Short Story: Criticality

Criticality
by Richard Holliday

The corridor hummed eerily as the young man paced it nervously. The sign on the wall indicated it to be an experiment chamber, and as he approached the bulb-like pods that were the experiment came into focus.

Stasis, or suspended animation, seemed more than plausible. It seemed like wizardry, yet before the young man stood a bank of pods designed to perform that very wizardry.

“Let me show you to your chamber,” the white-coated scientist said to the nervous young man before him. “It’s all waiting for you. You’ll be safe, like I told you.”

“I dunno Dr. Rezan,” the young man, Malloc, said uneasily. The older man’s features wrinkled in intrigue as they paced the end of the corridor toward the holding chamber. It was cramped and claustrophobic. “I’m not feeling it today. Can I not go into holding tomorrow?”

“Come on, Malloc,” Rezan urged. “The sims showed you it’s possible, and safe. Have you ever been awake during a full-powered hyperspace jump?”

“No, of course not,” Malloc said quietly. He’d the horrific stories of people compressed against walls with the grav-force of a hyperspace jump. Becoming wall covering was an ignoble death. “But that’s not for three days. It’s on the schedule…”

Rezan was losing patience as he subtly nudged Malloc into the holding chamber room. Malloc faced a bank of human-sized compartments lining the far bulkhead. A bead of sweat ran down both of their foreheads on entry to the room. The empty chamber with Malloc’s name was waiting. “The chamber takes three days to acclimatise. I should know,” the scientist sighed, “I designed and tested them myself! Before you know it, you’ll be back on your feet and all this unnecessary worry will be forgotten!”

Malloc’s shoulders slumped back as he relented and lowered himself into the chamber. The visor descended and the seal was made between it and Malloc’s skull. With every electrical impulse from the visor the young man felt his vision become blurry. The air in the chamber became taut as the outer seal fell faultlessly into place.

“Goodnight, Malloc,” Rezan trailed off, ready to deal with the next crewmember – or test subject – in the experiment. He was pleased to have gotten rid of the obstructive young man; hoping the next on the list would be more… compliant. Everyone ‘wasn’t feeling it’ lately; Rezan himself had felt pangs of nausea randomly for the last week. Malloc’s eyes closed as he tried to relax in the dark, compressed chamber. Hyperspace jumps only took a few hours anyway. Steadily he drifted off…

Sixty years later.

A distant siren warbled from a faraway hallway as Malloc’s chamber door fell open with a low thud. The young man inside was abruptly awake and unchanged in appearance since his suspension many years ago. The world outside the chamber was very different to the one Malloc had taken a nap in seemingly minutes before. There was a tinkle of glass fragments underfoot, followed by stinging pain as his bare soles were studded by the shards. Wincing in pain, he found his decayed shows nearby. While slimy and threadbare they’d do for now. The suspension room was dirty and brown with age. The siren continued to wail, this time nearer.

Something on this ship was terribly wrong.

“Hello, Dr. Rezan?” Malloc cried out. There was no response; just a spooky reverberating echo. The young man ventured further. Rezan’s desk was in his office, just as Malloc recalled. He ran over excitedly, seeing a figure slumped across it, looking to be asleep. It must be Dr. Rezan. “Oh, I’m so glad I saw…” Malloc trailed off. The figure wasn’t moving. Subconsciously knowing, Malloc pulled with all the strength he could muster the figure backward. It slid clumsily backwards before tumbling to the floor.

This was the decayed and devoured body of Dr. Rezan.

“Oh God!” Malloc howled with shock, his exultations echoing about the ruined office. There were papers and files scattered everywhere, indicating that something awful had happened here. Instincts fired in Malloc’s mind telling him to leave the office. Without questioning his thoughts, he did so, stepping outside into the similarly-ruined corridor.

How had all this organic matter gotten into rust the metal? Was the Pompey still flying? Questions abounded but answers were less readily available.

For a few minutes the confused Malloc paced the cold floors of the science ship, finding nothing but chaos, calamity and death. What had caused such a disaster to strike the ship? It had taken root quickly; many putrified bodies of personnel and scientists were found slumped over their workstations where the grim spectre of quick death had simply befallen them where they had been.

