Two weeks after launch — or fourteen days, or three hundred thirty-six hours — and the Eternity was already in trouble.
Never. No, negative, nada, et cetera — any word signifying utter disagreement would do. If only Evelyn Moore could adopt a tone as cold as the dead universe outside the Eternity’s forward viewport. Maybe Fate would bend to her.
She furrowed her brow and decided upon a simple query: “What the devil are you saying?”
The cockpit was small, cramped, and very sweaty. Outwardly, that didn’t faze her partner, Nielson Crane, whose face as illumined by the flashing lights of the control board was very calm and collected. His forehead was damp, though, and not only were no drinks in their spaceship served in cups that allowed spillage, the AC unit was turned on its lowest livable setting to conserve power. They floated against their seatbelts because they couldn’t afford to activate artificial gravity.
“What I’m saying,” he intoned, “is that we still don’t have enough power to do the dimension-hop. Not on schedule.”
“The generator was supposed to have stored enough power to do it by now,” Nielson explained, as if Evelyn needed the explanation.
“So we’re stuck with the cargo in the entirely wrong universe.”
“Yes” — a reply oddly plain considering their situation.
“For how long?”
She regretted the words the instant they slipped past her lips. They hung in the air like memories of a bad dream; Nielson was slow to dispel them with his steady tone.
“Till we can gather enough power.” He paused uncharacteristically. “If we can.”
That wasn’t steady enough, Evelyn wanted to say. But she didn’t: The last thing she needed was Nielson being strained beyond his breaking point.
Instead, she stared pointedly at the blank space in the viewport, blank and black as if a blanket had been drawn over all the stars to tuck them in for the night. Except, she knew the stars were all dead. Wisps of hydrogen and helium still floated through the universe, but they were too far apart to be affected by gravity.
Even gravity could be rendered obsolete — a sobering thought.
* * *
Sixty-one Earth days — one thousand four hundred sixty-four hours: That was how long the power of the Eternity was projected to last after its launch from the last living planet in the universe, Iris.
About four Earth days — ninety-seven hours: That was how long it took for the Eternity to reach a safe distance from Iris’s star, for the dimension-hop would require both time and power, things not plenteous in the vicinity of a red giant.
Almost five Earth days — one hundred nineteen hours: That was how long it took for Iris’s star to blow. Fifteen billion people turned off as if by the flick of a switch. Maybe some of them had gotten off in another rescue ship; Evelyn hadn’t stuck around to find out.
She dreamed about it, though. She dreamed about the universe’s last visible star tearing itself to pieces before her gaze and imagined screams renting the void like knives. Thanks to the Eternity’s slow engine, she had plenty of idle time for nightmares. A week passed as the Eternity gathered power, during which Evelyn’s fitful naps were interrupted only by spontaneous awakenings beneath dampened sheets, sporadic bursts of reading, and tepid meals under the dimmed lights of the dining area (food and drinks were cold because the power needed for cooking couldn’t be spared).
She had never expected to become tired of slush drinks, but she also had never expected to carry the weight of humanity upon her shoulders.
Nielson was generally in the engine room. He and Evelyn didn’t meet much; their sleep schedules were incompatible. In space, internal chronometers were useless. No day, no night. Nothing but emptiness.
Doesn’t nature abhor vacuums? The question was moot, but Evelyn asked it of herself anyway. It didn’t make her feel better.
* * *
Nine days since all the spaceship’s extraneous features had been turned off so its generator could gather charge. Nine days of utter abandonment, of suspense, and of biding time.
Sometime during those nine twenty-four-hour sequences, Evelyn had taken her first antidepressant. When the spaceship began to sputter and the lights began to flicker, she had to fight an urge to down their entire supply.
Nielson was absent when she floated out of her room, just as he had been the previous nine days. Using the rungs helpfully mounted upon the corridor walls, she navigated to the engine cavity and poked her upper body through the opening.
He turned from his position by an open panel in the far wall and broke the news bluntly: “Something’s wrong with the generator.”
Evelyn only stared. Nielson was bound via thin fabric straps to the wall beside the paneling so he wouldn’t float awry; his hands were just removed from the wires within, and a screen beside the panel showed a flashing red alert: Power Generator operating at 60%. Minimum acceptable proficiency is 95%. Statistics followed. Floating there in the doorway, Evelyn found she had forgotten the mathematical work that went into her degree in Computer Engineering; the numbers looked like squiggles to her.
“We knew something was wrong nine days ago,” Evelyn snapped. “So do you know what’s wrong with it?”
She willed Nielson to say yes. Indeed, naturally, why wouldn’t I? — anything indicating dismissal of the foreboding that had crept upon Evelyn’s shoulders.
But he didn’t say anything. He only shrugged.
