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USS JOHN MUIR NPS-3500
SHIP’S DEEPS, TIER ONE, SECTOR SEVEN
The wake-up shock hits like a sledgehammer to the chest.
I jerk awake, blind, cold, and wet. My muscles twitch. Bones creak. Joints pop. Air tubes are stuck down my throat and up my nostrils. The plastic clings to my spongy insides like cellophane. A mechanized puff of air forces my lungs to expand. The feeling tickles. I cough. Bad idea—the air tube’s not ribbed for my pleasure.
It’s a hell of a way to wake up.
Where am I?
Besides shivering like a little kid in the dark, I mean.
I reach out, my knuckles stumbling across a flat surface in front of me. My bones make small knocking noises on metal: Tock-tock, tock-tock-tock. The darkness moves, creaking open, letting in a dash of light.
It’s a door.
No, a lid.
I’m in a box?… No, not a box. It’s a windowless stasis pod, which is cozy.
As a vertical coffin.
No wonder I’ve got a jackhammer of a headache and am deep-throating an air tube. How long have I been in this thing? My neoprene circulation suit used to strain across my arms and chest. Now it sags loose, my muscles atrophied. My balls feel hard and shriveled as walnuts, and my bony shoulders no longer brush against the pod’s sides. My head’s restrained with a strap, my torso’s harnessed to a webbed nylon gurney, and my legs are belted separately. Vitawater ripples around my feet. The skin on my fingertips sticks up like stiff fins.
When I try to move, bile shoves a fist up my esophagus. I swallow it down. Last time I threw up in an air tube, I was ten and on my first spacewalk. The stuff got into my air supply tank, and … you know what? Not a story you need to hear.
Gravity licks water off my fingers and nose. My arms are free to move. At least I’m upright, and at least there’s gravity. It’s the little things in life that make it worth living. You know, like air.
As I shake off exhaustion, my last memories surface: Me. Lying on a gurney while arctic-cold vitawater bubbled around my body, initiating hypothermia. Gasping. Stasis chems put my brain and nervous system on ice. Mom had leaned over my stasis pod. Sleep tight, Tuck. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
Mom’s sense of humor was never on point. She thought she was being funny, but her voice cracked with the stress of our situation. I guess it was her way of saying good night without having to say good-bye. For now. Maybe forever, if our ship wasn’t found or rescued. It feels like centuries ago. Could’ve been, for all I know.
My eyes adjust too slowly. C’mon, shake it off, bruh. Blue light leaks in from outside, highlighting the other stasis pods but nothing else. I don’t need Mom’s literal rocket science to know something’s wrong. Where are the people in white lab coats barking orders, wrapping up the freshies in heated blankets, injecting their bones with thermal marrow, and rubbing their wasted muscles? I’ve woken up from stasis before. I know how this is supposed to go down, and this isn’t it.
We were supposed to wake up saved, or not wake up at all. That was the deal we made with fate.
But it looks like karma crapped out on us again.
This time, it feels personal.
“Hey,” I say “aloud” on the coglink network. Before we launched, every member of the USS John Muir’s crew had a coglink chip implanted in their prefrontal cortex. The coglinks connected the crew’s bionics with the ship’s AI for monitoring and regulation, but they also allowed the crew to communicate with one another and the ship. Mom called it silent spatialized communication. The rest of us called it telepathy.
I never “heard” my crewmates’ undirected thoughts, per se; but their presence, their awareness, always created a subtle static in my head.
There’s no hum now. Only silence.
“Anyone out there? Mom?… Hello?”
I wait for three full seconds, mentally checking the coglink network for a signal. No response. No blip of human or artificial cognitive activity.
“Bueller … Bueller?” I ask, knowing Mom and her boyfriend, Aren, are the only ones aboard who would get the joke. They love retro movies and old pop culture just as much as I do.
“Hello? Dejah?” Dejah’s the ship’s main AI. While Mom put the AI into hibernation when we went into stasis, it should’ve roused with us, too. “Mom?”
Why isn’t anyone answering me on the coglinks?
My stomach churns.
Maybe it’s because there isn’t an us anymore.
I’ve got to get out of here. No way could I be the only one awake. Reaching up, I work the breathing mask off my face, dragging the tubes from my throat and nose. They rake my insides, tracking bloody chunks on my tongue. I cough, spit. Pressure from coughing pounds on the insides of my eyes—they feel ripe, like they might burst from their sockets. Warm blood flecks my lips. My lungs shudder as I take an unassisted breath of air. It tastes metallic, tinged with the blood on my tongue.
