Otherworld Earth Year 3151 Night
I wake with her name on my lips.
And the feeling that something’s gone terribly wrong.
But I don’t know what. My mind’s cloudy, my thoughts scattered and unreal. My throat burns. My eyes blink open, but total darkness wraps me. Darkness and dizziness. Closing my eyes doesn’t help with the sensation that everything’s spinning. My heart races, and the first thought that makes sense is that I must have been having a nightmare. But I can’t remember it, not one detail. I can’t even remember going to sleep.
I try to think. The effort doubles my nausea, and I dry heave into the dark. Why can’t I see anything? What’s happened to me? Where am I?
When am I?
The fog rolls back slowly, and it starts to make sense.
I’m in my pod. The place where I was put into deepsleep and then into storage aboard the Upperworld starship, the
Executor. Me, and close to a million others. Each of us in our own pod, sleeping through the endless vacancies of space until our ship was pulled by its target star’s gravitational field to its destination, the Earth-analog planet Tau Ceti e. If I’m awake, that must mean we’re here.
But there’s still something wrong. My pounding heart is a sure sign the pod’s given me an adrenaline injection. No gradual slide from slumber to wakefulness, the way it worked back on Earth when they put us into a week of deepsleep to test our response to total physiological hibernation. I’ve been wrenched awake, and that can mean only one thing.
The mission’s failed. The pods have ejected. And I could be a million light-years from where I’m supposed to be.
Golden lights dance around me as the pod’s systems spring to life. The front panel displays my personal information, reminding me, in case of a rocky awakening, who I am:
PASSENGER: NEWELL, C.
CLASSIFICATION AT DEPARTURE: 17 EY
HT: 1.75 m
WT: 68.49 kg
CORPONATION OF ORIGIN: Can-Do Amortization
GENETIC SCREEN: within designated parameters
PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILE: within designated parameters
It gets dizzying reading all the data, but I turn my attention to the display that shows my vitals: heart, breathing, muscle tone, bone density. According to the numbers, I’ve lost very little in however long I’ve been in deepsleep, which means the pod’s nanotechnology has done its job, continuously monitoring calcium, muscle fiber, organ systems. My vision’s blurry, like looking through goggles, but I can see enough to scan the instrument panel, passing over the silver-and-black JIPOC logo, seeking the time log.
When I find it, I’m both relieved and shocked.
The exact year we were meant to arrive. Precisely a thousand Earth-years after we left. The math of relativity was always slippery to me, so I won’t try to figure out how long that was for my sleeping body. But so far as Earth is concerned, I’ve survived a voyage that lasted more than twelve human life spans. And that means that if the readout’s accurate, the pods ejected at the end of the mission, when we’d reached our target.
I’m here. I’m where I’m meant to be. But if I’m where I’m meant to be, I can’t understand why I’m alone and locked in the life pod.
I try to sit. There’s not much room to maneuver, and despite the pod’s best efforts to revive me, I’m clumsy and uncoordinated from all the time in deepsleep. But after a few minutes of me struggling like a bug on its back, my muscles respond the way they’re supposed to, enabling me to lift my head and get into a hunched squat. That brings me face-to-face with the
readout for my location, and when I see it, I blink and shake my head, thinking my eyes must be betraying me.
The screen’s blank.
Or not exactly blank. There’s a weak blue light emanating from it. But empty. No coordinates. No map. Nothing to tell me whether I’ve reached Tau Ceti e or not.
That could mean a number of things: I’m not where I’m supposed to be. I’m where I’m supposed to be, but the system’s malfunctioning. I’m where I’m supposed to be, but the sensors think I’m not.
Which could mean a number of other things. Deep-space travel’s brand-new—or was when the Executor left. There were no guarantees our destination would end up being what we’d been led to believe. All the data told us Tau Ceti e was sustainable—but then so was Earth, and we saw how well that turned out. So maybe I am here, but the computer’s telling me here doesn’t match what it expected to find.
The dizziness returns as I check the environmental readouts: atmospheric composition and pressure, water, life-forms. They, too, are blank.
