The first thing Marsh felt when she awoke was an itch on her right leg. Instinctively, she tried to reach down and scratch it, only then discovering that she was completely paralyzed. Her chest continued to rise and fall at an even rate as the machine pumped air through her lungs, but try as she might, she couldn't even crook her littlest finger on her own. Marsh began to panic. Where was she? What had happened to her?
The maddening itch had spread down her leg until her toes tingled with it. All of a sudden, there was pain – pain so intense and overwhelming that she forgot all about the itch, and about everything else. It felt like her entire body was being torn to pieces. Then the feeling was gone, as quickly as it had arrived, and Marsh could move again. Heart pounding, she sucked down a deep, desperate breath, and opened her eyes.
There was a blue glow coming from the other side of a thick glass door, but it was so fogged up that Marsh could see nothing else. Something spurred her to reach out and draw a smiley face in the fog with the tip of her finger. When it was done, she leaned back and admired her handiwork until it disappeared. She vaguely remembered doing the same thing many times before. Had it been the same door? She didn't know.
She shivered. It was cold in here, and she wasn't wearing any clothes. The steel lines of the breathing machine clamped around her torso felt like ice against her skin. Time to get out of here. The thought provoked her into action. She began to flail around, causing the restraints to auto-release with a faint hiss of pressure. One of her fists hit the door; it opened as well, just as she began to totter forward on legs that hadn't been used in far too long. Marsh went sprawling through the opening, to land flat on her face on a familiar tile floor.
"Awakening procedure complete," chimed a mechanical voice from somewhere above her. "Initiating notification and preparation stages. Welcome back, Alicia Marshall."
Marsh sat up, rubbing her temples as if that would make her head clear faster. Her memories were returning bit by bit. She remembered entering the cryopod, now, remembered feeling a twinge of anxiety as the door closed.
"How many times have I woken up?" she asked.
"Error," said the computer. "Semantic type 1. Please rephrase the command."
Marsh sighed. No one had bothered to update the AI on this part of the ship, it seemed. "Query: list awakening procedures, subject self." The words came out easily – too easily, she thought, considering remembering her own middle name was a struggle at the moment. It was funny, how the brain worked sometimes.
"This is your fifth time exiting the cryogenic chamber," the computer answered. "You are next due to enter-" It paused, calculating. "March 16, SY 224, 2:36 PM. Would you like to view your recording?"
Marsh knew that she could probably figure things out on her own, given a few minutes to recover. They called it "the haze" – the short period of memory loss and disorientation that always followed an awakening. The haze never lasted long. Still, it might be comforting to see the recording.
"Sure, roll it."
"Error-" the computer began.
Marsh groaned, cutting it off. "Run program."
There was a soft hum as the computer booted up. After a couple seconds, a Marsh clone appeared to walk out of the opposite wall. It was a hologram, of course, but the closeness of it made the original jump before she settled herself. This Marsh looked only slightly better put together than the one currently shivering on the floor. She was wearing a t-shirt and short, fraying cutoffs that looked as though they hadn't been washed in a while. She looked exhausted; her eyes were sunken and dark, and her frizzy, crimson hair was sticking out in all directions. As Marsh watched, intrigued, her double flashed her a wide smile and stuck both hands in her stained pockets.
"Hey, future me," said the hologram. "I hope awakening wasn't too bad this time. Anyway, you're on the colony ship Antares, bound for a planet near the star Antares, because scientists are rubbish with names. There are going to be four others awakening with you, but I don't know who they are. If you get Lawrence again, tell him he's a jerk. Computer told me you'll be twenty-third in the awakening rotation this time, so you'll – I mean I'll be sleeping for a while. God, this is weird. What do I say?" The hologram Marsh glanced to the side, then back. "Oh yeah. I left clothes in the third closet from the right in here, and they're clean, so don't worry, you won't have to sneak naked back to your room. I was staying in room 4 this year, but if you get there before the others, you can take your pick. Not that it matters, they all smell the same."
"Please complete your recording and enter the chamber, Alicia Marshall," said the tinny recorded computer voice. It had sounded exactly the same then, too.
"Yeah, yeah, sorry." Hologram Marsh rolled her eyes theatrically. "Oh! I almost forgot! Don't look in Storage 49C. I know you – I – will anyway, but this way I can't say I didn't warn myself." She coughed twice. "I knew that end-of-year party was a bad idea. Anyway, toodles! Hope you get good skip year buddies. Goodnight." She took a few steps to the left and disappeared, leaving the real Marsh feeling somewhat overwhelmed. She wondered if she normally had this effect on other people.
"Would you like to replay?"
She almost shook her head before realizing that of course the computer couldn't see her. "No thanks. Delete recording."
Marsh stumbled over to the indicated closet, which was labeled with her name, and rummaged around in it until she could pull out a medium-sized, blue jumpsuit, decorated with a number of randomly placed silver stars. There was also a single sock, all the way at the back of the closet and turned inside out. It had a pink dinosaur on it, but she put it on anyway, grumbling at herself under her breath. Not funny, Marsh. My feet are freezing.
