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“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
—Arthur C. Clarke
I knew the dangers of it all. Hell, they talked about orthostatic intolerance and the constant need for cardiovascular work-outs to prevent the loss of consciousness while in space, but they never discussed the supreme sense of isolation that we would be experiencing. They told us about the millions of things that could go wrong on our maiden voyage, but they of course missed the problems that did occur. It was problems such as these that left everyone except for me dead and resulted in our ship being set adrift in the cold vacuum of space.
They never told us about the chance that cryopreservation would malfunction and freeze most of our crew to death. They failed to mention the effect that space travel would have on bacteria, making it super-powered. They glossed over the possibility that the navigational system for the ship could lead us off course millions and millions of light-years. I’ve given you all an overview of what left me the lone survivor on a ghost ship, but I feel like I should go a little more in depth. My friends and family said I was always more focused on multitasking so I guess it makes sense. I am recording one final report and my last words simultaneously after all.
I’ll start at the beginning. I was brought along on this space excursion to study the environment and atmosphere of any planets we might come across. I think the higher ups must have had some ‘other homeworld’ fantasies rattling around in their heads. They named our ship the Exogenesis for crying out loud. I woke up from cryo-stasis about a week ago. I went about the procedures we had learnt in the academy groggily. I first made sure I had been woken up at the appointed time. I shakily got out of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style pod and stretched. It was a few minutes into calisthenics that I realized that no one else was out with me.
A cursory glance around the room revealed that all the pods were sealed shut and frosted over. My heart began to beat faster in my chest. They shouldn’t have been opaque like that. I frantically opened up the nearest pod and came face-to-face with the frozen death mask of Macready. The cryopods must have malfunctioned in some way. Freezing and then rapidly thawing had completely lysed all the cells in his body. He was dead. The machine had likely lost power for a brief moment and caused his cells to completely rupture upon such a rapid change in temperatures.
The other pods were in a similar state. Each had been subjected to a rapid decrease in temperature that resulted in complete cell lysis. The entire crew was dead except for me. How was I still alive? The cryo-preservation system was linked to each pod- It was then that I noticed. There were six: Kelvin- the psychologist, Macready— the navigator, Adams— the captain, Ripley— the warrant officer, me— the environmental scientist, and Hall. The cryo-pod for Cheryl Hall was open. Cheryl Hall had escaped the fate that befell the others.
I shambled out of the cryostasis room, still not fully in control of my faculties, and down an empty corridor. I went towards the flight deck, praying I could find some answers to the questions that were piling up. Unfortunately it was empty. I looked over the navigational log and found another question. Why were we six months off course? Whatever had prompted me to agree to this two year expedition quickly evaporated. Most of the crew was dead, we were millions, if not billions of miles away from assistance, and I had never felt so alone in my life.
I wanted to reset the course or maybe turn this ship around and return back to terra firma, but the more I studied the controls; the more confused I became. Everything on the control panel was a series of switches, levers, and blinking lights. In other words, it was literally rocket science. I was worried that pressing random buttons could completely screw us over. The only thing I managed to discern from my investigation was that the course had been manually changed. Was there someone else on this ship beside Cheryl and me? My only hope lay in finding Cheryl and working out this madness together.
I moved towards the laboratory on my way to the mess hall. Cheryl had to be either here in the lab, in the mess hall, or not in the ship at all. I shuddered to think of her being gone via the air lock. I was truly terrified that I would be the only survivor on this ship, doomed to spend the rest of my life drifting aimlessly through space. I kept one hand on the railing to prevent falling face-down on the metal grating that composed the walkways. I arrived in the small laboratory to find it in complete disarray.
Someone had taken a lab stool and swung it around the lab in a blind, all-consuming rage. The autoclave, air hood for handling chemicals, and the centrifuge had been broken to bits. The shelf that held the series of bacterial samples that we had brought along to study their growth in space had been tipped over and each culture, individually smashed under foot. Dried rust-colored droplets of blood seemed to be flicked across the room as if the perpetrator had injured themselves slightly in the rampage. What the hell had happened here?
