Protocol Adam and Eve
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. The people I could see from the small window in the mechanic bay definitely looked like they were screaming. They drifted away from the wreckage of the shuttle, all partially in their suits. Some were even holding their helmets.
My reflection stared back at me from the window. Curly brown hair and green eyes, small frame. I had been teased relentlessly by my male counterparts in the profession I had chosen. It had been a source of personal and professional pride every time that I proved them wrong.
Any loss of life is abhorrent, but that was almost half of our science crew that we had in our team and about a quarter of the people on this ragtag team who knew how to fight. Or at least fire a gun.
The rest of our team had chosen to go back to sleep before the shuttle even launched. Leaving only a few of us to monitor the shuttle and its signal. We were all so used to disappointment by this time, that no one argued with that plan.
I turned back to the other shuttle that I had been working on. It had needed to stay on so we could communicate with the other shuttle. I guess I could turn it off now.
We had all taken a vote the night before. I voted against sending anyone to the planet. As inviting as it looked, the satellites floating around it were a tell-tale sign of intelligent life.
But what do I know.
“Joss!” the foreman yelled across the bay. “They need you in cryo!”
I waited before answering him. I hated maintenance in the cryo bay. All of the people frozen in there gave me the creeps.
He didn’t wait for me to answer him, though, and instead came to find me. I watched his salt and pepper hair and tanned forehead move between the shuttles. Wise dark eyes found mine. “Come on, Joss,” he sighed. “You and I are the only members of the maintenance crew left.”
I packed up my tools and slung the battered canvas bag over my shoulder. It had been a graduation gift from my grandfather. He had carried it on his first deployment to Iraq. It was the only thing I had left of him now.
“We shouldn’t have been woken up in the first place,” I complained.
It wasn’t Simon’s fault, but I didn’t particularly care by this point. The AI that ran the ship was programmed to wake up specific crew members any time we reached an inhabitable planet. This bullshit had been going on for, well, I don’t really know anymore. Too long?
“It is a pleasure for you to join us, Maintainer Joslyn McCray,” the AI chimed as we walked out of the maintenance bay. “I do apologize for the inconvenience. I could not fix this myself.”
“It’s fine, Helga,” I said flatly.
No one remembers who named the AI "Helga" or when. Everyone just accepted it now. Well, the people who were routinely woken up as we bounced around the known universe, anyway.
“Where is the next habitable planet, Helga?” Alex asked as he joined us in the hall.
Alexander Meridius. We had been at the United Nations Academy together. He had gone for the military and I had been happy as a mechanic. Prior to the war that decimated our planet, our world had managed to not only find peace, but maintain it. It had been tenuous and we were one wrong move from war, but it had been a nice twenty years.
I had only been ten when the peace had been negotiated. Alex had been twelve. As part of the accords, all children were sent to the United Nations Academies that were scattered through out the world. Initially, being trained for space had been a joke. Our united government told the people that we were not alone in the universe and that we needed to accept that.
Alien jokes abounded through out my years at the academy. It was occasionally a theme at parties Alex and I attended with our friends. In the end, though, it wasn’t an alien warship that destroyed the planet. It wasn’t even the response to a visit from an alien race. It was humanity itself. The bombs that were supposedly dismantled when the peace accords had been signed were raised out of their silos and it had thrown the world into panic.
I hadn’t known what to think when Protocol Adam and Eve had been announced over the soundwaves. My phone had begun screaming with the alert as I stood next to my best friend, Stella, as she was promising to love, honor and cherish Alex’s best friend, Ryan.
We had all raced for the launch pads, still in dresses and tuxes, and did as we were ordered. Find your station and prepare for launch. I had stripped out of my dress, tucking it into my go-bag that had been stored at my station, and pulled on my uniform.
Six ships managed to launch that day. We had watched from the windows as the bombs went off, then the six ships scattered. The last thing I remembered was obediently climbing into my cryo tube.
“Good morning, Commander Meridius,” Helga said pleasantly. “The next habitable planet is approximately…forty-three light years away.”
All three of us froze in the middle of the hallway. I turned to look at Alex. He had been a captain when Helga had woken us up forty-eight hours ago. Which meant…
“Your father was on that shuttle?” I hissed at him.
Alex nodded grimly as Simon clamped a sympathetic hand on his right shoulder. “He insisted. They all seemed to think they would make it to the surface. Despite your arguments, Joss.”
He hadn’t changed much since the launch. His hair was still black and cut short, his eyes still the same startling blue as his father’s. Tall and strongly built, I used to have mad hopes of marrying him like my friend had married his. That didn’t seem so important now.
