A hair’s breadth is all that holds oblivion at bay. A sheen of false space-time, its bow exploding forward at the speed of light while the stern collapses just as fast. Caught in the balance: a vessel that holds a million souls.
In the movies sleepers are entombed in glass, and when they wake, they cough and hack liquid antifreeze from their lungs.
I open my mouth and all that leaves is a chill mist as the frost in my chest boils off.
The cryosled is dark, of course—any glass with enough lead to protect against the torches’ brilliant gamma would be solid gray.
Awake, as I am now, there’s no danger; the vessel is shielded more than well enough for the living. In sleep each little ray and proton that passes through is a tiny wound that goes unhealed, and when you’re already so close to dead it’s not worth the risk.
I work the release mechanism, awkward as it is. The pod is sized for the ninety-ninth percentile of male height. I am of average height for a woman of my lineage: four-feet and five inches.
The computer in my head reminds me that the UAR has pending legislation to deprecate the customary standard in favor of metric.
I remind it that in the millennium since this bill came to the floor over two hundred republics have joined the Union, and not one has voted in favor.
Finding a good grip with both hands, I pull the handle away from the sled’s wall, and twist. Dim red lights appear near the seam, the first photons to grace my eyes in two decades.
And then I wait.
On a civilian vessel the pods are opened right before the sleepers awaken, so the doctors may dote over them, to grant them that extra surety in a process that has been proven for longer than the Pharaohs ruled that ancient land of Egypt. But this is messy at scale, having to coordinate the randomness of how quickly one rouses from near death. As both a soldier and an early-riser, I am expected to be patient.
It’s not so bad—like the few who truly call Angel home, I am small and lean and scrawny. The sort of small and lean and scrawny that is bred into a population by generations of want, of need—but I am not weak. We selected, through choice and through survival, those who could do the most with the least, and by our knowledge cemented it in our blood. And so for me the cryosled is roomy, comfortable, especially with the thrust-grav.
Heaver than the gravity I grew up with, at one-point-zero standard Earth gees. Angel is a large, dense moon, with an easy zero-point-six standard gees to romp around in. Training prepared me for my weight under thrust, naturally, and for gravities well beyond it. But your bones never quite forget.
The cryosled finally rouses from its own slumber, the lights brightening from red to white, and I hear the slipping of bearings as it is summoned elsewhere, lightening the load on my feet as it drops along our vector.
A display appears on the inner wall, and presents the chance for self-examination. In my lifetime I’ve made enough journeys in sleep that this is routine. I am presented with the same nominal heart rate, the same ideal oxygen saturation. The same metabolic analysis. The same reminder that I should have had a glass of water before dozing off.
Among all that is forgettable is one detail that I can never bring myself to ignore, no matter how much I try: a warning.
Subdermal anomaly: Elevated presence of bioactive metals.
Recommendation: Consult physician at nearest opportunity.
Or, put plainly: ‘Is there something wrong with your skin?’
Washington, that pastoral world which Angel orbits, is dominated by the full-blooded descendants of true Earthborn. I am told by them that my skin has a slight blue or gray undertone, depending on who’s looking. They are wrong, of course—the metal-containing cells exist in a layer engineered beneath the dermis, to help shield against radiation that finds its way through Angel’s regolith and to our cities below.
That we are cut from the same stock—from the same pioneers that followed the explorer Angela Orrman, namesake of both my homeworld and the vessel on which I serve—never seems to cross their minds.
My crysosled comes to a gentle stop. From beyond its thick walls of lead and uranium I hear familiar commotion. Then I hear one thump, and another, and at last the sled’s lid is lifted open.
A giant of a woman stands before me, dressed in the same form-hugging, feature-smoothing pressure garment that we all wear, loose strands of her red hair resting on the suit’s polished helmet ring.
“There you are,” she says in a voice that seems much too… normal, for her size. “Sarge was getting worried, thought we’d left you in a dockside bar.”
“Good morning, Hera,” I say.
Her name is not Hera—I have given her this name because I will not, cannot contort my mouth to make the sounds her ancestors decided would be their children’s speech. Hera is the only two syllables of her name that I can pronounce; which is true, but it is not why I have named her.
Hera is short for Heracles, because if anyone were to look the part, it would be her.
She extends a hand down, and I take it—or as much as I can when that hand envelopes my whole fist.
The thing about Hera is that her proportions always catch me off guard. They’re perfect, of course. And that’s the strangest thing.
I am small in the way most baselines would be small, though they would look a bit stockier than any of my blood.
From a distance Hera appears to be a woman of average height, standard in every way, save for her strong physique. But she is not obscenely muscled; given a photo, most would underestimate her.
