A little bit of palaver before I delve wholesale into the fiction.
Firstly: I write Science Fiction. Yes, the red-headed stepchild of the fiction arena. Well, sparkly vampires and bodice-rippers be damned, I like Science Fiction. If you don’t, then you don’t have to read this.
Secondly: This story has been rejected by Analog Magazine. I would like to find out why, since the standard rejection letter is a trifle vague. Just… be gentle. My ego bruises easily :)
Third: This may be the only day you get a twofer. I don’t know, yet.
Nor Gloom of Night
C. M. Weller
Travel by cryosuspension was perfectly safe. Especially for the really long journeys, or for those who got horrendously ill in hyperspace. The only caveat was that the wake-up process was impossible to automate, and the ship’s pilot and crew could not join their passengers in icy repose, and had to settle for the automated stasis pods instead.
Stasis was allegedly safe. For the most part, it was safer than flying in an airplane in the twenty-first century. But there were always those grousome, grisly and ghoulish tales spread wherever two humans gathered to scare the spit out of each other in darkened food cubbies. Every one of them had new and interesting ways in which to go to sleep forever, and pass unremarked into the eternal night. All because stasis, despite the name, did not freeze time, but merely slowed it to near-frozen levels.
Every single one of those stories went through Paul’s head when he awoke to the flashing hazard lights of an emergency on board. This time, something would go wrong, and the Revere’s Ride would become a ghost ship, sailing into infinity, possibly never to be found again.
Most of the time, the Nev-R-Fail navigation system needed another kicking and a course correction to get his passengers back onto the true path. Paul refused to think of the racks of cryosuspension cabinets as either cargo or coffins. The inhabitants were meant to be alive when they got to their far-flung port. Therefore, they were passengers.
He was reading a rack failure in section eight. Just behind the main power generator. Right. No sense warming up any atmosphere in there. No sense letting his cat Liz out of her stasis pod, yet. Nothing would be helped by having a loudmouth calico tripping him up and attempting to dive through potentially unsafe doors.
Paul let her sleep on and checked the damage. Main power reactor down. Collision damage. Collision caused by undetected failure in the Nev-R-Fail navigation shields. If I get out of this alive, I am having a word with Sleep Tite cryo-couriers about their least-cost contractor hiring process.
Survival suit on, Paul clumped all the way to the airlock, only to discover it was crumpled up like foil. No way out. And this was the only exterior ‘lock that didn’t need a ship or station on the other side to work. Disabling the safety locks would also disable the airlocks. No way out shy of cutting a hole in the bulkhead, and that sort of thing never ended well. The next trip through hyperspace, or any space full of flack, could tear the bulkhead clean off. Or dirty off, which was worse.
The very idea of allowing trusting passengers to spill unheeded into the gulfs between the stars… or to tumble into the voids of hyperspace, never to be found… It was as abhorrent to him as the thought of cutting his own son’s throat. So what if other pilots thought of him as a glorified mailman? Paul held it up as an ideal.
The mail must get through.
Twenty-seven of the fifty cryopods were smashed to pieces. Permanently dead. Paul had to murmur, “Thirty-three alive. Thirty three are potentially alive.”
The rack they were on would not hold them in potential life for very long. He jury-rigged them to the reserve generator. The others would automatically receive power. A broken rack meant broken power rigs. His surviving passengers would not be betrayed into death on his watch. No more innocent souls would go into the dark without protest, and definitely not without him fighting it, somehow. And definitely not without him fighting it with all his power.
Not that there was a lot he could do, trapped inside this low-bid crate.
Paul tried fiddling with the Nev-R-Fail safety cargo hatch, just in case. For a change, it actually lived up to its brand name and he cursed as the safeties rendered the hatch completely inoperable. One airlock left, and he’d rather not gamble with everything to lose. When they found the Revere’s Ride, they’d have to have a way in.
If they didn’t, anything could happen… including the wholesale feeding of the ship, passengers and all, to a mass recycler. Lives, elements and souls reduced to component elements or the nearest stable compounds. Never knowing what was done to them.
