Islands in the Void by Brittney Cassity (June 2020 Winner)
Series Info | Table of Contents
This story was the June 2020 Short Story Contest Winner.
“We’re changing course,” I said. “I’m the captain. That makes me in charge of this heap. And that being the case, my in charge ass is not following stupidity anymore.”
“How much have you had to drink, sir?” my First Mate, Fletcher Adams asked.
“Not nearly enough to keep me going on this fool’s mission,” I shouted. “Now, flip the switches, spin the dials, and turn that damnable wheel like I said.”
“Sir,” he said. There was a long, drawn-out sigh and his fingers made circles on his temple like my impending hangover had been rerouted to his skull.
“So, I’ve had a few drinks,” I admitted. “This is a hell of a decision to have to make sober. I know. I’ve tried it half a dozen times already. Never makes it past my lips.”
“I think you should go lie down for a bit,” he said. “If you’re still feeling this way after you wake up, we’ll call a meeting and you can talk your plan through with the Cabinet. You need their agreement before we can change course.”
“They’re all idiots,” I said and wondered if I was going to regret the words. “If you put all their brains in a blender and then poured it into one single head, they still wouldn’t deviate from what the instructions say. They figure that at least it won’t be their fault when it all goes to shit that way.”
“Sir,” Adams said. “You’re relieved for the shift.”
“I don’t feel relieved,” I said. “As a matter of fact, I feel rather urgent about this whole mess.”
“I’d like to remind you that this is the fourth time this month,” he said. “If you keep this up, Therapy will stop clearing you and you won’t be able to pilot the ship anymore.”
“Doesn’t seem like I’m driving it now if I can’t get you to turn a knob without the okay of a bunch of people who don’t even know what that knob looks like.”
“This isn’t the way to proceed,” Adams added.
“No,” I agreed. “It really isn’t! I’m glad you finally agree. Now, let’s turn the ship and go somewhere that isn’t into certain death, shall we?”
“Sandsbury,” Adams called across the room. “You know the drill.”
“Yes, sir,” Drew Sandsbury said. He came to collect me, wrapping a big, meaty hand around my upper arm. He was a good man, affable, kind-hearted, and not quite smart enough to realize how those traits let people use him for the grunt work. “Captain Sloan, let’s go get us a cup of coffee and take some downtime. Sound good to you?”
“Not even a little,” I said.
“Maybe we’ll even take a stroll over to Hydro and feed the fish,” he said on the way out the door. “Then we’ll head on down to Therapy and straighten this whole thing out.”
“Sands,” I said. “I’m trying to straighten the whole bigger thing out. Nobody wants to take me seriously, though.”
“Ah, Cap,” he said. “It’s not like that. They just don’t like hearing the hooch talk. That’s all.”
“Just drop me off at Therapy, Sands,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for fish today.”
“Which is why I’m back,” I said after Sansbury helped me to my broken-down chair in the Therapy room. “At least you have to hear me out.”
“Protocol dictates that you may share as often as you like or feel necessary,” Dr. Mallory said, “but, Captain Sloan, I do want to point out the frequency with which your visits are occurring during your regular shift. Your visits would be much more appropriate during your off hours. I would also like to point out that scans are showing a high level of alcohol in your system. This might not be the best time to decide if you are thinking rationally. Also note that I won’t be able to clear you for duty until the alcohol dissipates.”
“All my rational thinking happened before the alcohol entered my system,” I said. “As a matter of fact, it can be directly tied to the act of putting the alcohol into my system. Sometimes a man needs some liquid courage to add movement to his thinking.”
“As the captain of this ship, do you really think that the best time to be imbibing is right before you go on duty?” Her voice was soothing. If I didn’t know she was a judgmental bitch, I might have thought that it held concern. Good thing I knew better. No matter the informal insistence on using a first name to ‘lighten the weight of the appointment’ I knew there wasn’t an ounce of empathy in her makeup.
“When my granddaddy was a young man and had just taken over the bridge -” I said.
“Your grandfather is no longer captain. You are, Captain Sloan,” Dr. Mallory interrupted.
