Zone of Eternal Sleep

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Digital drawing. Facing forward, sitting on the ground, a couple leaning towards each other with their heads touching and their eyes closed. At left, a woman, her right leg outstretched out of frame, and her left leg bent. She loosely holds a baby or young toddler in her arms. The baby’s hands grip her forearm. His eyes are open and looking up and to the left (his right). At right, a man, sitting cross-legged with his hands held loosely in his lap. Behind them, centered, is a depiction of the planet Mars against a star-filled space with a plume of glowing gases passing horizontally through the center. Some element of each person’s clothing blends in with the red hues of the planet.

“There’s nowhere on Earth,” Sam said, her voice low and slow, as if she were dragging the sounds out of her mouth.

“Did you try the moon?”  Lee’s voice sounded about the same.

Sam winced.  “Sorry, I can go—“

“No.”  Lee sighed.  “It’s my turn.”

Sam managed a small smile, her eyes half-lidded, as she rocked the groaning baby in her arms.

“Safety on,” she said.

Lee held up the key chip as he headed to the door.  “Yup.”

Two of them.  There were two of them.  Five actually if they counted his two closest aunts and their one closest friend—closest by physical residential proximity that is.  But the other three weren’t there at night, when the true trials began.  And even if they had been, little Wyn would have defeated them all.  Less than an hour of sleep and he was up again, fussing, and then crying.  He had just learned how to put himself back to sleep.  Or at least he’d done it for one night.  So of course, something had to happen to spoil it all.

The rash.  The sudden and mysterious rash.

Lee had noticed it when he gave Wyn his evening bath.  He’d reported it to Wyn’s doctor.  Wyn didn’t have a fever.  He still had his appetite.  And when they put him down to bed, he didn’t seem to even notice the rash on his upper left arm, much less be bothered by it.  And it didn’t look any worse than when Lee first noticed it.  So they went to bed.  By the time Wyn’s cries woke them, his doctor had sent his remote diagnosis, prescribing a cream that they could go and pick up in the morning. 

As luck would have it, the cream was rare enough that it wasn’t continuously stocked.  There wasn’t a generic alternative, and the next shipment wasn’t expected on Earth for a few days or so.

The cream was an import from Mars. 

So Lee decided to go to the source.  A quick check from his jump shuttle’s dashboard as the engines cycled up, confirmed that there were several tubes of the cream available at the closest Martian superstore.

Lee entered the route, and his preferred travel parameters, requesting the fastest route possible.  He put the shuttle on autopilot just to be safe.  He set the internal lighting to high, as he entered the hyperspace jump-way that would jump him to the moon, then a couple of space stations, before arriving at Mars.  The Diamond superstore dome was typically better stocked, but the Ruby dome was closest to the exit.  Their inventory claimed to have the right itch cream.  The trip there and back should take about forty standard Earth minutes if he didn’t encounter any unforeseen delays, like a surprise    checkpoint. 

Despite the piercing white light inside the shuttle, Lee started to doze.  He jerked awake with a frown.  Every safety feature of the shuttle was turned on and set to high.  There wouldn’t be any harm in his taking a nap until he reached Mars.  With a twinge of guilt at the opportunity the errand afforded him, he dimmed the lights, and immediately drifted off.

***

Lee’s waking was reluctant.  His head felt heavy.  The mind within it was groggy.  He yawned and tears blurred his eyes.  Given all these conditions, it took him a moment to realize that he was not docked in the Mars Superstore Ruby Dome parking net as he’d expected.

He rubbed his eyes and raised the cabin lights.  A visual check showed him only stars.  No moons.  No stations.  No planets.

He was drifting in space. 

A soft beeping sound was alerting him, though not urgently, that his attention was needed.  He checked his route against the local system map.

“Very funny,” he muttered with a sigh, when he realized what had happened.

In an effort to shave thirty seconds off his trip—per his general instruction to take the fastest route—his routing system had exited the jump-way and headed to a small shuttle dealership station.  For some reason, the system had not been able to find its way back to a jump-way.  It was waiting for a command from a manual operator.

Lee blinked his eyes and took a deep breath.  He sat up straighter.  The dashboard looked clearer to him now.  And his mind felt…snappy.

He checked how much time had elapsed on the trip.

