FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter Four - All Aboard

 

Arion-1 was eerily silent. The colony vessel was finished; all construction and last-minute tasks completed and marked off the checklists. The pomp and circumstance of the commissioning ceremonies had already occurred and all that was left was the actual launch of their ambitious mission.

Only the ever-present vibration within the deck plates could be felt as a constant reminder that the engines were live and generating all the power they could possibly need.  With the exception of three, all compartments were sealed within and without, and the umbilical connecting the ship to the El-Five station had been retracted. Ship and station were floating free of one another, with only a kilometer of space maintained between them.

Of the compartments still in use, only four of the ship’s personnel were still awake. All others had been systematically placed in cryogenic hibernation, their life signs already monitored for the duration of an interstellar journey that was about to begin.

Three of those still outside of cryo were preparing for their own immersion into the sleepy depths while the fourth oversaw the final measures of the procedure. Dr. Kate was seated on a padded chair in the holding area awaiting her turn, quietly reading a document on her tablet. Captain Robeson entered the compartment and sealed the hatch door behind him.

Kate looked up at him and smiled in amusement. Instead of the ship’s common uniform, the tall man was dressed in nothing more than a pair of walking shorts and a long shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the tail untucked. Even his feet were unshod but for a pair of black socks.

“I feel overdressed,” Kate remarked with a brief glance at her wool sweater and slacks.

“Why did you bother to dress up at all?” Robeson countered. “That’s just more to remove when it comes time to go under.”

“True, but at least I’ll have a full outfit to put back on when we reach Belle.”

“There is that. Where are the others?”

Kate gestured toward a closed door. “Dr. Kazama took Will Andresen back to put him into cryo about twenty minutes ago. Protocol will have you go in next, with me afterward, and then Arion will take care of the good doctor as the last to go under.”

“Ah, okay.” Robeson took a seat and folded his hands together in his lap, quiet for several minutes.

“What was Andresen wearing?”

Kate looked up from her tablet. “Uhm, jeans and a rock band tee shirt.”

“See? He wasn’t in uniform either.”

“Dr. Kazama’s in jeans and a tee shirt too, but he has his lab coat over it all.”

Robeson grinned, fingering the tail of his shirt. “Yes, Kate, you are overdressed. Just once I would like to see you wearing casual.”

The director stared at him for a moment before she let a thin smile cross her lips. “You might see it when we’re on our knees in the dirt putting in a garden on Belle. Until then, don’t expect to see me in a man’s long shirt.”

“Spoilsport.”

Someone on this team has to present professionalism.”

Robeson grinned back at her, enjoying the banter, but he could see that she wanted to return to whatever it was she was reading on her tablet, so he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

It was close to an hour later when the door opened and Dr. Kazama looked out at the remaining pair in the holding area.  “Captain Robeson, before we begin, have you had a full meal and a visit to the facilities?”

“Aye, sir, I have done both.  Best meal I’ve had in a while.”

“In that case, please come with me. It’s time for you to take a long nap.”

Robeson got up to his feet, made an elaborate stretch and then looked down at Kate.  “See you on the other side!” he quipped.

“Sleep well,” she returned, and then the men disappeared into the next compartment. 

*** 

“Okay, Dr. Kate, it’s your turn. After two weeks of this, you are the last one I need to put down.”

The woman frowned at his choice of words. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” she murmured, but the Japanese doctor just smiled back at her patiently. “You are sure that I’ll wake up again?”

“Guaranteed. Our methods of cryogenic sleep are tried and true procedures. Our good friend Arion will be watching over all of us, and will be the one to put me to bed once you’ve been tucked in. Have you eaten and also made use of the facilities?”

Kate stood up and unconsciously straightened out the folds in her sweater. “Yes and yes, doctor. Lead the way. The sooner I am asleep, the shorter the voyage will seem.”

“This is true.”

The director followed the doctor into the next compartment and the man sealed the door behind them. The room lights were dimmer and she had to let her eyes adjust.  Unlike an adjacent chamber where ninety-six cryo pods were arranged side by side around the perimeter of the rotating deck, this one only held four pods, two of which were now occupied beneath glasteel tops that were frosted over from the inside. The receptacles, which were modular and self-contained, sat low to the deck for easy ingress and egress of those who would occupy them. Each pod could be moved around and locked down into place as needed, though only these were arranged in this compartment.