“I’m not that far into my cups, Doc,” I said. “I know who is captain of this ship. Seems others are the ones who’ve forgotten. Maybe you could call all of them in for a session and remind them.”
“Go on, Captain Sloan,” Dr. Mallory said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“As I was saying,” I said without bothering to point out the lie. “When my granddaddy was flying this ship he told me he used to hear from Earth with some regularity. Can you imagine? Less than 100 years ago and we were hearing from a place that called itself our home.”
“It is home,” she said. “At least until we reach our destination.”
“Not mine. This ship is the only home I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen Earth – or any planet for that matter - outside of the pictures in the files,” I said. “I’ll get to my thoughts on those pictures in just a minute because that’s important, too. But Granddaddy, he said he talked to them and they talked back. He said it was hard sometimes. Said it was like our languages had taken different paths after we were sent out. He said sometimes he’d have to look things up while he was talking and that slowed the conversation down on his end as much as them needing explanations for our words. Still, we talked - this ship and the world that built it - we talked…”
“Go on,” Doc said when I went silent.
“Granddaddy said that one day – the day before all the women went and holed themselves up in the botany section, no less. And you can bet that’s got to be related, too because Grandaddy always swore we used to actually live together. Have something he called families. Strange concept to me, but I guess you had to be there. Anyway, one day, this huge, monster of a ship went speeding by off to starboard. Bigger than some of the moons we’d passed according to him. And faster than a comet, too. He said it was only on our radar for a couple of blips then gone. After that, he never heard from Earth again. He said either they all packed up and left on that ship, or whoever – whatever – was riding it through the universe did away with them. Either way, he never heard from ‘home’ again. He said he tried to hail the ship but they didn’t answer. He likened it to how some cousin will turn their head away when another cousin walks past in the corridor. I think it was the beginning of the end of him holding down the seat on the bridge. My dad took over not long after Granddaddy told me the story.
“Now, my dad was captain when we stepped off the edge of the Kuiper Belt into the great wide open. He didn’t talk much after that. He spent most of his time in the library with me beside him. This is where those books come in, Doc.
“You know the name of this ship?” I asked.
“The Isola,” Dr. Mallory answered. “It’s a lovely name, don’t you think?”
“Mmm,” I grunted noncommittally. “Do you know that it means The Island in some old language that nobody here speaks anymore?”
“I do,” Dr. Mallory said. “Why do you ask?”
“Have you ever seen an island, Doc?” I asked but didn’t give her time to answer. “Strange places, they are. From what I’ve read, most of them stay in one spot. Now, if we do that, we’re even more screwed than we are now in my opinion. Then there’s the fact that those islands are surrounded by water. I find that hard to believe. I know they say Earth is 2/3 water, but it’s stretching the imagination to picture enough water to fill up that much of a planet. The books say there was enough to bathe in, swim even. I’ll believe there was enough that they didn’t have to recycle every drop of sweat that seeps out of a man like on this ship, but enough to fill a vessel for no better purpose than to splash around sounds like a vulgar overstatement of the facts. What’s more, they say it was so deep on the world that our ancestors never got around to exploring it all. That’s got to be wrong. Simply wrong. Why would you chuck an entire ship full of people out into space to find a whole new planet when you weren’t even done poking around on the one you had?”
Dr. Mallory made one of those sounds that implied she was listening and that I should keep on rambling.
“Then they say that the islands were made from earth. I don’t mean Earth with a capital. I mean a small letter e. Another word for it is dirt. The description says it’s basically a layer of decomposing dead things mixed with ground up rock, worms - like they have down in Recycling to break down the organics and turn them into nutrients to add to the hydroponic solution, and like they add in to meet protein counts at the kitchens - and a bunch of microscopic monsters the names of which can’t be pronounced and the likes of which were not allowed on board this vessel. Oh, and don’t forget the feces. Some books call it fertilizer, but we all know it’s just another name for shit.”
“You sound like you don’t believe dirt exists in spite of the documentation,” Dr. Mallory said.
