[SNEAK PEEK] Cold Between Stars: The Echo 1 – Chapter 1

Cold Between Stars: The Echo 1
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Chapter 1

You don’t dream in stasis/sleep, not really. I mean, Mum does. And Dad and Jim Engineer and Mae Lu Medic, and, really, all the older humans. And, well, I guess some of my friends dream too, but only the mostly human ones. 

And Mac, but Mac’s weird.

So, yeah, some of us don’t dream in stasis/sleep. I mean, we catch a few REM cycles every now and then because otherwise it’s like a one-way shuttle to the Crazy System. But, yeah, we don’t dream. 

We don’t really sleep either. Not a regular kind of sleep, where your head touches your pillow and then, BAM, it’s morning already and your dad’s got your ankles and he’s dragging you out of bed because you slept through the alarm and it’s your turn to muck out the cyclers. 

Not that kind of sleep. For one, there’s goo up my nose and in my ears and down my throat. It’d be kinda gross except if tastes like tao-quice – sweet and smooth and warm, like sunshine, or how I imagine it must feel; and smells like Mae Lu’s pancakes – butter curling up my nose and fresh cut mawberries tingling on my tongue. And it’s warm and soft and, honestly, most of the time I don’t feel it or taste it or smell it because, most of the time, I’m in my head. Or, more accurately, other people’s heads.

Like now.

I hadn’t meant to slip into Mum’s, or any other dreamer’s head. Dreamers are boring and freaky and Off Limits – Onah says it like that, with the capitals, as if those two letters make the words magical or something; but Mum’s pod is right next to mine and she’s having one of her bad cycles. Normally I can shut her out, but this one’s really bad. Like super-mega-force bad. If she’d been in normal sleep, she’d have jerked herself out of it by now, but stasis/sleep’s got her stuck and her fear is lashing at me – thick, black ropes of it tangling in my head and curling in my chest. 

Before I know it, those ropes have pierced my heart and grown sharp, sticky thorns and, Old Terra, it hurts, hurts like you wouldn’t believe. Hurts like a shard of acid slowly melting my heart, and then YANK, I’m in Mum’s dream.

I’m not supposed to be able to see what she dreams. I’m an empath and I should only be able to sense her emotions, but Mum’s got a hint of telepathy somewhere in her DNA, and well, she’s my mum. Some rules don’t apply.

I really wish this one did though because there’s some shit you don’t need to see. And right now, I don’t need to see Mum naked with vines wrapped around her body, her eyes bugging out of her head and her mouth wide open as she screams. The sound goes all the way through my eardrums, a shard of steelglas slicing up my brain, my throat, my chest. I want to cover my ears, except I can’t. My arms are held at my sides, like Mum’s, bound in the same oily green vines – thick and fleshy.

They squeeze tighter and tighter, winding up my chest so tight the skin bulges in the gaps between in little, fleshy mountains. Somehow, I’m naked now too and the vines are sliding around me, rippling like long, boneless fingers, squidgy and clammy as they climb higher. My ribs grind together. My heart thumps. It’s hard to breathe. 

Red. Red so bright it rivals a star, bursts in my face. Wet and hot, it drips down my nose, trickles over my lips, down my chin. Then. Pain. Burning, searing. I look down. There are thorns growing out of my chest, huge bony things, glowing red-hot, the flesh – my flesh – around them ripped, bloody and already sizzling. 

It – no, me – I smell like cooking wombacow. The meaty, fatty stench razes my nose, spikes in my brain, grows a few friends and rips open my skull—

Kuma.

—before it dives for my stomach, bringing up breakfast and lunch and an endless torrent of sweet, warm goo—

Kuma. 

The voice doesn’t belong to this dream. It’s not even really a voice, just a presence; a clear, sparkling white surrounding a boiling core of black. Kuma, it says again. Out.

And WHACK, I’m back in my own head, my own sane, non-dreaming head. I can still sense Mum, can sense those sticky black tendrils of fear reaching for me, trying to suck me back in, but the white/black presence is a plasteel wall between us. The tendrils smack and writhe against it, but the presence, Onah’s presence, doesn’t so much as twitch. 

Safe. 

