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Doldrums: A Short Story
I sat in the command chair and stared at the screen in front of me. Ripples and waves seemed to flow across the blackness. Over and over again. Was it alive? I had to be going mad. I stared again and wiped the sweat from my forehead. It was so cold. The soft cushions of the chair trapped my body's warmth. It felt good. In the engine room behind me Zack was going to kill Mike. It was just a matter of time. I didn't feel like moving. The blank screen intrigued me. It moved. I widened my eyes. Something looked at me from that lifeless void. There had to be a reason why it was looking at me and it was twisting my mind in knots.
I felt hungry. I got up out of the chair and went aft. I tripped near the helm console and cussed at the dim light in the cabin. I wondered when it would finally go out. When would the blackness in the view screen reach out and claim our domain. At the refrigeration units I opened one and peered in at the synthesized turkey sandwiches and listened to Zack and Mike bicker in the background. I pushed them from my mind and laughed. The refrigeration units were just as cold as the cabin temperatures. I went back to my seat and stared at the screen again. I wasn't hungry.
The Ship is Lost in Space or Time
It had now been two days.
It all started when we left earth. It was a routine cargo haul to Benard. So simple. So easy. But the Tac Drive is anything but simple. It is an untamable beast. Converting you to negative mass. Spearheading you to ungodly velocities. Then converting you back to normal mass. The whole experience is rather gut wrenching. And that is when it works. Almost like threading a rope through the eye of a needle. The whole complicated process is tamed by computer of course. The tricky part is when the ship passes through the turbulent point at the speed of light. There, everything is reversed. The computer has to apply energy to slow the ship down. Otherwise it will achieve infinite velocity. And that's apparently what happened. Just minutes into the flight, for some unexplained reason, the computer shut the dampening controls down. And now we are here. Where ever that was.
The Crew Argues And The Captain Is Going Insane
"None of you seem to get it," Zack said. "It's not going to work." I could hear them move around back there. I wondered what they were doing. That frightened me. I think I was supposed to know.
"None of you seem to get it," he repeated himself. "It's futile. I'm telling you it's time compensation." Mike remained silent. Probably trying to ignore him. I was perplexed. I couldn't remember. Have I been sitting here all this time? "You are all wrong. It's time compensation."
Me! What did I do wrong. I couldn't focus very well. I still was trying to remember if I had just gotten out of my seat. I found it hard to believe that I could sit here all this time without getting up.
"It's not going to work. You are all wrong." Damn! For once would he shut up, I thought. His voice was becoming irritating. I still couldn't figure out what I did wrong. But I did realize that I did get up.
"There's nothing wrong," Mike finally answered. I felt a sigh of relief. Now, maybe Zack would slow down a little. Stop this babbling. "Our problem is entirely spatial."
"No, it's temporal!" The only thing is, once Zack kills Mike, what do I do? Zack is going to start all over again repeating himself over and over. Babbling from one minute to the next.
"We went through a massive spatial displacement. Deceleration was normal. Compensation was performed perfectly." I smiled at their use of technical language. But I still felt worried that somehow I was suppose be involved.
"No it wasn't. Deceleration was abnormal. Mass conversion was too abrupt."
"The error occurred at acceleration. Maybe we should check for an engine malfunction," Mike said. His voice seemed to drift over the intercom, while Zack's exploded.
"Shut up! Recheck the compensation damnit," Zack yelled. Obviously Mike hit a raw nerve.
I listened for a while longer as the argument died down for now, wondering when it would pick up again, all the time continuing to stare at the screen, transfixed by what wasn't there. The stress was beginning to smother us. They were becoming irrational. Unpredictable. Earlier when at the refrigeration units, I noticed the lockers broken into. Three of the magnetic guns were missing. What they were going to do to each other next I didn't know and I didn't care.
At first when it happened we were simply shocked but confident. Confident that we could get out of this. We checked all systems and then reversed course in a slow deliberate controlled manner, keeping our velocity near light speed. But it didn't work. We were still here.
It was because we knew very little. We had no idea if our orientation had changed. Maybe we had drifted. Pitched slightly. That would have screwed our calculations up. By reversing course we could have made things worse. There just simply was nothing out there to fix on. No sensor echoes. Nothing.
The Crew Has Only One More Attempt To Get Home
"Captain," someone whispered. Was it the blackness calling me? My heart raced. Was I beginning to hear voices. I fought it and pushed it from my mind. Zack was succumbing first. Becoming more violent. But I agreed with him. Time compensation was another factor that had to be considered. The Tac Drive's faster than light travel reversed time flow for the crew. It again was the job of the computer to calculate and implement time compensation during deceleration. And that's why I sided with Zack. Of all machines, I didn't trust computers. Deep down I detested them. Maybe it was because they were more human then any of us were willing to admit. And now was a bad time to compare the similarities because I knew I was going insane.