“I can’t say that I do at this point. I’ve seen plenty of rock. There’s that one they say is from Earth up in the Science wing. Then we collect our share from the ones floating around out here as we pass. None of them is a thing you can just grind up and any place that could turn it to dust can’t be livable for the likes of us. The books say that the mix of it was what plants grew out of back on Earth. I’m not buying that, either. Death doesn’t give birth to life for one thing. It’s not sanitary for another. Nobody could have survived all the germs. All you have to do is watch the panic if someone sniffles on this ship to know that. But, according to the old logs, there’s a sample of it on board. Problem is, when you go looking for it, it’s not there. I haven’t found a soul who can come up with it. Rumor has it that the sample went into somebody’s private collection. Ridiculous, really. Good doctors like you screen for people who want to collect shit and dead things. From what I’ve seen, if someone starts showing signs of being that kind of broken, they find themselves traveling in space minus The Isola.”
She made that sound again but refused to agree or disagree about the existence of dirt.
“There’s another thing, all those pictures of all those islands that I was talking about show them under bright light and blue skies. I’ve heard the old tales about being so close to a star that it lights the whole place and will even burn your skin. They say you had to wear special lotion to keep all that light from turning your own cells against you if you were out in it too long. I’m claiming that’s all made up as well. That little dot out there that we’re pulling away from can’t have lit up a whole planet no matter what the books say. If it had, why would we have left it for the dark?”
“Humans are incredibly curious. They like to stretch their limits,” Dr. Mallory said. “What better way to do that than to set off on a journey such as our own? We are heading out to explore a new world filled with things that we can’t even comprehend yet.”
I snorted. The soft, fuzzy edge of the alcohol was dissipating. I already missed it. The reality of the situation we were in was hard to deal with – harder since no one who mattered wanted to acknowledge a problem.
“Still, we’re not an island. There are things they called boats back in the day,” I said. “We’re much more like those. According to the legends, men made them and then constantly battled to keep them afloat on those impossible waters. We just replaced the water with cold, dark emptiness.
“I think we are a prison ship,” I said. Maybe I blurted it. Both ways it was out and it rang true. I had told the Cabinet that once. They had me go see medical for a work-up. After that, I kept the idea to myself. I figured Doc would shut me down, too.
“Why do you think that?” she asked surprising me.
“This ship never had the capability of reaching that new world you just mentioned. That world is lightyears away. It’s taken us 250 Earth years just to be able to say we’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere after the solar system stopped making planets. Hell, we haven’t even truly broken out of its gravity yet. Ten generations counting those who stepped onto the ship in the first place. No light speed. No warp engines like you see in the old shows. Just us, chugging along, harvesting asteroids so we can get the basic building blocks to patch this rattle-trap back together before the hull breaches. I looked at the records. Some parts of this ship have officially been groped by over 200,000 hands since day one. We’ve been painting symbols back on keyboards and rigging up components for every major system of this ship since year 5 just to battle the wear of necessary touch. Engineers are trying to come up with a way to fix the deck where it’s been thinned by millions of footsteps. Millions. The ship will be ground down under the sanding of fingerprints before we ever reach the other side of the Oort Cloud. We were sent on a suicide mission just to see how long we’d last and how far we’d get before it all fell apart. They booted us off the planet because we were expendable, not because we were pioneers.”
Good old Doc Mallory didn’t have anything to say to that. I let the silence stretch. After a while, I slipped the flask out of my pocket and took a nip. It would help dull the sharp ache of nearing sobriety threating to pound at my skull for a while.
“All I’m proposing is that instead of dying like the good little experiments our forefathers wanted us to be, we look at other options. We make our own way. Now, there is a planet not too far from here. An orphan floating around in the darkness of space without a star to warm its days and light its sky. Our instruments tell us that even though it’s floating in this eternal freezer, there is heat from its core keeping its surface active. There are even signs of liquid water there. The outer atmosphere has some significant off-gassing while it boils away into space, but it’s thick and keeps being replenished while things churn away inside the crust. I can’t help but see the similarities between that planet and our little misnamed boat. We can land on that world and make it a home. Our equipment still works on this tank. We can filter the atmosphere into breathable air. We can filter the water just like we do our own piss and what we collect off the space rocks now. We can use the resources we find to build a stronger, safer roof over our heads – one that can expand and give us more room, even! Maybe open up the idea of families again like my Granddaddy used to talk about. In other words, we can build a life. Imagine it: two outcasts getting together to form a thriving world.”
