Aksel Bolt is becoming aware.
Consciousness emerges slowly, falteringly, the deep sleep state fighting to resist his waking. As if cells are reanimating individually, only a vague sense they may be part of some whole. He searches the haze but cannot yet make out who or where he is. He is not yet a coherent thing.
Awareness grows. He now senses that he is in a small chamber, not much larger than a coffin, but he does not feel uncomfortable. He feels a bit cold, but the surface beneath his body is warming. His muscles feel heavy, despite the lack of gravity, and he is not sure he will be able to move even if he wants to.
Open your eyes. If you can.
The hibersleep pod has a faint vinyl smell. Understanding is returning faster now. He is on a spacecraft. He is waking from hibernation. When is this, and where is he going? Fear is the default human emotion, he finds himself recalling, a reflected glimmer of past wisdom learned. No reason to fear until there’s a reason to fear.
The warming seems to speed up his circulation. He can hear his pulse now, accelerating back up to normal bit by bit as it throbs past his inner ear. His eyes begin to achieve focus. There is a glass window above his face, clouded by a thin film of condensation.
He is not feeling so cold anymore. His muscles still feel heavy, but he realizes that, in zero-G, it is really weakness rather than heaviness. He remembers now that the effect will wear off after a few hours with the help of a cocktail of supplements. His mind is becoming clearer by the moment. He is Commander Aksel Bolt, captain of the Centaurian, and if he is being awakened, it means he has been in hibersleep for a little less than three decades. They must be almost there.
The pod will open in a minute or two, and he is glad to have the time to reflect, to catch his thoughts.
They had left from the small developing Mars colony in 2068. One of its primary purposes was to serve as a staging point for both planetary and interstellar exploration. The first interstellar mission was always going to be to Alpha Centauri because it is the nearest star system to ours. Proxima Centauri is the closest of the three stars in the cluster, and it has at least three planets. One of these, Proxima b, is solid and only slightly larger than Earth. That is where they are going. They are frontiersmen, Mankind’s first interstellar explorers, valiant and unafraid.
The trip takes twenty nine years of Earth-time. The ship is traveling at 15% of the speed of light, though, and the theory of relativity therefore dictates that time will be distorted for those on board. They will only experience about twenty eight and a half years of travel time.
Hibersleep technology also has a genetic component, and it operates at reduced temperatures. This further slows the body’s metabolism, which means that, by the time they get there, Bolt’s body should only have endured a little more than four years of actual biological aging. Four out of twenty-nine. That is not a bad deal, he thinks, especially considering that average human life expectancy has already passed the century mark. A fair price for the trip of a lifetime.
He cannot help reflecting on the quirks of this new age of relativistic travel. Aksel Bolt was born in 2018. He was a 50 year-old Danish national hero by the time they left Mars in 2068. Now, even though he has been asleep for just over 28 years, biologically, he is only 54. He will return to the solar system a mere eight biological years older, while everyone there will have endured 58 years. If he had a twin brother to leave behind on Earth, he would return 58, to find his brother 108.
The closer we travel to the speed of light, the more time slows down for us. The further we go, the more dramatically this will cause our timelines to differ, when we return, from those we left behind. If we could ever travel at 95% of the speed of light, the crew would experience just over a year of travel time in each direction to Proxima Centauri, although on Earth, they would still have to wait nine years for us to return. For every trip we take, the age gap between us and our loved ones increases by nearly seven years! If we go even faster and further, the age gaps widen much more dramatically. It is entirely conceivable that space travelers might one day return home to find their children older than them.
There is no doubt that interstellar travel is going to play havoc with relationships. For others, that is. Bolt has no relationships left to concern him. No twin brother, and no family to speak of. He had said his fond farewells to his father before he passed away.
Since the divorce, Olga has not wanted too much to do with him. She is always polite, of course. Mutual respect had never waned between them, but the amount of time a ‘spacer’ spends in space makes marriage to a non-spacer very hard to sustain. The Moon. Mars. Then the exploration of Ganymede and Titan. Years of frustration grew to resentment, and a lack of fulfillment morphed into disdain, and somehow things were never quite the same after that.
