I remember specifically asking the hibernation technician if I would dream. He told me that was an urban legend. I remember little else. The longer this goes on the more it all seems to run together.
It comes to me in a flash. My ninth birthday party. Jennifer was there. I got a fuel cell bicycle from my dad. I remember my mom scolding me not to leave my slice of cake sitting outside because “It will attract animals, they’ll keep coming here looking for food.” Vague recollections of my exam for a manual car operation license.
The hibernation chamber is as warm and comforting as it was the last time. Wear and grime continues to accumulate. For a dream, it really nails little nitty gritty details like that. Evidently this is what happens when you sleep for a century. Even has the big stenciled “chamber 3” on the outside.
I poke at the terminal, right where it always is. The flickering display is entirely in Japanese. Never any help. I make the routine token effort to fix it by bashing at the keyboard but get only cascading error message windows. At least I assume that’s what they are. Fucking moon runes.
I can still recall bits and pieces of the dream. Same one as always with minor differences each time. I never was the creative type. But oh lord, the ending. The flash of long sharp teeth, the gut wrenching sting as they tore into me, the warmth of my own fresh blood spilling out all over my neck and chest.
When I wake up I’ll have to talk to the ship psych about it. He’ll know what it means. For the time being there’s not a lot else to do but search outside. The other hibernation chambers are all bashed up beyond recognition, the far side of the hull crumpled inward by the impact of landing. Under different circumstances, it’d be miraculous that I survived.
Following the illuminated strips at ankle height down the corridor I arrived at the exterior airlock. The pad scans my iris and palm before admitting me. The inner door shuts, the familiar hiss of pressurization and decontamination follows, then the outer door opens.
Of course, the air is breathable. I suppose complaining about that, as if it’s the most unrealistic thing about these little nocturnal voyages, would be a bit silly. Before me is a roiling wall of black fog. So thick that it looks as if I could grab a big fluffy chunk of it. Instead I step out of the escape pod and onto the cold, wet ground.
The fog swallows me whole. I hold my hands up in front of my face and, no surprise, cannot see them. I keep hoping I’ll slip up eventually because it’s a pain in the ass to navigate this terrain effectively blind.
I first follow the outer edge of the escape pod’s hull. Everything’s where it should be. The side impacted into the mud is a tangled mess of shredded aluminum that I accidentally cut myself on. If I weren’t hibernating I figure this would wake me, but I’ve long since tried every trick along those lines. Pinching myself, looking for the Moon, you name it.
My feet sink into the mud. The cold doesn’t phase me. I’ll wake up again soon enough, warm and cozy. I’d stay in the chamber next time except I did that the first dozen times and simply starved to death. The pain felt viscerally real. The power of the human brain still astonishes me.
Venturing outside gets it over with quicker and I still hope to eventually find some other place to explore that isn’t shrouded in this damned fog. I’ve tried every direction. I set off for a lake I’ve tried to circumnavigate at least a hundred times now. Maybe if I swim for it?
The water is ice cold. I know I won’t get far, but it’s something different at least. I wade in, cringing as sensitive parts of me hit the water. I try a feeble breast stroke. Something brushes my calf. I shudder, remembering times I’ve swimmed in the ocean and felt seaweed on my leg. But then it wraps around my leg and tightens.
I thrash wildly but it pulls me under. The primal part of my mind is frightened but I’ve died in worse ways so many times now that it borders on banal. I feel a serrated beak cleave into my thigh, and warm blood mixing with the frigid lake water around me. I deliberately gulp it into my lungs, convulse, and black out.
My eyelids flutter, then part. I squint, the bright lights of the hibernation chamber painful at first until my irises adjust. I wish I had a journal or something. I could add “death by drowning” and at least have some sense of progress, or accomplishment.
I poke at the terminal. Still incomprehensible. If there were a book on Japanese laying around someplace I could learn it. I have all the time in the world. But for that to happen I would need to already know Japanese, wouldn’t I? Or I’d open it and it’d just be random squiggly marks.
I yawn and scratch my crotch. Ambling down the corridor, guided by the illuminated strips, I once again arrive at the airlock. Completing the biometric security ritual it opens to receive me and I oblige. Hissing follows as it cycles, then I am once again outside.
The mountains this time, I decide. I could go for some exercise. I know how it’ll end but I have plenty of time to kill. On the way I wade through some kind of vegetation. How does it grow if no light reaches it? Dream logic. It seems taller than the last time.
I arrive at the cliff face and boost myself up onto a boulder. I hear a long, low rumbling. Fuck off, I thought. I haven’t even begun climbing yet. But the rumbling turns into a sort of guttural snarl. Like the sound of choking, wet meat and a fossil fuel combustion engine.
For sport, I ran. May as well make it work for its dinner. Or breakfast? No real sense of day or night here. My feet ached from the jagged rocks as I fled the thing behind me. It was closing fast. I tripped over something, fell and heard a loud snap.
Blinding pain exploded from my shin. I writhed around screaming until it subsided. There was no growling. Had I eluded it? Whatever it was. No use anyway, I couldn’t continue like this. I turned my attention to what I’d tripped over. It was cold and hard, and complicated.
After feeling every part of it, I cried out in shock. A human skeleton. Wet rags around it suggested it was clothed too. The prospect of meeting another person in here was bizarre. Another facet of myself to talk to would make passing time like this much more tolerable.
But could they truly die? Can I? Eventually, I suppose. When the ship computer resuscitates me at the destination. I’ll have a hell of a story to tell the other colonists, and a lawsuit I’d like to file against the company that makes the hibernation chambers...if I can find a way to prove I was dreaming the entire time. Wouldn’t hurt to have some extra coin in my account to start my new life with.
