Frost – By Clint Westbrook

Paul Horn sat on the edge of the support pod, naked as the day he was born and shivering in the cold. The liquid oxygen he had pushed out of his lungs dripped from his knees, the blue liquid puddling between his feet. The light was bright and harsh. He hated those lights, the excessive brilliance of them hurt his eyes after so long in bed. As the crew’s MD he was the last one to go to bed and the first one to wake up after the trip and it always grew tedious.

He reached for the towel he had laid out beside his bed and began to dry off, clearing his face up and walking towards the lockers. The manifest above them read ‘Horn’, ‘Mendez’, ‘Taylor’, ‘Reed’, and ‘Jacobson’. He opened the one labelled ‘Horn’ and reached inside for his boxers. Just the feel of fabric on his skin was instantly warming, and he dressed quickly. Crossing to the kitchen for some of the shitty instant coffee he glanced over at the crew, all four still entrenched in sleep. After a bit of med-prep and a pick-me-up he would wake them and get them moving.

He poured cream and sugar in his coffee and moved to the table with his pad. Hitting a few keys opened a small panel next to his seat to reveal a TabTube. Lifting the small tube, he keyed it on and the display rolled out into a firm screen and a list of passengers and cryotubes ran up on the screen, complete with readouts confirming the animate state of each of the others. Simple list, simple mission. They were part of a survey team, they merely had to be in the area for six months and take readings while Paul kept them all healthy and busy to avoid cabin fever. He flipped through the readout, checking the readings. He stopped at Taylor’s. Her brain activity was fully active. The rest were in a dreamlike state, fully engrossed in REM and would not remember anything, but Taylor seemed as though she was awake. The spike in activity had not occurred during the flight but had been there in the beginning. Odd, he had put the sedative tubes in himself and was certain he had secured them.

He decided against prep. This was probably nothing, but protocal demand that he awaken the crew and that they all check on Taylor. He walked back across the galley to the large cryo-bay and walked the circumference, looking into each pod in turn to check on the crew. They were sound asleep. Mendez even had a smile on her face. “Bloody kid”, he thought to himself. Mendez was the team technician, recruited by the sponsoring survey company after hacking their entire system as a graduation prank when she was getting out of high school. Instead  of pressing charges they had offered her a job maintaining the computer systems aboard the Ariadne and she had been adequate thus far. Paul had worked his previous four system tours with her and while she could be a naive pain in the ass she was adequate and could even be fun if she got bored, teasing them all with little jokes in the system and small little paintings she put up around the ship. She was beyond eclectic, and her ability was sound, but she would wind up getting in trouble if one of her jokes went haywire. He still remembered the damned singing cat.

Mendez was wired into the ships computer systems. Her health during the flight was the most important, as instead of being allowed to dream she was rotated. Her dreams went on six hour shifts, switching between regular sleep and control of the systems. Once per week she would go on a seventy-two hour spurt during which she occasionally got to control the ship. She was the only one who was supposed to acquire a modicum of lucid ability in-flight so that she could perform course corrections and routine maintenance. She was amazing at controlling her dreams, and back home she had won a prize at a small film festival for recording a particularly moving dream. It had been marketed and sold and she had stored all of the money in an account for her return from this trip. She would probably retire early, simply recording and selling dreams for people to experience.

He moved on, checking the rest of the them in turn before arriving at his problematic child, company executive Ashley Taylor. He looked her system over, and everything seemed fine. The tubes were connected and he felt them. First one had that slight vibration, that noticeable pumping of fluid to keep her asleep. He felt the other one. It was still.

He yanked it out, it was completely dry. he followed it around to port where the fluid was supposed to be stored, saw there was no canister. They were meant to be rotated in as they emptied, but she had received nothing. Half her sedative was missing.

The sedatives came in two canisters, pumped in separately. One contained a paralyzing agent to keep the body still in the tube, the other kept one asleep and in a state of dreaming so that they would pass the time. No one had ever gone without one before, not to Paul’s knowledge, and he had no idea what would happen. He quickly jerked up and looked into the cryotube.

Ashley Taylor’s eyes were wide open, fixed on his.

