Author : Rick Tobin

“Get down!” Carol yanked private Pennington to the ground below low walls of disintegrating bricks. Enemy snipers pinned them.

“Sorry Captain. Just wanted a look.”

Pennington stared at his commander. The ship’s cook was learning the game. An alien shootout in a California town was new.

Carol did a team perimeter search. Six still huddled below withering attacks.

“Just stay low. I’ll call air support…” She halted. Pennington disappeared below her. He faded, peacefully, without distress. The game screen froze. Her remaining team stopped playing. There was no cry of sorrow. It was the price of losing a member in cryosleep.

The Company psychiatrists invented cryosleep mind sharing to prevent deep-space ‘cold insanity’ that was devastating a third in long suspensions; however, they misreported the powerful side effects as crews realized chamber failures during sharing.

Carol shook it off, excising her demons, but her remaining team disintegrated, one by one. Horrified, she hurried back to the commander’s control center for hibernation. Her fingers pushed through the panel. She dissipated into dull shadows.

“What…where am I?” She was confused while acclimating to new views. She was slipping gently away from the shredded star ship Clemens, wrenching in meteorite hail. The titanium hull sparked as it turned and twisted. A kilometer away, Carol watched flashes of oxygen reach the fusion drives hydrogen recyclers. Explosive light and pressure waves raced through her with no effect. There remained six rotating orbs nearby, within a larger glow, all drifting like her toward the double star in an unfamiliar system. The spheres rotated and trembled, sometimes approaching each other; other times drifting apart, displaying bright colors, and then regrouping. Carol felt their pull but could not discern how to reach them. She had no sense of her own body or any means to move. She thought about Pennington and his final, peaceful stare. Suddenly, she was next to one of the shimmering bubbles.

“Didn’t have any beliefs beyond life, did you, Carol?” She heard Pennington’s question clearly. It was disturbing. “No, don’t be afraid. We are still us, or at least a core of us, whatever that is. Is this my soul? Maybe we are ghosts, but we exist, even if our bodies didn’t make it home.”

“So this is it? We just drift out here, in a vacuum, forever, with no purpose? I’d rather have pure darkness. Where is all this extra light originating?” Carol felt anger replacing her fear. “This is the hell idiots believe in. This is the ultimate punishment. We’ll never see Earth again.”

“No, Carol.” A deep voice, resonant, sweet and overpowering entered her. “We are here. Our joy is your return to the colony of souls, as we exist to assist all life traveling throughout this solar system. We collect the disembodied spirits of consciousness and then reunite them with the all knowing and all loving.”

“Pennington, did you hear that?” Carol saw the other globes about her glide behind her toward a fuzzy, lustrous patch of light. It was a comet hurtling past them to the twin stars.

“I hear it, Carol, and see the beautiful gathering on its surface?”

“Every system works the same,” continued the gentle voice. “Every star is connected in the web of creation. Listen to others sing of their returning.” Carol heard soothing choruses of a million life forms she now gathered with for her soul’s continuing evolution.

“You will enter the star incubator, returning to your system of origin through the multiverse threadways. We, the shining ones, are collectors— guides. We retrieve consciousness back to source creators of every system. Welcome home.”

Discuss the Future: The 365 Tomorrows Forums
The 365 Tomorrows Free Podcast: Voices of Tomorrow
This is your future: Submit your stories to 365 Tomorrows