“Warning, emergency cryopod opening. Please proceed to the nearest muster point.” Those are the first words I hear as I swim back to consciousness. They repeat again more slowly, and my pod unseals with a click as the injectors withdraw from my flesh. The lid flips up, and I blink my eyes open, trying to scrape my thoughts together as I push myself up to sitting.
The room is surprisingly dark. The main source of light is the screen of the computer console next to the door. The overhead lights remain off for some reason. In the dimness, I see the man in the pod next to mine sitting up as well. There’s a small green indicator flashing on the side of his pod. Looking down at my own, I see a yellow light blinking. The alarm message repeats one last garbled time and then cuts out. The other two pods are also open, but I can’t see any movement from them. No small indicator lights, either. I scrunch my eyes closed, trying to visualize the diagrams I studied. This indicator… it’s for a warning of some sort. Not really an error. Right, breach detection, that was the label. I lean over, trying to get a better look. In the flickering light, I see the message accompanying the yellow status: Pod integrity not guaranteed. “I hope that’s because it just opened now,” I murmur. But it’s a little troubling that the pod next to mine has a green light.
“Muster point?” my neighbor mutters after the alarm sputters out. Then he seems to remember something, pats himself down, and pulls out a journal to consult. Quickly realizing it is too dark to read, he leans over the side of his pod and roots around for his bag, in search of a flashlight probably. He groans in frustration and grumbles, “I was well packed, if I do say so myself.” But whatever he brought is gone now. I find myself quite happy that I kept my cane and satchel in the pod here with me.
The man inhales deeply. “Bit musty, but I don’t smell any smoke. But why is it so dark? Wasn’t like that when I went in.” He breathes in again. “That’s not chemical burn or wood burn, but it’s… something…” He does not sound very pleased with the results of his olfactory analysis. He looks around then. I suspect his eyes have grown more acclimated to the darkness, as mine have. “Everybody all right?” he asks loudly.
“I’m all right,” I tell him, “but the pods over there that opened don’t have lights flashing on them.”
“They supposed to?” the fellow asks, voice quieter with uncertainty.
“Well, also no one is answering us from over there,” I point out. “So I’m guessing maybe they’re not all right.”
As I let myself gingerly down out of my cryobed, he deftly hops out of his, slings a rifle over his shoulder, and heads over to investigate. He makes his frightful discovery quite quickly. One bed is empty, but the other contains a skeleton. With that disturbing news, I feel the darkness of the room around me even more. We need lights, and we need them now. And preferably an open door. I’m not alone, at least, but I don’t want to be trapped in here any longer than necessary. Something has clearly gone wrong here, more than just my flashing yellow light indicated.
I slip my satchel over my head and shoulder and grab my cane, then negotiate my way through the dark, cramped room to the entrance. The door does not slide open at my approach, another ill omen. I start poking at the console, seeing what I can control from here. “The pod with the skeleton,” I call over to my companion, “are there any indications of any problems with it?”
“Well, there’s a skeleton in there,” he answers dryly. “I don’t think it worked out.”
“Are there signs that bacteria got in and just decomposed them? Or are there any animal droppings? Could there be creatures in here with us?” I can hear the shakiness in my own voice and take a few slow breaths to try to steady it.
“Why would there be creatures in here?”
“You’re the one looking at a skeleton!” I point out. That there is some danger to us should be self-evident. Pod integrity not guaranteed, I see again in my mind’s eye.
“It’s fully decomposed. Just bones left. But nothing was eating it,” the man reports, having found no gnaw marks. “Besides, the door is closed, so I don’t know how they’d get in anyway. No, this person’s pod must have failed right after we left. It was a long time ago.”
Whereas mine only failed recently, I reflect. Probably. The terminal seems the best way to find out more, so I start working on it. I know the basic protocols, so access is not a problem, but unfortunately, it is not connected to the rest of the ship’s network. I can get local information though, such as the passenger list for this room. The fellow here with me must be O. A. Cleveland. Our skeleton is Sylvia Stanton. I expect to see two empty slots, the pod I took and the other one, but I’m surprised instead to see Nwabudike Morgan on the roster. Listed, not just snuck aboard. The timestamp on the file indicates it was changed last minute. Maybe he did that himself, or maybe he managed to push through approval just before takeoff.
“I don’t think we crashed,” the Cleveland fellow opines, still studying the skeleton. It is in repose—just as we were five minutes ago—not cast about as though it had been shaken.
My attempts to turn on the lights are met with a flicker and a loud flash as the unit burns out. I get a frustrating set of beeps and groans when I try to open the door from the console. “It says to call a maintenance tech,” I share. Of course the intercom is dead when I try to place that call—not even static on the line. As if that weren’t enough, the header across the top of the screen with the date and time holds some disturbing information. We’ve overshot our landing date by roughly thirty years.
