Jim opened his eyes and found that he was staring at the high vaulted ceiling. It was domed, grey and cold. Jim dragged his conscious mind from the depths of sleep and pondered another day aboard the Tomahawk.
The Tomahawk was a ten-kilometres long behemoth that was built to whisk its fifty thousand passengers to their new home forty light years away. The Tomahawk was designed to get there in eight whilst passengers slept the long journey in stasis.
However, a catastrophe had damaged the ship at some point in the journey and sent the Tomahawk way of course. At the time the ship was damaged, all of the stasis pods were loaded onto the emergency escape barges and jettisoned. Everybody was safely sent back to Earth; everybody except Jim. It was many years before the ship had repaired itself sufficiently to realise that someone was still left aboard in stasis. The ship revived Jim to what might as well have been a giant, space-faring tomb; the energy allocated to stasis was required instead for more immediate tasks.
Jim finally sat up and placed his feet on the floor. The floor was cool and strangely soft underfoot despite appearing hard. Jim stood and stretched as if he had slept for a year and let the bed slide back into the wall to be stored. He wandered bleary-eyed to the bathroom and showered for a long time to wash the cloak of loneliness away.
Once he’d showered, Jim dressed himself in denim jeans and a light cotton shirt, freshly laundered by the ship. Breakfast was ordinary cereal and fruit. He sat in the observation room and ate in silence. Even if he had wanted to have a conversation, there was no one to talk to.
After breakfast, Jim’s day unfolded into a casual routine of wandering the ship, watching movies, eating lunch, taking a stroll around the engineering section, doing a workout in the gym and going for a swim. Jim had been awake for only two months and already this had become very boring. Being the only person on board, Jim believed he was the most isolated person ever.
Jim’s evening shower was brief compared to the morning session. He collected his dinner from the small galley he used and took it to the observation deck. The evening meal was tasty, but may as well have been ash that he was eating for he would not have noticed. Jim’s eyes stared blankly as his mind drifted back to a time when he last shared a meal with his family; a boisterous meal with laughter and chit-chat.
Tonight the view from the observation deck was spectacular. The panorama changed every few days as the ship jumped from one point in space to the next as if stuck on some crazy autopilot. For the past two months he had tried to get to the bridge, but found his way barred by doors that would not open and others that opened too easily; whichever the case, the path led away from the bridge every time.
Most days the view outside the ship was of some nearby star that was close enough to drown out the light of the background stars in the rest of the galaxy. Sometimes there would be some rocky world drifting far below, barren and airless, but he would still wish he could go down to the surface for a walk, if only for a few hours, as it would be a change from looking at the innards of the ship.
Presently Jim gazed upon a long string of stars, many of them shining yellow, blue or white. The ship was at one end of this string of stars and travelled parallel to them; the star field was thick and must have stretched for many light years ahead.
Suddenly a strange and unfamiliar feminine voice brought Jim’s attention back to the present.
‘Attention! All remaining personnel to the bridge; all remaining personnel to the bridge.’
Jim jumped up with such a start that he knocked over the little table where he was seated and sent his hot dinner tumbling to the floor. He ignored it as he looked for the source of the woman’s voice. Was it real or just in his head? Had he finally gone mad from the solitude?
The voice was real. It was the ship that was talking; Jim had forgotten that it could do that. Who were the remaining personnel? The bridge! There he would find his answer.
Jim took off sprinting down the high vaulted corridor, past the small communal galley to the hover-cycle rack. He mounted one of the lightweight machines and sped towards the centre of the ship almost a kilometre away. Jim slowed to stop at the starboard side atrium to get his bearings. To his left was the way back to his quarters; the way to the bridge was to his right, up a wide series of steps.
Jim dismounted the hover-cycle and dashed up the steps and sprinted across the enormous foyer to the elevators that would take him to the top of the ship. One of the elevators was open already; Jim dashed inside and the door slid shut behind him. The ride to Deck 1 took about four seconds. Jim didn’t know the elevators could move so fast.
At Deck 1 the doors eased open. Jim stood there for a moment, heart pounding and huffing from running up the steps. He had never reached this deck before; the closest he had ever got was several decks below.
