Adrift – Part 5

by Gaston Prereth

This is the final chapter of Adrift. Thank you for reading this short story and I hope you enjoyed it. As I mentioned in my last post, I will be bringing you a knew multi-part story that I am excited to be able to share with you. Please look out for it next Saturday.

As always, comments are welcome. The more feedback I get, the more chance I have at offering you something to enjoy. I know I write more (soft) SF then the other fantastic writers on here, so feel free to let me know if you’d like me to focus more on fantasy or if you have any suggestions on how I could improve the stories .

They had had to wait for the hull-rail for less than ten minutes after they had arrived at the airlock. The gliding capsule, like a can of beans with windows cut out of its sides, soundlessly slid past the small hatchway that led from the hulk of the cruiser. The capsule was not, in reality, moving. It stayed in a stationary position as the large ship rotated beneath it, creating the illusion of it journeying around the ship’s hull.

As the hull-rail capsule did not stop at the airlock, a complex contraption of mechanical levers and locking mechanisms opened the doors of both the ship’s airlock and the capsule’s own hatchway as it past. As the cylinder of the rail’s carriage moved over the doorway, it pushed open the cruiser’s outer door. The air was sealed in by the carriage squatting over the airlock while the doors were open, and as the hull-rail continued its journey past, hooks caught against the door mechanism, closing the airlocks before the vacuum of space could fight its way into the ship. In a spacecraft almost completely controlled by electronic machines, it was impressive to see such a complex mechanical design in action.

However, Jason had not had time to appreciate it as he had pushed his young companion through the hatchway into the hull-rail’s capsule. They had a couple of minutes to climb aboard, but he did not want to waste their opportunity. If they missed this carriage, then they would have to wait another hour for the next one, and an hour might be too late.

As he climbed into the capsule, feeling gravity release its tenuous grip on his body, he noticed the young woman staring with wide eyes out at the black space beyond.  The windows of the hull-rail were large, giving an awesome panoramic view of both the ship’s hull and the empty space beyond. He realised that she had probably never seen space from anywhere other than a night sky. The ship was large enough that, if your quarters were deep in its belly, you’d never wander near the external walls and their meagre portions of portholes. He placed a hand on her shoulder, half hoping that it came across as more condescending than comforting.

“It’s so empty.” she said to the window before her. “There are no planets, no suns, just distant stars.”

“The stars are suns.” said Jason, “all as majestic and powerful as our own.”

“I know, but…” she turned to him, her eyes glinting in the dull lighting of the hull-rail capsule, “you see all these photo’s of nebulae, stars burning brightly, vast galaxies stretching their arms across the universe. Yet they’re not here. They’re light-years away. All that is here is a few distant pinpricks of light in an empty black blanket.”

“Welcome to reality,” said Jason, dragging his body away from her, using the hand holds protruding from what he still thought of as the ceiling. “Most people usually go on about the weightlessness first, before looking through the windows. Shrieking the same jokes about no longer having to go on a diet or humming the Blue Danube Waltz.”

She looked down at her floating body, her legs impotently wiggling below her hips, her hair drifting away from her like ink dispersing in water.

“That’s not important right now.” She said in a matter of fact tone. “However weird a sensation it is, it doesn’t mean anything. There are thousands of people onboard this ship, thousands of innocent lives, and we’re in the middle of nowhere. If we can’t do anything, no help is coming from anywhere. Even if people get into the escape capsules, what use will it be?”

“They’ll be safe if the ship decompresses or the air supply fails.” Said Jason, a mixture of guilt and new found respect towards the young woman floating before him. Her eyes were still like a startled deer’s, but the rest of her features were set in stone. She looked like a gorgon with her hair streaming out from her.

“For how long? Who is going to come and rescue them out here? Who is going to save them. This isn’t like being marooned in the Atlantic or lost in a desert. They’re aren’t any edges, no places to get to. They can’t get out, they’d just have to hope that someone, in the vast emptiness around them, stumbles in the right direction.”

