A Time Capsule’s Story
Lance J. Mushung
Sol blazed dead ahead through the cockpit canopy of Chronos and the command console’s viewer projected the image of Earth directly aft. My ship had already traveled a good distance, providing a lovely view of the blue and white marble. Staring at home, I still found it hard to believe I’d soon fall asleep and see it again in 200 years.
The contralto voice of Lucy, the A.I. of Chronos, yanked my attention from the viewer. “Message from Mr. Doors coming in. You were correct about him contacting you one more time.”
My brief laugh sounded more like a snort. “He wouldn’t miss a chance for a news media event. After all, he financed this mission so I could reacquaint the future with his accomplishments, if his name wasn’t already in the history books and on buildings, streets, and the like.”
The somewhat arrogant face of the tech titan Eli Doors replaced Earth on the viewer. “Ms. Powell, I wish you a safe journey. Sleep well and Godspeed.”
I said, “Lucy, transmit the thank you message I recorded earlier.”
“Done. Chronos and her systems are nominal. The hibernation locker is prepped and you have already disrobed. Lie down on its tray when ready.”
I looked around the tiny battleship gray cockpit one last time. Everything appeared shipshape. After inhaling and exhaling one deep breath, I turned to face my bed of two centuries and nodded.
A tray slid out of the hibernation locker without a sound, leaving only a sliver of free deck space. I stretched out face-up on the warm soft tray and it glided back into the unlit locker. Interred in a coffin would have been the same. Straps encircled my wrists and ankles, probes and catheters entered my body, and my eyelids became heavy.
A delightful warmth bathed me, like taking a nap in the sun on a spring day. Although the sensation was the very definition of bliss, I opened my eyes. Looking through the brunette veil of my floating hair, the cockpit seemed unchanged. “Lucy, are you there?”
“Welcome back to consciousness. How do you feel?”
“Good. How are you and Chronos?”
“We are fully functional and in high orbit over Earth. It is 199.873 years since you entered hibernation.”
I whispered, “We did it,” and closed my eyes again to bask in contentment.
Lucy allowed no time for basking. “There is much more.”
“Fine, but please release my straps first.”
The straps retracted. I grasped the side of the tray with one hand and pushed the hair away from my face with the other while hoping someone had thought to stow a scrunchy. “Okay.”
“Earth is not as expected. All cities are ruins except for some with dense development near the ruins of the past. I contacted officials of a planetary government, Earthgov, and learned basic facts. Disease, starvation, and resource wars that included nuclear exchanges followed the devastation of climate change. Survivors banded together in compact enclosed cities as protection against radiation, plague, pollution, and roving gangs of marauders. I explained you are a living time capsule on the sleeper ship Chronos and they want to meet you, but have no spaceflight capability. You will need to use the escape pod. An Earthgov representative, Gita, will collect you when you land. They speak a simplified English containing many foreign words, but Gita also speaks your English.”
If I’d been standing, the world would have been spinning around me. I’d expected technological wonders, but instead the TV shows I’d seen about climate change and other Earth apocalypses filled my mind.
Lucy said, “You are clearly distressed, but you need to decide when to leave.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, not as expected was the understatement of the century. I guess I should head down as soon as possible. When can I, and where?”
“Gita wants your touchdown at 28.612 N and 77.925 E near Greater New Delhi, the capital of Earth this year. There is an entry window in 19.7 minutes. I will inform her you are coming and after your departure fly to Lagrangian Point One where I can remain indefinitely using next to no power.”
I dressed in a royal blue jumpsuit and put my hair through a matching scrunchy, thinking thanks to the person who’d packed it. I then donned an orange pressure suit, buckled myself into the cramped pod, and went through the deployment checklist.
“The pod is ready,” Lucy said moments after I completed the checklist. “Its computer is programmed for your descent and you will eject automatically in 2.25 minutes.”
“Be careful out at L1.”
“I should encounter no problems. Good luck.”
