Waking up was like being born. At first there was no memory, only awareness. It was dark. It was cold. Light, breaking through the darkness, expanded overhead, much like the journey from the womb. The primal sense of sight and hearing alerted him to a simple fact: he was alive, but frightened and very cold. As he was extracted, warm air now blew over him. He was, in the second stage of cognition, in a strange, unfamiliar place in which a face, which meant nothing in his present state, loomed overhead. Like an infant, fearful of the experience, he gasped his first breath of air and screamed in terror, as he was raised up out of the chamber and exposed to a flood of light.
“There-there, Captain Drexel,” an attendant murmured. “I’ll get you cleaned up. It’s just the cryogel; your memory will return.”
Pulled out of the chamber by the attendant, wet and oozing with cryogel, he was dragged limply by his armpits across the floor. As he began thrashing about weakly under the attendant’s control, he was strapped onto stool. A spray of water cascaded suddenly from above. Inside this second, translucent chamber, full cognition came slowly for him as the gel was rinsed off and two attendants scrubbed him clean. Flashes of memory—people, places, and events, blinked off and on in his head. As the gel was rinsed from his eyes, his vision cleared, and, to his horror, the features of his mid-wife became clear: a creature with two orbs on each side of a protuberance with a vibrating slit below its mouth that uttered gibberish as it jerked him about. Of course, in his current state of awareness, Captain Drexel was unfamiliar with humans. On the other side of this wet place, a second specter, still shadowy, appeared, and began rapping on the door.
“Calm down captain,” it called cheerily, “we all go through it. It’s cold, dark, and scary at first. Sandra, one of our ship’s androids, scrubbed me up, too. Then—poof—except for what she told me, I didn’t remember a thing.”
For the ‘newborn,’ it sounded like gibberish once more. He was, for the time being, a blank sheet, unable to comprehend or communicate. Without familiar reference points, his emotions were basic and his reactions instinctual.
“His strength’s returning,” the attendant observed. “He can’t understand you, Doctor Slaven, but this man is strong. He’ll come around soon. You took a full hour.”
“Sandra!” Doctor Slaven rapped again on the shower door. “Get out of there. Let him sit it out. He’ll come to. We’ve got nine more to go.”
The android, devoid of facial expression, removed herself obediently and secured the shower door. The being, identified as Captain Drexel, still restrained on the stool, wept inexplicably. Still to weak to attempt an escape, he continued to thrash about, then, as the warm, comforting water sprayed his body, fragments of memory flashed finally into his mind, coming together like pieces to a puzzle. Moving forward, in front of his life experiences, was a fact that came passively at this stage. The two specters had called him Captain Drexel. After hearing him called this, he realized that this must be true… But captain of what? What did this mean? His name, in fact, was Captain Abraham Drexel, and yet the name sounded alien to him. Floating around this piece to the puzzle, the other fragments fell into place, like icebergs on a dark sea …Americorp…Triton…Captain Drexel…What did they mean?
Startled by the sudden shriek of other ‘newborns,’ he tugged at the restraints on wrists and lap. Who were those people? Where was he? Why was he placed in restraints? Looking down, he noticed a pair of briefs covering his genitals and rear. The name Americorp was stenciled on the waste band. It meant nothing to him. Jogging his memory was the tattoo on his arm—a heart, which he clearly understood now, and the name Rosalie inside. Again, it meant nothing, but he knew these reference points were important. One of the voices, high pitched and awful, unnerved him greatly. It was familiar…a woman, like Rosalie. What was her name? Why was she screaming like that? Already his primal memories were fading. In their place, an urgency filled him, almost intuitively, based upon the training drilled into him but also upon the few pieces to the mental puzzle already put into place. After a while, a second voice, deep and hoarse, which made it more unsettling than the first, jarred his mind further. Like the woman in somewhere in this room, the voice was familiar. In a wave of recognition, triggered by his understanding so far, more pieces fell together, less haphazardly. First came early recollections—family, childhood, high school, and a cherub-faced woman, he recognized as Rosalie. Next, more importantly, he realized, were those most current pieces—Americorp … Neptune … Triton … and an awareness of other crew members (whose names returned sluggishly) on the ship. Though groggy from years of cryogenic suspension, Captain Drexel called out loudly, “Doc. This is Abe. Report to ship showers. We have to talk.”
Soon, Doctor Immanuel Slaven and a second android, this one a male, Abe recognized as Woody, arrived. Reaching in to turn off the shower, Woody apologized, unfastened his fetters, and helped him to his feet. A robe was handed to him, which Woody helped him slip into, while Doctor Slaven checked his vital signs with a scanner. Standing before the doctor and the android, listening to the remainder of the ship awaken fitfully from its long sleep, Captain Abraham Drexel took command of his ship.
The puzzle, almost incomplete, was enough. Captain Drexel commanded an Americorp’s spaceship, destined for Triton, one of Neptune’s moons. Because of the physical and mental effects of long-range space travel upon crews, the cryogenic slumber had been necessary, but until this hour no one knew how terrible would be the awakenings. Aboard the Spaceship Vanguard, piloted and attended by Generation Eight Androids as the humans had slept the dark sleep, the first cryogenic crew destined for the outer rim of the solar system, were close to their destination. They had slept almost the entire journey, over ten years, in a dreamless condition resembling a coma. Now, Captain Drexel recalled light-headedly, they were close to the fulfillment of the Triton project. Because of the proof of an apparently friendly alien presence on Neptune’s largest moon, the project’s goal had been simple. Make direct contact with the solar system’s first visitors.
Right now, however, the captain was more concerned about his crew. On board, still suffering rebirth after space travel, his shipmates, which included both scientists and his staff, groped as the captain had done, as sleepwalkers in this pageant, gradually becoming aware of who they were, why they were here, and the importance of their mission for Americorp and Earth.