Relief swamps me from head to toe even as guilt knots in my chest. I’m safe from Mum’s nightmare but she’s still caught. Perhaps, with Onah still protecting me, I could reach in and—

WHOMP.

Ow.

No. It’s less a word than a collection of images and emotions. A shaken head, a firm grip on the back of my neck, the hard blue/red stare of a four-eyed bird – Onah’s stare – and a reprimand all in one. Onah doesn’t say a lot, but he sure packs it in when he does. The Dreamers are—

Off Limits. I know, but—

Kuma. My name is a packet of memories and emotions coloured by the white/black of Onah’s mind. A boy with golden skin and dark hair intent on the progress of ants. The same boy hiding from rucnarts, using his empathy to get his sister in trouble, to stop a fight then to start one. Frustration, patience, determination. Fear.

Fear. Of me? Onah?

Not you. Listen. See, Onah says.

Onah isn’t human, I’m putting that out there because these things can get confusing and because, when he says ‘listen and see’, he’s not talking about ears and eyes. 

I spread my mind. There’s no other word for how I open my brain and push myself outwards. It’s a flood at first, like my shields are a dam that can barely hold me in, and the moment I let them go – WHOOSH. The whoosh is easy, a heady rush with my heart pounding, my fingers tingling and a ‘whoop’ ripping from my throat. It’s the rest that’s hard. 

Soon enough the wave slows, thins, and the rush becomes a trickle wrapping around spots of colour, like pebbles in a stream that I can touch. Some are coals – burning spots in the palm of my mind; some are chips of ice and others fizz against my brain, little itchy spots that jump and jiggle. Mum is one of those spots, a puke-yellow ball writhing behind my ear, wrapped in Onah’s white/black sparkle. And there’s Dad next to her, a cool glittery blue, and Jim Engineer beyond him, and Mae Lu and Mac and scores of others – human, mostly human and not human at all – that make the Citlali home. One-hundred and eighty-nine shifting, coloured pebbles brushing against my mind. It all seems as it should, except…

Why was everything so still?

Something’s wrong. I imbue ‘wrong’ with the stillness and the silence that’s crawling up my neck, that makes my stomach tight and my skin jittery.

The Dreamers are sick, Onah says. Sick. The word is grey-green, a vibration that tangles in my throat and grates down my spine. It feels like the vines in Mum’s nightmare, wrapping around my ankles, the thorns ripping through my chest, the searing smell of meat.

I see it then. The thin, almost translucent veins of sickness snaking between the Dreamers. They pulse and shiver, alive and yet not. I touch one, a light brush with my mind. It bites, a sharp sting that numbs my brain before I jerk away, but in that short contact I see the Dreamers, connected one to the other.

Just the Dreamers. Only the Dreamers.

It takes a second for that to sink in.

I dive back in, forcing my mind into all of the Citlali’s nooks and crannies, seeking, searching. There are one-hundred and eighty-nine coloured pebbles in my mind, but of the restless coils of energy, of those of us who are only part human, the ones who don’t dream, there is nothing. 

Where’s Grea? An image of a girl who looks like me, same dark hair and gold skin, same dark eyes, arms crossed and sneering at me from the other side of the room.

You have to wake.

I am awake.

No, you have to wake. 

An image of the stasis pod’s dome, of my hand reaching out and touching the warm plasglas. My fingers contorting to fit the emergency release.

But— My heart squeezes, panic riding it hard. We’re only halfway through the cycle. If I open my pod now… It’s not time.

Wake. Onah pinning a chick with all four eyes, the weight of them bearing down, down, down until the chick crumples into a little, fluff-covered ball. 

I push back and somewhere behind the weight of Onah’s command, I sense a tight, white/black ball of panic and in it, around it, veins of sticky grey-green.

Onah bats me out.

You’re sick.

WAKE. Onah – not his voice or his presence, but him, white around a boiling darkness – blasts through my mind. He burns through my bones, filling my skin and pushing me aside as he flows down my arm and takes hold of my hand. He presses it against the stasis pod’s dome and holds it there until the ‘glas flashes red. 

Once, twice, three times.

And then Onah’s gone, the goo’s being ripped out of my throat and the pod’s flashing and hissing and then… and then…