A minnow drifts onward in a dark pond. It's small and white, surrounded on all sides by a blanket black as pitch. It doesn't flick around erratically like other minnows. It stays its course, straight as an arrow, spearing on into the unknown ahead. It is alone.
It's been on its journey across this bleak ocean of black for thirty years. In thirty years it's been alone. In thirty years its only company has been the ghostly blink of distant lights. It passed a shred of land once, just before leaving the shallow waters into strange infinite leagues. It was the last shoal peeking from the water. In silent indifference the shoal, a blue globe of hydrogen and helium, watched as the minnow passed. It would be the last familiar thing this minnow would ever see again. The minnow went on steadily, keeping its pace and left undisturbed for thirty years.
This fish is a special fish. It's made of titanium, aluminum, carbon steel, wires, and circuitry. Its white scales are porcelain tiles. Every inch of this fish was meticulously thought out and prepared for its venture into the abyss. Powered by sub FTL (faster than light) neutrino drives, this fish is the dream child of North Korean prodigy Ji Sun and built by the last of the human race. Stamped onto its flank in black and outlined in gold is the name of this fish.
The Defiant has hurtled into the enigmatic darkness of space, half aware of its destination. Somewhere farther out in the expansive gulf a probe, launched twenty-five years earlier, calls out to the Defiant. The far-flung siren song of the probe, a message sent through a laser signal, leads her to an unseen destination. The goal? Find a home. The fish is escaping.
The waters the Defiant left behind had become poisoned. A plague, a cancerous growth, spread across the globe. The vainglorious monuments of men, dug up from the earth and festooned upon the shoulders of civilization, had been torn down, returned into the earth. Even now, as the Defiant carried on her forlorn task, grass consumed the asphalt of empty streets. Vines smothered steel beams. Wind shattered dusty glass panes. Mankind had become predator and prey in a new, savage world. We abused our time on Earth and in anger the planet revolted. There was no going back. The wound we left cut too deep to heal. The planet would bleed out and her body would go cold.
But humanity's greed is not limited to coin or land. People crave hope. When despair wrapped its pallid hands around humanity's throat, we greedily reached for hope.
So the minnow, the Defiant, left the island Earth to find us new shores on which we could rest our weary heads, one of a dozen fish swimming through the void looking for a home, holding onto hope. Hope was now a thin line, an immaterial tether, cast from a probe pulling the Defiant along her path. It promised the possibility of a home but didn't guarantee one. Out of the twelve sent into the void, perhaps two would find something substantial. Perhaps two. Perhaps only one. None for certain. Nothing was certain. Finding a shore like our own was a long shot, but hope--we are addicted to hope.
Neptune pirouetted mutely when the Defiant passed by years ago. Now the planet, fittingly named after a god of the sea, was another speck on the horizon. This was the pelagic of space. The Defiant didn't care. She didn't feel alone. She was ceramic and metal. The Defiant felt nothing. She was half awake, listening to the sonorous call of the probe's laser, keeping her one passenger safe from the cold vacuum beyond.
Then came a spark of life. A little yellow light inside flickered on the third day of the thirtieth year. The Defiant was waking up.
A tiny orchestra of instrument panels started tuning up. Beeps, hums, and chirps sang an electronic melody. Screens flared. Data poured down their faces like raindrops. Numinous oxygen hissed into her sterile belly.
Seated at the center of it all was a sarcophagus of pearlescent white. Thick tubes and wires hung from its sides. A pair of lights above switched on, radiating a low crimson glow on the tomb. Something clicked inside once, then three times, in quick succession. A small window at its head, left dark for fifteen years, flashed back to life, basking the face inside in dim yellow.
It was a handsome face despite being hidden by an overgrown beard and long matted hair. His skin, years after the sun last kissed it, was still a healthy olive. The lone passenger stirred. His square jaw shifted side to side. Another click resounded. The sarcophagus, a stasis pod, lifted an inch and then slid open. Steam poured out like an overflowing cup of water. Lying inside, the passenger's senses began to flood back into his numb body. At first his eyelashes twitched, unready to greet the overhead red lights. They fluttered, little butterflies trying to take first flight. Then they opened. Gray eyes greeted the world again.
