You’re not supposed to dream in cold sleep. It’s one of the first things they tell you. You’re not frozen, per se. Things just happen very slowly. Like the counting of the numbers.
“75 … 74”. The light is blinding, searing my dry eyeballs. I squeeze them shut again. That’s another lie they tell you. It’s not supposed to hurt. “73”. Where are they coming from? I know, instinctively that I don’t want them to go down. Like when mom 3 would close her eyes and count backwards from five when I was being a little shit. I never found out what happened when she reached zero. I never wanted to. “72”.
There is a sharp ringing in my ears, and a thunderous weight on my chest. It hitches with my new breath. The world moves under me with a grinding feel. The lights get brighter and I open my eyes, shielding them with my forearm. There is a hiss as the lid of the chamber raises out of sight, dripping thick, viscous fluid.
“71,” I can still hear them. Amongst the cough and retches and groans of the waking crew. “67.” They’re getting faster! I swing my legs over the side of the cryo-bed, bare feet touching cold floor. I have to get out of here! Have to stop the numbers, before –
“61, 59, 53.” The voice is shaky. Young. Female. And –
“Hey, Owens? Do me a favour and shut the fuck up,” this voice is female too, but coarser, older. Closer.
I sit up with a moan. I’m naked, covered in a thin layer of gruel that has held me in the deep bed for god knows how long this time.
The room is small, circular, white. So white it hurts. Maybe they design it that way. The cryo-beds sit in wall recesses, sliding out only when it’s waking time. For centuries, this space is dark, silent. Only the steady beats of monitors give any hint of life. There is life in it now.
Owens is sitting up in her bed, bolt upright and wringing her hands through her long, red hair. She is also naked, and unconscious of her shame.
“47, 43, 41” her voice has a faint Scottish twang.
“Alright, that’s enough, engineer,” says Jackson. Of all of us, he looks the best. And the only one on his feet, swabbing his black skin down with a towel.
Owens flushes but continues counting, albeit in whispers now. Prime numbers, I realise as I test the floor with my feet. Owens always counts the primes backwards when we wake up. My stomach moans and then I’m vomiting on my feet. The same thin, translucent gruel. It smells harsh, chemical.
“Gross,” mutters Schmidt as she grabs her own towel, tossing one at me which I fumble and drop on the bare steel floor. I can hear little motors in the grilled surface, sucking up my puke.
Schmidt looks good naked, but she could put me through a wall one-handed. Her shaven head glimmers in the harsh overheads.
“What?” she barks at me as I look too long. “Not seen a woman before?”
“Not in a couple hundred years,” I say, looking down at myself and flushing at what I see. “Cut a guy some slack.”
Why does everything hurt? My head is pounding like a jackhammer. My arms feel loose in their sockets. It wasn’t like this last time.
Schimdt softens with a wink. “Grow a pair of tits and maybe you’ve got a chance.” Her accent is thick and Australian as a dingo.
“That’s enough!” booms Jackson. We all turn to look at the captain. It seems like Owens is done counting her primes. Jackson’s johnson swings between his legs like a loose cable. Schmidt catches my eye and I manage to avoid a snigger.
“Get cleaned up and meet me in the galley in ten,” he says. “We have a situation.” He says no more, just ducks through the entry hatch and vanishes into the corridor outside. I can hear motion-activated lights snap on, following his progress. The ship is awakening too, with distant beeps and whistles.
“What’s got his balls in a twist?” asks Schmidt as she flings the last bits of gel off her body.
“You noticed, huh?” I smirk. But I’m not laughing. And that’s a bad sign. That’s kind of my job.
The galley is small and cramped. But at least there’s a view in here. And sound. Jackson has put on the stereo system and it’s pumping out something jazzy, very faint.
The essential crew are clustered around a square grey table. The only one in the space. In the kitchenette, Schmidt is whistling as she pulls open cupboards and pokes old machines until they go again. The air smells of sweat and the preservation fluid that will cling to us for days.
I’m eating a bowl of bran flakes and milk that’s never touched a cow. But it tastes like prime steak. I’ve already spilled half of it down my uniform. Owens is nibbling delicately across from me, a terminal in her other hand occupying her full attention. The rest of us are eating like wolves. Even Jackson has crumbs in his beard.
