Horror Mystery Science Fiction sibling rivalry space travel poetry longsleep brothers

One Day, in the Middle of the Night

By James Van Pelt
Jul 1, 2020 · 4,867 words · 18 minutes

Interior Circles and Lines

Photo by Stefan Kunze via Unsplash.

From the author: Little did you know that tucked inside a well-known children's nonsense poem lurked a tale of brotherly rivalry and travel to the stars.


Two Dead Boys Got up to Fight

Redmond came out of coldsleep fast, an amphetamine and neurostimulator crashload whacking about his head and limbs like fire alarms.  Even before his pod opened he ran security on Grant and found his sleep-pod was warm, bios off.  A quick check confirmed what Redmond feared: they were thirty-seven years too soon; everyone else slumbered on, teetering so close to death’s edge that their bodies forgot to age.  Just the two of them were awake on the Atonement, a half-million ton starship slowly accelerating toward Zeta Reticuli with enough colonial equipment and frozen, fertilized ova to seed a new world, and Grant meant to kill him.  Without the restraint of the rest of the crew, who knew to what extremes Grant might go?

Pulling sensors off his chest and arms, Redmond cursed under his breath.  He’d programmed the system to alert him much sooner, when there was any change in Grant’s readouts, so Grant had figured a way to fool part of Redmond’s security, or he’d weaseled a gimmick into the meds to wake him quicker.  Either way, his plan wasn’t good enough, or Redmond would be dead now.

The computer told him every door between the north and south sleepbays was locked, per his instructions.  So, unless Grant was already in the south sleepbay with him, he had time to prepare a defense, and if he didn’t get him that way, to hunt him down.

Maybe Grant was in the chamber with him.  Maybe he was standing beside the pod, waiting, rage in his eyes and something deadly in his hands.  Redmond watched the countdown before the pod opened.  One minute to go.  He drummed his fingers on the luminescent, slick inner surface, glowing a thin crimson around him.  He imagined Grant poised outside.  Redmond reached beneath his thigh and wrapped his fingers around the zoology supply tranquilizer gun he’d smuggled into the pod.  Cool metal felt ominous against his palm.

He couldn’t picture shooting his brother, but it was time to end this.

Back to Back, They Faced Each Other

The sleeproom was empty.  Redmond sat, his gun in hand and surveyed.  Half the crew slept in this end of the ship; the other slept nearly a mile away.  That way a catastrophe might not take them all.  They’d be able to continue.  A movement in the corner of his eye startled him.  He tracked the gun toward it.  Now, he thought, I have you, but it was a maintenance robot rolling toward a bot tunnel, an aperture barely large enough to accommodate the eighteen inch tall and two-foot wide machine.  Redmond shuddered.  The round-shelled mechs reminded him of cockroaches, really big ones, scuttling behind the walls.  They made the ship feel infested.  He shuddered at the thought.  The bot scooted through the hatch that opened with a distinct, pneumatic wheeze.  Even that sounded insect-like and horribly organic.

He moved to a workstation, keeping his gun raised, and woke the rest of the system.  Vid monitors flickered into life.  Lights winked on in the long corridors, in the gym and cafeteria.

“Where’s Grant?” he said.

“There is no one named Grant aboard the ship,” said the computer.

He nodded.  That made sense.  With the doors locked and under Redmond’s command, Grant would have to go outside.  He could be in transit now, incredibly vulnerable.  Redmond accessed the meteor defense system.  It wouldn’t take but a few commands to control the cannons manually and threaten him as he made his way along the hull.  But the computer couldn’t find him.  “No external activity detected,” it said.  Redmond checked the vids and other sensors.  Nothing.

Suspicious, he called up the exterior suit inventory.  They were all there.

“Where’s Grant?” he said again.

“There is no one named Grant aboard the ship.”

“Grant Mayer, when did he wake up?”

“Redmond Mayer is the only member on board with that last name.  Would you like to see a crew roster?” 

Redmond thought the computer sounded mocking, and he squeezed his eyes shut in frustration.  “Damn.”  Generally he liked the computer; it was Grant who hated it, although he was just as genius in programming as Redmond.  Grant once said darkly, “What does it think about the hundred years we’re asleep?”  Redmond didn’t reply.  There was no point in antagonizing him. 

