A Sleep As Cold As Ice
By Dana W. Jones
Part One: Terra Prime
The painfully bright afternoon light sifted into the bedroom through the barely open slits of the window blinds. The light penetrated Christian's eyelids and slowly brought him out of his sleep. What time is it, he wondered as he looked over to the clock on his bedside table. Christian was just barely able to make out 14:28 through his blurry vision.
"Son of a bitch," he slurred. "I slept all afternoon."
Christian swung his legs over the side of the bed and instantly came into contact with a large pile of empty beer bottles. His feet sent bottles flying every which way, creating a cacophony of clinking glass. The events of the night before suddenly came back to him. He had spent the night before drinking himself into a near-death state. Christian had been having a hard time controlling his drinking lately. The pain, the loneliness…
Lucy…Tyler…no, I have to move on. It's been too long. Christian pushed those thoughts from his head as he slowly stumbled out of his bed and onto his feet. The clock read 14:30 now, and the viewing screen in the bedroom automatically turned on, like it did every other afternoon.
"Good afternoon Terra Prime. The date is July 23rd, 2076. In today's news, four more soldiers were killed in the struggle between the Allied Coalition and the East Asian insurgents. This heated battle began no more than two years ago when the Eastern Asian Union decided to pull out of the Allied Coalition……."
Christian swore at the viewing screen. There was never anything good on the news. Four more soldiers killed; three civilians dead in a metropolitan bombing; near-lethal amounts of CO2; mercury in the water systems. It seemed as though mankind itself was stuck down inside a deep, dark hole. Christian was barely paying any attention to the news, but a story came on that caught his interest.
"Today it was announced that CryTor Industries has teamed up with the Allied Coalition's Space Division in order to sponsor the first colonization mission into space. CryTor has agreed to supply the cryogenic sleep machines, and the A.C.S.D. will provide the shuttle. If there are any that are interested, colonist sign-up sheets will be available at your nearest Coalition Kiosk. In other news, tension started rising again between……."
A colonization mission? Into space? Rumors had spread about this sort of thing for years now, ever since the planets in the Proxima Centuri System had been mapped. Christian wondered the possibilities this announcement created as he walked towards the bathroom. When he got inside the bathroom, he quickly disrobed and then stepped into the shower.
The cold water splashed over Christian's body, each drop stinging like a knife. The pain was exhilarating. Unlike the warm sunlight, the freezing shower water sent every node in Christian's nervous system into alert: he was really awake now. He felt much better than the night before. In the cold water he found a sort of solace, a sanctuary of sorts. For the first time in a long time, Christian felt at peace, both with himself and the world around him, though it was only momentary.
As the cold water fell over his body, Christian thought about the colony mission. There was something about it that stuck with him. It was a feeling he couldn't exactly put his finger on, yet he knew that this feeling was right. There was nothing left for him here. He knew that he couldn't spend year after year like this, wallowing in his own depression, drinking as if he could find the solution to his problems at the bottom of a bottle.
The decision was easy: it was almost as if he had already made it. After he got out of the shower, Christian was going to go and sign up to start a new life off of this planet, which now appeared barren and desolate to him.
Part 2: The Endeavour Omega
It was a week later that Christian found himself standing in a large, crowded hall with at least a hundred other people. They were in one of the many large debriefing rooms of the Allied Coalition's Space Division headquarters. Each person in that room was leaving Terra Prime for one reason or another. Some were there for the exhilaration of living out among the stars. Some, like Christian, were there because they had no other options.
Christian scanned the crowd. He saw families, couples, solitary figures. Children of all ages hovered around their parents, while men and women mingled, talking in hurried, excited voices. Each person wore a mixed expression of excitement and anxiousness.
He was just as nervous, of course. But as a middle aged man in full captain's attire entered the crowded hall, Christian suddenly began to feel reassured. After glancing around the room, the captain cleared his throat. The sound reverberated around the room, coming out of large, strategically placed speakers in the high corners of the room.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen," started the captain, "and welcome to the Allied Coalition's Space Division's first colony voyage into the Proxima Centuri System. My name is Captain Gabriel Léon, and I will be in charge during the voyage. First off, I'd like to quickly go over some ground rules….."
