FICTION

June/July 2022

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The Caretaker

by Avery Parks

“How much longer?” Dr. Jean Williamson called out, voice echoing tonelessly through the ship. It had been two years since Somnus had known any footsteps other than her own, its sterile corridors lifeless and cold.

The onboard AI Ariadne answered, its voice modulated to sound female. “312 days until we reach Oenopion, Doctor. Just over ten months, if that is a more acceptable unit of time for you.”

“A long damn time regardless.” And then three more years until we’re back on Earth. Jean sighed and stretched, resting her palms against the ceiling of the cramped compartment without much effort. “What’s on the docket?”

“In addition to your usual duties, we have the weekly maintenance of the hydroponics bay.”

“Understood. I’ll see to the crew, first.” She strode to the ladder and slid down two levels in the partial gravity before opening the hatch to Somnus’ medical bay.

Six pods filled the space. Five with glass tops fogged from the low temperatures inside; one, empty. Jean swallowed the familiar longing to sleep away her loneliness; only after she completed her mission could she join the others in their dreamless slumber. She turned instead to the first, checking the data for the pod’s occupant.

Dany Rousseau’s sleeping face was just visible through the haze, framed by gray curls. Retired from the European Space Agency and old enough to be Jean’s mother, she was blissfully unaware of the years passing by. Jean pressed a hand against the glass, wishing she could speak with her. With any of them.

Ten months until they reached Oenopion, the extrasolar object whose discovery had finally green lit this mission. Then she could wake her crew of test subjects; they would study Oenopion, and she would study them in turn. Ten months. She would make it. She had to.

“Everything within expected parameters, Doctor?”

“Yes,” Jean answered absently as she finished her rounds and left, easing the hatch closed behind her as if to not disturb the sleepers.

Halfway to the hydroponics bay, she was hurled by an unseen force against the wall, head first. The impossibly loud squealing of emergency alarms was the last thing she registered before everything went black.

#

“…too many risks associated with testing your extended therapeutic hibernation technology. As exciting as we find the Somnus project, we cannot in good conscience fund a mission with such low odds of success.”

“Perhaps you’ll find someone more receptive to your… daring ideas elsewhere.”

“…our investors are worried about the risks.”

“We admire your passion. Truly. But I’m afraid our answer is no.”

“Doctor. Doctor Williamson,” Ariadne’s voice filled her ears, dragging her out of a sea of memory. Every failed proposal for this mission blurred together into a dizzying wave of rejection, leaving her shaky and disoriented.

“How long was I out?” Jean asked groggily, checking herself for injuries. She found a lump on her head and probed around it, fingers coming away wet with blood. She wiped them on her coverall. “Well?”

“Approximately three hours,” Ariadne said.

Jean’s eyes widened in alarm. Severe concussion. “What the hell happened?” Her vision swam as she staggered to her feet, and she blinked until it cleared. “Is the crew stable?” she added sharply.

“Simply too dangerous—”

Was all of her hard work, her perseverance to prove herself and her technology for nothing? Had they been right all along? She pushed away the fragmented memory, struggling to remain in the present.

“A meteorite impact. Small enough to not be visible to my tracking, but large enough to puncture our shielding. I have already submitted a report back to XPT control, as I am sure they will want to address this oversight for the next mission.”

Jean frowned, both at the information and at Ariadne’s long-winded explanation. Can an AI even use delaying tactics?

“The crew,” Jean repeated, already moving toward the medical bay. She alternated between using her right hand for applying pressure to her wound and stability as she walked, leaving bloody handprints on the walls. “Ariadne…”

“I regret to inform you that the crew is dead.”

#

“Why is your project the one we should take our risks on?”

“Because Somnus is our gateway to the stars. Yes, we can keep sending robots and satellites instead, but they aren’t enough. That primal need to explore, to see what’s beyond the horizon, is hardwired into our DNA. Somnus can get us there."

“Exploration is, after all, never without risk.

Jean swayed, rebounding off the wall as she struggled to regain her balance.

