My eyeballs still had a layer of ice on them when my lids snapped open to shrill, beating light.
My body was hit with wake-up juice and jabs of electricity from the bed. I couldn’t scream because my throat wouldn’t work. My body was a bruise–being beaten.
Across from me, in a frosty tube like mine, Jad’s terror-torn eyes were blazing wide. His blood was being quick-heated, too.
My voice came back in mid-scream, jagged against the dimpled diamond and titanium glass of the crystallic cryo-bed.
I gained control as our tubes slid open.
Jad gasped. He’d never awakened from deadsleep. And this was no routine awakening.
I coughed. “Severance. Status.”
My ship answered in her lilting, Andrusian-inspired purr, “Boarders, Rye. Eleven unknown life-forms. They’re in aft cargo — hold four.”
The gut-flame and dizzying cramping of my brain began to subside. I tested my limbs. “Show me.”
The screen above Jad flickered on. Eleven, purple, wormlike things with long, filament-limbs — lots of them — slithered around in one of my cargo holds. Nothing important in there — a few thousand plants from various systems, farming equipment, and eight million square tons of Earth Nineteen topsoil.
Just crap for those idiots who decide that living on a planet called Eden Flame, in the Inferno-Six System, is a good idea. Damned sun burns every natural thing off the surface every seven turns, sterilizing what soil doesn’t fuse into stone. They just import dirt and start over. Whatever that white sunlight does to their crops to make it super-food is apparently worth the occasional mega-solar flare.
I watched the invaders. They didn’t seem to be doing much. I turned my attention to my new shipmate as my muscles stopped twitching.
“Jad, how ya doin’?” He looked a little wild.
“I’m good, Rye. Gettin’ there.” His eyes focused on mine.
“See those things in hold four?” I pointed with my eyes to the screen over my head.
I didn’t see any breaches in the cargo bay. “Severance, how did they get in?”
We watched the wormy things flop around in a cluster, butted up against the containment field for the dirt.
Severance announced, “You’re within healthy parameters.”
“Thank you, Severance. Where are we?”
Midway is a huge system, seventy-eight planets and all their moons, three suns dancing in the most intricate display of solar physics known in the galaxy.
One of those planets is my home. I grew up just outside the biggest spaceport there has ever been. I studied at The University, with two hundred and sixty-seven different races. I’d never even seen an image of the things invading my ship.
“Severance, how big are those things?”
“One point four meters tall. Average weight is twenty-one kilograms. Rudimentary internal systems.”
“Big worms with lots of legs.”
“Yuck,” said Jad, stretching.
I walked to the control panel and did some stretching and bending. “Well, let’s go see.”
We snapped on some electromag cuffs. I didn’t want to stroll in there naked and discover that the worms could shoot lasers from their mouth-parts or something. I like being under the protective blanket of my own personal shield, anyway. I wear the cuffs most days in space–just in case. We took some guns, too.
We got there quick enough.
The worms all stopped wriggling around the bay when we came through the hatch. They gathered up in a knot. I noticed a hole in the dirt’s containment field behind them.
One of the critters slither-skipped toward us. We raised our guns.
It stopped a respectable distance away and reared its worm head. It had a big mouth for a top, with one tooth-looking lip hanging over another. Black hair waggled in and out of its mouth as it blathered something at us.
“Severance, can you translate that?”
One whole minute passed. “I can’t, Rye. I’m sorry.”
Another worm broke from the group to join us. It carried a small metal box. Our guns remained trained.
It put the box on the ground and went to work on it with sixty or so legs in a whispery blur. When it was done, the worm slithered upright and made some nasty sounds.
The box spoke. “We are Ferl. Free us from this enclosure and you will not be harmed.”
The box translated sloppy worm sounds, “You may mistakenly believe you have a claim to this world. You’re wrong. The Ferl have resided within this earth since our sun was new. We have been in cryo-suspension for seven million orbits.”
Jad and I exchanged a glance.
The box said, “We will allow your people to live. By obeying our rule.”
“Oh, really?” I asked the worm.
Another glance was exchanged between my newest partner and I. This time I blinked code. I heard his gravity boots snick to the deck in synch with mine.
“Correct. Our colony is a small one, but only one of countless nests. Apparently you are unaware of the trillions of Ferl in the soil beneath your surface-trodding feet. Solar radiation has dropped to acceptable levels and we are awakening. Though you’ve temporarily cut us off from communications, we have no doubt our people are amassing at this moment to overthrow whatever puny civilization you’ve managed to–”
The box chittered away in its tinny whine.
“Severance, open the bay door. Keep it open.”
The rush of the vacuum emptying the cargo bay boomed outside the electromagnetic shield surrounding my body. The bay depressurized, ejecting its atmosphere and anything not locked down straight into space. In the wave of emptiness, the worms imploded. Their flattened guts trailed them out the bay door.
Jad and I went back to sleep after sending a message to Earth Nineteen and throwing the dirt to the open expanse. We jettisoned the plants, too. I didn’t want our remaining eleven years of deadsleep interrupted by an invasion of aggressive aphids, bullying butterflies, or some other hibernating horror.
Worth the loss to keep sleeping.
Cryogenic suspension is something Kevin Shamel likes to explore. Written with EDF in mind, this story is one of many written, or milling about in his head, about freezing people and what that might do.