Weak red bulbs helped ease his vision into accepting regular sight after such a long duration of sleep. White light could blind him. The passenger blinked his eyes over and over, trying to accept this new vermillion glow looking down at him like a giant demon mantis. It took him eight minutes before he finally sat upright.
The blue gel cushions of the pod cooled down, no longer needed to keep the occupant warm, but the air of the ship's interior was still cold. The computers had already rerouted power to the heat systems. A burst of static echoed out from the command console, followed by something else: a song. It conjured up memories in the passenger's mind, the first memories in fifteen years. They exploded from the gloom of his awareness with vibrancy. Memories of an ocean, the smell of salt, beer...
He recalled the stars. Sitting there looking at the stars. Two distinct memories. One more vivid and the other obscure but equally moving. The first one...it was cold, autumn or winter, and he could hear a tent flapping behind him. The wind was picking up and coming in strong off bitter waves. The moon was full, laying down a spectral radiance on the gray sand. His hands and feet had been covered in filth, bare and beaten by a long trek no one would ever believe. He looked at his jagged nails, then back up at the stars. He remembered the tower with the small furry things and the nights there when he'd look up at grandeur of the night sky.
The second memory, later in life, was the same night he had his first beer. He was fishing with someone, Lucca, and later on the jetty he had his first kiss. She had been the best part of it all, and the reason he left. They fell asleep there listening to the waves crash over and over, that guttural splash and slumping sound as water flushed in and out between the jagged rocks. The same stars from the tower of cats, outside the tent, and outside the thin metal walls of the Defiant kept vigil over them that night on the jetty. The taste of her lips never left him.
The song was “The Man Who Lives Forever” by Lord Huron.
The passenger moved to a locker, took out some clothes, and laid them down on a steel table. Next to it he unpacked a foil bag and poured the grounds into the coffee machine pinned into the wall by a small sink. Water ran down into the pristine glass decanter--down and not everywhere thanks to the artificial gravity. While in stasis it would be powered off, all systems instead focused on maintaining the pod and receiving signals from the probe and those from Earth. It was back on now, but at a fraction of full strength to ease the passenger's body into the feeling again, just as the red lights helped ease vision back to normal. In a matter of hours the gravity of the cabin would be back to standard levels.
As the coffee brewed the passenger went about his usual routines. First he shaved the mass of hair he had grown while sleeping in the stasis pod. Afterwards he jumped in the small shower, a standing-room box surrounded by cloudy white glass with the word SHOWER printed on the door.
The hot water flushed away any remaining fog in his head, clearing his senses better than any amount of coffee. The steam vanished up into a vent and the water whorled into the drain by his feet. It would all be collected by machines throughout the ship to be filtered, purified, and recycled for use.
Out here there was no way to gather more water. Scout couldn't simply walk down to a local stream with a bucket in tow to fetch some. Here, space was the ultimate desert and resources were beyond scarce; they were almost non-existent. Survival meant total reliance upon the supplies he brought with him on the Defiant. Therefore the Defiant and her sister ships had been designed to act as independent microcosms, tiny metal planets with one inhabitant each.
With steam still rising from his body the passenger dried off, then went back to his clothes. He sat in a metal chair and donned his pants. They were a burnt orange, lightweight, and slightly baggy, like cargo pants. His shirt was plain and dark blue. It fit tightly against his lean body. At full height he stood 5'10”, leaving about four inches above his head in most of the cabin. It was cramped at times but at least he didn't have to cock his head like others he knew.
He went back to the locker and placed the shaving kit inside, then grabbed a small pill-shaped case and removed a pair of glasses from within. He slid them on and looked up. On the inside back of the locker was a small mirror. The passenger studied his face. Even without the glasses he had a bookish look to him. His upper lip was thin while his bottom lip was full. Above a snub nose his eyes were large and inquisitive. Despite his innocent features his jaw was strong and his expression naturally rested with a slight frown at the corners of his mouth.
