TROY / 2286
It should’ve been a simple thing. A tripped breaker. A blown fuse. Whatever it was, he would fix it, and they’d be on their way. The slowdown would cost them a few weeks, but what was a few weeks when their journey was going to be twenty-six Earth years and change?
Troy Hartman undid the latch and slid aside the outer panel. From the magnetized toolkit on the wall, he gripped a flathead screwdriver and was about to loosen the two screws of the inner panel when he felt the rolling. Not felt it—in zero g, you felt nothing. It was something he saw: the tubular hull of the ship began to slide away from him, like a barrel, first in one direction then in the other.
Through his headset, he heard Sharma’s voice: “Thrusters still not responding.”
“Keep her steady.” That was Christensen.
“Trying, Commander. But she wants to roll left for some reason.” That was Carmen in the nav seat.
“Hartman, Dunham? What’ve you got?”
Dunham’s voice came in through Hartman’s headset. “Looks like a temperature buildup, Commander, in the forward relay. Portside.” There was a long pause.
“Dunham?” Christensen again. “You there?”
“Could be a fluid leak, but it’s not showing up,” Dunham said. “Probably why we’re seeing the temperature spike. Hartman?”
The rolling was making Troy a bit dizzy now. “On it, sir,” he said into his mic. “About to check out the panel unit. If it’s a fluid leak, we’ll need to take a look under the hood.”
“Copy that,” Christensen said. “Tell me what you see.”
Their commander was about the most competent person Troy had ever met, and she had the intimidation factor to match. It wasn’t that she was trying to intimidate him, but her total command of the mission, every aspect of guiding this craft, from the technical to the logistical to the morale of the crew, never faltered. He admired her and also lived in fear of any reprimand from her.
As the low man on the ship’s totem pole—the medic doubling now as engineer’s assistant—Troy did his job as capably as he could. He filed his logs, checked and re-checked all the status reports at appointed times, made sure everything from waste disposal systems to the seed banks to the hypersleep pods were functioning normally.
On Earth, Troy was a medical doctor. But up here, he was the onboard medic and a glorified intern, a jack of all trades. But it had been his chance to piggyback aboard the Transcendent, part of the second round of settlement vessels on its way to the spanking-new colonies on Prosperity eleven light-years away. Population 13,000 and growing.
“Sharma, cut the engines,” Christensen said. “Let’s cool things down till we can fix this.”
Sharma’s voice came over the headset: “Engine’s off. It’ll take a bit longer to get back on course. All that extra decel’s going to cost us.”
“Central’s gonna have kittens,” Carmen said.
In seconds, the background noise turned from the low hum of thruster engines to the high purr of various system cooling fans. To Troy’s ears, it was kind of soothing, and he felt himself relax. He opened the inner panel and checked the color-coded contacts, seeing whether anything was amiss in the wiring. But everything looked good.
“We’ll make up the time,” Christensen said. “Sharma, how’re those thrusters?”
A long pause, then: “Not responding.”
“Bus looks good, guys,” Troy said into his mic. Shit. He was sure the next step was going to be him and Dunham giving the hydraulics a good going-over.
The ship started rolling again, the corridor pitching upward in his view. He retracted the screwdriver on its cable back into the toolkit.
“Whoa,” said Sharma over the radio. “Sorry about that.”
“Steady, kids.” Christensen’s voice maintained calm.
What started to worry Troy wasn’t what he was seeing, the rolling, but what he was hearing: the clatter and groan of the hull being stressed as it rolled. And there was more clattering and a thud he’d never heard before coming from below his feet.
“Easy does it,” said the commander. Again, she sounded calm, but her words were edged with a note of something Troy didn’t like.
“Commander”—Sharma’s voice was strained—“yoke’s starting to respond but—”
An alarm sounded and OTTO, their onboard AI, normally cool as a cucumber, boomed over the intercom: Breach! Breach! Breach! Forward airlock, starboard!
