And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history
Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain (1915)
‘Nothing.’ Osgood smiled toward them both. ‘Nothing’s the problem, Captain. All things seem to be on track.’
Sydney searched the face for a while. Trying to discern a shred of falsehood, yet there wasn’t a lick of a lie between his tongue.
‘Thrusters. Normal. Provisions. Normal. Course. Charted. Crew.’ Osgood scanned their faces, ‘Normal.’
Sydney and Noah shifted in their seats. Across the ornate dining table, adorned with pink cloth, sat this astute British gentlemen. He held a cropped white beard with a thinning crown on his head. Dressed in a pinstripe suit, with a plush waistcoat, he looked across from them, smiling intermittently underneath his horn-rimmed glasses. Sipping on a teacup decorated with floral arrangements. There was an acidic tang in the air.
‘Check energy output again, make sure life support is on track. Double-cross oxygen levels with projections for provisions.’ Noah said.
Charles Osgood Frederickson sipped the non-existent teacup in the middle of the non-existent dining room, with the chirps of the non-existent thrushes calling out of the non-existent English sunshine. After a few chilly seconds he glared at each astronaut with a look removed of cold warmth.
‘Energy levels seem normal to me. Perhaps it’s you two that’s at fault?’
‘Then why are we having shakes?’ Noah could barely move in the spacesuit, which was bulky and cream, ‘we wake up every morning shaking uncontrollably. Like seasickness or something.’
‘Well, Captain, the only sleep you get is in the cryo chamber. I’ve been dead for a few millennia so, clue me in, that does mean you get a bit chilly, right?’ Charles grinned and turned his attention towards the other in the room.
He placed the teacup back on the tiny plate.
‘Excuse me, Sydney.’ Charles leaned in and gave a smile to awake her from her daydreaming, ‘apologies, was Alice too far in a rabbit hole? I’m detecting some imaginative play.’
Sydney smiled back with actual warmth, ‘I’m here, Cof.’
Osgood didn’t take that well. Leaning back into his chair, wrinkles showing across his face.
‘Must you remind me of my lack of humanity, Sydney Kim?’
‘Apologies.’ The spacesuits were getting particularly hot inside.
Charles shot a look across the floor.
‘May I trouble both of you to have some tea? Or some fine sherry?’
‘Apologies to you, Charles, but we’re away from business,’ Noah started, or attempted, to gesture towards him, ‘it’s not the cryosleep causing these jitters, they-they seem to last for days at a time and they give us weird stuff.’
‘Having trouble sleeping, Captain? Tell me. Any bad dreams?’ Charles tried to study their faces like a physicist at the bottom of a blackboard.
‘I only have one dream. It’s on a fishing boat in the middle of a storm. I’m trying to steer it away from the huge tides but they swallow me up. The water is that dirty colour, the same Ocean just out of Maine.’ Noah gulped. ‘And then the blue fills my lungs. Chokes me out. I wake up before my head hits the rocks below.’
‘And you, Ms Kim, do you have these delightful nightmares?’
Sydney squirmed in her suit.
‘Not entirely. There was…’ she turned away nervously, ‘just one time, really.’
‘What was this one time? This dream. Please. I’m here to help.’
‘It’s my husband. Joe. He’s tethered to Theseus by string and he’s shouting at me. But I’m inside the ship just looking through the porthole. Watching him reach out for me against the backdrop of the Sun. And there’s this feeling down my spine like someone’s running about my memories. Clawing inside my head.’
Frederickson dabbed his mouth with a napkin to clean away the tea.
‘I’m here to psychologically assess both of you, you know that. That’s what this place is about. I invited you into my home to probe and test and just get you to open up.’ Charles said.
‘You could have at least got us out of these suits.’ Noah said.
‘Oh but that would be giving in to the delusion. We don’t want that, do we? You two, running about the little borderlands of my mind. Gosh knows what monsters are out there.’ Charles turned toward the window. ‘Besides, you’re much safer here anyhow. I know this place better than any. Best place for us to start... treatment.’
