Wally tries to open his eyes, but it takes a very long time. He had been told he would not dream, but he senses that he is attempting to break out from the luscious, sun-infused dream world he has inhabited for years. He is already losing his distinct memory of that tropical paradise bathed in heavenly white mist, and he is fearful he may never be able to go back. Something has been triggered far deeper inside of his consciousness, though. Perhaps, it is the survival instinct that slaps a man awake on his bed when he struggles to breathe. Whatever that trigger may be it is drawing up his eyelids like the door of a long buried coffin, and the Eden he once experienced in so much detail is dissipating like mist before the noonday sun.
What remains of his dream world are droplets on a concave glass surface. It reminds him of rain still clinging to a window long after the showers have passed on to some other patch of earth. The droplets are defiant, but also doomed, and it is just a matter of time before they evaporate into the quiet and sterile air. In the end, even the most compelling dream world fades back into that lonely void; and all that is left for the awakening man is his survival instinct, his old work habits, and his no longer inspired sense of mission. He wants to shut his eyes, but he fears that that world has been stolen away from him. At this point, further sleep would be an even darker and more detached experience than the austere time and place in which he finds himself.
The concave glass surface lifts up to the side, and the cushion behind Wally’s cold, stiff torso simultaneously lifts him up to a seated position. This all happens too fast. The engineers who planned and built this mechanism apparently never thought about how hard it would be for a man to awaken from several centuries of medically induced coma. The glass encased tomb bed had slowed down Wally’s physical aging, so that for each year that passed in this futuristic Dracula coffin Wally succumbed to about a month’s worth of biological deterioration. At this moment, though, he surely feels hundreds of years older, and in sitting upright so fast he imagines himself to be a skeletal, old coot about to vomit what few organs remain. He is nauseous, cold, and alone; and as his eyes start to etch odd shapes out from the thick, black soup around him he wonders if he has awakened into his own little hell.
The nausea passes, and Wally is able to focus on a blinking red light. It is on a console on the opposite side of what looks and feels like a morgue. The space is very functional, if unimaginative, and Wally imagines a bureaucrat doctor in a white coat and black gloves spending all day in here poking dead things. There is no doctor out here, of course, except for Wally himself. The old man staring with childlike wonder at a blinking red light is alone. He had been before he commandeered this vessel and put himself into hibernation, and he is now. He wonders if escaping his twenty-third century life on the Moon colony had been worth it, for where he is right now feels as sterile and cold as what he can recall of his life back then.
Wally does not recall very much. Perhaps, over time, his memories will fill in the void that the dissipated dream world has left behind. His years in that colony on the far side of the Moon would provide him context for his current situation; maybe even a renewed sense of purpose. After all, there had to have been a good reason for throwing away everyone he knew for a solitary mission in an untested spaceship to a point far outside the solar system. Did he volunteer himself to be the test monkey for manned interstellar travel? Or did he steal this ship and blast away to escape an old crime for which he was about to be punished? Was he altruistic or selfish when he strangled the guard and stepped into the ship? He definitely recalls killing a man before stepping inside of here and locking the hatch behind him. He can still see the man’s skin turn cold blue, before he released the wire and dropped him to the floor.
Wally steps onto the floor. It is iced cold, and calls to mind a mausoleum that opened its doors to the winter nights long before. He can walk on this floor because he is wearing gravity slippers, but he senses that there is another reason that is a lot more explanatory than the latest advances in outer space footwear. He can stand on his own two feet because he belongs here like an old ghost in the echoing halls of his haunt. This room remains foreign and lonely, but he commandeered it for whatever purpose he had in mind at the time. He made it his by determined effort and, on one occasion at least, by cold murder. Perhaps, for the only time in his life he is where he is, and doing what he is doing, for no other reason than his will. He alone took paper and pen and wrote this one page in his life. Though he cannot remember the details, he knows that other people contributed to the other pages. Sometimes, they forcibly took his hand, and made him write what he wrote. Other times, they scribbled their caustic remarks in the margins like bullies vandalizing a teenager’s school yearbook.
