Sedna made the final approach, unaware of her proximity to the icy, rocky comet. Her solitary mission: the first comet walk in history. Suspended animation was necessary for the three-year flight, to preserve water and oxygen and protect the astronaut from the effects of isolation until she could be reawakened.
Approaching too fast, the craft collided with the comet, damaging the radio antenna but keeping life-support intact. Sedna knew none of this. Reanimation sequence had failed.
Onward she flew, anchored to the comet, to the outer reaches of the Solar System. Orbital period 11,400 years. To sleep perchance to dream.
* * * * *
When the reanimation sequence finally kicked in, it was somewhat later than anticipated by Flight Control. Sedna had been placed into stasis 10 days before the three-year voyage began on April 1st, 2032. This was the first time that an astronaut had been sent into space fully in hibernation since the technique had been tested and perfected a few years before.
“I dreamt about you Celia,” she mumbled as she began to awaken, thinking she was lying in bed with her partner of five years. They had married hastily when Sedna was told she had been bumped up to Number One astronaut for the long-range mission to Comet Chawla. “I dreamt about you all night. I dreamt we grew old together and celebrated our one hundredth anniversary dancing in the moonlight. Wouldn’t that be something?” An age seemed to pass as she tried to wake herself fully.
“You there Celia, darling?” she said, dreamily, before beginning to realize that she wasn’t in bed with her beloved wife but in a spacecraft that she recalled was heading for a rendezvous with another heavenly body. Glancing groggily out of the observation window, she was surprised to see that she had already landed on the comet, its ragged horizon visible a short distance away, the canopy of stars lighting up the heavens above and beyond.
Something was wrong with the starscape outside but, in her half-awake state, Sedna could not quite work out what it was.
Where the Sun should have been, all that Sedna could see was a small white disc, hardly bigger than the stars surrounding it. It was without doubt a star and, given its brightness, it must be the Sun but why was it so small?
Fully awake now, but aching in every fiber of her being, Sedna did her best to gather her thoughts. She was still suffering from the long period of stasis. She tried again to focus.
“No, it can’t be…” She spoke the words out loud, anxious to hear a human voice, even her own. She attempted to sit up, but her movement was limited by the restraining straps holding her down within the ‘cot’, her pressurized life-support pod lodged within the command module. The lid had already swung open following pressurization of the module itself, all part of the reanimation sequence that should have occurred three years after take-off and a few days before scheduled touch-down on the comet. Something must have gone wrong for her already to have landed, but Sedna could not fathom the sequence of events that could have led to her present situation.
She needed to get a grip.
“Now, let’s start from the beginning, girl,” she said, again speaking aloud. She thought about undoing the straps holding her into the cradle but decided against. They had been put there for a reason. She had free movement of her arms and so reached out with them, stretching muscles for the first time.
“Ahhhh, ah, ah…” She could feel the pain shooting right through both limbs and down to the shoulders and spine. She relaxed again, allowing blood to circulate. Raising her head slightly, she was able to reach the transparent tube with her lips. She had rehearsed that move many times in training so that it was almost a reflex. Sipping at the cool, clear water that emerged from the tube gave her tongue a glorious relief from the dry, dusty feel she had woken up with. Boy, was she looking forward to brushing her teeth.
“Mornin’, sleepy, how you feeling?”
“Celia, is it you? Where are you?” Sedna began to stretch her neck to look around the cabin, trying to find where her wife was, before realizing that the voice was synthesized and was in fact the voice of the onboard AI.
“Sure, it’s me. Don’t you remember? I spent all that time with you at Houston, recording voice samples for the control system’s human interface.”
“Switch voice, neutral-business.” Sedna did not want to interact with an artificial voice that sounded like Celia.
“How is this, Sedna?” The voice now was all business and functional and gave no suggestion that it was anything other than system generated. It reminded her of that old film she had once seen where the ship’s computer (as systems were called in those days) killed off all the astronauts except one. What was it? 2001: a Space Journey or something.