‘We don’t need any more of your psychiatric programming.’ Noah said.
‘Hardly.’ Charles leaned in, putting his fingers together, ‘I’m prescribing you both a faint toxin. It’s lethal, yes, but only in doses above a few milligrams. It’ll put your dreams to sleep. Professor Goodwin used the same medicine if I am remembering correctly and, well, as a human brain plugged with near infinite programming power I would trust my judgement.’
Charles snapped his fingers and the room started to melt. Pink sloshes of wallpaper peeled from the walls. The painting of an acorn in bloom slowly dripped into paint. Even the tea on the table began to fizzle into nothing.
‘Are you sure this will work, Charles?’
‘To keep you both on the neural track, yes. This is hardly my most extreme of measures. This’ll open your heads a bit me. I admit I’m peering in closely but it’s my job. We’ll end up breaking out the hard stuff later.’ Charles stood up to his feet, buttoning his jacket and turning to them with happy eyes. ‘Why, we’ve only got a few more thousand years between us and the rest of the universe.’
Sydney looked at Thomas, who was eyeing Frederickson with a look out of a comic book.
The water hit her like the tides from Noah’s dreams. Spitting into the air she crawled out of the shell and out into the cabin. She was still shaking from the ruptures of ice sheets clinging to her skin. Like a butterfly sliding out of a wintery sheath. Her body an inch away from hypothermia. The cyro-chamber shut quickly and she was left floating in the middle of the room, shivering away the sleep.
She put her garments back on and then her suit. A one-piece of thick, cream coloured rubber with white gloves. The helmet wasn’t necessary inside. She tapped on the window and it shuttered open. Crawling through, she couldn’t help but touch the scabbing around the back of her head. The injections were done more violently lately. They were sleeping for months at a time now and that was probably why. It was done out of care, not malice, but Charles was still sloppy with the needle.
She pulled herself towards the centre chamber where Noah was already attached to a terminal. She noticed the back of his head was still bleeding.
‘You should get him to check that out.’ She said.
‘It’s fine. Not an ounce of pain. All is well.’ He said.
Noah Frost, Captain of the Theseus-35. Built from the scraps of the last few ships. The last hope of humanity floating towards the edge of the Solar System, ready for the journey through the boundless emptiness of nothing. The liminal spaces between the stars.
Noah was a Mexican-American-Boy-Wonder. A curl of black swirls for hair and skin with the tone of autumn. He was covered with stubble now and his concrete good looks were melting away like the dreams he was induced into. Frost had never wanted to be the last surviving man in the universe. Except, well, he had Frederickson at least.
‘Don’t play with it.’ The familiar voice chimed overhead. ‘Peeling away at fresh scabs makes you prime for infection. We wouldn’t want you on a cold slab by the year’s end, would we?’
‘They’re getting worse, Charles.’ Noah said.
‘I’d say my aim is getting better. Almost a bullseye, Captain.’
When they were put into the cyro-chamber, a coffin of water, they were frozen for ten minutes before the panel beneath their heads would shake. A thin spike would jitter out and pierce the back of their skull and inject them with a cocktail of hormones and medicines. A mixture that would have killed someone of the twenty-first century but they were so long away from that time now. This was all directed by Charles Osgood Frederickson, the man in charge of the systems and operations throughout the Theseus. He was its intelligence. Every time the crew went to sleep he would shove the spikes into their heads and turn on the chips in their brains, and through cerebral induction, link their brain activities together. Their dreams would be under his control. The flow of heat in their head under his guiding fingertip. Mostly he let their heads play out, just keeping a keen eye to make sure their nightmares didn’t service. Sometimes he’d stand on the hills of their memories, with a clipboard in hand, a projection of himself keeping a close eye to proceedings. It was all part of a rational plan to guide humanity gently out of the orbit of the world it once knew.