She turned away from him, staring back out through the window. A silence fell around them. Not the usual quiet people thought was silence. There were no distant bumps, no calling birds, no quiet humming of electricity. It was just silent.

Jason let go of one of the hand holds and stared at his hand. He wasn’t sure why, but he needed to think about something, and his hand seemed as good a topic as anything. He’d felt the pressure of the situation before. He’d been angry, scared, even energised, but his companion’s words had changed that. Now he felt impotent. He wasn’t fighting against a failing ship, he was fighting against the universe.

As the hull-rail slunk up to the bridge’s hatchway, they still had not said another word to each other. They pulled themselves towards the capsule’s exit, avoiding eye contact as they waited for it to open.

Before him, the closed door loomed. He felt, he imagined, like the men of d-day must have done. Staring at the end of their landing craft, waiting for the ramp to drop and the horror to start. His mouth was dry, his stomach felt as solid as concrete, and all his skin tingled. This was it.

The capsule let out a subtle shudder and then the hatchway slid open. The anti-room beyond was pitch black but Jason pulled himself through and into the dark sea without hesitation. He felt gravity grab hold of him again, and he found himself crawling on the floor. He felt heavy as he used a nearby wall to pull himself to his feet. A light flicked on behind him. She had turned on her torch.

The room was empty, nothing more than an enlarged corridor to separate the bridge from the congregating tourists who were important enough to visit the hub of the ship’s commands. They both approached the large double doors and, without saying a word to each other, gripped a door each and slid them apart.

There was a smell of burning plastic and a dull purple glow flooded in from the bridge. The light pulsated in slow tide like sweeps through the doors. Jason glanced at the young woman beside him, her features softened by the low light, but could not think of anything to say. She ignored his glance and stepped across the breech in one strong, determined stride. She appeared to have changed, to be more focused. Stronger.

Bodies lay scattered around the bridge, crumpled piles of uniforms. Motionless. Jason moved towards one, bending down and scooping a curtain of pale blonde hair from the crew member’s face. The soft features of his superior looked back at him with glazed eyes. It wasn’t her, of course, but one of her many sisters that worked aboard the ship. Just another crew member built from the same mould.

“They’re all identical,” muttered the young woman, moving between the bodies, circumspectly looking them over.

“They’re drones. Androids. Chosen for their quick reactions and cool thinking.” said Jason, feeling his nose close down as pockets of the burnt plastic smell floated like icebergs around the bridge. He stood up, looking round at the bridge. It was designed like an amphitheatre, banks of desks littered with computer consoles curving round a central platform beneath. Steps split the desks up, leading down to the central platform where the captain’s seat was.

All the computer consoles were dead, everything looked like it had been shut down as if the ship had been mothballed. Yet it wasn’t silent. A click, no louder than the tick of a clock, split the silence of the bridge like cracking glass. It clicked in time with the pulses of purple light, sounding each time the light grew to its brightest.

He stepped over the body at his feet and moved round one of the low desks towards the nearest staircase. That was when he first saw it. A small ball, no bigger than a football, sitting in front of the captain’s chair, pulsating a deep purple. As he moved closer to it, he could feel his body tingling. The hairs on his arms stood to attention, and his muscles twitched as if they were getting prodded by hundreds of probing fingers.

“What is it?” came the girls voice from behind him. She had followed him down the steps to middle of the bridge, and was looking over his shoulder at the glowing orb.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.” They watched it for a few minutes. At first they had thought its slow pulsating flashes were regular, but as they watched Jason noticed that the gaps between each slow illumination were different lengths. He watched, starting to count.

“It’s prime numbers.” he said under his breath, kneeling down before the ball.

“What?”

“The flashing, it’s prime numbers. Each pulse is one, and everytime there is a long pause, it is the start of a new number. Look.” The orb pulsed twice, then waited. It then pulsed once, twice, three, times, then waited. Next it pulsed five times, and then seven. It reached seventeen before it started the sequence again.

“Why is it doing that?” asked the woman, “It’s the thing causing everything to break isn’t it? Why would someone design a weapon to count out prime numbers?”

