Her muscles were malleable as taffy, stretched beyond the point of no return. Opening her eyes populated the world with massive shadows illuminated only by planes of light so brilliant they cast everything into mountains of darkness, blurred, craggy, indeterminate in shape. What these mountains signified she had long forgotten, if she had ever known at all.
The bare meanings of things was lost. Something rubbery pressed at her lips, accompanied by a gentle chime. The chime grew in insistence the longer she turned her sandbag head to avoid it; yet it chased her with mechanical patience. A syrupy horror trickled through her veins, colder and thicker than the slow blood that churned in time with lazy beats of her heart.
Memories. They were the only things that had life, but that life moved faster than summer lightning. Thoughts, concepts, faces, names...they shot through her brain before she could lay hands on them, before she could catch more than an impression of her mind returning to active life. Had it always been this hard to think? Or was it just the cryo-sleep—
Cryo-sleep. That was the answer.
There was a ladder she had memorized once. A ladder? There were steps involved. Did a ladder have steps? Her lips parted in an agonized groan at the struggle to remember, to find the word, and the rubbery thing—tube—found the sliver of space between swollen tongue and teeth.
She gagged, throat convulsing again and again in a pathetic attempt to repel the invader. The steps, the steps, they were torturing her.
Step One. There was something she had to do first. She'd laughed about it once; others had too, but she couldn't remember their faces any more than she could recall what the riddle that now loomed in her mind like a faceless monster.
Her frantic tongue massaged the tube and a trickle, warm, sweet, and strong, splashed over her tongue. At the first touch she moaned.
Suck. They'd laughed because Step One was to suck. That had been funny once. The 'why' of it didn't seem important, so she settled for following the advice and sucking on the tube that gave its milk as readily as milch cow.
It was hard to swallow with weak muscles. Several times she spluttered and coughed, tearing agony searing from sternum to nostrils. But each time she returned to the tube, desperate for the comforting moisture that seemed to sharpen her vision against the shadows that surrounded her in monolithic apathy. It was nourishment in a landscape hostile to life, and she trusted it as she had no reason to trust anything else in this world.
With every suck on the tube her memories slowed to the pace of her melted body, almost as though allowing her to catch them. The steps, for example...she could picture them as clearly as the rungs—'rungs', that was the word!—of a ladder to climb. She clung to the lowest rung—absorb sufficient nutrition until feed discontinues—repeating the words until the sense threatened to desert them again.
Time was as nebulous as the majority of her thoughts. Did time even matter when she had just lost nearly fifteen years of her life? Or gained, really. Cryo-sleep was preservation; she hadn't aged a day beyond the hour of her freezing. If she was twenty-six then, she was twenty-six now. Of course, in the time flow that mattered she was eighty or thereabouts. On Earth, her family was most likely dead along with her friends.
She turned her head from the tube, sticky droplets smearing across her cheek before the system registered the lost pressure from her lips. The tube began chasing her again, mournful chime reminding her that she was still weak and needed what it sought to give.
Life. Death. Sleep. She had gone to sleep; her life was spared. No one else's.
Her weak eyes saw faces in the shadows. That rounded curve was her mother's hair, tied back in its proper bun. That sharp angle was her brother's chin. That gleam was Ziyu's smile.
She closed her eyes again and forced her lips back around the tube. Years before she had trained herself—they had trained her—to purge the pain of emotional attachments. It wasn't difficult, at least, it hadn't been. On Earth, even in the isolation camps on Mauna Kea, it had always been easy to keep the memories sacred even if the object was far away. Two years she'd spent alone, two years in a exo-hab of three rooms, two years of suiting up to go outside, of vacuum-packed meals, of time-shifted messages.
Despair was an old friend, a slump-shouldered woman wrung-out and defeated by life. She had taken that friend by the hand then and stood with her, feeling her warmth and hope leeching between them until they reached thermal equilibrium. Grinding the edge off despair meant blunting happiness, suppressing ecstasy, dismissing joy.
She could do that. She had done that. And she would do it now.
Absorb sufficient nutrients. Successfully pass the automatic mental and physical evaluation. Run systems check. Wake remaining personnel.
Remaining personnel. She kept the cheerful flutter in her stomach locked away. So many things might have gone wrong in fourteen years. She could not depend on the idea of them to get her through the next half-hour. She only had herself.
Half-hour. Time had returned, as a concept if not yet a fact.
She sucked at the tube, drawing the nutrient stream in steady swallows. As she did, she ran over her body with the efficiency of an engineer. Toes wiggling? Check. Ankles flexing? Check. Fingers, wrists, neck, hips...all green to go.
