Chapter 1

I’m on my back, staring up through glass. The night sky stares back, a few dim stars. My eyes are heavy, dry, like they’ve been closed a long time. I must have been sleeping, though I don’t remember coming to bed. I don’t remember…anything, really. I’m in that place between, where the mind debates waking or dreaming. It feels like a long debate, longer than usual—though I don’t remember how long ‘usual’ is, either.

A sudden glow blinks into existence, a bluish halogen near my right elbow. It hurts my eyes, and I shy from it. Slowly, a dim reflection of me comes into focus in the glass. I’m lying naked in a bed—a bed of sorts, anyway. The glass is segmented into diamond panes, cutting my reflection into a mosaic.

This isn’t my bed. And I don’t sleep naked.

So you do remember something.

When my eyes adjust, I look to the halogen glow. It’s a rectangular screen, a monitor on a swivel-arm. I turn it towards me. Gold letters blink on a blue background: “Thaw complete.” The word ‘thaw’ triggers a realization—a sensation: I’m cold. I tap the screen and am startled by a loud hiss, a noise like decompression. My reflection fogs over as the glass begins to move, raised by pneumatic pistons. A pale fog quickly fills the bed around me and spills out over the edge.

I sit up, look around, and the debate is settled: I’m still dreaming. Sand stretches in all directions, dune after dune after dune. A narrow band of pale green hangs over the horizon, the last remnants of a setting sun, or the first sign of dawn. The wind blows, and wisps of dust gather like ghosts that rise, materialize, then fade. The breeze steals the moisture from my mouth.

I ask the big question aloud, voice scratchy: “Where am I?”

I roll out of the bed and plant my feet. The sand slips between my toes, very fine, but very dry. I can feel it sucking the moisture from me, thirsty for water it’s never tasted. I turn back to the bed. It resembles a coffin, oversized and half-buried in the sand. A coffin, except for the all the gadgets. Inside, padded cushions nestle in a tangle of wires and gauges. White fog still spills from it, so I reach in, as if instinctively, and tap the monitor’s screen again. A refrigerator hum ceases, and the fog dissipates. Coolant coils begin to tick as their temperature rises.

I know what this coffin really is: a cryopod, used for extended space travel; it preserves its occupant in a state of hibernation during multiverse jumps. It also doubles as an emergency escape pod. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, but it’s plain how I got here: something went wrong and the pod jettisoned to save my life.

I grip the edge of the pod with both hands, step back, and hang my head. I’m not sure if I’m going to vomit or hyperventilate or faint. Maybe all three. Jettisoned. Stranded. It’s not a debate anymore; it’s a plea-bargain with reality, and I’m begging it to tell me this is all a dream. I lift my head and look around again. Nothing but sand.

Stranded. In a desert.

The word ‘desert’ triggers a new realization—a new sensation: I’m hot. Which puts me on the verge of panic, because it’s only going to get hotter. I can sense that coming heat like an angry presence in the next room. It’s going to come through the door on one of the horizons, saying, ‘Heat? I’ll show you heat.’

Pleas aren’t working, so I try rationale again. Think.

Vertigo, light sensitivity, short-term memory loss, long-term memory loss, anxiety…the symptoms are crystal: I’m suffering from hibernal fatigue, a common side-effect of multiverse travel. There are other symptoms too, I think; that most of the symptoms are cognitive in nature undermines my attempt to list more. But I suppose my recognition of any symptoms should count for something; it’s proof that I will remember, eventually.

Rationale leads me back to the cryopod. The bed’s padded cushions are lids to hidden compartments. I open one, looking for a survival kit. I find a suit folded into a loose square. I remove it from the compartment and let it unfold. It’s like a onesie for a grown man, made of an impermeable latex. It has heavy-soled boots for feet and a mask that covers the head and face. It’s a reuptake suit, made to recycle the body’s moisture into drinkable water. Before I realize what I’m doing, I’ve climbed into it, sealed it up the front, and pulled the mask over my face. I’m like a man going about his morning routine—except, one doesn’t routinely find himself stranded in the desert.

I have to stop again, ask myself one last time: am I still dreaming? Maybe I should just lie down in the cryopod again, go back to sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up in my real bed, to something that makes sense. Because, really, what would I be doing in a cryopod to begin with? I squirm inside my suit, my frustration compounded by the heat. I wish I could remember.

I exhale a long breath. Figure it out.

