The sound of engines has faded to nothing. I am half a trillion miles from Earth.
I step out, hoping briefly that my colleagues have woken too. They haven’t. Anna will sleep for another year, Sora another decade. The solitude is unnerving, though I can see their calm faces sleeping behind glass windows. The circular room, dark except for the faint light spilling from my chamber, is still, motionless, like a paused film.
I push forward, gliding steadily towards the only exit. None of the parabolic flight or underwater training with ESA has prepared me for the liberation of weightlessness as I reach for the railing. More disorientating than falling, here “up” is meaningless and all I need to do is press against a stark grey wall to propel myself along the corridor.
At last I reach the main control room.
“Ben.” My voice catches. “Bring up vitals on Doctors Dubronskaya and Bak.”
To the left a monitor whirrs into life. Quickly I approach the screen: vitals nominal.
“We all made it…” I breathe in relief. We had all entered the program knowing that any of the chambers could malfunction; that any of us could have died in stasis.
As I check each system in turn, the flashing date in the corner of the screen catches my eye. 2098-09-21 04:26 UET. Ten years, as planned, have slipped by as I slept. Now my sister is older than me. Perhaps my parents are dead…
A notification appears without warning.
“Data stream incoming… likelihood of data corruption… 0.35 per cent.” The synthetic voice feels unnaturally loud in the silence. I am curious, if not surprised.
“Play message,” I whisper.
At once the video starts. A tall man, possibly Chinese, is stood in front of a white screen; I do not recognise him.
“This message, broadcast on frequency 6.28 gigahertz, transmitted at twenty-two hundred hours to the Venture. Dr Harding, congratulations and well-wishes are given from everyone on Earth for you and your team’s continued safety and exploration.”
It hits me after a moment; this man is my age. When I stepped into the cryo-chamber, he was fifteen, just a teenager.
“Following is a message from Professor Laura Slattery, née Harding.”
The smiling face of my once-kid sister grins impishly from the screen. A toddler is sitting on her knee, staring curiously out.
“It’s been ten years for me, big brother. Gotta be so bizarre to see me here older than you ever were-” She pauses. “I miss you every day. But, you know, life goes on, right? Finished my PhD - that’s more than you did. Got married.” Laughing, she waves her hand in front of the screen, a gold band glinting under the light. “I think you met Matthew once, at the Marseilles conference, remember? I reckon you’d’ve liked him.” She looks down for a moment. “And here’s our son, our baby boy. You’re an uncle.” The baby - my nephew - wriggles impatiently in Laura’s arms. “His name is James.”
Suddenly I’m crying. The tears stick to my face, neither falling or floating in the weightless room.
Laura’s still smiling, somehow. “I know that next time you wake up, I’ll be dead. And so will James. Just don’t forget us, please. Remember where you came from, because you’re our gift to the universe. Goodbye, James. I love you.”
The screen flickers off. More messages will be incoming. I should record my own. I know that after today I can never talk to her again.
But she’s happy.
Shivering, I make my way to the observation deck, leaving my tears in the air behind me. Even with the telescope, all I see is a pinprick of blue-white light hanging in the dark. Is this view something ESA is recording? Eventually I return to the stasis room, and climb slowly back into the chamber. Perhaps I will never wake up again. If I do, millennia will have passed and I can’t know that anyone will be there waking up beside me.
But as the glass lid closes on me, I know for the first time that every moment of every day has been a gift worth dying for.
I wake up.