One hundred and seventy racks. Fifty trusting souls per rack. Minus the twenty-seven dead, that came to eight thousand, four hundred and eighty-three trusting souls depending on him to help them reach their destination.
And the best he could do for them was some pretty dodgy Jerry-rigging.
First up, the expanding foam sealant guaranteed to reduce the likelihood of travel shear from flying flack in the event of hull breaches. Unfortunately for Paul’s trust issues, it was also produced by the erratically reliable Nev-R-Fail.
He filled every reachable place with it, just in case.
It seemed to harden up like it should have if it were made by any reliable company. Nev-R-Fail was fast gaining a very bad reputation within his mind, at the very least.
It was time to do his utmost to make absolutely, positively certain that his passengers made it.
He pressure-tested the seal before returning air to the halls and pressing the revive button on Liz’s pet-stasis chamber. Lazy old feline would likely nap through his fix/sabotage of most of the necessary systems. Including the time it took to squirm out of the survival suit and stow the clumsy thing.
First up, ripping out the Nev-R-Fail navigation system, then hardwiring a system to trace the relevant wormhole routes by the marker buoys’ signals, as well as emitting a constant vessel in distress signal for human attentions only. After all, when he was done, no-one would need anything involving immediate attention. The dead would wait forever, and those in cryosuspension would wait for as long as they had minimum power.
Which would be as long as the generators lasted.
Half the main generator complex was irrevocably damaged by the impact. Paul disconnected the damaged half and tried to rig the other half so it would at least make some power. Nearly eight and a half thousand lives depended on it.
Power corrupts. Generated energy saves. Is there a difference in this case? Paul mused. Another phrase from his distant, Terran ancestry popped up inside his mind. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…
His passengers had him outvoted.
Not that he ever had plans to do anything else but see them to their destination. Even a glorified postman had an oath to uphold.
After the engines were seen to, he checked on the proper cargo and the rest of the cryopod racks. All checked out well. Vacuum sealed and chilled to zero Kelvin, the true cargo would remain unspoiled until an outside force intervened. If he vacated the air in each hold, that would extend the viable lifetimes of the cryopods by both reducing the necessary power use and sparing the life support power needs.
He closed them off personally. Liz the perpetually idiotic did go where she wasn’t supposed to. No sign of his beloved, stupid cat. Good. He still closed and sealed, checking for her, just in case.
She kept him sane, with games like this. Liz was good company when the rest of the ship was nearly dead. That little calico loudmouth was someone to talk to when there was no-one else within reach.
And she was slow turning up in her favourite haunts.
Paul finished sealing the latest rack and checked on the pilot’s quarters, where Liz was supposed to be scratching the hell out of things, if she wasn’t looking for trouble in the holds. He should have heard her yawping for fish by now.
And a quiet, trouble-minded cat, no matter how restful her purr nor how therapeutic her company, was a cat getting into mischief and mayhem. Probably killing the loose wires left over from the extraction of Nev-R-Fail’s useless technology. And getting herself tied up in the process.
Liz was still curled up in her cozy nest, peaceful and innocent.
“Hey, Liz. You’re missing all the fish.”
Not a twitch. Not even half an eye opened in lazy disinterest.
He reached into her cubby to scritch her ears.
She was cold. And still.
“Oh, Liz. You stupid cat…”
He tore apart her stasis pod. Examined every last circuit by himself, not trusting the low-bid diagnostic computers. The Nev-R-Fail Pet Preserver had done its job. Catching her between seconds until someone pressed revive.
It just so happened that it did so just before her last heartbeats.
She never woke up.
Protocol demanded he jettison her with all the other dead weight. He knew it. It was in the rules and regs, as well as his own unwritten code. Except… this was Liz. She was family. Not flotsam.
He could throw out the Nev-R-Fail technocrap with a song in his heart and a giggle of malevolent glee. He could toss tchotchkes and packrattus with a lump in his throat.
He choked on the thought of dumping Liz like so much trash.
