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Sigh of a Damned Soul

The Story of Epsilon 9

By Donna ReneePublished 5 months ago Updated 14 days ago 19 min read

***Scroll to the end before reading for a content warning if needed***

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. Well, through the crack in his window, anyway.

Claire stared in resigned silence at the tiny crack in the frosted porthole shaped window. It was infinitesimal, really. She squinted her gray-green eyes and let her eyelashes blur her vision, gating it like bars on a prison cell...and the crack faded from view. It was such a little crack that it almost didn't exist anymore.

Like Claire.

Like everyone on the Nevermore.

With a sigh of a damned soul, Claire pushed herself away from the porthole window and drifted back out of the room, lightly brushing her gloved fingertips against the sensual curves of the ship. She knew that there couldn't be much time left now. She should return to her own little cabin, record her goodbye messages and send them out into the void, meditate, or "make her peace with the Gods" like the rest of her shipmates had been doing...but Claire had never been good at that kind of crap.

So, instead, she moved aimlessly through the deserted, tomblike ship heading in the general direction of the galley, knowing full well that she would just turn around and go back to Gavin's quarters to stare at the crack again, like she had been doing since it was discovered around this time yesterday. She just couldn't stay away. She knew it was macabre. Going back there over and over just to stare death in the face.

The worst part was that Gavin was still there. He was sitting on his bunk, also staring at the porthole. Just sitting there with his legs dangling over the side of the mattress and his head cocked slightly to one side. He was dressed in his Star Trek pajamas, which would have made Claire smirk to see on an ordinary evening. Gavin still looked completely normal except for the fact that he was completely encased in an impenetrable gelatinous substance that the ship had blasted at him in order to save the rest of the crew. And Gavin was dead.

When the porthole window had cracked, Gavin had probably received a slow death sentence from the jet of poisonous gas that entered the crack. Claire liked to think that he had been killed instantly though, even before the ship's emergency environmental systems kicked in. It was hard to say for sure, they knew so little about the effect of the gas on humans. The safety system was extremely fast. It had sealed the crack and, in the process, contained Gavin and the gas in a protective bubble of goo. She wondered if being suffocated by gelatinous goo might actually feel more like drowning... if she turned her head at one particular angle, she could see that the goo appeared to have entered Gavin's nose and mouth, which she figured kind of made sense, since it had been deployed with the goal of stopping up a damn crack.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the goo was completely clear so Claire could see Gavin perfectly. His eyes were wide open. Frozen in surprise. Tiny bubbles escaped through his slightly parted lips, as if he was starting to say something. Probably "Seriously???" Claire had decided, after much contemplation. Maybe those bubbles were just air being forced back out of his lungs by the goo though?

Claire had studied Gavin's face a lot over the last 24 hours. She was trying to decide if she could detect a hint of anger in the way his eyebrows drew together. If he'd had time to be aware of what was happening, he would have been pissed. Gavin had been more excited than any of them about the arrival at Epsilon 9. He'd been the perfect candidate for this pre-terraforming scouting mission. He'd been the spirit and soul of the Nevermore. He'd also been the love of Claire's life. At least, the love of her last couple of years anyway.

Gavin and Claire had been colleagues at the start of the Epsilon 9 mission. As things often go in close quarters, they had quickly become far more. His intelligence had drawn her in at first, no surprise there, but it was his warm demeanor, quirky humor, and ready laughter that had hooked her in the end. Claire was more of a cold and stoic scientist type, but opposites do attract sometimes.

With a start, Claire realized that she was staring at Gavin again. She blinked and looked around his cabin. How had she gotten here? She must have been lost in her thoughts and been drawn back to his side...opposites do attract, you know.

