Dreams in the Long Dark

(This is Part One of the a Three-Part Short Story. Part Two is here. Part Three will be posted in the next few weeks.)

     “They told me I wouldn’t dream,” thought Tybalt.  And yet, in the long dark between the stars, the sea was burnt orange and the sand was blue. Just beyond the waves rolling outward, he could see the slender figure of Madsen, her blonde hair streaming in the breeze.
     “Madsen’s not blonde,” he thought.  “And her hair isn’t long.”
     He stepped down toward the shore, the shells of strange creatures pressing their unfamiliar shapes into the sand as he trod on them.  He looked up to see two blue-white stars: one large and bright, the other small and faint.
   “Are we there, yet?” he said to her.  “Are they here?”
   Madsen turned to him.  And the dream faded to gray. And he remembered.

     The Archimandrite stayed in high orbit, contemplating the signals she had been receiving since arriving at Lalande, pulling them apart, reassembling them, going over them bit by bit.  There was little question where they were from – the small spiny satellite orbiting the second planet – precisely the point where the Icarus probe has spotted what they now knew for certain was an alien ship.  But her crew wasn’t sure what the signals meant. And she wasn’t going anywhere until they did.
     Tybalt was forever feeding data points into Anansi, the ship’s AI, and then sweeping them up as they fell to the floor and putting them back in order.  Over and over again.  He had the vague impression that the aliens were angry with him and kept demanding that he feed Anansi information he didn’t have.
     “This is a dream,” he thought.  “We were at Lalande.  But I’m not remembering it right.”
     Weeks rolled past.  The cold steel spar of the Archimandrite circled the hot cloudy maelstrom of Lalande 22185B, which circled the cold red star.  Twice, they passed Lalande 22185A, a blazing rocky waste that almost grazed its star as it whirled around.  Tybalt had to ignore the dream haze pushing him to count the revolutions and rotations. The astronomers would take care of that.
     The signal from the alien craft remained steady and unchanging. The Archimandrite’s shell returned, laden with fuel. It closed around the Archimandrite like a nut, with astronauts briefly appearing to tether the fuel tanks and check them over. A few repairs were made.
     Another few weeks passed. And then two things happened: the Archimandrite dispatched a small probe toward Earth that left a wake of ions.  And the ship turned almost 90 degrees from Earth and set off on a long spear of fusing hydrogen.

     Her hair was red now, short and cropped close. He saw it flame over and over as she passed in front of his capsule, often in the embrace of a shadowy figure.
     “Ridiculous,” he thought.  “My room is sealed.  And her hair isn’t red.”
     He watched, disconnected.  In the long dark, he couldn’t blame her for any unfaithfulness.  It wasn’t as if he had been alone when it was her turn to sleep away a few of the decades between the stars.  Had she been seeing him long? She must be for him to see it, with his thoughts slowed to a literal glacier pace. He worried that when he emerged, she would have moved on, their relationship long forgotten.
     Now the room was empty and he was standing over his own cryotube. He looked out the window into the central garden, where the active crew buzzed around like insects.
     And he remembered.

     “So, another three decades,” said Captain Chin, glancing over at Tybalt, settled into the chair of the sleeping Mission Scientist.
     Tybalt felt the fine grain of the days, hours and seconds that meant. He saw a trail of days stretching thirty years back to Earth.
     “You can sleep through them all if you wish,” he said.
     “Someone has to be at the controls.  And for a big part of the time, that someone will be me.”
     “Just think of the stories when you get back.  First contact.  First voyage between two stars.  And then there’s the decades of back pay.  What did we figure? Tens of millions?”
     If we get back,” said Chin pointedly. “A hundred years after we left.  At which point all our back pay will probably be worth nothing.  Are you sure about where we’re going?”
     “The Cthulhu Protocol worked as advertised.  I am 100% certain we’re on the right track.”
     Tybalt remembered Anansi churning through the days and nights, strangely ominously quiet as it tried to decipher the message being sent out by the alien probe.
     In his dream state, he had the urge to rearrange the tones, the feeling that they weren’t quite in the right position.  For a moment, he was certain they had misinterpreted and were going in exactly the wrong direction.
     Chin looked up and slightly to the right to the bright blue point of Sirius.  It didn’t move.  But she knew, in 32 years, it would swell up to fill the sky.  She would sleep on the journey and wake to find the stars had shifted ever so slightly until their sky was a Sirian sky.  With the ship accelerating, it felt like they were going up, rising toward the distant star, a phoenix ascending.
     “Dr. Lineus has already laid down for the entire journey,” she said. “He can’t bear the thought of having to wait to see an A-star up close.”
     Tybalt shook his head.  “I’ll sleep for a lot of it.  But I do want to see our journey from time to time.  I don’t think I’ll find what I came out here for in cryogen.”
     Chin glanced at him.
     “And you probably wouldn’t want your friend to be apart from you for that long.”
     Tybalt started.  “You know?”
     “I’m a Captain, Tybalt. It’s my job to know things.”