“They can’t be dead.” She fought her way toward the bay, struggling in the low gravity more than she had in years. Hurrying as best she could toward the hatch, she fell against it in her rush to see inside.

“I’m sorry Doctor, but the meteorite impacted the medical bay. The compartment is in vacuum. I have lost contact with the computers monitoring the crew’s vital signs and must therefore assume that they are no longer alive.”

Jean tugged the lever to open the hatch. The overhead lights were off inside, making it impossible to see anything. “I need to check them,” she muttered, yanking at the lever again. “Ariadne!”

“The compartment is in vacuum, Doctor. The hatch is sealed.”

“Something’s wrong with the lever,” Jean said, pulling at it futilely. Ariadne repeated herself and Jean rested her shoulder against the hatch, finally letting go. Her head throbbed in time with her heart, each beat almost more painful than the last.

“A meteorite,” she said dully. “We’ve been hit by meteorites before.”

“This one penetrated the shielding, Doctor. I cannot repressurize the compartment.”

Jean slumped to the floor and winced as her tender head knocked against the wall. She rested her face in her hands, shaking. Is this really it? They’re gone, the project’s finished, it was all for nothing. I might as well have killed them myself. She shuddered at the thought, fighting the urge to vomit.

“But…” she said, gesturing helplessly. “I was supposed to take care of them,” she added, too quiet for Ariadne’s sensors to register.

“What was that, Doctor?”

Jean shook her head but stopped abruptly at the pain. Looking around the stark white interior of Somnus, unsure what she was looking for, she stayed silent.

“Beyond the medical bay, the damage to Somnus appears minimal. However, we will need to do a thorough check of all systems.”

Jean pulled herself to her feet. It took more effort than it should have, as if she were unexpectedly back in normal gravity. Squinting against the gloom in the medical bay, she could almost make out the bulk of the pods. If she didn’t know the catastrophic event that had just occurred, she would have assumed she only needed to turn on the lights and go about her usual routine. Everything looked so normal, even the indicator lights for the life support systems were on...

“Ariadne, why are those lights on?” she asked, roughly clearing her throat before she could speak.

“I show no evidence of lights being on in the medical bay, Doctor.”

She squinted through the darkness, afraid to second-guess herself but needing to be sure. Yes, they were on, glowing steadily in the gloom. Her eyes watered as she stared at them; she blinked and pulled away, head spinning.

She knew she should get under the scanner and assess the damage to her brain, but if the crew was alive, she had to focus all her effort on keeping them that way. There would be time for herself, after. Hopefully.

“The life support lights. They’re on,” Jean said, heart racing with profound relief. “They’re alive.”

“Doctor, would you please repeat yourself? I must have heard you incorrectly.”

“I said they’re alive, Ariadne. I can see the lights on four of the pods from here, so I’m assuming all five are alive. For now,” she added, elation sinking away like sand slipping through her fingers. Briefly, she longed to be in there with them, oblivious to their fate but facing it together. She inhaled a sharp breath.

“I will trust your observations, as I cannot contact the sensors in the medical bay. I must point out, however, that you were unconscious for nearly three hours, during which time that compartment has been in vacuum. The pods were not designed for such an environment.”

“I designed the damn things. I’m telling you, they’re alive. The systems are on battery backup and the pods are airtight. We should have about five hours. Or,” she said, the realization sinking into her guts, “two hours, now. Jesus.” I was unconscious too long… “Solutions?”

“No viable solutions are available, Doctor.”

“What would we normally do in this situation, then?” she asked acerbically.

“‘In the event of a hull breach, EVA expert Ian Walsh will be awakened to perform the repair before returning to hibernation.’”

“Don’t think that’s going to work this time,” Jean said through gritted teeth. “Is that all you have?”

“As I said, no viable solutions are available.”

Jean groaned, unwilling to give up so easily. Her throbbing head made it difficult to focus, and she carefully touched her scalp under the wound to see if it had clotted. Her fingers came away tacky with dried blood. Good.

“So I can’t open this hatch because the pressure differential is too great.” She paused, thinking through her limited knowledge of spaceflight. “But what if I got in a suit, closed everything off, then used the hatches between decks as an airlock? I could walk into the medical bay and repair the hole from inside.”