“Fine. Report position.”
“Position: Kuiper Belt sector AF8, distance 85.17 AU from Sol, 84.36 AU from Earth. Nearest object Comet P/2028 Chawla. Distance to object: zero. In contact.”
“Wait, What? … Recalculate position.”
“Position recalculated. Unchanged: KB-AF8, distance 85.17 AU from Sol, 84.36 AU from Earth. Nearest object Comet P/2028 Chawla. Distance to object: zero. In contact.”
84.36 AU from Earth. Over 12 billion kilometers. Nearer 13 billion, for all the difference it would make. How could that be? How could she have travelled so far in only…
“Report date and time.”
“Date: April 1st, 2160. Time 04:09 Universal Time Coordinate.”
“Reliability test: position and date.”
“Position accuracy stated to AU decimal two places. Date accuracy 100%. Time accuracy to nearest whole minute. All data confirmed reliable.”
“Calculate probability of inaccuracy of any of the data just reported.”
A pause and then…
“Less than one multiply ten power minus nine.” A further pause and then… “I can provide a more accurate estimate than that if you would like me to.”
Sedna took a while to let the information sink in as she looked out at the stars above, rotating almost imperceptibly above the horizon of Comet Chawla. She had been asleep for 128 years. 128 years? 128 years? She just could not comprehend the idea that she had been asleep, in stasis, suspended animation, for so long. She had expected to wake up three years after being put into hibernation, having aged very little. But 128 years? She could not see how it was possible to have hibernated for 128 years and then recover. Yet even if she could not believe the date and time calculated by the on-board mission systems, she could certainly believe the distance to the tiny disc of Sol she could observe for herself. All the evidence pointed to the unthinkable. Something had gone wrong when she made her final approach to the comet.
The craft had landed and anchored itself to the comet but had failed to revive her at the correct time. She had then continued her journey, the craft tethered to the comet, into the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond for a further 125 years. If nothing else, she had made the record as the furthest any human had ever ventured from Earth, the longest mission, the oldest surviving human being at, what, 153 years old? and the loneliest person in the whole of the Cosmos. She should be dead. Perhaps she was. Perhaps she was experiencing some kind of a death dream. Was she dead? Was this heaven or hell?
Laying back in her cot, Sedna needed to take stock. Ignoring the devastating consequences of the accidental postponement of reanimation, she assessed her position. She was a castaway. Much the same as the shipwrecked sailors from the 18th or 19th Centuries that she had read about as a child. Thoughts of shipwreck and castaways prompted her into survival mode. She must assess her situation.
“Report food and drinking water levels in days at full ration, fully conscious.”
“Food 231 days, drinking water 517 days
“Report food and drinking water levels in days at half ration.”
“Food 462 days, drinking water 1,034 days.”
Stupid question! thought Sedna. In any case, it meant that she had sufficient food and water to last much more than a year. What about oxygen? She didn’t ask. There would not be a year’s worth of oxygen to sustain her. She did not want to think about how long it would be before she started to feel the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning as the oxygen in the capsule became diluted by poisonous gases. The carbon scrubbers would prevent that from happening for the present. She could in any case use the converter unit to electrolyze some of the stored water into oxygen and hydrogen. Breathable air and fuel if needed. Yet what was the point? She was heading out further into the outer reaches of the Solar System and could hardly turn back and return to Earth. Or could she? What would be the point of returning in any case? She had been gone for 128 years. It would take at least as long to get back, assuming it was possible to return, and she had no idea how she might do that. All of her family would be dead now by now and probably nobody would remember her. Celia would be dead. Celia is dead…
Sedna thought of her beautiful and wonderful wife and could not believe that she would never see her again. Memories of their brief life together came back to her as her eyes started to moisten. How they met at postgrad school, how they came to be living together, their hasty marriage, their plans for their future life together.
“Celia, my darling, my everything, I can’t believe that you have gone from me forever. What did they tell you? Did you think me dead? Did you have a funeral for me? Did you remarry? Where did our lives together go?” No, no, no, no! This is no good, she thought. I can’t torture myself like this.