The first one by the door contained Will Andresen. The naked man within was covered in coarse body hair, though his genitals were hidden beneath a metal waste collection flange between his legs. IV lines were attached to his body in several places and a purple-colored liquid flowed within them. An orange netting was wrapped snugly around his entire body, not unlike a burial shroud. Kate gave her head a slight shake as if to rid that last thought from her mind.

“Despite my years involved in the project, I have never experienced cryogenic sleep,” she said nervously. “Do you flash-freeze us like a bag of veggies?”

Kazama frowned. “Do you really want to know the details?”

She looked uncertain. “Just the basics, please, but be honest.”

“I have heard it compared to embalming the dead,” he said with a raised eyebrow, “but don’t let that frighten you.  No frozen vegetables are involved. Your body’s entire blood supply will be drained into a special holding tank below your pod, and it will all be replaced with a synthetic cocktail of chemicals that will slow down anatomical responses exponentially while still supplying oxygen to your system. That purple liquid will then react to electrical stimulus provided by the netting to keep your nervous system functioning at a reduced rate and it will also keep your muscles from atrophy. The temperatures in the cryo tube can then be dropped to freeze your body without danger of crystallization.

“The cryogenic freeze itself is an electrochemical combination process that slows all of the bodily functions to the point where your cardiovascular, respiratory and other processes are in a type of suspended animation.  You will not be completely stopped in time as in a stasis, but the natural degradation of your body is slowed to a perpetual hibernation.  The miniscule amount of nutrients you will need will be provided by the system, in addition to the removal of bodily wastes.

“Once we reach our intended wake-up coordinates, the process will be reversed. You will be warmed up and then the cryo-cocktail, as we call it, will be replaced with your original blood supply that was kept in stasis to limit degradation. There’s nothing to be afraid of, Dr. Kate. The Arion ships are the first ones that will be capable of manned interstellar flight, but this method has been used for all the interplanetary travel we’ve done within the solar system that sometimes times takes months and even years to get our people just to the outer planets. It’s quite safe and no one has ever been lost due to the process.”

Kate walked over to the next pod and looked in at Robeson’s sleeping face. He looked peaceful, as if he had only drifted off to sleep. Encouraged by this, she looked up toward the ceiling as if seeking a familiar face. “Arion, all our lives are in your care. Please take care of us. Please take care of me.”

“That is my primary goal, Dr. Kate,” said the disembodied voice of the SI. “Every function of this vessel was designed to keep all living organisms within safe and healthy for the ride to your new home. You can count on me.”

“Thank you, my friend.”  Then remembering what Captain Robeson had said, she added, “See you on the other side.”

“Good night, Dr. Kate.”

“Okay, I think I am ready.”  She turned to the waiting doctor and shrugged her shoulders. “What do I need to do?”

“Your pod is the next one. Mine is on the end.”  Kate glanced at Robeson once more before she stepped away. When she approached the receptacle that would be her bed for the next seventy-five plus years, she noted that the cushion she would lay upon had tiny metal sensors embedded into the padding. Laying across this was the netting that would be wrapped around her body like a cocoon.

“Before we do anything else, I need a small DNA sample for our repository library.”  He pulled a cotton swab from a glass tube and then tilted her head up so he could gently insert it into her nostril. “For most people, I would only need a hair sample with the follicle attached, but in your case—”

“In my case,” she finished for him, “I don’t have any hair to collect.”

The physician sealed the swab inside its container and then peeled off a label from a mostly-empty sheet of paper he pulled from inside his lab coat. He affixed this to the tube and then placed it and the remaining label back inside the pocket.

He tapped a handle at the foot of the cryo pod. “Now, please remove your clothing and put them all in this drawer so you can retrieve them later when you are decanted. Your tablet too. If you are wearing any jewelry, they will need to go into the drawer as well.”

Without argument, Kate turned her back on Kazama and pulled off her sweater. She carefully folded it, opened the drawer and set it inside with her tablet and techwatch.  The rest of her clothing followed, but she wore no jewelry to remove; she had stopped wearing her wedding ring five years earlier, two years after her husband Robert had passed away, and she had never had her ears pierced for earrings anyway.

Once she had fully disrobed, she turned her completely hairless body toward the doctor, silently daring the man to give her the once-over with his eyes, but she need not have worried. He had seen ninety-eight other naked bodies going into cryo during the past two weeks and barely even glanced at her face before he gestured toward the pod.

“Up and inside, please.”

He helped her step up into the low chamber and she lay on her back along the cushion on top of the netting. Once she was settled in, Kazama picked up something from a cabinet and brought it over to her pod.

