Chen came out of deepsleep with Mari’s face hovering over him. She leaned over his pod, her eyes bright and wide, her golden hair disheveled, her lips dry and cracked. She hadn’t been awake long herself.
“Are we there?” Chen asked, his voice rumbling with phlegm, his eyes still bleary.
“Not exactly, Chen.”
“How not exactly?”
“We’re about a hundred light years out from Earth. Still one-fifty and some change to go.”
Chen let that sink in. “And why are we awake?”
“My pod malfunctioned. It kicked me out of deepsleep a few hours ago. I tried all the automated routines to repair it, but nothing worked. I need you to fix it.”
Chen sat up, a cold chill running down his spine. “You woke me for a repair job?”
Mari tensed, then turned and walked away. “But it’s my sleep pod, and you’re the engineer. What was I supposed to do? Live alone on this stupid ship until I’m an old lady and die?”
“Actually, yes, Mari. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s the protocol.”
“To hell with protocol. You’re awake now. Will you at least look at the pod?”
It took Chen a few hours to fully awaken, but eventually he had his wits about him, and he opened the maintenance hatch to Mari’s sleep pod and got to work. It didn’t take him long to make an evaluation.
“The singularity has dissolved, Mari.”
“The what has done what?”
“The quantum singularity. It’s like a microscopic black hole. It’s what creates the stasis field in your pod. And it appears that it became unstable and dissolved.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means your pod is useless.”
“Well… we have a ship full of tools and supplies for when we get to the colony. Can’t we make another one of those… singularities?”
“They are created in a massive supercollider back on Earth. We couldn’t do it here.”
“Well, didn’t they think about backups?”
Chen stared at her a moment, then said: “The backup is the fact that there are twenty-four of us.”
“Holy shit!” Mari said. “I’m going to die in space.” She repeated the statement over and over. She cried for a while. Chen tried as best as he could to console her.
“Well,” she said. “I guess you can get back in your pod now and go back to sleep, there’s nothing you can do for me now.”
“It’ll be okay, Mari. There’s… plenty of food and water. Enough to last you a lifetime.”
“Yeah, a lifetime in this prison. I’ll probably just suicide. There’s nothing to live for now.”
“I… I can at least stay awake for a while longer. Give you some companionship for a little while.”
Mari and Chen spent the next few weeks together on the ship. As per protocol, they checked and rechecked all the systems, made sure everything was working properly. They checked the navigation, making sure the ship still tracked properly toward 24 Sextantis, the star around which the planet that would be their new home orbited. They checked the other twenty-two colonists, making sure their pods kept then in the suspended animation of deepsleep. All was well, but for the one little malfunction that was Mari’s pod.
Chen laughed with her, trying to keep her spirits up as they went through a forced routine on the small ship. But in the back of his mind Chen knew there was a day that he would have to say goodbye to Mari and slip back into his pod. He loathed that day, as Mari and he had become quite close. So close, in fact, that they had taken to sleeping together in Chen’s open pod. Love-making had become their new routine.
It was after one of these sessions that Chen said, “If only this pod could support two people.”
“It can’t,” said Mari. “Not even your engineering skills could change that.”
“I know,” Chen said. He then began to chuckle to himself. “If only there were some way we could merge ourselves into one being. The colony will need both our skills when we arrive.”
She sighed. “They’ll need yours more. They can live without a psychologist more than they can an engineer.”
“Maybe…maybe not. If I were any sort of engineer, I’d figure out a way to get us both to the new world.”
The ship reached the 24 Sextantis solar system on schedule, and each of the colonists were duly awakened from deepsleep. Ryan, the de facto leader of the group, had been awakened slightly earlier than the rest, and he walked around the circular pod chamber, smiling as he watched the groggy faces of each team member awakening. He paused abruptly when he came to Mari’s pod. It was burned out and empty.
He was making for the main computer, to check the logs, when he noticed Chen’s pod. It lay open as well, but it wasn’t Chen sitting up in it. Instead there was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, slowly awakening.
“Who are you?” Ryan asked.
“I am called Mari-Chen,” she said, staring at him with wonder in her eyes. “After my parents.”
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.