     There was now a greenish glow in his cabin and wondered what it meant.  Was he waking? Or going to sleep?  He seemed to recall that freezing took an instant but waking was slow.  Or was it the other way around?
     He could see his brown face reflected in the window of the cryotube. And yet the eyes in the reflection were closed. Surely that meant he was imagining things.
     He stretched his mind over the length of the ship, checking on every system, peering in on his frozen crewmates, occasionally checking that one star or another had moved very slightly in the monitors. He checked them over and over, ceaselessly, working his way down one side of the ship and up the other. Occasionally, gravity disappeared or reversed and he would walk backward or float through the ship. Eventually, he found himself floating above his cryotube again, looking at his own face through the window. The frost highlighted a handprint over his face: Madsen’s handprint.
     And he remembered.

     Tybalt wandered into the depths of the ship, glad that acceleration had re-oriented him to up and down within the Archimandrite.  Now in full flight, there was nowhere to escape the rumble of the processors and the engines.  They would rumble for 16 years, pause briefly, then rumble for another 16.  Chin claimed she could tell if they were having trouble by the change in tone.  One night, while they decelerated into the Lalande system, they had sat in the engine cowling, Chin telling him what to listen for to detect a wonky compressor and Tybalt failing to hear it.
     In his dream state, he could hear everything aboard the ship. He knew that the ignition switches in the port nacelle were strained. The melting of the cryotubes told him they must be nearing the end of their journey. And the slow grinding of the AI’s processors was driving him mad.
     He descended to the heart of the ship – the cylindrical Core Garden that was surrounded by the crews’ quarters. Reoriented by the ship’s acceleration, it was like an apartment block in a city. Most of the rooms were dark blue, cryogenically frozen.  The light was still on in Lieutenant Madsen’s quarters. She was in her bunk, reading a book.
     She was still a bit hazy to him.  Her hair was dark but her features were still unclear, her body a vaguely feminine shape atop the covers. But her gestures and movements were familiar.  He knew her by the way she lay on the bed, almost tense, the way her crystalline eyes raced over the words and the way her long clever fingers turned the pages.
     “Not going down just yet?” he asked.
     She shook her head, not looking up.  “Captain and I will be on call for the first year.”
     Tybalt wondered if they would be awake at the same time.  And then he remembered that, as a civilian, he could set his own sleep schedule as long as the ship’s resources would support it.  He probably could stay awake all the way to Sirius if he wanted.  In the deep gloom of cryogenesis, he wondered what decision he had made.  Had he gone down that night?  He doubted that he would have declined to spend more time in Madsen’s bed.
     “Do you mind if I ask you something,” he began.
     She shook her head again.
     “Back at Lalande … I got the feeling that the crew …”
     “It’s not that,” she interrupted, still not looking up.  “It’s not that they don’t like you.  It’s that … well, first we thought we were coming out here on a wild goose chase.  And now we’re heading off to chase another goose.”
     “It’s not a goose chase.  There was an actual alien ship.  And an actual message …”
     “That was left half a century ago,” she interrupted.  She looked up and her eyes locked onto Tybalt’s brown ones.  They were blue. Or green. Or brown.  He wasn’t sure if his memory was still thawing or if her eyes looked different in changing light. They glittered.
     “A half-century old probe that is sending us to another system we won’t arrive at for thirty years.  And that system is probably uninhabited.  And maybe we’ll find another probe sending us another forty years to another star and …”
     “Oh,” said Tybalt.  He hadn’t thought of that.  Tybalt imagined them chasing down their quarry all around the Earth, going from star to star, running out of probes to send back to Earth, the equipment wearing out as the centuries passed and they followed, always gaining on their prey but never catching them.
     For a time, his memory drifted away and he found himself trying to chart a path among the nearest stars, trying to remember their names, trying to figure out the most efficient journey.  It seemed like he spent hours doing this, remembering new stars, realizing that some stars he’d charted didn’t actually exist.  Finally, it broke and he was back in the past, which was slowly resolving into more certain memory.
     “Well, we have to try.”
     “We do,” said Madsen.  “It’s our duty.”
     She looked at him over the top of the book again.
     “But it’s your quest.”
     Tybalt sat back in his chair again. That he had pulled strings to get onto the ship was not a secret.
     “Do you think I should … stay awake for the entire trip?”
     “No point in that.  We won’t need you until we get there.”
     “I see.”
     “And I’m not sure I could continue this if you were that much older than me,” she said, not looking up.
     Tybalt hesitated a moment.  He still felt that twinge of guilt.  She did look so much like Caroline.  Caroline, back on Sol, having aged decades while he slept his way to Lalande.  She’d be past her second century.  For all he knew, she had died while he dreamed a trillion miles away.
     But the movement of Madsen’s fingers over the pages of the book brought him back to the present moment and the girl inviting him into her bed.  He stood up and took the book from her hands. She looked up at him, her eyes warming.
     “Are you just with me because I’ll be filthy rich when we get back?” she asked.
     “OK, then.  Carry on.”

