The alarm had been going off for some time. Eventually, from underneath the covers, a slender arm reached out and began groping around in the general direction of its' incessant ringing. It was pitch dark, so the arms' owner was relying soley on memory for the alarm clock's location; memory which was still clouded by sleep.
Gotcha! Now, Shut Up! Turning off the alarm with a frustrated moan, Melanie sat up, eyes glued am I doing? Only an idiot gets up at three-fifteen in the morning. She reached over to her night stand and switched on the lamp. Her mousey-brown hair standing up at all angles in a hopeless tangle, she got out of bed, rose unsteadily to her feet, hitched up her flannel pj's, and began the task of navigating her way to the bathroom. Once there, she found the mirror's light switch, and stood blinking one eye open at a time as her image flickered into too-sharp relief. Experimentally, she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.
Despite the wild hair, pale complexion, and puffy, bloodshot eyes with yellow clots of sleep at the corners, she was fairly pretty. Of course, she didn't think so, standing before the bathroom mirror, rubbing her eyes, and loading up her toothbrush with far too much paste; a habit that had persisted since childhood. Still, this was her little morning ritual. She just couldn't face the day with a grungy-feeling case of mung-mouth.
Pulling off her p.j.'s without bothering to unbutton them, she stepped into the shower, placed one foot into the tub, then-!
For a heart-stopping moment, she slipped, grabbing wildly at anything to keep herself from falling. She caught the shower-curtain with one hand, half spun around as she lost her balance, caught most of the blow on her hip, and found herself leaning over the edge of the tub at an awkward and precarious angle.
Righting herself with some difficulty, it occurred to her that this was not a good way to start out. Not today. But on further reflection, decided hopefully that it might just have been a subconscious way to get the old adrenaline going.
As she closed the shower curtain and turned on the water, her stomach growled.
She had been on a fast for two days, leaving her perpetually light-headed and giddy. The pills she had been taking were supposed to make her stomach feel like it was asleep. They worked most of the time. And, without them, she wouldn't have got five minutes of shut-eye.
The water took what seemed like an endless amount of time to warm up. She knew better than to turn on the shower as soon as it started getting warm enough. In another few moments, it would go from lukewarm to scalding, and she could never seem to get the hang of turning it down just enough... the tap seemed to want to vacillate between too hot and icy cold. Finding a comfortable temperature meant fine-tuning of a barely perceptible sort, something that had always mystified her.
Finally! She turned on the shower and bent over double, letting the water sluice off her back, down her neck, and through her hair. Then, taking a small hairbrush which sat within easy reach, cradled in the wire soap-rack for this very purpose, she began brushing and untangling her hair, while upside-down.
Within twenty minutes, she was dried, dressed in a light-blue jump-suit, and ready. A small duffel-bag, packed the night before was all that she was taking of her belongings. The rest would stay. Later in the day, her sister would move into the apartment and take it over.
She didn't think about this, though. It had been hard enough, saying good-bye to her family three days ago. She cried herself to sleep every night afterwards, and every night decided she was going to back out of the Program. But come morning, facing a new day, she managed to push her feelings into the background, to be dealt with at a later time. She was going, and that was all there was to it.
Someone else before her had quit at the last minute... that was how she had gotten this opportunity; an opportunity which might never come her way again.
Things almost never went her way, and she had learned that on those rare occasions, when she even might have a chance at a better life, she at least tried to seize the moment with both hands.
Her final briefing, the one on the actual cryogenic process, was supposed to have been yesterday, but her appointment had been cancelled for some reason. She dismissed this with a mental shrug. If they cancelled it, it couldn't have been very important. Besides, how much could there be to being put in cryogenic freeze for an extended period of time? You would just go to sleep, and wake up one day in a better place.
Now, she was leaving unannounced and alone, wanting no last-minute good-byes. She wasn't going through that again. Not now, when she needed her wits about her.
She hesitated when leaving the keys on the dining-room table. The idea of leaving some kind of note had been eating at her for the last three days... there were still so many things she wanted to say to her family...
She took a last look around... at the pictures of all her friends and relatives sitting on the mantlepiece... trying to fix their familiar faces into memory. There was a sense of decay, of erosion, to the chronology of their lives. There she was at eleven months, being held up by her mother who looked so young, happy, and vibrant... There she was at six, sitting on her fathers' knee, beside her mother...
Already you could see it in their eyes; that look of emptiness, of hopelessness... There she was at thirteen, in a family portrait... Her parents' eyes looked empty now, as though the world they lived in no longer held any interest for them... And there she was last year, holding up a black and white kitten with the same sort of happy optimism her mother once possessed...
An empty cat-dish on the floor by the refrigerator caught her eye. For some reason, that more than anything else hit her like a blow, the sight of it almost forcing a broken sob from her. With an effort that was almost physical, she dropped the keys and propelled herself towards the door, pulled it open, set the lock, stepped outside, and closed it.
For a moment, she couldn't help but pause, staring dumbly at the door, locked out of her own apartment, and her old life, for good. Then, almost running from a premonition of tears, she fled.
Ignoring the friendly and familiar face of the doorman at the entrance of the building, she headed straight outside and across the street without looking back, and hailed a cab.
"Where to, miss?"
The base didn't look like much, especially at this time of the morning, with the first pale light of dawn in the east. Behind a twenty-foot-high chain-link fence topped with razor-wire, the low buildings had the boring and lifeless look of a factory.
The cab left her at the gate where a large crowd was gathered, and she started walking towards them. Automatically, she began seeking out people wearing the same colour jump-suit as her own.
Inside the gate, a number of MP's stood watching the gathering crowd. Periodically, over a public address system, a message was delivered to them. Melanie listened the first few times, then tuned it out when she realised that it must have been a recording, played every two minutes or so.
