#0: Sinking

Illustration from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm fairytale "Snow White."

Illustration from an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm fairytale "Snow White."

There is a violence to the waking that never becomes familiar. It has been 100 years since they last woke, and those years stretched on endless and dreamless and utterly unmemorable, only to crack open, egg-like, and spew forth a sticky awakening.

Harlan gasps. He takes deep breaths of thick liquid, and choking, doubles over amongst a spiderweb of wires and tubes. His bed is a bath of clear, viscous liquid, draining quite quickly now, and it perches, nest like, in a vast white room filled up with many stacks of beds like his, the lower level of which are popped open like seed pods, and sprouting many sleep-sick humans, their skin hairless and ghastly-pale.

It is hard to shake 100 years of sleep, and Harlen spends a great deal of time vomiting up saline, silky dollops of preservatives and nutrient gels, his skin bleached pale in the blue light of cryosleep, and his thoughts pulling like taffy through the morass of a long-stilled brain. Around him shudder the bodies of his crew mates, they, too, wire-wrapped and groggy, eyes pulled towards the gentle pulsing of holoscreens hovering like thick mirages of color and light around grey human bodies. Harlan listens as a gentle voice explains the story unfolding around him, and the nature of his life and sleep, and the task at hand that renders this ugly awakening glorious and good.

Love does not dissolve during cryosleep. Nor does hate, nor shame, nor sadness. 100 calm years do not bring order to one’s thoughts, or acceptance of one’s choices, or resolve to one’s life. Harlen fell asleep in love with a ship and a crew and a hope, and as he wakens, he feels himself fill with the memories of this love, and now his eyes are pawing over the familiar shapes of his crew mates, and he is drunk with the idea of 100 years spent waiting, bodies motionless in blue-lit beds, witch-cursed by technology and the hand-wringing of a species trapped on a small planet, shrunk into invisibility now by time and distance.

“Hello Harlan,” chimes a soft, feminine voice, “I hope you had a good sleep.”

Harlan pauses. “'arlan,” he says, the word heavy and familiar in his mouth.

His eyes pull upwards from the dancing light of the holoscreen to the sun-lit face of a pleasant woman who smiles down amicably from her place at his bedside. She extends a hand to his wrist, her expression one of love and concern, and he feels the warmth of a soft, dry hand caressing his own, and finds his body relaxing.

“My name is Maria, and I’m a nurse. I have administered a shot of some medicine that will help you relax, ok?”

Harlan nods, his head a deadweight on his spindly neck, and Maria smiles indulgently and gives his hand a squeeze.

“The year is 2222, it has been 100 years, 0 hours, and 27 minutes since you entered cryosleep with your crew. You are on the good ship “Hope,” currently at a location [xx] lightyears from Earth, and [xx] lightyears from Betelgeuse, in the [xx] quadrant of the [xx] galaxy. Your name is Harlan Gatekeeper and you are one of 10 engineers who volunteered for a sleep-dependent mission. You have slept for 100 years, will wake for a month to work with your team and myself, and then sleep again. “Hope” will arrive at her destination in approximately 917 years, a planet that we have determined to be habitable. You have been chosen to keep the ship running on her long mission, and are one of the few humans who will experience both launch and landing. In 917 years, you will be step onto the soil of a new world.”

He chews each word like bubble gum, his tongue heavy and strange in his mouth and his thoughts like schools of fish dodging his grasping mind as they would a large, graceless predator. He opens his mouth to respond and a waterfall of clear liquid pours out with a gurgle.

“'ool,” he chokes, and Maria laughs and wipes his mouth with a soft handkerchief, and gives his hand another squeeze.

“Don't fret, Harlan, you have been asleep for a very long time and it will take awhile to regain full use of your body and mind. I am monitoring your vial signs and will help guide you through this difficult time. I’m going to provide some stimulation just to make sure everything is working alright, ok? You can lay back now and enjoy the show.”

Harlan lays back, grateful to rest, and above and around him swirl colored smoke, and shapes like letters and animals, and sounds like birdsong and laughter, and across his body he sense the tickling of a breeze, and the poking of fingers, and warmth and coolness and wetness that appear and disappear, dream-like, his body relaxing and recoiling in a pattern that he finds soothing, and as the smells of hot asphalt and wild sage and baby powder wash over him, he finds himself slipping back into sleep, this time vibrant and memory-choked and full of lush dreamscapes from a world now far gone.

Harlan sleeps, and the world around him bustles and whispers and moans in anticipation. A great many things need fixing, and the ship is waiting.

