The process that humans must endure for hibernation was based upon an earlier attempt of cold storage. After experimenting with some success with laboratory rats, human volunteers placed in cryogenic chambers were frozen by nitrogen gas, left for periods of days, then revived. Unfortunately, all ten men and women in the experiment either died during the experience or suffered serious brain damage and eventual death. Looking ahead to traveling deep into space, it was necessary for scientists to get it right. Human cryogenics had to be an exact science. The method of cold storage, using nitrogen and extreme temperatures, was refined with greater success, until finally, inside the chamber under refrigeration, the subjects survived for several weeks. After the success of these experiments, which didn’t harm or prove fatal to the volunteers, longer periods of preservation were possible, until, theoretically someone could live forever in such a state.
Scientists called this method of cryogenic preservation suspended animation, hibernation, or cryogenic sleep, none of which seemed entirely accurate in describing such a state. All three implied that the subject was slumbering, at most in deep sleep, like hibernating mammals,
not the condition humans are in during an operations or a comatose state. Nevertheless, these terms were used interchangeably by scientists, for without recall upon awakening a description of it was almost impossible. In such a condition, even the brain waves are marginal, making the very nature of it unknown. For this reason the stellarnauts, who experienced the longest period in this state, now called it the dark sleep—the lowest level of metabolism for humans, reaching almost to the threshold of death.
For this apparently dreamless condition (dreamless being an adjective sill unproven by empirical evidence), the twelve men and women had been understandably fearful. It was, many of them stubbornly believed, too much like being dead. Their fear was, however, counterbalanced this time by fatalism and resignation. They either slept in hibernation or they aged quickly and died. They had, for that matter, escaped a more immediate and terrible death on Proxima, which made it much easier to accept their fate. Their future remained securely in the hands of the androids who had taken care of them this far. This time, for most of them, therefore, there was greater trust for their caretakers than before. As Captain Drexel reassured them, there was no reason for the androids to sabotage the new mission by letting them sleep for forever when a likely planet was found. Proxima might not have been the right choice, but it had breathable air and at least one plant-like growth. It appeared that Skip had their best interest at heart. During their final moments of cognition this time, they had looked ahead to the next world promised by Skip, with hope and, for some of them, prayer.
Encased in their chambers at temperatures which would normally kill humans and most forms of life, imprisoned for centuries in dark sleep as their medics Sandra and Woody tended to them, Skip navigated the Phoenix toward the next world.
While the humans slept, the Phoenix found another window in space, jumping across the galaxy to the next coordinates selected on the star map. With a stoic patience humans could never fathom, the four androids continued their regimen: Skip, the captain, navigating the ship and Rusty, the pilot, steering it through a window in space and then, after jumping to a sector light years away, traveling over billions of more miles at normal speed until reaching the new world; and Sandra and Woody, the medics and stewards, watching over the sleeping humans, constantly moving from chamber to chamber to insure their patients’ well-being—four Generation Eight models, the last and most perfect androids designed by science.
When they reached the star system Ross 128 (named after twentieth century astronomer Frank Elmore Ross), they hovered above it’s Earth-like planet, Ross 128b, trapped in its gravity, studying its surface awhile. Already, Skip and Rusty were encouraged by what they saw. The outline of continents, oceans, and clouds, which they had seen on Proxima, were more distinct on the new world. Without even looking through the scope, they were impressed by how similar the continents resembled Earth. A more thorough spectroscopic analysis of the planet’s red dwarf star also recommended it for colonization: the corners of the star were stable and there were no flares streaking off its surface. If the surface of its planet was as promising as they expected, with abundant plant and animal life, this would prove that Ross 128 was a quiet star. Upon closer inspection, however, with the image of the planet projected onto the table, Skip and Rusty grew concerned by what they saw. On the one hand the world below was teeming with plant and animal life. On the other, the landscape was one continuous tangle of forests, rivers, lakes, and clearings. With greatest magnification, they detected bizarre-looking denizens with long, willowy necks, squat monsters with multiple legs roaming about, countless smaller inhabitants skirting the jungle, and a sky teaming with all manner of flying creatures, some of which were gigantic, while others, flying every which way, reminded the androids of Earth’s insects by their movements, though they were as large of terrestrial eagles flittering in the sky.
