Coffins-Part II

By: Bill the Butcher

I sat back in my seat and looked down at my control panel.

Outside the viewports, a billion stars spangled the black. They were like gauzy veils across the face of space, tiny white glittering jewels that crowded the forward viewports – an illusion caused by the velocity at which we were moving. Once, in my first few trips as a trainee and as a new commander, I used to sit for hours between watches, just gazing at the gulfs of infinity, and wondering what strange eyes were staring back at me. Now – more years later than I cared to think about, years that my bones felt even though relativistic velocities kept my body young – I no longer did anything like that. The romance was long gone, and the job was just a job like any other.

The lights on the control panel screens, the curved lines, the scrolling figures, all told of a ship in good health. The gigantic scoop of the ramjet engine sucked in hydrogen atoms, crushed them, and spat them out again as white-hot plasma, hurling us through interstellar space at nearly the speed of light. The gigantic cargo holds, the reason for the existence of this ship, were all stable and undisturbed by radiation, physical damage, or any of the thousands of other things that could happen.

As I checked, for the third time this watch, all the systems, I remembered what friends had told me, over and over. “Jamileh,” they had exclaimed, one and all, “what a wonderful job you have. Oh, if we only had a job like that! The places you must have seen!” I’d always remember, then, the awful loneliness of the life of a cargo liner pilot, of how we spent most of our time alone on the ships, at almost the speed of light, and how the only places a cargo pilot ever saw was grey transit stations and shuttleports before the next leg out.

And when we got shore leave, back on Terra, we’d find that the people we’d left behind a year or two ago – in ship time – had aged decades if they were alive at all, and that they had new lives and new interests, and we were unwelcome reminders of a past well forgotten. Each shore leave, you’d have to try and build up relationships all over again, with new people, knowing well enough that you’d have to leave them behind to live at their own rate, while you slowed by at yours.

No, it wasn’t a good life, being a cargo liner pilot, despite the pay and the so-called glamour. I laughed, never with humour, when I remembered the time I’d been consumed with excitement when my grades and aptitude tests showed that I was fit for the space service. My parents had been not that happy; they’d wanted their daughter to marry and have grandchildren for them, but when the time came they hadn’t stood in my way.

As always, when I thought of my parents, my mind tended to swerve away from how my career had repaid them. On my first voyage as a full pilot, no longer a trainee, I reached my destination – a dingy little mining station orbiting a blue gas giant many parsecs from home – to find a message waiting. At light speed, it had only just beat me there, and informed me that my father had died of a heart attack. When I was on the return voyage, towing ten million tons of processed ore, I was seriously thinking of abandoning piloting and taking up a ground job in the space service, despite the inevitable drop in pay. My mother would need me now, I knew, and I’d almost filled in a request for a transfer. But when I got home, I’d found there was no need. My mother had been dead for three years.

No, piloting cargo vessels was not a job that filled you with happiness. I thought this over as I turned to the astrogation consoles. All fine there, too. And yet – with Terra as it was, how many million women wouldn’t want to be in my place, and would consider me to be one of the luckiest people alive? I thought over that also, and couldn’t find a satisfactory answer.

Last of all, I switched the console readouts to the stasis units, which everyone called the “coffins”. I always did this last, for reasons that had nothing to do with necessity or convenience. This time there were just eight passengers in the boxes. I’d carried as many as twenty, but recruiting had become difficult in recent days, and dangerous. I expected that in time there might be no passengers at all.

My finger on the floating camera scanned the boxes, the software reading the names out for me…Dubois, Hussein, Zhang, Kangas, Kangas (this was the wife, who I’d met only at the shuttle), Zhukov, Thangamuzhaivan, and Dos Santos. All systems green. The marvellous little instruments hooked up to the frozen bodies were testing them, keeping them alive, though only in barely measurable terms.

I thought of them, lying in the stasis units, naked, tubes in their noses and throats, instruments patched to their chests, their heads, their eyes. I’d hooked them up myself. I thought of them as they were now, barely breathing, barely living, and as I’d known them back when I’d met them on Terra.

Dubois; tall, balding, with a red sweating face. I remembered that he had a reticent air about him, as if he had ghosts in his past, and I’d thought that he was the sort who would have joined the French Foreign Legion in an earlier age. After him, Hussein, who was Palestinian, whose entire family had been killed in the recent carpet-bombing of Gaza, and who wanted an escape before his hate drove him to retaliation. Zhang, one of the Chinese we carried on almost every trip, a teacher who had lost everything in the earthquake that had destroyed Shanghai. The Kangas couple, the wife even more defeated-looking than her husband. Zhukov, the youngest of the lot, a teenage conscript who’d deserted from the Russian Army fighting in Ukraine, and who had turned up still wearing his speckled green military uniform.