“This is the one item that most going into cryo often dread,” he said to her. When she raised a hairless eyebrow at the device, he nodded. “Normally, I would have had my nurse Jessica do this for you, but she is already in cryo herself. I need you to spread your legs as wide as you can within the pod. This is a woman’s waste-collection unit and it needs to be set firmly in place and fitted specifically for your anatomy.”

Kate’s mouth opened unbidden, but then she clamped her jaws shut and did as she was directed, feeling quite obscene. The doctor’s expression did not change as he arranged the placement of the intimate components of the flange and then manually pulled her knees back together with his fingers when it was done.  He hooked three hoses to it and then he turned aside to activate a set of controls. Kate felt a mild flow of warm air within the device, and despite that it looked little more than a metal diaper with something at intimate places, it was actually not that uncomfortable.

“Please put your arms down along your sides,” he directed. When she had done so, he pulled up one end of the netting and draped it across her, tucking it in snugly all along the side of her body and securing it with plastic snaps. He picked up the other end to do the same; Kate watched him with her eyes as he worked.

She saw his attention flick off to the side somewhere and then he looked at her again with a smile. “Since you have never experienced cryo sleep, I can confirm that you have nothing to be concerned about. I have been through it four times myself.  You will simply relax and go to sleep; you won’t notice the passage of time and you won’t even dream.”

“How long will it take?”

Before Kazama could reply, Kate felt a small sting right on the jugular vein of her neck. She looked up at a retracting articulated arm and realized that he had been distracting her from the injection with his words. She got drowsy almost immediately, and the last thing she heard him say was that she would be waking up “in just a few minutes”.

Monitoring all her vital signs, it was less than a moment when Arion reported to Kazama that she was fully unconscious. Several articulated mechanical arms emerged from openings in the side of the pod and worked swiftly to attach intravenous lines to primary blood vessels in her neck, arms and legs, while simultaneously attaching sensors to other areas.

It only took a few minutes for this to be accomplished, but once it was done, Kazama personally double-checked all of the injection sites and sensor probe placements. It was not until he was fully satisfied with everything that he applied his thumbprint to a small biometric scanner on the side of the pod to confirm.

Immediately the system began to remove all of the blood from Kate’s body and replace it with the cryo cocktail. Filters prevented the cocktail from being drawn back out with the blood, and it would be close to an hour before the fluid swap would be completed. Although the actual freezing procedure would not begin until then, the glasteel lid of Kate’s cryo pod lowered and then sealed her in.

“Dr. Kazama, I can monitor the rest of Dr. Kate’s processes if you wish to prepare yourself for sleep.”

The Japanese man cleaned his round-rim glasses with the edge of his lab coat and nodded for the unseen Arion. “Yes, we can go ahead with that.”  He consulted his techwatch when he was finished with his spectacles. “The official launch time of Arion-1 to Bellerophon isn’t for another six hours, but there’s no need for me to stay awake and mark the time to countdown.”

He walked over to a wall and opened a small cabinet. Inside, he tapped a touch pad and then placed Kate’s DNA sample into a cushioned case.  He then reached up and pulled out a hair from his own head, but had to grab a second one that actually had a follicle attached to it; this went inside another tube. He retrieved the remaining label from his pocket, affixed it to the container, and then added his personal sample to the case beside Kate’s. He tapped the touch pad once more and the blue shimmer of a stasis field flowed over the case where the DNA of the command staff was protected against the threat of time.

A similar type of stasis field was in use elsewhere on the ship to shield the small insects and birds they were taking along, those with physiologies too delicate for the cocktail used on the larger mammals. Stasis would have been preferable to cryogenic hibernation, but stasis generation required large amounts of power, which is why the larger animals and humans went to sleep via the electrochemical process instead.

Kazama quietly undressed and placed his clothing into the drawer at the end of the final pod to be occupied, leaving his techwatch and glasses on top of the folded tee shirt.  He was not completely blind without the lenses, but due to the range of his acute astigmatism, he had never been able to have corrective surgery to fix his vision.

He crawled into his pod, stretched out, and then promptly spread his knees wide to allow the male version of the waste collection flange to be put into place by Arion’s articulated arms. He remained quiet throughout the wrapping of the netting, but just before he was about to receive the injection to put him into sleep, he smiled and closed his eyes.

“Oyasumi nasai,” he murmured when he felt the minor sting of the needle at his neck.

“Good night, Dr. Kazama.”

 

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