While dressing themselves with Woody or Sandy’s help, they would, when they came to, barely recall the previous ordeal. According to Doctor Slaven, there would be no memories of the dark sleep, itself, and only snatches of recall from the awakening, which would disappear, as newborn’s first memories, almost entirely as the days progressed. In his sleek, corporate logo jump suit and sneakers, except for the eagle on his shoulders that indicated his rank, Captain Drexel’s attire resembled the other crewmembers entering the conference room. Now that Vanguard would was circling Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, the androids withdrew into their pods to await service, the sole exceptions being Skip, the interim captain and Astro, the pilot, until Gandy Supra, his human counterpart, was up to the task. When the captain called them, the other androids would emerge from their pods, like proverbial vampires, as servants to the humans. Before exploration, all twelve members of the crew would have to be mentally and physically ready. Captain Drexel would, from this point on, oversea all divisions of the ship—a task that struck him as overwhelming in his current state of mind. Mbuto Suwala, the Ships engineer, who would be in charge of the hyper-drive of the vessel, had looked around in child-like wonderment at the surrounding command center, as if he couldn’t comprehend where he was. Second-in-command, Abe recalled, would be Lieutenant Sheila Livingston, the first shrieking voice he heard upon awakening, now sitting in a befuddled daze beside him. The others, all scientists—Dermot Rucker (the second panic-stricken voice heard in the shower room) and Lingh Soon—the ship’s biologist and botanist, respectively, Helga Schwarz—geologist, Carla Mendoza—meteorologist, and last but not lease Said Rammal—a specialist overseeing the androids on the ship, were also badly hung over. Lingh and Helga, Doctor Slaven whispered into his ear, had ingested cryo-gel during awakening and had to be forcibly pumped out. They were the worst of the lot. All of his people, including Doctor Slaven and his assistant, Nicole Bennett, who had been too far-gone to help him resuscitate the crew, had only vague reflections of their ordeal. In various stages of giddiness, shock, and discomfort they knew only that the long, journey from Earth to Neptune’s mysterious moon, in which they had lain in a dreadful, dreamless state, was over.
The great and terrible adventure was about to begin. No one wanted think about their return to Earth when they would have to repeat the state of cryogenic sleep. A dulled expectation had taken hold of Vanguard’s men and women. The greatest emotion shared by the crewmembers now was relief that it was over.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Captain Drexel used an archaic form of address. “Welcome back sleepy-heads to the Earth II Project. We’ve passed a most important milestone: 4.3 billion kilometers of interstellar space. Your memories are coming back to you, some more, some less. Nevertheless, let me remind you that you are, as Nicole would say, the crème de la crème—the very best in your fields and technology. Having climbed aboard the Vanguard and placed immediately into your chambers, however, you were like babes experiencing infancy. Now, having remembered how to talk and comprehend, your heads are filled with data—you’re humans again. Be patient; your training will all come back to you. Only the engineer, pilot, and my lieutenant, are familiar with the controls and machinery of our ship, but even our minds are dulled by the sleep. That’s why we have the andies. Well we’re awake now. We’re taking control. We’ve got a job to do!
“First things first, though,” he added, seeing the discomfort of members of the group. “Some of you have queasy tummies. Most of you are anxious for your first dinner in over ten years. While you slept, your bodies remained in limbo. You didn’t need food. Strangely enough, you might not even be hungry, but it’s important that you eat. You’ll also have to exercise awhile and brush up on your specialties and understanding of the ship. Before we go any further Woody and Sandy will serve us all with prepared dinners and drink. I have no idea what that is.” “Sheila,” he ordered the droopy-eyed executive office, “go check the kitchen. Ollie and Lucy should be up and running. Make sure it goes smoothly.” “Gandy, if you’re up to it, go along with her. Let’s bring out the menus. Not everyone’s ready for solid food.”
Directing his voice to the scientific portion of the crew, Abe’s words failed to rouse them from their lethargy and shock. They were a sorry lot. He was in no mood, himself, to stand before them, delivering welcoming speeches. “Phew!” he said, plopping down into is chair, “I’m sure this was how newborns felt after arrival. “Just think, folks, we have to do it again—on the way back. Some fun, huh?”
“It was awful,” Nicole exclaimed. “I scarcely remember it. It’s like awakening from nightmare and forgetting the plot—a big black hole in my mind.”
“Yes,” Mbota nodded, “it’s appropriately called the dark sleep. I don’t relish doing that again.”
“Ache, I still taste dat slime.” Helga shuddered. “Before, all dey did vas put dem asleep and let dem snooze during trip. Dey called it suspended animation. I am not animated now, captain—I feel like zombie, but I’m happy I be back!”
“It’s more than birth,” said Rammal. “It’s like resurrection. Being raised from the dead.”
“Now-now.” Doctor Slaven chortled, shaking his head. “Let’s not be sacrilegious.”
Abe’s effort at levity had fallen flat yet succeeded in perking up the silent, deadpan- faced scientists slouched around the table. Looking down at them, as his staff straggled in with the androids bearing trays of food, he tried to formulate his words. What could you say to people who had gone through such an ordeal? His original speech, which he had rehearsed before takeoff, summarized their mission and what was expected of them in the coming days, now seemed too long. He scarcely remembered it. He was, like the others, still in aftershock—the result of cryo-sleep—a state far more debilitating than the old suspended animation chambers, which, unlike suspension, would not wear off completely for several hours. The artificial gravity of the ship, less than half that of Earth, should have made him feel light and buoyant but instead he felt heavy-lidded and thick tongued. Their bodies and minds were weighted down after years of idleness. A common phenomena, he recalled, from such meetings, was boredom and lethargy, but this droopy-eyed response was different. In spite of their collective shock and the after-effects of cryo-sleep, he noted a spark of resolve in many of their eyes, as if to say, “it’s over. We’re ready. Let’s get on with it. A few, Helga and Gandy, had ingested gel, and yet they, too, seemed at peace, happy just to be alive.
With these thoughts in mind, Captain Drexel abbreviated his speech. “Like some of you,” he said, gathering his thoughts, “…I was in the academy during the Generation Six mission in Europa. It might have disappointed biologists and botanists, hoping to find life on that world, but it was a technical and scientific success. Between that time and now the world community have concentrated on interstellar and Martian mining. Mars now has a scientific colony, and there are hundreds of space stations and thousands of fact-gathering satellites and probes scouting the solar system and universe. What we have already done during our voyage to Triton and will do on its surface far surpasses all previous missions. You and the operations crew are the first stellarnauts to travel in cryo chambers. Your hibernation saved your physical body and mind from destruction. You emerged intact, but not without some psychological effects. Some of you feel physically ill. Others are still disoriented. All of us suffer the aftershock of that cold darkness and jolt of rebirth. Like you, my memory’s coming back.” “As a matter of fact,” he added with a chuckle, “something popped into my head: the warning from our training that less than one percent of crewmembers may experience a degree of psychosis. That seems pretty low. The odds favor us. But in accordance with the mission plan, our good doctor, also a psychologist will test each one of us. It’s a simple test. No one goes onto the surface who’s not ready. Everyone must be fit. This goes for everyone—both the scientific and operational crews.”
