Author: Thomas Desrochers
There is a disturbance on Deck Four. The Pilot can see it plain as day in the readout, magnified by his attention, an atmospheric ammonia reading eighty times normal. It was pure luck that he saw it at all, one readout among thousands.
He calls out to the copilot. Nobody answers. He remembers, a recurrent pain, that Bradford died years prior. Freak malfunction in the cryopod, the chief mechanic had said. There’d been no evidence. There’d been no spare copilots. The Pilot had been moved to the rest shift, the last ten days in the ship’s hundred-day cycle. Everything but the reaction and life-support off. Nothing to break. Nothing to worry about.
He stares at the readout.
Bradford is gone. The Pilot will be alone for the next fifty years. He undoes his harness and stands, massaging his atrophied legs with his skeletal hands, and leaves the glowing cocoon of the two-man bridge.
The ship is empty, everyone tucked away for Recuperation. The Pilot makes good time. He steps off the ladder onto Deck Four. Quiet, a tomb but for the beating of his heart and the hiss of his breath.
The air should be still, but it brushes against the back of his neck. He shivers, starts along the endless curve of the hallway. A third of the way around, by a sub-hold, he hears it. A faint noise like the pipping of a dozen system alarms. The Pilot opens the door; his nose wrinkles.
The chief mechanic sits before a container, the lid propped open. Light spills out, painting him a golden idol. He closes the lid. Quiet.
The Pilot blinks. “Keelan?”
The chief mechanic nods.
The Pilot shuffles over. “What have you got in there?” He cracked the lid and peers inside. Birds. Three peeping babies sheltering under, next to, and on top of a harassed looking mother. She bup’s plaintively at him. A wattled, fearsome head shoots into view, one beady eye fixated on him.
He closes the lid, looks out over the dozens of containers. How many were mislabeled? How many tons of contraband? He turns to the chief mechanic. “We left seven billion behind.” A brief pause measured in aching heartbeats. “We left everything. My wife. My daughter.”
“I know,” the chief mechanic says. He looks down at his feet, then back at the Pilot. “I had to save something.”
“God damn you Keelan, you saved chickens?”
“What would you have had me do? Another worthless wealthy fool?” The chief mechanic snorts. “God damn me indeed. Those bastards said to leave the animals, the flowers, the bugs, that there was no way to keep them fed and no time to keep them frozen.” He stood, eye to eye with the Pilot now. “They condemned our children to hell to save twenty politicians. Instead of growing up with birds and meadows, they were to grow up with slime and tomatoes!”
The Pilot looks away. It seems so long ago. Five conscious years, hundreds of freeze-thaw cycles. He remembers, dimly, the corpulent tagalong whose cryogenic unit failed the first week. All life has a price, he thinks.
“Keelan. Did you kill Bradford?”
The chief mechanic looks stricken. “No. I would never.”
The pilot gazes down at the container. The mother hen inside, chicks nestled beneath her. A queer miracle; he’d thought them dead with everything else. The future he had accepted changed imperceptibly – was it still so empty? He wasn’t sure.
“I miss them all terribly,” he murmurs.
The Pilot begins to weep, his first tears in fifty years.