I shuffled through the ruins of the laboratory to the mess hall itself. I was slowly regaining control of my appendages and mental faculties. The mess hall was the largest part of the ship. It was broken into three parts: one section for food storage with enough supplies for a two year voyage, another part was a dining hall, and the final was a garden with bed soil that went three feet deep to allow for renewable food stuffs. Upon entering the dining hall, I was hit with the smell of decay and decomposition.
My worst fear was realized when I saw her. What remained of Cheryl Hall was in a booth with her head resting on the table. A glass had tipped over, but the liquid had completely evaporated or been absorbed by her now bloated, festering face. Her stomach was tumescent from the built-up gases and her body had already begun to putrefy. If I had to weather a guess, I would estimate that she died a few weeks ago. The smell was completely atrocious. There was a mix of rot and shit that insinuated itself around the booth that was her tomb. There was a small hand-held camera facing her on the table.
As I looked at what remained of Cheryl, the memories flooded back to me. I remembered working with her in zero-gravity training. (I kept glancing sideways at her.) I recalled joking with her about the bureaucracy that held up the space voyage for so long. (Her smile sent warmth throughout my core.) Most of all, I remembered our last celebration before our maiden voyage. I remembered getting her alone in an adjacent hallway and pressing her up against a wall and nearly smothering her with kisses. I told her that I had wanted to do that the moment I had laid eyes on her. I remember pulling back from that passionate embrace and the look in her eyes. There was a hint of dreaminess, but also of uncertainty.
My eyes flooded with tears and deep groans wracked my body. She was gone, really gone. I could remember memories of her all I wanted, but that wouldn’t change the fact that she was lying before me now. She was lying face-down on the booth and rotting away to a skeleton. I crumpled to my knees and pressed my forehead to the grating as the sadness and despair enveloped me like a shell. I wasn’t sure how long I remained in that position before I was able to regain some modicum of composure.
I managed to rise shakily to my feet. I avoided looking at her corpse. I would lose it all over again if I did. I’m not proud of what I did next, but spending all that time in stasis with no nutrition except intravenous nutrients had left me starved. I needed something solid to eat. I left the body and moved to the pantry. I surveyed the sparse supply of food that we had left. There should have been enough food here to sustain us all throughout the ship, but a large quantity wasn’t on the shelves anymore. How long had Hall been awake and alone on the ship?
I gathered all the food that was there and did a quick inventory. There was enough food to last me a few months. Hall wasn’t a big drinker. They had sent us out with a few bottles of wine to use for cooking and a bottle of champagne to celebrate a safe arrival. The champagne was almost empty and there were five bottles of wine (from the original seven.) left. I ate some nutrient paste on crackers while thinking of my next move.
I decided I would bury Cheryl Hall. There was ground in the garden and the longer she was left out, the greater the chance of me getting sick off of the bacteria that was growing on her festering corpse. She deserved the decency of a funeral. I proceeded to the garden. The soil was only a few meters deep, but it would serve as a decent burial spot. The problem wasn’t in the location, but in the tools themselves. There were a few tools essential for gardening, but no shovel. I had to resort to using a trowel. She deserved a decent burial. She deserved the hard work, the backbreaking labor; the love.
A few hours back-breaking hours spent hunched over the land, feverishly pawing the earth with a six inch trowel, I was finished. I got out of the hole and stretched. Now was the time for the actual burial. I had to move the body from the dining hall to the grave. This was the moment I feared the most. I approached the body cautiously. When I was younger, I loved to watch those old zombie movies and I guess some instinctual part of me was wary. I didn’t think she would lunge out at me from the booth and try and sink her teeth into me, but that logical and factual portion of my psyche wasn’t able to completely disassociate myself from the idea. I’m not proud to admit it, but I spent a few minutes standing over the corpse, paralyzed to inaction by my fear.