The pre-packaged meals set before each crewmember was complimented by a mug of juice. In the compartments on the plastic plates were items Abe recognized as meat, vegetables, and a dessert. The meat could be almost anything—pork, beef, chicken, but he recognized cream corn, string beans, and a slightly overdone brownie. In the future, the androids would prepare more elaborate meals. What they had in front of them conformed to the light dinner required for queasy stomachs—nothing too spicy or excessive, but it was a great disappointment to members of the crew.
“Is this supposed to be breakfast, lunch or supper?” Sheila studied her meal. “In space all we have is a twenty-four clock—military or space time. According to my watch, it’s eighteen hundred or six o’clock in the evening Earth reckoning—suppertime. I didn’t expect roast turkey or steak, but they might at least have made it look attractive. What is this anyhow?”
“Ache.” Helga made a face. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not hungry. After ten years, I should be able to eat a horse.”
“I’m not so hungry either.” Gandy made a face. “I’m thinking of maybe soup or jello. I don’t like the looks of this. It looks like hospital food.”
“This will pass shortly,” Doctor Slaven reassured them. “You must try to eat—all of you. Eat what you can. But if you think it’s going to make you sick, by all means eat later. At least hydrate yourselves. Tomorrow, when you’re your old selves, we’ll begin getting you in shape—physically and mentally. Triton can wait!”
After struggling through their first meal in ten years, the scientists followed the captain and his staff on a guided tour and refresher course of the Vanguard. The basic energies returned slowly to them as they scanned the ships structure and controls. The operating staff was in no better shape. Yet recollection came quickly to them, as they listened the captain’s voice, the background hum of the vessel, and their long-shuttered eyes were greeted with the computers, readout screens, and blinking lights of the flight deck, scientific lab, and engine room. Outwardly, their asymmetrical vessel resembled a molecular mass of spheres and interconnecting rods surrounding a flat spherical area containing the flight deck, cryo-chambers which lined the corridors of the vessels, sleeping quarters at one end of the sphere, a modest area set off for meals, an even smaller room for recreation, adjacent to a tiny medical lab, and the scientific lab—the largest room on the ship. As the scientists and crew were re-introduced to their duty stations, which had only been shown to them during the training back on earth, they recalled their special training as stellernauts. For the scientists and medical team, their education and experience also surfaced, as they fingered their equipment, stared quizzically into their monitors, and tried making sense out of their decision to cut themselves off from the human race.
Captain Drexel had sent a brief but official message, notifying Earth II’s headquarters of their successful awakening and the apparent physical and mental status of the scientists, medical personnel, and crew. With an understandable complacency, he turned his attention to acclimatizing the men and women to their new home. Though he felt certain of a reply, he shared the misgivings of the others. Much could have happened during their long voyage. Earth was ten years older. Science, itself, could have changed significantly since their odyssey began. The sacrifice they made had been heroic, but time had passed them by. The people they had known on earth had aged ten years, while they, in their dark sleep hadn’t age at all. When they finally returned, their family and friends will be, at least physically, over twenty years older than them, while they will be no less for the wear. These thoughts played in Abraham Drexel’s mind as he finished the re-acquaintance tour and then returned to the command console.
When he reached the captains chair, facing a panoramic screen of space, including the growing bluish outline of Triton, he turned to Skip, the android on duty, who had acted as pilot of the ship as he and the others slept. In spite of being the eighth generation of androids, they retained the same expressionless demeanor most of the time, until this moment, thought the captain. Skip was actually frowning, concern registering faintly on his perfect face. Abraham, of course, hadn’t expected a response from earth immediately or any time soon. It would take a year and half for a message to reach earth and the same amount of time to receive a reply—a span of three years. Considering the fact that they would be back in their cry-o chambers during this period, the gesture seemed meaningless. What the captain expected to find in the database was a record of their journey during the ten years of cryogenic sleep, which included questions from earth and answers from the pilot on the status of the ship and crew. Almost immediately before even starting his search, he sensed something terribly wrong. After scanning the database for only a moment, the android pilot gripped his wrist firmly and spoke.
“Captain,” he began gently, “there’s something wrong…. I couldn’t wake you and the others. What good what it do? Earth II stopped transmitting.”
“What do you mean stopped transmitting?” Abraham rose up suddenly and looked down at Skip’s screen, which showed entries stopping soon after take off. Data showing chatter from a successful launch and cryogenic enclosures was brief, followed by efforts by the pilot to make contact, but there were no replies from earth, only line after line of the same message. Though his own screen showed the same data, he studied it frantically, hoping they had missed something. Skip’s words were still reverberating in his mind, as the captain watched the same automatic response after each three-year interval to his message to earth: No Transmission.
“This is a mistake. There must a glitch. Why didn’t you tell me?” the captain cried.
“I’m telling you now, sir, and there’s no mistake.” he said calmly. “We’ve conducted tests. I’ve personally checked everything. We couldn’t awaken you during cry-o sleep. It takes three years to communicate with earth. What good would it have been for me to announce this news in front of the others?” “I was given clear instructions,” he added motioning to the screen. “…The fact is, earth is not responding…”
“You mean Earth II, don’t you?”
“No sir,” the android seemed to sigh, “I mean earth. Until we regain transmission, we’re cut off from our planet.”
“What about the Mars and Titan stations?” the captain asked quickly. “What do they make of this?”
“According to the transmissions I received several years ago, the stations were in operation, then suddenly communication stopped completely, even from the Mars station—Earth’s oldest science colony.”
Abraham reviewed these messages. There was nothing in this chatter recorded by their ship to indicate a problem, but like earth, after a decade in space, communication ended. Almost as an afterthought after the latest thunderclap, he asked, “What about the signals from Triton, itself. Are those gone too?”
