There are a number of ways to end a distinguished career. One of them is not to end it.
For four hundred and ninety-two days, I had explored the worlds I spent my whole life to discover. Such vast riches of culture, worlds of vibrancy, furry, and divine serenity. Oh, to lose oneself to the symphony of the galaxy, vast and complex, yet simple and wonderful.
Then it was gone, pierced by a high-pitched squeal and catalytic gases being pumped into my capsule by the navigation computers. After the air inside the capsule matched the air outside, it opened, and I slid my stiffened legs over the edge. I would've been annoyed by the rude intrusion into my new-found worlds if my head were clear.
Thirty four years of deep space service and I still suffer from hibernation hangovers.
I slowly walked the length of my cabin. Spacious the Captain's quarters are not, but compared to my junior officer days, they were most welcome. In front of my observation window was a large wooden ship's wheel. A present when I first took command, it was the wheel of my ship's namesake, the Cumberland. Many were the days I just stood, my hands holding on with determination, wondering if my Cumberland would fare better when it met the future, or if it would join its predecessor at the bottom.
As my mind readjusted I quickly traded my bright orange hibernation suit for the light blue jump suit that was the day uniform. Even in the 2090s, extensive space travel has a way of sapping your strength, the human body slowly deteriorating with each pseudo-gravitational minute. Yet even after thirty-four years, everything I did seemed a step faster. With just one month left on my final tour of duty, I, Captain William Carney, received the orders I had waited for my whole career.
My immediate duties were to revive the crew. After checking for anomalies in the ship's three main computers and finding none, I began the deactivation process for the remaining sixteen capsules. As captain, I'm the first to wake and the last to sleep. And I've often felt responsible when a crew member is lost in their capsule. While the activation/deactivation process is foolproof, and capsule failures are only at one percent, I'm still the one who must actually initiate the procedure.
When the computer showed sixteen nominal deactivations, I made my way to the ships dining-and-briefing area. Every square foot was a commodity in space.
I sat at the head of the small table and watched my officers as they staggered in. Each of their faces dropped when they found a table setting of datascreens instead of the five-course meal (even if it was only rations) that traditionally accompanied awakening from hibernation.
Dr. Orlowski was the first to speak.
"Just what I ordered -- a nice square meal of superconductors and liquid crystals." The ship's medical officer was not fond of hibernation and even less of briefings. "I had a feeling," he said, pulling a ration out of his pocket. "If you don't mind."
"No, and that goes for everyone. As you are all aware, it's been an extremely long hibernation and we're not following usual procedures. To start with, let me answer the question you're all wondering about: Where are we, and why was our destination concealed from you before hibernation?
"Our destination and our present position have been classified."
My navigation officer, Lieutenant Holt, was the first person to respond.
"Sir, to what extent will this information be classified?"
"Only the main computer and I will know our position and destination. You will chart off of a stationary beacon I will launch."
"What the hell's going on, Will?" Dr. Orlowski asked with concern.
"We've been sent to investigate a series of peculiar Earthbound radio signals. Since the Cumberland has now traveled deeper into space then any human has ever been, congratulations to everyone. We're in the record books. Though the signal is still inbound, it has been determined to be alien in origin."
"Was there a message?" asked Lieutenant Lee. "Can we decipher it? What form of language did they use?"
"The signal was at best extremely choppy. Only a very few intervals were distinguishable, not enough to make out a message. It's definitely binary, and a lot like the ones we sent out a hundred years ago."
The briefing lasted the better part of the hour. Most of it dealt with routine system questions that follow hibernation. Here and there, mention was made of the possibilities of our mission. The meeting could have lasted days if we explored the questions we all had. But I have been blessed with a fine crew, a professional collection of men and women who realize the answers to their questions lay ahead, with a ship that is ready to meet them.
Within a day, Lee picked up a bogey on the ship's long-range sensor. I was standing in the middle of the hub that was the Cumberland's bridge. I had long since given up the captain's work station situated along the circular wall. Perhaps it's the romantic in me, perhaps it's hubris, but I have always felt a need to be at the center of the bridge. As if I had my hand on the tiller as the crew trimmed the mainsail on my word.
"It appears to be on a direct intercept with us, sir."
"Distance and speed Lieutenant?"
"Bogey matching us at .4 light, 12 AUs."
I peered over the Lieutenant's shoulder, watching the pixel of light that represented the alien vessel. I watched with such intensity that I nearly blocked out Lieutenant Holt.