I eventually managed to gather her up in my arms. I cradled her body to my chest. I desperately tried to keep my eyes forward and not meet her decomposed visage or smell her rotting corpse. Only once did my gaze meet her swollen, rotted face and that was all I needed to see. I gagged and tore my eyes away from her body. Her form smelled sickly saccharine and I tried to focus on anything other than retching. I carefully moved towards the open grave. I’m not the strongest of people. I managed to get her to the grave, but by the time I made it; I was panting and sweating heavily.
I tried to set her in the grave as softly as I could, but my arms had grown weak from carrying her so far. My arms gave as I lowered her and I dropped her into the grave. Her tumescent stomach ruptured and the odor hit me in a wave. It felt like something had actually punched me in the sinus that’s how bad the stench was. I couldn’t help it. I threw myself back and heaved the paste and crackers unto the earth next to me. I like to say I have a steel stomach, but there are some things in this world that can offend even my womanly sensibilities. I wiped my mouth clean and set about burying my friend.
An hour later I was finished. There wasn’t much to tell her. I cried over the disturbed earth and wept, "I think I loved you.” There wasn’t much else I could think of to say. We had worked together for the year before the initiation of our expedition and other than that kiss we shared during our celebration, I hadn’t known her outside of work. I wish I did. I had hoped that this voyage would have given us plenty of time to connect and build a relationship. I said a quick prayer and left the grave before emotions could overtake me and paralyze me again. Now my focus was on the tape she had left.
I was lightheaded from the strenuous activity, but I managed to make it to the booth and pick up the camcorder. I went into the storeroom and fixed myself some more food to re-fill my recently voided stomach. I debated whether or not to play the tape. It felt like I was invading her last moments and words, but I decided that her last recording might hold some answers or clues to what had happened. I sat down with some crackers and meat paste and turned on the last recorded message. From the time of start to the end of the recording, I didn’t touch my food.
The recording opened with her face. She was looking at the camera and she looked haggard with bags under her eyes and a vacant stare. It was almost as if I was looking into the face of a completely different person. She always had a bubbly and vivacious persona, but this Cheryl looked melancholic and dead to the world. She said, "I’m dying. It doesn’t take a doctor to see that. I can’t hold food down and I feel like I’m shitting out my soul. Dehydration is probably going to get me. If not that, then starvation. It started a while ago, but I know I only have a couple of days tops before I kick the bucket. It all started when I woke up early from cryostasis due to some horrible malfunction, months ahead of our destination.”
She continued, "I tried to reprogram my chamber and go back to sleep, but that was futile. I spent so much time lying in the pod and fiddling with the controls. No matter how hard I tried, I was unable to learn anything. I was so alone. I tried to turn the ship around, but I think I sent us off course and further from our home. I just wanted to go back.” She broke into tears which lasted a few minutes. She croaked, "Instead, I shanghaied us, impossibly far from home.”
She managed to regain her composure before continuing, "This is all so fucked up! After a few weeks of solitude I tried to wake someone up. I couldn’t stand to be alone anymore. The silence was just so oppressive. I didn’t- I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought just shutting off the machines would wake them.” She winced and clutched at her stomach for a few seconds before continuing, "I just wanted someone else to talk to. I didn’t mean for him to die. Oh God! Macready, I am so sorry.”
The realization hit me like a wave. Macready was dead because she tried to wake him up from cryostasis. Ripley and Kelvin too. She killed them. She continued, "I came across this camcorder for recording our voyage. It’s ironic that I’m using it to record my last message. Is that irony or coincidence? Shit, I don’t know anymore. Can’t think straight. My thoughts are getting fuzzy. I think I must have caught something when I smashed up the lab. I just- just lost it. The situation became too much for me to handle. I had to lash out. I think there was something in those cultures.” She grasped at her stomach and ran off screen.
Hall came back a few minutes later. She spoke slowly, "One thing they don't tell you in training, diarrhea is not fun in space. I’m feeling weak. I’ve had this for a few days now. I can barely think.” She took a long drink from a glass of water on the table before proceeding onward, "I killed them. We just kept drifting. Further and further. Each day bringing us further out of range of home. It was a kindness. Not having to wake up and be exposed to this… This fear, this hopelessness, this sickness.” She looked directly into the camera and said, "It was the only kindness I had left to give.”
