PDA

View Full Version : "Solitary" (~3000 words)



The Jaded
March 5th, 2013, 06:21 AM
It's been a while since I posted anything here, but here goes. This is a story I wrote some time ago for a contest that needs a revisit and an upgrade. The content is somewhat dark, but does not feature profanity or salacious language that I recall.

Most importantly, I want to know how this story works from the perspective of cadence and flow. Does it seem to drag on, does it rush, does it linger in places it shouldn't?

Of course, any other comments are welcome, positive or negative, wide-ranging or minute provided they're constructive.

Thanks in advance for reading.

Edited 2013-03-31: Modifications based on my own editing decisions as influenced by those kind enough to reply. I'm not sure what else I can do to improve this piece, but if you have any further comments or suggestions I welcome them.


Solitary
by "The Jaded"


The hissing is incessant. I know there’s a leak somewhere, slowly letting out my precious air. For the dozenth time in as many hours, I query the computer, and it tells me that there is no drop in air pressure in what's left of the hab complex, and that the recirculators are working normally. If only the thing had an audio pickup, it could hear the hissing and know that it was wrong.


According to the chime of the computer's clock marking the hour, I should have slept seven hours ago, but with that hissing there’d be no way I could sleep. It’s everywhere, I’ve wandered the hab complex (what’s left of it anyway), all three rooms of it, all four of its cramped access tunnels. I can’t find anywhere where it’s noticeably louder or quieter.

The only computer consoles I have are in the command blister, and I don't like the place one bit but I needed to query about the hissing. The overhead triple-pane glass dome just reminds me of the vastness beyond the bulkheads, each star in the blackness the watching eye of an alien, a stranger, an enigma. I'd learned pretty quickly into the trip that I would be having an antagonistic relationship with that compartment of the ship. At least until recently I didn't really have too much reason to be in there. These days I have to go in, ducking my head to avoid looking forward or up.

There used to be more to the hab complex than the bunkroom (with its adjoined pair of washrooms), the command blister, and the forward lounge, but that was weeks ago. The two sealed hatchways in the lounge and the dead-end access tunnel leading aft from command are a testament to that. What’s left aft of those three sealed blast doors with their glowing red warning lights I can only guess at, and the computer is no help. Its wireframe diagnostic just shows those parts of the ship in a dim gray that probably means it doesn’t know either.

There were also originally more to the crew than just me, but I'm trying not to think too hard about that.

I’ve tried all the tricks I know to find the leak, using the computer and otherwise, and all have failed. It’s here, somewhere. There's nothing for it but to comb every square inch looking for it manually. After all, if I don’t find it, pretty soon the recirculators won’t have anything left to recirculate and that’ll be it. Manually checking every surface with my hands is taking a long time, too long. The hissing is all there is in the silence of the ship, though, and I’ve nothing else to do about it besides curl up in a corner and wait to die.

I flip Mack's lucky buffalo nickel to decide where to start - the lounge, or the bunkroom. No matter what, command will be last. I fail to catch the spinning coin, and it falls to the floor with what seems to be an ear-shattering metal ringing sound as I scramble to stop it with my foot. The coin comes up tails when I finally stop its roll, so I head for the bunkroom.

”You’re never going to find it that way.” I can imagine Celeste, the computer tech, saying as I comb the bulkheads behind the double-stacked beds. I can picture her petite, slim, olive-skinned form curled up on the bottom bunk in the aft corner, one slim hand cradling a multiop slate and the other tapping idly at the controls on its surface. ”If you fix the computer, it’ll find it in ten seconds.” She suggests, in a tone that implies that it’s of little concern to her but that she is just offering friendly advice.

”That was your job, Cel.” I shoot back, before I remember that Celeste, like the others is gone. She’d been in the aft part of the hab complex. Her bunk, like all the others, is empty, but made tidily by my idle hands days ago. Only my bunk, on top closest to the door, is in a state of disarray, the sheets and thin blanket thrown haphazardly aside when last I rose. ”I can’t do it myself.” I finish my retort quietly, not that anyone’s here to hear it.

Another hour, and I’m satisfied that the bunkroom isn’t where I’ll find my leak. I go into the forward lounge, and beginning to feel the number of hours I’ve been awake, I type a command into the food processor, requesting coffee. While it complies, I feel carefully around its housing for the tiniest draft, the faintest spot of cold that would signify an atmosphere leak. There’s nothing.