     Tybalt found himself trying to remember who else was on board. But, invariably the memories got muddled. He thought that the crew included people long dead or left behind light years away. He couldn’t remember people’s names or even their faces.  He could only glimpse shadows.
     He tried to count the cryotubes in the ship, stepping outside his body into the Central Garden and looking up and down the long narrow rows.  But he kept losing count.  The cabins kept moving, multiplying or disappearing.
     He crept back into his body and lay down, giving up the struggle, letting the numbers bound around him without touching.

     “I sometimes don’t want to sleep,” said Madsen one night as they stared at the ceiling, frost patterns curling in and out of existence.  “I always wonder what would happen if we ran across a meteor.  We would go to sleep and never wake up.  Never know what had happened.”
     “We wouldn’t know if he were awake,” said Tybalt.  “If we ever hit a meteor, the ship will be gone in nanoseconds.”
     “But if it were a small hit, one that maybe killed the crew and left us alive, dreaming forever?”
     “We’d go to Sirius and then the computers would wake us up.”
     “Depends on how extensive the damage was.  Imagine someone finding our ship centuries from now, all of us having slept away our lives.”
     Her speculation bothered Tybalt.  In cryogen, they aged at a little under 1% of normal speed.  Their thoughts were reduced to a fraction even of that.  They could last for ten thousand years, maybe longer.  The fuel would be a limiting factor but stasis could be maintained on minimal burn. After wrestling with it for a while, he asked Anansi, who promptly informed him that about 5000 years was the maximum they could hope for.
     “Our bodies would age 50 years,” said Madsen.  “And to our minds, it would seem like about six months.  Can you imagine being in a six-month long dream from which you couldn’t awake?”
     Even the long sleep to Lalande, which had taken almost a day to Tybalt’s slumbering mind, had seemed like a long time. He hadn’t dreamed but he had been vaguely aware of time passing.  He knew at least one crew member had been woken early and very quickly when Anansi detected some emotional distress – the stasis equivalent of a nightmare.  But it did so because it could.
     Remembering these moments while still in cryogen made him wish Anansi would wake him faster. He felt a slight current of warm air over him and went back to sleep.
     He brought his concerns to Anansi. It listened carefully and then replied.
     “The automated systems are programmed to put you into very deep freeze if we are unable to communicate with them.  You would not sense time passing at all; your neural pathways would be completely frozen.”
     “Then why don’t you put us in deep freeze all the time?”
     “Because we aren’t sure that it wouldn’t kill you.  Slowing your mental processes to one part in ten thousand is as low as we’re willing to go this side of catastrophe.”
     “So what would happen in Madsen’s scenario?”
     “Either way, it would be instantaneous for you.  Death as the resources of the ship exhausted.  Death from stasis.  Or … most likely … waking to find yourself rescued a few thousand or tens of thousands of years later.”
     “Most likely?  Seriously?  We’re out here all alone.”
     “The probe at Lalande would seem to argue otherwise.”

