Story Idea: A Shipload of Morlocks

MorlockImagine if H.G Wells’ The Time Machine were set aboard a spaceship. That’s how this idea came about. Instead of a machine that travels through time, we have stasis chambers, and instead of a Victorian inventor, we have an interstellar pioneer. It’s an old format, in fact this story idea merges two old formats, but sometimes it’s good to stick with what works.

Our character (or characters) awakes from deep-sleep expecting to have arrived in orbit of a distant world, but instead he finds that something has gone terribly wrong. The colony ship should have taken only a few hundred years to arrive at its destination, but he has been in stasis for much longer; many thousands of years, in fact. The ship has somehow missed its destination and flown right by, or perhaps veered off course and headed out into the unknown. It is now thousands of years into deep space.

After a thousand years of drifting through deep space, many of the ship’s systems began to fail. A power shortage resulted in some of the stasis chambers opening, and hundreds of passengers woke up to find themselves stranded. With limited supplies, surviving a life trapped aboard the ship wasn’t easy, but many of them managed to adapt. They split into several different groups based on their individual skills and how far they were willing to go to stay alive.

The farmers managed to grow their own food using the agricultural supplies intended for the colony, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Another group, made up of the remnants of the crew and some members of the military, were forced to be more creative. When the farmers refused to share their food, they turned to cannibalism. At first, they harvested the passengers whose stasis chambers had not yet malfunctioned, opening their stasis pods and killing them in their sleep. Later, as the food source became scarce, they began hunting the other survivors. While their numbers dwindled, both groups were able to adapt well enough to survive and breed, as were their children and grandchildren.

After many successive generations, the descendants of the passengers are now perfectly adapted to life aboard ship, some of them hideously so. The memory of life on Earth has become a half-remembered legend, and the word “humanity” no longer applies.

Only the decedents of the engineers remember the purpose of the ship. In tending to it for so long, they have come to worship it. They have also managed to protect some of the original passengers from being eaten, sealing off a part of the ship to protect them. Our main character is one such survivor.

Even the engineers cannot keep the stasis pods working indefinitely, and time is running out for the last true humans. Our character must team up with the strange creatures that evolved from the engineers and farmers in order to defeat the Morlock-like cannibals.

What Happens Next?

Just like all of the ideas I share, this one is incomplete. It’s just a basic premise, and it’s up to you to decide what happens next. Does the character succeed in defeating the cannibals Morlocks? Does the ship ever reach its destination, or does it just keep drifting through space for eons? If you are looking for a twist, here are some suggestions:

– The engineers are cannibals themselves; they only preserved some of the passengers to ration their food supply.

– The engineers’ religion prohibits them from killing any of the being aboard the ship as they believe it would alter the “balance of life” on the ship and violate its “divine purpose”.

– The engineers awoke the main character intending to sacrifice him to the cannibals.

– The ship has already reached its destination, but there’s nothing there.

– The ship has traveled beyond the Milky Way and is in the empty void between galaxies.

– The ship’s computer has changed course because it detected non-human life on board.

I should probably point out that the science fiction movie Pandorum uses a very similar premise to this, and uses it to great effect. If you are planning on using this idea, I recommend you watch Pandorum first (and read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, of course).

This article was written by Mark Ball.

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  • Zo0tie

    Unfortunately what you describe is not a science fiction story idea but a premise for a first person shooter game. A grim hopeless but futuristic dystopia where the main character can whizz through decaying tunnels shooting at cannibal mutants, finding clues to accomplish some great act that will ‘Save Humanity’. “Savages in a lost space ark” has been done many times(since the 1930’s). Frankly your setup aptly demonstrates that humans are NOT worth saving. Science Fiction is supposed to be about ideas. One suggested surprise approach to salvage this may be for the main protagonist to come to terms with the reality that the survivors are all doomed to slow death, perhaps finally pulling the lever to end the suffering. As Kirk says, “How we deal with death is as important as how we deal with life. Read Harlan Ellisons’ DeathBird for clues to such a downbeat ending.

    • Not a science fiction story idea? But it’s based on one of the first science fiction stories ever written. I see your point though, it certainly needs some originality and interest throwing at it.

  • Gabriel

    One should include one more scenario in which a group decides to find an alternative destination once the original one was lost.

  • Sounds a little like the plots behind the movie Pandorum. But I still like it, blue and red making purple isn’t bad at all.

    Like Avatar.

    • Yeah, I know it’s pretty unoriginal, but I thought it was worth sharing anyway just to get people thinking about how they could develop this idea in different ways.
      Red Dwarf also uses a similar premise, except that we never really got to see the cat civilization. I think something like that would be interesting to explore. How about if there were both cats and dogs aboard, and they evolved into opposing civilizations, or would that be too cheesy?

  • Gabriel

    Giving a second thought about the subject, one may put a more realistic background to explain the “morlocks” existence:
    Due to the dwindling population, the surviving one had obviously very few members. After a few generations of inbreeding, genetic deformities and mental retardation is just one among many outcomes. One survivor from an older generation may be just competent enough to understand how he came to life aboard this ship and may know about those in deep sleep and do his/her best to salvage the remains of this community, and postpone its death, at best, but first must try to land the ship somewhere to start the new colony.