“What do you think Rusty?” Skip turned to the pilot.
“… Well, captain.” Rusty thought a moment. “It might have a quiet sun, but it’s not a quiet world. Unfortunately, we don’t know what’s ahead of us. It might be the only Earth-like planet found for a long time.”
“That’s true.” Skip nodded. “They’ll just have to be careful. Let’s let them decide.”
“That look pretty scary.” Rusty studied the projection. “Should I turn off the scope?”
“Good point. It might startle them. For the time being,” suggested Skip, “place it back on the original setting. Let’s not show them those details all at once. It might startle them.”
“Woody, Sandy,” he beckoned on his intercom. “Time to waken the humans again. Be more gentle this time. It’s been centuries since the last ports-a-call.”
Once again, with the medics assistance, the humans were brought back from the dark sleep, dragged out of their chambers, and allowed to recover from the experience in the showers. As before, cognition came at different rates for each of them, but this time, with memories of what happened on Proxima returning to each of them, their last periods in the chamber didn’t seem as bad. They were thankful just to be alive. The fatalism and resignation they felt before their last hibernation returned. They were much more mellow. Proxima, a great disappointment, had been, in the words of Hans Rucker, an angry planet. They felt very fortunate that Skip had taken them back into deep space. Now, as they sat at the conference table, with the new planet looming below them, excitement for the unknown, always an emotional elixir, stirred their dulled brains. As the last time—their second period of hibernation, when they awakened, looking forward to a new home, they wanted information immediately. There was skepticism as before and even sarcasm in some of their voices, but this time, after having the experience of bonifide explorers under their belts, most of them had high expectations.
“Well, tell us!” Sheila bounced up and down in her seat. “What did you find?”
“Yes, out with it!” Said snapped his fingers. “No more drama!”
“It’s there below you.” Skip pointed to the table. “The new world!”
“Ach,” Hans made a face, “dat gives me headache. Everything shimmers like old time movie!”
“Just tell us first,” Captain Drexel ordered impatiently. “That last map didn’t help.”
“This time the detail will be greater,” Skip insisted. “You’ll be greatly surprised. The name of the star system is Ross 128 and its habitable planet is called Ross 128b.”
At the current projection, rather than the magnification that gave details of the monsters, crewmembers were able see that it was a green, well-watered world. After giving them this introduction, Skip instructed Rusty to make adjustments to the image, then stood there, with his arms folded, waiting for reactions from the group. The details came gradually, as Rusty made the adjustments. Though taken back by the android’s assertiveness, Abe was impressed by what he saw. Skip was correct when he said they would be surprised: this planet was much different than Proxima. The landscape for Ross 128b on the map, magnified progressively by Rusty, showed a world with continents, oceans, and cloud masses. As the magnification was increased and the map was focused by the pilot, the details were amazing and, as it was enlarged even more, somewhat disturbing. A collective gasp, followed by sighs, filled the bridge. It was a green world, they discovered, with rivers as well as seas, and, when the magnification reached its limit, the tiny images of walking, crawling, and flying creatures could be seen in meadows and jungle clearings. It was plan for all to see that this world was alive and thriving. It was also plain to see that, by human standards, the creatures on Ross 128b were monsters, nothing like animals on Earth.
“What a nightmarish hodgepodge of creatures!” Sheila’s hand flew to her mouth.
“Well,” Max scratched his head, “it’s certainly green. It reminds me of the Amazon or Congo. There’s wildlife everywhere.”
“When have you seen monsters like that back home?” Nicole looked down in horror.
“Never.” Elroy pointed excitedly. “There’s a limitless food source there, though. I wish I had my laser rifle. I’d bag one of those four footed things.”
“Some of them have six or eight legs,” marveled Carla. “And what about those fliers—they look like giant moths.
“I dunno.” Hans drew back and rubbed his eyes. “This give me big headache.”
Gauging this mixed reaction, Skip took on a paternal tone. “Listen,” he said, looking at Sheila and Nicole. “It might be the only close-match for Earth. That’s why I selected it. Who knows what those creatures are capable of. They could just be mindless brutes. You must at least give this world a chance.”
