Three hundred and sixty-five.
That’s how many cycles it had been since he woke. “Days,” Leonid supposed was the term. For that matter, “a year.” But neither really meant much without a sun to revolve past, and around.
Nothing meant much.
The rest had not woken. Disease? Malfunction? He couldn’t be sure, but when he checked the other seven cryopods, he’d found corpses inside.
The plan had been for them, all of them, to be awakened in time to maneuver the vessel into orbit around Proxima Centauri, the closest exoplanet yet found. Of course, “closest” didn’t mean much, either. Four lightyears and change wasn’t ever going to have been a quick jaunt, not even if they had cracked the lightspeed barrier.
Which was why they’d been in the cryopods. Travel goes faster if you can sleep for a few decades.
He didn’t know why they’d opened early. He didn’t know why his was the only one that didn’t malfunction. He didn’t know why he’d been alone for three hundred and sixty-five cycles.
Leonid couldn’t remember their faces. Their last names were there, officiously inscribed on each rack. But he couldn’t see them, remember them, these people he’d trained with, lived with for so long.
The eight of them. Scientists, all, but also with other skills. Each taught to perform some task that would make the terraforming of the new planet happen.
Including creating a population.
Four males, four females. They had everything they needed to artificially produce embryos, develop them to viability. But none of them were fooled, there was a reason for the gender breakdown. Life would be produced, human life continued, one way or another.
He wondered which of the women he’d been attracted to. Was there more than one? Would possessiveness and jealousy be acceptable in this new world? Surely that was a quality (or fault) that had been learned over time, by early hominids. All that would matter in the beginning was propagation.
Didn’t matter anymore.
After a period of shock, Leonid realized that the corpses, now exposed to oxygen, would need to be removed, and soon. He didn’t know, not at first, why it was he’d decided against putting them into their EVA suits before placing them in the airlock. He’d tethered the bodies to the side, letting them drift along aside the vessel, perhaps under the illusion that he’d bury them upon arrival at their new home. Maybe he’d thought he could harvest their genetic material for creating a new humanity.
But once he ran through the larder and rations they’d carried with them in the vessel, he knew why he’d done it.
The flesh had freeze-dried in the vacuum of space, becoming almost a jerky. Leonid wasn’t happy to eat it, but he knew he had to in order to stay alive. That’s everything his training had been about, staying alive.
There was no real telling how long he’d been traveling. The chronograph seemed to have been damaged while they slept, or somehow disconnected, and he’d restarted it when he woke.
Three hundred and sixty-five cycles ago.
Likewise, he couldn’t tell how close he was to Proxima Centauri. Years? Lightyears?
Better not to consider such things. Negativity didn’t help. Keep a positive attitude, that was the first element of survival. He’d been taught that right from the beginning. He couldn’t afford to think about it.
Or so he’d told himself for all these cycles.
Now, he was having trouble remembering that.
Especially now that he was done with the last of the food. “Crenshaw,” that was the name on the uniform the carcass had worn, but he hadn’t recognized the face. He couldn’t even tell the gender.
How much longer?
It had been a few cycles since the Crenshaw ran out. Water hadn’t been an issue, as the vessel’s hydrogen system had produced plenty for him, more than enough. Enough for a crew of eight.
A man can go days without food, Leonid knew. A week, even. But what did such things mean without a sun to watch pass, a moon to sleep under?
No, stop, he told himself. Stop thinking like that.
Could he remember his own family? He had made peace with never seeing them again, but that was when he thought he was going to be starting a new world, saving the human race.
Now, he was the last of his kind. Or as good as such. No one was coming to save him. And he was forever away from anywhere he could call a home.
Leonid found himself at the airlock door. Had he walked there? He must have. He couldn’t recall doing so.
He opened the door. The warning klaxons were much louder without a helmet muffling their racket.
He looked through the portal, the glass that separated him from the endless black. He saw the tethers that had once carried his team, empty now, limp and unmoving, but still following.
He looked at the panel beside the portal, the series of levers and dials and buttons that needed to be pressed in a complicated sequence, to ensure the door wasn’t opened accidentally.
Leonid started the sequence, gaze still out at the void beyond.
He pressed the last button and felt himself pulled out.
“Three hundred sixty-five,” Sanjeet mused. “What is it about that number?”
“Well,” LaToya said, marking notes onto the tablet that would end the simulation, “it’s a year. You know, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, you think about these things.”
“But they’ve been trained not to,” Sanjeet said, looking through the glass at the subject known as Leonid, lolling in the chair that fed him images and sensations. “I mean, once you’ve done a year, you can do two, right? Three?”
“It’s got to be a challenge when there’s no hope,” LaToya pointed out. She signed off on the tablet and slid the panel to reveal files for the rest of the test subjects. Which one would she choose?
“Maybe that’s a variable we should consider,” Sanjeet said. “Giving them hope.”
Distracted, LaToya muttered, “Oh? What do you suggest?”
“I don’t know,” Sanjeet replied, watching the orderlies take Leonid away. “Maybe a companion. A houseplant, say, or an animal.”
LaToya scoffed. “Animal? Another mouth to feed?”
“Okay,” Sanjeet allowed. “But what about a stuffed animal? They used to do that in the early days. Not for the same reason, but still…”
“An astronaut with a teddy bear?” LaToya’s scoff turned to a laugh, then stopped. “Hey,” she said, “how about this one?”
She turned the screen so Sanjeet could see it. “Audrey,” he read. “You thinking a woman can break the one year barrier?”
“I’d bet on it,” LaToya said.
“Loser buys at the Thirsty Turtle?”
“You’re on,” she smiled. “Pay up in one year.”
“Three hundred sixty-five days,” Sanjeet reminded.
LaToya nodded and said:
“Three hundred sixty-five.”
BIO: Pete Barnstrom is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker whose projects have played at theaters and film festivals all over the world. He’s shot documentaries in Greenland for the National Science Foundation, edited a feature for the Blair Witch guys (not that one), and seen one of his films screened at the Smithsonian. His experimental short films earned a grant from the Artist Foundation, and Amazon Studios bought a family film screenplay from him. He lives quietly in Texas and loudly elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter at @MistahPete and on Instagram at mistah.pete