From the moment his eyes flew open in the dark enclosure, gasping for air- for life, Neil felt what must have been every sense of doubt, every thought of dread about the journey clutching at his throat. He knew something had to be wrong as he continued to inhale pain. The air supply is cut off, he thought frantically, surprised that he could still think at all. Clawing desperately at the indoor handle of his cryo-bed, Neil pushed with all of the animal strength he could muster, very aware that every breath he took was bringing him closer to death. With his hand still on the handle and with a great lurch, the door to the cryo-bed flew open. Neil spilled out of it, as several other instruments freed themselves from the wall as well. He gasped in air greedily, eyes pinched and forearms outstretched ready to catch a fall, but the floor never came up to meet him.
He opened his eyes, blinking several times at an empty dimness, the only light being an impossibly bright sliver of white through an open door. Time seemed slowed as small fragments of things caught a halo of light. Screws, scrapped metal, a stray wire, and someone’s leather glove floated like motes of dust through the air. He spread out his arms to the water-like suspension.
“ Restoring gravity in 3 seconds!” a voice screamed out; a moving shadow from the heavy door.
Neil realized at the raised voice, that the steady pulse of sound pressing his ears was not his own heartbeat, but an emergency siren. He fell roughly to the floor at last. All that had been weightless was then thrown downwards, the clattering of metals and plastics littering around him. From behind, he heard the cryo-bed door shut, and it was with sick realization that Neil remembered the other passengers. The renewed gravity seemed to hold him fast, as his weakened body moved forward towards them. The short row of oval shaped beds were now waiting coffins. Neil grasped at the first cryo-bed, trying to pull it open, as the man inside seemed to sleep on. Looking around wildly, he fixed his sight towards the open slit of a door.
“Help,” he cried hoarsely. His voice had become unaccustomed to use. “Help!” he cried louder, but was hardly heard over the shaking bolts and still screeching siren. A hand quickly pushed the room’s door open, and an older woman’s face appeared, hurriedly looking in, then back out again. She pulled up a pair of thick shaded goggles.
“Damnit!” she cried, abandoning her post. “ Keep it there, Mathis!”
Another voice shouted in affirmation, and the matured woman Neil recognized as the pilot rushed to his side. The open door became a wall of brilliant light. “They’re trapped,” Neil gasped. “No air; been shut off.”
She looked to him, eyebrows creased, and quickly tried to open the sealed bed. Neil joined her, but a few futile attempts was all she needed to stop. “It’ll be on emergency lock. Only opens from the inside.” She could only speak at a shouting volume. The pilot moved a trembling hand to wipe her forehead. “I’ll try to restore air, but-there’s nothing- the whole -” She caught her breath, composing herself, and flew to the nearest command station. “The bottom two decks are gone completely; exposed to the vacuum.” The pilot’s fingers worked swiftly, a muscle memory that knew the small ship’s workings intimately. “We’re hurling towards a star as we speak.”
“What? What’s happening? We’re hit?”
“Yes.” She said impatiently. Her bare fist hit the wall beside the screen. “Damn it all! Mathis, cut that siren for god‘s sake!”
“A bit busy, Jakes!” A man yelled.
“By WIM Corps?” Neil asked.
“No, asteroid belt.”
“We’re completely off course; I don’t know what happened.“ Her voiced changed slightly to something laced with regret. “ I’m sorry,” She sighed “The cryo-bed air tanker must have gone with the deck below.” Jakes shook her head and the siren died out with the push of another button. The air they were breathing now was from a different generator, and Neil looked to man behind the glass inside who slept on, perhaps already dead. Jakes shook his shoulder and asked quickly, “Kid, we need extra hands; can you fly?”
“Navigational assistant.” He replied automatically, still staring at the doomed man.
“Good enough.” The pilot dragged him by the arm towards the open door, that had continually blasted bright light into the cabin. The ship shook again, throwing the both of them to the wall. Neil had to cover his eyes with his elbow. The intensity of the star’s light was not much hindered by the darkest tint of the ship’s open view screen. It seemed to creep even between the shield of flesh thrown over his eyes, and the need for goggles like the pilot’s became apparent. Just as suddenly a strange darkness returned Neil’s vision, and he opened his eyes in time to see a large blot of black cover the screen.
The three of them stared for a moment as the large asteroid eclipsed their view.