     The probe.  No matter what was going on, Tybalt’s thoughts were constantly, in the past and the present, turning back to it. It was the only artifact of an alien civilization any human had ever seen.  That and the ship that had preceded it, which he also obsessed about.
     Tybalt had kept laying the photographs on his desk, one after the other.  And then bringing them up on display, one after another.  And now, still partially in icy sleep, he brought them into his mind, one after another.
     Icarus 7 had been going very fast when she arrived at Lalande, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light.  In the hours before she plunged into the star, she’d taken images of everything she could.  It had taken eight years for the images to get back to Earth and shake the solar system.
     The first showed the second planet of the system, a hot super-Earth officially called Lalande 22185 B and unofficially called Styx, in waning crescent as Icarus 7 approached.  And just above the terminator was a small dark spot.
     The second showed Styx half-full.  She was closer and larger.  Now the spot could be seen to have a shape – like a winged stave perhaps.
     The third was Icarus 7 at closest approach.  It was sheer luck that they had gotten so close.  They had known about Styx when Icarus 7 was launched but the orbit had been a bit uncertain.  Icarus 7’s course was straight into the star – the only responsible thing to do with a probe going at relativistic speed. She had used the radiation of the star to power her final transmission back to Earth. But their guess of Styx’s orbit half a century before Icarus 7 blazed through the system had proven unnervingly correct. The probe had arrived at nearly the perfect time to observe Styx and obtained the best view of a planet any in the Icarus fleet ever would.
     The planet almost filled the panoramic view, waxing gibbous.  Each pixel of the Terapixel camera covered about 20 feet.  But she had smartly sensed something unusual about Styx and put her high-resolution camera on it, getting a resolution of 5 feet.
     The spacecraft was at least three hundred feet long. It had a long dark spine and a bulbous main section.  Every time Tybalt looked, he expected it to move.  He was preoccupied with it, wondering what lived inside it – machine or creature.  Had it noticed the Icarus?  What had it or they thought of it?
     Scientists on Earth had spent decades evaluating the image, writing thousands of papers speculating on what was in it, what its drive system was, how it was powered.  Tybalt knew that the breakthroughs that made the Archimandrite possible had only occurred because of that image; because scientists knew interstellar travel was possible.  Hell, the Revolt itself might not have happened without it.  It was the single most important image in human history.
     The last two images showed the planet retreating, now almost full as Icarus completed her sun dive.  The craft was still visible above the planet.  A few more images had come but the spaceship could no longer be seen, now behind the planet.  By parallax, they had estimated it was in low orbit, a couple of hundred miles above the clouds.
     Politics and war had kept them from acting on Icarus 7’s information for a long time.   But they united the colonies into refurbishing a captured battlecruiser, Archimandrite, for the trip to Lalande 22185.

     In sleep, he sometimes imagined discovering more images, closeups that showed windows through which could be glimpsed the inhabitants of the long spiny ship. He almost but couldn’t quite see the shadowy forms inside. Or sometimes he imagined that the ship itself was automated, with no aliens of any kind aboard.  Occasionally, he thought they had come to Lalande and found nothing, no sign or indication that anything unusual had ever been there, and that they were on their way back to Earth.