“Not recommended. Somnus has limited oxygen reserves, and that would deplete them. With over four years left in our trip, that is not advisable.” You mean, Somnus was never designed for a trip this long and the retrofit could only do so much.

“So what’s less risky, then? I can’t wake any of them to fix it,” she said, jerking a thumb toward the hatch. “Can’t one of your little helpers take care of it?” Ariadne controlled a small team of robots to repair systems that were either too complex for Jean to tackle, or out of her reach. This certainly seems to qualify.

“While you were unconscious, they attempted to seal the breach. They were unsuccessful.”

Jean sat still, thoughts going to more and more convoluted scenarios as she racked her brain for a solution. But there wasn’t one. Not one she thought she would ever willingly suggest, at least. Her mouth went dry, and she swallowed multiple times before she was able to speak.

“Guess I’m going outside, then.”

“I must advise against an EVA. You have suffered a head injury of unknown severity, and your training in this field is minimal.”

‘Minimal’ was an understatement. She had managed exactly one trip to NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, taking advantage of the other agency’s training program before Somnus launched.

For better or worse, XPL had designed the mission such that Ariadne and her robots would manage everything that Jean had not been sufficiently trained for, with her sleeping crew of retired astronauts to be awoken early if necessary.

Risking her own life on the mission had been an easy decision. But she had failed to consider how her own inadequacies might endanger the crew, a thought that drove nauseating tendrils of panic through her.

“—Additionally, you are unlikely to be successful where my maintenance robots failed,” Ariadne was saying as Jean headed back up the ladder.

“I’m not crazy about it either, but it’s the only option. I have to try. Unless you’ve come up with a better solution?” Jean paused, waiting. “I’ll take your silence as a ‘no.’”

“You do not have definitive proof that they are even alive. Why risk your life?”

“Because I don’t have definitive proof they are dead,” Jean said, arriving at the closet where the spacesuits were stored. “We don’t have a lot of time. Walk me through this.” Step by step, Ariadne reminded Jean how to get into the spacesuit, an act she hadn’t practiced since before the launch. After triple checking that the suit was fully sealed, she stepped into the airlock.

“Cycle it,” Jean said, waiting impatiently for Ariadne to do so.

“I must once more recommend against this. My top priority is to preserve your life, and this action is in direct conflict. You have sufficient data from the hibernation experiment, even if the data set is now limited,” the AI said. 

“Just cycle the damn airlock, we don’t have time for this,” she said, banging a gloved fist against the wall. She paused for a moment, however, as Ariadne’s words sunk in. Sufficient data… that was probably true. She had two years of real-world data now, with human test subjects. For this phase of testing, that could be considered a success.

But with a shock that rattled her down to her toes, she realized it didn’t matter. At some point, through the endless months of watching over them and longing for human contact, her passion for this project had shifted from the technology itself to the crew it was being used on. They were her priority now; no longer simply test subjects, no longer a means to an end. She had to save them. 

“Ariadne. Now.” 

She finally heard the hiss of air leaving the compartment, and a tension she had been unaware of holding relaxed. Ariadne was programmed to follow Jean’s orders, but they had never been in a situation like this before.

“Cycle complete. You may open the outer hatch.”

Reaching out with a shaking hand, Jean unlocked the hatch and pushed it open. I will save them. Keeping her gaze on the ship, she pulled the safety tether from her suit and locked it onto the rail outside.

“Here goes nothing,” she said, doing her best to muster up a confidence she didn’t feel as she scrabbled her way onto the hull. Somnus’s eternal spin helped hold her there, the low gravity ever welcome. She strained to tune out the ringing in her ears from her injury and focus on Ariadne’s voice, guiding her.

She gripped the hull and awkwardly made her way toward the breach. Somnus was strange and alien from this perspective. She knew every inch of the inside of the ship. The outside, however…

“I’m here,” she said finally. Her muscles trembled inside the suit, hands tiring from how desperately she clutched the handholds. She forced herself to relax her grip and looked down at the breach, only large enough to fit a few fingers inside. So small, to have nearly killed us all, she thought, surprised anew at how delicate life could be in the vastness of space.

