The first sign of trouble came with a small, red, flashing light illuminating the cold, metal corridor that had remained dark for several years. It was joined by a dull green glow as screens lit up from their hibernation. The first noise for several years quickly followed; a hissing cacophony from a row of pods whose bottom edges slowly protruded from the opposing wall, joined moments later by the sound of an alarm. Consoles kicked into life, turning the green to a warm, white light as the front panels of the pods slowly opened.
Of the five pods, the occupant of the middle one was first to stir. Despite the soft lighting and relatively low volume of the alarm, designed to minimise sensory overload in such situations, the face revealed by the clearing vapours scrunched it's eyes and slowly raised a hand to shield the light. The alarm was harder for the subconscious to ignore however, and within seconds the training kicked in. Stretching and bending his legs, the man emerged from the pod, unclipped a variety of tubes and sensors from the hood-to-toe, skin-tight, outfit, and turned to help the others wake from their long slumbers.
He didn't hang around. Unclipping the others, he gently but firmly slapped their cheeks, bringing the sound of the alarms to their senses. Sickness and disorientation was to be expected, and he quickly gave two who were struggling a shot in the neck to bring them round. It took a couple of minutes for everyone to become functional, in which time two of the personnel were already at the screens, trying to ascertain what could have happened that required them to be brought out of deep-sleep and into a world of flashing lights and alarms. Why couldn't the ship handle this?
All five personnel, four men and one woman, almost identical looking except for their exposed faces, were now frantically working the touch-screen consoles. Something was very wrong, that much was clear. They appeared to have no access to the computers AI, which would explain why they had had to be thawed, and were having to diagnose the problem themselves.
They didn't have to wait long to get a major clue as to what was up. A console turned red, warning of a hull breach in sector 7G. Worse, the hull breach extended as far as sector 7D, a cargo hold, meaning the breach extended through four layers of the ship.
“Have we been hit by something?”
“Shields are operational, no indication of damage.”
So what the hell was happening? Yes, they were going fast, very fast, but between the AI, the sensors, the offensive capabilities, and the shield, the ship was designed to bare practically zero risk from unexpected asteroids. Some sort of attack, perhaps? Yet, despite the AI apparently not being operational, the shield appeared unaffected.
“The hull breach came after we were already awoken. Had it been an attack that had caused it, what had happened previously to warrant the emergency protocol initiation? Jones, you work thought the ship's log, find an answer. I'm going to try and find out why we can't communicate with the AI. The rest of you, manually initiate containment and repair. Go.”
Jones was already doing just that. It appeared that the first indication of trouble had come from sector 7D: atmospheric changes, temperature rising, breach. Followed by the same indicators in sectors 7E, F, and finally the hull breach itself.
“It looks like whatever happened, it happened from the inside-out, originating in sector 7D. Sir, do you copy? Sir?”
The commanding officer, for without the AI that was he was, at least temporarily, was silent. He was staring, confused, dumbfounded, at the screen before him. He was completely locked out.
“It's useless. I can't even begin to diagnose the problem. All the ships read-outs are consistent, but the AI's completely inaccessible.”
He checked on the progress of the automatic contingency protocol, which, for by now obvious reasons, operated separately from the ship's AI. Every pod on the ship was by now primed for evacuation, just in case things got critical. Which they did.
“We have more immediate problems, sir. The hull breach is getting worse, and without the AI, I cannot say for sure what is causing it.”
“Best guess, Jones?”
“Best guess? Given where it started and the time between each floors atmospheric changes, something from the cargo hold is eating through the structure; acid, or something similar”.
“No way something like that would have got on board. Too big a risk for something we can easily synthesise.”
“Well, whatever it is, it was onboard, and it was a risk. Or a hope.”
The commanding officer looked at Jones, and quickly thought through the implications. It couldn't have been an accident. Significant resources had been committed to working through each and every risk, and to mitigate them to incredible odds. That meant that whatever was going on, it was most likely hidden, complex, and worse of all, intended. And no one would intend to only do localised, repairable damage. What's more, it was likely tied to the reason the AI was out of commission.
“If this is intended, then this is likely about to get much worse than it currently appears.”
“Initiate evacuation, Sir?”
“Do it. We can always pick them up when we are done. It's not like they would even know.”
Jones ran along the gangway at full speed. The full speed his legs could manage after years in the freezer, anyway. The echoes of his steps rang out in rhythm with the alarm, his mind taking a moment to recognise the synchronisation. Moments later, he came to a halt in front of a control panel, lifted a protective shield, and placed his hand against the screen. Nothing happened. Jones shouted down the corridor.
“Sir, we have a problem! The controls are dead!”
“We have more than a problem; two more cargo holds are reporting atmospheric changes!”
Jones could see the commanding officer frantically hammering on the controls. He moved quickly, and was already at the nearest pod when he heard the officer shout.
“Start manually ejecting the pods, now!”
Jones yanked open the manual ejection mechanism next to the pod, pulled out the pin, and pulled down a large, red lever 180 degrees. A hiss of air made him step back, and without waiting to see if the pod ejected, was on to the next one. Twice more he went through the procedure, all the while calculating. Six thousand pods. Roughly ten seconds per pod, no doubt slowing with fatigue long before the end. Even assuming the other four joined him, that was well over 5 hours work. Not nearly enough.
“Sir, we need more hands!”
The officer nodded, turned, and started methodically moving along the line of pods directly next to those they had themselves emerged from. Engineers. Security. The expendables. Jones hurriedly joined him. If they could get enough people un-thawed, they might be able to get everyone off the ship in as little as half an hour. They didn't have half an hour.
A new sound gave the two men pause for a moment. Then another. More alarms. The officer turned and looked at the displays. Two more hull breaches. Red, flashing warnings everywhere. The increasing damage was relentless, the cause still unknown. Jones and the officer looked at each other, each searching the other for an answer. None came.
“What the hell is going on here?”
One of the newly awoken crew was trying to make sense of the noise and the lights. Others started to stir. Jones looked at them, looked at the screens, and started to cry.
“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..”
The situation was hopeless. He knew that. All along the ship, the computer was reporting atmospheric changes consistent with those before. Whatever was happening, it was happening everywhere, all at once. All he had done by awakening his colleagues was to allow them to experience their final moments.
He looked along the gantry. About two hundred yards away, he could see the empty spaces that had formerly been the home to free pods. With any luck, they might be able to harvest enough energy to keep going until they found somewhere hospitable. But even if they didn't, they were still guaranteed a better death than the people he had awoken. He would even pick eternal slumber than experience the certainty of death first-hand.
“We might be going to die, but that doesn't mean we can't save some. Everyone, start ejecti...”
He got no further. Gravity failed, pressurisation failed a moment afterwards, and the entire ship was shaken and blown apart. For what is was worth, their deaths were quick.
Speeding away from the explosion, three pods were adjusting their trajectory and powering away from the ship. Not fast enough to completely escape the resulting explosion, but enough to survive it. Whether surviving meant anything at this point, only fate would decide. Fate, and the on-board computers that charted a course for the nearest star cluster with known potential for life-sustaining planets.