Emmalynn Spark © 2019
All Rights Reserved
I blinked awake groggily. Around me, there were urgent noises that I knew were important, but none of them quite caught my attention and, when I tried to twitch my arms and my legs, they weren’t moving right.
I drifted up two, three times. The last time, I was aware enough to know I was still in the pod. Still hooked up to the machine that breathed for me. Still drifting in fluid. There was an alarm. Someone should turn it off. Someone would be by shortly to let me out. I was probably low priority.
I drifted back to sleep.
I woke again.
Things were sharper this time. The alarm, for one. The mist in my brain that’d held it away was receding, and now its panicked shrieking was piercing right through. I wriggled a little, happy to find I could. My limbs were listening again, admittedly in a jerky way. I was cold, still. So cold.
Something was very, very wrong. I tried to parse it, but my brain was like cotton wool. Thoughts tripped over themselves, half started then drifted away as I tried to really bring them into focus, then danced about the corners of my mind. Something wasn’t right but it seemed distant. Surreal.
Then, slowly, one thing shifted into focus. Whatever the emergency, I shouldn’t have been left so long.
I shouldn’t have been waking up alone. The ship triggered all the pods to begin defrost when we made landfall on New Earth, but someone should have been up before me. Something should have been opening the pod for me, easing me into this new world. Command and medical were meant to be up first, then those with training to be first boots on the ground. The other science staff and I were way down the list of priorities.
Still, they’d planned for this kind of thing. I’d been trained for this. I jerked my hand out, unhappy at how erratically and clumsily it moved. Maybe it was just too soon. Maybe I should just stay in my pod.
But why the alarm? Why hadn’t anyone shut off the alarm?
Eventually, my numb and twisted fingers found the emergency release. It was a task to get them to curl around the handle, but I did, and I pulled.
There was a popping, a release, then a slightly raising of the lid above me. I reached up and shoved at it. It moved easily, sliding like it’d been closed yesterday. Of course it did, no air in space. No corrosion. But it also meant I couldn’t have been on the planet for long either, as our best guess was that New Earth had breathable air.
If it didn’t, we were all doomed anyway.
The fluid began to leak out of the cracks and I shoved at the lid again, opening it more. The movement sent jolts of pain through my limbs, the worst cramps I’d ever experienced. Of course, it did, since they hadn’t moved in a hundred years.
The liquid drained out, down. Far enough to expose my face. At least the air was warmer than the liquid. I lay still, trying to flex my hands, my feet to encourage movement back into disused muscle.
As soon as I felt I’d be able to do it without hurting myself, I reached up and grabbed the mask from my face and pulled it away. I’m not afraid to say, as much as I’m a gentleman, the first word out of my mouth was a swear word aimed at the weird stabbing pains throughout my body.
Once I’d moved the mask away and the tubes out of my nose, I sat up. This was another exercise in agony and it took far too long. It’ll be easy and painless, my ass. I knew we were being lied to all along.
When my airway was clean, I did the one thing I’d been longing to do since I woke. I screamed. Help, over and over again. Help. I’m not saying my poor, abused body screamed it loudly, but I screamed it nonetheless. Nobody came.
Somehow, I pulled myself out of the pod naked and dripping fluid. I grabbed the side of the pod and tried to force myself to my feet, but they fell out from under me, sending me crashing to the floor I tried again and didn’t even make it to my knees.
The pain was too much, and it was crowding in again making me dizzy and foggy.
The alarm was still sounding. I groaned, rolled onto my side. I could roll, at least. I curled my arms protectively around my head, pressed my hands over my eyes and gave myself the protection of darkness.
I was cold, trembling as I lay there on the floor. I was sure someone should have been by now. Someone else in the room should be awake, at least. Something was obviously very wrong. Maybe their pods had malfunctioned and right now they were all trying to get out. Maybe, by some twist of fate, I’d been the only one who’d been able to free myself.
I made myself think about that. I made myself think about people stuck in their pods, waiting for me to save them. I used the thought to push myself to my knees. The pain wasn’t as bad, but it was still there, bone-deep. The cryo should have perfectly preserved my muscle mass but I still felt wasted.
I crawled down to the bottom of the pod, using a hand on its side to guide me. When I got there, I stopped for a second and let myself breathe. It was hard to concentrate, with the alarm still yelling. I risked cracking an eyelid, but the light was almost instantly too much, my eyes too unused to any brightness. I flailed around the pod until my fingers closed on the soft cotton of my clothing, then I pulled it down onto me. A T-shirt, maybe? I draped it over my head and there, in the muted light, I managed to open my eyes.
I lay there for what felt like forever, aching and blinking against the light, but gradually my eyes adjusted. Eventually, I could lift the T-shirt out of my way and look around. Everything was still too much. My head was pounding, and my stomach was feeling more and more tender by the second.
From this angle, I could see that all the other pods were still sealed. Seven of them in this room.
I forced myself onto my knees, and my traitorous stomach did what I’d thought it might and left me heaving on the floor. Obviously, I hadn’t eaten anything, so I just spit up bile and ached, my muscles cramping with the effort of retching.
Honestly, at that point, I could have curled up on the floor and just stayed there. The last thing I wanted to do was to move. But the other pods were there right in my line of sight. Closed. Eileen, my best friend, was in her own pod in another room. She might have been trapped. Anything could have happened to her. It was glaringly obvious something was wrong, and I had to be the one to help.
I crawled across the floor to the first pod and pushed myself up to see the panel mounted on the front, the one monitoring vital signs. I hit the button to activate it.
It lit up, flashed for a second, then settled to show nothing. No heartbeat. No breathing. Nothing.
