I awake to sounds I do not understand. A low, grinding rumble that seems to echo from both everywhere and nowhere all at once. It shifts at random, one moment going quiet as the grave, only to then come roaring back in a great rush of thunderous noise. Up and down and everywhere in between without rhyme or reason.
What that could possibly mean I have not the slightest idea. Thinking is difficult right now, caught as I am somewhere between awake and aware. Every stray thought is a struggle, as if they need to be forced through a thick layer of molasses first. Sluggish, that’s the word for it. Everything feels sluggish.
With colossal effort, I slowly begin to claw my way back to consciousness. Other sensations seep their way back in tandem as I regain more of myself in turn. I’m…cold? I don’t feel cold, though I don’t feel much of anything just now. My body feels distant, as if it belongs to someone else and I’m just getting the short version of things. Maybe that’s why the rumbling sounded so weird but that’s only a guess.
I also can’t see anything. An endless void of black stretches before me, broken by strange lights dancing in its nonexistent corners. My eyes must be shut I realize, a bit baffled as to why I had to actively remember that. I take it as a sign of progress towards waking, things starting to slip more easily through the haze.
Still not effortlessly though, as I discover when I try opening my eyes. It’s remarkably difficult, the lids feeling as if they’re made of stone and refusing to lift even slightly. I throw more effort behind it, flexing what feels like every muscle in my face for the attempt. Exhaustion threatens to overwhelm me, my body still not fully my own, fighting my every effort to gain control. Only with a colossal force of will am I able to seize control and wrench my eyes open.
Darkness. I see nothing but the same darkness I did with my eyes shut fast. Somehow even darker perhaps, the dancing lights having vanished with my return to…what exactly? The waking world, I guess. It’s hard to say with any certainty.
My body is my own again at least, the many little sensations of physicality returning to me. I feel the beat of my own heart, thudding away in my chest like a broken clock. Feel the strange sway of my limbs over which I still lack full control. Feel the slight shift of my jaw as I open my mouth to draw breath.
Feel the great seize of panic when I can find no air.
Animalistic panic grips me, the desperate need for oxygen overriding all other concerns. I can feel liquid sloshing about in my chest, throat and lungs violently contracting in desperate, painful effort to purge the invasive fluid. They fail in every regard, an instinctual inhale bringing only more liquid flooding in.
The same panic spurns me to action, adrenaline forcing me to full, terrible wakefulness. My limbs shoot out on instinct, searching for a surface and the precious air it promises. They find only walls in every direction, above, below, everywhere, and all around. I’m trapped. Trapped and drowning and terrified in the dark. My instincts scream at me to escape, to survive, to carry on living even as if it sees no means of doing so. I am drowning, I am drowning, I am…not drowning?
Though it takes a moment through the flurry of panic, I realize I don’t feel a desperate need for oxygen. In fact, I feel fine, or at least as fine as is possible, like I’d just woken from a long, deep slumber. Terrified and curious, I draw an experimental “breath” of liquid and find it no less nourishing than a full chested gulp of clearest mountain air. I can breathe. Or at least, something to similar effect.
Though still thoroughly confused, I begin to calm and regain more control over myself. Something about this feels familiar, a distant stirring of memory stepping forward to replace of blind panic. I’m…supposed to be here? Yes, yes I think that’s right. This is a…life pod? Life support pod? No wait, hibernation pod! Yes, I think they called it a hibernation pod, I’m remembering now. A hibernation pod I was intentionally placed inside to do, what? Sleep obviously, but through what? A journey? That strikes a chord. A long journey away from earth towards, a station? No, a colony. A distant colony far out at the edge of known space.
Yeah, that’s it! I’m on a spaceship heading towards my new home among the stars. Or at least that’s what I can remember. Why is it damned hard to think?
And there’s still big gaps missing, foremost among them how I’m awake right now. I explicitly remember the doctors saying that I’d already be out of the tank by the time I woke up. The fact that I am, and I’m not respectively can only mean something has gone very wrong. Worse, the only thing I could do is wait and hope someone’s trying to fix it.
To distract myself from the looming wave of fresh panic, I begin to explore the limits of my pod more thoroughly. My fingertips brush along the smooth interior walls, quickly finding the space distressingly small and cramped. Practical of course, space travel is all about efficient packing, but that does nothing to lessen the coffin comparison.
Thankfully before I can fall any further down that thought spiral, the rumbling sound returns. Quieter and shorter this time, fading quickly back into silence but its presence nonetheless terrifies because I still have not the slightest idea what it is. Unknowns of any kind are not my friend right now.
