Daniel put his hand to the window, five tanned fingers leaving grease stains on the glass.
Outside the black emptiness stretched out to an invisible infinity. 10 years, Daniel had been on the Good Ship Hope, the first and only colony ship of a dying Earth, and the planet’s last gasp before annihilation.
With an empty sigh, Daniel walked away from the window and to the crew quarters, where, just like yesterday and surely just like tomorrow, he prepared his meal.
He ambled to his usual seat and began eating his cold rations in silence.
‘This is the same dry rubbish I had yesterday. Couldn’t they at least have paid for a few different flavours? Eating white paste alone, what a life.’ He ranted to himself.
‘Well, not totally alone.’ Came a woman’s voice from behind him.
Daniel’s eyes shot open. ‘Jessica?’
‘Jessica!’ The voice shouted in mock outrage. ‘Can’t tell me apart from the commoners? Dear me, looks like it’s getting to you.’
The woman walked into view, tall and heavily built, with cropped blonde hair. Her oversized brown coat swayed behind her as she walked.
‘Ah, Lizbeth, my apologies.’ Daniel muttered.
‘Ahem.’ She coughed.
‘Captain Lizbeth. Sorry.’
‘Not to be rude ma’am, but might I ask what you’re doing here?’ Daniel mumbled, chewing on another mouthful of his so-called food.
‘Can’t a captain visit one of her most important crewmen at such a delicate time?’
‘Well, of course ma’am, but if I may say so, the delicate time should have been a year ago. Wasn’t that when my replacement was meant to take over?’
‘Well,’ She paused, the awkward air stifling all sound, ‘Yes, you should have been replaced. But you weren’t.’
‘I think we both know why you weren’t, though, don’t we?’ She said, as tactfully as she could.
‘I-’ Daniel tried to argue, ‘Yes.’
‘Well then. Keep up the good work. We should be arriving in, what, a month now?’
‘Three weeks; the planet’s not yet visible, but it should be within a matter of hours.’
‘Good show. Business calls Daniel, until next time.’
‘Captain.’ Daniel replied, returning to his meal.
Lizbeth walked to the door towards her quarters, before stopping and facing Daniel once more.
‘Oh, and Daniel?’ She began. ‘Nobody blames you for this unpleasant business, you hear me?’
‘Oh, I hear you ma’am. I just don’t believe you.’
She walked through the heavy steel doors, and Daniel was alone.
After lunch, Daniel slowly made his way to the observation room. Most of the ship was coated in grew steel but in the observation room great effort had gone into building the walls, floor and ceiling out of glass. The theory was that looking out into the vastness and beauty of space would have a calming effect on a tense crew. The few tests they managed proved the opposite, but there was no time to remove the room before the ship was forcibly launched. In any case, Daniel quite liked it.
He pulled up one the heavy titanium chairs and took a seat, gazing out into the starless blackness. His peace didn’t last though, as the echo of heavy boots filled the air.
‘Watching the sky on the job, Hanson?’ A deep voice chuckled from behind him.
‘Derek?’ Daniel asked, as the figure walked in to view.
‘Who else? Weren’t you ordered not to come in here during your shift?’ He asked, his grey officers uniform hanging tight on broad shoulders, his mis-matched eyes watched Daniel in casual boredom.
‘Exactly. It’s not my shift now, is it? My shift ended a year ago.’ Daniel replied.
‘Don’t shirk Hanson, your shift doesn’t end for another three weeks. You’re carrying the goddamn baton now, so get used to it.
The officer stood a good seven feet high, and even his supposedly full length coat only reached his knees. His scruffy blonde hair appeared out of place on an otherwise neat character, though few people noticed; with one eye a subtle blue and the other a shocking green, his hair was rarely mentioned.
‘I know sir, I do. But surely the circumstances would allow some slight leniency?’ Daniel asked.
‘Now why’s that Hanson?’ Derek replied, refusing to use his inferior’s first name.
‘Well, the scientists said it was gazing into the stars that upset them? Well that’s hardly a problem now, is it? Do you see any stars?.’
‘Childish reasoning, but I’ll allow it.’ He paused, ‘Do you remember it, lad, that day?’ Derek asked, his composure breaking.
There was an audible silence in the room as both the men gazed into the oblivion beyond.
