I'm not certain what it was that registered first in my consciousness: my incessant shivering and the chattering of my teeth, or the irritating beeps followed by the hiss of a pressure lock disengaging. Maybe I noticed them all at the same time. I opened my eyes slowly. It took me a few minutes more to remember who I was, where, and why.
My name is Davon Pax. I'm Chief Medical Officer and Microbiologist on-board the Explorer 2. I repeated the information to myself to try to clear the fog from my brain.
If everything had gone as it should, we would be on approach to Neptune and its moons. I would have to verify that to say with total certainty, but that was where we were supposed to be awakened.
I sat up slowly to give my body time to adjust before swinging my legs over the side of the cryo-chamber. I braced myself against it before attempting to stand on my own two feet. Once I felt steady enough, I reached into my small locker, located just to the side of the cryo-unit, to grab a thermal blanket to warm up before getting dressed. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I looked around the room to try to reorient myself.
"How are you feeling, Doc?" asked a sleepy voice off to my right a few minutes later.
"Captain Boyton." I nodded in greeting as I shrugged on my lab coat. "I'm feeling fine. No side effects we didn't expect. Don't attempt to stand yet," I added when he looked like he was going to get up. "Let me look you over first." I grabbed the vitals scanner and made my way to him. As I took the last of his readings, I heard the hiss of another cryo-unit opening to my right.
We were woken in a specific order, of course—everything about this mission had been planned to the last detail. I was first since I would check everyone over as they exited their units. Captain Asher Boyton, our pilot and lead engineer, followed. Then there was Valria Ledoux, our astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist. Sylas Hayes—our chemist, physicist, mechanic, and co-pilot—liked to tease her that she had three PhDs in the same subject. Finally, there was Tira Massey, our botanist, nutritionist, and physiologist.
I had just finished with Ledoux and was attaching the equipment to Hayes when he spoke. "Hey Doc. Did you miss me?"
I glanced up at him and sure enough, he was wearing his flirty grin.
"I know it's been a decade, Hayes, but for some strange reason it feels like only yesterday that I saw you last," I quipped. "So, no, I didn't miss you."
He chuckled and looked around the room as I continued my check-up.
"You know," he said, "this kind of reminds me of that movie I saw where the heroine wakes up from cryo-sleep only to find out—”
"I don't want to know, Hayes," I interrupted. "For the life of me, I'll never understand why you'd want to be an astronaut after watching all those space-alien horror movies you're obsessed with."
He shrugged. "What can I say, I love space, and I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Plus, they're classics."
"Why not go sky-diving or something if you're looking for a jolt of adrenaline? Why watch movies where space monsters try to destroy the human race? Are you trying to psyche yourself out?"
"Eh, it doesn't hurt to be mentally prepared for the worse."
"Yeah, well, I'd rather hope for the best. I mean, if we did encounter other intelligent life out here, it would be a shame if we jumped to conclusions and started an interstellar war when they just wanted to say hello."
He shrugged again. "I guess I can see your point."
"Okay, you're done. You can go get dressed and get something to eat."
"I don't know, Doc. I'm feeling kind of weak. Are you sure you can't help me take off my cryo-suit?" Like everyone else, he had only pulled it down to his waist—just far enough for me to check his vitals.
"Knock it off, Hayes," I said. I turned my back to him and approached Massey to check her out. I would have to check their vitals at regular intervals for the first day to see how their bodies were adjusting. This was the longest time humans had ever been in cryo-sleep and one of my many jobs was to gather and track the data to see if there were any negative effects to prolonged use.
By the time I was done, Boyton was sitting in front of our main computer terminal just finishing up his status update to mission control back on Earth. Ledoux sat next to him, I assumed confirming that everything was as it was supposed to be.
"How does everything look?" I asked as I approached.
"Great," Boyton said. He rubbed his eyes.
"Look at this data from when we passed Jupiter," Ledoux chimed in. Her voice was chipper and excited when compared to Boyton, who seemed as though he hadn't quite woken up from the cryo-sleep yet.