* * *
Evelyn was sick of numbers.
Nielson had crunched a lot of them to estimate the generator’s total output before its fuel ran out. The results were also numbers, albeit unpleasant, irksomely low ones. The numbers insisted, in short, that Evelyn and Nielson would not be able to complete their dimension-hop — but they would die: in the cold, out of power, their lungs recycling dead air.
Numbers were now the enemy.
This, Evelyn supposed, was why the mission directors had been loath to include any strong drugs in the Eternity — they hadn’t wanted its crew members to get any ideas. She had taken another antidepressant before her last beauty sleep, though, and was certain she’d seen Nielson chewing on one of his own while he prepared a meal.
The fuel was expected to deplete in approximately thirty-six days and eight hours — T minus eight hundred seventy-two hours, or fifty-two thousand three hundred twenty minutes, or three million one hundred thirty-nine thousand two hundred seconds. Nielson needed all that time to determine how to send the cargo on the dimension-hop by itself.
It wasn’t easy. While the cargo had been designed to disengage from the rest of the ship, and it was conveniently located near the engine room, the engine didn’t detach with the cargo, and that rendered their proximity unhelpful.
Nielson still slaved away, though. Evelyn helped where she could, but her demons kept her from doing much. Several butterfly cocoons must have been in her stomach since the launch, because she now constantly felt a fluttering in her stomach like a billion tiny wings in a fittingly tiny space.
* * *
T-minus thirty-four days and eleven hours.
“I just need to disconnect the cargo and bring it down to the engine room.”
Evelyn’s gaze was probably blanker than she intended. She shrugged it off, though, by fooling with her food packet so she seemed to be paying attention to her victuals. “Yeah. I mean — I’ll help if you need it.”
“I do need the assistance.”
Silence. This was the extent of their interactions nowadays: terse words, clipped gestures, blank expressions. Rarely did they speak for more than minutes at a time. The darkened lights of the Eternity were an accurate gauge for their emotions. At least for Evelyn’s; Nielson’s stolid demeanor revealed none of his thoughts. Sometimes he seemed more distant than Evelyn felt.
If the only way they could deal with emotion was by alienating it, they were asking for trouble.
* * *
Three hours was the longest Evelyn had worked without pause since... since when, she couldn’t exactly recall. Memory had been discarded of late; memory was useless, after all, if it was scrambled by depression.
The cargo was a large, metallic cylinder, approximately two meters in diameter and three and one-half meters tall. A display on its chest showed no seal failures or other damage. Detaching it had taken a preternaturally long amount of time, especially considering unscrewing bolts was much harder in zero-G.
The cargo’s inertia proved detrimental at first, but nevertheless Evelyn and Nielson maneuvered it to the doorway without serious trouble.
They paused there. The doorway, as Nielson had verbally feared earlier during their labor, was too small.
T-minus thirty-three days and twenty-one hours.
* * *
Lying in bed that rest period, Evelyn dreamed of Iris torn to colorful ribbons, turning and mixing and blossoming like the colors of a kaleidoscope. But this time, there was a twist.
Maybe the antidepressant she had taken before retiring to her bed was the reason behind her emotional distance from the event.
Whereas before she had felt the screams of the dying planet, she now watched the planet and star in death throes as if through a television screen. Fifteen billion was a statistic; black was another color; engine failure was within the Eternity’s realm of failure; numbers were just numbers. All was right.
She woke up sans cold sweat, her heart beating at a leisurely pace. She still didn’t feel better.
* * *
Only idly did Evelyn check the cockpit’s clock after waking. It was counting, just as it should be; why did she need to read its display?
Nielson didn’t question Evelyn’s robotic motions or intonated replies; nor did he question her sudden break in the middle of disassembling the cargo hold’s doorway to calm her spiraling head, or her too-common sips from a water canteen she held. Maybe he understood. Evelyn was too lost in her idyllic reverie to care.
* * *
“To the right — no, other right—”
Unintentionally, Evelyn giggled. Nielson’s hesitation was evident in the abrupt shudder of the cargo as it floated through the deconstructed arch of the doorway.
Evelyn was nearly crushed against the far wall by the metal canister, but she turned it at the last moment. It stopped completely this time. Nielson’s worried face pored around the edge of the metal canister. Evelyn couldn’t meet his eyes.
He didn’t speak till blood rushed in Evelyn’s ears.
She was vaguely surprised by the amount of care in his voice but passed it off as a small aberration in his normal mannerisms. She was being careful, of course. That was fact.
“I’m fine,” she insisted to assuage Nielson’s doubts, and promptly realized she had failed in that task.