Her eyes were still troublesome. Shapes were resolving before them slowly, colors beyond black and white manifesting in shades so subtle it took long minutes before she could objectively verify their existence. Envoy II was not a vibrant world to begin with, more akin to a clean-room than anything meant to stimulate interest. Color here was meant to communicate, not interest or stimulate. Red, green, yellow, blue, each in its turn had meaning. More than the essentials might distract.
But even here there was a touch of the whimsical. That touch had been judiciously meted out by the craft's designers, but had been considered indispensable.
She had put her touch—a rectangle some 25 by 75 centimeters—right above the thick plexiglass window of her cryo-tube. Like the others, she hadn't put up any photos of family or friends. Unlike the others, she had avoided pop culture references: movie posters, celebrities.
No. With the determination for which she'd been lauded throughout her career in the academy and its intensive training programs, she chose to focus on what was before them, not behind.
Above her was the a copy of the first image ever received from Gliese 581g.
With the temperature locked in a few degrees above normal and the drink dispensers told to warm all beverages before serving, the six astronauts sitting around the table were slightly less miserable than they had been upon emerging from cryo.
Zicheng looked like a futuristic turtle, hunched in his silver shell, dark head hardly moving as he sipped. He'd had the roughest go of it; his kidneys had failed during stasis and upon reawakening, Leah had had to perform major surgery to get them functioning again. The stress of the operation had been so great that the doctor had returned to her pod for another cycle of nourishment and rest; Zicheng was only up because he refused to spend another moment in that 'coffin', as he put it.
The others—Malia, Dato, and Kyle—were fine. They just drooped like wilted flowers, leaning against each other as though beaten down by the hailstorm of their own exhaustion.
Kara sat upright, beating off the impulse to slump as fiercely as she'd fought the creeping tendrils of despair that even now attempted to strangle. Even if she had been hoping for some encouragement from the team, this sorry gathering would soon have taught her better. No one had any cheer to spare for the others when their own reserves were so barren.
No one had broken down or even shown signs of cracking. That was something. Whatever demons they were wrestling with inside, they kept the struggle internal. A captain could work with that, and she would.
"After this, I want everyone to get in their pods for another cycle," she said; no one had energy enough to startle, "We're still a week off communications threshold, and when we cross it I want everyone to be well-rested."
"I still have to check our trajectory," Zicheng said, not moving his lips from the straw. His words whistled, a silly contrast to his monotone.
She didn't laugh. "The computer can take care of that for now. I already ran a systems check; we're still on course, with only a minor deviation projected until arrival. And there's plenty of time to adjust that; another few hours in the pod won't throw us off."
"I'd rather get the work done first."
"It's not up for discussion," a few bleary sets of eyes blinked warily in her direction, and she relented. "If it will make you feel better, I will run the calculations myself so you'll have one external set of data to work with when you wake up."
"You're not the pilot," his head shook on a neck as weak as a weed, but he stared her down.
"No, but I am the captain," and now she let iron seep into her tone, "and I've given you an order."
He didn't debate the point, but she saw mild mutiny in his eyes. Was it better to be conciliatory or direct? Kara didn't doubt the good sense of her order or her right to command respect, but should she explain herself further, commiserate with his fears?
No. They were flying into...well, if not the unknown than definitely the not-extensively-charted, and Zicheng would need to remember how to follow her orders without any sweetening.
Better to remind everyone that this was how their team would work.
They finished the meal in silence, no interest in conversation. Zicheng was the first to seal himself back into his pod, disciplined features free of disgust. Kara watched him carefully for it and smiled to herself.
"Are you sure you don't want me to inspect the engines before I go down?" Malia sucked the last drops of miso with relish and tossed the bag into repurposing. "I could use a stretch."
"We all could," if the altercation with Zicheng hadn't happened, she would have allowed her engineer a bit more leeway, but it wasn't right to show favoritism. "But I'm not willing to risk any mistakes. We're all still exhausted."
She shrugged. "Okay. See you in a few."
The others shuffled off with no complaints. Kara didn't realize until everyone was sealed away again just how tense she'd been anticipating them. Had command always been this difficult? Somehow her memories of simulations and missions didn't accurately convey the sheer weight of it. Her shoulders and jaw ached and there was a weird tension around her waist, as though her ribs were grinding together.
She chucked her garbage and sighed. No time to question it now. They were there, she was the commander, and they would all have to get used to it again.