Redmond glanced at the north sleeproom’s vid.  A pod gaped open, a mirror image of his own.

“Computer, where is the crew member who exited pod N49?”

“N49 has never been occupied.”

“Double damn.”  It took him several minutes of going through the records, but he discovered it quickly enough.  Every mention of his brother had vanished, neatly erased.  As far as the computer was concerned Grant didn’t exist, and if he didn’t exist, then the computer wouldn’t track him.  All Grant had to do was stay away from the vids.  He had free reign and was effectively invisible, which is just the way he’d want it.  Another time he’d said, “We’re ghosts on this ship, haunting it once a century, but the rest of the time it’s an empty house.”  Redmond keyed in a find and repair routine.  Now that he knew the computer had been tinkered with, he could search out the changes and neutralize them.  A progress counter winked into existence, but it couldn’t tell him when the routine would finish.  It was possible the changes were too deep or too well hidden.

Redmond rubbed sweat from his forehead and glanced up.  Everything was perfectly still: the pods with their comatose cargo, the conduits running overhead, the shadows on the wall, but Redmond felt an expectancy, as if the ship were holding its breath, waiting for him to move.  This was the stillness of the stalk, of the patient wait.

Drew Their Swords and Shot Each Other

Four long corridors, interrupted every fifty feet with doubled airlock doors stretched between the north and south ends of the Atonement.  As far as Redmond could tell, all the doors were secured, and only he could open them.  Before preparing himself for the long sleep, he’d spent hours and hours programming subroutines into the computer for just such an eventuality as this.  Theoretically Grant would be marooned in the north end or trapped between two doors in one of the corridors.

Of course, according to theory, Grant couldn’t exit his sleep-pod before Redmond did, and according to theory, he couldn’t erase himself from the computer.  Redmond stared at the monitors thoughtfully.  Were they accurate?  Were they showing real time, or had Grant figured a way to have them display empty rooms as he walked in front of them?  For that matter, were all the doors truly closed?  He toggled a key; the doors showed locked and airtight.  Could he trust the computer?  After all, he had hidden his work from everyone else, yet Grant had subverted at least part of it.  He wished he could ask it if it were trustworthy so he could listen to its tone of voice.  Maybe he could hear a lie if it existed, but that was Grant kind of thinking.  Grant talked to the computer like it lived.  He called it the Blind Man.  “All vids and no eyes,” he said.  It was his eccentricity.  Every crew member developed one.  Redmond played blues harmonica.

The back of his neck prickled and he twirled, gun up, so close to squeezing off a shot that he couldn’t believe the dart didn’t slip away.  The sleepbay was empty.  One-hundred pods in four rows filled the room’s middle.  Air whispered out of the vents, the sole sound other than his breathing.  Normally when he was awake, so were the forty-nine other members of his shift.  He hadn’t been alone in the ship from the time the trip started a thousand years earlier.  Since he was awake two weeks of every hundred years, he’d experienced about five months of travel time, but it still felt as if he’d been on board his entire life.  He could barely recall another time where the grey walls didn’t bind his existence.  They cradled him and comforted him.  They held him close, focused him, concentrated him.  His imagination coalesced into a ship-shaped, palpable entity a mile long, no wider than the largest room, just as it molded his creativity and hopes, his knowledge and his fear, mostly his fear.

No one can understand you more and hate you for it than a brother, Redmond thought. It’s a mile long ship, and there’s no place to go.  Once the hatred exists, hiding it is hard.  Ignoring it is impossible. After a while, there doesn’t need to be a reason.  But he remembered it in the top bunk twenty-two years ago--if he didn’t count the thousand years they’d dozed--in the top bunk and who would sleep closest to the wall.  Redmond slept on the edge when he was seven, forced there by his brother, facing the room’s empty middle, Grant behind him, whispering, “The monsters will eat your face, Redmond.  They’ll eat it, and I’ll have time to run.”  Redmond believed only the knowledge that their parents were in the next room kept Grant from throttling Redmond in his sleep.

By breakfast they were the wonder twins again, competitive, cooperative, and grades ahead of the pack.