Wally walks over to the console. His steps are slow and trepid. He is either a bearded toddler taking a stab at walking upright like one of the big boys, or he is an old drunk still wincing from a hangover. Even worse is his lack of mental acuity. He recalls he had earned his doctorate in his former life, and he had been a scientist or an engineer of some sort on the Moon. He cannot recall specifics beyond that, and as he stares at the console in the dim light he simply cannot figure out what to do with the dials and the buttons. He has no idea what the blinking red light means, or even more importantly how to turn it off.
He sits heavily on a swivel chair in front of the console. He is already so tired he could sleep another few centuries. He is about to fade off, when the long dormant computer screen before him suddenly switches on. It takes him awhile to read what is printed on there. The English words may as well have been ancient hieroglyphics at first, but this part of his memory returns as he starts to mouth the various words on the screen phonetically. It seems he had been in hibernation for 306 earth years, which means he is 25 years and a few weeks older than he had been when he broke into this vessel and rocketed away from the Tranquility Lunar Orbiter.
The computer screen also indicates that he is about 72 earth hours from the destination officially designated Sirius Point X. As the brightest star in the earth sky, Sirius is actually a binary star unit consisting of a very luminous star about twice the size of the Sun and a white dwarf. Sirius Point X is on the outer reaches of this binary solar system. It orbits the luminous star every thousand years or so. Since the white dwarf nudges Point X further into outer space with every flyby, the orbit is getting a little longer each time. Eventually, it will break completely from Sirius and be lost in interstellar space. Thousands of asteroids and comets share the same fate, and for a long time Earth based astronomers viewed it as just another unremarkable rock on their ever-growing list of traced space junk.
A century before Wally took off from the Orbiter the Earth Space Force sent a telescope to a spot passed Pluto to study the Kuiper Belt more closely. Astronomers with too much time on their hands zeroed in on Sirius Point X, even though it is way outside the area being investigated, and noticed an oddity. This rock appeared to be way too smooth and, even more strangely, shaped like something that had been first envisioned on architectural blueprints. The ESF had begun already to launch a series of nano-probes to nearby star systems that can travel at much closer to the speed of light than conventional rockets. Though most of these experiments had failed, a few had managed to record and to transmit back to Earth information about these close star systems never before attainable. The ESF agreed to send one of these probes to Sirius Point X. Though the probe could not transmit back a visual image, it provided enough data to indicate that Sirius Point X is a vessel of some sort. For the first time, the ESF had found proof of an alien civilization. It may be little more than hardware discarded there eons ago, but it was enough to capture the imagination of humanity.
Though still officially named Sirius Point X, people more generally called this alien hardware “Delphi” in honor to the Oracle from Greek mythology. They figured that, like the Oracle, when investigated more closely it would provide answers to an assortment of questions about long ago civilizations. Engineers competed with each other to create better nano-probes that could get out to Delphi even faster, and also transmit back more information. None of the other nano-probes succeeded, though. Every one of them exploded before getting close enough. Though each of them could have been a mechanical failure, a kind of superstitious dread started to emerge, and people wondered if something (or someone) out there wanted to prevent them from getting a closer look. Even as nano-probes became much more dependable, and thus allowed the ESF to become exponentially more familiar with various other close star systems, Delphi remained shrouded in mystery. Like the Oracle, over time it came to symbolize as much what we could not know as what we could no matter our efforts.
Wally stays busy over the next 72 hours, but he moves extra slowly from one task to the next. He is physically weak, and not sure how to do what he thinks he has to do at any given moment. When he saw himself for the first time in the mirror next to the shower, he saw an aged, white-headed man staring back at him. He almost did not recognize himself. Perhaps most disconcerting were his eyes, which he imagined may have been beautifully charming centuries ago. Now, those same eyes look out at the world from a haggard face as if permanently confused and bloodshot. He has the eyes of a mentally slow or deranged man whose gray mind is creeping into paranoia.
