I've always had this weird fascination with derelicts. In particular, I've always had a sort of running fantasy in my head about being the lone survivor on a derelict spaceship, getting by just on my wits and the resources I have at hand. What can I say? I'm a fiction author and a scifi fan.
The reality is, I'd probably die within the first few hours of finding myself onboard this abandoned vessel. But I like to imagine I could make a go of it.
That's partly where this story comes from. It's also a tale of isolation, and an exploration of the strange idea that sometimes, when the odds are completely stacked, our priorities can shift. Pure survival may no longer be the only driving force in our lives. We may reassess risk, and decide to roll the dice on something dangerous and crazy, just because it opens up even the slimmest possibility of hope.
That's what this story is about. I hope you enjoy it! And as always, please feel free to let me know in the comments below or by email!
by Kevin Tumlinson
Chauna had grown up looking at those blueprints her whole life, and until now she never really understood them. She knew them—she could trace every bulkhead, every line, every system. They were tattooed on her memory, indelible and bright blue. But she had never managed to understand them. Until recently.
They were a picture of her home.
A detailed picture, to be sure. Nearly every nuance of the place was there, with a lot of detail. There were indicator lines pointing to various points, elaborating on something that looked like a squiggle but turned out to be a collection system, picking up particles from the outside to turn them into fuel. She knew that system, and had that little shock of recognition when it finally clicked with her that those lines and squiggles corresponded with actual objects she knew and could recognize. That was a realization that changed practically everything for Chauna.
Something else she realized, one day as she had studied the blue prints, was what her home was.
She was on a spaceship.
And she was completely alone.
She hadn’t been alone all her life. When she was little her father had been there, helping her, feeding her. He had sung to her every night, tucking her in to a bed he’d built himself, out of an old cargo container. He’d gone to a lot of trouble to make that a perfect bed for her. He’d scavenged seat cushions and any other soft materials he could find, and he’d used materials from the repair shop to paint the bed and give it a nice look. The bed had been moved many times, usually when some section had a problem and they had to go somewhere safer.
Eventually, her father had built a home for them in the giant arboretum that gave the ship oxygen and food, and helped recycle water. He had told her that this was like a forest, which didn’t mean much to her until he’d shown her videos of the forests of Earth and the other colony planets. They were bigger than her forest, and wilder. They had animals, which her forest didn’t have. She really wished there were birds in her forest. She had always, her entire life wanted to see a bird!
But Chauna’s forest wasn’t like the forests on Earth or the other colony planets. It was smaller, and it was sealed in its own room on the ship. It was an immense chamber, and Chauna had plenty of space to run and play and climb. But it was tiny compared to any of the forests she’d seen in videos.
The forest was the only place on the ship where the light changed depending on the time of day. Everywhere else, the lights stayed on or they were turned off. It wasn’t a timing thing, it was about use. A light came on if she walked into a room, and went off when she left. Some lights had to be activated or deactivated manually. But here in the forest, there was daylight and there was night time. Right now it was daylight, and this was when Chauna had to do her chores.
Her father had taught her how important it was to do chores. “Our lives depend on our home,” he said. “If we don’t take care of it, we won’t survive. So all of this is very important, ok?”
Chauna nodded. She didn’t talk. She never had. Her father had worried about that, for a while. But soon he didn’t try to get her to talk. He just let her nod, or he let her show him whatever it was she wanted him to see. They had their own way of talking to each other, without words.
One night she’d heard him crying, and she went to him. She was crying, too, because she didn’t like to see him sad. He smiled at her, though his eyes were wet, and he put a hand on the back of her head and then bent forward to kiss her head and hug her. He had said, “I know you don’t talk. And it’s ok. But I’d give anything to hear another human voice right now.”
She felt so awful, and so she had tried to talk. She had opened her mouth, and made a little squeaking sound. She had tried to say, “I love you daddy.” But she couldn’t make the words. She had never been able to make the words. It just wasn’t part of her.
He shushed her, and hugged her tighter, and cried harder. And then he said, “It’s ok. No, it’s ok. You are wonderful, with or without words. You are wonderful.”
