Scrubber failure, was the first thought to cross a sleeping mind.
Then Sovina i-s’Saeihr’fehill t’Rsae could wake up, sit up, and wonder where the hell she was.
That she could wake up wasn’t, precisely, a surprise. She’d never taken the tale of the Halls of Erebus terribly literally, but that her katra might be hosted for some purpose or another after her body was found hadn’t been an unreasonable expectation.
But that she seemed to continue in her same physical person, that was startling.
The eerie silence and stillness that had woken her was because her hospital room was on a planet, rather than a space station like she’d been born and raised on, or the starships she’d spent her adult life aboard. To instincts raised on the sound of air pumps and the distant thrum of reactors echoing through the bones of the unlamented habitat rightly called ‘Stars’ End’, the sheer stillness of a planet during a calm was jarring, alarming, deathly.
But no, it was just a traditionally-constructed room with discreet medical equipment along one of the walls her bed’s head laid against, and the still-new-and-pale wooden surfaces that made her certain she was on a frontier colony rather than an ancient building repurposed, or the lair of an archconservative.
The sheets of her bed were an extruded synthetic, of moderate quality - neither excessively comfortable nor objectionable - which pointed in the same direction as the construction techniques.
Her survey of the room also found a pile of clothes, folded neatly across the top of a chair by her bedside. She glanced down at herself to confirm what her skin was telling her, then shifted and stood up out of bed to go through the offerings so that she could dress.
That led to the second and third surprises.
The second was that, rather than her old uniform, or whatever design had replaced it in the Empire’s service - there’d been talk of creating a new design, though still much debate of what it should be - the clothes awaiting her were simply the plain, sturdy garments of any frontier settler.
That didn’t make sense; even if the colony itself didn’t have any extra uniforms or the means to make more, her cabin aboard the Telbostius was perfectly intact and should have had all the changes she needed.
The third, and most subtle, was that the new clothing fit, fit perfectly. It wasn’t too loose around the waist or too tight around the hips, like every other pre-made set of clothes she’d ever owned - which meant that she’d been out of cryohibernation for long enough to have new clothes run up to her measurements.
Once she was dressed, a few moment’s checking located the call button, which summoned two men in the same colonist-drab that had been provided to her - one tired and shrunken by age, the other fit and lean and half-caste. The older man wore a belt hung with implements she didn’t recognize, and skin-tight gloves; the younger a holstered pistol and a mourning-mark tattooed into his ridged brow.
“Healer?” she addressed the older man, then, half-jokingly: “I hope that my condition is not terminal.”
“Life is always terminal,” he said. “But you should have another two centuries before you have to start counting days.”
Sovina felt her eyebrows lift. “...There have been improvements,” she said.
“Good news to go with bad,” he said, then looked up from the scanner he’d been running across her body. “Cryohibe’s worn off with no problems. Rich diet for a week, and a double ration of water. Liver and kidney function will be slightly impaired for the same period; no self-medication beyond alcohol, and whatever your usual load of that is, halve it. And fair warning that the only hangover-buster I’ve got is on the disallowed list.”
“Am I going to drown my sorrows, then?” she asked, hiding the chill of foreboding under humor.
He chucked blackly, and she knew the answer was ‘yes’. “Look me up and we’ll cry in our ale about the good old days,” he said, and stepped back with a wave of one hand to let the half-caste - a corner of her mind called him ‘puppy’, though they were probably about the same waking age - step forward.
“Commander t’Sae?” he said. “I’m Tovan Khev, and I guess I’m what passes for a vigile here on Virinat. The Maiori asked to speak with you as soon as you’d woken up.”
“Not the governor?” she asked, walking towards the door and hiding her amusement as he dodged out of the way then fell in at her elbow once they were out in the hallway.
“There’s only the one settlement here on Virinat,” he answered, and she felt the trickle of ice-water fear down her neck chill another few degrees, for Virinat had been a settled and well-populated world, whose fields and granaries supplied the food needs of warships and resource colonies for dozens of light years in every direction. He missed her expression and kept talking, though: “-So he’s the Maiori.”
“And he has ill news for me,” she said.
He didn’t deny it.
“So be it,” she said. “Let’s go.”