Hall rested her head on the table before she continued her dazed message, "I couldn’t kill her. I couldn’t bear the thought. I stood over her body for hours, my fingers on the console. I didn’t want to think of what happened to the others happening to her. God help me, I left her alive! I want to think that there still might be hope of rescue, but the rational part of me knows that that is just the delirium talking. I’m too exhausted to move now. I just wanted to tell you. Thanks… for the kiss. So thirsty.”
Cheryl Hall reached for the glass, but it slipped out of her hand and spilled on the table and washed over her face. She laid there, breathing raggedly and sending small ripples playing across the spilled water with every strained breath. I watched for a few minutes before fast forwarding the tape. I fast forwarded until I realized that she wasn’t moving anymore. An hour elapsed on fast forward and she didn’t make the faintest of movements. The camera shut itself off after a certain period of inactivity. She was dead. Whatever Cheryl had contracted from smashing up the lab had killed her.
A few days passed by and I tried my best to figure out the ship’s navigational system. I wasn’t suited for the task. There was no point in randomly pressing buttons and I couldn’t find any manuals or guides to the controls. The Exogenesis seemed damned to spend eternity drifting through space without destination. On the fourth day, I started to feel nauseous. I told myself that it was just my imagination. I couldn’t have contracted the sickness from the destroyed laboratory. Too much time had passed for the cultures to survive. Could my contact with Cheryl Hall have infected me? On the fifth day, I was sure I was sick.
I was sprinting to the toilet every thirty minutes. I tried desperately to keep food in my stomach, but the very thought of filling my stomach left it feeling roiled. I had to have some form of salmonella. I remember when I contracted the illness as a kid. The symptoms I had then mirror the symptoms I am now experiencing: diarrhea, stomach pain, and nausea. I couldn’t replenish my fluids fast enough and I started to suffer the effects of dehydration. The average person can survive without water for three to five days. I knew my time was running out. On the sixth day, I walked to Hall’s grave in the garden and I spit on it.
Ambivalence raged inside me. This was the goddess that I had fallen over all throughout training. This was also the bitch that infected me and killed the crew. It had to be in her digestive system. When she fell into the grave and split open like a ripe watermelon, I must have been infected. I left the grave knowing that there was nothing else I could do. There was really nothing left to do. I spent my seventh day in a frenzy, trying to keep my fluid intake up and pretend everything was going to be alright. It’s not. I am dying.
This is my final message to my friends and family. I doubt this will ever reach you, but I have a lot left to say that I don’t want to go unsaid. There is nothing left here. I’m getting sicker and sicker. There is no medication for what I have. This is the only choice left. I am not going to die like Cheryl, lying face down on a table in my own filth as I succumb to dehydration. I am going to expedite the process. This is why I have a rivet gun with me. I don’t have many other options here. I think I’m going to press it to the roof of my mouth and pull the trigger, see if that’ll work. The rivets are only three or four inches long. I’m using this tape recorder so you don’t have to see what I’m about to do.
I also cracked open a bottle of merlot. I doubt it’s going to do any more damage than the sickness already has. I just need a bit of the old liquid courage to get the rivet gun into my mouth. I don't think the NASA eggheads who engineered the pneumatic hammer had thought of it as a means for suicide. It was probably to be used to repair the hull of the Exogenesis should there be any damage. The wine is alright, tastes bitter. I think I’ll have another bottle.
To my family, sorry if this sounds a little slurry. Dehydration is taking its toll and the wine sure isn’t helping. I wish I could hear all of your voices one last time. Space can be quiet. I hope you all remember the good times. Please don’t remember me like this, crying into a tape recorder, so far away, with a rivet gun in-between my legs. The second bottle tastes a little better. Can’t say I have the energy for a third. Clarke said something about space. Whether it was more terrifying to know that we were not alone or completely alone. I have my answer… I’m outta wine.
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Written by EmpyrealInvective