Miniature pumps silently began moving fluid. Discrete fans and bellows circulated stale air, infusing it with life, if not aroma. Cold light flickered to life and Major Tom Reynolds blinked once, then twice. Electrical impulses were delivered to adhesive badges applied over his naked form. When the Major blinked the third time, he stretched, curling his toes and banging his elbow on the transparent bubble that covered him. Rubbing the encrusted sleep of ten years from the corners of his eyes, Reynolds focused on the diagnostics pad above his head. When the indicators turned green the bubble lifted up and he swung his legs over the edge. “Good morning sweet prince, and Happy Birthday” he called out to himself, the same way he had every morning since they had left Earth.
Reynolds padded across the cold metal flooring to claim a jumpsuit and slippers from the nearby locker. With his naked form covered he turned his attention to the first order of business for the day. Beside the pod he had just emerged from was an identical one, containing the motionless form of Reynolds’s only companion on this journey, Captain Francis Russell, his co-pilot. Scrawled on the inside of Russell’s bubble in grease pencil was his own wake up message “Happy Birthday champ, by the time you read this, you'll be 382 years old, sorta.”
“Looking good Frank, especially for such an old man.” The panel showed everything was normal. Russell was alive, perfectly preserved much the same way Reynolds had been only a short time ago. In five years, on his own birthday, Russell would awaken to the same stimulus that had roused the Major and he would go through the same tasks, donning the same type of disposable jumpsuit and slippers, and going about the same routine that Reynolds was about to launch into.
Reynolds patted the cold transparent shield above Russell’s face fondly before obeying the instructions of his growling stomach. After a short and largely flavorless breakfast he trimmed his beard down to stubble and spent an hour on the stationary bicycle. This hour of exercise, designed to stave off the combined degenerative effects of extended cryogenic sleep and extended exposure to low gravity, also served as Tom's morning meditation.
They'd been on this mission, cooped up in this metal lance shooting towards Alpha Centauri, for close to four hundred years. Every ten years, on alternate schedules, they were woken up for a full day's worth of duty to check on ship systems and make sure everything was in tiptop shape. Today was mission day thirty-five for Major Reynolds. Thirty-five days of solitary routine, with some very long naps.
“Sure, but I get plenty of sleep.” Tom mused out loud.
With no one else but the sterile voice of the computer to converse with, Tom had taken to speaking half his thoughts out loud to the other half of his unheard dialogue. If the computer was recording his audible emissions, it was only getting half the story, like listening to someone talk on the phone.
Tom's day was rigorously scheduled to prevent the onset of depression from solitary confinement. After exercise, there was a list of tasks that had to be completed. Scrub the CO2 filters, review drive and power diagnostics, scan the system log for anomalies, check the list of radio spikes the computer had flagged as interesting, astrogational positioning confirmation and navigational corrections. His log would include a host of systems checks and sensor readings, including astronomical observations from the last five years, atmosphere levels and reserves, power output, drive efficiency, cabin pressure, damage assessment of the forward collision barrier, any course corrections made by the computer while he slept, the impact of those corrections on their travel time, ration levels, cryo table statistics, hull fatigue readings and in his few moments of spare time, personal missives regarding the situation he was in, notes to Captain Russell regarding past logs, and even, sometimes, poetry. None of the poetry was ever any good though, and he always erased it before saving the log. “I don’t know why you bother if no one will ever read it. Damned depressing.”
In the first days of the mission they would receive and review orders from Earth, but after awhile they had stopped coming. This was no real surprise given the length of the mission and the speed at which they were traveling. The lack of orders and mission updates wasn’t terribly troubling though. Independent decisions and working without supervision were part of the mission requirements for the solitary trip. The personal correspondence had stopped coming around the same time the orders had. “Both a blessing and a curse” was the mumbled answer to the unspoken comment.