It was the first time I had been able to lay the whole idea out for anyone since the lonely planet made its presence known. Normally they shut me down during my rant about dirt. Then I’d get tucked away into my quarters and told I’d feel better after a nap – or worse, sent to medical for a little ‘help’ with that nap. It felt good to share the plan even though it wasn’t well-formed yet. It was attainable. I was sure of it.
Dr. Mallory still hadn’t said anything, though. The silence was getting heavy in the room.
“I’m not crazy, Doc. It will work,” I said. “We’ve got some engineers who are used to working with a lot less. Having a whole planet to harvest from and grow into would be like the old stories about Christmas morning to them.”
Nothing. No response at all. My head ached with the emptiness of the quiet. Then it hit me.
“Damn,” I said. “Not again.”
I hoisted myself out of the chair that hadn’t been comfortable in over a hundred years and went to the rigged up panel by the door. I flipped the switch and waited. When nothing happened, I thumped the grimy spot beneath the grill and waited again.
“Yes, Captain?” Sansbury’s voice sounded tinny like it always did through the speaker. “Are you finished with your session?”
“I thought I was,” I answered. “Turns out Therapy crashed and I didn’t notice. Have a tech come up here and reboot. If they can’t get Dr. Mallory back online, I’m going to need someone to pry the door open and clear me for duty.”
“Aye, sir,” Sansbury said.
“Oh, and Sansbury?” There was a pause as the man came back to the panel. “Can you make an appointment with the Cabinet? I think I’m ready to run an idea by them provided they are willing to listen.”
“Aye, sir,” Sansbury said. “I’ll make it for tomorrow. You should be sobered up enough by then if you promise to keep out of the hooch tonight.”
“I’m about done with the hooch,” I told him. Then added, “For good if all goes well.”
“Good to hear, Captain!” he said. “I’ll go get a tech now, sir, and set up that meeting.”
“Thank you, Sansbury,” I said. It warmed my heart to hear him sound so happy when I said I wasn’t going to be drinking anymore. He was a good man, one of my favorite on the crew.
“I don’t think we’ll tell him that if the Cabinet turns down my idea and forces us to keep up with this fool’s mission that I’m going to end my journey at the airlock, Doc. Maybe this old body will even find that planet and turn to dirt like the books say. Wouldn’t that be something? Still, let him believe the best, right? Isn’t that what the mission statement says?”
Silence. I sat back down in the horrible chair and started to word my Cabinet proposal in my head. It was the best Therapy session I had ever had – and I had been here a lot. With any luck, they’d never get the program back online. Maybe then we would have to talk things out with each other. Maybe then we’d be able to build our own future instead of the one programmed into us by ancient machines built by long gone people who had abandoned us.
This was hope as I saw it. If that hope failed, there was always one last drink and an open hatch. Anything was better than this continued free-fall into the void. Good old Doc Mallory wasn’t around to tell me otherwise, either.
I kicked my feet up on the worn console, leaned back a bit, and finally caught that nap everyone had suggested. For the first time that I could remember, it was untroubled with dreams of standing on an island that disintegrated around me as I tried to grind rocks to dust in my hands.
Debi Simmons      7/06/20 2:09 PMWhat a fabulous allegory for the Separation! It does give one pause for thanksgiving for the little things in life. Even though there is no answer presented besides life and death. Wouldn't it be nice if there was an alternative found? Well done! Congratulations on winning the Short Story Contest for June, yay!!!
Josie Dorans      12/09/20 1:15 PM
Thank you for the congratulations and for liking my little journey into nowhere/everywhere! (And I'm sorry it's taken me so long to say that - it's been a BUSY summer/fall/early winter). It would be fun to explore all the in between options for that ship and it's captain because you're right, there are a lot of things between life and death. I may have to fiddle around with some of them as a continuation of the story one day.