Note: Written for the Review Game's December Writing Challenge Contest, a monthly writing contest where all participants write a prose or poetry piece based on the same prompt. Check out the other entries and vote for your favorite from the 8th-14th. :)
This month's prompt: "Now the sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence... someone might have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never." - Franz Kafka
And my spacing uploaded weird and line breaks weren't working, hence the random periods between sections. When Document Manager is working again, I'll fix them.
My Atalanta's voice is the sound of a distress beacon, a beeping, a beat of a computerized heart that pulses red on a console. Her voice is my only light now, washing the bridge in red-tinged shadow every three seconds. Three seconds of blackest night, a pitch-black tomb in a sky far from rescue, then glorious red and I see her face, or what's left of her.
She's made of plastic, you see. Transparent colonial red plastic, the lightest, the thinnest, the strongest plastic available. No expense was spared in her creation.
Atalanta, the S47-E : the jewel of the fleet. She was the empire's elite scout ship, the fastest ship in the corps and, arguably, the fastest ship in the galaxy. Like her namesake, none could catch her in a chase or a race. She could speed past any danger, outrun any pursuer, and quickly relay vital information back to the empire on the status of the warring border systems.
And, like her namesake, she had a fatal flaw:human brains driving her actions. Human curiosity, compassion, stubbornness. Her namesake stopped for golden apples, but my Atalanta stopped for a rescue mission.
All she found was a mine.
Before, before the explosion tore through her hull, venting most of the crew, killing all but myself and Atalanta, before all that, she was a holo projection in the center of the bridge. Back when the lights were on and I was not stuck in the rubble of my own command deck, she had a neat face, sleek black hair, and dark brown eyes and she spoke with the level voice of an AI, a hybrid of donor voice prints to make a speech pattern all her own. Her creator friendlied her up, humanized her programming, made her a part of the crew. She was not human, only an extension of the ship, but she was always treated as a person.
Now it's just me and her.
I woke in the rubble, pinned by a fallen bank of computers and she woke with me. "Distress beacon initiated, Captain," she'd said. For a little while I could see her face, flickering on the projector, and then she dimmed and the room fell dark save for the red flash on the console. I could still hear her true voice at that point, however. "I am experiencing power failures in the outer decks. Scans indicate no life signs beyond this room. I am diverting all power to bridge life support. Do you require medical assistance?"
"I've been better, but I'll manage. How are you?"
"Visual interface damaged. Engine damaged, unresponsive. Power reserves at 38%."
"How long do we have?"
There was a pause as she calculated. An interminable pause, as the room fell to silence save for the beep of the beacon. Every three seconds felt like a vast emptiness poised to swallow me whole, and then a sound, a reassurance I hadn't been consumed by the void.
"Assuming all current processes, my systems will shut down in 72 hours, 43 minutes. I calculate you would survive on remaining oxygen and heat for up to 26 minutes past that."
"So not good, then."
"Optimizing systems for maximum probability of survival, my systems will shut down in 113 hours, 17 minutes. This requires minimal life support and shutdown of my crew interface systems. What is your command, Captain?"
At the time it made sense. Rescue was four days out at best, and that extended our chances of salvaging the mission, salvaging Atalanta. "Do what you have to, Atalanta."
"Good luck, Captain," was all she said before powering down.
It's cold here in the dark. She never said it, but I should have known minimal life support would be cold. I sit on the floor huddled under a silver emergency blanket and stare at her, at the red plastic bubble that is all that remains of Atalanta.
I scold myself for thinking so darkly.
Atalanta is still alive, I can see her, hear her. She is the beep of the beacon and the faint hiss of air from the vents, and every breath that shivers from my lungs. I can see my breath every fourth second in the red light, and I keep it steady, timing it to the pulse of the beacon. It calms me, it measures my life, measures the time.
I have sat here now for two days and the near-silence is almost unbearable, but it's coming to an end. Soon, I know, rescue will be here. But it's so quiet, so lonely.
"Atalanta, respond," I say before logic clamps down.
A pause, and then, "What is your command, Captain?"
I shouldn't but I ask anyway. "How much time would hourly check-ins shave off our timeline?"
"Assuming two minute usage of crew interface, hourly powerup and shutdown, projected systems failure will occur approximately five hours faster."
"Not bad, then."
"Conversation stresses life support, Captain," she said. "Assuming calm conversation for two minutes, projected systems failure will occur approximately eight hours faster."
"Still worth it, Atalanta."
"Command confirmed, Captain." More silence.
"So talk to me," I say. "How are things?"
"Power reserves stand at 23%."
"Do you know any music, Atalanta? Do you know how to talk about the weather or reminisce?"