As Captain Léon mentioned the certain safety precautions and general purpose of the mission, Christian's thoughts drifted over to the large window at the far end of the room. Through this window he could see a magnificent shuttle in the background. Emblazoned across the side was The Endeavor Omega. It was a beautiful ship. Reports over the last week had proclaimed it the greatest in its class. It was a large passenger ship refitted to withstand the long voyage to the Proxima Centuri System, outfitted with the most up-to-date life support features and cryogenic technology.
If mankind is in a hole, it sure has some neat ways to get itself out, Christian thought.
The strong baritone voice of the Captain brought Christian back to reality. "Ladies and gentlemen, would you please follow me. I will now introduce you to the ship. She's a real beauty!" Captain Léon flashed a toothy, charming smile and, with a wave of his hand, the crowd slowly started to follow him outside of the room and onto the headquarter grounds.
As The Endeavour Omega came into the foreground, some of the crowd saw it for the first time and a drifting murmur of oos and ahhs rose from the impressed lips of the onlookers.
Not long after, all the guests had filed into the ship and were awaiting take-off. This was the part of space-travel that always left Christian shaky: leaving orbit was an unnatural feeling for him. Quick shuttle trips to the moon were enough to make him sick, and this take-off was going to be at least five times worse than any economy class moon shuttle.
"T-minus twenty seconds," rang an automated voice from the intercom system. "T minus ten seconds." Christian's knuckles turned white as he gripped the arms of his chair with all his might. "T minus five, four, three, two, one."
The thrusters kicked on, and lift-off was achieved.
Part 3: Drifting
Shadowy figures drifted between the columns of darkness. Blood-red smears permeated the dense, smokey air, a sanguine aurora borealis. Tires screeched, a woman and child screamed. Thick rain fell in heavy splotches into the open palms of a lost soul, drifting between memories long forgotten, too painful to remember; too painful to relive.
The screaming seemed to drift among the fog as well, getting closer, then farther away. The lost soul reached through the fog.
The screaming was getting closer. The lost soul closed his eyes and tried to pinpoint where the screams were coming from. They grew in anguish and fear, becoming more and more distressing.
Then, suddenly, silence.
The lost soul opened his eyes. Before him stood a mirage of a woman, a woman who the soul had known very well. She held the hand of a younger boy. The woman smiled lovingly at the soul.
"Lucy….Tyler…I…" the soul reached out his hands.
"I love you."
"I miss you so much. I can't live without you. You two were my world, I…I love you so much," the soul stroked the face of the figure. The soul finally felt at peace. He had finished drifting: he was home.
His fingers came away covered in blood. The soul stared in horror at his hands, then at the figure. Her clothes were torn and bloody, and blood began to drip from her lips. In her arms, she cradled the limp, lifeless body of the young child.
"Christian, you need to wake up."
Feelings of dread washed over the soul. He suddenly felt more lost than he had ever been before. Familiar feelings of hopelessness and fear exploded from a deep, dark well with him. Memories long forgotten resurfaced: the hospital room, life support beeping in the background; the graveyard, rain falling on two caskets, one smaller than the other; bottles upon bottles piling up, the only medicine; the taste of cold steel in mouth, finger on the trigger.
The lifeless body of the child turned its head and opened its eyes. They were dark and empty. The mouth opened in a silent, unending scream.
Part 4: Awake
The lid of the cryogenic chamber hissed open as freezing air suddenly escaped from the machine. Christian fell out of the cryogenic sleep tank and fell upon the hard tiled floor. He raised himself to all fours, and promptly threw up.
After wiping the moisture from his lips, Christian tried to gain his bearings. He was completely disoriented. At first he could only remember the lift-off of the Endeavour, but soon other memories came flooding back to him: watching an in-flight movie, getting prepped for the cryogenic sleep, the captain…
The captain. What was so special about the captain? Something had happened that involved Christian and the captain, but he couldn't remember what it was.
