Captain Mariah Kylma awoke abruptly. Coming out of cryosleep never got easier. She blinked blearily, her sluggish eyes greeted by the ship’s status monitor. The exterior alarms were muted through the walls of the cryosleep chamber. Her screen was fire red with warnings. Multisystem failures – life support, power at critical levels.
She yanked off her extracorporeal oxygenation connectors before the terminal sequence had a chance to finish. It made her first few steps particularly challenging. Her head swam and her breaths were labored. The crew around her was waking up, but abiding by the recompression protocol and staying in their chambers. They were seeing the critical failures report too – their heart rates and blood pressure were off the charts at the central monitoring pillar, generating its own series of alarms.
Mariah slumped her way into the main control conduit and began furiously running diagnostics. The ship was running as designed – wake her up when power reserves dropped below fifty percent. It should never happen with the intermittent solar recharging, but something had obviously failed. The idea was to wake her up and have her turn on the backup generators, rather than just letting the ship turn them on and not figuring out the root cause. If that happened, they might all wake up at five percent power and no way to fix it.
But the whole crew was not supposed to be awakened to fix a battery. That had come from life support failure. Oxygen and resource levels were critically low. Mariah initiated the backup oxygen tanks and began the seed germination protocol. Must have been some impact event to mess with the solar recharge and life support. There had to be a leak somewhere.
“Computer, give me a report of all hull integrity breaches,” Mariah spoke haltingly.
“Captain Kylma, good morning. I am happy to report that hull integrity is presently at 100%.”
“Then what happened to life support and power?”
A deafening shriek pierced the air, obliterating the ship’s response.
Mariah shifted her gaze from the computer conduit to the direction of the shriek. Recompression sickness probably.
As her eyes moved from short to long-range focus she saw what had caused the terrifying scream.
Littering the floor around the crew’s cryosleep chambers were mangled, decaying corpses. Human corpses. Another shriek from the chamber next to Jensen.
The seven other crew members took their turns awakening, surveying the macabre scene, screaming, vomiting, and crying.
Mariah let them take the information in at their own pace, she had to remain calm and get the ship back in order. She remained at the conduit, typing instructions and running additional diagnostics. Eight crew, including herself. All accounted for. Nobody had been awakened since leaving Earth until now.
Then who are the bodies?
All embryos were in the green – human and animal. Seed stores intact. But the live gardens were completely destroyed.
The crew was huddled together in solidarity. They appeared to have done a head count and were coming to the recognition that none of the bodies were crewmates.
Mariah pulled up an image of the live gardens. Not so live anymore. They had been designed to grow over the course of the journey so that there would be ample crop for the ground crew to eat and plant while the embryos gestated.
It looks like they have been harvested to death. Was this spectral crew cluttering her command deck responsible?
“C-c-cap!” Jensen had been first out and was the first to speak to Mariah.
Mariah stood from the conduit and approached the seven and the grisly remains nearby.
Definitely look human.
“P-p-permission to speak freely, Captain?” stuttered Williams.
“Cap, what the fuck! Is going on?” It was a half cry, half shout.
“The ship is following its protocols appropriately. Power and life support dropped below fifty percent and woke us all up. I started the backup generators and initiated the germination protocol. The live gardens are gone, so we will have to survive on protein rations until the germination protocol is productive. All animal and human embryos are green. The hull is intact and obviously, all of you are here.” She scanned their faces.
“Well that’s all fine and dandy. Real kum-ba-ya shit. But what the fuck are all these dead bodies?”
“I am still working on that. I did not want to overload anyone, so I was quietly running diagnostics while you came out of the recompression sickness.”
“We better figure it out!” Jensen said, exasperated. She looked away.
“And where are we? Did we make it to Pelastus?” Williams was at least hopeful.
“Hadn’t gotten that far yet. Computer – please give our current location.”
“Computer, give our current location.”
“I’m sorry Captain Kylma, I’m having some trouble figuring that out at the moment. Is there something else I can help you with?”
“How about telling us where all these bodies came from?” Liranski said coolly.
“Certainly. These bodies represent the last members of the humanoid race that evolved during our journey. They expired over the last few weeks when the live gardens food supply ran out. Though they originated from Homo sapiens DNA, they had evolved to the point that it would have been unlikely that this crew could have interbred with them. As such, they likely would have classified as a new species. If you would like, we can study their remains and be the first to identify them.”
Everyone stood or sat in silence.
Mariah was first to speak. “They evolved during our journey? How is that possible?”
“Captain, I’m not certain I understand your question, but let me answer what I think you are asking. Our journey has lasted considerably longer than was originally intended. While we were, and still are, on course for Pelastus, we have yet to arrive.”
“What does ’considerably longer’ mean?” Jensen asked.
“As you may recall, this journey was originally intended to last fifteen million years. However, due to lower than anticipated vehicular efficiency, automated course corrections, galaxy expansion, and avoidance of fatal impact trajectories, our journey has now last approximately one hundred billion years.”
No wonder it was hard to wake up.
“The human debris and materials in the live gardens merged and resulted in the eventual evolution of this humanoid species that you see here. Much like back on Earth, their numbers exceeded the capacity of their environment to sustain them. Wars were fought. Civilizations rose and fell. Eventually they burned themselves out and only a few remained with little sustenance.”
“Why didn’t you help them?” Mariah asked.
“My duty is to this crew, Captain Kylma. Besides, they never asked. While I eventually learned their language by listening, they never thought to ask me to help them.”
Mariah and the rest of the crew were dazed.
“Can I answer any other questions for you, Captain?”
A hundred billion years. Civilizations rose and fell around us while we slept. What did they think of us in our chambers?
A haunting thought crept into Mariah’s mind.
“Why can’t you figure out where we are?”
“As I said Captain, we are most certainly on course for the last known location of Pelastus. However, given the incredible passage of time since it was last detectable, I cannot be sure of exactly how close we are.”
A flash of understanding crossed Williams’s face. She was coming to the same realization that Mariah was dreading.
“Are you trying to tell us we can’t navigate anymore because the universe has expanded faster than we could get across it?”
“I believe what you are trying to ask is whether the universe has reached maximum entropy?”
“Yes…” said Mariah.
“That is correct Captain. Maximum entropy. Colloquially referred to as the “heat death of the universe.” I do suspect that it will get quite lonely out here.”
“So that’s why the power systems were failing. No more starlight.” Mariah shook her head.
“Correct again, Captain.”
“How long do we have left on our current power reserves?”
“At the current rate of energy expenditure, about six months.”
“Will we arrive at Pelastus before…” Jensen trailed off, realizing the futility of her question.
There won’t be any energy there anyway.
The crew looked at the floor silently. A tear hitting the metal reverberated through the stillness.
Mariah looked at the decaying remains around them.
“Computer, did they know it was the end for them? You said you understood their language.”
“What did they do at the end?”
“They shared stories of their lives, their ancestors, and lamented their inability to ever successfully leave the ship to see the outside world.”
“We should do the same. But we won’t be left wondering what is outside the ship. Computer, prepare the escape pods. Would anyone like to follow me into the dark?”