“Who wants coffee?” Schmidt barks triumphantly.
“No shit?” Becker, the pilot, his position as redundant as his combover, replies. Becker is thirty pounds overweight. But I’m not supposed to tell him that. I’m supposed to cheer him up when someone else does.
Schmidt takes a sip, swills it in her mouth. Her head is backlit by unknown stars in a black ribbon. The galley porthole is the largest on the ship. And it’s barely two by two-point-five metres. The rest of the Bonaventure is a long block of steel and titanium, girdled by a centrifuge that spins for our gravity. On the rare occasions we’re awake.
Schmidt spits out the black liquid with a gasp.
“Oh, it’s shit alright,” she says. She grabs some more mugs. “Want some?”
“Please,” smiles Becker.
I nod. My head feels like it weighs as much as the ship. And Owens is still muttering her primes.
“Now we’re all back to our usual obnoxious selves, communications officer Schmidt,” Jackson drawls in his soft English accent, “Perhaps we could do our jobs.”
“Yes sir, captain sir,” Schmidt passes out the lukewarm mugs of sludge and sinks into her chair next to me. “Your humble servant.”
Jackson ignores her. Schmidt’s blustering more than usual. It’s a danger sign. We were taught that much. Calm before a storm. A very big storm. Another part of my job is knowing when to shut up.
The pain tells in all our faces. But none more so than in hers. She lost more than a world that day.
The ship’s chronometer, spaced above the porthole in fluttering red letters, makes today September 21st, 2337, 03:00 ship’s local. So, we’ve been asleep roughly sixty years. Not so bad. But also not so good. We’re not even close to where we need to be.
“How’s my ship?” says Jackson, pushing aside his bowl of cornflakes and plate of rye bread.
“We were supposed to check?” says Schmidt.
Owens gives her a withering look.
The coffee smells bitter and foul but I slug it back in a single swallow. It tastes no better.
“Core is nominal,” Owens puts aside her terminal and looks at the table as she speaks. “A little concerned about portside solar sail,”
Sometimes outside the window, I can see it, a triangular glimmer in the night.
“What’s the problem?” asks Becker.
Owens doesn’t look at him either. “There’s been some damage. Not enough to throw an alert. Likely just a meteor impact. I’ll know more when I do an EVA.”
An EVA while the fucking thing is still moving. It brings back images of bad movies. But I stow it. Owens is probably my worst patient, and that’s saying something. Even Jackson hesitates to confront her.
“As per usual with a forced wakeup, I’ve begun a full-spectrum diagnostic scan. A cold shutdown and restart of the reactor would be beneficial.”
“And what if it doesn’t start again?” barks Schmidt. “I don’t –”
Owen’s terminal chimes. She looks at it frowns, looks back at her nibbled strawberries.
“I’m locked out of cryo-compartment three,” she says.
“Yes, there’s a reason for that,” Jackson sighs, then looks at Schmidt. I meet her eyes first, but both of us look as confused as the other.
“Updates from Earth?” he tries a rare smile and looks about as welcoming as the void. “They blown themselves up yet?”
I will credit Schmidt. She works as hard as she irritates.
“Nada, “she says. “They acknowledged our … situation.” She looks away for a minute and swallows. “Deepest regrets, blah fucking blah. A few personal messages since. I’ve forwarded them to you.”
That would explain why my terminal has been dark.
“I’ve got twin grand-nieces, who knew,” she grins.
Jackson nods as if she’s told him the weather. Then his face falls and he looks older. He’s starting to go grey around the gills. A far cry from the man who they sang songs about on Mars.
He flicks his spoon in the milk with a hollow plop. “Someone’s been killed,” he says. Casual as you like.
“This is unusual?” says Becker.
I nod. Speaking feels rough too. Maybe I need another coffee. “twelve percent casualties, they projected.”
I feel guilty as I look at Schmidt.
“You’re fired,” she says.
“We lose people in cryo, that’s a given,” says Jackson. “Not this time.”
“What are you saying?” Becker has drawn inwards.
Jackson looks at us all. And the two empty seats, where the doctor and security officer usually sit. “I’m saying you’d better come with me.” He gets stiffly to his feet. “Now.”