From that, Chauna learned that it was ok if she wasn’t exactly like her father or anyone else. He could talk, and she couldn’t, and that was ok. He made her feel good about herself, even though they were different.
She hadn’t realized, at the time, that this lesson was maybe the best lesson he’d ever taught her.
She was doing the important chores, and thinking about her father. She was crawling around in the real version of the ship that she had memorized from the blueprints. Now that she knew what they were, they were very helpful. She could just follow the blueprints, and keep track of where she was in her head, and she’d know exactly what was coming up and where she should go.
She more or less knew this anyway, because she’d grown up in these spaces. But since her father had died, she’d found that there were parts of the ship she’d never been to. He had kept her away from some parts, because they were dangerous for little girls. But the chores had to be done. That’s what he had taught her. That was why he had gone into these tunnels and tubes the day he died.
The chores had to be done.
She was crawling through one of the access tubes, which was almost big enough of her to stand but not quite. She was dragging her father’s tool box behind her, so that was slowing her down a lot. She needed the tools to do her chores, so she had no choice but to take her time.
She entered a chamber that the blueprints called “processing.” This was one of the places where whatever materials were scooped up from outside were turned into power for the ship. There were two of these places, at different ends of the ship. This one was having some trouble because the waste lines sometimes got clogged.
She knew how all of this worked, and how to maintain it, because her father kept videos of everything he did—so that she could learn how to do it herself, after he was gone. He probably hadn’t expected her to have to learn it so soon. Neither had she.
Getting the waste line free was difficult. First she had to shut down processing, which was a bunch of steps. She had to do all the steps right, and in the right order, because if she didn’t the processing equipment could explode. So she did every step exactly the way her father had told her to, from the videos.
Then she had to use her father’s tools to remove the bolts and pins that kept the waste hoses in place. This was messy. After the the hose came free an ooze of spent material glopped out on her from above. She wiped it off with the towel from her father’s toolbox, but she knew she’d have to take a shower later. It wasn’t time for her weekly shower yet, but her father had taught her that sometimes you had to do things out of order when the situation demanded it. She couldn’t wait for the next four days with waste residue on her skin and in her hair. She’d have to risk wasting a bit of water to clean herself up.
The truth was, now that she was alone there was a lot more water. She probably didn’t have to ration quite as much. The forest took care of what little she needed, recycling it and purifying it. But her father had taught her how important it was to conserve the water as much as possible, and just because there was more of it didn’t mean it was ok to waste any.
She managed to get the waste line cleared, and she used a brush with metal bristles to scour away dried gunk and residue from the inside of the waste chamber. She gathered all the excess muck and gunk and dried bits in the bucket that her father kept her for that purpose, and after reattaching the line and starting the processes back up she carried the bucket to the manual disposal system and flushed the contents out into space.
It had been a hard morning’s work, but this was the biggest chore she had on the list today. She could do the rest pretty quickly, then go shower and spend the rest of the day in her forest, running and climbing, pretending to be characters from some of the videos. She might nestle into the limbs of one of the trees and watch videos of her father telling her how things worked and what she needed to do. That made her feel like he was almost still here, still nearby. She missed his voice and his face. The videos were all she had left.
As she packed up the tool box and started to drag it back through the maintenance tunnel, she heard a series of clangs coming from elsewhere in the ship.
Clangs were bad.
Whenever there was a clang it meant that something had fallen, which meant that something had broken. And when things got broken, they sometimes caused a lot more problems.
The trouble for Chauna was that she didn’t know where the clang had come from, or what might have caused it. She knew a general direction, but that sort of thing could be deceiving onboard the ship. Sound tended to bounce around on the metal walls, and reflect weirdly because of the shapes of ducts and tunnels and pieces of equipment.
She continued to drag the tools back through the corridor, stopping occasionally to listen, to see if she could hear any other clues. Once she got the tools back to the storage locker she took only what she might immediately need. She pulled on one of portable oxygen tanks, just in case there was any sort of hull breach. She also carried a flashlight, in case she needed to go through any of the dark sections of the ship.
She moved in the direction she thought was most likely for a clanging sound—especially one she was able to hear from inside the processing area. This turned out to be the part of the ship where the collectors themselves were housed, mounted to the floor with giant bolts, with large scoops that protruded past the outside hull of the ship and out into space.
