176 Years: Coming Ready Or Not: a short story by: GF Willmetts.

My computer flagged up an old space mission. The only manned flight left. Every 176 years, the outer planets line up for a low speed flight to visit them. Unlike the previous two flights, I think they were called Voyagers that never came back, this was a manned flight returning home. It was also expected back. Not a wake one, of course. The supplies would never last that long. Different to the fuel, which it collected before coming back. The crew was in deep hibernation most of the flight and would be coming back to Earth the same way when the planets realigned once more. Of the 350 years or so, my maths were never that good, they had been awake for 3 months or less. Everything they had ever know was gone now. Far more than they could dream, assuming they could dream in that hibernation state.

There had been thought to keep some of their friends and families hibernating on Earth so they would return to some friendly faces but when the choices were made, that fell by the wayside. After all, they would also wake up to a world they wouldn’t recognise and, privately, none of them wanted to do that. A difference option was chosen. All of them were selected orphans or at least had no living close relatives and, apart from qualifications, were keen on adventure. To return to a futuristic Earth was regarded as a bonus because they would be coming to the future. Our future. A future that they didn’t know or could imagine to be so disastrous. They were expecting us to sort out Earth’s problems by now and come back to a utopia according to notes left. Well, we failed at that.

The flight out took 13 years and then brief stop-offs to the outer planets to let the teams out and be collected for the return trip 176 years later. Alignment was the only way to do it and the newly discovered hibernation technique made it possible for them.

Even so, over 3 centuries was a lifetime…many lifetimes and apart from the initial interest when they arrived there, they had all been but forgotten now. Without this flag, I wouldn’t have known myself and read up on the subject. These space adventurers might have been the smartest and bravest when they left but would they be welcome or even like the world they were returning to?

Their journey was the last of the real space missions. We had spent the time since trying to save the Earth with varying success against global warming to nuclear threats. All they found was life on Titan, deep down in a hidden ocean. A great discovery in its day but so far divorced from humanity and noted as a curio when their messages arrived compared to planetary survival. After all, it was some 176 years later and they were almost forgotten even then. Oh, it was barely sentient and quite primitive. Our people back then were happy we weren’t the only life in the universe, even solar system, and then  moved on. After all, 176 years to learn that and we would never reach beyond the solar system with manned flights. Even their hibernation technique had limits.

Had we changed that much in the over two centuries later? Where was this outworld spirit that we once had? Were these people going to be the only examples of what we once were? Would they even be happy, let alone settle back on Earth in such a state?

Of course, we can’t ask them. They were all in hibernation and only their on-board computer knew how to wake them up. In effect, they were a cargo to be revived when they neared the Earth. That appeared to be my decision. I couldn’t tell their computer what to do, just give the order.

The world was in decline from global warming when they left. Indeed, the arguments for them not going nearly meant them not going at all. The argument for alignment won the day. Chances like that don’t happen every day. Another 176 years for the next one. Even now. Another one in 176 years and they could coast ready to pick that one up.

If people weren’t interested when the past message had come and certainly not now, would they expect to be seen as space heroes in a world not even knowing who they were. They would still be young. They could adapt. For them, only 3 months had passed in real time, it says so here. Here, over 3 centuries.

It would be hard to say who these people belonged to now. Country boundaries had changed drastically since the near-apocalypse. As if the people back then didn’t have enough problems. It did take out a lot of the global dissenters so we, our ancestors that is, could focus a bit more on restoring the land, what was left of it. Technology took a bit of a back-swing for a while. Oh, there were advances but ecology now had to be preserved or risk our own extinction. We couldn’t create oxygen, plants were more efficient. Humans bred like rabbits although not to the levels we had before. We couldn’t afford a massive population.

I wonder what kind of world they were dreaming they were coming back to before they went into hibernation? They knew some of it, of course. They were in regular contact when revived, even if the messages took a long time and knew some of the world’s problems but that had moved on a lot since then. With the distance and all, there was some control over how bad things really were so no to curb their mission enthusiasm. Wise heads back then. There had been the hope that the world they came back to would again resemble something they might expect it to look like. After all, they would be sleeping nearly 200 years on the way back. Low speed trajectory speed whatever that meant. Things might have improved by then. Not quite that much yet. It took some time for new technology geniuses and experts to be born. Not nearly enough of them yet. We needed more practical than theoretical people.

Would their old ideas be relevant today? Their science might be. After all, we’ve been severely shorted over the past two centuries. But to be listened to, they would insist on being given leadership to implement their ideas and where would be then? They’re scientists, not necessarily political leaders. Would we want such changes from people we’ve never heard of before? Could they cause further woes to our planet? Would we let them? Should we let them? Why am I saying ‘we’ as its me who is making the decision.

Would they have been instructions for when they returned from the people who sent them? I mean, they knew they were coming back so far into their future. They would know the looming ecology problems. Would they think it solved or needing work when they got back? All kinds of things that needed to be considered. Was that the plan all along?

Y’know, this is so much responsibility over the press of a button to get them back to Earth. They might well decide to act like normal citizens and just become farmers and accept their lot. They might well bring better farming techniques. Weren’t some of them botanists? I needed something for my stomach.

Again, so many options to consider. A lot of responsibility for one person but no one to consult because they will tell me I’m the one in power, the one with the switch. It has to be my decision. I might as well think for myself than trouble anyone else.

It really should be from logic than a flip of a coin. Mankind in its current state might not accept a team from space, let alone if they wanted to make drastic changes. This might be a preservation of their own lives, too. They might be better off in space. In hibernation, they would have no worries.

Let them sleep on. Let them go round again. Wait nearly another 2 centuries or how it takes for alignment and let someone else take the responsibility. Not me. Maybe the world will look like something they would expect it to be. We, the human race, might not even be here and they can start again.

They might be mankind’s only chance of survival than those of us left here in the now. After all, they’ll be aware of ecology and what not to do. They would have their own training. The people of our future, if there was any, might prefer such change.

Years ago, we would have thought those of us left would have been Man’s survival legacy. Now it looks like it will be them. Only thing we don’t know is when.

Do we deserve this world? Do they deserve this world? Does anyone deserve this world? We took but never gave back and nature got its revenge in the end. It will recover without us but it might continue better with them.

I pressed the button that sent them back on that 176 flight around once more. They had enough fuel, having picked up fuels from the outer planets and will do so again. Maybe they’ll come back to a world better ready for them only it won’t be us or will, many generations down the line, a distance relative will have the same dilemma or he or she can always press the go away button again.

end

© GF Willmetts 2022

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