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Zeno’s Arrow

Waking to Silence

They woke me for my watch ten years early.

Groggy from the hibernation chamber, shivering as the infrared heaters bathed my skin, Andrea spoke to me about communications lasers, data decay, and crew suicides.

“How many?”  I mumbled.  Microphones caught my words, relaying them to Andrea.

“Thirty,” she responded.  Her voice sounded wrong.  Something I couldn’t place, a weight, or age, carried on the sound of her voice.

“Are you at your watch station?”  I struggled out of the tube.  Floating free, I propelled myself to my locker.  I struggled into a jumpsuit.  I counted the tubes in my section.

Forty tubes, ten still in use, set in the wall before me.  Thirty looming doors stared at me like vacant eyes.

Using handholds set in the wall; I made my way to the door, tapped the lock, and received a buzz of refusal.  “Andrea, the door is locked.  Pressure indicator shows equal pressure on both sides.  Is there a problem?”

Andrea’s voice, tired and desperate, came to me.  “Slow down.  The boat is fine.  You are fine.  Everything is fine.  There has been a small problem.”

“If everything is fine, why don’t you open the door?”  I took out my pocket interface and talked to the boat.  Everything showed green.

“I need you to understand something before you come to the bridge.  You must accept something before you can be of use to me.”  Her voice sounded so tired, maybe a bit lonely.  The entire conversation carried an air of rehearsal.

I accessed the boat’s logs.  Normal usage levels, normal entries, a list of crew deaths.  All signed by one person: Andrea.

Checking medical records, I noted that Andrea was a year forty watch member. I was a year seventy member.  Boat time showed year sixty.  Andrea’s record showed a twenty-year watch.

Crew records showed seventy awakenings and forty freezings.  The last time she woke a crewmember was five years ago.  “Jesus, you’ve been alone five years.”

“The captain doesn’t approve of blasphemy.  You know how long I have been up.  The boat tells me everything you do.  Did you check why?”  Andrea asked.  Her voice carried fear.

I scrolled the logs back to year forty.

Year forty: the year we lost contact with Earth.

*          *          *

Ten thousand young, brilliant dreamers gathered from the poorest, most disadvantaged, Earth had to offer.  They recruited us with science fiction blogs and free fiction sights.  They gave us the opportunity to trade our miserable lives for upper class lives for our families.  Money meant nothing where we were going.

The ten thousand became one thousand.  The weak were left behind as we suffered through years of training, drilling, and living ten to a room in the depths of a coalmine.  Don’t ask me where it was, just know that from age twenty to twenty-four I lived without the sun.

They packed us into hibernation pods, loaded us onto our boat, and blasted us off toward a star twenty light years from Earth.  I could get the name, but stars weren’t my true interest.

I was here for the future.

Not mine, my family’s.

*          *          *

Andrea let me out of the hibernation bay once she saw that I wasn’t violent.

I made my way to the watch deck, the farthest point from the hibernation bays, on the outermost ring of the habitat section.  Here we had gravity, not much, but enough to remind you that falling hurt.

Over tea, I watched her grey framed face.  I noted her glasses and crow’s feet, trying to replace the blond-haired beauty that I had last seen only a few days ago.  She was older than me by a handful of years then.  Now she was twenty-five years beyond me.

“It was near the end of my watch.  A week to go before I took the big sleep.  When the communications system went silent.”  She sipped her tea slowly, watching my face.  “Antonio ran all the checks.  Even went EVA and replaced the control boards.  Nothing.  No response.”

“Was there any warning?”  I asked from courtesy.  I already knew the answer.  This was all in the logs.  I was just letting her get it out.

“You know control.  No news from home, just books, movies, and patch updates on the data feed.  They thought it was better that way, we know different now.  One day we are receiving schematics and entertainments, the next day nothing.  Antonio fought with that system, rewired it, and even built new components.”

“He started the fab plants?”  That wasn’t in the logs.

“Just the electronics fabs, for the month it took to build the radio.”  Andrea stared into her tea.  “He rigged up a parabolic antenna to a radio receiver.  I told him Earth didn’t use long wave anymore, he just kept working.  For another month, he slaved over his antenna array, listening for the faintest crackle.  I watched him die a little more each day.  One night shift, he called me.  ‘I’m going outside to adjust the antenna.  I might be a while.’  He never came back.  I watched him drift away for another month.  His helmet tucked under his arm, spinning slowly away.”