Slowly, Christian got to his feet. He felt weak: he felt out of place, as if his body hadn't been used in ages. That was foolish though. The Cryogenic sleep was only supposed to last five or six months, a year at the most. Christian felt as if he had been asleep for years.
Christian's suspicion was confirmed by the gaunt, ghastly figure that looked back at him from a cracked piece of glass in front of him. Christian couldn't believe that this sallow, stretched face was his. His hair was longer than he remembered and a full beard, streaked with gray, curtained his leather-skinned face.
"Something is wrong," Christian said as he touched the beard. "Something is very wrong."
A flickering light in the hallway caught his attention next. He clumsily worked his way over to the door and held on to the doorframe for support, almost falling over. The flickering light didn't provide much visibility, but a disgusting scent met Christian's nostrils.
It was putrid and musky.
It was the scent of death.
Christian wretched again. On the edge of the flickering light, he could see blood and other substances smeared across the walls. Further down the hallway, the sound of footsteps and catcalls reverberated from wall to wall. A woman screamed, and a child cried. Then came one, two, three gunshots.
Then, suddenly, silence.
Christian heard a high, squeaky laugh, followed by a fourth and final gunshot. Voices drifted away from where the gunshots came from. Against his better judgment, Christian headed that way.
He came upon the body of a woman and child, lying in a pool of blood. The child had been shot once and the woman three times: twice in the stomach and once between the eyes. As Christian leaned in closer, he found the faces of his wife and child staring lifelessly up at him.
Christian recoiled in horror and let out a scream. The faces were no longer Lucy and Tyler's, but the faces of the woman and child once again.
His scream attracted some attention, and Christian heard footsteps and voices hurrying down the hallway towards him.
Fear consumed Christian. It took control of him, and forced him to run, even though his body protested. He sped the opposite direction down the hallway, away from whoever, or whatever, was down the other end.
The hallway seemed familiar. Christian felt like he had a fair grasp of his way around. He was heading towards the mess hall. He could see the large archway that led to the cavernous room. Christian ran for it.
The room was dark, except for a lone fire that burned in the middle of the floor. Christian could see benches situated around it. The flames licked high, casting menacing shadows in the corners of the room. Along the walls, Christian could see upturned tables.
Footsteps suddenly echoed behind him, slowly at first. The footsteps soon increased in speed, and voices could be heard. Whoever they were, they knew Christian was close.
Almost tripping over his feet, Christian rushed over to one of the upturned tables and hid behind it. The footsteps and voices were soon in the room with him. He could hear three distinct voices: one woman and two men. One of the men, who had a high, squeaky voice and a stutter, began to speak.
"Redge, I s-s-s-swear I heard something come in here, I s-s-swear!"
"Quiet, Sylar!" said the woman. "If there is anything here, you've already scared it away with that lisp of yours."
"I've s-s-scared it away? Your s-s-smell probably scared it away! When was the las-s-st time you even s-s-showered?" said Sylar.
"Quiet! Both of you!" boomed Redge. "The Captain is waiting for us. Do you really want to keep him waiting? Do you? Do you want to feel his wrath?"
His question was met with silence. Sylar and the woman were obviously intimidated by him, and Christian was too. Underneath the table, his chest raised and lowered in low, shallow breaths, and his heart was beating in overdrive.
He could hear Sylar stuttering something under his breath, and the woman coughed. A low, wheezy sniffing noise assaulted Christian's ears.
"What is it Redge? Ya s-s-smell s-somethin? Is Gina's s-s-scent finally too much to bear?"
"No….no…..I smell some fresh freeze," snarled Redge. His large, booming laugh rang throughout the cavernous room.
Redge's sniffing continued. He began to pace around the room, trying to determine the origin of the freeze. He stopped right on the other side of the table Christian was hiding under.
"Too easy," Redge snarled.
