Mission and Submission – Will Gwaun

Mission and Submission – Will Gwaun

March 2022

Amir and Sahia lay side by side in the narrow berth, waiting to hear if there was a home waiting for them out there in the darkness of space. They held hands. In the rhythm of her breath, he felt the pendulum of her thoughts swinging from fear back to hope, and his own thoughts turned to follow.

Years ago, centuries now, Amir had felt in those moments as if he could sense the whole ship holding its breath. He’d once imagined the thousands of crew in the cabins adjoining theirs, some freshly woken from hibernation, some born on board and awake their whole lives, but all in some sense beside him, clinging to that same hope: a planet where, at last, the ship could land. Now, Amir thought of most of those crew as strangers, jealous of his and Sahia’s places in hibernation pods. He pressed his body closer to hers, this sliver of warmth and hope in all the vast expanse of nothing and cold. Now, in these moments, he felt nothing beside him but Sahia.

A hologram schematic of the ship’s journey so far floated in their optics. Earth, now many trillions of kilometres behind them, winked in the corner of the cabin. From it ran the line of the ship’s trajectory, and branching from that, the routes of the probes the ship had launched along the way. Each branch ended at a planet that had promised to be a home; the long-range scans had shown them to be similar enough to Earth. The ship had been turned and steered towards them, launching the close-scanning probes and driving them ahead with powerful lasers. But each time the transmissions from those probes returned, they carried news of disappointment.

Amir ran his finger along that undulating path, remembering the awful dangers each of those planets had concealed. Radiation, tectonic chaos, wild storms hidden by the cloud layer. And never a hint of life.

The ship only carried enough fuel to decelerate once from its astonishing velocity, and none of those planets had been safe enough to justify it. So on they went, changing course after each disappointment and climbing back into the hibernation pods for another long, cold sleep of centuries. At least, that was how it had been. After those first few disappointments, after the hibernation had proven itself less safe than the research had claimed, more and more of the crew had decided to give up on the voyage and live out their lives awake on board the ship.

It should never have been that way. The pods should have preserved their bodies without risk or side effect. But then, no one had thought they’d have to use them so long and so many times. No one had believed that the hope of all those worlds could be false, so no one had thought too deeply about the many and unique ways each individual body might degrade under the strain of dozens of sleep-wake cycles, immune cells turning mutinous, memories fogging in neural debris, chromosomes warping until their cells grew cancerous.

This world ahead of them now, though… This one looked more promising than any yet. They’d learnt from all those disappointments, learnt from the discrepancies between the long-range scans and the close-ups sent from the probes, learnt to filter the signal from the noise masquerading as hints of vital elements and gases, taught their algorithms to pick through the magnetic fields for the toxic thrum of dying atoms. These scans were pure, and this world promised to be the one.

In the hologram, a blip showing the position of the data packet returning from the probes approached the ship with agonising slowness. They should have woken in time with its arrival, but the probes’ journey had been delayed by some few hours. It felt like days.

“I dreamt about the world ahead, I think,” Sahia murmured in that low voice she used when speaking to herself.

“Yes? What did you see?” Amir asked, amused, as ever, by her surprise that she’d spoken her thoughts aloud.

She rolled onto her side to face him, that teasing glint creeping into her smile. “Other people’s dreams are fundamentally impossible to find interesting,” she said, quoting a faux pas of his from some fundraising-for-the-mission dinner, a lifetime ago but still funny to them. The teasing sparked a prickle of desire in his stomach, and he slide his hand over her palm, lacing his fingers between hers.

“Not your dreams, Sih, other people’s dreams.” He pouted, impersonating that outrageously-over-rouged heiress-and-possible donor he’d offended at the dinner, quoting the rebuke she’d given: “ ‘This dream, I assure you, is quite fascinating.’ “

He held the raised eyebrow a moment and then dropped the act, lowering his head on the pillow, reaching out to slide her hair back from her cheek. “Please, Sih. I love to hear your dreams.” It was true. It felt like a gift to be let into that strange and private world.

