Katja had experienced cryo enough to know that she should allow herself to fall, crumple, and vomit to the side. The sooner she got the chemicals out of her system, the sooner she’d recover.
The alarm she’d heard the last time the computer brought her out of cryo, the woo-ah of emergencies, had changed to a softer, even pulse, and the red flashing light was a mild amber. All is well, it said. All is going according to plan.
Katja sent up a mental prayer to whatever gods watched over them, out amongst the stars. She couldn’t handle another incident like the last one.
At the thought, an image flashed behind her eyes. The shape of a giant, deformed man, his rack of antlers lifting Security Officer Fyodor Bendlin as a fire raged around them, only to vanish and leave Fyodor broken and bleeding on the ground.
“Doctor Olesk?” The clipped voice was young and feminine.
“Yeah.” Katja rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. “G’morning,” she rasped.
A little blonde woman in a med tech’s white uniform knelt over her, a damp towel ready. She smiled with such guileless brilliance that Katja couldn’t help returning it, albeit faintly. “Good morning, Doctor.” She offered the towel, which Katja accepted gratefully. “How are you feeling?”
Katja scrubbed her face and considered the question. Much to her surprise, she felt decent. No worse than a bad hangover. “I’ll survive,” she replied. She got an elbow under her, pushed to sitting, paused to let her stomach settle, and then worked around to a more comfortable position. “What’s the date? Where are we?”
“We’re six months out from Yuri Gagarin.”
“Ah, good. So we can start getting our samples ready.”
“Did you want your group woken up in any particular order?”
Katja’s first urge was to wake Valentin, if only so she could see him and remind herself that he was fine, that the incident seventy years earlier hadn’t destroyed them. But she shoved the thought away and focused on her priorities. “Either Doctor Lake or McIntosh. The sooner we get to work, the better.” She twisted and rose to her knees, preparing to stand.
Then gasped and fell back to the rubber floor, the strength bleeding out of her body.
“Doctor!” The tech caught her head, pried her eyes open, and shone a light directly into them.
Katja waved her away, perhaps more violently than she should have, and pointed at the empty capsule across the room. “Where is he?!” she demanded, almost shrieking.
“Val! Valentin Mashir.” Katja struggled to her feet and staggered to Valentin’s pod. It glowed with operation, but sat empty. She stared inside, expecting to find him crumpled in the bottom, but found nothing. “Where is he?”
“I… I don’t know.” The tech trailed after her, hands wringing. “It was empty when I got here, and this room hasn’t been opened before now.”
“Oh, God. No. No, no, no.” Katja used the towel to wipe condensation away and found specks of green on the pod’s white interior. The green of moss, of leaves, of terror.
She stood in the park entrance and watched the nearest trunks and shrubs, waiting for that thing to emerge. She clutched her communicator, the edge of her thumb rubbing the call button. Any moment, she’d need to summon help. Any moment, the people who’d gone into the park would start to scream when the creature living within it attacked them. Like it had attacked the Velikaya Knyazhna’s computers, the crew, and her own Valentin.
She swallowed heavily. Twenty-five years into their journey, the ship had woken her, her subordinate Val, and a handful of other crew to deal with an incursion of plant matter in the systems near the park. They’d cleared the matter, sealed the park, and made repairs, only to have it come back. Val, Security Officer Fyodor Bendlin, and herself had found out why: Something unnatural stalked the park. Something big, humanoid in shape, and monstrous. Something that could appear and disappear at will. It had attacked and nearly killed Bendlin. Then it had done something to Val. It must have, otherwise he would have been sleeping in his pod.
Val had to be in the park. And whatever had brought him there had undone all their work those decades ago.
They’d poisoned it, killed it, yet the park remained as verdant and peaceful as ever. Insects hummed, the ventilation system whispered, and Katja’s heart beat a staccato in her ears. Past that nervous percussion, she thought she could hear something: a voice, a gentle murmur undercut with age and terrible strength.
“Seven hundred and fifty metres?” her comm asked, making her jump. “Northeast?”
“That’s right,” she confirmed breathlessly. She cleared her throat and continued. “There should be a glade. Three very large ash trees and an old maple.”
“That was seven decades ago. You think it’ll still be there?”
“I…” Before they’d launched from Earth, she would have said no. Seventy years was long enough to change the face of a biome. But the park was different. The park followed its own rules, and that clearing, that circle of guardians, was eternal. “I think so,” she said. “Be careful. Don’t lose sight of each other.”
“There’s nothing in here.” Katja could hear Sheila Huculak’s smile; the botany tech couldn’t take anything seriously. “It’s beautiful, though—”
“Don’t say that!” Katja’s voice cracked. “It’s not a normal forest. It shouldn’t be here anymore.”
“I thought you were a botanist. Shouldn’t you be happy? This place is your baby.”
A mutant could have slid from Katja’s womb and she would’ve been no more horrified than she was at the thought that she had helped create the park and whatever roamed within it.
“Hey, I see something,” Raymond Frost’s call came faintly over the comm, followed by murmured agreement from the security officer who escorted the two technicians at Katja’s insistence.
“Oh, Doctor,” Sheila murmured, “you have to see this. It’s a… a grotto. It looks cultivated. Nine ash trees around a maple. And this moss, it’s so soft. And there’s a pool—” She cut off on a sharp inhale. “Oh no.”
“What? What is it?!” Katja gripped her comm until the plastic dug into her fingers.
“Is that him?” Raymond asked. “I can’t tell.”
The security officer’s voice became loud and sharp, and then moved away from Sheila. “This is Jovan. Request medical technician to the eco park. We’ve found a body. No. Deceased. Very deceased.”
Katja didn’t realize she was falling until she was already sitting against the side of the entrance, holding herself. He was dead. Val was dead. Murdered.