Christian heard a crack as a large fist broke through the table and collided with the side of his face. Then there was darkness.
Part 5: Rats
The room was spinning, but finally there was light. Christian could just make out some of the blurry images in this new, hazy environment. In front of him was a large wooden desk. Behind it was a grand window that, if the protective blinds weren't closed, would look straight out into space, into some sparkling nebula or swirling galaxy. On either side of the window were two large bookcases, each with a generous collection of volumes.
All of a sudden the lights in the room turned off and the protective blinds of the window began to slide open. In that infinite vastness Christian saw numerous stars and colorful displays of lights, but unfortunately could not make out their shapes. He heard heavy footsteps coming from behind him. A figure walked over in front of the window and looked out.
"Well Christian, it's good to finally see you again," said the figure after what seemed like an eternity. "I'm sure you must be confused: things aren't quite what they were when you went to sleep."
"I'm sorry, but…who…who are you?" Christian's voice sounded foreign to him. His mouth felt like it was on fire, and three of his teeth were loose.
"Christian, Christian, Christian." The figure turned around and leaned onto the desk. The starlight banished the shadows from his face. A large, ugly scar ran from his left temple, across the bridge of nose and down to his right cheek bone. His left eye was a squalid gray, while the right eye was a vibrant, luscious green. The Captain smiled that trademark wry grin of his.
"Captain Léon… about time I saw a familiar face. What's going on here?"
"Christian, it's more like what isn't going on here? Man against man, fighting for survival. Each one out for his own, in this little Hell we call home. Darwin would be proud, wouldn't he?" The Captain laughed at his own joke, but this laugh was different from the one Christian knew. It was alien, with a slight hint of mania and malice in it.
The Captain ran a hand through his long hair. There were now streaks of snow white in what used to be raven black crew cut.
"How long was I asleep for?" Christian asked. He tried to rise, but fell right back down as the blood rocketed to his head.
"You were the last awake. All these people…my people…they were out far before you. Days? Weeks? Months? Years? Who knows! Time is all so relative! You were the last to arrive at our little tea party!" The Captain flashed a different smile this time. This one sent chills down Christian's spine.
Christian just sat in his chair. He was too afraid to say anything. The memories of the Captain that had eluded him before came rushing back. The two had bonded immediately, becoming fast friends. They had shared ideas and personal stories. But this man was not the same one Christian met so long ago.
For the first time ever Christian had spoken to someone who wasn't a therapist about what happened to Tyler and Lucy (the therapists would have probably called it a breakthrough). It had felt good for him to finally have a friend. He had explained to the Captain that it was his secret, buried deep inside, and that it was good to finally have it out. The Captain had a secret too.
It had something to do with the ship, Christian thought. His train of thought was interrupted as the Captain began to speak again.
"Do you ever wonder why we're here, Christian? Why we're really here?" The Captain was leaning on the window now, solemnly staring into infinity. "Have you ever searched deep into your soul? Perhaps…perhaps it's all a test. I mean, look at what happened to you. Tyler, Lucy. They were all you ever had. Don't look at me like that, of course I remembered. We're friends aren't we?" Christian gave the Captain an incredulous look. He couldn't believe that the Captain had remembered, after all this time and everything that had happened.
The Captain closed the distance between Christian and the window in a matter of seconds.
"I said don't look at me like that!" His face was level with Christian's, red and flustered. His eyes were wide and wild, and spittle flew from his gaping mouth. The Captain suddenly stepped back and took a moment to compose himself, slowly dragging his hand down his face.
"Just think about it, Christian. It must have been a test for you, what happened to Lucy and Tyler. We all have our own tests to triumph over. But some…some tests, some experiments, some puzzles…just aren't meant to be solved. We're nothing more than rats running in a maze, searching for that cheese. But you know what Christian? Maybe the cheese doesn't exist. Maybe we're just told about the cheese, how great the cheese is. How it will solve all of our problems. How it's everything we would ever need, and more. But don't you think we'd figure it out by now? That the cheese isn't real? What does a rat do then, Christian? What does it do?"