The computer told him all of his routines were in place.  The complex was geared to Redmond’s voice.  Grant wouldn’t even be able to get basic information, and certainly not control.  Or, at least from here it appeared Grant didn’t have control.  It was impossible to know.  The Atonement’s computers were so huge, decentralized and redundant that no one really understood the system.  Redmond had never felt so paranoid.

Where was Grant, and what was he doing?

Two doors led from the sleeproom.  One opened into living quarters, work stations, the power plant and engines behind him; the other would take him to workshops, the ova repositories, the cafeteria, hydroponics and gym.  Beyond them waited the corridors with their locked airlocks.  If Grant had passed through, he could go around the sleeproom and get him from behind.  Redmond dogged the back door so it couldn’t be opened.  Wearing a visor with a computer interface and heads-up display, he toggled the other door open.  A vid showed the room beyond was empty, but he didn’t completely trust the information.  The door sighed on its hinges.  He waited for a minute before moving; his ears ached from listening.

Staying next to the wall, Redmond peeked around the door.  The vid was right. 

He entered the room, skin itching.  No equipment to hide behind here.  Just a passage to the workshops.  The metal floor felt frigid beneath his feet, and he realized he’d forgotten to get slippers.  A sensor still clung to his upper arm, and the noise it made when he pulled it off ripped the silence.

After the workshops, he stalked between the cafeteria’s empty tables.  He paused to cycle through the vid views again.  Two hundred and thirty-seven cameras in total.  Three had failed since the last crew had done maintenance thirteen years earlier.  The next crew wouldn’t be up for twelve years.  They’d have two weeks to fix or replace the broken equipment, check their course, and nurse the ship into another twenty-five years of automated competence before the third of the four crews woke.  The ship had already lasted a thousand years, and it had three thousand to go.  By the time they arrived at Zeta Reticuli, every part of her would have been remade.  Only the crews and cargo would be original equipment.  Camera failures were common, but he’d have to check each one for Grant.  Redmond glanced around.  No dust on the tables–the bots took care of that–but the ship felt utterly abandoned, like a museum after hours, or a morgue.  It made him feel like a child again, like he did when he was fourteen, separated from his tour, hiding from Grant with half a Roman brick pried from an ancient wall along the Appian Way for protection, ready to smash Grant’s teeth to the back of his throat if he had to, but a teacher came by first.  For as long as they had fought, there was always a third party in the way, as if an intelligent fate kept them from tearing each other apart and goaded them into excellence.

He shivered.  Except for his brother who was trying to kill him, the next closest awake human being was forty-eight trillion miles away.  That is, if anyone on Earth was still living.  A thousand years was a long time.  Regardless, there would be no interference. 

As he passed the tanks in hydroponics, he checked fluid levels, pumps and chemical balance from habit.  The computer cared for it, of course, but the plants were vital to their existence.  Besides handling the air, they manufactured pharmaceuticals, cleaned the water, provided fresh food and anchored the Atonement’s tiny ecosystem.

He tapped his fingers against a vat of brine shrimp swirling about under their own lights.  When Grant erased himself from the computer, he made himself a non-entity.  It wouldn’t track him.  It ignored his med signals.  There was no way for the computer to directly recognize him, but maybe there was an indirect way.

Redmond sat on the floor between the shelter of  two tanks so that he could see the doors.  He called up the ventilation readouts.  If Grant breathed in one room long enough, Redmond might be able to find him.

It took him a while to get the computer to display the readouts the way he wanted.  He looked for oxygen demand.  Air circulated in all the rooms, but the computer adjusted for need.   Finally, a tiny difference in one segment of the C corridor showed up.  Something produced carbon-dioxide there.  Redmond checked the vid for that segment.  Nothing visible, but Grant could be in the blind spot beneath it.  Still, the computer showed secured airlocks, so Redmond’s plan must have surprised Grant as he rushed from the north end to the south.  The doors would have flashed a stay-clear, then closed.  Grant wouldn’t have been able to stop them.

Maybe the thing to do would be to go back to the sleeproom, climb into his pod and resume the long sleep.  When the next crew woke, they’d find Grant’s remains.  Redmond could manipulate the computers to show anything he wanted.  He scratched his chin. That was Grant kind of thinking. 

