15 September 2011


At first, time distorted. All I had to keep track of its passage was the blinking, and my own sense of time, but then, after what might have been an hour or a year or a month or a second, I began to lose track of the blinking, lose track of my thoughts, lose track of my sense of existence. Then—and this was a slow progression—I began to feel a distinct disconnect from my self-awareness. I had no body, had no breath in, breath out, no gentle synchronous thump-thump thump-thump of my heart beating...only my thoughts, and those became erratic and meaningless, fragments of memory, long sequences of waking dream, or fantasy, or memory and dream mingled together, narratives in which I was not myself but someone else, a HoloNet character interacting with my mother, or Alyssa or my squad-mates from the service. I relived the battles on the Lunar Colony and Mars Project, those strange silent scrums, when explosions were muffled and cut short, when rifles fired in silent bursts of too-bright flashing fire, when mates were twisted and thrown dozens of feet in the low-grav landscape to bleed in drifting clumps of red. Then I would board, in those distorted dream-memories, a transport cruiser, which in reality had landed safely and brought me to Alyssa, but in the dream would loop out past Saturn and slingshot into the far infinity beyond our human reach, and I would find strange aliens with too many eyes and not enough limbs and wars would be waged and men I never knew would die next to me firing un-invented weapons.
Then I would wake and the red light would blink, blink, blink and I would remember and there would be Alyssa, dead and frozen, a nude statue encased in glass and silver. In those moments, I would wish for another meteorite to finish the job and release me from this eternity of undeath. It never comes, and time ceases to have meaning. My mind begins to float, lost in the ether. I can catch, through a porthole just inside my range of vision, glimpses of the stars whirling and spinning and drifting, sometimes a distant satellite or nebula or quasar or galaxy, and once a mighty asteroid gliding majestically past, craggy and pitted. I cursed when it failed to crunch me into freedom.
Then, finally, there was no I, no me, no present or past or Alyssa; I closed my eyes and saw stars on the screen of my mind, still and bright and imaginary, and they too faded and I slept, dreamless and peaceful, eternal.

I was woken by a juddering crash that rocked the stars outside the porthole, made the glass of the cryobed rattle around me, then there was the hiss of the airlock, unheard but seen as the gasses shot out of the seal-rings. I struggled to orient myself. I was not I, for many moments, just a vague notion of occurrence, disconnected from anything. Two things like men floated through the opening, set their feet to the metal floor, touched a button on their forearms and their boots adhered to the floor with a sudden shock. They explored the chamber, leaned over Alyssa's cryobed, and then I wished I could hear, to know what they were saying, for the gesticulated eagerly, pointed to the blinking light was my only evidence of reality or waking truth. One of them came over and stood above me, and I saw that it was in fact a man, a real human, in a ship-suit the like of which I had never seen. Close-fitting, hardened like an exoskeleton, but limber at the joints, a transparent helmet revealing a rugged, unshaven face, showing an expression of extreme shock. He looked down at me, met my gaze, narrowed his eyes, and then when I shifted my gaze, he stumbled backward and grabbed the arm of his companion and jerked him around, pointed at me, lips moving rapidly. The other shuffled over to me, looked down at me; I blinked, and he too took an involuntary step backward. They both stared at me for several long seconds before bending to examine the read-out of the cryobed. They took a very long time to do so, pointing, disagreeing, finally pressing buttons and stepping back to watch as the cryobed woke me, gradually and gently.
It was painful, waking up. It began as a tingle in my toes that turned to fire; the tingling spread upward to my legs and torso and arms, followed by the agony of fire licking along my skin and inside my veins and muscles. My face was last, and my hearing returned, ringing and echoing. The lid swung open, and I tried to lift myself out, but couldn't. One of them gently took my hands and pulled, lifting me out. I managed to drag my legs out, but they wouldn't take my weight completely, not yet. I slumped back, waved the men away, held up a finger to signal that I needed a few moments. My throat was dry, parched and scraping as I swallowed; I couldn't speak. The burning receded, leaving a tingling and buzzing as of waking limbs. Finally, I stood at my full height. The men in the strange armor craned their necks up at me in surprise. I had been nearly curled up in the cryobed: I am a large man, clearing seven feet one inch in my bare feet. A full two terms in the service left me extraordinarily fit. These men couldn't be more than five foot five, at the most, but I could tell that they were highly-trained, strong and rugged. These were soldiers; men of war can recognize one another at a glance.

