Past a Spinning Star – A Short Story

Waking was the hardest part.

The process, long researched and long tested, was still imperfect. The red goo that made sleep on the star-to-star flight possible did unpleasant things to the human body, and lengthy immersion sometimes proved fatal. One percent didn’t make it regardless of duration, but the alternative, staying awake, wasn’t practical. Thus, the goo, and with space flight there was no such thing as a short soak.

Gene Creighton endured the automated cleaning units that set upon him like overzealous employees at an automobile filling station. The gravity well must have been turned on; he felt the discomfort of liquid draining from his lungs and heard it splatter onto the floor. He coughed, gagged, retched, and breathed air once more, the first time in…how many years? He looked at the other bays, noting that he was the only one awake. Blowers buffeted his naked body with warm air. He managed to stand up, the machines around the stall clicking off and returning to their own peaceful slumber, the long robotic arms pulling away from him.

He moved into the next chamber, plastic and dark steel giving way to a semi-normal tiled bath and shower room that reminded him of Navy basic training. He found a general locker and opened it, finding soap in a squeeze tube along with other toiletries secured in snug pouches. A touch pad activated the shower, and a circle motion with his hand set the water to the perfect temperature for poaching lobster. In spite of the heat, he got in, relishing the chance to rinse his mouth of the acrid stuff that had been saturating every hollow of his body, perhaps for decades. Hopefully longer. If they had been under long enough he wouldn’t bother reentering the process since their flight must surely be almost over. Then he’d have some time to himself. The pleasure of solitude was lost on many, but not Gene. He relished the idea of the time to study frivolous things, such as old world history, poetry, and film. He might even read some fiction. The library held almost the length and breadth of anything mankind had written and published, whether on papyrus, paper, film stock, or electronically, terabytes of data just waiting for Gene’s perusal.

Bored? Never.

Any disclosure of antisocial behavior would have been a red flag on Gene’s colony ship application. Gene didn’t think of it as ‘antisocial’. Maybe just asocial. Standoffish without a desire to entirely recede from the human family.

Of course, said human family didn’t put a chink in its global domestic product just so Gene could read in the library for a few years. Why was he awake? After showering and dressing into a cotton sweatshirt and jogging pants, he made his way through the belly of the ship, instinctively moving at a crouch even though the economically-spaced corridors were just large enough to admit his tall frame.

All the lights were on, non-filament gas tubes that ran through each of the rooms just above the utilitarian white coping. He passed by the mess, the general living area, the doctor’s office, and the tool shed, arriving at command. He opened the door. Monitors popped on at his arrival with a wink. He sat at a main terminal and relieved the computer of the command of the ship.

“Head tool pusher logging on,” he said. His mission designation was “Lead Systems Specialist and Machinist.” Not the man with the plan but rather his second bastard cousin who gets called when everyone else is in a pinch. Still, it felt good to be needed if not loved, the one who gets the phone call in the middle of the colony ship’s eighty-year night.

He scrolled through pages of systems in the ship’s operating terminal. Power? All fusion reactors at 100%. The deuterium and tritium levels were stable. They had a millennium’s worth and more to spare. Plasma containment checked out. Always a relief not to be leaking anything as hot as the sun’s surface.

Life support? All fine. Pressure in all compartments read normal. And so it went down the line, the ship presenting Gene with green bars on the monitor.

Cold nose, healthy dog, he thought. So why am I awake?

He checked the history log and read through the past month’s events. Diagnostics, self-tests, thousands of lines confirming not much had happened. And then he saw it.

The navigation guidance program had reset itself. But why? It wasn’t apparent. He moved on to the course and bearing. The last gravity swing past an obliging star had set them on the perfect tangent when the ship had made the maneuver two years previously, all computer controlled, sheer perfection without humans to muck it up. Yet here they were, hurtling through space with the guidance system zeroed out, fine if the ship was still at Luna, but disconcerting to Gene, who wondered what he was supposed to do about it and how much time he had before the ship took a detour and went somewhere besides its destination.