I’m faced with a decision. I’m upright, breathing, blinking, moving. All systems go. The emergency release lies within reach. But if I pop the top and I’m not where I’m supposed to be, I’m screwed. Excessive or inadequate pressure. Radiation. Microorganisms. Lots of ways for me to die. And some of them slow and messy.
But the alternative isn’t any prettier. The pod could have
kept me alive indefinitely in a suspended state. But now that I’m awake, my body’s clamoring for attention. My stomach cramps from eons of emptiness. My lungs strain to pull oxygen from the enclosed space. Embarrassingly, my bladder feels ready to explode. (Or maybe not so embarrassingly. You try holding it for a thousand years.) If I stay here, within a matter of days or hours I’ll be dead.
My mind is coming clear. It hurts to concentrate, but that’s an unavoidable side effect of not thinking for a millennium. I know what the pods are designed to do. In an emergency scenario, they abandon ship to seek planetary conditions meeting certain minimum requirements for human life. If they don’t find it, they don’t touch down. They wander forever, or at least until they run out of fuel. No one told us how long that was.
So, assuming the pod’s working, it’s set me down somewhere it thinks I can survive. Maybe where it was meant to. The Executor might have experienced trouble in orbit, and the pods responded on cue: eject, search for the right environment, wake the sleeper. Everything might be all right.
Or everything might have failed, theory and/or execution, and the moment I open the door, my head might get sucked off my body.
I take a deep breath. Or try to. The oxygen’s wearing thin. It’s like breathing through a paper mask, the kind people in the Lowerworld used to wear. The kind that got thicker and thicker as the air got less and less breathable.
That settles it. I’ve seen people hacking up lungs. If it’s
a choice between that kind of death and the instantaneous, head-sucking kind, I’ll take the latter.
But I’m not a complete idiot. I listened to the JIPOC trainers. The pod carries a self-contained oxygen unit, good for up to twenty-four hours (depending on exertion and anxiety). Another safety feature in case one of the pods gets thrown clear of the ship during touchdown. If I’m where I’m supposed to be, and if the gravitation and air pressure are nearly Earth-normal, and if the Executor’s not far off, the mask should keep me breathing long enough to find it.
Lots of ifs. But at the moment, they’re all I’ve got.
I scan my thumbprint against an icon on the control panel, and the oxygen unit pops out. It slips easily around the back of my head, the mask covering my nose and mouth, the valve fitting between my teeth. I breathe in, and the unit delivers a jolt of O2. It’s as good as the adrenaline, maybe better. My vision is clear and my mind as sharp as it’s going to get.
It’s now or never.
I grip the release, pull the handle up. It moves easily. There’s a tiny pop of air as the pod’s shell opens, the panels folding back like the petals of an elaborate mechanical flower. I raise myself above the level of the pod and take a look around.
The good news is my head stays in place.
The bad news is I can’t see a damn thing.
The weak lights of the pod show me nothing except my own hands and arms and legs. My one-piece gray jumpsuit. The curve of the pod’s innards, the etched letters JIPOC on the
front panel of the open shell. Beyond that, total darkness.
And silence. I don’t know what I expect to hear. But whatever it is, I don’t hear it.
I take another deep breath. My lungs expand, not quite as fully as they did in a CanAm Freshen Air apartment back on Earth, but it’ll have to do. For the next twenty-four hours, give or take, I’m not going to suffocate in this place.
After that, if I haven’t found the ship, I’m going to be faced with another choice. But I’ll cross that galaxy when I come to it.
I swing my legs over the lip of the pod and feel for whatever surface it’s resting on. My nerves don’t register anything particularly worrisome, excessive heat or moisture, so I complete the step, planting a foot on solid ground. It’s the tiniest bit spongy, but it holds my weight, even with my out-of-practice muscles feeling stiff and rubbery at the same time. I bring the rest of me out of the pod and stand.
Darkness envelops me. The air feels cold and clammy. I might be standing on the only patch of solid ground in a hundred kilometers for all I can see. There’s a speaker in the oxygen mask, so assuming a sufficient atmosphere to carry the sound, I should be able to communicate. If, that is, there’s anyone within earshot to hear me.