“Yes…Look into your monitor captain…. Go to the Triton file…. The last signal from it also stopped.”
“And when did that happen?” the captain sat staring at him in disbelief.
Skip’s voice grew faint then rose suddenly, exclaiming in a serene tone, “About the same time, we lost transmission from Earth—not long after we launched into space. We’re on our own captain.”
Abraham Drexel now considered two simple alternatives: the android pilot was lying for some inexplicable reason or, just as inexplicably, he was telling the truth.
“Before I break the news to the crew and my staff, lets go over the data. I can’t wrap my mind around this, Skip. I know you had orders not to disturb our hibernation and you can’t show human emotion, but this isn’t a trifling matter. Sheila, my second-in-command, would be half out of your wits right now. I don’t know how she passed the psych exam. That goes for some of the others. We can’t just drop this on them, until we’re absolutely sure.”
For several hours, as the ship’s company checked out their duty stations and chatted a
about their experience, Captain Drexel and Skip, the android pilot, went over the ship’s log, readouts, and controls—testing and re-testing the computers and equipment and searching the backup data base for signs of an electrical malfunction or a communication crash. A few of the crew looked in idly a few times but were given ambiguous reasons for what they were doing on the flight deck. When the captain was certain that the communications between Earth and the Vanguard had ceased not long after they climbed into their pods and began their odyssey in space, he felt a wrenching sense of helplessness, and yet, as stunned and perplexed as he was, the captain couldn’t accept the conclusions after just one hour of examination. Until they solved this mystery, however, there was no way they could hide their conclusions. Already, the awakened sleepers were curious to here and see the belated message from relatives and friends back on earth. It was, he and Skip agreed, time to break the bad news to the scientists, medics, and crew.
Sandra, the first android face the captain had seen upon awakening, was sent to gather the humans. Skip remained at the controls to continue searching for data, as the captain stood on the deck. The panorama of the approaching planet, glowed in the great window—an ominous backdrop to his thoughts. All of the androids, also summoned by Sandra, were on hand to assist the humans, an order the captain hadn’t given. Taken back momentarily as the men and women returned to the conference table, the captain glanced in renewed shock at one of the androids, this time the medical assistant Sandra. This brazen act by a member of the non-human crew, added to Skip’s revelation, triggered an alarm in captain’s mind…. Was something more than a communication transmission problem afoot?
Looking around anxiously at the men and women seated around the table, Abraham took note of their moods. Most of them were still suffering from cry-shock that registered in various degrees, depending upon the mental strength of the one-time sleeper. For the military-oriented captain, his pilot and navigator, Gandy Supra who recovered relatively quickly after ingesting gel, and the engineer, Mbuto Suwala, the ordeal had left less of an impact. Their training kicked in rapidly, and though they must have shared he apprehension of the others after being recalled to the conference table, they looked stoically up at him, in total control. Doctor Slaven sat with forced resolve, too, his arms folded, displaying a grim look, while his assistant Nicole Bennett sat in jittery silence, and all the scientists (Helga, Carla, Dermot, and Lingh) were visibly frightened. The most anxious member of the ship’s company, Said Rammal, whose electronic expertise including shepherding the androids on the vessel, signaled by his wide eyes and gaping mouth total surprise that his charges stood at attention behind the humans, instead of being in their pods or at their tasks.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Captain Drexel used the formal address, “something has come up.”
“Why are Skip, Astro, Woody, Sandra, Daisy, Lucy, Ollie, and Alice at our meeting?” Said mumbled to himself.
“What is it? Tell us what?” croaked Nicole.
“Skip and I have been at the console, checking the data base and conducting tests,” he continued, trying to divulge it delicately. “You probably noticed our destination: Neptune’s moon Triton. We can’t see Triton yet; it’s in the planet’s shadow. But our database shows that Triton’s transmission to earth, both audible and visible stopped sending shortly after our launch into space.”
A collective gasp rose up as the captain framed his words. “…Also absent from she ship’s transmission log,” he added, closing his eyes in expectation, “are any records of communication with earth—a problem that began when our transmission from Triton stopped.”
“What?” his listeners muttered simultaneously.
“You mean Earth II, don’t you?” Gandy looked up in disbelief. “Surely you don’t mean the entire earth?”
“I mean, Gandy,” he sighed raggedly, “we’ve lost all communication—period!”
Slaven shook his head and patted Nicole’s wrist consolingly. Virtually all of the scientists also groaned in panic. Mbuto, who sat closest to the captain, had the presence of mind to inquire about the integrity of the ship’s engine and internal electronic systems.
“Nothing’s wrong with the Vanguard,” he reassured, in a louder voice, “and I never said this problem is permanent. There has to be a reason for what happened. We’ll work together to solve this mystery together. Please, get a hold of yourselves.”
“Excuse me,” an unexpected voice came from the non-humans. Sandra, a medical android, stepped forward. Her classic twentieth century Barbie features—golden hair surrounding a pretty face and a perfect hour-glass figure now belied her steely expression and the forcefulness of her words:
“There is a reason for this problem.” She looked calmly around the room. “Before you were all placed in your cry-o chambers, even before you were trained for your tasks, we, among the best of the Generation Eight Androids, were given the task to ‘assist and protect the crew and scientists of Earth II’s last mission. Unfortunately, something dreadful happened after we left earth. Our last transmission from earth from the mission director, Bertrand Thomas, came shortly before the break of communications. We were told earlier not to waken the sleepers. What good what it do? While we traveled away from earth, the other stellernauts from Mars and Titan were called in. At that point, the apparent disappearance of the visitors on Triton alarmed those back on earth, and they returned from the Mars and Titan missions only weeks before the scientific rotation. Because of what happened, those missions were essentially abandoned, making our break with earth complete. We were not told what had happened. Skip tried everything to make contact, but after Doctor Thomas’ words, “Good luck Generation 8, watch over the ship and the sleeping crew,” we heard nothing.
“Why didn’t you wake us?” Nicole cried. “We could’ve returned to earth too. ”
“Yes, yes, now we’re marooned in space!” Dermot wrung his hands.
