Most of the time, the machines hiss and wheeze like my old man smoking his way through yet another pack. Even in my dreams they were are never far away. I remember this dream once of duelling seagulls, one hissing, the other wheezing with pumped-up gusto, as they bowed, hopped ten paces, then scorched each other with laser-beams for eyes. The engineers had called it a safety-feature: the noises, not the seagulls. “Hiss, good. Wheeze, good. Rattle, bad. Rattle, you die, maybe,” warned the lead engineer, his words still sticking from when he trained us prisoners, I mean volunteers.
“Status orange, response initiated,” echoed the ship’s AI.
Colourful icons flashed on the inside of my mind, interrupting the thread of my dreams. Mentally clawing my way to light slumber, I expanded each icon, delving down into the problem. Ship, engines, vector thrusters, misalignment, human intervention required.
Like I said, hissing and wheezing most of the time. I hovered my attention on the Lazarus icon, prompting the machinery to initiate wake-up protocols. Gasses filled my hibernation coffin, tickling the thick, black hairs on my legs and arms. Must have been a while since my last re-animation, the hairs had time to re-grow.
I always think of the warden when I hear the rattle. Warden Black, at least that’s what we called him to his face. He had this distracting habit of rattling the keys to our cells as he hefted his portly stomach though the prison. He was hard like my old man, but without the warmth that comes from drinking. We called him The Stone between lights-out and breakfast, the time, most likely, he wasn’t around.
He never smiled, not even once, except that last day. “Boys,” he commanded, addressing his prisoners lined up into three crisp rows of ten. “The World Council needs thirty volunteers for a mission to save humanity, death is guaranteed,” he added. His gaping wound of a mouth pulled back to expose twin rows of stubby, crooked teeth. We looked around, some of us needing to count on our fingers to understand.
“Status orange, response initiated.”
With a final click, I staggered out of my hibernation coffin and onto the empty deck of the SS Last Hope. Beyond the confines of the hibernation coffin, the rattle was more obvious, like a soft continuous thud. I transferred my display from internal-view to the small wooden table. Aside from the thirty hibernation coffins, it was the only other piece of furniture on the bridge.
“Show problem,” I commanded.
A holographic image of the ship flickered into existence above the table, various icons flashing diagnostic information. Like last time, and the time before, and maybe the time before that – don’t really remember anymore – there were clusters of red centred on the ship’s vector thrusters.
“Status orange –“
“— show options.”
It was gallows humour, there was never more than one. Smart materials coating the table morphed into a large red button directly in front of me. A popup hologram flashed and rotated above the button. Large, friendly letters read, “PRESS HERE”.
Busses had come to take us away from the prison. I’d never travelled in a bus before. What little oil that remained was restricted to the VIP travel only. It’s how I knew they were serious. We were shuttled to somewhere in the desert. Not that that meant anything anymore. The world was a desert with humanity huddled around a few remaining dirty puddles of water.
I slammed the button in a short, sharp motion, scattering the hologram as I went, just like my training taught me. No mistakes, no hesitation, a clean strike. The rattle shook into a higher pitch. I slammed the button again. The rattle persisted. Hiss good, wheeze good, rattle bad.
The busses had taken us straight to the mountain, or what looked like a mountain. Never knew how high or long the spaceship was, but it was a huge, titanic, jumbo, colossal, vast, mammoth chuck of black metal. I struggled to find that perfect word my seventh grade schooling afforded me – educated good by what my family could afford – and settled on big. The SS Last Hope had been built from all of Earth’s remaining steel, copper, gold and titanium reserves. Space enough for ten-thousand humans to hurtle across the universe.
The rattle stuttered then settled into a soft clicking, like the flapping of metallic butterfly wings. I slammed the button again. No knocking this time. Hiss, good, wheeze, good, now we live.
“Status green,” answered the AI.
The Stone and the Lead Engineer never trusted us, but they trusted the AI even less. Murders would always win over cold circuits and binary logic of an artificial brain. Much as they tried otherwise, the engineers needed us. They needed me. Spaceship maths were too complex, too unpredictable for the chaotic vacuum of space. Someone was needed to re-balance the delicate equations of mass and thrust, jettisoning the occasional batch of frozen human cargo.
In training called it renovations, an engineering term maybe; but I called it being a man. Some would survive. Thirty volunteers for the thirty lifetimes it would take to reach New Earth. We weren’t frozen solid like the others, only soft sleep for us. Wake, hiss, wheeze, press the button, sleep and repeat, this was now the tune of my life. My old man would have been proud of his son, I think, an unsung hero for the god-damned human race.
I thought of all this as I clicked myself into the hibernation coffin, firmly closing the lid behind me. Bitter deep-sleep gasses filled my lungs as dreams once again filled my mind.