2179 words (8 minute read)


Suspension isn't like sleep, Doctor Jackson. You won't be subjectively aware that any time has passed. It will be like you blinked and someone changed the channel.”

But it wasn't.

She became aware of herself slowly, clawing her way to the surface of a dark ocean that didn't want to let her go. It pulled at her with tidal force, lulling her with the music of the surf. As she listened to the breakers crash, it dawned on her little by little that what she heard wasn't the sea; it was her breath, reflected back at her by the close quarters of the suspension tube.
She listened to the rhythm and waited. If she was conscious inside the tube, then the emergency revival system had been engaged. The ERS would pop the hatch and roll her out like a body from a morgue freezer.

No. The system ought to have done that before she'd revived enough to crawl down a train of thought. Something was wrong.

I'm in trouble. Or the ship is. Or both

The fear should have followed, but it didn't. She tried to swallow, and by the time her muscles obeyed she already knew that it had taken far too long. She tried to count seconds, then to count breaths, but if her count was accurate then she should have been hypoxic and unconscious. Her thoughts felt slow, syrupy, but she could still put the pieces together. Delayed muscle response, no adrenal reaction, warped time perception – suspension sickness.

How long have I been awake? But there was no way to tell. No way to know how much air she had already used up making surf-music in the tiny confines of her tube.

If I don't get moving, I will die in here.

And still the hatch didn't pop.

When she moved, it was with a languid, dreamy lethargy. She jammed her elbows repeatedly against the coffin lid – no, not a coffin, a tube, she was still alive – as she maneuvered her hands past her head to fumble with the emergency hatch release. The moment she turned the grips the air seal let go with a hiss that the close confines magnified to an agonizing volume. A weak shove popped it out, and it landed on the deck with a clatter loud enough to wake the dead. Gripping the lip of the opening with half-numb fingers, she slid the narrow couch on which she lay out of the end of the tube.

Attempting to open her eyes won her only the rusty feeling of her eyelids scraping across her dry corneas, and a featureless blur of yellow-gray. She abandoned the effort and tried to sit up instead. She made it most of the way before nausea hit with a sudden violence that toppled her, dry heaving, off of the suspension couch. She managed to curl just enough to take the impact on her shoulder instead of her face, hitting the deck with a heavy thud that should have hurt a lot more than it did.

Fear finally started to reach her in a thin trickle. Rather than trying to rise, she crawled across the bare metal deck, pulling herself to the lockers against the far wall. She searched out a revival kit by feel, and as she fumbled with the catches she struggled to open her dry eyes again. Success was rewarded with a smear of venom-green – the unmistakeable foil wrapper of the Mitramitocyn spike. Vertigo hit her again when she rolled onto her back, spawning a fresh spasm of dry heaves as she fumbled with the wrapper.

Fleeting thoughts of the risks – heart damage, adrenal overload – surfaced through the murky fog in her brain, but she still positioned the injector against her chest. Suspension sickness killed. Mitra injury beat a shroud in space.

She triggered the injection.

Fire spread through her chest with searching fingers, and she gasped as the sudden wave of agony burned away the blurriness. The searing spread rapidly to her extremities as her heartbeat skyrocketed, and then the Mitra reached her brain. It was like being hit with an epispray and a thousand milligrams of caffeine at once. The escalating fear of her escape erupted in one savage chord of panic. Pain bloomed in the shoulder that had taken the impact when she'd fallen to the deck, and she heard animal noises of terror pouring out of her mouth as she shivered in the grip of the spike. Her muscles jumped and danced in an rapid-fire explosion of uncontrolled spasms. All she could do was lie there and try not to scream as her slippered heels beat against the unforgiving deck for what felt like forever.

No matter how long it felt, Mitra burned hot and fast. In perhaps fifteen seconds, the first flush died away and she sagged, limp and panting, against the deck.

It took longer than that to focus; her muscles were under control again, but she struggled to stop her thoughts running around like frightened mice. She groped blindly for the revival kit and felt out a bottle of eyewash, opening her eyes as carefully as possible. By the time she had gotten the yellow-gray blur above her resolved into the bland gray deckhead and recessed yellow emergency lights of the revival bay, her pulse had come down and her thoughts settled enough to form a coherent question.

The ship. Am I in trouble or is the ship?

“H... how...” she swallowed repeatedly, trying to work some moisture into her mouth. “How bad is it, Daniel?”

Her question disappeared into the silence of the revival bay without a ripple.

“Dr. Mbembe?” It came out raspy, thick and hoarse.

There was no answer. She propped herself up on her elbows to look back at the honeycomb wall of revival tubes she had just escaped from. Of the six hexagonal hatches set into the otherwise featureless bulkhead, only hers gaped black and empty. A small groan of relief escaped her, and she flopped back to the deck again. Any shipboard emergency that woke her would have woken more than just her. Odd as it felt to realize it, she'd been lucky – it was a tube failure.