Attention. Attention. Program members will join their assigned groups, which are identified by colour, and by insignia. Once the gates are opened, you will follow the yellow stripe to hanger number six. Once inside the hanger, you will notice coloured flags bearing your insignia hanging from the ceiling. You will proceed to a position directly beneath your colour-coded flag. There you will find a circle painted on the deck. You will stand within this circle until your group is to be taken by bus to a waiting shuttle.
Once again, you are reminded that conversation is strictly prohibited. Anyone caught talking will be immediately removed from the base, and will be permanently disqualified from the Program.
Two types of gestures are permissible, but only if the need arises. You may tap the shoulder of someone to draw their attention to a critical piece of information, or direction, and you may point to that same information or direction. Abuse of this privilege will be treated as an attempt at conversation.
Please use the remaining time to mentally prepare yourselves.
The sun came out over the horizon while they waited for the gate to open. Melanie found herself wishing she could sit or lay down. Her eyes were smarting from the bright sun, giving her a dull headache, and days of fasting made her feel tired, weak, and shaky.
Just when the wait was becoming interminable, a loud buzzer started going off in short bursts, making her jump, and momentarily shocking her system, giving her a bad case of jitters. Then, the gates were opened, and they began walking towards the hanger.
After standing in the too-bright sunshine, the hanger seemed to be in almost total darkness, and Melanie had to look for her insignia, not being able to distinguish between the different colours at first. As she approached the circle she was to stand in, she couldn't help but notice that the others already there, mostly young people like herself between the ages of sixteen to twenty-five, were looking down at the floor, or around at the room. With one exception.
A young man was looking straight at her. This one fact made him stand out in such a way that it was moments before she realised what she was doing. Flustered, embarrassed, she ducked her head, moving to a point around the crowd where she couldn't see him. Curiosity made her look in his direction again, but she couldn't see past the people in front of her.
The loudspeakers crackled. And then, a voice, clearly not a recording said:
Program members, attention please. To the rear of the building, you will notice several people wearing a neutral uniform. These people are on the standby-list. Anyone wishing to leave the Program must do so now. You are warned, that if you do decide to leave at this point, you will be permanently disqualified from any further participation.
Once again, I must remind you that this is the last chance to change your minds. Once we begin loading the shuttles, you will be taken, by force if necessary.
We have a very narrow launch window, and a great deal of money, time, and effort has been expended to make this Program possible. If you find that you are not up to the demands being placed on you, or if you harbour doubts that may jeopardize either your safety and well-being, or that of your companions, I suggest that you decide, within the next ten minutes, either to stay or go.
If you decide to go, proceed to the rear of the building, where your replacement will be selected.
The time is 6:25 AM. There is a clock on the north wall. You now have ten minutes.
At first, it didn't occur to Melanie to back out. Her mind was full of the images of pollution, overpopulation, hopelessness, and all the other problems she had come to hate. And as the seconds and minutes ticked by, she began to think that each and every one of the five-thousand present were resolute.
But as the seven-minute mark ticked by, first one, then two more, then several more people began making their way to the rear of the building. It struck Melanie as odd that most of them seemed relieved... that the rest of them were not at all confident about making this journey. She began to think of her family... of her cat, Patches. As the moment approached when she knew she would never see them again, she realised that this was a mistake. She began to take a step forward...
Ten minutes. All replacements have now been assigned. Prepare to board shuttles.
For a moment, she stood poised to move, stunned. Her chance to change her mind had come and gone.
A number of personnel driving open buses began taking people to the shuttles, each of these accepting only passengers wearing a designated colour.
She covered her ears reflexively as a shuttle took off like a prolonged peal of heart-stopping thunder.
Oh my God, what am I doing? Like a trapped animal, she took a look around, soon realised there was no place to run. She was trapped.
It was perhaps twenty minutes more before she was taken. When the bus arrived, she jumped on, holding her bag across her knees, along with twenty-four others. With mounting panic, she realized that she was not up to this, and she began to fear that she would lose control completely, and come apart. She became convinced that she was going to her death.
Unknown to her, as far as the people on the ground were concerned, all those who were in the Project were already dead.
The shuttles were waiting on the runway, in position for immediate departure. As soon as the bus stopped at the one foremost, Melanie handed the groundcrewman her bag, and was moving for the stairs, not looking back, and trying not to think. She was blinded momentarily by the whiteness of the shuttle in the morning sun, and when she climbed through the hatch, had to pause as her eyes adjusted to comparative darkness.
Moving down the narrow aisle towards her seat, the other four-hundred-ninety-nine Project-members either deliberately ignored her, as well as each other, or were asleep. Finding her spot, she practically had to climb over a man who was dozing in the aisle seat. She sat down and decided to try to sleep herself.
Within ten minutes, the flight crew were on board. The lights were turned down, and the door sealed, making the interior of the shuttle feel instantly stuffy and close. There was a thump as the fuel line was separated. An electronic chime sounded. The speak- ers crackled, and a paper-dry, disembodied voice said, "Safety harnesses on. Launch in thirty seconds."
Someone began sobbing quietly as they strapped themselves in. Melanie felt an inexplicable twinge of anger, but suddenly had to put a hand over her own mouth, trying to stop a flood of emotion from welling out.
"Ten... nine... "
Oh God, mom... I'm so sorry...
She tried biting her lip in an unsuccessful attempt to still a sob. I have to go! I have to! I have-
"Four... three... "
Instinctively, she clutched the armrests, trying to hang on to herself.
Six hours later, she was disturbed from a deep sleep, and from a dream she could only leave with the greatest reluctance. She was safe at home in bed. With Patches, her black and white cat, asleep across the backs of her knees... in his safe, comfortable spot. It was early morning, and she could smell coffee...
"... and we'll be docking in about fifteen minutes." A gentle nudge had made her open her eyes. They were almost there! The sight of the immense space-dock was enough to momentarily drive her emotional baggage into the background. Cradled inside was the starship UNS-0001A. The very first of its' kind. They were miles away yet, approaching at what seemed like a snail's pace; yet the ship seemed enormous... and it was. Three thousand meters in length, and shaped roughly like an oversized horseshoe crab, it dominated the heavens, as though possessing purpose, when none existed anywhere else in open space.