“You’ve been alone since then?”  I asked.

“Mostly.  I used to wake sleepers up, but gave that up after they either placed themselves back into hibernation or took the coward’s way out.”

“Did the others just step out the airlock?”

“After Antonio, a couple used pills, a trio asphyxiated themselves; finally someone used a cutting torch.  Took forever to get the blood out.  I tell you what I told the rest, either get back in your tube or step out the airlock.  Leave your spacesuit in stores, we might need it later.”  Andrea watched me with cold eyes.

“What kept you going?”

“The mission.  There is a planet out there just for us.  That is what keeps me from taking the final walk.”

“I won’t leave you.  We’ll find a way to get there.”  I said, wondering why the others had broken so easily.  Back home I starved as often as I ate.  Here I not only had food, but a bed, books, and best of all, no drive-bys.

It took us a month, but we found a way to continue.

I compared what Andrea and I had in common, compared that to the backgrounds of the suicides and sleepers, and for want of a better word built a statistical model.

My multivariate professor would have had issues with my techniques, but she was probably dead.  Not because the world had ended in a zombie apocalypse or a nuclear war, just because she was old when I last saw her.  She’d be over a hundred and sixty by now, no human could live that long.

In the end, we found fifty pairs that shared the common traits of deprived upbringing in a violent environment.  Andrea and I were included in the count.  A stable middle class upbringing actually had a flaw after all.

We woke each pair over the next six months, checked their reactions, and signed them on with the plan.  We then packed them back into their tubes, and started with the next pair.

With a hundred and fifty years left in the mission, we would each have to stand three more watches.  Not that different from the coal mines, except for the windows.

We would survive.

The mission would survive.

Andrea and I finished out my year watch, woke our replacements, and drifted off to sleep in our tomb like tubes.

*          *          *

Left Behind

It was year one ten.  Andrea and I stood watch once again.

When we had gone under, things had been tense.  When we woke, we found the boat festive.  Shoni and Patel beamed as they pulled me from my hibernation pod.

“What is going on?  Did I oversleep?  Are we there?”  I slurred through the fog of waking.

Shoni, with elfin face and pixie eyes, laughed, “Shush shush all will be revealed.”

Patel grinned, his dark face splitting into a wide uncontrolled smile.  “Do not look at me.  I will tell you nothing.  Now get some clothes on.  Nudity is frowned upon in public.”

“Slave driver,” I cursed as a pulled my jumpsuit on.  “Damn, forgot to wash this last time.  Fifty years of fermented funk.”

“Take a different one.  The dead don’t mind you wearing their clothes.”  Patel became serious.

Scanning down the names on the lockers, I floated to one with a name I did not recognize.  I pulled the Velcro name tag off the clean jumpsuit, slapping my stained tag in place.

“Show me this wonder and it better not be a still.  The Captain wouldn’t approve,”  I said pulling myself along the wall out of my hibernation bay.

“What was she like?  I never really met her.  Only saw her during inspections.”  Shoni asked as if requesting the telling of a legend.

“I met her once.  She was strong willed, capable of facing anything.  She couldn’t live up to her reputation.”  I pointed to an empty hibernation tube marked with four gold bands, the topmost twisted into a loop.  “Don’t dwell on this thing.”

“The Captain wouldn’t approve,” Patel and Shoni echoed back.

*          *          *

On the watch deck Andrea greeted us with tea.  Her gray hair tied in a topknot, a smile on her lips.  “They aren’t dead.  The earth abides.”

Opening a screen onto space, she spun the view ahead, pointing it at the red dwarf star that was our goal.  Zooming in, tighter and tighter, the red glow of the star shifted out of view, to be replaced by the white metallic glint of something.

She zoomed until pixilation started, then backed off.  A white blob of metal held in the dark between stars.

“Is that?”  I stammered.

“It’s a ship!  A ship from earth!”  Andrea sang.  Shoni and Patel joined her in disharmony.  “The earth lives.”