This part of the ship did happen to be dark, though the air was still good. There were no holes in the hull in this area—not even patches that she or her father had welded in place. It was in good shape. The power had been off down here for a long time, but it didn’t effect the collectors, so her father had said it was fine just to leave it.
“Less power being used in areas we don’t visit,” he’d said. “Maybe we should just go ahead and shut down power to the whole ship, except for the areas we use.” Doing that was going to take a bit of extra work, because the systems that controlled the ship’s power all ran through engineering, which as filled with toxic air and other dangers. It was one of the things on her father’s list—a big chore she would have to get to someday, now that her father wasn’t around to do it.
Chauna swept the beam of her flashlight around in the darkness, looking for anything that might have become loose and fallen. She saw a large, flat, metal circle with molten edges laying on the floor, beneath a corridor access point.
She ran through the blueprint in her mind, and realized there was no corridor access point here. In fact, that part of the ship was the bulkhead that separated this chamber from the outside.
The only thing that should be on the other side of that wall was outer space.
She felt an odd shock go through her as she realized what she was looking at and what it meant. Flicking her light onto the hole in the hull, she could see a long tunnel that lead away from where she was. It was dimly lit itself, which she might have noticed if she hadn’t been focused on her flashlight beam.
This had never happened before.
By now, Chauna had watched all of the videos that her father had given her, teaching her how to do her chores and how to keep things going. He’d never said anything about holes appearing in the hull, and new corridors coming in from the outside.
But they had talked about something like this, once. Her father had told her about “boarding parties.” He had told her that he had been part of a boarding party, which had cut a hole in the side of a ship and rushed inside. He told her that they did very bad things to the people they found inside, because it was war, and they were enemies. He had cried when he told her that story, and it made her sad, and she had cuddled him.
But he had kissed her on the top of the head and told her that he wasn’t that man anymore. He said the war was long over, and that he was just making a living now, taking care of this ship for the people who carried things from one colony to another. He said he was lucky, because he was able to have his family with him, even if it was only the two of them left now. He told her she never had to worry about boarding parties, because the war was long over, and the enemies weren’t enemies anymore.
Except this was exactly what he had described, when he said they cut holes in the ships of the enemies.
Were the enemies back? Were there enemies onboard this ship right now?
Chauna ran from the darkened chamber, back toward her forest. If there was someone else here, she wanted to be some place safe. She wanted to be home. There were still chores to do, but they would have to wait. Hopefully the enemies would leave, and she could get back to the chores and everything would be ok. But right now, all she wanted in the whole wide world was to be back in her forest. She wanted to be safe.
She stopped short as she saw the figure standing in the corridor in front of her.
And the figure stopped, too.
It was wearing something that looked a bit like the space suits her father were, whenever he went outside the ship. Chauna had gone with him a few times, and she had worn one of the suits, which was too big for her, and really bulky. It had been hard for her to move in the suit, but she had learned how to get around. Her father had taught her to always have a safety line attached to the ship, and he had shown her how to read the gauges that told her how much air she had left, how much radiation was hitting her, and how to get back to the airlock so she could go back inside.
The figure was wearing a suit that was similar, but not quite the same as those she and her father wore. Which meant this person had come from outside the ship. This person and come through the new corridor. This person had cut a hole in the hull.
They were a boarding party.
Chauna turned and ran again, this time taking a side passage that she could use to get to her forest from another path. It was a longer way, and she would have to crawl in a few places, but she could get safely to the forest here. She hoped the enemies couldn’t follow.
There was a sound from behind her, and it was weird. Not metal. Not a machine at all. It was more like …
It sounded like a voice. But if it was, it wasn’t her father’s voice, and it wasn’t like any voice she’d heard from any of the videos she watched. It wasn’t saying anything she could understand, either. Maybe the enemies didn’t speak the same language as she did.
She came to the first narrowing of the corridor, which was a collapsed area the she and her father hadn’t yet gotten around to fixing. They actually hadn’t decided if it needed to be fixed. It was just another hallway, and it didn’t really lead to anywhere they couldn’t reach by another route.