They put their shoulders under me, one on each side, and half-dragged me through the door into their ship. I was halfway through the portal when I stopped, shook myself free of them, stumbled drunkenly back into the dead, derelict Icarus, over to Alyssa. I bent over the glass, kissed its cold surface above her lips, whispered a prayer in the thin icy air, to God, to all the gods, asked them to care for her soul in the hereafter. The men watched, but didn't interfere. They saw the emotion writ on my features, in my movements. You don't get in the way of a grieving warrior, you allow him space and silence to mourn in his own way, you wait at the edges, offer stoicism, offer no platitudes, for you know better. They respected the ritual.

Finally, I was ready to leave her, but I took the green blanket that had last known the touch of her skin, wrapped it around my naked hips, and made my way out of the Icarus, taking one last glance at what had been my tomb. The cryobeds were darkened and starlight gleamed dully on the silver bases, flashed in shifting points of white on the glass tops.

I was disoriented still, mentally. I couldn't feel emotions fully, couldn't form coherent thoughts. I had said goodbye to Alyssa out of habit, instinct. She was a part of me, and I was leaving her, but I didn't feel the grief, not really. It was there, on my face, in my heart, but the emotion was disconnected. I was still a mind floating in the ether, I wasn't I, yet. I knew my name: Vargos Vale. I knew I had left Earth as part of the Exodus. That was the sum of my knowledge.

Who were these men?

How long had I drifted, asleep?

The men helped me, supporting me with difficulty. Their ship was like a fantasy, like something from the HoloNet. Gleaming white and black and silver surfaces, flickering, transparent readouts, irising doors, winding hallways, wide, floor-to-ceiling windows that offered mind-boggling glimpses of the universe just beyond. As soon as the seal between ships was broken, the stars began to move. It took me a moment to realize that that meant this ship was departing, with me on it. I pressed my forehead to the window and watched for a glimpse of the Icarus. When it came, it brought curses to my lips. The damage was far more extensive than I had realized. The exterior was blackened and pitted, the cockpit completely destroyed. It was dented and broken, burnt to a crisp. It was, I realized, a miracle that I was alive at all. I watched the once-sleek craft drift out of sight, trying to reconnect my soul to my body, trying to forget the image of 

Alyssa lying dead and ever-perfect in the cryobed.

I heard someone clear his throat behind him. I turned and recognized one of the men who had rescued me. “Thank you for rescuing me,” I rasped. My voice was like sandpaper scraping across metal. The man held out a bottle of water to me, and I drank greedily.

“Welcome aboard the Rakehell,” he said. “I'm Commander Lucas.” His voice was deep, a soft, menacing growl. He wore a gunmetal-gray uniform with crimson trim and pouldrons on his shoulders. He carried himself as an officer would, with that cocksure confidence of a man used to giving orders, hands clasped behind his back. It sent me back to my days as a soldier and I unconsciously fell back on my military training. I saluted crisply, heels together, back straight.

“Glad to be aboard, sir,” I said.

“It's quite remarkable that you're alive, mister...”

“Vale, sir. Gunnery Sergeant Vargos Vale, United Earth Special Forces, retired.”

A look of shock and confusion flitted across the Commander's face. “UESF? My gods...how long were you in that ship, Gunny?”

“Well sir, I truthfully don't know. We were hit by asteroids or something just as our cryobeds were going through the start-up. Alyssa's bed was shut down after she was cold, but mine wasn't done yet, so when it went to backup power, it stopped the process and there wasn't enough juice to finish. I was awake, but frozen physically, trapped and aware.”

Lucas looked horrified at the thought. “Well, when did you board the ship?”

“I don't know the exact date. It was at the tail-end of the Exodus, is all I know. Alyssa and I were some of the very last to leave.”

“The Exodus?” Lucas was incredulous. “Are you sure? Cryosleep can give you funny dreams, sometimes...”

He didn't seem to believe me. “Yes, sir. I'm sure. I was never completely under...” Something in his demeanor gave me chills down my spine. “What is the current date?”

“It is the year 1004 P.E., Post-Exodus.”

At first I wasn't sure I'd heard him right. 1004? That meant I had been asleep for...“A thousand years?” I barely managed a whisper. My breath caught, and I fell backward against the window. How was that possible? A thousand years?

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