He shook his head.  No, he had to end it now.  Leave the computer records intact.  They’d show that Grant had started it.  Redmond had acted in self defense.  When they reviewed the records, they would know.

How long had Grant been trapped?  He was clever, and he knew the ship intimately.  Was there a way out of the passage other than the airlocks?  Was there anything in it that could be used as a weapon?  The computer showed that segment’s emergency locker’s manifest:  food, water, some tools.  No obvious deadly weapons.  But Redmond would have to be careful.  He would take all precautions.  Grant was malicious in his intellect.  He was three minutes older, but it was three minutes of planning, three minutes to get a head start on his brother emerging a shade later.

Leaving hydoponics behind, Redmond moved into the corridor.

He wondered, was that it?  Was it because Grant was an only child for three minutes and then he wasn’t one that makes him resent me so much?  Even as they shared the accolades in school, even when they qualified together for the mission on the Atonement, even when everyone who knew them, even the psychiatrists who tested for compatibility and suitability for the long trip, thought they were the perfect siblings and professionals?  Was that it?

At each airlock, Redmond rechecked the vids and oxygen uptakes; Grant wasn’t moving.  The next segment looked empty, and the tiny warning light above the airlock glowed yellow, meaning there was pressure beyond, then flashed to green when he activated the door.  After the ten-second cycling sequence, the twinned, massive, metal doors swung open to reveal another long section of empty corridor.  A second maintenance bot scuttled out of sight in front of him disappearing with a creepy squeak.  Redmond squatted at the bot’s tunnel entrance.  It wasn’t very big, but a determined man might squeeze into it, and once in he could feasibly bypass the blocked corridors.  Of course, he’d have to get through the safety features in the tunnels too--they had their own airlocks--but he could do that without tripping the alarms Redmond had set up.

A few minutes search revealed no tampering within the maintenance tunnels.  There weren’t vid’s in them though.  Still crouched by the entrance, Redmond chewed his lip.  The closer he got to the segment with the elevated carbon-dioxide, the more nervous he became.  Catching Grant in between doors was too easy.  In fact, this was Grant’s style, to let Redmond think he was winning until the end.

Something rattled beneath his hand.  He threw himself backwards, slamming a shoulder into the wall in the process.  Flat on the floor.  Gun ready.  Breathing in gasps through his mouth.  He laughed in relief when the bot reemerged from the tunnel.  It rolled on its hidden wheels to the corridor’s middle, twirled until it faced him, its tiny vid eyes unblinkingly aimed.  Redmond’s laugh died in his throat.  When the crew was awake and they all busied themselves with their two week regimen, the bots almost never came out.  He could ignore them, but now he realized he was awake during bot time. 

The machine pirouetted, then rolled down the corridor back the way Redmond had come.  He laid his head on the deck, weak with relief.  Through the metal he heard a peculiar thump, as if someone had dropped a heavy object on the floor in the next room.  That’s odd, he thought, but the noise wasn’t repeated.  What could he have heard?  Or did he imagine it?  He couldn’t come up with an explanation, and it didn’t matter anyway.  The computer still reported increased oxygen demand in the segment where he believed Grant was trapped, and that was only two segments away.

He pushed himself off the floor.  Another few minutes, and he would have him.  Redmond licked his lips.  The long feud would be over.  Dimly he considered again how he’d explain this to the rest of the crew.  He didn’t worry about punishment.  Grant was the dangerous one, the diabolical one.  Grant had broken protocol by emerging from the pod too soon.  Grant had reprogrammed the computer to hide himself; that would show his intent.  Surely the crew would understand.  Now that he was this close, Redmond almost felt sorry for him.  A great career wrecked by unchecked passion.

He reached the second to last airlock.  Trembling, he rechecked his gun.  Tranquilizer dart ready.  Safety off.

As he pressed the button, he glanced up.  The status light above the door was out.  Time slowed.  Not out.  A piece of tape covered it, one edge curling.  He didn’t have to pull it off to know the light glowed red.  There was no air in the chamber beyond.  Time nearly stopped; he turned, ran,  each stride taking minutes to finish, the door at the other end impossibly far away.  He thought, how long do I have to cover fifty feet?  Did I take two seconds to start running, or five?  How thoroughly did Grant subvert the computer?  Enough to lure him down the corridor.  Enough to hide the vacuum in that segment.  Enough to create a subtle bait in an elevated carbon-dioxide count in the chamber beyond.  That was the thump he’d heard: air rushing from the corridor.