He gasped.  “Oh no…”

He tapped the communicator control and quickly called home.  As the standby tone played, he sent a text message to Sam as well. 

She must have been terrified.  She must have sent him dozens of messages.  She must have called system authorities by now.

Lee checked the communication logs.  But there weren’t any messages from Sam.  The standby tone kept playing.  He noticed that Sam’s away message had not yet engaged. 

He started a quick scan to confirm that the shuttle’s communications were working.

The scan failed.

He checked the connection logs.  His shuttle had been attempting to initiate handshakes every few minutes for the whole time he’d been floating.  He hadn’t actually drifted much at all from the point where the shuttle stopped. 

His mapping system recognized the stars and the space they were floating in.  But for some reason, it didn’t know how to get to a route that would take them to their programmed destination.

Lee instructed the system to slowly take the exact route back that it took to get where they were currently floating.  But the system responded that it was unable to locate the desired route.

There was no dozing now.  Lee was wide awake.  And it was no wonder if he’d been sleeping for almost nine hours.

***

A few minutes after he started maneuvering the shuttle along the reverse route, Lee felt a wave of dizziness, almost vertigo, and then suddenly, his map system engaged again, indicating that it was rerouting him. 

The standby tone for Sam’s communicator disengaged. 

Sam answered just as Lee noticed that the shuttle’s chronometer had adjusted the time.

“That was quick,” Sam said. 

Lee’s gaze shifted to the elapsed time for his trip.  It read eight hours and forty-seven minutes, and still counting.

“Did you find the stuff?” Sam asked.  She sounded on the verge of disappointment or hope.

“Uh…sorry, I haven’t gone in yet,” Lee said.  “I just dozed off.  Felt like I was out for hours.  Just, just wanted to check in.”

Sam groaned. “Please don’t mention the concept of sleeping for hours on end.”  But then she gave a gentle laugh.  “You’re a sweetheart for checking in though.”  She dropped her voice to a whisper.  “He just fell asleep.” 

Before she finished speaking the work “asleep,” he heard the baby crying.  Lee disengaged the call, got back onto the jump-way, and hurried to the store.

***

Lee got the cream—two tubes of it, just in case—and returned home.  All indications were that he had no great interruption in his trip.  He didn’t have time to think about much as he headed in and got busy trying to sooth his son’s rash.

But the next day, with Wyn soothed and Sam sleeping, Lee decided to check the jump shuttle for more clues.

He expected to conclude that he had hallucinated the whole thing.  He was thankful that he hadn’t ended up drifting out of the system never to be heard from again.  But if it was all because of some glitch in the shuttle’s mapping system, he had to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

He brought Wyn out to the garage with him, and set the baby down on the back passenger bench of the shuttle.  Wyn started crawling around, while Lee checked the dashboard readouts.

He noted that his vehicle’s fuel consumption logs indicated that he’d used up far more than he should have for a one-hour trip.  Again, he looked at the general usage logs. 

“Wyn, take a look at this,” Lee said.  “It’s weird.”

He turned to his son, who plopped down and took some mild interest in the airlock knob.

Lee smiled, but turned back to the logs.  His smile faded, and his brow puckered in confusion.

A few moments after the shuttle veered off to attempt a faster route, it stopped moving and was unable to reroute.  The shuttle automatically powered down most systems, prioritizing life support.  It started playing a beep to alert the user-occupant.  And it did that for eight hours and forty-seven minutes before said user-occupant woke up and realized he was off course. 

***

Lee told Sam about his little adventure at dinnertime.

“Unless it’s a series of glitches that all support the same hallucination,” he said, “this actually happened.”

Sam tipped her glass to him.  “Next time we need to go to Mars for something, I’ll go.  I’m happy to take that lovely detour and get nine straight hours of sleep.”

“You believe me?” Lee shook his head.  “I hardly believe myself.”

“Are you running a full diagnostic?”

Lee nodded.  “The preliminary ones all passed.”