“We don’t have weapons!” The captain frowned at Skip. “How do we protect ourselves if they attack?”
“Oh, you have weapons.” Skip said slyly. “Have you forgotten? The blasters intended for surface mining and the laser-cutters for sampling will make fine guns!”
“Yes, I remember.” The captain sighed. “The fact is people,” he thought a moment. “… Skip is right. We don’t know what’s in store for us in the future. We don’t want to wander around for eternity. The next group of potential Earth-like worlds might all be duds.”
In a sudden almost pontifical manner, as if to bolster the human’s spirits, Skip, gave a short speech:
“You are the seeds of mankind. You mustn’t fail. In this ship’s database is all the combined knowledge of Earth—its history, science, and cultural heritages. In your DNA also is the fate of Earth II when, thanks to the specimens from you bodies, you populate a new world and make it your own. I have read your Bible. You are the chosen people now. The Phoenix is the new ark and your destiny, through the clone bank, is no different than the legendary Noah and his mission to replenish his world. Your goal is to find a home where you can live safely and propagate the human race!”
That the Phoenix carried the wisdom and science of Earth was a sobering fact, but more important was the responsibility of propagating the species. Once again, this time in a grand manner, the ultimate goal of the new mission—propagation—was voiced. It placed a great burden upon the humans. Because it was understood by some crewmembers that the androids would continue harvesting and manufacturing clones when they settled on the selected planet, it seemed evident that at least two of the androids—Sandra and Woody would always be necessary to fulfill this mission. For that matter, with Skip and Rusty’s vast knowledge, it was difficult to see themselves colonizing a planet without their help.
“That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?” murmured Mbuto, “we’re the clone source: the great-great grandparents of the human race.”
“Oh yes,” Gandy whispered back, “Skip’s right. We mustn’t fail. Without our caretakers, mankind is doomed!”
Captain now stifled the question in his mind, “When will we be free of you?”, and decided once and for all to give Skip the benefit of the doubt. “The question is,” he asked him instead, was, “Where’s a good place to land?”
“There is large meadow here.” Skip pointed to one spot. “It looks like you might be safe, especially with your weapons, but I think that Carla should go out in her life support suit first to test the air. Stay close to the rover this time until you’re sure of the surroundings. The last time you had to run for your lives!”
Once again, Skip was talking like the ship’s captain, and once again Abe let it slide. Thanks to the policy of the Triton Project, crewmembers entered the Phoenix ignorant of so many things. Not only was the ship far more advanced than what they were led to believe, containing a wealth of knowledge from Earth, with hyper-drive as well normal propulsion system and a self-sustaining food and air system, but its androids were far more advanced than what they were told. They were the masters now. The reminder by Skip of the Phoenix’s hidden agenda—the clone base, made the future of the humans on Earth II forever dependent on their caretakers. With this realization in mind, Abe kept himself positive and focused on the exploration ahead.
“When do we start?” He studied the android captain. “These folks are raring to go!”
“Lets let them rest up as they did before visiting Proxima.” Skip glanced around the table. “They need nourishment, normal sleep, and exercise to prepare for the task. The rover must be charged and ready. That’s an active world below, Captain Drexel. You must be especially careful this time!”
That said, the crew ate the prescribed meals for cryogenic risers, and, experiencing normal sleep or attempting to do so, remained safely aboard the mother ship until Ross 128b’s morning commenced. From the bridge, they took the opportunity this time to study the red dwarf mother star. As Proxima, it boggled their imagination, but this time it seemed even more awesome, as viewed from outer space. Ross 128b sat as close to it the mother star as Mercury sat next to Earth’s sun, and yet, explained Skip, unlike Mercury, it didn’t burn up, because Ross 128 was a stable and quiet star, much cooler than the sun.