She pushed gently against the doorway and moved towards Gavin. She couldn't touch him through the goo but she reached out anyway. The surface of the goo had long since solidified and wasn't dangerous to her now. She moved as close as she could to him and then adjusted her positioning so that she could see through the crack in the frosted window. It was the only truly clear view she had of the landscape of Epsilon 9. Yeah, it was a clear view through the solidified goo that had probably drowned Gavin, but it was still the best view available in the ship. It was the closest she would get to the outside world. Claire had seen all the recon drone footage, obviously, and even been out there exploring the terrain in countless simulations... but there was something different about actually seeing it for herself.

Epsilon 9 wasn't an idyllic planet, by any stretch of science or the imagination. It was barren. It was dry. It had an unbreathable atmosphere. But it was close enough to get to and had about the same gravity as Luna, which humans tolerated pretty well. Certainly not the ideal environment to reseed humanity but in decades of looking, they hadn't found a better candidate.

The crew of the Nevermore had only been aware of their impending fate for less than a standard Earth day but they had all come to accept it. They weren't quitters by nature but they were certainly all realists. No one was frantically searching for solutions anymore. No one was panicking, at least, not on the outside.

While she had stood in horror staring at Gavin's entombed body in the few minutes after the first emergency alarms had begun blaring, Claire had been the first to understand. She had combed through the incoming data on her suit's arm screen and begun to realize what had gone wrong. Helena, Frank, and Travis had all checked over the data and rerun the calculations as well. There was no debate. They had spread the news to the rest of the crew along with the news of Gavin's sudden death. The crew.... Claire pulled up the crew vitals on her screen. Only 7 of them left. She couldn't make herself check who the other 6 were. It didn't matter now. Gavin wasn't among them.

Of course, he hadn't been the first to die on this mission. There are always accidents in exploration. The few crew members who had died on the long journey to Epsilon 9 had been in body bags in cold storage for months though...they weren't sitting on their beds in Star Trek pajamas with their eyes still open.

Claire knew that they had done all that they could to save the rest of the members of the terraforming mission from certain death. They'd sent out a repeating message and all of the Nevermore's data back to the other ships as soon as they had figured out what was happening. Now they could only hope that those ships had enough fuel remaining to return to Earth. And hope that there was still going to be an Earth to return to when they got there. And that the data sent back by the Nevermore was enough for the teams still on Earth to figure out a way to combat the problem. And that there was enough time to send out another fleet of ships equipped properly to deal with it. Claire sighed. There were a lot of things to hope for and she was tired.

The Nevermore couldn't go back. Hence the name, "Nevermore." Nevermore to launch, nevermore to fly, nevermore to return to Earth. It hadn't been designed to ever take flight again once it landed on Epsilon 9. It had been built to function as a permanent structure upon landing. It contained vast stores of raw materials, labs for 3D printing on a large scale, and equipment needed for the next terraforming crew's arrival.

The mission of the Nevermore had been to be the first boots on the ground. They were to perform the final in-person analysis on the landing site environment, the soil, the atmosphere, and the overall feasibility of the chosen location for the massive undertaking. They had known that there was a tiny chance that the recon rovers and drones had missed something big. They had known that there was a tiny chance that the mission would fail before it even began. They had known that they were basically the test batch of sugar cookies. They hadn't known that they were going to literally be the canaries in the coal mine.

Epsilon 9 had an unknown form of highly corrosive gas in the atmosphere that hadn't been detected by the dozens of recon robots that had been sent here to look for, well, exactly that kind of shit. The gas had probably started eating away at the ship the second it had landed.

"A yummy snack delivered for Epsilon 9," Claire mused, darkly.

In a lot of ways, she was glad that Gavin hadn't lived to learn the truth of their massive failure, the truth of the impending deaths of the entire crew. He had been far too happy of a person to take a blow like that well.

"He probably would have tried to start some sing-a-long or final movie marathon, the idiot." she thought.

Claire checked the communication screen attached to the sleeve of her EVA suit. The main computer was reporting that the rate of consumption of the ship was increasing. There wasn't much time left now. These damn suits were so uncomfortable, in general, but especially uncomfortable to wear inside the ship. As was standard procedure, they'd all immediately gotten into the extravehicular activity suits after the first alarm had sounded at the breach in the window.

