Rubber soled boots moved over grated walkways with only the slightest sound. Their clunks were much softer than the sigh that dropped from their wearer's lips. Pale fingers traced over the steadily flickering lights before Rone left this section to move to the next. "Someone took good care of you." He spoke to the ancient vessel as he checked panel after panel of power conduits that stretched the length of the narrow walkway. He came to the end of the line and slid lightly down the ladder to the level below. His tags ratted against the rungs they hit on the way down and he cursed, pulling them back against him when he hit the solid floor.
"Damn." In the low light it was difficult to inspect them for damage. He saw no marks in their surface save the ones meant to be there but he tucked them under his shirt to prevent further collisions.
Without those tags, he'd be screwed.
"Ship, time?" He asked the ceiling.
The voice cracked out, but he could make no sense of it. Out here, far from the Command, the ship's AI cracked in a hollow echo that was sometimes impossible to hear. Rone wasn't sure if it was a flaw of the system, or if this section had taken damage. No matter the case, his stomach rumbled and he guessed it was time to eat so he found his flashlight and reoriented himself to navigate his way back the length of the ship.
Somewhere along the line, he took a wrong turn and ended up before a set of hatch doors that gave him pause. He moved to them, running his fingers over the blistered metal at their seam, remembering the day he'd welded them shut. He pulled his hand away before he reached the control panel, not wanting to test the strength of his work or disturb the small ornament adorning the key pad. His light however, cast over the frayed black cord wound around the protrusion, his eyes fixed on the simple cross that dangled from its length. He caught the reflection of his own frown in the blackened glass above the necklace, and his light pulled involuntarily from the doors. He didn't desire to glimpse what lay beyond them.
Boots tread twice as fast on the way back to the common room. Rone ignored his own thrumming heart and quickened breaths when the hatch behind him sealed him in, locking out the silent darkness beyond.
"Ship. Playlist thirteen." The AI obliged his custom command, filling the room with the sounds of a teenage girl lamenting her latest breakup. Even her adolescent cries to the synthesized melody was better than the enduring silence.
For the first time since waking, he ate his fill, stomach finally settled after days of sickness. A glance at the clock, however, told him had one final injection in his course of antibiotics so he ventured back into the dark halls, the retro pop music following him down the corridors to the medical bay.
A red warning flashed before him on transparent walls but he ignored it as usual and went straight to the pharmaceuticals. As old as the program must have been, the ship had still managed to read his symptoms and mix him up an antibiotic cocktail that had purged his system of infection.
Rone sat on the exam table and pulled his overalls past his shorts and took hold of his exposed thigh. "Damn." He sat as he had every day, needle poised, but hand shaking as he worked up the nerve to plunge it in.
Rone Zed had faced exceptional violence and terror in his young life- even more than what was customary to the life of Travellers and Stationers. He'd become hard to much of what would break others and swallowed memories that would haunt most men- but all of that courage was for nothing, when faced with a needle. The thought of the slender cylinder of metal sliding under skin and past sinew made him feel hot and light headed. Sweat had plastered his hair to his head before he ever jabbed the point down with shut eyes and pushed hard on the plunger.
Antibiotic regiment complete.
A thick breath escaped him. He glared at the intercom. "Thanks for informing me."
His sarcasm lost on the computer, he bristled at the disembodied 'your welcome' and threw his emptied syringe in the contamination shoot that opened next to him. Red letters flashed all the more insistently across the reflective surface of the door, intermittently painting his image blood red before returning it to ghostly pale.
Warning. The AI's voice reiterated the scrolling words before him. Crew not linked to ship AI. Unable to monitor bioreadings. Please reinsert biochip.
"Sorry," he pulled a lever on the door to override the protocol, "never had one."
The last seven days were jumbled by a fevered haze, but casting his eyes around the absolute mess that was the common room left no doubt he'd done nothing but sleep and throw up since getting out of cryo. Only this morning had he woken with a clear head and decided to get moving again. Now he had to make up for lost time- a contradictory thought in a situation where all he seemed to have was time. But there were protocols to follow after waking and he had done almost none of them, so he abandoned the mess for later and headed to Command.
"Ship. Playback new additions to crew log of Raiden Kuwahara."
He sat in throne-like chair set above the rest on the deck, and just shut his eyes to listen to the teen's daily reassurance that all was well on the ship.
"Day 486. No changes in system."
"Day 487. No changes in system."
"Day 488. No changes in system."
"Day 489. Rone." His head shot up at his name. "I don't know if I can do this anymore." The voice in the recording was nothing short of morose. "I'm just so tired of this and it's barely been a year." There was a long sigh, then, "No change in system."
The next files continued without additional commentary for another eleven entries.
