CAPTAIN TAIN REVIVIFIED WITH a start. Space was so terrifying when silent. It’d be different once all the lights came on and his two crewmates were up and moving around. But in those first few moments out of hyper-sleep, billions of miles away from the next heartbeat, he always felt scared and alone.
With a few flicks of digital switches, he booted the automated systems. This kicked off his crew’s revivification, as well as breakfast, which somewhere was ready to defrost and warm up, along with a pot of coffee that’d been brewed decades ago, back home, with gravity and everything else.
After the long sleep, even coffee that had been brewed thirty years ago tasted better than pizza and comforted better than sex. The long sleep. Euphemistic for death. He looked up the navigational chart to see how long he and his crew had been dead this time.
Five light years. So, for a smattering over five years his body had been shut off, in stasis, as the silent ship jaunted across the galaxy, looking for spots of interest to stop and wake its small surveyor crew.
Before, it had been a rocky giant, twice the size of Earth but with none of the water or atmosphere. Still, it might be worth something to a mining operation. So, for fifteen days they’d gone around taking samples. Then a short nap. Now here, five years later.
I am one-hundred and six years old now, Tain thought to himself. He tried not to let it overwhelm him. He’d only spent two waking months since leaving Earth as a strapping fifty-two-year-old and yet, back home, fifty years had passed.
You don’t sign up for a deep space survey team if you have a lot of friends and family back home. Tain, his crew Dan and Pete, as well as all the other surveyors they knew, did this specifically because they could disappear for a hundred years and no one would miss them. There was no love lost for the planet either. Earth, at least the Earth for people born into the lower classes, the poor, Earth was crowded and smoggy and dangerous. On Earth, there were too many people and too much medicine. No one had a shelf life anymore. Not if they could pay. So, the planet just kept filling up with people.
“Morning Tain.” Dan slid into his seat, resting a newly filled coffee cup onto his console. Still clumsy from five years of inactivity, he slammed the cup down and he and Tain watched a single brown drop escape through the spout on the cup’s lid and slowly rise to ceiling to explode into a small dot. “So where are we this time, Cap?”
Their course wasn’t set, at least not by them. They were three blue-collar joes who didn’t know the first thing about astronavigation. Still, they could fix machines that broke, take surveys and most importantly, they had been willing to kiss the world they knew goodbye, in favor of an unknown future when they finally made it back a hundred years later.
The truth was that no one set their course. Computers on board communicating with Earth relay stations and other survey missions took all that data and chose routes programmatically. When they went to sleep after a mission, the crew never knew where or when the ship would reawaken them.
“Nebula H75X3 point 7” Tain read off his console.
“What? A nebula, sounds interesting.” Pete climbed into the cabin like a human spider, using both arms and legs to navigate through the cramped, weightless cabin. Their entire craft came in only two segments. Each about the size of a short bus. One for crew quarters and sleep pods. The other section was strictly for survey gear and sample storage.
They’d been to exo-planets, asteroids, a slow-moving comet but never a nebula. Without any solid matter to land on or any soil to sample, Tain figured it’d make for a short trip, over quickly. He didn’t mind doing the leg work but he was always eager for a stop to be over. The sooner they got on to the next one, the sooner the clock would run out and then one day, they’d wake up having finally returned to Earth.
“What, exactly, is there to survey in a nebula?” Dan put up the feed from the exterior cameras and they stared at the giant, golden, gas cloud outside.
Nebula is the catch-all term for any cloud of gas in the universe. Sometimes they can be multiple light years across, other nebulae are only as big as a puff of smoke wafting out of a family’s chimney on a cold day. One nebula might be completely empty of solid matter while others might have a proto-star or a forming planet at their core.
This particular golden hued cloud was about the size of Earth’s star system. With a bright but dead white dwarf in its center.
“Computer says this whole thing was once like our Sun but a million or so years ago everything went tits up and exploded and this is all that remains.”
“So, this is what they have to look forward to back on Earth?” Dan asked, already drawing a distinction between himself and the inhabitants of their home planet. Once they got home and got their cash, Dan would be gone. On the first colony ship out of dodge. Tain and Pete would be right behind him. All three had the same plan, to bust out, join an off world colony and make a new go of it somewhere else. Somewhere without so many people, where their lives could matter to those around them.
Tain would fantasize about his prospective new life under strange skies, somewhere out in the galaxy, with a wife and kids, unlocked doors at night and neighbors who’d know his name. It helped him to get through the busy work of setting up survey equipment and cataloguing samples.
“But how do we survey a nebula?”
“It’s just gasses and maybe some space dust. We scoop some up, slap a tag on it and let the guys back home figure it out.” Tain plunged a cannister into an air lock. The lock was about the size of a jar lid. “Ready? Go.”
