Waking from cold sleep bore more resemblance to returning from the dead than it did to regaining consciousness from any kind of natural sleep. Jili’s eye didn’t open when the stasis spell fell away, but that was because they’d never been closed. For five millennia, she’d looked out at the same dark covering of her cold sleep tube and yet had never seen, never experienced a moment of it.
“I don’t think the spell worked,” she said, surprised at the quick flicker from light to darkness and back to light, as she’d experienced it.
“Luckily for you, it did,” said an unfamiliar human in unfamiliar space armor.
“I don’t get it, where are we? Who are you? How did you get here?” Jili asked.
“Ok, in order; we are onboard your transport ship in orbit over Mileene III, I am Lt. Tym Ovarch of the Imperial Crystal Navy Fast Response ship Horizon Breaker and I got here by boarding your ship before it could crash land into Mileene III,” the man in space armor said.
“Why?” Jili’s thoughts felt like they were leaves being scattered by a hurricane.
“There’s a lot we need to bring you up to speed on,” Tym said. “But probably the most important thing is that your trip took longer than expected. A lot longer.”
“We were supposed to be on an accelerated path,” Jili said. “Thirty years for the whole trip. How far off are we? Under fifty still?”
“Fifty centuries,” Tym said. “I’m sorry, I know that has to be a shock, but a lot of the other things I have to say will make a lot more sense if you know that.”
“Fifty centuries?” Jill said.
She wondered if she should scream, or at least be upset at the idea. She looked inside and couldn’t find any fuel for those emotions though. If she was being honest with herself, she wasn’t sure she could see much of anything when she looked inside herself.
“Yes,” Tym said. “If you have any skill at Chrono-casting, you can verify it on your own or I can give you a galactic history lesson, but the short form is; you went into an enchanted slumber somewhere around five thousand years ago and the galaxy you’re waking up into is a radically different one from the galaxy you knew.”
“We were going to settle a new world,” Jili said. “We competed for the chance to be part of the expedition.”
“Physical contests?” Tym asked. “Feats of stamina and strength? Maybe a little fighting thrown in there?”
“Yes,” Jili said. “The competition was widely advertised. It drew people from all over the planet.”
“You were scammed. Even that long ago, physical prowess isn’t what it took to settle a new world,” Tym said. “You need environmental engineers and agricultural specialists. You need healers and resources extraction specialists and administrators. You need people too, but just being athletic doesn’t cover it, unless you want the colonists to starve out within six months or so.”
“You’re saying the competition was a trick?” Jili asked.
“Unfortunately, yeah,” Tym said. “You all are a million winners who were, according to the ship’s automated piloting logs, set to crash into Mileene III with enough force to vaporize one of the planet’s minor land mass.”
“Why?” Jili asked.
“As best as we can recreate from the logs, it looks like the people who sponsored that contest, a race called the Nophila, intended to use you as a strike force against the natives,” Tym said. “Blow up part of the planet to initiate a global catastrophe and then release a violent species into the world’s eco-system to clean up any serious resistance.”
“A violent species?” Jili asked.
“Humans,” Tym said. “You.”
“I’m not violent,” Jili said.
“You’re human, we’re all violent compared to some of the other races in the galaxy,” Tym said. “More than that though, we’re clever, reasonably hard to kill and adept at both group and individual thinking. Oh, and the Mileene natives at the time were extreme xenophobes who looked like spindle legged spiders with pulsing organs for faces. So low odds on making friends with them plus you probably have an instinct to squash them like bugs.”
Protesting seemed like the right thing to do, but as Jili’s mind whirled dozens of little details filtered into her awareness.
On a primal level, she didn’t feel like any time had passed since the sleep spell was cast, but rationally she knew that the whole point of the stasis field was that it would protect her from the ravages of time. The Lt’s story of it being five thousand years in the future wasn’t particularly hard to believe in that light. She’d known that warp travel was dangerous. That they’d survived the trip at all was a miracle and on a stellar scale, five thousand years was barely distinguishable from five minutes.
“I know this is a lot to take in,” Tym said. “Are there any questions that you want to ask me?”
Jili lay in the cold sleep pod and considered that question.
“What went wrong?” She settled on that question out of the thousands that were fluttered around her mind. She had no idea if she could afford to trust the man speaking to her, but she also had no idea what she should do if it turned out that she couldn’t.
“Navigational error,” Tym said. “You got thrown into a highly irregular path through warp space, while the Nophilans managed to plunge right into the heart of a star.”
“What do you want with us?” she asked next.
“Primarily for you not to crash into Mileene III,” Tym said. “Beyond that, I think it will be up to you. You’ll need to tell us what you want to do from here.”
That question haunted Jili for the next week as Imperial Navy brought in habitation ships and got the rest of the cold sleepers awake. The process of reviving more than a million humans was a daunting one, but by getting the newly revived to help with the effort, the task went reasonably fast.
