The Sleep

The research base on Gliese 667 Cc didn’t offer much in the way of amusement for a twelve year old boy, but Juan made do.  He knew better than to go near his parents while they worked, so spent most of his time gazing out one of the few small windows with his sketch tablet in hand.

“What’s that supposed to be?” asked Keira, peering over his shoulder.  Only two years his senior, Keira already acted as old as the rest of the grownups.

“A viewing room,” said Juan, holding up his tablet and pointing to the key elements.  “Like the solarium, but two stories tall.  It uses triangles for structural integrity, and the windows are segmented into small sections that could each be sealed individually if needed.  We could see everything.”

It wasn’t that the research base was without scenery.  The hydroponic greenhouse was lush with color and the main cafeteria had murals painted on the walls, floor and ceiling.  It was the beauty out there that Juan craved, though, and their mostly subterranean base afforded few glimpses.

“We still don’t know enough about the radiation levels,” recited Keira, sounding like a carbon copy of Juan’s own mother.  “Not to mention the storm systems.  For all we know, Old Glieser might have killer storms on a twenty orbit cycle or something.”  Old Glieser was their nickname for the planet.  It was a small thing, an endearment, but it helped embed familiarity in an otherwise alien place.  “You know you aren’t supposed to keep that open for more than twenty minutes,” she added, nodding toward the round window looking out on Old Glieser’s odd sun.

Juan swung the thick metal plug shut and tightened the wheel until it was secure.  He didn’t see why it was such a big deal to peer out the windows, but the rules were strict, and being the youngest person in the base, Juan had an awful lot of people watching that he mind the rules.  He knew better than to go near the solarium, a room that had been designed before concerns were raised over radiation and storms and the rest.  A tantalizing metal diaphragm spiraled over top fainting couches and a constellation dotted the floor that Juan suspected to be a mirror of what they’d see if they had the courage to open the diaphragm to expose the giant viewing windows.

Keira had a crafty gleam in her eye that Juan had only just noticed.  She’d come to tell him something.  Tucking his tablet in a pocket, he folded his arms and waited, knowing that she wanted him to ask.  He’d end up in a maddening guessing game.  He could tell by the level of her excitement that she would cave in before long.

“Oh fine,” she said after a surprisingly short wait.  “Guess what they found in the samples from yesterday’s dig.”

Juan continued to wait.  He almost laughed when she forged ahead within a minute.  She really was excited.

“You’re no fun,” she scowled.  “Movement.  They found movement.  Life, Juan!  They found evidence of life!”

Juan wondered if Keira was aware that she was hopping up and down and nearly giggling.

“Microbes?” he asked.  His parents had hoped to find microbes here and so far had been disappointed.  Keira shook her head.

“That’s what has everyone in the lab,” she said.  “And I mean everyone.  The cooks, the drillers, everybody except for you and me.  The elements are crystalline, see, but their movements are unmistakable.  Orderly, purposeful shifts.  My dad says the implications are staggering.”

Juan had no problem keeping pace with Keira as they sprinted to the lab, and he found that she hadn’t been exaggerating about the attendee list.  It took several minutes to press through the cracks between adult bodies before they made it to their parents’ hips.  Juan’s mother grinned at him with so much excitement, he was surprised she wasn’t hopping and giggling like Keira.

“Everything we thought we knew,” she said, smoothing his hair.  “Oh Juan, this is a moment for history.  Remember it.”

He beamed back, unable to put to words the sense of pride he felt for both of his parents.  They were simply amazing, smiling at each other with beautiful joy.  The tone of elation lasted two more days before the base inhabitants were informed that there was a problem.

“We’re ruling out contaminants,” Doctor Brodin explained to the assembled base inhabitants.  “The symptoms are very similar to a coma, though we believe something else is at play here.”

There was a long silence, where uneasy glances were exchanged.

“All of our levels are exactly where they should be,” said Mr. Orson, the head mechanic.  “Our oxygen is pumping just fine and the filters haven’t been picking up anything unusual.”