With a quick whoosh, the cannister disappeared through the air lock, out into the vast nebula. A moment later, a carbon fiber tether reeled it in and with another whoosh, it slid back through the air lock into the craft, its golden, cloudy payload visible through the glass.
“Cool.” Pete got up close to the sealed cannister and looked inside. It was kind of cool, like shimmering fog. “What is it?”
“Hmmm,” Dan pulled the cannister’s internal spectrometer readings up on his console. “Says here, it’s mostly oxygen, some carbon and -Holy Shit!”
“…” Tain and Pete waited with raised eyebrows.
Dan looked them over, smiled ear to ear, with a sly grin. “And Gold.”
As if responding to an alarm, Pete and Tain sprang into action. Tain wiped the cannister’s logs and marked it as “Lost” in the systems’ computer. Pete took a new cannister and filled it with cabin air, marking it as coming from the nebula. Someone back home, checking in fifty years, would be none the wiser. Dan crunched weights and numbers on his console. All without anyone saying another word.
They’d spent a lot of time together and the subject had come up. “So what do we do if we find something really valuable out there?”
Of course, they’d been briefed about this possibility before ever leaving Earth. Company policy was pretty clear. Everything belonged to the company. All coordinates, all samples, all information. Basically, the company felt, and the men had signed paperwork attesting, that the whole universe was theirs and no one, especially not hirelings, had any rights, to any of it.
But in reality, the crew had no great love, or really even a liking for the company. Most importantly, they had no respect for any paperwork that might have been signed light years ago across the galaxy. The fact of the matter was that here was gold and they’d do whatever they had to in order to keep it…
FIFTY-THREE YEARS LATER, in San Francisco, a young sixty-year old space-tracking employee, happy for his minimum wage job, recorded a blip on his console, indicating that Resource Speculation Corp Vessel Z12X had re-entered the solar system. It took a second or two to figure out who Resource Speculation Corp was. An old mining fleet that’d been sold off before he was ever even born.
Asteroid Steel had bought it but they had in, in turn, been bought by Meal Corp who, ten years ago, had merged with Yum!.
Okay, so it belonged to Yum!. That was easy enough, everything belonged to one of three corporations. Yum!, Bingo or Americorp.
It wasn’t unheard of for a ship this old to return home. During the survey boom of the previous century, they’d sent out thousands of ships like this. Small, about twenty-feet long, in two sections. One for hyper-sleep crew pods, the other for sample storage. What made this particular ship interesting was that the pods had not been initialized before their trip home. A trip that began fifty years ago.
No radio calls were being returned. The systems appeared operational but there was no communication from inside. The computers interfaced, allowing the space traffic controller to take control and bring the craft in to dock on the Alcatraz space port.
The Corp Boys from Yum! all covered their mouths and noses when they opened the doors, expecting about fifty-years of human decay to come wafting out. Instead, a large, yellowish cloud rushed out towards the ground and disappeared into the heavy San Fran wind coming off the bay. With their faces still covered, their mouths all opened as their jaws dropped with what followed.
Three roughnecks stumbled out. The type of schlubs that used to be able to get jobs off world, in the days before ten years of college would become the bare minimum requirement for employment.
The beautiful, cosmetically young execs from corporate had reason to be taken aback, even afraid. There was nowhere near the food or oxygen available on board to keep three men alive for fifty years. Yet these men seemed fine, disoriented but healthy and young, as if they’d just had their latest stem cell revitalization yesterday.
“Captain Albert Tain, SSN5X29R?” the lead suit asked, reading the name off of his tablet. “Uh, welcome home, you’re on Earth?”
The captain tried to stand in place but failed and stumbled off to the side where he toppled over. Then, with wild eyes, he commanded, “Put us back in the ship!”
Hours later, a sedated Tain was sitting in front of a room full of self-important suits, all wide-eyed and eager to solve this new mystery. “How did you and your crew survive five decades of space flight? What happened to your cargo? Your ship came back completely empty. Why did you try to tamper with the ship’s navigation and logs?”
“I tried to wipe the logs so you wouldn’t know where we’d been or what we’d found.” He started from the beginning and explained everything, about the nebula, finding the gold. How they’d planned to extract as much of it as they could and smuggle it back to Earth.
“And you’re just admitting to this? Lying to your employer, corporate sabotage, theft?” one incredulous, doe-eyed suit accused with a scowl. With the precision of birds turning in flight, the other suits scowled too, lest they appear not to take such things seriously.
