She floated on tides of stars. She dreamed in constellations and whispered secrets to suns. She flowed in and out of time. She could put it on like a shawl, or fling it out far into the void if she chose. It was bliss.
Then there was pain.
There had been pain at first, too, before the stars and the riding of time. Just a little prick, they had told her. One tiny stab brought an invasion of chemicals charging through her veins, and then her blood exploded into starlight. They said she would sleep, but she didn’t feel like she ever slept again. Instead, she sailed through space, indifferent to everything. Until the new pain began.
This pain was different from the first. It was slower. Meaner. It spread over her body, cold water on warm muscles. She shivered, annoyed by it. The shawl of soft time did nothing for her any more. Then the pain grew, spread to her nerves, and pestered her brain. She pulled back from contemplating the cosmos. She breathed in deep, sucking stars into her lungs, and screamed.
“You’re awake!” The deep voice reverberated in her ears.
She flinched, opening her eyes to see only the faintest starlight in front of her. “Hello?”
Something searing hot touched her neck, and she screamed again. Or was it hot? She remembered that burning heat, and realized that it was not burning after all. Touching. That’s what it was. Someone was touching her skin.
“You’re awake now. Don’t be scared,” the voice said, more quietly. Something cool wrapped around her throat, dulling the shock.
She blinked, but still saw only dim, dull stars. But who could be out here in the dreamless black with her?
“I looked for you for a long time,” the voice went on. Did the bruising, invasive hands belong to the voice? “I had to wake you. I had to try. Are you in…how bad is the pain?”
“Don’t touch me,” she said, and was now disturbed to hear her words filtered through someone else’s voice. A nasty, low, raw voice. Who dared speak for her?
The hands pulled away, and she wondered if she’d drift off again, if anything tethered her now.
“I’m sorry,” the voice said. “Your nerves are still reorienting. I underestimated the degree of shock.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Miji. My name is Olumiji. And your name? Do you remember your name?” The eagerness in that question was so strange. Of course she remembered her name!
“Talia.” Again, the rough voice answered for her. She recoiled, prepared to demand that it stop taunting her. Then she understood. “What’s wrong with my voice?” she croaked out.
Olumiji said, “It’s been a long time since you’ve spoken, Talia. And you screamed when I woke you. You hurt your throat before I could administer the analgesic gel. We just don’t know enough about waking sleepers to know what to expect. It may hurt for a while, above and beyond the awakening itself. Can I give you something else for it?”
“You said you were looking for me,” she said, not answering his question—she was sure it was a he now—it was so dark wherever they were…
“Yes. I’ve been looking for you. All the sleepers. I’m so sorry.”
Sorry? Sorry for what? Talia wondered. His phrase triggered something back in the hidden places, where she kept the things she did not need to think about while she sailed out with the stars. All the sleepers…
What had they promised her?
Go to sleep, they had said. Dream through the dark days. Yes. Just a little stab, and she would escape, sail beyond the world into a long slumber. They’d keep her safe the whole time, locked away behind layers and layers of protection. And at the end of it all, in better times, she would be woken. You’ll live like a princess, they promised. Still young, healthy, and beautiful…and long past the troubles and strife she was going to sleep through. Her father’s voice rose up in her memory. Parents want their children to live a better life than they did. You deserve a saner world than this one. We won’t see it, but you will.
She blinked again, but the darkness remained. “Why can’t I see you?”
Olumiji asked, “You can’t see? You’re looking at me.”
“I hear you,” she said, growing irritated, “but I can’t see anything.” She lay on some sort of bed or cot, with rough and scratchy fabric.
“The cryo may have damaged your eyes,” he said.
She heard the sounds of metal and glass as Olumiji moved nearby. Was she in a medical facility? She had imagined the waking to be different—surely to be done with more ceremony, more joy. Unless something had gone wrong…
“Am I blind?” she asked.
“Don’t worry. I’ll check the system. Your eyesight can very likely be recovered, either through reconstruction or implants. You’ll see.”
“Was this complication expected? Did this happen to the others you woke?” She had been assured that her health and safety were going to be closely monitored. “Well? What is the protocol?”
A cough, to buy time. Then, “There is no protocol.”
“So who applied for the defrost?” The details of the deal were coming back to her. “Who determined it was safe to wake me?”
Talia’s heart began waking now, the beats banging together, close on the other. “Then who are you? What happened? What has changed?”
“Things fell apart. I’m sorry.”
Things fell apart. Talia felt a flash like a comet slicing through her stomach. “What about me,” she said. Not asked. Said.