“Well, we’ll see what happens.”

~~~

What happened is that the jump shuttle’s full diagnostic discovered no major faults, no minor faults, and only two non-functional issues, both cosmetic.  There was an almost unnoticeable scratch on the port side hull.  And there was a mud stain on the back bench’s upholstery that was most certainly Wyn’s doing.  What happened is that a few days afterwards, Sam had cause to go to Mars to pick up some unique supplies in anticipation of her mother-in-law’s impending visit.

Drowsiness was like ocean tides, washing in and over her, tugging at her.  Despite getting relief from his rash, Wyn had commenced his schedule of waking several times throughout the night.  And he seemed to be fussy about which parent soothed him back to sleep.  And he seemed to change his mind each night.

A sudden flash of light jerked Sam awake.  She was at the lunar jump point. 

Sam sat up and stretched her brows, her cheeks, and lips.  She yawned as the shuttle jumped.

She brought up her shopping list on the dashboard, collapsed it again, and reached for a pack of chewing gum that she kept in a side pocket.

She had the distinct feeling that she was forgetting something.  But she had no desire to look at her list again.  With a sudden gasp, she remembered.  She tapped her finger on the dash, and then tapped a few controls.

Partly to keep herself awake, and partly out of curiosity, she brought up the log of the shuttle’s last trip to Mars.  She brought up the route that had taken Lee off course.  And she instructed the shuttle to go the same way. 

When they left the jump-way, she reduced the shuttle’s speed.  She looked around to make sure she wasn’t unwittingly trespassing.  But there weren’t any caution beacons anywhere.  She spit out her gum and popped another one out of the pack.  A sudden dizziness struck her.  She gripped the dash as her head began to spin and spin.  She lowered her chair until she was just about lying down, but the spinning persisted. 

Just as suddenly, the spinning stopped. 

Lee had mentioned feeling dizzy.  But she’d forgotten.

A few seconds later, the shuttle stopped moving forward.

Sam raised her chair.  She glanced out of the windows and portholes.  She swiped through the views of all the external cameras. 

“Aside from being in the middle of nowhere, nothing seems different,” she said.

A soft beeping began to sound.  The shuttle’s computer was calling for the attention of a manual operator.

She saw the mapping system’s failed attempts to reroute.  She put her hand on the dashboard and gave it a gentle rub.  “I think we’re in the right place.”  She raised a brow theatrically.  “But are we in the right time?”

She laughed and shook her head at herself.

She tried calling Lee, then sending him a message.  Neither went through. 

Sam was itching to bring up the shuttle’s rudimentary scanning and analysis tools—which in their model were mostly meant as a way for the occupants to avoid the worst dangers and pitfalls of local space travel.

She wanted to do readings, but she didn’t have time to indulge her own curiosity.  Not to mention that it was dangerous for her to be out of communications reach.  Lee hadn’t gone into the anomaly on purpose. 

Life support would last for weeks with the full stack of fuel she had loaded.  And she could take a nap that only lasted an hour or so.  That would probably amount to less than a minute.  The shuttle wasn’t reading anything in the area that was dangerous. 

Sam slowly talked herself in allowing for a short nap.

“Wake me in fifteen—no, twenty-five minutes,” she told the shuttle’s computer.

She lowered her chair again, easily slipping into sleep.  The alarm sounded twenty-five minutes later.  Sam’s ears heard it.  But her mind was too deep asleep to listen.

***

Sam steered the shuttle back into the jump-way.  “So I just did a dumb and reckless thing.”

“Uh-oh.”

She breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of Lee’s voice.  “Wait until I get home before you scold me?”

“Okay…”

Sam too had slept for several hours.  When she woke, despite knowing of her husband’s experience, she too panicked about having been gone so long.  She too slowly maneuvered the shuttle back out of the anomaly.  She felt the dizziness again, at the anomaly’s threshold.  She checked the chronometer.  She’d only been a few minutes according to the chronometer.  But according to the “elapsed time of journey” reading, she and the shuttle had been going for seven hours and fifty-nine minutes.      

The mapping system had kicked in again.  As did communications.

Sam abandoned her Martian shopping trip.  She turned around and went back home.

~***~

Lee paced across the room as he rubbed his forehead.  “I…I should have reported it to begin with.  What was I thinking?”

