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Dead Man's Shift

by Joe Wocoski
 
 

Third shift aboard the Star Cruiser "Orizon" was always the worst shift. The crew jokingly called it the "Dead Man's Shift" because you were the only crewmember sitting up awake in the small, locked auxiliary control center.  The crew joked that it would make a perfect coffin for someone because you were locked in until morning.

Usually, by morning you were quite literally "dead" -- stiff from sitting in one position all night, and totally exhausted on top of that. They always kidded the crew member that rigor mortis had set into his joints because there wasn't a crew member aboard who hadn't gone through it, and wasn't stiff and ached by first shift, or "sunrise" as the crew liked to call it.

The only problem was that for this long journey, dawn would never come until the ship reached its final destination. This meant that you had nothing to look forward to at sunrise. Instead, the eternal darkness of empty space surrounded everyone aboard the cruiser.  Once the cruiser left the solar system there wasn't enough starlight to see yourself in a mirror.  The moon was no longer there to bathe you in its glow through the long night.  The planets were long past, and only the vast emptiness of space remained.

During third shift every single deck, passage, and room aboard the cruiser was bathed in red light.  This was supposed to simulate night for the crew.  No dark blues or greens of Earth survived in this lighting.  All the walls and control panels cast dark red shadows or long, sharp black images away from the red lamps.  Hands, clothing, and facial features became the eerie red mosaic of a broken stained-glass-window pattern.

This shift lasted from midnight until the Captain asked you for the Night Report at 0800 hours, when the rest of the crew came alive. At 0800 hours the bulbs were turned on, and would gradually increase in intensity until full illumination, much like a sunrise.

At that time, every light aboard the vessel was turned back on, and when you finished the third shift, you returned to your bunk to sleep in the bright yellow glow of the sulfur-bulb lighting in the crew's quarters.  In the 21st century, sulfur bulbs had been developed. The advantage was that a sulfur bulb never burned out. The disadvantage was that you lived in a world with everything tinged in yellow highlights.

***

Those aboard the vessel still lived, biologically, by the night and day turning of a planet they all vaguely remembered in its 33rd century.  They had all been gone for too long a time.  Once, when the voyage had started, they were a crew of 60 young men and women, but now they were all old, very old.

Once they had left the Earth's gravitational field and reached their present velocity, their onboard computer notified them of the actual time shift for them.  Their aging would be far less than predicted and would make it possible for some of them to actually survive the voyage.  This was cause for the crew to celebrate, for some of them might actually see their New World.  They would just have to make it through the isolation of a 300-year voyage.

Traveling close to the speed of light only complicated their understanding of time and the universe.  Few aboard understood that everyone they knew had been dead for well over ten thousand years, while the oldest crewmember was pushing 150 years.  However, their biological deterioration was even less then expected, and that each crewmember might actually make it through the 300-year journey to their New World.

This meant that the clone replacement crews would not be needed for the trip.  Each replacement clone was frozen at zero degrees Kelvin, just waiting to be unthawed, and brought back from the dead.  The originals took the number one and the name of their crew number as their last name.  Jackson One was on duty tonight. He was named after some great painter who lived over a thousand years ago, called Jackson Pollack.

***

Years before the "Orizon" left Earth's orbit, a high-powered radar signal was sent out into deep space along the path that they would be taking.  The idea was to send a radar beacon signal ahead of the ship into space and then to have the ship travel along the beam path.  Any object in the path of the radar signal would ping and the cruiser would pick up the object's signal well in advance of running into it, and if it happened then whoever was on watch would be able to avoid the object.  It worked, at least until now.  The computer monitored the radar signal. Tonight, Jackson One monitored the 3-D computer-generated radar image displayed within his brain.

He was scanning for the black space debris, or icebergs, or bergs, as the crew liked to call the frozen comets and rocks in space.  Few bergs had posed any real threat to the "Orizon."  Once, years ago, a berg had actually come within 20 klicks (kilometers) of crossing the path of the 100-klick vessel, the Orizon.  The crew was actually excited about seeing something in the middle of nowhere and had turned on the high-powered lights on the hull to see if they could illuminate it, but that didn't work either because they were to close to the speed of light, or because it was a piece of dark matter.  They never found out why they could not see it. They quickly shut the hull lights out and continued on in darkness.  That was over 75 years ago. Secretly, everyone still wished they had seen something, anything to break up the emptiness of the long journey in darkness.

***

But right now, at this minute, Jackson One was sitting there yawning, and thinking to the computer.  "Forward status. Please?

The simple electronic signal echoed in his brain, "All clear ahead tonight."