Troy backed away from the wall, floating there, and watched as subtle wave patterns flowed along the length of the hull. The waves mesmerized him for a few seconds as the alarm kept blasting over the intercom and OTTO repeated his warning.
But the humans on his team kept their nerves, true to their training. Troy imagined Sharma methodically checking the manual, turning off one system after another, Christensen bent next to him, double-checking everything, and Carmen running diagnostics. The ship clattered and whined as the waves stressed the hull.
“Hartman.” It was Dunham in his headset. “Get up here.”
“Aye-aye.” Troy grabbed a handrail to push himself forward and toward the ladder that led up to the main level. He scooted up the ladder and, using another handrail, pivoted toward the flight deck.
The rocking movement of the waves was more violent now, and, as he pivoted, he could see Sharma, Carmen, Christensen, all strapped in their seats, struggling with the controls, frantically making inputs. Troy was about to push off from the handrail, launching himself toward the flight deck . . . when the mouth of hell opened.
That is, if hell were the temperature of deep space.
A sudden roar drowned out Sharma and Christensen’s voices, and, as easily as a doll’s head being severed from its body, the cockpit became detached from the ship. It was like watching the shell of a sea creature sloughed off into the ocean currents. For an instant, he saw his crewmates struggling as the deck was flung outward. Dunham was next to go and, unbelted, he flew out of the flight deck on his own. Debris materialized and scattered against the blackness of the outside, and the entire section was gone. Troy tightened his grip on the handrail as the gale force decompression pulled him toward the hole where the flight deck used to be.
It had unfolded over five seconds, the full horror of it, his crewmates launched outward, the ship’s nose pinwheeling, disappearing. He hadn’t even formed a single thought yet. Instinct commanded him now.
Over and over and over, OTTO announced: Breach! Breach! Breach! Fire detected in forward airlock. Initiating fire suppression.
He held on, remembering his high-altitude training dives, but this wasn’t gravity acting on him—it was the void, the vacuum. Above the alarm, the hull groaned, and anything not bolted down swept by in a blur, sucked out.
OTTO announced: Fire contained. Breach sealed in the starboard hold.
The outward rush of air ceased.
Breach in main deck sealed.
He floated there in the new and sudden silence. He pressed a hand to his chest, aware of his pounding heart, and he could hear the hissing of the pressure stabilization system as it began to replenish lost oxygen. Troy noticed with relief that OTTO had activated the emergency sealers—a set of valves that ran the circumference of the hull just outside the cockpit—where the cockpit used to be—and fit together like puzzle pieces. They’d emerged and covered the breach.
“OTTO,” Troy said, gasping, “what the hell just happened?”
After some seconds of silence, OTTO reported: We experienced an explosive decompression in the portside hold, outside the airlock.
More seconds of silence.
I calculate a 99.5 percent probability that the cause was a short in the hydraulics pump and an increase in pressure in the fuel compressors. The short caused a local explosion of the compressors that severed the hull in the lower deck and triggered shockwaves that compromised the frame. The shockwaves then caused the cockpit to rupture—
“Local explosion,” Troy said, disbelieving, shaking his head, struggling to grasp.
—causing the catastrophic loss of the flight deck and all lives inside it.
Catastrophic. What a word. An understatement yet totally accurate. One word to describe madness and death, the terror of what he’d just seen. The word sounded like a cruel joke to him, a euphemism.
Sharma, Carmen, Christensen, Dunham. They were here one minute. Running diagnostics. The ship had been off course. And they couldn’t get the directional thrusters to work and correct it. That’s all it was. A simple thing. But in a blinding and . . . catastrophic . . . instant, everything was gone.
Hartman allowed himself to float upward till his hand touched the ceiling. The monitors at Dunham’s station displayed a blinking message: Air Repressurization in Progress. The air in the hold continued to hiss. He took in huge breaths, in shock, numb. Christensen, Carmen, Dunham, Sharma. Gone. He stared at the pressure seals that had saved his life. His crewmates were on the other side of it—gone. But gone where? The void. Flash frozen.