"Captain," the voice called again.
We bounced around so many ideas about what happened. Mike brought up the idea that despite the universe may be curved in upon itself, simply traveling in any direction may not necessarily mean coming back to the same point. He argued the material universe that we know of may only occupy a single point in a vast bubble of space. Trying to hit it would be astronomical. Looping around for eternity. Zack violently disagreed. He blamed Mike for what happened. Claiming it was all a failure to compensate for time. We really never left our universe. We were either at its beginning, or its end.
"Captain!" the voice yelled from somewhere.
"What? I looked at the view screen hypnotized.
"Captain, we are ready to try again...Captain."
"Ok, what is it," I said slowly and quietly, finally realizing the voice was coming from the intercom.
"Sir, we are ready to try again," Ted said. He was the last of the crew and second in command. Ever since we had gotten ourselves in this predicament he had isolated himself on the observation platform monitoring the sensors. But I don't think it was obligation to duty that kept him there. No. He was avoiding us. Afraid of what was slowly happening. He was unraveling. We all were.
"What," I said. I was confused. I found it hard to think. I thought of all the possibilities of what this place was. The beginning of time. The end of time. A vast expanse of empty space. A different universe. Hell. I thought of all the possible variables that had changed since arriving. Variables that were crucial to our returning. Margins of error that we had no idea of figuring out. Myriad after Myriad of possibilities compounded on top of each other. My head ached. "Why try again. It didn't work before."
"But sir. We are ready to launch the buoys on your word."
"Don't you remember." I struggled. I couldn't. And then, yes! The buoys. Ted had an ingenious idea. Modify the messenger probes into buoys or markers that can be easily tracked. Launch them in different directions. Monitor them and note their change in course and acceleration. Gather all the information and we should be able to figure out where the mass of the universe is concentrated. Then all we have to do is point the ship in that direction and fire up the engines, and we are home!
"Brilliant!" I said out loud. I was amazed with the idea. Why didn't we do this before? Now our fuel reserves were low. We had only one more shot. "Go."
"It won't work!" Zack yelled. I heard his voice echo from behind me and over the intercom at the same time. He was the only dissenting vote against the idea. He had an alternate one of simply bringing the ship's course on a wide and gradual circular flight path above light speed. All the time arguing that the problem was simply time compensation.
"Aye, sir. Launching now." There was a sudden rush of air heard throughout the ship as the buoys were released. In the back I also could hear sharp pounding against the bulkhead as Zack threw his tools around in rage. Then, in front of me for the first time I could see! Points. Light. Piercing the black velvet. Two went diagonally across the screen. One went up. Another just seemed to hover. They were like fireflies. So small against that black backdrop.
"Information coming in sir," Mike said as the lights flickered and started to go out. "The computer is calculating now." I cringed and felt uneasy. "Got it!"
"Ok, lets have it," I said.
"We're drifting port side, aft."
"Set course in that direction." Slowly one by one the lights went out as the darkness reclaimed its own.
"Course set," Mike replied.
"Engine status," I shouted. At first there was no reply. "Zack, engine status," I repeated.
"Ready, sir," Zack said in a muted tone.
The Tac Drive
When the polarity wave hit me, I screamed. At that moment, for the first time I realized how dead I had become. No emotions. No feelings. Just a simple shell. Cold and lifeless inside. Now, for an instant, I was human again. I could see. I could smell. I could hear. I could taste. Bright reds and blues tumbling together. Colors so radiant they hurt. Bitter and then tart. Lemon. Pine. Lilacs. The sound of running water. The sensations confused me. They were so strong. For a moment I thought I was back on earth. Images of home fleeted by and I cried. I grabbed and squeezed the metal handrails at my side and sensed how smooth they were, how cold. Feeling them for the first time at a heightened level. Yes, the Tac Drive had the tendency to have such affect. But this time they were ever stronger. Raised to a new level.
When we came out of it I died again. I fumbled with the view screen controls. The screen flickered and came to life. But it showed nothing.
"I knew it!" Zack yelled. He must of turned his view screen on at nearly the same time.
The Mysteries Gas Cloud
"Anything?" I muttered.
"No, sir." Ted said quietly over the intercom. "Wait!"
"What is it?" I leaned forward.
"I have a sensor echo. Almost directly ahead. Slightly to port," Ted said. His voice suddenly showed excitement.
"I don't see anything." I squinted. The lights were still dim making it somewhat hard to even make out the border of the view screen. But again. Dead ahead. That blackness seemed to move. To waver. Almost like it were reaching out. I instinctively jumped back in my seat. I began to sweat again.
"A gas cloud."
"Are we in it?"
"No. It's about a mile ahead. Well defined border."
"Any particle concentration around the ship?"
"None at all?"
"Strange, but not detecting anything."
"If we could make it to the edge we could replenish our hydrogen tanks," Mike added.