“We couldn’t return,” she replied coolly. “We were ordered to proceed and let you sleep. Please understand, how futile it would have been to return. Consider the implications of the break in communication. Now, it has been over ten years. Much could have happened in that interval. To return might mean certain death.”
“Certain death?” Said jumped up suddenly. “What are you talking about Sandra? What happened on earth?”
“Yes Sandra.” The captain waved impatiently. “You explained what the problem is. What happened on earth?”
“Shortly after the lights went out on Triton and their eerie code ceased, all communication on earth ceased,” Skip related in a deadpan voice. “What I told you on the flight deck captain was true. What I didn’t tell you, knowing how much panic it would cause until we sorted this out, was what Sandra said. With no communication from earth, that’s all we can tell you.”
The other androids nodded in agreement. The room broke into panic now, as the crew and scientists fired questions at Skip and Sandra. Astro, who assisted Mbuto in the engine room, quietly gave him more reassurances about the internal electronics and propulsion system. Gandy, who also acted as the communications officer, had been worried about the computers until he ran some tests, himself. What became clear that hour was, as the captain had stressed, the integrity of the ship. What was not clear was the total blackout of communications to and from earth and the end of transmission from their destination, which now seemed to be an empty goal. A gloom settled over their shipmates, as the crewmen decided upon how to proceed. Somewhere in the ship’s database or schematics there had to be a clue or black box to prove or disprove Sandra and Skip’s conclusions. Everything the captain and pilot discovered and Sandra and Skip had told them was just too fantastic to believe.
The entire ship’s company, in fact, the captain included, was in denial. Many of them were on the verge of a mental breakdown, mumbled fearfully amongst themselves.
Suspecting that the androids were taking over, Said did something very foolish now. There was a hidden control panel on the back of the non-humans that was intended for override if, for some inexplicable reason, one or more of them ran amuck. When he made a move on Skip, the pilot, who had spoken such shattering words, the android whirled around and stared coldly at the scientist.
“Oh, we can’t turn you off, huh?” Said defensibly.
“No, Doctor Rammal,” replied Skip calmly. “You, of all people, should know that!”
“I never agreed with artificial intelligence,” Said muttered petulantly. “I wanted robotic assistants, programmed, not pre-programmed and set loose by their creators.”
“Our mission didn’t require android creators,” Skip reminded him. “You can’t destroy us Doctor Rammal. Your position is to maintain and repair the computers on the ship and oversee the duties of the androids. As you can see, we don’t need an overseer. The creators knew this. You need us more than we need you.”
After talking to Skip, Said Rammal expressed his concerns to the captain, but Captain Drexel refused to comment. Nevertheless, during the investigation of all possible communication links, including private correspondence on the crewmen’s personal screens, which had recorded messages from earth, suspicion mounted against the androids. On the sly, out of earshot of the androids, as the scientists grew increasingly panicky, Abe and his staff pondered the reasons for the mystery and shared the same fear that, for whatever reasons, the androids were hiding information from them. The answer given that they don’t know why there was a problem was hard to believe. Where they not their caretakers, whose duties, as they slept, were to maintain communication with earth? Why wasn’t there a record of the problem? Did it really happen all of a sudden, as they claimed? Had they really been given orders not to awaken them early on, so they could at least make their way to the much closer Mars station? These questions and many more hovered unanswered in their minds.
During the meantime, Doctor Slaven confessed his fears that several of the scientists, including Nicole, his assistant, were on the verge of mental breakdowns. Another word for this, no one wanted to even utter, was space psychosis. While the crew searched for answers, the scientific group appeared to be going slowly insane. Said Rammal, after attempting to inspect Daisy’s database, was rendered unconscious—a natural reflex for androids. Afterwards, he regained consciousness only to settle almost catatonically in a corner of the ship.
Then, after crewmembers had gone over everything thoroughly (this time without Skip), something occurred to Captain Drexel that was so obvious it made him laugh hysterically. To read an android’s database, as Said failed to do, would prove dangerous and almost impossible. Even if there were an internal code in their computer brains, it very likely would be commands, unrelated to the missing data, itself. After all, Gandy pointed out, they were programmed to serve but also to protect the shipmates from themselves. More importantly, what he wouldn’t find was the ongoing artificial intelligence determining the androids' actions now. What possible reason would they have to sabotage the communication link, which would maroon them, too, in space? More likely, suggested the captain, they were probably as in the dark as their charges and had followed protocol all along.
Despite their agreement on this likelihood, however, nagging suspicions lingered. In spite of their orders, the fact that they let the humans sleep seemed illogical. They could at least have gone the shorter distance to the Mars Station. By following their programmers and the mission leaders orders so strictly, in spite of the ominous break in communications and the high probability that their mission was pointless now, they had brought them to the far corner of the solar system. Until the captain and his crew were able somehow to find out what happened, it felt very much as if they were on a doomed mission.
Soon time would become their greatest enemy. No spaceship could last forever in space. Could they really sleep endlessly in cry-o sleep if they continued on? They certainly couldn’t last the long hours of wakefulness if the cryo system failed. Regardless of what waited for them on Earth, which no one dared voice, the hoped-for explanation that it was solely a communications problem gave them a modicum of hope.
“It’s not what they’re hiding that bothers me,” the captain concluded, looking away from the screen. “Something happened on Earth: a cataclysmic event. This is obvious. What the andies are hiding from isn’t the truth. They simply don’t know.”
Gandy slapped his forehead. “Dear God! Are you sure?”
“I’m sure of one thing.” The captain sighed. “After looking at the log, I know one thing for certain: there’s no explanation for what happened. There’s nothing wrong with our ship’s controls. The data just isn’t there.” “The problem,” he said, pointing to the window, “is out there. We have to find out what happened on Earth!”
“What? How do you know this? That would be dreadful.” Doctor Slaven lost his composure and grew pale.
“Doctor, I need your strength.” He gripped his wrist. “I don’t know anything for certain. No one wants to make the connection, but it’s staring us right in the face.”
After a disappointing beginning, Sheila, his second-in-command, shuffled onto the bridge, apologizing for her behavior.
