Kwame awoke to eyelids peeling open like roughly glued leather, to a dull ache in her bone marrow. She thought in units of meaning that hung over no grammar. Symptoms of hibernation sickness after years of induced sleep, maintained by drugs, parenteral nutrition and gene splicing to halt the ageing process.
Her language of thought reassembled itself, and Kwame recognised a red light. It winked on and off through the gauze of condensation on the outside of her hibernation pod. A malfunction. But the blinks came in slow, at two-second intervals, indicating no urgency. Kwame relaxed and waited for the pod to complete its wake cycle.
Presently, the safety bolts retracted; the glass lid slid away with a low thud, dislodging droplets of condensation; the stale air inside the pod hissed out into the artificially clean atmosphere of the ship. Kwame took a deep breath and pushed herself out and onto the heated floor. Her legs shuddered with the impact. Her weight increased gradually in the ship’s gravitational field, and she could feel her muscles tense up. Her pupils adjusted to light seeping out from hidden alcoves and recesses, bathing the curves of plastic and steel in a soft white glow.
Kwame glanced at the hibernation pods next to hers: her children’s, Peter and Imani, and her partner’s, Luane. She could not see them for the condensation that glazed the glass lids, and frowned. Luane was the commanding officer aboard The Intention; the malfunction should have tripped her wake cycle. Kwame rubbed the condensation away with her hand and peered into Luane’s pod. Long, fire-red hair fell over pale, soft, slightly age-worn features caught in perpetual REM sleep. Luane’s chest rose and fell evenly.
‘Navigator,’ Kwame called out to the on-board artificial intelligence. Her vocal chords strained. ‘Report all malfunctions aboard the ship.’
‘Good day, Doctor Adisa.’ The disembodied voice was a pleasant male baritone, even and calming. ‘Scanning for malfunctions. One primary malfunction found. Location: hibernation pod two. Cause: gene splicing unit failure. Extent: severe.’
Kwame looked up at the ceiling; she had not lost the instinct to look for the source of the voice. ‘How severe?’
‘Complete failure of the central circuit board. Replacement of the entire gene splicing unit required.’
She felt the nudge of a small, burning sensation somewhere at the back of her chest. Worry.
‘Why wasn’t the primary pilot’s wake cycle activated?’ she said.
‘Protocol six, section eight of the Interplanetary Colonisation Regulation: during a voyage the commanding officer is to be wakened if, and only if, a decision needs to be made with respect to the navigation, maintenance or communication aboard the interstellar vessel under their command. No such decision needs to be made at present.’
Worry edged forward, fed at the periphery of her thoughts like a locust.
‘The spare gene splicing unit was recalled to make room for additional nutritional supplies. Hibernation pod two cannot be fixed using the supplies aboard The Intention.’
Worry besieged her with battering rams and fire. Kwame ran a hand over her face to brush them away. Her skin felt clammy and loose. Her muscles quivered with the effort of keeping her upright after years at rest. She started pacing to shift her weight.
‘How far are we from Ophion?’ she said.
‘The Intention is sixty five light years away from Ophion, or forty eight years and nine months in local ship time.’
‘How far to the nearest re-supply point?’
‘The Intention is sixty five light years away from Ophion,’ the voice repeated, ‘Or forty eight years and nine months in local ship time.’
Worry crumbled her thoughts into ashy nothing. She was thirty years old. By the time the ship arrived at their destination, she would be an old woman, more grandmother than mother to her children, a stranger to Luane. Would they recognise her when they woke up? Would she even live that long? Would she stay sane?
Unless, of course, she waked them, spent the years with them, took turns in the hibernation pod with Luane. Kwame wiped the condensation from Peter’s and Imani’s pods. The boy had dark skin and a broad nose under a mop of red hair; he looked like Kwame but was built like Luane. The girl was paler, but with Kwame’s jet black hair and stocky frame. Kwame gazed absently at them for a while.
‘Navigator,’ she said at last, ‘Activate the wake cycles in pods one, three and four.’
Was she right to force this choice on them? She did not have time to consider it. The baritone came back with a sound of genuine regret, ‘I am afraid I cannot do that, Doctor.’
‘There is no perceived cause to open hibernation pods one, three and four. You lack clearance to open them without perceived cause.’
Worry had passed over her. Her thoughts began to rebuild themselves in its aftermath. Alone then. Her family close enough to see, hear, touch, but fifty years away, behind a wall of metal and glass and regulation. She was faced with a binary choice now: decades of sleep or a lifetime of isolation.
She climbed on top of Luane’s pod and lay across it, hugged it, put her ear to the lid, savoured the cold bite of the glass against her skin. Tears came in rivulets that snaked down the glass like cracked beads. She imagined she could hear Luane breathing. In and out, even, preserved in time.
‘Navigator,’ Kwame whispered eventually, ‘Prepare pod two for hibernation.’
She stepped back into the soft embrace of the padded interior of her pod. It began to tilt into a horizontal position with a low whir from the axis motor.
‘Of course, Doctor,’ the voice paused. ‘But may I remind you that, due to the recent malfunction, we have no means of maintaining your present physical state while inside your hibernation pod.’
‘You may.’ Kwame closed the lid and shut her eyes.