Sedna struggled to concentrate on where she was and what she needed to do. She was still lying in her cot. Painfully, she started to sit up, having first released the upper-body restraints. As the agonizing flow of blood started to renew her limbs, she could think of nothing other than the unbearable pain. Though she bore it. As if an automaton, she took herself through the routine ingrained from countless sessions in occupational therapy, slowly but steadily flexing every muscle in her upper body, restoring movement and life to her frozen limbs. Life? What kind of life did she now have? No! she told herself, she must focus back on the mission, the reason she was there. She had ended up on a mission into the far reaches of the Solar System and it was her job to make the most of it, to adapt to whatever situation she found herself in, and to continue with that mission for as long as she could.
At the thought of the Solar System, she looked out again at the distant Sun. She watched it rise high over the arc of the heavens, like Venus shining in the evening sky back home, brighter than the other stars and again, the thought of Venus took her right back to thoughts of Celia and the last days they had spent together, working in the University and the flight training center. There, together, they learnt the routines designed to help Sedna survive the long mission and carry out the science and engineering tasks specified in the mission plan. They trained as if they were crewmates, and both would be embarking on the mission. In a way they were crewmates as Mission Planning had agreed that it would help Sedna adjust to the long separation if interactions with the onboard AI were in Celia’s voice, having recorded a full range of voice samples. They even named the onboard systems ‘Celia’ to support adjustment.
None of that was of any help right now. Trying to think like a castaway, Sedna asked for a damage report.
“Main communications systems: extensive impact damage and currently non-serviceable. EVA required to repair. Reanimation system servos impact damage and non-serviceable. Manual repairs required and may be made from within craft. All other systems functioning within prescribed limits.”
“Reanimation systems damaged? Then how come I awoke?”
“Data currently unavailable.” What did it matter in any case? Thought Sedna. The comms system being inactive meant that she could not communicate with Earth, and presumably Earth had been out of contact with the mission for 125 years. She came back again to the question of time. Was a rescue attempt ever made? Had they made any attempt to contact her? If they had, they must have given up at some point. Maybe they thought she was dead from the start. “What did you think? Celia,” she asked aloud.
“Do you require an answer to that question, Sedna?” This from the AI.
“No. Adjust inference engine to disregard anything addressed to Celia. Acknowledge!”
“Command acknowledged. Adjustment made.”
Despite being oppressed by all these thoughts, Sedna proceeded to rouse herself out of her Rip Van Winkle state. She figured there was no point dwelling on things she had no control over. Levering herself out of the cot she continued to mobilize her tortured limbs. Thankfully there was little gravitational force to work against. Having launched herself at the washroom pod, she was able to brush her teeth, bringing instant relief to her dry and dusty mouth. She was then able to freshen herself up, disposing of the mask and ‘diaper’ she had been wearing – with all their wires and tubes – that had been her only garments in the pressurized transit pod. The cot that had been her home and sleeping chamber these past 128 years. Routine took over as she applied moisturizer to her skin, trimmed her hair and nails which had grown surprisingly little given the time. No doubt the effect of the growth suppressants she had been given as part of the mission preparation. She found to her horror, however, that her entire body was covered with a kind of ragged carpet of fur. She wondered about having a shave but figured nobody would see her and the additional layer of hair might in any case help to keep her warm and might even provide a level of protection from cosmic radiation.
Putting on her flight overalls she began to think of food and settled for the thin shake recommended during training. It would be a day or two before she was likely to be able to take solids, that is assuming that the recommended approach was still valid after so long.
Fed, watered, and spruced up as best she could manage, she settled down at the console in an attempt to view the mission history. There was very little on offer after the delayed reanimation and hard landing. Skipping back a few months before the collision, she identified another collision event. Seems that an unidentified object, presumably a tiny asteroid, had collided with the craft. Damage was reported as minor but somehow the impact had affected the life support systems, causing the failure of reanimation. The collision was probably also the cause of a small trajectory shift, resulting in the miscalculation of landing velocity. Most of the rest of what she viewed and read was mundane mission data that didn’t change much during the long, long journey from home.
