It was only supposed to be a day. Two days at the most, then back to the safe, sweet oblivion of coldsleep while the years and the light years slipped away. Two days, and she wouldn’t be the only conscious soul in all this great and awful void, with nothing but the creak and hum of the ship for company. That was what the new nanite interface was supposed to guarantee. Yet here she was, four days in.
Still no closer to a solution, any solution, than the moment she first woke up.
She felt so stupid. Since when had new tech ever worked as well in the field as it did in the lab? There was always another variable, always something no one predicted, always some way for everything to come apart at the seams. She’d just assumed it would still function well enough. Usually, she could find some way to get it that far. Usually, she had help. Usually.
She still didn’t know exactly what had happened. Her first assumption, that the trouble was just a nasty fluke of untested hardware and confined to the nanite systems, hadn’t survived even her first, cursory survey of the ship’s systems. The damage was too widespread.
And it was damage. That was the terrifying part. A software glitch would have been bad enough, with all its attendant troubles and impossibilities. But software could be reset. Worked around. Coaxed and tricked and prodded.
Fried and melted circuits, not so much. If she could get the sensors and the logs back online it might have recorded what had happened. A violent flare from some alien star, perhaps. A band of dark energy. Or just a fault built into the system itself. At the moment, it didn’t matter.
They had backups, of course, and redundancies. You wouldn’t try something like this without them. Not if you hoped to survive the attempt. The trick was just that all the important bits assumed there would be more than one set of hands available to make the replacement.
There were. Or there could be.
She could invoke Emergency Protocol C and bypass the safeties and the new nanotech interface the Twins had gotten, same as her. She could send a Full Wake Signal through their systems. It would just take a few keystrokes. A few command codes entered directly into the coldpods themselves. It should still work. She had checked.
But a Full Wake meant it would be years before they could go back into coldsleep. It wouldn’t be so isolating with more than one of them awake. Not as bad as this. But they only had so much food, so much water. So much air the ship could purify for the fragile humans inside. So, no. She wouldn’t use a Full Wake. Not unless she had to.
(The thought, the fear crossed her mind that the computer had been forced to resort to using the Full Wake to pull her out of coldsleep. But, she reminded herself, that would have showed on the medscan. It had to.)
Not that it was going to be functionally all that different if she couldn’t get her own damn interface to work the way it was supposed to. And if it was a choice between going slowly mad on her own and dragging one or two more souls into this hellish limbo just to make sure the mission didn’t fail right here, right now…
It hadn’t come to that yet.
She still had things to try.
If she could just get their nanite systems to start working the way they were supposed to, both hers and the Twins’, it would be alright. It would all be alright.
That was her first thought. Her first plan. But when the first day and half of the second passed without any kind of progress, she had to abandon it and find another. A tactical retreat. Not defeat. That’s what the Twins would have said.
For a moment she was a ghost: cold, half-numb, and detached. Then the fog broke, the ice cracked, and she remembered who she was. Where she was.Her chest tightened. A voice, artificial tones familiar yet not quite comforting, gave an announcements, instructions, warnings. Things she needed to know. Things that couldn’t be that urgent, because the lights of Coldbay 1 were a low and steady blue and and nothing was flashing red, and only one or two were amber. Things that could wait until she extricated herself from the coldpod and replaced this pink and paper-thin gown with something more substantial. Things that the Twins, one bay over, were just as capable of taking care of too.
She grunted as her bare feet hit the panel floor and an aching panic jolted through her legs, her hips, her back as the muscles remembered how to work. Or maybe it was just the effect of cold metal on unprotected skin.
In the background, the artificial voice garbled on.
“… can be found in the shelving…
… you or any member of your team are…
… Earth mean date and time is calculated at…”
There were other noises, too. She hadn’t noticed them at first but they were there, and they were comforting. Low hums. Rhythmic thrumming. All the sounds a ship should make, an electric, mechanical heartbeat against a backdrop of complete and perfect silence.
And the silence beyond was perfect. Or at least it was complete.
Clarity returned in fits and starts, bringing more of memory with it. Her chest tightened again. It wasn’t that she had forgotten: not any of it. Not the ship. Not the mission. Not how irrevocably vast the distance was that they had traveled. It was just that her brain, fogged with coldsleep and a thousand clamoring physical needs, had neglected to remember. It remembered now.
Strange how remembering brought both relief and renewed dread. Relief that the nanites had worked, that she was here, alive, awake. She’d never gone under cold before, and the primal fear that raged in the back of the brain could only be quieted so much by the knowledge of all the thousands who had done it an lived.
Dread of… everything else.
It would probably be better if she didn’t give herself the time to think. Not until the Twins were up and around and chattering on the comms.