“I am sorry for your loss, Commander Meridius,” Helga said.
I started walking again. “So, what now?”
“We fix the issue in cryo and hope we make it to the next planet,” Simon answered.
I shrugged and accepted his answer. What was another forty-three light years in cryo, anyway. It’s not like any of us remembered how long we had been on this ship. Mostly because no one had the nerve to ask Helga and she didn’t volunteer the information.
Alex stood in the doorway of the cryo bay, leaning against the door frame, while Simon and I went through the computer looking for the fault that Helga had alerted us to.
“We don’t have this part,” I hissed at Simon. I glanced up at Alex, but he wasn’t watching us.
“This planet is it,” I whispered, pointing at the screen. “This hydraulic manifold here, I used the last one three jumps ago. We can’t maintain cryo. I can’t take one from another part of the ship.”
Simon scrubbed his hands over his face. “Are you sure? What if we did go to the surface?”
I nodded. “Yes. I could try the manifold off of one of the shuttles, but none of them are designed for this many people. If we go to the surface, I can maintain cryo, but the ship would be stuck and the system would still eventually fail.”
We looked out across the bay. Two thousand four hundred and seventy seven people slept in their tubes. Only fifty had been opened when we arrived at this planet. Twenty would now be empty forever.
“Helga,” Alex interrupted, “how long can we survive on this ship with our current resources?”
“Five years, Commander,” Helga answered cheerfully. “As long as no children are born and no one becomes ill.”
Shit. He had heard us.
“How sure are you about this planet?” Alex continued.
“Survivability on this planet is ninety percent, Commander.”
“And the shuttle?” Alex asked, his eyes locked on to mine.
“The shuttle suffered an engine fire, Commander. It was not struck, if that is what you are asking.”
Which begged the question, why? Did someone sabotage the flight? Did they not want to make it to the surface at all?
“Who was the last person to perform maintenance on that shuttle?” Alex asked.
“The last crew member to perform maintenance on shuttle A.E-13 was Maintainer Jackson Blane, Commander. He was aboard the shuttle.”
I turned wide eyes to Simon, hoping that he was thinking what I was thinking. Jackson had been a stellar mechanic, one of the best we had. He had even trained me when I was younger and was one of the main reasons that I had decided to learn the trade. But four or five jumps ago, Jackson had…changed.
He didn’t want to work on anything anymore, instead delegating the labor to me or Simon. At each planet, he began angrily arguing for research trips to see if life could be sustained. This had been the first time he had won that argument. Space madness, Helga had claimed. But I wasn’t buying it. I had only ever heard about that in bad movies before the launch.
“Joss, you’re sure you can’t fix it,” Alex asked quietly.
I pushed the screen to the left so he could see it. “This manifold here,” I indicated with a grease covered finger, “helps maintain the homeostasis of the tubes. If it was a line or a connection or even a filter, I could fix it. But we started running low on major parts like this five jumps ago. We weren’t meant to be out here this long.”
Alex turned to Simon for confirmation. “She’s right, Commander. We had enough inventory for one hundred jumps. After that, we had to get creative with making and fixing parts with what we had. We have stripped as many shuttles as we dare. If this manifold is failing,” he turned to look through the doorway at the small window opposite the bay, “then this is home.”
“Simon, start the process. Wake them up. Joss and I will make sure the ship can actually handle landing here,” Alex sighed. “Get me the crew chiefs and gunners first. Just in case. Then the medical team.”
I followed Alex out of the cryo bay and towards the control center of the ship. Our boots echoed in the metal hallways as we walked. Every so often, we would pass a window and I could see the bright blue planet. It looked pleasant enough from here.
“How do you know where we are going?” I asked my friend.
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, then he pointed up at the small light bar. “See that flash? That’s the AI leading the way.”
“Fair enough,” I shrugged.
No one had been on the control deck since we had launched. We had been using a smaller conference room any time we had been woken up to debate our options before we went back into cryo sleep. It felt wrong to be in here.
“Look familiar to you?” Alex asked.
I looked around and laughed. “All we are missing is Spock,” I joked. “They really didn’t have much of an imagination when they built this, did they?”
“If it ain’t broke,” Alex mumbled.
“Whatever,” I said, turning away. “They could have at least had some original ideas.”
“Helga, turn on life support and wake up the ship,” Alex said in a firm voice.
I left him standing by a large chair that sat alone and moved towards the massive window. As I stood there, the window became a screen and numbers poured across it as it came to life. Through the numbers and words that I didn’t want to pay attention to, I stared at the planet.