“I have a message for you, Sedna”
“The message is from Celia. Transmitted the day before reanimation date.” Sedna hesitated. Was now a good time?
“Play it now.”
The far bulkhead dissolved into a snowy pattern before displaying message data. Then Celia appeared, large as life, with her lopsided grin and eyes bright as sparkling pools.
“Hey sleepy! I’m guessing you just woke up. How ya feelin’? Missing you, these past three years, and hoping you are fresh as a daisy after your little nap…”
Sedna couldn’t help but smile at that, and just the overwhelming reaction of seeing Celia’s angelic face beaming at her from the recorded message.
“If only you knew, Celia…”
“They let me send you this private message ready for when you woke up,” continued the ghost-like projected image. “They also scheduled a call for after you speak to the President and the press.”
Celia had recorded the message from the Montreal apartment the couple had shared together before Sedna had been selected for mission training along with 5 other astronauts. Celia was sitting in the morning room of their 22nd floor accommodation, overlooking the city. Looking very comfortable sitting with her legs crossed in her favorite easy chair, still in her pajamas and with a glass of juice and a cup of black coffee on the side table, just as Sedna remembered her.
Seeing the projection of Celia smiling, sipping juice and talking to her as if they were in the capsule together was almost too painful to bear.
The image of Celia froze at that instant, leaving a curious expression on her face. The picture looked lifeless, as if Celia had died. Then again, she had died, hadn’t she, thought Sedna.
“Celia, my darling, why did you die? Why was it you, when I am the one who left on a dangerous mission into outer space?” Sedna could feel the tracks of the tears etching their way down her face. She could still cry. After 128 years she hadn’t forgotten how.
“Oh Celia! I can feel you. I can feel you across the void, across the billions of Ks, across the years, the decades, the century past. I can feel you though I know you’re no longer there. I can feel you Celia, I can.” Then, changing her voice to one of command: “Resume message playback!” The recording continued with Celia telling the wife she had not seen for nearly three years, some of the news from home, mostly in bite-size pieces. Celia said that she would tell Sedna more during their (almost) live call after she had spoken to POTUS and the media. The call that was never to take place.
“Did they tell you I was dead, Celia? I didn’t die, not then, I am still here. I am still alive. I have been out here ever since that day you made this call, travelling on and on, asleep. What happened to you? What did you do for the rest of your life? Did you find someone else? Did you have children? I hope you did. You always wanted children. I was never sure.” Celia had talked Sedna into having a procedure to remove and freeze some eggs as a precaution against damage from cosmic radiation. Sedna doubted at the time that she would ever need them but readily agreed, if only for Celia’s peace of mind.
“I wanted adventure before settling down and I guess I got it out here in the darkness of space. Oh Celia, why didn’t I stay home with you? I want to be with you Celia, I want to join you in death now. Are you in heaven? Can I come to heaven with you now?”
Sedna continued with her one-sided conversation and, from time to time, she thought she could hear Celia reply. By the time she stopped talking, Sedna felt as if she had talked the whole day through. Looking at the clock she could see that shipboard time was 12:07 and Sol was setting over the far horizon. Soon it would be night, which would only be slightly darker than day. She felt quite tired but was understandably reluctant to give way to sleep. She did however hitch herself to the bulkhead and closed her eyes in blissful rest for 30 minutes, during which her agitation receded, and she dreamt of being with Celia and taking a child for a walk in a park, feeding the birds and holding hands.
Sedna awoke to see Celia standing over her.
“Don’t fret leaving me and going on the mission,” Celia said. “I am so proud of you for doing it, Sedna. I know we will be parted for a long time but it’s what you always wanted to do. I know you will make a great success of it, and I know you will come back to me.”