* * *

 

The crew sat around the table. Mendez was flush, her face scared and annoyed. She had never had to deal with a medical emergency and the entire thing had screwed up her wakeup prank. Horn stood over Taylor, scanner humming softly as he read the signs in the still form before him. They had opened Taylor’s tube last, and before they did so Horn had explained the situation. He was afraid they might have needed to subdue Taylor, and he had been right. She had launched out of the tube, ranting about something or other, and had immediately struggled against them to get back in the tube. Her nails had raked across Jacobson’s face and left a streak of small scratches along the captain’s pale cheek. Horn had vanished momentarily to get a sedative and they had held Taylor as she was injected with a full syringe of barbiturates that had left her unconscious on the floor.

Ashley Taylor had been awake for three years in her cryotube, no small matter. Physically she seemed fine, if exhausted, and her body had been asleep naturally on and off so she had gotten some rest. Her mental state, that was yet to be determined. Three years of being alone, paralyzed under the glass, and wide awake was nothing to joke about. The irony, of course, being that there was now a small gnome-like creature dancing on the screens welcoming everyone to their destination, joyously spouting things like “Good morning!” and “Hope you had a good nap”, all of it quite loudly. Mendez could not shut it off, it was on a two hour timer, and the captain had threatened to put her back in cryo if it did not shut off eventually. So here they were, standing around a woman who could potentially snap, with a dancing garden gnome shouting “Welcome to your destination,” in a helium altered voice. It was annoying.

The program on the monitors shut off as Horn finished his scan and they all sighed, Jacobson’s eyes bulging in exasperation and relief as the program finally shut down. Horn looked at his readings. “She seems ok,” he said after review. “At least physically. Her brain is fully intact, she fell asleep at fairly regular intervals, and she is only as dehydrated as the rest of us. We won’t know more until we wake her up but I think that should be safe at this juncture.”

Jacobson looked skeptical. “Horn, we don’t know what she’ll do. This has never happened before, the mind isn’t supposed to go through this.” She paused, reached out to touch Taylor’s shoulder. “We don’t know what she’ll be like.” The medic looked at her, silently noting the interaction and filing it away for later review, and reached out and took Jacobson’s hand. “Carol,” he said calmly, “We can’t just put her back in cryo. We need to check her out and document this. We’re flying blind and this is your designated exec, she has to be questioned and talked to.” He let go of the captain’s hand and looked her in the eye. “I’ll restrain her, I’ll be gentle with her, and I’ll take amazing care of her.”

“Fine,” she reply. Carol Jacobson turned and walked from the room to her quarters. She would shower, she would change, and she would assume her place on the bridge. She was a professional to the last and would not let this interfere with the mission. Reed broke off as well, calling something back about prepping scanners. They heard the scrape of his chair being drug to his instruments as his doors slid shut. Quiet and spacey, Reed interacted with the crew in small ways but he was still part of the group and they saw him as family. Only Mendez remained with Horn. “I want to help with the interview after she’s awake,” she stated.

“I know you two were close,” Horn said.

“We are. She was the one who originally recruited me…”

“And kept you on as her systems tech, I know.”

“I just want to make sure she’s ok.”

Horn sighed. Mendez was young and inexperienced, maybe too much so. She had four flights so far and in terms of aging she still appeared nineteen years old, but one did not age in cryo and each mission had been between four to six years. Rosa Mendez was a child stuck in middle age, and it was beginning to show. Paul was nearly eighty after all of his expeditions, but he still appeared to be fairly young. He was slightly grey in the temples and a small amount of paunch haunted his waist, but other than that he was fairly fit and on their second trip out Mendez had noticed. They maintained a professionalism about it, but he cared enough to be bothered by the fear he saw on her face. Now that they were alone he could drop a bit of the facade. He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. She came willingly and dropped her face into his shoulder to cry.

It was brief, but she got it out of her system. She pulled back after a few minutes and wiped her eyes. She looked up at him, all business after only a brief moment of intimacy. “I know I can’t be there,” she said, “but I want you to let me know everything you can afterward. I know you can’t tell me everything, but I just want to know she’s ok. I’m sure she will be, but you need to let me know what you can.” He looked at your, at the youth showing through. “I will, Rosa. I promise.”

 

* * *

 

“The glass was frosted.”