Suddenly, the screen started to fade, the letters and graphs all vanishing. Not just the computer, he realized. The lights in the command room were going out, too. Now what?

He stood, fumbling past several desks with computers until his hand found the door. It opened easily enough, but then again, it wasn’t powered. The corridor was pitch black as well, with no emergency lights of any kind to help him along. The darkness was absolute. He paused to listen and was surprised that the hums of the ship continued as if everything else was working fine. Air movers were making their white noise so easily ignored, as were the computer stations and monitors back in command. Gases and liquids moved through pipes, barely a whisper but another sign the ship still lived. And then he discerned the distinguishable buzz of the lights above him. They were on or at least had power.

Gene felt a surge of panic. He felt his way down the corridor along the wall until he found a pocket compartment with an emergency tool kit. He touched the tools, working along the predetermined layout until he found a flashlight. Thumbed it on. Nothing. Maybe the light had malfunctioned. He returned to the tool kit and pulled open a drawer with the power tools. His hands found an electric screwdriver with a light at its tip that would activate once the screwdriver turned on, He hit the switch. The device whirred, but he saw nothing.

Gene then knew he was blind.

He thought of screaming, cursing, throwing the screwdriver, but knew none of these actions would be productive. He wasn’t the tool pusher only because of competence; he knew how to keep his head. He thought back on the mission briefings and interview classes for the colony.

The blindness wasn’t a mystery. One percent died during the process. An acceptable risk to survive decades of space flight. But an additional two to three percent experienced some level of brain damage. Blindness was a possible outcome, as were strokes, paralysis, dementia, idiocy, or complete neural breakdown.

At least all marbles were accounted for, he consoled himself.

But what to do now? That, too, wasn’t a mystery. He needed help bad. Someone to be his eyes. But who? And whomever he picked would be in the same situation he was in: out of the process on what still might be a lengthy voyage. And reentering the process could be a dicey thing, tripling the chance of all side effects, including death. Whoever he pulled out of the long soak might not see the colony until they were much older than they might have intended if they didn’t go back under. But none of the passengers would arrive with the current malfunction, so Gene had to make a choice. He returned to command and found a terminal. The computer gave him a few error messages until he properly inputted the memorized keyboard shortcuts to activate the system’s speech interface.

“Roster,” Gene said.

The computer began reading names.

***

Watching the woman wake up might have been tempting had he been able to see. Then again, he reasoned, a fellow would have to be pretty desperate to gain much pleasure from seeing even the most comely shape emerge from the throes of long slumber. It was just so messy, and for anyone who had been through the process it was anything but a turn on.

Nadia DeGroff, you’re today’s lucky winner, he thought.

Her name had been one of the few with the proper skills and areas of knowledge. He had also added an element of chance out of fairness so he didn’t automatically choose the person whose name showed first in the alphabetical list. He asked the computer for a random number from one to twenty six. The computer complied, saying, “Four.” So Gene started with ‘D,’ and Nadia’s name was the first to appear with both an astronautics and computer background. She could even program in binary if the shell program had become corrupted. Plus, she could see. Hopefully. Otherwise this would have the makings of a Greek tragedy with the gods of space having the last laugh over a crew of blind space travelers.

Gene did a status check on Nadia’s removal from the process, but the computer’s microphone was too far away. He felt his way forward, leaned close, and repeated the command. The soft male voice from the computer’s language module spoke up: “Colonist 12-29998-DeGroff in final recovery cycle.”

Swell. It made her sound like a drained soda can returned for deposit. He got up and felt his way down the corridors, wondering if in his case the blindness might be temporary. Maybe he should have removed a doctor from the process as well.

In the recovery room, he heard the harsh sounds of a hacking cough. Post-process morning mouth. He walked forward, found a tiled wall. His feet tapped the soft grating where goo and water could drain. He heard a sniffle and a cough.

“Nadia DeGroff?” he asked.

“From…” she started, coughed, continued. “From dreamless nights, I awake. From longest night, I peer out to confront and face distant unseen horizons.”