“Oh god,” The copilot called Mathis breathed out.
“Impulse burst. Mathis, impulse burst, now!”
“Th-The inertia will kill us! We’re not stabilized-”
“We’re going to die right now if you don’t!”
“Hold onto something!” Mathis yelled, and swiped his hand across the control panel.
Slowly, slowly, a pain began to throb. His shoulder, his arm, his back. You’re still alive, it told him, burning now at a steady pulse.
There was a telling, vacant darkness in the cockpit now, and a foreboding silence. A slight hum of generators, the calm glow of buttons and switches. The ship did not shake or sway. What had happened? A brightness, an asteroid, . . . And yes, he remembered an impulse burst. The impulse burst had surely thrown them out of the asteroid belt, and Neil had somehow survived, but there was no congratulatory cheering; No orders being barked. He untangled himself from under the small space beneath the helm from where he had been flung like putty. The fact that he could move at all felt dreamlike; the circumstance just as hard to believe. The frantic moments of before felt washed over. Hadn’t he just been trying to sleep?
Neil blinked, trying to see past where his eyes would let him. There was little that could be seen past the helm and control station in the black. The cockpit had a look of being carved out, as the exposed guts of machinery had been knocked loose and instruments had been toppled. The large front view screen still had a shield of tinted darkness in place from earlier blocking the sun’s intense brilliance; that gaping window had drank in the light as if it hadn’t been there. “ Hello?“ He asked to the darkness. No response. Rather than speeding up, his heart felt frozen. He was afraid to linger on the thoughts of reality.
Neil looked down to the control screen in front of him-still functional with a faint flicker. It’s dull blue glow revealed a brass plaque above it that proudly read Ad Astra Per Aspera. The controls seemed basic, on the surface. Neil’s splintered knowledge of star navigation would only help so much, but one of the open tabs of command-the view screen control-was open to change. With a gentle finger tap, the darkness across the large screen seemed to mist away like hot breath, and a clearer view from behind came forward. Across the vast emptiness of the vacuum, a gentle curve of a planet arched slightly on the horizon. Large and orange, the gasses of it’s surface swirled like slow liquid paint. Neil felt the silent awe in his chest at the beauty of it. The ship had been mercifully caught and tethered by the planet’s orbit. The reflected light of its atmosphere crept into the cockpit, illuminating the interior mess. There was red across the floor. Neil closed his eyes, and braced himself to face the lit scene. The broken bodies of Mathis and Jakes had crumpled against the side wall. A thin trail of blood showed the height they had reached before dropping to the floor.
Jakes had been right; the impulse burst had saved them from the asteroid. But Mathis had also been right, as the unstable inertia had flung them to their deaths. Stable enough, Neil noted, to keep him alive in a small space. How could that be? He thought. Luck, incredible luck. The fingerprints of grubby hands were still on the guardrail; an echo of what had happened moments before. He certainly didn’t feel lucky. What a waste. Their crumpled forms made him aware of the extremely intricate machinery of the body, and he wondered why he functioned while they did not. They seemed smaller; strength and dignity had fled away with their thoughts and their life.
Neil dragged away his eyes and his numbness to send out a distress call, hoping a savior would hale the beacon first. There were much more than scientists, explorers, and travelers out in the black sea of space. He swept a hand over the command screen to the stellar cartography, trying to find his location relative to anywhere else. It showed the closest star as a small insignificant speck amongst other specks that were in “unexplored star region CR446:70032“, whatever that meant. He rubbed a hand over his face. His navigation skills felt useless. Closing the tabs, Neil looked up to the view screen. The orange mass of clouds on the planet continued to storm, twisting in elegant swirls, ignorant of the one who wept above them.
They had only ever meant to flee.
WIM Corps, their employers and guardians had had them mining dwarf planets for generations. When working out in the merciless vacuum of space, supervisors provided not only a livelihood, but an ultimatum of air, food, gravity, and life to workers and their families, who essentially bore their children into slavery. There was no escape for them. It was a small group who had no families-that was, had nothing to lose-who had formulated a plan; if not to escape, then to at least alert someone who would care. After meticulous planning, they had stolen a tin-can of a ship, set on a course to jump from point to point, wormhole to wormhole, to the mother-planet: Earth. They had heard legends about it; how incredibly blue it was.
