[SNEAK PEEK] Cold Between Stars: The Echo 1 – Chapter 2

Cold Between Stars: The Echo 1

Chapter 2

My knees hit the deck, then my hands. The sound rings in my ears and the cold cuts right through my skin and into my bones. The lights are so bright they’re burning my eyes, but I don’t care. I don’t care, I don’t care.

I can’t breathe. Old Terra, I can’t breathe. My mouth is open and I’m trying to suck in air, but my lungs feel like they’re glued together and all I can do is make this thin, wheezy ‘whuuuuuuuu’.

The light gets brighter, but I’m struggling so hard to breathe I can’t close my eyes, and then I’m staring at a pair of human-shaped feet. Pale blue and bare. I can see right through them.

‘Kuma Darzi, are you well?’

I gasp another lungful of air. ‘Whuuuuuu.’

‘Kuma Darzi?’ The feet disappear and a second later I’m staring at a disembodied head floating above the floor. It’s blue and round and soft, with great big eyes and short spiky hair, and like the feet I can see right through it. ‘Breathe, Kuma.’ The Citlali’s avatar inhales, her nose scrunching, before she exhales, the air leaving her open mouth in a rush.

I copy it. The first breath is another thin, wheezy gasp but the second is better and my lungs are expanding. But it hurts, Old Terra, it hurts. The air is acid in my lungs – burning, melting – and I don’t want to take a third but my chest is already expanding and in it pours, ripping away my insides even as I gulp another breath.

‘Good.’ The AI nods. ‘There is still stasis gel in your lungs. Once it dissolves you will find it easier to breathe.’

‘Hurts.’ It’s more a splutter than a word, spit and stasis gel flying from my lips. Coming out of stasis never hurt this much before, never felt like I was freezing and burning all at once. Never felt like I was dying.

‘Your biology is readjusting to the ship’s atmosphere. The pain will subside once the process is complete. For now, concentrate on breathing.’

I concentrate, but with each breath the mechanics of pushing my ribs out and squeezing them back in take less and less of my thoughts, leaving room for other things to intrude. Like the steelcrete under my hands, warmer than it was a few breaths ago, and the brush of air against my skin. My naked skin. 


My eyes catch on Citlali.

The avatar stares back.

I scramble to my feet and lunge for the wall panel opposite my pod. The panel has retracted before my fingers reach it, and instead of shiny off-white plasteel, I clutch at nano-cloth. Blessed nano-cloth, warm and smooth, already humming against my skin. My heart slows a beat then resumes its gallop as I shove arms and legs into the shipsuit. It’s on in three seconds flat, and I run my hands down the front as it conforms to my body, lengthening here, shortening there, the colour changing from white to the pink camo I’d adopted before stasis.

‘You appear to be recovered, Kuma Darzi.’

‘Yeah—’ My stomach clenches, and the cough that hacks its way out of my lungs leaves a thick, toa-quice flavoured ball of goo in its wake.

It’s soft and squidgy on my tongue and I want to be sick, instead I spit it out where it splots on the deck – a golden ball of mucus that slowly glides toward my toes.

I scuttle back before a trio of blue, fuzzy critters skitter over my feet and converge on what I can only guess was the last of the stasis gel taking up residence in my lungs. I turn away before they start cleaning up. Normally I like watching them work, but right now, watching mammals the size of my thumb fight over the stuff I hacked out of my lungs is pushing it.

There aren’t many places to look in the stasis unit, just the shiny bulkhead hiding our clothes, Mum, Dad, my sister and my empty pod.

The rest of my family is sleeping, floating in stasis gel. Why aren’t they awake?

And then I remember the vines wrapping through Mum’s nightmare and the sickness winding through the Dreamers. My forehead tingles at the memory of its bite.

‘Kuma Darzi, are you well?’

‘I— Ah, um, yeah I guess.’

The avatar cocked her head. ‘You pressed the emergency release.’ She tilted her head the other way. ‘Why?’

‘I didn’t. That was Onah. He said there was something wrong with the Dreamers.’

There is a moment, as I tell her about Onah pushing the release button, where the avatar flickers. Citiali is a new AI, but the whole psion thing is pretty new too, or at least it was when she left space dock. Every now and again she has trouble when you tell her things that defy the logic of physics (like Onah pushing a button in my pod when he was on the other side of the ship). It takes her an extra nanosecond to process the information. You’d have thought she’d have integrated it a little better some time during the hundred and twenty-three years we’ve been cruising around our corner of the galaxy, but no. Still takes an extra nanosecond.

