The cabin was dark, and Tom Garret was asleep. He was warmed and comforted by ever-present hum of the the ship. Even while the ship was on its long glide, her reactor let out a sinusoidal pulse, embracing the crew in a warm and steady heartbeat.
Spacefarers knew this sound and loved this sound. It brought the feeling of kinship with their vessel. It was the sound of security in a massive and empty void, of their bubble of safety in the millions of miles of emptiness between them and their destination.
So when the reactor developed a murmur, Tom stirred. It was subtle. It may be hard to notice one extra beat among the thousands. It was too easy for a conscious mind to ignore such a shift and simply dismiss the unevenness as a mistake in perception. But a sleeping mind can sour, and Tom's did.
It knew that it was no longer keeping time with the perpetual waltz. It was aware of the danger and Tom stirred. He slept, but it was no longer and easy sleep. Storm and thunder reached into his dreams and soured them. His muscles twitched as though his body, too, knew that something was wrong. It longed to get up and take action. If the limbs and heart had a will, then they would have torn Tom from the bed.
And then the sound stopped, and Tom woke. He was uneasy in the darkness of his cabin. Suddenly it was all so strange and unfamiliar. He felt like a child, ill at ease in the darkness, fearing something could not see. He could not recognize where he was and he knew that something was not right, that something was missing.
He sat up, wondering what was causing such tremendous worry when a light flashed by the intercom, followed by a voice from beside the glow: "Tom, Tom you there?"
Tom rose and turned on the cabin lights. He had only gotten a couple of hours of sleep, his shift only ended a few hours ago. It was strange that they would call him, and that only added to how surreal his world felt.
"Tom, if you're there, we need you, now. Please pick up." It was Andrew, the head of engineering and Tom's boss. His grainy baritone over the intercom sounded strained, worried.
"Hey Drew. What's going wrong?" Tom asked. His body was stiff. His muscles ached and strained. He was not rested at all.
"I'm sorry if I woke you. There's a problem with the reactor. It… We need you down here."
"OK. What sort of problem? Do I have time to get changed and showered?"
"No, and I think it might be better if you just came down here and had a look."
"Yes. Hurry please."
Tom heard the intercom shut out. Then he heard the silence. He finally understood why every nerve in his body was screaming. It was quiet. The reactor had stopped.
Tom Garret rarely rushed. He was generally purposeful and methodical, preferring to make sure he got work done right the first time. He normally had a quick, deliberate pace and a purpose to his step. But not now. Now was the time for a mad rush.
Ships do not survive without their reactors. That was basic. Even children knew that. A ship without a reactor is little more than a piece of debris. And for the crew of such a vessel, well, they were now occupants of a giant metal coffin. At most they would be able to send some messages home. They could try to say goodbye and let others know what had happened. After that, well, any number of things could happen, but none of them good.
Inevitably, they would become yet another metal mausoleum. Space was not malevolent, but it was not forgiving either. Without a reactor the crew was doomed to drift until they were swallowed by some gravitational field or dashed against some uncharted piece of space debris. They would die and rot in their sarcophagus, far beyond any hope of rescue.
When Tom arrived at the reactor room, he was panting and out of breath. He could see the rest of the engineering team — Scott, Margot, and Sonya — already present. He could see the captain huddled over a monitor with Andrew, talking in whispers. Beyond them he could see the reactor, silent and unmoving.
"Drew, what's going on?" Tom panted.
Andrew looked up, "It's not working Tom."
"What do you mean, 'not working'?"
"I mean, the reactor has shut down… for unknown cause, and it will not start up again… for unknown cause."