“Shite,” I whisper without any real voice. My vocal cords are stiff, dry. Static crackles in my ears. Tinnitus. My favorite aftereffect of stasis, next to nausea.
Over the static in my head, a groan rises and tumbles through a few different octaves. The sound’s one part dying whale, another part nails-on-chalkboard. Pain spikes under my right temple, right where my coglink chip’s implanted in my frontal lobe.
The hell? I think, tugging my legs out of their restraints. The voice sounds alien. But figuratively alien and literally alien are different things. We never found alien life, but I guess it could’ve found us out here. In reality, it’s probably some poor bastard with a voice as raw as mine. That, or my eardrums are more like earmuffs, and it’s someone screaming at the top of their lungs.
Let’s hope for option one.
Think positive, Tuck, Aren would say. My mom’s boyfriend is the patron saint of persistent optimism. Even after we ended up on the far side of the universe with dead engines, a busted communications array, and zero hope of rescue, he still said, Hey, at least we’re alive.
Sorry, Aren. Being alive isn’t the same thing as living.
I pull the release tabs on my head brace, thrilled to see I’m as toned as a corpse. And not a fresh one, either. My head falls forward, my neck muscles too weak to hold up my skull. It takes three tries for my fingers to grasp the loose straps around my chest. Another five to work them free. When I manage to get them off, I tumble into the bottom of the pod in a heap. The water at the bottom of the pod’s dead cold. My blood creeps through my veins like mud. I’ve got no feeling in my feet or calves yet.
Shivering, I push myself into a sitting position, fall into one of the pod doors, and tumble my sorry ass onto the walkway outside.
I’m alone. Some of the other pods hang open. Empty. Black. Others are sealed up tight. Mom’s pod and Aren’s pod had been on my … What, dammit? Left, or right? Had they been across from me? I can’t remember. A few of the pods look fresh-cracked, their lids gleaming wet in the low, bruised light. The ones on my right hang open. The ones to the left are sealed.
“Hello?” My voice rasps one note above a whisper. No answer. Fear makes a fist in my guts.
I’m sure everyone else is just stella, because I’m going to be all optimistic and stuff.
Yeah, maybe stella dead.
I manage to half crawl, half slide across the walkway, then prop myself up against a closed pod. The digital interfaces on the pods’ lids show their inhabitants’ stats: brain activity, height, weight, the temperature inside pod, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as Mom would say, quoting an old musical I couldn’t stand.
Mom liked everything to come in threes: her spouses (my dad was number one, he left; we don’t talk about number two, who’s aptly named; Aren was supposed to be her “third time’s the charm”). She always had three coffees in the morning, and three was the number of times she showered every day. The woman was hell on our water tanks out here.
The numbers on the digital interfaces flicker, changing order and position, creating weird patterns across the screens. Only one set of numbers remains constant across every pod:
02 07 2433
The hell? I crush the heels of my palms into my eyes and rub.
02 07 2433
It looks like a date.
Nah. Uh-uh. No, no, no-no-no. Not possible.
We went into stasis in 2087. While my thoughts are a little too tangled to do the math, I know there’s a big jump between 2087 and 2433.
02 07 2433
No way nobody ever found us.
02 07 2433
It’s a glitch.
02 07 2433
A giant-ass glitch.
Scrubbing my face with my palms, I take stock of myself. My circ-suit’s falling apart, left sleeve ripping off, zipper broken almost to my crotch. My hair’s as long as a girl’s. Not sexy, though. Neither are my nails, which twist like spikes off the tips of my fingers. I can count my own ribs. My skin’s fragile as rice paper, but my blood runs so thick, it beads from the rips in my skin in silicone-like bubbles.
What if Mom woke up before me? What if she’s already dead and gone? What if everyone’s gone? I’d be alone. Lost in space on this godforsaken—
Something moves on my left. I turn my head, groaning as a rocket of pain launches itself up my spine. I wince.
A man stands about six meters away. In the darkness, he’s a shadow. His head’s down, and it rattles and twitches back and forth, like he’s having a super-localized seizure.
“Hey,” I huff, finding myself breathless. My voice scrapes out, gritty. “You … okay?”
A dark mark skids down the front of his circ-suit, staining it from collar to navel. His bony hands and forearms are covered with an oily, dark substance. It drips off the ends of his fingers and patters on the metal floor. Drip. Drip. Drip.
He takes a shaky step forward, wheezing.
Stasis has a lot of nasty side effects. Seizures aren’t supposed to be one of them. I try to get up, but my legs won’t respond. I can feel my hips and thighs, but not my knees or calves. Fragging stasis paralysis. Fear reaches past my ribs, pinching the soft things inside my chest.