“OTTO,” he ventured, his breath slowing now, “are you able to regain contact with the crew? Can you hail them?”
The accident knocked out our comm links, so I’ve been unable to hail them.
“Any idea where they are? Are there signals you’re picking up?”
Seconds of silence again before OTTO replied: The accident also impacted our radar systems, so I’m unable to get a lock on their location.
“So . . .” Deep breaths, he told himself, deep breaths. “They’re just out there? Can you tell if anyone’s alive?”
There was a pause, as if OTTO were a surgeon delivering grim news to a patient’s bracing family, then: Because the crew members were not wearing protective gear, the chances of survival in vacuum, at these temperatures, drops to zero percent after forty-five seconds.
“Navigation? What about engines?”
I’m able to pull navigational data from the drives and calculate our course heading. But without hydraulics and any means of thruster control, we’re unable to guide the craft.
Troy spun around and took in the state of the corridor: papers, pens, tablets, folders, tools all floated in midair at crazy angles. Catastrophic angles.
“Pull the nav data,” he said and pushed off the handrail toward one of the viewing modules on the starboard side. Two huge windows there might let him take stock and see and believe what could not possibly have happened.
He had to crane his head to see it: The debris field, glinting in the lights of the ship. A garbage-strewn river. Little pieces and big pieces of cladding and mechanical parts. A convex shape, a shell, he recognized as a chunk of the forward airlock, and beyond it, about a kilometer away, was the whole front of the ship, like the blunt-nosed skull of some enormous creature in full spin. He squinted for any sign of his crewmates, of life, inside the cockpit as it spun away. But in the shadows of that skull, he saw nothing. Maybe a reflection of light off a window-corner, but any sign of life or of movement—nothing.
He heard himself scream. He heard himself sobbing, gripped with terror, the faces of his crewmates dying—suddenly dying—lodged in his mind. Grief had found him.
“My God, no,” he cried. “My God, no.” And his words died away as the river of debris, little by little, dimmed in the lights of the ship. What more could he do? Troy tried to recall his training, his sense-memory from the years of prep. They’d gamed out simulations for every crisis. Every survivable crisis, he thought. Never this. Never loss of cockpit and crew. His breath came in shallow gasps. Slow down. Breathe. “Think, think.”
When OTTO’s voice sounded again, calling him, he barely heard it at first, the horror and shock still a numbing agent.
Dr. Hartman, I’ve accessed the last saved navigation data from our drives. If you will meet me in the command module, we can review.
It took him a while to respond, to collect himself. “Be right there.”
He reached the hub where spokes led out to the spinning torus. He lowered himself into one of the spokes, using the rungs to descend toward the torus. As the centrifugal forces of the spin began to take hold, he could feel the familiar sensation of gravity. Strangely welcome right now. A sense of grounding.
Nothing here in the torus seemed affected by the catastrophe. He gave the galley a quick glance as he passed through to the command module. A few screens were either black or showed warning messages, and a few displayed the message: “Essential comm link disruption.” All was otherwise intact. There was a central console here where they had their briefings, plotted EVAs, mapped their path.
“OTTO, I’m here.”
Immediately, a hologram of the Transcendent appeared in front of him. The image zoomed out to show the wider field until Troy could see the ship’s planned flight path, a blue track, alongside a second dotted red path; this was their deviation. Transcendent was at the end of that deviation.
“And here,” Troy said, pointing to the place where the planned and deviated paths diverged, “here is where we tried to correct course and the thrusters jammed on us?”
That’s right, Doctor. I believe the short in the hydraulics relay caused both the deviation and our inability to correct it.
“What’s our heading now?”
We have been ten degrees off course for thirteen hours at a cruising speed of 1.6 million kilometers per hour. At this rate, if we do not course-correct, we will miss our destination by approximately two trillion miles.