“What will happen to me?” Surely someone somewhere wanted her. “Where did everyone go? What did the others get when they woke up?”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
Her breathing was too fast. Did she have to learn that again? How long had it been since she breathed on her own?
“Stop saying sorry!” she hissed. “Where are the others? We’ll get together. We’ll fight this. It’s a breach of contract. Intolerable. There were others in the Spindle!”
Ah, yes, things were coming back now. The Spindle. That was what the facility was called, for the way it was built, and the way it rotated slowly around as it orbited Earth. “There were thousands of us.”
“Yes. There were.” Olumiji sounded sad. “Ten thousand sleeping beauties.”
“Well, what happened to them?”
“Many were lost when the Spindle broke. Not all even survived the initial process. Some survived the cryo but not the thaw. And others were…” He trailed off. “You should rest. I can tell you later, when you wake up again.”
“Tell me now. Everything. I’ve been sleeping. I’m not tired.”
He began slowly, unwilling. “The Spindle was in high orbit, and one day…it just broke apart. A meteor, maybe. We’re not sure. A lot of sleepers drifted, knocked clear of the gravity well. Others were disposed of, for various reasons. Some were sold as artifacts during the Reconstruction—I’ll explain what that is later. One was even installed in a temple, and worshipped. But most of the sleepers just died. The cryo failed early in many units. Not the best craftsmanship. The whole endeavor was quixotic.”
Quixotic! Fingers so long frozen now curled up. She would hit him if she could see him. Maybe it was quixotic, but it was the only option to avoid the darkness to come. “How many are left?” she asked.
“I’ve found dozens of cryo units. But only six sleepers survived.”
“Six women survived? Out of all the sleepers?”
“Four women and two men,” Olumiji clarified. “The offer was not confined to any particular sex, despite the stories.”
“And what do they have to say?”
Olumiji said, “Nothing. I told you six survived. In fact, that only means their vital signs persisted for a while after the thaw.”
“They’re still sleeping?”
“You are extraordinarily lucky, Talia. I never thought I’d find a sleeper who would actually wake and be…well. The cryo process was never intended to last this long.”
A slow, starless cold crept up her spine. “How long has it been since I went to sleep?”
His voice came out low and gentle. “About 450 years.”
That was wrong. Talia explained that he was wrong. She explained over and over, louder and louder, explaining quite reasonably despite the pressure against her arms, her chest, despite the shredding of her already tender voice. He continued to be wrong wrong wrong until the pressure grew unbearable and he said she must not fight him. Just like the first time, something stabbed into her that made the sounds all run together and go far away. She heard Olumiji calling, “It’s okay. It’s only to keep you from hurting yourself. It’s okay.”
It was not okay. She hated him. Then she slept.
They must have done something to her. When Talia woke up again, lethargic and cranky and aching in body, it took her a few minutes to understand what changed.
Hazy shapes now floated in front of her. Light and shadow. She blinked and almost saw a window, though she could not see beyond it.
“Olumiji,” she said. A name she did not like, but it was the only name she knew. Her throat felt a bit raw, but far better than before. “Olumiji! Where are you?”
“Talia?” Olumiji’s voice came into range. “Are you well?”
She blinked rapidly, struggling to see a shape to match the voice. “Miji! I can see…”
A vague outline of a person came into her view. Slowly, it resolved into a real person, not just a shadow. Hair prone to curling was cut close to his scalp, and his skin was dark brown. The eyes that now looked back at her were even darker, nearly the color of space.
“You can see now,” he said, showing white teeth.
She smiled back, feeling infinitely better that she was not just speaking into a void. She could see perfectly. “Did they fix my eyes? How?”
“I did. A simple procedure. The cryo induced cauling—your eyes filmed over in an effort to prevent frost damage. I used a laser to remove the cauls.” He paused. “I hope I did it right. Were your irises pink before?”
“Pink!” Talia gaped.
“Joke. Your eyes are green.” The sound of his laugh rolled around her horror and teased her until she didn’t even know what words to hurl at him.
When she opened her mouth, she was shocked to hear her own laugh burst out of her. It felt good. She hadn’t laughed in centuries. Then a wave of fatigue shook her body. But she asked Olumiji to keep the needles away from her.
He said he would; she didn’t need them anymore. Miji told her he thought she would recover fully, and the doctors he spoke to over the ansible were optimistic.
She finally understood that he was not a doctor at all. “What are you, then?”
“A scholar. I am known for being the man who believed in the story of the sleeping beauties. That’s why I got this ship.”
