Robin de Voh
there's never enough stories

Nanoprep 2021 Day 18: Captain Penn, Trailblazer

By Robin de Voh on 2021-10-27

"Whoa," Penn said as he squinted his eyes against the bright lights that had woken him. He rubbed his eyes for a little while and carefully opened them again. When he looked around, he noticed there were no windows, and nobody else. The walls were all bare brushed metal that reflected vaguely the light from the ceiling lights. He shook his head, trying to get rid of the sleepy haziness he felt covering his thoughts.

He slid off the table he was on, and noticed it was a medical-looking one. His feet landed on the ground with less of a thud than he had expected, and moving his body up and down, he could tell gravity wasn't quite Earth gravity. He sighed.

He was in space. Unexpectedly.

He'd trained for space, sure, but he'd always thought once he went into space, he'd know about it first. He held his fingers to his forehead as he tried to remember the last thing before waking up here. He had been with Chiana and Noah, having a fantastic family day, and then he'd said "see you later tonight" and left the house. After that, numbness, and then this.

He looked around to find a computer terminal, and he eventually found one. He didn't know the ship, but the design was familiar. The ships he'd trained for had been designed similarly. He tapped the screen.

"Penn here, was wondering where the hell I am?"
"Hello Captain Penn, good morning. You are on board -- and in command of -- the Trailblazer."
"And how'd I get here?"
"The ship launched decades ago, and you've been kept in stasis. It's not unheard of for memories to take a while to return, captain."
"Okay, sure, give me the mission brief," Penn said, annoyed at not recognizing any of this.
"Take the tablet off the wall, it's loaded on there under 'documents'", the computer said.

A tablet to the side of the terminal lit up, and Penn grabbed it.

He tapped around a bit, and found the mission document. Seemingly, he was here to eventually investigate an unknown object beyond the solar system's heliosphere. Wondering why a crewed flight was sent to do so, he read on and found that... Oh. Around the same time the unknown object had been detected, Voyager 2, which was actually on a trajectory near the object, had stopped responding to communications. And since it would take any craft -- even a century later than the Voyager program -- multiple decades to get there, the top brass had decided to immediately go for the most complete option.

A well-trained astronaut with a ship full of almost extravagant sensors and other types of machinery that he'd have to learn how to use all over again, instead of a probe that might be destroyed again.

Alright, he thought, guess it's time to get on with the job.

"Computer, anything else I need to know?"

The terminal didn't respond immediately, which seemed odd to him.

After a few seconds' pause, an almost careful response came: "Captain Penn, there is a body in the kitchen area. You should recycle it."
"Wait, a body? I thought I was the only crew?"
"You were not, but you were woken up to replace the deceased crew member."
"How did they die?"
"Can we find out?"
"I do not have a medical diagnostics system. Unless you have medical skills, I do not think so."

Penn did not have the human equivalent of a medical diagnostics system either.

"And what do you mean, recycle?"
"We have a trash recycling system. It is also fit for organic material."
"That... Feels careless."
"We do not have storage other than the stasis pod we used for you. The body shall commence decomposition within a day. It is your choice."

Penn grunted and had to accept it was the better choice. He didn't want to breathe in decomposing former crew. He checked the tablet, and it had a blueprint of the ship. He noticed the ship was rather large, but the crew compartment was actually tiny comparatively.

"Why's the ship so inefficient when it comes to crew quarters?"
"The object is unknown, so maximum shielding and redundant systems were chosen."

He shrugged, that made some sense. He stuffed the tablet in his overall pocket and opened the med bay door, then walked out into the hallway. The kitchen area was literally the first door on the right, so he opened it and he immediately realized the computer had been wrong. Decomposition had already started. He stepped back out and closed the door immediately. Going back to the med bay, he looked around for a body bag and found one. Then back to the kitchen, this time prepared for the stench, and ready to stuff the body into the bag as quickly as possible.

The deceased was a man, mid-30s, a little older than him, definitely more hairy, and a lot thinner. But there was something in his face that still... Reminded him. Of himself. Since he was nearly gagging by this point, he decided to hurry up the task, and managed to get the body bag filled within minutes. Afterwards he closed the zipper and dragged it off the bench it had been on.

The trash chute was across the hallway, so he dragged it over there and opened it up.

But something bothered him. He opened the body bag zipper again and looked at the face. He traced its features with his finger, then did the same to his own face.

This wasn't another crew member. This was him. His first instinct had been that this guy looked like him -- because it was the easiest answer to a question he'd never thought he'd ask -- but really looking at him, it was him. He fished out the tablet of his pocket and checked if it had a camera. It did. He snapped a photo of the other man's face from multiple angles and closed the zipper up again.

Instead of pushing the body bag into the trash chute, he went to the nearest terminal and called up the computer again.

"Who is this man?" he said, very directly and obviously annoyed, sending the images to the terminal.
"A crew member of the mission," the terminal said.
"I just happened to notice he's got my face. What's his name?"
"You are not cleared to know this."
"Is his name Penn?" he said, leaning forward as if he could intimidate a computer.
"You are not cleared to know this," the computer responded, but with a very different intonation.

It sounded as if the conversation should end now. And thus, Penn knew he was right.

"What's going on here? Is he a clone? Am I?"
"You are not cleared to know this," now even more curtly. "Please desist from asking further questions and recycle the crew member as instructed."
"No. You're going to tell me what I'm asking about, NOW," Penn said, nearly shouting in frustration.
"I am sorry, Captain Penn, but that is not possible," the computer said. "You are now deemed unfit for further duty."

Almost immediately after it had stopped speaking, Penn could hear a hissing sound all around him. He couldn't see anything, but his mind got fuzzy again, and he knew it. He was being poisoned. As he fell to his knees beside the body bag, he figured this is probably how Penn #1 had died as well. There had been no marks of any kind on him, after all.

He fell fully to the ground, and struggled to breathe. Then blackness, as his brain and heart stopped.

The computer started the procedure. A tank in the roomy bulkhead was emptied out of the incubation fluid, and the clone's bodily functions were started up. The tank was brought over to an elevator system and brought up to the med bay.

"Whoa," Penn said as he squinted his eyes against the bright lights that had woken him. He rubbed his eyes for a little while and carefully opened them again. Before he could get used to the light, a computer voice spoke.

It knew it couldn't leave it up to ambiguity this time.

"Hello Captain Penn, good morning. You are on board -- and in command of -- the Trailblazer. Please note that there are 2 bodies in the hallway. An atmospheric leak led to their demise. Please recycle them."