Growing up on the Ark, little Jenny Ashby would watch the Captain walk past her in the hallway wearing his pristine, black uniform and his confident smile. She would imagine how exciting that man’s life must be. The daily adventures, days of setting and reaching impossible goals, of making tough decisions for the good of the people. To her that man in black was larger than life, a hero. No, a superhero, responsible for every life on board, human and otherwise. And that man, he would nod down at her as he passed, a striking image of the self-assuredness that came with power, yet not so superhuman that he couldn’t take the time to acknowledge the small girl peeking up at him.
Now she knew the truth. So much of being a Captain was reading reports. Hours going over statistics, from plant growth updates to population counts to system status details. It wasn’t an adventure but a daily trudge. She remembered how space was once the great unknown, a frontier harsher than any other in human history, full of excitement, with danger hidden around every corner.
The reality of space was that, more than anything, it was empty. Just an uncaring wasteland where even sound went to die.
Jennifer had learned the sad truths of adulthood the hard way. For all of its limitless potential, nothing much happened in deep space. Aside from occasionally navigating around an anomaly picked up by their sensors, the most interesting days were the ones they came across an asteroid. Then it was a lovely dance of automated machination and human ingenuity, various departments and systems coming together for one, shared goal, the goal of mining the floating rock for all its resources. But until then, it was the reports for her.
Captain Ashby rubbed her eyes, giving them a short break from the screen in her lap. She let her gaze pass over the ship’s bridge. The circular room had five workstations in total, each with its own array of screens and instrumentation, as well as the center command chair where she sat. The bridge normally glowed bright with artificial sunlight, twenty percent brighter in fact than her predecessor had kept it, the extra energy usage justified by explaining how important it was for morale. She wanted the crew to see the bridge as the brightest place on the entire ship- short of a few of the more desert-like environments, of course. Today, however, she had requested that the light be kept low. Though she’d blamed it on a headache, the truth was she was feeling distracted, a feeling compounded by all the bright lights and steady beeps, all those screens vying for her attention.
Before she’d been that little girl peeking up at the Captain, she’d been an even smaller girl. Scared. Alone. Taken from all she’d ever known and loved, torn from the ground like a weed, its roots ripped painfully from the dirt. Those first steps onto the Ark had felt like a death march. Even at such a small age, she could imagine nothing more for her future than a slow, quiet death; a stinking weed, rotting in the sun.
As her thoughts shifted back to the present, Captain Ashby realized someone was speaking to her. She turned to see First Officer Oberlander at her side. He was a young man, not quite as young as she’d been when she held the same position, but still inexperienced. The look of concern on his face made her wonder how long he’d been standing there trying to speak to her. Ashby glanced at Hopes, the Communications Officer, and caught him trying not to look at her.
“What is it, Oberlander,” she asked, placing the screen on the table next to her.
“You asked me to update you when today’s thaws were completed.”
She paused, giving him a disapproving look. “The what?”
“Revivals,” he corrected himself.
“How many were scheduled for today?”
“Three. Two male, one female. Would you like to see the reports?”
“Send them to me. I’ll be in my office for the time being.” She stood from the center chair, smoothing out her uniform as she walked past Pagani, the ship’s Navigator, to the stairs that led down to her private office. “The chair is all yours,” she added over her shoulder.
“Of course, Captain,” Oberlander replied. In his voice she could hear the doubt of youth, and maybe something more. He still needed a great deal of guidance if he was ever going to take over as ship’s Captain, but it would have to wait; she was in no mood to babysit. She walked down the metal stairs and through the door, the design of which was made to echo the look of ancient submarines, closing it behind her with a solid push.
That small girl, little Jenny Ashby, had felt so lost her first day on the Ark. Hours earlier she’d been standing on Earth, begging her parents to come with her, the two of them smiling through tears as they explained they couldn’t, that they had to stay behind, they were too sick to go. It had taken three attendants to pull her onto the lift ship and strap her in, and when she wouldn’t stop screaming they held her down. A quick press of a medgun to her wrist later she was swimming in euphoria, the countdown starting over a speaker. Her eyes swam in her skull as the lift ship began vibrating, the rumbling growing so strong it felt as if the world was breaking apart. Thirty seconds later she felt the heaviest weight she’d ever felt pressing down on her. All became white light, until finally she couldn’t keep her eyelids open anymore and she slipped into a warm bath of sleep.