“Hello?” I call out, not too loud. My voice sounds weak and tentative. But I can hear it, slightly distorted by the speaker, which encourages me to try a little louder. “Anyone?”
No answer. I didn’t really expect one. But it feels like an
eternity of loneliness has settled on my chest when the only thing that returns to my ears is silence.
I lean into the pod’s pale amber glow. It’s not entirely unequipped for this. A flashlight, a few days’ rations, a syringe. Not much else. The ship was loaded down with everything we needed to terraform Tau Ceti e. But an ejection scenario in deep space is totally different from an emergency situation on Earth. There, if your privacar breaks down outside a safe area, all you need to do is survive a couple of hours until the rescue squad arrives. Out here, if things go wrong, you don’t expect anyone to come to your rescue.
Which means there’s not much point in keeping yourself alive.
The syringe, for example. The trainers said it was for injecting intravenous antibiotics. But Griff insisted it was for what you did when you realized you weren’t going to make it.
Still, I take the supply pouch out of the pod and empty it of its contents. A drinking tube built into the mask enables me to take a swig of water, and that refreshes my throat, though I can’t help recalling as it goes down that my jumpsuit has no waste-processing capabilities. The flashlight shows me a bare patch of rock at my feet, or at least what looks like rock, though it’s got that strange spongy feel. No vegetation that I can see. Mist or fog gathers in the air, its source indeterminate, too thick for the beam to penetrate more than a few meters in any direction. Whichever way I decide to go, I’ll be a moving island of light in a sea of darkness.
Unless, of course, I decide not to move at all.
I sit on the spongy ground. It’s not wet that I can tell, just porous and yielding. I could be imagining this, but it seems to pulse underneath me, like tremors from deep down.
My second decision tonight looks no better than my first.
In fact, it looks a lot worse.
I’m alone. Everyone I know is either dead or scattered across the planet, or more likely the galaxy. Could be I’m the sole human being not only on this world, but on any world. The billions we left behind, they’re long gone. According to the chief catastrologist for the entire Upperworld, Earth had maybe fifty good years left in it. “Good” being a relative term.
I take out the syringe, the vial of clear liquid that goes with it. If Griff’s right, death will be quick and painless. If he’s wrong, I’ll be pumped up on enough antibiotics to fight off an infection I don’t stand a chance of living long enough to contract. In which case death from anoxia will be mine to enjoy, unless the atmosphere is toxic enough to kill me with a single unprotected breath.
I laugh out loud. The sound emerges as a short, ugly squawk.
I’m seventeen Earth-years old. I’ve survived a journey more than fifty times that long. And all I get to do at the end is choose how I’m going to die.
I stare at the syringe in the flashlight’s glow. The liquid has a rainbow in it from the light, which means the visible spectrum on this place is comparable to Earth’s. For all the good that does me. I remember the stories people back home told about
rainbows. With all the doomsday predictions on the worldlink, I guess they were looking for hope.
Hope, Sofie used to say, means nothing without struggle.
Her image flashes into my mind. I can see her face, hear her voice. My heart yanks at my chest as I realize this is the first time I’ve thought of her since waking up. I feel unbelievably guilty, as if remembering her now means I’d forgotten her before. I wonder if, wherever she is, she’s thought of me.
When I lost her, I think, I lost everything.
I indulge myself in that thought for about two seconds, then let it go. I’m not willing to give up. I knew when I stepped aboard the Executor that I’d never see her again. I also knew I might never wake, or that if I did, it might have been better if I hadn’t. But I got into the pod anyway. If I learned anything from her, it’s that even when life looks bleakest, there’s a reason to go on.
I swing the flashlight, willing it to penetrate the dark and fog. I shout into the night as loudly as the microphone will let me. “Adrian! Griffin! Anyone!” My voice sounds like I’m pleading.
But I get no reply.
Or that’s not entirely true.
I do get a sound, coming out of the dark and fog. A soft sound, a low sound, a rattling sound. A sound that doesn’t come from a human throat.
The darkness gathers itself to spring.
I guess I was wrong.
I’m not alone here after all.