I didn’t remember it like this. On the out leg I’d shaken off stasis in a few minutes, rinsed out the last of the fog in my brain under a cold shower, and gotten on with running diagnostics. There were rumours they put a little extra in the wake up shot for the arrival on Mercury. Just some adrenaline to give you a head start, get you over the shock of the hellish, sun baked rock you got to call home for the next six months. Whatever it was it wasn’t like this. I felt like I was in a waking dream, asleep but not asleep. I should be more alive than this. The capsule was a cacophony, ablaze with angry red lights and the flight AI repeating “destination reached, destination unknown, destination reached, destination unknown” over and over until I flicked audio to mute. The words still ran in endless sequence across the heads up display in front of me. Reached. Unknown. Reached. Unknown. Maybe it was shock. I’d logged enough time in cryo to know that the process can still throw your body out. Every time a little different. People aren’t supposed to be asleep that long until they’re dead.
The lights and the warning should have had me on edge but I just felt numb. Dislocated. Shaking my head like I was trying to dislodge water from my ear I unstrapped and requested the capsule opening sequence to start. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release commenced. Stand by. Two minutes. Stand by.
I closed my eyes and tried to understand if I was still locked away, frozen in sleep, experiencing one of those stasis nightmares that some of the older crew used to warn us about. We figured it was just scare the rookie stuff. Standard bullshit from guys ground down by the cycle. And it was enough to grind you down: six months off, six months travel, six months on, six months back. Two years all in. I’d run three cycles. There were some guys pushing ten and looking like they’d never break out. With my eyes shut the white light and red flashing from inside the capsule receded to an echo dancing across the inside of my lids. Just colours and shapes. I thought of you. We’d promised this time. Both of us. It was always this place, you always met me here each cycle, and it was always this time. You always met me at arrivals, never saw me depart. We promised this time, didn’t we Dawn? It’d be the last. Break the cycle.
Capsule release confirm. Stand by. You have reached your destination. Destination unknown. Capsule release confirmed. Caution advised. Repeat. Caution advised.
I opened my eyes and saw that I’d arrived. The metal lid on my world for the last six months prised open and the familiar platform was waiting in front of me, ready to carry me to de-con, then debrief, and then arrivals. And then you. It was all familiar but fundamentally different. It was silent. There were no voices over the com, no instructions to step out onto the platform – sometimes gentle, sometimes more urgent depending on how phased they thought you were coming out of the sleep. Nothing. Stepping on to the platform and looking down there were no engineers. No one running checks. No one shouting up at what you missed in the last six months: usually a blow by blow account of who was sleeping with who, whether the Red Sox had won the World Series, or the state of the solar reserves. That last update was always the same. Depleted. Need another cycle.
I rode the platform down, rubbed at my legs as they bore my weight again. The stims and auto-toners had done their job but there was still always something different about those first few paces. Jamieson used to tell me one real step’s worth a thousand muscle simulated ones back when I ran my first couple of cycles with him. That was before they made the flights solo so they could rotate the crew and keep Mercury One manned all the time. Gave us all a loneliness supplement. A couple of guys quit but most of us stuck it out. What else was there? I figured the extra pay would let me break the cycle quicker, bring me two years closer to you.
I cleared the deserted decontamination room and didn’t stop in debrief. There was nobody to debrief to. Nothing much to report anyway. It had been a routine trip, lost a couple of weeks when a solar flare blew out a kilometre of panels, and I had to divert some of the mech resource to assess the damage, but otherwise all by the book. Arrivals is empty save for the ghosts. Not real ghosts, not powdery figures you might see in the old films, the ones they’d show in class to teach the kids about how we used to live, before the shortages, before we had to build the sun farms. Ghosts of the imagination. Passengers arriving from the colonies: a couple connecting, their long distance relationship brought up close; a child clutching a balloon waiting for her mother, her father kneeling next to her, scanning the exit; a man in a suit, phone pressed to his ear, looking for someone holding a sign bearing his name.
But there are no arrivals here except me. And there is no one here to greet me. No one. No Dawn.