“Is anyone alive here?” Malloc called to no response. He was soon anticipating none, but his search for answers did not cease. Maybe the bridge of the Pompey would provide a reason to the extinction of life en masse aboard. Each step into the gloom became more eerie. Pools of stagnant water dripped under the touch of bare feet. Nature’s apparent quest to reclaim the Pompey had made good progress while Malloc had slept artificially. The lights flickered haphazardly, and cracks in the ceiling let in thin, organic-looking streams of natural light. Where smooth steel and polybide had lined the walls was now covered in a fuzzy green moss. Near the crevices that let in the fingers of natural light from the nearest star were strange, blue flowers that at first seemed to claw toward the light. How had these things gotten here? Malloc stopped in his journey to the bridge of the crashed ship to examine one of them. The intricacies of the petals were mesmerising.

“Beautiful…” he mouthed, but stopped there. A crunching sound came from the flower – the petal-head slowly turned from facing the sunlight to face him! The petals curved inward and the tips hardened into shards that jabbed for Malloc’s hands. Speedily withdrawing as the other four flowers in the clump joined the first in seeking out human flesh, Malloc doubled down in his journey to the bridge. It was one he’d done many times, but found hard to remember now – his mind was groggy from his reawakening, and the dilapidated, partly-reclaimed state of the Pompey didn’t help matters.

After a few wrong turns the great circular door beckoned, teasing Malloc. Come on, kid, it murmured wordlessly, this is what you wanted.

It was. Malloc strained for a minute or two but the rusty door relented and rolled away into its recess.

The stench of death in the room beyond was almost untenable. A thin, semi-transparent fluid had pooled onto the floor. It wasn’t water; rather, the melted remnants of humanity, cooked to a stale broth had seeped and collected in puddles. Malloc nearly gagged. This was liquid death!

Partly-dissolved skeletons clung onto long-dead workstations in what must’ve been a vain attempt to survive. Some emergency power remained, illuminating warnings of the impending crash that the dead crew couldn’t possibly heed. The Pompey had crashed into the first planet that intersected its course; this was where Nature had made it’s entry. The putrid water sloshed at Malloc’s feet as he took a breath of relatively-freh air and ventured into the bridge. There was little light and no life left in this room, but enough of the former for Malloc to read the panicked warnings on the wall above the door he had entered through.

Beware the fiery beast of Pompey

At first Malloc struggled to understand – what was the ‘fiery beast’ this message warned of? There was a distinct lack of any trace of fire. Radiation meters were frozen into danger, after a recent experiment on the reactor. Dozens of experiments ran concurrently; the reactor experiment scheduled at the same time as Malloc’s stasis stint. A pulse experiment led to a loss of reactor containment, letting radioactive steam into the ventilation system. His stasis cocoon had saved him from breathing the toxic steam and being broiled alive. He took a breath and made for the exit, concluding that the answer to this apocalypse was terrible yet ultimately accidental.

Suddenly there was a loud squawk that took the scared young man by surprise – a crow flying through the adjacent corridor – but this was enough for Malloc to lose his footing. His head made firm contact with one of the workstations which buzzed with static electricity. As he fell, his flailing limbs struck the controls on the desk with a forceful clatter. Dazed, Malloc saw the door slide closed again, and darkness befell him. He was at once trapped in a totally black chamber of the dead! Scrambling toward the door, the young man tried to open it, but to no avail. His breathing became hoarse and frenetic as the realisation he would die here came to his mind. There was a metallic taste in the air that stuck to his tongue. It was offencive and dried his mouth out, leaving no saliva to wash it away. A hissing came from the ceiling – the vents! A buzzer sounded in the dark, announcing the restarting of the pulse reactor. The darkness was becoming stifling as the sealed bridge filled with radioactive steam once more, and a thick goo ran down Malloc’s cheek. Taking a finger to it, he discovered it to be his cheek, blistering and warping – the signs of highly-acute radiation poisoning. He had seconds to live and spent them making a futile attempt to cool his melting face in the irradiated water and slime, however by the time his face reached the surface of the slime Malloc was already dead.

The fiery beast – the Pompey‘s leaking pulse reactor – had claimed another victim, and as alien explorers descended on the smashed wreck, prepared to claim more.

The End

As ever, you can grab a Kindle version on my Dropbox; just navigate to the Short stories folder!

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