"Captain, I'm reading a small planetoid directly between ourselves and the inbound."
"I wonder what shape the table will be?"
"Lieutenant, it can't be a coincidence that the planetoid's there. Our two species, our two peoples must meet somewhere for the first time. You can't expect them to invite us directly to their homeworld. That would be quite a risk. This is a logical first step.
"What do you think, Lee? If it's rectangular, well, that's somewhat adversarial. A round table -- now that has more of a sense of unity."
"Perhaps it will be hexagonal," Lee said, deadpan.
"Indeed." I laughed.
"Sir, what if the bogey's an echo, a reflection?" said Holt, deflating a little of our elation.
"Aye, sir. The bogey is matching us perfectly in speed and in distance from the planetoid. The planetoid could be the reflection point."
I clenched my fist, but it wasn't Holt I was angry with -- it was myself. I have always expected my officers to present all possibilities. To lose my objectivity so quickly was unforgivable.
"Well, let's test Mr. Holt's theory. Change course five degrees true starboard."
"Changing course," Lee said. Then, a moment later: "The bogey is matching five degrees."
"Damn." Of course, I thought, they might match us so as not to appear aggressive. It's what I might do.
"Holt, bring up a full spectral survey on the planetoid."
"The spectral readings are very confusing," Holt said after a few moments of analysis. "The planetoid is made up of entirely of an unknown substance. The computer is designating it unknown 4296, no matches on any properties in the geodatabase."
In two hours it would or would not be visible. Our bogey would be an alien vessel unlocking an entire new realm to the universe, or it would be a reflection unlocking an entire new realm of exotic rock. Those two hours would stretch out like a childhood Christmas Eve.
Silence fell over the bridge in the final minutes. Each crewman had his eyes affixed to the various video monitors. The screen was dominated by the small planetoid we now called Echo. I'm not sure who spotted the vessel first. I heard a crewman yell out "There!" and then I saw it. It was a small craft no larger then our own, and it grew closer and larger every second.
Then, as if it was his mission to break my fondest moments, I heard Holt's voice.
"Sir, I'm reading a ship identification code."
"How's that possible?"
"It reads..." he hesitated. "It reads Cumberland, sir."
"Sir, it could be a another sensor reflection," Holt said, stating the obvious.
"Mr. Holt, is there or isn't there another ship within a few million klicks of us?"
"Sir, It's possible we're picking up a reflection on the video monitors. We don't understand the makeup of Echo. It could be..."
"It could be a reflection! I know."
I don't ever remember interrupting a member of my crew that way. "Somebody go up to the observation port, get on a damn telescope and tell me if there is a ship out there."
Lt. Lee quickly made her way to the rarely-used telescope. Within minutes she shouted down, "Sir, there is a vessel out there. But it's us, sir. It's the Cumberland."
"Are you sure?"
"I can read the markings on her hull, right down to our missing `d.'"
"That damned planetoid! Lee, Holt were going down there." I brought the ship three hundred and sixty degrees around Echo, and of course our shadow did exactly the same.
The Cumberland assumed a polar orbit around Echo. As I guided the landing craft out of the Cumberland's bay I could see it. There, set against the panoramic backdrop of space, was another Cumberland. Coming out of its bay was a landing craft, following the same speed and course as I did.
My landing craft came to a rest twenty meters off of from Echo's northern pole. Our readings showed no atmosphere, but a peculiarly strong gravitational pull. Holt and I would go out, while Lee would remain in the landing craft, per standard procedure. We donned our pressure suits and made our way through the air locks. I was the first to set foot on the soft gray powder of Echo.
The landscape was almost featureless. It consisted entirely of soft rolling mounds, none higher than a meter.
Forty meters from our position was a sight that chilled both of us. There was no mirror and no a calm pond, yet we still saw our reflections.
I ordered Holt to take samples of Echo's surface, and made my way toward the one person I have known for all my life.
I walked up to the aging face that bore the lines of the too many years of space. I looked into his eyes, searching for what he was doing here. His eyes told me he had to come. He had to try one last time to find what he always dreamed he might. But now it was time to leave, to leave his career, his dream, and this bizarre place.
Not knowing quite why, I stretched my hand out to this weary traveler.
He shook it.
My stomach fell. My blood pressure rose. I could feel the pressure of his grip. My first impulse was to turn back to Holt, and to the ship. But Holt was busy with his samples -- he hadn't even noticed what I was doing.