"Day 500." Raiden's voice was shaky. "What is this place, anyway? I mean, dead space, what does that mean? How is there just nothing for so long? Rone, back then you told me not to look at it, not to stare into it, well I did, sorry. I know why you told me that now. I can't get it out of my head. That emptiness. The loneliness." Another sigh. "No changes in system."
"Idiot." He muttered.
"Day 501. Rone, sorry about yesterday. I don't want you to listen to this and think I've lost it. I'm just lonely, I guess, well, you know how it is. I watched a movie today, Canto Falls, I think it's been fourteen times now. I still like it though. No changes in system."
"Pause recording." Rone instructed and waved a hand over the panel to his right, bringing it to life. He brought up the list of Raiden's files and checked their recording length. They only got longer from here. He moved to the next one.
"Day 502. Rone, I know I probably shouldn't be using the system log like this, but I just have to feel less alone. You'll probably think I'm crazy when you hear this, but I suppose it doesn't matter, because I'll be asleep anyway. I started reading Paradise Lost. I like it so far. It's on the shelf, if you want to read it. No changes in system."
He stopped playback. Normally, he would listen to them all as fast as he could to make sure everything had gone smoothly, but the system readings had already shown no dramatic changes. His finger hovered over the next file. Instead, however, he dropped down to the record button.
"Day 589. Woke up from cryo last week, you nearly killed me, brat. If that ever happens again, you have to wake me up before the preset runs out. I programed a ninety day fail safe. Who knows what junk is clogging up my system now. Got some antibiotics in me now though, I should be fine. No changes in system."
He ended the recording, but his finger hovered over the button. He hit it again.
"Oh, and thanks for the beer. And that chick in Canto Falls is definitely hot enough to watch that movie fourteen times. Over."
He looked back to Raiden's recordings but shut the screen. There was no point rushing through them all at once, he did have three months to kill.
One strained breath after another pushed out as the barbells rose and fell, rose and fell. With one last push, they rose higher and clanked back into their braces.
"Ship, record." He panted. "Day 605. I got to 200 hundred. Sorry, kid, beat your record already. Better luck next time. Over."
He stood up and wiped the sweat from his face, though it coursed all down his body. He readjusted the arms of his overalls where they were tied over his hips and left the weight room for the common area again. He pulled the beer from the cooler and drank it back with satisfaction, his body pumping with energy and adrenaline, he looked around for another outlet.
There. The kid had actually filed it with the other books.
"Ship record. Raiden, you know it's lonely out here. There's no shame in enjoying yourself." he pulled the magazine from one end of the shelf, the pages crumpled, he laughed, "or maybe you already have. Over."
He undid the arms of the overalls and dropped into a chair, turning to his favourite centre fold. He sighed when he got relief, but sighed all the more for the fact he could do this without fear of being seen. There wasn't another conscious person for light-years.
"Damn." he sighed in the emptiness and stared around him. It hadn't even been a month.
Every day he waited to listen to Raiden's log. Get up. Eat breakfast. Run a system diagnostic. Wait to find no errors. Exercise. Shower. Make lunch. Eat.
Only then, would he listen to the recording. The middle of the day: the longest point between silences. He would sit and absorb every word, sometimes forlorn, sometimes there would be a question, or sometimes Raiden would just say what he did. Rone had kept pace with the teen, shadowing a life lived three months earlier. How much could they bench press? How long could they run? What had they watched, listened to, read?
"Day 613. Okay I have to give it to you Raiden, that was a pretty damn good book. Classic, you said? Messed up is what I'd call it, but I kind of get all that literary crap you were talking about. You've probably read all the hard copies here, but in the data files I found a really good series called Okra. It was originally written in Vikkini but there's a translation program on the ship if you can't read that. What is your first language anyway? And where are you from? Funny, I never really thought to ask you, when I was saving your ass. Oh, and I watched Canto Falls again today. Alright, now I am starting to get bored, not even that chick doing it for me. Over."
He picked up the basket ball he'd dropped a while ago and turned back to the net. "Ship record. By the way, I'm going to beat this record if it kills me, so you better start practising. Over." The ball swooshed through the net and bounced back to him. He only had to get it in another four hundred and twenty times in a row.
And that was life. Listen. Respond. A conversation that spanned months. Any questions he asked would linger for even longer, until they were heard, responded to, and then he played them back, half a year later. By the time they reached the other side of the void, they might have a complete conversation.
But there was no comfort in this thought as he stood where he did now.
He was doing what he told Raiden never to do. He stood at the fore of the Command Deck, staring out at uninterrupted black while he sucked back on the bottle of vodka. If the AI system had been linked to his body, it would have cut him off a long time ago.
