Out of Time

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“Any last words, Captain Winkle?” his former-First Lieutenant barked as they strapped him into the cryogenic escape-pod, “Sorry, mean just Winkle. I’m the Captain of Catwalk now.”

“I-I-you-this will–” he spluttered, fury overriding his fear momentarily until his former-First Lieutenant punched him. A sharp pain shot down his spine and he heard his nose crack. Warm blood began pouring down his face.

“Shut up, Winkle,” his former-First Lieutenant growled, tightening the final strap before closing the escape-pod, “We don’t want your imperial bullshit anymore. These men have families back on Earth and we are going to go home. Your Government can send other people on their suicide missions. Enjoy space.”

The cover of the escape-pod was flipped over him. Impotently straining against the straps, the last image the former-Captain Winkle saw before they turned on the cryogenic stasis in the pod and ejected it into deep space was his former-First Lieutenant grinning ruthlessly at him.

***

An intense light was blinding him and it felt like a crushing, contactless pressure was bearing down on him. Winkle wanted to cry out but his throat did not respond the way he expected. A funny gurgle came from somewhere inside him. He tried to reach up to block his eyes from the painful light but whatever was pinning him down held his arms in place and he could barely budge them from where they lay.

“Take it easy, buddy,” a calm voice said from somewhere inside the light, “Hey Doc, he’s awake! Wow, ok, take it easy, buddy, it’s been centuries since your body functioned normally. You barely have any muscle mass left. You probably don’t remember gravity either. Those first-gen cryogenic pods were never meant to be used for that long. Your muscles are basically completely atrophied and your nervous system is still struggling to reboot. We have jacked into our machines for now but you must feel quite disorient…lucky…found you when…never meant…gosh…

The voice droned on but his mind felt fluid and shifted in and out of consciousness. He only heard snatches of what was being said.

The intense light that was blinding him slowly dimmed down to a glow with patchy, dark shapes within it. And then these shapes formed into more recognizable forms around him: people and objects.

He was lying somewhere. Maybe a hospital or a lab? While figuring this out, he slowly began to feel his own heartbeat, the dry, scratching breathe in his lungs, his limbs and then his whole body. He ached down to his very bones and it felt like something deep inside him was broken.

“W-where…I?” he eventually managed to cough out after what felt like ages had passed. His throat felt raw and his tongue uncertain with these supposed-familiar words, “Where I? Where?”

The shadowy shape of what he now thought was the doctor loomed over him, a light pierced his eye and then a second, elder voice replied from just above him.

“Not where, Captain Winkle. You should rather be asking when? We are still trying to piece together the details and we are sure that you can fill us in on plenty. If your face is anything to go by, after being forcefully ejected into space in your ship’s cryogenic escape-pod, you floated around for almost ten solar-centuries. Uh, you probably don’t know that measure. It is based on Earth-years back when we lived there. We are off-planet now. Intergalactic, in fact. As a civilization, we owe everything to you first-wave colonizers, so…”

The doctor paused, probably noticing his expression. He cleared his throat and returned to his point.

“Anyway, when is exactly that, Captain Winkle. The ‘when’  of your story is about a thousand years after your last memory. Welcome back to civilization, Captain, you have a lot of catching up to do.”

***

The now-called “Galatic Government” had successfully populated space. There were lots of casualties along the way, including his old starship and its mutinous crew. But enough first-wave colonizers reached enough habitable planets that humanity began to populate the cosmos as Earth began to fail.

Next, entire colonies shifted off-world and technology advanced to a point where this was less and less of a problem and more just the way things were.

The last recorded contact with Starship 130D Catwalk indicated that it was low on resources and down to a single atmospheric generator. Half the crew remained able. No working cryogenic pods remained. Staff morale low and the ship–against express instruction–was homebound from Andromeda-adjacent System. No further contact made. Starship classified A.W.O.L. and crew noted as deceased.

That was the last record of his mutinous crew’s attempt to return to Earth after dumping him in space. They did not make it home. That was a little over nine hundred years ago.

Everything that Captain Winkle knew was either dead or different now. In some regards, that is the same thing.

People no longer remembered the civil war nor questioned who had been fighting for what? The winner had written the public records. People popped from planet to planet but never went back to the polluted, toxic Earth.

And no one missed that planet either. Some parts of the Web even questioned if it existed at all? Apparently, its name had been recycled and there were at least three other planets scattered around the cosmos now called “Earth”, only differentiated by their galactic codes.

All his friends and family were long dead, as were their relatives and their relatives’ relatives. His wife back on old Earth had remarried and his children had lived full lives a thousand years ago. So diluted and broken was the hereditary chain that there was little point in reconnecting. The current relatives that were alive were complete strangers to him, and him to them.

The Galatic Government had a fund that supported the first-wave colonizers and their families. The only beneficiaries left in it were a couple great, great grandchildren and some monuments, hospitals and schools, but the Fund added him to the list and began to pay monthly stipends in his name.

The local government of the fringe planet that had picked him up also provided a small, freehold property for him to live on and set him up to live out his retirement in relative comfort.

And so Captain Winkle found himself a public hero, comfortably looked-after, retired and with only time and a growing existential crisis to fill his days.

***

“Thanks, appreciate that,” Winkle said on the call, “Just to clarify, the Fund will keep paying its monthly and you will ensure all bills are settled from that. The excess can be saved. Great, thanks. Bye.”

He stood up from where he was sitting, downed the remaining bourbon in his glass and stumbled to his cellar. It was lined with lead and titanium, and had an in-built self-sustaining life-support system. The whole thing was run by an off-grid AI and sitting in the middle of the floor was a state-of-the-art cryogenic pod.

He closed the cellar doors behind him. They hermetically sealed and the chamber’s life-support booted up, softly humming in the background.

He walked over to the cryogenic pod and put his hand on the glass, a strange smile on his face. He punched a series of instructions into the pod and the glass top opened, hissing, and ready for him to climb in.

“Let’s see in a thousand years, shall we,” he muttered to himself as he climbed in, “Maybe there’ll be some point then.”

The pod closed, sealing him in as the cryogenic process began. On the top of the pod he had scrawled a message for anyone that found him before the pre-set time, or, maybe, the message was for himself: RIP WINKLE.

 

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