The ship consisted of two sections. There was the outer shell, which in space existed solely in zero `g'. Cupped underneath this was a rotating disc, at the edge of which one experienced one `g' of artificial gravity.
The ship was designed to carry people and supplies on a seventy-eight-year voyage to the planet of a nearby star. The planet had been discovered by a probe ten years ago, and was reported to be earth-like. It wasn't known if there was any life on the planet... in fact, most doubted the possibility. But the atmosphere and the climate were perfect.
The ship, UNS-0001A, was part of a U.N project, costing nearly two trillion dollars per year. Several other ships were under construction, hanging in space in various stages of completion, and would leave one at a time every six months. The first series, which were much smaller than the later ones planned, would each carry five-thousand people upon departure, and would land on the new planet depleted of everything except supplies and their human cargo, having run solely on autopilot for the entire journey. Later ships, the `B' series, were expected to carry a quarter-million souls each. But that was still six years away.
The Earth had simply run out of room, out of resources, and out of hope.
"Prepare for docking procedures, and to disembark."
Ten minutes later, they docked with hardly a bump. There was a short wait as the shuttle's internal air-pressure matched that beyond the hatch. Then, the door was open.
"All passengers, follow the yellow line to the cryogenics section of the ship."
Unbuckling her safety-harness, she drifted out of her seat and followed the other passengers out of the shuttle. Once outside, she tried asking for her bag, but the officer floating by the shuttle door just shook his head, waved her on without looking at her. Feeling somewhat unwanted and empty, she began following the others.
Her movements were unsteady now. The part she had dreaded was coming, and she was scared witless. But whether she panicked or not, it was too late to back out.
It was unsettling and strange, watching all these people in zero gravity pulling themselves along the handholds, following a yellow line on a journey that for one out of twenty, would end in the cryogenics chamber.
That was the odds of not being revived at the journey's end. One in twenty wouldn't survive being frozen. She might very well be looking at the last few minutes of her life.
She had gone perhaps a hundred feet or so when she noticed that the people ahead of her along the curving corridor were taking a detour.
For some reason, as Melanie moved along the corridor, she and everyone else had automatically oriented themselves to think of the inward part of the curve as down, and the outward part as up, when in reality they were concentric to the interior and exterior of the ship. But to her eyes, everyone was now going through an entryway which led down. She almost panicked, as she had the distinct sensation that she was going head-first down a well. They came to an open air lock, and then another long corridor leading straight towards the center of the ship.
Finally reaching the center, there was another airlock, and a corridor which led to the right. They were now inside the hub on which the disc on the bottom of the ship rotated. Malanie could hear a low rumble now, and when she had traveled perhaps fifteen feet, noticed a sign which read Caution- Moving Surface, followed by two rings of alternating black and white painted stripes, which appeared to be rotating in opposite directions, followed by the same warning upside down.
Despite her perception, only the part of the hub she was entering was turning, and with it, the huge disc on the bottom of the ship.
At the end of this corridor were two airlocks, both open. Passing through one of these, she found another corridor lined with ladder-rungs which appeared to run sideways. A sign, seemingly placed on edge at the beginning of the rungs read Caution- proceed down ladder feet first. Mystified, she followed the instructions as the others before her were doing, and soon realised the reason for the sign. As she proceeded, gravity began dragging her feet in the direction she was traveling, and it increased as she descended. She soon had to use her feet to support her own weight.
The ladder-tube was intersected at ten foot intervals by a platform, with an air-lock and corridor leading to each level of the rotating disc. This first was full, and she was waved on.
By the time she reached the next level, her arms and legs were quivering, and she felt slightly nauseous from motion-sickness. Again, she was waved on.
At the third level, she was waved in through the air-lock, and into a long chamber, lined with cots which had plexiglass covers that were standing open. There were medical personnel everywhere here, and three of them, wearing white caps and gowns, their faces covered by surgeon's masks, were waiting for her.
She was pale with fear now, cold, sweaty, and shaking as they led her to the cryogenic cot in which she would spend the next seventy-eight years. One of the medics made a gesture at her. With a shock, she realised they expected her to undress right in front of them. Looking around, she saw that everyone else was doing just that. Mortified, trying not to cry, she disrobed quickly, and stood trying to cover herself.
"Sorry, honey," came a soft woman's voice belonging to one of the medics looking after her. "Turn around and bend over the cot." She did so, and gasped as something was pushed up her rectum. And as she felt her bowels tighten, realised with a shock that they were giving her an enema. She felt the tube withdrawn, and the woman took her arm, made her straighten up and turn around. Through a blur of tears, she watched as a commode was wheeled up to her. She was turned around again and directed to sit on it. Thoroughly humiliated and frightened beyond words now, she couldn't go at first. Impatiently, the woman made her stand up again, and taking a rubber syringe, pushed the end of it up into her rectum, squirted something inside her. Immediately, she felt an irresistible urge to go, and did, hands over her face, sobbing quietly with shame. When she was done, the woman made her stand up and wiped her with a warm, wet cloth.
"Did you urinate?"
Melanie could only nod.
They made her sit again. She heard the buzz of an electric razor before realizing what the sound was. She stared at the man holding it uncomprehendingly.
"Didn't anyone brief you on procedure?" he asked her, clearly irritated.
She shook her head. Trying to control her voice, she said, "They cancelled my last appointment... nobody told me anything."
He and the female medic exchanged a glare. Kneeling down, speaking softly so as not to be overheard, he said, "Look, you've got no choice now but to go through with this. You've got to trust us. We've got to shave you, and get you ready. If you feel like you're going to panic, talk to us, and we'll do our best to help you through this. Okay?"
The compassion in their voices and in their eyes got through to her. She nodded. In a few moments, the hair on her head was gone, sucked away by vacuum tube as it was cut. Something was rubbed onto her scalp, and she felt the remaining stubble on her head being shaved away. When the male medic was done with her, the woman, holding a fresh razor, then made Melanie stand up while she knelt down.