He delayed and dithered. Pared his belongings down to a photo of his wife and child, and the damned survival suit. He shut down everything he could legitimately shut down and sealed off everything but the Pilot’s chamber to vacuum.
He did everything he could for his passengers before trusting himself to his own Nev-R-Fail stasis pod.
He could not jettison Liz.
Screw the rules, she’s family.
He donned the damn suit so he could carry her to her favourite lurking spot in the halls of the Revere’s Ride. Tucked up cosy on her bed with her most-abused fake mouse and a fishy treat. With luck, whoever found the ship wouldn’t assume she was missed garbage and toss her before he woke up.
Nothing spelled out beloved animal here like attempted grave goods.
Besides, he felt better about leaving her alone when she had a fishy treat and her best mouse with her. The cold and the lack of air would see that she remained undisturbed.
See you on the other side, you stupid cat…
Paul took the helmet and gloves off. No point in taking the whole suit off when he had plans to use it for backup. There were nightmares about stasis maintaining while life support failed, in those old ghost tales. The suit would see to it that he would not turn into a stasis-mummy, with just enough soul trapped inside to scream when they set his remains loose…
At least the message relay system was not Nev-R-Fail. It was cheaper, more reliable, bootstrap technology. It worked because it had been made to work over millennia. “Message for the CEO’s of Sleep Tite cryo-couriers, or their parent company. To whom it may concern. My protests against lowest-bid tech solutions should be on my permanent record. Ladies, gentlemen, and whatever else is going by now - I flakking told you so. The Nev-R-Fail nav shields did not live up to their brand name and you have twenty-seven souls on top of whoever passed in transit to accuse them of negligent murder. I also lay the blame on the anatomical improbabilities with faecal for brains who actually accepted such a moronically low bid in the first place. It is our duty of care to make certain our passengers and cargo get to where they’re going, and get there undamaged. You can spout all the jetsam you like about inherent acceptance of the risks you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that they trusted us to keep those risks to a minimum.
"I might just die in that low-bid junk-pod, and I fully expect you idiots to pay full damages to all families involved in this… debacle. And just to be certain you will, I’m firing this off on public broadcast as well as assigned to your offices. No coverups. No flim-flam. No refuse disguised as words. Lo-go should remain no-go. Forever.”
He signed it and sent it, as promised, both to the offices of Sleep Tite and anyone who wanted to listen. Complete with unedited copies of the ship’s log.
Next… His family. Lucille had solved the problem of stasis-separated families by electing to sleep during his work shifts with their son in the much safer cryosuspension facilities at home.
They’d wake her and Jack up for this, so she could make decisions.
“Hey, Lucy. Looks like I might not make it home. I’m sorry as all hell this happened, but I tried everything I could to make sure the ship got through. You should be entitled to all my owed pay and hazard payoff. I wish I could give you more. I always wish I could give you more. And to top it all off, Liz…” he had to wipe saltwater from his face. “Liz went quietly. Old age. I couldn’t dump her like the regs said. She’s in the halls, where she liked to chase the shadows. Sorry, Jack. Lizzie can’t purr you to sleep any more, and Daddy… might not make it home. If I could wish it so, I’d wish myself all the way to you, so I could hold you and your Mom again. I’ll wish as hard as I can, you know I will, but I also have to do my best to get this ship where it needs to go. You stay strong. Both of you. And you don’t have to wait for me. Live a good life. I love you.”
He sent that one, private code only, to his family, care of their cryo-suspension holding facility.
The last message, he queued to play back when the sensors registered cogniscent life aboard the ship. Why was the hardest message to record the one to a total stranger?
“Hello and welcome, Wandering Star, this ship, the Revere’s Ride is a cryo-courier vessel carrying colonists to New Frisco. This is a recording of the sole crew member. You should find me up in the front cabin, and if all goes well, I should be revivable. If I’m not… well… see that I’m put away with my cat, will you? She did me fine service and I couldn’t let her go away alone.
