This was the last place I expected to spend Christmas Eve. They told us we would land before then. They told us we would wake up sooner. They told us we would not dream.
Like my five companions, I lay in a cryosleep tube, frozen, all my bodily functions monitored by the ship’s computer and a medical robot. A joker back at Titan Mission Control christened the computer “Hal.” Even though we were headed for Serenity—not Jupiter like the astronauts in 200l: A Space Odyssey—the thought of a computer that could end our lives terrified us all, though we didn’t let the joker know.
The Powers That Be told us cryosleep would freeze our minds as well as our bodies. Hah!
“Good morning, starshine,” Hal sang.
Finally, they were waking me. That must mean the freezing mechanisms had been turned off and my body was slowly warming up. No wonder I was aware.
“Time to rise and shine.” That was the medical robot. She had named herself MT after her proper designation, Medical Technician 447. She liked the play on her initials though her mechanical brain was far from empty.
She lifted the lid of my unit then began disengaging all the tubes and wires to which I was hooked up. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” she sang as she worked. Then she switched to “Santa Claus is coming tonight.”
My first real breath hurt my chest. They told us we might be nauseous and uncomfortable when we were brought out of cryosleep. Might be? That was like saying childbirth was mild discomfort—not that I’d ever experienced that phenomenon. Dizziness swept over me and I hadn’t even moved.
“We’ll get you all fixed up for Santa, Commander.” MT gently wiped my face. My eyes had difficulty focusing, but I think she winked.
“Is Ma— Is anyone else awake?” I wanted to ask. The noise that came out of my dry throat sounded like a bullfrog.
“You must have many questions, Commander Grenard,” Hal said. “It is 24 December 2175, Earth time.”
Five years and seven months since we left the station on Saturn’s moon, Titan. I’d been a popsicle for over five years. No wonder I was shivering. Of course the fact that I was naked might have something to do with being cold. Even though I’d gotten over my normal modesty, I was glad MT looked like a girl. I pretended Hal couldn’t see me.
At least we would all be awake for Christmas. I could not imagine celebrating the holiday alone. Alone out in the black with only a computer and an A.I. for company.
“We are one Earth day from our destination,” Hal continued. “You must wonder why our arrival was delayed.”
Of course, I wondered. We were supposed to have landed already on our one-way trip to a barren planet we’d named Serenity—our hope for a peaceful world. We would be the first inhabitants. Three men and three women, matched for our compatibility and our talents to terra-form an alien planet. And populate it. Although I looked forward to that part of the mission, we’d been forbidden to “practice” in case we became pregnant. Darn. No one knew the effects of cryosleep on pregnancy.
During the final planning stage, we talked about the first Christmas on Serenity. Supplies had been sent ahead. The cargo containers would be our homes until we built permanent ones. We planned every detail, from decorations to our celebratory meal in our temporary home. Disappointment oozed through me that we would not accomplish our goal.
“She doesn’t need to know everything all at once,” MT protested.
Yes, I did want to know. I needed to know everything that had happened since going into cryosleep. Hal understood. MT didn’t.
I tried to lift my hand to encourage Hal to continue. My hand reacted like cooked spaghetti.
“We were delayed because a near collision with an asteroid necessitated a course correction.” Was that defiance in Hal’s voice?
“You idiot. Give her a chance to wake up.”
“I am not an idiot,” Hal responded with righteous indignation. “I am the most sophisticated instrument Healogin Industries has ever constructed.”
To me, MT said, “He really has an overinflated ego, you know. He thinks he knows everything and doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion.”
“I do not,” Hall huffed. “It is my purpose to utilize my superior intellect.”
MT snorted. “Now, upsy daisy.” She tucked her arm under my shoulders to help me into a sitting position.
Retching wracked my body. Vertigo threatened to topple me over the edge of my cryotube.
“Easy, Commander. Just take it easy.” MT held me steady. “You’ll be right as rain in a jiffy.”
I wanted to ask how she knew, but my throat hurt too much. She placed a flex tube in my mouth. “This will feel good. You don’t have to sip. Just let the liquid flow naturally.”
Oh my God, that did feel good. Greedily, I swallowed again and again. The sweet cool liquid coated my throat. I could see more clearly now. The gray walls, the narrow space through which MT maneuvered around the cryotube, the monitors with green on black readouts of my functions. Nothing had changed in the five years since I climbed into the tube. Not that I expected it to.
“That is enough for now.” MT removed the drink. I moaned in protest.
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you—”
“No.” MT whirled around to face the comm unit on the wall. “Wait until she is back to normal.”
