‘Not you too.’ I whispered into the empty room. The dull blue glow that emanated from Mother’s secondary core went out the last thing I saw before darkness claimed me was Mother’s nanites swirl in their fluid before drifting aimlessly down to settle on the bottom of the tank.
I drifted then as well. Through the ship, moving from room to room, looking through each of them and each time I found them empty I felt what little hope I had stutter and die.
The incessant beeping had continued throughout all of this. My brain had acclimatised to it and pushed it into the background, but that automatic response almost killed me. When I finally realised the beeping had grown in intensity and pitch, it was almost too late.
Such an archaic system to let someone know they were almost out of oxygen. Ridiculous, really. Couldn’t they have thought of something else? Something a bit more high tech? A voiceover? Though, come to think of it, I’ve had enough of voices in my head. Although it would have been next to my head in this case, whatever, you know what I mean
I was midway through swapping my respirator over when I realised something was missing from the room adjacent to the airlock.
Ellesk, Paran, and Gozi.
Their exosuits were gone.
Which meant they never made it back to the lander.
It meant that they were still out there, lost somewhere on the surface of a foreign planet.
‘No, no, no…’ I trailed off, shaking my head. My eyes closed and using only my hands I swapped out my oxygen supply.
I hadn’t even thought about searching the area around the lander and here I was, sitting near the airlock strapping a new supply of clean air to my back.
It was then that it dawned on me what that meant for my crew. I scrambled to my heed and sprinted through the inner airlock door, still open from when Mother and I had passed through earlier.
At the outer door, I paused and stared through the small window.
The scarlet light from the red dwarf hung like a thick film of blood over the sky.
I didn’t want to go out there. I never wanted to set foot on that planet again.
Terror took hold of me, and I sank back from the window that held the lacerated sky and collapsed to the ground.
My body trembled and my mind became a maelstrom of terror riddled chaos. I couldn’t think straight; a roar filled my head and underneath it all, I heard the sound of my crew gasping for air. Each breath of theirs less than the last. Each one of them slowly choking on their own expelled carbon dioxide. Their throats constricting, desperate for oxygen but spasmodically rejecting each breath.
But some small part of me resisted. Some small refuge of self held firm and weathered the storm.
It forced me to my feet.
It pushed me back into through lander and into engineering.
It knew the protocol to reset the engines manually.
It walked me to the command deck.
It put me in Ellesk’s chair.
It fired up the ignition sequence.
It sat back and strapped my body to the chair as the lander brutally threw itself away from the surface of TRAPPIST-1e.
And all the while, my mind screamed.
I watched from behind my eyes as if I was a separate entity. A child, cowering in the corner. Berated and beaten down into submission. I watched and could do nothing as I left the surface of the planet, as I left my crew to their fates.
All of a sudden, having breached the atmosphere of the planet, the lander stopped shuddering. We glided, boosted occasionally by the thrusters as the lander moved to intercept and dock with the Syrinx. It was all on autopilot now, there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know how to abort the sequence and even if I could have I had no idea how to operate the lander manually. Whatever guided my hands before had left me and I became nothing more than a passenger.
Of course, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this moment.
This escape, abandonment, flight? I don’t mind what you call it, all of those words could apply.
I don’t think it was purely lack of knowledge that stopped me from acting. I could have tried, at least, to muddle my way through the screens. Through the systems of the lander. I knew the basic operations, everyone did, and looking back on it…yeah, I could have done more.
But I didn’t.
Fear constricted around my mind and paralysed my body.
I was trapped and I curled in on myself, reducing my being to a core of awareness that seemed to shrink with every single kilometre the lander moved away from the planet.
The Syrinx came into view a few hours later and I watched through the screen within arm’s reach of Ellesk’s chair. The huge ship looked fake, like a carboard cut out someone had hung by a string against a black cloth. The skyscraper shape of it reached up, as if it yearned to touch the stars that were light years away.
The dock was on the level above the engines and the lander made a beeline for it. The Syrinx was immense but there was no sense of scale out here in the dark. It could have been ten metres tall or a kilometre, it was impossible to tell unless you were next to it.
I considered an attempt to gain control of the lander, or check the course it had plotted, but what was I, an astrobiologist, going to be able to do?
Nothing. That was what I told myself at the time. My mind was wrung out, exhausted, and each though moved like a slug through wet clay. Fear had lessened its grip on me but by that point it didn’t matter I was beyond the point of acting. I was beyond the point of anything.
Pathetic, I know. You don’t have to tell me.
When the Syrinx grew large in the display screens I closed my eyes, sure that we would dock soon, and I could rest and sleep. I told myself that when I was back on the Syrinx everything would be okay. Mother’s primary core was there, and she would be waiting for me. Maybe the crew had found a way to survive. It could be possible, I told myself as my mind drifted on the precipice of sleep, perhaps they were still alive.
Perhaps I didn’t abandon them and leave them to die.
I woke up a few hours later, mouth sour with taste of stale saliva and with sleep crusted around my eyes. I tried to wipe my face, but I was still wearing my exosuit helmet and my hand jolted against the glass.
The shock of it woke me up and I blinked away most of the sleep. We must have docked by now and I stood up on stiff legs, taking a moment to stretch. For the first time since we landed on Trappy two days- fuck, that’s right, it had only been two days. Shit. It felt like I was there for a year. And it probably felt the same to you, given how long I’ve been waffling for.
Where was I?
For the first time in two days my brain didn’t feel like it was on the edge of collapsing into panic. Nothing had changed except for some sleep, but it seemed to be enough for me to regain some measure of control.
Yes, I was alone on the lander and yes, my crew was still down on Trappy. But there was no reason they couldn’t go to the lander after magnetic discharge. There was no reason they couldn’t have changed respirators then, and maybe they went out again, searching for me.
They could still be alive.
I shook away the guilt and panic that began to creep up my spine, I wouldn’t let the situation overwhelm like it had before.
I was in control now and I knew what to—
The Syrinx was gone.
The screen in front of me, the one that should have showed a close up of the dock, was empty save for a field of stars.
Whatever calm I had burst apart, and panic scuttled up my spine, its claws dug in, its fangs pierced my brain and it injected itself throughout my mind.
My fingers were a blur on the screen as I swiped through each of the outer facing cameras to try and locate the Syrinx until—there.
The Syrinx floated like it had before and I let out a crackling laugh of relief.
‘Oh, thank fuck. Thank you thank you thank you.’ I said as I slumped down on the edge of the chair in front of the screen. The lander, for whatever reason, must have stopped at almost the same moment I fell asleep. The image was almost identical.
Easy enough, I remember thinking at the time. I sat back in the chair, the adrenaline was already being broken down in my system and I felt like I had run a marathon.
With sluggish movements I pawed my way through the command screen until I found the current readout of the landers engines.
They were on.
According to the readouts the lander was travelling at the same pace it had when I fell asleep a few hours ago.
But that didn’t make sense. We were still hours away from the Syrinx. I glanced at the screen again and something caught my eye. A difference of perspective which I didn’t notice the first time.
It wasn’t the same view of the Syrinx I had earlier.
It was the opposite side.
The lander didn’t stop. It had kept going and it had flown right past the Syrinx.
Somehow the autopilot had missed the dock and the shipall together.
I was being pushed into the depths of space, aboard an abandoned lander, away from the Syrinx, away from any chance of going home.
Away from any hope of finding my crew again.