“Is no one going to say it?” asked Doctor Heidel, one of the research scientists on Juan’s parents’ team.  “We found evidence of lifeforms we don’t begin to understand, brought them into our lab, and have been breathing the same air as them for days now.”

Conversation spread like wildfire until it seemed like everyone was shouting and no one was listening.  It took some time for Doctor Brodin to regain his audience.

“We don’t know anything for certain,” he said finally.  “So far there hasn’t been a clear path of contagion.  None of the scientists working directly with the lifeforms have fallen ill yet, and I can’t find anything in common between the four patients.  Nonetheless, it might be prudent to secure the lifeforms in quarantine chambers.”

This was done, and all research was halted, but it didn’t slow the rate of contagion.  Each morning, someone new failed to awaken.  Doctor Brodin’s infirmary filled up in the weeks to follow, forcing him to take over two hallways, one of the labs and the solarium.  Juan and Keira were pressed into helping him care for the patients, particularly after both of their parents succumbed.

“Are you afraid to go to sleep?” Keira asked as they changed the bed pad of a patient.

Their movements had taken on the rhythm of practice, and now that they no longer had to talk through what they were doing, they found they had plenty of time to chat.  There wasn’t much to discuss, though, beyond the mysterious illness sending everyone they knew and loved to endless sleep.  Juan nodded.

“I’ve been having strange dreams,” he admitted.  “Like I’m doing math problems all night.”

“That’s normal,” said Keira.  “Our brains use tons of logic while we dream.  That’s all dreams are.  Random fragments from your day, arranged by your brain into as logical a sequence that it can make.  That’s why you think there’s a meaning, or story line.  All it is is your brain doing logic problems.”

Juan scowled at her.  His dreams had never been logic problems.  They had been richly colored and vibrant once.  The kind of dream that keeps you from wanting to wake because so much was happening.  They didn’t need to make sense, they were beautiful, and chaotic, and just right.  His dreams recently, though, felt different.  He didn’t know how to put it into words so he just shrugged and let it go.

The next day was Doctor Brodin’s turn to fail to wake, and it fell to Juan and Keira to oversee the infirmary.

“There are less than ten of us running the base,” said Eugene when the survivors met that evening in the cafeteria, “and none of us are senior anything.  We’ve lost our experts.  I don’t think there’s anyone left who even knows how to send a communication warning our resupply ship.”

“When are they due?” asked Juan.  Eugene was right, he realized as he looked around.  No one in the room was older than twenty.  These were the children of the people who ran the place.

“Don’t know,” shrugged Eugene, “and doesn’t matter.  Anyone here know how to help them dock?”

Silence answered his question.

“Does it seem like people are falling in order?” Keira muttered.  It wasn’t clear that she’d meant for her thought to be heard.

“What kind of order?” asked Eugene.

“Of age,” she said.  “The oldest people fell asleep first.  I didn’t notice it until recently, but the way we laid them out, you know, as we’ve had to expand and move the cots into hallways and stuff, they’re there in order of who fell asleep first, and next. and next, etcetera.  They’re getting younger as you get into the solarium, and we’re the youngest people on the base.  We’re all that’s left.”

No one had much to say after that.  Eugene was next, and as the days passed, it became apparent that Keira was absolutely right.  Finally, only Keira and Juan remained, and it took them all of the day to feed and monitor their patients.  Keira’s movements were quick and clumsy, but Juan didn’t complain.  He was just as terrified of losing her as she was of falling to the sleep.

“You have to help me stay awake tonight,” she demanded.

“No problem,” promised Juan.

Though he ached with fatigue, he had no desire to fall asleep.  His dreams had continued to be a monotony of numbers and shapes sliding together in perfect, rhythmic succession, as if he spent the night watching the inner workings of a machine.  He was sick to death of them and quite happy never to sleep or dream again.

They walked the empty halls, attempting conversation but finding their list of topics well drained after the weeks they’d just been through.  Keira fed herself a steady diet of caffeine, which seemed to help at first, but as the morning wore on she was far worse for wear than Juan.

