24 Hours of Silence

I just want to post something to get the ball rolling on this site’s art section. This is an old short story I wrote about four years ago for a creative writing course. It’s not breaking any new ground or anything, but I think it came out ok. Now you can read it too.

Adam didn’t know what to do. Which isn’t to say that anything was wrong necessarily. The engine readouts looked fine, the environmental systems were all operating within standard tolerances, and the final approach vector to Earth looked just like it had in the countless simulations he had run. What didn’t work was the entertainment console, and Adam was bored.

It had broken sometime during the night—as encouraged by the company shrinks, Adam still thought of the times he slept as nighttime; it helped him maintain some sort of routine—and when he woke, the first thing that struck him was the silence. Silence like he had never experienced. The usual low hum of the engine was nowhere to be heard, and he had hurriedly stumbled over to the engineering console, sending his bedding to the floor. Only after checking, double-checking and triple-checking engine status had he remembered his training. The sounds of the reactor and the engine, located half a mile below him on the other end of the spine of the ship, completely dissipated throughout the material of the hull and could not be heard in the living quarters. The engine hum had been artificial, put there to comfort precious human psyches. It was this epiphany that led Adam to diagnose the other systems of the ship and find the error in the entertainment console.

At first, he had felt relieved. The quiet was nice, and after having lived with the engine hum for so long, it was really quite spectacular. It was then that he noticed the other errors. The entire entertainment system was non-operational. Speakers, view screens, interface devices, all of it. Even the comm system was down. The ship was fine, the cargo was fine, but Adam had absolutely nothing to occupy himself with.

Of course, the first thing he did was try to fix it, but to no effect. Adam’s training was primarily in astrogation, not ship systems, and he was unable to even discover if the error was in the hardware or the software. Apart from economical factors, one of the reasons the corporations even allowed one-man crews was that the damn ships almost never broke. And true enough, the ship as such was still perfectly fine.

So Adam tried to go back to sleep, some part of him irrationally hoping that when he woke up, the problem would be gone, but this proved a futile effort. If you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by constant sound, silence can be a scary thing. Something that Adam now became very much aware of, as the sounds of his own breathing, his bodily functions, his beating heart rose to become his entire world.

“This is crazy,” he said to himself, sitting up, then felt silly for saying it. But the sound felt good. In the total silence of the living quarters, his voice took on a heavy, sonorous quality. He laughed to himself and that, too, sounded strange.

He got out of his sleeping pod and moved over to the astrogation console to begin running a series of routine maintenance operations and simulations. He had done these thrice a week for the entire voyage, and with Earth only a little under 23 hours away, there really was no need. But doing something felt good, and talking to himself helped him handle the silence. It was also a comfort to reassure himself that nothing was, in fact, wrong with the ship.

He was running the same docking simulation for the third time when the overhead lights stopped working.

One moment they’re working fine, and the next, the cockpit is pitched into darkness, the slight glow of the console screens the only illumination. Adam slowly reached for the power bar he could barely see lying on the console where he’d put it, took a bite, then uttered a monosyllabic expletive. A second later, the console screens flickered once, then went black.

All the recent diagnoses had showed the rest of the ship to be working fine, so Adam supposed that there was really no need for alarm. Only 22 hours left until docking anyway. No need for alarm. Fumbling in the dark, he stumbled back to his sleeping pod. No need for alarm. He knew there was a torch in there, somewhere. Then his groping hands found it and, turning it on, he moved back to inspect the console which by all appearances was completely dead. No need for alarm, surely.

Humming quietly to himself, Adam climbed the ladder up to the observation port next to the airlock and looked at the starscape outside. The ship, of course, was firing the engine to slow down on the approach to dock and so was pointing away from Earth, so he could see neither his home, nor at the moment his sun. The center of the galaxy also eluded his current view, so the view outside seemed to him extraordinarily dark. But even so, what distant stars and galaxies did reveal themselves brought him some measure of comfort. Resting there with his head against the thick glass of the window, he eventually drifted off to sleep. No need for alarm.

He came awake with a start. Had he heard something? How long had he slept? The stars outside looked the same as they had before, and with the console screens not working he had no way to tell. Was the ship still working? There was gravity, or the semblance thereof, so the engine was still firing to slow the ship down. No need for—there! A sound. He had heard something. He grabbed his torch and climbed down to the main deck. Nothing.

Then he heard it again. It sounded almost like—but that would be impossible. It sounded almost like footsteps. Little feet going tap, tap, tap. Suppressing a shiver, he got on his hands and knees and put his ear against the airlock hatch leading down to the cargo section. There was definitely a sound like footsteps coming from below him. Like a child running. But that would be ridiculous. The cargo section didn’t even have atmosphere for crying out loud; it was unpressurised.

Shaking his head, he stood up and sat down on the bed and put the torch, still shining, down next to him. There could not possibly be anyone down there. Tap, tap, tap. During acceleration and deceleration, the central spine was basically just one 600 meter long ladder with panels every 20 meters to allow a serviceperson to check the status of the cargo containers attached to the outside of the hull. Someone running was out of the question. Hell, there shouldn’t even be any moving parts in there. Tap, tap.

But, he thought, looking at the hatch again, there is definitely something down there. Then he heard something that sent shivers all the way up and down his spine. He heard a human voice. Worse, he recognized it. “Daddy?”

Adam knew himself to be mad. He knew he was mad. The darkness and the silence was getting to him, he knew, but that voice. That voice. That voice that he knew so well. He could hear it. He could actually hear it. And he knew, without a doubt, that his daughter was in the cargo section. He knew that she was there, all alone, and he ached for her. He had to get to her. He had to get her out of there. He had to get her out of there.

Falling over himself in his haste to get her out, he half crawled, half ran to the airlock hatch and fumbled it open. The airlock chamber lights lit up and for a second he was blind, and in his blindness doubt crept in. What was he doing? His daughter wasn’t here. Hannah was back on Earth with her mom. Safe. Then he heard the footsteps again, and someone was crying. Someone was crying. Shouting her name, he hurled himself down into the chamber below, forgoing using the ladder. As he crashed to the floor he heard a crack and felt something break inside him, but he didn’t care. He had to get to Hannah. He was almost there. He could hear her. She was so close, just beyond the next hatch.

As the hatch slammed open and he was sucked into the airless cargo section beyond, he had a brief moment of clarity. A fraction of a second of panic as he realised what he’d done, and that the airlock chamber lights seemed to have been working fine, and then all he could do was smile. He’d be with Hannah soon. She had been crying for him, and he would be with her soon. Or had that been him crying? He wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe he didn’t really care.

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