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As the airlock finishes pressurising, I tell myself not to expect too much. The computer can’t assess the condition of this part of the ship; it might be in terrible shape.

The pumps stop. I open the hatch. I climb up into Pod Launch Ring 1.

It looks… fine.

It looks identical to Pod Launch Ring 2. Dirtier, maybe. The lights even flicker on as I climb in, so even if the AI can’t access this area, at least some computer functions are still running. Air pressure is one atmosphere, so I cautiously disengage my helmet.

The smell of rot hits me stronger than before, and I gag. I gag again when I realise what this actually means. I’d been operating on the assumption that the rot was an injury in my sinuses, but if that were the case, then the air inside the space suit would smell as bad as the air in the ship. There’s something rotting in this ship, something that the air filtration systems can’t handle.

That’s… not particularly shocking news at this point, honestly. Something had happened to the crew. It was… the smell probably…

I need to be prepared to encounter corpses. Probably corpses that are going to be in… bad condition. There might be as many as twenty one dead people on this ship, or if… if whatever had happened had happened slowly, given them time to clean up, there might be… less. Less that I will need to clean up.

But for the moment, I have an engine to turn on.

The airlocks to my right lead to the engine ring at the very front of the ship, giving engineers access to all the pipes and things that made the back end of the engines. I don’t need to go there; I don’t need access to the engines themselves, just the computer systems. I take off my bulky space suit and turn left instead.

The ring immediately behind the pod launch ring is for storage. None of the boxes look opened or interfered with, and there are no computer terminals within immediate sight. I move on.

The first thing I notice within Habitation Ring 1 is the flowers.

Not real flowers, of course; the plants in the various vases and planter boxes in the ring are long dead. But the walls of the rectangular dormitories littering the space are covered in drawn and painted flowers of all shapes and colours. The designs aren’t new; the permanent marker fades and bleeds into the white plastic walls, and the oil paints peel away and crumble. I reach out to touch a lurid pink violet, but pause before my fingers make contact, worried about damaging the work further.

There’s no real balance to the work. It looks like somebody just started painting flowers one day and kept going, using whatever tools they had on hand at the time, on whatever flat surface was available. Whoever they were, they were clearly a very good artist; the flowers were depicted far better than anyone I know would be able to manage despite clearly being an idle pasttime that they didn’t particularly care about. They cover about two thirds of the surfaces in my immediate sight, scrawled along walls and on the doorframes and up the side of the planter boxers next to each door (whose real flowers are long dead), even being sprayed onto the floor with high durability marking paint.

The spray paint on the floor and the permanent markers have obvious uses on a ship and in setting up a colony, but I can’t fathom why this ship would have oil paints aboard. Did the artist make the oil paints themselves? Did somebody else aboard the ship do it for them, contributing to their friend’s hobby to make them happy? Did crew members walking these paths between the dormitory rooms take care not to bump the pain on the walls, step around the flowers sprayed beneath their feet? Maintenance, at the very least, must have avoided cleaning the painted walls, although sweeping and mopping the floors would have been unavoidable.

The smell of rot is still strong here. I try not to think about it.

Habitation Ring 1 contains the dormitories, shared cooking and eating areas, a small gymnasium, and hygiene facilities. It does not, for some absurd reason, contain much in the way of computers. The couple of bedrooms with the doors left open don’t show any terminals, and the temperature controls for the water systems are all manual. (I don’t go opening any closed bedroom doors, for fear of finding a body. Many of the bedroom doors have faces painted on them, the plastic below them carefully treated and primed to prevent peeling, which I try not to think too much about for the moment.) I do eventually find a general access terminal up against the back wall, bolted to a desk. The keyboard of the terminal is in a fairly unsanitary condition; a plastic coffee mug with a Javelin Program logo printed on one side and “Lea’s happy juice :)” scrawled on it in permanent marker has been knocked over next to it and spilled what was presumably once coffee, but is now a mat of green and black fungus. But hey, under my suit I’m still streaked with my own blood and the sticky remains of chronostasis fluid, so who am I to judge? I settle into the chair and get to work.

The computer boots up fine, and even without an AI to help it’s no problem to use my senior engineer overrides to manually fire up the main fore engine. The system already knows the correct force and fuel requirements, which is good, because I certainly don’t. (Honestly, using the physical keyboard is still more of an adjustment than what I’m actually doing with it.)

I don’t hear or feel the engine firing up four rings away, but I feel the jolt of force pushing me into the back of my seat, like sitting backwards on a maglev as it pulls into the station. I wait for the forces to even out again.

Then, something goes wrong.