My mind raced. I looked back into his eyes, eyes that were so real. Was I losing my mind? I had to be.
All my career I have been able to deal with the most complicated situations. But in this, I was lost.
When I returned to the landing craft, Holt asked me about the reflection. I lied. Why didn't I tell him? I don't know.
The three of us returned to the Cumberland. It was routine procedure after a landing party returned to hold a briefing.
"Preliminary samples of Echo's soil have revealed very little," reported Holt. "My first impression was that it resembles quartz, but once I had finished the simplest analysis, I could tell that it's vastly different. I'm not quite sure what it is, but it's certainly the most logical explanation for the reflection phenomena we are experiencing."
Holt looked at me. I suppose he expected me to oppose his theory again.
I said nothing.
"What's the next step, sir?" Lee asked.
"Holt informs me we are closing in on a return window. Our time here has been brief, but that was to be expected, considering the distance we've traveled. We've retrieved an ample supply of soil samples and compiled an extensive visual record of the reflection. Though we are capable of staying another eight hours, I see no compelling reason to delay our departure.
"Each one of you has performed your duties exceptionally. You have been a fine crew and I have been proud to serve with each you."
The next two hours were filled with pre-hibernation activities. I saw little of the crew at this time, since my primary task was to program the navigation computers to fly us home myself.
Our location's classification would surely be dropped on our return. After all, there's no need to hide the knowledge of a reflection.
Of course, this wasn't a reflection. It had dimension, mass, and... it had life. I was sure of it.
But they wouldn't know that. It wouldn't be in any report.
I suppose there was no logical reason to hide what I had seen. So what if they thought me crazy? Twenty-four hours after arrival, I would be a civilian either way. But still, something stopped me, and I don't know what.
By early evening we were ready to begin the five-hundred-day journey that would end in Earth orbit. I made a final tour of the ship, stopping by my senior officers' hibernation capsules. Orlowski was in one of his moods. "Well, Leopold," I said, "this is the last one. Chances are, it's yours, too."
"If we get back in one piece. Just imagine -- slowing our bodies down to the edge of death, and hurling them through the void of space. It's a wonder we've lasted long enough to retire."
"Sleep well, friend."
Holt was next. "We had our differences this time around, Henry. But you kept perspective. You're going to make a fine captain. I hope you get the Cumberland -- she deserves a man like you."
"Thank you, sir."
And finally I saw Lee.
"Disappointing," she said. "I thought for a moment, just maybe..."
"So did I."
"It is out there, sir. I know it. We'll find it someday, whatever it may be."
As she spoke I looked into her soft brown eyes. So much like me, with the single exception of time.
At 17:39 hours I activated the hibernation sequence for the crew. By 17:43 the computers read all nominal, all capsules in full hibernation, and I was alone. I returned to my quarters. All that was left to do was enter my capsule. I slipped out of my day uniform and into the bright orange hibernation suit.
For some reason, I walked over to the old ship's wheel by the porthole and placed my hands upon her once more. I looked out across space at the strange ship I knew so well.
Then I knew. For the first time since I felt the pressure of his hand I knew what I should do.
Within five minutes I had the landing craft fired up and was leaving the Cumberland's bay. I flew directly toward my sister ship above Echo. At the halfway point, I passed my counterpart doing the same.
"Treat her well!" I shouted.
I brought my craft alongside the new ship. I inspected her as if she were my own and then landed my craft inside her bay. To my relief, the floor held. It was solid.
I quickly made my way through the ship. Her insides were identical. I ran through her like a kid exploring some fantastic new place he and he alone had found. I passed by Leopold and Lieutenant Holt in their capsules sleeping the sleep of children. Then there was Lee.
"Forgive me for not sharing," I said to her through the capsule glass.
Finally, I came to my cabin. I walked straight to the wheel and the window. He was looking back. I could feel it. I stood and pondered what might be.
If I was wrong, my ship and my crew would be fine. Part of me feels shame for leaving them, but the computer will handle everything, I know in my heart they would understand. If I am right, they will never know I left.
As I enter hibernation, I can not help but wonder what awaits me.
Yet, at the same time, I know every detail.
J.W. Kurilec (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a 30-year-old Connecticut Yankee and an aspiring screenwriter and children's author.
Cumberland Dreams is his first published story.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 J.W. Kurilec.