The Best Part of Waking Up
Astronaut First Class Gene Sinclair took his first sip of coffee in 40 years and let out a contented sigh from the very bottom of his soul. Leaning forward, he put his elbows on the control panel of the spaceship so he could cradle the mug without fear of spilling a single precious drop. The cabin around him was serene. Only the occasional mechanical click from a grey maintenance panel along the white hull and the pleasant hum of the two cold pods in the center of the cabin broke the long silence. His pod stood open. The pod that held the only other occupant of the advance ship Heyderdahl, Flight Commander Don Purcell, was closed and–no. He shook his head. Time enough for duty later. For now, enjoy the moment.
The control panel itself beeped and booped just loudly enough for Sinclair to hear but not enough to be annoying. Every light on the panel except two shone a cool, soothing green that sparkled off the pour-over carafe on the panel next to him. The smell of the coffee–warm and soothing and redolent of fresh earth and chocolate and always the beloved coffee bean–filled the air and assured him that everything was okay. Better than okay, Sinclair thought. Perfect. Unique. Special.
And the day was indeed special! According to the chronometer ticking away on the hull over the closed viewscreen, today was his twentieth thaw. Twenty! He grinned, then took another long sip, careful not to drain the rest of the mug in one gulp. It would not do to be hasty. Not now. Not after nineteen other times stumbling out of the cold pod, his lungs aching as they filled with warm air. Nineteen other times he had to make do with a sip of recycled water to wet his lips and moisten his throat. Nineteen other times he waited for the control panel to come to life and for the lights in the cabin to slowly brighten so as not to dazzle eyes not used for two years. Nineteen times he worked the checklist, made sure all the systems were nominal and the ship was still on course to their destination, the planet that would be his home for the rest of his life. Nineteen times he checked both cold pods, first his then so very carefully the other. Nineteen times he spent the thirty minutes of warmth and life in the cabin fighting back the strong yearning for the one thing in his life that brought him unconditional happiness. Oh, how he wanted to! Oh, how he fought back the almost overwhelming impulse to open his personal storage shelf and pull out the carafe, the grinder, and the bag of treasured beans. But he could not. He dared not. He had to make it last. Had to discipline himself to make it to today. The special day. Thaw number twenty!
Of course, he had. Sinclair was a man of discipline. How else could he have taken every thaw when the mission plan called for the two men to alternate? But men of discipline rise to the occasion when circumstances require a new plan, and so he had.
He finished his coffee, savoring every taste, then moved briskly to clean up. The carafe he rinsed with a splash of water from the recycler and sang as he did, a commercial jingle for the very carafe he owned.
“I love coffee! Coffee loves me!
And coffee always tastes better
When it’s poured from a BrewBuddy.
He gave a little jig-hop as he shouted “BrewBuddy” and slid all the coffee paraphernalia into his storage compartment. Now, all he had left were his duties, then another two-year freeze. He sighed. This was the part he knew he’d dislike. The coffee was gone, the warm glow it brought was fading, and he had to check the two lights that were not green when he awakened.
The first light told him his own cold pod was ready and on standby. The second…well…that was more important. That light was for the second cold pod, the one for Flight Commander Don Purcell.
Purcell! Sinclair’s fingers twitched like they wanted to ball into fists, smash through the nigh-impenetrable clear cover of the pod, and punch Purcell’s smug face over and over. Purcell’s chiseled good looks adorned the front pages of all the newspapers. Purcell’s rank put his name before Sinclair’s in every story. Purcell’s easy charm made him the darling of the radio news reporters. Purcell commanded the mission, made all the decisions, denied even the most reasonable…
“No!” He blurted the word with such vehemence that he shocked himself. He looked around in a momentary daze, as if Purcell might step out of the cold pod. “No,” he said again more softly and more under control. Of course, Sinclair knew the real problem. Purcell wanted him to leave the plants behind. Everything else was petty jealousy and Sinclair was too smart a man, too disciplined a man, to allow petty jealousy to raise such anger in him. But the plants? That was a real thing. An issue. Something that needed to be handled quickly and hadn’t he done just that? He smiled as he checked the indicator to Purcell’s cold pod. It wasn’t the soft green that said everything was nominal. Instead, it blinked a pale amber. I am working, the blinking light seemed to say to him, but something is amiss. Use caution.