“Ship!” Talia said. “Where are we?”
“Twelve days out from Ceres. That’s about where I picked up your unit’s signal.”
“I thought we were on Earth!”
“Ah…no. As I said, the Spindle broke between two and four decades after you went to sleep. A lot of the units drifted.”
“No one came after us?” she asked, outraged.
“Considering what was going on Earth at that point? Wars? Famine? No. The loss of a few thousand sleepers was negligible. And inefficient to rescue.”
“Our safety was guaranteed.”
Olumiji made a sound that wasn’t quite rude, but made her skin grow hot.
She said, “That was the whole point. To stay safe until we woke.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”
Talia didn’t have the strength to face his sarcasm. “So we’re in your ship now.”
“This is the Errant. It’s not my ship, but I’m allowed to use it to search for any sleepers.”
“I’ve always been interested in the story. Thousands of souls so unwilling to live in the coming dark ages that they chose to sleep through them. Of course it didn’t end well. It was like one of those episodes in school that they told a ghost story. Most people didn’t believe it really happened. Just propaganda to vilify the decadence of the previous age. But I kept reading, whatever I could find. I studied the whole incident.
“I found stories from different places that seemed to match. I learned that the Spindle was real, and then found out about the break. There were some floating objects in high orbit that turned out to be cryo units, but they’d never been properly identified. However, I knew what to look for. I found empty shells, blown apart by impacts or just busted from a bad frost. I had to look further out if I was going to find any sleeper to reawaken.
“I used any spare ship I could. I went on one week, one month trips, looking for pings that matched the tracers from the Spindle. Then I found one intact unit. I woke a sleeper. Overnight, everyone went from calling me insane to calling me an insane hero. It was unreal.”
“What happened to her?” Talia asked.
Olumiji shook his head. “She died very soon after, due to complications from the thaw. I was afraid to wake the next one I found. I asked for guidance, but who could say? Is it better to dream forever, or be woken and risk death?”
She didn’t answer, not knowing herself.
He visited every day while Talia slowly gained strength. He was the only visitor, because he was the only one on the ship until he found her. Talia didn’t mind. She thought that if she had a hundred visitors, Miji, with his quiet voice and sudden smiles, might still be her favorite.
He fed her the same rations he ate himself. Talia, though ravenous, wrinkled her nose at the odor the first time. “Why does this smell like a wet sponge?”
Olumiji smiled. “It’s mycological. Fungus based. Quick to grow, low light requirements.”
“We eat fungus because we’re shipboard?”
“We eat fungus because it’s food,” he said. “With rice, of course. What did you expect?”
“In space, I don’t know. If I were home…” She remembered a taste on her tongue with abrupt clarity. “The last thing I ate before I went to sleep was wild salmon, with potatoes and lemon and greens, and chocolate cake for dessert…” She stopped, because Miji’s hoot of laughter filled the whole ship.
“Salmon. Wild salmon. Oh, that’s…” He struggled to speak through his mirth. “You ate salmon!”
“Why is that funny?”
“You might as well have eaten gold. You might have dined on a tiger. The big fish…they’re nearly gone, Talia.”
She smiled at him, but wondered if she should have woken at all. Earth without real food… She ate the dull meals she was offered, and began to dread her return to the world.
She grew stronger. She sat up. She learned to walk again, and with Miji’s hands to guide her, it was easy. Miji showed her the ship, a tour that took all of twenty minutes. It was like living in the veins of a great beast. The passages were dim. The central one that ran from the bridge to the engine room was circular and fairly wide, but the few passages off it were narrow knife-wounds that accommodated only one body at a time. The rooms were brighter, since functionality demanded it. The infirmary was the largest room after the bridge, and the best lit, even sporting a therapeutic sunlamp.
Four sleeping coves nestled along the top ridge of the main corridor, and a tiny mess hall at the end held a nook with a table, where all normal leisure activity took place. Talia could not imagine four people stuck on this ship.
All the rest of the space was given to storage, food, and air and water processing. And the part of the ship that was not space was packed with guts and nerves of wire, the chips, the dedicated systems that made it possible to live in the great nothingness surrounding them.
On the bridge, they looked at the screen showing the deep dark the ship swam through. She asked how long it would take to get back to Earth. With an apologetic gesture, he said eight months at minimum. Miji explained that to save fuel, the Errant was traveling in a long arc that mimicked the paths of the planets. Only if he found a signal that might be a sleeper did he spend extra fuel to chase after it. The ship didn’t have the capacity to travel quickly…that was reserved for high-priority missions.
