Saturday Sunday means (a late) Stream of Consciousness fiction offering, so let’s see what Linda G Hill left us as a prompt today…
Ah, ok, ” “temp.” Use a word with “temp” anywhere in it – beginning, middle or end – or use it as a word all on its own.”
The Last Outpost.
The temperature in the corridor was always just the wrong side of cool, thought Ryskal as he hurried from the cryo-lab, eager to reach the more temperate climes of the bridge.
It wasn’t as if there was any need for the frigid atmosphere, scientifically speaking, but with the ship deserted apart from himself, there didn’t seem much point in wasting valuable life-support energy on luxuries like climate control.
He slowed his pace as he neared the access panel and reached for the security card that hung….. Ryskal looked down for the pass that he permanently carried on a lanyard around his neck and stopped.
The thin cord and its encrypted chip card that allowed access to every area of the ship was missing.
He froze, then turned and quickly retraced his steps down the chilly white corridor, trying to think of how and where he could have lost it.
He almost never took it off, not even when he showered was it more than a few feet away, it was that vital to him for getting around on the huge, empty research vessel.
As Ryskal approached the double airlock that led to the cryogenic facility, he realised with a sickening jolt that something wasn’t right. There was a figure slumped in the space between the two sliding glass doors that isolated the lab from other parts of the ship, seemingly unconscious but with one arm reaching toward the security panel that operated the exit controls.
He stopped in his tracks, his mind racing as it tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
This just couldn’t be. There were no other crew members on board.
He should know, he’d been alone on this floating experiment for long enough now that he knew every last chamber, duct and passageway by heart.
No, that couldn’t be it, the cloned Temps that they’d installed in cryo-stasis before he had boarded had all been in deep, biologically-induced comas since the ship had left the surface and nothing short of a serious life support malfunction or catastrophic failure in the ship’s structural integrity would cause them to be resuscitated ahead of schedule.
He couldn’t see the face of the immobile figure, his head was turned away, pressed up against the inner door to the lab, but he could just make out the loop of silver cord that lay against the back of the red jumpsuit that he wore.
His chip card!
How in the name of all the Founders had this stranger managed to gain possession of his pass, in just the few minutes since Ryskal had left the lab?
Kneeling down to give himself a better view of the unknown and unaccounted-for crew member, he tried to make out any signs of life, but could see no indication that the man was still breathing, or come any closer to identifying him for that matter.
He appeared to be roughly Ryskal’s build and height, but had noticeably thinning hair and the skin of the outstretched hand was lined and grey-looking, like that of an old man.
He stood up, keeping an eye on the body (there seemed no point in hoping the man was still alive, but some ingrained superstition wouldn’t let him look away) and tapped a few keys, entering the security override code on the holo-pad that glowed on the wall next to the airlock.
He was relieved when it instantly came to life under his fingers and ***CODE RECOGNISED * INSERT CHIP CARD*** scrolled across the display, but only because it meant the computer still recognised him, it didn’t get him any closer to accessing his pass or finding out how this interloper had taken it in the first place.
“None of this makes any sense,” he muttered to himself, as he stared through the reinforced glass of the airlock doors into the lab beyond, “I was only in there ten minutes ago, all I did was…,” his voice tailed off, suddenly seeming loud and hollow in the featureless white tube of the corridor.
All he did was…wait, what had he been doing?
He thought back, attempting to reconstruct the last half an hour in his head.
He’d been working in the lab…hadn’t he? Then he’d, what, entered the airlock?…then what?
With a rising sense of horror, he realised that the furthest back he could remember was making his way to the bridge and finding his chip card missing…
“Calm down,” Ryskal told himself, trying to control the feeling of panic that was threatening to sweep over him “there has to be a logical explanation for this. You’ve been working too hard, that’s all, it’ll come back to you in a second.”
But he didn’t sound convinced, not even to himself.
He forced his gaze back to the body in the airlock, wishing he could make out the dead man’s features, yet at the same time, terrified at what his identity would reveal.
There was something familiar about him, even from this angle, but for the moment it eluded Ryskal and he once more turned his attention to the holo-pad, automatically tapping in his personal identification number and waiting for the computer’s response.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the message that flashed across the holo’s display:
***TEMP CODE ACCEPTED. RETINAL SCAN REQUIRED FOR ACCESS***
Admittedly it was a while since he’d needed to use his ID code, the chip card granted him unlimited access without requiring additional clearance, but he was sure he’d input the correct series of numbers.
He re-typed the code, his fingers moving almost of their own volition to enter the digits that were so firmly embedded in his memory, and once again the unexplained message appeared; ***TEMP CODE ACCEPTED * RETINAL SCAN REQUIRED FOR ACCESS***
Ok, there was only way to solve this, if he was to convince the computer that he was indeed who he said he was, he needed it to compare his scan to the one in the ship’s personnel records, then perhaps he could access the ship’s systems and somehow open the outer airlock to retrieve his pass.
Ryskal took a step back from the panel, bent slightly so that his head was level with the scanning field and waited for the recognition software to validate his identity.
Of all the things that might have resulted from the scan, he was totally unprepared for what happened next;
There was a soft mechanical click and the door immediately slid smoothly open, the movement of the curved glass shifting the position of the prone figure so that he rolled over and lay face up on the floor of the airlock.
Ryskal stumbled back in shock as he looked down upon the desiccated mask of skin, stretched over the skull-like grimace of the dead man in front of him.
He managed to suppress a scream, clapping a hand over his mouth and staring in horror at the all-too-familiar face and the nametag on the red jumpsuit; Kalen Ryskal.
The Temp had no way of telling how long it stood, frozen to the spot, staring into the dead eyes, before its programming finally took over and began streaming the data back-up from the ship’s mainframe into its processors, but the residual emotions of its deceased Original faded from its memory circuits after only a few seconds.
It leaned down and removed the chip card from the dead crewman, fastening the lanyard securely round its own neck before stepping over the corpse, entering the lab and resealing the airlock.
The Temp walked past row upon row of cryogenic chambers, all but one containing cloned copies of the ship’s unfortunate Original and made for the bench where the flask of bio-chemical compounds stood, the one Kalen Ryskal had been working on before the leak of deadly toxins resulted in his death less than an hour previously.
It noted the results of the failed experiment, carefully disposed of the flask and started again.
Far below, the war-ravaged planet slowly turned, the long-dead population no longer in need of a weapon that would deliver them from their enemies. And all the while the forgotten research ship, with its sleeping, artificial crew and deadly cargo, continued its silent orbit through the endless night.