Still they floated. Still she waited. Nielson would speak when he decided to do so. He was deliberate in his movements; as an engineer and scientist, he couldn’t afford to be less. Evelyn decided Nielson had fallen on his favorite pastime: thinking.
His next words, delivered seconds before the cargo began moving again, were cavalier: “Watch it, coming your way.”
* * *
T-minus twenty-five days and three hours.
Moving the cargo into the engine room had been but the start.
The engine room was attached to the rest of the ship via a mess of cables and fuel lines. Any ruptures could mean power leakage, which could easily result in the mission rendered completely impossible. The danger was tangible, able to be tasted in the Eternity’s musty, sweaty air.
Nielson had reassigned Evelyn to the cockpit after T-minus thirty-two days, stating her condition as grounds for undue risk. She had asked if he thought she was going insane. No! Impossible, not a chance, you’re completely sane — any honest denial would have sufficed.
Nielson had shaken his head and returned to work.
Evelyn hadn’t seen him since, but whenever she neared the passage to the engine room between rest hours, meals, and “work”, she could hear faint noises that meant he was still working.
In contrast to weeks before, the cockpit was dim, only several colored lights flickering on and off in contrast to the twenty-plus previously lit. The proximity counter on the starship’s dashboard displayed a number large enough for scientific notation: 5.98 × 109 kilometers and counting. The Eternity was alone, and by extension, Evelyn and Nielson were, too.
A bad time for Evelyn to remember she hadn’t taken an antidepressant for the past forty-some hours.
Combating jittery nerves, she bound herself to her chair and leaned the headrest back. She couldn’t watch space fly by if she couldn’t see it. That left nothing to do but wait till a warning klaxon sounded, and she had gotten good at waiting.
She stole glances at the clock several times as she descended into lethargy. The timer read T-minus twenty-five days, two hours, twenty-eight minutes, fifty-five seconds before the last time she closed her eyes that hour.
* * *
Spinning kaleidoscopes of fire burned behind Evelyn’s eyelids when Nielson entered the cockpit. A rap on the doorway brought Evelyn from her stupor. Unclenching her clammy hands, she checked the clock: T-minus four days, ten hours.
The pilot’s seat felt suddenly cold. Inhaling deeply, Evelyn pushed a dark lock of hair out of her right eye and turned to the impassive figure floating in the doorway. “Yeah, Nielson?”
Evelyn paused, blinked. “What?”
“I said I’m done.” He took Evelyn’s surprised pause as a query for elaboration. “After we moved the cargo to the engine room, I shut down the engine temporarily, moved the power to the Eternity’s backup storage cells, then moved the generator and main power stores to the engine room and plugged them in again before relocating most of the energy. Hard work, but I think I did it right.”
Nielson looked vaguely pleased. Evelyn could sense the anticlimax. “So... that’s that? We’re ready to, uh, launch the cargo?”
“Yeah. I mean yes. That is, right before the generator reaches its maximum output. We could do it before, but then we wouldn’t be certain the cargo has enough power to drive it wherever in the next universe over.”
What was Evelyn supposed to say? “Oh, how wonderful, what good fortune,” wouldn’t fit; neither would, “Wow, Nielson, you just saved the mission and you’re still acting gloomy,” or even, “You know, you aren’t helping my gut any — the butterflies still want out.”
She shrugged. Nielson hesitated as if on the verge of speaking further, but then he seemed to realize Evelyn’s trouble and retreated from the cockpit with an amiable nod.
Now Evelyn had the sweaty air of the cockpit to herself and nothing to do but wait and twiddle her thumbs: a potentially volatile combination, especially since it left so much room for thought — and what could she think about but the end?
She had never been particularly religious; she nonetheless murmured a quick prayer to the darkness outside the forward viewport.
* * *
T-minus thirty-two minutes, or one thousand nine hundred twenty seconds, or eight-fifteenths of an hour.
The end was a frightening concept. Evelyn couldn’t remember what had happened before her birth, only after. Memory had begun with life; would it conclude in the same fashion?
After the cargo launched, Nielson had earlier explained to Evelyn, there would only be enough power to sustain the Eternity for a few minutes. Then, he had sounded strong. Now Nielson’s fingers gripped a control hard enough that his knuckles turned white. He had been reduced to Evelyn’s level.
Evelyn hadn’t bothered taking an antidepressant today. Why should she? — soon, she wouldn’t be able to feel depressed.
She paused. Would she still feel emotion? She’d never subscribed to a particular theology; death, and by extension the afterlife, was a mystery to her, hidden behind the same black veils that covered this universe’s stars.
The minutes tolled like a church bell: ponderously, significantly. Now thirty; now twenty-nine, then twenty-eight, then twenty-seven, and Evelyn tore her eyes from the monitor before the waiting drove her crazy.
