The Light is On

Image of Short Fiction Contest - 2020
Image of Short Story

And then it’s up the ladder with his echoing clack clack on each rung a number of stories high. The never-before-on light went on today and lit his face all amber aglow in the office where, alone, he sits. Indicates a problem. When they built this hulk they assumed, like he did, that the never-before-on light would always be the never-on light. How could they, oh so freewheeling and ague-proof, construct something that would ever have a problem? And so it was nothing more than a dimmed wink to their infallibility, and they put it in and tubed themselves up to the ambrosial nutrient-rich slurry to which they are so rightly entitled and then they slept and have been sleeping as long as he’s been alive and will, most likely, be sleeping long after he is gone. 


They left him the videos, the grainy fuzzy ones all distorted and Moiréd from the nth-hand recordings they have been put through over the ship’s long journey by the predecessors that the videos say came before him. Salt-and-pepper Dr. Herschel, yawny and sunken-eyed. The entertainment library is vast so he can while away time waiting for a never-on light to never be on, but the videos that tell him how to watch the systems are unique because they are the only ones that speak directly to him, are made only for him. The doctor tells him the good always-on numbers that should be always on the pale green-on-black monitors, and the bad ones, never-on, (he has and should never see them), which, if they did their job correctly, and how could they not, will never appear. Each never-on set of numbers indicates a different sort of problem that will never happen, and the procedures that should be followed and will never be necessary are each linked to a numbered diskette with another Herschel-video.


He has seen every one of them. The people in the old movies are long dead, and he will never tread the same soil as them but the doctor could still be sleeping and present somewhere in the labyrinth of pods that take up most of the ship. And so he has seen all the Herschel-videos because the doctor is all he can reach. 


He saw the video, of course, that told him that the never-on light that is now the never-before-on light turning on indicates a mechanical failure in the service tank. On goes the wet suit and breathing apparatus and the heavy light-goggles and down the corridor he goes on the long long walk.


And then, of course, it’s up the ladder. He has never and will never see the entirety of even one of the tanks. It looks to him like a wall with a thin, shiny ladder, and an airlock on the side so that the fuel will not come gushing out. The buttons for the pad code (369887) look new in the dim light that washes everything steely-blue. Open hisses the hatch and then closed again with him inside the narrow tube.


It sounds like breathing and quiet blood flow, of course, since he is alone and always has been. Usually, though, those two sounds are not so loud in his head. When he opens the fuel door a sudden gush of heavy-and-cold and the click of the breathing apparatus activating. The doctor says that this pulls air from the fuel and will make it so that he can stay down in the tank as long as it takes to ensure the never-before-on light is off again. He can breathe but the breaths taste odd, metallic and harsh. Tap on the light-goggles and look for the wall, so the instructions go, and then survey the inner surface for damage.


Something inky, ill-defined, clotted fuzzy several meters down against the wall. It is attached to a port. The map says the port is the one that leads to the nutrition engine that pumps the slurry into their pods down the throats while they sleep their sleep. He touches it, gingerly at first, sees it has some give to it. Presses harder on the surface. It bursts, spewing a thick black liquid that globs together and floats off into the depths of the tank. He pulls it off, keeping the apparatus well away from the substance, and sees that there’s more of the inky something down the port, so in he swims, careful to not pop any more.


When he gets to the engine, he closes the hatch, hears the pressurization go. He has checked on the nutrient system often, as is his job, as it has always been for him, and considered what might be the taste, texture, mouthfeel, sensation of the good-golden stuff. His is chunky, watery, pale, splattering when it comes out of the pipe in his quarters onto his scratched-up plate - reportedly the same nutrients that they get, but he can guess that theirs is somehow better. Or was, because now it is murky, dark, clotted like the something that has crept along inside the port and service tank. It is like that all the way through the tubes that curve gently overhead and disappear towards their pods.


And he follows the tubes, out of the room with the engine and along their paths towards the bright maze of sleepers. He walks for a long time, very very long, and all the corridors look the same. Left, then right, then up, then around, and twisting he goes to follow the should-be-golden tubes that are the now-wrongly-dark tubes. 


It is so bright. The jelly the sleepers float in fluoresces bright blue onto his skin and the lights above beat down. He walks and keeps walking, ever following the tubes, ever watching the way the now-wrongly-dark stuff pulses and shudders through them rather than gurgles softly along. 


He knows when he gets to their pods because here it is dark. The pods are cracked, seeping the same substance onto the floor drip drop. Where the glass remains intact, he can see pale faces pressed up motionless dull bug-eyed against the glass by the pressure of the now-wrongly-dark jelly, bloated bellies and throats below the tubes that keep pumping the something down their gullets.


He drops to his hands and knees onto the floor, slowly getting covered with the puddling fluid, on eye level with the nameplates that are attached to each one of their pods. He looks at each one, going down the row. The black pods stretch long into the corridors. There are so many of them, he thinks. And he checks them down in the long line of pods. He will check all of them if he must. He has to.