But this time… this time the nanosecond is more like two, like her core is focussed elsewhere, which it probably is, since she controls an entire ship and all, but…

Yeah. But.

There’s this creepy-crawly sensation in my belly that’s got nothing to do with the memory of hacking up stasis gel and everything to do with the oily, grey-green vines wrapping around Mum’s dreaming self.

Mum’s stasis pod is right next to mine, the rounded plasglas clouded with condensation. I leave streaky handprints in the water as I wipe the droplets away. Inside, floating in the blue-green goo, Mum appears peaceful, no sign of the nightmare in her expression. There’s maybe a little more grey in her otherwise black hair, but apart from that, she looks like she did when she snatched my biocomp away and closed the door on my stasis pod.

Still, that sickness is writhing around in my belly and now it’s joined by this nagging sensation in the back of my head. ‘Wake her up.’ The words are out of my mouth before they form in my brain.

Citiali appears on the surface. Just her face, blotting out what I can see of Mum. ‘I cannot,’ she says.

‘Sure you can.’


‘Why not?’

The avatar flickers and there’s that pause again, those few nanoseconds that give the creepy-crawly feeling legs so that it can swallow my chest whole. ‘I cannot, Kuma Darzi.’

‘Okay.’ I’m not quite sure if my lungs are working right or not, because it’s getting a little hard to breathe. The creepy-crawlies aren’t helping, taking up space behind my ribs that should be there for my lungs to go in and out. ‘Okay,’ I say again. ‘I’ll wake her up manually. I can do that.’

I’m pretty sure I can do that. Mai Lu makes sure to drill emergency procedures into the junior crew every chance she gets. It’s just that I might have been doing something else when she did it last, and I might not have been paying attention to which buttons she pressed the time before that, or what she meant when she said we had to be really careful not to soak the gel.

I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the oxygen levels, but… Yeah, there’s that but again.

Buts aren’t going to get my mum out of stasis. I flex my fingers over the dome, warming them up like an Old Terra pianist, and touch the golden circle in the middle. Holos spring up around my hand: heart rate and blood oxygen and, I don’t know, stuff that tells me Mum’s alive and breathing in the blue-green goo. And there, at eye level, is the button that says “revive”. My heart’s beating hard, competing with the creepy-crawlies and my lungs for space in my chest. I flex my fingers again, trying to chase the nerves out. It doesn’t work.

I press the button.


I press it again.

Still nothing.

There should be graphs and yellow words popping up in my face. I remember that much because Mai Lu screeched at me when she realised I wasn’t paying attention. She’d used that particularly shrill tone that I swear can cut through bulkheads, and even now the memory of it makes my ears ache.

There aren’t any graphs though, or Mai Lu to stand at my shoulder and yell in my ear. There’s just the “Revive” button and Mum floating in the stasis pod, a thick sheet of plasglas and fifty litres of goo between me and her. 

I hit the button, my fist driving right through the holo to smack against the pod. Apparently creepy-crawlies feed on frustration, or else there’s something else growing my chest, shoving a lump up my throat.

The pod remains stubbornly closed.

‘Citiali, why’s it not working?’

Her face materialises under my fist. ‘All systems are functioning normally.’

‘No they’re not. I can’t wake Mum.’

There’s a thread of desperation in my voice. It’s born from the tightness in my chest, the mess of anxiety, frustration and the creepy-crawlies.

‘Open it!’

‘I cannot.’

I bang my fist on the pod. Through the holos and goo, Mum is peaceful. And dead, a small part of me says but I push it away. She’s not dead, the monitors keeping track of her heart say so and I can sense her in my head, still gripped in the nightmare.

‘Dad.’ He bursts into my head like a revelation. That makes it sound like I forgot I have two parents, but I didn’t. I’d been so fixated on Mum…

There are only four pods in the stasis unit, and Dad is right next to Mum. His pod is misted over with condensation as well, and I wipe it away to make sure he’s in there. Dad’s a tall man, with my pale gold skin and black hair, and he’s hard to miss even amongst the gel. Like Mum, he appears serene, and maybe a little dead, but no, I can sense him too. Peaceful where Mum’s freaking out in her nightmare. 

Relief floods through me and I rest my head on the pod for a second, before I touch the revive button. His vitals spread over the plasglas, and… and… 

No, that can’t be right. It can’t be.