Going back into the pod was a struggle and she wished she had been able to let Zicheng know just how much she agreed with him. The narrow shaft that had been her cradle and ark for fourteen years was now narrow as a straw, airless, claustrophobic, and grim. She programmed a rejuvenation cycle and breathed deep, letting the sedative gas pumped through the air filters wind around her lungs and still the gushing torrent of thoughts and worries nothing but chemicals could banish from her mind.
Work smoothed away some of their rough edges. Over the next few days, the necessary functions of ship operations required them all to become who they had been and to remember why they had launched themselves so far from home in the first place.
Zicheng plotted them a course around the asteroid their scanners detected, shaving a few hours from the course the computer had calculated. Malia brought the engines up to full capacity. Leah prepared their inoculation kits with the latest data from Gliese colony. Dato unzipped the terabytes of data received from Earth—thousands of videos from friends and family, charting the trajectories of lives that had ended in their absence. Kyle had his hands full with ship's operations, checking the exo-pods, filtration systems, oxygen gardens...every mechanical part of the ship had to be checked and rechecked.
The journey was only first of their trials. Envoy II had to serve them until they were allowed permission to join the colony.
Despite the work, she was still separated from the team. Because Kara had finally opened the sealed packet of mission parameters—the full extent and cause of their journey through the stars—and now knew the truth.
Truth as a liberator was a hideous lie. The truth fastened her in shackles, and though the key dangled in front of her eyes, she was forbidden from reaching for it.
As the rest of the crew warmed and thawed piece-by-piece to reveal their former selves, Kara might never have gotten out of her pod. She was held in the intractable grasp of chemicals and bio-stasis, unable to move an inch in any direction. This narcotic effect on her mood was noticeable; though never the center of the crew's whirling camaraderie, she was now a spot of dead air. The current of crew life moved around her, leaving her alone.
"Tell me the second we cross the live-comm threshold," was her standing order to Dato.
At last, eight days after the computer triggered her awakening, Dato pinged her and told her they were across the barrier. Live, near-instant communication with Gliese was now possible.
"Good," she tossed aside her tablet where she'd been fruitlessly trying to read the first of six sequels to Jupiter Jones that had come out in their absence. "Set my channel to DND."
"Copy that," Dato replied. The comms button on her screen went red.
Kara had access to a variety of encrypted communication channels, most of which were for her to use to talk to various people at the IASECS while eliminating others from the discussion. As a rule, all her communiques were automatically copied and sent to a database in case anything went wrong. Nothing she said was private.
That was a problem. Even the lines sent ahead of them to Gliese were monitored at some level. IASECS Command would know if she talked to Gliese colony...and they would know if she'd tried to keep them from hearing it.
She hesitated. Dato could probably set something up, but who knows what that would require? It would only raise more questions in the process.
No. She just had to hope that Command wasn't interested in the exact wording of her chat with Vanessa. As long as she put a summary—and it needn't be an accurate summary—of the conversation in her log, it would likely go unchecked.
"What's the lag on a video con at this distance?"
"Well," he hesitated, "can't guarantee you much resolution. Audio only will be clear."
"Are video chats stored in the database transmitted to Command?"
"Not as a rule. For a ship-to-surface communique it's considered nonessential, especially considering the data compression would make an image almost incomprehensible. Why?"
"Just wondering," she swallowed, trying to add a dash of levity, "I haven't seen Vanessa in years, and I don't want Command to see me tear up."
"Oh yeah; you two used to have a thing, didn't you?"
"It wasn't a thing," Kara wished it had been, but neither of them would have been chosen for missions if it had, "She's ace and so am I. All of us are, remember?"
More or less, anyway.
"Sure. Have a nice...chat."
"Speak a word and I'll make you check out every inch of the comms system visually. No matter how many walks that means."
"Lips are sealed, Captain."
Her panel went red again.
Kara gathered her supplies carefully. There wasn't a sheet of paper on board that wasn't communal property—manuals and so on—but her pen made a dark enough impression that she could write what was needed on her arms. Hopefully, despite the lag, the image would be clear enough that Vanessa could read the dark block letters she dug into her skin.
She set up the standard link that would loop back to Command on the next data stream. Then, heart thumping with excitement and dread, she threw the line open.
Ten times her panel pinged into empty space, a lonely cry from their little boat adrift in darkness, too far from home to go back and too far from the shore they sailed for to see land. Marooned in the soundless void of space untraveled by man save once, it was all too easy to lose objective fact in primal fear.
"Ahoy the boat," the voice had darkened with age, crisp French accent dripping like molasses instead of trilling like a bird, but it was the same, the same, the same. "This is Captain Vanessa Pareil of the IASECS Colony on Gliese 581g. Who calls?"