“Not Shakespeare. Longfellow?” Gene asked.

“No. I wrote that. My first words upon arrival at mankind’s new home. Please add the recording of these words to my history.”

“Ah. That was…nice. I’m Gene Creighton.”

“Nadia.” She went to the blowers. Once dry, she began to dress. “How far along in the wakings are we?”

“Umm, not that far.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re number two.”

“Number two? Not counting the medical teams and the pioneer scouts, of course. And the engineers to get everything started.”

“No, you’re number two out of everybody.”

“What do you mean, number two? Who are you, exactly?”

“I’m Gene Creighton, tool pusher.”

“What? You’re not a doctor here to monitor my retrieval from the process? I could have died, choked, had complications! I thought you were a recovery specialist! What do you mean, ‘number two?’”

He could tell she had gotten close. Her angry voice was quite loud.

“Please, calm down. You might want to finish dressing. We’re not exactly at Promethea yet.”

Silence. Then, “What do you mean?” she asked in a quiet voice.

This should probably be news she sits down for, he reasoned. But there wasn’t time. “We, that is, the ship is having some trouble. Something has blanked out the entire navigations computer. I was trying to fix it when I ran into a little snag.”

“Go on.”

“My vision quit on me. I’m completely blind.”

“So, you woke me up to help you.”

“Well, yes, basically. To help us. The ship’s in trouble. You need to check that out.”

“But why me?”

“Because your name came up first in my search.”

She sighed, rubbed her eyes, her forehead. “Well damn your search,” she said. “Why couldn’t you start with ‘A’? Alma Abercrombie is a better tech then I ever will be.”

Gene hoped her question was rhetorical.

“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I’m just a bit off balance. We enter the process thinking nothing but making it. Waking up to the dawn of a new star not seen by human eyes. But I guess we need to get there first, otherwise this’d be the expensive pipe dream the protesters said it would be. Let me get dressed, and you can show me what’s wrong.”

***

Nadia led Gene back to command, the journey much faster than when he had to fumble down the hallway on his own. The touch of her hand on his along with the sound of her voice were reassuring, making his condition feel that much less frustrating for the time being.

“All right, let’s see what the problem is,” she said.

She sat at the master terminal after getting him a chair. He heard a flurry of keystrokes. The language module wasn’t able to keep up, attempting to narrate each step and finally stuttering at each command. She switched it off.

“Sorry, it was getting annoying.”

“Not a problem. Do whatever it is you have to do.”

A few minutes passed. “Oh, is that all?”

“What?”

“Navigation just zeroed itself out. I just have to restart the main with a hard reboot. And voila, the crowd goes wild, problem solved, and we’re on our way.”

“You mean that’s it?”

“It’ll take a few hours,” she said. “The system will revert to one of the mirror networks in the meantime. The only strange thing is that transition should have happened automatically. A diagnosis of the offline nav program will uncover the glitch so it can be patched on all of the mirrors. I’m glad it was a simple problem. Too bad you weren’t able to figure it out before you had to wake me.”

“Like I said, I’m sorry. I wasn’t exactly expecting to get pulled out this early, either. I had hoped this trip would be perfectly smooth, as the techies back on Earth had figured. I also didn’t expect to lose my eyes. Plenty of frustration to go around, if you ask me.”

“I don’t mean to harp on you. I just wish I hadn’t been woken up for something so easy to fix, that’s all. But this was important. And this sure beats an asteroid strike. Once the system is back online I’ll triple check everything. Then it’s back to bed for me.”

“Just wait a month or two. The risks…”

“Waiting doesn’t make a difference. Each time in there’s a greater chance of nerve damage, blood clots, maybe even genetic side effects we’ve never uncovered. All acceptable risks to get enough of us to where we’re going.”

As Gene knew. Every passenger understood and had signed a phonebook of acknowledgements and waivers. And once damaged by the process, further damage was almost guaranteed. “And how far away are we from Promethea?” he asked.