Wally steps into the tiny cockpit about an hour before the vessel is supposed to arrive. The cockpit consists of one seat surrounded on three sides by a number of intricate dials, buttons, and screens. In theory, he can manually override everything from here; but even the best of pilots seldom interfere nowadays with the complex space flight and docking procedures coded into the computer. Unless there is some reason to think that the Quantum series computer is not working right, pilots know it is best to leave it alone. Wally had been competent enough in the cockpit seat, but never one of the best, and his piloting skills now are a tiny fraction of what they had been. Frankly, at this moment, he is not sure he could pilot a hovercraft properly on the lunar surface. Hibernation clearly has depleted more of him than the experts in his time had expected. He wonders if the ESF over the past three centuries has been able to improve hibernation for the space travelers who came after him. Likely, he is never going to find out. Even if he sent a message back to Orbiter, it would take eight years to reach someone there, and another eight years for him to receive a response. He cannot imagine living another sixteen years as the confused, old man he is today; and if somehow he physically does, he doubts his feeble mind will be there with him.
For most of the hour there is nothing to see through the cockpit window but the blackness of outer space. There are a multitude of stars out there, but in his eyes they seem dead and interchangeable. The stars do not twinkle, since of course there is no intervening atmosphere, and so the allure they had for him when he was a boy on a farm in what used to be called the State of Iowa is gone. He has a vague memory of looking up at the night sky while standing in an endless field of cornstalks. He had to get back inside to do maintenance on the robot laborers scheduled to harvest the corn the next morning, but his wanderlust kept him out there longer than his father appreciated. As much as he tries, though, he cannot remember what the stars really looked like on that last night of what in retrospect he would realize had been a most idyllic childhood. He searches even for a partial image in his mind, but he comes up with nothing. All that remains is the anxiety he felt at staying outside passed curfew.
Delphi starts to come into view about ten minutes before docking. Quantum has determined that its own docking connector is compatible with the latches at the destination point. It is as if Delphi had been built or modified to receive the vessel at this moment into its bosom. Wally is surprised at first, but then he figures if there is an alien intelligence overseeing Delphi then it has had three centuries to see that he is on his way and to prepare for his arrival. Quantum does not need to put the vessel into an orbit around Delphi, and Wally will not need to spacewalk out to it. Wally is a welcomed guest apparently. He is not sure if that should frighten him or not. Mostly, he is too tired and confused to feel anything at all but a vague sense that he must not turn back from his mission objective. He has sacrificed his life, and also the life of the guard, in order to be right where he is at this moment. His only thought is to wait for docking to be completed and then to see with his own bloodshot eyes what is inside.
At first, Delphi is no more than a grey speck among the stars. Wally sits up to take a closer look. Quantum has indicated already that Delphi rotates head over base every 3.5 hours. Its base is a perfect square measuring 1 kilometer on each side, and the highest point is 15.24 meters (50 feet). The composition is more interesting. It is predominantly concrete and asphalt, but also includes wood, metal, and stucco. This sounds more like a city block on Earth (especially Earth of the past) than something normally found in outer space. Quantum’s graphical representation of Delphi seems to confirm this. Wally is not working on all cylinders, but when he first observed the image it looked like a city street with a sidewalk, a light post, and a storefront. There was even a tall sign in front of the storefront that accounted for the 15.24 meter high point. The storefront is in the exact center of the square, and the street and sidewalk are along the perimeter. The light post is at the corner of the square street and what appears to be an asphalt walkway to the storefront.