“The engines have bare minimum power,” said Nielson at length. A faint vibrato affected his typical sonorous tone. “T-minus... twelve minutes, fifteen seconds.”
A pause. The minutes tolled, tolled...
“What if it doesn’t work?”
Perhaps Evelyn attained death-induced nirvana at that moment: Her doubt about the success of the mission had not triggered the tiniest prick of fear. Maybe adrenaline had choked her bloodstream so she wouldn’t feel a thing; her body, after all, wasn’t clueless about the situation. Maybe her engineering training was kicking in thanks to exhilaration. Probability was a statistic. Nothing more, nothing less. That was the only way Evelyn could keep from freaking out.
Nielson shook his head like he was ridding himself of a fly. “Don’t think that. We did all we could. Now we have to trust luck.”
“If the luck doesn’t come through, then...?”
“Then... we’ve failed.”
Nielson bowed his head and choked back tears, and Evelyn suddenly remembered Nielson wasn’t as unaffected as he had seemed during the past month. To his credit, he neither sobbed nor lost his composure; his body just hadn’t been able to hold all the emotion brewing in his chest without some form of catharsis.
T-minus six minutes, and Evelyn had already lost her ability to communicate effectively.
“This is the end,” Nielson continued. “I — I’m sorry I’m breaking down like this, but I did what I could. It’s out of our control now. We just have to trust our work isn’t in vain. That was why we were sent out here to do this: Whether or not we die is irrelevant — as long as we aren’t expunged completely and our spirit lives on...”
He inhaled. “Sorry,” he breathed.
“No,” Evelyn responded. She reached to hold Nielson’s hand where it lay over its control switch; she barely noticed the cold pit that settled in her stomach as she ceased pouring energy into her façade of apathy. “Everyone, well, feels stuff, don’t they? You’re only human.”
“Take out ‘only’ and you have my opinion.”
Evelyn nodded in understanding and didn’t add that she had held numerous mental debates with herself about whether or not Nielson was a robot. “T-minus four minutes, forty-eight seconds,” she instead stated, flicking a few release switches to prime the engines and placing her hand on the release and ignition key. Her breaths were short; her lungs were trying to cram a lifetime’s worth of oxygen intake into four and a half minutes. “Engines primed. Ready for release and ignition. Your orders, Nielson.”
Four minutes left and both Evelyn and Nielson wore masks of professionalism. Three minutes left and Evelyn was regularly checking her pulse to ensure her heart didn’t stop early. Two minutes left and the energy meter was crawling upward at a snail’s pace; no more charge.
Evelyn pressed the switch.
The Eternity shuddered as the engine room and engines broke away, and Evelyn triggered a rearview screen on the forward viewport. The release triggered rotational propulsion that rotated the detached starship section away from the Eternity proper and aimed it into empty space. An automated trigger activated the engines. They gained momentum, and then the inter-dimensional technology, coupled with the engines in the Eternity’s construction, activated.
A burst of acceleration. A flash. The engines were gone.
Evelyn glanced to Nielson. She was still afraid, but a faint smile nevertheless graced her lips. She had done what she could; now fate was in control.
Nielson flicked another switch and the lights were extinguished. The Eternity was dead in space, but orange and red still flickered in Evelyn’s gaze.
* * *
The engine room carried no navigational systems save for sensors that had been embedded across the entirety of the Eternity; they possessed automated proximity systems that would activate propulsion whenever an object came too near. No A.I. was aboard. No humans could control its movements, either, so the task fell to chance.
Carried by the tremulous hands of dumb luck, the engine room-turned-detritus floated into a billion-kilometer-wide gyre of hydrogen, helium, and slightly heavier elements. Dumb luck brought it into the gravity well of the forming star and let it adrift. Dumb luck saw to it that, years after its arrival in the arm of a galaxy later to be known as the Milky Way, what remained of the Eternity entered a collision course with a planet in its final stages of formation.
It struck the atmosphere and gleamed like a shooting star. Its heat shields lasted long enough to protect the cargo during the initial entry; then the ship fractured and broke, and the cargo container was shot forth.
Only seconds after its expulsion from the burning wreckage of the Eternity’s engine room, it too exploded.
Except, this time, the explosion was voluntary.
The automated release system’s job done, it shut down. The sections of the metal cylinder spiraling through the air now broke apart, releasing frozen chunks of liquid that transformed first into rain, then into steam in the air of the planet someday to be termed Earth. The metal fragments were lowered to the ground by wind, no more than another sporadic shower of space debris.
Amino acids now floated on the wind, mingling with chemical fumes rising from the hot earth below. The cargo was delivered, the seeds sown. Humanity was not dead, after all.
Edited by Legolover-361, Aug 21 2012 - 10:22 PM.