Sep 5, 2009, 6:03 PM |

Stephen Muns was waking from a very deep sleep, slowly regaining consciousness. The light in his eyes was unbearably bright even though they were both firmly shut. A residual deep chill caused his bones to ache as the warmth slowly seeped back into his body. He became aware of a voice seemingly giving him instructions although he found he could make no sense of what was being said.

He opened his eyes to slits as they accustomed themselves to the light. He discovered he was inside a small pod. Slowly returning memories told him that he had been cryogenically frozen probably for many years. Although exactly how long he had been in suspended animation he didn't know. He remembered being given a seemingly endless series of injections whose purpose was to ensure he wasn't killed by the process. He was then knocked unconscious by a final injection then liquid nitrogen was poured into the pod freezing him in seconds. Then for hundreds of years he had remained unmoving, seemingly dead, until now.

He was now in a small room with five other pods arranged in a row. The voice in the background he soon realised was the computer. It was talking utter rubbish. "Incinerate the blue giraffe over the moon", "Danger toilet arrived banana split".

Clearly the computer was malfunctioning. Since the defrosting was also computer controlled he felt justifiably lucky to have been revived safely. An impression reinforced when, on arising, he checked the other pods and invented the occupants to be dead. It looked, to him, as if they had all been defrosted at the same time, very indelicately, and by some fluke he had survived.

He didn't actually know any of the other people in his room as any more than brief acquaintances. They had met briefly before being frozen. He was nevertheless shaken by their deaths. Partly this was because he felt it a waste of lives and partly, perhaps more selfishly, for what it implied for the chances of survival of some of his better friends, and for Julie. Was she still frozen in state or was she already dead?

Many thousands had opted to be put into suspended animation and sent out into space in the Starship Utopia. The starship was itself only one of many thousands of starships travelling in different directions, away from a mother Earth who was finally sickening of her human children. The aim was to find habitable planets which scientists had assured everyone must be out there. However since the journey would almost certainly take much longer than a human lifetime it was decided that the passengers be frozen, and the ship be controlled by computer. The passengers would be revived if the ship arrived at a suitable candidate planet. Now however the ship was nowhere near any planets. Stephen's reviving had been caused by a random whim in the computers electronic madness.

Of the many thousands of pods on board, Stephen realised, just one contained Julie. But which one? Pulling on some overalls he began to search frantically. Many doors were locked, others were open but contained still frozen passengers. Often he thought he saw her through the frosted glass of a pod but on rubbing away the ice collected on the lid of the pod, discovering a frozen stranger. Too many others contained corpses in various states of putrefaction. And still others were mysteriously empty the occupants obviously elsewhere on board. Perhaps these people were even now living on the ship and perhaps among them was his Julie. He resolved to search for these people once he had satisfied himself that Julie was not in one of the pods.

Gradually however he sickened of his search. This section of the ship was as dead as a tomb. His mind filled with images of grinning corpses. His Julie could be dead, she could be in one of the locked rooms still in suspended animation or perhaps she had been of the empty pods of which there were hundreds. If she was dead there was nothing he could do. If she was still frozen then there was nothing he could do because with the computer malfunctioning she would probably be killed whilst being defrosted. So he ceased tormenting himself and left this area of the ship and went in search of the revived passengers clinging to the hope that Julie and his other friends were among them.

The ship was so huge that it would have taken days to walk from one end to the other. So a rapid transit system was incorporated into the design with station stops at convenient points throughout the ship. It consisted of small cars which travelled in tubes and which could be directed to go where the passenger wanted. Stephen told his car to go to the nearest accommodation blocks. He had decided he needed a good rest after his fruitless searching. A voice in the told him to buckle his seat belt and with a musical chime the door slammed shut, just missing crushing his fingers in the process. The car then accelerated smoothly away. He settled down for the ride which the car told him would take five minutes. The car continued to accelerate. It seemed to be travelling extremely fast. The hum of its motion gradually changed to a tortured whine. Suddenly he was thrown to one side. He felt as if his whole body was being pressed sideways by a giant hand. The seat belts cut painfully into him. The car was going around what should have been a very gentle curve significantly faster than it should have been. Pain seemed to fill his body, worsening all the time. Eventually the forces became too much for him and he passed out.