There were no vital systems down this way. But Chauna had come through here often anyway, because it was fun. She could climb through the debris, swinging from struts or crawling under a beam. Her father had warned her not to do it, because it might collapse.
But she didn’t always listen to everything her father said.
Sometimes she did things just because she wanted to, and she tried to hide it from her father. She felt guilty about that, after he died. And she had stopped going this way, for the most part, because he wouldn’t have liked it. But right now, it was the best way she could think of to get away from the enemies.
She slid under one of the fallen beams, then crawled over a pile of twisted metal, balancing on a strut and then jumping to the floor of the corridor on the other side. She heard more of the voice of the enemies, and glanced back through a gap in the pile to see the figure on the floor, looking through the narrow space she had crawled through. It couldn’t get through there because of its size. Chauna was small, and she could fit in all sorts of places.
She kept running, leaving that first obstacle behind. There would be more, but she knew them all very well, and knew exactly how to get through them.
It took some time, but eventually she made it through the entire corridor and the detour she had to take to avoid a bad area. She came to the back entrance of her forest, and opened the door by placing her palm on the scanner. This was the only way to open the door, and sometimes she had to wipe her dirty hands on her shirt to get it to recognize her. Luckily, with all the crawling and running and climbing, the residue from the processor’s waste line had been cleaned from her hands at some point. The door opened immediately.
It closed behind her as she raced inside, and once she reached the area where her bed and her belongs were, under the canopy her father had built to keep the water off of them during rain mode, she fell to her knees and breathed heavily, trying to catch her breath.
She ran often, and climbed often, but she had been so terrified by seeing the figure that she had pushed herself this time. She sat on her knees for several minutes, gasping, until she started to sob.
Tears streaked her face, and she wiped them with her sleeve. She was so scared. She wished her father were here. He would know what to do. He knew how to fight the enemies.
From across the cavernous forest chamber, Chauna heard a thud, followed by a sound that reminded her a bit of the electrical arcing her father told her she had to avoid, if she ever saw it. That sound meant some live wire was loose, and was making contact with a grounded surface. It was dangerous.
She didn’t want to have to deal with an arcing right now. The enemies were out there, and she just wanted to hide here in her forest, away from them. She wanted to be safe.
But the arcing was a problem. It would do bad things to the ship. It was a chore she had to deal with right away.
So she got up, her breath finally calmed, and she once again ran. This time she ran toward this new sound with the intention of fixing whatever was arcing. She would have to retrieve her father’s tools somehow, but she’d deal with that in just a moment. First she had to find the problem.
Except when she found it, the problem was bigger than she had expected.
When she reached the door on the other side of the forest, she saw something strange. A bright circle was glowing from the metal of the door. And as she watched, bright blobs fell away and hit the grass on the floor with a sizzle and with tendrils of smoke.
Worse, as the blobs fell away she could see a gap forming in the metal of the door. It was being melted and cut into!
And the circle was nearly complete. In a few seconds the metal disk would fall inward, and the enemies would be able to get to her forest and to her.
Before she could react, to do anything at all, that was exactly what happened.
The metal didn’t clang this time, since the surface of this chamber was covered in soil and grass and leaves. The forest needed deep soil, so the roots of the trees could take hold and keep them standing upright. So when the metal from the door hit, it was with a thud, and a cloud of dust rose from the ground dry ground. The rain cycle wouldn’t start for another few days.
Chauna staggered back from the cloud of dust.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t know anything at all about the enemies. She didn’t know how to fight them, the way her father had done. All she knew was that they were here, in a boarding party. They were here, and she was all alone. She was the only one who could protect this forest, and this ship, and she had no idea how to fight.
The figure peeked in through the whole and waved a hand, holding it up in the same way her father had when he wanted her to stop. The palm of the figure’s hand was facing her, and three fingers waved.
Chauna stood where she was, but was ready to bolt at any minute. She wasn’t sure where she could go, now that the enemies had boarded and had cut their way into the forest. This was the only place where she felt safe.
The figure stepped through the hole it had cut in the door, and when it was inside it stopped, and tilted its head back.
There was the odd sound again, the voice of the enemies, as it looked around at Chauna’s forest.
