Coming in from the cold

When I chose cryotechnology as a profession, it was because I liked warm, not cold. I assumed that the customers buying services from Freeze, Inc., would be living, in general, on tropical and desert planets, with me right there serving them in my company coveralls, installing cooling and freezing equipment in between trips to the beach and naps in my garden hammock.

By the time I learned that most of our business was conducted on the ice giant Colhellion, which Freeze owned, it was too late to back out of my contract.

Freeze provides long-term storage in an environment that takes cooling well past the point of absolute zero. Absolute zero is murder on anything that requires stasis at the quantum level. Store your quantum data for a million years at absolute zero and see what you’ve got after the uncertainty principle’s wave-state spread has worked on it for that length of time. Hint: garbage.

Not so when you’re storing your data in a Freeze Ice 3 container. Ice 3 is like ice cubed (company joke). Ice 3 is that rarest of substances, dark matter with the seven extra dimensions in its sub-quark strings permanently unfolded. Coldhellion is made of Ice 3 and John Coldhellion became the richest man on this side of the galaxy when he found it and claimed it.

Coldhellion is where I was stationed once my Freeze training was completed. Five years duty on the coldest, darkest, most miserable planet in the Milky Way. And once they had you there, no way they’d let you take off on a vacation somewhere else. Reasoning, reasonably, that if you had half a brain,  you wouldn’t come back.

So it is surprising that I was one of only two employees on the planet to volunteer for the Flaredon job. Flaredon was famous for its balmy climate and now Freeze was practically begging me to visit it. Triple pay. An increase of two job grades. All I had to do was fly over there along with the other volunteer, retrieve all the precious data left behind when the populace fled, and keep the data cool on the way back to Coldhellion, where the Flaredonians could pick it up once they had found a new world to colonize.

Murphy, our boss, was there to see the two of us off. He had a cup in his hand and some red liquid dripping from his mustache.

“Come right back,” he said.

“Worried about us?” I said.

“Worried about this ship. Mind your head. Touch that surface and you’ll get a brain freeze you won’t remember.”

The port closed behind us with him standing there holding his cup.

These ships fly themselves, so we settled in.

“I plan to have fun,” I told Mai, the other volunteer. “What about you?”

“Shut up,” she said.

I didn’t let that get me down.

“If you’re going to be a grouch about it, why go at all?” I said to her.

“I was born on Flaredon,” she said. “Shut up and go away.”

“Go away?” I said. “We’re riding in a giant block of ice. Where do you want me to go, one of the storage freezers?”

She didn’t answer, or even look my way. Sure, her home planet was about to be incinerated by its sun, but why be rude to me? It wasn’t my fault.

It went like that the whole way. By the time we got to Flaredon, I was beginning to feel really annoyed with her, even though she was a complete babe.

“Look,” I said. “You’re the data engineer in this flying refrigerator. Once you collect what we’re supposed to collect, I’ll make sure it stays cold. In the meantime, I’m going to be out sampling whatever pleasures your world still has to offer. The ones that don’t require any people around, anyway.”

The Freeze astrological engineers had assured us that Flaredon’s sun wouldn’t blow while we were there, so I wasn’t worried about that. Actually, they assured us that statistically speaking, it wasn’t likely to blow. At least, it wasn’t very likely to blow. If it had been very, very likely to blow, the company wouldn’t have risked a ship, even for the immense payoff they’d be paid for saving the planet’s data. Would they?

They did have the rest of the ice giant left for making, say, a zillion more ships just like this one.

Neither Mai nor I had anything to do on the trip out. I would have enjoyed the time more if Mai hadn’t been in such a funk the whole time. She was great to look at, but oh my, that frown!

Flaredon had scheduled our data pickup five local years ago, and a Flaredon year ran real long. It seemed like plenty of time when they put in the order, but the Freeze backlog is even longer than the Flaredon year. The Flaredonians would still be waiting for us if our engineers hadn’t adjusted their calculations and warned Freeze that Flaredon’s sun was going to go nova sooner than expected. If the data wasn’t picked up, Freeze would lose out on a fat payday. Hence my chance at a vacation on a beautiful planet. I just needed Flaredon’s white dwarf to hold on to its compacted hydrogen shell long enough for me to enjoy the scenery while Mai did the data packing.

We arrived and landed and I gathered up my vacation gear.

“Call me when you’re done,” I said to Mai. “I’ll be out soaking up the sun while it’s still there.”

That’s when the ship’s main computer announced that Mai wouldn’t be collecting data and I wouldn’t be soaking up the sun because, as of that moment, the sun had decided to go boom.

An exploding star is nothing to an Ice 3 ship. You could park the ship in the core of the hottest star and it wouldn’t heat up one degree. That’s the good news when you’re parked next to a star blowing off its outer shell. The bad news for us was that all external communication, navigation, and propulsion equipment on the ship was vaporized, leaving a black Ice 3 cube and whatever was stored, or protected, or trapped, within it. Even as the computer informed me that my vacation activities had ended before they had begun, we were being thrown into interstellar space by the explosion’s shock wave. We didn’t feel the tossing part because the Ice 3’s warped space offset our sudden acceleration.

So we wouldn’t be going back to Coldhellion. We wouldn’t be going anywhere, except where the additive gravitational forces of the galaxy slowly, ever so slowly, pushed and pulled us. We were adrift until someone found us and had the wherewithal to command the ship to open up. Freeze would be looking for us but space is no place to play hide and seek. It’s all about hiding and never getting found by the seekers.

“Time to go to sleep,” I said to Mai. “The ship will wake us when someone finds us and tells it what to do.”

“How long do you think that will take?” Mai said.

“Worse case: a star pulls us in and we sit at its core, out of sight. If it’s big and hot, we’ll be back out in a few tens of billions of years. If it’s small and stable, we’ll sit in there for hundreds of billions of years. Then, when we get free, it could happen again. And again. But now that I think of it, getting eaten by a black hole would be worse, I imagine.”

“What’s going to be left when we wake up?”

“The universe is sixteen billion years old,” I said. “It’s just getting started. If we sleep long enough, everything that has never happened and isn’t likely to happen will have happened and will be likely to happen again.”

Glum as she had been all along, Mai got glummer, if that were possible.

“Sweet dreams,” I said. Being ironic, you see.

The computer put us to sleep in a cryogenic bath. When I woke up, it was no different than waking up in the morning. Mai joined me and I checked the date.

“How long?” she asked.

“Well, the universe isn’t 16 billion years old anymore,” I said. “More like a thousand times that.”

Mai counted the zeros in her head.

“The T word?” she said. “What does this mean?”

“It means that our local cluster of galaxies has merged long since, and all the rest of visible matter has expanded out of sight. It means that there aren’t any big, hot stars left. But lots of black holes, quasars, neutron stars, wormholes, and other such animals around. It’s way too soon for proton decay, so that’s good.”

After all that time, by God, Mai hadn’t cheered up one bit.

“That doesn’t take into account intelligent life,” I said. “A thousand billion years is a lot of time for life in the universe to engineer all sorts of things.”

“So someone finally found us? And told the ship to wake us up?”

“So it seems,” I said. “Next they’ll tell the ship to let us out, I hope. Assuming that there’s air to breathe out there.”

The ship servos woke up, humming. We walked over to the port and stood waiting. It swung open. Murphy was standing there just as we had left him, cup in hand, mustache dripping.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Murphy,” I said. “The longest vacation in the history of the universe just turned out to be a real dud.”