Published on 2013/02/17

Nobody Can Scream

D. Robert Grixti

Space. Vast, unknown, and empty. It’s all I’ve ever known. I was born here, and I’ll die here. I’m a crewmember on a generation ship designated Eden. This ship, its name chosen to reflect the hopes of a dying race, is bound for an ocean planet orbiting the second star of Alpha Centauri. According to the personal terminal I’m typing this on now, we’re still 49,121 years away from our destination. I won’t ever set foot on natural rock in my lifetime, but, one day far away from here, my descendants will.

That’s essentially the story of my life. My name is Colin Somerset. I’m 24 years old and I’m a member of the fourth generation to live and die on this ship. By day (or what passes for day, since the only “daylight” I’ve ever known is the artificial light of the ship’s environment simulator) I work alone in the Utility Sector, doing my part to make sure life aboard Eden goes on as it always has. By night, I sit alone in my quarters and wonder about that day I will never see, and whether mankind will ever live underneath real skies again.

* * *

Breakfast time. I take a seat at my designated spot and appraise the meal on my plate. Withered vegetables, a synthetic hardboiled egg and something they call “beef,” all grown in the lab from frozen stem cells. It’s as lifeless as space itself.

“Evening, Colin,” says my old co-worker, James, as he sits down beside me.

“James, it’s morning,” I reply, pointing to the time on my wristwatch. “7:04am. We’re eating breakfast.”

He yawns, then smiles and nods.

“Ah, so it is. Well, you know it’s hard to tell after twelve hours in the Utility Sector. Lights always on, and then at the end I come up here and it all seems the same.”

He yawns again, and listlessly picks at his plate. I guess the night shift is starting to get to him.

“Food’s always so dry these days,” he says mournfully. “A bit of variety would make mealtime something to look forward to, don’t you think?”

“You reckon the food tasted better back on Earth?” I ask.

He chuckles, and stares intently at the eggcup beside his plate.

“Doesn’t matter so much, does it?” he says. “Earth’s long gone now” – he shatters the eggshell with a spoon and scoops out a mouthful of white mush – “much like this egg.”

He yawns and his hand suddenly jerks, dribbling egg down the front of his jumpsuit. He swears loudly.

“I’ll tell you, friend,” I say, patting him on the shoulder. “Ever since you took that new job, you’ve just been getting more and more scatterbrained.”

He shrugs me off and shovels a slice of meat into his mouth with disdain, then says in between chewing:

“Ah, it’s more a lack of sleep and the boredom than anything, to be honest.”

I nod, but it suddenly occurs to me that he seems less tired and more just bothered about something.

“You sure you’re okay? Seen something you shouldn’t have down there?”

“Course not, Colin,” I hear him say back in a flat tone. “My job’s just to guard the archives. I never look at them. I never look at anything. Captain’s orders. You know that.”

“Then what?” I ask. “I can tell that something’s bothering you.”

“Alright then,” he says, placing his fork down on his plate and looking at me. “Let’s say I did see something down there, a few nights ago, and I saw it again last night.”

“And what did you see?”

“I haven’t got a damn clue. That’s what’s bothering me. Only saw it out of the corner of my eye. Thought it was a man, watching me, so I turned to talk to him and then”¬ – he snaps his finger – “he just flickered out of existence.”

“A flickering man?” I scoff. “You’re telling me a ghost story? Maybe you’re just tired and lonely after all.”

“Hmph,” he says, with a snort. “I thought as much.”

He returns to his meal and I leave him alone. There’s still something very real on his mind, but I’m not going to hear about it over breakfast. I stab one of the pale carrots with my fork and push it into my mouth. It tastes kind of like plastic.

* * *

On this ship, the Captain’s word is law. He alone has ultimate control over the ship, and when he asks something of a crewmember, it’s done and it’s never questioned. We’re told from the moment we’re old enough to comprehend speech that we owe our lives on the ship to the Captain. Every day at noon, we pull ourselves up to the bridge to listen to his daily address and pay him our respects. The Captain’s wisdom is infinite. The Captain is never wrong. Attendance is compulsory and we’ll be required to drop everything for the Hour of Worship until the day he dies. And then we’ll just do it for the next Captain. Nobody seems to mind, though. We owe the Captain our lives.

“You got the passage book?” I whisper to James as I find my place beside him in the crowd of people assembled in front of the Captain’s silver podium.

“What?” he asks, fumbling clumsily over a data pad in his hands.

“The passage book,” I repeat, then, noticing the blank look on his face, “the Captain’s speech!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah,” he splutters, producing the small leather bound book from his pocket and thrusting it into my hand. “Here it is.”

“What’s with you these days?” I hiss in his ear. “You’re losing your mind. You still thinking about that flickering man from this morning? How about you tell me what’s really going on?”