The stasis slowed his aging dramatically. Under all that hair barely a wrinkle showed, definitely not enough to count thirty years. He was 57 years old and hardly looked a day past 27, his age when his feet last stood on the ground--real ground, not the tile of the Defiant. His hand moved across the tangle of his wavy light brown hair just before he closed the locker.
Stamped on a small plate pinned to the locker door was a nameplate. It read:
Lt. Serrano, Scout
A new band was playing on the radio system. Volcano Choir. Scout poured the hot coffee while he listened. He loved this song. It was practically his closing anthem for a night of drinks. Those drinks, a myriad of heavy-hitting home-brewed concoctions some of the soldiers made down in their barracks, were the best they could get. Even in the aftermath people found the means to get shit-faced. Hell, it was even more reason to drink. Everyone had lost someone. The soldiers' experimental liquor was the best way to bury the heartbreak, along with a small reserve of actual beer, which was more luxurious.
It was time to check on his microcosm. Even though the fog had left his memory Scout still double-checked the list he taped to the side of his locker. On it was a printout of the duties he had to carry out. After a quick skim over the list he went to the back of the cabin to a circular door. He pressed a red square button and held it. The button chirped, then after a couple of seconds it turned green. The door swooshed open.
On the other side were rows of various plants: lettuce, peas, radishes, potatoes, and beans. They waved from inside plastic boxes that monitored their growth and overall health. Nutrient-rich water spritzed them every couple of hours. White lamps mimicking the sun kept them flooded with light for photosynthesis. Scout patrolled up and down the three rows of plant tanks reading the data on their monitors and visually inspecting them. He'd open up a tank, lightly feel their leaves, then run his finger through the soil. Everything checked out.
Along one of the walls surrounding the garden was a collection of small cylinders, exactly one hundred, each holding packages of seeds. The small LED lights on the front of each cylinder twinkled blue, indicating they remained undisturbed and in perfect condition. If the new world Scout was scheduled to arrive at was fit for life these seeds would be the first human-grown crop and a source of sustainable food he could rely on. It would be his responsibility to best prepare the new world for later generations.
Once the tasks in the garden were seen to, Scout returned to the central cabin. The thermos of coffee was half-full now. At the command console were sets of computers reading out more data on the ship's status. After twenty minutes’ worth of checks he was finished. Everything was nominal. He looked up above the console, sighed, then pressed a button.
The Defiant opened her eyes to the void. There, beyond an aluminum silicate glass window, the majesty and barrenness of deep space spanned in every direction imaginable. There was nothing but the stars. Each delicate mote of light was an ancient alien sun burning bright. Some would be dead by now and as he stared out at the daunting wasteland he wondered if his own home, the wasteland back home, was dead as well.
Is anyone still out there?
It would be a matter of days before the signal from home would ping, answering his question. It was all he had. It was his only link to everything he knew--a blue sky, ocean, sand, trees...people. That single ping, along with a coded message of reassurance, was one of the deepest human connections he had out here. But even if they were alive and well it meant nothing. They might as well be dead to him. What would he do if the ping never came in? What would be the point?
He shook his head to dispel the horrid thought.
And what of the others like him? Where were they now? There was only one more tie to other people available. Scout pulled up a message board on the screen in front of him. Three messages had come in since he went into the capsule fifteen years back.
++Lt. Morrow, Noah--Ambition++
<On my third wakeup. 85 years left to reach destination. Remaining hopeful, staying positive. Signal from Earth still coming in strong. That's a good thing. Know this isn't for nothing. Still have quick and strong communication with the Promise and Volition. Delay for back and forth about two weeks. Plan to enter stasis again in about five months. Godspeed, brothers and sisters. Hope this reaches you all. Keep me updated.>
Noah. A decent guy from the program. Scout liked him even though he didn't know much about him. He envied him a bit but he'd never admit it to himself. Noah had a relatively normal life, as normal as someone can have when the world has died. Both his parents were alive and well. He was an only child, a military brat, who by fortuitous chance had been stationed near the base where the program would be held--mankind's last grand achievement just before life faded from its dying planet.