Given that I’ve been awake almost a full twenty-four hours by this point, I know the coffee’s only a stopgap. And depending on the size of the leak, if I fall asleep, I might wake up, or I might not - it’s hard to say, with the computer cheerfully telling me that nothing’s wrong. Luckily, the machine only takes about two minutes to make a pot of coffee, and its upbeat chiming noise interrupts this dismal train of thought, reminding me to grab a mug from the cleaner, into which the aromatic black liquid is dispensed. Yeah, the coffee from the machine always tastes indescribably wrong, but at least it’s dispensed at exactly the proper temperature to be sipped immediately. I take grateful advantage of this fact before setting the mug on one of the lounge’s small tables to check the next section of bulkhead.

As I pass Mack’s favorite lounge chair (not that it was any different than any of the others, mind you, no-one but him could ever tell the difference), I wish for the hundredth time that I had someone else to help me. Not that Mack would - the tall, thin, hawk-nosed pilot never was one for repetitive tasks, or really labor of any kind. ”Bah, you think the computer’s lyin’ to you about a leak, and you trust the rest of what it says, Rob?” He’d probably be saying. ”You’re going off all half-cocked again. Look. If the computer’s gone south you might have bigger problems. If it hasn’t, then there’s no leak and you’re just hearing things. You’re not doing yourself any favors feelin’ up the whole ship.”

Except, of course, that Mack would have known that I was no computer whiz - I can barely muck around with the basic queries and commands. Four months of travel in, Celeste still hadn’t gotten me to learn much more than that. I suppose I could open the computer hub itself and take a look, but what would damage look like? It’s not like a modern computer’s components turn to black ash when they malfunction. In fact, I am pretty certain that a broken component will look to the untrained eye just like a working one, and that just by messing around in there I could break the computer worse than it might already be. Mack would understand that, and he’d probably just go check the computer himself, or more probably get Celeste to do it, muttering about “useless deadweight PhDs” all the way.

Mack’s piqued exit, of course, would probably prompt Jamie to speak up. ”Ignore him, Rob.” She was the ship’s doctor and psychologist, a middle-aged woman about my age, who’d managed to cross the forty year barrier still in shape where I had not. ”Just keep yourself busy, whether that means trying to help around here or not.” I could almost imagine her seated across the lounge behind me, a mug of coffee cradled in her lotion-softened hands. ”You do that, and we’ll get you there, don’t you worry.”

Jamie, of course, wasn’t there - the chair where I’d imagined her voice to come from was empty when I turned to look. I wished she was, though. Of everyone on the ship, she and I were the only two who hadn’t been trained more than cursorily in the workings of the vehicle that would be our only habitat for almost a year. That meant she'd at least understand my predicament. At least Jamie was onboard for a reason - she kept the people, rather than the mechanics, humming along. I was practically part of the cargo. Ironic, that now I’m all that’s left.

I realize that I’ve been re-checking the same bulkhead panel for who knows how long and grab my now-merely-warm coffee, draining the mug. As I turn back to the bulkhead, I realize something - the hissing is gone. Or am I just so used to it now that I can’t hear it? I hold my breath for a few seconds, listening for the hiss until my heartbeat thuds in my ears and makes listening for anything impossible, and I don’t hear it. The ship is perfectly silent. I laugh aloud in joy and drop heavily into one of the lounge chairs (Mack’s, in fact). Whatever the hissing was, it’s gone - maybe the computer found the leak at last and sealed it off?

I wage a silent struggle, debating whether to get up and navigate the access tunnel to the bunkroom. It only occurs to me that I might fall asleep in the chair, coffee or no, long after I’m too far along to care if I do.

Seemingly an instant later, I feel fingers on the side of my neck, gentle and soft. “He’s just sleeping.” Jamie says with a touch of relief, and in response I shake my head clear of the cobwebs and groan. ”And now he’s not. Gave me a scare there, Rob.” She straightens as I sit up.

”Wha?” I struggle to piece things together. The last thing I remember is falling into this chair, alone on the ship, after the hissing sound stopped. ”What’s - ”

”We were in the aft lounge, and tried to call up to see if you were up for a game of cards.” Mack fills in from behind Jamie. I see Celeste standing behind him, in the open hatchway - one of the two I think I remember being sealed. ”Are you? The others are watching some horrible old holoconvert movie back there, and we need a fourth.”

”But I thought - ” My mind races. Why do I remember two weeks alone in the forward section of the hab complex, and certainty that everyone else is dead? Was it a dream?

”You thought it was a good time for a nap.” Celeste chimes in, interrupting, and Mack chuckles a little. Jamie just shakes her head, and straightens. ”Come on, Rob, you in?”

With a sigh, I stand creakily from the chair, and Jamie steps aside to let me follow Mack and Celeste back aft. I stop, though, at the open blast doors. The access tunnel to the complex hub looks perfectly normal, and the two younger crew don’t notice my hesitation. Jamie, though, does. ”You all right, Rob?” She asks with a touch of concern.