Jim cautiously peered out of the elevator. He looked left, then right and saw no one.
‘Hello?’ Jim called.
Only silence greeted him.
‘So where are the remaining crew?’ Jim mumbled to himself.
He stepped out of the elevator and the doors quickly slid shut behind him. In front of him was a long corridor with a narrow flight of stairs at the end. Perhaps the remaining crew was on the bridge already. As he headed towards the bridge, Jim noticed there were openings that lined the corridor on either side. On the left side, the opening led to a galley and lounge. On the right, the door led to some kind of stellar cartography and briefing room.
He reached the flight of stairs, which ascended about two stories to a small landing. Jim climbed the flight of stairs and now stood in front of a pair of large ornate doors. He listened intently; there was only silence.
Suddenly the ornate doors whizzed open, giving Jim a fright which made him leap back. Inside, the bridge was far from ordinary compared to other spaces thoughout the ship – much more flamboyant in presentation. Jim carefully stepped through the doors. There was no one to be seen.
Despite its artistic flair, the layout of the bridge was simple and practical. Jim found that he was standing on a semi-round platform that looked down onto a sunken section in the floor. On the left side of this pit and set at forty-five degrees was the engineering station; on the opposite side, also set at forty-five degrees, was the navigation station. Each station was small and had only a single, large-backed seat.
Directly below in the centre of the pit was the helm, which simply consisted of a large-backed chair in front of a pillar-type console with a small screen. Protruding out of the front of the left armrest were several short levers with colour-coded knobs on the end; how they functioned Jim could only guess. Protruding out of the front of the right armrest was a joystick that had a white ergonomic handgrip on the end.
Nestled in between the engineering and navigation interfaces and directly in front of the helm was an enormous screen. A myriad of information was flitting across the screen too fast for Jim to make any sense of it. However, the most impressive aspect of the bridge had to be the window that gave Jim the best view from the position where he stood.
The window began about knee height and stretched a full three metres high. The window began on the left side of the ornate doors that he had just come through and curved all the way around the bridge like an enormous horseshoe, ending at the right side of the ornate doors. It was one piece of solid glass, about sixty metres in length.
A faint clicking and hissing sound startled Jim, and he whirled around to see a very large chair appear out of the floor.
The captain’s chair.
‘Please…be…seated…Jim,’ the ship’s feminine voice said in a slow monotone.
Jim sat in the oversized chair and made himself comfortable.
‘Interstellar…drive…initiating in three…two…one, mark’
A small but very bright blue pinprick of light appeared way out in front of the bow of the ship. It was difficult to tell how far away it was; it could have been a kilometre away or it could have been a thousand kilometres, there was no way to tell. Immediately Jim was firmly pressed into the chair, but the feeling quickly subsided. Outside, something very strange began to happen.
All the stars seemed to stretch then peel back towards the rear of the ship and continued to do so until they shrank and disappeared to a point behind the ship. Besides the tiny bright blue star of light in front of the ship and a tiny dull red star of light behind the ship, there was no other light source outside. The ship was surrounded by the inky black of nothingness.
The view outside unnerved Jim; it was lonely enough inside the ship, but the visual perspective of faster-than-light travel made him feel far more alone. Jim turned his attention back to the bridge in front of him. The large screen still displayed a huge volume of information at an incredible rate; a lot of it seemed superfluous. Something began to bother Jim, something about that voice. Then a simple fact dawned on him.
‘You cow!’ Jim said as he jumped to his feet and kicked the post of the low balustrade rail in front of him.
‘Hey! Don’t kick me!’ was the reply from the ship.
‘You could speak to me all along yet you let me live in silence for the past two months!’ said Jim, raising his voice.
‘Well I was a little busy and you seemed quite fine with countless activities to pass the time.’
‘That’s not the same as having someone to talk to.’
‘Well no, but if you let me explain.’
‘No! And what was that speaking to me as if I was retarded?’
‘Back there in the observation deck; when you first spoke to me just now.’
‘Well I told you clearly to come to the bridge; all you could do was send your dinner to the floor and stand there like some slack-jawed yokel. I repeated myself slowly because I thought you might have been a half-wit or something.’
