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Reluctant to head back to the habitation ring, I pace around the storage ring, puzzling out the issue. It’s a little odd to be pacing in an environment where I can just walk in a straight line and eventually end up where I started, but I suppose I’ll get used to it over the next five years. The lack of any windows is starting to get to me, making the space feel more confined than it is. Would it have killed the designers to put some big windows in the floor, to see the stars? Or even put windows in the airlocks, so I could see the next ring through them? I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist or HE architect, but come on! That’s basic inhabitant-friendly design!

Going outside the ship is a no-go. The ‘slope’ of the ship caused by the constant engine deceleration is pretty slight, but between the precariousness of climbing along a smooth metal lattice, the weight of the space suit, my level of fitness, and the electrostatic field, there is just no way I can climb that far on the metal lattice. Climbing on the outside of the hull is, of course, a worse idea – that had been impossible even before I’d turned the engine on. There are tether points all over the hull, presumably for servicing while the Courageous was in orbit around Earth, but they’re hardly useful to me when they’re effectively spaced along a ceiling I’d have to dangle from. Nope.

I have to go inside the ship, meaning passing through Chronostasis Ring 1, which I can’t disengage (not that I would). The frustrating thing is, I have the tools to do that. I have a space suit. The AI had reported some kind of hull breach and atmosphere problem, but it simply wasn’t possible for anything in there to be a threat to a suit that could handle the vacuum of space just fine. It’s not like the ring could be overpressurised. And the AI hadn’t reported a temperature problem. And most of the colonists in there are still alive, so the chronostasis pods are undamaged. There is simply no physical reason why I shouldn’t be able to walk straight through!

Except that the airlocks are locked, and I – the ship’s captain and senior engineer! – somehow don’t have the clearance to unlock them. Even though this is exactly what airlocks are for. They’re to allow transition between areas with different atmospheres. What’s the point of putting all these airlocks between the rings, and then locking them in the one scenario where they’re expected to actually act as an airlock?

I sit down huffily on the floor and stare blankly into space for awhile. There’s not all that much space to stare into in the crowded storage ring, the clear path down the centre of the whole ring I’d been pacing being the only long strip of open space, so I’m actually staring blankly into a giant bank of cryofreezers full of animal blastocysts, but close enough.

Perhaps the AI had misunderstood my question about opening the airlocks. Or I had misunderstood the answer. AIs aren’t generally prone to deception and tend to be notoriously bad at it, but they frequently misunderstand you if you don’t know how to talk to them, and I’ve never been great at talking to them. It simply doesn’t make sense that there’s no way to make the airlocks behave like airlocks in the one situation where they’d need to be airlocks. I have access to a computer terminal in the habitation ring, and I have time. I have years of time. The water and air filtration systems aren’t working properly, but the computer will have all the specs for those. Most likely, there’s just bacteria or mould or something on the filters. I’m no engineer but I’m sure I can figure out how to change some filters. And I have access to two storage rings (SR1, where I am right now, and SR2, which is behind Habitation Ring 1 and directly in front of the inaccessible Chronostasis Ring 1) full of stuff designed to seed the growth of a new interstellar colony, so it’s not like I’ll run out of supplies. I don’t want to stay here in the front of the ship for any longer than I have to, but I can. I could probably stay the full five years, if it comes to it; as we near our destination, the AI will probably assume I’m dead and wake somebody capable of getting the ship into orbit. So there’s no urgency. I have all the time I need to figure out how to get the damned airlocks open.

I poke around in the computer for a bit but, once again, can’t find any airlock controls. I get distracted playing Minesweeper for a bit before forcing myself to get back to doing actual work. Opening the airlocks might not be urgent, but I would like clean air and water, so I go looking through the life systems maintenance information, which is significantly easier to find. Purging the water tanks, sterilising all the pipes and changing the water filters for all the systems in Habitation Ring 1 is a refreshingly mechanical process that takes all day. I haven’t done this much nuts-and-bolts physical work since I was a kid.

The first time I turn the water back on I flood the bathrooms and have to repeat part of the process, but still.

While I run chemical tests on the presumably clean water, I turn my attention to the air quality.

The air filters are of course deliberately placed to be easily accessible. There’s a clearly marked door in one wall of Pod Launch Ring 1, about half a metre square and easy to remove. I pull it open, disengage and pull out the filter, and immediately throw up.

The smell of decay is overpowering. The filter itself is a mass of black and green with streaks of red, and it’s moist. It’s one of those big paper ones, about half a metre wide, and I don’t know much about air filtration but I’m pretty damned sure that that they’re meant to be dry. The humidity in the ring feels fine to me, so something must be compensating, but at some point this filter became soaked and things started growing in it.

Not just with water, either. I know what rotting paper smells like. This is unmistakeably organic. (Well, all rot is organic, but you know what I mean.)

Even if I had the stomach for detailed analysis, the filter’s too far gone to tell me anything useful. I eject it into space. I’m not really sure how to clean the ventilation shafts themselves; they’re certainly too narrow to get inside. I clean up as much as I can around the filter, dry the area with some spare towels, and install another.

The other filters I can reach are also pretty gummed up, but none of them are nearly that bad. They’re dry, at least. Presumably there’s a humidity control system in here somewhere I need to maintain too, but I have no idea how and the humidity is fine, so I decide not to fuck with it. I’d probably break something if I did.

Now then. One last pressing task.

I start to check the area for bodies.

I start with the peripheral areas. Storage, the pod launch ring, then the bathroom and laundry areas. When I move on to the bedrooms, I start with those that have faces painted on the doors.