     Even at the beginning of a 30-year trip, his impatience burned.   He was always tempted to just sleep.  To crawl into the cryogenic pod and wake up at Sirius. But he had committed to being awake for at least part of the journey.  And Madsen was awake, which made things more pleasant.
     He found himself checking the displays every morning to confirm that they had closed some of the distance, both in space and time.  He sometimes found himself calculating how many hours it was until they reached Sirius, then how many minutes, then how many seconds.  Inevitably, he would ask Madsen if he was right and inevitably, she would instantly respond with the correct answer.
     “What’s the trick?” he asked.  “How do you do it?”
     “I start with the second of the previous day and work backward.  It’s a trick you learn in the Academy.”
     He shook his head.  “I can never remember that. And even if I did, I can’t do the math that fast.”
     “That’s what you get for not minoring in astro-navigation.”  She tapped her head.  “Training. Drills.  The Holy Fleet wasn’t good for much, but it did give you one hell of an education.”
     Tybalt always felt uncomfortable when he was reminded that they’d been on opposite sides in the war. It was a topic they both thought about but discussed on only rare occasions.
     “Why worry about it?” she asked one night, shortly before he was to go into stasis.  “Maybe I killed friends of yours. Maybe you killed friends of mine.  But it’s over.  Long over.  You may have grandchildren back on Earth who have no memory of it.”
     She paused, holding his hand in hers, turning it over.
     “We did our duty.  My side lost.  We made peace.  Isn’t literally sleeping with the enemy the best proof that you’ve made peace?”

     Tybalt was now mostly sure what was real and what was not.  The Eunoe was having its effect, slowly replacing dreams and fear with memories and knowledge. He could occasionally sense crew members checking on his status, buzzing by like mayflies. He wondered if Madsen was one of them.  Occasionally, a twisted line of thought would form but the computer dealt with it smoothly, soothing his anxiety, easing him back into reality.  He couldn’t move yet but his muscles began to relax from their long icy clench.

     Every day, Lalande 22158 fell further behind them.  This was one reason Tybalt had wanted the early shift.  Soon enough, the star would be far enough away to be just another star.  And then they would be in the void, where the stars never seemed to move even as the ship approached nearly half the speed of light.  Many of the scientists wanted to be awake for that part, to see the effects of relativity.  Tybalt was not interested.
     “We should have taken that probe on board,” Madsen said one night while they played cards in the Garden.  “We could have learned a lot from it.  Maybe it had records of their entire civilization.”
     Tybalt shook his head.  “We were asked not to.”
     “Why would they ask that?”
     “I have no idea.  It’s just a power source and a signal.  Maybe … if something happens to us on the way to Sirius … we need to leave the beacon for the next crew.”
     “But why wouldn’t they leave something more useful?  A map of the nearby systems.  A full language library.  A history of their species?”
     Tybalt shrugged.  “We can ask them when we meet them.  I suspect that they’re not sure what we’re like.  They want to meet us before they … expose themselves like that.”
     “A robotic probe could see we were unarmed.  It could evaluate us.”
     Tybalt shrugged again.  “You’re asking me to explain the action of a species we haven’t met, that evolved somewhere else and may be millions of years beyond us. They may not even think like we do.  The only thing we can do … is follow their trail of bread crumbs.
     “The only thing we’re sure of is that they saw Icarus 7.  As short a time as she was in the system, they saw her.  And they figured out what she was and where she came from and decided to leave a message if we followed up.  That means intelligence.  It means curiosity.  The Cthulhu Protocol finds their language to be complex but not entirely dissimilar to human languages.”
     “It said they weren’t mammals,” said Madsen.  “That they probably have many appendages.  That they may have some violent tendencies.”
     “Yeah, I’m not sure I believe that.  I know Cthulhu is designed to put itself into the mind of another species and reverse engineer their language, but … the message was so terse.”
     “’Stay away’ is terse but says a lot.  Maybe that’s what they’re saying.”
     “If that’s what they meant to say, they would have left a bomb.”