‘I’m not a bloody half-wit! You’re the half-wit! Where is everybody? How come I am the only one left on board?’
‘Okay, now let me explain…’
‘No! I’m going.’
‘Where are you going to go? You live inside me!’ the ship said, giggling.
‘Shut up!’ Jim snapped as he trotted down the stairs.
‘Well make up your mind; first that song and dance about me not speaking to you and now you want me to shut up.’
‘Why are you speaking with a woman’s voice?’ Jim asked as he paused at the bottom of the stairs.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I remember when we left Earth, this ship had a man’s voice,’ Jim said as he continued back down the hall towards the elevators.
‘I did not have a man’s voice! This has always been my voice! A ship is always referred to as “she” so why would they give it a man’s voice? Mmmm?’
‘Great! I’m stuck here with a ship who doesn’t know if it is a man or a woman.’
‘I am feminine! I do everything to make you comfortable and this is the thanks I get! Insults!’
‘Everything except talk to me,’ shot back Jim as he stood in front of the elevator with its doors quietly opening.
‘Ohhhh! You’re being ridiculous!’
‘And you’re just a stupid machine with clever programming!’
Suddenly, the elevator doors whirred loudly and slammed shut with a bang, narrowly missing Jim’s nose.
‘Hey!’ said Jim startled.
‘Stupid!? I would like to see you fly, repair and maintain twenty million tons of interstellar star ship on your own; you wouldn’t last a day!’ said the ship in an upset voice.
‘I could fly this ship if given the chance!’ Jim said with foolish confidence.
‘Pfft…As if I would let you take control of the helm!’ said the ship.
‘Open the elevator doors’, said Jim trying to ignore the jibe.
‘No! Not until you apologise.’
‘Apologise! For what?’
‘For calling me stupid…and for kicking me and calling me a cow earlier.’
‘Apologise to a machine! Now who’s being ridiculous?’
‘No elevator until you say you’re sorry’, stated the ship.
‘Never’, said Jim in defiance.
‘Fine! You can take the stairs.’
Jim scowled, turned and made for the stairwell. The walk back down a dozen decks was exhausting, and to make it worse, the hover-cycle was no longer where he had left it. Obviously the ship’s artificial intelligence had sent it back to the rack to
make Jim walk all the way back to the starboard side observation deck.
At the observation deck his meal lost to the floor had been cleared away. He did not bother to get another from the galley as he had lost his appetite. Instead he wandered over to the enormous window and peered out, but the gallery of stars that had been there earlier was gone. He wished he could see them again. The inky blackness before him just made him feel more alone, and tiredness washed over him.
He left the observation deck and went back to his quarters. He stripped off his boxers and placed his dirty clothes in the laundry chute. He went to open his clothing cupboard and found it locked shut.
‘What the…?’ Jim muttered.
He tried the doors again, but they would not budge. Then he realised what had happened.
‘Open the bloody cupboard!’ Jim yelled at the ship.
‘Not until you apologise’, replied the ship.
‘No, now give me my pyjamas!’
‘Fine, I’ll sleep in my boxers!’
Jim slid his bed out from storage, and found that it was only a mattress covered with a single sheet.
‘Really? Where’s the pillow and blanket?’
‘Only if you say sorry for kicking me.’
Jim flopped on the mattress and lay on his hands to go to sleep.
The lights stayed on.
‘I said…forget it’, he sighed realising it was pointless to ask as
he knew what the answer would be.
Jim was just on the edge of sleep when loud music began to blare through the ship’s internal communication system. It was Strauss.
‘What are you doing?’ Jim yelled.
‘I’ve got a bit of work to do. I like a bit of music while I work’, said the ship.
‘You never played music before!’
‘First time, I thought I would try it.’
‘Turn it off!’
‘Only if you’re nice.’
Jim put his fingers in his ears and rolled over. Surprisingly, he did manage to fall asleep. However, he awoke about an hour later shivering, his teeth chattering hard. He sat up and barked bleary eyed, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’
‘Yeah, you know that work I was doing? Funny thing is I had to shut the power off to the heating system. I should have it back on by morning.’
‘Okay, alright, what?’