Then the distance closes and you realize everything around Hera seems much to small for her, that each tool and device is a child’s trinket in her hands. And then she towers over you, all eight-and-a-half feet of her.
She has told me that her height is on the low end of average for people from Tau Ceti, that her mother and father and brother all stand above nine. I’m not sure if I believe her.
As Hera lets go of my hand I cast a glance up and down the thaw room, looking for the short crop of black hair that belongs to the man named Timothy Cheung, otherwise known as Sarge.
“Not worried enough to see me up, apparently.”
“He’s down in block A. Probably having a huddle.”
There is an importance to down, a reference to our vector. The cryobays are kept within the core of the ISCV Orrman, further shielded by the mass and magnetism of its propellant tanks. We are in block C, one short of the carrier’s center. Command and control staff are kept in blocks A and G, near the periphery of the core and closest to the actual habitable part of this vessel.
“Go wake Polly, will you? I’ll get Nolan out.”
“Best to bring a shovel for him.”
“Ha! I’d never exhume him that way; he’d leap back in and start digging deeper.”
We part ways, and the location of Polly’s sled manifests in my mind as I weave past my fellow soldiers. It may seem inefficient, to have the early risers wake the rest. That we do it by squad adds a bit of chaos to the mix, but this is intentional. Keeps us on our toes, and cuts down on support crew.
I find Polly’s cryosled and review her vital signs. Elevated heart rate, as usual. I maneuver onto the pod’s side, my boots magnetized to the inclined ramp between revival bays, and plant a hand on each release lever. I pull it open, and unlike Hera, I let the springs and hydraulics do the lifting for me.
Paulina Kadnikova is a woman with a robust build and a perpetual scowl on her face.
“Took your sweet time getting here,” she says through pursed lips.
“Is there a problem?”
I offer her my hand. She takes it, only after blowing away a hair that had fallen from her blonde bun.
“It’s colder than a witch’s tit in there.”
I nod as I haul her upright—her hand bears its own chill, wrapped around my wrist.
Once Polly finds her footing I step back onto the deck, watching as she brushes flecks of frozen air off of her suit. She stands nearly two heads taller than me—just beyond the average height of an American woman.
“Where’s Sarge at?”
“Fuck. I’m up early.”
Polly stands still for a moment, querying her own cranial implant.
“Mess is open at least. Don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
I do feel a void in my stomach. Waking from cryo is one of the most metabolically taxing things a human can experience, outside of combat or sex. Yet I do not feel hungry—my people are numb to that, though whether it’s something genetic or learned is anyone’s guess.
Still, I follow Polly down the cryobay halls while she mutters over our private squad link, complaining how cramped it is here, how cold she is, how she swears there’s still ice in every crack and crevice and wrinkle.
She’s wrong about the former, of course—Hera can stand to her full height here and have her hair brush the ceiling. To me, that makes the cryobay a grand, spacious construction. Cramped is when you have to crawl, to inch along on your stomach, poked and prodded by each loose deckplate or pebble beneath you.
As to the latter, some might say Polly isn’t quite fit to be a soldier. But it’s talk, mostly, and the rest… well, there’s a reason she’s a pilot. A meticulous, anal awareness of the self is quite handy when your self must extend beyond the human body.
We arrive at a lift, open and waiting. Polly waltzes in and leans up against the wall; I follow, and the door closes behind me.
This time the acceleration is significant, and I can see Polly relax as we briefly lose some of the the thrust-grav.
Like me Polly is a moony, a lightfoot, born to a world with lesser gravity. She is a proper Lunar, from the honest-to-god Moon. Luna, with its cities that spin, for the benefit of Earther tourists. Polly is quite accustomed to the standard gee, but I can still see it in her step, a cautiousness, as if walking top-heavy.
Decel is worse, but not by much, and soon the lift glides to a stop. Not at the mess, not yet, but at the interchange, where the Orrman’s lift system mingles with its hab-ring trams.
Crowded here, compared to the cryo deck, and as we make our way to a tram car I pass by many unfamiliar faces. My implant fills in the gaps, giving name and rank and all manner of things to each person at a moment’s focus. Necessary on a four-mile starship that houses thirty-thousand active crew, and many more in sleep.
The crew is my favorite part of the Orrman, and the reason I choose to serve on it. Though a child of Washington, the Orrman is primarily a patrol ship: going up and down the Washington-Ishikura trade spine, one of the great branches of the corridor network that is rooted to Sol.
It’s picked up a good share of Earthers in that time. True Earthers born on the homeworld, not their Earth-blooded descendants, nor the more ubiquitous, muttish baselines.
As I walk among them I get the occasional curious glance, but there is no malice, no judgment or prejudice.