I checked the log, noting files on the passage of the strange ship.  I reached for the screen, setting it to show the closest approach.  The ship was a wide solid disk, with a large nozzle at the rear.  “No frame of reference except that nozzle.  How big do you think it is?”

“Estimates range from five hundred meters to two kilometers wide.  Even our best scopes could not find anything to judge scale by.”  Patel smiled as he talked.  “Shoni estimated the launch date.”

“Three years after we lost contact,” Shoni cheered.  “They must have just forgot us.”

“The log shows a huge amount of signal traffic beamed at us over the last year, what of that?”  I asked opening the log files.  Streams of binary stared at me, totally incomprehensible.

“No clue,” Patel said.  “Shoni and I are farmers, not programmers.  We thought you might know?”

“Just a pair of board replacers,” Shoni added.  “We leave the real fixing to you nerds.”

“Andrea, do you have anything to add?”  I transferred the data to a work console.

“Computers do not compute.  Magic smoke makes them go,” she spoke in a mock robot voice.

“Put the farmers to bed, and then get on the maintenance lists.  There must be some magic smoke that needs capturing somewhere.”  I turned to the data stream wondering where to start.

*          *          *

I entered deep hack for nearly a month.  The message was in two parts.  The first section:  a Rosetta stone of programming languages.  The second section, much larger and infinitely more complex, was a mystery.

I concentrated on the first section, slowly pulling understanding from its structure.  My forte was databases, statistical analysis, with a touch of circuit design.  Solid skills needed for the operation of the boat.

This code required skills no one on board had.  It took me almost two weeks to master the basics of video compression, just to gain a glimmer of what the code represented.

Once I found the key, the rest was a process of creating the code necessary to construct a new video compression library.  Once I had that working, I realized the second section was actually two pieces.  The first was a series of schematics for a new video circuit, the second part a mystery.

I started the circuit fab units, making sure to document it in the log, and spent another week swearing.  Sure I had a schematic, and it worked back on Earth, but here on the boat we just didn’t have the equipment to create a direct copy.

So I improvised.  The schematics explained the processes and operation of each subsystem, which made things easier.

Finally it was done.

It didn’t look like the schematic.  The plan’s device barely covered one’s palm.  My copy was the size of a trash can.

Not pretty, but when I hooked it up it worked.

I now knew what lay in the remainder of the message.

Pictures, sound files, and movies of all our loved ones.  I scrolled through the lists until I found my family.

The people in the pictures and movies looked familiar, but different.  My father sat crippled and gray, my mother similarly twisted by time, a middle aged couple with a pair of teen aged girls, everything was familiar, and everything was different.

I muted it before they could talk.  I watched these strangers move with home movie grace.  I shut it off.  They were all dead by now, no need to watch further.

There was also an explanation for the communications failure.  A series of human failings, weather, and technology all conspired to create a situation where communication became impossible.

The consortium that funded us fell into financial distress.  A hurricane destroyed our mission control center in its attempt to destroy Puerto Rico.  When they made the necessary repairs, it was discovered that no one knew what data compression techniques we utilized, and worse of all, the gear we used had not been made for nearly two generations.

Then there was the real issue.  We were slightly off course.  Not much mind you, just enough.  It appears the mass we lost with the suicides, through body, suit, and atmosphere loss combined with minute variations in solar wind and dust densities gave us a tiny drift.

We couldn’t detect it, but it was just enough to push us out of the main beam.

They had been calling.   We were outside the coverage area.

*          *          *

I watched a second vessel pass us shortly before entering the tube for my fifty year nap.  Clean uniform on the hook this time.

This one was about ten percent smaller and about five percent faster than the first one.  This one also bathed us in recorded messages.

There were more ships following, it told us.  A chain of life strung across the gulf between worlds.

Using the boat’s scopes, I verified a chain of piercing lights stretching like a lifeline from the shores of Earth to our long sought after destination.  I could see five behind us, the closest preparing to pass us.  Each following ship was faster than the last.

We who had left first would arrive last.

I left briefing files for the watches to come, and settled down to my well-earned nap.

*          *          *

Final Straw

Year one sixty was a year of hope and wonder.  Andrea and I watched the scopes as the eighth and ninth ships to pass us arrived in system.