The other messages were from Sada Issawi and Timur Pentecost. Sada was originally from Syria but moved to Germany during the civil war. She was older than most of the others in the program and Scout remembered how quiet she was during training--quiet but stern. Timur was the charismatic type. Everyone loved him even if he was a bit of a troublemaker. There was something about his charm and wit that kept him from ever receiving punishment greater than a slap on the wrist. Scout hated him even though Timur never really did anything to him. He only wished he could have been more like Timur. Timur, who was...
Scout stopped himself from falling back into his memories and began to type.
++Lt. Serrano, Scout--Defiant++
The name. Serrano. He never gave it second thought in later years, but it wasn't his. It belonged to the man who adopted him. The man who had nothing to lose when the world came crashing down. He was the only one who had been truly alone before the End. Oddly enough, in a time when everyone was losing someone, he found a person to love. Of course he never said the word “love.” He wasn't the type.
No. He said it once. The day before Scout left him. He hugged his adopted son and under his breath he said that one word he never said. “I love you, kid.” Lucca Serrano--Scout's adopted father. He would be dead by now. Had his final thoughts been of Scout? Was he proud? Was he scared? It pained Scout thinking of his adoptive father. After a life of solitude Lucca and Scout had been united. They were both outcast souls, a child with a tumultuous past and a man who never spoke of his, and after finding one another Scout had left him behind. He abandoned the one person who tried to make something of him. He wasn't perfect, but he was good, and it seemed after all those years he did indeed love his adopted son.
Scout typed out the rest.
<Second wakeup. Everything is green all around the Defiant. No issues. Hope to hear word from any others in range. Not sure how long before messages from the other vessels will come in. So far the only ships I have in range are the Ambition, Deliverance, and D. Thomas. Be safe out there. Keep me in the loop.>
He pressed SEND.
No matter how much a person valued their solitude there came a point where isolation brought madness. Scout knew this. He was never social. His early years did severe damage to his development. As a result his social skills had deteriorated. Well, that's what the doctors said, at least, and perhaps it was true at the start, but over time he formed bonds. He was close to his adopted father, Lucca, and some others. He even fell in love. So Scout figured his skills weren't that lacking. Even if he didn't really care for most of the others out there among the stars he knew a part of him, the primeval side created after millions of years of evolution, needed them. Humans are social beasts and staring into the infinity of the universe every day made you realize it.
Suddenly he was ready to go back to bed. He looked back over at the stasis capsule. It was the only means to escape the loneliness that would infest his mind. The idea was tempting, but he wasn't there yet. Not just yet. There was work to be done. If he kept his mind occupied he could stave it off, but he had to ration his sanity like he rationed his food. He couldn't push himself too hard. The journey was too long, the destination too far. So he got up from the console and went for a run on the treadmill, listening to the music as it played.
He stayed awake for one month.
Then a second.
The third month came and went.
On the fourth he climbed back into the humid embrace of his stasis capsule.
His dreams had pushed him back into the pod, to make the years go by with wink. The week before he went back in he dreamed of the past and suddenly all those ghosts came rushing out at him. The old house he lived in, the one that nearly took his life. The tower and all the cats. The house with the flayed girl. The man in the church. The congregation on the beach. And then...
...he dreamed of those after. The people, the other Big People, who found him. The ghosts of his life haunted his sleep that last week and it was their calls that finally drove him back like a lemming over a cliff. He welcomed the half-life of the capsule, where dreams couldn't touch him. It was a sanctuary from them.
It was a dreamless sleep. It took him to a place between purgatory and limbo. In that place, one darker than even space, he slept. Half alive. Half dead. He had been there before when he was young...the last day his parents were alive. In his waking hours the memory of them was gone, but as the dreamless dark pulled him down he remembered that day: crying, the plush of the blankets, choking down pills, and then fading. There were voices in that sliver of a memory.
“Are you ready?”
“See you on the other side.”
And then the dreams were gone. There was nothing. Just as it was before.
With the closing of the pod the priority systems of the Defiant changed over to conserve energy. The lights blinked, then went dark. The Defiant went back to her slumber, joining her sole passenger in his half existence. And so the Defiant, like a minnow, continued her course across an ocean of endless night.