The bouncing line that tracks Dad’s heart is flat, like flatter than the decking. Next to it, the map of his brain is dark, no bright pops of colour showing his dreaming mind. Nothing.

‘That’s not possible.’ My voice echoes in the stasis unit. I turn, seeking Citlali. She’s back to hovering behind me, pale blue and transparent enough to glimpse the bulkhead through her. ‘My dad’s not dead.’

Citlali’s expression turns confused for a second. ‘Jiro Darzi died two weeks, three days and seventeen hours ago.’

‘But he’s not dead. I can feel him.’

And there’s that flicker, a nanosecond too long as Citlali processes the concept of being able to feel someone without physically touching them.

When she finishes flickering, Citlali is wearing a sad, sympathetic expression. It’s one of those slightly wrong expressions, where her eyes are a fraction too large and the corners of her mouth a little too downturned. Most of the time, Citlali is pretty good at simulating emotion, she’s even funny on occasion, but she hasn’t nailed the really big emotions yet, especially the grief and compassion she’s trying to project now.

‘I am sorry Kuma, but your parent is d—’

I interrupt her with a hand in her face. Like, literally in her face. The light particles that make up her form fizz and spit around my wrist.

‘Citlali,’ I say. ‘You suck. Now, run a diagnostic.’

‘All systems are operating within parameters.’

Frustration, anger and not a little fear boil out of my chest in a… let’s not call it a scream. The sound echoes in the pod. ‘Dad’s not dead!’

‘Jiro Darzi died two weeks—’

’Shut up!’

I’m breathing hard and my vision’s kinda white around the edges, and there’s this buzzing in my ears, drowning out the sound of the AI. It’s like everything in the world is focussing down to the flat line on Dad’s monitor, with its high-pitched whine somehow messing with the AI’s words until all I hear is dead. 



Not even the Dad-coloured whisper at the back of my psyche can drown it out, as if it says it often enough, maybe I’ll believe it. And maybe I will because the AI can’t be wrong. Can it? I mean, it’s the ship.

Grea. Grea will know what to do.

There was one more pod to try and open. Grea. My twin sister’s pod is right next to mine. The dome is almost white with condensation. I wipe it away, but there’s still something clouding the plasglas, like the condensation somehow made it inside. I scrub harder, which is about as helpful as you would expect, and scowl at my reflection. Yeah, sometimes I’m not the brightest. Grea would argue that that was all the time, and then I’d send an emote into the nearest critter so strong, it would squeal and run up the nearest object, which was usually Grea’s leg. And then she’d squeal and I’d smile and sometime later that night I’d find something nasty in my bed. 

I hit the plasglas, trying to dislodge whatever it is clouding the inside of the pod.

A patch of… fug flakes away, leaving a hole big enough to peer through. I put my hand on the plasglas, spreading my fingers and leaning my forehead against it, squinting to see through the twilight inside the pod.

When I said twin before, I meant identical twin. My sister looks exactly like me, same black hair and gold skin, same dark eyes. Her hair is longer though, bound up in a braid that trails all the way down her back. You might ask how it happens that we’re identical but not… what with me being a boy and Grea a girl. Well, for one, we’re not exactly identical, and two, there are some things biology doesn’t get right.

I can just make out Grea. Like Mum and Dad, she’s floating in the stasis gel, eyes closed, but where they were peaceful, Grea’s wearing a frown. No, not a frown but a full-on grimace – her face twisted up and teeth bared. She’s curled on her side, knees to her chest, hugging them like she’s trying to make herself really, really small.

Grea? I reach for her psionically, stretching through the goo with my mind, trying to connect with the part of my sister that’s an empath like me. I stretch and stretch and stretch, further than I should have to, further even than when I searched the ship. Just like I did then, I sense nothing. My sister is right there in front of me, I shouldn’t even have to reach for her.

She’s my twin, my identical twin. We’re not merely siblings, we’re a whole, a living, functioning, interconnecting crazy-making whole. Even in stasis/sleep slipping into Grea’s brain should be like talking to myself. It’s not even like she’s trying to shut me out, she’s just not there.

A thought pops into my brain, not even fully formed, just a floating mass of emotion, like instinct and my heart stops in my chest.

Old Terra, what if she’s dead?

Everything in me stops.

There’s a big dark hole in the pit of my chest and I’m staring down its gullet.

