This story is by Christopher W. Snider and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Neville looked at the worklist displayed from the shop. Among his taskings, lifeboat 313 was on it. It was due for inspection, and he had done it a hundred times on a hundred other lifeboats. In fact, he had been the inspector for this one for the past several maintenance cycles, his signature was on file showing he had completed it multiple times before with no discrepancies noted. Just like the rest of the Ark, the nanite repair system kept almost everything in pristine order. The humans were able to handle the larger repairs more efficiently, and generally just made sure that the nanites were doing their job. This lifeboat was different though, and always gave him (and everyone else) the feeling of being watched while he was on it.
He scanned through his checklist, noting the supplies in stasis, the fire suppression system, and the gravity coil readings. He started to check the locator beacon and found that it needed to be calibrated. Pulling a small socket wrench from his pocket, Neville loosened the four bolts and pulled it from the bulkhead, all the while humming to himself. He walked it to the airlock, placed it on his small cart, and noted everything in the log. He continued his checklist and found nothing else out of sorts.
Suddenly, without warning, the entire lifeboat went dark. The airlock slammed shut and he could hear the ejection coils charging, building up to a crescendo. There was a series of alarms and then the explosive bolts fired, shoving the lifeboat away from the ship just as the coils hit their peak, causing Neville to tumble backward, striking his head on the bulkhead. Having cleared the envelope of the main ship, the autopilot aligned the lifeboat to the nearest star and began to spool the main drive, it’s whine building and causing the ship to shudder. A soft thrum began to resonate throughout and it suddenly surged forward. Slumping to the floor, Neville slipped away into the black velvet of unconsciousness.
Groggily waking, his head pounding, a wave of panic washed Neville. The thrumming in the ship exacerbated his headache. Scrambling to find his feet, Neville propped himself up and looked at the computer emitting its persistent wail, and noticed a very scary and all too real issue – the Ark was not showing up on any screens, at least in no form he could understand, and the radio held no voices calling. The fear strangled the muffled cry in his throat, and a crushing tidal wave of despair washed completely over him. He was quite literally a trillion miles from nowhere, and no one knew he was alive.
After a solid ninety minutes of lamenting and cursing the gods for being in this situation, Neville was exhausted. His ragged breathing slowed and he gathered himself as best as he could. His mind swam, simply trying to comprehend the gravity of his predicament. He was onboard a lifeboat, screaming through space at hundreds or even thousands of miles per second, headed to who knows where and for how long a trip. He curled into a fetal position as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Had he been on the Ark, at least he could ask the computer for information, but the lifeboats didn’t have such niceties. There were mechanisms in place so that almost anyone could fly the lifeboats once they got to a destination, or they could be piloted in a formation from a central pilot. Neville didn’t have the luxury of either of those scenarios currently, nor was he in a mental state to try and read manuals or guides to figure it out. The screens weren’t overly helpful, numbers and letters everywhere, some changing, others static. His adrenaline began to wear off from his ordeal, and he began to shake, his body trembling like he was standing in the snow in a blizzard. He pulled himself over to one of the seats and flopped into it, and began to feel his eyes growing heavy. Groaning, he drifted off to sleep, the exhaustion claiming his consciousness as a victim.
Neville was unsure of how much time had passed when he woke up, and in space, there were no real ways to tell without examining the ship’s clock. Racking his memory and doing the best math he could muster, he figured he had been asleep for roughly 12 hours. His stomach began to protest, as did his other bodily functions. The latter required the most immediate attention, however, and he made his way to the nearest head. While relieving himself, he noticed some blood in his urine and would have to have the medical scanner look at him. His body ached all over, his joints stiff. He shuffled back to the food stores and removed one of the crates. He knew exactly what he was looking for, after all, he did the inventory just a short time ago. Claiming his prize, he removed the tightly packed foil packet, the letters spelling out “Ice Cream, Strawberry” on the front. While it didn’t solve his problem, it brought a small amount of comfort. He tore the foil away from the corner, a hiss emanating from the package as air rushed in and the scent of strawberries filled his area. Biting down on the freeze-dried block, it immediately dissolved on his tongue, a taste of cream and strawberry filling his mouth with that unctuous deliciousness. He savored the few bites of the treat, knowing that he should eat something else, but just relishing that single moment and finding just a moment of comfort.
Sighing, he decided he should at least know what the screens were saying to him. He went to the cockpit area and got the manuals, carrying them back to his small feast on the floor. Picking one at random, he opened it and began to read. As luck would have it, it dealt with the navigation console and explained the display and its information. Excited at the possibility, he stood back up and rushed to the console. Looking back and forth from the book and the screen, he made out that he was traveling at nearly 75 percent the speed of light and still accelerating, he was headed to a star that was simply a number and no name, and most shocking of all, that it would take nearly 125,000 Earth years to get there. It was this last number that stunned him, his brain swimming trying to comprehend.
125,000 Earth years? He began to weep again, he would never see another human being, never hear another person laugh, or even yell. He would never experience human contact again. He was utterly alone. No computer to talk to, no voice recordings to hear, just him, his mind, his voice. Alone. No amount of strawberry ice cream could fix that. He slid slowly down into the seat at the console, his chest hollow and his mind numb. Space is a cruel mistress, much like the seas of Earth. She is unforgiving, uncaring, and cold-hearted. Her mystery is exceeded only by her indifference, and then again only by her deadliness. Neville fell asleep at the console, his emotional experience wringing the very last iota of energy from his body.
The doctor noted the cause of death as dehydration, though the bruises on Neville’s head showed that he had struck it with some great force, giving him a concussion. There were some other bruises on his back, but there was no evidence of foul play or anything that would be of great concern otherwise. He went on to examine Neville’s records on the Ark, and he was quite honestly what some would consider a perfect employee. There were no disciplinary actions listed, he was never late, and always submitted his reports on time. He was always noted as pleasant and friendly, volunteering to help whenever it was needed.
He made a few more cursory notes in the report, citing Neville’s records. As a final note, he stated “Though dehydration is the official cause of death, I would like to note that I believe that this man may have simply given up when he thought all was lost. Losing hope, losing faith, both contributing to a loss of fight. Perhaps he did break something in that situation. Perhaps he broke his will to keep going.” Sighing and with a cold, clinical movement, the doctor submitted his official findings with his thumbprint on the tablet, sealing Neville into the archives, to always be remembered.