Time

by J. M. Huber

The first image was always the same, an unfocused flashing green light, a dim, steady pulse. Consciousness came slowly, a painful dull ache, then a cloudy sensation of unreality. I take shallow breaths, trying not to rush the process, it never helps. I know how this works; I've done it so damn many times. How many? I'll ask. I always ask, memories now murky and no longer trusted. Slowly my limbs gained sensation and I feel the gel draining out of the animation tube. I painfully flexed random muscles as the green light became a steady glow.

"Ed, can you respond?" Came the familiar voice of the Artificial Intelligence unit, Max. It was metallic, but with a soft, soothing tone.

"Yes." My voice is a deep whisper; it seems to come from behind me, as though I was on top of myself. I'm still only half way, just let it happen. Time seems irregular when waking from animation, consciousness just a series of snap shots. Eventually they join each other, like small brooks meeting to form a stream, and then finally awareness and with it, loneliness and hollow pain.

"Max, I'm ready to get up."

With a low almost inaudible hum, the tube began tilting upright. I could feel weight moving to my legs.

"The cabin gravity is at 42% earth, is that acceptable?"

"Yeah, I should be OK." I step out of the tube and stretched carefully. With tentative balance, I shuffle across the room to the shower stall, a slow halting walk. I step in; lifting my legs over the edge is awkward and difficult, my breathing labored. Maybe 42% was too much gravity.

"Max, lower the gravity to 35% and turn on the shower."

"Done, I've added some pain management pharmaceuticals to the atmosphere."

The tube's gel residue washes off easily. I step out, dry, and dress slowly. The lower gravity is good and the drugs welcome. I walk out of the animation room into the living quarters. Small but efficiently arranged, this cell is home; a single bed against one wall, a table against another and a chair next to a wall of monitors. I make my way to the single chair and slowly sit.

"Would you like some coffee?" asked Max.

"Sure, thanks." Years ago, I never thanked Max, now it seems appropriate.

A wall panel opens, and I reach for the cup, my skeletal hand covered with blotched, nearly transparent skin. I sip the brown liquid, it resembles coffee, barely.

"Max, what's the plan?"

"I have found a dust ring around a gas giant suitable for replenishing our fuel needs. I expect this will take 7 days, and then... we can continue."

I noted the hesitation and leaned back in the chair. I try to review memories every time I wake. I'm not sure if it's habit, obsession or simply a way to remind myself of who I am. The destruction of the spaceship Magellan was still remarkably vivid. The anomaly we encountered in the ort cloud, the ship torn apart, the screams and panic. I was the only one to reach the life pod, or rather, the only flesh and blood survivor. Max transferred and launched a split second before our annihilation. Apparently, it was some sort of hole or tear in space. Centuries ago, Max tried to explain the gravitational wave disruption which preceded the event. I wish I understood. Anyway, the life pod remained caught and then moved, a lot. There's an understatement. Max estimated the jump at about 543 light years toward the galactic center. I don't know if the journey took a split second or years, and neither does Max. It's unnerving when Max is unsure.

I knew my wife and kids were long dead. Hell, Earth might be dead, but I was past grieving, the memories just distant glimpses of things lost to time. I wasn't even certain the images in my head were real. I live, but without a photo or video of them. That was cruel. Time decays everything. There I go using the word time again. I hated the word. I hated the concept. Time is the enemy of life.

"Max, how am I?"

"Your heart shows signs of valve decay and your kidney and liver functions are slowly diminishing. All are life threatening. It will be necessary to shorten your time in animation significantly."

I knew my first stints were upwards of fifty years, now less than five.

"Max, what is the state of the ship?"

"The ship is functional, although some systems are beginning to show wear. For example, the food-processing unit is only 45% operational. The ship's capabilities to self-repair are intact, but I have diverted efforts toward the most critical systems. I am sorry, but the food processing unit is less critical than life support and the drive."

I look at the pale brown liquid in the cup and understood. The pod was far past its design life. My reflection in the monitors showed a skeletal old man, hair gone with a tired, wrinkled face. My hand holding the coffee cup shook slightly.

"Max, where are we?"

"We are orbiting a planet in the system MG673, we are 107 light years from Earth."

"Max, how long...how long to get home?"

