Three Linked Micro-Fictions Prompted by the Discovery of Kepler 186f
Hyper-sleep dreams are decades-long and luxurious, weaving through one another, tendrils knotting and untying, worming into those who dare travel deep space and lingering with me long after we arrived here in the Cygnus system, but soon we were so busy establishing a colony that years or else year-like tangles of time fell away while we fell in love, you and I, and we built our own shelter from the remains of our ship and planted our crops and had our beautiful children and watched them discover, not so long after we ourselves did, the mint-sweetness of the water here and that hint of warm musk in the winds tumbling down the slopes of the plateau where we first landed, and the dimmer light of that second, smaller moon that transits the day sky so fast that you can almost imagine it a homesick comet, but at night becomes a child’s nightlight dragged across the dark (maybe by Seung Liu, who wanders up there endlessly) and the shadows it casts seem alive and anxious. This is when I walk, out past Ludmila’s grave, and they follow me. I do not sleep as well as I used to and you don’t understand as well as you used to. Yes, this is home now and this is happy but this is haunted as well. Our cheeks do not dry fast in this humid air; our hard words plummet to the ground in this stronger gravity. This change you see is not distance or anger or regret or apathy—this is the opposite. This is fear; a snake in our garden. I love you but I can’t remember meeting you. I’m awake, but I can’t remember ever waking up.
Ludmila, our planetary geologist from Ukraine, was the first pregnant woman to volunteer for cryogenic sleep. When we left home, she was 31 and her unborn girl was three months and they both stayed that way for the next 497 years. Except for Seung Liu they were the last to awaken, with all of us still sore and drowsy and saying our prayers or pleas for both sets of vitals. Cap stayed in orbit around Kepler 186f an extra week, long enough to make sure Ludmila and her fetus were both stable before he set Inquiry down on Plymouth Plateau. Doc Ramos kept Ludmila inside the ship for the remaining sixth months of her pregnancy and the C-section. The baby girl seemed normal, healthy except for her silence, but Ludmila weakened quickly and died two days later. Doc’s theory was that her body had come to think of the fetus as another organ, a necessary one. A Siamese heart. We buried Ludmila on the escarpment overlooking the river. Doc cared for the girl, Mila, the best she could, willing her to grow until the child learned to walk. From that moment on, the girl would totter out to her mother’s grave and lay there on the yellow dirt, immovable. We dared not fight her on it, since they’d been joined together for half a millennium, so we built her a small shelter atop the grave, from the remains of a cargo container. Doc still brings little Mila food and water and there the girl lives, in her aluminum box—half a home for half a soul.
Cap called a meeting yesterday to talk about what we’ve all been wondering—what happened to the Hypnos? By Cap’s tally we’ve been here seven earth-years, which means our sister ship should have arrived two years ago.
Krugman thinks mankind annihilated itself before they could leave.
Pireisi thinks maybe things got better and they decided not to leave.
But most are thinking what Kitai says. They’re still asleep. Drifting like Seung Liu. Lost, or out of fuel.
Even so, I think, the cryo tubes are self-contained systems. They can operate for centuries. Or they can malfunction.
What we all hate to remember: waking to an alarm; red lights strobing. Seung Liu’s tube in freeze-down, and Seung Liu himself a dessicated, frost-crusted husk. Doc ran a system diagnostic—he had died two hundred years after departure, in the deepest of sleeps, in the deepest of space. He died amidst nothing, alone in the midst of us. We didn’t tell Ludmila. While she laid in med bay, her unborn child being examined by Ramos, Cap said a few words, sealed the inner cargo door and evacuated the dock of pressure. Seung Liu’s corpse rose like a ghost and floated outward, licked by the gravity of our new home. His body tumbled slowly, end over end, his long hair spreading like a halo. Our tiny, dark moon.
At the end of the meeting, Cap tried again. While we’re all here, can we come up with a name?
No one answered. We got up and left.
It’s not right to name this place from a state of wakefulness. Ludmila sleeps below us and Seung Liu sleeps above in his orbit and so we need to find a quiet name, one dug up by accident or left over from five hundred years of dreaming.