The mythos of humanity is that we have spread ourselves amongst the stars at near the speed of light, always seeking new challenges, and a better future.
There is truth to this, but like all things it has an unspoken taint. It is fundamentally human to escape, to run away, to avoid the sins of the past and leave them behind. Many of those who threw themselves and their children into the void wished to cling to their pasts, to build worlds for themselves alone, and for what they imagined humanity ought to be.
Yet back on Earth, lessons in the folly of man were learned. They were learned through fire and steel and atom. This reckoning instilled among the Earth-born a great tolerance, one that I am grateful for.
This is why Earth forged the paths between the stars. Why Earth united the warring worlds of humankind.
And it is why this vessel, and those like it, have been sent to an errant human world, to a world that has raised up forbidden arms against our starward kin.
The tram chimes as it arrives at our destination, and it is a short jaunt to the messhall of our assigned habitation pod.
I join Polly in the line, far more crowded than I would expect, and note the scowl on her face has only grown.
“They don’t have pancakes.”
I glance at the menu.
“They have crepes.”
“If I wanted to eat French food, I would’ve taken the posting on Gaulle. At least those would be real crepes.”
“Be glad it’s not snails. Or frog.”
I have never seen a snail or frog in my life, not in person, but this is a common refrain about French cuisine among Americans. At least, among other Americans. My part of the Union is quite far from France or any of its colonies.
“I know you don’t mean that. You Nephs would eat rats.”
Neph is somewhat vulgar slang, short for Nephilim. Scientifically my people are dubbed Homo sapiens sapiens nephilius. Improper latinization aside, the name is a joke and a pun. We are no giants, to be sure, but we are the daughters and sons of the Angel moon, and in that sense it is fitting.
I shrug it off; Polly doesn’t mean any harm by it—I’ll call her a moonbat later.
I overtake her in the line as she piles crepe upon crepe from the dispenser and onto her tray, slathering butter between each layer, before pouring molecular-mimic maple syrup atop the pile. Many hundreds of lightyears away, the French chef who taught this machine her or his or their craft has awoken in a cold sweat, sensing the desecration.
My sympathies go to the chef and their art, but I am less bothered by that, and more by Polly. She has always been soft around the torso, yet in recent years her physique has come dangerously close to husky. Sarge will not care, so long as she performs, nor will our comrades tease her, but the physician will be concerned, and that is what she hates.
I suspect it is psychological, a side effect of her occupation. Pilots have an intimate connection to their craft, and this manifests in both selection and self. Fighter jocks tend to be dancers or runners, graceful in the movements, walking with power in their step. Hovercrafts attract the lanky fucks, the creepy men and women who excel at hiding behind the smallest obstacle or in the shallowest ditch. Who lurk in bushes or behind doors just to give you a scare for their own amusement.
Tankers tend to be stocky, solidly built types, and Polly was never an exception. This, however, is new.
Fifteen waking years ago we deployed to border world, barely more than an entry in an exoplanet catalog, one that attracted a band of unusually well-armed outlaws. They’d hunkered down in that a frigid wasteland of a place, the air too cold to breathe unaided lest the surface of your lungs freeze solid.
The reactor on a Model 7280 is rated for continuous operational heat loads of one year. And on that frozen hell we burned through the rods in less than a week.
It was trying for us, the crew, as systems of comfort had to be shut down to reduce load. I had to get three toes regrown, when we finally left.
For Polly, it was something far worse.
The reactor is the heart, and when its nuclear fuel went toxic, she felt it. Each system that had to be shut down, cannibalized, to her they were limbs lost, flesh gone necronic. Bits and pieces rearranged within her, as if by some mad surgeon.
Even after our return to space, she shivered for weeks. Docs had to reset her implant to stop it, which only caused another mess.
I suppose a bit of an eating disorder is a small price for what she went through, but that’s not what has me concerned.
What I worry about are the rest of us and the scars we carry, the wounds we do not show. I’ve been told I have an intense stare, that I turn my whole head to look at people when addressed, whipping my eyes around by their sockets in crisp, snappy movements.
I am all too aware of this fact as Hera calls out from a table, and I try to move more naturally, gathering what food fits my fancy before leaving the line.
Polly and I sit upon a simple bench formed of stainless steel and set our trays on an equally utilitarian table, opposite Hera and Nolan.
In his previous life with the infantry, Nolan had been a sniper. And though he sits stock-still, eyes closed, an empty protein pouch held gently in his hand, he knows we are here.
I can tell by looking at his eyelids, the slight movement beneath his black skin as he focuses at Polly, and then at me.
“Haul him down here and prop him up sitting pretty?” I say to Hera.