With a jolt, everything slides sideways. The coffee mug rolls off the edge of the console desk. I nearly fall out of my seat. A few seconds later, everything’s normal again, but…

My chair is tilted back; no, the whole room is tilted. We’re… falling? Listing? Somehow? I jump to my feet, but there’s no way to tell what’s gone wrong; there’s no way to see outside the ship and even if there was, there’s only stars out there. Did I mess up the engine activation somehow? Are we being pulled off course by something? What’s going on?!

I dash back to Storage Ring 1, and things are the same in there. The whole ship is tilted; the front end is slightly downhill, the back uphill. How is that possible?! We’re in space!

I dash back to the console. I check engine activity; the computer says it’s all within expected ranges. I check the ship’s condition, and get about a million popups about compromised air and water filtration systems and various minor system damage reports, but nothing that should tilt the ship. I check navigation, and understand none of the data on the screen, but there are no warnings about being off course or anything. How is this even possible? How can the ship be tilting? There’s no gravity to tilt in! We’re in space; the false gravity is just acceleration provided by the spinning –

Oh. Ha. I’m an idiot. Acceleration.

I’d just fired up the fore engines to start slowing the ship. We were accelerating in the opposite direction to our direction of motion. The spin of the ship was pulling me down to the floor, and the slowing of the ship was pulling me towards the front, making the ship feel tilted. It was just like being on a maglev as it pulled into the station… it was just going to take it five years to pull into said station. So what was that jolt to the side? Was that meant to happen? It must have been, right? No alarms are going off.

The force isn’t very strong. The ship isn’t slowing down all that fast. The ship’s systems were presumably designed to anticipate this (the same thing would have happened for five years in the other direction at the start of the journey, and everything had clearly been fine), so there’s nothing to worry about. I just live on a slight slope now. Okay.

I check under the console desk and chair and, as expected, find some little rotors and extenders to adjust the tilt of the desk. A new position on the mechanisms is clearly marked; I adjust everything to the marked position, and have a straight chair and desk again. This physical evidence of things going according to plan calms me down more than assurances from the computer system ever could; the furniture had been specifically designed to be comfortable to use under this exact acceleration, so everything was going according to plan. Excellent.

Of course, this also means that when I crawl back to the other half of the ship, I’m going to be doing it uphill. So, yeah. That’s going to be fun. No need to do that right away, I guess; the time critical task, turning the engine on, is over. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’m still sore all over from, well, everything I’ve done in the past few hours. I need a rest. I need a fucking shower.

Fortunately, I’m in a habitation ring. I head for the sanitation block.

The floor is, of course, sloped. There’s probably a mechanism to straighten the shower pans but I don’t care enough to find it right now. There’s an old towel, dry enough to be nearly free of damage, hanging on a rail, and one of the shower cubicles has a block of soap in it, dry and cracked nearly in half. I really should go and find some fresh soap, but that would involve a lot of poking around in storage boxes.

The shower itself is exceptionally primitive. There are no preheating or pressure controls, no electronic inputs at all, just a couple of rotary handles leading to hot and cold water tanks somewhere out of sight for the user to manually control their own water temperature through trial and error. I lay a hand on the hot water handle, evoking memories of growing up in Arborea Atlantica, and turn it.

The water looks clear, but smells metallic and organic, even partially masked by the pervasive smell of rot. It’s probably been sitting stagnant for way too long. Is it a good idea to wash myself in this clearly unclean water? Probably not. But I’m tired of being covered in both body and artificial fluids, so potential infections are a problem for Future Aspen. I’ll just try not to drink any and hope that my cuts and scrapes can look after themselves.

The hot water is almost the exact temperature my cluster used on Arborea, and getting the temperature of the shower right comes easily, born from years of almost-forgotten experience. I stand under the stream, pick up the soap, start to work up a lather.

It won’t lather.

I run it but it won’t lather, because it’s old and dry and of course it doesn’t work properly, nothing on this ship is working properly, why would anything go right? Why would anything be easy? I follow the tilt of the room and let myself slump into the wall, then slowly sink to the floor. I start sobbing.

I’m hungry, I’m weak, I’m in pain, I’m crying uncontrollably on the wonky floor of a shower under a stream of foul water in a room that stinks of rotting flesh, and I have a dead astronaut’s soap bar clutched in my hands tightly enough to leave my knuckles bloodless. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what to do.

I just don’t know.

This isn’t my world. This place belongs to the astronauts, to the person who owned this soap and the person who painted those flowers and to Lea, who labelled their cup and called their coffee ‘happy juice’. They’d been trained for this, they’d agreed to this, and I don’t belong here, and they’re gone and I’m alone. I’m alone and they’re gone and they’d had the temerity to leave all this stuff behind to rub it in.