With a vision of the planet and its mother planet stamped on their imaginations, the twelve stellarnauts prepared themselves for the exploration ahead. The morning exercise included walks around the centripetal wheel and on the equipment provided in the exercise room adjacent to the galley. Though this short period of time would hardly make up for the centuries they had slept, all of the crewmembers took the regimen of rest, healthy food, and exercise seriously. No one was shocked when Skip finally admitted how long they had been in hibernation, which, because of a longer time traveling at normal speed, was nearly five hundred years. As it was pointed out again, time was irrelevant when you were in hibernation and left with no memory of this experience. It was enough just to concentrate on tomorrow. Because of the cataclysm on Earth, the crew of the Phoenix were forward thinking, focusing on the future, not past events. Even the experience of Proxima and its horrors was blotted out by what the new adventure might bring. With their minds filled with the terrifying and wondrous scenes from Ross 128b, many of the crewmembers required chemical assistance to fall asleep. No one got a full night’s sleep. On the morning of takeoff in Phoenix One, everyone took one last look at the mother star looming beside the planet. Except for the great sun, Ross 128b, without magnification, looked almost inviting from space.
After a subdued breakfast and a respectful farewell from the androids and more words of encouragement from Skip, the twelve humans boarded Phoenix One, and, without further delay, broke away from the mother ship, drifting down swiftly to the planet below.
Ross 128b’s morning, as seen up close, was unlike anything they had ever seen. After the landing craft had left the Phoenix and descended lower and lower to a clearing in the forest below, the alien sun grew larger and larger until it almost filled the sky. It was a surreal and overwhelming sight. Before the Phoenix One had even landed, as the crew looked out through the portholes and up at the overhead screen, they were greatly intimidated. The disparity between its red dwarf sun and the planet below was even more awesome than when they first looked down from the bridge. Despite the reassurances given to them that Ross 128 was a quiet star and the new planet was much more Earth-like than the one selected before, nothing in their imaginations had prepared them for the star and its busy, overpopulated world. Though it was understood by crewmembers that red dwarfs were much cooler than Earth’s sun, which made this nearness possible, the star loomed unsettlingly close to them this time, making some of them not want to leave the craft.
After peering out awhile in wonder at the sky and jungle beyond the clearing, Captain Drexel ordered them to get ready. Before the crew exited Phoenix One, Carla Mendoza, the atmospheric climatologist, first tested the air in her life support system as Skip suggested, finding it humid but breathable. After this with their packs attached to their backs and weapons in hand, they lined up, much as passengers exiting an airship. Then, when Carla had unsuited and joined her associates, Captain Drexel was the second explorer to step onto the new world. Following like nervous children on a field trip as before, each crewmember, holding a laser-cutter or blaster in their hands, now emerged from the craft, their backpacks filled with testing equipment, water, and medical supplies, as the captain lead the way.
The forest stirred with eerie grunts, whistles, and screeching noises. The sky below Ross 128 was filled with all manner of the flying creatures they had seen magnified on the bridge, now larger than life, dark shadows against the crimson sky and great red sun. Almost immediately straight ahead, the twelve humans were challenged by a denizen from the jungle: a creature that looked like a huge spider but with hundreds of undulating legs. The movement of the creature or some organ in its small body caused it to emit a noise similar to the sound of giant, buzzing bee. Some of the men and women screamed, while others found their vocal chords frozen in terror. Keeping his head somehow, Abe fired at the creature with his blaster, but the thing kept on coming at them, until all twelve guns, blasting wildly, brought him down. Smoldering in a smelly, ghastly mass, the spider-like denizen appeared, upon inspection, to be much more primitive than a terrestrial spider. It had no apparent head or body. Innumerable legs that connected at a point much like upside hydra continued to writhe, causing the humans to fire more shots. Fearful they would run out of energy for the blasters and cutters, however, the captain ordered them to stop. Several of the crewmembers wretched. A few vomited onto the ground.
Standing there and looking into the dense jungle, after this dreadful reception, the humans wondered if they should go on. Recovering from his own shock and dismay, Captain Drexel tried sounding calm.
“I have an idea,” he found his voice. “Let’s wait it out and see if anything else comes to greet us.”
Everyone nodded eagerly. No one else spoke. Everyone was tempted to flee. For the longest time, they stood there huddled together, until sure enough a flock of flying creatures descended finally from the sky. All twelve blasters and laser guns now fired at once.
“Gott in himmel!” Hans shrieked. “What are dem things?”
“Giant moths!” Elroy gasped. “Moths with an attitude!”
