"Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say," Hotchkiss said, staring at the cold flecks of light in the darkness outside the window.
Logan wadded the husk of his meal-tube into a little ball and threw it across the table at Hotchkiss. But Hotchkiss had no trouble dodging its slow-motion trajectory in the pod's lazy gravity. He swatted it down to the table and held his hand over it as if he'd captured an insect.
Neither of them had ever seen an insect, but they'd learned all about things like that.
"I'm just telling you what I heard," Hotchkiss protested. "Or what I read, anyway."
"I don't want to hear what you heard," Logan said, for the six thousandth time. "Or what you read, or what you thought, or what you dreamed, or what you made up out of thin air. Whatever it is, I've heard it at least nine times already, and I'll care a tenth as much on the tenth time as I did on the first time, which was not at all. So just shut up!"
Hotchkiss looked down, a slight flush rising in his cheeks. With self-conscious deliberation, he added his empty meal-tube to Logan's, letting them fly off his finger tips under the suction of the recycler.
Logan hated the way Hotchkiss seemed to find a little pleasure in that simple, routine act. "Why do you do that?" he snapped.
"Feed the recycler like it's a pet bird?" Logan shuddered, although neither of them had ever seen a bird, either. "You drive me crazy sometimes. No! All the time!"
Logan pressed his hands flat on the table, arched his shoulders and took several deep breaths through his nose. How many years of de-escalation drills had they gone through on the Big Ship to prepare for this precise moment?
When he closed his eyes, he could still see Rottini on the giant screen demonstrating the proper way to breathe, and to think pleasant thoughts. It was the cornerstone of their education, repeated throughout childhood, with refreshers into their early adult years. Their studies of math, biology, chemistry and physics all became more complex as they got older. But how to survive being locked in with someone as flat-out stupid as Hotchkiss for two or three relentless years was the one lesson that never changed. And, Logan began to realize, it was the most important lesson of all.
Logan rolled his head to work the kinks out of his neck. He exhaled one more time and opened his eyes.
"So," he said in a newly calm voice, looking all around the pod except where Hotchkiss sat directly across from him. "We've got a lot of work to do today."
Hotchkiss didn't respond, so Logan broke down and looked at him. He saw Hotchkiss staring at him as if Logan were a new species to be cataloged on their Destination Planet.
"Work?" Logan prompted.
"Yeah," Hotchkiss said, rousing himself. "We've got a lot to do today, or so the schedule says."
The Big Ship had been hurtling through space for generations now at speeds that probed the envelope of physics. But when it approached a system with a habitable planet, it released a spray of pods like this one that Logan and Hotchkiss found themselves in. It took years of deceleration after entering the star system before they would finally land on their DP, their Destination Planet. Thousands of pods would pepper the planet's surface, clumping in various climates and terrains, to maximize chances for success. The crews would merge into colonies and set about surviving, which was their ultimate mission.
And, at least, then Logan would be free of Hotchkiss and his nattering.
"But 'today' doesn't really mean anything anymore, does it?" Hotchkiss mused. "I was reading that it used to be related to the rotation of the Earth. But since the Great Departure, that's been a moot point. Same thing with years. And when you factor in slowsleep and hibernations, you've got to wonder, why do we hang on to those old constructs of time?"
"So that you know when to shut up and go to work," Logan said. "And so you'll know when to shut up and go to sleep."
"I'm serious," Hotchkiss went on, looking ridiculous the way his brow furrowed over those close-set eyes that seemed to peer out like cave-dwelling wild things. "Why do we let rules that are arbitrary and ultimately meaningless determine how we live our lives? It doesn't make any sense, or so they say. The people I've read, anyway, say that."
Logan thought back to his earliest studies where the teachers said that genetic screening and optimization had made his class the best there had ever been. They were the pride of the human race. Now he wondered how the academics defined "best?" If someone like Hotchkiss could be swept up in the description, what was it worth?
"It's a cultural thing," Logan said, even though he knew it was better not to take the bait Hotchkiss offered. "You could mark time by how long it takes an electron to loop around a hydrogen proton, or by the flash of a pulsar. Our ancestors used different measurements, and it's easier to keep the old solar standards than to change.
"It's like 'Thou shalt not kill.' Did you ever hear of anyone being killed on the Big Ship?"