I waited in silence attempting to forget the apocalyptic TV shows until gentle acceleration pushed me into the seat. The black of space soon swallowed the navy-blue cone of Chronos.
The pod rotated into the entry orientation and following a countdown from five the retro-rockets fired, shoving me into the seat. The pod shuddered and brilliant orange-yellow flames surrounded us as we flew into the atmosphere. Once the flames died away, the ride smoothed and we fell through a blue sky.
The main parachute deployed and we floated to Earth. When the ground seemed close enough to touch, the retro-rockets fired a brief burst, after which the pod set down with a hard thump. I inhaled and exhaled several slow deep breaths. No words could express my profound sense of accomplishment at returning home.
I scootched out the hatch and dropped to the ground. I had no trouble standing, proving the hibernation locker had maintained my bones, muscles, and sense of balance as intended.
We’d landed in a flat field of wheat. The orange and white parachute lay nearby flapping in the breeze like a wounded bird. The pod, which resembled an American Mercury capsule with stubby legs, had completed its job in good condition. Only the lower portions of its dark gray exterior had been scorched.
I opened the helmet’s faceplate and Earthy-scented air flowed into my nostrils. The sun beat down through an almost cloudless mid-afternoon sky and a few beads of sweat soon started rolling down my cheeks even with the breeze caressing my face. I stripped off the pressure suit and tossed it into the pod. The breeze cooled me while ruffling my hair and jumpsuit.
Standing on one of the pod’s legs provided a good view of the surroundings. A white vehicle, a box on caterpillar tracks, had already come quite close. Only the sound of its tracks announced it as it drove up and stopped next to me. It had been marked with the blue U.N. logo and a black alpha-numeric string, a serial number I assumed.
The vehicle’s door slid open. A short, about my height, red-haired woman hopped out followed by a tall dark-haired man. They both wore sleeveless shifts, hers royal purple and his forest green, and black ankle boots. I added a question about current clothing styles to the many already on my mental list.
The woman placed her right hand over her heart. “Susan Powell, welcome. I am Gita.” She gestured to the man with her other hand. “This is Mehal. We both speak your old English.”
I dipped my chin. “It’s my pleasure to meet you both.”
“Mehal is a medical technician. He will perform a health assessment while we talk. You will not notice a thing.”
Mehal pulled what looked like a tablet or cell phone from a brown shoulder bag and pointed it at me as if taking a picture.
Gita smiled like an entomologist who’d found a new bug. “There are records of your mission in our archives. Congratulations on your fantastic voyage. You have achieved something truly remarkable. The financier of your mission, Eli Doors, certainly had unique goals.”
“Yes, his desire to make certain his name is everywhere was egomaniacal, but I couldn’t say no to an opportunity to see the future. Based on what I’ve heard, I assume he is not well known.”
“That is true. We will discuss it all during the ride to the city. However, I would like to ask right away why Doors did not set up your hibernation on the planet?”
“He worried that someone would end my mission early on Earth, so he sent me on a comet-like highly elliptical orbit. He had an obsession with 200 years.”
Mehal nodded to Gita and looked at me again. “You are healthy. There was one great stride in medicine after you left. Medical nano-bots were developed in Atlanta almost a century ago to maintain our health through plagues, radiation, and pollution. The nano-bots also stabilize DNA decay and reduce the problem of cell division becoming less efficient as we age. They provide lifespans of up to 1000 years and are in everyone on the planet. I am injecting them into you and estimate you will live at least 600 more years.”
I wobbled and put my hands out in case I fell. Either of them could have knocked me over with a feather, just as the old adage described.
Mehal grabbed my left arm to steady me and put an edge of the tablet on my neck. A brief pinch and hiss were the only indication it had done anything.
Gita said, “We expected you to be shocked about your new lifespan.”
I murmured, “No joke.”
Mehal reached into his bag and produced something nickel colored. My intuition screamed weapon. He aimed at Gita, the weapon buzzed like a swarm of mosquitoes, and she crumpled to the ground.
Mehal turned to me. “She is only stunned. You need to come with me.”