Melanie gaped in surprise and humiliation.
"What are you doing?"
"Shaving the rest of you. Stand with your legs a little more apart, please."
As soon as this was done, two of them began rubbing her all over with warm, wet towels, smelling slightly of disinfectant. Then, they quickly rubbed her all over with some sort of gel.
When they tried to move her onto the cot, she balked momentarily.
"Please! I'm think I'm going to be sick." To her own ears, her voice sounded plaintive, panicked. Someone handed her a bag of some sort, and she placed it over her face and heaved dryly, producing nothing more than a little yellow bile. Then, it was taken from her, and she let them help her onto the cot. Immediately, she was firmly strapped down so that she couldn't move her arms and legs. A surgical cap was put on her, and her head strapped down. Taking positions on either side of her, the male medics began swabbing the sides of her neck, and both her arms with some sort of liquid that stained her skin yellow, then held up two pairs of long white plastic tubes with orange caps on their ends. Able to move only her eyes, she watched in horror as they popped each cap off, exposing a long, thick needle.
Terrified and uncomprehending, unable to help herself, she started sobbing again. The woman medic leaned over Melanie and began stroking her face.
"Shush. You'll be okay. I'm going to give you something to make you sleep now, okay?"
She felt a spot on her right shoulder being swabbed with alcohol, followed by a slight prick, and knew that it wasn't one of the big needles connected to the tubes. In a moment, unknown to her, they would drain all the blood out of her body, and replace it with a sort of antifreeze...
"That's a good girl. Just try counting backwards from ten. I'll count with you. Ten... "
No! Raw fear overriding everything else, she began to struggle wildly to escape. But the drug soon left her paralyzed, unable to move. Now, though she wanted to scream, though she desperately needed some kind of release, she found she couldn't. And then...
She wondered vaguely how long it was going to take to fully go under. She was feeling really awful... the room was spinning. If she had possessed the energy, she would have liked to throw up. Laying in a cold sweat, unable to move, or open her eyes, she felt herself being lifted gently by three sets of hands, out of the cot and on to... ?
She was laid on a cold surface, probably a gurney, which began moving. With a start, she realised that something was wrong. Where were they taking her? Maybe there was something wrong with the cryogenics in her cot, and they were moving her to another?
The ambiance around her changed, and she realised she was being moved into a smaller room. Her mounting concern caused her to try to force her eyes open.
"I think she's starting to come out of it."
It was a woman's voice, but not the one she recognised. A hand was gently placed against her cheek.
"Melanie? Can you hear me?"
She felt someone take her hand.
"Give my fingers a squeeze if you can hear me."
At first she thought her fingers weren't responding, but she heard people around her making relieved sounds. She felt herself being turned over onto her stomach.
"Melanie? We're going to give you a little rub-down to get your circulation going. Chris, give me a hand with this."
She felt herself rolled onto her side, a thick blanket slid under her, then she was laid down on her tummy. A wonderful warmth was radiating from the blanket, and she wanted badly to merge with it, and go to sleep. But rough hands soon thwarted her, massaging her back and arms and legs none too gently, she thought.
"Don't try nodding off just yet. We have to make sure you're okay first. You almost didn't make it out of the cryochamber."
What? This time, she did manage to force her eyes open a little. A face leaned close to hers.
"What's that, honey?"
Trying again, her voice barely a whisper, she forced the words, "What happened?"
"What happened? Well, we're here, for one thing. We landed over a week ago. Chris and David and I have been thawing bodies ever since. We almost lost you, ya little troublemaker. Trying to make us look bad? You had a bad reaction to the antifreeze."
Antifreeze? What's she talking about? "Where's here?"
She repeated the question.
"Oh. Remember the ship we all got on, to go to a new planet, and get a fresh start? Well, we're here."
Melanie tried to get a better look at her surroundings. A gown was put on her, as well as a warm bathrobe. Then, she was lifted into a sitting position, making her head spin. The woman was wearing a green surgical gown, mask, and cap. She removed the mask and cap, exposing her short, blonde stubble, and mischievous face.
"Whoah, don't fall over! We're going to take a little walk, okay? Gotta get the old plumbing going. Chris?" She began putting a warm pair of slippers on Melanie's feet.
Chris, who had likewise removed his mask, went to Melanie's other side and took her arm, as did the woman. It was then that she noticed that her arms and neck were very sore... looking down, she saw that the insides of her arms were stained yellow, and bore dark bruises...
Though supported on either side, she could barely make her legs work. They kept her up and moving for what seemed like an hour, though it was probably only a few minutes.
"That's okay. You're doing fine for a woman of ninety-seven."
What's she talking about? I'm sixteen...
Then, it hit home, and with mounting shock, realised she wasn't on Earth any more. She remembered panic... being forced into cryogenic death, when all she wanted was to be taken home. Seventy-eight years had gone by, and they were gone. All of them. Her mother, and father, and brothers, and sister... and Patches...
"Okay, I think she's had enough for now. Let's put her to bed. Melanie, honey, how come you're crying? Here, Chris, can you pick her up?"
Chris was a fairly big man, and picked her up lightly, took her back to where she had been laying on the heated blanket. The woman left for a moment, returning with something. With a smile, she tucked Melanie in, and handed her a stuffed toy; a pink rabbit.
"This is Oscar. He's on loan as our resident security blanket." When Melanie didn't take it, she placed it beside the girl's pillow.
Sniffling, wiping at her tears, Melanie said, "What's your name?"
The woman laughed, a sound that was medicine to Melanie's sore heart. "I'm Susan. Sorry, I thought I told you." She turned to leave.
"Don't go!" The words felt torn from a place deep inside her.
"I can't stay long," said Susan. "I've still got lot's of work to do. But I'll stay and talk a minute." She sat down on the edge of Melanie's bed and began stroking the girl's face tenderly. "I guess you were pretty scared, huh? Here, take ol' Oscar and try to get some shut-eye. Things'll look better in the morning."