Five years. That’s the minimum amount of time left in this journey. Realistically, it’ll be longer, because we need to actually get into orbit around our exoplanet, and I need to get the AI back in touch with the front engines and sensors by then because I sure as hell can’t pilot the ship into position. Five years, haunting this home of dead astronauts.

My expertise is in group behaviour, how humans behave together. I don’t know all that much about solitary confinement. The computer systems probably have all kinds of information on how I can expect this experience to degrade my psyche, on the specific types of trauma I can expect to experience and what symptoms to watch out for. People can survive solitude for that long and come out the other end perfectly functional, but I have no idea what my chances actually are. It’s not my area of expertise, so I don’t hear about failure cases.

I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for any of this. I mean, yes, technically I agreed to be revived as emergency personnel if necessary, but with three fully trained astronaut crews aboard nobody expected that to actually happen. And even if I was needed, I was supposed to be part of a crew. Not alone. Not with all of these colonists relying solely on me. Not for five years.

Maybe, if I sit crying on this floor for long enough, the AI will conclude that I’m dead and revive another colonist to replace me. Probably not, though. The fact that this ship has clearly been uncrewed for so long suggests that the AI was perfectly happy managing an uncrewed ship, and only revived me because the engine activation timeline was becoming critical and it needed someone to do it. And now the engine is on, so. I’m superfluous to requirements. It’ll need somebody to deal with stuff again in five years’ time, when we reach our destination, but until then I’m just… here, I suppose.

I’m finally getting a lather from the soap, so I scrub the muck from my body. I sit under the spray for awhile longer, soap stinging my skin and heat leaching the ache from my muscles. The fact that I can move around so well so soon after chronostasis is a minor miracle, but it’s not comfortable. And the electrostatic shield certainly didn’t help. I inspect my arms and legs, but there’s no obvious visible damage from the field. Just the pain, coming in full force now that the immediate goal of getting the engine on is no longer there to focus on.

I do the best I can to wash my hair, but it’s matted and unsalvageable. My head had of course been shaved before chronostasis, but chronostasis slows biological processes, it doesn’t stop them. I still experienced three months in an induced coma, and in that time my hair has grown to nearly my shoulders, been tangled by the slight movements of chronostasis fluid, and become completely matted. I dry off and go to raid dead people’s stuff in search of a pair of scissors.

I’m clean now, and things are a little bit more okay. And soon I’ll have this hair off, and things will be a bit more okay.

I just need to keep making things more okay.

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8 thoughts on “005: GHOSTS

  1. I’m loving this story! Aspen is such a cool MC.

    “so potential infections are a problem for Future Aspen. I’ll just try not to drink any and hope that my cuts and scrapes can look after themselves.”
    – Aspen, dear, no.

    “I run it but it won’t lather, because it’s old and dry and of course it doesn’t work properly, nothing on this ship is working properly, why would anything go right? Why would anything be easy? I follow the tilt of the room and let myself slump into the wall, then slowly sink to the floor. I start sobbing.”
    – YEAAHHH I love and they go “no, I’m fine, I care about it late, I’m just fine” just to simply breakdown after a minor inconvenience

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m also really liking Aspen as the main character! Nothing against Kayden, it’s just that I’m very much a “check and double-check everything before doing it” person, and I jive a lot better with Aspen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d say “somebody’s gotta write a character swap,” but, while teen!cursed!Aspen would probably do pretty well, adult!Kayden is significantly more likely to come to a horrible end.


  2. And there’s the freakout. Better to have it now than to keep bottling things up till they explode worse.

    I’m pretty sure he should, in fact, be worried about that jolt, but food and rest are a bigger priority right now (…probably).

    Also, the fact that the crew all died too fast for anyone to deal with the spilled coffee is worrying, to say the least.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Welp, the rot thing I pointed out got confirmed hard. Time for new speculation…

    No, actually, I just want to take a moment to appreciate the character. Aspen feels like a real person in the best way. They’re out of their depth, in a bad situation, and can hold strong through that, but afterwards, when seeking mindless time to process the things they got through, the little problems break it all. It’s one of those fundamental things that most people don’t realize is so unique to our psychology, and it really is the cherry on top of this excellent introduction to the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I despretly want to give Aspen a hug 😦 And yeah, it usually goes like that, push off the big stuff and its the little stuff that breaks you, but making things a little more ok one bit at a time is usually tje key to getting through. Also, wow, this chapter really drives home that there were people here before Aspen, people who drew flowers and liked coffee, and painted faces on doors. Also thank you again other commenter for pointing out that the coffee spill being there is REALLY concerning. And! Where is the rot smell coming from! We havnt seen any bodies yet! Where are they hiding!


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