The power conductors for section 14 had blown out in the latest asteroid shower, hull stability was deteriorating at a catastrophic pace - and Evan was dying.
The robodoc - whose batteries were also running out fast - had told her so earlier, when Cyrine had come in to see him, as was her wont. She’d run out of things to do that might keep Esperanza flying for just a little longer, and this was as good a place to rest as any. Better than most, actually, for it held Evan – even unconscious as he was. Cyrine knew – they all knew - that the difference that any repairs they might still be able to affect made could be measured in hours, or maybe at best in days, and that there was not the slightest chance of rescue in the whole wide universe. Still, they kept doing what they might for the ship, for the sheer reason that it was better to be doing something than it was to be doing nothing. They’d spent their whole lives pushing off this very moment, and there was no reason to stop doing so now, merely because they now knew that they’d definitely be losing this final battle.
They'd lost the forward asteroid shields six weeks ago, which had been the decisive moment - ever since then things had started to decline steadily, as even the tiniest fragments of space debris now continuously punched hole after hole into the front compartments of Esperanza. Oh, they'd practically abandoned that part of the ship decades ago, but some of the core circuitry and systems ran through there, and redirecting all of them had simply not been possible. So, even though the front sections had been unlivable and deserted for decades, the asteroid shields had kept the crippled Esperanza alive, and losing them had been the ship's death blow. Whatever they’d done since then had been nothing but one big exercise in pushing off the inevitable.
And now, finally, there was simply nothing more that could be done.
Nothing to do but to wait for the end.
The blue light of the stasis chamber seemed dimmer to Cyrine already, but she knew that to be merely an illusion conjured her mind. The stasis chamber would keep running perfectly - right until the moment that the power cut out and it stopped functioning altogether.
It might have been better if they’d shut off the stasis chamber years ago, but no one had had the heart to do it, then - and the power drain had not seemed significant at the time, back when reactors two and five had still been functioning. They could – should - have done it after they lost reactor five, but there'd been so few of them left by then, and Evan - ageless, timeless, forever young Evan – had by then become a personification of all that they'd once been. A symbol, an emblem, an allegory: of their greatest hopes, their most daring dreams ... and of their most desperate failure.
They'd been so young and impatient then.
Now ... now most of them were dead, lost in that initial catastrophe or in the long, bitter years since - and those that were still alive had learned patience, even if they'd learned nothing else throughout the long decades.
Esperanza was a lifeship, a preserver, and had always been meant to take centuries to reach the nearest habitable star system. But, two hundred years out, and with two hundred more to go, they'd become impatient. A life spent doing nothing but caring for the ship and spending years watching space pass slowly outside the windows, knowing that you had been born in space and that death would find you in space, long before your ship made landfall, had seemed a terrible fate. And since Esperanza was a ship that required very low maintenance, they'd had endless hours to be impatient in. To make plans in. To study in. To come up with a means to end their endless tedium, to expedite their journey.
Cyrine snorted to herself and changed her position in the plastic chair located by Evan's stasis unit, trying to relieve the pain in her old bones. They’d sure put an end to their tedium and their easy life all right – but unfortunately not to their journey time.
They’d all been so young then. So bright, so smart, so full of themselves. They’d spent years perfecting their equations, puzzling over problems, and working through potential pitfalls and traps. Of them all, only four were left now - Evan, Lorin, Zach, and herself. Foolish Cyrine, steadfast Zach, impulsive Lorin – and Evan the brightest of them all, always quickest with the math, and yet always patiently waiting for them to catch up with him, and trusting them to check his equations, just like he checked theirs, always willing to explain his reasoning, to guide their less-certain minds.
They’d thought that they'd been so very careful in their calculations, that they'd found the perfect solution. They had been wrong. And yet, they had never been able to figure out where they had gone wrong, not after decades and decades of second guessing and analyzing what data they had. It should have worked – but it had not.
The equations had seemed perfect, and so they'd gone forward with the plan.
And then something, somewhere, had gone wrong.
Maybe some of the machinery - generations old already at that point - had been defective in some way, and they'd not been able to decipher the warnings that told them accordingly. Or maybe there simply had been no warning lights, as there was a fair chance that some of those self-same safety circuits had decayed and become corroded over time, and so the machines that they’d checked and re-checked and thought had been working perfectly had in fact not been doing so.
Or maybe they'd made a miscalculation somewhere that none of them had spotted, not during their careful cross-examinations before implementation - and not during the years of futile analysis after.
The modifications that they’d implemented, meant to boost both engine output and shield power, the perfect balance between acceleration and protection, the modifications that should have turned a two century voyage into a two decade one ... had almost torn the ship apart. They’d lost five of their seven reactors in one fell swoop, the front and rear compartments within minutes of each other, and catastrophic failure had been imminent, unless they managed to shut off the remaining two reactors before their increased and uncontrollable output literally tore the ship apart. And so crewmen and –women had scattered in all directions, and Evan had run to the engineering deck, to work on the reactors. Cyrine alone had stayed on the bridge, to keep control over their systems and to do what she could to balance out reactor loads by firing their acceleration units. Esperanza had been thrown widely off course by all those random ACU firings – but back then that hadn’t seemed to matter, as keeping the ship in one piece seemed infinitely preferable to ‘merely’ staying on course.