More clicks on the keyboard. “Huh,” she said. “That’s strange. The navigation system has reset itself again. Heading zeroed out.”

“So much for simple solutions.”

“I’m checking all records,” she said. “Let’s find out what’s happening here.”

Taps on the computer keys. Minutes passed.

“I’m glad I woke you,” he said. Nadia didn’t comment.

“Aha. Source signal. Someone seems to be telling our navigations system to reset itself.”

“What do you mean ‘someone’? Everyone’s asleep. Old world transmissions?”

“No. A burst of signal from somewhere relatively close by, something now along our same course. Odd. Burst seems to come from here.”

He could hear her tapping the monitor. “Still blind over here, Nadia. So where exactly is that?”

“It’s nowhere, really. According to my charts, just a lonely type ‘F’ star, possible binary.”

“Binary. So what’s the second star?”

“Doesn’t say.”

“Well, there’s obviously something there, putting out signal. We’re talking alien intelligence with a penchant for screwing up navigations systems?”

“Don’t get testy, I don’t know yet. Of course, there’s something there, just what is uncertain. We’ll find out. I’ll call up the records, see if the sensors picked up any noise from the star.”

As she worked away at the terminal, Gene took the screwdriver from a belt loop. Began to tap it on a neighboring desk.

“Cut it out,” Nadia said.

“Sorry.”

An hour later, she said, “Got it. The same time that the initial incident occurred and reset navigation we received a tight packet of radio signal with a ton of garbage that overloaded our shields. Right up our pipe. Our friendly unnamed ‘F’ star has a little buddy.”

“Pulsar?”

“Yup.”

“So why didn’t we detect it earlier when plotting our course? And why only now has the pulse of signal hit us twice? I thought they spun much faster than that, multiple times a minute.”

“Most do. It must have had a perfect orbit with its big brother, so Earth never heard from it. That’s the problem when most of your observations are made from one point in a three-dimensional universe. Lots of dark spots on the map. And as far as the signal, we whipped past that star going pretty fast. I’d say we’re catching up with the pulses from the little star.”

“Because the signals are going slower,” Gene said, nodding. “Like paddling into shore on a row boat, going faster or as fast as the waves.”

“Precisely. But the problem is our oars are practically out of the water. We don’t maneuver while traveling, and even if we could where else could we go? We’re stuck going as fast as we are, and we’ll hit more of the pulsar’s radio signal wakes as we continue.”

Another set of keystrokes followed. Gene waited, turning the screwdriver in his hand.

“What can I do?” he asked.

“I’m just figuring out the time gap between when you woke up and the second blank out of the nav system just now. It was about twelve hours.”

“Can the navigations system be quarantined from however the signal is entering the ship?”

“Maybe. I could blind the sensors completely.” There came an awkward pause. “Sorry, poor phrasing, but you know what I mean. The biggest disadvantage is that the ship would then be unable to compensate for any unexpected variables like extra gravity or radiation when passing through the next system. Stuff like that. Someone’d have to wake up in the next two years just to turn navigation’s ‘eyes’ back on.”

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

“What do you mean? Go back through the process just to come back out in two years? What if you wake up and something else has happened to you? The main computer will think it’s done its job by waking you, but you’re already blind. What if you have a stroke? Or come to with a slurry for a brain?”

“It just means I won’t go back under the process. I’ll stay awake.”

Silence. “Gene, it’s thirty years to Promethea.”

It was the first time she had used his name. He decided he liked the sound of her voice. He wondered what she might look like, the face behind what he could hear. Her profile told him that she was in her mid-thirties. But was she tall or skinny? What color was her skin or her hair? How did she smile? He’d never know, but at least he had her voice for a little while longer.

“Thirty years of catch-up reading,” Gene said. “I get to study things I never thought I could. I’ll keep busy.”

“There’s got to be some other way.”

“Well, from everything you’ve told me, it’s either reset navigation every twelve hours or do it once after three years and at whatever intervals in between you determine we need to have the blinders off. Unless you know a way to shut down a neutron star.”

