Last Shuttle Down
by Michael J. Albers
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
With a deep growl, I kicked open the heavy stairwell door onto my unit’s passageway. It smacked into the wall, broken door springs swinging free. Sitting through two hours of a ship closeout and transition meeting was Big Fire irritating. I should never have gotten roped into being a committee member. Colter Branston’s smirk at every statement set my blood boiling. Bad spin, I so wanted to toss that man and his entire Dalgren’s Star group into a lit exhaust nozzle.
After 750 years travelling interstellar space, ten years braking into this star system, unloading everyone, and then moving out to a geosync orbit, it should be clear this was now a large communication hub for the plant’s colony and no longer a generation ship.
But Branston kept smiling and nodding that it was leaving the system and he had everything under control. If I had leaped across the table and strangled that man, everyone would have voted me a commendation. We knew that insane jerk and his Dalgren’s Star group — “cult” may be a better description — were up to something, but nobody on the closeout committee could figure out what.
I paused as the door closed behind me. A tug with three furniture-filled carts blocked the passageway about halfway from the stairs to my unit. Shaking my head, I turned sideways, brushing the wall as I eased past. Almost all 10,000 people had already departed for the planet, and the final shuttle was scheduled to leave in a week or so. I wondered who cared enough to truck this stuff when they could just move into any vacant unit and grab from the empty units around them. This passageway was large family units with more space than I, a single person, had ever imaged living in.
I turned at a noise behind me. Two men, wearing blue Dalgren’s Star shirts, came out of a unit, carrying a couch. Bad spin! I grimaced and hurried on to my door. A couple of lewd remarks followed me. What sort of jerks, who looked younger than my daughter, made remarks like those to an 82-year old female? Granted, I still had 30 or 40 years ahead of me and looked good for my age, but remarks like those were just absurd.
I stepped into my unit, snapped the lock, and stared at the closed door for a moment. What were those people doing in this area? They never went aft of the water belt. Almost forty years ago, when we verified there was a habitable planet in this star system, that we could maneuver into it, the acceptance that the systems were falling apart, and that we risked total drive failure, there had been a vote on whether to stop here or go on to Dalgren’s Star, our original destination.
The vote was not close, but a dedicated group led by Deer Branston and later aided by his son Colter kept claiming rigged voting. Granted, the last Earth update on Dalgren’s Star showed it was a better planet than this one, which had abundant sea life but no land life. Some 750 years of interstellar travel had not been kind to the ship’s systems, which would never hold together for another 150 years. A vote to continue would have been a vote for mass suicide. Branston may have been sincere at the beginning, but I think now it was just his ego out of control.
Yet, somehow, Deer Branston exerted a strange hold over his group that no one else could understand. They had formed a tightly knit cultish group, minimizing their interactions with everyone else beyond incessantly demanding we continue on. The followers were mostly pulled from the not-too-bright people, but it still amazed me how Branston could hold them together.
I had listened to Deer speak a couple of times and watched him mesmerize the audience, at least any audience member that didn’t realize what unrealistic garbage he spewed out. Back when I was much younger, he had been a friend of Kirby, and we’d hung out together. I remember him as a egotistical never-wrong guy that made me groan every time he joined us.
Had Branston declared anything not in their area open to scavenging? Would they loot my unit? Head tilted, I pondered how to fabricate a better lock. I could put brackets by the door and bar it with a nice heavy steel beam. But how could I keep them out when I was at work? The hall cameras still worked here but, after the last shuttle left, those guys would monitor them. I shuddered, thinking how I would soon be in the minority. Living by rules according to a smirking Colter Branston, not the rules I’d spent my life following, living in a realm governed by their deviant, paranoid view, lewd remarks might become a way of life. I sighed, thinking of the many years I’d have to deal with it.
I peeled off my coverall and flipped it onto a peg. My nose crinkled. Maybe going direct from work to that transition meeting hadn’t been a good idea. I grabbed a pair of dark green shorts, the cleanest one in the pile. Pulling them and a t-shirt on, I cringed at the flashing green message light. “No, TeeLynn,” I muttered, “ignore it.” Probably another call from Katrina, my daughter, begging me to come down on the last shuttle.
I hadn’t taken the previous 22 passenger shuttles and didn’t intend to be launching with this one, either. I was too tired to deal with that now. Besides, I needed to leave for dinner. With only 600 and some people to feed, the cafeteria no longer served continuously. Over the past few months, for the first time in my 82 years, I had missed meals because I was late.
Outside my door, the tug engine started. I waited a minute before opening the door and, happily, looked out on an empty passageway.