For the same reason, communications—while fairly regular—were intermittent. The ansible was powerful, but cost energy to operate. The crisis of Talia’s waking had taken up much more of the ansible’s time than had been expected.
She spent a few days slowly acquainting herself with her tiny new world. One door was locked. Talia tried to open it several times, while Miji was on the bridge. It defied all her attempts.
“What is behind the locked door?” she finally asked.
Olumiji didn’t take his eyes from the main screen. “The cargo hold.”
“Why is it locked? Are you afraid I’m going to steal something and run?”
“The other sleepers are there.”
Talia pulled back. “There are more?”
“Not like you,” he said quickly. “They’re iced.”
“I want to see them.”
With a sound of defeat, Olumiji took her. He unlocked the door, and though he put a cautionary hand over hers, Talia dashed inside.
Talia stood in the frigid cargo bay, staring at a half dozen cryo shells standing upright on the floor. Each one held a sleeper, with a face barely visible behind a circular pane of absurdly thick glass. It was like looking at a body below ice, or a wavering reflection of one about to be pulled out to sea.
“Why haven’t you woken these ones?”
“I tried,” he said, his voice hot in the freezing hold. “I failed. It was too late for all of them.”
“Who are they?” she asked, her voice trembling. “Their names, I mean?”
“I don’t know.” Olumiji walked to the rightmost unit and touched the shell. “There’s a number on the side, but I don’t know what the number links to. So much was lost.”
“What will you do with them?”
“Take them back to Earth,” he said. “My supporters need to justify the expense of these excursions. The sleepers are artifacts. They’ll be studied.”
“They’re not artifacts. They’re not objects,” said Talia. “Would you have sent me back to be studied?”
“You’re different now,” he said. “You woke. And I know you a little…”
The last unit on the left had no face behind the glass. It was darker than night, darker than space. “That’s mine, isn’t it?” she said. “You were saving it in case I died too! You would have sold me with all the others.”
“Not sold, Talia…”
“You would! I see it. You’re just in this for…salvage. I hate you.” Talia fled, ignoring his words following her, and she never went into the cargo bay again.
She would have avoided him completely, but how could she in such a tiny world? They ate the same food, breathed the same air, passed each other a dozen times in a day. Too furious to speak, she instead haunted the ship, waiting until Olumiji left the bridge to slip into it, or shadowing him down the narrow passages so that she wouldn’t encounter him eye to eye.
However, Talia had been alone much longer than Olumiji had. She had to speak, to hear her voice outside her head. On the bridge, she found a way to use the daily log to record whatever she wanted to say, and soon a torrent of the past poured out of her and into the ship’s memory. She spoke about her childhood, growing up in glass towers. She talked about the world she remembered, the ever-increasing danger and fear she heard about every day. She talked about how she couldn’t sleep at night, how her mother and father woke her from nightmares. She talked about the day she first heard about the Spindle, and realized there might be a way to avoid the terror. To skip like a stone over the darkest waters.
She steadfastly ignored Olumiji, but when she began to talk about the sleepers and about the Spindle, his attention became too much to bear. She raised her voice at little. She let him listen. He stopped nearly everything else he was doing to hear her speak. His hunger was obvious, but he never asked a thing.
One day, though, he did speak to her. “Talia, there’s a request from Earth. Not from me, I’m just the messenger. Will you hear it?” he asked.
She nodded stiffly.
“They know you’re here. They know you’re awake and fully functional. The doctors who helped me reported the news, as they had to. But now it’s got out, and there are so many people with questions for you. Would you answer some of them?”
“I’ve recorded hours of logs already,” she said. “Have they not listened to all of those back on Earth?”
He looked nervous, embarrassed. “The recordings don’t get sent anywhere by default. I didn’t send them over the ansible. I’ve haven’t let them be shared yet, because I’m a miser.”
“I found you,” he said, his voice fierce. “I woke you. Why should everyone else get to hear your words and write their papers and their stories and their opinions of you before we even get back to Earth?”
“You’re hoarding my life?” she asked, though in truth she was rather touched that he thought it worth hoarding at all.
“I am, and not all for selfish reasons. Why should you give away the one thing you have?”
“What does a 450-year-old homeless woman have that your society wants?”
“Memory,” said Miji, as if it were obvious.
“You can tell these stories of your growing up in your tower of glass. Why you became a sleeper, what led you to it. Tell people what it was like in the last days of the old world. You were there!” His eyes were bright. “Think of it. You carry a treasure inside you. Everyone will want to know all about your life.”