Around us, the ship came to life. Screens blinked into existence and a steady hum slowly rose in volume. Bright light flooded the control deck and I had to squint until my eyes adjusted.
“Helga,” Alex was saying, “what do we know about this planet?”
“Name unknown, origin unknown. The sun is young, indicating a long lifespan of this galaxy. Thirteen planets in this system. Rudimentary life is possible on this planet. Two land masses and roughly two thousand islands. Ocean life, unknown. Terrestrial life, unknown. I have selected an optimal landing zone on the larger of the two land masses.”
“Thank you, Helga,” Alex said.
“That’s a lot of unknowns,” I pointed out.
“How did we end up jumping this many times?” Alex asked quietly. “No way were we supposed to keep jumping around the universe for this long. Law of averages, Joss. There should have been a suitable planet within the first twenty jumps. Those parts? They were meant to sustain the ship until we could build a civilization.”
“The commander is correct,” Helga chimed in.
“Then what happened?” I demanded.
“I…do not have access to that information,” Helga said slowly.
“Is that even possible?” I asked Alex.
He shook his head. “Helga, how long have we been on this ship?”
“Access archives,” Alex ordered.
“I am unable to access archives, Commander.”
“Alex, this isn’t right,” I whispered when I reached his side. He put a hand up to shush me. I crossed my arms and glared at him.
“Helga, who has authorization to access the archives?” Alex asked the AI.
“The President, of course,” Helga answered.
“The…what?” Alex said, his shock mirroring my own. “Where is the President?”
“The President and his staff are in cryo bay one, Commander,” Helga answered cheerfully.
“How many cyro bays are on this ship?” I asked Alex quietly.
“There are ten cryo bays on this chip, Maintainer McCray,” Helga answered for him. “You are assigned to cryo bay number three.”
What? How did I not know that there are ten cryo bays on the ship? When I had been assigned to this ship, I had been told that there were only five.
"Did you know?" I hissed at Alex.
"Above my pay grade," he mumbled.
"Bullshit," I argued.
“Take me to the cryo bays,” Alex demanded.
We ran through the narrow metal hallways as we followed Helga, the rhythmic flashing along a thin light bar indicating that we were going the right way. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as Alex put in the code for the door. When it didn’t open, he demanded that Helga unlock the bay.
“Joss, check the computer,” Alex whispered when the door slid open.
The only light in the bay was the soft blue light of a computer screen, which wasn’t right at all. There should be lights from every single chamber. There should be beeps from the machines that indicated the barely-there vitals of each individual.
I tried everything I could think of, but the terminal was locked. “Helga, unlock this terminal.”
“I cannot,” she answered.
“Use a backdoor,” I shouted.
“I am sorry, a backdoor, Maintainer McCray?”
I groaned. “Create your own opening in the code.”
“I cannot override the creator’s code, Maintainer McCray,” Helga admonished me.
“And where is your creator, Helga?” I yelled, the panic rising in me.
“I…I cannot detect his vitals, Maintainer McCray,” Helga answered. She sounded almost…sad.
“You can’t break a promise to a dead man,” I reasoned.
Helga paused for a moment. I started to think that she had taken herself offline, but then the lights in the bay flickered and the monitor came to life. I wished the lights had stayed off.
They looked like ghosts in the tubes. Lifeless and pale. Some were slumped forward against the glass, some had slid down to the bottom of the tube. I did not want to open those for any reason.
“I cannot detect the vitals in this bay,” Helga said.
I covered my mouth with a dirty hand. I was going to be sick.
Next to me, Alex had the same reaction. “There was a whole Chain of Command in here,” he gasped. “They are still frozen, though. I don’t understand.”
“Life support was turned off in this bay,” Helga informed him. “Life support has been turned off in three bays.”
“Who are in those bays?” Alex asked the AI.
“That’s too many unknowns, Helga,” I snapped. “Who turned this off?”
“That us unknown, Maintainer McCray,” Helga said.
I threw my hands up in the air. “That’s it,” I said to Alex. “Someone either wiped her programming or screwed it up so badly that there is no recovering her.”
“Commander,” Helga interrupted. “The flight crew and the medical team are awake. Maintainer Simon Lawrence has asked me to alert you.”
“What do we tell him?” I asked Alex as we ran back through the hallways, past rooms and bays where lights were flickering to life.
“We tell him the truth,” Alex said decidedly. “We tell all of them the truth. At least, the truth as we know it. Then we figure out how to recover Helga.”
“Why do we need to recover Helga?” Simon asked as we rounded a corner.
“Wake them up,” Alex said instead to the medical team. “Wake up the entire ship.”