Using my feet, I continue exploring the limits of my space. I quickly regret the decision as I still lack full control of my limbs, overextending and driving my toes into the wall. I try to curse but of course am unable, the fluid in my lungs preventing anything so advanced as speech. I can’t even pull my foot up to massage it, the pod is too small, forcing me to suffer in silence as my toe throbs in pain. I’m so caught up in it that I nearly miss the knocking.
It’s not quiet, three sharp raps in the darkness, echoing even louder through the fluid. For a moment I think it’s to do with the rumbling when it happens again, slower this time, each knock more spaced out than before. Measured, too deliberate to be random creaks from somewhere else in the ship, or at least that’s what I hope.
Not sure what to expect, I knock back. For a moment I float there in utter silence, terrified I just made a mistake somehow. Then it comes again, four this time. Two quickly, then a long pause, followed by two more. Unquestionably deliberate.
With shaking hands, I repeat the pattern back and listen for more. None comes and I worry I’m already beginning to go mad in here when, with no warning, the dark void vanishes, replaced with a sudden bloom of blinding white. I clamp my eyes shut against it, blotchy afterimages swimming in my vision for long seconds. When at last they fade, I slowly crack my eyes back open, letting them adjust bit by bit until finally I can look out upon the brave new world.
Where once there was only a dark void, there now sits a curved pane of clear glass illuminated by a faint, ghostly glow. A long metal corridor sits beyond, cast in such heavy shadow that I can only barely see the far wall. About the only detail I can see are several bulbous pods, lights blinking rapidly on their surface. Another tickle of memory informs me these are the same kind of hibernation pod in which I currently reside.
More prevalent however, is the man standing before me. He is young, sporting short green hair and a padded grey jumpsuit heavily festooned with pockets and tool belts. An engineer at a guess, which is unfortunate but at this point I’m happy to take whatever I can get.
I’m still getting over my own shock when he taps on the pod again to get my attention. He looks at me quizzically, lips moving silently, and I realize he’s speaking, apparently unaware I can’t hear him. I tap at my own ear to indicate as such, prompting a baffled look, followed by a dawning wave of realization. He looks down at a tablet attached to his arm, typing briefly before raising his head to speak again.
“-hear me now? Blink or nod if you can hear me.”
The voice seems to come from many places at once, filling the tank with its tinny, distant tones. It’s easily the most wondrous sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I nod as requested, fast enough to produce small bubbles in the liquid and the man’s eyes go wide in response.
“Jesus Christ, okay, okay…” he briefly looks down at something I can’t see before looking back up. “Okay listen, my name’s Rell. I can get you out of this thing, but I need you to do exactly what I say, understand?”
I nod again. What other choice do I have?
“Good, now just let me-”
He cuts himself off, turning to look at something further down the hall. Something bad judging by the expression that crosses his face. Swearing under his breath, Rell turns to fully face the threat, grabbing something from one of his many toolbelts. A gun I quickly realize as my pod fills with the sound of gunshots.
I watch as he advances down the hall, vanishing from view as he continues firing. Worry grips me briefly when they fall silent, wondering if something terrible has happened. Then, suddenly, he is back, returning to his spot before my pod. I can’t help but notice his eyes are a little more harried than before.
“Alright, we don’t have much time, so we need to be quick,” he raises a finger, pointing at my left side. “Do you see that thing on your arm?”
I look down, something I hadn’t thought or been able to do until this point. The “thing” in question turns out to be two metal rings wrapped around my bicep. Many thin tubes run between them in a lattice pattern, along with a much thicker cable sits anchored to the top ring, its other end vanishing into the nearby wall. I remember them installing it when they put me under, an IV or computer or something, the details escape me. I simply nod that I do in fact see it.
“Okay…” He pauses, seeming to gather himself before continuing. “I need you to tear it out.”
I gape at him, doing my best to wordlessly ask the man if he has gone insane. I may not remember what it is but I very clearly recall that installing it was a rather extensive process involving robots and a very, very long needle. Not the kind of thing you just tore off without professional help. Not if you wanted to have use of the arm afterwards. I must have done a good job conveying all that because Rell immediately looks sympathetic.
“I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but we just don’t have time. The pod needs to think you’re dead or it won’t let you go.”
My mind races, swirling wildly with a mixture of panic both immediate and forthcoming. I tried to stay calm but that kept getting overridden by the thought of what ripping surgically implanted bits of metal out of flesh would feel like. In a desperate flash of inspiration, I grab at the larger cable and mime the action of pulling it free. Rell only shakes his head.