“You were thinking that it was your imagination,” Sam said, sitting on the couch with her elbows on her knees, and her hands clasped between them.  “Or that a brisk nap can sometimes be surprisingly energizing.  Or that you’d like to get a new shuttle, and needed an excuse to let go of our perfectly fine old one.”

Lee turned to her.  “Huh?”

“In other words, you were thinking of a reasonable explanation.”

“A time pocket is a reasonable explanation for all we know.  That’s why I should have reported it.”

Sam grinned at him.  “You are so cute.”

“What—”

“Time pocket?”

Lee frowned at her and waved a hand.  “Anomaly, fine.  No, I get it.  What we’ve discovered seems important, scientifically at least, and maybe philosophically.” 

“What you discovered, love.”

Lee huffed out a breath.  “I didn’t think about how it might be dangerous.”  He plopped down on the couch beside her.  “All I was thinking about was figuring out a schedule for us to share it.  You know, so we could both look forward to getting eight hours every other night.”

“Depending on how big it is, we could rent the place out too,” Sam said.  “Extra sleep.  Extra income.”

Lee grinned.  “Date night,” he said.  “We go and both get some sleep while someone else takes care of Wyn.  We’d even have time to wake up and watch some movies, and maybe do a few other things.”  He glanced over at her and winked. 

Sam blew him a kiss.  “And we’d still be back earlier than our babysitter expected.” 

“There is at least one big problem,” Lee said.  “We can’t communicate through the anomaly.”

“I had an idea about that.  Well, just a thought really.  For something we could try.  A tether system.”

Lee sat forward and rubbed his chin.

Sam sighed.  “We’re making all these grand plans, and we don’t even know if we’d be allowed to keep it for ourselves.”

“If I just drifted into one, how special could it be, right?”  Lee leaned back and sunk into the couch cushions.  “Maybe I get to stake a claim, and we get to use that anomaly, as long as we follow any regulations that apply.”

“How about this?” Sam said.  “We take a look at every bit of information the shuttle gathered over the last two trips.  We agree not to go back in, or even near, the anomaly, because well, if it’s unstable, it could collapse or implode or something.  And I don’t know what that would do to anyone who’s inside.  If it turns out the anomaly is rare, and if they mark it a protected area, so only authorized people can access it, we should make sure you at least get credit for discovering it.”

~***~

“Dizziness…disorientation.” 

They had started an audio log, and Lee was describing his firsthand observations, sensations, and perceptions.

Sam meanwhile opened the at-home physical kit that they kept on hand.  They were almost expired anyway.  She followed the instructions, interrupting Lee to apply the sample collection patch.  Then she composed a few letters to send to some experts she’d found on a basic search for researchers who were studying spatiotemporal anomalies.  Most of them were based on Mars, which was closer to the anomaly than Earth.  She sent them a few questions, posing them as hypotheticals. 

She was muttering to herself as she composed the messages, with Wyn sitting on her lap. 

Wyn slammed both hands on Sam’s keyboard and cried, “Nom!” 

“I think he’s trying to say ‘anomaly,’ hon,” Sam said, undoing the alphanumeric jumble that her son had entered in her letter. 

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what it is.”

Wyn spoke again.  “Lee!”

“That’s ‘Dad’ to you, buddy,” Lee said.

Sam kissed the top of Wyn’s head.  “Our son is a genius.” 

“Our son a menace,” Lee said.  He glanced over to catch the seemingly hurt expression on Wyn’s face, and amended his comment.  “The most adorable menace in the known universe.”

“You’re old enough to take care of yourself now, right?” Sam asked.  “If Mom and Dad disappear into a temporal anomaly?”

Wyn twisted around, and reached up to give her chin a playful slap.

An alert popped up on Sam’s computer.  “Hey, come look at this,” she said, waving Lee over.

“I was sure I did it wrong,” she said.  “That I wouldn’t get a result.  I put the parameters you collected against the same parameters that I did when I was inside the anomaly.  And then run it through a rate-of-change program thing that I found.”

“That was a good idea.”  Lee leaned over her shoulder.

“Idea, good.  Execution, I don’t know.”  Sam shifted Wyn’s hands out of the way and brought up the results of the automated analysis she had requested.  “This could be way off.  I basically just copied our data into a generic program I found.  But according to this, the anomaly is semi-stable.  Meaning, it will collapse, but not for another nine or so months.  Then time will pass normally in that part of space.  Also meaning that the stability is in its function.  It got slightly smaller when I visited it.  But the rate of time passing inside the anomaly was the same both times.”