In a few minutes, lulled by warmth, and Susan's voice, Melanie was asleep. Susan got up carefully, so as not to disturb her, dimmed the lights, and as she left, had to smile sadly at the fact that Melanie had Oscar in her fervent embrace.
Melanie had no idea that life could be so senselessly empty or cruel. Not really. True, she had sensed its' hopelessness, and knew that it would wear her down eventually, given enough time. And because she was young, and still full of life, she didn't want to suffer her parents' fate, becoming eroded... truncated...
But something unexpected had happened, to scar forever her youthful optimism. One could say she lost her naivety, but that would be only part of the truth.
What she had experienced was far more profound for her than a simple brush with death; having her nose rubbed in her own mortality. What she had experienced was far worse. Being little more than a child in some ways, she had always believed what her parents told her about there being more to life... that this wasn't all there was... that her existence wasn't a mere eyeblink in eternity.
But her experience with cryogenic death had changed all that. There had been no dreamlike rising towards a bright light, or an out-of-body experience, or a dreaming, or even a vague awareness. There had been nothing. Seventy-eight years had passed in an eyeblink. To her mind, she had just left home earlier today. Not only did everything feel unreal, but she felt strange, disoriented, and out-of-place.
It was like switching off a light-bulb. That was what disturbed her the most...
Then there were the dreams. They were wild, technicolour, bizarre, more real than real. Melanie had never been in the water in her life, but in one dream, she was swimming, `way out in the deep, blue ocean. The water was warm, and buoyed her up with confidence. An ocean liner came passing by, and she swam towards it, grabbing the rungs on its' side which just happened to conveniently be there, and climbed aboard. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realised that she was as naked and carefree as the day she was born, and it mattered to her not at all, and nobody seemed to notice.
Without transition, she was walking through some kind of exotic, tropical outdoor market. Everywhere there were tall palm trees, and bright green grass, and bright, colourful stands, with robust, healthy-looking people selling technicolour clothing, exotic birds, and bright metal and glass objects of various descriptions.
She would wake to her plain room and monotone surroundings. The planet outside was no better. The climate was tropical, and the surrounding area, indeed, the entire planet, was a vast desert. They were on the edge of a freshwater ocean, with wide white beaches. The surrounding land was tan-coloured sand-dunes, between low hills of pink granite that had been worn smooth. Besides the ship full of people, there was no life here.
"How's your patient?" Chris sat down with his tray across from Susan, and started trying to peel the cover off his orange-juice container. With a smirk, she leaned over and stabbed a hole through the top with a plastic knife. Raising an eyebrow at this, he said, "Umm. Thanks, I guess."
Folding her portable computer closed, she sighed, serious for a change. "Melanie's having a pretty tough time. For one thing, she didn't snap out of it soon enough. While the rest of us were up and busy, getting into the swing of things, she's been pretty sick and disoriented. Dr. Ross tells me that people who go through serious surgery can sometimes wake up feeling the way she does, like they've been dropped onto a strange planet, where everything feels slightly off."
Chris slurped his orange-juice through the hole he had widened with his thumb, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yeah, well he got the strange planet part right. But does he have any suggestions? I mean, she won't leave her room unless she's forced to. I understand she freaked before they put her under. I was thinking trauma, from that and losing her family, plus being really sick and disoriented. But there's something else. She keeps talking about how losing time did something to her. I mean, we all went through the same experience, but no-one else saw losing time as that big a deal."
"Oh, no?" Susan leaned forward and spoke in a lower voice. "You talk to anybody who's religious at all?"
He shook his head.
"Well, a few of them have had similar problems, though not as bad. What bugs them is the fact that we were all dead for seventy-eight years. The fact that we were revived is irrelevant. If we hadn't been revived, we'd have just gone on being dead, for all eternity. During the time we were dead, where the hell were our spirits? Our souls? Melanie told me the thing that bothers her most is the fact that it was like switching off a light-bulb. One moment you're alive; the next, nothing. Forever and ever. For somebody with religion, or a spiritual belief, that's a pretty scary proposition. It turns their whole world upside down."
Chris frowned. "Melanie's chart said no religion."
Susan dismissed this with a shrug. "That doesn't mean anything. Look, she's just a kid, with a sort of built-in belief that the world is like her parents... that it'll sort of look after her somehow. I think most of us unconsciously expect the world to be plugged into everything we do. I've even heard you say things like, `This is it! This is the big one. I can just feel it.'"
Chris shook his head and smiled. "That's just gambler's superstition."
Susan was genuinely surprised at his reaction. "You really think there's a difference?"
Chris thought a moment. "Ummm... Okay, I see your point."
"The thing that bothers me," said Susan, "is that when a person loses that... that trust, for lack of a better word... I just don't have a clue as to how to help them get it back again. And I think that losing that trust has hurt her badly."
"If you plan on being her surrogate mom," said Chris warningly, "you'll be up to your armpits."
Susan leaned back and sighed. Nodded. "`In for a penny, in for a pound', as they say."
All Melanie wanted to do was sleep... lose herself to the only experiences that seemed worth having... her dreams. But another nudge brought her fully awake.
"Hey! Sleepyhead! Time to get up and get dressed."
Still clutching Oscar, she opened her eyes, saw Susan standing over her.
As soon as Melanie's eyes were open, Susan whipped off her covers, got her up, and began helping her to dress.
"Okay kid, get your bag and come with me."
Melanie looked to the door uncertainly. "Where are we going?"
Smiling, Susan took her by the arm and led her out into the corridor. "We're going topside. Think you can walk on your own? You'll be bunking with me for a while."