“Doesn’t matter.” Tain smirked to himself and shook his head. “Forget the gold. You can have it. You can keep my paycheck too while you’re at it. I don’t care. We found something so much better.”
“Better than gold?”
Tain smiled and the audience leaned in, ever so slightly. What could be better than gold, material wealth? With a cannister full of gold you could live forever, eat meat every night, have armies of servants heeding your every demand, feeding your every appetite. That kind of money would make you a god among men. What could possibly be better?
“We had a very big problem on our hands. We knew there was particulate gold in the cloud but we didn’t exactly know how to get it out.” Tain freely explained. He went on to tell them about how they had clumsily and entirely by accident broken open their sample cannister while trying to figure out how to open it. He, Peter and Dan had all been blasted in the face with the shimmering gas. Immediately, they had been overcome by the most euphoric bliss any of them had ever felt. Time disappeared as every nerve ending erupted in non-stop, effortless pleasure. There was no way to tell how long it took for the chemicals they’d inhaled to pass out of their systems and through the air filters.
“The three of us were shaken. We’d never experienced anything like that before. This was amazing, wonderful…” Tain trailed off nostalgically, a soft smile on his lips. “We called it Heaven.”
“At first we were very scientific. We got another cannister and took turns breathing in the gas. The other two would observe. Just a quick inhale would keep you going for about two hours. Two beautiful hours. But we were no closer to understanding it. After a while, we gave up all pretense of trying to figure it out or even take turns. We just kept inhaling the gas, taking a little bite out of heaven each time.
“We pulled the ship deeper into the nebula. Towards the core, close enough until the gas surrounding us was a nice twenty-five degrees Celsius. That way we didn’t have to run the heater inside, so we could conserve power.
“Days went by, months. None of us wanted it to stop. If we’d had enough food we’d have stayed forever. We didn’t yet know what we were dealing with.”
“Drug addiction by the sound of it.” Sneered one dismissive suit and then, like a trained flock of ghetto pigeons, the other suits sneered as well.
“Drug users yes. Addicts? We studied the hell out of this stuff and could find no addictive qualities. No physical side effects, no shivers, pangs, not even a bad attitude when you went without. Only you might miss it in the sense that, after you’ve had it, you know that nothing else could ever possibly feel as good.
“Pete was braver than the two of us. Either that, or he was just more scared. Scared of leaving the cloud. Scared of coming home. One day, without a word, he slipped into a space suit, went through the cargo hold, pulled the hatch and left the ship.
“I got on the radio. Told him to come back inside. Ordered him. He didn’t reply. On screen I watched, sick to my stomach, as he undid his safety valves and removed his helmet.
“Back at Resource Corp, during our training, they beat into our heads all the reasons you were never to take your helmet off in open space. Temperature would freeze you. You’d have no air. Pete had those two covered. The gas was warm and mostly oxygen. But it’s the third caution you really have to worry about. Pressure.
“The human body evolved to live in a very specific environment, under just the right circumstances. In a space suit you’re like a can of soda that’s been shaken up…and when you take your helmet off and pop that tab, you explode. Everything inside you sprays out.
“Well, Pete popped his tab…but he didn’t explode. At that point in the cloud, maybe it was the surrounding gas’ density, maybe the star’s, but the pressure was equalized. Same as Earth. Pete later tried to tell me that it was all a pre-planned and calculated risk. But I still believe it was an honest to goodness suicide attempt. Either way, Pete survived.
“It took Dan and me about forty-five minutes to grapple his suit and get him back inside. We thought we were reeling in a dead body. He wasn’t moving but once we got him back into the ship, we could see that he was alive, high off his ass, but safe.
“When he came back down Pete was ecstatic. He told us that full submersion into the cloud felt ten times better than just inhaling a sample.
“Needless to say, Dan and I were next out. One after the other, an hour each. It was better, like being enveloped warmly into a quilt of bliss!” As he spoke, Tain’s eyes dreamily looked out at nothing in particular.
“If that had been it, fine, we’d have been happy to continue taking turns, floating and pulling one another back, until our food ran out. We’d had it all planned. We were going to extract as much gold and as many cannisters of gas as we could. Once home, we’d use the money for one giant, deep space tanker and we’d come back, get as much gas as it could hold and take it to Earth for personal use and sale.
“Seemed like a good plan, and like I said, had that been our last discovery, that you could find a sweet spot and float along in relatively open space without a suit, we’d have happily carried it out.”
“What was the last discovery?”
The young-looking, business class men and women were dialed in on Tain, awaiting an explanation.