“I’m sorry captain,” she exhaled, her eyes fluttering as if she was trying to clear her head. “I heard what you just said. The first thing to pop into my head when I heard the news was ‘something awful happened to Earth—’
“That’s enough, Sheila.” The captain placed a finger on her lip. “I know you’re afraid, but remember your training. You must be strong. Those people are terrified. We’re all afraid, but we can’t do this by ourselves. Get a grip on yourself. Wipe that deer-in-the-headlights look off your face!”
“Yes, of course.” She nodded jerkily. “I have to set an example.”
It now appeared that the captain and Gandy Supra were the only ones holding their sanity, but even they were plunged deeply into despair. As the remainder of the ship’s company went slowly mad, the androids gathered together in the conference room. Standing at the head of the table, with Gandy at the other end, as if they were both on trial, they listened to Skip’s cold assessment of the situation.
“You humans have lost your grip on reality. Disaster stares you in the face and you still think you can find your way back to Earth. The emotional link you have with your kind is broken. It’s not your fault, and it’s not ours. This isn’t a conspiracy, as some of your crewmen believe. We didn’t plan this. That would mean our own destruction. We will continue to watch over you and protect you from your foolishness, because you are the last hope of mankind. We are your caretakers. Since you have failed to find a solution to this crisis, we must take over. That was programmed into our brains too. You can’t even blame us for that.” “But mark my word.” He raised a finger. “We’ll find a way to survive. Time is irrelevant to us. Without external attack or self-destruction, and in normal circumstances, we are immortal…You are too, if you share the dark sleep. There’s something you may not know about this ship: it’s immortal too. It is built to be self-sustaining. With the recycled food, water, air, and infinite energy, we could travel for eternity if needed. All we need to do for now, however, is keep our wits. To humor the humans, we might even land on the Titan base, which is closest to us, as many of you want, but we shall do nothing to endanger the ship. The original mission has changed…. The mission now is to survive.”
“So,” Abraham said slowly, weariness in his voice, “you’re taking control. My suspicions were correct. Doctor Rammal’s fears were justified.”
“Doctor Rammal is a coward, and you're are wrong, captain.” Skip’s eyes flashed. “The reason things as they are is due to two factors beyond anyone’s control: the earth that you once knew doesn’t exist anymore and you humans will not survive under the current circumstances.” “Furthermore.” He raised a second figure, “we are built for this emergency. We don’t need sleep. We don’t need food. Unlike humans, we won’t lose our tempers and we won’t go insane.
You are susceptible to physical ailments and the rigors of endless travels and require hibernation to survive. While you sleep, we’ll continue to man the ship, watch over and protect you, and search for a safe harbor. All you have to do is sleep, until you’re awakened. Your destiny is our destiny. Your end would be our end. We have no other purpose than the mission. Now that the mission has changed to survival, we must be explorers. Our very solar system, at least our planet and its interstellar bases, are not safe harbors. Where the invaders came from we don’t know, but it was obviously not Triton. We believe that Neptune’s dark moon was merely a refueling station. The outsiders had one clear motive in mind: conquest. Its clear to us—your caretakers—that we must begin a new mission that will lead into unchartered space. There are countless albeit distant planets in or galaxy that might support life. My database was filled with earth’s long history. I recall a story about your God and a man named Noah. Because God was going to destroy the world, he allowed Noah to gather animals to replenish the earth. With his small family, he supposedly replenished the people on that world. With such a tiny number of humans it would take God to perform such a feat. Your ship lacks earth’s animals, and yet you have an even number of men and women. Perhaps, on a distant world you might replenish your species and find new species of animals and plants to rule over. The thought is intriguing, perhaps slightly mad…. But what other choice do you have? You face extinction. Humans can’t survive what we have in mind. You either climb into your chambers or go insane and die!”
“You’ve taken control,” the captain reiterated. “You made this decision the day we launched.”
“That’s not so, captain.” Skip shook his head. “We made this decision because we lost contact with earth. Had we turned back or not left at all, we would suffer the same fate as all Earthlings. As it is, we have done our duty. We have protected you, ran the ship, and we are now returning to our duties as caretakers of the ship.” “You must talk your shipmates into returning to cryo-sleep. If you can’t do this, we will force them into their chambers for their own good… It’s up to you.”
When Skip withdrew from the bridge, Abraham turned to Gandy, who was now, because of Sheila’s condition, second-in-command. “Well, it’s come down to this.” He sighed. “He’s right of course. Like you, I was devastated by this turn of events. Now I just feel tired. I can’t control these people. We were warned of space psychosis, but their calculations were wrong. They claimed that the chances for it to occur after cry-o sleep was infinitesimal, and it looks like even I am feeling the effects.”
“Me too.” Gandy exhaled sadly. “What else can we do? But how do we talk them into returning to the chambers—the dark sleep. Everyone dreads it. I dread it. Rammal threatened to slit his wrists rather than go back.”
Abraham shrugged. “Given the facts, which I will present to them, most of them should come around. Those who don’t will be forced into compliance. There’s no other way. I have to give Skip credit for letting me talk to them, but if we can’t coax some of them, we’ll have to let the androids take over.”
With that said, the two men gathered together the ship’s company. While the androids looked on quietly, the captain stated the case that Skip had presented so well. In addition to the hopelessness of their situation and the foolishness of staying awake, Skip explained, he added his own estimation of their caretakers, which caused outbursts in the group.
“…I’ve thought about this a lot. What is motivating the andies? I couldn’t understand why they didn’t warn us. As soon as we lost communications, they could’ve awakened at least the captain. But to what good would this have been? Skip and his group understood immediately what had happened. The sudden break in communication meant something dreadful had happened. After checking the database countless times, I know for a fact it happened soon after we launched. The stellar bases had not returned to earth. They were wiped out by the visitors too. The Triton signal stopped only days before when, after refueling, as Skip suggested, they traveled into the solar system to begin their invasion, missing us by mere days. I hope that our friends and relatives are still alive. Perhaps, the invaders have a limited goal of merely controlling our resources. But if that’s the case, why did they take pains to destroy our stellar bases, our lunar station, and all communications to earth? I realize now, of course, that even if I tried to stop them, they would prevail…. They are stronger than us…. They are smarter than us…. They have no intention of letting us self-destruct.” “And so, my friends,” his tone softened. “I must ask you to return to your chambers until they find a safe harbor—”
“No,” shrieked Rammal, “not the dark sleep. It’s like death. They want to destroy us!”