They looked at each other for a moment, and the smile she gave him made his heart shiver.

“I don’t know.” she said. “It’s mostly a blur. I was waking from the deep.”

The mention of deep sleep made Amir suddenly conscious of the ache in his back and the numbness in his feet. They’d been in deep almost two hundred years. It shouldn’t have mattered how long you were down for; it was the waking from deep that took its toll, the draining of the desiccating and freezing agents. He shifted in the bed. At least the ringing in his ears and the thudding in his head had passed.

“You remember something?” he asked.

“In the dream, the sky was lilac, like you said. I want to retract my bet.” They always made a bet. On Earth they had both worked on the sensors that performed the scans, and that question about the colour of the sky seemed to be asked at every press or outreach event. One could answer with educated guesses based on refraction and reflection, the fingerprints of gases and starlight. But atmospheres had many layers, so one never knew the sky’s colour for certain until the probes punched the clouds, turned their eyes skyward and returned their scans.

“No, no, no.” He squeezed her hand. “You bet orange, and we shook.”

“Which do you want it to be, though? When we get there and look up at the sky, which do you want to see?”

Blue was the obvious. Blue would likely be the colour of an atmosphere close to Earth’s. That might make things easier. But Amir hadn’t come all this way to find another Earth. He’d been dreaming of other worlds since he first saw the night sky from somewhere beyond the smog and streetlight haze of the city, young enough to sit on his mother’s shoulders and be told how every star was a distant sun where planets might turn, on which life might dwell. Through school and college and post-doc and professorship, he’d done and thought of almost nothing else but ways to look deeper into the dark of space for the tell-tale signals of distant worlds.

“How did it feel in your dream? Being under a sky that colour?” He imagined it, how the settlement would look as it unfolded from the ship, the plans they’d spent decades on coming to fruition in the glow of a lilac noon.

“I could live happily under lilac.”

They held hands and watched the blip crawl those last centimetres to the ship.

Amir and Sahia lay side by side on the bed, staring up at the hologram of another useless world.

“I really thought this one was…” she began, but trailed off, the disappointment too heavy, too mundane and miserable to put into words.

There was no avoiding these cycles of hope and disappointment. They could not simply remain in hibernation until a suitable planet was finally found. The length of that slumber had to be decided in advance, and could be neither shortened nor extended. The dosage of freezing and desiccating agents seeded in the tissues had to be measured exactly, and, once there, could not be cleared from the tissues without their destruction.

For those of the crew who wished to avoid using up their lifespan aboard the ship, the routine was to go into hibernation until the moment the probes’ scans were due to arrive. They would wake to see the results, hoping to need return only once more into the deepness for the final leg of the journey to the planet they’d call home. Instead, each time they’d woken to learn the planet they’d found had proved to be a failure, like all those before, and they would have to return to hibernation as the ship took them onwards into the darkness.

“It isn’t certain it’s a failure,” Amir said. “Not absolutely, not yet.”

But it was. The comms channels flickered with the discussion between a score of different expert groups, each with their own analyses of this world’s hidden treachery. There would be a vote soon, but the preliminary polling was so clear that it was hardly worth it. They would go on to the next planet, or at least to the point where the transmissions from the probes would intersect the ship’s vector. Three hundred something years of ship time.

On the channels, people were already talking about whether they would take that sleep. Of the thousands of crew, there were still some five hundred like Amir and Sahia, born on Earth and in it for the long haul. The others had peeled off slowly; after six or seven or ten disappointments, they’d decided they couldn’t risk the hibernations anymore. They wanted to take a chance at some kind of life on board. The ship held facilities meant to provide the building blocks of the settlement: hydroponic greenhouses and algae vats to feed and clothe them, observatories and laboratories where they might study these uncharted worlds, even spaces for schooling and sports could be made within the inner centrifuge. It was enough to make a life in, so people said.

Amir avoided hearing about the life built by those who’d given up on the journey. Meagre as it must be, there was a siren call feel to it. It could hardly be worse than the cupboard of an apartment he’d grown up in, in that bleak, fume-choked city crumbling into the ocean.