Upon closer inspection, however, though they had moth-like wings, they had faces like bats, were covered with scales like reptiles, and made a hissing, snake-like noise. On their heads insect-like antennas vibrated. Several claw-like appendages dangled wasp-like from their bellies and a tale much like a scorpion’s curled up behind their wings.
Firing hysterically at these hideous fliers, their free hands swatting at their targets, the humans backed away toward the rover, killing as many as they could. Dozens of the beasties lie dead in the field, and yet they continued to dive bomb them, until there were hundreds of the little creatures twitching or lying motionless on the ground. Then, suddenly, after repeated shots from the humans’ weapons, the attackers suddenly dispersed. Hovering overhead a moment as if they might just attack again, reminiscent by their rapid, collective, movement of giant gnats or flies more than bats or birds, they disappeared finally into the jungle whence they came. For awhile, the humans were left alone in the clearing. In the near distance, however, and on each side of the clearing there was movement—rustling, scratching, and thumping noises. Bleats, honks, hisses, and all manner or sounds filled the air.
“I’ve never heard such racket,” Abe exclaimed. “At least we know when they’re coming.”
“Let’s go back to the rover,” Nicole pleaded. “Better yet, let’s return to the ship. This is an unfriendly world!”
“We might try a different location,” he met her half-way. “It’s either that or hibernation again. I’d like staying awake for awhile!”
“Yes,” Max agreed. “Maybe Skip can find us a friendlier place to land.”
With no other option except hibernation, most of them agreed with the captain and ship doctor. Shepherded back into the rover, Abe sat at the controls beside Sheila as crewmembers strapped themselves in. Rising up quickly from the clearing, the rover was already kilometers away from the clearing when Abe called the mother ship.
“Skip, come in,” he called impatiently. “That was a nightmare. Find us a better spot. Far away from the jungle—a large field, even a desert area, not a jungle clearing.”
“There’s an extinct volcano not far from your location.” Skip replied quickly. “Do you see it Captain Drexel?”
“Yes,” the captain squinted, “… I see it. Looks like ones I’ve seen on Earth. What next?”
“Beyond the volcano is a great meadow near a lake. In the distance is a heard of beetle-like creatures, munching on the grass. They look harmless. I don’t see any large creatures close by, at least not yet.”
“A lake you say?” the captain tried to sound cheerful. “We might find fish or something resembling fish in them. Who knows how tasty those giant beetles might be!”
“Yuck!” Sheila made a face.
Upon finding the meadow and lake, which were skirted by a distant patch of forest, Phoenix One hovered over the ground a few moments as Captain Drexel and Sheila Livingston sat behind the controls, staring out the window at the distant herds.
“You think those creatures are really safe?” Sheila whispered into his ear.
“Skip thinks so,” murmured Abe. “They’re like herbivores on Earth, only they have six or eight legs. I can’t tell from here.”
“There’s twelve.” Sheila shuddered. “Alien buffaloes—thousands of them stretching to the horizon. It gives me the creeps!”
“Ladies and gentleman,” the captain announced with forced calm. “Stay seated, until we set down and kill the thrusters. This looks harmless enough—free of predators. There’s a nice big lake nearby too. I’ll lead the way.”
After touching down finally, crewmembers rose up shakily, muttering quietly to each other. Not wasting anymore time, Abe led his pilot and the others out the rover. After Hans tested the water discovering small, furtive swimmers in the lake, he gathered specimens of the eyeless, eel-like swimmers, and Ling Soon, sampled the soil, the earth-like grass, and clippings from plants that looked like cactuses and succulents on Earth. Ingrid placed rock samples into her pack but also assisted the other scientists in gathering their samples, while Carla took temperature readings of the air. For a short while, after they filled their packs with the samples and glanced around at the landscape, they behaved like tourists, some of them taking pictures of the surrounding landscape and the massive sun.
Then once again, out of nowhere, more fliers attacked, this time as small creatures resembling humming birds with multiple eyes and tentacles instead of claws. Tragically, before their weapons drove them off and countless of the creatures lie scorched on the ground, one of the men was scratched by one of the fliers.
“There’s no telling what diseases those little monsters carry!” Elroy cried.
“Quick, doc,” Abraham motioned the stunned medic. “That looks bad.”
