The engines ground to a halt. It took a little while and involved a disconcerting number of noises that Reilly considered should probably not be occurring. The post-ignition went on for nearly twenty seconds. Still, he reflected, this was hardly surprising after a journey of 6.3 thousand light years (to within the nearest parsec) and… how long had it been?
‘Lieutenant?’ he asked, turning to the small redheaded girl next to him. ‘How long have we been asleep?’
‘Nine thousand and seventy-one years, three months, two weeks, four days, fifteen hours and seven minutes, sir,’ she replied brightly. The brightness grated with Reilly.
‘God, there isn’t enough coffee in the world to get me going after that time,’ he rasped. He hadn’t meant to rasp but he suspected he would be rasping for quite a while.
‘Actually, sir,’ said the Lieutenant, even more brightly, ’there is unlikely to be any coffee on this world. The climate has a dryness quotient of 87%. The topography is 73% desert, 10% carboniferous rock and 2% water.’ She was referring to a panel of antiquated instruments in front of her. At least, they were antiquated now. They’d been state of the art 9,071 years earlier.
‘And the other 15%?’ he asked. Maths had always been a strong point.
‘Unknown, sir.’ Still bright, although 15% of unknown topography didn’t exactly fill Reilly with confidence.
He moved to a window. He had to wipe the condensation off with a sleeve before he could see out. It was hard to tell exactly what he was looking at. The plexiglass was scarred by thousands of collisions with space debris over the past 9,071 years and the light was just weird. He squinted upwards. Ah, that might explain it. He was looking at three suns, a red one and a turquoise one fighting for the same inch of sky to his right and, way across from them, a brown one which resembled nothing more than an aerial dog turd. The result was a strange filtering of light which was, well, beige. Not exactly high summer in Torremolinos.
He put his face closer to the window. They appeared to have landed in a quarry. It wasn’t a surprise. His only experience of alien planets until now had been on films and TV and those had almost exclusively been quarry-based. It wasn’t, however, the most promising outcome, having been fast asleep for 9,071 years in a tin can with plexiglass windows and a crew of five, trying to locate a habitable planet to relocate what might be left of Earth’s population once climate change and the possibility of nuclear war with Tuvalu had taken their toll. That last had been a surprise. Who knew that Tuvalu was still so upset about the Coconut Dispute of 1799 or that they possessed the nuclear armaments to declare war on the UK.
Anyway, it all looked extremely inhospitable. And beige. That would take some getting used to. At least it wasn’t raining. He considered the overall situation. The six of them had enough provisions to last them three months before returning to what might be left of Earth with their report. It would be a simple report. One question, multiple-choice. Was the planet good enough to serve as Earth 2? (A) Not a bloody chance, (B) Yes, if you like living in Croydon, or (C) Go for it.
Of course, it all might be irrelevant. By the time they returned to Earth, 18,142 and a half years after departing, the peace negotiations with Tuvalu might have broken down, although when they’d left they were looking like continuing for almost as long as the post-Brexit trade talks, and they’d gone on for 102 years. Or Greenland might have become a summer tourist Mecca (indeed – it had finally been bought from Denmark by Saudi Arabia after a lengthy bidding war with the USA).
Reilly took a deep breath. Better get on with it. ‘Lieutenant?’ he said. He was still rasping. He tried to clear his throat but with limited success. ‘Is the air breathable?’
‘Where do you bloody think? In Aberdeen? Here, woman, out there,’ and he jerked a thumb towards the plexiglass.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ said the Lieutenant, hanging her head, complete with red hair and, now, red face, slightly. ‘It’s just that the air in here is not actually breathable, not technically, that is.’
‘And yet, I appear to be breathing and, judging by the rise and fall of your chest, you are too.’ He glanced down at her chest. It was quite a substantial chest and there was an undeniably high level of rising and falling going on. He looked away again quickly. He wasn’t sure if they’d brought an HR or Welfare Officer with them but it would be better not to take a chance.
The Lieutenant didn’t appear to have taken offence, however. ‘According to my instruments, sir, we shouldn’t be alive.’
‘Really?’ He stared at the instrument panel. He was on safer ground here. Staring at instrument panels was definitely in his job description, whereas staring at the chests of twenty-five year old – he mentally corrected himself, 9,096 year old – junior officers’ chests was probably not. ‘What’s this dial here?’ he asked. He was the captain, not the scientific officer, so couldn’t be expected to understand the functions of every single instrument in the ship. He knew the big green button meant Go and the bigger red one meant Stop, but that was pretty much as far as it went.
‘That’s the Vitatempanometer, sir.’
‘Vita – life, sir; and Temp – time, sir. So in English, the Time left for Life Dial. And it indicates that we’ve probably been dead for, er…’ she peered closely at the dial, ‘132 years, sir. Give or take.’
‘Well, I don’t feel particularly dead, myself. Tired, though, which is a little odd bearing in mind we’ve been asleep for 9,071 years. However, I’m definitely alive.’ He pinched his upper arm to verify his aliveness and then, for good measure, did the same to the Lieutenant. She squealed. ‘You sound like you are too,’ said Reilly in a satisfied voice. Mind you, he reflected, I probably shouldn’t have pinched her. That’d be something else for the Welfare Officer to get his or her teeth into, but never mind.