Christian was silent. The Captain was now leaning on the desk again, staring intently into Christian's eyes. Christian looked away, but still felt the gaze of the Captain upon him.
The Captain reached into a drawer of the desk and pulled out a pistol. It shined menacingly in the starlight.
"Those people out there…those rats…they think I'm the answer. They think I can bring them the cheese. But they just don't understand. There is no cheese. You want to know why I'm here, Christian? Back on Terra Prime, someone thought I could lead these people. But after everything we've done…what's happening back home, what happened here…we deserve it." The Captain fell silent.
"It's just a joke. A giant fucking joke. And we are the punch-line, Christian. We are the punch-line. Do you get it Christian? Do you?" The Captain walked to the front of the desk, keeping his gaze on Christian the entire time.
"I am a king to these people. No…a god! I am a God to them! They do whatever I say! But, Christian, sometimes there's more to life than being a rat king. A rat God"
The Captain leaned into Christian's face and put the pistol to his temple. His face grew red in anger.
"I'm tired of being a goddamn rat, you hear me? I'm tired of being a punch-line! I'm sick and tired of it!"
Voices could now be heard on the other side of the door of the study. They were guards, presumably, and they had every right to be confused.
"I'm tired of being a goddamn rat!"
The Captain pulled the trigger of the pistol, the sound reverberating around the confines of the room. A blinding flash illuminated the darkness, and the Captain's lifeless body fell to the floor at Christian's feet. Confused shouts from the alarmed guards came from outside and they began furiously pounding on the door.
The room began to spin again for Christian. He could barely digest everything the Captain just said, everything that just happened. The door broke down and suddenly two pairs of hands placed a vice-like grip on his upper arms. Christian barely felt it. He barely heard the screams of "They killed him!" and "Oh God, the Captain!" He barely felt being dragged along the floor.
He was dragged down the hallway into a large room. The room was illuminated by torches set up around the walls. Christian could just barely make out the grimy faces of men and women. It was a ragtag group of raggedly dress people. Their clothes were in shambles. They all looked starving.
Starving for what? Cheese? Christian, despite the current situation, laughed to himself. Maybe it was salvation they were hungering for. Christian continued to laugh. He laughed and laughed. His laugh sounded very much like the Captain's last laugh. It was foreign to his ears and had a slight hint of mania and malice in it.
Christian looked into the lynch mob that began to surround him. Accusatory shouts came from every corner of the room as people screamed and wept. Some of the faces were familiar, ones he had seen briefly from another time. Some faces belonged to children, no older than ten. Among the angry mob, two faces stood out.
Lucy and Tyler stared lifelessly back at Christian. They turned and walked away down the long dark hallway.
Christian felt himself be thrust into an airlock chamber. He watched his life walk away through the glass of the airlock door. He pounded on the glass, screaming their names. He wanted to run to them, one last time. Hold his son in his arms, and feel the embrace of his wife.
But it was too late. The mob really thought he killed him. They really thought he killed their God. What is the punishment when you kill a God?
Death, of course.
Christian's body was sucked through the other side of the airlock. The cold of space stung like a knife. The pain was exhilarating. The freezing cold sent every node in Christian's nervous system into alert: he was really awake now. He felt much better. His consciousness kicked into overdrive and he became aware of his surroundings.
In the distance, he saw Jupiter. Then Mars swung into view. As he turned around, he could see, looming behind the Endeavour Omega, Terra Prime.
It was all a joke, Christian thought. And we're the punch-line.
Christian slipped into the coldest sleep ever had.
Back on Earth, a viewing screen flickered to life.
"Good afternoon Terra Prime. The date is September 24th, 2085. Today, the Allied Coalition released the classified information pertaining to the "Endeavour Omega" experiment. The experiment was used to test to see if civilization was in fact ready to colonize space. According to the information, the experiment was, by all accounts, a failure. The test was……."
"Bah!" said a man as he turned off the screen. "There's never anything good on the news."