"Ahoy the shore," it was hard to speak clearly through the lump of tears clamming her nose, "This is Captain Kara Surdukowski of the IASECS vessel Envoy II." she paused, swallowed again. "Good to hear your voice, V."
"And you," her reply came after a moment's struggling silence, "You have no idea how good it is to hear you again, Kar-Bear."
"God! If you'd told me I was ever going to miss that ridiculous nickname...it's your accent. It makes everything sound good."
"I still have an accent? I thought it would have disappeared by now. I can't remember the last time I spoke French."
"It's still there. Maybe not as strong as it was. But I hope you haven't lost all your French; we've got years of messages stored for you. I swear the entire nation sent you good wishes at least once."
"We've gotten some of those over the years. But I...haven't listened to many of them. You understand?"
"I always understand you." Kara hadn't touched any of the hundreds of videos waiting in her database either. One day she would. One day it might not hurt to hear the voices of those who had died without her.
"Well," her brisk inflection never ceased to make Kara think of a flute running up and down its scales, "when should I should expect you? You passed the comms threshold to the day, so I assume your arrival date is still as anticipated?"
"Zicheng is trying to figure us a way down there faster; knowing him, he'll manage it too. So we'll stay in touch."
"If it weren't so silly," a pause, "I would ask you to keep this channel open. It has been so long since I heard any voices from Earth."
"I know," Kara wondered, did Vanessa still shield her frowns with one hand like she used to? "But I'm hauling in six new voices; we'll be down in two weeks."
"I'll start negotiating landing permissions with the Eylarin. Hopefully I can get it through the national government by your arrival and it will only take another few months to get you through the world governance clearance and quarantine process."
"Is it that bad?"
"You haven't read my logs?"
"There are forty years of them."
"Ah oui. It has been a while, hasn't it? And yet you must still look the same."
"Not quite. There were four years between your launch and ours."
"What a difference," she said, and now Kara could hear that pucker at the corner of her lips when she was being sarcastic. "You are still young. Youth left me many years ago."
There was no way to make a graceful segue. "I can't wait to see you again."
"We have waited many years. Can you not stand another few weeks?"
"It might be months, according to you. My comms officer says we could turn on the video chat and at least get static images."
"I," she hesitated, "I am so changed, Kara."
"I know. For me, please?"
A sigh. "Very well. Standby."
Kara turned on her camera feed, belatedly realizing that she hadn't done anything with her hair since brushing it that morning. She couldn't even remember if she'd washed it after reawakening. Quickly, she smoothed the frizzy edges behind her ears. It was ridiculous; Vanessa knew what she looked like and certainly would still—
She swallowed; the screen now showed a slowly-resolving outline of the woman she had dreamed of countless times during the fourteen years asleep.
The face was the same; time and decay couldn't change that. But Kara couldn't deny that 'decay' was the right word. Nor could she deny the knife-thrust she felt at seeing that beloved face sunken and changed with the heavy passing of years. Vanessa's skin had been so soft and resilient, even at the age of forty-two. How many times she'd wanted to touch those smooth cheeks! Kara had always thought it impossible that twenty years lay between them.
"It's good to see you," she murmured, and meant it.
"Hmm," that sartorial smirk! "You hide your disgust well. But I can see it; you never could lie to me, petite."
How easy it would be to reminisce on the truth of those words! But Kara was a captain now—just as her old friend had been these many years—and she had a job to do.
Slowly, she lifted her arm until it was center frame, keeping it still so Vanessa could read the words. "You could never disgust me. But you know that seeing the passage of time on a friend's face is different than just thinking about it in the abstract. In my head, I guess I was thinking of you as you'd be in Earth-standard time...at sixty. It's hard to think about the time shift."
DID YOU KNOW WE ARE NOT NEGOTIATING A COLONY EXPANSION?
The smirk disappeared as Vanessa read the question. She replied smoothly, reaching for a pen. "Yes, that is difficult to understand. It spins me for a loop sometimes too. But I'm just over a hundred years old now, and we both need to remember it."
YES. EARTH SITUATION UNTENABLE. YOU ARE HERE TO PROVIDE ULTIMATUM. YES?
"A hundred years," she whistled, throat tight with dread. "It must be true what they say about Gliese's atmosphere, then?"
YES. WE ARE ARMED. CLEARED FOR NECESSARY FORCE.
"Yes. If my term has caught on, this is a post-industrial society. Centuries ago an accord was reached to abandon new advances in technology. Compared to us, they willingly stranded themselves in an eighteenth-century era, with only holdovers in communication and medicine. The air is so clean you can see from one city to the next."
