The Rings of Alathea Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Awakening

        The woman didn’t know if she was breaking through a chrysalis or sensing her final glimpse of light through a shroud of death. The light was diffuse, milky white. She could hear moaning. Distant guttural murmuring emanated from the edges of her consciousness. The last wisps of a half-forgotten dream slipped away through overwhelming physical sensations. She felt her chest heaving, her hands groping, her head tilting back, her toes fisting as she squeezed her buttocks and tensed her leg muscles. Every joint ached. The sounds were closer now. They were synchronized with her rising shoulders. She could feel something between her lips. Dry lips. Parched throat. A leathery tongue slapping against hard plastic. She was making the sounds.

     She pushed her hands down, touching the cold skin of her hips. She could feel the hard bone of her pelvis, the soft muscles of her upper thighs. A chill ran marrow-deep through her body. She began to shake uncontrollably. She felt cold metal touching her skin. She reached up and felt something hard against her numb fingers. She reached down to herself again, searching for her body. She felt her navel and slid her hands down toward her groin. There were tubes between her legs. She felt a rush of fear, then shame. Someone had placed them there. Someone had touched her. She felt violated. She tried to scream and felt something choking her. Her reaching, groping, probing fingers found her mouth and the tubing that passed down her throat. She gagged involuntarily, then grabbed the insulting canula and ripped it out.

     Something moved in her stomach, and she tasted acid in her throat. There was a retching cough intermingled with the moans. She felt pressure at the base of her spine as she tried to sit up, but she could not. She managed to roll to one side, her body heaving, jerking, and twisting as bile rose into her mouth. She pulled at the tubes between her legs and then became aware of the pungent odor of urine. The liquid chilled against the cold metal of her coffin, sending another shiver up her spine. She opened her mouth and drew in a ragged breath. Air irritated her throat. Her chest heaved again, her lungs burning like two white-hot bladders bursting with molten lava.

     There was the sound of latches surrendering their grip and a rush of air as it coursed over her body. She felt like she was on fire, every nerve firing as harsh gaseous fingers pressed against her hypersensitive skin. She reached forward again; the gauzy light was brighter now. Her cocoon had opened, and she was aware of a larger space. Her body floated upward. She remembered gravity and wondered where it had gone. She yielded to weightlessness and allowed her body to hover, tethered by a few remaining tubes and wires.

* * *

     “Something’s wrong with this one, Hip.” The voice was masculine, nearby.

     “What have we got?” It was another male voice, this time deeper, mellifluous.

     “It’s a woman.”

     “I can see that, Carter.”

     “But this is Jameson Stryker’s pod.”

     “She doesn’t look like a Jameson.” The voice named Hip groped the woman’s groin. “Definitely a woman.”

     “Sex change?”

     “If it is, you can’t tell it from the real thing. We’ll ask her when she wakes up.”

     “Damn! Here’s another dead one.” The voices moved away.

* * *

     The woman floated near a cushioned bulkhead in a wide, circular cabin. The walls were white with recessed lighting panels that flooded the space with a soft glow. Someone had dimmed the fixtures, and the compartment took on a dreamlike quality. Her vision was clearing slowly. There were almost three dozen people suspended around the perimeter of the cabin. They were practically naked, dressed in odd utilitarian undergarments, which failed miserably at protecting each person’s privacy. Two men were suspended near a large hatchway. They were clothed in azure jumpsuits and soft soled footwear. They were obviously in command: adults surrounded by a bevy of oversized infants in swaddling clothes.

     The woman didn’t know where to look. She felt awkward, gazing at the bodies of strangers. She glanced down at herself and then realized she was dressed as they were. She adjusted her loose-fitting panties. Too much of her was on display. She looked at her arms. She was skin and bones. What had happened to her? She felt totally disoriented but didn’t sense any danger. She had no idea where she was or how long she’d been there. Perhaps she was still dreaming. She yearned for the inevitable sensation of falling that would jolt her from her slumbers, but it never came.

     The two jumpsuits floated into the center of the cabin. A man with long, slender fingers and deep-set eyes sucked in a breath. He was going to be the first to speak, obviously the leader. The woman looked at his eyes. She could tell he was on the verge of panic. He fidgeted with his fingers as he struggled with his words. The second jumpsuit was an older man. He was a portrait of serenity. She could tell he was in a far better place than his companion. The nervous man glanced at him, and the calm jumpsuit smiled and nodded, urging him to speak.

     “Ah, my name is Carter Lund,” he began. “This is Dillard Whitford, our ship’s physician.”

     “Call me Hip,” the calm man interjected. He smiled and scanned the cabin, making friendly eye contact with each person. Then he looked at the man called Carter and nodded again. A few of the undead appeared to understand what the man was saying. Most were still drifting in the extended netherworld between sleep and wakefulness.

     The woman saw another flash of fear in Carter’s eyes. “We have lost a lot of people.” He gestured toward the hibernation pods, which occupied almost every square meter of the cabin walls. “There were sixty four of us put into hibernation. The ship’s intellect found a suitable planet for us to colonize and woke us up. Unfortunately, thirty-three of us didn’t make it.”

     The woman did a quick head count; there were twenty-nine people circling Carter and the doctor. “Captain Chamberlain died in hibernation with the others.” The man looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. “I was his first officer and will be assuming command of our expedition.” Carter’s voice cracked. He paused, glancing again at Hip. He was obviously scared to death. A cold ribbon of fear slipped down the woman’s spine. This man was out of his depth. She needed a leader with confidence, someone to provide a firm handhold in the face of the unknown.

     “Our first task is to bury the dead.” The woman saw the color draining from Carter’s face. “We have two landing vehicles to take us down to the surface. We only need one of them now, so we are going to place the dead in Lander B.” The woman shuttered at the thought of handling dead people. The urge to vomit returned, but her stomach was empty.