Celia then vanished, as Sedna wondered if she had really seen her, or if it was just a part of the dream she had. Either way, Sedna felt calmer and felt as if she had a reason to continue. From that point forward, Sedna absorbed herself in reestablishing her mission. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps because it was not in her nature to give up or perhaps it was just the forlorn hope that she might be able to establish contact with Earth and declare herself still alive. Or perhaps she somehow wanted to do it for Celia.
Dispensing with the given mission plan, which was all about the science, she started to draw up a survival plan. A simple spectrometer scan established that the composition of the comet included considerable deposits of ice which was partly made up of frozen water. This would be easy enough to distill, first for drinking water purposes, then for electrolysis into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel, if needed. Although all she would need for propellent would be to heat up the ice and fire a jet of steam out through the engine nozzles for directional thrust. That alone, she calculated, would be sufficient to separate herself from the comet, should she decide that this was necessary at some point. Certainly not right now as the comet had the water and possibly other natural resources that she was likely to need.
The science program she had been scheduled to carry out included a range of long-term life support experiments, so she figured she had a good chance of adding to her food supply too. She would have enough food, water, and oxygen for years to come. She wasn’t sure, however, if she wanted to live that long alone and with little prospect of returning to Earth. None of returning to her loved ones. Yet she continued to plan a mission for its own sake. Operation ‘Survive Deep Space’. Not for the first time she wondered at how she had managed to live this long, statis or no stasis.
During this period of intense work, she had little time for rest, snatching the odd hour or two for sleep and barely minutes to take on fluids and some of the ground-up food she had been provided for the early days after reanimation. She had no appetite for real solids in any case and dreaded to think what they might do to her body after so long without food. She did her best not to think of Celia too much. There would be time for mourning when she had gotten her house in order and decided what she was going to do with the rest of her life, however long that was going to be. It was already far too long and at this time it seemed likely that whatever time she had left would be spent hurtling out further and further into space. With only 125 years completed of a 11,400 orbit, she would die thousands of years before the comet even reached its further point from Earth.
Despite this pessimistic outlook Sedna had, within a few days, created an outline mission plan and, after a little longer, had fleshed out the details. She was then ready to take the first big step. She must go outside to try to fix the comms antenna and to conduct a physical check of the ship’s exterior. Not such a difficult job, since a walk on the comet had already been planned as part of the original mission. Then again, the original mission would have had the EVA supervised by Mission Control. That was no longer possible and so Sedna would have to go it alone. Probably the first unsupported space walk in history, to add to her other firsts.
In the event, the excursion beyond the pressure hull took place without incident. Having put on her EVA suit she went through the arduous process of exiting through the airlock. Once outside, having attached her tether, she first checked that the anchors were secure and that there was no chance of the craft separating from the comet unexpectedly. She then spent a moment taking in the wide expanse of space beyond the tightly-curving horizon. The comet itself resembled a miniature version of the lunar surface, with several outcrops of silvery white ice and clumps of other colored metals. Sedna wondered if any other missions had been sent to comets since hers had failed. Or had it failed? She had now taken a walk on a comet. It might be the first or it might not, but she was here in any case. She looked up again at the infinity of the universe.
“If only you could have seen this, Celia. If only I could have told you about it when I returned. When I returned to continue our lives together…”
Again, Sedna had to take her mind away from Celia to concentrate on the job of completing the EV activity and return to the command module, now her life raft, as she realized how exposed she was out here on the craggy and irregular surface of this lump of rock and ice. There was only one more task to complete. The all-important inspection and repair of the antenna that had failed after the impact of the craft with the comet.
The structure and mechanics were more-or-less intact and could easily be repositioned to receive and transmit Earth messages. The data send/receive panel, however, would need to be retrieved for proper testing at her console back inside. Sedna carefully removed the magnetic bolts. Not an easy task as removal and repair had not been anticipated in the original mission plan. Having secured the panel to her EVA suit, Sedna then scooted around to the airlock, quickly letting herself back into the comparative safety of the command module once pressure in the airlock had been equalized with the cabin.