"And how do you propose that we do that?" Zack commented with a bit of sarcasm. He was right. Our hydrogen reserves were gone now. Used up on the last attempt. Our fusion reactor was cold. Our batteries nearly dead.
"We can vent some of the excess helium from the fusion reactor out the stern and push the ship forward."
"And what do you propose we do next if this brilliant idea of yours works?" Zack shot back, becoming even more sarcastic.
"Ted, what else do you have." What would we do? I thought. Wander aimlessly about. Engaging the Tac Drive over and over again, trying to find our way out of this void.
"More echoes coming in. It's huge! Mostly concentrated in a plane. Stretching ahead, got to be light years! Incredible. Three large plumes. Like thunderheads. Extending both above and below the main concentration in the plane. They're near the edge right in front of us. Incredible. The plumes, millions of miles high." He rambled on.
"What's its chemical makeup?" I interrupted.
"Spectrum analysis not completed yet."
"Anything behind it?" Maybe. Out of some stroke of luck we had made it back to a remote part of our own universe and this blasted dust was obscuring our view.
"X-ray. Infrared. Nothing. No hot spots. No protostars. Nothing hiding in there. Nothing behind it." That answered that. We were still here.
"Anything yet?" I was impatient. I didn't know why. I just had to know.
"Data now coming in. Hydrogen. Oxygen. Carbon. But." He stopped dead. There was a pause. A long one. I felt like ripping the intercom out of the command chair.
"Come on. Spit it out!"
"But, it's loaded with it. The whole damn cloud. All the hydrogen is locked up in it."
"Damn it! What!"
"DNA." Now it was my turn. I couldn't speak. Couldn't think. Those simple letters came like thunder. "The rest is just helium. Heavy concentrations. No other free molecules."
"It's alive!" I exclaimed. But we were dead. No free hydrogen at all. We didn't have enough battery power to synthesize the hydrogen locked up in the DNA. Nor was our fusion reactor big enough to fuse helium. It was over.
I sat motionless. The darkness was coming. The screen wavered again and seemed to expand with life. In the back I faintly could hear Mike and Zack violently argue. I smiled. It was becoming more distant. Everything seemed to fade now. Retreating from the dark assault. "It's alive," I said again, not even hearing my own voice. I didn't even know if I said it out loud or in my mind. Even time slowed. Or did it? I knew it was in my head. I was insane. Slipping in and out of consciousness, so it seemed.
What Happened To The Crew?
When I finally got up everything was deadly quiet. The lights were almost out and I stumbled again as I went aft. How long had it been?
When I made it to the engine room I found Zack and Mike dead. It's funny what a magnetic gun can do to a human body, compared to old chemical means. Its effects are more destructive. More devastating. Its projectile velocities are considerably higher causing more widespread extensive damage.
I scanned the room. The engine controls. The computer console. They were covered with soft pieces of tissue and the dark grey color of blood in the dim light. It seemed Mike had fired the first shot. Then turned the gun on himself. I laughed. I always thought Zack would do it first.
I stepped over their bodies and proceeded to the observation room. There I found Ted. He had suffered the same terrible fate. The gun pointed up to his head leaving very little.
I stepped around his body and sat down in the observation seat.
I had so many questions. Why were we so afraid of the dark? Was it because of our own mortality? Or something else? The questions tumbled around in what was left of myself. I punched the open button on the arm of the chair and the large door on the observation dome slowly opened. Ted had kept it closed. Now it struggled, sucking the last bit of power from the batteries.
Maybe we were so afraid because we were really afraid of the darkness within. That place deep inside where nothing existed. Barren and hollow like what was outside. Why do we strive to achieve? We are born. We grow. We raise children. We invent. We create. We love. For what? It had no meaning without a soul. No meaning without a purpose. And that's what troubled me. On the other side maybe there was no reason. No reason to strive. No reason to grow and change and create. Could it be that's why man yearned to leave the confines of earth. To return to the nothingness that had given him life in the first place. To return to the gas clouds that spawned the first DNA and sent it raining down. It would be ironic if so. All our creativity and consciousness used to get us here just to give it up, or maybe give it back.
I sat there and waited. Thinking. Contemplating these questions while I still could. I thought about what sailors on the old sailing ships hundreds of years ago must have went through when they got caught in the doldrums. I thought about meditation and the concept of nirvana. How, many creatures go through the cycle of life, birth to death, without ever realizing their own existence. That was man's greatest ability. The ability to self reflect. To understand. It is a pity how so many of us go through life without using them. And maybe that was the answer. Our consciousness shapes the very reality we are in. Once done, we are then victims to its consequences.
The lights began to flicker. I could barely see anything in the dome anymore as the opening door took the last bit of energy. In front of me I waited. Sweating. Shaking with anticipation. At first a sliver showed. Then a larger and larger triangle. I marveled at the sight. The darkness finally entered in all its glory.