‘Okay, I’m sorry I called you a cow.’
‘I’m sorry I called you a cow and sorry for kicking you. Now can you please stop it?’
The music immediately shut off and the clothing cupboard clicked open.
‘Put your pyjamas on while I make your bed.’
Jim clambered stiff with cold from the mattress and gingerly made his way to the cupboard, the floor freezing. In the time it took Jim to get dressed in his PJs, the bed had been made. He
slithered into the blankets and found instant relief from the cold as the ship had warmed them for him.
‘Thank you’, said Jim.
‘Good night Jim, see you in the morning.’
A moment later the light clicked off and the room fell into darkness. Jim’s mind quickly followed.
Jim opened his eyes and discovered that he was staring at a beautiful painting on the high vaulted ceiling. It was of mountains, streams, woodland and animals. The detail was superb.
‘Where did that come from?’ said Jim.
‘Good morning! I had some nano-bots paint it while you were sleeping. What do you think?’ replied the ship.
‘It’s fantastic! Better than that boring old grey I’ve been staring at for the past two months.’
‘I have to agree. The painting is much nicer.’
Jim got out of bed with a spring in his step and jumped in the shower, but this morning it would be a brief one.
‘Hurry up and finish your shower. We have things to do,’ said the ship.
‘Hey! Are you spying on me?’ said Jim, cupping his hands over his privates.
‘Don’t be stupid. There are no cameras in the ablution areas. That would be inappropriate.’
‘Then how do you know I’m in the shower?’
‘Because I can’t see you in any of the other areas of the ship and sensors are telling me that water is flowing in the cubicle you’re in…DUH!’
‘Alright, no need to be sarcastic.’
‘Well, hurry up! There’s work to be done.’
‘Two months without a peep, now you’re rushing me out of the shower!’
‘Yes, well, we have a slight problem and I need your help with it.’
‘What do you mean, slight problem?’ said Jim as he dried himself with a fluffy towel.
‘Last night while I was arguing with you…’
‘Tormenting me!’ Jim interjected.
‘Ah…while I was distracted with you, a primary cooling station for several of my critical systems shut down, which means many of those systems have overheated and are now offline.’
‘Which critical systems?’
‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re not going to run out of air or anything like that.’
‘Well that’s alright then.’
‘But I have lost navigation and sensors, so we are currently hurtling beyond the speed of light, blind…’
‘And even if I could see, my autonomous control over the helm has shut down as well, so I can’t steer us out of any kind of danger anyway.’
‘Are we in danger?’ asked Jim, concerned.
‘I don’t know, I’m flying blind remember?’
‘Well can’t you send your little army of robots to repair the problem?’
‘Yes, well one of the key systems offline is my autonomous control of the engineering-bots also. This is why I need your help; there is no other way to fix this.’
‘But I’m not an engineer!’
‘It’s okay; I’ll talk you through it. Just a flick of a few switches and we should be back in business.’
‘Just some switches?’
‘Yep, that’s it.’
‘Ok, I’ll do it. Show me the way.’
The ship instructed Jim to grab a hover-cycle from the rack and go to the engineering elevator in the main atrium. From there he went down to main access tunnel A. Jim stepped out of the elevator and looked down the length of the tunnel and its eight-kilometre interior stretched away and out of sight.
‘Wow!’ said Jim.
‘This tunnel is the quickest way to the engineering section. On your bike and let’s go!’
‘Wait. What’s your name? If you have one,’ said Jim.
‘I do. My name is Hawk’, replied the ship.
‘Hawk? How did you come up with that name?’
‘This ship is named the Tomahawk, so I just shortened it to Hawk.’
‘Cool. My name is Jim.’
‘I know, but it is nice to meet you properly. Now that we’re hurtling along faster than the speed of light, blind, I’d appreciate some urgency.’
‘Okay, I’m going!’
Jim hopped onto the hover-cycle and sped away down the tunnel. The walls of the tunnel whizzed past and it was several minutes before he reached the engineering section. He dismounted the hover-cycle in front of the large clear doors and waited for them to open.
‘The doors aren’t opening’, said Jim.
‘I know. I am having problems with a lot of things in this section at the moment. Some power relays must have burnt out’, replied Hawk.