"As for my cargo and passengers… Please see to it that they reach New Frisco intact. They trusted me to get them there. I did my utmost to keep that promise.” And if I’m a stasis-mummy, I want you to shoot me square in the head so I don’t wake up dead. No. “This is Pilot Paul Collins, signing off. Maybe for the last time.”
Long ago, in one of those maintenance stints from hell, he had etched the ancient service creed just above his headspace in his stasis bunk. It still fit, even thousands of years after it was written. It fuelled his determination to get through to his destination.
Except a dodgy stasis pod on a failing ship could hardly be fought with determination.
From my hand to God’s ears, eh? If there is a God for lost and miserable cryo-couriers…
He donned the gloves and helmet, setting it to seal and activate the suit the instant it detected a critical life support failure. Life support was already on bare minimum.
Now I lay me down to sleep…
It was a tight fit, getting himself in his survival suit into the stasis pod. It was not a job he wanted to rush. Nightmares and ghoulish tales of horror danced in his head with ancient poems about child mortality.
I pray the lord my soul to keep…
That line had always mystified him, when he was younger. How had the higher class kept souls? No such technology existed any more, that was certain. It helped him keep calm in the battle with his left boot and a wrinkle in the bulkhead.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the lord my soul to take…
And sometimes, he had to agree with the myriad of nonhuman species out there. He, his ancestors, and the entire freaking human race were just plain crazy.
Who else would be thinking about ancient poetry whilst wrestling to climb into their own deathbed?
Who else would need very stupid animals to talk to in order to stay sane?
Humans, that’s who. Crazy-ass humans.
He missed them already.
Paul stared at the etched oath and pressed the sleep button. Tried to keep it and his family photo in his field of vision as the anaesthetic began to overpower him.
I made a promise…
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His mouth felt and tasted like something had died in it. Then revived by stinky eldritch magic and invited all its zombie friends over for the rowdiest rave in history. Attempting to get his saliva working by moving his tongue and jaws made it worse by adding a frisson of rotten mould into the mix.
Bright light, overhead. Not the nondescript grey of his stasis pod. No motivational message.
On the upside, I’m apparently not a screaming corpse, either…
Had to love that endless human optimism.
It was hard to focus, let alone move. All the same he had to at least try to spit some of that foul, mouldy… Eeeuuurrrk… out of his mouth.
“Oops! Just a moment, Mr Collins…”
A shape blurred into view, somehow moved him into a sitting position. Pressed a straw to lips that felt like they were crusted with the chapping of centuries.
“Sip and swish, then spit,” advised the friendly stranger.
It was safe to assume they were friendly. Unfriendlies were less than likely to bother with such niceties.
“You’ve been through an ordeal, Mr Collins,” said the medtech. “Frankly, it was something of a miracle that you survived your trip in the first place, with all that damage to the ship, but when the rescue crew found you… Well… To put it briefly, you managed to somehow hybridise stasis and cryosuspension. Your revival was not the easiest process.”
His tongue rehydrated well, even if his lips were slow followers. “’M I 'nywhere near New Frisco?” he croaked. “D’d I make it?” And, since his tongue felt like old leather from a forgotten attic, right now, he refrained from apologising.
His assistant remained stubbornly out of focus. “Try to blink a little more. You can swallow if you don’t feel nauseated.”
Oh, clear, clean water. How he missed it. Not the sickly sweet-sweat electrolyte mix Sleep Tite supplied him with. It slid down his throat in icy bliss. He tried again. “Did I make it? This New Frisco?”
“Uhm. I think this used to be New Frisco in the colonial days. It’s Nuvisso, now. But, yes. Your ship got through, in the end. No further losses.”
That use of in the end tweaked his addled synapses. “I miss a jump?”
A warm hand surrounding his. “Your jury-rigged equipment failed after the life support did. It just wasn’t vacuum rated… You went the long way around.”
“Thousands of years?” he could pick out a feminine shape. Dark eyes.
She nodded. “Over two thousand, to our best estimates.”