A tension she wished she could ignore screwed her shoulders to her ears. A chill not entirely the fault of the cold air and her bare skin whispered down her spine. The ship’s systems should have triggered the wakeup for the Twins the same time it sent hers; the fact that she couldn’t already hear them laughing through the bulkheads—
—might not mean a thing. The Twins could be just as awake as she was, and their uncharacteristic quiet could be a symptom of the post-freeze lag.
That was the logical response. But there was logic, and there was her gut. And when the two came back with different answers, it only ever meant that logic was working with old information.
She swore, softly and to herself, and forced her tingling legs to carry her across the room to the big medscanner. If something had gone wrong, panic wouldn’t fix it. She would. Carefully and in the correct order. That meant taking care of herself first. And the first step for that was making sure coldsleep hadn’t left her any ticking time-bombs. Complications were rare, the docs had assured her, and easily fixed if caught early. The scanner would do both.
It was too bad that knowledge didn’t make the crawling minutes pass any faster. Or make the white and sterile bed feel any less exposed beneath the scanner’s probing lights.
And when the great, impersonal thing finally finished its work and spat its results onto the nearby screen with a quiet ping, it couldn’t offer her any comfort as she read them.
<Circulatory function… GOOD>
<Respiratory function… GOOD>
<Neurological function… GOOD>
<Nanite interface… ABNORMAL… SEE REPORT FOR FURTHER DETAILS>
The words didn’t even display frantic red. Just amber. Nagging amber. Stubborn amber. The color of mild concern, but she was the only one there to feel it.
Despite herself, her best intentions, her years of careful discipline, she lost control. Her blood drummed at her ears. Her pores leaked sweat, and the chilly room grew chillier still. And then she breathed. In, out. One deep breath. And another. And then a third, coaxing focus back. Bribing her pulse down from its fluttering heights.
Because panic wouldn’t fix it.
She retrieved her uniform and pulled it on before she opened the report. Perhaps it was a concession to her frail humanity, but that was alright. It was alright to take what comfort she could find, even if that comfort was just the weight of the fabric on her shoulders and the familiar contours of the well-worn, well-loved boots on her feet. If it helped, who was she to argue?
Then, because there was nothing else to do, because the only way past was through, she tapped the amber words with the tip of a finger and opened herself to the worst. And found it anticlimactic. There was no cascading failure. There was no spreading corruption. There was only an error message, all but useless in its lack of specific information.
>>> Nanite interface ABNORMAL…
Communication failure… attempting reboot in 30 minutes…
Coldsleep NOT advised
She should have felt relieved, or at least warily hopeful. It could have been so much worse. The nanites coursing through her veins, a new type—or they were when they had injected them ten years ago—could have met with every kind of failure. Instead, they were just… glitching a little. Probably. Maybe.
She should have felt relieved, she told herself, but all she really felt was the weight of silence. Because the coldpod would have registered that error before it brought her out, and the only reason it had done so anyway was because they had removed that particular failsafe.
Because she had told them to. Because she’d said she was willing to take the risk. Because the mission was more important. Because she’d thought a few days, weeks, months of terrible isolation was a price she was willing to pay if it meant their colony had a lifeline back to Earth.
The mission psychs had disagreed. Some more vehemently than others. It had taken months of argument to secure their agreement, and then only with caveats. Three of them had to be woken, and she and the Twins had volunteered. And they had to be able to go back into coldsleep after a few days. Hence the new tech.
The new tech that, despite extensive testing and spotless results, was now malfunctioning.
The thrumming of the ship seemed small and pitiful now, standing against a fathomless void and loneliness. It was all in her head, she told herself. That was where all the worst monsters lived, she replied.
For a split second something teetered at the edge of her mind, goaded by a thousand ifs. If the Twins’ nanites had malfunctioned. If the reset didn’t work. If she couldn’t fall back into coldsleep.
She might have screamed. She might have stood, paralyzed and silent. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She wasn’t sure it mattered.
She wasn’t even sure what finally got her moving once again. Habit, maybe. Or her old friends, duty and discipline, reasserting themselves. All she knew was that she found herself, minutes later, standing in Coldbay 2 and finding that her fears were confirmed. The computer had attempted to wake the Twins. And it had failed.
And she was alone here after all, floating in this void between the stars. The certainty should have clawed away her remaining sanity. It would eventually, she was sure. But for now, it was a strange relief. Hope, whatever shreds of it remained, was far enough away that she could ignore it. And while she could move, she had work to do.
Funny how one can simultaneously wish for more interaction and less. Perhaps we all have a little of the cat in us– wanting in as soon as we’ve been let out and wanting out as soon as we’ve been let in. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, it’s hard not to feel a little stuck, as so many of us are. And my day job is considered essential, so I’m even getting out of the house.
It’s also funny to note that my day to day schedule hasn’t actually changed all that much, as I’m an introverted homebody by nature, so this whole “staying in” thing is pretty much business as normal. Apparently I just don’t like being told to do it.
… so that could be something I need to work on. At least I’ve got the time for it!