Just a couple of minutes before docking, Delphi is close enough that Wally can see its details with his own eyes. The thick, grayish black dust that covers everything reminds Wally of the surface of the Moon. It is cold, still, and inhospitable, and Wally assumes that, like walking on the Moon, the dust will soon seep into every crevice of his spacesuit when he is out there. The storefront has rectangular windows on three of its four sides, which is surprising since Quantum had not listed glass as one of the materials. The shape of the storefront reminds Wally of pictures he has seen of mid-twentieth century diners. The tall sign confirms his impression, since it trumpets in a 1950s stylized font: The Far Out Café. Everything about Delphi suggests a tranquil slice of mid-twentieth century Americana, except for the light post. Wally thinks that it looks more Victorian, though he could be wrong. Regardless, taken as a whole, this is clearly a replica of a distinct place and time. Unless the aliens that built this have a home planet that is almost identical culturally to Earth, they had visited Earth in the past and had constructed this in emulation of what they had seen there. Since Wally has seen old pictures of Disneyland, this reminds him of the historical replicas once featured at that theme park. Like Main Street or Fantasy Land, it appears too quaint to be real. Wally almost expects automaton dwarves, bearded and hooded like little creatures from Middle Earth, to waddle out from inside the dark diner and to wave him inside for a pint. The dwarves will be all smiles, but there will be a sinister glint to their eyes. This does not happen, but Wally continues to sense something wrong and underhanded about this cartoonish place. He feels like this is an elaborate trap.
When the vessel is thirty seconds away, robotic arms that resemble crabs all of a sudden come out from beneath the concrete base. They attach themselves to the vessel, and pull it into position alongside the back of the square. The vessel switches off and goes dark. There is still breathable air and pressure inside the cockpit, and a blinking red light back in what Wally still thinks of as “the morgue,” but otherwise it is totally black and still inside the vessel for the first time in three centuries. There is no sound in Wally’s mind but the beating of his own heart, and for the first time he is consciously aware that he is really afraid. Before, his fears had been obscured by his exhaustion and mental slowness. Now, those cold, raw fears are scratching out from beneath the surface. He thinks about disconnecting, reprogramming the vessel to go back to Earth, and sleeping for another 25 years. He would be very old when he got back to the Orbiter, and the world would be over six hundred years older than when he had escaped. He would be able to reveal the truth of this place; and assuming that he was not tried for murdering the guard, he would die with all the pageantry owed a true interstellar space pioneer. He would be a celebrated oddity to them, but is this necessarily a bad ending to a life lived willfully? At a pivotal moment, unlike the vast majority of men, Wally had done what he had chosen to do, not what his peers or his superiors had expected of him. Surely, there is heroism in that, even if at the end the returning hero is held up as a freak in a cage.
Still, he has come this far….
Wally removes his hand from the manual override switch. He is here, and he had come here to step inside. He did not come here simply to snap photographs and to take measurements like an unmanned probe. If a man’s experience adds nothing to the moment, then why have manned missions at all? Why not just hide behind an army of computer screens and consoles, while robots of various sizes and speeds go out to the farthest reaches of the universe? Why not burrow back into the earth like our four-footed ancestors, and let our advanced technology tame the cosmos for us?
Wally steps back into the morgue. He puts on his pressurized air pack and his space helmet. It takes him a couple of hours, because he moves very slowly and feels the need to triple check everything. He puts on his bulky gravity boots at the end. He can barely lift his feet with them on inside the vessel, but he knows they will become handy when trying to walk over the surface of Delphi. According to Quantum, Delphi has less than a quarter the gravitational pull of the Moon. Without these boots it will be too easy for him to step up a little too forcefully, and then to find himself twirling head over feet into outer space.
Wally climbs up the short ladder to a hatch. He twists a knob, which closes a door behind him, and keeps the remainder of the vessel fully pressurized and ready for his return. He twists another knob, and the hatch opens into a gray, frozen, alien world with no atmosphere between itself and outer space. He climbs down from the hatch, and steps onto a dust-covered sidewalk. He sees the back of the diner and the sign directly ahead, but mostly he sees the stars. They had seemed dull when viewed from inside the cockpit, but out here they overwhelm him in number and variety. He sees billions of them every which way he faces; and although he is standing upon the sidewalk, he feels like he is tiptoeing on a paper-thin ledge about to be swept into an inconceivably vast eternity.