Captain Ashby glanced around her office. It was impeccable, and not just because she scheduled the cleaning crew to pay it a visit every other week. She was a strong believer of the saying ‘clean desk, clean mind,’ and so she was very selective about what she kept in her private sanctuary. There was a shelf on one wall, the kind that would be perfect for trophies and awards if those actually existed in space, which displayed the few, small keepsakes she allowed herself. There was the unexplained space junk they’d recovered on a mining expedition, a hunk of black rock somehow perfectly square. Next to that was a framed photograph of her parents, one she’d printed from the screen they’d packed in her bag. Their smiles were genuine in the photo, not hiding pain like they’d been on that terrible day. Lastly there was a beautifully-rendered sculpture of an elm tree, its branches proudly reaching for the sky, skillfully rendered by hands she knew very well. Aside from those objects the office was sparse, cold even, and that suited her just fine.
Ashby sat behind her desk, sinking into the soft chair as she allowed her eyes to close for a moment. It had been a difficult week. She could feel the sleep hunting her, wanting her to keep her lids shut and possibly never open them again.
Little Jenny Ashby opened her eyes. The lift ship had already docked, its engines shut off. The attendants ushered her out of her seat and to the exit to join the others. The sedation had mostly worn off, though she still felt sluggish. Her legs were heavy as she stepped through the airlock. Those drugs didn’t have the crash they once did, but she felt the comedown nonetheless as she realized she would never see her parents again. The last time they’d seen her she was crying and screaming. Jenny didn’t want that to be the last image they had of her, but then she didn’t want any last image- she just wanted to go back to them.
It didn’t take long for her to wander off from the group, numbly exploring the new place on her own. It was tremendous, full of sights she’d never seen before. She knew, even at her age, that not many ever had. Under any other circumstance it would have been the experience of a lifetime, but just then, in the midst of her grief and confusion, she felt like a recently deceased soul standing at the precipice of Hell, staring out across a lake of torment.
It was some time before an adult found her and returned her to the group of newcomers. They were still filing through a processing area, having their bodies scanned and their quarters assigned to them. Jenny was lumped in with the young kids who didn’t have parents or chaperons, who had come to the Ark alone. But they were more than simply unaccompanied minors here- they were orphans.
As she was pushed to join the group, she caught the sight of another girl in the crowd. The girl was about her age, but there was something so mature, so mesmerizing about her eyes, the way she looked around and studied every, tiny detail in the world around her. There was a mystery in those eyes that made Jenny forget everything else around her. As she stared at the girl, the girl turned and noticed her.
And then the girl smiled.
Tapping on the screen in front of her, Captain Ashby called up the number to her quarters. After three, soft tones, that same face she’d been reminiscing about materialized in front of her, a three-dimensional light rendering of those same attentive eyes, that same, brave smile, just a number of years older. “Hello, love,” the image of her wife said, and Ashby felt her shoulders relax.
“How are you today,” she asked. Her wife’s smile wavered as she swallowed roughly.
“It hasn’t been a great day.”
The Captain frowned. “Well. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”
“If I remember right, you said that yesterday. I’m starting to think you might be lying.” She was using her playful voice. For the first time that day, Ashby smiled.
“Are you talking back to your captain?”
The Captain continued to smile as she glanced up at the tree on her shelf. Ness, her wife, was an artist, primarily sculpture, though recently she hadn’t had the energy to go into her studio. In fact it had been a few weeks since she’d even left their quarters. “I wish I could be there with you right now,” Ashby said. “Maybe I can cut my shift short. Just for today.”
Ness shook her head adamantly. “No. Don’t do that. Stay for your shift, I’ll see you in a few hours.”
“Not soon enough.”
Ness smiled. And maybe it was a trick of the light from the hologram, but Captain Ashby’s office lit up. “It’s never soon enough, love.”
They disconnected, and Ashby watched the rendering of her wife’s face deconstruct and fade away. She stared at the empty space it left behind.
After a while she pulled up the reports Oberlander had sent her, checking on the three revivals that should have already been completed. They all appeared to have been successful. Recognizing the name of the female patient, she called up the camera feed on the patient’s Medlab with a few taps of her finger. She was pleasantly surprised to see the woman was looking as fit as ever, letting her eyes wander briefly over the woman’s exposed skin before switching to the next Medlab. There she found an older gentleman snoring loudly, asleep on a medical bed while one of the nurses attempted to wake him. She laughed softly, giving serious consideration to clicking back over to the half-naked woman in the previous Medlab. Instead she checked on the third and final revival.
The room was empty.
Captain Ashby leaned forward in her chair, her brow furrowed, and checked the lab number. It was the right room, just no patient. “Sunn,” she said, “can you tell me where the patient from Medlab 3190 is right now?”