Ashely Taylor sat in the little, podlike chair. Its white surface glinted with the reflection of the soft overhead lights, and she had curled up in it like a child waiting to be read to. And she had been, in the beginning. Horn had read through her readouts and his report that was being prepared to file with the company. Taylor had sat in a state of pure sorrow, her nose slightly wrinkled as she stared at the carpet in Horn’s quarters. The deep green contrasted the taupe walls perfectly, and the soft glow of lamps (he felt overhead lights were too harsh) was soothing to most. He was trained in the fields of practical medicine, surgery, and psychology in order to best serve the crew. If you were sick it was no matter, Paul Horn could cure what ailed you and if he could not then he would simply knock you out and remove whatever offended your physique. It was the listening that was never easy. And now, as he read Taylor the reports of what he had learned so far in his study of her body he could see that he was giving no comfort. He stopped near the end and deactivated the tube screen, setting it aside. Her eyes remained fixed on the carpet.

The first words she spoke were “The glass was frosted.” He had sat in silence for nearly five minutes, waiting for her to speak first if at all possible. Her words were bare, and offered little insight, but at least she was talking. After another pause she continued.

“The glass was always frosted,” she said.

“Mmhmm.”

“It was so cold. I couldn’t move but I was always freezing.”

“Did you sleep?”

“On and off. Sometimes. I don’t really know for sure.”

She buried her head in her hands. “Doc, I just don’t remember all of it. It was all so…” she trailed off. Horn leaned forward, put on what the crew usually referred to as his ‘camp-counselor face’, and asked, “Do you know anything about why the tube malfunctioned?” She looked up, a small trickle of tears leaking from one eye. “No, I don’t know.” She looked at her hands. He leaned back, puzzled. “She’s lying,” he thought, but he did not pursue it. Instead he merely asked, “Ashley, I need to know if there is anything you want to discuss about the situation. You’re healthy, you seem fine, and you seem lucid. I need to know if you are experiencing anything strange. I need to know if you can function for this outing. If not we may need to leave, get everyone back into cryo and head home.” She looked up at this, alarmed. “We’re not leaving,” she said.

“Ashley,” he started.

“No. You know this site is important.”

“Yes, I know the company wants the site.”

“The possibilities out here are extensive.”

“I understand that.”

“I’m feeling fine.” She could not meet his eyes when she said this. He momentarily wondered about it, then held back. “Ok then, you feel fine. We’ll continue the survey of the site. But you have to promise to let me know if anything is different at any time.” At this she smiled and looked at him, the corners of her mouth twitching into a wry smile. “I’ll come to you. Hell, if Carol or Rosa see anything wrong they’ll tell you. Carol is too stiff for anything less and Rosa is…fond of you.” He smiled at this. He had not exactly kept the relationship secret, but they had all been shipped out together multiple times now and everyone knew where he stood with the young tech even though professionalism dictated keeping it quiet. Through the kindness of his crew he had been allowed that. “Ok, Ashley, you got me there.” She smiled at him and ran her fingers over the edge of the chair, a small nervous twitch. “Carol is worried, then?” He leaned back, keeping his mask on, and said, “We all are, Ashley. No one has ever gone through what you went through. Its traumatic at the least. You were wide awake for three years, paralyzed and unable to even shift your head. It can’t have been uncomfortable, the numbing agents would have seen to that, but overall we’re just worried about you because…” She jumped in with, “Because you think I’ll snap after my trauma.” He smiled back at her for the first time. “We’re not worried you’ll snap,” he said. “We’re worried that you’ll be suffering, that’s all. We don’t want you having nightmares or dealing with any hurt or frustration.”

She nodded at this, then smiled at him again. She was all smiles, and it was very unlike her. “I’m crystal on that, Doc, and I’ll let you know if I have a panic attack or something.” And that was it. Interview over.

 

* * *

 

“She’s lying about something,” Horn said. He was in Captain Jacobson’s quarters giving his report, the woman sitting across her desk from him. She was stiff-backed as though sitting against a wall, and her face was impassable. “Can we find out what she’s lying about?” she asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I figured you might be able to find out better than I could hope to.” At this Jacobson seemed to twitch, ever so slightly. It was enough to confirm what he had wondered at. “How long have you known?” she asked. “You were kind of intimate for a moment when I was examining her. With anyone else I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but your pleasantly stony demeanor made that stand out. I don’t think anyone else caught it though, don’t worry.”

She sighed, then opened a drawer in her desk and took out two tumblers and a bottle of vodka. She poured two fingers in each of them and slid one across the desk for Horn. He took it, threw the entire contents of the glass back, then handed it back to her. She smiled, did the same, then poured them each another. “I’m grateful for your discretion.” At this he let out a small laugh. “Carol, after all the carrying on I do with Mendez, and your silence about it all, it’s the least I can do.”