Sahia rolled on her side and stared out of porthole at the stars and the darkness between. “Do you ever think…” she said, and a long silence followed.

He looked at her, the dark rings of her hair coiled on the pillow, the contour of the muscles in her shoulder. Even more beautiful now than in all the years he’d known her.

“What?” he asked.

He heard in her breath the weighing of whether she should finish that thought aloud or not. “You ever think we should have stayed on Earth?” she said at last.

“No,” he answered automatically. He hadn’t, and even the question provoked a wave of anger he couldn’t quite understand. “What is there on Earth?”

“Well, it’s not a question of what is, not anymore. But don’t you think about the things there were, the things we left behind?”

“Of course I do. But…” he laid his hand on her shoulder. He wanted her to look at him. They were the same age, but his skin looked aged beside hers, ashen and cracked around the knuckles. He tried to remember if he’d noticed that before, but didn’t think he had. “The risk is worth it. There’re still thousands more stars. There’s a world for us out there.”

“I don’t know. This deep was hard. I mean, the doctors didn’t say anything, but it felt harder. Didn’t it to you?”

“No.” He felt the mood between them slipping, like a wandering comet dragged into the gravity well of some dead star. “Why don’t we look at the scans for the next planet? The data from the probe might show us something about them—”

“Not now. I can’t just sit here anymore. I want to go walk around a bit, see the habitats.” She got up, and he watched her dress. It frightened him. They didn’t walk around; the only place to do that was the inner centrifuge, which housed the communal habitats used by the ship-born—the descendants of those crew who’d centuries ago abandoned the hibernation pods and made their lives on board. The long-haulers, those who’d come from Earth and still clung to the plan of sleeping through that long journey, didn’t want to know about the lives of those ship-born. That, at least, was the mostly unspoken consensus that Amir felt. Long-haulers didn’t really regard ship-born as part of the exodus at all, but rather some detail encountered between Earth’s cradle and humankind’s destiny in the depths of space. What was the sense in getting to know people, only to go back into a deepness you would not wake from before they and their children and grandchildren were long dead? Long-haulers didn’t go up into the inner centrifuge at all. They went from hibernation pod to cabin and back, hoarding all the life they had left for the future, when at last it arrived.

Sahia sat at the end of the bed. Amir lay on his side, staring at a hologram schematic of sensor calibrations for the probes being readied for send-off, not to the next planet they would reach, but to those further ahead, just in case. This was his speciality, the role that had bought him this place on the ship. But in truth he could hardly follow the schematic. The crew who’d given up on the hibernation, and their children and grand- and great-grandchildren, had been refining these technologies for centuries, while Amir lay in hibernation. But whatever advances the ship-born made, he assured himself he could catch up once they finally arrived at the planet. After all, most of what he knew was self-taught. But then, that was back on Earth, with the minds of millions always at his fingertips. The ship rumbled, the drives firing to turn its course by fractions of a degree.

“You should at least go and see what they’ve built, Amir. It’s quite amazing. That whole centrifuge, it’s like a jungle, like a village in the jungle. All the metal, everything is hidden. I mean, they’ve had a long time to do it, but it’s still astonishing. Rivers, gardens, even the light through the branches looks enough like the sun.”

Amir said nothing. His parents had grown up in a farming village at the edge of the jungle, and spoke of the place with nothing but contempt. A quiet tide of anger was building inside him. Her leaving the lower decks felt like an act of betrayal. “I’m not interested in seeing simulations of a planet we left behind. The course is set; we should be getting ready to go into deep.”

She didn’t answer for a long time, and when she did, he realised he’d known for a long time what was coming. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this, Amir. My bones hurt.”

“The medicals say we’re both fine.” Not everyone had had their luck. Each time they woke, someone they knew had suffered something, and now they heard someone had not woken up at all.

“But how long? How many more times are we going to roll the dice? It was supposed to be the first one we reached. But if there’s none? What if there’s nowhere else for us?”