“Hey, bruh,” I say. “How long have you been—”
His head spasms, lolling back on his shoulders.
Even in the dimness, the unnatural swell of his throat’s visible. His cheeks are torn open, jaw unhinged like a snake’s. Tentacles reach from between his bloated lips to suckle his torn flesh and chin.
Holy mother of—
He groans, and the weight of his voice hits my temple, physical as a fist. Pain explodes from the crown of my head to my cheekbone. My nose cracks. Blood faucets from my left nostril, splattering over my mouth and chin.
Ah crap, ah hell. Literal alien shite going down. I scramble backward, half kicking, half dragging my useless legs. Fear’s got me by the balls, and they’re doing all the thinking. Not something I’d recommend.
The man takes two shambling steps toward me. He wheezes again, head convulsing. His breath hitches several times in a row, like someone about to sneeze. I look around for a weapon, for a place to hide. There’s nothing but stasis pods for meters around, most of which hang open. I could pull myself back into a pod, but I’m too weak to keep the door closed against this bastard. And I can’t outrun him with bum legs.
With a growl, he shambles forward.
My next heartbeat hits like a spike through the chest.
We’re going to go mano a mano with me stranded here on my ass.
The guy trips, tumbling atop me. He smells of bile. His jaws snap twice, centimeters away from my nose. I jam my palm against his mouth, holding his face shut. His tentacles wrap around my wrist. Needle-like teeth bite into my palm. I grunt. No way will I be able to fight him off. Half my body isn’t responding to my brain’s cries of fight or fragging flight, you dumbass!
A mechanical whirr explodes behind him. White light bursts over the pods. The bright blade of an ion saw bisects his forehead. I jerk my hand away. The beam splits his head in two and pops the balloon of his throat. Blood strikes me in the face and chest. He gurgles, and I shove him to the floor beside me. It’s only then I notice his eyes are blackened and swollen shut. He couldn’t even see me … what the hell?
I look up, panting. Aren stands in front of me, an ionized chainsaw guttering in his hands. Red blood sloughs off its glowing teeth. He wields it like a sword, trembling. “You’re alive.”
His face crumples as if he’s about to cry. All I can do is nod. If he cries, I’m going to cry. And I don’t need to puss out any more than I already have today, thanks.
Aren looks like hell, soaking wet and so bony, his circ-suit hangs off his body like a drape. He used to be a big guy. Mom liked them muscular, but not necessarily dumb. Now he’s a pole. His hair clings to his face in wet, black spirals. His eyes are sunken like deep wells, more skull than face. He’s weak, and it takes him four tries to shut the ion chainsaw off.
I’m so damn glad to see another human being, I don’t care that it’s my mom’s much younger boyfriend. And I can’t imagine I look any less piss-scared than Aren does at the moment. “Where’s Mom?” I gasp, throat burning.
He swallows hard and looks down, but not at the corpse on the ground.
“Dead?” I ask.
“Let’s hope not.” He steps over the man, almost tripping. “Your mom’s the only one who can save this ship.”
“What happened to him?” I say, gesturing at the corpse.
“We don’t know yet.”
“We?” As in, other survivors?
“We,” he affirms, offering me a hand up. I grab his bony forearm. He pulls me to my feet. We limp forward in the slowest three-legged race ever run.
“You’re skinny enough to be a crutch,” I huff.
“Yeah? And you’re just a regular Rambo,” he retorts. Told you he loves retro movies. “Glad to see a near-death experience hasn’t affected your sense of humor.”
“Just trying to lighten the—”
Another scream echoes through the darkness, cutting me off. Aren shudders. “Been awake an hour. The pods are opening on their own. The ship’s AI is nonfunctional”—he takes a deep breath before continuing—“so we can’t work with Dejah to rescue the people inside. Not sure we’d want to, since they’re half-mad ninety percent of the time anyway.”
“And Mom’s pod? Open or closed?”
Aren exhales through his nose, making his nostrils flare. “Open,” he says. “But dry. She’s gone. We woke up in this nightmare without her.”
“Come on, Aren, bubby,” I say. My feet are still light and handy as bricks. “You’re supposed to be the optimistic one on this mission.”
“Huh, a Die Hard reference, nice,” he says as we stumble down the aisle, both trying to stay vertical. “Well, yippie-ki-yay, kid, that is optimism. Otherwise, I’d say we woke up in hell.”
Copyright © 2018 by Courtney Alameda