They tossed their shots back and stared at each other. The silence was full of unspoken words. The Captain broke first. “I’ll tell you,” she said. “Tell me what?” he replied. “I’ll tell you if I think she’s ok. I’ll let you know if I think there is anything wrong tomorrow morning, after I’ve had time to talk to her and spend with her.” Horn nodded, set his glass on the table, and left the room.

 

* * *

 

Jacobson awoke to the filtered reflection from snow. She looked at it, unable to take her gaze away. The crystals were shimmering in the harsh sunlight and hurt her eyes. She was frozen in time, her body stuck in the ice. Where was she?

She remembered Taylor. She remembered laying there with her, bathed in sweat and exhausted as they tried to twist under the sheets they had left askew. “Ash, pull that up, I’m cold,” she had requested. Taylor had complied and they had held each other in the darkness. “Are you still worried about me, Carol?” Jacobson had to smile at that. “I was a bit worried but things seem to be better. Where did you learn that?” She had felt Taylor shudder with laughter against her. “The Net offers many delights for the depraved, babe.” Pulling her close, Jacobson had taken in her girlfriend. The chemical smell of her hair that never went away, even after a shower and a day organizing the scanners. The soft feel of the tiny form in her arms, the way she could feel Taylor’s smile against her shoulder. Of course there was nothing wrong. Horn was just being paranoid.

Taylor had sat straight up and leaned over the edge of the bed to pull up the bottle of wine. After a swig it had been Jacobson’s turn, and she drank deeply. “Ash, I think I’m gonna pass out.” Ashley Taylor had smiled down at her and leaned in, kissing her lightly. “Go ahead, sweetheart, I’m right behind you.” Shortly thereafter the Captain had fallen asleep, her lover buried in her arms.

And now she dreamed of snow. She tried reaching for it, her vision still a little blurry. She had to be dreaming of her home, upstate and cold all year round. She had to be dreaming of the time she had spent there with Taylor before they had shipped out on the current mission. Jacobson had never, in her wildest dreams, believed that Taylor would actually be interested in her. Then one day Taylor had called, drunk beyond all reasoning, and asked if Jacobson could pick her up and let her sleep over for the night because she simply could not drive herself. She had settled the woman on the couch and then retired for the night as well. Less than half an hour later Taylor had come crawling into her bed and, well, one thing led to another. They had been inseparable ever since.

She tried to reach for the snow again but still could not get it. She was cold, and she wanted to get out of the weather. Her vision kept clearing but she could only see the harsh glare from the snow. It took her a moment, just another brief instant. Then her eyes were clear and she could see the glass, the window to the world. She felt her stomach drop and her adrenaline began to pump.

Carol Jacobson was in her cryo tube, wide awake and paralyzed.

 

* * *

 

Johnny Reed was up late. An mild insomniac, he had trouble sleeping most nights. Any little noise brought him awake, and he was unable to get back to REM if he was pulled out of it. He took pills sometimes, doctor’s orders, but most nights he sat up and worked on his scans. He spent many nights on the bridge, his body eventually giving in after a time and succumbing to sleep, but he got more accomplished. The crew had given up trying to push him to get into a more regular cycle and simply counted it a blessing that he helped them get their job done faster. Reed worked twenty hour days most of the time, and as a result they got twice as much data in the allotted time. On the last outing he had gotten the data collection finished a full two weeks early and they had shipped back, glad to be on the way home for some rest. He slept like the dead on the way here and back, he could live with less.

He pulled his eyes away from his terminal and leaned back in the chair. He brought his own, a plastic school thing that he had kept onboard in a storage area. No one knew why he favored it, and they never asked. He was allowed his quirks, they turned a blind eye to his oddities and the bags under his eyes. As long as he kept being so efficient they would not delve into too many personal questions. Even the Doc had finally come around.

Reed never heard the door open. The silent sliding doors were inaudible, and they were his undoing. He never even felt the blow at the back of his head, and he was out before he hit the floor. An hour later he awoke in his cryotube and spent the better part of the next hour trying to scream. He could not even get his mouth to move, and he lay there with his eyes bulging in terror.

 

* * *

 

Paul Horn staggered back against the door frame, clutching it firmly to keep himself from toppling. His stomach turned and he bent to vomit on the floor. The sickly smell wafted up and gagged him again, and he added to his expulsion. Wiping his mouth he turned his eyes back into the room.