I began backing away. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He pointed the weapon at me.
I woke up with my right side aching in protest from lying on something hard. I’d been placed on a concrete floor in a room with dim lighting. Mehal was sitting with his back to me in front of a large viewer which displayed a number of panels, all showing scenes of flat fields similar to where I’d landed.
Something pulled on my neck when I tried to get to my feet and I ran my fingers over it. I wore a smooth collar like a choker necklace and a short cable connected it to an eyebolt screwed into the floor. The cable allowed me to do no more than sit up.
Mehal swiveled his chair to face me. “Good. You are awake. I am sorry I had to stun you and hope you will understand later as you learn more.”
“What the hell is going on here?”
“Earthgov’s artificial brain determined your fate less than five minutes after your ship made contact. The outgoing risk-taking culture you represent would disrupt the status quo and threaten our leaders. They therefore intend to isolate you from the public by imprisoning you. They want the public passive and believing a long and safe life is better than actually living. That makes it possible for them to remain in control for centuries. I am part of a growing movement of dissenters.”
“You say they want to put me in prison, yet you’ve taken me prisoner?”
“I could not have you running away before you understand the circumstances. You will be freed once we reach a safe location. We will not isolate you from the public and hope you will help us against Earthgov, although you will be allowed to do whatever you wish.”
“What makes the government so bad?”
“We live packed like rats in the cities. New technologies since the nano-bots have been suppressed. News is managed. Even entertainment is controlled. We have no adventure tales and our vids consist entirely of what you would call soap operas. It oppresses our stagnant planet in so many other ways too.”
“If I’m such a problem, why didn’t they simply arrest or kill me at my pod?”
“Nobody has been executed since the last of the marauders, and our leaders felt you would be more forthcoming with information if you believed you were welcome.”
A short chirp came from the viewer and Mehal swiveled back to it. Four people dressed in black had appeared in one panel. They would have been at home in the police SWAT teams of the past.
Mehal groaned, jumped up, and dashed through a side door. The viewer showed him outside sprinting away before falling to the ground and skidding to a stop.
One of the SWAT team burst into the room and leveled a weapon at me before I could smile or say thanks.
The need to pee awakened me, along with my brain pounding on my skull. I squeezed my temples while squinting, after which the pounding lessened. My doubts about what Mehal had told me evaporated when I opened my eyes. A lattice of gray bars surrounded me in the center of a larger concrete room. My Spartan cell held only the bed I was on, a tablet beside me, a viewer past the foot of the bed, and a hygiene area. I couldn’t say my situation surprised me. Little could any longer.
I rushed to the hygiene area and returned to the bed once done.
Gita appeared on the viewer. “You will completely recover shortly. You have been stunned twice in a short period. Mehal, who is incarcerated at another location, recovered some time ago. We persuaded him to tell us everything.”
“Persuaded, huh. I’m sure. How long do you plan to hold me like this?”
“Six centuries. You bitch.” The pitch of my voice had risen on each word.
She shrugged. “I have been called much worse. However, this was not my decision and I regret it must happen to you. I fear after learning our dialect you will not find much of the programming available on the viewer interesting. I therefore provided the reader. It holds over 73,000 novels in your English, most of which are not available to the public. Goodbye.”
The viewer clicked off.
Spending life caged sounded just about as tragic as it could be. I lowered my chin onto my hands, a pose of resignation which I hated showing to those watching me, but raised my head again when I thought of an old quote and the growing dissenter movement. The father of tragedy, Aeschylus, had said, ‘Time brings all things to pass.’ I almost laughed. Who would have thought a course in ancient Greek literature would ever pay off? Aeschylus had hit the nail on the head. People wouldn’t accept the baloney Earthgov was shoving down their throats for their entire long lives. The dissenters would free me, and it wouldn’t take 600 years. And my jailors might make a mistake, in time. I’d pounce on any chance to get away.
I picked up the reader and scrolled through the sci-fi titles, until coming across a novel by Joe Haldeman. I began reading.