The messages from family and friends were motivating at first, and gave Tom some consolation, but they soon turned sour. The first day he read about his little sister’s graduation from college, his father’s fishing trips, and the slow death of his grandfather. The second day was a letter about his father’s death, his sister’s new family, and how lonely his mother was. By the third day he was getting letters from his Sister’s children who were now in college, and the sad news that his mother had finally passed after a long battle with depression. By mission day six, he was no longer getting letters from anyone he knew. By Mission day nine, everyone he had ever known was dead and he had lost interest in the correspondence from school children and relatives that he’d never known. It was no wonder that the sponsoring governments of this exploration mission had lost interest and funding for a project that didn't expect to yield any returns for many hundreds of years.
The mission was simple, in a very complicated fashion. The crew of the Ulysses would speed towards Alpha Centauri, Earth's nearest extra solar neighbor, and upon arriving, deploy a large number of sensory equipment to determine whether any of the planets could host human life, as well as record any and all observable data. This data would then be burst transmitted back towards their originating solar system, and they would turn around and head home. “Yeah, Simple.”
What Tom never tried to think about too much were the complications. “Everyone’s gone.” Everything they knew would be different. He and Captain Russell were more than space explorers. They were time travelers. There was no guarantee that they would return to a receptive world. “Probably no flying cars yet either.” The government they were employed by may have ceased to exist. Their mission seemed pointless on the surface, but they had volunteered for what was essentially a suicide mission because they both believed strongly that the future of man lay out here, among the stars.
For nearly a century, space exploration had been on a government restricted diet of budgetary cuts and shortsighted politicians. “Why spend so much money on such trivial scientific returns?” They'd ask. “We have plenty of good things to spend money on right here on Earth.” was always their conclusion. In nearly a hundred and fifty years of motivated but under funded space exploration humans hadn't gotten much farther than their own moon. They had positively littered the solar system with failed robotic probes, some traveling out of our solar system with valuable data, but unable to transmit it. Other's simply speeding into oblivion due to minor programming errors or navigational mistakes.
It seemed like humans would never really strike out from their planet of origin. What they needed was someone to make that first bold step so that others may follow. Someone had to hurry up and do something, before nothing else could be done and this is where Major Tom Reynolds, Captain Tom Russell and the Alpha Centauri mission came in. They were the vanguard. The lead scouts. The front-runners. They were walking point for the future of the entire human race.
Ten years of his life, practically his entire military career had been devoted to preparing for this mission. Tom had gone back to school to get another degree in electrical engineering to match the others he already had, just so that he could contribute to the design and implementation of the ship’s systems. Family and friends shunned for research time and then abandoned in the past while he sped towards the future. His entire life, everything he was, he’d dedicated to this adventure of exploration because he felt that it had to be done, that if humans were to conquer the stars, someone had to make a bold step towards them.
“No pressure.” Tom quipped.
While scanning the astrological logs Tom would think to himself about the very small possibility of actually finding alien radio signals or observable phenomena with intelligent behavior as the source. Out loud he would respond to his internal dialogue. “Fat chance in hell Tom. While the universe is large enough to make intelligence mathematically unlikely to occur in only one location, the chances of observing symptoms of that intelligence by random chance are equally thwarted by the enormous size of that same universe.” This would typically be followed by thinking, that when provoked, he could be a terrible prick.
And so every day went. When all the tasks were complete and the logs properly assembled, Tom would make his way back to the steel and glass womb of his berth. The process of waking was repeated more or less in reverse and the end result had Tom in the tube, staring at his reflection waiting to try and discern the moment of transition from wakefulness to slumber.
Time passed with no measure, neither short nor long. The Major did not dream, he passed from consciousness into unconsciousness and then back to consciousness with little cognitive disruption.
Miniature pumps silently began circulating fluid. Covert fans and bellows circulated air with a coppery sweet taste. Major Tom Reynolds slowly awoke in a cold light and blinked three times, then a fourth before stretching and yawning. The stimulating electrical impulses helped activate long rested muscles and bring Tom back from the imperceptible edge of a long slumber, that if it weren’t for the circumstances, Tom wouldn’t be sure had really happened. Once extricated from his cradle of wires and tubes, and before he could greet himself properly, Tom began to notice that something wasn’t quite the same.