“Not now,” he says hastily, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about it. Do you want me to get fired from my-”

“Shut up!” spits a woman standing behind us. “It’s starting!”

I shoot her a dirty look and open the passage book. Today is the 20th of the month, which means Passage 12, so I turn to page 144 and mark the beginning of the speech with my finger. James presses a button on his data pad and lazily looks on beside me, but he doesn’t seem to be reading.

The crowd applauds as the Captain emerges at the top of the podium in his typical flowing robes of crimson. He walks to the edge of the podium and stops, surveying the sea of grey jumpsuits before him on the vast circular platform.

He adjusts the small microphone beside his mouth, making the crowd instantly fall silent, then clears his throat and begins to read in a monotone from the book laid out on the lectern in front of him. I follow along in my book:

“On this day, the 20th of the month, our ancestors on Earth assembled Generation Alpha in preparation for the eternal journey. It was on this day that Eden was launched, the final hope of a planet soon to be obliterated by solar flames. This ship, they hoped, would bring its inhabitants to a new world, where civilisation could begin anew. Each member of Generation Alpha, every man, woman and child, was specially selected by the highest powers and given tasks to fulfil aboard Eden according to their expertise. Working together, the members of Generation Alpha carried the Eden though its first steps along the eternal journey, ensuring that humanity would live on, though this could not have happened without the all knowing guidance of the first Captain.

It was the Captain alone who was bestowed with the secrets of life aboard Eden and it was his unwavering resolve, wisdom and judgment that the people of Generation Alpha owed their lives to. The first Captain was a man superior to any who lived on Eden at the time and any that live now. The knowledge of Eden’s true nature that he and all succeeding Captains were entrusted with is of such magnitude that, if known by lesser men, it would lead to Eden’s destruction and compromise the eternal journey that we devote our lives to as inhabitants of this ship.

As such, I stand before you as the fifth Captain, and it is the legacy of Generation Alpha that I guide you to preserve. Trust your lives in me and follow the directions laid out by our ancestors and the eternal journey will continue. In my wisdom and with the knowledge I was given, I will lead you, and one day our children will live under the light of a natural star. Let your resolve never waver. Never question. Never forget.”

* * *

After the Captain’s address, I go back to work. My job consists of sitting in front of a computer screen in the Utility Sector, monitoring graphs and running diagnostics for twelve hours straight. I’m the technician in charge of the water processing unit that makes sure everyone aboard the ship has drinking water. Sometimes, the computer will tell me there’s a blockage in one of the pipes or that a part of the machinery needs to be replaced, but the days when that happens aren’t any more exciting than the one I’m having today.

The Utility Sector is located in the lowest depths of the ship, far away from the somewhat more welcoming areas on the Crew Deck and beyond. Like the rest of the ship, it’s eternally lit by the Environment Simulator, but unlike the rest of the ship, no effort’s been made to disguise the fact that it’s a just claustrophobic, dust ridden maze of steel pylons and reflective titanium walls where the earthly drumming of the Eden’s machinery constantly pounds your ears from every direction.

Nobody but those who work here ever set foot in its oppressive corridors and I can’t say I blame them. Ever since James was promoted to the night shift, I’ve been completely alone down here, save for the nameless guard who stands at the door opposite me, ready to blow me away with his assault rifle if I try to force my way past him. He’s there every day and he never speaks a word, always so motionless and cold. He’s not good company but I’m used to his presence by now and so I leave him alone. He’s here for the same reason I am: just doing what the Captain says.

He guards the door to the ship archives, a place that only the Captain is permitted to enter. Beyond that door, there’s a mainframe that holds all the information that’s ever been typed into the Eden’s computer, plus secrets from the past that only Captains have ever known. Sometimes I wonder what I’d find if I ever stepped across its threshold, but I’m not stupid enough to throw my life away, no matter how meaningless it is. The ship needs me. The Captain needs me. I’m supposed to look after the water.

My shift passes slowly and not much happens. I press a button to release chemicals into the water to kill bacteria and then I press a button to filter them out again. The water is clean and safe to drink. Life on Eden will go on for a little longer.

* * *

I glimpse movement on the edge of my peripheral vision. I look up from my computer terminal and I see him, watching me from the corner adjacent to the forbidden doorway. There he is: the flickering man, wavering in front of me, shady and inconsistent, like a weak hologram struggling to stay corporeal. I raise myself out of my seat to talk to him, but as I open my mouth, his form shudders once, and he’s gone again.

James had seen something, after all.

I look over at the motionless guard.

“Hey, did you see that?”

He grunts and shakes his head. I go back to my work.