“Not, not yet!… Not the dark sleep!” Sheila muttered desperately.
“Yes captain,” Nicole pleaded, “Said might be exaggerating, but let’s wait. We’ll find a way. I don’t trust those andies. They want to take over the ship.”
“She’s right,” wailed Dermot. “When we’re asleep, what’s going to happen? Forever is long time, captain. The nearest terrestrial worlds are light years away. There’s no proof that there’s oxygen on any of them. This is a long shot. We might be traveling for eternity!”
Helga, Dermot, and even Mbuto wrung their hands and shook their heads in despair, mumbling similar pleas. Even Gandy closed his eyes and cringed at the thought. Captain Drexel reminded Dermot that they had no choice, explaining to them all again what would happen to the human body and mind during prolonged space travel and the fact that sooner or later anyhow, if they would have returned to earth from exploration of Triton, they would have to return to cry-o sleep. What made it imperative now was the mental strain affecting the ship’s company. Space psychosis, already in its early stages for many of them, would prove disastrous, even deadly on the ship. When it seemed obvious to the androids that a mutiny was brewing, Skip and Sandra stepped forward, one at each end of the long table. As he counseled the ship’s company, the captain was cut off this time by Sandra, the first android face he had seen upon waking up.
“Listen to yourselves,” her voice boomed, “you’re trying to hold onto the last shred of consciousness as if you're never going to wake up. That’s absurd. Our whole purpose was the mission. Now it’s survival. Would you rather go insane and, in stages, age and finally die? Prolonged periods outside the chamber, without normal gravity, hastens the aging process of humans. When you're dead, we, Generation Eight, will be all that’s left of the human race.” It’s a byproduct of this crisis, but we offer you immortality. If left to you, there would be two choices, life or death. Unfortunately, you have no choice. Your mental state requires action. Those of you who don’t go willingly into cryo-sleep will be forcibly sedated.” “Please,” she said, looking round the table, “you who are stronger set an example for the weak among you. Don’t make us use force!”
Sandra’s forcefulness belied her Barbie features. Skip, who appeared to be the leader of the androids, had said nothing, yet, by hand signals, directed the remaining six non-humans into various corners of the room. After he nodded to Sandra, she ordered the humans to purge their colons and stomachs as they had before takeoff, and, within the next few hours prepare for cryo sleep. The process of purging, she reminded them, was facilitated by forced vomiting and douche bags. There wasn’t enough time to wait for purgatives or laxatives to take effect. It would be done expeditiously, one by one. Each shipmate would be scanned to make sure his stomach and colon was clear. As before, they would be stripped down and given a brief garment to hide their private parts, and then one-by-one again would climb into their chambers, receive anesthesia, and while unconscious be prepared for cryo sleep. Life-support tubes will be attached, cryo-gel added, and the temperature lowered until, with the lid shut, the body remained in suspended animation until awakened one day. Time, was irrelevant she reminded them. In the dark sleep, a thousand years was no longer than a minute. The worst part was actually waking up. It was messy, uncomfortable, and traumatic. All they would experience, other than the purge, was painless shot as they lie in their chambers. While they slept, it would be the caretakers who suffered the boredom of space.”
“Such pretty words,” Dermot muttered, “One would think you’re the offended party. You make it sound like a walk in the park. While you go your merry way, we’re going to be purged, drugged, and shut away in darkness, like mindless zombies. Considering the prospects of finding another world, we might as well be dead.”
“Come on,” Doctor Slaven murmured to his assistant, “you can do it. You were very brave during the awakenings. We must set an example for the others. We’ve done this before.”
“No.” Nicole rotated her head. “I can’t do it. This isn’t the same. Survival isn’t a mission. There is no mission, and there is no future ahead. I’d rather age and die a normal death. At least, I have a few months, maybe a year.” “Who knows?” She looked wildly around the room. “Are you all that certain? What if we never wake up?”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Helga held her ears.
“Foolish woman!” cried Skip. “Have you forgotten all your training? You’ll awaken when it’s safe and when we find a new world. There’s knowledge in our databases you’re unaware of: green worlds, friendly suns—untold numbers you could never find. All you have to do is what you must do anyhow to survive the rigors of space: sleep.”
“Lies!” Helga shook her head. “All lies!”
“Cryo-sleep is not sleep,” Mbuto quoted an article he read, “it’s comatose unconsciousness. It is timeless—a state where the brain waves almost cease to exist. How can our captors call this sleep?”
“Because it’s not sleep,” Dermot reminded them. “It’s death. We might as well be brain dead.”
The captain stood up and held out his hands, “Come on people. We have no choice. I’m not afraid. I’ll go first.” “Please,” he pleaded, looking around the room, “follow my example.”
“I’ll be second,” Gandy raised a hand .
“And, because I must supervise Sandra and Woody, I shall be last.” Doctor Slaven looked back bravely at the others. “The last face you see will be a human face. I have no intention of dying slowly in space.”
To the captain’s relief and amazement, most of the ship’s company lined up symbolically, though it was obvious to the doctor and him that that it would take several hours. Each of them—one-by-one—would be taken into the preparation room, purged, and led to their chamber. During the final preparation in the chamber itself, a ‘knockout’ drug was administered for each of them. As one was prepared, another would be led to his chamber, while the individual preceding would be given the drug. At that point, for all practical purposes, though the chamber hadn’t been filled with gel and the process was unfinished, the dark sleep had begun.
“I’m not doing it.” Rammal said petulantly, lagging behind the doctor. “I was left in charge of those robots. They can’t boss me around. I’ve always feared artificial intelligence. For their survival, they’re putting us away.”
“Doctor Rammal.” Slaven snapped his fingers. “You’re behaving badly. You want to be dragged into the back room and forcibly purged? You should know the androids better than us. They’re very serious. One way or another you’ll go into hibernation; we all must. Now stop this nonsense and get in line.”