Nothing seemed to be out of place except the overturned chair. That and the body. Rosa Mendez lay on the floor, a gash in her neck leaking blood onto the floor to join the wounds in her scalp and arm. She had been beaten to death, and the body was mangled on the floor. He began to cry and collapsed to the floor. Crawling towards her he quietly spoke her name. “Rosa, baby please. Please wake up.” He reached her and placed a hand on her breast. The gesture was disturbingly intimate considering the situation, but he needed to feel a heartbeat. She was completely still.

A cry escaped him, and he reached beneath her head to cradle her in his arms. The rag doll that had once been his lover leaned back, and the gash spread to leak even more blood. He dropped her as it poured onto his arms, terrified that if it opened any further her head would topple from her shoulders. Whatever had hit her had broken her neck, and as she crumpled back to the floor the end of the bone pushed against her skin. She looked bent.

He crawled back to the door and used it to pull himself to his feet. He moved into the hallway and slammed his fist into the small panel, sending the doors sliding silently shut. He slid to the floor and cried, weeping openly into his hands. No one came to see what was the matter. “Where are you?” he cried out, looking back and forth at the doors to the other quarters. He staggered to his feet and crossed to the first. It was Reed’s.

The room was empty, his terminal still unlocked and running scans on the immediate area. He listened to the quiet beeps and watched the information running over the terminal. He glanced around, looking for anything. There was nothing to find. He swung around and crossed to the Captain’s room. Again, completely empty. The entire room smelled of sweat and red wine. He crossed to the bed, stepping over the comforter that lay carelessly on the floor, and heard a small squishing sound underneath him on the carpet. He looked down, saw the overturned bottle of wine and the empty glasses on the floor. He picked up a one of the clear stemware pieces, part of a set he knew Jacobson favored, and turned it over in his shaking hands. There was lipstick on the rim in several places, and it smelled of berries. The added scent coupled with the smell of sex that lay heavy in the room caused him to gag again, and he dropped the glass and began coughing hard. He collapsed to his knees and began sobbing again.

A prick in his neck and everything immediately went blurry. He stood up swiftly, swinging his hand to slap the spot he felt at the base of his neck. He spun around, his vision misty, and glanced at the dark figure standing before him. He fell to the floor, his face turned up. The dark form leaned close and he could just make out the figure of Ashley Taylor. She was smiling.

 

* * *

 

Horn was heavier than the others had been. Reed had been thin and wiry, his insomnia working with the body’s metabolism to leave him rail thin, and Jacobson’s weight was something she had grown accustomed to lifting in their time together, but Horn was stocky. She had to drag him across the galley, stopping halfway for a final cup of coffee in the Ariadne’s galley. It took significantly more effort to hoist him into the pod and get him situated, but after a time she managed it. Taylor tweaked her back, but she took no notice. She, too, would lay in a pod after a few more minutes.

She removed the sedative pod, wiring only the paralytic into his system and closed the lid. She watched for over an hour, waiting for her little cocktail to wear off. He came awake very suddenly, and she could see his eyes looking warily at her through the glass. She smiled and kissed her fingers, laying them gently on the tube above his head, and walked away. He would thank her. They all would.

She recorded a farewell message and ejected the black box. It would be found one day, and then everyone would know of the majesty she had discovered. After a year she had begun to sink into eternity, and by the time she was released from her cryo tube she knew she had to share. She did feel bad about Mendez, though. The feisty young girl had put up a struggle from the instant she saw the syringe in Taylor’s hand, and in the end she had not been able to accept the glory of Eternal or the serenity it granted.

She went to the bridge and plugged in the coordinates to guide her new followers. It would only take a few days to reach their destination, they were so far out in the rim that they were at best a week from the void at the edge. She would shoot them out, then kill the engines to allow them to perpetually fly into the stars. Night would fall and the light would burn through into them. She programmed the engines and then left the bridge. The life support system had been set for indefition and would keep them alive as long as they had enough paralytic. The company had enough foresight to know they would need it, each mission came with nearly a century’s worth of the liquid. You know, just in case.

She set her cryo tube and put on a timer for five minutes before climbing in. The light burned into her eager eyes as she gazed at it, longing for the frost and the crystals that had opened up her mind to the infinitism of reality. As the tube slid shut and the cold came she entered the majesty of eternity with a smile on her face. Ashley Taylor had saved them all.

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