She pauses, save for the beep of the beacon. "I do not reminisce, Captain. There is minimal weather in space. I can play some music for you."
"I would like that."
Something orchestral plays from the speakers. Upbeat and bombastic, it takes me away from the darkness, chases away the silence and loneliness. I smile, and for a minute I feel human again.
The music fades in the middle of a grand movement. "One hour, Captain."
And it's just me and the beacon.
Atalanta checks in hourly, right on schedule. For two minutes there is music, and a more or less human voice. For two minutes there is company.
For 58 minutes there is darkness and dim light, silence and a beep. Three seconds darkness, one second beep. I pace my breathing, one inhalation every other beep, one exhalation every other beep. I count each breath, add them up, and I come to expect her company at the top of the hour. The beep is my metronome but the music only plays for two minutes, two painfully short minutes.
After a day of sleepless counting, of breathing and staring and red-tinged shadow, I ask her to search for rescue.
"Long range sensors will take ten minutes to power up, Captain," she warns. "Do you wish to continue?"
"Yes, Atalanta. And keep me company while we wait."
"It doesn't matter," I interrupt. "We'll have time. Play me a song."
And this time I hear the whole movement. There're horns this time, cymbals and horns and I tell Atalanta what it reminds me of. I paint a picture of a grand battle, of good forces nobly slaying the darkness. She comments, and tries to interrupt, but I continue. I fill the silence, and it feels good.
"Long range sensors indicate an imperial vessel on approach. 18 hours out, Captain."
"What's our status?"
"Power reserves stand at 7% and dropping, Minimal power usage advised."
I know what she's implying. Another 18 hours of silence. There is hope, at least. But complete silence?
"Understood, Atalanta. Do what you have to do."
It's colder now. Colder and quieter. The beacon is slowing down. First it was every fourth second, and then I noticed a lag. A fraction of a second at first. Then a full second, putting the beep every fifth second. A fraction of a second more, and then it was every sixth second.
Twelve hours later, it's every 60th second. A minute of silence, of complete darkness, and then Atalanta's voice. She's still there, still alive. I'm still alive, but it's harder and harder to hang on. My everything focuses on that spot on the console where I know the beacon remains. For 59 seconds, I stare at the place where the light will be, where the beep will sound. For 59 seconds I hardly blink, and when I do I swear I can feel the beacon's presence on my eyelids.
Time seems to be slowing. I count each second at the same length but the beacon's pulse stretches it all out. My brain tells me this is all a trick, it knows, it's counted and noted each extension of time. But a memory of that three second darkness haunts me. It nags, lingers. Tells me only three seconds have passed while my brain insists it has been a minute. Every hour stretches out for an eternity.
My breathing is ragged, steady on the top of the minute with a sigh of relief at the sound of her beep, and nervously awaiting the next pulse. At 50 seconds, without fail, it speeds up again, as terror grips me.
Will this time be longer? The 61st second? Will it light, will it beep at all? How will I know when she finally dies? Will it be a whimper? Will she say a last goodbye? Have I already heard her last goodbye? Has she already breathed her last and I'm living on borrowed time, inhaling stale air, slowly dying in a tomb of-
A beep. I sigh.
59 seconds of hell begins again.
"I need you to speak to me," I plead. "Atalanta, respond."
The beacon beeps. It beeps twice, as if in acknowledgment of my command, but I don't hear her human voice. The hiss of the air through the vents is all there is now.
The beacon's interval stretches to five minutes at a time. Atalanta can't talk to me anymore, her voice is a whisper, nearly a memory. For five minutes there is silence, and darkness. Five minutes of my own musings, my terror, and the vast dead quiet of space.
At five minutes, one second, my eyes lock on that point, that place I know the beacon is.
At five minutes, two seconds it's still dark.
Five minutes, four seconds I've stopped breathing. My blood runs cold, my stomach drops.
Five minutes, ten seconds and I'm tripping over rubble in a mad scramble to the console. I can feel the plastic dome of the beacon indicator light under my cold hand. I know the sound it should make as intimately as my own heartbeat.
Five minutes fifteen seconds and there is still no beep, no light. My legs collapse, though my hand remains on the hard plastic.
"Atalanta," I plead. "Atalanta, I need to hear your voice. Atalanta, respond."
Five minutes thirty seconds and the faint hiss of air becomes a memory.
I realize then I haven't known true silence before. It envelops me, presses down like a pillow over my senses. My ears strain for any sound, any indication I am not alone, that Atalanta is still alive, that there is some chance.
But there is nothing to hear but my own ragged breathing.
26 minutes, she'd told me. My body has 26 minutes before it finally gives out.
But in this all-consuming silence, I am already gone.
Atalanta is dead. My hope, my mind, my everything died with her.