She didn’t understand what it was saying, but it seemed to be somehow impressed with the forest. And that, for some reason, made Chauna feel much better. Not entirely unafraid, but less afraid than she had been.
The figure looked at her now, and making those same hand gestures it motioned for her to wait, to not move.
Chauna waited, her muscles tensed and ready to run.
The figure reached up then, put both three-fingered hands on either side of the helmet, and gave it a hard twist.
The helmet clicked, and then hissed as the pressurized atmosphere inside of it was released. Then the figure lifted the helmet, taking it off.
Inside the helmet, the figure’s head looked a bit smaller than expected. It had hair, but the hair was a collection of very thick blond strands, each about the thickness of Chauna’s thumb. These were cut short, ending just above the rim of the suit, where the helmet would attach.
The figure had two large eyes that were very different than what Chauna was used to. The pupils were larger than her father’s had been, and they looked like they had ridges ringing the inside edge of the pupils, instead of being the smooth circles of human pupils. The color of the eyes was deep green, which reminded Chauana of the leaves of her forest, whenever light shone through them.
The figure’s skin was a similar shade of pink to Chauna’s own, but it was mottled, with brown and grey spots that formed patterns along her jawline, on the bridge of her nose, and across her brow. It made her look a bit like one of the big cats that Chauna had seen in videos, at least in the pattern of it. But the figure didn’t have a cat nose. Or any nose, that Chauna could see. Its face was smooth from the eyes to the mouth, which was small and slightly snout-like.
It made a strange series of noises, and Chauna realized it was trying to talk.
She shook her head, but that was apparently meaningless to the figure. She stood there, then, watching as the figure gestured as it talked.
Finally, it seemed to have an idea. It reached into a pouch that had been sealed on the front of the suit it was wearing. It removed a small, square device that had several buttons around its outer edge, and a large circle in its center. The figure pushed a few of these buttons, and the circle tilted open, revealing two pipets with little tabs at the top. Each was filled with a liquid.
The figure took these out, and after putting away the device it held up one of the pipets and snapped the tab from its top. The figure held it up for Chauna to see, then swigged its contents. The stuff must have tasted horrible, because the figure made a face that almost made Chauna laugh.
It held out the second pipet, offering it to Chauna.
Chauna wasn’t sure about it. What if this was some kind of trick? But the figure had drank it. Maybe it was safe.
Chauna took the pipet, snapped the tab from it just as the figure had done, and then drank the contents.
She wretched. The stuff was awful! It was like tasting dirt mixed with cleaning fluid! And it burned her mouth and throat a bit.
She was just about to spit it out and go find water when she heard something she hadn’t expected.
“There,” a girl’s voice said. “Now we can talk for the next few days.”
Chauna blinked, and shook her head. The voice had been strange—not like her father’s voice or any voices from the vids. This one had that odd tone to it that the visitor had used. But the words Chauna heard weren’t coming to her through her ears. It was as if she was hearing with some her skin.
“Well,” the visitor said. “Go on. Say something!” she was smiling, and the effect was very odd. The small, snout-like mouth opened a bit wider and showed small, blue teeth in a pink mouth.
Chauna shook her head, and pointed to her throat, trying to indicate that she couldn’t speak.
The visitor smiled again. “Just try,” she said.
So Chauna tried.
“Hello,” she said.
And she nearly fell down.
The sound wasn’t a sound. Not like what she was used to. It was more like a vibration. And it came from all over her body. Just as when she’d heard the visitor speak, it was like her skin was doing the talking and the listening.
“Hello!” she said again. “Hello! Hello! Hello!”
The visitor laughed. “Ok, ok, I got it! I can hear you!”
“But I can’t speak!” Chauna said. “I’ve never been able to speak!”
The visitor nodded. “It’s the nanites. They created little receptors and transmitters in your skin, through the pores. They reroute the signals from your brain, just slightly. So when you speak, the words still come out of your mouth, but they also get transmitted from your skin. Except … well, I guess the words aren’t actually coming out of your mouth, are they?”
Chauna was grinning. All her life, she’d never been able to speak. She never knew why. Her father had never told her. But now, for the first time, she could communicate just like he could. And it felt wonderful. “Hello!” she said again.