"That must be incredible." NO. ALMOST. "Can't wait to get down there."
BON DIEU. "I think you will like it," there was no smile on her face. She seemed to have shrunk into herself since the start of their true conversation. WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Kara was running out of space on her arms. "Well, I suppose there's nothing else to say until we get down there." STANDBY. "If our ETA changes, I will let you know."
Vanessa nodded. "Let me know if there's anything I may do here to help."
"Hey, here she is at last!" Kyle poked his head out from under the microwave unit and waved a wrench at her. "Just seeing if we can get a little more heat from this thing. I like my bibimbap smoking."
"Isn't the point of that so you can poach an egg in it?" Malia spoke around a mouthful of noodles.
"We don't have any fresh eggs. We won't until we get permission to go planet-side either, and when we do that you'll have access to a proper stove. Besides...your bibimbap's freeze-dried, like everything else on this boat. So what's the point?"
"The point is that I like my bibimbap smoking," he said, muffled in metal. "It's part of the experience. I don't expect you to understand."
"Yeah, cause there's no Koreans in Hawaii. We're not the state with the largest Asian immigrant population."
"Excuse me, but you turned your nose up every time my mom sent her homemade kimchi—"
"We're going to have a meeting," Kara interrupted, unable to maintain internal pressure for another instant, "After dinner. Dato," she presented one new-washed arm in his direction, upon which was written: Scramble the auto-recording system in the rec room. Make it look like an accident. "I want you to take notes. Okay?"
Everyone read her note; a sudden chill swept through the room, freezing everyone in its path. Even Kyle's goofball face grew still once he emerged from under the stove and saw the order.
"Aye, Captain," Dato nodded. He stood immediately, sashlik and fried potatoes growing cold on his plate.
Kara looked around at the frozen faces of her team. What should she say?
"Ten minutes, rec room," she barked, turning on her heel.
Dato had his toolkit out and was messing with the panel just inside the rec room's door. He held up five fingers and put one to his lips. She nodded and strode over to the long table in the middle of the room, its surface glowing faintly as it waited to entertain the team.
Kara took her seat at the head of the table as she always did, resting sweaty palms flat on the smooth surface. The table whirred to life, menus spilling over themselves in puppyish eagerness to please her. Card games, board games, tests of strategy, puzzles...how kind IASECS was to provide this expensive piece of frippery to amuse the crew. Of course, it wasn't kindness, was it? Bored astronauts meant sloppy astronauts meant the possibility of a mission lost.
And this was one mission that could not be lost, could it?
Could her orders be true?
She had read them. She had inventoried their arsenal. It was a testament to her blind faith in IASECS that even in the face of the black-and-white words and green-and-gray missiles, she still hoped for the possibility that she had gone mad in the long dark of cryo-sleep.
Adrift in her thoughts, she barely noticed the rest of the crew filing in until all the seats at the table were filled. Dato nodded to her with an 'okay' gesture. The air was dead. They were alone.
"I," she paused, rusty. "Just saying what I am about to is an offense punishable by both IASECS and WSO protocols. Punishable by death. If this is something you don't want to hear, I'll ask you now to leave the room. I'll thank you not to record it in your logs, but...no. In this case, your loyalty to your own conscience has to outdo your loyalty to me. Make your choice."
It was an odd experience, leaving her life at the mercy of other people. She had risked her life before, but always by her own choice and at her own doing. Or she was beholden to something unfeeling; malfunctioning machines, or unfeeling nature.
No one moved.
"Okay. Some of you may have noticed the change in my mood since we received communiques from Earth. Seven days ago I unsealed classified mission parameters and was told the truth about our journey.
"We have not been sent," speaking was like dragging lead weights from the bottom of the ocean, "to peacefully expand our existing colony. We have been sent to force Gliese into accepting a full-scale settlement of some two hundred thousand people. The situation on Earth has deteriorated; settlement ships are en route as we speak. They departed six years after we did.
"With the time shift, that leaves us just over thirty years to convince the natives to accept us."
"Captain," Malia said, brown face pale with shock, "nearly every race on Gliese is xenophobic; it's been over forty years since the first mission landed and they're only permitted in one country. What does Command expect us to do if they arrive and our mission isn't complete?"
God, if she'd died in cryo-sleep, if she'd only died!
"They won't accept failure. In our hold we have over two hundred Sabertooth missles and their launch systems. We have also five hundred GV-552s and five thousand clips.
"We have, in short, everything we need to stage a coup. And if we cannot reach a peaceful resolution, our orders are to do so."