They’d finally managed to successfully shut down reactor five remotely, but had been unsuccessful with the two unit - which had neccessitated local access in order to jettison their overheating reactor and to prevent an explosion that would have ment the end of the ship entire. But then reactor two had stabilized miraculously - and they'd lost all contact with Evan. The immediate crisis over, Zach had donned a radiation-proof suit ... and finally found Evan lying unconscious next to reactor two, stabilized locally by hand, with none of them certain of how Evan had achieved that miracle of engineering.
But it was a miracle that had left Evan badly burned and exposed to a dosage of radiation well beyond their knowledge and ability to heal.
So they’d put him in their one available stasis chamber, hoping to find some way of treating him in the future, that escaped them in the moment of catastrophe – or to possibly even merely hope for their children's children's children to guide their ship to a human outpost somewhere, finally, an outpost with more advanced medical capabilities, developed in the centures that Esperanza was in flight. They'd realized pretty soon that they would never be able to manage any of it - but they’d never given up looking for some possible form of treatment, either.
They had had very little else to occupy their time with, ultimately, after their third re-building attempt of the astrogation systems had failed to work and they’d run out of replacement astrosensors and gyros and had to finally admit that they were off course – and without the ability of correcting their course. Oh, they’d figured out a lot, and jerry-rigged a lot of repairs, and it was almost enough – but not quite. The gyros in the aft propulsion unit had been burned too badly for repair, and while they’d managed to input enough patches and to work the system enough to keep the ship roughly on course, roughly on course was simply not good enough in space. They were going to hit the gravity well of Kapteyn’s Star at an incorrect angle, and the ship simply did not have enough fuel left to adjust for the alteration to their course that this would cause.
It had been in the wake of that realization that they'd held a collective vote, and decided to break ship's contract and not have any children to carry on their work after they were gone. It had seemed kinder, than to damn another generation to living and dying in space - without even the hope of their successors completing the mission.
They’d all grown old knowing that Esperanza would never reach her destination, not even as a battered, broken and lifeless fragment of her former self, that no-one would succeede them at the broken ship's controls - and that all the seedpods and gene banks that they were carrying away from a devastated Earth would either be destroyed in a final explosion ... or simply be fated to drifting in space forever.
They’d grown old while the ship, fatally wounded in their presumptuous attempt to cheat their destiny, slowly fell apart around them, despite all of their best efforts.
They’d grown old watching Evan stay eternally young within the shining blue cocoon of the stasis field.
And now it was, at long last, finally, finally, almost over.
Cyrine had left Lorin and Zach on the bridge, where they were composing a final message to send out into the void. She herself had no patience for it – she’d filed what final reports she had, but the mere idea of composing a message for a possible posterior audience, sent out into the void in the hope of someone, somewhere learning of what fate had befallen Esperanza and her crew, seemed vainglorious to her.
This was a better place for her to be, now. She wanted to be sure she was here when the end came, and it was better to make certain, in case the hull went faster than they thought.
A viewport would be nice, though, Cyrine mused, shifting in the chair again. She’d grown thoroughly sick of the unchanging blackness of space – they’d all gone crazy with claustrophobia and desperation and anger and the futility of it all, sooner or later – but now that she could count the vistas she was going to see on the fingers of her hand she longed for a wider view than simply the grey bulkhead, bathed in cold blue light, mere yards away.
But this was where Evan was, and they’d all sworn to themselves that they’d face their end together, so that none of them would have to die alone. Zach was with Lorin, and she was with Evan. It was as it should be.
She longed to touch Evan’s hand, one final time, but the stasis field made that impossible. She wished that Evan would wake up, but knew that to be a selfish wish – better for him to never know what fate befell Esperanza, what disaster their arrogance had caused, how senseless his sacrifice had been, than to wake up to a dying ship and aged comrades and a failed mission.
The ship gave a shudder – asteroid impact, Cyrine thought – and the hull breach klaxon sounded. A quick check on her uplink monitor showed it to be in section B, decks 5 and 6 – safely away from the four remaining survivors on board, but dangerously close to their one remaining reactor, and not in any section that they could afford to seal off permanently.
Instinct had pushed her out of her chair and through the door, heading for the nearest maintenance shaft, before conscious thought snapped in. She kept climbing, even though she knew that it was a futile effort, and that, when ‘permanently’ signified nothing but hours, then ‘permanently’ became a surprisingly flexible term, and decks 5 and 6 could well be sealed off 'permanently' after all.
She’d made it an entire deck down when she caught the first whiff of smoke on the stale, recycled air.
One deck further down confirmed her worst suspicions.
Zach and Lorin had apparently managed to shut off the breached compartments from the rest of the ship, but the cooling system of the reactor had been compromised by the impact, and the access tube to the reactor was on fire ... and the fire suppression in this part of the ship had stopped working three days ago, after another debris strike.
Time, as of about four minutes ago, had officially run out for Esperanza and her foolish, misguided crew.
She turned around, climbing the access ladder as fast as she could. All that was left now was to make it back to the medbay, so that she might at least keep this one final promise, in a life that had seen them all fail the most cardinal – the only truly important - promises they all had ever made – to keep ship, cargo and crew safe.
Cyrine Lafarion, third-generation space-born and hereditary first officer of Earth preservation ship Esperanza, managed to make all the way up the access tube and close enough to the medbay to see the blue light of the stasis chamber - the chamber that had so faithfully kept her Captain preserved in timeless stasis for so many years - flicker and die, before the orange-red fireball of the explosion overtook her, and she knew nothing more. She came very close to keeping her promise.