A klaxon screamed an alert.  Two steps from the airlock, one step.  He was through.  Hit the button to close the door, which started its lumberous trip.  Grabbed an access panel handle.  How many seconds? 

Wind, then a roar, tearing at him, sucking him back.  Feet off the floor.  Mouth open to equalize the pressure.

Very slow time.  Hours in his head until the door closed behind him.  Blood flowing from one ear, trickling into the corner of his mouth.  Air cascading through the vents to replace the loss.  Emergency lights pulsing in the ceiling.  More klaxons, a virtual chorus shouting around him.

Then time caught up.  Redmond let go of the handle, slid to the floor.  Told the computer to shut down the alarms.  He couldn’t move his left arm.  Carefully he felt his shoulder; it wasn’t shaped right, a dislocation.

Grant hadn’t been in the segment at all.  It was a trap.

On Redmond’s visor, numbers and reports scrolled past, the ship reacting to the segment’s emergency.  Attitude jets fired, nudging the Atonement back on course.  External repair bots activated and rushed to seal whatever hole Grant had created.  How Grant had fooled the computer into ignoring the damage at first was a puzzle.  Redmond flicked from system to system.  Nearly every part of the ship responded to the damage.  Medcentral kicked into high alert, poised to warm a crew if needed.  Every bot on board looked to be on the move.  He couldn’t track the commands being issued, and through the blizzard of numbers, he searched for Grant.  It all came down to Grant who hated Redmond so much he’d risked the integrity of the entire ship to get him.  How could he know that blowing that segment wouldn’t have collapsed the entire corridor?  Every door behind Redmond had been open.  If he hadn’t closed the airlock that saved his life, half the Atonement could have explosively decompressed.  This was beyond any feud. 

Redmond dragged himself upright.  As soon as the computer ferreted out Grant’s meddling, he’d find him and deal with him.  Briefly he considered waking the crew himself.  With forty-eight extra helpers, they’d neutralize Grant in a hurry.

No.  That wouldn’t be good.  In their lifetime of battle, the only rule that couldn’t be broken was that it remained private.  Only Redmond could hurt Grant, and only Grant could hurt Redmond.  When they were eighteen and playing football, Grant took on a linebacker who was going to blindside Redmond.  Strained all the ligaments in Grant’s left knee.  Redmond had watched the video later, seen how Grant had broke his pattern to save him.  Grant took an injury rather than letting someone else hurt Redmond.  On the next play, Redmond went purposely low on a block and snapped the linebacker’s ankle.  

No, he wanted to see Grant himself, to look him in the face before he pulled the trigger.  There would be no outside help.  Redmond’s arm hung awkwardly at his side as he walked toward the sleepbay.  The gun he carried loosely in the other hand.

Two Deaf Policemen Heard the Noise

At first Redmond didn’t hear the whispering voice.  He had turned his earplug down low to tune out the computer’s constant yammering.

“The doors are locked, you bastard.”

Redmond paused.  It was Grant, his raspy breathing filling Redmond’s ear.

“You almost killed everyone with that stunt,” said Redmond, forcing himself to speak calmly.

“If you wouldn’t have screwed with the computers, the doors behind you would have closed.  Nobody was at risk.”

The computer beeped.  “Program done,” it announced.  A report popped up, showing the changes Grant had made to the system.  Redmond reactivated Grant as a crew member, and the computer showed his location in the living quarters lounge, directly behind the south sleepbay. Another adjustment, and the vid showed the true image.  Grant stood in the middle of the lounge, his hands on his hips.  So he’d only been one door away when Redmond had awakened.  He swallowed.  Had Grant got there just before Redmond had dogged the door, or had he been in the sleepbay before Redmond revived?

“What the hell did you do to the bots?” said Grant.

Redmond ran a dozen scenarios through his head.  With the decompression as evidence, immobilizing Grant would look like an act of good will.   The crew would give him a medal.  Redmond could leave a record of the events and wake with the rest of the crew, a hero.