The rumbling returned. I found myself wishing it would work up the courage to finish me. I’d been outside for much longer than usual and felt hypothermic, on top of the shooting pain from my leg. The rumbling turned to snarling. I felt a presence lunging at me through the thick, black fog.
There was a second or two of intense, mind-breaking pain. But it was over immediately after that and when I next opened my eyes I was safe and sound in the hibernation chamber. For fuck’s sake. The clock on the terminal said 22:31:09. Military time or something. I never learned to read that so I’m as in the dark about what god damn time it is as I am about what all those repeating messages on the terminal say.
The top bar is a flashing red message. Underneath there’s pages upon pages of the same chunk of text, repeating. The numbers at the bottom are a little different on each one but other than that, they’re identical.
I have tried scrolling all the way to the start but can’t do it. A little completion percentage indicator to the right changes every so often if I scroll long enough. The furthest I’ve ever gotten before growing bored and wandering off is 12%.
As soon as I’m outside I start jogging. My leg’s as good as new so I do some cartwheels while I’m at it. Feels kind of good when the mud sinks in between my fingers. I stub my toe on something. Kneeling down to feel it, I discover another skeleton. This one’s not so badly decomposed, I can feel leathery skin and some hair.
After walking for what feels like roughly an hour I encounter boulders. Feeling my way along them for a bit I eventually come upon a cave. This is just asking for it, isn’t it? But I haven’t done caves before. I cautiously negotiate the rough hewn cave floor and continue my descent into it.
Chittering rings out. Like no animal call I know of. Could it at least be a bear or something? The familiarity would be refreshing. Wind rushes past me, displaced by whatever immense abomination my subconscious has devised as it accelerates towards me.
I turn and dash for the cave entrance. Whatever it is follows me for a ways but stops short of the exit. Must have a healthier self preservation instinct than mine, I guess. It was exhilirating to escape one of these things. Only rarely did I manage it.
I walked through what felt like a swamp, struggling and failing to keep my pants dry. Again? My leg catches on something I expect to be another skeleton. It’s a cold, but mostly intact body. Overcoming my revulsion I feel at the head and chest.
It’s male. I search it for a weapon but find nothing. He seems to be dressed in the standard hibernation pajamas. It occurs to me for the first time that there could be another escape pod somewhere nearby. Someplace new to explore, without this maddening fog. With rations, perhaps and books to read.
There’s something about this fucking swamp. Maybe it’s in my head. Well, I mean, of course it is. But something in the back of my mind nags at me. Is there something I’m supposed to do here? Something to listen for?
Must be the second one. A smattering of high pitched squeaks, like hyenas, approaches from all directions. In this mud there’s no chance of running, but for the hell of it I make my best effort to pick up some speed.
When the first one lands on me I’m surprised by how small it is. Something like a large bat. But cold and hard to the touch. Arthropod? It sinks some kind of proboscis into me. Burning pain spreads from that spot, a venom that I’m sure would have brought me down in less than a minute with just that one bite. But of course, he brought his friends.
They swarmed all over me until I was encased in teeming carapaces and frantic little legs. More bites all over my body. I gave into the agony and collapsed. The moment I opened my mouth to scream, they flooded inside and down my esophagus.
“Fucking fuck” I muttered as I rubbed my eyes. Way too bright in here but I could find no way of adjusting it. Would the changes even carry over to the next dream? I lay there in the long, cushion lined cylinder until the memories of all those little legs, teeth and stingers faded enough that I felt up to exploring again.
I glanced at the terminal screen. “You useless piece of shit” I growled, and brought my fist down hard on the keyboard. I almost headed out into the corridor, but something caught my eye. The terminal had something new on it. For the second time I rubbed my eyes.
There were more but I didn’t bother reading them all. My heart jumped into my throat. Terrified of pressing the wrong key, closing this menu and then never figuring out how to access it again I stood there for several minutes to calm down before reaching, so very deliberately, for the arrow keys. I pressed down once, and hit enter.
The characters all updated one window at a time. When they were done I could at last make sense of the flashing warning and the endless repeating wall of text that went on for hundreds, possibly thousands of pages. I knelt, squinted and began to read.
The flashing bar read:
Alert: Emergency beacon inoperable. Partial failure of automated repair systems, hibernation chamber maintenance only.
The sidebar read:
Alert: Unscheduled atmospheric re-entry. Ejecting escape pods one through eighty six.
Alert: Partial failure of escape pod retro-rockets. Initiating hard landing protocols.
Alert: Severe damage to hull has been sustained. Hibernation chambers one, two, four, five, six, seven and eight are inoperable. Resuscitation protocols engaged.
Alert: Occupants of chambers one, two, four, five, six, seven and eight have expired. Occupant of chamber three successfully resuscitated.
Finally, I studied the repeating messages in the main window. The same thing, over and over, for page after page. Even now, only the numbers at the end varied from one to the next.
Alert: Occupant of chamber 3 has exited the vehicle.
Alert: Occupant of chamber 3 life signs erratic.
Alert: Occupant of chamber 3 life signs terminated.
Downloading connectome from neuroimplant.
Initiate molecular printing.
Printing completed. Uploading connectome.
Connectome upload complete.
Resuscitating occupant of chamber 3.
Alert: Remaining antimatter at 94%. Time to depletion: 8,591 years, 10 months, 25 days, 6 hours, 53 minutes and 8 seconds. Have a nice day.