About halfway to Mars, Helen found herself afraid. She found herself afraid in a cold, vivid way – a sudden and sharp shivering to match the hard darkness all around her. A violent start. To calm herself, she thought about where she was, where she’d been, where she was going. The vessel that held her. Even within the pitch blackness, she could sense the ship around her. The way it thrummed. She imagined the universe beyond. The twinkling infinite. Was it science or God?
AWAKE. Tiny lights came on along the edges of her pod. Only then did she realize that her sleep chamber was open and that she was sitting upright.
Shutting her eyes, she concentrated on her breathing, pushing it down, making it slow and even. She imagined the letters of the words, one after another: S-L-O-W. Then: E-V-E-N. Tall illuminated letters, gloaming pale yellow against their black background. A-W-A-K-E.
Why was she so afraid? Visualize the word, Helen. See the letters in your mind. F-E-A-R. They were only letters.
Somewhere in the ship something thumped and groaned.
Something lit up and blipped on the console across the room. Other little lights, too. She sat still, listening, trying to hear over the blood booming in her ears.
Why was she so afraid? A-F-R-A-I-D. She had signed on to something meant for only the bravest of the brave – the first manned mission to Mars. And she had not been afraid. She knew what the red hell was and she had not been afraid. She had not been afraid of the irradiated environment, the scarcity of water, the withering effects of low gravity on bone density and muscle strength, the death-dispensing atmosphere, everything a freeze-blasted wasteland, scathed by solar wind. And all that just the welcome committee, after a two-year journey of no return. None of it had phased her. Her only fear was over the selection, her fear of not being chosen. From thousands to hundreds to fifty to a dozen, five years of interviews and background and training and tests, and oh so many conversations about fear. FEAR. Visualize the word, Helen. Put the letters in your mind. FEAR. And still her last foothold on Earth had been to push up – and climb those stairs. She had always known what she had to do.
And somewhere closer in the ship something thumped and groaned.
More controls lit up and blipped on the console across the room. A screen suddenly fizzed and buzzed and stuttered into coherence. Into spinning letters and numbers. It was CONTROL.
Words appeared, like flickerings, one replacing the other with a soft but insistent ping. COMMANDER, it read.
COMMANDER COMMANDER COMMANDER COMMANDER
COMMANDER WAKE UP WAKE UP COMMANDER
WAKE UP COMMANDER
WAKE UP COMMANDER
Helen struggled to her feet. She felt her hand slap up over her mouth to stifle a hard moan. Pain wrapped itself into her hips and she could not straighten her back. Her deep-sleep cycle as commander was the shortest of the crew, two-weeks-one-week, but even this left her wracked and bent for at least a day after waking. Other crew, with longer cycles, would be crooked and stumbling for up to a week.
IMPORTANT NEWS READ CAREFULLY COMMANDER
Another thump, more like a slumping against a wall, perhaps as close as the corridor outside her door.
CATASTROPHIC WEATHER WAR EVENT
CASCADING ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE IMMINENT
YOU ARE FINAL COMMAND
CHANNEL NOT SECURE
SLEEPER AGENT SUSPECTED AMONG CREW
WILL TERMINATE CREW AND MISSION
The screen went blank. Helen closed her eyes. She imagined explosions on the earth’s surface as seen from space, the colours of an atmosphere on fire, then all the lights going out below. The shape of scorched continents. OUT.
She opened her eyes to find Waverly standing there, silhouetted in the doorway, head hanging to the side. He had the very straight arms and very straight legs that drunks often had, as they exaggerated the posture of standing. In his right hand he had a knife.
Now Helen understood why she’d been so afraid upon waking. Even as she’d isolated her air supply and sealed her sleeping pod, and the first suffocating waves of drowsiness had broken over her, the thought had crossed her mind that the poison she’d released across into the rest of the ventilation system might dissipate at different rates, especially into the other pods, and affect various crew according to the stage of their sleep cycle. So Waverly here, who’d been at the very beginning of his cycle, and was only half breathing in his sleep, was only about half dead.
Helen kicked him in the chest and watched him tumble over. He lay there on his back, staring up, breathing heavily, unable to move. She pried the knife from his hand.
You’re right, she said. The old ways are the best.
Behind her the message from CONTROL started up again. Ping ping ping.
She ignored it, stepped over Waverly, and continued up the hallway.