The first thing I knew was agony. . . .
|Word count: 2,200
The first thing I knew was agony.
The agony of blood circulating, of relearning to breathe, of nerve endings crackling to wakefulness after long years of sleeping . . . of life. It was sheer fucking agony. And it was cold.
Barely cognizant of anything other than the pain and cold—the former of which would take a few eternal hours to pass, but the latter would take weeks as my body got used to warming itself once more—I flopped around weakly, trying to scream as the cells in my body thawed. Rough, hot hands lifted me and carried away from my cryo-chamber, the place I’d have called home, if I’d been in any state to label anything.
I didn’t know anything but the extremes of heat and cold and pain. I didn’t know my own name or who I was. I didn’t understand what was going on—the brain was the last to thaw, they’d told me, and it was true—and it’d be days of intermittent fevers and raving before I could tell the UTF people who found me anything about who I was or where I’d come from. Days before they could tell me what was going on.
Now . . . I’ve come to look upon those agonized, nightmarish days as blissful. In my ignorance, my temporary madness, I was as happy as I would ever be again.
A small, round young blonde in a pristine white uniform, had been bustling around my cubicle for at least several minutes before I could finally open my thousand-pound eyelids. She was checking something on some fancy, complicated looking monitor hovering without support above the bed I was laying in and didn’t notice me watching her. She jumped when I spoke and turned to me, her pretty, grey-blue eyes wide.
“You’re—awake!” she squeaked, one hand going to her chest as if to calm a suddenly rabbiting heart. “You weren’t supposed to wake up for—”
“Where’s Anne?” I husked again, coughing a little, and the young woman’s face came over expressionless for a few moments before brightening with a professional smile.
“Well!” she said briskly, clapping her hands together. “Now that you are awake, we can get you sorted out, yes? How’re you feel—”
Somehow, I levered myself up out of the tar-pit trap of pillows on one shaking arm and reached out to her. She fell silent and watched, half in horror, as my hand closed weakly around her wrist. Either my hand was ice cold or she had a fever of three hundred.
“Where. The fuck. Is Anne?” I demanded, my voice gone past husk, to croak. The young woman—the nurse—shrank back from me, yanking on her wrist and pulling it free easily. I flopped back into the pillows, drained and sweating despite being freezing.
“I don’t know who Anne is, but you’ve been very ill from your cryo-sleep, and—“
“What . . . about . . . the others? The people . . . in the other cryo-chambers,” I puffed out in clarification when she blinked blankly. The room was starting to spin and air was at a premium. I suddenly couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Literally.
The nurse went expressionless again, then sighed, stepping close to me again. “I don’t have clearance to discuss that with you. Or anything else that isn’t in regards to your health,” she said apologetically, whether that apology was genuine or not.
I closed my eyes, my sluggish mind turning at snail-like speeds trying to figure out what it meant that this nurse wasn’t allowed to discuss my own wife with me. Was Anne hurt? Was she still in cryo-stasis?
And what about the children?
My eyes flew open as I felt something press against my neck and a rush of warmth steal over me. The nurse was standing at my side holding something I’d never seen before. I flapped one now useless hand up at my neck. “What. . . ?”
“To help you sleep,” she said, smiling that professional smile. And the room went dark. And I slept.
The next time I woke, I was considerably stronger. I was asleep one moment, lost to darkness, then blinking in the dim light of my cubicle, looking at three people in some kind of ornate blue uniforms, and the blonde nurse who’d tranq’ed me. She looked tired and subdued.
“Welcome aboard the U.S.S Trailblazer,” The uniform closest to me said tersely. He had more insignias and badges than the others, so I guessed that made him the leader. I snorted. I’d never gotten on well with authority figures. That’s how I—and my wife and children—ended up in this mess in the first place. Those recruitment adverts for New Dunsmuir had started making all too much sense when life on Mars started to go south.
Start a new life in a new land! the adverts had boomed, showing satellite photos of the recently discovered planet christened New Dunsmuir after Jason Hyte-Dunsmuir, the astronomer to discover this Earth-like green and blue jewel across the cosmos. Clean air, clean water, clean start!
Or so the adverts and the UTF had promised.
But here I was, who-the-hell-knew-where, getting hassled by uniforms. It was as if I’d never left Mars.
“The U.S.S. Trailblazer, eh?” I rolled my eyes and tried to sit up. Surprisingly, it worked. I wasn’t terribly steady, but I could push myself up in the pillows and brace myself against them. “Fancy name. Big-big intrepid, yeah? You UTF-ers and your pretentious-ass names.” I snorted again and one of the uniforms, the one standing to the right of her leader, glared at me and leaned in to whisper something to her boss. He shook his head quickly without taking his eyes off me.
“What is your name?” he finally asked me and I crossed my arms, feeling mulish.
“It should be in the cryo-chamber’s computer.”
“Your cryo-chamber was relatively undamaged. But we were unable to retrieve any information on who you are from the pod. We were also unable to retrieve the manifest for the ship, itself,” the glaring woman admitted as if admitting some great failing. Her jaw was set and rigid. “Anything you could tell us would be very helpful.”
“Well, such pretty manners as that, makes it tough for a gal to say no.” I sighed and glanced at the nurse who was watching my monitor like a hawk. “My name is Makaziwe Okpara.”
