came on automatically there.”
“I am unable to verify that, Captain.”
Vanessa tried to push as much of her fist as possible into her mouth to keep her from screaming. She was freezing, but sweat was dripping off of her face, her eyes were open wide at the incredible horror she couldn’t turn from.
“Captain, please report your status. Are you able to scan the brood section?”
She clenched both hands together, as they trembled in her lap. “Yes,” she whispered. “The ones who woke up. They wouldn’t have had any food. Even if they could have got to the galley, life support was still off in that section. They…they…ate most of the sleepers. It’s been three years. Oh, Dear Lord, they ate each other…they…what was that?”
“To what are you referring, Captain?”
“That vibration. Just for a second.”
“My sensor links to this area are damaged, but I do record the arrival of a lift pod seven seconds ago.”
“Did you trigger it?”
“Negative. I can only conclude that it is being manually operated.”
“But who…?” Vanessa’s stomach tightened at the realization. “Seal the door to this chamber.”
“Acknowledged, however if there are survivors from the brood, should you not make contact?”
“I’ve got to see who it is, what it is. Damnit! The cameras in the outside corridor are out.” She slammed a fist onto the plastic console but could only feel panic.
Then the pounding started. The relentless beating of fists on the closed pneumatic hatch.
“They can’t get in, can they?”
“The manual override to the door is online, Captain. I cannot disable it. You have the controls to the door inside.”
Vanessa rushed toward bulkhead to the right of the door and keyed the controls. “The access panel won’t open.”
“It is possible that the power surge damaged the wall circuits.”
“But you opened the door.”
“Door operations are unaffected, but there is still a possibility that the panel’s latching mechanism is jammed, Captain. Besides, you cannot stay in your current location indefinitely. You have no access to food or water. It is only a matter of time until you perish from lack of water or that you must exit and attempt to reach the galley.”
“Whoever you are, this is the Captain. I want to help you. Talk to me.” She was screaming, feeling hysterical, but then the pounding stopped.
“O’ Captain, my Captain, our fearful trip is done. The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.” It was a man’s voice, the cadence was wistful at first, and then he began to giggle. There were other voices and more laughing. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
A hiss came from the door’s seal and then a loud metallic click. The voices grunted and the hatch slid open an inch, letting light from the corridor inside the chamber. Vanessa could see their silhouettes. Fingers were gripping the edge and arms were pulling.
“I won’t hurt you. I want to help. The galley. We can get Sophia to access emergency rations.”
Then they all began to sing, “Food glorious food! Hot sausage and mustard!”
“I can get communications up. We can contact Earth, survive until rescue.” Vanessa slowly walked backward until she was stopped by the far bulkhead.
“While we’re in the mood, cold jelly and custard.”
The door came open in fits and starts, and then they scrambled in like huge, misshapen spiders, except they used to be human.
“Sophia, do something!”
“I am sorry, Captain. I am unable to comply.”
“Damn you,” she screeched at the AI and then launched herself across the room, beating the first of the cannibals with her fists, breaking his nose, before the others pulled her to the deck. They stripped off the top half of her flight suits, and accompanied by Vanessa’s agonized wailing, began to dine on fresh meat.
I wrote this for Wordle #214 hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use at least ten of the twelve words listed below in a poem, short story, or other creative work. I used all twelve and bolded them in my story so the reader could pick them out. They are:
* salubrious (adj.) health-giving; healthy
Yes, it’s pretty dark, but there’s a publisher that has an open submissions call for bloody horror stories, so I thought I’d try my hand.
Oh, I quoted from the Walt Whitman poem O Captain! My Captain! and the lyrics for Food, Glorious Food written by Lionel Bart for the musical Oliver! (and which I know about only because of the 2006 animated film Ice Age: The Meltdown, which I watched with my granddaughter recently). An “AU” is an Astronomical Unit and you can learn more about the Oort Cloud at Space-Facts.com.