“That won’t work, the sensors have wireless backups. You need to get those rings off, it’s the only way.”
The rumbling chooses that moment to return, louder than ever. This time it is accompanied by a physical tremor, shaking everything as if the hull is trying to work a kink out of its back. Bubbles momentarily fill my vision, and Rell grabs hold of the edge of my pod to keep his feet. The tremor passes quickly but not so quickly that the point is not excessively clear.
“I’m sorry but we’re out of time,” Rell says. “Now or never.”
I look down at the IV, turning my arm to look at it from different angles. Stalling mostly, trying, and failing to keep my imagination under control. Tentatively, I reach for the top ring, searching for somewhere to get a proper grip. Luckily, unfortunately, my fingers slip easily under the edge, a catch coming loose and leaving only the one section that matters in contact with my skin. Already I can feel the implanted needle tugging back, clearly intending to dig in and drag this out every step of the way.
I cast one last look of mad desperation at Rell. He says nothing, just nods his head in solidarity. It doesn’t really help. Before I can talk myself out of it, I brace every muscle I can and begin to pull.
It hurts. Cold fire shoots up my arm faster than I can process and leaves me in a fit of screaming agony. Except I can’t scream, the fluid in my lungs denying me even the small comfort of crying out. I can’t even thrash around, lest I do more damage than I already am. Every fiber of my being begs me to stop but I know I can’t. If I stop, I might not be able to start again.
So, I press on, moving as fast as I dare and suffering in absolute silence. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the ring comes away, revealing the long, thin needle buried underneath. Try as I might to look away, my eyes are invariably drawn to the sight, watching as it slides back beneath my skin. On and on it goes, extracting one agonizing inch at a time, never seeming to come any closer to its end. Some distant part of me wonders why there is so little blood. I have no answer and care even less.
The fire has spread far, burning deeply in my chest now, pain swinging wildly between rending and eviscerating with every beat of my heart. My vision blurs, edges going dark, my good arm growing weak as pain overwhelms all else. No, no don’t pass out! Not now! Just a little more, just a little more. Fucking hell why is this needle so damned long? The pain is too much. I don’t want to die. I’m going to die. The darkness is coming. I am going to die.
Gritting my teeth, I dig deeper than I ever knew was possible and pull. It hurts worse than any pain I’ve ever known, a pain so pure that I briefly lose myself to it. For an infinite moment, there is no me anymore. There is only the pain and the wretched little thing that exists to feel it.
Then, finally, suddenly, blessedly, it is over. With my last great pull, the needle comes free in a small bloom of red. The pain recedes to distant shores, and I am my own self again. My arm still hurts but it is a pithy thing compared to what it was, the cold fire quenched to a searing smoulder. Exhaustion washes over me in its place, my eyelids growing heavy as I slide freely back towards oblivion. Fresh knocking on the pod is the only thing that stops me.
“Hey, stay with me! You’re not done yet.”
His words are distant, echoing, a struggle to hold onto but somehow, I manage it. Shaking away the pull of sleep, I instead reach back and finish the job, snapping the other ring and pulling the device free of my arm entirely.
“Alright good, good,” Rell says. He presses some buttons on his tablet. “Congratulations, you’re dead, now I just need to-”
Whatever he had been about to say is lost as something leapt from the shadows and grabbed him from behind. He yelps, limbs flailing wildly as he tries to escape. A head appears atop the shadows, its face a ghastly swirl of flesh disease and grotesque life. One eye is missing, grown over by a thin white membrane while the other is too large, bulging out from its socket. Like a tumor, save that it can blink.
I watch, helpless, as the thing opens its maw, revealing a mouth of mismatched teeth and fangs. A guttural growl comes through the speakers, replaced by a cry of pain as the creature bites down on its prey.
For a brief instant I fear the worst, only for Rell to spring into action, driving an elbow into the creature’s stomach. It strikes far deeper than it should, as if the torso is hollow. The creature screeches in protest, keeping its jaws clamped down but losing its grip on Rell’s torso. He does not waste the opening, wrenching his arm free and grabbing at his gun. He tries to bring it up, but the creature has recovered, lashing out with its limbs to also grab at the weapon, intending to wrestle him for control.
Rell refuses to engage in such a contest and braces his feet against my pod. With a mighty cry he sends them both flying back against the far wall with a crash loud enough for me to hear it even without the comms. The impact does the job, the creature gurgling in something resembling pain and loses its grip entirely. Rell wastes no time exploiting that fact, bringing the butt of his weapon up to strike the creature’s exposed jaw. The gap between them widens further, giving enough space for Rell to turn and jam his weapon into its hollow guts. Five shots ring out in rapid succession, joined by the sickly gurgles as the creature throws itself back at him, jaws snapping to the last as it falls bodily upon Rell.
