He did not belong.
That was the first conscious thought in Adán’s head. Before he sensed that he was breathing or that his heart was pumping, he knew he shouldn’t be there. He’d known it for a long time but had kept it to himself. Hadn’t said a word right up to the moment the acrylic screen had come down and the icy serum entered his vein, but his apprehension was abruptly interrupted as he succumbed to the anesthetic that prepared him for cryo-hibernation.
Adán opened his eyes to a disorienting darkness. Light, he thought. There is supposed to be light. He squeezed his eyes shut, and then opened them again, straining to detect even the slightest glimmer. He felt his own hot breath collecting in the narrow space between his face and the cover above him. Had the respiratory system failed? Was that why his cryo had been terminated? He had been asleep only moments. At least it felt like moments. He awoke to his half-finished thought, still feeling the tightness in his gut, what Colonel Foster had deemed nerves.
“It’ll pass,” she had assured him. “It’s as easy as going to sleep.”
He breathed harder, faster. The moist air from his lungs condensed on his skin. Or was he perspiring? He lifted his right hand to wipe the sheen of sweat away, and his knuckles hit the underside of the screen. A dull thud reverberated through Adán’s unit, and something shifted just at waist level. Adán couldn’t raise his head more than a few inches, but it was enough to see the sudden speck of green light above his body. With his hand, he struck the acrylic over and over. With each collision, the spot of light grew larger.
It took a minute for Adán’s mind to clear, to recall his training, his protocol. He tried to speak, but his throat was dry. He swallowed and tried again.
“Systems on. 4-ENG-003.” His voice uttering his personal systems key in this confined space sounded too loud. “Cryo screen open.”
Nothing happened. He tried again, but still his unit remained closed.
Adán struck the acrylic cover a few more times until enough light had filtered into his unit that he could make out the emergency control panel at his left just beside his fingertips. On it was a rectangular button marked COMM and a lever marked RELEASE. They were crude apparatuses compared to the vocal commands he was used to, but he would use them if necessary. They’d gone over this in training, but even the simplest of thoughts resisted recall, a temporary effect of coming out of cryo. Gradually, as memories coalesced in his mind, he pressed his thumb against the COMM button.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?” Adán forced himself to control his breathing to slow as he waited for a reply. Nothing. “This is Mission Specialist Adán Fuentes. 4-ENG-003. My unit seems to be malfunctioning.”
Again, he waited. Adán re-adjusted his thumb. “Hello? Hello?”
The screen, so close to his face, seemed to press in on him. He should wait for confirmation to clear his unit and that the Med Squad was ready for him, but he had to get out. He had to get out now.
Adán hooked two of his fingers around the emergency release lever and pulled. The dull click of the latch resonated through his enclosure. With a sucking sound, the screen slid open, pushing what seemed to be a layer of dust to the floor.
For a moment, Adán saw only green, and it reminded him of the time he and Saul had gone scuba diving off Catalina Island—how under water everything had that odd seaweed-like tint to it. Then the overhead lights blinked on, and the dim oceany color evaporated. The sudden brightness stung Adán’s eyes, and he shielded them with his elbow. When he thought he could tolerate the light, he lowered his arm and cautiously sat up.
He was in the Quarters just as he should be, the vast cavern-like hibernation compartment housing two rows of twelve identical cryo units each—twenty-four in all—and the main control panel at the far end. This room was the last image he’d had before his cover came down, but it had looked nothing like this.
The overhead lights that ran the length of the room blinked and dimmed at irregular intervals. The intermittent light made it difficult for Adán’s vision to fully adjust. Then, instead of cryo units, all he saw were two dozen oblong heaps of rust-colored dirt—his own open unit the only exception—like the mounds of earth on freshly filled graves.
What the hell?
The next thing he noticed was a thick, long bulge along the starboard wall, extending from the far end of the room to just past midway. The bulge was so large it had displaced several of the units.
Adán felt weak and lightheaded, which he had been told to expect. After the initial dose of anesthesia, the needle in his arm had first replaced the water in his body with a low temperature-tolerant liquid, and then later reversed the process, providing a nutrient-infused solution to revive his body once the six-year journey to Europa was complete. Even so, upon waking, his stomach felt horribly empty, as if the very core of him was missing. Adán ignored it. As he sat up, his muscles cramped, and his fingertips tingled. He made a weak fist and then cautiously unfolded each finger, allowing time for normal sensation to return. Once it had, he turned his attention to the I.V. needle in his arm.
Where were the medics? The MED squad was supposed to awaken first and help the others. They were supposed to follow protocol, otherwise how could they successfully fulfill the mission? But from what he could tell, none of the others had awakened yet. He looked at the bulge and the dust and swallowed back the panic rising in his throat.
Something had gone terribly wrong.
Adán walked his fingers up his arm to the circular silicon patch that tracked his vitals and peeled it off. He did the same for the one on his temple, the one that had recorded and archived his brain activity during hibernation. Then he slid his fingers around the needle above his wrist.
He considered just yanking it out, like tearing off a band-aid, but couldn’t quite get up the nerve. Instead, he tugged, gently at first. An acute pain rippled up his arm. He released the needle, gasping.
No wonder the medics were supposed to remove the I.V.s and then wake up the crew.
He tried again, this time sucking in a deep breath while sliding the metal tube out of his skin.
Adán pressed the heel of his hand against the small wound to stop the bleeding and shifted his legs over the side of the unit. As he set his bare feet on the floor, a cloud of dust puffed up, staining the hem of his white pants burnt orange. As he took his first step, the muscles in both calves seized, and pain stabbed at the backs of his legs and knees. Cramps. He had been warned about the cramps.
“Pull your toes up,” Colonel Foster had told him. “Stretch out those muscles.”
Adán let go of his arm and reached down to pull on his feet, straightening each leg as he did so. It took a minute or two, but eventually the cramping subsided.
He stood up, taking a few unsteady steps between the two rows of cryo units. If he was awake, then maybe others were, too. At least the ones whose lights were on, though after the MED squad, they were all scheduled to wake at the same time, but none of the other units were open yet.
He studied the pale green glow beneath the dust on his own unit. The light signaled that his body systems had stabilized and that he was ready to be released from cryo. He turned to the unit beside his own and wiped the dust away from the light panel with his arm. There was no green, no light at all. Not even the yellow LED that should have indicated the unit was in use.
The mound of dust on the unit’s cover had formed a sort of crust, like the plates of caked earth in a dry riverbed. Adán touched it with the tip of his finger, and the crust crumbled. It was so delicate that if he blew on it, it might all just float away, but something inside of him resisted. Instead, he stepped away from the unit and moved to the next one.
The green light was like a beacon. Adán was so relieved he had to steady himself. He wasn’t the only one awake. He was not alone. Scraping the dust from the cover with the side of his hand, he peered inside.
A pair of bewildered brown eyes gazed back at him.