Claire knew that she was also going to die, and soon. She still had some important choices to make first though. She could even choose when to die...when to take the pills that the rest of the crew had probably chosen to take already to ensure a quick and painless death. She could choose to wait it out until the ship lost structural integrity and collapsed on top of her. She could choose to let herself run out of air and suffocate slowly. She could choose to die in her own quarters. She could choose to die here beside Gavin's lifeless body. She could choose to take off her EVA suit and die in her own pajamas.

Wearing the suit right now seemed pretty stupid to her but that was what the computers had ordered...EVA suits on in case of a breach in the hull. Even though the entire hull was going to dissolve soon. Even though they had been using up the air in the suit tanks instead of the still perfectly breathable air in the ship. There had been no sign that the window in Gavin's room would fail though, no warning at all. So, suits on it was. They'd all had lots of practice getting into their suits quickly during drills and simulations throughout the long journey to Epsilon 9. But they'd never had to decide whether to die in them.

Claire felt a twinge of guilt looking at Gavin sitting there on the bed. He had been so pleased with how the final approach to Epsilon 9 had gone. There had been that one hiccup when the ship impacted the surface with greater force than predicted or intended but the ship's computer hadn't reported any major damage and no injuries were sustained so he had called it a win. He had been so excited for the coming morning when they would have performed the first extravehicular excursion onto the surface of Epsilon 9. If Gavin hadn't died.

Claire knew that he would have been absolutely devastated to have missed the chance to set foot on Epsilon 9. She was devastated as well. It had been Claire's dream for two decades to be part of the Planet B program. When she'd learned that she had been selected for the Epsilon 9 mission she hadn't had a second thought about leaving her elderly parents and meager group of pseudofriends behind. It was her destiny. To go beyond and help secure a future for humanity? What higher calling could there be?

As Claire sat with Gavin's body and thought about her future, limited as it was, she came to a realization. Just because the mission had failed didn't mean that she had to fail. She could still set foot on Epsilon 9. She could still go out and take readings and be the boots on the ground to prepare for the next mission. Surely she could still have a purpose and make a difference, even if only until she ran out of air.

With that thought, Claire abruptly pushed up from the bed. She had never been one to waffle on decisions and now was not the time to start. She blew a final kiss at Gavin and turned to leave the room. As she bounded slowly down the corridor, she pulled up her screen on the sleeve of her EVA suit and checked the crew vitals report again. Only 3 of them were left now. The rest had taken their pills. They'd drifted off into oblivion. Like she was going to do. But not until after she became the first human to set foot on Epsilon 9.

She grabbed a bag of surface recon gear from the science station and headed for the airlock at the end of the ship. The ship had landed and rotated onto its side so that it was positioned like a parked tractor trailer. She entered the airlock and checked her screen again. Only 2 left now. She wondered who the other holdout was... Travis, maybe? He had a big family back on Earth...he was probably still recording a goodbye message to his third cousin twice removed or something. Good for Travis. Claire had only had her elderly parents to say goodbye to and she'd kept it very brief and to the facts.

As the airlock counted down, Claire tried to calculate in her head how long it would take the corrosive gas in the atmosphere of Epsilon 9 to eat away her EVA suit and expose her to the unbreathable air of the planet and the deadly gas. Maybe 20 minutes? She could probably get some good observations about the surface taken and sent off before she died.

She hit the button to start recording from her helmet cam as she gently hopped down from the airlock and touched down onto the dusty soil of Epsilon 9. She started narrating the recording as she took her first steps.

"The soil is largely as expected, dry but stable. The immediate area around the Nevermore appears to be secure. No little green men approaching at this time. It's too bad that Epsilon 9 is eating us because it looks pretty friendly, all in all."

Claire turned in a circle and surveyed the Nevermore.