"Ship record. Raiden." He sniffed hard as he took another pure swig. "I don't think I would have made it through this stretch without your recordings. Crap. Now I sound as pathetic as you." He belched. "Frig. I think I drank the last bottle of vodka too. Least you don't drink, or at least you didn't that day. One day. It's friggin' insane, isn't it? One day I stumbled into you and the next thing we're on this damn boat together for the next five years. How long has it been already? We're closing in on two years aren't we? I'm going to wake you up soon and then it will be me laying there comatose while you get to live this Hell." The empty bottle dropped to the floor with a clatter, he next to it, the black disappeared behind the console he now leaned on.
"You guys were settlers from Earth weren't you? Only desperate people would be out in the galaxy in a ship this old. A Generation Ship, right? Good thing it was well stocked though, enough preserves for a decade- or for two people over five years. And enough liquor for one." He chuckled. "When were you born? Is this the first you've been in cryo sleep? I've been in and out so many times it's been over fifty years since I was born. That is crazy. I've been asleep more than I've been awake in my life. But that's what it is, to travel space, kid. Did they tell you that, when you started out? You can leave a place behind and come back just a couple of your years later, but by then, a decade could have gone by while you slept it away, and no one is the same, that place might not even be there. That is the curse of freedom."
He swallowed hard, realizing his system was rejecting the alcohol whether a computer told it to or not.
"Dammit kid, how did this happen? Who were you people? These are the kind of ships we had when I was born. What could have made you so desperate you went to a place like Way Station in this piece of pirate bait? Ugh." He sighed for his swirling head. "Night Raiden. Over."
He fell asleep sitting there under a blanket of starless night.
"I wake you up tomorrow." He sighed to the coffin-like form under his hand, the ship recording words the boy wouldn't hear for three months, assuming he played the logs back one day at a time as Rone had.
"We'll have what, ten minutes of actual face-to-face time? You'll throw up, and stumble around, and I'll get in my pod and yell at you until you snap out of it enough to initiate my cryo. And then I'll watched you stand there like you're burying me until the system ices me. And then in three months, I see you again, for ten minutes after you've gone around and put everything back in its place and you'll get in your pod and say good luck and I'll nod and put you under. It's depressing, is what it is." He gave a pause, and let some of the bitterness fade from his voice. "I feel like I've started to get to know you Raiden. I guess you'll be playing this message the day before you wake me up again. Well, you'll probably know me alot better too. I thought about going back and deleting some of the crap I said, but then, I don't think that's fair somehow, so it's all there, the last three months. I hope yours was a little less boring. See you tomorrow. Over."
He had one last sleep before the next three months of unconsciousness- the cold black nothingness in which no time passed, and yet one still got the feeling of being gone for a long time. It could have been five minutes or five centuries, it would make no difference to that hollow pit left in the stomach.
"Rone. The ship says that bug is finally out of my system. I don't really know how I can even get sick, exposed to nothing out here. Anyway, I'm waking you up now. See you soon. Over."
He listened to the last recording as he finished in the washroom. Clean and empty- the ideal conditions for entering cryo. He made his way to the pair of capsules, and pulled off his boots, leaving them before his own pod that was primed and waiting for him. He left his jumpsuit in a heap on the floor; he'd get a fresh one when he woke.
"Raiden. I left the place in a mess. I figured that would give you something to do for a while anyway. See you soon. Over."
He stood almost naked over the sleeping form and watched the counter approach zero. He waited for the zeros to flash and then the counter to continue into the negative.
Fail safe initiated.
Good. At least he knew the ship could handle a program. Raiden's capsule hissed open. The young man came sputtering awake, blinking in confusion, gasping. Rone unhooked his cathodes and hauled him into a sitting potion before backing away to make room for the now expected spew. The teen heaved several times, his body far less adapted to these frequent stints in cryogenics than Rone's.
"Hurry up." Rone instructed him, half lifting him from his pod and setting him on his feet. He pulled the chains from his neck and dropped the pair of dog tags over Raiden's head while the young man held onto the table beside him. Rone got into the second pod, positioning himself and hooking in the cathodes.
"Okay, kid." He looked up at a green face. Raiden was staring back down with a mix of nausea and heartbreak. "You got this." He said, not really sure what he meant by that, but Raiden nodded and shut the lid. Rone felt that tightening in his body that he always got before the system activated. Every time a person entered cold sleep, there was a good chance they'd never wake up again. A small system error was all it would take, and he'd be as dead as he looked under frosted glass. He sighed and met brown eyes through the transparent lid.
Cryo initiated. Rest well, Rone.
The tube hissed and ghosted over for a moment before clearing up and Raiden continued to stare down stiff features.
"Night, Rone." He pushed away from the capsule before dropping to the floor and continuing to hurl.
Next chapter we are introduced to Raiden, and learn a bit more about both characters. It's a slow build, I know, but I have alot of action/adventure planned for this one.
Thanks for reading, I would love to hear any feedback.