She laughed. He liked the sound of that, too, and wondered what books, exactly, would replace that sound in his memory.

***

The panel came off with the removal of eight metal screws. The thick optic fiber cables were bound in bundles, like shiny snakes running throughout the walls of the colony ship. They ran beneath the power lines and other plumbing that fed the various ship functions.

With her help, he told her what to do to access the coupler that, with a twist of its plastic collar, unlocked the plug on the external eyes and ears of the navigation computer. She took his hands and placed them on the two sections of wire so he could find them. All he had to do was pull.

“Cold hands,” he said.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Ravenous.”

“Good. So am I. Let’s see what’s supposed to be in the pantry for the pioneer shuttle pilots when they wake up.”

There was plenty of food. The galley was stocked with an abundance of varieties of freeze-dried edibles, from pre-made meals to basics, like eggs, fruit, and grain. Nadia made two ham omelets by adding hot water to foil pouches.

“A bit slimy,” Gene said.

“Everyone’s a critic.”

“You know, I used to make my own barbeque sauce back home. Ketchup, Dijon mustard, Kentucky whiskey, apricot preserves, hot sauce…”

“Sounds good. It’ll be a long time before anyone gets to barbeque anything.”

“Yup.”

“Thirty years is a long time.”

“Yup.”

“Why not take the chance? Go under again. You don’t know. You might make it without any additional side effects. That way you’ll at least have some sort of life. We can figure something out with the computer, write a program to automate the navigations system’s activation. Try building a shield for the navigations dish.”

“It’s not worth the risk. What if it fails? Thirty years is nothing if it gets everyone to their destination. And what if there are additional side effects? I don’t intend to be the first vegetable planted in Promethea’s soil.”

She didn’t laugh at his joke. “What if I stay awake with you?”

“Out of the question. I should have worked harder with the computer. Never woken you up. I’m sorry that I did. When my eyes quit, I guess I panicked. But you don’t have any post-process symptoms. You can go under again.”

“There’s an increased risk.”

“I know. But there’s a risk for everyone that’s on this ship. And as you said, thirty years is a long time.”

***

The computer voice confirmed that Nadia’s assessment was correct. Every twelve hours, the ship hit the radio wake from the pulsar, the signal washing harmlessly over the ship now that the receiver inputs were off-line. Why the designers overlooked such a possible glitch wasn’t important, Gene decided. Every complex system had its flaws: the more complex, the more flaws. He reasoned that if this was indeed the only glitch, that it was an acceptable cost to establishing the first colony outside Earth’s solar system. The command module was quiet. Gene was alone.

“Continue,” he said to the computer.

The bland voice of the language module filled the silence.

“A dark ship worked the waves that broke,

Across the seas that God forsook.

The men murmured, at the prophet did leap,

They would throw the man over and into the deep.”

The command module door opened behind him. Someone entered.

“Problem sleeping?” he asked.

“I think I had enough sleep to last me a while,” Nadia answered. She paused to listen to the poem. “This sounds pretty depressing.”

The computer voice continued on, oblivious to her comment. He heard her drag a chair over and sit next to him.

“I think this poem has a happy ending,” he said. The computer’s monotone reading ended after a minute. The poem’s sailing ship made it back to port, having passed through the storm.

“Just figured I had some catch-up reading of my own to do,” she said.

“Thirty years’ worth?”

“We’ll see. I can always opt out and reenter the process.”

“Yes, you can. So how’s your reading voice?” he asked, knowing well that it would be good.

 

 

 

Copyright © Jan 2003 by Gerhard Gehrke

Past a Spinning Star was first published in 2003 at Anotherealm and won that year’s Editor Choice Award. I had a reader ask me about the movie “Passengers,” which was written in 2007 by John Spaihts. The film has several similarities, but enough differences. I’ll let you decide which you prefer.

I posted Past a Spinning Star here on Wattpad. If you have a moment, please click the link and give it an upvote! Thanks!

https://www.wattpad.com/355613360-past-a-spinning-star

 

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