Into the Black
The gradual awakening from artificial hibernation runs the gamut of emotions. You start out relaxed, still nearly flatlined by the drugs that slow down your biological processes. As soon as you realize your limbs don’t respond when you try to move them, you swiftly move through panic. Luckily, the susurrus ocean rain sounds keep you from careening into a total meltdown.
A pale aquamarine display on the glass in front of you begins to come into focus. You see an outline of a generic human form to one side, vital systems outlined faintly to indicate just how perfectly healthy you still are. To the other side, the current date and time glints above a brief readout of the main starship status. Front and center, though, is a rotating diagram of the current star system or nebula.
At least, that’s what should be there. I woke to the normal calm-panic, healthy vitals, and clean bill of health for the ship. The center of the screen, though, was entirely blank. That shouldn’t be possible. The onboard AI that I’ve taken to calling “Aisha” is programmed to handle all interstellar decisions except in the event of an emergency, and there wasn’t even a trace of a rogue planet or radiation burst.
I wiggled my jaw for a minute before I could remember how to work my tongue enough to form words. “Aisha? Why?”
Immediately, the white noise stopped and her voice came in, whispering and calm as always at this early stage of awakening. “Relax, Jenny. Take a breath. Let’s work on your arms first.”
With her apt direction, I rolled first my left shoulder and then my right. We worked down each arm to the fingers, gradually warming the blood to avoid the worst pins and needles imaginable. After the half hour routine through the rest of my body, I was ready to pull the internal release handle and step out of my tube.
“Jenny - take it slow. Your right ankle appears slightly weak still.”
I nodded and reached for the handle. As I did, I noticed several scratch marks on the inside of the lower panel near my hand. I stopped short. “Aisha: What’s the ship status?”
“Ship functions are operating within acceptable parameters. No errors or warnings to report.”
I chose my next words carefully. “Has something happened to the habitation modules in transit?”
There was a pause before she answered. “Collision avoidance required firing of stabilizing rockets to rotate the ship. The habitation module was jostled and some minor internal damage may have occurred. No pressure leaks or radiation shield damage detected.”
That could explain it, and the AI was incapable of lying or dissembling. I turned the handle and pushed myself out of the tube.
Getting dressed in zero gravity is a tricky proposition anyway, but doing so after just waking from hibernation would be nearly impossible. I was grateful for the robotic assistance strapping on my uniform and tool belts.
“Alright, Aisha. Sergeant Mullens ready for duty. Report.”
There was a slight click before she replied, “Good morning, sergeant. I trust you are well?”
“You know exactly how I am, you rusted hunk. Why am I awake in the middle of nowhere?”
There was another unnatural pause. “The hibernation display is not equipped to handle our current environment, sergeant.”
I waited, but that was apparently all she was going to say. I took a deep breath and shuttled myself through the open hatch toward the bridge. A surprising amount of dust hung in the air.
“Aisha: I want a read on the air filtration system. Can you run the fans through their paces?”
A gust of cool air from the vents pushed me to one side of the corridor as I sailed by. I kicked a strut to get myself back on course and reached for the bridge door.
The door started swinging open as soon as my fingers brushed the handle. I glanced at the latch and saw that its faceplate was missing. It may have gotten jostled loose in those same maneuvers, which meant I’d have to either find it or rig up a replacement before I could get back to sleep or I’d risk get written up by Lieutenant Coleman.
Settling into the navigation net, I thumbed on the console. It flickered to life in fits. As soon as it seemed to have decided to stay on, I hit the environmental controls to raise the temperature and thaw out the circuits a bit. The primary display button felt familiar as I hit it and watched the wall in front of me dissolve to display our surroundings.
As if from a great distance, I heard Aisha’s calming voice. “Jenny, please take a breath slowly. We’ll talk about what you’re seeing after that.”
I shuddered and realized I’d been still for almost a minute. Before me, there was a line of glowing gases angling across the screen. The only thing I knew of that could form such a pattern was the accretion disk of a black hole, and we seemed to be in the thick of it.
“I’m ready, Aisha. But this isn’t looking any less scary.”
“Your stress response has been registered in your heart and breathing rate, sergeant, although you seem to now have it under control.”
“Sure. Can you just tell me what we’re in for here?”
“Acknowledged. Please stand by for report.”
As I watched, I could see the glow in front of me edging past second by second. An empty space in the middle over the glowing gas, surrounded by what looked like too many stars, must be the event horizon itself. The other readings I could understand myself showed we were slipping along at nearly two thirds light speed, and more than ten percent over our rated top speed.
“Navigation report, sergeant. As you have likely surmised, we are in a steeply degrading orbit around a 14 stellar mass black hole. It has recently encountered the red dwarf system which was our next target for exploration and possible colonization. Long range scans did not detect the gravitational disturbance until retrorockets had begun firing for deceleration, and safety limits prevented faster braking. The thrust is currently sufficient to slow our descent, but not to stall or reverse it.”
Silence crept into the room as I shivered in my net. I watched the light dancing across the screen, struggling to string words together to respond.
Aisha interrupted my struggling train of thought, murmuring, “We’ll work this through together, Jenny. I’m here for you.”
I drew in another shuddering breath, realizing that I wasn’t just shaking from the chill. I looked down to see my palms were slick with sweat.
“This is above my pay grade, Aisha. Why didn’t you wake the captain? Or at least one of the senior staff? I can’t make up protocol for this on the spot without running it by them anyway.”
The silence stretched out this time far longer than I would have thought possible.