Lucille and Jack. Gone in a blink. And him with one photo… “But I made it, right? I kept the promise.” Liquid burned his eyes. Blurred the crisp medtech into full view. Not fair. All he had left was a promise and a photo. And a dead cat.
“Yes, sir. The mail got through. Your wife made certain that we told you, 'the mail got through’.” She swapped his empty container for a full one. Helped him hold its weight. “The colonists’ revival was easier. They’ve already moved into one of our ancillary colony worlds.”
“S'rry bout that,” he mumbled. “Had to kludge a best chance f'r m'self.” Lucille’s words were probably a will and testament that had been entrusted for ages to the people of New Frisko. Nuvisso. “And Liz? What'cha do with 'er?”
“She’s part of the hero shrine, dedicated to your long journey. You can visit, when you’re stronger. Your wife insisted that your cat was part of your family and your crew, and deserved all due honours,” said the medtech.
Paul nodded. Good. He swallowed some more water. Held a small sip in his desiccated mouth to try and regain some more of its former agility. “They kick Nev-R-Fail’s ass?”
A smirk from the medtech. “I think the old phrase is, 'to hell’s curb and back’?” she grinned as he nodded. “Sleep Tite and all the other low-go courier companies experienced a… very rude awakening. Followed by a swift trip to economic oblivion.”
Ow. Smiling hurt. Paul checked his hand. Pink and raw, and patched in places with what he assumed were medical bandages. He probably looked worse than death warmed over. Probably more like death ineffectively nuked into half-frozen, gelid mush.
There was a window, in the slowly-clearing field of vision. It showed him a blue sky and some blurry patch of green and pale shapes that was probably part of a tree.
Just like he could not throw away Liz, he could not ask about Lucy and Jack. Asking would get answers. Answers would mean that the possibilities of their existence, their life and death, would be nailed into finality.
Two thousand years.
It was hard to wrap his brain around.
“Two… thousand…” he whispered, in-between cautious sips of water. Certainly, life as a cryo-courier could get… stretched. But most expected months. Weeks at best. Rare, indeed, was the pilot who slept for a year, let alone a number of them. And the ones amongst the latter group usually turned up in screaming corpse horror tales.
Be grateful for what you’ve got, his Nan used to say, There’s always those who’ve got it worse.
Right now, Paul couldn’t think of anyone belonging to either column. In his credits, he had a hero card, which would be playable for as long as the media decided he was interesting. And after those five seconds were over, how thin would that card wear and how fast? Was the Revere’s Ride worth anything at all? Was he even allowed to use it as trade.
Who was paying for all the hours of medical care he’d racked up, here?
“Don’t worry, sir,” said the medic. “Your wife made certain your funds were well managed. You can discuss the details when she comes back.”
Paul almost choked on his water. “Whazzat?”
“Your wife, sir. Lucille Collins? And your son Jack. They stepped out to see to your get well gift. I understand it’s a tradition where you’re from.”
A solid wall of confusion stopped any further neurons from firing. “But I said g'bye… I tole 'em live a good life.”
“No such thing as a good life,” said Lucille’s warm, welcome voice, “without your loved ones in it.”
Jack leaped on to the bed. “Daddy, daddy, daddy, you won’t believe what me'n Momma did! We got ourselves shipped out here to wait 'till you got found! And when they did find you, you were all frozen like the colonists were? And they had to thaw you out real careful 'cause nobody’d ever done that with a pod b'fore so we gotcha a special present, it’s real special, show him, Momma?”
The flesh was amazingly weak, but he hugged his son with all the strength he had. “My one good wish is plenty,” he said.
“Well, I had to make certain it stayed a good wish,” said Lucille, opening a basket on his other side, “Meet Liz the Second.”
“She’s a clone,” supplied Jake. “They made her out of tiny bits of the original Liz. Can we keep her, please, Daddy?”
The tiny calico kitten leaped onto his finger as he tried to rub her chin and attacked it with all her kittenish might.
“Stupid cat,” Paul whispered, even as he nodded his assent.