‘I remember when it was the Earth, sir; but that was a day before.’ Daniel began. ‘I remember we had been launched in such a hurry that most of us hadn’t even returned home yet, nor seen our families. I remember we told to go to our quarters, but we all just sat here in the observation room, even the captain, and watched the Earth. Then I remember, it was the third day, the Earth faded.’
‘You make it sound as if we just travelled further away from it, lad.’
‘That’s how it felt, sir. It was there one moment, and gone the next. Eleven billion people, gone in the blink of an eye.’
‘Yes, the therapists worked solid for weeks.’
‘I was here, sir. I was on watch the next day. One by one, the stars just…’ Daniel paused, ‘Gone. First it was one by one, but then whole stretched of the sky were just…’
‘It was a terrible start to our mission.’
‘Do you know what I remember most of all about that time, Hanson?’
‘The suicide rate. An officer’s meant to keep his crew safe, Hanson. I’m still carrying every damn noose.
Silence echoed, neither having the words or inclination to continue.
‘Hanson, you were calling her name in your sleep last night. It won’t do.’
‘But sir, if I could just-’
‘You can’t see her, and you know it.’
Derek turned and walked to the door.
‘Just a few weeks left, Hanson. Just a few weeks and we’re all home free.’
‘I know sir.’
‘Oh, and Hanson?’ The man stopped his exit.
‘The Captain isn’t lying; she doesn’t blame you for what happened.’
‘Thank you sir.’
‘Don’t interrupt me.’ He snapped, ‘Lizbeth doesn’t blame you, but I damn well do. I want you to know that. You’ll always be a damned disgrace in my eyes.’
‘I…’ Daniel struggled for words
‘Don’t, son. Just don’t.’ With that, he was gone.
Daniel sat a little longer in the observation room, gazing out and considering Derek’s words. After his reflection Daniel stood and walked away, unable to get the officer’s words out of his mind.
Daniel worked in relative peace for the rest of the day, exactly how he liked it. At six in the evening, he stopped the monotonous work of checking for updates he knew wouldn’t come and walked to the elevator to decide on his next task.
His mind had been on the words of his shipmates all day, and without even realizing it he had punched in the elevator code for the top floor; the hospital deck.
Waiting for him as the elevator doors opened was Dr Shangn, dressed in her bright white lab coat and holding her clipboard. She had confided in him once that the clipboard contained no real data, but it apparently gave her a more professional air.
‘Daniel Hanson, it’s a sorry day to see you in medical. What’s troubling you?’ She greeted him, her wide grin as present as ever.
‘Good evening Dr Shangn, it’s good to see you again.’
‘Now we’ll not have any of that Dr Shangn business! It’s Maria, and you know it. Now, what’s the problem?’
‘Thank you, Dr.-’ He paused, ‘Maria. I suppose my problem is more one of psychology than physiology. I hope that’s all right.’
‘In your situation? It’s to be expected. Come on then, into my office. We’ll talk.’
The doctor took the seat by her desk, with Daniel lying on the large sofa she had demanded be brought on board; she said that even in the vastness of space, there should be a comfortable chair somewhere on board. How that reasoning worked nobody ever knew.
‘So Daniel, tell me what the problem is,’ Maria Shangn said in a voice she hoped was calming.
‘I’ve been talking to some of the crew. The captain and Derek today, and but some others over the last week.’
‘I see, do go on.’
‘Hang on,’ Daniel paused. ‘Doesn’t that fact alone surprise you?’
‘Should it? Daniel, you’re here talking to me. I’m not so vain to think I’m the first you’d come to.’
There was a pause as Daniel processed this logic.
‘That’s fair enough. But why now, then? Why now?’ He groaned.
‘You have, what is it, two, three weeks left of the mission? I think it’s perfectly natural to experience anxiety and nerves at a time like this; it’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘But…’ Daniel complained.
‘Daniel; there’s a question, isn’t there? There’s a question you’ve been asking. An important one.’
‘How did you-’ Daniel began.
‘Ask me.’ She interrupted.
He didn’t pause. While he and Dr Shangn were not exactly friends, Daniel knew just how wise, and how good with the human mind, she really was. He trusted her.
‘Do you blame me?’
‘Of course!’ Daniel shouted.
‘Why?’ Maria asked calmly.