They soon reached the area where the cots had been. The scene was utter chaos. Where they now walked had been the inside wall, and work crews were busy removing the cots from what used to be the floor, but were now the outside walls. When they reached the place where the ladder had been, Melanie saw that this was now a corridor, with the rungs running vertically along the sides. A good many of these had been removed. Even the hub at the center was changed. The hatches had been taken out, and with relief, she saw that a lift had been installed where the shaft through the hub had been.
Susan took her to the top of the lift, and Melanie had to marvel at the fact that she could see the sky in places through the roof. Work crews were busy here as well, removing much of the outside shell of the ship, replacing it in spots with the plexiglass cot lids, which they somehow flattened out and popped into place.
"Neat, huh?" said Susan, leading her along past the workers. "Nothing gets wasted here. See those chairs over there? That's what's being done with the rest of the cots, except for the bottom part."
"What does happen to the bottom part?" Melanie asked her, genuinely curious now.
"Water main," Susan told her. "They're making a great big pipe out of all those pieces. We've got a whole big ocean of pure, clean, fresh water out there, and pretty soon, it'll be hooked up to the ship."
Susan's quarters were on the west side of the ship, facing the ocean. The whole outside wall of her main living-space consisted of three big windows. Tossing Melanie's bag on a chair with a grin, she went to the center window, unlocked it, and slid it to one side like a french-door. "C'mon. Have a look."
Because of the sloping shape of this part of the ship, they were able to stand with their heads and shoulders outside, and get a wide view around. Melanie had only seen this view from the telescreens below. The reality was much more attractive and inviting.
Hundreds of people were walking leisurely along the beach. At a point running even with the center of the ship, a trench was being dug, and a line of white plastic pipe was being laid.
"That's our water main," said Susan with a nod. The warm, humid breeze made their skin tingle.
Staring out at the open ocean, Melanie asked, "How many didn't make it?"
Susan was cautious answering, noting the girl's sudden distance, her strangely blank and faraway look.
"About as many as we expected. One for every twenty."
Melanie was silent a moment. And then, "What happened to their bodies?"
Taking a deep breath, watching the girl carefully, Susan replied, "They were cremated right away."
Melanie shuddered. "That was almost me."
Leaning her elbows on the ledge beside the girl, Susan said, "Yes, that was almost you, too. Want to talk about it?"
Melanie turned to look at her. "Do you believe in God? Like, I don't really, but I always though there'd be... something. You know?"
Susan nodded. Choosing her words carefully, becoming familiar now with the girl's hurt, betrayed look, she replied, "I guess you feel a bit cheated, coming all this way, leaving your friends and family and," she smiled impishly, getting a wan smile in return, "your cat. What was his name? Pickles?"
"Patches," Melanie corrected with a smile, wondering if Susan was making fun.
"And now," she continued, "you probably feel like the wind's been driven out of your sails because nothing is quite what you'd expected, you don't feel like you thought you would, and the whole world probably feels like it doesn't care whether you live or die. Am I on the right track?"
Again, the girl nodded, hanging on to her every word. But there was something else, prompting Susan to say, "What?"
Her pent up and confused feelings made it difficult for Melanie to answer... to think clearly. But she said, "They did a bunch of stuff to me... I was supposed to go to another briefing, where they tell you about what happens when they freeze you... "
Open-mouthed, realising now what the girl had gone through, Susan almost said something, but changed her mind. Better that she remained ignorant, at least for the time being.
Knowing that words would never be enough in themselves, Susan put out an arm. Startled, and a little hesitant, Melanie realised this was just what she needed right now. Like a small child, she went straight into Susan's embrace and started bawling her eyes out.
"You really need your mom right now, don't you."
Melanie nodded into her shoulder.
"Well, I'll tell you what. I'll be your mom from now on. Is that okay?"
Melanie was shaken by a fresh bout of weeping, and clung tighter to Susan.
Making what she thought were soothing, comforting sounds, Susan stroked the girl tenderly, hoping she would be able to live up to such a promise.
The next day, though cautioned by Susan to take it easy, Melanie went exploring. She was hesitant at first, wishing she had a hat of some sort. But the sight of everyone else's bald head gave her the confidence to go out. Making her way to the lift, she had to wait as a crowd of people were waiting to use it. Once inside, her excitement began to rise as they descended, floor by floor, to the bottom of the ship, and outside.
She was wearing a sleeveless grey T-shirt, black shorts, and hiking-shoes, and the humid, tropical air made her exposed skin tingle. It was shaded and almost too cool underneath the huge ship, which rested on massive legs. Equipment and tools and parts of things were strewn everywhere here, and the people making use of them moved at a pace that seemed both leisurely and purposeful. No one was in any hurry, but worked to get things done, nonetheless.
As Susan had suggested, she began making her way to the beach. She followed the course of the pipe, staying within about thirty feet or so, and watched what the others were doing. She felt a pang of jealousy, mixed with guilt, watching them work. Well, her time would come.
And then, she stepped out into the sun...
Melanie had never seen a sky so clean and pure... so blue. Off in the distance, to the south, were billowing white clouds. Everything seemed etched and clear. And then, a motion caught her eye. And an unmistakeable sound.
Gulls? That's impossible!
A couple of girls her own age, standing nearby, noticed her gaping and laughed. One of them, with dark-brown stubble on her crown, and a dark tan, and wearing a deep blue blouse and khaki shorts, said, "Didn't you know we weren't the only passengers?"
Melanie could only shake her head.
The other, a big, chubby girl with freckles and blonde stubble, who wore a long, green, faded work shirt and white shorts, said, "Hey, aren't you the girl who was in the infirmary all week?"
Mystified, she replied, "How did you know that?"
The girl's smile was friendly, relaxed. "`Cause you were the only one of the sicko's who managed to pull through. You might not know it, but everyone was pulling for you."
Melanie was at a loss for words. Sensing this, the dark girl said, "Hi, my name's Doloris. She's Crystal. You're... it's Melanie, isn't it?"
Surprised, she nodded.
"Well," said Doloris, "we thought we'd go down to the beach. Wanna join us?"
Melanie found herself quickly falling behind. Noticing this, Crystal touched Doloris's arm.