The visitor laughed. “Ok, hello. My name is Velk.”
Chauna said the name herself. “Velk. Velk.”
“Yes,” Velk smiled. “And what’s you’re name?”
“I’m Chauna. Chauna.”
“I’m going to guess it’s just Chauna. Just once, right?”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Chauna. I’m sorry, I had no idea this vessel was occupied. I was boarding to see if there was anything here I could use. And I was certainly not expecting to find an Earth forest still thriving here. You must keep this place up pretty well.”
“My father taught me,” Chauna said.
“Oh, is he here?”
Chauna stopped smiling, and shook her head.
Velk looked said, and there was a brief moment where she seemed as if she might reach forward and touch Chauna, but after noticing tension she pulled back. “I’m sorry,” Velk said. “ Are you … are you here alone?”
Chauna nodded, and now she looked at the grassy ground at their feet. She felt the tears start, but did nothing to stop them, despite the strange sense she had that she shouldn’t let Velk see her cry. Why not? What harm could it do?
“Ok,” Velk said. “Listen, I’m on my own, too. This far out, there aren’t many people. Earthers or otherwise. My people don’t even live near this quadrant. But I’ve managed to make a life for myself, with my tiny little ship. I hunt derelicts, and I salvage what I can. Your ship was just adrift, so I thought it was empty. But I can see you’ve been keeping it up. And keeping this forest alive … that’s amazing!”
“I do my chores,” Chauna said, with a touch of pride. “I have the videos my father gave me. I know the blueprint. I know this ship very well.”
Velk considered this, nodding. “I think we can help each other out,” she said. “I can help you get the rest of this ship in as good a shape as this forest, if you want. I have fiends. We help each other, in exchange for favors. You have a whole forest here, which means you can grow food. And that’s something that’s sometimes hard to come by. It can be a huge bargaining chip. So, I can help you … if you’ll help me.”
“How can I help you?” Chauna asked.
“Food would be a good start!” Velk said. “But I’m also thinking I’d like to live some place that isn’t quite as cramped as my little runabout. And from what I’ve seen, you have more than enough space here. And the forest. If you … if you would allow me to dock my ship with yours, I would be willing to help with your … chores. I can help you get this ship back up to full spec, and all I’d want is to live here with you. Maybe some of my other friends could come and stay. This is a large Earth cargo vessel. More room than any ship in the fleet my people had. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, this place is a palace. So what do you think? Want to get this place set up, and bring a few more people onboard? If not, I understand. But you should know, not everyone who finds you is going to be nice about it. It might be good to have some help.”
Chauna thought about this. The ship was just the ship. She did her chores and kept it going because that’s what she had to do, to survive. But it wasn’t really her home.
“The forest is my home,” she said to Velka. “I’ll do it. But I stay in the forest. No one else. “
Velka considered this, then nodded. “No one else,” she smiled. “I think just about anyone could live with that.” Velka looked around then, and said, “Ok. First thing’s first, let’s fix the holes I cut in this place. This is going to take some work, but I think we just started something that will be very good for all of us.”
Chauna said nothing, but smiled. She still wasn’t sure about Velka. And she wasn’t sure about other strangers coming onboard. But she remembered her father, and the stories he told, and how lonely he felt. And she realized, she’d felt lonely, too.
She decided, then, that this was a good bet, no matter what the outcome might be. Because, honestly, how long could she hope to keep things going on her own? It was already getting harder to keep everything working, with only her to tend to it. One day something would go wrong—too many things would beak down at once, or problem would be too big for her to handle by herself—and she wouldn’t be able to fix everything. And then, not only would she die as her father had, the forest would die, too. And she couldn’t bear the thought of that.
So this was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking. She didn’t know if she could trust Velka, or her friends, but she was willing to give that trust anyway. Because she would rather try and find out she was wrong than keep living alone, and with no voice.
And besides, the forest was hers. Her father was buried there, and his body had fed the trees and plants of the place. It was the closest she could come to being with him again, to lay on the grass or climb into one of the trees, and watch one of the videos so she could see his face and hear his voice.
Whatever happened next, she was willing to take a chance.
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