‘Because I killed you!’ Daniel screamed, jumping from the chair as his emotions finally took control. ‘I killed all of you! I killed the captain, I killed the officers, I killed the crew, I killed…I killed…’
‘Her?’ Maria asked in reply.
‘I killed Jessica.’ He collapsed back into the chair.
‘There it is.’ Maria replied, her smile finally fading. ‘It’s good that you can say it, Daniel. That’s the first step to accepting everything that’s happened. And no, I don’t blame you.
‘Why not?’ Daniel asked through his tears.
‘Because I have no reason to. It was a foolish, cruel thing the captain and her officers did. To hide from the truth, burying their heads in stasis, hoping to sleep the years of travel away in an instant. It was crueller still to demand the whole crew of the ship join them.’
‘Not the whole crew.’
‘Exactly. They left one person, just one poor soul alone on a ship of the sleeping, with a working shift of a whole year! You wouldn’t believe how I fought them, but that was a fight I just couldn’t win, Daniel.’
‘But that’s why they were at fault; that doesn’t free me of my guilt; it was still my fault at the end.’
‘There were eight people before me, and there was meant to be someone after me. Nobody else made my mistakes.’
‘You were never trained to take care of the ship. How could you be expected to fix a rupture like that! What could you have done? You couldn’t wake anyone up, nor could you fix the ship on your own. You have no blood on your hands Daniel. None.’
‘Thank you.’ Daniel mumbled.
‘Don’t thank me, I’m all in your head!’ She smiled.
‘Was there something else? I’m very busy you know.’
‘Ah’ She sighed.
‘Can I see her?’
‘I’m afraid that simply isn’t possible Daniel.’ She explained with a sad look on her old face.
‘It’s your mind, you make the rules. I can’t he-’
Maria was interrupted as an engineer entered the room, clearly agitated.
‘Sorry to bother you. Daniel, there’s an rupture on the maintenance deck, nothing serious, we’ve got enough air left, but the repair machines need a hand.’
‘Sure, of course. I’m sorry Maria, perhaps later-’
‘Of course,’ She cut him off. ‘We’ll be leaving now anyway; go.’
And with that, both apparitions ceased to be. Daniel made a hurried journey to the maintenance deck.
It took him almost an hour to reach his destination, as during an emergency the elevators were shut down to preserve energy and prevent damage to the key transport systems during a fire. When Daniel finally arrived at the leak, he discovered a minor breach, easily fixed.
He sat down and gazed into the hole; through the tear in metal casing of the ship he could see out into the great darkness beyond.
‘Well, hurry up and fix it then!’ Came a voice from behind him.
‘Just a moment, Maria, please.’ Daniel replied.
‘A moment? There’s a hole in our ship and you want a moment? We’re landing in three weeks, you’ll get all the moments you want!’
‘No, we’re not.’ Daniel stated simply.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’re not landing in three weeks, or at all. I’ve been monitoring the planet’s supposed location. It’s gone Maria, just like all the others. It’s gone.’
‘It can’t be.’ She choked on her words.
‘I’d be more sorry, but I’m not sure it matters all that much to you.’
‘Well, do you think it matters to me?’ Came a new voice. Daniel looked to his left, and where Maria had been standing now stood the officer, Derek.
‘Probably not. You’re dead Derek.’
‘Yes, and that’s your damned fault! And it’s sir to you.’ He growled.
‘There’s about twenty minutes of oxygen left, meaning ten minutes until I fall unconscious. You can keep your titles to yourself this time, Derek.’
A horrified look appeared on the officer’s face.
‘Now hold on just a second here, you mean to tell me that this hole is to be our fate?’
‘Now that simply won’t do, Daniel.’ Came a female voice.
‘Lizbeth. You’ve got about five minutes, I’d choose your words carefully.’
Daniel fell forward as the air thinned. He steadied himself before Lizbeth could react.
‘I’ll not have this. We lost our air once before, trust me when I say it isn’t fun. There’s a patch kit right by your side, just throw it over the hole and the oxygen recycler comes back online.’
‘I’m sorry Lizbeth. There’s no new planet, no crew, no-’ He coughed, gasping for air ‘No family. No’ His voice trailed off as he collapsed to the floor, his face towards the ceiling.
As light began to fade, he took one last look around; his former crew were gone. They had abandoned him at the end, as he had expected they would. His vision went black.
In his oxygen-starved mind, he opened his eyes once again. He smiled at the view.