“How could there be nowhere?” He’d spent his academic career arguing the opposite. Arguing that advances in scanner technology made it obvious that it was no longer a question of if there was a planet somewhere that could support human life, but which of the many they should go to first. That the ship was yet to encounter one was just bad luck against good odds. Sahia knew that too. Her career had matched his, always aiming them towards this role, this mission, as if the trajectory of the ship had begun not on the launch pad, but back in the classroom of their elementary school. Somewhere, accelerating along that path, he’d realised he’d fallen in love with her, the only person he’d ever met with dreams as big as his.

“And what if there’s somewhere, but we wake up to find we’re dying? We could live on board. We’re still young enough.”

He swiped the hologram away and stared out at the stars beyond the window. “Young enough for what?”

She answered so quietly he barely heard her, but he knew what she was saying. “A life. A life outside of this. All we ever did on Earth was work.”

She looked at him, and a part of him he didn’t want to listen to felt the sudden urge to agree with her. Study and learn and work, that had been their lives. Through childhood and on, it was their companionship that had made it possible, made the crushing expectations of their parents manageable. Sometimes it was only the solidarity of ten-year-olds that had kept the shame of a less-than-perfect exam result from being too much to bear. He looked back at her, and felt a softening creep in, an opening in his heart.

“Maybe this is more like the home we’ve been looking for than anything we’d found out there,” she said, and the opening slammed suddenly shut.

Was all that work to have been for nothing? Were they people who gave up?

He stood, paced across the room. “What could there be here? This is purgatory. This is prison!”

“Friends. Time for ourselves. I don’t know. Time for… There’s still work here, you know? Still research being done. People are still part of this project, of going to another world, even if it’s not them that reach it, but their children, or their grandchildren.”

The word ‘children’ froze him in place. A word they’d drifted by several times in their lives, though it had never drawn them into its orbit. Even if she wasn’t saying it directly, he knew what she was asking. And children meant giving up one’s place in the limited number of hibernation pods. That was the protocol that a dozen generations had agreed to on board, while Amir and Sahia and the other long haulers slept. The population had grown. More people wanted a chance in those pods than there were places. So that was the rule. Once you had children, your place was given up, allocated to your children, or if they declined it, by lottery to other hopefuls of their generation.

Amir had been furious when he’d first discovered that such a change in the rules had been made in the absence of those still sleeping. It undermined the very principle of consensus democracy and protection of minorities that should govern the ship and colony-to-be, principles thrashed out in hundreds of hours of pre-launch meetings. But he understood it well enough. Deep in the human mind there was the imperative that the code inside one’s genes would have a chance to live forever, one way or another. And besides, he’d seen in the records that there were movements among the ship-born population not to support the hibernation pods at all, that their drain on resources was unnecessary. Terrifying to think what such movements could do if they grew large enough, now that consensus had given way to the wishes of the majority. There were more ship-born than long-haulers now, and more importantly, they were awake while Amir and the others slept. What could be done to stop them? What good were those principles they’d defined, without some authority to enforce them? Better then, that the ship-born have a stake in the pods’ ongoing functioning.

That thought unfroze him, bringing his anger to a boiling rage — that ‘they’ would have the temerity to make decisions for those like Amir who’d created this entire undertaking in the face of every doubt and opposition.

“So that’s what you’re telling me? That you’re glad we’ve found nothing? No planet, no home, no risk, no more work.” The words blurted from Amir’s mouth like gas from a blown airlock. “Now we get to stay on board, where it’s nice and safe and nothing changes, and live in tree houses and play happy families? That’s what you want, after everything we’ve given to get here?”

Sahia didn’t cry. A hard few years of childhood in the flood camps had crushed that out of her. But there was something that happened to her body, her voice, an inward sagging like a balloon seeping air—the way she’d looked for almost a year when her mother, her only family, had died without warning. “I want some life with you, Amir, that’s what I want. Don’t you?”

“You think I want to have a family here? This is a society of people who’ve given up. You think that’s the father I want to be?”