“Including you,” she reminded him. “That’s why you searched for us all, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But your story is yours. I found you, but you should speak to who you want.”
Talia watched him for a long moment, saw his mingled pride and fear.
“I will speak to you,” she said, and was gratified by a caught breath, perhaps the same sound a reader makes when a mysterious passage becomes clear.
Though Miji had kept her recordings private, the news of her waking was indeed out. From the ansible came greetings and blessings and questions. The Errant couldn’t rush back to Earth, so her future arrival was like some marvelous holiday—on the calendar but not to be rushed.
And in the meantime, they had so many questions. Some were cold, academic queries. Others asked about her dreams. Children asked if she knew what milk rice was. She did not, but she told the children about salmon, and explained that chocolate had been drowned in sugar as an everyday treat, not the bitter medicine Miji told her about. The children’s flood of replies nearly shut down communications.
Soon, marriage proposals came to her, from people who’d fallen in love with the idea of a sleeping beauty. She declined them, and they accused her of having a frozen heart. Others offered to honor her with their patronage. She didn’t answer any of them, for she had no interest in those who would wait for her to arrive like a cargo ordered from a far-off land.
Some offers shocked Talia with their boldness, and others Miji refused to even let her see, his dark complexion not doing a thing to hide his feelings. She teased him at first, but she soon grew shy when the subject came up. She realized her heart was not frozen at all.
One day, Talia had a proposal of her own. After she convinced Miji that it was not merely the fact that she’d been alone for 450 years, or that he was the only human she knew since her awakening, he accepted her proposal with a joy and a greed that made her laugh. After that, the ship never seemed too small.
Neither Talia nor Olumiji ever mentioned the silent sleepers in the bay. Instead, they talked to each other about each other, conversations that would have bored the rest of the world to tears. But they cared very little about the rest of the world in those first few precious weeks.
Eventually, he told her more, especially the slow climb up from the dark days and the new civilization that emerged. “You’ll see, Talia,” he said of his Earth. “It may not look like the world you left, but it is better. Brighter.”
Talia looked out at the stars. “But I don’t know anyone there. I have no place.”
He said there was no way to hurry back, and they could live on the ship for years, if needed. So they searched for more sleepers set loose from the destruction of the Spindle.
Talia had such hopes that one would awaken and be another who could speak like her. But most were long past helping. A few seemed like they might wake and recover. One young man with hiragana characters inked up and down his arms even took a single frost-ridden breath. But inevitably, vital signs grew unstable, and the sleeper slid into death. Talia was the only one of her kind, Miji said.
Talia didn’t care about returning to Earth, and Miji said he was selfishly pleased to stay in the black with her.
Months slipped by, and she was happy. Even when her eyes began to cloud at the edges, she was happy. Even when her bones ached a little, all the time, she was happy. She began to shake, and then she could no longer walk without putting her hands on the walls, but she was happy.
It became clear that she had not escaped the dangers of the too-late awakening. Miji put her in the infirmary’s scanner and sent the data to be read by far away doctors. Even when she and Miji read the medical report that held no good news or hope, she was happy. She loved the tiny world she lived in and the one she lived with. So long as he was there to wake up with her and help her walk the narrow passages of the ship, and to talk with her while they stared out at the ancient light of stars just now reaching their eyes, she was happy.
Miji was happy too, for her. He said he was saving his rage and sorrow for the time after she left him alone again.
When they both knew the end was close, when she could only lie in the bed and hold his hand, he asked what she wanted.
She told him. “Let me go. Don’t make me into a specimen of the old days, like the other sleepers in the bay. Let me go.”
He said he would, and in return, she told him the future.
Talia told him that when she at last closed her dim and fragile eyes, Olumiji would take her body in his arms. It would be easy, because she weighed so little. Her cold-ravaged bones were now as hollow as a bird’s. He would put her back into the capsule that he’d found her in, the one that sat empty in the bay ever since. No need for the cryo to work now…he would lay her body out and kiss her goodbye.
Talia told Olumiji that the capsule would sit in state in the airlock for two days. Olumiji would need that long to give the command and let space in, and the sleeping Talia would need that long to set his soul properly in her dreams.
But at last he would give the command, and with no sound, the sleeping beauty would drift out on a tide of stars, to dream in constellations and to whisper secrets to suns.
Olumiji would then turn the Errant sunward, for the long, silent running back to Earth. Others might decide to search for the sleeping beauties of legend, but he wouldn’t look for any more. He would live on the bright Earth, and make it brighter. And Talia would have no other dreams.
All happened as she said, for he had awoken her, and she had learned to see.