We adjusted our position so we stood in the path of their message home.  Their telemetry washed over us as they entered our goal system.  Their engines blazed white against the red of the star.

We saw everything through their telemetry.

A fluke of engineering and fate conspired that each generation of ship was better than the last.  Faster and smaller each ship became, though we were sure their payloads were larger and better suited for our goal.

Each one waved to us as they passed.  Beaming software updates, equipment schematics, and greetings as they left us behind.

We tried to talk to them.

Oh how we tried.

The log was filled with nineteen attempts through the long dark years.  Not a single response in all those attempts.  The entire crew must be in hibernation, their systems, so much better than ours, entrusted to run without supervision.

That made the shock for them worse.

The Naxos was the first ship to begin a survey of our new home.  The results were not received well by the crew.  I am not a geologist, nor a meteorologist, but even I understood what came across the telemetry.

The atmosphere was wrong.  The climate was unseasonably cold.  Life on arctic ice would be easier than on Goal.  That became its name.  We called it Goal, for that is what it was.

I watched Andrea’s face twist, tears streaming down her face.  She took off her glasses, crying with deep wails into her hands.

It hurt.  We worked so long, Andrea more than any other, to get to Goal.  Now here, on the edge of the dark we learned that Goal has no need of us.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Andrea sobbed.  “To arrive to die is too much.”

I placed a hand on her back.  “Remember the mission.  We have a sacred duty to those who sleep away the dark ages.”

She slapped my face.  “Are we to awaken them to death?  Are we to let them sleep the ages away until our systems fail and they die without knowing?  What mission remains?”

*          *          *

I worked alone over the next few days.  Old habits die hard.  I had not seen a true day in seven years, and still I measure things by days, weeks, months, and years.  What was time?  Just a way of measuring what is left to us?  Or a measure of what we could do?

Andrea avoided the watch deck, spending her time wandering the dark hallways and silent chambers of our metal wrapped world.

I monitored her as I monitored the events near Goal.

The Captain of the Naxos reported a spate of suicides and a near scuttling.  One of his engineers, upset beyond reason, attempted to blow the reactor.  Captain Achilles reported, with regret, that the engineer had been executed.  He ordered the remainder of the crew back into hibernation.  He would remain on solo watch waiting and warning the others as they arrived.

Captain Winkle of the Odyssey heeded the warning, placing his entire crew back into the deep sleep.  He sent a tearful farewell home before entering his own pod.

I didn’t tell Andrea.  She could step beyond reason into insanity at any moment.

I tracked her, noting how she kept drifting back to the main engineering deck.  I thought of the Naxos and its narrow escape.

I approached her the next day as she stood before the reactor control panel.

“You won’t do this,” I said floating into the reactor room.

“We would blossom in the night like a deadly flower.  No pain, no suffering, just an end to this pointless existence.”  She floated before a control panel, it’s cover down and locked.

“That is not the Andrea I know.  She would never give up.”  I drifted to her side and hugged her to me.

We floated a long time.  She shuddered against me, tears floated in long chains across the room.

“There are nearly thirty ships bound for Goal.  Each smaller and faster than ours.  If things continue like this, we will be the last to arrive.  But they need us,”  I whispered.

“What use are we?  Slow, outdated, useless.”  She sobbed.

“We have space for five times our complement.  This boat was built to house families for a hundred years.  We have enough hydroponics to feed a fleet.  If there is to be any hope of surviving near Goal, we will be the ones that bring it.”

“They saved the best for last,” Andrea gripped me with the strength of the damned.

“There is one other thing.  About you blowing up the boat?”  I lifted her face, staring into her tear swarmed eyes.

“What’s that?”

“The Captain wouldn’t approve.”

Andrea smiled weakly, wiping tears from her eyes.  “I can’t continue.  It is too much.”

“Then it is time to sleep,” I said.

“Who will watch?  Who can bear the weight of knowing there is no hope?”

“I will watch.  Though the years are long and the night never ending, I will watch for the shore.”  I turned her toward the hall toward her hibernation bay.

*          *          *

The Glory of Time

I learned to love literature.

I engaged in year long conversations with Captain Achilles.  The lag diminishing from months to days and then hours as the boat approached Goal.

