by Jamie Woodcock.
It was hard to remember how many days, weeks, months, or even years they had been there. During the transit, the treatment was part of their contract. It was delivered like an immunisation, injected into the shoulder. Instead of providing protection, it changed body chemistry and the circadian rhythm. While the process was complex, the result was simple: there was no longer a physiological need for sleep.
This innovation brought immediate changes. The last time they slept was on the journey. Upon arrival, the shift patterns adapted quickly to the new constraints. Instead of eight or twelve hours, shifts became twenty-one. That left a two-hour break to reset machines and two thirty-minute breaks to eat. The reset was more for the machinery than anything else, but it provided time for washing, changing clothes, and some brief change of scenery.
The town was rapidly built with this newfound overtime. There were, however, many side effects. Removing the psychological exhaustion did not stop psychological constraints. Even though there were no children planetside, there still had to be time off around work. Stress and frustration still built up. Days off time off could be granted, although these were the exception: few and far between.
After the first burst of shifts, there was an incident in the fabricator buildings. A manager came into the building towards the end of the twenty-one-hour cycle. They, like the workers being bossed around, were getting increasingly irritable. No one was quite sure of the timeline, but the manager left the building with a bloody nose.
The mood became angrier across town. Exhaustion bled over into rage. People began to question why they had to work so many hours this far from earth. The contract promised freedom after the sleep-deprived work, but could they wait that long? The Governor came out to address the crowd of workers that were gathering in the town square.
"I stand before you as the planetside representative of Liberty Dynamics, appointed and reviewed by the board of directors on earth. As per your contract, you have each agreed to the terms and conditions of this expeditionary charter. If you have changed your mind, I remind you of the forfeiture clause that each and every one of you signed. What do you think this town would look like without the support of Liberty Dynamics? We have brought the build blocks of a new life - one that we can all share if we pull in the..."
The droning speech was cut short by a blast, kicking up dust and fury across the square. Things fast-forwarded from that moment. Security rushed around but quickly realised there was no one to take orders.
One person, now without the livery of the security guild on their uniform, explained that an automated message had already been dispatched to earth. The mutiny procedure would then automatically dispatch a warship to come and clean up the “mess.” Based on the time for the message to be relayed and how far they were, he estimated that would take 71 days.
At first, people tried to convert the days to hours to make sense of the verdict hanging over them. Of course, one of the first things discussed was how to reverse the sleep deprivation. Once a solution had been found, it took time to adjust. It was a slow process, converting hours back into days, each bookended by sleep.
One of the effects of the lack of sleep had been a loss of connection to the world and people around them. Shifts became increasingly similar and there was no time to reflect on what was happening. It was odd that sleeping, which by definition involved disconnecting from reality, played such a vital part in feeling connected.
Conversations slowly brought that connection back.
"Do you know what it felt like? Sitting in a spaceport for all that time. You know? Those places where time feels like it moves differently? It's not really slow, just that it is kind of a non-time."
"Yeah, sort of, I guess."
"Now that I think about it, you can have a beer any time of day in the spaceport. It's not like we could ever do that before. Do you remember those hangovers we got when we first arrived? Couldn't sleep them off. Just spent hours pacing back and forth. No wonder they banned alcohol after that."
"You know, I'd forgotten all about that.”
There were now 68 days to go. But it felt good to count that in days, not hours and minutes.
As days became nights, the workload eased. People slept in late and took long breaks in the newly formed cafes. As the circadian rhythms started to settle, life came rushing back. After a week, dreams began to return.
A Sword of Damocles hung over the new community. The warship was yet to get orders, but it could be imagined hanging far above them. Formal and informal meetings had sprung up throughout the town. Debates ranged from whether they should erect a clock on the main square to keep track of the countdown, to what they should do with the leftover materials from Liberty Dynamics.
Elections were held across each neighbourhood and workplace. Some dreams were immediately put into practice. Rents no longer had to be paid or collected. Night work ended. The Caldecott-Krüger franchised pawn shops were opened up. All debts were written off. Liberty Dynamics buildings were repurposed, becoming communal kitchens, cafes, and bars.
Five more nights of dreams had imagined what they could do with the community. That left 63 days.
One of the laboratory buildings had become a hub of activity. It was where the sleep treatment was synthesised. Rumour had it that Liberty Dynamics spliced insect DNA, or was it from bullfrogs? A cocktail of hormones and chemicals were processed here, building on decades of research. This equipment now lay fallow, with parts cannibalised into new contraptions.
