Cryo sleep is a bitch. 16 years pass in an instant, but my body knows all too well where the time went. I stagger out of the pod on weak legs, my skin on fire from the drastic temperature change. My head spins and my body quakes with the rhythm of my dry heaving. I immediately fall to my knees and start retching on an empty stomach. I practically crawl across the room with arms outstretched to guide my way.
It takes me a good 20 minutes in my cabin’s hot steam bath before my mind and body return to some semblance of normalcy. I remember being told to expect some discomfort when I wake, but nothing about the effects being this severe. As I pull on my jumpsuit, I realize that I haven't heard a single sound from below deck. That can’t be good. As the helmsman, I’m the one that gets woken up early in the event of an emergency.
My mind sharpens to a state of clarity as I hobble down the corridor to the command information center, or CIC, but the less I hear the more I worry. The motion activated lights blink to life as I enter the hall that leads to the CIC. The intensity of the light burns my unadjusted eyes, causing me to squint and shield my face. The walk takes twice as long on my weakened legs, which means that by the time I got there, the CIC should be crowded with people, which it wasn’t.
My eyes are immediately drawn to the vibrant green orb that dominates the view outside the large front windows. However long ago, we had arrived. Which meant that I couldn't be the only one awake. If everything had gone without issues, then the whole ship would be bustling with the rest of the crew, preparing to make landfall. My co-pilot should have been woken up at the same time I was, and if I was awake then so should the captain be, emergency or not. The cold air matches the cold feeling in my stomach as I step through the portal.
During our 16-year trip, all systems that were not necessary for the movement of the ship and preservation of the crew were deactivated to save power and resources. I practically fall into the main pilot seat as my shaky hands power on the display. Six power routing failures, four near miss debris impacts, eight hull integrity warnings. It's a fucking disaster, and I don't know whether to be furious or depressed. The ship was supposed to wake all relevant crew if there was a malfunction of any kind, so how did it get this bad? We could have drifted off course and wound up in a smoldering crater on some barren rock. My head floods with possible worst-case scenarios, then I see the date.
We deployed for this far flung rock stardate 2256.08. Ross 128b, nicknamed Margo, was the best candidate for habitability that could be reached within the mission’s time frame. Our mission? To find a new home for humanity before a predicted coronal mass ejection shredded Earth's magnetic field and ozone, scorching the planet's surface in a great conflagration, leaving any surviving humans exposed to the sun's deadly radiation.
That was the summer of my son's seventh birthday. It was the last day before pre-mission conditioning and launch two months later. It's hard to explain to a child that young why daddy isn't going to be around anymore. seven-year old's have no concept of world heroism. To him, I was already a hero. To him, I wasn't leaving for his sake, I was abandoning him. That day I hadn't told him it was going to be our last together until I returned. He knew it was going to be soon, but not how soon. I spent the entire day with him, just the two of us, talking, playing, just being together. Something I wouldn't be able to do for a long time. I told him to take pictures every day, that when I came back, we would share our first drink together. When I landed my VTOL on our landing pad that night, we just sat there for a few long minutes. “You’re leaving tomorrow, aren't you,” it was a statement not a question.
“Yes... I wanted to say goodbye.”
“I don't want you to go.”
“I don't want to either, but I have to.”
“I wish I had an easy answer.”
“...Why can't they send someone else? It's not fair.”
“Some things you just have to do yourself.”
“It's not fair,” He said it so quietly I could barely hear.
“No, it's not, but one day when you have kids of your own, you'll understand what it means to be responsible for the lives of others.”
“It's not fair! Not to me, not to mom! She needs you, she won't say it but she does! You don't know what she's like when you're not around, you don't care!” My son's voice suddenly explodes, making me jump in my seat.
“Of course I care.”
“If you did, you would stay.”
“Clay...I'll come back.”
“No, you won't.” I should've listened to him. I wish more than anything I could go back and tell myself to stay, that this was a mistake. I should’ve taken Avery and little Clay and ran. We could have hidden out in one of the welfare districts. It would have been a hard life, but so much better than this nightmare. The Hegemony wouldn’t have bothered chasing us, they wouldn't have had the time. They would have just found some other prodigal pilot to fly the ship, but it's too late now. I can feel the lifetime my son lived without me yawning open all at once. Profound despair fills me as I look at the calendar readout. I won't be able to share that drink with my son. I won’t even be in time to attend my great grandson's funeral. Like the epitaph on a gravestone, the calendar grimly displays stardate 2568.02. In one short sleep, I've lost over three centuries.
I only know how long I've been sitting in this chair because of the calendar display that tracks the seconds. By now, humanity has found a new home among the stars without us, or the Earth's surface has been sterilized by the sun's UV radiation. Either way, Earth side command doesn't exist anymore, our mission to save humanity no longer matters and we're floating through space alone, possibly the last of our kind. Our kind. I may be using that term prematurely.
I quickly change the display to show the cryo chamber statuses. Of the 334 crew aboard 73% have flatlined, 11% have experienced brain hemorrhaging, and the remaining show vital readouts offline. It's not promising, but I have to look for survivors. It may be a miracle that I'm still alive after so long in stasis, but if I made it, others could have too. Maybe it's cruel of me to try to wake them, to make them aware of our hopeless situation. But I have to, I can't give up the chance to talk to another person at least once more. Something about being the last human alive is even more terrifying than being stranded out here. With newfound determination, I gingerly rise to my feet and exit the CIC.