     Days, week and months trickled by.  Check on ship’s systems, check on scientific experiments, check on the fuel/food capacity, check on the other crew’s vitals as they slept.  And then read books, watch movies, listen to music, synch with the net or spend time with Madsen.  He suspected she was also occasionally with Chin although he never pushed it and didn’t really think much of it.  In the long dark, there really wasn’t much else to do.  Chin had acknowledged as much on their first day of flight, speaking to the assembled team in the Central Garden.
     “It was the policy of the Holy Fleet that sexual activity was not to occur on their ships,” Captain Chin read from a tablet.  “The Reformed Earth Government has decided to maintain this policy.”
     There was general laughter.  Tybalt knew of at least four couplings among the crew, which meant there were probably five times as many already.
     “That’s their rule,” said Chin.  “But we’re soon going to be trillions of miles away from them.  There’s nothing they can do to us, no control they have over us.  From the time the fusion drive is lit, the only rules are mine.  As long as everything is consensual and not interfering with the functioning of this vessel … as long as we finish this voyage with the same number of people we started with … you are adults and I will treat you as such.”
     Tybalt was vaguely aware that the sleep schedules had been revised many times as people partnered up, broke up, then partnered up again. Madsen had told him of one lieutenant who spent most of a year peering into one of the frozen chambers, pining for a lover she’d broken up with too hastily. The options were obviously limited but the one thing that united them – soldier and scientist, Holy Fleet and Rebel Fleet, Brother or civilian – was the need for someone to cling to in the long dark between the stars.
     But the deep black eventually triumphed over them.  Even sleep couldn’t keep away the isolation and loneliness of endless midnight.  By the time they reached Lalande, they were seventy tired souls, clutching each other for physical comfort in the night but forgoing any delusions. For all their diversions, there was very little love about the ship.
     Once in a while, a ship’s component needed repair and they would supervise a robot as it worked.  Once in a while, their instruments picked up an unexpected whisper from the cosmos, although it usually turned out to be from the direction of Earth. Occasionally, the redshift of their departure and the blueshift of their destination mandated a tiny course correction. But such moments were exceedingly rare.
     Ship’s duties provided the hour, perhaps two of work that occupied the time of those who were awake. Tybalt began to feel that they were just cogs in a vast engine, drifting between stars.  Just one more automated probe swinging out from Earth into the cosmos.  The hours, days, weeks clicked by with a stultifying sameness, the Archimandrite curving around Sol like the hand on a light-years wide clock.  The only relief being sex or entertainments, both of which were limited by the number of crew awake.

     And now memory intersected with reality.  The time in cryogenic sleep went by quickly, but not instantly.  They did age slightly, did dream very slowly, each thought separated from the next by a few million miles, ambitions and desires slowly tracked from one star to another over the endless void.
     He remembered just before he’d gone to sleep, sitting at a table with Madsen in the Central Garden, her long fingers wrapped nervously around a mug.
     “I don’t love you,” she said.
     “I know.  But that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone about to go down.”
     “I mean … I like … I’m fond of you.  But …”
     He took her hands in his.
     “I just don’t want, if one of us finds someone else while the other is sleeping …”
     Tybalt blinked slowly.  Reality resolved itself into a clean sterile ceiling.  Air flowed coldly into his lungs.  He gasped.  His eyes moved.  There was a vague familiarity about the surroundings.
     He knew where he was.  He was on Jovus Beta. He needed to talk to Caroline about the negotiations with… No, that wasn’t it.  That had been an ages ago.  No, he was on a ship.  It was somewhere …
     The pit of his stomach went cold.  He was far far away from home.  Far far away from Caroline.  Far far away from Jovus.  He felt a flash of guilt that he’d abandoned the Revolt in their hour of need.
     Then he remembered that the Revolt had ended long ago – decades ago.  For another minute, he tried to remember which star he was travelling to, wondered how many billions of miles and hundreds of years had gone past.
     But then the Eunoe had its full effects and he calmed. He glanced over to see Madsen sitting beside him, deep in another book.  He took a loud deep breath.
     “Remembering where you are?” she asked, not looking up. Tybalt’s heart fluttered a bit.  Her feigned insouciance told him in neon lettering that the long sleep had changed nothing between them.
     “Sirius,” he said.  Then he chuckled slightly.  “Sirius.  It seems so unreal.  I remember telling my dad the names of the stars.  I remember sitting in Mare Frigoris with Caroline and doing the same.  And now … I’ve been to two of them.”
     “Not quite.  We’re still a month out.”
     Tybalt thought about that.  It usually took a few days for the fog of cryogenesis to clear.  Last time, Madsen had found him wandering below decks a few days after waking, unclear of who he was or why he was there.  But, for the moment, most of his marbles were there.  And he knew he’d been woken early.
     “So why am I awake?”
     “You remember what I said about how this might all be a wild goose chase?”
     Tybalt thought hard.  And the memory came to him eventually.  Memories closest to freezing were always the last and hardest to dig up.
     “Sort of.”
     “Well … it isn’t.”
     He managed to turn and look at her.
     “We’re not alone.”

Astronomy, Sports, Mathematical Malpractice, Whatever Else Pops Into My Head