Dr Carl Wheatley took one last look at the enormous monitor in front of him. Split into nine screens, it showed the view from each of the surveillance cameras outside. Each view was nearly identical—the camera was mounted on a tall pole, and in the foreground was field of glistening solar panels; in the background, there was only desert and the flawless blue sky that stretched for eternity. Carl wondered how long it would be until he could wake up and see that sky again—or if he would wake up at all. Being the scientist in charge of the Eternity Project, he would be the first to wake up. What would he find when—if—he emerged from his dreamless slumber? Would it be a world that had somehow avoided conflict and made peaceful contact with beings from another world? Or would it be a planet ravaged by the nuclear war that was brewing? He had no way of knowing.
Carl glanced at the second monitor, which was directly opposite the first one. This one wasn't as big, and showed 100 green dots that were arranged in 26 groups of four, with one dot away from the rest of the groups. This was one of the most important systems in the Hibernation Centre; each green dot represented a cryo unit, and if there were a problem then the AI would automatically wake Carl so that he could fix the unit before the person died of oxygen starvation.
Carl turned the lights out and locked the computer room he was currently checking—there were nine others like it in the Hibernation Centre—and set off down the dim but immaculate corridor which led to the wing where the cryogenic units were kept. His footsteps echoed off the bare walls. Even though the Hibernation centre was home to ninety-nine other humans and fifty maintenance robots, he had never felt so alone. It would be too easy to go mad in a place like this.
At last, Carl arrived at the room to which he had been assigned. He keyed open the door, which slid aside with a faint hiss.
Inside, the air was cool and still. Carl shuddered. The room was tiny, and against the two side walls were the four cryogenic units, two against each wall. Each unit was made of sleek, shiny steel. There was a clear plastic panel in the lid, and Carl could just make out the peaceful expression on the face of the Sleeper in the bottom "bunk". The cryo unit was cold to the touch.
Carl took a long look at the room with its four coffin-like units and harsh lighting. He opened the unit with "Wheatley, Carl. PhD," on the digital display at the head of the unit. An unwelcoming blast of cold air greeted him.
Carl took a deep breath and climbed into the cryo unit. The lid slammed shut as soon as the sensors detected him inside. Before he had a chance to think, the temperature plummeted. His body went numb and he sank forward into oblivion.
"Captain, we are approaching the star now. Preparing to drop out of wormhole."
"I'm on my way up to the bridge now. Any radio transmissions or other signs of life?"
Captain Sidyana Ramù sighed. She had expected this; the radio transmissions they had picked up had been of war, genocide and hatred. A civilisation like that could never last for long. They would probably have killed themselves off by now. Nevertheless, Ramù had been concealing a tiny glimmer of hope that this time, maybe, they would be lucky.
She unplugged herself from the outlet that had let her connect her brain with the Mainframe—she had some of her favourite music stored there—and exited her quarters. There seemed to be a buzz around the ship today, she noticed. It was probably the possibility that this time, after centuries of searching in vain, they may have finally found what they were looking for: a life form similar to what their species used to be. If their biological functions were similar enough, perhaps a deal could be negotiated—any kind of technology they wanted, provided they could be trusted with it, in return for permission to carry out genetic research on a few volunteers, and maybe a bit of land to colonise, if they were lucky. This would be a good place to establish an outpost, and they had a few DNA samples from when their species used to be biological life forms. If they could do some comparisons, tests—
Ramù tried not to let herself get carried away. First, they would have to send a few probes down to the planet to see if there was any intelligent life left on the surface. If there were, they would attempt to make contact. If not, they would leave the planet to an archaeology ship and move on to the next star system.
Ramù arrived at the door to the bridge. The door slid aside automatically when it sensed her presence.
The bridge was alive with activity. People were running to and fro, typing in cryptic computer codes and giving vocal commands to the many specialised computer systems on the ship.
A tall man with sharp, eager eyes bounded up to her. "We're preparing to launch a probe now, Captain—with your permission, of course."
Mavir Amrit turned to one of the men on the consoles and nodded. Mavir and Ramù both watched anxiously as the probe sped away from the ship. It would be travelling in its own mini wormhole, but even so, it would take an hour or two to reach the third planet. All they could do was wait.
After two agonising hours, the first pictures had started to come in from the planet.
"Damn it," hissed Ramù. "The entire place is dead!" She glared at the pictures the probe was sending back to the ship.
The probe was in a high orbit, and it was clear that there was very little surface water. The planet's visible surface was made up of a barren rocky desert.
"What's that? Over there, on the horizon!" Exclaimed Mavir, jumping up and pointing to a tiny, gleaming speck in the distance. "Zoom the probe's cameras in on it."
The speck grew larger. It was blindingly bright in the midday sunshine. The probe technician filtered out the sunlight.
The bridge fell silent. Now that the brightness had been filtered, they could see what had been reflecting the sunlight; an array of solar panels, more than a square mile of them, stood tall and proud in the rock. They showed no sign of age or erosion—it was as if they had been placed there yesterday.
"Assemble an investigation team," said Ramù as she turned to Mavir, "now!"