This little coffin didn’t fly here on its own. If there’s a cryopod, there’s a transport, or a freighter, or at the very least a skiff which could be just over the horizon, safely landed, broadcasting a homing beacon or distress signal. And a cryopod’s accelerated thaw cycle lasts about twenty-four hours, which means I haven’t been separated from that skiff for long.

See? You remember plenty.

I lean into the pod and punch a command into the monitor. In a few seconds, the pod sends out a beacon of its own, a single electronic bleep. I listen intently, hear only windborne sand ticking against my suit. Five more seconds pass and the bleep sounds again. Then another five and another bleep. It’s sending out a signal but receiving no response. The skiff’s mainframe must be down. For repairs, I tell myself. Technicians could be running diagnostics, searching for the root cause of whatever prompted the jettison. I type another command into the monitor and read the return. The skiff’s last known position displays on the screen: fifty kilometers.

Could be worse. I can walk fifty kilometers. My joints ache, but that’s just the hibernal fatigue. Besides, what choice do I have?

Inside the compartment where I found the reuptake suit, I find more survival gear: flares, filters, nutrition packets, helicometers—useful items for someone lost in the desert. The filters are for the reuptake suit; they trap my body’s salts to keep my drinking water pure. I thread one into a female receptacle near the mouth of my mask; affixed, the thin cylinder runs back along my jawline. In seconds, a trickle of water forms at the end of a small hose on the inside of the mask. I suck greedily at it, wanting more than the suit is ready to give. I slide the rest of the filters like bullets into tight sleeves stitched into the suit’s chest. I slip the nutrition packets into an oversized pocket at my beltline.

I open another compartment under the bed and find a massive pistol, nearly as tall as it is long. I pick it up, heft it in my hands. Two barrels sit atop one another, plus a barrel for a transit beam, and an electrosextant scope atop that. The thing looks like a pan-flute with a trigger. I load the flares and helicometers into it without thinking, deft as any sharpshooter, which gives me pause. I behold the gun again, and a sense of familiarity creeps in. I know this gun. I don’t know how, but I know it.

Familiarity is comforting because it’s a precursor to memory, because there’s something terrifying about the dark spaces in my mind. In a way, I’m more afraid of them than crash-landing in the desert. It’s a sort of cognitive nyctophobia—or worse: a kenophobia, a horror vacuii. What if those spaces aren’t just dark, but blank? I shake my head. Now you’re over-rationalizing. Better to focus on things external, let the memories come back on their own.

There’s a square panel on the gun’s left side, attached by a swivel-arm to the electrosextant scope. I flip it out to reveal a monitor very similar to the one in the cryopod: same gold letters, same blue background. I tap a few icons, as if by rote, and the gun syncs with the cryopod. I peer through the scope and see the skiff’s coordinates glowing orange in the view, translucently superimposed over the lens. As I aim, they flicker through a plus/minus deviation. When I’m on-target, they settle near zero.

That way. I let out a sigh, and again I think: It could be worse.

Or maybe the worst is yet to come. The skiff’s mainframe might not be down for diagnostics. It might be down because the vessel tore apart on reentry. Pieces of it might be scattered across the desert, or lying in one big impact crater. That’d turn my fifty kilometer march into a hundred kilometer march and leave me with me with two bleak choices: a hot death in the desert or a cold death in the cryopod.

I push those thoughts away too, bury them deep. Thinking like that is a bad idea, especially before I’ve taken my first step. The skiff will be there, and just as a cryopod has survival supplies, the skiff will have distress equipment like orbital transmitters and red-drift projectors. Best case, it will get me where I was going in the first place. Wherever that was.

I raise the gun and slide it into a holster on the upper back of the suit. My body still aches, but that’s waning, the vertigo too. And my mind feels alert, ready to compute. There’s just not enough raw material to work with. It’ll come back. The memories are somewhere inside me. I can almost feel the weight of them, sense their immensity. It’s as if my mental self is standing beneath a great dam, thirsty but aware of the danger, the sheer power held back by the wall. I dare not break it for a drink.

I take one last look around me. It’s so quiet here. I hear the sand when the wind moves it, and I hear the sounds of myself, but nothing else. The sky is speckled with stars, but not a single blink of a satellite or freighter. This place is as empty as my head, just sand and sky.

I’d better get moving while the darkness lasts. I’ve got a lot of walking ahead of me. And thinking. I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing here.

 

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