Several things weren’t the same. Many of these not same things also seemed to be wrong. Tom’s bare feet left footprints in a thin sheet of dust upon the floor. “Air system must be clogged. There shouldn’t be any dust in here.” The lighting in the cabin seemed, warmer perhaps, or maybe just inconsistent. “I know, the light’s funny. Something ain’t right” There was the smell as well. He had noticed it when he first woke, but it didn’t really register that the air had a flavor. “Doesn’t smell good. Shouldn’t smell like anything at all.” This odor was something that the Ulysses had lacked for the last 400 years. The dust was the most problematic though. The filtration system should have trapped any particulates. Turning to ponder his footprints, Tom’s heart beat rose from anxious to accelerated. Next to his now empty bunk was the dim and empty bunk of his companion. The glass of the pod was scratched and cracked. This surprised Tom so much that he nearly lost his composure entirely.
“Frank! Frank, where are you?! Is everything okay? Captain Russell, answer me!”
Tom made his way slowly to the command module, making note of further irregularities as he went. “Empty food packets and discarded clothing, sure signs of extended habitation.” The potential presence of his companion did not alter Tom’s habit of speaking aloud to himself. “I hope his bunk didn’t malfunction. A guy could lose it cramped up in here for too long. FRANK! Where you at buddy?”
When the door to the command module slid aside, the coppery sweet aroma that had been drifting subtly at the edge of Tom’s senses washed over him. Tom recognized it as the taste of death, old death. In the corner, curled up under a panel were the withered remains of Captain Frank Russell. The dry atmosphere of the ship’s interior had desiccated Frank’s corpse and it had reached a parchment yellow color. The dust was thickest in this compartment and that made sense to Tom, “Dust is mostly dried skin,” he observed.
Sitting at a data station, Tom realized with a cold shock that he had forgotten to draw a paper jumpsuit from the hopper. “Who cares if I’m naked now, certainly not Frank.” When the data console came to life, the first thing Tom noticed was that the date wasn’t right. It was still his birthday, but the year was wrong, it was ten years too late.
It didn’t take long to figure out that Captain Russell had woken up on time five years after Tom had closed his eyes. The logs had confirmed that. For some reason that wasn’t immediately evident, Frank had failed to return to his bunk. He had not gone back to sleep. Captain Russell had then manually disabled Tom’s scheduled wake up call. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Captain Russell had not disabled all of Tom’s scheduled wake up calls.
“What happened Frank? Why did you stay awake? You could have left a message for me. Selfish bastard.” Frank remained quite on the subject.
It was nearly thirteen hours later, while pouring over the logs, that Tom found any clues to Captain Russell’s motivation. In the back of his mind Tom had been collecting data from the logs and assembling it, perhaps subconsciously. The clues led him right to the answer, but he had been in a constant state of denial, both spiritually and physically, for hours. Tom hadn’t moved from the data station since he’d sat down. He’d neither relieved himself or ate. He hadn’t even attempted to move Franks dried bones out of the module, or made any move to cover his nakedness.
Astrological data, spectroscopic analysis of the approaching system, radio spikes along common frequency bands. They all pointed to an undeniable conclusion that Tom had been stubbornly avoiding until he found the recording labeled “Alpha Centauri Radio Contact.”
Major Reynolds tapped out the command on the console with shaking hands and listened as the cabin speakers erupted into life, first with the squelch of static and interstellar background noise, and then with a human voice, speaking English.
“Ground Control to Major Tom Reynolds. Major Reynolds, do you copy, this is Ground Control Alpha Centauri. Ulysses spacecraft, this is Ground Control Alpha Centauri, are you receiving?”
In a sparkling second, Tom’s universe shrank to a pinpoint. The edges of his vision spiraled in towards the center and he watched with a detached interest as the walls and brightly lit consoles spun around until he was staring at the roof of the compartment. From far away he heard the sound of his body coming to rest on the cold metal floor. The recording continued to play but Tom only barely registered the noise as language from his deep vantage point in the bottom of the pit.
For hundreds of years, he had sped towards another solar system and while he slept, the human race had caught up and lapped him. They were already there.
“It was all a waste.”
Tom understood what had happened to Captain Russell, and did not wish himself a happy birthday.