Goodwin had hoped the treatment would help calm the nerves and soothe their souls. They were going to be in transit for hundreds of years, and by linking their minds and mixing memories perhaps they’d find some common aid to steer them through. He was inspired by trips to museums on ancient civilizations, of nomadic tribes banding together underneath the cold wintery stretches of stars to share a story together.
Frederickson had been more off-hands though, recently, as the sleep sessions were becoming months long. All designed to preserve provisions, really. This was planned from the start. All of it is part of the plan, he would say, all of it is on schedule.
‘I wonder how many bacteria are still left back there.’ Sydney started.
‘A handful, really. Not enough for a petri dish.’ Noah said.
Earth could still be seen out of the thick panels. A small blue circle on the edge of vision, still lit up with a blue hue. They were about to enter the orbit of Jupiter. Earth would become a small dot slowly shrinking into a pixel. That was their final stop before the sleeps turned into years.
‘The energy levels are slightly off, Captain, you’re correct. Nothing to fret over. I’m monitoring it.’ Charles said.
‘I trust you, Charles.’ Noah ruffled his hair and stared into a monitor. ‘Just don’t be going on any tea breaks.’
‘That’s hardly part of my plan.’
Charles held a psychological assessment every few sleeps. Shoved them into a room of his own imagination. Asked a few questions, answered a few of them too. Nothing ever seemed out of place. Sydney and Noah would be side by side all the time. Little pressure. They were meant to be in sleep for a few hundred years and Charles was determined to make sure they kept ‘structured’ as he called it.
‘Do you think he’d know if we went crazy?’ Sydney asked.
‘He’d have a good idea of what crazy looks like, Syd. I wouldn’t worry about it.’ Noah said.
‘Just sometimes I wonder if he’s letting us become a bit unhinged. Like he’s experimenting or he’s probing something.’
‘He’s programmed to make sure that insanity doesn’t happen. Besides, you’re doing fine.’
‘But the dreams?’
‘Everyone has nightmares, Syd. Everyone.’
Noah turned away from what he was looking at.
‘Probably.’ He said.
She pulled herself away from the centre terminals and into one of the four corridors. Theseus was a Rubik’s cube in its design, a rotating series of rooms with corridors all commanded by the intelligence at the helm. In the little distance, Syd was able to hear Charles shifting the sides of the ship with his invisible hands. She’d seen the fingers up close in one of the tea room sessions. They were these jittery bones with the veins shining out. When he clawed at his tea then they became pincers. She wondered what he did while they were both asleep. Playing endlessly with the cube of the ship, trying to get all the sides to align. Trying to solve the problems inside. A great puzzle box spinning in space with the last humans jingling inside, with Charles turning it to and fro trying to crack open the treasures of their minds. Steer them still towards the dark.
The fusion reactor was fine keeping up the pace of the energy. Recycling old food and waste would keep provisions lasting centuries. The squashed foil bricks of food they ate everyday were surprisingly tasteful. She wondered how Charles got the tea in his dreams to always taste so sweet. It was often a treat for all of them, really. She remembered sipping a teacup with her spacesuit’s glove. A bulky thing with only two slots for her fingers and thumb. She held the dreamed porcelain up to her lips and sipped in the sugars of the remembered nineteenth century. Charles had been talking at length about some book or other, or something mechanical with Noah. And she was there, searching his face for something she wasn’t quite sure about yet.
‘Sorry, Ms Kim, what are you looking for?’ Spoke the voice.
‘Just giving another look at the nursery.’ She said back.
She pulled her way, using the ladder rungs on the walls, through the halls of Theseus. Eventually she reached another window and tapped it with her palm. Charles let her through and she had some trouble floating through the forestry. A lush green growth covered the walls, like a garden inside a cave. A great expansive hole filled with petals and roses. She tasted the pollen on her lips.