“Detach your tool case from your suit,” Ariadne said, and Jean did so, looking fixedly at either the tools or the hull. Anything but the stars, waiting all around her.

The patch kit caught on her glove as she opened the case, and began to float away. Reflexively, Jean snatched at it. She caught the kit, barely, but the sudden motion spun her part way around, and the blackness of space yawned open to swallow her.

She bit back a scream. Her fingers tightened convulsively where she gripped the hull, but the rest of her body was beyond her control. Her breath came in short, panicked gasps. Space was incomprehensibly vast around her, with nothing to break up her vision beyond a handful of stars. Her stomach dropped as she felt herself drawn toward it, no matter how tightly she held on she knew she would fall, she would always be falling, forever. She would die here, and her crew would die as well, with no one to save them. The crew… MY crew…

“Can’t breathe,” she gasped out, filled with terror but with the one sane thought that she must pull through this, with whatever help might be available to her.

“Your oxygen supply is at 92%, Doctor. Are you having a panic attack?”

The question was so wildly unhelpful that it shocked Jean back to herself for the moment she needed. With more effort than she would have thought possible, she shut her eyes against the abyss surrounding her. Through sheer willpower, she slowed her breathing, counting in one two three four five, out one two three four five, in…

Trying to push away the thoughts of why she needed to do so, she kept her eyes closed and slowly turned her body back toward the hull. She pulled herself in until her faceplate thumped gently against the metal, and only then did she open them. A shaky smile turned up the corners of her mouth, and she wished she could brush her tears away. Tears of terror or of relief that she had come through it, she wasn’t entirely sure.

“Doctor?” Ariadne asked. “Are you ready to continue with the patch?”

Jean gulped back a laugh. “I’m ready.”

“Very well. You should see the repairs my robots have been attempting. Can you ascertain why they have failed?”

Heart still thumping erratically, she checked and re-checked that she was securely clipped to the hull, then ran a gloved hand over the area and looked at it closely. There were a series of welds in a rectangular pattern around the hole, clearly the result of the robots’ failed patches. Under the welds and spreading across the area surrounding the breach, the surface of the hull was strangely uneven, and she narrowed her eyes to focus on the sensation through the thick gloves of her suit.

With limited vision, the ringing in her ears worsened and she struggled to hear Ariande. She opened her eyes, staring fixedly at the hull and taking deep and even breaths to keep the panic at bay. Without the AI’s assistance, she knew she had no chance of success.

“What was that, Ariande?” she asked as calmly as she could.

“I asked you to report on the state of the breach,” Ariande repeated.

“The hull feels… strange. Pitted, and uneven.” Jean ran her hand over a different section to compare; it was smooth to the touch. “The damage seems worse than you thought. How is that possible?”

“How far does it extend?” Ariadne asked.

“A square meter, easily. Maybe the meteorite broke up and damaged this whole area?” Looking down at the patch kit, she breathed in sharply. “This isn’t nearly big enough. I need a bigger piece of metal. Now.” Jean slowly turned her head, looking across Somnus for something to use as a patch.

“The welds the robots attempted must have been too uneven to hold due to the irregularity of the hull.”

“Yes, yes. Now what can I use to patch this?”

“I am considering the options. A moment.”

Jean groaned. The panic attack in combination with her existing injury had left her light-headed and nauseous; every moment she spent out here put her closer to passing out or vomiting. She distracted herself from the frustration of waiting for Ariandne’s response by wondering which would be worse.

“I will have my robots deliver a large enough piece of metal. However, it will take some time.”

“How much time?” It had taken her nearly an hour to get suited up and out to the breach. Barely more than an hour left on the battery backups. She swallowed, bile burning in her throat.

“They are moving as quickly as possible. However, I did warn you of the low probability of success before you left Somnus. Perhaps it is time for you to come back inside and allow the robots to finish.”

“No,” Jean insisted. “They weren’t successful before, I can’t count on them now. I can do this. Just hurry.”