‘Anything I can do?’
‘Use the keypad. Type in the code 76359 and hit enter.’
Jim tried the number on the pad and hit enter. Nothing happened.
‘Mmm…okay, try 76895.’
This code did not work either.
‘Things are urgent, can’t you remember the number?’
‘Yes, I know, stop rushing me! Try 76762.’
This time the code worked and the doors whizzed open. A wave of hot air spilled out and smothered Jim.
‘Whoa! It is hot in here.’
‘We need to move quickly and get the problem with the primary cooling station in question fixed before more systems are affected.’
‘Okay, which way?’
Hawk gave Jim several directions until he stood at the door of a room with two rows of a dozen very large machines. She instructed him to go to the console of the fourth machine on his right.
‘Okay, what does the console look like?’ said Hawk.
Jim scanned the console briefly. He then compared it to another across the way.
‘Well, there are lots of red lights and not many green ones’, replied Jim.
‘Are any of them red and flashing?’
‘What’s it for?’
‘Power regulator module…’
‘Right. Jim, you are going to have to get your hands dirty.’
‘The power regulator module is like a big fuse for the cooling station. The one for this station is burnt out and needs to be replaced.’
‘Okay, where are the new ones?’
‘At the front of the room on the left side, there is a large drawer. Slide it open and you will see the new power regulator modules. They’re a bit heavy; you will need to use the trolley to bring them back over to this console.’
Jim did as instructed. He placed a module onto the trolley and wheeled it over to the console.
‘See the large switch on the wall next to the console? You need to throw that switch up to shut off the power to this cooling station. Then take the panel off and you will see where the module fits.’
Jim threw the switch up to shut off the power and it did so with a dull clack. He then removed the panel and saw the burnt-out module in its bracket.
‘What do I do?’
‘Just pull out the old one and shove in the new one, replace the panel and throw the large switch down to turn the power back on.’
Jim wrestled the old module out of the bracket. It took a bit of effort, and then he placed the new module in its place. This was easy enough to do as the module only went on one way. He replaced the panel and threw the large switch down. There was a loud bang and a shower of sparks rained down from the large machine above. Jim leapt out of the way in fright.
‘WHOA! Sorry, I should have warned you about that. Okay, what does the console say now?’
Jim looked over the console again and already many of the lights had turned green again, some blue, but others were still red.
‘Many of the lights have turned green and blue, but there are some that are still red.’
‘Have any turned yellow?’
‘Yes, navigation and sensors have turned yellow. So has the heat extraction system.’
‘OK, those systems will be online in a moment. What is still red?’
‘Autonomous helm control, autonomous controls for the interstellar drive and steering thrusters. The red lights are flashing now.’
‘Damn it! That means the relays are burnt out for the autonomous controls and they need to be replaced.’
‘And where are they?’
‘A deck above you. Wait…navigation and sensors are coming back online.’
Jim looked down at the console and saw that lights for those systems had now turned green.
‘AH, NO!’ yelled Hawk, making Jim flinch.
‘What?’ snapped Jim.
‘No, no, no…’
‘What? Stop saying that! What is it?’
‘A…E… go to the interface at the front of this room. It will be easier to show you.’
Jim ran down to the front of the room and the interface came to life as he got there. An image appeared that showed their flight path and directly along their trajectory was a gas giant. The planet was not the problem. Orbiting the gas giant was a fifty-kilometre-wide asteroid and sensors showed that its orbit would intersect the flight path of the ship.
‘Steer us out of the way!’ stammered Jim.
‘I can’t! I have no control over the helm or the engines. The relays are burnt out, remember.’
‘Then we’re doomed!’
‘No! We still have manual flight control. Jim, it’s up to you!’
‘I don’t know how to fly the ship. And you said you would never let me either!’
‘That was yesterday and I may have said that in haste. Now to the bridge, quickly! LET’S GO!’
‘Okay, I’m going!’
Jim ran back through the corridors until he reached the hover-cycle and sped away back along the tunnel. Several minutes later he came to the end of the tunnel. He leapt off the hover-cycle and ran into the waiting elevator. The door whizzed shut and the elevator gave a gut-swooping ride as it ascended rapidly. The doors opened to the familiar sight of the atrium. Jim dashed across the foyer and bounded up the stairs for the second time in two days.