Sahia’s expression became one of wounded disbelief, one that for a moment he could not fathom, until, by that strange telepathy of long companionship, he realised he knew what she thought he was referring to. Remembered a baking-hot night when they were sixteen, standing on the rooftop of their apartment building. She told him then about another night, a decade before, where she and her mother and father had fought through the flood waters, Sahia and her mother floating on a broken door, her father in the water trying desperately to kick against the current and push them to dry land, hour after hour. She’d told him how, when at last a rescue boat appeared and caught them in its spotlight, she’d watched her father just let go of the door and slide under the water, too exhausted to go on.

She’d said she didn’t know how to stop being angry at him for giving up, and he’d felt utterly lost for something helpful to say, felt how profoundly childlike he seemed beside her. That feeling was still there, knotted up among all those other threads that wove together into their marriage. And suddenly that angered him, made him feel as if it were some trick to persuade him to acquiesce to the superiority of her argument, the maturity of her perspective.

“You think I’m talking about that?” He was shouting. “You think I’d say a thing like that to persuade you? How low do you think—”

“I’m asking you to have the courage to see what’s really in front of us, Ami. Sometimes we have to be brave and just accept change, and what we can’t change.”

He didn’t know what to do with his anger. The weight of what she was asking of him crushed the breath from him, as if a black hole had opened in his future. He left without a word. Marched down the corridor, head down. The ache of the deep still groaned in his joints, but he couldn’t stop. If he stayed, he would do what she wanted. He knew that. He couldn’t look at her like that and not feel every fibre of his thoughts realign to find a way to offer her solace. And he wouldn’t be held to ransom that way. It wasn’t fair. So he didn’t stop until he reached the inner ring where the pods lay, most already filled with the sleepers who’d returned directly after the disappointment of the scans.

The hibernation process was automated. He only needed to strip off his clothes, lie down in the pod, strap the bands around his arms and thighs, and give the commands. He worked as automatically as the machines, giving the command to put him under for another three hundred years, ready to wake when the next transmissions arrived. The clearance chit flickered on the display. He felt the needles ease into his skin, and the cold begin to spread into his muscles.

It was only as his heart began to slow that he realised what a risk he’d taken, how unfair and stupid his assumption was that she would find out what he’d done and follow him. She would be, should be, angry at him. Furious. There’d been no agreement between them. He’d felt trapped and acted out of anger. He knew she would understand that. But that didn’t mean… What if she stayed? What if he woke and she was long dead? The world shrank towards darkness. There was nothing to be done.

Amir lay in his pod waiting for control to return to his muscles. A hologram flickered into life in front of his face, offering him a status update. A cursor blinked, led by the movement of his eyes. Through the glass of the pod’s front panel, he could hear the muffled sound of cheers, people calling back and forth through the vast space of the hibernation hall.

With only the movement of his eyes, it was agonisingly slow to pull up Sahia’s status. When at last he managed, it glowed orange, showing she was in hibernation, but before he could read more, a message from her overlaid itself across the screen. Sahia’s face, smiling that indestructible smile of hers that she wore as armour against all the hardship that life was built from. She looked exhausted, aged, shrunken against her bones, black smears under her eyes. When she spoke, there was the edge of a tremble in her voice.