There were lengths of copper pipe that crisscrossed the old lab. Two large vats were bubbling in one corner. There was a strong smell of fermentation, with notes of sweetness. Excitement rippled across the building as something was syphoned off a rickety-looking tower.
Crates of bottles came in and out of the building. Each had a label stating the blend or recipe, along with the date they could be opened.
"So the earliest we can drink these is in ten days time?"
“And not a day sooner, but we can get planning for now!"
This gave another countdown alongside the 55 days remaining.
Eleven days later, the community was nursing a collective hangover. Banners and dishevelled decorations hung around the bars and cafes like ghosts of the night before.
The party had seen the community dance and drink the night away. Tables and chairs were pulled out of buildings and into the streets. Debate about what to do next filled the conversations. Plans were discussed, from the reasonably straightforward to the incredibly complex. The more beer that was consumed, the more emphasis there was on the latter.
The public announcement system had been rigged up to play old music from earth. This had been a point of much debate, creating clear lines over what music would be appropriate for the first festival of the new town. They ended up with an incoherent combination of baile funk, garage, techno, samba, and at one point some kind of power ballads. The music provided an exchange between generations and cultures, each taking the time to share dance moves. Even then the competition over music continued.
As the suns came up and the bars ran dry, the community that had spent so long trying to get back to sleep finally headed off to bed.
The first up started the cleaning operation. It was a kind of quiet and meditative combing over of the night before. First the empty bottles, then the cups and dishes, followed by shifts of washing up. As more woke from their sleep, double rations were laid on, mostly being fried up in the newly repurposed kitchens. Bleary eyes, greasy food, and quieter conversations now filled the cafes. The town now felt lived in.
It was not clear when the shift had happened, but over breakfast some started talking about time since things had changed, rather than counting down. Depending on your perspective, that either meant it was 44 days to go, or the 27th day of a new era.
There were still some who counted down. As it reached into the single days, eyes turned to the skies. The calculations indicated that any ship would appear on the long-range scanners four days before arriving at the planet.
The “accident” or “incident” was rarely discussed. Most of the discussion focused on the future, not the past. However, there was nothing like an encroaching warship to sharpen the mind. Through debate and discussion, factions began to form throughout the community.
On one side were the Maximalists. They began to stockpile makeshift weapons, taking the old security and mining equipment and repurposing it. No one from within their ranks took responsibility for the “incident”, but some were clear that they would do much more if they needed to.
Another side were the Realists - or the "cowards", as the maximalists called them. They argued that the time should be spent preparing to minimise the punishment the community would receive. Their argument was that production should be brought back up, showing the potential of the new community to Liberty Dynamics. They tried, and failed, to hold a trial to determine who set of the bomb, hoping to place all the blame on someone else.
The final side was more diffuse. The Utopians were "dreamers" or "unserious." They spent their time trying to turn the dreams of the last fifty eight days into reality - or at least into plans that could start to become real. This meant taking on the responsibility for repurposing the buildings and changing the living arrangements - as well as planning the parties. As the days counted up (or down) they increasingly overlapped with the Maximalists, hoping to keep their dreams alive.
The test of the utopia was no longer in its planning. Dreams gave way to nightmares. More started to talk about the days remaining, counting down in single digits.
The warship could now be seen clearly in the sky. At first, it could have been confused as a star, but quickly its shape began to become visible. The hulking lines carried a promise of violence. There had been no communication back or forth. The factions had hardened, with clear lines being drawn in what to do next. Some stockpiled tools that could be used for a more aggressive purpose, others flocked to the bars, while some carried on the debates in the streets and cafes. It was like being shaken from a dream. There was no more counting to be done.
The warship slowed into orbit. There was no strike down to the planet, as some had predicted. Neither was there any communication. The silence chilled the mood even further. That made it day 71 or day 0, depending on which side you saw it from. Three shuttles departed from the warship, the atmospheric resistance causing bright streaks across the sky. The red and orange receded into clouds of white dust upon landing. Slowly the dust settled.
Representatives from each of the factions approached, laden with warnings or tributes, fear and confusion. For what felt like an eternity nothing happened. The doors opened with a rush of pressure. No marines or officers came streaming out, but instead just one person emerged with hands raised high.
"We have 71 days, give or take, until they find out we're no longer following orders.”