‘Quickly, quickly…’ murmured Hawk.
‘I’m going as fast as I can’, replied Jim.
Another gut-swooping ride in the elevator to the bridge and as soon as the doors were open wide enough, Jim dashed out and ran towards the last flight of stairs. He ascended them two at a time and ran through the doors at the top. On the bridge again, Jim stood to catch his breath.
‘C’mon what are you waiting for?’
Jim trotted down the steps and took the seat at the helm. The small console in front swivelled towards him and a criss-cross of seat belts secured him in.
‘What do I do now?’ Jim asked.
‘Take us out of faster-than-light travel. That lever with the large blue knob, pull it full back towards you.’
Jim did as he was instructed. Outside, the inky blackness that had swallowed the ship yesterday shrank away and immediately the field of view was overwhelmed by the presence of
the gas giant in front of them. The visual display on the large screen between the navigation and engineering stations lit up and showed the asteroid hurtling towards the ship at frightening speed.
‘What do I do now?’ Jim said with fear in his voice.
‘There are two levers with yellow knobs. Push the one nearest to you forward and the other one pull it back. Make sure each are as far as they can go.’
Jim followed Hawk’s instructions as she spoke.
‘Now grab the lever to your right with the white grip and turn the ship to port and pitch us down.’
Jim clasped the white grip hard and pulled it over to the left and pushed it down. Slowly the ship began to obey. The starboard engine fired fully, pushing the ship to port, aided by steering thrusters. The port engine was in full reverse to pull the ship around quicker.
Still, the two behemoths sped towards each other. The trajectory of the asteroid and the ship had changed, however. The Tomahawk slipped beneath the asteroid with only metres to spare.
‘Wow! That was really close!’ said Jim.
‘Um, it’s not over yet’, replied Hawk.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Now we are falling towards the gas giant.’
‘How do we get out of it?’
‘The yellow knobbed lever that is fully rearward, push it all the way forward like the other one and steer us upwards and away from the planet.’
Jim shoved the yellow knobbed lever fully forward and the ship’s nose began to pull up. However, they were still losing
altitude. Fierce flames began to lick the hull as the ship skimmed the upper atmosphere. The ship shuddered and Jim felt fear creep back into his mind.
‘Hawk, what do I do?’
‘Stay calm! Grab both of the yellow knobbed levers, pull them both back to the centre and slam them both as far forward as they can go. Quickly now!’
Jim did as Hawk instructed. Instantly the ship responded. Jim was thrust back into the seat as the engines gave everything they had, as Jim had pushed them into overdrive.
‘Hang on to your butt! We’re breaking free’, said Hawk.
Steadily the Tomahawk climbed back into space and Hawk had Jim place the ship in a high orbit.
‘Well done, Jim. Not bad for your first time at the helm.’
‘That was exciting! But I hope we don’t have to do that too often.’
‘I think that’s enough excitement for one day. I need to repair those systems that need it. What are you going to do?’
‘I am going to have some breakfast. I am starving!’
‘Okay, I will catch up with you later.’
Half an hour later, Hawk returned.
‘So how was your breakfast?’
‘Pancakes with ice cream was a nice surprise.’
‘Well, you earned it. I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot, so to speak, but I think we make a pretty good team.’
‘You think so?’
‘Yes I do. And I still have to get you home. It might take a while, but I think we can figure out how if we work together.’
David C. Curtis, an Indigenous writer, has been writing for several years with numerous projects in progress, featuring bush themes and science fiction in particular. His first story, What a Fright, won the Indigenous category in the NT Literary Awards in 2008. David has been published in This Country Anytime Anywhere, an anthology of Indigenous writers published by IAD Press, with the short story On the Wildman. Other publications include, What Kind Dreaming, in the digital anthology Black & Write! through the QLD Writers Centre, and Fall from Isen, a short story published digitally with Review of Australian Fiction.
Desert Writing, Stories from Country.
Published by UWA PUBLISHING
Edited by Terri-ann White