I watched every movie in the library.

Read every book.

Learned medicine as my body aged.  The boat knew my age, though I cared not to count time.

I haunted the boat as a ghost, the ship reading me all the works of man as I maintained its systems.

My life continued on rhythms set by the schedule of the boat.

The boat was my friend, my nurse, and my home.

I dared not awaken anyone until we arrived.

I would not pass on my burden until the boat found me unfit for duty.

Low gravity and zero gee helped me avoid many problems that plague Earth bound middle aged men.

I returned many times over the years to Andrea’s pod.  I watched the monitors, noting the properly suppressed bodily functions.

Oh how I wanted to wake her, to hold her, to hear her laugh.

That couldn’t happen.  For me the pain of the failure at Goal was ages past, for her it was yesterday.  She would be my junior if I woke her.

Six months from Goal the message came to the fleet.

We were a fleet now.  Thirty five vessels stretched across the system.

Most huddled in high orbit above Goal, waiting, a handful wandered the system carrying out scientific research, mapping worlds, doing anything to keep going.

I listened carefully to the message.  A plan grew in my old skull.

*          *          *

The boat made orbit, joining its brethren.

I woke Andrea, bringing her to the watch deck before she was completely out of waking stupor.

She wiped dust from her glasses, dressing as she scanned the displays.

“The central screen is the important one.” I lowered myself into a chair.

“The years have not treated you badly,” she mumbled.

“Watch the screen,” I pointed with a thin hand.  Now that I had someone for comparison, I now know the truth, I am old.  Not decrepit old, hell my professors were all over ninety, just years old.

“It is beautiful,” she said staring at the white blue marble that was Goal.  Ice sheets extended from the poles to near the equator.

“Not enough greenhouse gases.  Too much oxygen and not enough nitrogen.  Just watch.”  The screen started a time lapse recording started three months earlier.

Scores of lights approached at great speed.  A hundred unmanned ships, traveling at speeds where radiation shredded flesh, stood on tails of fusion light.

The ships tore behind the sun, braking at speeds that crushed men, before drilling with mechanical precision towards Goal.

The time lapse movie caught up to now.

We sat before the monitor as a hundred moths spun to their deaths in Goal’s atmosphere.

“What was that?”  Andrea asked.  “A hundred ships crashing is not a good thing.”

“They didn’t crash, that is how they work.  They enter the atmosphere, release a billion machines that make more machines.  Those machines, in turn, change the atmosphere.  The Earth did not forget us.  They sent those things to save us.”  I smiled at her.

“How long will it take?” Andrea asked, tears forming again as she saw the mission take on new dimensions.

“Less time than it took to get here,” I smiled.

“Then I think it was time we organized a new watch schedule.”

“I think the Captain would approve,” I smiled.

“Yes she would.”

The End

RL Ferguson lives in Green Bay, WI. He misspent his youth running “Rogue Traders”, a hybrid Role Playing Game/Warhammer 40k/Collectible Card Game/Comic Book/Cyber Café in his hometown from 1996-2008. A double Bachelor of Art and Science, History and Mathematics, from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, RL Ferguson still wonders what he will do when he grows up. He currently shares his life with his wife of twelve years, two dogs, and two cats, all of whom wonder what he is doing hiding in his office all day. When not avoiding contact with his environment, RL Ferguson serves up fantastic serial tales at Colbyjack.net in text and solo read podcasts.

4 comments

1 Redstone Science Fiction #12, May 2011 | Redstone Science Fiction { 05.01.11 at 8:50 pm }

[...] Zeno’s Arrow by R.L. Ferguson [...]

2 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: May 10, 2011 { 05.14.11 at 10:49 pm }

[...] “Zeno’s Arrow” by R.L. Ferguson at Redstone Science [...]

3 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: May 10, 2011 { 05.14.11 at 10:49 pm }

[...] “Zeno’s Arrow” by R.L. Ferguson at Redstone Science [...]

4 Stewart { 06.22.11 at 4:12 pm }

Good stuff, though it saddens me to see that dangling modifier near the beginning. What was Andrea doing “shivering as the infrared heaters bathed [the narrator's] skin”???