“Very well.”

Jean stared at the hull. Don’t think about what’s behind you—or your head—or the time—or the crew…just wait. Just breathe.

She was focused so intently on the hull that she didn’t notice the robots until they were next to her. Insect-like, they each clicked along on six magnetic legs. There were four of them in total, each supporting a corner of a large sheet of metal.

At Ariadne’s commands, the robots shifted their burden on to the hull and began to slowly weld it into place. Jean helped, directing her torch along one edge, the seam thick and uneven but seemingly solid. The process was painfully slow, but as the minutes slipped away Jean was relieved that she had stayed to assist. It would have been impossible for the robots to finish in time on their own.

“I think we’re done. That has to be good enough Ariadne, we’re almost out of time,” Jean said, urgency creeping into her voice.

“I agree. Back away from the patch, Doctor, and I will attempt to repressurize the bay.”

Hands shaking, Jean hurriedly scuttled away and clipped onto a point further down. Her eyes were watering again, this time from pain that was increasingly difficult to ignore. The tears clung to her lashes and threatened to blind her in the absence of gravity. She knew she needed to get inside and tend to her injury. Not yet. Not yet. “Do it.”

Jean waited, resisting the impulse to ask Ariadne if she had started yet. An agonizing amount of time later, she heard the click of the radio and strained to hear Ariadne’s voice.

“The patch is holding, Doctor.”

Jean whooped and immediately regretted it, the sound echoing in her helmet. She clumsily made her way back inside, lips stretched in an irrepressible grin of relief, proud of what she had accomplished. Shedding the spacesuit as quickly as possible, she found herself back in front of the hatch to the medical bay.

Taking a deep breath, she reached out for the lever, mind flashing back to her earlier desperation. But the hatch opened easily, and she let go of the breath she hadn’t realized she held.

As quickly as she dared, she checked the pods, ignoring the disarray of the room after the explosive decompression and kicking supplies out of the way as she went from one crew member to the next.

They’re alive. I did it. She didn’t know if she should laugh, or scream, or both. In her exhaustion, she simply leaned against the last pod, tears running down her cheeks. Her crew was still here, waiting to survey Oenopion in a year, unaware of how close they had come to slipping away. My crew. Sleeping, but alive.

#

“We’ll be done with the survey of Oenopion soon,” Dany said as she

entered the medical bay.Jean nodded without looking up from her laptop.

“If I hear ‘monumental historical find’ one more time from Ian, I’m having a shirt printed for him when we get back to Earth,” Jean said absently, and Dany snorted.

“Best print six then. One for each of us,” Dany said, and Jean looked up, enjoying the simple pleasure of being in the presence of another person.

“Don’t suppose we could delay going back in the pods? Just for another day or two. I know this’ll be my longest mission, but it feels by far the shortest.”

“It hasn’t felt short to me,” Jean said softly, and the other woman touched her shoulder.

“Of course. But you’ll be sleeping with us for the return journey, won’t you? The hibernation technology has passed this stage of testing. Ariadne can monitor us all.”

Jean looked over at the empty pod, the promise of sleep she had thought of so often on the trip out. Whenever the loneliness overwhelmed her, she dreamed of climbing into that pod and sleeping away the long and repetitive days.

Sleep, her reward for a job well done, for proving her technology and risking her life to care for her charges. Relief from all her troubles, and the chance to pass the time until she was back on Earth, tackling the next stage of the use of her technology.

But now that she was here, halfway through the long, self-imposed sentence of this mission, she wavered. There were plenty of supplies, after all.

“I don’t think I will,” she said, smiling as she looked into Dany’s eyes. Eyes that were only open now because Jean had been there to look after her, to save them all. “I’ll keep watch. Just in case.”

END

Avery Parks portrait.jpg

Avery Parks is a science fiction writer of short fiction, with stories at Cossmass Infinities, MetaStellar Magazine, and (upcoming this summer) Infinite Worlds.  She lives in Texas with her family, a variety of pets, and (according to some) too many books. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at parks_writes.