“Aisha? Are you online?”
Her monotone cracked like a whip. “Affirmative.”
“Then why the cinders didn’t you wake the senior staff?!”
She all but droned as she said, “I did.”
Something about that left my stomach tumbling and I was suddenly glad I hadn’t stopped to eat something, even given how empty and famished I felt.
“Alright then, metalmouth,” I paused. “What are their orders?”
“It is my duty to inform you that you have been promoted, Acting Captain Mullens.”
My retort died on my lips. “I… what?”
“All officers senior to you are no longer in a position to fulfill their duties as assigned.”
“Wh...why not?” I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering as I watched a bead of sweat spin away from my forehead.
“Captain Enias is descending toward the event horizon in a modified probe, launched in the hope that her mass plus that of the probe would be sufficient to give us enough marginal thrust to escape the gravitational well. Our calculations were faulty.
“Lieutenants Harding and Coleman independently fled in outward directions, reportedly to alert the rest of the fleet to the danger before they approached too closely. Given their relativistic increase in speed and the lack of further craft in our vicinity, they were successful. However, their departure accelerated our descent.
“Master Sergeant Kryztic panicked at the sight and required tranquilization. When they regained consciousness, they jettisoned themself from the airlock.
“And Sergeant Singh tampered with the controls of his hibernation chamber before shutting himself in and freezing solid. He may be recoverable with medical attention, but there is no longer a medical officer aboard with Lieutenant Harding gone.”
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I realized I was desperate for water. I didn’t feel surprised when I saw Aisha extend a readied pouch to me with straw already affixed.
After a few careful sips, I collected my thoughts. “How long has it been? And how long do we have?”
“Jenny, you’re not going to like the answers to either question. Which do you want first?”
That struck me like a bell. My ears rang and I found my vision narrowing.
“Jenny — stay with me now.”
I shook my head and took another small sip. “Okay. Let’s start with what comes next. How long until we’re ripped apart?”
“Thank you, acting captain. According to best calculations, that depends on what happens next. With 90% confidence, it can range from hours to decades.”
“And what options are there?”
There was a subtle ticking sound as static came through the speakers. I was surprised to hear my own voice. “Jenny, it’s me. Well, you. Open the star map cabinet.”
My fingers struggled to respond as I fumbled with the latch. It finally turned with a dull thud. As the door opened, I noticed an untidy mess of paper that was nothing like I remembered leaving it. One sheet had clearly been crumpled and flattened at least a handful of times. Somehow, it seemed like a likely candidate to start with. Looking it over, I found a list in my own handwriting with almost all the items crossed off.
I scanned the list quickly and found all the options that had been spinning through my head and more: spinning the habitation module to try to use its thrusters in succession to give a boost while avoiding draining any one of them too much; cutting power to the long range sensor arrays to conserve and reroute power; scooping the stellar detritus to refill fuel cells and switch to fusion drive; powering down all life support and environment control systems to a bare minimum to recharge the ion drive for a single launch blast; and a dozen more.
But all of those were crossed off. All that remained were two options that were clearly mutually exclusive.
“Aisha, tell me this - why don’t I remember this list?”
It was my own voice that answered again. “So, I’m going to try that option of powering almost everything down. I’m afraid we might lose… might… This might freeze over our terrarium beyond recovery. And the damage to… Well, to life support. It could… uhm. It could … oh rust it. It could kill the crew. But if it doesn’t, they might come back brain damaged or as living vegetables. Maybe some memory loss. Maybe… maybe different personalities. Maybe… I dunno. I’m no Skip Harding. But I’m going in myself, too, so we can power down the temperature controls. If this works, we’ll get enough extra juice to turn this next curve into a parabola and arc our way out. If not, at least it will slow us down and give me… time. To decide what happens next. Mullens out.”
The note drifted out of my fingers. “I take it we’re not on our way out, Aisha?”
Her voice was soft, and sounded almost sad as she said, “Affirmative.”
I tried breathing deeply and felt my body shudder at the effort. I glanced sideways at the list and nodded.
“Well, we know this one will work, and I think we both knew which I would pick if it came to it, right old girl?”
“My calculations placed the probability at roughly 80-20, but your biometrics have clarified your decision.” There was a pause. “Thank you for not leaving me, Jenny, for not following Harding and Coleman.”
I laughed at that. “I never could! Harding was such an insufferable… well… good in their own way. But no. I have to do what’s best for the rest of the crew. Hopefully at least some of them still can make it through.”
“Readings indicate it is likely that 47 of the basic enlisted can be safely revived, 16 others may survive with proper medical care if found in time, but the rest may unfortunately be lost already.”
I nodded and set my jaw. “That’s good enough for me. Aisha, I’m going to go close the hatches. You prepare for separation and get those rockets warmed up.”
Before she even acknowledged the order, I was out of the net and gliding toward the corridor. I paused before sealing the habitation hatch, hooking my feet under the handle so I could properly salute my crew. “May your journey be swift, friends.”
When it was properly latched, I dashed back down the corridor to seal the bridge. I smirked at the missing faceplate as I did, daring it to write me up as I sealed the hatch around it.
As I strapped back in, I called out, “Okay, Aisha, report status?”
“Launch rockets primed, release clamps ready, acting captain.” After a beat, she added, “Jenny.”
As I prepared to give the order to send the others careening out of the gravitational well in the hope that someone from the fleet had stayed behind to catch them, I looked ahead at my own separate path.
“Well, Aisha, let’s go find out what’s on the other side of an event horizon. Engage!”