“I’m no scientist, but can we really know that much about the anomaly’s nature from just two…uh…”

“Sets of data?  I don’t know.  Maybe not, huh?” 

Lee lifted Wyn off Sam’s lap and swung him onto his hip.  “We are most definitely in over our heads.”

“I just went in there without a thought,” Sam said.  “If I’d had any sense, I’d have sent a probe in or something.”

“A probe?  Okay, Captain Adventure, I didn’t know our base model shuttle was equipped with probes.”

“I just…don’t know what possessed me.” 

“A desperate need for sleep,” Lee said.  “Also you saw that I seemed fine.”

“‘Seemed’ being the operative word.”

Lee frowned.  “They’ll probably want to do deep physicals on us, won’t they?”

“No thanks to that.”  Sam shuddered.  “My gran told me that’s how they used to do routine physicals too.  They’d have to insert things in people’s bodies—“

“Don’t…”  Lee’s face twisted and he held out his hand. 

In a moment of fortuitous timing, Sam’s computer chimed to alert her that the results of their at-home physicals were ready.  Sam did a quick scan of those results.  The physicals found no indications of any issues with either of them, aside from what they were already aware of. 

~***~

Over the next few days, Sam received replies from the experts she’d contacted.  They all expressed a desire to witness and study such an anomaly if it existed.  No one had found any such thing as a stable temporal anomaly anywhere.  The chance to fill in gaps in their practical knowledge would be incomparable to any theoretical or practical experiments they’d done. 

“One of them said the nature of existence itself might be better understood if such an anomaly could be studied,” Sam said over breakfast one morning.

“I was afraid of this,” Lee responded, crunching on his cereal.   “All I wanted to do was get someone’s permission to go back in there and tap a nap.  Maybe even rent out the place to other people.  We could blindfold them so they wouldn’t know how to find their way back.  I’d call the place, the Zone of Eternal Sleep.”

“Oh honey, that’s…”  Sam raised her brows and pressed her lips together.  “Not ominous at all.  Sounds perfectly comforting and soothing for everyone involved.”

“Well it would be, the way I’d do it.”  Lee chuckled.  “I fantasized about someone seeing how together and well-rested we were and asking one of us, ‘What’s your secret?’  And then we’d leaned closer and say, ‘What’s it worth to you?’”

“Maybe we could ask if we could be volunteers,” Sam suggested, “since we’ve already gone in once.  Just go in and report on our experiences.”

“What if they’d want us to be awake the whole time?” 

Sam frowned.  “Then never mind.”

“Nom!” Wyn said.  He slammed his hand down on the tabletop of his high chair, sending cereal loops into the air.  He laughed at his accomplishment.

“Or maybe we tell no one, and just keep using it,” Lee said.  “And by the time it collapses, we’ll all be sleeping through the night.” 

He gave his son a pointed look, which went right over Wyn’s head.  Wyn tilted his head and giggled at his father. 

“I think today’s the day,” Sam said.  “I’ve drafted the message.  Will you look over it before I send?”

“Absolutely.”

They had agreed on who they would notify.  One of the researchers that Sam had messaged had sent a reply that was so enthusiastic and charming that they had looked her up.  She was young, but they liked her focus on transparency and ethics in her work.  And she liked to include non-scientists and kids to help with her research, in keeping with the aim of transparency.  Putting the information out there didn’t count if people didn’t know how to interpret it for themselves.  She didn’t have an impressive record of prestigious publications and awards.  But she did work for an institute that had influence and funding.  With their support, it was unlikely that someone else would swoop in and take the anomaly away from her.

“She’s perfect,” Lee had said.

Before dinnertime, knowledge of the spatiotemporal anomaly that Lee had accidentally drifted into was no longer their secret.  Their chosen researcher called Sam personally and asked to set up an interview and schedule a visit to the anomaly.  They hadn’t sent the coordinates.  They wanted to be sure they took her themselves.  When Sam mentioned having to schedule around their baby-becoming-toddler, the researcher assured Sam that she would bend over backwards to accommodate them.  After all, they had just handed her a discovery and research project of a lifetime.

It might have been coincidence, most likely was, but after they put him down that evening, Wyn slept through the night. 

And so did his well-deserving parents.

Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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