“It tingles.” Elroy groaned. “Now it burns like fire!”
Receiving frantic attention from Doctor Rodgers and his assistant Nicole, who cauterized the wound after taking samples of blood, the man whimpered awhile, comforted mostly by the women members of the crew. Everyone expected the medical attention to suffice until they returned to the ship, there minds still wrapped around the latest attack.
“Well, what do you think?” Gandy looked around at the meadow.
“If we decide to stay here,” replied the captain, “this is as good a place as any.”
“Really, captain?” Said looked around uncertainly. “…. I’m not so sure!”
“At least we have a lake nearby.” Mbuto replied anxiously. “It might have fish or fish-like critters. It’s better than fighting off those bat-like things.”
“Your mad!” shouted Elroy, holding his bandaged arm. “We’re all mad for agreeing to this trip!”
“We are, to quote Moses,” Captain Drexel pontificated with an edge of humor, “‘strangers in a strange land.’ Considering the odds against finding another suitable planet, we must give it a try.”
“Give it a try?” Nicole groaned. “We’re surrounded by a forest of crawling and flying monsters!”
“Ach!” Hans agreed. “We never be safe!”
After awhile of listening to crewmembers’ complaints, Elroy looked ghastly pale. The portion of his arm surrounding the bandage began turning blue. According to Max, who had seen a similar reactions on earth from a patient, the man was suffering a form a blood poisoning. After only a few more moments, in fact, after they rushed him into the rover and laid him on an emergency cot, the crew watched him die horribly from the bite. Using state of the art field equipment and the old fashioned method of checking his pulse and pupils, Max pronounced Elroy Simpson, the mission’s habitat architect and the Triton Project’s representative, dead —the first victim of their odyssey to find an Earth-like world. Making a quick decision now, the captain aborted their exploration on Ross 128b. No sooner had his crew entered the passenger compartment and fastened themselves into their seats and he and his pilot were manning the controls, than Phoenix One was aloft, escaping the savage world.
As the rover shuttled back to the mother ship, the remaining crewmembers sat in silence, staring straight ahead, shocked, saddened, and dismayed. “What big waste of time!” Hans summed it up under his breath. Elroy Simpson had just been unlucky, many of them believed. It could just as easily been one of them. Nicole wept silently, and Ingrid prayed. Sheila, who had much to make up after her cowardly performance before, refused to weep, but like Nicole and most of the men was still on the verge of tears.
After Phoenix One had docked and crewmembers filed in, four of the men reverently carrying Elroy on his cot, they laid the dead crewmember on the captain’s table and just stood there as the androids looked on. Though a few of them blamed Skip for not finding them a safe world, Abe knew better. He understood very well how difficult Skip, Rusty, Sandra, and Woody’s tasks were. How many centuries or millenniums would they have to stand vigil and pilot the sheep through the galaxy.
There was no vote taken or even dissent, as they accepted their fate. Elroy Simpson was given a stellarnaut’s burial in the cosmos. A brief ceremony in which the generally agnostic crew of the Phoenix stood on each side of a shroud—the Triton’s Phoenix-headed flag, good for nothing else now, Ingrid said a simple, tearful, prayer, the Captain added a few kindly words about their crewmate, they all touched the flag to give him a silent send-off, and the shroud-covered corpse was jettisoned from the garbage chute into the cold, vacuum of space.
It was a heartbreaking experience for the more tender-hearted members of the crew and a grim reminder of what all of them faced. After the close call they had with Proxima Centauri solar flashes and then Ross 128b’s monsters, they realized how dangerous the search would continue to be.
The androids gave their charges awhile to recuperate, this time a full week, before it was time to eat a last meal, sleep one last night of normal sleep, and then suffer the prepping for hibernation, the prick of the needle, and then a dark, dreamless sleep. While they remained in their lonely chambers, Sandra and Woody monitored each of their vitals signs, and, as Rusty piloted the ship, Skip glanced continually at the star map, searching for a possible home. There were only so many Earth-like worlds out there. Each succeeding world might offer more dangers worse than what came before. Yet, if they failed to find a suitable for habitation, the humans would remain forever in a death-like sleep. Judged this way, the caretakers had almost god-like powers.