"You okay, Melanie?"
"I'm sorry," she blurted, a little out of breath. "I just get tired easy."
"Not a problem," said Crystal with a smile. She and Doloris exchanged a look, approached Melanie, and offered her an arm each. "We'll take it easy on you for now. But," she said with a wicked grin, "just wait until you're feeling better."
The girls, having been to the beach several times before, took great pleasure in showing off the sights to the `newcomer'. Making their way to the water's edge, they took off their shoes. Tacitly, Melanie followed their example, and they began walking south along the shore, and into the water's edge. Looking at her feet, surprised, Melanie said, "How come the water's so cold?"
Crystal shrugged. "I heard somebody say something about an arctic current, coming down from near the north pole. Besides that, you know as much as we do."
They came presently to an outcropping of the smooth-worn pink granite which cut directly across their path, and out into the sea for a fair distance before disappearing beneath the waves. Several gulls and other sea-birds were milling about here, and Melanie noticed that food had been left scattered about for them.
Though the slope was fairly smooth and easy to manage, rising only thirty feet or so, Melanie was soon out of breath.
"Hey, you okay?"
Untruthfully, Melanie nodded, seeing stars.
When they got to the top, the girls made her sit down.
"When we first got here," said Doloris, "this was our favorite spot. You can see everything."
Off in the distance to the south, Melanie could see high, pink bluffs, jutting into the sea. On the shore below them were people, and what looked like white sheds, glinting in the sun. Catching her breath, she said, "What are those people doing `way over there?"
Crystal chuckled. "Those're some of the `goop' houses." To the question in Melanie's mien, she elaborated. "They're spaced out about ten miles apart. Those people you see there are growing stuff in those sheds, and dumping some of it into the ocean. It's mostly algae and plants. Once it takes hold, they're gonna put fish in the water, but they've got to make sure the fish have something to eat when they get there. And," she turned Melanie around by the shoulders, facing her inland, "you see that dark line? It's a ditch. They're running an irrigation line all the way out there..." she gestured towards a point in the distance that Melanie could barely make out, "where they're gonna start planting wild grass and trees, and letting the animals out to play."
"Yup. When you get your legs back, we'll show you. We're going to have everything from farm animals to wild foxes."
Melanie was entranced. And, her sense of optimism was returning.
"I hear you've given Oscar a good home," said Doloris with a shy smile.
Melanie blushed, feeling like she was smiling foolishly. "How did you know about that?"
Doloris laughed, as did Crystal. "`Cause he was mine. When I saw you in the infirmary, I asked Susan to give him to you. She asked us to keep an eye on you, too."
Laughing, and trying at the same time not to cry, Melanie blurted, "I didn't know... Susan was... "
Then, she did start to cry. Covering her face with her hands, she tried to bury her head against her knees.
Embarrassed for Melanie, taking her hand, Doloris said quietly to Crystal, "Maybe we should take her back." Crystal nodded, rising to her feet and taking Melanie by the arm.
"C'mon. Susan said you weren't supposed to stay out too long. She said you'd probably overdo it."
Melanie allowed them to lead her back along the beach. Towards... the thought suddenly occurred to her... towards home. Getting hold of herself, she said to Doloris, "You want him back?"
Doloris stared at her blankly, a little worried. "Want who back?"
Managing a wan smile, Melanie said, "You know. Oscar."
As the full import of this struck home, the three of them stopped walking and bust into peals of laughter.
When Susan finished her shift and went back to her quarters, she found Melanie asleep on the couch facing the front window, the remains of a meal on the low table beside her. The sun had gone down, and the sky was fading to greens and pinks. Melanie stirred, looked up, and smiled.
Feeling the girl's forehead, Susan said, "Hiya sleepyhead. How do you feel?"
Melanie stretched and sat up grinning. "I thought Oscar was your idea."
"I told you he was donated on loan," said Susan, relieved to find her charge in better spirits. She went into the kitchenette, looking for something to eat.
"Not any more. Doloris gave him to me."
Susan had to laugh. "Well, that was certainly nice of her. How was the beach? Did you three go skinnydipping?"
"Yeah, right!" Melanie replied with an embarrassed smile.
"Why not?" said Susan with mock indignance, coming from the kitchenette with a plate of food and a glass of juice. "Those two do it all the time."
Eying her askance, Melanie said, "You're kidding. Right?"
With a smirk, and a shake of her head, forkful of food poised, she replied, "Nope. Seen `em. Buck naked and running around the beach." She studied Malanie thoughtfully. "You look a lot better. You even got a bit of sunburn on your nose."
Melanie was quiet as Susan finished her meal and cleared away the dishes. When she was done, Melanie was looking sleepy.
"You want to sleep with me again tonight?"
Melanie nodded, her eyes half-closed. When she continued to sit there, trying to keep her head up, Susan went to her, took her by the arm, got her to her feet, and led her to the bedroom. Once inside, she undressed the girl, got her into her pj's. Realising Melanie was beyond any meaningful communication for the time being, she just rolled her into bed and covered her up.
As they had done the night before, when Susan got into bed, Melanie instinctively reached for her,pressing herself to Susan's side, and falling dead asleep with great heaving sighs.
"You're a bad influence," said Susan quietly to the sleeping girl, and kissed the top of her head. "You make me want to have kids of my own."
In the months and years that followed, it was a very different Melanie that grew out of the old. Most of her confidence had returned, nurtured by Susan, and strengthened by Doloris and Crystal, who had become her close friends. But it was a confidence tempered by a sure knowledge of life's fragility, of her own mortality. And it was a confidence of a different sort than she had had on Earth, where she had left home shortly after her sixteenth birthday, getting a job and her own apartment. She would never experience that sort of independence again.
Six months after landing on this planet, the second ship, greatly anticipated, failed to arrive. A year passed, marked by the absence of the second. By the time three years had passed, there was not a single soul who harboured any illusions about the prospects of any more ships arriving.