Cleveland, meanwhile, has decided to take a more physical approach and is now pounding on the door. “Hey!” he shouts. The resonance from the door sounds off. There should just be empty hallway on the other side, but we don’t get a sort of hollow clang. His pounds are more like dull thuds. Before we have time to consider that much further, a loud rumbling starts. We can feel tremors, and it’s more than Cleveland’s knocking can account for.
My heart starts to race, and the sound of my own pulse fills my ears. There’s gravity, so we must be on the ground—artificial gravity was not a priority for Unity’s designers. With how solid the door sounds, our module might very well be underground even, separated from the rest of the ship. The old anxiety wells up again within me. Intellectually, I know this isn’t an old abandoned Santiago water purification plant, but I have to get out of here.
The shaking intensifies as the rumbling grows even louder. I recognize the sounds of creaking metal plates and stagger back away from the unsteady section of the ceiling before it collapses completely. The new opening lets in natural light, and I see that a steel girder has just barely missed Cleveland. “Daggone it!” the man breathes out in relief.
We now have light though. And more importantly, we have a way up and out. The beam is canted at an angle, providing a route out of here. Cleveland casts about for his rucksack, now that there is more light to find it. “I had rope in there,” he explains. I don’t wait; I make straight toward the new exit. I slip my cane through its hoop on my satchel strap, sheathing it out of the way, and swing the bag around behind me. Then I grab both sides of the beam.
Cleveland looks at me, some sort of judgment in his eyes, but I can’t quite read them. “You ever done this before?” he asks.
“Climbed up a girder?”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “It’s not my favorite thing to do, but yes.” And then just like this is one of the rusty playground slides from my childhood, I walk my way up the incline, pulling with my hands and pushing with my feet. My stylish boots don’t have much tread, but they provide enough friction for this. Once high enough, I transfer my grip to opposite edges of the broken ceiling and pull myself through. There is much more light in my new location, but I spare no time to study it. On my stomach now, I reach back down the hole for Cleveland. The girder did not feel very stable as I went up it. And indeed, it collapses before he gets very far. Certainly before he gets close enough for me to grab him. The falling beam crashes into his cryopod.
“Playing audio recording. One new message received.” The automated voice gives a date matching about when Unity was scheduled to reach Chiron.
“That’s from when we were supposed to wake up,” I call down to Cleveland, realizing I never shared what I learned from the console. “We overslept thirty years.”
“Checklist, my ass,” he mutters with a shake of his head.
“Message from S. Roze to O. A. Cleveland.” When he hears who it is from, Cleveland’s posture relaxes a bit, but the voice that follows is urgent. “Cleve! Cleve! This is Roze. Roze! Something went wrong, okay? The captain is dead. I repeat: the captain is dead. Look, the last person I saw who went in there was some guy named Morgan. I don’t know—” The speaker lets out a string of curses. “I gotta go. I gotta go! Listen, when you wake up, come find me. Here’s my public key. Crap! I’ve got to clear this. Hang on, I’m sending you this data. This is the verified record from the door logs that Morgan was the last person to enter the captain’s room.” More frustrated curses. “They’re already tracking me. I’ve gotta go. Find me! Use my public key.” The speaker stops abruptly.
“Message deleted,” the system reports.
Cleve—I suppose that is how I should think of this man now—retrieves a small data drive from the wreck of his cryobed. Fortunately that part was on the uncrushed side. He slips it into one of his many pockets, and I cannot contain my curiosity. Leaning myself further down through the hole, I ask, “Did that recording just say that Morgan killed the captain?”
“Uh, sounds like it,” Cleve replies with a shrug in his voice, if not his posture. “Do you know this Morgan person?”
“Nwabudike Morgan was higher up the org chart than me, but that’s the HR-type branch of the company, so…” My voice drifts off, trying to make sense of this. “He wasn’t supposed to be on the ship,” I volunteer. “He hadn’t gotten a berth, but he was—” I realize how ridiculous this is, me hanging halfway through a hole I’ve already escaped from, Cleve still trapped down in the dark. “Maybe we can talk about this after we get you up here,” I suggest. “I guess that girder’s not going to help anymore, huh?”
Cleve gives it an experimental tug, but it is too heavy for him to hoist back up. I suggest he stand on one of the cryobeds, as close to the hole as he can get. That will give him a couple more feet of height, and then we should be able to clasp wrists. Once I have a good hold of him, I hoist Cleve up until he can catch the edge of the broken ceiling and take some of his own weight. I think he’s a little surprised at the muscles concealed under my blazer and vest. I haven’t been to the gym in a hundred thirty years, but I’ve still got it.