In the vid, Grant moved sideways through the room, his eyes intent on one wall.  He didn’t look seventy-three years older than when Redmond had seen him last.  His hair was dark, still messy from the long sleep, and his face still baby-like, which belied his biological age of twenty-nine.  He carried himself gracefully, like a spider, Redmond thought.  One of those garden spiders with long legs that moved from thread to thread with perfect certainty.

It bothered Redmond that despite all their time on the Atonement the crew still mixed them up.  Grant looked different.  Redmond couldn’t see any similarity in the mirror.  Grant’s smile was sardonic.  Grant’s eyes were windows into a dark heart.  Redmond didn’t see himself there at all, and it bothered him that no one else could make the discrimination.

“What’s wrong with the bots?” Grant said again.

“What do you mean?” said Redmond.  Grant’s ghostly image floated in the air before him.  Redmond cut through the gymnasium’s bare space--all the equipment was stored--and into the hallway that would bring him to the lounge’s back door.  If he jammed it like he’d done the one into the sleeproom, Grant wouldn’t be able to get out, even if he talked the ship into cooperating.

“Damn it!  A bot’s hunting me!” yelled Grant, an unusual tenor in his voice.  He was frightened.

Something moved at the bottom of the display.  In the middle of the empty gym, Redmond stopped walking so he could concentrate on the image.  Grant maneuvered himself behind a couch, his posture wary.  A bot slid through one corner of the picture, almost out of view.  Redmond sent a command, and the vid went wide angle.

“What’s it holding?” said Redmond.  A multi-limbed extension had unfolded from the bot’s round shell, and it gripped an odd tool.  Grant held himself taut, ready to spring away, and his normally graceful movements became panicked.  The bot rolled a couple feet to its left, then rotated so the tool pointed at Grant, but the vid resolution wasn’t good enough for Redmond to see what it was.  Hands on the couch’s top, Grant sidled away, apprehension on his face.  Redmond flicked through ship data until he ran into a block.  Puzzled, he tried another query.  Blank.  All information on the bots was locked up.  It wouldn’t access.  This wasn’t his work; it wasn’t Grant’s either.  Redmond tried a data run-around.  Nothing.  A backdoor he’d built into the programming was closed too.  Tension rose in his throat.  The bot skittered around a chair, keeping the tool aimed. 

Redmond said, “Stay low.  Stay away from it.”  He pressed the earplug hard against his head so he could hear better.  Grant’s quick breathing rasped.

A pop.

“Damn it!”  Grant clutched his chest.  “It shot me.”  He took a shaky step toward the door, then fell.  The bot withdrew the extension before heading for a tunnel.

“Grant!  Grant!”  Redmond ran toward the lounge, Grant’s vital signs displayed in the air in front of him.  Breathing and pulse slowed.  Only his hands and the top of his head were visible; the couch hid the rest.  One hand clenched.  Then he spasmed for a couple seconds.

And Came and Killed the Two Dead Boys

The airlock swung ponderously closed before Redmond could get to it.  He pounded on it, his hardest blows failing to elicit more than dull slaps.  Even as he punched the button to open it, he knew it was useless.  The heads-up display revealed more and more of the ship’s control locking out.  None of them responded.

Across the gym, the door he’d come in was closed too.

Almost weeping, he watched Grant’s vitals retreating to straight lines.  How had this happened?  Who else had tinkered with the computers?  He could have sworn that only he and Grant were capable of this kind of work.

When the bot tunnel door squeaked open, though, he knew.  It was the ship.  Grant alerted a deep self-preservation program when he blew open the corridor segment.  The Blind Man was awake; the ship was protecting itself.  As the bot rolled toward him, tool arm extended, grasping the same weapon that shot Grant, Redmond looked at Grant’s vital signs one more time.  Were they flat, or was there the tiniest twitch in all of them?  Would the ship kill them, or was it only putting them to sleep for the rest of the crew to deal with?

He didn’t try to dodge, but even as he surrendered he couldn’t help shuddering.  The beetle-backed bot, it’s tiny vid eyes shining, seemed nearly alive.  And it paused.  Why did it pause if it wasn’t to savor the moment?

Redmond stared at it, and it stared back.  Only the sentient gloat.

The bot fired.

And if you don’t believe this lie is true,

Ask the blind man, he saw it, too.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."