* * *

When my shift finishes, the guard and I go up to the Crew Deck for dinner, and James comes down to stand in front of the archive door. He stands there all night. I suppose the loneliness and lack of sleep has been getting to him. I think it’s starting to get to me, too.

He sneaks into my quarters at 4:23 in the morning and shakes me awake, his face swollen from crying and his eyes bloodshot.

“Colin, Colin, I can’t take it anymore!” he whimpers as he collapses onto my chest. “It’s all for nothing! Everything we've done’s been for nothing!”

I grab him by the arms and push him off me, then climb out of bed and pull him to his feet. He stares into my face like a terrified child as I survey his condition. The sleeves of his jumpsuit are stained with blood. I grab his left hand and pull the sleeve up, to reveal a wrist that has been slashed apart and bleeding profusely.

“James, what the hell is this?” I hiss at him while he clutches it with his other hand and sobs quietly. “You’ve gone completely insane!”

“I just couldn’t take it anymore, Colin!” he sobs, shaking his head so fast it looks like he’s trying to wrench it off its shoulders. “What I saw in the Captain’s archives…”

“You looked in the Captain’s archives?” I ask, aghast. “But why? You know-”

“I know we’re not allowed! But I-”

He starts sobbing again and sways on the spot, muttering inaudibly to himself. I clamp my hand down on his shoulder and grip it tightly.

“Look at me,” I say in a firm voice. “What the hell is going on? Has this got anything to do with that damn flickering man?”

He slowly raises his head. His face is so contorted with fear and misery that it barely resembles anything human. He stares right at me for what seems like an eternity of silence, then he silently nods. He yanks his arm away from me and runs, screaming, from the room.

“James! Wait!” I shout, rushing for the door, but he’s already gone.

* * *

The Hour of Worship. Today, it’s Passage 13, the one about the death of Generation Alpha and the inheritance of Generation Beta. The passing on of life and duties. James isn’t here today, and I’m reading from my own passage book. He killed himself last night after he left my quarters. They found him in front of the archive door in the Utility Sector, his hands sawed right down to the bone and a bullet in his brain.

After the service, the Captain summons me.

“You were a friend of the night guard, weren’t you?”

I nod. He hasn’t permitted me to speak.

“From now on, you will no longer monitor the water supply.”

He presses something hard into my hand. It’s the card key for the ship armoury.

“Now, your job is to guard the archive door at night. Retrieve your weapon at eight pm and stand at the door until you are relieved. Do not enter the archives. You have seen how what awaits inside can destroy a man. I am telling you this for a reason. Do not question. Do not forget.”

The Captain’s word is law.

* * *

When I sit alone to eat dinner (something trying to pass itself off as “chicken” and a cabbage with the consistency of paper), I hear hushed discussion amongst the utility technicians at the end of the table.

“Damn it, I saw it, I tell you!”

“Yeah yeah, the ghost that haunts the Utility Sector, right?”

An amused chuckle.

“No, you idiot, I’ve seen it too! It’s there, I tell you - a flickering man!”

“Whatever you say. I’m just glad I don’t work down there, myself.”

The middle aged man seated across from me looks up from his plate. He studies me with a wary eye.

“Your friend, the one who died... he stood guard over the archives, didn’t he?”

I nod.

“Well, you be careful down there, hear?” he says, leaning in over the table and lowering his voice. “Don’t you be looking where you shouldn’t be. It’s too dangerous, if what I’ve been hearing lately is any indication.”

“You know anything about this?” I ask, nudging my chin towards the huddled technicians. “Has something like this happened before?”

He shrugs his shoulders and goes back to picking at his dinner.

“Not that I can remember,” he says gruffly. “But that’s the weirdest thing of all. I’ve never seen the thing myself, but for some reason, I know I’m afraid of it. It’s like I have some forgotten reason to.”

“A bit of déjà vu, maybe?”

“Yeah,” he replies, pushing away his plate and standing up. “That’s exactly right. But what I don’t know is why.”

* * *

It’s my first shift as the night guard. I’m alone in the Utility Sector, separated from the nearest living soul by thick layers of fibreglass and steel, and in my loneliness I can’t help but think about James.

I turn around and contemplate the imposing entrance before me. From behind this seemingly insignificant slab of mechanised titanium, something terrible beckons. I can’t even begin to fathom what James met with beyond this door, but whatever it was consumed his soul and drove him to madness.

I look away from the door and try not to think about what’s concealed behind it. I tell myself that the Captain knows best, but for some reason, tonight I can’t shake the strange feeling that some higher power is trying its hardest to lure me into this eldritch portal.

Suddenly, I remember the flickering man. This is where I saw the flickering man. Almost as soon as I think of him, I catch a slight movement in the corner of my left eye. I turn around to confront him, but he’s gone again before I can open my mouth, emitting a loud crackle as he pops out of reality. Immediately, I know what awaits me behind the door. The spirit of the flickering man is in there, calling me to him, just as he did to James.