Hotchkiss sniffed and thought about this a moment. "No. Not in real life."
"So, see?" Logan punched his right hand into the flat of his left. "Where the hell did that even come from? 'Thou shalt not kill?' It's just a given. Something we've all accepted. Like the concept of a 'day'."
Logan watched Hotchkiss for a moment with a detachment that made him nostalgic for Rottini's lectures. Rottini would appear on the big screen, familiar, immediate, speaking personally to each of the five thousand students in Logan's section. Logan and the others could ask questions and Rottini would answer, but they could not reach out to touch him.
It always puzzled him how, after a session with Rottini, the other kids wouldn't recall the questions that Logan had asked, and they'd all chatter about other questions that had slipped his memory.
And now he blinked several times and shook his head. "To summarize," he said, frowning at Hotchkiss, "Get up and get to work."
They did have a lot to do with just six days - however you wanted to define those things - before arrival at the DP. It had been a long time coming. For nearly three years, he'd been cooped up with Hotchkiss in six hundred cubic meters of living space. But the pod was much larger than that, stuffed with the tools, archives, equipment and seeds they would need, along with the other pods in their cluster, to launch a new civilization.
At this stage, Logan and Hotchkiss needed to start moving seed packs out of the cryo-lockers so they would be viable for planting when they landed. This might have been the closest thing to manual labor either of them had ever experienced, but in fact, it amounted to pressing a few links to supervise the robots.
"We aren't really necessary," Hotchkiss volunteered. "The robots don't need us to tell them what to do. It's all a charade to make us feel like we have a function, or so they say."
Logan gritted his teeth, and searched in vain for pleasant thoughts. "There's no job so simple you won't try to get out of doing it, is there?" he said when his search came up empty.
"The seeds are warming up so they'll be viable when we land," Hotchkiss mused. "And pressing these links is warming us up after this incredibly boring flight."
Logan had to concede that point. "That's right. Don’t strain your finger."
Pod crews were segregated by sex, because a mating pair who came to despise each other during their long confinement would interfere with reproductive quotas more than any same-sex animosities that crews dragged along to their new world.
"Feel free to bond with your crew-mate," Rottini had told Logan among the five thousand cadets in Section Two. "There is no shame, and there is no damage. Your time in the pod is a time of passage."
Logan had been an excellent student, but bonding in the pod was the one point in the curriculum that made no sense to him. And living with Hotchkiss and the Hotchkiss habits and the Hotchkiss body brought him no closer to enlightenment in that matter. Even with the suppressants in the meal-tubes, Logan longed for the chance to reunite with some - any! - of the young women from his section once they made Planet Fall.
He tried to be objective, but seriously, who could bond with a Hotchkiss? And why had he, Logan of all people, drawn the short straw?
Sometimes Logan would wake up to see Hotchkiss cross-legged in his bed, staring out into the depths of space.
"What are you doing?" he asked once.
"Things that have never been seen before."
Logan snorted, but Hotchkiss went on, oblivious. "These stars, these galaxies, we're the first ones here!"
"Hate to break it to you but the Big Ship saw them and they're already long past us. Hell, they were seeing farther than this back on Earth!"
"But not this close. Not from this angle," Hotchkiss seemed to be channeling the most obnoxious version of Hotchkiss. "We're seeing things that have never been seen before. And maybe that's what we're here for. That's what I've been reading, anyway."
Logan shook his head and dropped back on the pillow. "You're a real loony bird," he said, and drew the cowl over him. But before he drifted back to sleep, he saw Hotchkiss calling up "loony bird" from the archives.
Five days, or 'days,' as Hotchkiss would put it, before Planet Fall, the robots moving the seeds malfunctioned. The seeds' cryo-lockers were snug against the belly of the pod, letting the chill of interplanetary space do most of the work required to preserve them.
A scan of the pod's hull revealed a tear, probably from a small space rock, that lowered the temperature enough to disable the robot.
"This is bad," Logan said. "If we lose one more layer, the vacuum will suck the eyes out of our heads."
"This is why they spray so many pods at a planet," Hotchkiss said. "On the Big Ship they knew the odds were that some of us would never make it. Or so they say."