A tense quiet follows, the air like glass as I wait to see how the universe has chosen to turn this day. If Rell is dead, I’m dead too. If I’m lucky, I’ll bleed out from the wound I just gave myself. If I’m not, well, I don’t really want to think about all the terrible ways this pod could kill me by inches. I really hope Rell isn’t dead.
Movement draws my eye back to the world outside. Briefly it looks as if the creature has survived, its chest rising from the ground. It is to my great relief when the body instead slumps to the side, revealing Rell sitting up from underneath. He moves slowly, wincing as he regains his feet, quiet curses coming through over the comm. I’m right up against the glass to greet him when he finally makes it back, nursing the spot where the creature bit him.
“I’m okay,” he says, reading my mind. “It didn’t get through the armor.”
The pain in his voice makes me doubt the fine bit but I’ll happily take functional over dead. Keeping his gun ready this time, Rell finishes the work on his tablet, nodding along to something I can’t see. After a moment he steps back, giving me a thumbs up.
“Alright, that’s everything. Just need to let the system reboot and I can release you.”
I flash a thumbs up of my own to convey understanding. Rell turns to scan the halls again, clearly paranoid after what happened. I don’t blame him and do feel a little guilty when I tap on the glass to get his attention. He looks back, then follows my pointing finger to the corpse of the creature lying nearby. He grimaces a moment, glancing between it, me, and his tablet before answering.
“We don’t know what it is,” he says, genuine fear in his tone. “Infection of some kind, moving through the ship faster than we can contain it. Never seen anything like it.” He gestures around at the other pods. “Nothing we’ve ever seen before. You’re damn lucky I noticed your signal.”
On that we agreed, though I sensed there was far more locked up in those words than he was saying. I tried to prod him for more, but he shook his head to cut me off.
“Questions later, right now we-”
He is cut off again, this time by the strongest rumbling yet. Rell stumbles, only just catching himself against the wall at the last minute. My pod gives an ominous creaking sound at the height of it, making me wonder if my problem might be about to sort itself out, but the structure holds firm. Eventually the shaking settles but the sound does not, the ominous, rumbling creak that first roused me remaining, louder than ever before.
“Dammnit,” Rell mutters, raising a hand to his ear. “Rell to control, hold the separation, I’m still over here!”
He pauses, listening intently to a voice I can’t hear.
“Yes, I know,” he says. “I just need a little more time.”
Another pause. This time his expression twists with annoyance, voice raising to shout.
“No, you listen! I have a viable body here and I can get him out! You need to hold until I can-”
A third pause, this one much more sudden than the others. A cold tendril of worry worms its way into the pit of my stomach as I watch Rell’s annoyance fall away, replaced by wide eyed fear.
“Yes sir,” he says, sharp and automatic. “I know sir but…yes sir…sir I can’t just-”
He pauses one last time, listening. Whatever is said he doesn’t like it, his face falling further and further with every passing, unheard word.
“I understand,” he says at last.
He drops his hand from his ear, staring off at nothing. Another tremor, smaller but no less terrifying, pulls him back to the world and he looks up at me.
It’s all he says. Two simple words and he’s gone, running away down the hall and out of my sight. Might as well be out of the universe for all the difference it makes. I pound at the glass, silently screaming for him to come back until my fists go numb and blood clouds the pod. I cry tears invisible in my waterlogged eyes. I beg, I threaten, I plead, I curse, I cry without making a single sound for him to come back. For someone to come back. For anyone to come back.
A screech is all that answers my plea. The harsh rending of metal on metal, heralding a tremor like no other that shakes everything. Pod, walls, probably the entire section of the ship right down to its bolts. This one does not stop, instead growing only stronger and louder.
Then suddenly everything is moving. The hallway outside tilts to an impossible angle, throwing me to one side like a ragdoll. Outside the lights flicker, the very walls rattling and cracking under stresses they were never meant to take. A great gale begins, dust and debris flying past as the air is sucked out, the walls cracking open before my very eyes.
Through the gaps I see nothing. Nothing but the endless black of space, studded with the cold light of distant stars. Now and again, I catch glimpses of the ship, but they are slight and fading. Gone with a great crash as I am wrenched out into the endless void. Alone but for the darkness all around me.
In the darkness, in the silence, I cannot even scream.