I’m stalling. I know they won’t have anyone in them. They do have a fair bit of random stuff scattered on the floor, hair clips and pens and soforth, that were probably all neatly laid out on the desks before I’d turned the engines on, but no bodies.

The body is in the second faceless room I check.

They’re lying in bed, and from the face and hand I can see, they don’t look to be in nearly as bad a condition as I was expecting. Some kind of dark fluid seems to have leaked from the eyes, nose and mouth all over the pillow, but they’re still very recogniseably human. Maybe it’s because the air is dry and there’s nothing to eat them but the bacteria of their own body, maybe they just died really recently. Maybe I just don’t understand how long it takes a human body to decay. But the skin I can see is intact, even if it doesn’t sit in quite the right shape over the bones.

They look to be bald – probably underwent full depilation, as is popular among career astronauts in some places – and their skin looks to be a perfectly average medium brown, although it’s difficult to be certain with the… condition… of the underlying flesh. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on in the body, but the skin definitely wasn’t that blotchy colour when they died. It’s similarly difficult to tell age, and they’re dressed in the same sort of generic jumpsuit that I found in storage for myself, with no accessories or stylistic flares to help me even guess at their gender. I could probably learn a lot about them from the crew manifest, if I wanted. They’re almost certainly one of the twenty one members of the second crew, and with so many face paintings to eliminate from the possible candidates, narrowing down who this crew member was based on the few details I do have shouldn’t be difficult. But I don’t want to. Not right now.

The room is sparse, with no obviously personal effects. No cute little hair clips (for obvious reasons, I suppose), or family photographs. But there is a large strip of butcher’s paper tacked over the bed, taking up the entire wall of the tiny room. It’s unlabelled, and features just a hand-drawn grid of boxes, twenty five across and eight down. Most of the boxes have an X drawn through them. The only thing written on the grid is in the very last box, ‘Turn fore engine on’.

There are thirty four uncrossed boxes.

“You were doing what I’m doing, weren’t you?” I mumble. “And you almost made it.” They’d fallen thirty four days short. They’d died… thirty five-ish days ago, probably, if their engine timeline agreed with the AI’s. And this calendar measured two hundred days, meaning… what did that mean? That the AI had been cut off from the front of the ship about that long ago, maybe? Hard to draw any conclusions from that, I suppose. I’ll just ask the AI about it when I get back.

If I’m careful, I can probably wrap the body in the bedsheets without touching it. I take a step forward, then stop.

What, exactly, am I going to do with it?

The obvious answer is to eject it into space. But I’m hesitant to do that when I don’t know this person’s burial practices, and besides, I don’t know what happened here. Maybe there was some kind of, of disease or something, and this body holds answers that I’m going to need. (I probably shouldn’t have showered in that unfiltered water, come to think of it.) On the other hand… I’m not a doctor. These people had a doctor, and each other, and a spaceship in much better condition, so if there’s some kind of lethal disease here or something that’s still a threat to me, and they couldn’t beat it, then I certainly can’t. I don’t know how to autopsy a body, what to look for, what I might need, so even if there are answers in a month-old corpse, I have no hope of finding them. If that’s what took them, then holding onto the body won’t help me anyway. (Maybe that’s why the AI roused only one person, and didn’t do so right away? Maybe there was a disease, and it was giving it as much time to die off without new hosts, and as few new hosts as possible? No. If they’d been claimed by a disease that might still pose a risk, the AI would have warned me right away.)

There might be something useful on the body though. I don’t know what, but something. If there’s the slightest chance it contains information that I need, I can’t bury this person in space. Not yet.

I fetch a trolley from Storage Ring 1, wrap the body as well as I can (I’m still forced to touch it a few times, and the skin slides freely over flesh and bone), and take it to the blastocyst cryofreezers. They are, of course, completely full of blastocysts and other biological preserves, so. No room for a corpse in there. But there’s another freezer that contained meat and vegetables for the crew, a luxury granted to them to combat the stress of eating only dehydrated food and the scant produce of the greenhouses for a full decade. I check and find that it is, of course, completely empty, and carefully lay the dead crew member inside. I vaguely recall that freezing things slowly like this tends to destroy cells, but it’s the best I can do. Besides, the body’s been at room temperature for a month. Pristine condition is a dream at this point.

I strip the rest of the sheets and blankets from the crew member’s bedroom, and then I go and take a scalding hot shower. In clean water, this time.

With clean water, clean-ish air, and no surprise bodies to worry about, I feel considerably better about the possibility that I might be stuck up front of the ship long term. It’s not a huge amount of space to be my entire world for possibly years, but it’s not cramped, either. I get back to my main task of figuring out how to open the damned airlocks trapping me in the front of the ship. I’ll go through every single file and menu on the computer if I have to.

There has to be a way to open those airlocks.

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2 thoughts on “007: PREDECESSOR

  1. Finally, someone is using their grey matter. Aspen’s dealing with the situation and asking the right questions. Their biggest reward so far was minesweeper, admittedly, but not all victories are saving a ship from slingshoting past it’s objective!

    Black, green and red fungus or slime mold is a surprisingly common combination, all things considered, but for a single filter to have moisture in it? I’d imagine it’s deliberate action. Whatever’s going on, we now have confirmation that it killed two crews of actually qualified people, contaminated half the life support, and killed quickly enough to keep this crew member from completing the objective before they succumbed to it. I’m sticking with the theory that the AI is explicitly keeping those airlocks shut, and that something foul is afoot in CR1.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t think the AI is bad, it can’t be bad, can it be programmed to not tell things and not open the airlock? Yup. I think it was? No.

    Glad Aspen is getting things sorted out, good for them


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