That couldn’t be right. Maybe there’d been a system malfunction. I frowned and pulled myself further up so I was propped on the lid of the thing and had proper access to the panel. We’d all received hours of training on this. It was easy to change the control panel to see the status of the cryo-cycle. According to the pod, this person had been defrosted just like I had. They should have been awake like me.
I climbed down from the pod, then crawled around to the release. It was made big and easy to operate. I released the locks and the pressure, waited with my head between my legs as the fluid gauge counted down, and focused on my breathing.
There was a chime when it was done, just audible over the sirens. I grabbed the handle, released it the rest of the way, and pulled. The lid lifted easily.
Patricia Hammond lay completely still. I reached out and touched her skin and it was cold and damp from the cryo-fluid. But maybe that was normal. She’d just been through the defrost. I’d been so cold when I woke up. Maybe it meant nothing.
I levered myself up so I could touch her, so I could lay my hand on her chest, her neck and search for her pulse.
She was dead.
I yanked my hand back, then fell back onto my ass. She was dead. Patricia was dead. She hadn’t been a close friend, more an acquaintance, but we’d worked and trained together, and now she was lying there—dead.
I looked around the room aware of the sirens, the odd absence of anyone else, and the fact I’d been the only one to open my pod. Suddenly, I wanted to throw up for a very different reason. I needed to be out of that room.
I used the pod to push myself to my feet, then stumbled to the door like a newborn lamb, weak and shaking. My own pain was receding in the rush of panic that came over me when I looked at Pat’s body. If Pat was dead, and she’d seemed so dead, then why? Was it a general failure or local to her pod? How many other people were actually awake? Where were we? My hands shook and my brain threw me image after image of the ship: alone, drifting through space with only me awake.
The idea of it was almost too big for me to hold. It made my chest ache. Made my heart pound. Made me feel like I might fly apart at any second.
I stumbled through the ship, praying every corner I rounded might bring me to someone else, anyone else. I was still naked. Still coated with the sticky remains of the cryo-fluid. Some part of my brain wanted me to think about what people would think if they saw me like that, but a bigger part didn’t care. A bigger part wanted to stumble into Eileen’s room and find them opening the pods normally. Find them turning around and laughing at me and my panic. Find Eileen, warm and alive, wrapping me in a towel and holding me.
Every new corner led to another empty corridor. I found the stairwell and screamed up it, but there was no reply so I climbed. It seemed to take forever on uncooperative, shaking limbs, but I did it.
I had to find her. She was my best friend, so I had to find her. Everything would be okay, if only I wasn’t alone.
Her floor was two levels up from mine. It was deserted. I stumbled down the corridors, my limbs becoming more sure with every step. I remembered leaving her here only a few hours ago. Hundreds of years ago.
I found the door to her cryo-room and pulled it open.
The pods were all sealed. Still. Coffin-like. Now I noticed, all of them had red lights flashing on their panels. I must have deactivated the one on Pat’s panel when I hit it, not even noticing it first. I couldn’t remember if the flashing light was normal. I could only stumble across the room until I found the one with Eileen’s name carved into a plaque on the front of it.
I fell to my knees beside it, leaned over to touch the screen, and I watched with rapt attention as it flickered to life.
Nothing. No breath. No heartbeat. Nothing.
I bit back on the scream. It was wrong. It had to be wrong. There’s been a problem, a miscalculation. There had to be a system malfunction somewhere, and just because Pat was dead it didn’t mean everyone was dead. It didn’t mean Eileen was dead.
I pulled at the manual release. But this time, I couldn’t tear my eyes away as the fluid level dropped. I started yanking at the lid release too early, but it wouldn’t move while the pod was still pressurised.
Then, all at once, the lid gave. It slid open, too fast. I wasn’t ready.
She was pale. So pale. I reached out to touch her and she was cold. I lay my trembling hand on her chest and there was no movement: no rise and fall. I jerked up and put my hand over her mouth, but there was no telling puff of breath.
I thought about CPR. I thought about the medical room with the defibrillator. But those things were for people who were just slipping into death. People poised on the cusp. Eileen, pale and wasted, was so undeniably gone. Her paper-thin skin was taut over her bones. Suddenly, I couldn’t touch her anymore. I pulled back, let the lid fall down, and slammed it fully shut.
If I didn’t have to look at her, she wasn’t dead. Not really.
A vivid memory flashed into my head. Her hand was holding mine as I sobbed. I explained to her that I needed to back out, they’d never let me in on the mission, and my continued training was useless because what use was a gay man on a colony meant to ensure the survival of the species. The world was falling apart. War, disease, rising sea levels. We were meant to be their only hope, a new start so even if they didn’t manage to stop global disaster, there’d be something. Humanity would go on. She’d leaned in, brushed my tears from my cheeks, and told me not to give up. I’d have walked away, but she pushed me. I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t pushed me to keep my identity secret, if she hadn’t helped me and stayed single to let people presume things about us. To let them think I was straight enough to be worth a place on this mission. No role for gays in the repopulation of the human race.
My stomach rebelled again, and I had to kneel there, retching. I’d cursed them, somehow. Cursed them all. If only I hadn’t lied. If only I hadn’t made all those jokes about the cryo-pods being coffins. They looked like them and now they were. Hundreds of coffins.
I wondered if anyone else was alive. They had to be. I couldn’t be the only one. I couldn’t. What were the odds? I probably hadn’t heard them, that was all. They were probably weak like me or disorientated. It seemed like it’d taken me so long to wake up.
The pods were meant to be safe. They’d promised us. They’d shown us how it worked so many times. It should have been safe.
I retched again. I sobbed. I lay there on the ground next to the box with Eileen’s dead body and I shook.