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To Sleep

Published : Saturday, 29 October, 2022 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1555
George G. Townsend

To Sleep

To Sleep

We couldn't sleep before 9; that was the rule. Waking hours were 8 am -9 pm exactly, which - in hindsight - seems weird: there's no time in space, at least not in the way that humans like to perceive it.

It was a little funny to me, actually. One look out of the rear window of Orpheus-CR12 was enough to make a man shake. The distance of it all. The Milkyway's elysian glow was barely visible. As far as the human gaze could ascertain, here was blackness. Malicious, vacuous blackness. It was a frightening vista and then there was '9 pm'. The futility of human numbers imposed over this the pit of space: that was funny to me. Like going to visit the sun and expecting it to be fine because you're wearing suntan lotion. I suppose it makes sense, though. If we had any hope of returning with even a shred of sanity, we'd need to try as best we could to keep a solid sleep schedule.

The maintenance crew awoke from cryo a week before the rest of us (in 'Earth time'). They had to prepare for entry into Andromeda, and they didn't need us around getting in their way or depleting more rations than necessary. I was told it went fine. Though Deane - an engineer - told me that they were a man short for a few days, something about Houston being unable to wake one of them up.

On the subject, Houston seemed to be working just fine. I'd worried about that before we left. You hear stories about AI breaking mid-flight and, with no one awake to repair them, the whole crew stays in cryo for as long as the vests can sustain them. Nasty business. Once the vests run out of nutrients, there's really nothing they can do - but the sedative remains active. I didn't like the idea of my body digesting itself, which is why I included two backup power supplies and a secondary, inferior AI to repair Houston if things went south. But 'maintenance' assured me that he woke them on time.

When the rest of us were pulled out, we completed the necessary checks. Navigation, fuel, all the others. Everything was fine. If I remember correctly, we reminisced for a while over the first meal we'd had in years - though, of course, it didn't feel like that to us - and the rest of the 'day' was spent recording technical information about our surroundings. Surprisingly, there's not much to record about endless darkness, so most of us retired early.

That's when we first learned of the rule: no sleeping before 9 pm.

     Houston insisted. In the coming months, we would, on occasion, test his rule. But he did insist. Even if we fell asleep accidentally, blaring alarms and strobing red lights - akin to a lockdown procedure - would wake us immediately. We soon learned that only at 9 pm would our melatonin dose be released to us, and we would be allowed to sleep. Some of the crew complained, and not without reason. In fairness, we weren't warned by home base that this was a requirement. We didn't even know there was melatonin on the ship. But it's not unheard of that an AI be given information that the crew isn't privy to. As a truly unbiased enforcer, they're easy to trust.

I understood why it was a rule, even if it was incredibly annoying at times. So I sided with the robot in arguments, speaking for it (and home-base by extension) despite the unpopularity that it brought. When Reno tried to reprogram the thing, I talked him out of it. When Shae pocketed her melatonin one night so she could take it earlier the following day, I warned her that Houston would report it. And when Deane broke Houston's voice box, I killed him.

I'm not sure why I did that.

Well, I am. I know why now. It was the clock. The hours in space are longer, I'm sure of it.

I was in my quarters one night, waiting patiently for 9 pm. This was after I'd committed murder. The rest of the crew had, justifiably, locked me in my room. I had agreed to this after the wave of crushing regret hit me post the event.

That aside, the digital clock above my bed frame showed half-eight or so, and I had been there for around 20 minutes. I was tired and hungry that day (as I was most days), so I didn't fully trust my own senses, but it felt as though I'd been there for over an hour already. I could've sworn it. Then I remembered my watch.

You see, I have this watch. It's a family heirloom. It has a rusted frame, and the numbers have faded away. The hour hand is still, and the minute hand twitches between 12:16 and 12:17. But it still counts seconds.

It was just a bit of fun, really, like how - as a kid - you'd close your eyes in the car and try to open them when you had travelled exactly a mile. So, I closed my eyes when the second hand reached 12. I counted one minute in my head. I opened my eyes. Not far off, to be fair, only about 4ish seconds until it reached twelve again. I think I smiled to myself then before looking at the digital clock. No change.

 8:36 pm. But maybe the clock is slow to update, so I did it again.

Even closer this time - 2 seconds early. And yet, 8:36 pm.

Three seconds late; 8;36pm.

One second early: 8:37 pm.

I have a relatively scientific mind. I know that humans naturally speed up when counting with no steady pulse for reference. But watches don't speed up. Yes, this watch was old - ancient in fact - but the fact remains. My curiosity compelled me to repeat the experiment thrice, and each time this returned the same results, which led me to one conclusion. Each minute in my hand equates to three minutes on the wall. Fuck.

I had never questioned this before because I had never done so on Earth. When you're in an awkward situation and time seems to run slower, you don't typically count the seconds to check. Equally, in an exam hall, when time is escaping you dangerously fast, you don't take out your grandfather's decrepit pocket watch to check your own sanity. I clearly wasn't crazy, as none of the others had noticed.

I was at a loss. Unfortunately, banging on the door of my room would only feed the delusion that I had become crazy. But, if I didn't get out and tell someone, I was afraid that I may actually have gone crazy.

I had to stay where I was for the time being. I used this as an opportunity to collect more data. I'm glad that I did, as this was when I uncovered the thing that scared me most. I didn't take my melatonin that night - I just stared at my watch. Measuring the minutes.

 After 9 pm, when the rest of the crew had presumably taken their medication and fallen asleep, the clocks changed. The hidden agenda of those glowing red numbers on the wall changed. Minutes became minutes. Slowly, this happened, with an exponential decline. At 9:42, the minutes on the wall lasted the same length as the ones in my hand. This confused me, as you can imagine. I began to gaslight myself into thinking that I had been delusional, that perhaps I had been seeing things. I almost convinced myself - after a long period of worrying - to go to sleep. That was until I saw the minute of 10:11 pass in 57 seconds.

This worsened again exponentially. During the peak of the night - around 2 am - the minutes in my hand passed almost three times more slowly than the ones on the wall.

This, of course, traumatised me because it meant that Houston's timekeeping was not faulty. If it were faulty, it would stay slow by a factor of three for the whole night: we'd have thrice as long daytimes, but also thrice as long sleeps. That wasn't happening. This change was engineered. It meant that the ship's AI was trying to deprive its crew of sleep.

I don't know why. Perhaps it was trying to induce symptoms of sleep deprivation: slow thinking, intense shifts in mood, lack of energy. Of course, none of these things are beneficial to crew morale, which proved to me that this was malicious. But one nagging thought had remained in the back of my mind. AIs are truly unbiased.

Houston was - I knew that. I knew it because I studied it. I scoured through his code before even thinking about submitting him as a candidate for the Orpheus' AI. He had to have a reason.

There were two more deaths on board the CR-12, both suicides. After that, the clocks became normal. Like a switch had been flipped in the bluntest of manors. I didn't tell anyone about the clock after that point - even when they let me out of my room - as I couldn't prove it.

This is speculation. Rampant, honestly. But when we finally docked onto 'Midway,' after achieving what we set out to, inspections were done. Our stock room was empty - completely. There were comments made: that we didn't pack enough rations when we first left. The food on board would have been enough for a crew of 11. We left with a crew of 14. We left with three people too many and came back without them. Lucky.
Courtesy: East of the Web

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