“See, we were supposed to take turns. Two guys out and the third waits and then reels them back in. It was lonely and excruciatingly boring waiting for your turn but you didn’t mind, because more time in the cloud was worth it. Well one day, ol’ Pete there couldn’t hack the boredom. Instead he attached himself to the tether and set it on a timer to pull himself back in. In his eagerness, he mis-entered the timer settings. What should have been six hours turned out to be six days. All three of us, outside the ship, he left us there for six days.
“In the cloud you have no concept of time, of self, of anything. You exist as a pure joy. When the automatic tether finally clicked on and dragged us back into the ship, six days later, we had no idea how long we’d been out. I remember being mildly incensed that Pete would do something as reckless as leaving the ship. When outside the cloud, that’s about the most anger you can summon. What’s the point? What’s the point of being upset about something or someone? People aren’t perfect, life is not perfect but here was this cloud that was. No point in getting hung up on the “should haves” or “could have beens,” there was something better than all of it and it was right here.” Tain shrugged.
“Anyway, when I looked at the console and saw what he’d really done to us, I couldn’t believe it. Six days without food, water, possibly sleep and yet we were fine. We weren’t even that hungry. I’d eaten before my float and that was it. We hadn’t gone to the bathroom on ourselves. Our hair and nails hadn’t grown. Our muscles hadn’t atrophied. Six days.
“The cloud sustains you somehow. It’s like a hyper-sleep stasis but not where you’re put to death and frozen. You just exist.
“Were we delusional? Were we so high that we couldn’t see that we were all wasting away? All medical diagnostics that we had access to came back the same, we were all in good health, great health in fact. We went out for longer. Two weeks. A month…One year.”
The crowd stirred and everyone looked at each other, hoping to find some clue as to how to react. Were they to believe all of this? Was this even possible? Surely it seemed impossible but no one was saying anything.
“When we came back from the year out, we had to have a serious conversation about just what it was we’d found and the implications thereof. I am not religious, at all, but I am forced to ask myself if the universe has put this great thing here specifically for us to find.
“For thousands of years, human beings have scraped and crawled through lives of unimaginable horror and pain. All the while we’ve been increasing our knowledge of the universe and understanding of our many predicaments.
“With life being what it is, as painful as it is, we have always pushed forward, hoping to find any respite we can from the agony. Medicine, religion, wealth, work, we do whatever we have to, like a man on fire, flailing in hopes that this random movement or the next, will in some way put out the blaze.
“We explored our entire planet, found no solution to our problems. We have cured old age and taken the cap off our lifespans but still we hurt. We still strive for better. We reach out into the universe, spreading ourselves across the cosmos and then, we find this thing. A cloud swirling out there in the middle of oblivion. A cloud that offers us not only eternal life, but eternal peace, happiness. How can this not be the end of the road? What more do we expect to find out there? This is heaven. I can’t say if it was a happenstance of natural order, a lucky mistake or if there is something out there, a creator perhaps, who made us and made it and meant for us to find it.
“The fact that none of us could answer this question made us re-evaluate our situation. Were we going to permanently submerge into the cloud and send our ship home, empty and without explanation? Or did we have an obligation to return and share with others what we’d found?
“You can’t imagine how difficult a decision it was for us to leave the cloud. To literally pull ourselves away from heaven, with the full knowledge that we may never be able to get back. We couldn’t even be sure the Earth would be where we’d left it or how we left it. It’s been over a hundred years for us since we took off.
“But in the end, we decided we had to come back. If the cloud is our species’ destiny then it belongs to everyone, not just us. So we evacuated our cargo, got rid of anything that took up space and that the ship didn’t absolutely need. We filled our hull with the gas and set our navigation system to bring us home. All the way home we floated in the gas, fifty light years. And here we are.
“Now, here’s the deal. We want to go back. We want to go back and bring anyone else with us who wants to come. There’s room. There’s more of that gas, than there is matter on our planet. It can hold us all. All of us.
“If you don’t send us back, we will take the coordinates to your competitors, the cloud’s got more gold in it than there’s water in the ocean. They’ll either be willing to take us back or pay us enough to buy our own way. The choice is yours.”
“Well, I mean, what you say is very fascinating but, I mean, we have no proof to go on,” one of the suits poked, wondering what everyone in the room was wondering.
“We kept a few cannisters. You can all try the gas.” Tain smirked and the flock silently thrilled.
A little bit over fifty years later, the first carriers began showing up in the cloud. On the very first one and also first out into the cloud, were Tain, Dan and Pete. They were even followed by some of the suits who’d been in the room. The air traffic controller from San Francisco, rich people, poor people, an entire cross section of the population had paid to be ferried across the universe and then dumped into this golden nebula.
Ship after ship came and went, taking gas and leaving people. Millions became billions of bodies happily floating around without care or concern, permanent in their ecstasy.