Later the car pulled up smoothly to the correct stop. The door opened with a hiss of hydraulics revealing Stephen slumped in the seat. After a few moments he recovered consciousness. His whole body was aching. However no major damage had been caused him, apart from some garish looking red welts caused by the belts cutting into his skin. Once again he was lucky to have escaped with his life. He vowed never to travel that way again.

He groggily made his way to the accommodation block. It was as deathly silent as the cryogenic block. He thought this unusual, wouldn't someone have noticed his revival and use of the transit system? Perhaps the computer, which was still gabbling away occasionally, had just failed to pass the information on. Looking into to some of the rooms, they appeared to have been occupied at some point, bed covers completed, clothes scattered about but no sign of sound of any occupants. Perhaps they were on another part of the ship. Whatever the search would continue tomorrow.

For now he needed some food. He ordered himself up a gourmet meal on the replicator. After he moment he took the plate which had appeared out of the machine, saliva filling his mouth in anticipation, only to see his plate heaped with an unappetising brown mush. He couldn't tell what it was, only that it looked like something someone had thrown up. He tried something else with a similar result only the mush was a slightly different shade of brown. Something less difficult then! He told the machine he wanted an apple with similar results from the machine, except this time it was cold and had a hint of green. It was still brown mush though. He couldn't face eating any of food so he threw it all away.

It had been a difficult first day and he was ready for bed. He couldn't sleep at first though. Just as he was about to drift away a some random nonsense blurted out by the computer reawakened him. Eventually having had enough he got up and ripped the speaker off the wall. Later even though it was now almost too quiet he managed to fall asleep.

Images of the horrors of his search of the suspended animation pods assailed him in his dreams. Nightmare transformations of his friends into grinning zombies. The zombies followed him down the corridors of the ship. Escaping them he suddenly saw Julie and he ran towards her and she ran to him her face beaming. Then her rosy cheeks paled. She was still smiling. Then the flesh on her face went grey, the skin started to sag and peel off in patches. Her full lips shrivelled and pulled back locking her mouth into a manic grin. He started to back pedal but it was too late. Bony arms looked around him and the leering face approached his. He screamed.

He awoke suddenly sweating, his duvet twisted at his feet. He got up starving hungry and tapped up breakfast on the replicator. Again the same brown mush. He couldn't eat that stuff. Could he? He dipped a finger into the food and put a blob into his mouth. He gagged a bit and spat it out. Perhaps it was just this machine he thought. So he tried some of the other rooms' replicators which identical results. He also attempted to program one the machines directly but with no discernible improvement in results. After producing a large number of identical plates of the brown mush he concluded the problem was both universal and beyond his capabilities to repair. Which meant he had nothing to eat.

Later his hunger got the better of his disgust and he tried some more of the food. It was of a disturbing glutinous consistency but tasted reasonably edible so he ate it. With his hunger sated he continued exploring the corridors looking for signs of the missing passengers. However he found nothing of particular interest.

Later he tried the showers for the first time. At first it was okay. The warm water spray massaged his back and relaxed him wonderfully. Then suddenly the water turned scalding hot. Then just as quickly turned ice cold. He lunged for the door as the ice cold stream became a numbing torrent. He fell out of the shower shivering and feeling like he'd been shot by thousands of tiny bullets. So now the shower was a health risk as well. It was difficult to think of one device on this ship that worked properly. Still he was learning what to avoid and had survived thus far.

Over the next few days he found very little new and was beginning to despair of ever finding another soul on board. All he had to keep him company were a few rats and mice which scuttled about the corridors. He hated rats and mice with their pink hairless tails and disgusting habits and set traps and poison bait to deter them from coming any where near him. He particularly feared them coming into his room whilst he was asleep, so he positioned a phalanx of traps, sticky paper and bait around his door.