“I don’t understand why they woke us up at all?” said Burla, one of the women Jili helped wake up. They were taking their midday meal in one of the ramshackle cantinas setup on the habitation ship they’d been assigned to.
“What else were they going to do?” Jili asked.
“Let us float on by,” Burla said. “Who would have known or cared?”
“You mean aside from us?” Jili asked.
“No, including us,” Burla said. “I mean how do we know someone didn’t find us drifting along a hundred years ago, or a thousand, and just let us keep going.”
“We don’t,” Jili said. “But what does it matter. We’re here now right?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t be,” Burla said. “A lot of people aren’t taking it so well.”
“I’ve seen that,” Jili said. There’d been fights, because with a million people gathered together there are always fights. The feeling Burla spoke of though was more pervasive. A generalized sense of surliness that ran just below the surface for a sizeable swath of the proto-colony’s population.
They’d been contestants first, and then winners. People who scraped a path for themselves out of their old lives and into the promise of a new one. The one trait that united them was the desire to see a different future for themselves and in waking up they’d lost more than just five thousand years. They’d lost the dream that had carried them out in the vast black of the galaxy and the hope that dream had inspired.
“You seem to be hanging together pretty well though?” Burla asked, sizing up her companion.
“Not much use falling apart right?” Jili said. “Just gotta make do with the hand we’ve been dealt.”
The words sounded true, but they barely made contact with what Jili was actually feeling. Over the “Waking” week, Jili had waited, expecting a sense of loss to catch up with her and it never had. Fifty years or five thousand, when she looked out at the sky that enveloped them, she didn’t see a difference.
She wasn’t alone. She had Burla and a million other people who knew exactly what she was going through. She knew some of the other competitors too from before the cold sleep and had made it a point to check on them as they were revived. Each of them had made it through the process unharmed. Apparently the cold sleep spell was one of surprising power and resiliency. Apart from a dive into the heart of a star, little was capable of disturbing those under its protection. Physically at least. The more she looked though, the more Jili had to wonder if she hadn’t lost something across the long millennia that she’d slept.
“Do you ever wonder if they really woke us up at all?” Jili asked. “I mean what if this is all a dream and we’re still stuck in those pods but the spell’s starting to fade?”
Burla reached over and pinched Jili’s arm hard enough for Jili to cry out.
“Yeah, I thought of that,” Burla said. “This isn’t a dream though.”
“Something’s missing though isn’t it?” Jili asked.
“Sure, we all just lost our families, our homeworlds, everything we ever knew,” Burla said. “All for a lie.”
Mileene III couldn’t have supported humans even if they’d survived the crash thanks to the stasis fields. The cold ship hadn’t been packed with any supplies and the native flora and fauna on the planet were from an evolutionary chain that was toxic to humans. The humans would have struggled for months to survive, trying to eat anything they could find, destroying all of the monstrous-looking creatures that inhabited the world before they turned to the only food source that would keep them alive for another day. Each other.
The flight the Nophilan’s took into a solar inferno was too merciful a judgment against them by far, Jili thought, but even there she couldn’t summon up much anger or rage against them. The Nophilans had been horrible people, but she couldn’t fault their plan for using the humans to get what they wanted. It probably would have worked, and history would have long since forgotten about the act of villainy as it forgot about so many others.
“You going to attend the holo-conference tonight?” Burla asked.
The Crystal Navy was making its first official broadcast to the “colonists” via a two way holo-conference setup. Participation was optional since it was just an informational meeting to recap where things were at and what the plans were for the colonists in the next week.
“Maybe,” Jili said and shrugged. She knew what the Navy was going to say. They were looking for a world for the colonists. Anyone who wished to remain in the habitation modules would be supported there for at least the next several months, and definitely until a more stable home could be found for them. There would be further updates on a daily basis, with holo meetings every week where the colonists could voice their concerns and get their questions answered.
She was thinking about that an hour later as she strolled along the habitation module’s outer ring. The great starry vista outside the windows called to her, but she couldn’t find an answer to it. Even with the artificial gravity of the module she still felt as though she was floating.
It was a scream that brought her back to the ground. Primal terror wailing out from someone reached into her brain and kicked off a cocktail of chemicals that brought her awareness into hyperfocus and eliminated all traces of introspection.
She was frozen in place by the scream until she heard another one. Some long forgotten memory surfaced at that. Herself, racing through a jungle, screaming for help as a pack of carnivorous quadrapeds bore down on her. No one had come for her. Anger flared at that. She wasn’t going to let no one come for the boy who was screaming around the curve of the corridor.
Rounding the arc of the hallway, Jili found the young boy she’d expected to find, and standing over him, the last thing in the galaxy she’d ever expected to see.
As she skidded to a halt, the ghost of a long dead Nophilan turned its baleful gaze on her and she felt it’s life stealing magics reach out to silence her beating heart.