There were some, like Chris, who weren't overly surprised at this. Their own ship had left during a rising storm of controversy, running the gamut from simple economics to a variety of political and moral issues. Many, satisfied with their new life, merely shrugged and went about their business. Some were even relieved, fearing that their new home would be quickly overrun with newcomers, who might not appreciate it as they did. There were many who felt cheated, betrayed. But their anger was short-lived. What they had gained vastly outweighed what they had lost.
Melanie was just nearing her twenty-third birthday, and to her delight, had just discovered that Susan and Chris were getting married in a few weeks. She was a little miffed over not being chosen as the maid of honour, but only momentarily. Susan had chosen, and rightly so, a good friend and workmate, with whom she shared more adult secrets than she ever did with Melanie, who she thought of as her own daughter.
Melanie had drifted a bit after her illness, which had persisted for a little over a year. But eventually, she had fallen in with Doloris and Crystal, going to work on the farm. She still had bouts of listlessness, but they were fading as she grew more comfortable with her role as a stablehand. She thoroughly enjoyed working with animals, and spent a great deal of time with them. A little too much, perhaps, but there was no real harm done.
She little resembled the pale, awkward and sickly girl she had been when they arrived. The sun and climate had given her a rich tan, and her hair, which had always been mousey, now bore a healthy sheen, and hung loose about her shoulders. She envied Doloris a little, who turned out to be a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, whom the young men were always admiring. Crystal had remained about the same, though no longer chubby, and looked a healthy farm girl, with freckles and short dirty-blonde hair and grey-blue eyes like Melanie's.
The three of them often went to the beach together, as they were doing today. Skinnydipping was not one of Melanie's favorite past-times, though she did it because her friends did. Doloris and Crystal may have found the experience exhilarating, but Melanie would always come running out of the water, hugging herself for warmth, her lips blue. They lay in the sun now, getting tanned and warm once more.
They were not the only ones who enjoyed this past-time. A group of young men were horsing around, further down the beach, keeping a respectful distance. Crystal could be brazen and sharp-tongued when she chose to be.
Out of the blue, she said to Melanie, "Tod likes you, you know."
Melanie sat up, surprised, and looked towards where the young men were sitting on beach-blankets, chattering away. Tod was looking their way, and she quickly lay down again, getting a chuckle from her friends.
She had to smile, secretly, sadly, to herself. Tod was a good-looking guy, she thought, but she had always considered him to be a little out of her league. He was a medical assistant, and apparently had aspirations of becoming a doctor one day.
She began to wonder, as she often did, what had happened to the young man who had stared at her the day they left. In all her time here, she had never seen him again. Though she tried not to think about it, it bothered her that of all the people she had seen that first day, his was the only face she could remember clearly.
After a while, they decided to make their way back. Melanie still had some things she wanted to do at the stables, so she got dressed, and parted from her friends.
The surrounding landscape was much changed. The beach ended in a grassy field, which stretched far off into the distance in all directions, before ending at the edge of the desert. In a long, curving line along the beach, trees now grew, and across the rolling fields, dotted the landscape in clumps as well.
A lack of seasons, and of pests and parasites, made everything grow much faster and healthier than anyone had anticipated. There were wild birds and animals now, as well as a wide variety of insects. Dragonflies were Melanie's favorite, and they were moderately abundant.
And there were fish in their freshwater ocean now, as well as several varieties of frogs and salamanders, which proliferated amongst the wide beds of rushes and waterlilies which now lined much of the shoreline.
Even the desert was yielding to the introduction of cacti, of snakes and lizards, and of birds and insects unique to that environment.
Melanie skirted the edge of the farm, watched by several cattle, and a pair of colts who had been cavorting playfully. She laughed with pleasure when she saw them, pulling up a few clumps of grass and offering it to them over the wire fence. Though surrounded by food, the colts came to her nonetheless, and were soon munching on her handfulls of grass. Hearing footsteps approaching, she turned to see who it was, expecting someone from the farm. It was Tod, who was smiling at her. He was alone.
"You on your way back to the stables?" he asked her.
As was usual for her in this situation, she got a bad case of butterflies in her stomach, and could only nod, dumbly.
"Mind if I join you?"
She nodded, and began walking, arms folded nervously, looking ahead, and conscious that he was at her shoulder.
"Your friends told me where you were going. They told me you needed some company." She looked at him askance, and he was grinning at her broadly. Unable to help herself, she smiled shyly in return, making him laugh.
"Are you blushing?"
She had to duck her head to avoid his scrutiny. "No."
With a chuckle, he took her hand. Startled, self-conscious, she kept walking. But she didn't make him let go. In fact, she had always envied his confidence. It was of a type she no longer possessed herself, and she felt an odd sort of attraction, being so close to its' source. She ventured another glance at him, but maddeningly, couldn't think of anything to say. He saved her the trouble.
"Look, Melanie, I have a little proposition for you," he said, drawing her to a stop.
Nervous, and too conscious of how close they were standing to each other, she had to force herself to listen to what he was saying.
"A bunch of us, including Doloris and Crystal, are thinking about moving a few miles up the beach."
Melanie did look at him now, astonished. Neither Doloris nor Crystal had mentioned anything of this to her. Smiling kindly, he said, "I asked them not to tell you. I wanted to ask you myself. Because I wanted... " he lost his nerve momentarily, but quickly regained it, plunging ahead, "I wanted to ask... if you would come. With me."
Melanie almost fainted. She and Tod had hardly exchanged two words together at a time.
"What...?" she could hardly get the words out, "why me?"
His smile had regained most of its' confidence now. "Because I've been wanting to ask you something like this for the past two years now. I just couldn't get up the nerve before, and the fact that the rest of us are going has kind of forced the issue."
Her butterflies passed, replaced by something new... it may have been a mixture of fear and hope and discovery... she wasn't sure. But she didn't say no. And though she was a little apprehensive, she didn't object when he drew her into his arms and kissed her.