The two flights of stairs up to the garden level seemed to grow longer each time, so much longer than in my youth, when we would race up and down the eight flights from the lowest level to the garden level. I was the fastest girl in my group of friends. I no longer desired to run even a single flight, much less the three or four round trips we used for a real race. With my machine shop on level 6 and my unit on level 2, I had my fill of steps. With a huff, I reached the top, which opened onto the garden level, the open center of the ship.
I stepped out onto the circle road beside the stairway; it wrapped over my head in both directions. Directly overhead, traveling down the centerline was a bright glowing tube, which provided light for the plants and made this level much more inviting. About a quarter of the forward section was black. I had lived in that section until a power failure that nobody could fix rendered it unliveable. But now I had a bigger unit, so I didn’t mind the move. Too bad the power failure was there and not in the living area of Dalgren’s Star.
Katrina had mentioned how strange it was not to have the world wrap above you. My eyes followed the road around, and I flashed back to my six-year-old self. I would stand in the middle of the grass, look up, and wave my arms as I imagined it unfolding into a flat surface. My young view of life on a planet, something I never expected to see for real. My younger self ignored the issues of how the air would remain. But, if you could unwrap a two-kilometer cylinder with a wave of your arms, then holding the air in place was probably trivial. I had such a great imagination back then.
What I didn’t imagine was my response when that unwrapping actually happened. As a standard part of shuttle download screening, I sat in a simulator room that made it look like I was on a planet. So many people described it as an amazing sight that they could not wait to experience for real. Ready to be amazed, I waited for the fake sunrise. It started dark and then the lights slowly came up on one side. Flat land stretched out forever and forever. I melted into a quivering screaming mass, curled into a tight fetal position. It required a strong sedative and several hours to stop the shaking. I could pretend to unfold the habitat, but could not handle the sight for real.
Although the fear was not an uncommon response, mine had been one of the worst. I resolved not to go “downstairs” — that term for the planet had become popular shortly after the first shuttle three years ago — and I avoided the agoraphobia conditioning program, suffering minor panic attacks whenever people tried to talk me into going. I would just live out my life here.
I wouldn’t be the only one. A couple of hundred other people planned to stay, too, mostly for various medical reasons. I wasn’t the youngest nor the oldest. I could safely live out my remaining 30-40 years in the surroundings of my past 80 years and wouldn’t die alone. Plus, being very mechanically inclined, I expected to help with repairs and to keep everything running. With the shaky state of everything after 750 years of travel, breakdowns were a way of life.
I looked aft, and my eyes traced patterns in the large rusted patch in the engine room wall. Three hundred years ago, a huge explosion and fire had destroyed two of three main engines, leaving us to limp across space. Stories quickly sprung up about monsters behind that patch. Following long tradition, my older sister and her friends had taken me to stand below the patch and filled my gullible mind with tales of monsters with an extra eye in their forehead, pouring out and eating us normal people. I woke up screaming that night and Mom was most definitely not happy, much to my sister’s discomfort.
Of course, a few years later, I became the older girl, feeding the same stories to younger kids. Lacking a younger sister, I avoided the parent trouble from nightmare-ridden kids. Those poor kids downstairs will never know a patched engine wall and will need to invent new monsters. I’ll have to ask Katrina about that.
Of course, no monsters lived in those ruined engineering spaces. Just a mix of pristine areas connected to burnt-out bays with twisted and blackened hunks of metal. As a machinist, I’m one of the few people with clearance to go into engineering spaces 1 and 3 to salvage metal. It’s been years since I’ve gone there; it’s a dark and creepy place. I let younger people go. Now there are no younger people and, once more, I’ll have to go myself.
I turned left toward dinner, a quarter turn up the circle road at the Yellow Ganymede cafeteria, just as I had done three times a day for the past several months. My foot froze in mid-step. Instead, I walked in the other direction. Both ways lead to dinner and, right now, even as hungry as I was, I didn’t look forward to talking to people. I mentally paused before finishing the thought: “talking to people discussing going downstairs.”
I wasn’t going downstairs; I was an upstairs girl. Just because most of the 10,000 people had gone downstairs, I did not need that turmoil in my life. Going downstairs would toss out everything I had known for the past 80 years. Flat land was not for me. Even these subtle thoughts of going downstairs brought on a few panic twinges. Closing my eyes and breathing deeply, I forced the twinges back into the dark recesses of my mind. All of Katrina’s messages and pleading were not going to change anything. In a week or so, that final shuttle would launch, and I would stay. Staying, not going downstairs. My stomach relaxed.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael J. Albers