With all the physical activity involved, hugely exhausting given Sedna’s century-plus inactivity, Sedna needed to rest again before she could carry out any tests on the faulty panel. Tethering herself to the bulkhead inside the ‘sleeping bag’ arranged for the purpose, she once more drifted off into a restful sleep. Again, she dreamt of Celia and a young child, although in the confusion of her dreams, it was the child who was walking in the park with Sedna, and they were pushing a baby along in a buggy. Celia was nowhere to be seen.
“Where are you Celia, my darling? I need you now, more than ever.”
“I’m here, darling, I’m here with you,” said Celia’s voice. At which point Sedna awoke, confused and agitated but quickly adjusting to being awake. After a yawn and a painful stretch, Sedna took a mouthful of food paste (she wondered if she would ever manage anything solid) washed down with a tube of enriched water. No time to wonder over strange dreams, Sedna again set to work, this time on the job of testing and fixing the external comms panel. In the process of doing this, she discovered a cache of data that had been retained after the failure of the unit. A quick scan through the countless terabytes established that this data consisted mostly of routine comms between the craft and Control, prior to the collision. Curiously, however, there were some messages that had been picked up over the 125 years since. These were mostly garbled transmissions, a lot of the data having been lost as a consequence of the unit failure. As Sedna skipped through the decades there was hardly a message that could be deciphered. Some were simply the anonymous transmissions from Earth that were bouncing around the Solar System. There were even fragments of some voice-vid messages to and from Moon Base and Earth. Letters, birthday greetings, Christmas greetings, happy anniversaries. One message was a lengthy firmware upload for an outlying (unmanned) planetary survey mission, preserved almost intact. All very uninteresting stuff as far as Sedna was concerned.
Frustrated, she launched herself at the opposite bulkhead, striking her head on the obs window. Gripping the stability bars, Sedna looked longingly out at the heavens above, trying to find the blue dot of Earth among the myriad of stars, without success. She burst into an uncontrollable fit of crying, sobbing her heart out at the realization that she would remain alone in this tiny bubble, away from Celia, away from everyone and everything she knew, for the rest of her days. At that moment, she could not bear to continue living without her love. Perhaps for the first time, Sedna felt the full force or her separation from her long-dead, one-and-only love.
“Celia, I can’t go on like this,” she burst out, amidst the paroxysm of grief, despair, heart break and anguish. “Why didn’t I stay with you? Why didn’t we have that family you always wanted? Why…”
Her agonies were interrupted by the sudden outburst of a song.
“Happy birthday to you…” She must have left the data download from the comms board playing back and had reached some random voice message. Damn! She couldn’t turn it off. The panel must have disconnected itself from control but retained A/V. The irritating song continued.
“Happy birthday to you.
“Happy birthday grandma Sedna…”
* * * * *
The fictional character Sedna is named after minor planet 90377 Sedna, located in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Minor planet Sedna is currently almost at the closest part of its solar orbit at around 80 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, roughly three times the distance to Neptune, the outermost planet of the Solar System. One AU is the distance between the Sun and the Earth. Minor planet Sedna has a highly elliptical orbit, reaching as far out as 937 AU and with an orbital period of approximately 11,400 years (given in the story as the orbital period of the fictional Comet Chawla). Sedna is the Inuit goddess of the sea.
The prologue to this story first appeared as a Drabble (a story in exactly 100 words) in the private Facebook group Writers Unite! and was first published in A Town Called Raymond in 2020 (Park Langley Editions).
I named the fictional Comet Chawla in honor of US astronaut Kalpana Chawla (1962 - 2003) whose second mission to the International Space Station ended in disaster. She and her six crewmates died when Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in February 2003.
This story is dedicated to the memory of all those astronauts and cosmonauts who have given their lives to further human exploration of outer space.
Greater love has no man
First published in Dimensions of Love Volume One - Available in print and Kindle.
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.