Two trillion. Is that all? He laughed to himself, a small, cynical laugh, and shook his head. Behind the panic and confusion in his thoughts, the cruel comedy of what had happened dawned and, as quickly, evaporated.
Are you all right, Dr. Hartman?
“Oh, just thinking.”
To the AI, everything was an algorithm. Lives lost, accidents, delays, deviations—all of these were merely mathematical variables, values to be factored in as it performed its prime function of monitoring onboard systems so that Transcendent got to Prosperity as and when it was supposed to—twenty-six years, thirty-nine days, and fourteen hours from launch—and delivered its cargo of life-support equipment along with genetic and botanical specimens.
He extended both arms in a closing gesture which zoomed out the hologram. Now Transcendent became only a dot in a 3D cylindrical map of the solar system, the Oort Cloud, the interstellar medium, and, at its far edge, the Ross 128 system where Prosperity orbited.
The press of a few buttons brought up a new set of data. Troy leaned forward for a closer look. Something in him was starting to take over—the need to know the world of shit he was truly in, to size it up in its entirety so he could grasp his fate.
The data told him they were beyond the solar system by about five light-years. They were forty-seven trillion kilometers from Earth. Contacting anyone on Earth was pointless; messages would take ten years round-trip. Then he remembered the watch stations at the edge of the Oort Cloud, scanning that sector of their route, making sure the colony ships were in one piece as they passed. They had passed Berryman Station while they hibernated, and the station had tagged Transcendent as she’d blazed by, having successfully reached half-light. Berryman would’ve downloaded a full report of the ship, its crew’s health, and relayed it all back to Earth and Prosperity. As far as both parties were concerned, all was well.
Transcendent had continued at half-light past Berryman for eight more years while the crew slept. A year back, OTTO began the deceleration process, waking up Troy and his team once the ship had slowed down to one g. That was two weeks ago. So far, so good: everything normal. Troy’s team was woken to perform scheduled maintenance, harvest food, do experiments with the seed and gene banks, busywork. A few months of this and they were supposed to go back under for another fourteen years and wake up at the doorstep of the Ross system. But that’s not what happened.
Three days ago, they began noticing their deviation, ever so slight. Sharma and Carmen were able to course-correct, but it kept happening. The deviation baffled but didn’t alarm them. Then the thrusters stopped responding altogether . . . and here he was.
“What about the stations, OTTO? How far are they?”
OTTO’s voice, steady and unfazed, replied: I don’t have real-time data for you, but I estimate Berryman Station is approximately twenty trillion kilometers from our last known location.
Four years, Troy thought. This was always the risk with interstellar flight. Once you were out here, you were on your own to sort out your own mess. The distances were too great. Everyone back at Triton Corporation knew it, all the planners and crew. It was a risk that we’d taken on in the spirit of . . . what? Discovery? Expanding man’s horizons? Some bullshit like that. Troy knew what everyone down there knew: It was so Triton and Prosperity Partners could expand their empire to the first habitable world we’d ever found. Not just habitable. Downright livable. Prosperity had breathable atmosphere, oceans, continents, temperate climate, magnetic shielding. The planet was a slam dunk.
All said and done, sending out an SOS felt critical to Troy. A vain and useless impulse, maybe, but it felt natural out here in the desert of space-time: the need to announce to anyone who might listen that something had happened, something very bad, and that human beings had once lived and died here. An SOS wouldn’t be a plea for help. It would be a memorial, and he knew it. “OTTO, what did you say about the comm links?”
The antenna is unresponsive, but I’ve re-established contact with the external camera nearest the portside hull where the incident occurred. That may give us a clue.
“Let’s see it.”
On a console holo, an image appeared, seen from the camera’s perch: a mast on the forward section of the ship.
The first thing he saw in the starkness of the exterior lighting was the amputation where the cockpit used to be. Gone. The image jolted him. From this angle, he could see where the outer cladding had peeled off and hung in the vacuum like strips of foil. Debris particles continued to chip away from the damage, reminders of the catastrophe and, to him, of failure. Whose failure or a failure of what, he didn’t know. Did it even matter?