———————

The morning comes with a cacophony of birdsong and golden sunlight pouring like honey across tousled bedsheets. Harlan wakes with his head sick from hangover, and his body rippling with weakness and pain, and assumes that he must have fallen on the way home from the bar and is now paying for a night wasted in drunken indignity. He remembers, blurredly, going out to drink with his crew mates, someplace nice for dinner and then some shitty, basement Chinatown bar where they would drink and dance when they were 10 years longer, and 10 years less inhibited, and students, still, at the best damn University in the world. But last night was different. Last night was the last night on Earth, for any of them, ever, and there is a strange thing that happens inside people when they say goodbye to everything they’ve ever known, for a future not just far, but also a long ways away from the lives of their peers and mothers and sisters and friends, and this is a feeling best tamed with legal whiskey and synthetic marijuana, and some illegal powder cooked up in the University labs with a taste like rancid rubber and a high like a warm bed on Christmas Eve.

The night floods his sick body with memories of light and laughter, and as he escapes the grey shade of sleep he begins to remember things that confuse him, like a woman named Maria and a job assignment on a ship bound for a strange future. He is filled with relief at the sound of footsteps, and the tinkling of glassware on a tray, and the breakfast smells of hot butter and oatmeal and citrusy-sweet orange juice. His bed reshape itself as he pulls himself into a seated position, and he notices that his vision is strange, blurry, and he struggles to focus on the shapes and colors that fill his visual field. The woman who enters bearing breakfast and a beauteous smile is familiar enough but unnameable, and Harlan is relieved to see that she is wearing a name tag, on which, with some difficulty, he reads:

Maria, AI, Crew Assistance Personnel

ID #326-R57-2771

Model #G3V-D2X-4529

“Hello Harlan,” she says, “My name is Maria, I’ve brought you breakfast. Don’t worry too much about talking yet, it’ll be hard, to start, and I’m plenty chatty for the two of us.”

“Helo, M-rea,” mumbles Harlan.

“He speaks!” she beams, “well you are damn tough, mister, after 100 years of silence most people can’t say much besides mumbles, but we’ll get you fixed up real soon, and talking like a regular chatterbox.”

Harlan tries to remember if he was ever a regular chatterbox, and in the haphazard piles of memories that make up his past, he finds a man who doesn’t speak much, and never speaks loud, and he wonders for a moment if this Maria woman will someday cry and yell things like “talk to me,” and “you can’t just sit there and say nothing,” and “I’m not a fucking mind-reader, Harlan, and I’m not the one who’s leaving.”

These memories bark like angry dogs, and his heart breaks a little at the thought of a mouth like 3 winter berries, a small, red gift arranged beneath silk-draped bones he once held to his hot, panting mouth, and loved, and left. He brushes these thoughts away, and refocuses on Maria, who is humming as she arranges his breakfast on the tray in front of him, and tutting like a mother hen over her chicks.

Harlan knows that Maria isn’t real. Or at least not a real girl - not even a real person. Maria was built by people like him, out of memories of people like the girl with a mouth like 3 winter berries, and she’s got guts made of gasoline, a brain made from lithium and iron, and a personality punched out in 0s and 1s. But she’s sweet, and her face glows with blood-lush human warmth, and her hands feel like hands should, and do the things that hands should do. Harlan likes her, immediately, and wonders who built her, and how much of her behavior is a reaction to his personality profile, and if she remembers who she fussed over before he woke up from his long nap.

“… now we won’t worry about getting too much done today, just a bit of PT and some mind exercises, and of course you’ll want to know about how the ship is doing… but let’s not worry about that today, we just need to get you hale and hearty again! I know your favorite breakfast is a Classic American Breakfast, and I hope I remembered everything, I’m a good cook if I know what I’m doing! But the 3D printers have been on the fritz and we're so glad you’re back to give things a look over. Today I printed out 2 chicken eggs for frying, but they’re really about the size of duck eggs, so I printed out 2 more, but don’t you worry if that’s too much food, we’re going to have to be gentle on your tummy for a little bit, no coffee or bacon yet, and I adjusted the Ph balance on all your foods, added probiotics, and you’re still getting the same nutrient cocktail you had while sleeping. We’re did some of the work while you were still out, body modifications, steroids, and strength enhancement exercises to get those atrophied muscles working…”

Maria’s chatting and familiar smells of food are soothing. She is carefully spooning oatmeal into his mouth, and it’s hot and thick with butter and cream and cinnamon, and now he is sipping at a glass of orange juice, and it’s like liquid sunlight, and his mouth is awake and his guts rumbling with hunger, and Maria is beautiful, and kind, and alternating spoonfuls of breakfast with flicks of her handkerchief to catch the dribbles of his slow, stupid mouth, and Harlan has not felt so loved and cared for in a very long time, and the knowledge of this stabs at him a bit, but not enough to ruin a damn fine breakfast after a 100 year fast.