‘How’s the eggs?’ She said, looking at the glass-panelled cells below.
‘Fine. Same temperature. Sperm also doing nicely.’
‘That’s good to hear.’
The endless leaves painted the walls, floor and ceiling. It was remarkable really. Save the cells at the bottom, you couldn’t tell it was a spaceship. Except, well, the fact she was floating in zero-gravity and the oxygen didn’t act like it did back home. Every day, Charles would spray in the right amount of water to keep the plants alive and the green thrush ongoing. It was a ship of endless beauty really. A whole room of plants and, beneath it, in the vault, preserved billions of eggs and sperm.
Another box contained paintings and a ping-pong table, the apex of human culture really. Another was filled completely with food bricks. Another was Noah’s cabin. Another her’s. Somewhere, in one of the core cubes, was a vast machine dubbed Colossus. She’d been there once at the start, whilst the Theseus was on the ground. Somewhere in Toronto.
The snow was spitting outside and Professor Goodwin was leading them around the basements where hurried folk in lab coats tried to fire off a flare made of humanity into the sky. That’s who they were, Noah and Sydney; the flare.
Inside the endless machine there sat a mind. She could only see it through holes the size of her arm, holes lined with transistors arranged in spikes, like teeth that could bite a limb off. But it was all their in its glory. Encased under sheets of titanium and pressed together into a thick paste, right at the centre of Theseus, was the mind of Charles Osgood Frederickson. Noah and Sydney had looked at each other as the Professor told them this fact. They even sat outside, legs dangling over a concrete block, trying to take it all in. As the dead city behind them sat silent they drank in the absurdity of it all.
‘We’re going to be dictated by a dead man.’ Noah didn’t blink.
‘Dictated isn’t the word. You heard Goodwin. It was a necessity. He’s programmed anyway, at the whim of the coding.’ She tried to comfort him.
‘I don’t believe that artificial intelligence is still in its infancy though. They didn’t need to plug a human mind into the ship. A mind is much more fallible.’
‘So you don’t trust him?’
‘I don’t trust a human I can’t look in the eye, Sydney. That’s that.’
Noah was oddly silent for a few moments. She wondered if he was a bit too suspicious. There was no possibility that Frederickson could ever go rogue. He was at the mercy of the programme. All his mind was doing, all his consciousness ever directed, was the flow of it all. Charles would be the plumber at the heart of Theseus, waiting for the waters to flow.
They were told about the cerebral induction. They were told about sharing dreams. They were told that Charles had been awake for a few decades already and was well equipped to handle all the demands needed of the time.
‘Earth is dead, Frost.’ Goodwin had been frank with them after Thomas had his doubts. ‘This isn’t a rescue mission. This isn’t even a last hope. This is us firing a few humans into the sky. Like throwing a dart against a board completely blindfolded.’
He was right. Even whilst asleep for hundreds of years, and awake for around a hundred more. They were there to incubate humanity for millennia until they found some habitable place. Even then they’d need to rebuild under impossible conditions. Grow a whole community and populate a planet. Terraforming had been out of the question and, really, if they messed up their measurements whilst analysing some other star system, it would all be for nothing. All of humanity, down to its last remnants, would vanish into darkness against the black of space.
‘In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces.’ Said Charles, ‘With a hollow, boiling voice it speaks. And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
He had a penchant for the poet Thomas Hardy. Sydney had caught the quotes a few weeks into flight but only Frost had a vague idea where they were from. His husband had been a literary scholar of some sort. She forgot what books were on the ship, if any. Frost had caught up on the speech and realized what Charles was saying only after a few poems. Until then he’d give a confused look at Sydney in fear that Frederickson was already going mechanically loopy.
‘Thomas Hardy lived just after your time though, Charles. Why choose him?’ They were a few miles off the coast of the Moon’s orbit when Noah started a literary conversation. The sea of tranquillity covered in dark below.
