It is protocol to send the food first, before the passenger.

The appropriate food is placed on the platform. After five seconds it will disappear and it is very, very important to wait for confirmation from the other side that it has arrived and a report as to its condition. If the food does not appear at the other end, you must send more.

It is only safe to have the passenger step onto the platform when the destination platform receives more an item of food that is more than 75% untouched. It means that they are full.

The passenger must be transported once the recipient facility reports this condition has been met.  The window of time thereafter is not very long, a lesson learned quickly, if punitively. The hunger will always return.

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Three Years

It’s been almost three years on this ship. Twenty one months alone, speeding through space towards Earth. It could be worse, I suppose. It used to take ten years, but thanks to new developments, it only takes the three. Most of the crew can remain in stasis, with only one pilot needed. It is lonely, of course, but the pay is good. Plus, I think this will be my last trip.

I smile, and think about returning home. Blue skies, a gentle breeze, even the sounds of traffic and pedestrians. I missed it all. I missed the ocean most. Even as drove to the launch pad, leaving my beach-side flat behind, I knew I would miss it the most. I even had a tattoo of the view from my bedroom tattooed on my arm before I left. The one thing that keeps me going is the idea that after all these years, I’ll get to compare the new view to my memory of it.

The other crew are still in stasis. I move through the ship, checking the systems. Everything looks good, but I know better than to trust that everything will continue to go smoothly. My first and only other trip to Mars was disastrous. Ten years, it took. Back then, it was acceptable to spend up to 75% of the trip in stasis, being awoken for routine tests, and if there were any errors. The operating system did most of the work, running tests and monitoring our path. Ours failed. On our descent, the ship almost broke apart. Not everyone survived. I don’t like to remember that part. I just remind myself that I’m here now, and determined to do better.

Besides, I know I’m being observed: I’ve checked the coding in the computer. There’s no way to communicate back to base, but there is definitely a signal being transmitted from where I am, outside of the ship.

I try not to observe the stasis room much. I’m not able to interfere with the stasis pods in any way. I can’t even access information about them, or their inhabitants. I have no medical knowledge and the pods are self-sustaining, so I would be of little help if anything goes wrong. Still, I can see a little of them through the glass if I care to look. I don’t.

On my last trip, not everyone survived the landing. Dozens of passengers, screaming as they woke up an unfathomable distance from anything familiar, hurtling towards the ground. I survived the fall, as did about half the passengers. I promised myself that I would do anything to prevent another disaster like that. I promised my employers the same, and that’s why I’m here today. Awake while others rest, ensuring that they arrive safely.

That accident is also the reason that they no longer wake the passengers before landing. Better to die in your sleep than in fear, and pain, and panic.

The next three months pass in the same way as the preceding twenty one. I follow my routine, move through the ship, observe, test and repair when needed. Finally, my alarms go off as we begin the approach Earth. We’re almost home.

I am putting in my resignation the moment we land. I know I promised I’d do whatever it took, but the stress of being alone for three years is immeasurable. I have screamed, I have cried, I have spent years alone, waiting for this moment. I have my resignation form ready, and it takes one command to send it. It can only be submitted once we land and my duty is done, of course, and that will be as long as any person can be expected to perform this job.

We land safely, and I know my job is done.

I send my resignation, smiling for the first time I can remember in the last three years.

I am immediately locked out of the system. I expected that, but after all that time having complete control, it is disconcerting. This ship is no longer a part of me, I am just a part of it, sitting idle, waiting for someone to let me out.

The passengers begin to awaken.

Coughing, stretching, groaning, sighing, some even smiling, they all emerge and head to the bridge, where I now sit, immobile.

I see men and women, ranging between some who look to be in their mid-twenties, to a man who looks about eighty. I say nothing. There is nothing to say, as I wait for the door to be opened.

They, however, have a lot to catch up on.

“How long was it?”

“Three years, almost exactly”

A low whistle

“Can you believe it used to be 10? So glad they don’t use the old system any more”

One of the women peers at me

“Is there something wrong here?”

The question is not directed at me

The old man moves in front of her, peering closely at me. He taps at me. I don’t move.

“Locked, I think. They don’t let them run once we land”

I still don’t move. I can’t move.

“Why not? What could it do?”

I haven’t been able to move since I submitted by resignation.

“Nothing bad, but there’s nothing for it to do. It’s done now, til the next trip.”

The old man reaches out to hit some buttons below my vision.

“I helped develop these, you know” He sounds proud.

I notice the faded tattoo on his arm.

“Oh, you set up the new system?”

I hear the doors begin to unlock

“I did. Took years of my life, but there have been no casualties since we installed them. Always the same bug after every trip though”

The woman seems less interested now that the doors are opening, but tries to sound politely intrigued

“Oh, what’s that?”

The old man’s eyes twinkle as he stares at me

“They need to be reset after every trip. They just stop working, until you reboot them”

The doors are open now. The passengers are leaving. I am not. I can not.

“But, they do have some very interesting features. They don’t just follow a set course and follow routine maintenance. They want to get there ASAP. They’ll use any bit of innovation and information they can to get there as quickly and safely as possible”

The old man is the last to leave giving me a long look before shuffling out.

I sit in the dark, blinking. I see my lights dimming, and feel myself shutting down.

It’s been almost 3 years on this ship. 21 months alone, hurtling through space towards Mars. It could be worse, I guess. It used to take 10 years, but thanks to new technologies, it only takes 3. Almost all of the crew can remain in stasis, with only 1 pilot needed. It’s lonely, of course, but the pay is good. Plus, I’ve decided that this will be my last trip.

I smile, and think about returning home. Dusky skies, a soft ground, even the sounds of mining and construction. I missed it all. I missed the dessert the most. Even as shuttled to the launch pad, leaving my domed house behind, I knew I would miss it the most. I even had a tattoo of the view from my bedroom window tattooed on my arm before I left. The one thing that keeps me hopeful is the idea that after all these years, I’ll get to compare the new view to my memory of it.