“Let’s look out a window,” suggested Juan.  It had been a while since he’d even had the impulse, and even as he said it, the idea was sour to him somehow.

“The radiation!” Keira cried, as if he’d just suggested she stick her head in a microwave oven or something.  “There could be a storm coming, and the glass could crack, and we wouldn’t know how to repair it and we could lose pressure, and…”

“No biggy,” said Juan, already wondering why he felt so relieved not to be untwisting the plug to one of the windows.

He’d loved gazing out not long ago.  What had happened?  As they rounded the next turn, though, he was reminded of exactly what had happened.  He and Keira began their long day of keeping their sleeping community alive.

Keira insisted that Juan stay by her side through the morning, but her many cups of coffee required many trips to the restroom.  When she had failed to return from one such trip after half an hour, Juan plucked up his courage and went in search of her.  He found her her slumped beside the sink, the water still running.

Keira was taller than him still, but he managed to drag her to a stack of blankets in the solarium.  They’d run out of cots and the fainting sofas were all taken.  He stretched out beside her, staring up at the metal diaphragm that separated them from a view of their red dwarf sun and unfamiliar constellations.  Once, he’d dreamed of opening it and gazing out with wonder at this new view of the universe, but now the thought only flooded him with dread.

He listened to the rhythmic intake and exhale of his sleeping community and considered getting it over with.  He could close his eyes and give in to the numbers and shapes of his dreams.  He was so tired.  In and out they breathed.  In and out.  It was soothing.  In, out, together.  As one.  He sat up, adrenaline raking through his veins like live wires.

They were breathing in unison!  He held his breath, just to be sure.  In, out.  In, out.  No one snored.  No one murmured, or moved.  In, out.  The rhythm was perfect, like machinery.  Like his dreams.  As if controlled by something.

Juan jumped up and paced, trying to think of what to do.  What did he know?  The sleeping sickness had begun after they brought the lifeforms into the base.  They were new, unknown.  Crystalline, with geometric properties that had everyone buzzing.  Shapes and numbers.  And movement.  They had been found under the surface.  Deep under the surface.  It had been a drilling team that brought the samples in.  What would that mean?  What would it mean if the lifeforms were sentient?

The idea blared in his mind, though how it got there he couldn’t say.  It didn’t matter.  Sentient meant aware.  Awareness meant choice.  Choice meant that where they had been found could be significant, like being underground might mean an avoidance of something on the surface, for instance.

Everything that had happened could be significant.  He stared at the metal diaphragm above his head and wondered again at his sudden reluctance to see the outer world one last time.  His sketch pad was filled with drawings of the mountaintops he could see, as well as constellations.

He went to the hand crank that would open the diaphragm, fighting down the sensation of dread.  The old doctors had plenty of dazzling arguments about why windows were dangerous with the amount they still didn’t know of this planet, but his own reluctance was suspicious.  He wanted to see.  Right?  It seemed like a terrible idea now that he had his hands on the cold metal crank.

“Just once,” he encouraged himself.  “There’s nothing to lose anymore.”

The crank turned easily enough, but his muscles screamed as if it weighed a ton.  Slowly, the aperture opened to a breathtaking view.  A twilight sky made both the stars and the surrounding mountains glisten with equal force.  Juan felt pain at the light, but kept turning the crank until the solarium was fully exposed.  The breathing in the room was noisy now and erratic, matching the odd panic and chaos fluttering around his mind.  Juan fought the sense that a part of him was shrinking away.  It felt important, but he was too tired to care anymore.

Someone coughed at the other end of the room.  The room seemed loud compared to the stillness of before, with movement and low snores, but Juan could barely think past his exhaustion.  He felt as if he had just fought a battle, or made some great achievement, and now stood emptied and spent.  He picked his way around the shifting bodies and found his spot again beside Keira, tangling his fingers through hers, imagining for a second that her grip tightened in response.

“I wish you could see this,” he whispered before he slipped into vivid, colorful dreams.

Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at Oh, and please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books Thanks for reading!