“That’s with an M-O-C-K. . . ?” the no-longer-glaring woman asked, frowning.
“No, it’s with an M-A-K-A. Follwed by Z-I-W-E,” I corrected, rolling my eyes. “And O-K-P-A-R-A. Makaziwe Okpara of Valles Marineris, Mars.”
Now the lead uniform was frowning, his dark, rubbery face ponderous and unhappy. “And what was the name and destination of your ship?”
“It’s on the side of the goddamn thing. Sky-blue paint, big-big letters. Kinda hard to miss.” Off his steely, but patient look, I sighed. “The ship was the New Dunsmuir Queen. And its destination should be obvious.”
The uniforms all shared a glance that excluded the young nurse, whose gaze was flickering between me and the monitor hovering over my bed.
Suddenly, I’d had enough. Enough of them all. I just wanted my wife and my kids and someplace private to make sure they were okay. “Look, not that it hasn’t been fun talking with you guys. ‘Cause it was. Big-big-plenny. But where’s everybody else that was on the Queen?”
Another shared look and the leader looked so professionally expressionless—much like the nurse had—that I immediately got it. Because I’d seen that look before, hadn’t I? The day the soldiers from the Mars Liberation Front had shown up at my childhood home in Southern Valles Marineris. My father had known there was something wrong just by the heavy knock on the door. Us kids had gone on watching the threedy, not budging our limited little attention spans till my father had gone to his knees with a sob. I’d looked up just in time to see one of the soldiers, a tall, pale man with hair as red as dirt, say: “I’m sorry, Mister Okpara . . . your wife was a brave woman. One of the best sergeants in the MLF. She will be missed.”
But I doubt my normally stoic father had heard these stiff words of praise for my dead mother. He was too busy weeping like I’ve never seen anyone weep before or since.
But the look on that soldier’s pale face . . . it was the same look worn by the lead uniform in the Trailblazer’s infirmary. And it was directed at me.
“No,” I said, my voice firm and hard. “That can’t—there were over two hundred people on that ship.”
“I’m sorry . . . but they all perished,” the lead uniform said lowly, with professional sympathy that made his words all the more horrifyingly real. “Your cryo-pod was the only one to escape unscathed with most of its systems intact. The others were badly damaged when something large—likely a meteorite—struck the ship head-on. We can’t give you an exact date on when the collision happened, of course, because the ship’s computers were extensively damaged. But it’s been . . . at least three centuries since the impact. And you were knocked so far off course for New Dunsmuir, it’s a miracle we stumbled across you.”
I was shaking my head in negation. “That’s . . . you’re wrong. Wrong,” I whispered, hot tears blazing trails down my cold face. “My wife was on that ship—our children—our friends . . . two hundred and eleven people. They can’t be dead. Not all of them.” Not my Annie. Not Caius and Jordan.
“. . . for your loss . . . my colleagues and I are, of course, prepared to answer any questions you may have,” the lead uniform was saying. I wiped at my eyes and shook my head.
“This has to be some kind of creepy-ass UTF scam—I know how you guys operate. Some of us haven’t forgot the Occupation of Valles Marineris and Tharsis,” I spat, only to see the three of them look utterly blank. A chill went up my spine, but I ignored it, and the quiet voice in the back of my head, behind the rather large part of me that was weeping as my father had wept. That quiet voice was wondering just how long I’d been in cryo-sleep. “Isn’t it enough that you broke families and spirits with your damn war? Now you’re—what? Rubbing it in because my parents were Red Coats?”
“Red Coats?” the woman to the right of the lead uniform asked, but to the left of the leader . . . that guy was suddenly looking like he might actually speak my language, after all.
“The occupation of Valles Marineris and Tharsis, you said?” He blinked and looked very excited. “I remember reading about that in history books back in fifth form! The Martian Liberation Front sued for independence from the United Terran Federation, then resorted to terroristic tactics and guerrilla warfare when they didn’t get it! The resulting series of skirmishes lasted for several years until the UTF crushed the resistance at the Battle of Tharsis—due mainly to superior numbers and newer weaponry, and—”
“Quit talking about it like it’s the American Revolution!” I exclaimed, enraged, and the soldier—young, but with thinning hair—fell silent, blushing. Then he ventured: “What’s an America?”
That chill was back, and it was frostier than ever.
“What,” I began through numb lips, colder than even coming out of cryo could account for. “What year is it?”
The gathered brass shared another glance, then looked at the nurse, who glanced at the monitor, then nodded once.
The lead uniform opened his mouth and told me exactly what year it was.
I didn’t even swoon. The lights just—went right out.
When next I opened my eyes, it was to a dim and otherwise empty cubicle.
There were tears on my face and I couldn’t understand why, until I remembered . . . everything.
And then, I wept, for the first and only time in my life. I wept until I thought I was empty of tears . . . then I wept some more. I wept until my eyes were sore and my face ached. I wept until I was too tired to do anything but blubber into one of my pillows.
Everyone I’d ever loved was dead—so long dead it was almost funny. My siblings for millennia, my love and our children for centuries. All while I lay sleeping . . . unknowing . . . dreaming dreams of a new life on green-and-blue New Dunsmuir. . . .
My sweet, beautiful Annie was gone. Caius and little Jordan were . . . gone.
And with them, my soul.
I was already dead—had been for centuries. My body just hadn’t realized it, yet.