He peered at the image: There, in the foreground, was the antenna. Bent but not broken, a useless flipper attached to the body by a thin cartilage.
“There. Can you fix it?”
I’ve made attempts to reboot the signal, but my lack of success and the sudden drop in updates from the antenna aren’t encouraging. Repairs might be possible but would require EVA and, with the forward airlock destroyed, this is not possible.
OTTO’s report was a plunge in ice water.
“Why isn’t the dish rebooting?”
Based on data, it’s likely due to damage to input and output cables.
Troy stood there, sorting out the situation. He couldn’t send anything. Couldn’t receive anything. As good as dead, he decided. It just plays out longer for me.
Before inspecting the rest of the ship, he logged a full report of the events, everything up to that moment. He knew the log was for his own sake. As he made his report, he felt like that proverbial ill-fated explorer of the Arctic in the nineteenth-century scrawling on a half-frozen sheet of paper in the wrecked galley of an icebreaker: Crew dead, ship trapped, supplies gone. I have no choice. I must place all my faith in my maker and try to make it off this ice shelf on foot. May the Lord protect me. And that’s the last anyone would ever hear of him.
Berryman Station wouldn’t realize anything was wrong till they stopped receiving data from Transcendent four years from now. The speed of light was the holy grail of engineers trying to build faster ships. But when it came to communication, light was a pathetic turtle on the shoals of the cosmos.
The urge to simply crumple up on the floor and rock back and forth, head in hands, seized him. Instead, he made for the galley. From there, he walked through the berths, the recreation module, the medical bay, the seedbanks where freezers held thousands of human embryos and the DNA of thousands of animal and botanical species. The next module, about the size of a small bedroom, was the EarthSim where any environment could be simulated. Any environment, anywhere.
The others in the crew had their favorites. He remembered Sharma’s was his rooftop garden in Bangalore. For Carmen, it was a beach in Malibu with her childhood dog. Dunham enjoyed the sims of hiking on Vancouver Island. But Christensen, their commander, was different. She believed in looking forward, never wanted to take comfort in the past or the familiar. She said it was dangerous. Her sim was always a forest in the Aldrin Range on Prosperity. She wanted something to look forward to, she would say.
Christensen was the only crew member who had a child. A daughter. In fact, she had only agreed to command this mission if the planners agreed to include her daughter on Transcendent’s manifest. Christensen would talk to her a lot when she visited the hibernation bay, would talk to her using the intercom patched into the pod where her daughter slept. At least twice a day, she would check in on her, check her vitals.
He proceeded to the hibernation bay, the two largest modules on the ship. Ten hibernation pods were laid out across these two modules. The pods were capsule shaped. They looked like funeral caskets. In one module stood five of the pods. One of them was his. The four others were assigned to—well, those four were in a tomb of their own now.
As he walked from the first module to the second, the motion-sensing lights blinking on and off, and studied the large screens above each pod showing vitals and biometrics. All seemed normal here. But a creeping dread made its way through his chest.
After the accident, the ship had turned off the engines and thrusters and switched to backup power. The backup used Transcendent’s hydrogen reserves, and there was only so much of that to go around. If the backup hadn’t kicked in, he would’ve suffocated (slowly), the seedbanks would’ve thawed and rotted, and the occupants of these pods would’ve flatlined in minutes. But here they were, four crew and one passenger, sleeping peacefully, as if nothing had happened.
Troy looked in on them through each pod’s tinted safety-glass window. Ivens, Smollett, Madrigal, Zhou: their names in red below each window. IV tubes hooked up each sleeper to ports that kept their temps low, their brains in comas, their metabolism near-dormant, and their cells from exploding. Hypothermic suspension, they called it.
“OTTO, how long before we run out of power?”
With the main engines nonoperational, and, at the current rate of power consumption, Transcendent will fail in seventy-two hours.
Three days. He had three days.