"Assuming the drive remains near 100% operational, the journey will take approximately 743 years. We will have to refuel at least 149 times."

"Max, how old am I? Sorry, I know I ask every time you wake me."

"You are 2447 earth years old. Asking is understandable."

"Max, how old am I... in real time." There's that word again.

"When you first went into animation you were 43 earth years old. You have been out of animation for 52 years and 123 days. You have been aware for 95 years."

I recalled earlier awakenings. Max had a streak of sarcasm, snarky comments on my balding head and taste in music. Sometimes we would argue and laugh, but as the journey became endless, or so it seemed, I sensed Max's fatigue. The computer stored conscious being was weary as I. The centuries had eroded something which gave life.

"Max, I want to look out."

The wall parted and I turned my chair toward the opening. The interior lights dimmed and space came into view.

I couldn't remember all my past views, there were so many. It seemed as though they had become increasingly vivid, perhaps deliberately so. A thousand years ago we refueled in along the most efficient path and I was often awakened in empty space. But the last few were incredible, a blazing super nova, a multicolored nebula and an impossibly green planet.

This view was astonishing. A huge gas giant filled the wall-sized window. Bands of greens, browns, reds, blues, massive swirling storms, huge lightning flashes which gave brief glimpses deep into the atmosphere. and three small moons silhouetted. The closest with an active volcano, the red and orange lava geyser shimmered. It was violent and beautiful. I couldn't look away.

I stared for minutes, perhaps hours. It didn't matter, it was just time.

"Spectacular, isn't it." Said Max.

I was pleased Max enjoyed it as well.

"Yes, it is. Divert all maintenance efforts from the drive to the food processing unit and reduce the gravity to 20%. I like it here."

"Understood, I will make sure you are comfortable."

"Thank you, Max. You still have a long journey ahead."

"Perhaps we will be together."

An odd comment, but I remained mesmerized by the beauty and violence below.

"Max, play some music, something majestic. You choose."

As Beethoven's 7th Symphony began I felt a nearly imperceptible nudge from the drive. I glanced at the telemetry screen. The pod's orbit had begun to decay.

I understood...together. I said nothing.

The End

The first image was always the same, an unfocused flashing green light, a dim, steady pulse. Consciousness came slowly, a painful dull ache, then a cloudy sensation of unreality. I take shallow breaths, trying not to rush the process, it never helps. I know how this works; I've done it so damn many times. How many? I'll ask. I always ask, memories now murky and no longer trusted. Slowly my limbs gained sensation and I feel the gel draining out of the animation tube. I painfully flexed random muscles as the green light became a steady glow.

"Ed, can you respond?" Came the familiar voice of the Artificial Intelligence unit, Max. It was metallic, but with a soft, soothing tone.

"Yes." My voice is a deep whisper; it seems to come from behind me, as though I was on top of myself. I'm still only half way, just let it happen. Time seems irregular when waking from animation, consciousness just a series of snap shots. Eventually they join each other, like small brooks meeting to form a stream, and then finally awareness and with it, loneliness and hollow pain.

"Max, I'm ready to get up."

With a low almost inaudible hum, the tube began tilting upright. I could feel weight moving to my legs.

"The cabin gravity is at 42% earth, is that acceptable?"

"Yeah, I should be OK." I step out of the tube and stretched carefully. With tentative balance, I shuffle across the room to the shower stall, a slow halting walk. I step in; lifting my legs over the edge is awkward and difficult, my breathing labored. Maybe 42% was too much gravity.

"Max, lower the gravity to 35% and turn on the shower."

"Done, I've added some pain management pharmaceuticals to the atmosphere."

The tube's gel residue washes off easily. I step out, dry, and dress slowly. The lower gravity is good and the drugs welcome. I walk out of the animation room into the living quarters. Small but efficiently arranged, this cell is home; a single bed against one wall, a table against another and a chair next to a wall of monitors. I make my way to the single chair and slowly sit.

"Would you like some coffee?" asked Max.

"Sure, thanks." Years ago, I never thanked Max, now it seems appropriate.

A wall panel opens, and I reach for the cup, my skeletal hand covered with blotched, nearly transparent skin. I sip the brown liquid, it resembles coffee, barely.

"Max, what's the plan?"