There is a brighter point among the endless sea of stars. He knows that that is Sirius-A. It is bluish white and many times more luminescent than the Sun, but since Delphi has a very distant and elongated orbit Sirius-A looks only slightly larger than its brethren stars. When Delphi faces Sirius-A, which is every 1.75 hours, the grayish black dust assumes a slightly more bluish white hue. The result is a landscape that is reminiscent of dirty snow or ice crackling into sludge. According to Quantum, there is no actual water here, so the snow and the ice are illusions; but in Wally’s mind he has stepped into a winter wonderland on the precipice of an endless expanse. When Delphi turns away from Sirius-A, the surface calls to mind the dark side of the Moon. The blackness of outer space seems to settle over everything like a thick mist, and it is almost impossible to view the sidewalk at his feet, let alone the diner and the sign. The illusion is that he is walking out into outer space. If he is not careful to keep his gravity boots upon the sidewalk, then he will step over the ledge and indeed do just that. In order to see his path before him, whenever it is night he switches on the tiny flashlights on the arms of his suit. He wonders if a distant telescope somewhere will someday pick up the intermittent flashes of light from his suit. Maybe, these distant stargazers will deduce that he is the alien owner of this little point in the grand sky, when in fact he is as much an explorer as they are.
Several hours pass, when Wally finally reaches the light post. He stares up at the lamp and sees that it is encased in transparent aluminum. So that is what is used here instead of glass. Sirius-A arises from beneath the horizon, and the dust-covered lamp glows bluish white. Wally stands near enough to the pole to bathe a moment in the muted, wintry light. It casts a dream over him, and he is almost back in that vast cornfield taking in the night sky one last time before adulthood robbed it of its great beauty. He hears how the wind whispers to him through the rustling stalks. The soft breeze is urging him to stay out there, and over the years that followed he regretted that he did not. Wally does not recall much else, but that final moment is becoming a lot clearer to his mind. He grins for the first time, since awakening into his future. He turns to face the diner, and he feels a kind of boyish enthusiasm to explore the place.
The asphalt walkway to the diner is about a half kilometer long, and as Wally waddles down that way in his heavy boots the dust all around glistens bluish white. It is much more brilliant than when he had observed it from the sidewalk. It appears to be illuminated from beneath more so than from Sirius-A rising overhead. If that is the case, then this place is alive, and someone is putting on a light show for him. This should be a cause for concern, but Wally is taken with the pristine beauty of the soft, make believe snow on both sides of the asphalt.
Wally approaches the sign. He looks up, and observes what looks like a 1950s font in neon. He is about to look down again, when suddenly the neon is switched on and the words glow red: The Far Out Café. Unlike that snow illusion, which had been a lot subtler and had eased into his consciousness, the very fact of this sign suddenly turning on slaps the fear back into him. Quantum had not indicated any electricity in its breakdown of what is on Delphi, and he had not seen anything like a generator or electrical cables. Of course, the aliens may have technology much beyond what he or his computer can discern. He thinks about the Aztecs standing upon the shoreline as the ship full of Spanish conquistadores arrived. The ships had been so removed from their cultural worldview that they were not able to process mentally what they were seeing. Their minds just shut out those ships until the Spaniards finally disembarked and stood as armored gods before them. Is that happening here? Is this neon sign an example of luminescent technology that Wally and Quantum cannot start to fathom?
Like with the snow illusion, this sign indicates that someone is watching him. The sign had been turned on just as Wally had stood beneath it, so this alien pulling at the strings clearly understands how to create dramatic effect. The alien clearly is smart. Is it here, or is it doing this from afar? Is it playful, mischievous, or worse? So many questions rush through Wally’s mind, as he stares open mouthed at that neon sign. He cannot start to answer them, and is not sure that he wants to. He lowers his head finally and walks the rest of the way to the front door.
Given what has happened, Wally is not surprised to discover that the door is unlocked, and easy to pull open. As soon as he does so, a number of lights switch on inside to reveal a replica 1950s diner. There are comfy booths near the transparent aluminum windows, a long counter with stools, a cash register, a malt machine, and a kitchen in the back. Off to one side there is even an old fashioned jukebox, though Wally has no idea what that is. Everything is creamy white with black and red trim, and Wally thinks of a big vanilla ice cream sundae with black fudge and strawberry topping. The overall feel here is sugar sweet and wholesome, though the longer that Wally stares at that model diner in front of him the more he senses just how creepy and garish it is. The alien builder had gone overboard with the design elements, and Wally would break into laughter if he did not also feel a cold, sinister hand at work.