"The ship is level and landing struts are deployed evenly. The ship remains steady on the planetary surface. Wait a second... this can't be right. What the hell?"

The Nevermore's silver gray body was gleaming. Pockmarked from tiny impacts during the long voyage, sure, but it certainly wasn't dissolving. Claire pulled up the ship's stats on her screen...hull integrity still decreasing, estimates were at less than an hour before major hull breaches and structural collapse. She scrolled through several images of severe deterioration of the external body of the Nevermore. Nothing made sense. Was she hallucinating?

"What the hell?" Claire whispered.

She began to move quickly along the side of the ship, breathing heavily, counting windows, heading for Gavin. When she reached the cabin, she felt a combination of relief and heartache. The crack was real. She ran her gloved fingers over it and felt a very small but very real divot in the smooth surface of the window.

"Ok. Not hallucinating. I think." Claire said, for the benefit of the recording. "Um, I have confirmed the presence of the damage to First Officer Trapp's porthole, however, the visible surface of the Nevermore does not appear consistent with ship computer reports. Investigating now."

Claire stared at the crack in the window while she tried to focus. She wished she could go back inside and talk this through with Gavin. Maybe she could still talk this through with someone though! She pulled up her screen again and breathed a sigh of desperate relief when she saw that there were still two blinking dots representing herself and the other remaining crew member. She selected the first dot and a photo of her unsmiling face greeted her. She exited that screen and selected the other dot. Travis.

Claire opened a comm channel to Travis and waited anxiously for him to answer.

"Claire, what do you want?"

"Travis, thank god. I'm outsi--"

"Claire, this isn't a good time. I'm in the middle of something."

"Travis, listen. The ship looks fine, check your screens, please!"

"Claire, stop. Looks fine? What are you talking about? What are you even doing out there?"

"I came out to get some more data and set up some collection stations but that doesn't matter right now, Travis check your screens!"

"...ok. Hull integrity at 12%, projected collapse in 22 minutes. Happy? Goodbye, Claire."

"TRAVIS! THE SHIP LOOKS FINE!" Claire couldn't believe the man. This was important and he was acting like a sulking toddler.

The silence held for a few seconds before she heard a long sigh.

"So what, Claire? The planet is poison. The ship is dissolving. Everyone else is dead. What do you want me to do?" Travis sounded sad now instead of annoyed. Claire thought that was an improvement.

Access to the main computer from the suit comm screens was limited. Claire needed more information.

"Travis, access the wall terminal in your quarters. Bring up the main systems and tell me what you see."

Her heart was racing. It took nearly a minute before Travis spoke again.



"Claire, it's another goddamn drill. A simulation. There is no gas." His voice was like ice water dripping into her ears.


Another minute of silence passed.

"Claire, the computer reported a breach in Gavin's window at 22:58. Emergency systems responded at 22:58. This emergency drill was scheduled to begin at 23:00."

"Travis, what are you saying? The crack is real! I can feel it!"

"The crack was real. Looks like....just some damage that we missed from that rough landing."

"And what, Travis? We just all missed that the ship was running another damn emergency drill at the same time as Gavin was being drowned by the goo?"

"Yes, Claire. Goddamnit. That's exactly what I'm telling you. Once we all got in these damn EVA suits we lost full access to the main compu--"

"So Gavin died in an emergency drill? In a simulation?? No. That's impossible. He died for NOTHING?" Claire was screaming now but she couldn't stop.

"NO, Claire, STOP! Listen to me!" Travis continued, "The emergency environmental systems had to kick in and seal the crack. Gas or no gas. But no, he didn't die from the gas...Gavin died from...from the goo."

"And...the rest of the crew?" Claire was whispering now. "Helena? and Frank?"

"They took the pills hours ago, Claire. They had no way to know the gas was all part of the drill. We can't access the simulation drill systems from the EVA screens. All we could see was what the Nevermore was showing us..."

"Oh my, Gavin was the only one who had to die."