She found room number four easily because the hallway outside the awakening room led straight to it. There really wasn't much living space on the ship – most of it was taken up with storage, and cryopods. This wing was composed of five passenger quarters, an experiment station, a kitchen, a lounge, and a communal bathroom. Since she seemed to be the first one out of her pod, Marsh took the time to wander into all of the available rooms, savoring the bizarre déjà vu that came with each newly opened door.
The five passengers who had been here last had cleaned up after themselves, she noticed. The kitchen was especially spotless, although there wasn't any food left. Her stomach rumbled at the reminder. She would have to go get some from storage soon. Marsh made a mental note to make something for those who would follow her when it was her turn to go back to sleep. A casserole, perhaps. Those were easy.
In room number two, Marsh found a pair of sweatpants and a green women's shirt that somebody had left behind. Green looked horrendous with her red hair, but it was still better than the jumpsuit. After that, there wasn't much to do except sit back and wait for the others to arrive.
She wondered what they would be like, and then marveled at the uselessness of that thought. Regardless of their personalities, she would be forced to spend the next three hundred and sixty-five days with these people. It didn't matter whether they were easy to get along with, or if they liked her in return. After twelve months, she was sure that she would have learned more about them than she would ever want to know.
One of them will probably like musicals, she thought grimly. Or Battleship. She had hated that game since childhood, mostly because her sister always won when they played together. Marsh didn't like losing, especially when the other person refused to do the decent thing and brag about winning. Larisa would always insist that Marsh had "almost won this time" and then beg her to play another game. And another. And another after that. It was insufferable.
Why was she thinking about her sister all of a sudden? Marsh had, luckily, never been the sentimental type, but this awakening had put her into the silliest of moods. She blamed her past self for partying too much before going into the chamber, even though it was impossible that anything had stayed in her system after twenty-three years in cryo. She put those thoughts out of her head. Now was the time to focus on the present, not the past. That past was over two hundred years behind her, anyway. Two hundred and twenty-three, to be exact. She began to wonder what the Earth was like now – no!
It was going to be a very long year. But then, all of them were, and would be until the ship had reached its destination and they were all awakened for the final time. That time felt so very far away to her, although in reality only three more cycles were set to pass until then. She would be twenty-five when they arrived. Twenty-five, and ready to start a brand new life. Marsh laid down on the bed, testing it beneath her weight. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it wasn't horrible either.
There was a knock on the open door, and she looked up. A young man with sandy hair and blue eyes was leaning against the doorframe. He looked down at her with a hopeful smile and gave her a nod.
"Have you claimed number two, then? That's cool. I had it last time." He held out his hand for her to shake. "I'm Luke. What's your name?"
"Marsh. It's short for Marshall. That's my last name, I mean, not my first name," she replied, thinking that she must sound like a complete idiot. Damn, but he was cute. Dressed even more bizarrely than she had been - wearing an old-fashioned suit jacket, of all things, with no shirt and a pair of overlarge boxer shorts. Marsh had to look at the ceiling to keep from blushing, wishing for the millionth time that she didn't do it so easily. It was hard to keep up this cool, disinterested façade when your face was turning traitor. Say something witty, Marsh, she told herself. Make a good first impression.
"Do you like Battleship?" Damn. Too late.
He looked confused. "Not particularly?"
"Me neither!" Marsh bounced to her feet and shook his hand vigorously. "I never could find the patrol boat."
"Yeah, it was a tricky bastard, wasn't it," he replied with a weak laugh, clearly not sure what to make of her. "You never put the aircraft carrier on the edge of the board, did you?"
"Of course not. That's what everyone expected you to do. I always put it right in the middle." She tapped her chin pensively with one finger. "Hmm, maybe that's why I always lost."
"Maybe." Luke raised one eyebrow. "Do they even have Battleship on here?"
"I'm pretty sure they have every board game ever made. At least, that's what it looked like last time I went down to Storage. Except Twister, for some reason. Someone must have forgotten about it." Why was she talking about board games, again?
"This ship would be doomed if they hadn't. Someone kicks you in the face trying to reach a green dot, and the next thing you know we're all embroiled in a bloody civil war."
Marsh stared at him for a second, and then burst out laughing. Maybe this year wouldn't be so terrible after all, now that Lawrence was in cryo, and there were quick-witted lads like this Luke to take his place. She reminded herself not to get too excited. He could still turn out to be a serial killer. Or a terrible dancer. The two weren't far separated, in her opinion.
"Want to go down to Storage and look for it?" she asked. He opened his mouth to reply, then stopped and looked down at himself.
"Maybe in a few minutes," he said, shaking his head in pretended disgust, biting his lip to keep from laughing. "I look like a professional flasher. I should probably find some real clothes before the others get here."
Marsh felt a tiny pang of disappointment, but no trace of it reached her expression. "There are some over in number five that might fit," she informed him pleasantly. He thanked her and disappeared down the hallway in a flash of coattails.
Marsh snickered and laid back down on the bed, humming a song to herself. There were worse ways to start off a year.