She lay there and let her body relax for a moment while she took stock of her situation. There was gravity, so the ship was in a star system and the crew was awake. That was a second lucky break for her – if the ship had been at warp, her chances of survival would have been very, very low. Her shoulder hurt like hell, the world was still spinning a little bit, and her heart rate was much higher than was healthy.
Changing the channel, my ass. The thought came out of nowhere, and she startled herself with a brief, angry cough of laughter.

She sat up with care, and had to stop and brace herself against another surge of vertigo. That didn't bode well, but she shoved the thought aside for the moment and pulled the emergency water pouch out of the revival kit. The first few drops hurt on her tongue, it was so dry. As she nursed it in small sips, she also rotated her shoulder carefully, trying to determine how much damage she'd done when she'd fallen. Once her mouth no longer felt like cracked desert floor and she'd determined that her shoulder was bruised, but functional, she used the bulkhead to get to her feet.

She half-supported herself against the cold carbon fiber panels as she made her way to the com screen, next to the hatch that led to the rest of the ship. The moment the ERS activated, an alarm should have gone off on the bridge and in Medical, and someone should have been here by now.
The black screen flared to life at a touch. Instead of the ID prompt, glowing amber words appeared.


Condition Zero in effect

Please input command code

“No,” she whispered, staring at the screen. “That's not right, I'm the only one awake. He would have woken up first. My tube...”

My tube failed.

And then she understood, and all of a sudden she was bolting back to the lockers, yelling at the top of her lungs, because nothing quieter would penetrate the hatch.


She seized a red and white emergency kit from the open locker and spun back toward the tubes, nearly vomiting as the world tilted madly. She did not wait for it to stabilize, staggering across the bay to half-fall against the honeycomb wall of suspension tubes that held the revival crew.

“Hold on! I'm coming!” She was shouting in a raw, saw-toothed voice she barely recognized as her own as she clawed at the latches on the access panel. “Breathe shallowly, don't try to move!” She ripped the panel open, seized the emergency release grips, and twisted so hard that both of her wrists popped audibly. “Just hold on!” She pulled, and almost dropped the heavy tube hatch in her lap as she tried to toss it aside.

“Daniel?” She heard the trembling in her voice and didn't care. She couldn't see more than the top of his head. She seized the lip of his suspension couch and pulled it back.

His arms were crossed over his chest awkwardly. One hand rested up by the opposite ear, as though he'd been trying to reach up over his head. The ugly blush of oxygen deprivation was everywhere – his lips, his eyelids, the beds of his nails.

She tore open the emergency kit, panting in barely-controlled panic. She applied cardiac electrodes and an oxygen mask with hands that she could not hold steady, and activated them. The electrodes whined, and she pulled back, watching intently as they began to fire. Daniel jerked, and the mask hissed softly as it forced air into him and then pulled it back out, but that was all.

The electrodes whined again. “Please,” she whispered, staring at his face, willing him to gasp, to open his eyes, anything. “Please.”

The electrodes fired again. And again. And again.

At seven minutes, they began to emit a high, mournful tone. It felt like it took a very long time to reach out and shut them off.

An icy tingle spread through her from head to toe as she stared into the dead face of the man who was supposed to be in charge. She swallowed convulsively. The hard knot of nausea in her stomach expanded, and she had to try twice before she could get back to her feet.

I should get him back into his tube.

The thoughts proceeded with a sort of mechanical detachment as she turned away from the body. When she had gone into suspension he had been her mentor, her friend, and now he was a body. It didn't feel real.

I should reseal it so he doesn't decompose until we can get him planetside.

Her feet carried her away from the tube and back to the com screen. The hand that she raised to the touch screen was steady again. That surprised her.

He deserves to lie in earth, not in a vacuum.

Slowly, methodically, she entered the code.

The amber words went red. The screen blanked, and then a new prompt came up.

Please state your identity.

Her first attempt came out as a croak. She swallowed and tried again. “Doctor Nerana Jackson,” she said, her voice falling leaden and dead in her own ears. “Executive medical officer, colony module Muamko. ID code 1-3-5-Obo-3-7-Zulu. Requesting command authorization.”

I was never even supposed to see the inside of this ship. I was supposed to wake up on a new world. My new world.

The com screen blinked three times, and then it turned green.

Authorization accepted. Command functions transferred.

The ship is yours, Commander Jackson.

She stared at the words as they appeared. It felt like a sick joke. Her stomach did a slow roll as it sank in that no one was coming. There would be no help.

Quarantine Condition Zero meant that the crew of the Ishtar was dead.

The newly minted Commander Jackson fell to her knees, bent forward around her spasming midsection, and threw up on the deck.