James was my friend. He died because of what he saw in this room. He died a meaningless death.

I can’t let it be meaningless.

Tonight, it’s my turn to tempt fate. I place my key card in the reader on the door and, after what seems like an eternity of hesitation, slide it through.

* * *

Light. A maelstrom of radiant light. I can’t see.

I hear footsteps echo from somewhere beyond the endless white as someone approaches me.

“You’ve come seeking answers.”

I squint at the flickering silhouette before me, watching it step closer and closer. The footsteps increase in volume as the shadow draws near, and then, barely a metre in front of me, it halts. It raises its right arm and I hear the click of a button being pressed.

Almost immediately, the bright light surges from the room, replaced with the faint blue of the ship’s metallic interior. I can finally see the man addressing me. It’s the Captain.

“You want answers.”

Taken aback, I start to stammer an apology.

“Sir! I-I didn’t mean to come in- there… My mistake, there was a-”

“Be silent,” he commands in a firm but somehow calming voice. “You came seeking the flickering man. It’s human nature to seek the truth. I told you to not enter here because what you will find may drive you insane. But now that you’ve entered, you have a right to answers.”

“You’re not angry with me?” I ask nervously.

“You are not the first to enter this room, and nor will you be the last. Now that you are here, you may as well know the truth.”

“But how do I-?”

He points at a lone computer terminal on a pedestal in the centre of the room.

“It’s all in there. Go and see.”

I stare at him, questioning, and he nods softly. I walk to the terminal and press a blinking green button on the keyboard. The hard drive quietly hums, and after a soft musical tone, white text appears on a flickering blue screen:

Buffer overflow error in “Eden.exe.” Too many entities rendered. Press Enter to reboot.

I step back, confused.

“What is this?”

“Do you understand now?” the Captain asks.

“No,” I say. “It’s just some error. What does this have to do with the flickering man?”

The Captain smiles kindly, and takes me by the hand. He walks me around the room as he explains.

“The error you saw is the flickering man. The Eden is not a spaceship. It’s just a program run on a computer, a simulation designed to model the effects of generations of subservience to a single omnipotent leader. They use it to see if something like the Eden would be a viable concept in actual use – to see if it’s feasible for a Captain to successfully govern a ship for generations without dissent or rebellion. At its core, it’s all about unwavering faith, without questioning and without a second thought. You’ve failed, Colin.”

I falter, stunned.

“So, then, I’m just-”

The Captain slowly nods.

“Just a part of the simulation, yes. It was hoped that you would live your life in full without ever coming to know this, that you would die none the wiser, with your illusions intact. But the simulation has been tinkered with, re-winded and tweaked far too many times, and that is why it’s starting to have errors. We decided not to fix it. In the end, it seemed like a better idea to just keep the flickering man around. How would the results of the experiment change with the introduction of an extraneous variable? To really test somebody’s faith, you need to give them reason to question it, after all. Free will can be a dangerous thing, don’t you agree?”

I’m silent, shocked. I try to find words to respond with, but can’t. I’m not real. None of this is real. This can’t be true, can it?

“This is why we told you never to question,” says the Captain. “Sometimes, ignorance is better than the truth. Sometimes, the truth is just too much.”

* * *

It’s the next day. After my excursion last night, the Captain relieved me of my job and today I’m once again monitoring the drinking water.

My finger hovers over the chemical release key, seconds away from poisoning everybody aboard Eden.

Everything up to this point has been for nothing. I wasn’t born on the ship. There is no ship. I’m nothing but a computer program like everyone else here, run endlessly, over and over for no purpose other than to test an idea.

Our lives are meaningless. James died because he couldn’t live with that truth. And the rest of us are stuck here in limbo, doomed to forever cycle through the same events over and over until our children inherit our legacy of despair. We’re trapped in an eternal journey that will never end.

I want to be free. I want us all to be free.

Is this the right thing to do?

I look around me. The grim faced guard stands in front of the door, unaware of what lies on the other side. He’s silent and motionless as usual, in the same place he’s stood every day of his life, and where he’ll continue to stand forever, never knowing that he lived and died for nothing.

It will never end.

Not unless I make it end.

This is the only way I can show them that I have free will. I’m not somebody’s plaything.

I press the button.

* * *

Fatal error #22082. Process “Eden.exe” has been terminated unexpectedly. Please contact your system administrator or reboot your system. Would you like to reboot? Y/N


D. Robert Grixti is a speculative and horror fiction author and indie video game developer hailing from Melbourne, Australia. He writes because he likes telling stories. His first novel, Sun Bleached Winter is to be released in December. Follow him on Twitter or at legionwood.wordpress.com