‘I died on the day of his birth, Captain. Only in this... afterlife was I able to digest everything since then. I started on the day of my deceasement and carried on, with Hardy’s first words being the first of mine.’ Charles said.
‘But why not Frost or Shelley? I know those well. I’m probably related to the former, apparently.’
‘Hardy wrote about the pain of time. About how we are but little toys, playthings to the laws of the universe. There’s a distinct passionate plea that the universe and time are completely indifferent to our mortal dwellings. That we begin and pass on from this world without contribution. Yet, within this spec of existence, we have our hearts swell and beat with the joys of this world.’ Charles’s voice seemed almost hoarse.
‘I thought all his poetry was about death and the ghost of his lost love?’
‘Oh no. Much more noble in his ideas, Captain. Perhaps you might fancy reading some of his Wessex stuff?’
‘Put it on the itinerary,’ Noah opened up one of the panels to check up on the thermal paste on the wiring, ‘somewhere between the edge of the Solar System and whatever else past that.’
‘That’s a pretty big gap.’
Charles was quiet for a good while as Noah tweaked a few terminals, scanning his eyes at the grey blotch that was the Moon. Sydney observed the oxygen levels and analysed a few samples of blood from herself and Frost. Nothing seemed wrong. They were perfectly healthy by earthling standards.
‘You’re about to get a beautiful look at Earth before it starts blurring around the edges.’ Said Charles.
She took herself throughout a few corridors before coming towards the great porthole on the northern edge. A viewing platform, really, made for observing potential physical encounters with meteorites and other minutia.
The Earth was the size of a great expanse. A slice of white and blue stretched into a fine ribbon. She could see the razor-thin line of atmosphere just loitering above. A line, hardly nothing, that kept the radiation out and the air inside. One thin layer stopping everything on the planet shrivelling into dust. Until now at least.
Noah arrived and grabbed hold of a rung near her.
‘It looks just like the Apollo landings.’ He said, ‘I can’t even remember when they were.’
They both thought of asking Frederickson but his ego had already had its trotting for the time being.
Inside this white box they floated a little. They were in the hands of the universe now. Taken out of the Earth’s steely orbit. Even Theseus was shaking a little. Beneath their vision lay the entirety of humanity that had ever existed. The Pyramids, now dust. The cemeteries littered with lovers and fighters and losers. The snowstorms of the North, containing near infinite amounts of snowflakes. There were men who had sacrificed themselves for greater goods. Men who had inflamed passions and had walked the halls of senates and parliaments to bring about the great causes. Men who had battled and wavered and lost limbs and eyes and everything just to hold a thin whisker of a small spec of space. This great bounty of a planet. Filled with compassion and hatred and desire and power and wealth and passion. Turning and turning for millions of years and now, only now, in its closing chapters. Only now realizing it had been a great show of the universe but only for the audience of itself.
‘I don’t really know what to think of all this. There should be some divine revelation or inner epiphany. Aside from a few sentences I can’t discern anything profound about this.’ Noah said. ‘Maybe it’s because we’re still too close to it.’
‘Are we both looking at the same image, Captain?’ Charles said.
‘Probably. Although I think you process visual information differently to me.’
‘A little, yes. It is just ones and zeros but, really, that’s all the universe ever was.’
Sydney ventured a question.
‘Do you understand beauty, Charles?’
There was a long pause to that as Frost did a tiny frown.
‘I know the birds and the rocks and the trees. I know the taste of a woman’s mouth and the sweet cold breeze on the cheeks. I know a good hearty meal from a bad. I know a good book in front of a fireplace. I know waking up with only the chimes of serenity in my mind. I know that feeling of rain against the window panes, whilst you’re still inside the warmth surrounded by… family.’ Charles said. ‘You may think me more machine than man but, truthfully, I feel now as I did before. In fact, I feel more.’
‘And why would that be?’