Sinclair tapped the light in the three syllable BrewBuddy rhythm. “Yes, yes! Caution. I will be cautious. I have been cautious,” he said and glanced at the chronometer. He had only a few minutes more before he had to return to the cold pod for another freeze sleep. “Purcell will keep! Purcell will sleep! Now let us check the lovely plants!”
Ah, the plants! Here was all of it — the source of his anger at Purcell, the hope that smoldered in his breast for a bright end to the long voyage, the anchor that held his discipline sure. His prized coffee plants.
Before they left, Mission Command had granted each man a certain weight allotment for personal items, under the belief that if they could take some memorabilia from home, it might help them adjust more smoothly to the new planet and their new life. Sinclair had, of course, chosen his coffee paraphernalia, but he had chosen three more things besides. Coffee plants. He’d plant them when he arrived so that he’d always have a supply of coffee. The idea was perfect! The boys in Mission Bio told him they were reasonably sure, with what they knew, the plants would survive and even thrive in the new environment. No real problem there. But how to get them to the planet? They’d never survive the trip without water and sunlight and nutrients. Mission Bio didn’t have any good answers, so he checked with Engineering. They could set up a third cold pod, but that would change all the energy demands and would cost quite a bit more. Purcell put his foot down. No way. No new cold pod. Sinclair gripped the control panel tightly as he remembered how hard he had pleaded. He even offered to defray some of the costs from his own pocket. Purcell was adamant.
But Sinclair had another idea. What if he kept the plants in his own cold pod? Would that work? Purcell himself answered that: no. The plants would still require LongFreeze Solution and there simply was not enough. The solution was hard to make and more expensive even than the pods themselves. Sinclair had tried to argue but Purcell simply would not budge. He could take the plants if he wanted to, but they’d ride in a cold pod over his dead body.
Well. That settled it. The Heyderdahl launched on schedule and Sinclair’s beloved plants very nearly died. He shuddered to think how close he had been to not having coffee ever again! But he had come up with a solution while he dreamed his way through his first freeze sleep. And it had worked splendidly! It only took boldness and discipline! And he had both! He giggled aloud, a high shrill sound that jittered around the cabin.
The chronometer pinged at him, reminding him that his time to return to the cold pod had come, but he had one thing to do first. He walked up to Purcell’s pod and ran his fingertips over the glass to wipe away some of the frost that lightly coated the outside. He leaned in close, almost touching it with his cheek.
“Be cool, my beauties,” he said, lovingly. “We’ll be there soon. Oh. And you be cool too, Commander.” He turned away to his own pod, laughing, as frost re-formed over the glass, obscuring the frozen, vital leaves of three coffee plants and the dead and bloody face of Flight Commander Don Purcell.
I entered this story into The Write Practice Summer 2020 Contest. It didn’t take any prizes, though it did get quite good comments from several other authors in the run-up to the contest, which demonstrates only that you can never know what the judges of a contest are thinking at any given moment. Write the best story you can and let it fly.
I rather like this story, which was at least three years in the making. My friend Rachael Sinclair planted the seed with some comments about her love for coffee and a wonderful illustration that I can’t use here because it included a brand name I couldn’t use in the story. Trust me, though. It was wonderful and set the time frame for the story quite nicely! As usual, I took her comments a little to far past coffee love all the way into coffee obsession and just a little bit of coffee murder.
Anyhow, enjoy! It’s a good story with which to curl up.
After you’ve made yourself a tasty cup of coffee, of course.
(Photo Credit: ryanhidajat on Pixabay)