Now, Neil could only think about the people he couldn’t help: the miners and others still trapped, working and living for no purpose of their own, the dead who slept soundless in their cryo-beds who had anticipated a change and purpose, and the pilots who had tried to save their people and their mission. Neil had taken their heavy bodies and closed them in their cryo-beds, uncertain of how their decay would take place. Perhaps he would soon be amongst them. Major functions of flight were gone, and emergency supplies were limited. Within the hours, it was only the quiet orange tempests of the planet that he could bare to look at, finding little comfort in their consistent billowing.
Why have I come this far, only to be trapped now? He thought, collapsed in a clearing before the view screen. How long would it be until any other ship came to find him, following the distress call? Would a team of wealthy scientists find him on the brink of death and bring him away from such a fate? Or perhaps it would be pirates who would find him at last, kicking his bones aside to look for valuable ship parts that weren‘t there. Or maybe -and this he found the most likely- no one would ever find him at all. It had only taken an unlucky space rock to fling the ship off course, and now perhaps his body would circle the gaseous planet for decades before it broke apart and collapsed to fall quietly to its atmosphere. It would burn up gracefully, unobserved, and its stories would never be told, never significant to a universe that would swallow it whole without regret.
He wondered if he was the only living thing for light years around; was his the only heartbeat, the only warm flesh and sweating brow; the only thing self conscious and unfortunate enough to predict its own demise? The injustice of it all made him want to curse the unkind conditions of the cosmos. How wretched it was to be a human, so vulnerable and weak against the enormity of everything else. There was only the cold universe, mercilessly indifferent to his fear; so active in its own expansion yet apathetic to those who clung to it.
Everything felt timeless, as there were no appropriate hours or days. Neil only started to recognize patterns and moon orbits that gave any hefty feeling of passing moments. He watched as some of the planet’s moons moved faster than others, leashed by gravity and spinning it’s slow ballet in a different beat than the others. At times the ship would orbit in a way that the entirety of the view screen would be filled only with the golden color of the planet’s belly. Never again did he turn his head toward the room of cryo-beds. Neil would only continuously check the command screen for any indication of passing life. For one glorious minute he thought he had received a signal and was disappointed that it had turned out to be a pulsar star. Too tired to feel angry, he merely lived alongside his grief.
He tried to think of Earth. They had said it was mostly water, and there were strange animals that lived alongside people. There was some food that could just be picked up off of a plant and eaten. A sky that was blue, not the black of space. Some said that was where you went when you died, although the idea seemed absurd. Daydreams had now become his life, amid the broken controls and uncounted hours, and Earth had taken up most of them. He could no longer hate the ship, or the planet, or the sun. He would merely watch the twisting orange, spinning moons, and once, a blazing comet. How strange that he should be there to see these things that would have gone on unseen otherwise. How strange that he should die and not even care anymore; perhaps the very idea bored him. Benevolent in its indifference, the universe did not help nor hinder the pursuits of life. It let them figure things out for themselves and pursue their own dreams and fulfillment. The very fact that they he had been alive at all, he thought, privileged to feel fear, hatred, love, laugh, cry, and die, unlike anything a star or planet, gas nor ice nor rock would ever accomplish, made him think that it wasn‘t all that bad. He might die, but at least he had one up on that orange planet.
So what would happen at his death? They were made of the same things. Carbon, which could only be made within the innards of stars, expelled across the universe and temporarily came together to become life. They were not so different, at the atomic level; brethren of the universe, of which different atoms had flung them together and apart so gracefully.
Wobbling to a stand, Neil walked to the control panel and began to open a new message. He did not want to regret dying without somehow recording what they had always meant to do. The victims of WIM Corps were still out there and needed a voice. And so he spoke. He put down everything he knew, about the situation, the accident, every frustration. It was a voiced weakened to a whisper, but perhaps it would live on. He could only hope that his was a common language if it was ever found. Tracing a finger over Ad Astra Per Aspera, Neil lay down, exhausted, ready to close his eyes.
Three planets away, a freighter ship responded.
This is my first crack at science fiction; i have a fondness for astrophysics. I did not, however, want this story to be to scientific or about technology and aliens. Rather, I wanted it to be about the human experience.
Ad Astra Per Aspera is a latin term and a motto from NASA meaning "To the stars, through difficulty". I just wanted to throw a bit of irony in there.