The loneliness was getting to him. He began to think he was seeing things. Shadows flickering out of the corners of his eyes only to disappear as he turned his head to look. Movements in the darkness at the ends of corridors only to prove to be nothing when he ran up to investigate. He felt his sanity begin to fray at the edges.

Obsessively he began to devise more and more ingenious methods of torture and death for the hated rodents of which there seemed to be a positive zoo. He trapped brown rats, black rats, house mice, dormice, harvest mice, kangaroo rats, shrews, hamsters, gerbils and many others. He had no idea where they were coming from. At this stage his didn't care they were just gist to the mill of a growing insanity. Occasionally he thought he might just understand what the computer was saying in its cryptic messages. In a flash of lucidity he realised that when he finally did understand what the computer was saying then he would finally know he really was insane.

Later he began to hear things as well. Noises seeming to echo down the corridors, strange whoops and moans seeming separate to, but at the same time in the background of, the crazy computer's incessant chatter. He imagined shadowy figures stalking him and they were getting closer. Eventually his paranoia was such that he spent many hours tearing down the corridors, running away from his nameless fears.

Of course during one particular uncontrolled flight the inevitable happened. A loose wire snaking over the floor was the cause. His left foot snagged under the wire whilst he was running at full speed from a particularly gruesome imaginary pursuer. He was launched into the air and landed onto his right harm with a sickening crack. He regained his feet and looked down at his arm it looked very strange, quite crooked in fact, but at first he felt no pain. When the pain did arrive, along with a large and colourful swelling, it was only just bearable. Gritting his teeth and carefully cradling his arm he made his way slowly to the nearest medical centre.

This particular medical centre consisted of a small waiting room with plush seats where the patients could wait if it was busy. Through the waiting room was the machine that would fix his arm. The machine in question was a scanner which would diagnose the problem the patient had and also had the ability to solve it. Only for very complex problems did it require the input of a trained doctor. A broken arm, however, was well within its own automatic capability. The technology used was similar to that employed in the food machines which were able to manipulate substances at the atomic level in a complex fashion. Stephen was pondering this fact as he walked into the machine and shut the door behind him. Suddenly a rather disconcerting thought hit him. The food machines ... Oh God! He pounded on the door but it was firmly shut and wouldn't open until the process was complete. Straps came around his body, head, arms and legs locking him into an upright position.

The scanning beam was activated. The red beam swept over his trembling body a couple of times. Once he had been scanned the atomic beam began to charge. He had just seconds. "I'm going to die ... I'll be turned into mince meat", he screamed in frustration. He realised though he had already been far luckier than he deserved. He'd survived defrosting, the transit system, and the food which could have been poisonous for all he knew at the time. His luck at the defeating the odds had blinded his judgement. He should never have come here.

It was too late for such reprimands, as the beam, now fully charged, moved toward him. He started to scream again as the beam moved onto his arm. His arm began to feel very hot. It's cooking me, he thought. But it wasn't. The bones in his arm started to straighten. The bruising and swelling were disappearing. Suddenly the beam shut off. As his arm cooled off he flexed his fingers and found his arm to be totally healthy and normal. As he waited for the straps to release and the door to open he pondered on how lucky he'd been and how he would be more careful next time.

But the straps hadn't released and the door hadn't opened. What was wrong? Then the atomic beam started charging again. He thrashed about in his straps but it was a useless struggle. It wasn't fair he'd prepared himself for certain death for it to be averted briefly, only for the death sentence to return once more. He felt tired, very tired, and found himself almost wishing the beam would hurry up and do its deadly work. Whilst waiting to be released he pondered on the possible fate of the rest of the passengers. Perhaps many of them had been forced to use the machine by injury or illness, as he had, and ended up in a similar state to him. This thought also gave rise to a possible theory as to why he had never found any other the other passengers.

The beam formed into a pencil of green light above his head. He stared up into it willing it not to move. He smelt smoke. The beam was burning a hole in the wall just above his head. Then the beam started to migrate slowly downward towards his head. He knew why there were no other passengers now, and that he was going to join what remained of them. He had just enough time for one final scream.