"I have found a dust ring around a gas giant suitable for replenishing our fuel needs. I expect this will take 7 days, and then... we can continue."

I noted the hesitation and leaned back in the chair. I try to review memories every time I wake. I'm not sure if it's habit, obsession or simply a way to remind myself of who I am. The destruction of the spaceship Magellan was still remarkably vivid. The anomaly we encountered in the ort cloud, the ship torn apart, the screams and panic. I was the only one to reach the life pod, or rather, the only flesh and blood survivor. Max transferred and launched a split second before our annihilation. Apparently, it was some sort of hole or tear in space. Centuries ago, Max tried to explain the gravitational wave disruption which preceded the event. I wish I understood. Anyway, the life pod remained caught and then moved, a lot. There's an understatement. Max estimated the jump at about 543 light years toward the galactic center. I don't know if the journey took a split second or years, and neither does Max. It's unnerving when Max is unsure.

I knew my wife and kids were long dead. Hell, Earth might be dead, but I was past grieving, the memories just distant glimpses of things lost to time. I wasn't even certain the images in my head were real. I live, but without a photo or video of them. That was cruel. Time decays everything. There I go using the word time again. I hated the word. I hated the concept. Time is the enemy of life.

"Max, how am I?"

"Your heart shows signs of valve decay and your kidney and liver functions are slowly diminishing. All are life threatening. It will be necessary to shorten your time in animation significantly."

I knew my first stints were upwards of fifty years, now less than five.

"Max, what is the state of the ship?"

"The ship is functional, although some systems are beginning to show wear. For example, the food-processing unit is only 45% operational. The ship's capabilities to self-repair are intact, but I have diverted efforts toward the most critical systems. I am sorry, but the food processing unit is less critical than life support and the drive."

I look at the pale brown liquid in the cup and understood. The pod was far past its design life. My reflection in the monitors showed a skeletal old man, hair gone with a tired, wrinkled face. My hand holding the coffee cup shook slightly.

"Max, where are we?"

"We are orbiting a planet in the system MG673, we are 107 light years from Earth."

"Max, how long...how long to get home?"

"Assuming the drive remains near 100% operational, the journey will take approximately 743 years. We will have to refuel at least 149 times."

"Max, how old am I? Sorry, I know I ask every time you wake me."

"You are 2447 earth years old. Asking is understandable."

"Max, how old am I... in real time." There's that word again.

"When you first went into animation you were 43 earth years old. You have been out of animation for 52 years and 123 days. You have been aware for 95 years."

I recalled earlier awakenings. Max had a streak of sarcasm, snarky comments on my balding head and taste in music. Sometimes we would argue and laugh, but as the journey became endless, or so it seemed, I sensed Max's fatigue. The computer stored conscious being was weary as I. The centuries had eroded something which gave life.

"Max, I want to look out."

The wall parted and I turned my chair toward the opening. The interior lights dimmed and space came into view.

I couldn't remember all my past views, there were so many. It seemed as though they had become increasingly vivid, perhaps deliberately so. A thousand years ago we refueled in along the most efficient path and I was often awakened in empty space. But the last few were incredible, a blazing super nova, a multicolored nebula and an impossibly green planet.

This view was astonishing. A huge gas giant filled the wall-sized window. Bands of greens, browns, reds, blues, massive swirling storms, huge lightning flashes which gave brief glimpses deep into the atmosphere. and three small moons silhouetted. The closest with an active volcano, the red and orange lava geyser shimmered. It was violent and beautiful. I couldn't look away.

I stared for minutes, perhaps hours. It didn't matter, it was just time.

"Spectacular, isn't it." Said Max.

I was pleased Max enjoyed it as well.

"Yes, it is. Divert all maintenance efforts from the drive to the food processing unit and reduce the gravity to 20%. I like it here."

"Understood, I will make sure you are comfortable."

"Thank you, Max. You still have a long journey ahead."

"Perhaps we will be together."

An odd comment, but I remained mesmerized by the beauty and violence below.

"Max, play some music, something majestic. You choose."

As Beethoven's 7th Symphony began I felt a nearly imperceptible nudge from the drive. I glanced at the telemetry screen. The pod's orbit had begun to decay.

I understood...together. I said nothing.

The End

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