I placed my hand on her shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Why don't you tell the whole crew about it in a bit. We should still be a couple of hours out from orbit. I'm sure everyone is anxious to check the data, but we should eat and give our bodies time to adjust." Just in case she or Boyton needed extra incentive, I jerked my head in the direction of the others. "They're still groggy from cryo-sleep. I'm sure you must be too."
Captain Boyton glanced over at them with a look of concern. "Yeah, you're right. Let's go."
We gathered in the small room that passed as a mess hall. It wasn't large or fancy, but it got the job done. The room also had one of the few windows with a view to the outside. Most of our navigation was done by sensors and computers, leaving the hull with as few vulnerabilities as possible, like windows. It made sense, I knew, but I still wished we had more of a view of the marvels we were no doubt passing by, even at this very moment.
I walked over to the little window and leaned to the left so I could watch the rings that spun around the exterior of the ship, a low hum all that could be heard of their movement from inside. They were what created gravity in the Explorer 2. No more floating around weightlessly like the first space pioneers of over a hundred years ago, thankfully. We'd practiced in zero-gravity chambers, of course, for times when we might need it, but I was never very fond of it.
Massey walked over and slapped a ration package into my palm. "Here you go, Doc. Did you check your own vitals?"
"Of course," I said with a smile. "I knew you'd give me hell if I didn't."
She was a sweet girl. Even during our long hours of training back on Earth, she would check in on me regularly. You're always watching over the rest of the crew. You need someone to watch over you, too, she'd said.
"Hey Massey, toss me one of those would you?" Hayes yelled and she threw a ration pack in his direction before heading over to talk to him.
"It's kind of weird, isn't it?" Ledoux said.
"What?" Hayes asked.
"Well, to us, it feels like we left Earth just yesterday. Back home, though, all our family and friends are ten years older."
Ten years may not make a huge difference in the big scheme of things, but the twenty years plus that will have passed by the time we got home surely would. We, on the other hand, would remain basically the same thanks to the cryo-tech that enabled us to make this trip. The point of cryo-chambers was not to keep us young, necessarily. It had mostly to do with keeping our load, and thus the weight of the ship, as low as possible. It meant twenty years less of food and supplies that we needed to keep us alive. Plus, in the cryo room, there was extra protection from solar rays and any other dangerous radiation or contaminants we might come across. The hardly aging thing was just an added benefit.
"Kind of feels like a hundred years have passed to me," Massey said, rolling her shoulders and tipping her head to stretch her neck.
"That's just the cryo-fatigue," I said. "The muscle tightness and weakness will wear off soon. In the meantime, we should all do some cardio and flexibility exercises to ease the symptoms."
"Hey, you stole my lines," Massey quipped. "How about you stick to your disciplines and I'll stick to mine?"
I couldn't help but smile at her. This was a bit of a running joke between us. Medicine and physiology often overlapped, so there'd been a few teasing arguments about who should deal with what.
"Yeah, we'll get right on that exercise thing," Hayes said, "after we eat and check the data."
We were all scientists on the mission of the century. We were the first live crew to make it this far into space. As much as I tried to play the cool-headed, reasonable one, I had to admit that I was just as excited as everyone else.
We finished our meal of rations quickly after that. Soon each of us was seated in front of holographic computer terminals with 3D images, poring over the ten years of data that had collected while we slept.
It seemed like barely a moment had passed when Boyton said, "We're here, ladies and gentlemen." We all headed over to the view-screen, which was about six times as large as the window in the mess hall, thankfully. If it hadn't been, there would likely be five adult scientists fighting like school kids to be first to see the incredible view.
There ahead of us was Neptune in all its bright-blue glory. To our left was one of its fourteen moons. The planet was an awe-inspiring sight, its color so much more vibrant than photos taken by probes had any chance to do justice.
Once we reached the capture point that would pull us into orbit around the mysterious planet, we would quickly lose visual on it. Soon after that, we'd move into the powerful magnetic field that flowed out behind it, and we'd lose most of our exterior sensors as well. With the limited windows of time we had to observe the planet with our own eyes, I wanted to just stand there and soak it all in.
I'm not sure how long I stayed there, mouth agape, before I was finally able to shake myself free of the view and get back to work.