“No, Hal. You must give her time to orient herself.”
“I—” I cleared my throat. “I need to know. What happened?”
“Hah!” Hal sounded triumphant. As if he’d gotten his way over MT’s protests. There I went again, giving Hal and MT human-like attributes. When machines, even artificial intelligence, spoke like humans, it was difficult not to. “A malfunction occurred in the cryotubes.”
No. My mind cried out when my vocal cords did not respond to my brain’s command. What happened? I wanted to ask yet afraid of the answer. The six of us were pioneers to an alien planet. Dependent on each other. We were more than colleagues on a dangerous journey. We were a family.
That wasn’t the only reason. Marsh.
Please, God. Let Marsh be safe. Guilt swamped me. I was selfish. What kind of Christmas spirit did I have to be willing to sacrifice the others so that my love could live?
“Malfunction?” I managed to croak, barely a whisper. I struggled to rise, tried to pull myself up by grasping the tube’s rail. So weak. I fell back against the thin pad I’d lain on for over five years, jarring my head.
“Commander Grenard, you must take it easy.” MT patted my arm. “Hal, you dope. Why did you have to tell her?”
“She is in charge of the mission. I must give her all the information.”
“Help me up, MT,” I demanded in a whispery voice that even a bunny wouldn’t obey. I had to see for myself. I had to see what had happened and to whom.
“Commander, the mal—”
“No.” I tried to signal to Hal to make him stop talking. Instead, my hand flopped back in my lap. Damn weakness. “Get me out of here. Right now.” That was more like it. My voice had regained some strength, unlike the rest of me.
“That’s an order, MT.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She helped me swing my legs over the side. I barely felt her hands. But when my legs dangled, pins and needles jabbed at my thighs, then my calves, and finally my feet. Oh, God, that hurt.
Determined to discover if Marsh was alive, I stifled my cry of pain. If MT knew how much I hurt, she would use restraints to keep me down. I kicked my feet and slapped my thighs, anything to return feeling to my extremities. I had to be able to stand or MT wouldn’t take me to see the others’ tubes. I craned my head, trying to see down the long, narrow walkway. Our tubes were in line. None of the lids were raised.
Oh, dear God. No one had survived.
“But, Commander—” Hal began.
“Stop. I will see for myself.”
MT pulled a light green gown over my head, letting it pool at my waist. “Are you sure you want to get up? You should take it slowly. Now sit here quietly while I get an anti-grav transport.” She bustled away.
“No, MT,” I called after her. “I will walk. Come back and help me.”
“She thinks she knows best,” Hal said in a snide tone. “She is very irritating. You would not believe the arguments we—”
“Shut up, you hunk of junk.” MT had returned, lightly steering a pallet that hovered at waist height. “You are nothing but a bunch of circuit boards, chips, and wires.”
“And what are you?” he retorted. “Artificial skin covering circuit—”
I raised my hand to my head. “Enough. You two are giving me a headache. MT, I said no transport. I need to walk. I have to see—” My voice cracked. I swallowed hard to hold back my scattered emotions.
MT put my hands on her shoulders then supported me as I slid over the edge of the cryotube. My knees had the stability of Jell-o. I clung to her shoulders, aware that her slenderness was deceptive. Even though I’m six inches taller and forty pounds heavier, she held me up.
The metal grating of the floor cut into my bare feet. I shivered at the cold. Maybe I should have used the anti-grav transport. No. What kind of a commander gave in to discomfort when the fate of her crew remained a mystery?
Doubts assailed me. I should have allowed Hal to give his report. Wouldn’t being prepared be better than shock?
Clinging to the little med tech robot and holding onto the edge of my cryotube, I babystepped to the end. From there I could reach the next tube. Gloria’s. My friend, my confidante, the first one I told of my budding romance with Marsh. I stopped and closed my eyes. Please, God, let her be all right.
When I opened my eyes, I peered into her tube’s face plate. Empty.
My heart stopped. Oh no! Her body had already been disintegrated.
I hurried to the next cryotube and the next. Empty, like Gloria’s. No. Please, God, not all of them.
Marsh’s was the last. I couldn’t look. I had to. I held onto the edge. Empty.
My knees gave out. Despite MT’s efforts, I sunk to the floor. Tears streamed down my face. Grief battered my heart, squeezing, burning, until my chest felt as empty as the cryotubes.
“Commander.” MT struggled to help me up.
“Leave me alone.” I wanted to die right there. Our mission had failed.
Come back tomorrow for Part Two of Christmas in Space. For more information about my books, visit my website.