Next, Thangamuzhaivan, a Tamil, an expatriate of course – southern India was no longer habitable, hadn’t been for years. He’d parried questions of just why he wanted to go; but he was an engineer, and we could never have enough engineers on Dawn. And, after him, Dos Santos, from the favelas of Rio. I remember how hesitant I’d been about taking her. Immensely tall, with the figure and looks of a supermodel, she’d seemed such an unlikely candidate for emigration that I’d thought her to be part of a government sting operation – one was keenly aware that the government tolerated the illegal migration but might crack down anytime. Not that I was in any personal danger; pilots were rare and precious, even more than ever now that the training infrastructure had broken down. That’s why we pilots did all the direct contacting of prospective emigrants. But a crackdown could disrupt the system, even close it down completely, so I’d had to run background checks on Dos Santos, discreetly, of course. Then I’d found the mafia lover, the death threats, the allegations of drug smuggling, which further checks had revealed to be false. Even now I wasn’t quite sure about her, and I made a mental note to inform Dawn on arrival that she’d need watching.

Almost automatically, my hands turned the dials on the instruments back again. Dubois, Hussein, Zhang…Thangamuzhaivan. I paused on Thangamuzhaivan. I remembered his grin at the shuttleport, white teeth in a dark face, the immense goodwill that radiated from him. I tried to move on to the Brazilian, Dos Santos, and found without surprise that I couldn’t.

I sat for a long time and watched the readouts, and tried to decide what to do. In fact, my body had already made the decision. It was only my brain that was trying to talk me out of it. Almost imperceptibly, my hands crept to the special red-bordered console and began pressing buttons.

It took a long time to waken him. I knew how to do it, of course – I was the one who put them into stasis at the start of the voyage and brought them out again at the end of it – but my fingers were trembling and my mouth dry as any schoolgirl. I knew I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing – but I went ahead and did it anyway.

The stasis box opened with a puff of evaporating coolant gases, and after a few moments the occupant stirred and opened his eyes. I kept the speakers off, knowing how stressful sudden sound could be to anyone newly brought out of stasis. I sat back and watched the readouts, as the tubes retracted, his basal metabolic rate slowly rose to normal, the gases dissipated, and finally, he grasped the sides of the “coffin” and sat up.

“Are we there already?” he asked aloud, looking around. “Are we in orbit around Dawn?”

“No,” I said. Now that I was actually at the point where I had to explain why I’d roused him, I was nervous and unsure. “You’d better come up to the control cabin.”

He wasn’t startled, just turned his eyes to the speaker. “I don’t know where the control cabin is,” he said. “And I need clothes.”

“Clothes don’t matter,” I said. I could feel the metallic excitement in my throat. It had been six months since I’d talked to anyone but a computer-generated character. “Just come up the ramp and turn left. I’ll guide you from there.”

“Why are you doing this?” He was looking right at the camera now. “You aren’t supposed to bring us out of stasis except in emergencies.”

“I…” to my horror, my voice failed. “Come to the control room,” I said at last, “and I’ll explain.”

“Not until you tell me why.”

“Would you like to see the stars?” I asked. “You’ve never really seen the stars, have you?” Maybe he’d never even seen the stars at all; parts of the Earth were covered by permanent haze these days. I tried again. “Would you like to experience space?”

“Not particularly.” He stared at me though the camera lens. “How far are we from Dawn?” he demanded.

“Eighteen months in ship time.”

“And you intend me to stay here, with you, awake, for eighteen months?”

“Does it matter that much to you?”

“Look here…I want to go to Dawn, to join my girlfriend. She went out by the last liner, without telling me. We’d had a fight, and she went.” He walked up and down the stasis chamber, and the camera followed him.

“Your girlfriend.” I could picture her, some quick little thing with a white smile and expressive eyes, and I hated her, this unknown girl, at that moment as I’d seldom hated a human being before. “Your girlfriend will be waiting at the end of the voyage.” Or not.

“That’s not the point.” I could see his growing frustration. He slammed his fist against a wall, but the walls were padded and insulated. “The point is, I didn’t ask to be awakened. And you want me to be awake for eighteen months…growing older for eighteen months. Eighteen months older than what she is. Do you know what that means?”

“Not really…not when you’re as old as I am.”

“Oh yes, we know all about you liner pilots. But I’m talking about human beings. Real, thinking, living human beings…not like you.”

I tried one last time. “Come to the control room for a while,” I said. “Let’s talk a while, at least.”

“What are you?” he asked, not so much angrily as wonderingly. “Are you really so self-obsessed, so wrapped up in yourself? I’m not a toy of yours, to be woken up and used when you want. Are you really such a monster?”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, to myself. My fingers pressed on the buttons, and the emergency backup system injected the sleeping gases into the chamber. Thangamuzhaivan looked around, suddenly tensed, panicking.

“Hold on,” he said. “I didn’t…” His words trailed off and he staggered. A moment later, he slumped to the floor.

I sighed, resting my head on my hands. In a moment I’d go down and put him back in the stasis unit, and hook him up to the instruments again. He’d never remember what had happened, or, if he did, would confuse it with the bizarre dreams of stasis. I wasn’t worried about what he’d have to say.

Slowly, wearily, feeling every year of my century and a half, I turned back to my controls. The ship still hurtled through space, and there was still work to be done.