"Would you just shut up?" Logan snapped, trying to hold his bowels together. He always knew Hotchkiss was dumb, but could he be so dumb he didn't understand the gravity of this situation?
They both scanned the archives.
"We need to seal the breach from outside before we do anything else," Logan concluded.
Hotchkiss turned his head slowly toward him, a glimmer of understanding starting to show in those sunken, deep-set eyes. They'd both trained in simulations, of course, but neither had ever actually gone outside. It wasn't the sort of thing that happened on the Big Ship. And no volunteers emerged from their army of two.
They stared at each other for a full minute, whatever a 'minute' might be.
"We should compare transcripts," Logan said at last. "Best score in the simulations draws the duty."
They stared across at each other awhile longer. Logan knew that he'd blown the final test in training when he'd panicked at the feeling of being adrift in the limitless depths of a cold universe. If he had not done so well in every other subject, they never would have let him off the Big Ship. But he practiced Rottini's deep-breathing and pleasant-thought exercises now, to lull Hotchkiss into thinking that he had a chance in this showdown.
"Sure," Hotchkiss said at last. "That sounds fair."
They pulled up the scores, and neither of them said a word. Sometimes words are unnecessary.
Logan went over the procedure Hotchkiss would follow to patch the breach, but Hotchkiss couldn't seem to concentrate.
"What if I need to come back in before it's fixed?" he asked. "Should we have a signal for that?"
"No." Logan's fingers drummed the table. "That's not even an option. If the breach gives way, we're done. It's a ticking time bomb."
That dreamy Hotchkiss look came over his face. "A ticking time bomb? What is that? What does that even mean?"
It was a fair question from someone who had no reason to associate ticking with the passage of time. And what the hell was a time bomb? Could time itself explode? What would be left after that? Eternity, where the very mechanism of time has been destroyed?
"I feel sick," Hotchkiss announced, pushing back from the table and lunging for the personal chamber.
While Hotchkiss puked, Logan pulled up pictures of the earliest space walks, men and women in clumsy, comical suits, tumbling through the infinite night.
"At least you won't look like this," Logan said, trying to lighten the mood. "We've got style. We're in modern times!"
Hotchkiss gave a little gag, but was able to contain himself. He turned his rheumy eyes on Logan and asked, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
Neither of them had ever heard a tree fall, or even seen a tree, much less a forest, for that matter.
"Take hold, Hotchkiss," Logan said. "Concentrate on what you have to do. When your job is done, we'll be able to hear all the falling trees you want on the DP. You'll get sick of the sound of falling trees."
Hotchkiss sighed heavily and began preparing for his space walk. "I've been alone ever since we left the Big Ship, haven't I?"
Logan frowned and his eyes skittered across the surfaces that defined the pod's living space. He looked into Hotchkiss' bleary eyes when he finally thought of something to say. "I'll be with you every step of the way, man. We've always been in this together."
"There are no steps in space," Hotchkiss said, "or so they say."
When Hotchkiss finally pushed himself out of the airlock, he appeared briefly outside the pod's window and Logan thought he did look just as ridiculous as those two-dimensional pictures of the early space walkers. He realized it wasn't their outlandish suits that made them so, it was the bathos of a human form paddling through an infinite and indifferent universe. Hotchkiss fit right in.
Hotchkiss drifted out of direct view, but Logan tracked him on the monitors.
"I think I see the Big Ship," Hotchkiss said through the channel.
"The Big Ship is long gone," Logan corrected him. "It's just you and me now. Keep your mind on the job."
Logan watched - and it seemed to take forever - as Hotchkiss located and patched the breach in the outer hull. Maybe he was good for something after all.
Hotchkiss made his way back to the airlock, and announced, "Ready to come back in. That wasn't so bad, after all."
Logan watched him drifting outside the airlock for a few moments. "There's one more little problem," he said, flipping off the communication switch and the monitors and closing his eyes.
It was so quiet that Logan was able to relax in a way he'd almost forgotten. And in just a few days, he would see what life would be like on a new world.
About the Creator
Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
I loved the dynamic you carefully developed between the two characters. A lot of wonderful dialogue in there as well. Great first chapter!
very well done. good story
Love the idea of space room Mates and the character development. Interested to find out what Logan would do after landing at the DP.
I really liked this one, especially the banter between Hotchkiss and Logan. Well done!