     “Once we’ve moved the bodies, we’ll begin our preparations for landing. We’re in orbit over our new home.” Carter managed a nervous smile. “We are going to spend the next few weeks recovering from hibernation and regaining our strength. Then we’ll take Lander A and descend to the surface. We’ll start our new lives.” A few people nodded in understanding.

     “It’s a miracle we’re here. Our journey was much longer than we expected, and some of our systems have failed.” Several more people shook off their befuddlement.

     “I’m pretty handy with a hammer if you want to beat this bucket back into shape.” Carter twisted to face the person who was speaking. The man was built like a wrestler, with thick arms and legs drawn together in a compact torso. He had beady eyes, which betrayed a bright, but undisciplined mind. His lips were curled up in a sarcastic smile. “That is, if the engineering crew don’t mind me pounding on their precious hardware.” The man farted as he let loose a deep, guttural laugh.

     “You are…” Carter wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s offer.

     “Stub Andrews, mechanical engineer, sir.” He added the ‘sir’ in an offhanded, sarcastic manner. He had noticed Carter’s anxiety, too.

     “Do you have any experience with intellects? We’re having a few issues with the ship’s memory.”

     “Intellects are like women, Captain.” Carter’s eyes narrowed. “They put out after you put somethin’ into ‘em.” Stub thrust his hips forward. Everyone got his meaning.

     “We’re a community here, Stub. I don’t want any trouble from you.”

     “Just makin’ jokes, boss. Don’t mean nothin’ personal by it.” The man glanced at a couple of the women. “I’m a pretty funny feller.” The women turned away nervously. Carter dismissed the man with a thank you, eager to move on to another question.

     “Where are we, Mr. Lund?” A bony woman across the cabin spoke with a hoarse, gravelly voice. She coughed. 

     Carter twisted toward her. He waited for her to catch her breath. “We’re all on a first name basis here, Olivia. Just call me Carter.”

     The woman nodded. She had penetrating eyes and a scowl that telegraphed her displeasure. She glanced at the other colonists. They were half naked, looking like they’d just come out of cold storage. She adjusted her panties and t-shirt in a vain attempt to achieve a modest level of decorum. Then she squared her shoulders. “We have a right to know where we are.” She paused, brimming with presumed authority, and added, “Carter.”

     The nervous first officer wilted momentarily. “We don’t know where we are, but our ship’s intellect has guided us to the planet which lies three hundred kilometers below us. It will sustain life. In fact, it’s a warm planet. I hope you like a tropical climate, Olivia.” She sniffed derisively.

     “Why are we here?” The woman heard her voice say the words. Everyone looked at her. Stub Andrews undressed her with his eyes. She felt exposed, wishing she could take back her question.

     Carter was grateful for a reason to turn away from Olivia. He paused, a look of incredulity on his face. “You don’t remember?”

     The woman didn’t remember. She felt a flash of shame. She felt small, inadequate, stupid. “I’m a little fuzzy,” she murmured. It was the only truth she knew.

     “I like fuzzy,” Stub muttered.

     Carter pivoted in his direction. “I warn you, Stub. Keep your comments to yourself.” The heavyset man grinned.

     Carter turned back to the woman. “Let me refresh your memory. Astronomers detected an asteroid that was on a collision course with Earth. There was no hope for the planet, so we launched ten pod ships, in the hope of preserving the human race. We were put into hibernation, and the pod ships were instructed to find planets where we could live. Our intellect has a digital record of the world’s knowledge. We have everything we need to establish a colony.” The woman could feel Carter’s confidence swelling. “We are the seeds for a new society, a new world. We are humanity’s hope.” There was nodding around the cabin. Stub scratched his butt.

     Carter’s words didn’t refresh her memory. The woman couldn’t remember the asteroid or the plan to save humanity. Was this man telling her the truth? She strained her mind to remember Earth. She could imagine snapshots of scenery. She understood concepts and language, but she had no recollection of any personal experiences. She couldn’t remember her parents or growing up. She didn’t know what she’d studied in school, whether she had been married, or if she had children. Her mind began to ache as much as her muscles and joints. “How long?” she asked.

     Carter hesitated. His eyes darted around the room. He glanced again at Hip, who gave him a serious look. It was obvious the doctor didn’t want to tell them how long the hibernation had been. “We expected to be under for about seventy years.” Carter began.

     The woman shuttered. Seventy years was almost two generations. She felt the cabin begin to spin. The reality was too much to bear. She had not only lost her memory, she had slept through a lifetime. She felt as if a thief had come in the middle of the night and snatched the very thoughts from her head and then as an afterthought, ripped away years and decades of her life. She glanced at the men and women around her. She felt nothing. Her emotional memories were missing, too. Had she loved someone? Did she hate? Was she a kind person? The emptiness in her chest expanded like a supernova, and then collapsed into an emotional black hole. Her life was trapped deep within her, unable to escape the strong forces that had fractured her consciousness.

     “…but it took a lot longer for the ship to find an Earth-like planet.” Carter’s voice was shaking, his panic lurking just under the surface. He spread his arms and slowly turned in the zero-g, making eye contact with each person. Finally, he came to rest facing her and whispered. “We’ve been in hibernation for over five hundred years.”

     The woman didn’t remember anything after that. There was no way to accommodate this new information, nothing to give her stability or reassurance. She had no recollection of her past. She didn’t know her name. She didn’t know where she was, and she didn’t recognize any of the zombies floating around her. Now she was being told she had been asleep for half a millennium. She tucked herself into a fetal ball. Her stomach churned. The cabin began to spin out of focus. She felt herself choking as everything went dark.


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