”I think so.” I say with a sigh, turning to her, putting my back to the hatchway. ”Just a bad - ”

There’s a sickening crunch from behind me, then the sound of metal tearing, which builds into a shriek of air rushing. I find myself pulled backwards by a sudden rush of air. Jamie lunges forward to grab me, but our hands merely brush as I topple backward into the rush of air, sucked back, and toward a gaping hole where the hub used to be. The blast door seals and I lose sight of Jamie as I tumble backward in the rush of air.

I get one look at the infinite blackness beyond the torn edges of the ship, and -

I jolt awake with a start, my adrenaline pumping. Just a dream. What a cruel, unfair thing of my brain to do, I mentally grumble. Just to be sure, I stand and take a good look at both blast doors on the lounge’s aft bulkhead. Both are sealed, and the panels set in the middle of each glow red to signal the loss of pressure on the other side.

”Jamie would think I was losing it.” I mutter under my breath, turning to go to the command blister to check on the status of what's left of the ship, still powering along on autopilot toward its destination.

”You are.” I imagine Jamie’s voice from behind me in the lounge, replying. ”But would you rather it had gone like it had in the dream, with our positions reversed?”

I stop at the open blast door that stands between the lounge and the command blister access tunnel. ”Not sure. Would you?” I reply, answering the imagined question with another question.

Jamie doesn’t answer, though, no matter how long I give her. All I hear in response to my lonely words is a directionless hiss permeating the air, the sound of atmosphere slowly escaping into the vacuum of space.

Raz
March 6th, 2013, 03:09 AM
Really neat, it was simple, I liked that, reminded me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. It took me a little while to follow up at first but then it gains speed pretty good, overall I like it.

About your concerns, I do feel it lingers a little bit at the beginning but I don’t think is bad, the pace is good and it slowly fills you up with information. In my opinion is really good work, I really enjoyed it.

LamentableBard
March 6th, 2013, 04:05 AM
You capture the sense of loneliness and isolation perfectly, though I think if you didn't point out that the people he's talking to are no longer present so directly, it'd evoke more of a reaction. I know they can't be there so if Rob is speaking to them like he thinks they are, it would certainly be more chilling in my opinion. Your pacing was great, you start on a slow boil and continue to build tension throughout and the fact that you don't fully reveal what happens until later kept me hooked and only helped intensify said tension.
The only minor criticism I have is about the leak. I don't pretend to know much at all about the ins-and-outs of space but wouldn't even the tiniest leak be far more devastating than a tiny hissing? The difference in atmosphere and pressure would be pretty chaotic. That's me being incredibly picky and the point is completely null if the leak is only a figment of Rob's imagination or my knowledge on vacuums is even poorer than I think.
Overall, I throughly enjoyed this and thought it was a great read.

Narnia
March 6th, 2013, 04:20 AM
This is good. It's not usually the type of story I would pick up so the fact that you were able to grab and hold my attention throughout is a definate attribute to your skill with words.

Here are my suggestions

I have issues with this sentence
"There was even more to the crew than just me, but I'm trying not to think too hard about that."

It makes me think there are more crew members currently on board so I'm surprised when you start talking about memories of people. I would either get rid of the sentence entirely or rephrase is to say
There were once more crew members than just me, but I'm trying not to think too hard about that."

Also I get lost here:


The next thing I know, Jamie’s leaning over me, fingers to my throat. ”He’s just sleeping.” I hear her say with a touch of relief, and in response I shake my head clear of the cobwebs and groan. ”And now he’s not. Gave me a scare there, Rob.”

”Wha?” I struggle to piece things together. The last thing I remember is falling into this chair, alone on the ship, after the hissing sound stopped. ”What’s - ”

”We were in the aft lounge, and tried to call up to see if you were up for a game of cards.” Mack fills in from behind Jamie. I see Celeste standing behind him, in the open hatchway - one of the two I think I remember being sealed. ”Are you? The others are watching some horrible old holoconvert movie back there, and we need a fourth.”

”But I thought - ” My mind races. Why do I remember two weeks alone in the forward section of the hab complex, and certainty that everyone else is dead? Was it a dream?

”You thought it was a good time for a nap.” Celeste chimes in, interrupting, and Mack chuckles a little. Jamie just shakes her head, and straightens. ”Come on, Rob, you in?”

With a sigh, I stand creakily from the chair, and Jamie steps aside to let me follow Mack and Celeste back aft. I stop, though, at the open blast doors. The access tunnel to the complex hub looks perfectly normal, and the two younger crew don’t notice my hesitation. Jamie, though, does. ”You all right, Rob?” She asks with a touch of concern.