Fortunately, they had no children to witness the gradual decay of their marital orbit, and by the time he gets back home, instead of being a decade his junior, she will have become 41 years his senior. If she is still alive at 99. No. They are very much done.
Out here, his crew are his only family now, and he would do anything for any one of them. He certainly does not feel that missing the next sixty years of life on Earth will be particularly hard for him either. For some of his crew, though, embarking on the mission must have been much harder. Then again, they all chose it. But either way, he must remember to acknowledge them again for their sacrifice.
He tries to move. First, fingers and feet. They work. He had been concerned about muscle atrophy, but the doc was right. The nice-looking doc — attractive brunette, dark engaging eyes. Not that it should matter in the present context. They all understand enough about human survival instinct and sexuality not to allow its false promises to divert them frivolously. No one has a problem with people enjoying each other in a consensual way, of course, but this mission is not about fun. It is too important. Historic. They have to keep their focus. He has to keep his focus. And certainly not interfere with others keeping theirs.
Bolt is surprised how good he actually feels. Twenty eight years of stasis and he only has that slightly drunk feeling you get from sleeping a few hours too long. Remarkable.
The pod beeps. The pressure changes as its seal cracks open, inducing a pressure imbalance in his middle ear. So many years of being a pilot but he still hates the sensation. A practiced yawn of his jaw and the pressure equilibrates.
As the lid opens, the air that mixes into the pod from the medical cabin tastes somewhat stale. Bolt lies there for a few more moments. It is his job to rouse the crew. If he does not, the system will auto-wake them soon enough. There is time. He will probably have a cup of hot tea first. The others will probably appreciate it if he prepares some for them also. Coffee for the doc and Yarrow, of course. They are cranky before their coffee.
The thought of a gently steaming cup of tea gives Bolt the added inspiration to rise. He rolls onto his right arm, freeing himself from the clips holding his body against the pad in lieu of gravity, and props himself up slowly. This is actually easy in zero-G, though he still helps his knees find their way over the edge of the pod opening. He reaches a seated position, which feels strange because it does not feel any different from lying down. And also because, if he thinks about the geography of the ship, his head is pointing in their direction of travel, which makes the wall really the floor. He is sitting on the edge of one of four crew pods that are mounted on one of the medical cabin walls, with the remaining four mounted on the opposite side.
On the bulkhead beside him, the monitor of his hibersleep pod illuminates the space above its dark smooth surface with a collection of green holographic icons, symbols, and numbers. His eyes are still adjusting to focus, but the colors are clear enough. His life signs are within normal parameters. One less thing to worry about.
He can see the doc’s hibersleep pod to his left. Her holographic monitor also looks good — projecting all green. That is a relief… although, something is bothering him. Something in his field of view does not seem quite right, but it is taking a long moment for his brain to zero in on exactly what it is. Then it snaps into focus. The time elapsed on her hibersleep monitor reports 7 years, 0 months, 2 weeks, 3 days, and change. That must be a mistake.
He glances back to his own monitor. It reads the same. He had not noticed it the first time, but now it strikes him with sobering force. Had they only been under for seven years? Seven out of twenty eight? That means they are only a quarter of the way there, out in the middle of interstellar space. This is not good. What had gone wrong? If he has been woken early it means there is either a malfunction or the system has been triggered early by mission control. Neither prospect is particularly comforting. And if it was mission control, the message would have had to be sent about a year ago in order to reach them all the way out here. That also means there is no way to have a two-way communication with home.
Commander Aksel Bolt is now wide awake.
He shifts his weight forward, easing himself off the surface. Floating, he reaches for the bulkhead beside him and uses it to turn himself around. Apart from the seven other hibersleep pods, the medical cabin sports two treatment stations and several storage compartments for equipment, supplies, and medication. He thinks about grabbing some of the muscle supplements on his way out, but his concerns are overriding. Even the tea will have to wait. Getting to the controls is now his first priority.
What the hell is going on here?