‘Moving on,’ he continued. ‘What’s it like outside/’
The Lieutenant turned to her instrument panel again and tapped a second dial experimentally. ‘It’s fine sir. Should feel like a Sunday afternoon in Faringdon.’
‘Why Faringdon? And Sunday?’
‘Well, you know sir, quiet and dull and the sort of temperature where you don’t know whether to put a jacket on or not.’
‘OK, it sounds good enough. Rouse the rest of the crew and we’ll take a recce.’
‘They’re having breakfast sir.’
‘Well, that shouldn’t take long.’
‘I don’t know sir, we’ve been asleep for 9,071 years so I think there’s quite a lot of toast and marmalade involved. Several loaves. Each.’
Reilly decided it was time to exert his authority. Clearly the crew had become a little lax since he’d last addressed them 9,071 years ago. ‘Get them all up here now, would you Lieutenant? And get me some coffee. I don’t care if it’s running out.’
The Lieutenant gave a smart salute and left at a dead run, still managing to exude unfathomable levels of brightness. Five minutes later, the lift doors hissed open jerkily and she reappeared with a rag-tag group of crew members in tow. Three of them were wearing striped pyjamas and the two who had managed to struggle into their uniforms had both put the jackets on back to front. It looked like one crew member had failed to take the correct dosage of the stasis supplement as he, or possibly she, was sporting a four-foot long ginger beard over which he (or she) kept tripping.
Reilly cleared his throat. He didn’t want to rasp at the crew before he had good reason to, although wearing pyjamas may well constitute good reason under the Rules of Deep Space Travel drawn up by the UK and Scilly Isles Joint Space Travel Directorate nearly 10,000 years earlier and probably superseded several times in the intervening millennia.
And then the phone rang. Or rather, a phone rang. Reilly wasn’t sure where the phone was. He looked around. He really should have familiarised himself better with the instrument panel. The phone carried on ringing but there wasn’t even a flashing light to help locate it. The Lieutenant bustled across to help him look. The crew sat down on the floor.
Finally, the Lieutenant lifted a small hinged cover and found the phone. It looked extremely old-fashioned but that was understandable. Reilly picked it up.
‘Hello?’ he said, doubtfully.
‘Captain Reilly?’ came a brisk, male voice exuding authority. ‘Admiral Sportswear here. Took your time answering, didn’t you?’
‘Admiral?’ Reilly knew the Admiral, indeed he had been there to wish them bon voyage 6,071 years earlier. He ought to be dead by now. After all, he’d been quite elderly then. Reilly came straight to the point. ‘How can you be phoning, sir? You shouldn’t be alive. We took off from Watford Interplanetary Space Terminal One on 15th February 2170.’ And to emphasise the point. ‘That was 6,071 years ago.’
‘Ah, yes, well, no it wasn’t, actually.’
‘What do you mean? I remember it clearly. I kissed my wife goodbye.’
‘No, I’m afraid it was just a simulator. This is just a simulator. That’s still Watford out there, although, and I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, I’m afraid your wife has passed.’
‘Of course she’s passed. I’m not stupid. She wasn’t put into stasis and it was 6,071 years ago. Or 14,142, I haven’t quite got my head around which. I certainly wouldn’t want to be kissing her hello again now, she‘s probably lost her looks at the very least. Anyway, if this is still Watford, why am I seeing three suns?’ He pointed at them, realising as he did so that the Admiral probably couldn’t see them as he was back on Earth. The brown one had nearly set but that had done nothing to reduce the beigeness of the light.
‘What you’re seeing is a mobile hologrammatic image,’ said the admiral. ‘A video in layman’s terms. The point is, it was a very successful experiment. You and your crew have managed to stay alive whilst asleep for…’
‘6,071 years. Or twice that, possibly. Well done us.’
‘Ah, well, no, actually, it was only three years. Still a world record though. Long enough to be able to send a manned mission to one of the moons of Saturn.’
Reilly sat down heavily, which was quite painful as there was no chair. ‘So, you’re saying we’ve been gone only three years?’
‘Well, strictly speaking, you haven’t gone anywhere but, yes, you’ve been in an artificially induced coma for three years.’
‘And my wife is dead?’
‘I’m afraid so. She wouldn’t have suffered. Much. Anyway,’ he continued in a brighter voice, although not yet as bright a voice as the Lieutenant’s, ‘you’d better come out now, Captain. There’s a welcoming committee. I believe medals may be involved at some point.’
The airlock hissed open and Reilly and the red-headed Lieutenant stepped outside, closely trailed by the crew of five, one of whom tripped over his or her beard and fell off the steps. They were in a quarry. It looked exactly like the one seen through the plexiglass video screen non-window. Although there was just the one sun, a rather hazy shade of yellow. It all still looked a bit beige.
‘I thought you said this was still Watford?’ said Reilly to the Admiral, who was standing with outstretched hand.
‘Oh, it is, but it’s Watford post-apocalypse I’m afraid. Tuvalu really were a lot angrier than we thought.’