”I think so.” I say with a sigh, turning to her, putting my back to the hatchway. ”Just a bad - ”

There’s a sickening crunch from behind me, then the sound of metal tearing, which builds into a shriek of air rushing. I find myself pulled backwards by a sudden rush of air. Jamie lunges forward to grab me, but our hands merely brush as I topple backward into the rush of air, sucked back, and toward a gaping hole where the hub used to be. The blast door seals and I lose sight of Jamie as I tumble backward in the rush of air.

I get one look at the infinite blackness beyond the torn edges of the ship, and -

I jolt awake with a start, my adrenaline pumping. I remember the dream perfectly - what a cruel, unfair thing of my brain to do, I mentally grumble. Just to be sure, I stand and take a good look at both blast doors on the lounge’s aft bulkhead. Both are sealed, and the panels set in the middle of each glow red to signal the loss of pressure on the other side.

You have me wondering if he's dreaming in his current state or in his dream. I would suggest:


I feel Jamie leaning over me, her fingers to my throat. ”He’s just sleeping.” I hear her say with a touch of relief, and in response I shake my head clear of the cobwebs and groan. ”And now he’s not. Gave me a scare there, Rob.”

Then


I jolt awake with a start, I had only been dreaming of their return. My adrenaline pumping. I remember It perfectly - what a cruel, unfair thing of my brain to do, I mentally grumble. Just to be sure, I stand and take a good look at both blast doors on the lounge’s aft bulkhead. Both are sealed, and the panels set in the middle of each glow red to signal the loss of pressure on the other side.

Or something along those lines to provide a little more clarity.

I don't feel that it lingers at the beginning though. I think the description is needed for the setup. Overall it was very well done. Great description and I really got the feel of the space ship without you saying what it was he is on. Good work.

NathanBrazil
March 6th, 2013, 06:18 AM
It was very well written and flowed very well. On the whole, an enjoyable story. I'm very glad you didn't end with the "it was all just a dream". The only issue I had is with introducing characters, and then having to add realizations about the fact they are no longer there. At first, I wanted a more linear progression to the story but I when I got to the end, I felt like you'd made the right choice.

Maybe you could reduce the amount of hand-holding. The story might read a little better, if you just have the character's talk to him, and not worry about the "oh, they're not really there", comments. If you tack more hours on to the sleep deprivation, 48 hours+, the reader can surmise that the loss of sleep is making it difficult for the MC to determine what is real and what is not.

One minor glitch that I found.

It’s here, somewhere, and there’s only so much pressure hull left.
I think it's supposed to be "hull pressure" instead of pressure hull

HTH

The Jaded
March 6th, 2013, 06:59 AM
@Raz: I am actually not much a fan of Ray Bradbury in general, but I understand that to be a compliment, thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

@LamentableBard: That's a good point, I'll play around. As for the leak, I understand that it is possible to have slow leaks in a spacecraft, but I claim no expertise in the matter. Certainly a small hole will not let all the air out at once, but I'm not sure how loud the escaping air would be. I should see if anyone has a youtube demonstration of a capsule losing pressure in a vaccuum chamber. Thanks for your time and comments.

@Narnia: I was trying to give as few hints as possible that it was indeed a dream, not to cast doubt on his consciousness in other scenes. I may have to poke around a bit in that section, thanks. I always like to see in-depth comments like that, it's so much help. Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to post a detailed suggestion. I really appreciate it.

@NathanBrazil: The added ambiguity about the presence or absence of the other characters has already been mentioned, since you've seconded that I'll definitely look into it. As for "pressure hull", that is intended. The phrase in this context means "the hull that holds pressure [air] in." I don't remember where I learned this phrase. Probably from other science fiction. Maybe there's a better synonym. Also, I never finish a story with "it was a dream." Though I might once have started one that way... Anyway, thanks for reading.

The Jaded
April 1st, 2013, 03:06 AM
I've updated the piece with my most recent changes - mostly to address the ambiguity issue mentioned, though I fear all I did was make clear that that ambiguity is now an intentional feature of the text. It wasn't originally. I'd appreciate any comments on that, but otherwise I think there's not much more editing this needs.

Thanks again to everyone who offered their thoughts on this piece.

NathanBrazil
April 1st, 2013, 04:05 AM
I belive it's usually best to write an edited version as a separate post. That way it can be compared to the original version.

The Jaded
April 1st, 2013, 04:41 AM
I usually do. I appear to have forgotten this time.

Hmm. Whoops. The previous version is still available here (http://escapingtheroutine.blogspot.com/2012/02/solitary.html) (off site link to my blog, which is as tame as it gets), where I have yet to update it.