What if she’s dead?

No. No, she’s not dead. She can’t be dead. I saw her move, didn’t I? Twitch her little finger?

Easier than breathing. Except breathing’s not so easy at the moment. The creepy-crawlies are making a renewed assault on my chest and there’s not enough oxygen in my lungs because my vision’s going kinda dotty and there’s that wheezing sound again as I try to draw in air.

The revive button is under my fingertips and Grea’s vitals are spreading across the top, the lines and monitors moving like they should. Her heart jumping up and down in a steady rhythm, the neural monitor flashing with greens and reds. I frown at the picture of her brain. Is there meant to be that much red staining her cortex? The map makes it appear like there’s a storm going on in my twin’s head, popping and flashing with bursts of yellow and streaks of white.

A couple more thumps on the plasglas and more of the fug drops away, making a bigger window. I press my forehead to the pod once more, hands pressed flat either side of my head. It won’t help me break through the… whatever the blank space is between us, but still…

Whatever it is, Grea’s not dead. I won’t let her be dead. I have to tell my heart that, and maybe my lungs, because right now it feels like the first is pounding the other flat against my ribs, squishing all the air out of my body.

It’s so quiet in my head. I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before, maybe because I was too busy yelling at the AI. But now… now that quiet place is bringing back the pit in my chest and sucking all the warmth out of my bones. All I can see, all I can hear, is that silence and the endless black swallowing everything. Mum. Dad. Grea. The ship. Onah. The ship. The oxygen—

‘Kuma?’ Citlali is a blue glow in the corner of my vision. ‘Remember to breathe, Kuma. In. Out.’

The memory of Citlali scrunching up her nose as she pretended to breathe flashes in front of my eyes, enough of a distraction to halt the spiral of panic.

And that’s when I notice the fug clogging up Grea’s pod, really notice it. One of the pieces I thumped loose is floating in front of my nose and it looks strange, like a piece of grey-green carpet trailing strands behind it. The strands wave and wriggle in the stasis gel, reaching out to similar strands on the fug still attached to the plasglas. They connect and the mired one kind of pulls the other back into place. 

I jerk back. Stare at the door a second as the fug slides back over the clear patches. I turn to the Citlali. Point.  ‘What’s that?’

‘What is what?’

I stick my finger to the pod. ‘That. The moss or mould or whatever it is crawling all over Grea’s pod.’

Citlali follows my pointing, not because the avatar needs to see but because that’s how she’s been programmed, to appear as human as possible. I don’t know why anyone really thought that was necessary, since a third of the crew aren’t human and no one bothered to program Citlali to make the qwans or rucnarts more at home. I guess they figured there wasn’t much point, or maybe there wasn’t enough time. The Citlali was one of the first deep-space ships, designed before the war broke out. Jim Engineer likes to remind everyone he was there when they eventually started construction, as the war was winding down. And right about then, everyone was still struggling to think of the “kin” as more than really smart animals.

I mean, I guess that’s a hazard when two of the species that almost wiped you out look like really big Old Terran birds and cats, but you’d have to be an idiot not to see the intelligence in their eyes. The war sorted that.

‘Grea Darzi’s stasis unit is functioning within parameters.’

‘There’s fug in my sister’s unit. That’s not normal.’

‘My sensors do not indicate any “fug” in the pod.’

‘But it’s right there!’ I poke the plasglas, shaking another clump of mould loose.

‘My sensors do not—‘

‘Your sensors are fucked. There is fug in my sister’s pod and you can’t see it!’ I yell the last in Citlali’s face. It feels good, even if it doesn’t actually mean much. Citlali doesn’t care, can’t care no matter how well she’s been programmed to simulate emotion. Maybe if the spit flying from my mouth had splattered in her core instead of the deck, she might do more than blink at me. But the core isn’t here. No one is here except me. 

A fuzzy blue critter scoots across the deck plating, heading for the spit glistening on floor. Okay, so no one is here except me and the critters and if you’re including them you may as well include Citlali, as useless as she is right now.

And right now, I’m not including them. The brief moment of satisfaction that came with swearing at the avatar is fading, draining out of my toes as the cold, hard grate of the decking digs into my feet. It sucks the warmth out of me, and I shiver, but that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is invading my head. Silence. So much silence. Not the kind that assaults your ears, but the kind that slithers up your spine and knocks on your skull. 

The kind that tells you you’re all alone. 

That I’m all alone.

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