“A weapon?” asked Jason with surprise.

“What else would you call it? If this isn’t sabotage, what is it? This is some sort of pulsating bomb, designed to destroy the ship’s computing systems.”

“I wonder.” Said Jason, reaching a hand out and touching the ball. He jerked his arm away. It was hot. He touched his fingers against the orb with more caution. It was cold, but then, as the light swelled in the orb, he felt the temperature increase. “It’s pulsating hot and cold.” he mumbled, trying to order his thoughts, “It is clicking and flashing prime numbers, and it’s temperature is changing too.”

“Maybe that’s just how it works.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s trying to talk to us.”

“What are you talking about? Let’s just get rid of it.”

“Send that message on all frequencies and in all known languages.” said Jason to himself, summoning up memories of his childhood sat in front of a television screen. “That’s what they always used to say on my Dad’s star trek movies, when they wanted to send messages to people whom they hadn’t met before. I never thought about what that meant. We always think of language being in vocal or body movements, but why do we do that? That’s just how we are. What if an alien species wanted to talk to us, but didn’t know how we communicated?”

“Aliens?”

“Look at this thing, i’ve never seen anything like it.” said Jason, pointing at the glowing orb. “But its sending a message in almost every way it can. It’s sending it in light, in heat, in sound and…” He looked up at her, “I think we can assume magnetism.”

“The electromagnetic pulses?” Jason nodded. “So you think this is first contact with aliens? Not really an auspicious start.”

“They weren’t to know. Maybe they don’t use electricity like we do, or maybe they know how to protect against pulses and do that as standard. I don’t know.”

“Well it doesn’t matter. We need to stop it.” She jumped up and grabbed at the orb, picking it up like a rugby player lunging at a loose ball.

“What are you doing?” said Jason. She didn’t respond but ran back up the stairs towards the hull-rail. The capsule they had come in was long gone, and the next one wouldn’t be back for a long time. She stood by the airlock’s doors, staring at them, wincing each time the orb reached its brightest. “Where are you going?” asked Jason, grabbing her shoulder. She turned, and he could see tears in her eyes.

“We’ve got to get rid of this thing, it’s the ship’s only chance. We need to put it out the airlock, out into the emptiness of space.”

“But that could be alien technology, our first contact. We can’t get rid of it.” Said Jason, reaching for it, but she took a step back. Pressing herself against the airlock.

“What’s the point of it if everyone on this ship dies? There’ll be another chance, another contact, but the people’s lives on this ship are more important.” Jason stared at her, and then nodded. “Go back to the bridge and close the doors.” she said in the same commanding tone she had used when they had first met.

Jason stared at her, then at the orb, then the airlock hatchway behind her. He could see her skin reddening where the orb was leaving its searing mark.

“What are you going to do?” he asked, even though he knew already. She was right. They needed to get that orb off the ship and with all the electronics fried, someone was going to have to open the doors. Someone was going to have to take the orb outside. “Give it to me,” he said firmly, “you get into the bridge.”

“The posh girl ruining your prejudices?” she said with a weak smile. “You told me I didn’t think of anyone else. At least my final act will prove you wrong. Go, close the bridge doors.”

“No, you can’t. Give me the orb.”

“Go.” she shouted, hugging the ball even tighter in one arm as she turned and grabbed at the manual lever that would unlock the outer doors. “The ship will need crewmen. The people will need someone to organise them. Someone who knows the ship and can get them home. Go.” Jason watched her and then, hating himself with each step, started to back towards the bridge.

“Thank you.” He said, barely able to get the words out of his throat. As he backed across the threshold of the bridge a thought squirmed its way into his blank mind. “You never told me your name.”

“You never thought it important enough to ask.” She said, keeping her back to him. “It’s Deandria.”

“Deandria.” he repeated as slid the bridge doors shut. He closed his eyes and lay his forehead against the sealed doors. He felt sick. He wanted to rip the doors open again. The metal under his forehead quivered. A single lone twitch as the air beyond said goodbye. “Thank you.” he said again to the void of space inches from his space.

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