Something is wrong.
Consciousness drifts back to me lazily, like an incoming tide as my mind and body awake in stages. At first, it is dark, and I have no form, just a terrified animal spark suspended in a featureless abyss. My primal hindbrain sends useless impulses to my unanswering body, demanding that I run and hide, but I am still. How long I drift here, I do not know, and the darkness devours time.
Gradually I become aware of muted sensory impressions, the faint hiss of venting gas, the dry taste of recycled air. It is utterly black however, darker than I would have believed possible, and I slowly realize that my eyelids refuse to open. I am aware of them now, thin sheets of flesh that tug across my face, but remain closed despite my efforts. Even without them, I can still sense the glass and metal frame around me.
With a dawning wave, I realize how cold I am. So cold, that for a hideous and protracted moment, I believe I may be on fire. I begin to panic, still trapped inside my nearly lifeless body, wanting to slither and crawl away from the pain. My lips part with a tear of flesh and I can feel blood trickling into my mouth, growing instantly cool as it runs between my clenched teeth. My jaw remains locked in place, the muscles straining weakly beneath my cheeks.
I want to cry, to sob like a child, bathed in quiet despair and helplessness. In my cocoon of self pity, higher functions of my mind begin to slowly emerge, grinding like rusty gears into use, and I try to calm myself.
I am alive, I tell myself. This is all perfectly normal, and at any moment one of the ship’s medics will carefully open the capsule, place the tip of a plastic bulb between my torn lips and squeeze warm, sweet electrolytes down my parched throat. This maternal image of comfort stills my quivering body, and I began to breathe regularly, and my reason begins to return.
If I am awake, then we have arrived. The long silent passage through the endless night of interstellar space has ended. If I am alive, then we are in orbit around Eta Cassiopiae.
I breathe evenly and smooth, and catch a tinge of something in the air, a faint whiff of chemical corruption from the dry sterility of the ventilation. The blackness beyond my closed eyes pulses briefly with light, registering a soft red glow as it diffuses through the vessels and capillaries of my closed lips. My cracked lips emit little white sparks of pain as I contort my face, tugging my eyelids open with a quick and agonizing jerk of the head. Fluid weeps from the corners as I blink convulsively.
At first I am terrified that I am blind, and then, slowly, the edges of my tiny capsule resolve in the faint red light of a blinking LED. The glass is just a few inches from my face and I can see my breath against it, a wet fog that briefly flowers into ice, and quickly evaporates into the dry air. Beyond the glass, is nothing, a silent and yawning darkness.
My heart is thudding in my chest now, and my limbs seem to twitch and tug on the safety restraints around my ankles and wrists. The tight glass coffin and the empty abyss beyond seem to crush me between them, twining threads of claustrophobia and agoraphobia around my chest and I struggle to breath evenly. The lights should be on. Someone should be here by now. Something is very wrong.
Faint movement at the periphery of eyes causes me to turn my head and eyes in a sharp instinctual move. The weary atrophied muscles of my neck scream in agony, and my eyes grind through sandpaper filled sockets. I gasp and my eyes fill with warm welcome tears, that without gravity simply cloud my eyes like a lens. Through the watery haze, I see a passing wave of dull red light, illuminating briefly the dimensions of the space in the dark, and then drifting out of sight.
I shake my head, gritting my teeth against the dry tearing pain of movement, and fling the tears from my eyes. They drift away in little silver spheres and freeze, moments later. I blink my eyes and try to focus again on the darkness. I barely realize that I have stopped breathing when the light returns.
It is a red emergency light, spinning silently, but it is far too dim, and far too slow. It crosses the room like a broom, briefly revealing the faintest glimpse of the space beyond. I see rows of dark containers, dozens of them, each containing the vague shadow of a figure. My eyes dart around the scene, unable to absorb any details, only the vague sense of scale and shape inside the room. I strain my eyes to focus each time the light passes, but I can’t make out anything in the dimming light. There is nothing in the darkness that can tell me what has gone wrong.
I didn’t see the window at first, but I gradually became aware of it as faint pinpricks of starlight catch my eye. I lock my eyes and focus on the drifting stars as my heart threatens to burst from my chest, and my lungs suck in frigid air in ragged gasps.
Calm, I repeat, over and over like a mantra to myself. Calm. If I can just get control of my breathing and be patient, someone will come to help.
Like an answer, there is an explosion of light from beyond the window. I squint, feeling my irises spasm and struggle to contract. Outside the porthole, there is a blue and cloudy world, looming and massive. My eyes adjust and I can do nothing but drink in the sight of the oceans and land. The planet light seeps into the cabin and illuminates the rows of glass and steel tubes, and I can finally make out the occupants.
Most of them are frozen and dead, pale blue and white wraiths with lips and eyelids pulled wide and open by contracting muscles. A few of the containers are smeared red and opaque. Each has the same flower of frozen blood and cracks, where it’s occupant must have beat his skull against the glass.
I tug again on my restraints as panic overwhelms me, my limbs thrashing against the restraints. I realize I am silently asking for god, begging escape from this frozen mausoleum.
My eyes lock onto the planet, now wide and filling the window, and my heart stops. In the blue ocean I see the distinct silhouette of the European coast. My mind reels and I clench my eyes against the disorientation.
We never left.
The fever of panic breaks, and I begin to feel a glimmer of hope. We never left. I am not going to die in orbit around an alien world. I am home. I can still be saved. These thoughts start to warm me and I stop tugging against the straps. Measured breath returns, and I close my puffy, swollen eyes and allow my heart to settle.
I open my eyes again, gazing down onto the Earth, and a sudden wave of nausea rises in me before I really understand what I’ve just seen.
Striking a sharp line across the face of the globe, the terminus between night and day divides Europe and Africa.
On the day side, I see the polar ice, a stretching white sheet that has all but absorbed the Scandinavian Peninsula and coils around the rest of the continent.
On the night side, there is primal and elemental darkness. There are no cities, no lights. There is emptiness.
As quick as it came, the Earth slides out of view, showing only her frigid and lightless night, and dropping the cabin into a final, cold darkness. The red klaxon light has stopped spinning. The lights inside my coffin have stopped blinking.
I am left alone, in the frozen dark, with the dead.
Terror claws at me, my body is shuddering and useless, with blood like ice.
I suck in a deep lungful of the dying air, and scream.