‘I process everything at once. There’s millions of songs playing, thousands of images and videos, a whole cavalcade of pleasure all on display. Even your dreams, which I direct, I’m having those played over for evaluation the time. Every image of the Earth from our launch until now, for example, is inside my eye right now. It’s more beautiful than you could imagine. I have everything from my rebirth up until now, all on repeat. All emotion is just as bright as the last and although I may not cry I still feel the tang of tears. They’re ones and zeroes, just like you really. Just a bit… simpler.’
‘You think yourself more human than us?’ Noah interjected.
‘I do still feel empty, Captain. I envy both of you with your nervous systems and bloodstreams and capillaries. The thrills of the bodily pleasures which I’ll never have again. Yet inside my head there is still so much more. So much capability, all untouched. I cannot wait to explore it. To walk the walls of worlds afar.’ Charles said, and from nowhere there came a smile in his voice, ‘So, yes, I know what beauty is, Ms Kim. I am experiencing it all as I did before but all at once. It’s quite a treat. Even having the human genome on display, it gives me shivers. Simulated but still as potent as the chemistry buzzing about your brains.’
The Earth still sat below and Sydney was about to sigh and turn away.
‘I admit, Charles, I have read Hardy before.’ Noah said.
‘Oh. Much or little?’
‘We have much to discuss then. I look forward to it.’
‘There’s some of it I can remember though.’
Frost thought for a moment and looked at the endless stretch of space behind the Earth. This orb, this habitable heaven, which had held his memories for the whole of his life until now. Where he had held hands with his mother as they crossed some street in Washington. Somewhere he had opened a book by Jules Verne and ate up the lines of ink that put his brain ablaze with the whole of the worlds beyond imagination. Across the coast of the United States he had cried tears of leaving his home, of losing lovers and everything he held dear before, on a neutral midnight, he had wandered into the streets. A job in aerospace seemed so far away and he was turning thirty in a few weeks. Yet there, beneath the streetlamps, he caught sight of a figure in the dark. Hench shoulders and cheap jeans. As it wandered further towards and placed its feet below the fluorescent yellow light, Thomas’s mind sparked with nostalgia. In an instant, his times of insomnia and worried hurt seemed to melt into nothing.
He saw the face of someone he hoped to never see again. And his heart swelled with more pain than any of his nightmares could behold…
‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours, there lies intact that chalice of ours,’ he put his hands on the glass, ‘and its presence adds to the rhyme of love persistently sung by the fall above… no lip has touched it since his and mine, in turn therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’
Charles was silent for weeks after that. Sydney remembered that whole exchange, that whole few hours, clearer than anything else. In between the cerebral links and the shared dream states, she didn’t think she had understood Noah until the moment he started speaking poetry aloud. In the rafters above her head she wondered, in the very wiring of Charles Osgood Frederickson, if there was a stir of pleasure or disdain or pride. He supposed that they were two puppets attached to his strings, to be stirred towards a future of Goodwin’s plans. Yet here they were, speaking for themselves. Held in the middle of darkness with the Theseus floating towards boundless nothingness, Charles Osgood Frederickson had played with their dreams and memories. He had supped full of their humanity and had tested them to keep them on psychological course. Yet there, above the Earth they had known so well and he had known once so long ago, there was a challenge to his crown. Even with their brains in the palm of his hands perhaps they were still full of surprises.
Centuries into the future, with the Theseus on the edge of the rings of Saturn, the ship began to turn inside ever so slowly. Charles looked upon the human genome, the very code of humanity, and began to breathe it in. He took recordings of the biological rhythms of the humans inside and then, with the behemoth of a planet loitering outside, he tried to summon something deep inside the mainframe. Underneath the cables and the spinning hard drives and the fluids that flowed through the web of piping to keep him cool. Underneath Colossus. Trapped between two thick layers of metal was the thick paste that was his brain. Inside this, he let go of the numbers and the computing and the hell of it all. Inside this he thought first of nothing.
And then he tried to dream.