“Very funny, Talia,” Nolan mutters. “I was awake long before our Amazonian friend opened my sled; enjoying the peace and quiet. At least I was, until I was rudely interrupted.”
“Heh,” Hera laughs, the sound resonating from her chest. “Not going to be happy until you get pronounced dead in one those things, are you?”
“Third time’s the charm.” He raises the crumpled protein packet, as if to toast the occasion.
Polly shakes her head, whispering something about ‘a whole load of nonsense.’
“Do either of you know where the fuck Sarge is? The sooner we get our brief, the sooner I get some real sleep, in a real damn bed, with the heaviest blanket I can find on this damn ship.”
“Speak of the devil,” Nolan says with an upward nod.
I follow his line of sight, and turn my head back.
Sarge stands just outside the open door back near the mess line. His side is toward us, as he talks to someone obscured by the wall. He’s already got his Space Corps fatigues on over his cryosuit; the fabric is a plain, dark gray without its adaptive matrix enabled.
After several moments of watching, and of Sarge not budging, I turn back toward my breakfast. There’s some chatting between the four of us as we eat, but it is minimal. Each of us has a clock in our heads, mindful that this time of relative freedom will only last so long. Best to make the most of it.
“Hey,” Polly says, tapping her temple. “You guys seeing this?”
Seeing is not exactly what it is. Orders have been pushed to our implants, low priority. Information, changes to scheduling, deployment bay assignments. Recall is like a memory more than words on a page.
We are marked for landing craft thirty-five, in division six.
“Low numbers,” I say.
“Don’t like it. Not one bit.”
“Presumptive, aren’t you?” Hera chides. “Could be messing with us.”
“I’m reading a lot of heavy armor in our group. She’s not presuming a damn thing,” says Nolan.
“We’re in the first wave,” Polly mutters, head in her hands. “You know what this means, right?”
Nolan smiles. “Best seats in the house.”
“It’s means we’re going to fucking die.”
Shockwaves jostle me in my seat as we enter the atmosphere; through the camera link I see plasma ripping past the edges of the massive wing-shape that stands between our entire division and a fiery death.
“Current heading is spinward, twenty-five degrees north of normal.” Sarge’s voice is calm and steady through our squad link. With my ears I can hear Polly muttering some sort of prayer.
“Estimated time to deployment is five minutes. Status report. Gunnery?”
“Cannon is ready and calibrated.”
“She’s going to whine and moan like a bitch in heat with that desert down there, but she’ll drive.”
I hate it when Polly gets stressed—it makes her so vulgar.
Power? Active. Coolant? Flowing. Medium? Excited.
I glance beneath my jump seat—raised well above standard height—and at the belt of cannon rounds coiled up beneath it.
More than enough.
“Standing by and ready to engage,” I say.
Sarge gives me a quick nod.
Two bangs reverberate through the hull.
“Don’t worry about me; worry about yourselves.” Hera’s voice, radioed in.
The turbulence smooths out as we dip beneath the sound barrier. Through the camera sight in my turret I see the wing edges undulate and deform.
“Buckle up boys, girls, and everything in between,” Polly shouts. “Bite the pillow if you have to, ’cause we’re going in hot and dry and I am pissed.”
A clunk echoes up from the lower hull, and the wingcraft drops like a stone for the briefest moment before its edges take their shape once again. It soars above us as great fiery rockets ignite and carry it back beyond the horizon of this world.
We fall through black sky and down into blue.
Attitude jets spurt and spit, keeping the tank stable and at maximum drag while radiator flaps find dual purpose as ailerons.
I help myself to Polly’s vision suite and stare down below, at our comrades racing toward this alien world. In the red sands I see small white puffs.
Moments later the barrage arrives—at this height there is no threat to our armor, but that is not their target. I see vehicles tumble under the impacts: they are trying to break our formation, section us off, surround us as we land.
Great pillars of fire burn down through the air and turn the sands below into glass.
I glance upward with the glass eye linked to my mind and see the monitors Zaitsev, MacArthur, and Morais suspended in the sky above. Radiators out, they twinkle and sparkle like stars.
Once more I look at the world below, at the ground rushing toward us, and I can’t help but wonder.
The people of this world, this species, these aliens, had they ever thought we would fight back? When they turned their stars into weapons, used their power to drive great engines into the black, up to and beyond the speed of light, did they even consider what would happen if we not only survived their genocide, but withstood it? Fended it off with our own suns?
Perhaps they thought we would respond in turn. That we would harness that same terrible power, drive our own weapons into the void.
Did they expect us to cross space ourselves? To come knocking upon their doorstep?
I doubt it; that would be crazy.
Lucky for them, we are.