“Amir, I want you to hear this from me. I’ve tried many times to record this so you will understand me, but somehow I can’t find the words I need, so I will just tell you as clearly as I can. I’m recording this message forty-two years since we last spoke, long in the past for you now. I have been awake for two years now. After you went off… after we argued, I didn’t know if I would follow you. I know you were angry at me, and when you went into the deepness without me, I was angry also. But I came with you. I could not leave that argument as our last moment together. But… but there was some mistake. The dosage of hibernating agents was not metabolised correctly, and I woke after forty years. I was very ill, for a long time, and I couldn’t help feeling like… like it was your fault. I hated feeling like that, but I couldn’t…” She looked away from the camera, her smile wavering, looked back, trying to draw the smile back together, then left its ruins where they lay. “I lived with the shipborn for these last years. I needed it. My hope has returned. I don’t think you could hear what I was trying to tell you about how much of me had given up. But living with them here, I feel like, even if the planet is never found, something very special has been created here, and I think you would see the same, if you let yourself come and experience it. But… I miss you too much, Ami. I miss you, and I hate that you won’t ever give this up, but that is what I love you for too. You never give up. I wish I could make this choice with you, but you’re in there, and I’m here, so this is all I can offer. You know the next planets that we send probes to. The next four are only just ‘maybes’, and five is hardly even a ‘maybe’. But six is a likely candidate, good as any. My body will most likely not cope with more than four or five more wakings at the very most, so I’m choosing to go into the deepness for the long haul. Till the sixth planet. In my heart… I know it will hurt you to hear this, but in truth I’ve lost the belief that any of them will be safe for us, even the sixth. But I know there’s a chance, and I want to give you as many chances as I can. I want use what chances I have left as intelligently as possible. When I wake for the scans from the sixth, and it’s good, I’ll still have the strength to go into hibernation for the journey there. With luck I’ll have the strength to wake and begin our new life. But if it’s another disappointment, I won’t go down again. I want to have some life here, and I hope… If we still have no luck, I hope you will want that too. I know that in many ways, this is a gamble, but isn’t everything? If things go as I hope they will, I’ll see you in two thousand six hundred and twenty-nine years. I love you, Ami.”

When the message finished, he lay in the pod, fear and guilt and love and shame all twisting together in his gut. Other messages began to ping on his screen, short blasts of triumphant, congratulatory text from colleagues who’d been with them all the way from earth. ‘We did it!’ ‘Told you it was this one!’ ‘Last one on the surface buys the drinks!’ A realisation formed. The cheering—the scans were back; they’d found a home.

Amir lay beside Sahia, though separated from her by the walls of his pod and hers. He’d looked over the data the probes had returned. The world would be hard, but good enough. Everything he’d dreamed of. The sky in the habitable zone was a warm, reddish brown. He could live under that.

The pod’s voice asked him to confirm the length of the hibernation. He closed his eyes, imagining the way it would be as the ship landed and settlement began, as those plans he’d spent his lifetime making finally began to unfold. He imagined his footprint in the dust of that alien world, a moment he’d imagined since childhood, an image he’d drawn over and over with crayon and biro and smart pen in the margins of exercise books, lecture notes and the minutes of departmental meetings. The thought of it pulled on him, a gravity too massive to escape.

The pod urged him to answer. “Please confirm.”

The words stuck in his throat. The new world was right there, subjectively only moments away. One quick sleep, and the purpose of these years of struggle would finally be reached. He felt the piled weight of his long-dead family’s expectations. They had wanted him to do something sensible, something respectable and safe, medicine, law, had given their lives for him to do that. Only Sahia had kept him from giving into them. Now he was just a button push away from proving he’d been right.

“Please confirm,” the pod repeated.

He’d paced their cabin for hours, struggling with the decision, his thoughts tearing against each other in straining equilibrium—a blazing star, neither quite blasting apart nor collapsing, the explosive force of its fusing atoms grasped in the vastness of its own gravity. The guilt of forcing her into a sleep that had almost killed her. His distrust and anger at the ship-born, and yet the hope that their achievements brought him for the future on this at-last-found world. The anger at the position she’d put him in. The deep acceptance that she’d been right in that moment, even if she’d been wrong in the end. Only now was he finally sure; what else could he do that would not risk too much?

“Confirm hibernation,” he said. “Two thousand six hundred and twenty-nine years.”

He would sleep, on and on until Sahia woke. Hopefully the settlement would prosper and there would be people there to welcome them. But if they woke in the empty husk of the ship, or not at all, it was a risk worth taking. He wondered if the settlers would work on the atmosphere until the sky tinged closer to sheer blue of Earth’s, or if their factories might fill it with grey and choking smog before he woke, or some error might boil it from the planet so that he would wake once more beneath the blackness of space. In the end, it would not matter, for he knew that without Sahia there was no sky he could stand under and call that place his home.

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