He sat there in total silence, not moving, but playing one of the many mental 3-D virtual reality games stored in the computer. The images were placed electronically directly into his cerebral cortex by the game program.

It was his favorite game. In it, he appeared as a hamster in a large yellow, plastic, see-through ball. The object of the game was to roll it through a maze of destroyed cities on Earth.  It was a totally free-form game in which you made up the rules and directions as you went along.  You could make it as violent or non-violent as you wanted it to be. You could destroy or build whatever you wanted.

The ship's psychological program told him that this was good for him to work off his feelings of being trapped aboard the vessel, and he agreed.  So he always played it for hours during his third shift duty.  At the same time, in another part of his brain, he continued to monitor the 3-D radar system.

He had just come to the part in the game where he was starting to navigate through the Grand Canyon rapids, when a shudder ran through the ship.  The power and the game went out.  That had never happened to him before.  The 3D-radar image also vanished from his brain, there was nothing there anymore, all contact was lost.

Through the electronic implants in his brain, he tried thinking to the Captain, but there was no answer.  He tried the ship's computer, again no answer. He sat there in total darkness for a second before opening his eyes.  It was a strange sensation looking at total darkness, and not seeing the auxiliary control room bathed in the red glow of the night-lights.  He again thought to the ship, and again no answer.  He thought to the door unlocking mechanism, nothing happened.

He ran a mental image of the 3D-radar waves sweeping through his mind, nothing was there that could have impaled the vessel. Or did he miss a berg?  He felt dizzy as if he was spinning, but he was still strapped into his seat.  What if he had missed a berg?  What if a berg had hit the ship?  What if he was the only one left alive?

"Stay calm!" he thought to himself.  "They are out there, and they will get you out in the morning."  Then he remembered the emergency communications system.  He moved his hand along the edge of the control panel until he felt the button.   He tried to press it, but it would not move.

Panic set in!  He hit it again, again, and again.  Deep within his brain he screamed, and screamed, and screamed long, non-stopping, silent, terrifying screams of anguish and fear.  He was truly alone in a coffin. Just like everyone said it was.  He clawed at the controls, trying to get one of them to work. Then he remembered the manual door release; frantically, he began searching for it in the dark. What if there was nothing but empty space on the other side of the door when he found it? The what ifs came faster than he could rationalize for him to think clearly.  Finally, through his frantic searching in the dark he thought he found it.  He had to get out of there.  Now!  He grabbed the handle with both hands and yanked with all his strength.

***

0800 hours came, and the crew awoke to their normal sunrise routine.  The Captain thought to Jackson One for his Night Report, but there was no answer. The Captain could not sense Jackson One anywhere aboard the ship.  Immediately, he thought to the ship for an answer.  The ship answered:  "There is no sign of Jackson One aboard the vessel."

"What?" thought the Captain to the ship, his thought was so loud that it startled the rest of the crew.
The Orizon thought back to the Captain,  "At exactly Oh Four Hundred hours, twelve minutes, and five seconds, Jackson One activated the Manual Emergency Escape Hatch in the Auxiliary Control Room and left the ship.  At that time, there was an ongoing, brief power fluctuation in the central core, with a 62-second power failure in the auxiliary control room. I was able to monitor his actions by bio-sensors; however, due to the power failure, I was unable prevent him from opening the hatch.  By the time I rerouted power back to the Auxiliary Control Room, it was too late, he was blown out of the ship. The Auxiliary Control Room is still decompressed due to the sprung hatch. I have a mechanical repair unit working on it. The repair will be finished in two hours, fifteen minutes, and thirty-seven seconds."

"Thank you.  Ah, where is his body now?" thought the Captain to his ship.

"It is floating away from us on a vector course of 12,700 klicks per hour, and 310 degrees from ship center. The body is out of range. It is not recoverable.  There is nothing we can do."

The Captain thought to the crew. "May I have your attention, please.  A moment of silent thought for Jackson One".  Then he thought to the ship: "Please, resurrect the replacement clone, Jackson Two."

"Yes Sir, I'll start the resurrection process for Jackson Two, immediately," replied the ship.

The thought of losing Jackson One bothered the Captain, but then he rationalized that everyone aboard the ship was expendable.  After all, they were all clones created to save their long-dead masters from the hardships of space. That was why each of them had been created. The Captain was a clone just like his crew, and there were plenty of frozen clones, in hibernation, left to awaken if the need should arise, such as now.*

Story copyright © 1999 by Joe Wocoski  <wocojoe@aol.com>

Artwork "Ldclouds" © copyright 1997-99 by Sam Crowe of Liquid Digital Illustrations <liquid1@preferred.com>

 


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