Stranger than the décor are the life sized, humanlike figures sitting upright at the booths and the stools. Their skin is too gray and waxen to be all that lifelike, and Wally presumes that they are mannequins that have become discolored and dingy in the many years since they were first put here. Their eyes are wide-open expressions of absolute terror. It is like the alien could express only one human emotion: the raw terror the moment a person is attacked and about to die. The alien positioned every one of them into an animated pose. Some are stooped over plates or bowls that they are about to consume. Others are speaking with their hands to a friend sitting across from them in a booth. Others are listening with hands folded in their laps. One guy is bent at his waist and staring at the selections in the jukebox. There is also a waitress with a short, bouffant hairdo, a notepad in one hand, and a pencil in the other. She is taking an order from an old, Roy Rogers cowboy sitting at the counter. The waitress appears to be smitten with the cowboy. Regardless of the pose, though, the eyes are always wide-open and afraid, and the result is a model diner that seems cheerful on the surface but is darkly surreal the longer it seeps into Wally’s psyche.
Curious, Wally steps closer to Roy Rogers. With a small camera upon his right wrist, he scans photographs of both sides of the mannequin’s wrinkled face. He then steps behind the counter, stands up close to the buxom waitress, and scans a picture of the front of his face. He also scans the mannequin’s skin composition. He sends all that data to Quantum, and waits about a minute for a text to appear on his wrist. The mannequin has the exact face of a truck driver named Clark Burrows. It seems Clark had vanished one night in the summer of 1955 while driving produce on an isolated highway just outside of Roswell, New Mexico. The police found his truck a couple of weeks later in a ditch, but they never found any trace of him. Interestingly, the local newspaper reported a UFO sighting the same night he disappeared.
Wally’s heart sinks as he reads about this man’s disappearance. He is not all that surprised, when Quantum reports soon thereafter that the skin composition is not synthetic. It is human skin that has been preserved with an unknown chemical.
Horrified, Wally steps out from behind the counter, and waddles toward the front door. Just before he reaches that door the lights go out. The neon sign outside switches off, and the dust along the walkway is no longer illuminated from beneath.
Wally struggles to open the door, but it is now locked. He cannot tear it off of its hinges, no matter how hard he tries. He cannot break the transparent aluminum, either. He is trapped inside of a dark room of monstrous shadows. The temperature gets considerably colder as Sirius-A slides beneath the horizon. The only sound that Wally can hear is his frantic heartbeat as he struggles to pull in air from his tank. He still hears his heart even when he passes out. Each beat is like a step coming toward him from the frozen world outside. He wonders if the guard he murdered had heard his steps just before the end.
The robotic arms release their grip on the vessel. They nudge the vessel away from the dock. The vessel floats off for a while, but then is captured into a weak orbit around Delphi. A few centuries later, the vessel will break free from this orbit, and it will fade into that growing cemetery of odds and ends that occupies the frozen space between the galaxies. Until that happens, it will be a lifeless moon for a strange, little rest stop along the interstellar highway.
Quantum will send back readings to the Orbiter for a while longer, but no one will be back there to pick it up. A lot has happened in the three centuries since Wally killed a man and commandeered a vessel. Not all of it was good, and though man will make a comeback eventually this will occur long after Quantum’s data transmissions are over and gone.
Perhaps several millennia from now, there will be an investigator on the hunt for ancient murderers and outlaws. He may carry around a dog-eared photograph of Wally Winters, the twenty-third century version of a notorious killer and horse thief. If that investigator should happen to drop by the Far Out Café, very likely he will see that a particular waxen mannequin stooped over a bowl bears an uncanny resemblance to that infamous man. If that occurs, then the last page in Wally’s life finally may be written.