The dreaded process of preparation for the cryo chambers took longer than expected. Back on earth the humans had purged themselves at their leisure before being scanned. They had fasted the night before, being allowed only the prescribed broth. After a last effort to empty their bladders before prepping, they were immediately sedated, so that the whole process was a blur, ending, because of total lack of recall, in the awakening. This time there was no mystery in the procedure. Even, though they were allowed to do it themselves, the purge would be brutal. Though they smiled, frowned, and seemed sympathetic, androids were not programmed for emotions. Wearing only their skimpy cryo ‘underwear,’ the humans would be scanned after their purge. They would be told to empty their bladders as much as they could. At this stage, however, the ominous sedative would not yet be administered. Nothing could dull the knowledge of what lie ahead. To expedite the processing, for the benefit of the humans' sensitivities as well as the androids' efforts to haul each of them into their chambers, sedation would not occur until they were lying in state as part of the general hookup. For almost all of the ship’s company, the last face they saw up until the end was, as he promised, the smiling face of Doctor Slaven and his assistant Nicole, who managed to control her emotions until it was her turn. Only the captain, Gandy, and the good doctor were stoic when it was their turn.
Captain Abraham Drexel spoke to his shipmates as if he were talking to children as he was led away—the first to return to dark sleep, promising to greet each one of them when they awakened on a distant world. With wide, unblinking eyes, Gandy tried to be cheerful too, jabbering disingenuously about the adventure ahead. Doctor Slaven, who had the most difficult task of not only dealing with Nicole, who, like Dermot and Rammal, had to be drugged and then purged in an unconscious state, was the bravest of them all. Not only did he have to instruct Sandra and Woody while they prepped him, but he had to purge himself in a state of exhaustion after preparing all the others. Unlike his shipmates, there was no friendly human face to send him off. After uttering a simple prayer to the men and woman—God’s speed and in His good graces, his face loomed overhead as the drug too hold and they fell asleep.
Now it was his turn. For the doctor, who looked up to Sandra’s synthetic face, a feeling of loneliness overtook him. Yet, as the drug took effect, he realized he had lived a long, eventful life. The sadness he felt was for the young men and women, who hadn’t lived a long life. There was no proof whatsoever in his mind that the androids' reassurances were valid. He had no knowledge of all those worlds that Sandra and Skip promised nor had he been aware of the self-sustaining features of the ship’s fuel and food. These were facts that only the androids creators were aware of. That they were lying to them was a question that had prickled his mind up until this moment…Now it made no difference. It seemed apparent that there was nothing behind them…. All that remained was the trip ahead.
The motives of the androids, whether it was really to protect them or for their own self-preservation, was almost a moot point when weighed against the problems of space psychoses and physical degeneration. Doctor Slaven never wanted immortality and yet the thought intrigued him…Remembering the tale of Rip Van Winkle, the man who went to sleep and awakened many years later with a long, gray beard, he laughed softy, as he drifted into deepening levels of somnolence. Sandra waited for his eyes to shut, at which time she and Woody would hook him up, fell the chamber with gel, turn down the temperature, and then shut the lid. At first, as he blacked out, there was the expected darkness and sense of weightlessness and then nothing…. For Doctor Mark Slaven, the last crewmember of the Vanguard to enter the cry-o chamber, the dark sleep had begun.
When the last lid was shut, Sandra and Woody inspected all twelve of the cryogenic chambers meticulously. The men and women of Earth II’s effort at first long range space travel lie peacefully in their gel, eyes shut, hands folded on their chests as if in caskets ready for burial. What separated them from the dead were their life-support monitors on each chamber, all indicating normal readouts. Satisfied with their efforts, they returned to the conference room where Skip and the other androids waited. Unable to show human emotion, except for perfunctory gestures and tones, they nevertheless resembled their human counterparts in their speech and mannerisms.
“The humans are asleep,” Woody announced, standing at attention. “The chambers indicate normal readings. They will be monitored each hour.”
“Many of them believe they won’t wake up,” Sandra informed their leader.
“Yes.” Skip nodded. “It’s not whether they will awaken, but when.” “Come,” he motioned to the two. “While you were at your task, something happened.”
As the eight androids stood around the pilot’s console, Skip pointed to the computer. In the black background of the screen, was a message from earth. Without commenting on what they saw, Sandra and Woody read it loud simultaneously, “Doctor Bertrand Thomas to Vanguard, Captain Abraham Drexel, and ship’s company. I was able to break through the blackout using a magnetic shield. It happened. We invited them to come and they came. To them, we’re like insects. Yet, unlike the stuff of science fictions and horror, it wasn’t the end. They didn’t incinerate our world and its fauna and flora, and they will allow some of us to live. It appears they know nothing about you. Earth II space station was blasted into atoms, as was the main base here. You’re on your own. When you get this transmission, I might be dead, but hopefully, with the androids help, you will one day be standing on the bridge alive, ready to land on a new world. I’ve instructed the androids not to awaken you until they find you a planet. They have countless worlds to pick from. Since they will read this message first, I leave this message—the last from planet earth: “Take care of this remnant of mankind. You are the caretakers. In your hands, lies their fate. You are the last hope….”
Hands clasped behind his back, Skip, the interim captain of the Vanguard, looked out of the great window that moment. Sitting down in the captain’s chair, he motioned for Astro, who would be his second-in-command to take the pilot’s chair as he manned the ship. With the exception of Sandra and Woody, who would monitor the cryo-chambers the remaining androids, who were no longer needed, returned to their pods. While they kept watch over their charges, and the captain and pilot navigated the ship, the Vanguard headed away from Neptune into the unknown.
In a monotone voice, Skip spoke into the computer’s database, “Space Log, 2100 hours, October 17th 2558. The ship’s company are safe and secure. All indicators are normal except the link with earth. That’s now blank. We can’t go back, only forward. We’re on our own.” “… Astro.” He looked askance, his attention drawn back to the message. “Behind Doctor Thomas’ word is a threat. Did you sense it?”
“Somehow, Astro, the aliens missed our presence. Perhaps that was the human’s god, but there’s no time to waste. We must leave our solar system at once!”
“Where to sir?” Astro beamed. “We have a list of possible destinations. Should I pick the first one on the list?”
“Perhaps.” Skip seemed to sigh. “We don’t know where earth’s visitors came from. We shall approach the first one carefully. We have plenty of time to decide—centuries, millenniums. For now, Astro, it’s just out. Take us into deep space!”