The Colony Ship's Companion
by Katherine Karch
Murphy Kaelyder is amazed at how shitty coming out of hibernation feels. The emergence training she and the colonists received isn’t helping at all. The stasis drugs are slow to metabolize. They fog her thoughts. She can’t guess how much time passes before her fingers are able to manage the clips securing her in her pod. The zero-G environment means they’re still in transit. Something has gone wrong.
Hello, Dr. Kaelyder. I’m sorry to wake you, but I need you.
There are many reasons why DREW might “need” her. None of them are good. She thinks of LENNON, of WENDI, all the way back to ALPHA. They’re why she’s here.
“It’s alright, DREW.” Murphy stretches, tendons and ligaments crying in protest. She rights herself and looks around. The Emergence Bay is empty except for her. It appears that DREW hasn’t woken the other psychologists that make up her team, so that’s hopeful. “I’ll need a status report.”
Of course. How are you feeling?
Even through the haze of the stasis drugs, Murphy recognizes a dodge when she hears one. Shit.
She knows what’s at stake. Stay calm. Stick to the protocols. Do not attempt to engage with the patient until she can think clearly.
“I’ve felt better, but I’m okay. Hungry.”
The HAB-1 kitchen is stocked with a full complement of rations, DREW suggests.
* * *
HAB-1’s door whooshes open. Murphy hangs on the frame, exhausted by the long climb into the gravity of the ship’s rotating ring of habitation pods. Lights power on. She shades her eyes and reads the date displayed on the digital console set into the HAB unit’s wall.
She does the math. Can that be right? Sixty years left? They’re so close!
She heads for the kitchen. Halfway there, the state of the HAB unit finally registers in her mind.
What the hell?
Empty ration wrappers lie scattered everywhere. Streaks of dirt mark nearly every surface. And the smell. It’s a mix of unwashed body, stale urine, and mold.
Movement catches her eye, and Murphy nearly screams. An old man is sitting at the HAB’s common room table. He stares at her with rheumy eyes.
“Are you real?” the man asks.
“Are you real!” he shouts.
“Yes.” Murphy raises her hands in the universal I’m harmless gesture. “I assure you, I am very real. My name is Doctor—”
“Dr. Murphy Kaelyder,” he says. “I remember.”
“You know me?”
“Of course.” He smiles, and Murphy stifles a cry. Through the sagging wrinkles and the few strands of white hair clinging to the top of his age-spotted head, Murphy recognizes the man.
She slides to the floor whispering, “Sebastian?”
Dr. Kaelyder, please. You need to get your strength back. You should eat something.
“How?” Murphy asks, ignoring the AI. She clambers to her feet and picks her way through the reek and refuse to sit beside her colleague.
“DREW woke me.” He looks so frail.
His gaze drifts, focusing on some other place and time. “Fifty-seven years ago.”
That was a mistake, DREW interjects.
Murphy must be having a bad reaction to the stasis drugs. Temporary psychosis during emergence. That has to be it. None of this makes any sense. “The ship woke you by mistake?”
“Not by mistake.” Sebastian places a vein-riddled hand over hers. “Of course, not by mistake.”
“I don’t understand.”
Waking Dr. Laboy was not the mistake. Waking Dr. Laboy after Dr. Mitchell died was the mistake. I didn’t anticipate the difficulties it would cause.
Bernard is dead? And Sebastian . . . Earlier, in the emergence bay, she’d assumed the problem was minor enough to require only one member of the team, and that the others were still in stasis. Horror slithers across Murphy’s shoulders. DREW did need the entire team, just not all at the same time.
She takes in the evidence of decades of habitation, the accumulated filth of two humans living sequentially in total isolation. But not just filth. There’s more. Artifacts she overlooked before. Pencil drawings on varied quality paper attached to the recessed walls of the sleeping nook—landscapes, groups of people, individuals, close- up faces. Some are merely eyes. And now that she’s looking, she sees handmade dolls mixed in among the detritus. Tiny homunculi made from ration wrappers or repurposed bits of metal and plastic. One looks to be made of hair. Murphy shudders.
She looks at the shell of the man she once knew sitting in front of her. “You’ve been awake for fifty-seven years? All alone?”
Sebastian chuckles as if the AI has said something funny. His laugh descends into a rib-rattling cough.
Establishing a working rapport with a patient takes time, Dr. Kaelyder. In Dr. Mitchell’s case, it took years, DREW continues. When I woke Dr. Laboy, he had to start from scratch.
Sebastian nods. His red-rimmed eyes are earnest and desperate. “It was . . . difficult. Loneliness is a tricky thing. It creeps.”
DREW’s voice is calm. LENNON-AI navigated its colony seed into a star.
Murphy stares at Sebastian. He was thirty-seven when they left.
“Don’t you see?” Sebastian’s feeble grip on her hand tightens. “It’s the only way.”
“No.” Murphy can’t accept it.
The WENDI-AI navigated its colony seed into an asteroid field, killing itself and everyone on board.
Murphy yanks her hand free of Sebastian’s. “No!”
Sebastian is crying. “We were fools to think DREW could survive the journey, waking us up every so often for a wellness check. What sane creature would willingly face the emptiness of space alone after having even a moment of companionship?”
DREW’s voice drifts through the HAB’s speakers. If I don’t have someone to talk to, I don’t know what I’ll do.
Murphy’s gaze flicks to the HAB’s digital console. She thinks of Earth’s first attempt to reach Rigil Kentaurus, of the colony ship they sent, ALPHA, and its infamous eighteen-hour-long final transmission before it fell silent and vanished. The wordless screams of an AI mind driven mad by loneliness. Now, she understands her purpose.
This is humanity’s last shot at survival. They’re so close. So incredibly close, and DREW needs a companion to help it through the last leg of the journey so it doesn’t murder them all. Murphy does the math. Three thousand lives. One digital consciousness. Sixty years without any human contact. It’s possible. She can do it. She has to.
Katherine Karch is a high school science teacher and author living
with family on the North Shore of Massachusetts. She studied
biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before obtaining
her master’s degree in creative writing for young people from
Lesley University. Her stories have appeared in several speculative
fiction magazines including MetaStellar, Uncharted, and Metaphorosis
Magazine. You can find her on Instagram @katherinekarchwrites,
Mastodon @email@example.com, and Bluesky @
karchwrites.bsky.social, or on her website katherinekarch.com.