For a moment she was a ghost: cold, half-numb, and detached. Then the fog broke, the ice cracked, and she remembered who she was. Where she was.Her chest tightened. A voice, artificial tones familiar yet not quite comforting, gave an announcements, instructions, warnings. Things she needed to know. Things that couldn’t be that urgent, because the lights of Coldbay 1 were a low and steady blue and and nothing was flashing red, and only one or two were amber. Things that could wait until she extricated herself from the coldpod and replaced this pink and paper-thin gown with something more substantial. Things that the Twins, one bay over, were just as capable of taking care of too.
She grunted as her bare feet hit the panel floor and an aching panic jolted through her legs, her hips, her back as the muscles remembered how to work. Or maybe it was just the effect of cold metal on unprotected skin.
In the background, the artificial voice garbled on.
“… can be found in the shelving…
… you or any member of your team are…
… Earth mean date and time is calculated at…”
There were other noises, too. She hadn’t noticed them at first but they were there, and they were comforting. Low hums. Rhythmic thrumming. All the sounds a ship should make, an electric, mechanical heartbeat against a backdrop of complete and perfect silence.
And the silence beyond was perfect. Or at least it was complete.
Clarity returned in fits and starts, bringing more of memory with it. Her chest tightened again. It wasn’t that she had forgotten: not any of it. Not the ship. Not the mission. Not how irrevocably vast the distance was that they had traveled. It was just that her brain, fogged with coldsleep and a thousand clamoring physical needs, had neglected to remember. It remembered now.
Strange how remembering brought both relief and renewed dread. Relief that the nanites had worked, that she was here, alive, awake. She’d never gone under cold before, and the primal fear that raged in the back of the brain could only be quieted so much by the knowledge of all the thousands who had done it an lived.
Dread of… everything else.
It would probably be better if she didn’t give herself the time to think. Not until the Twins were up and around and chattering on the comms.
A tension she wished she could ignore screwed her shoulders to her ears. A chill not entirely the fault of the cold air and her bare skin whispered down her spine. The ship’s systems should have triggered the wakeup for the Twins the same time it sent hers; the fact that she couldn’t already hear them laughing through the bulkheads—
—might not mean a thing. The Twins could be just as awake as she was, and their uncharacteristic quiet could be a symptom of the post-freeze lag.
That was the logical response. But there was logic, and there was her gut. And when the two came back with different answers, it only ever meant that logic was working with old information.
She swore, softly and to herself, and forced her tingling legs to carry her across the room to the big medscanner. If something had gone wrong, panic wouldn’t fix it. She would. Carefully and in the correct order. That meant taking care of herself first. And the first step for that was making sure coldsleep hadn’t left her any ticking time-bombs. Complications were rare, the docs had assured her, and easily fixed if caught early. The scanner would do both.
It was too bad that knowledge didn’t make the crawling minutes pass any faster. Or make the white and sterile bed feel any less exposed beneath the scanner’s probing lights.
And when the great, impersonal thing finally finished its work and spat its results onto the nearby screen with a quiet ping, it couldn’t offer her any comfort as she read them.
<Circulatory function… GOOD>
<Respiratory function… GOOD>
<Neurological function… GOOD>
<Nanite interface… ABNORMAL… SEE REPORT FOR FURTHER DETAILS>
The words didn’t even display frantic red. Just amber. Nagging amber. Stubborn amber. The color of mild concern, but she was the only one there to feel it.
Despite herself, her best intentions, her years of careful discipline, she lost control. Her blood drummed at her ears. Her pores leaked sweat, and the chilly room grew chillier still. And then she breathed. In, out. One deep breath. And another. And then a third, coaxing focus back. Bribing her pulse down from its fluttering heights.
Because panic wouldn’t fix it.
She retrieved her uniform and pulled it on before she opened the report. Perhaps it was a concession to her frail humanity, but that was alright. It was alright to take what comfort she could find, even if that comfort was just the weight of the fabric on her shoulders and the familiar contours of the well-worn, well-loved boots on her feet. If it helped, who was she to argue?
Then, because there was nothing else to do, because the only way past was through, she tapped the amber words with the tip of a finger and opened herself to the worst. And found it anticlimactic. There was no cascading failure. There was no spreading corruption. There was only an error message, all but useless in its lack of specific information.
>>> Nanite interface ABNORMAL…
Communication failure… attempting reboot in 30 minutes…
Coldsleep NOT advised
She should have felt relieved, or at least warily hopeful. It could have been so much worse. The nanites coursing through her veins, a new type—or they were when they had injected them ten years ago—could have met with every kind of failure. Instead, they were just… glitching a little. Probably. Maybe.
She should have felt relieved, she told herself, but all she really felt was the weight of silence. Because the coldpod would have registered that error before it brought her out, and the only reason it had done so anyway was because they had removed that particular failsafe.
Because she had told them to. Because she’d said she was willing to take the risk. Because the mission was more important. Because she’d thought a few days, weeks, months of terrible isolation was a price she was willing to pay if it meant their colony had a lifeline back to Earth.
The mission psychs had disagreed. Some more vehemently than others. It had taken months of argument to secure their agreement, and then only with caveats. Three of them had to be woken, and she and the Twins had volunteered. And they had to be able to go back into coldsleep after a few days. Hence the new tech.
The new tech that, despite extensive testing and spotless results, was now malfunctioning.
The thrumming of the ship seemed small and pitiful now, standing against a fathomless void and loneliness. It was all in her head, she told herself. That was where all the worst monsters lived, she replied.
For a split second something teetered at the edge of her mind, goaded by a thousand ifs. If the Twins’ nanites had malfunctioned. If the reset didn’t work. If she couldn’t fall back into coldsleep.
She might have screamed. She might have stood, paralyzed and silent. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She wasn’t sure it mattered.
She wasn’t even sure what finally got her moving once again. Habit, maybe. Or her old friends, duty and discipline, reasserting themselves. All she knew was that she found herself, minutes later, standing in Coldbay 2 and finding that her fears were confirmed. The computer had attempted to wake the Twins. And it had failed.
And she was alone here after all, floating in this void between the stars. The certainty should have clawed away her remaining sanity. It would eventually, she was sure. But for now, it was a strange relief. Hope, whatever shreds of it remained, was far enough away that she could ignore it. And while she could move, she had work to do.
She would prowl this silent ship alone.