"Claire, are you recording this conversation?"


"Claire, make sure you send it out, ok? The other ships...they need to know. They can turn around again. Epsilon 9 can still be terraformed. It can still be settled."

Travis sounded resigned now. Like he had accepted the deaths of all their friends and colleagues with little hesitation.

"Claire, what are you going to do?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are you going to wait for the other ships? There's enough food and you might be able to keep the ship systems running. The Dauntless is probably only four years out, maybe more if they started deceleration when they got our warnings about the gas."

Claire hadn't thought about that yet.

"Well, we can probably, um, figure out a way to get some of the structures assembled with just us and start collecti--"

"Claire. I took the pills too. Right before you called."

Claire couldn't breathe. There was no antidote for the pills. They took about 10 minutes to work and she'd been talking to Travis for about...10 minutes now."

"Travis, no... please."

"Claire, I'm sorry. I should have checked the main computers when the alarms went off. I should have noticed that the alarms kept sounding after the crack was sealed. I don't know why I didn't notice that..."

"We all missed it. We were all so...shocked when...when Gavin died. It was a stupid, stupid coincidence. It's not your fault, Travis."

"Stay on the line with me, please?"

"Of course."


"Travis? Are you there?"

Silence answered her.

Claire spent the next 20 minutes setting up her collection gear kit and programming it to send the data to the other ships. At least she could contribute in that way. But she couldn't assemble the structures alone. It would probably have been impossible with only her and Travis too. Her low oxygen alarm began to blare in her helmet. There was plenty of air in the Nevermore. She could also just go back into the ship and take another air tank from the storage lockers.

The alarm blared more insistently but Claire just continued programming her collection kit. Then, when she had done all that she could alone, Claire lowered herself to the ground against the side of the Nevermore, just below Gavin's window, turned off the alarm, ended the recording, and let herself fall asleep in the strange new world.

Her only regret was that she hadn't changed into her own pajamas.






***Content warning: death, implied suicide***

Short StorySci Fi

About the Creator

Donna Renee

Hi! Thanks for reading! My hobbies include making coffee, drinking coffee, and starting to write a story and then rage-deleting it when I get the slightest bit frustrated.


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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Creative use of language & vocab

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Comments (7)

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  • L.C. Schäfer17 days ago

    I loved this! Can you screenwrite it into a movie, please 😁

  • Roy Stevens3 months ago

    A pocket masterpiece! This is so cinematic Donna. You visualize a whole world and make it seem real. I'm a little unsure that the Claire you create here would give up quite that easily, but what do I know I'm piloting a keyboard here. One tiny niggle, what about "With 'the' sigh of a damned soul" instead "With 'a' sigh of a damned soul"? The original might be a bit of a spoiler but that's being micro-picky. Claire seems very real thanks to the detail and attention you give to how she's feeling as events move along, I really enjoyed that. I can't tell if I feel sorrier for Travis or Gavin but maybe I should feel sorriest for clever. Some clever dilemmas raised in this story. My favourite line is "test batch of sugar cookies"-brilliant, and I really admire how you've used repetition poetically instead of as a rhetorical device (or maybe a bit of both). I also like how you manipulate sentence fragments for emphasis. Finally, I'm overjoyed to see the moon getting its actual name used in a story- Luna- hurray! Simply fantastic Donna! Too many exclamation marks in a row Roy! 😁

  • Gripping story, with a unique twist I've never seen before. Very clever.

  • aly suhail3 months ago

    Nicely done a good read 👍.

  • Cathy holmes3 months ago

    Oh my. that was fantastic. WEll done.

  • Oh no, poor Travis! 🥺 I didn't expect that he too would have taken the pills. But whoaaa Claire is such a badass! Loved her fierce nature and determination! Loved your story so much!

  • Ahna Lewis5 months ago

    Great job creating a convincing science fiction world! Clever name for the ship to match the storyline and the unexpected ending.

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