Here’s a late Christmas present for you all. I wrote this little sci-fi story a while ago and never did anything with it. It’s not connected to any of my series and it’s not long enough to justify charging any money for. So I figure why not share it with you fantastic folks? Enjoy!
I found Rubica slumped against the entrance to port airlock 302. He still wore a crumpled blue librarian’s uniform, the elbows and knees black with grease. Hell of a place to come. Back in my granddad’s day, a rock the size of my fist had punched a hole in this section’s hull shield. Emergency hatches had sealed the hull to keep it airtight, but the section had been abandoned due to the radiation risk. I’d had to crawl a hundred metres through stale water in a rusted maintenance shaft just to get here.
I didn’t draw my gun. Rubica’s hands were empty, and besides, you work security as long as I have, you get to tell if a man’s a threat. Rubica wasn’t, not anymore. I was already too late. Two hours and eleven minutes late, by the glow of my watch.
The ventilation rattled like Death’s bones as it spat humid air over us. I tasted metal in the back of my throat. The place wasn’t supposed to be lit. Rubica must’ve rigged up the emergency lighting. I fished through my pocket and found a bent packet of cigarettes. The ventilation boys hated cigarettes, reckoned they fouled up the air system, but screw them. I pulled a cigarette out with my lips and offered the pack to Rubica. He looked at me for the first time and shook his head. His skin was traced with deep lines made deeper by the emergency lighting.
“Can you feel it?” His voice reverberated in the cramped space.
“Our heading. It’s different. A point-oh-five degree course change.”
“Point-oh-four,” I said. “The engineers managed to correct it some before you vented all the fuel.”
“Point-oh-four.” Rubica breathed deep. “Still enough.”
I sparked a match and lit my cigarette. I watched the flame dwindle slowly down, then tossed the match into a puddle in the corner.
“I have to take you back,” I said.
“In a minute, Gray. Please.”
I blew smoke at the ventilation grate above my head. Let the ventilation boys get pissy about that. “If I don’t bring you back soon, they’ll send someone else. Someone who won’t treat you so well. The XO’s got the crew into a frenzy. Everyone knows we’re adrift by now.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “We were always adrift. You and I would never have seen land.”
“Maybe not us, but our children, or our grandchildren. They would’ve made it.” That was why our ancestors made this ship. So their descendants could find a new home among the stars, a place to start again.
“Perhaps.” Rubica lowered his head so the shadows hid his eyes. “We met once before. Back when the Starfarer extremists tried to destroy the Archive’s servers. Do you remember?”
“Afterwards, I was tasked with repairing the data from the damaged servers. The restricted servers. I tried to focus on my work, of course, tried not to read the code. But I’m a librarian. Seeking knowledge is what I do.”
I showed him my sneer. It was a good one; I’d been practising. “Save it for the inquiry. It’s time to go.” I reached for him.
“Wait, just wait.” He scrambled back and held up his hand. His voice rose sharply, the first true emotion since I’d cornered him here. “You know there won’t be an inquiry. They won’t ever understand. But I need to explain it to someone. Please, just let me speak.”
I checked my watch again. The course change was irreversible now. I’d been so close, but Rubica knew every system. He’d sealed the doors to the engine rooms, cut off all external controls. When I’d felt that sickening lurch, the whole ship had groaned. It hadn’t changed direction for twenty generations. It had always been fixed on a single point, the planet Vera 3. Our home, one day.
And now we were pointed into the black, into nothing, forever. I supposed we had plenty of time to talk. I leaned against the bulkhead and waited for him to continue.
“Do you have children?” Rubica asked me.
“One. A boy. Just turned twelve. We wanted more, but with the population rise…” I shrugged.
“What’s his training?”
“Just like his father.” Rubica’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Did you know that over the last three generations there has been a sixteen per cent rise in military and security training?”
I shrugged. Education was all computer-controlled, designed to ensure the correct proportions of children went into the most essential crew positions.
“I discovered that when I was rebuilding the code for the education program,” Rubica said. “The change was pre-programmed. On a timer. Five generations ago, the computer began increasing the militancy of the ship’s population.”
“Yeah? How come?”
Rubica leaned back and closed his eyes. “You know, I think I will have one of those cigarettes.”
I passed him one. He took it and leaned forward as I lit it for him. His eyes flared in the match light.
“How’s your Earth history?” he asked. “The End War.”
That was easy. The warmongering Federation had been gearing up for nuclear annihilation against our people, the Alliance. The world was coming to an end. To ensure the survival of humanity, the Alliance built generation ships like this one and sent them out to colonise new worlds. Everyone on board knew the story.
“I dug through the ship’s historical records.” Rubica said. He leaned forward. “While preparing for nuclear war, like us, the Federation sent out colony ships. Only they did it first. Their space program was far more advanced than ours. They had all the data on possible habitable planets. We could build colony ships, but we didn’t know where to send them. So we followed the Federation ships. Do you understand what that means?”
I rubbed my sleeve across my forehead. Goddamn, it was humid in here. “You think there’s a Federation colony ship ahead of us, also on its way to Vera 3.”
“Not on its way. Already there. Their ship had a small speed advantage over us. They’ve likely been on Vera 3 for fifty relative years by now.”
“So what were we supposed to do when we got there?” I asked.
Rubica’s lips twisted around his cigarette. “Did you know this ship carries three thermonuclear warheads with delivery systems?”
I said nothing.
“Our education programs were designed to ensure that all two hundred thousand of us would be prepared—eager, even—to perform ground assaults by the time we entered orbit around Vera 3,” he said. “The Federation colonists would have no idea of our existence. Not until it was too late. That’s why I had to stop us ever reaching Vera 3. Do you understand?”
I stared at him a few seconds. Then I took a step towards him. “That’s it? You think we deserve to be damned to save a few warmongering Federation colonists? History hasn’t forgotten the Federation’s crimes. Why should their children be allowed to live beneath an open sky while ours are sentenced to an eternity adrift?”
“Whether Earth survived or not, the war is long over. Surely you realise that.”
I flicked my cigarette away and reached for his collar.
“Wait, please.” He twisted out of my grip and backed away.
“Time’s up. They’re waiting for you.”
“You know what I did was right.”
“Do I?” I asked.
“I was the only one who could turn us from this course our ancestors put us on. If you take me to the crew they’ll string me up and take twenty generations’ worth of frustration out on me.”
Something heavy formed in the pit of my stomach. I drew my pistol and let it dangle at my side. Rubica’s eyes went to it. He held his arms towards me.
“Wait,” he said. “Wait. Let me take the airlock. Give me that, at least.”
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying. I licked my lips. He was right about one thing: the crew would make him hurt. I wanted to make him hurt, for what he’d doomed us to. But I couldn’t take hold of him and drag him back. I didn’t understand why, but my body wouldn’t comply.
I stood there for a moment. There was nothing left to say. I handed him my matches and the last cigarette.
He sighed, all the tension going out of him. “Thank you, Gray.” He moved to the airlock’s emergency release and nodded at me.
I turned away and crawled back into the maintenance tunnel. I pulled the hatch closed behind me and spun the lock so it sealed.
The hiss of escaping air came a few minutes later. A rushing sound as everything in the section was sucked into space. Then nothing. It was over in a few seconds.
It was only then I realised Rubica was the luckiest of all of us. For a moment, he got to see the sky over his head.