“Now Harlan, I know you just woke up, but there are some people who really want to see you, most especially the Captain, who was hoping that after a restful day you might indulge a visit, you need not even worry about getting in uniform, or standing, they just wants to check in on you and make sure you don’t need anything. But we’ll get you cleaned up first, it’s not just your insides that need fixin’, that skin of yours is going to get real itchy if we don’t teach it how to behave, so we’ll get you in a nice shower, and rubbed down with some reparative cream, and I’ve got a fine-looking robe for you that would make even the most sickly of engineers look dignified.”

The fussing and primping that followed is ecstatically pleasurable, and Harlan finds himself falling into the murmur of Maria’s musings, and the feel of her hands on his body, and the soothing rhythm of her heartbeat, and the sensations of dense, lavender-rich clouds of warm steam, and pools of silky bathwater, and the scent of rain on dry soil and spring foliage.

There are many nice things to enjoy in a life, and the benefits of leaving your home planet and everyone you ever knew or loved a million lightyears behind you manifests itself in bathrooms that include hot springs and spa treatments and long hours sprawled naked in fecund heat, body stretched and kneaded by a person with the skillful hands of a massage therapist, a chiropractor, a doctor, a beautician, a nurse, a lover. A mother pouring water through soapy hair, her hand a visor to keep shampoo from sensitive eyes, her mouth making sounds like seagulls, like laughter, like a foghorn to lead ships through cloudy night. Harlan is a loose pink shape in the arms of Maria, her sturdy, sweet body wrapped in a soft dress, unflinching under the weight of a carried adult.

It is strange as an adult to be picked up and swaddled and carried effortlessly as a child. To listen to the gentle breathing of a glorious machine, and fall deep into the sound of its heartbeat, and know that you are loved because of the way it says your name and touches your skin and kisses your forehead. There is something slanted about this love, and Harlan sometimes finds himself watching Maria with the trained eye of an engineer, and it is in these moments that he glimpses in her something dark and sad and self-conscious, a lowering of her face and a looking sideways through fabricated eyelashes and the buckeye brown of her eyes, and a flush of pink to color cheeks and forehead. It is the look of someone being watched from behind a mirrored glass, and there is something there not unlike fear that fills Harlan with shame and love and the desire to ignore reality for a kinder fiction.

Maria carries him from the bathroom back to his bed. The room is not large, but it is comfortable, with floor to ceiling windows that look out on pastoral farmland or dense, green Appalachian forest, or the flat, starlit black emptiness of space, or nothing at all. Harlan does not know how these windows operate, only the codes that direct their changing landscapes and breathe morning light into the darkness of dawn. Earth’s sun has been carried from its solar system in 10,000 rooms that remember the way sunlight slides across a hardwood floor, or sneaks through shuttered blinds to lick warm tongues of morning light across bedsheets. There is sunlight caught up in the very ebb and flow of the ship called “Hope,” who spends her life between times called day and night, and is lit from within even in the dark, unchanging quiet of space.

“‘ank ooo,” says Harlan, as Maria tuts and frets and arranges pillows and blankets into a comely nest.

“My pleasure, sweetheart, I’m here for you.”

“‘ime?”

“It’s just past noon, and you’ll be needing some lunch. The Captain won’t be by until 4pm or so, so we’ve got time for a leisurely lunch and a nap and a quick briefing. Just want to make sure your gears start churning for the task at hand, but you can’t rush a cryowake.”

These words are still difficult to understand, he remembers the Captain, and favorably, but “lunch” is a new word that seems to float just beyond his grasp, as is “churning” and “cryowake,” and beneath his exterior calm, there tickles a desperate frustration with the murkiness of the world around him, and a flicker of fear over what things will look like once the smoke clears. Maria is permanently cheerful, with an expressive face that reads as easily as any emoticon, but Harlan feels familiar confusion over her actual wants and needs and feelings, and worry over his ability to read these things in general, most especially in a human not expressly designed to be easily read and understood and enjoyed.

Harlan isn’t sure, who, exactly, he is, only that he is an engineer on a ship, recently woke, and he is bolstered by Maria’s love and acceptance in ways that are difficult to explain, but easy to integrate into the design of an AI personality profile, and he is somewhat aware that there are dark things waiting for him outside the outsized love of this robotic woman, and that soon, he will be tasked to finish a job he was ambivalent to commit to in the first place.

To be continued.

Kelly Kate Warren