When he led her into the Maiori’s office, she stopped dead in her tracks, staring frankly at an all-too - at an intimately - familiar face, weighted and worn and seamed by… Elements, at least a century, from the look of him. “Malem?” she whispered. “Malem tr’Nennian?”
The worn, late-middle-age statesman that her first-tour lover had apparently grown into chuckled. “Good to see you looking well, Sov. Please, sit down while we talk - that’ll be all, Tovan.”
“Yes, sir,” her guard said, and closed the door behind him on his way out.
She dropped into the visitor’s chair as he got up and poured them ale. “Shall I tell my tale first, or shall you?”
“Much of mine is moot and not worth the breath,” he answered. “Let’s make them the same tale, and yours the beginning and mine the end.”
“Well enough,” she said, and tried the ale. It was excellent.
“The grav pinch on the surge-reactor failed,” she said. “The luck was with us that the failsafes didn’t, but the antimatter scatter pitted the mountings, as well as the pinch itself, and ruined them - and the Engineer, who might have fabricated the replacements, was killed by the radiation pulse.”
The surge-reactor had been a low-efficiency pulsed antimatter reactor, handling its anti-proton reactant with gravity fields, used to excite and enrich plasma from the fusion reactor to intensities suitable for long-term warp flight, so that a sanely-sized fusion engine could be used as a ‘sustainer’ rather than accepting the vast fuel consumption of pure-fusion warpflight.
Malem made a face. “Even at its best that was never a safe system. They decommissioned the last one only a decade or so after you were - lost. Trading the Klingons for dilithium was less expensive than replacing a ship and its crew every five years. But - forgive me, I ramble.”
“Nothing to do with that,” Sovina said, “but we had the new subspace comms as well, and lost the main emitter in the power surge from the reactor incident. Curses on the quartermasters’ names, both of the spares were the old type, and useless with our set - and none of the other components. Even pulling from everywhere on the ship, we’d not enough to build a working one.
“I put us on an impulse course to the nearest colony world, and we rigged cryohibernatoriums for the entire crew, with a waking watch cycled from the permanent ones in the escape pods and doctor and her assistants in the medical bay’s cells.”
He sighed and drained the rest of his glass of ale. “A hundred and forty-six years,” he said.
She frowned. “It shouldn’t have been more than half that.”
“From what we saw when we found and examined the Telbostius,” he said, “one of your waking shifts quarreled among themselves, and never woke their replacements.”
“...Damn, damned, damnable,” Sovina muttered.
“Rather, yes. The automatic systems put the warbird in a stable orbit in the outer system… The colony had been shrinking, half-abandoned, for some time by that point, and the flight control commandant was a drunk. He just turned the notification off without logging it, and there Telbostius remained until the reactor ran dry…”
The thought of that death, silent and forgotten in cryohibernation, made her shudder and finish the half-a-glass she’d had left. Malem poured again. “Nineteen years ago…” For a moment he struggled, grief and remembered horror moving beneath the rigor of his control. “Hobus went surpernova. An abnormal one; no more than a few months warning, and…”
Instinct warned her, somehow. “And?”
“It propagated like an ion storm, not a standard nova.”
She felt herself pale. “Eisn…” she breathed. “The homeworld, and ch’Havran…”
“Gone. Gone in hours.”
Malem took a ragged breath. “With every ship that could arrive in time packed to the bulkheads… About half-a-million escaped, three-quarters of them from ch’Rihan, one quarter from ch’Havran. Not enough to be worth noting from any other of the habitats in the system.”
Sovina closed her eyes and poured her second glass of ale straight down her throat in one long, masochistic draught. “Fire,” she whispered, “have we been so unkind to deserve this?”
“If we had, we’ve paid the debt in full,” he replied, and poured her another glass. “The Empire is… gone. The Virinat colony was one of the ones that collapsed in the refugee surge. It seemed a good place to… settle and build again. When we’d built enough to spare time for a close survey of the rest of the system…”
He trailed off.
“You found Telbostius,” she finished. She sat up. “And the rest of my crew?”
“We’ve restored power aboard her and the backup power cells are charged,” Malem said. “There were some who… didn’t make it until we found you, a failed temperature regulator and a wiring fault that cut power, but… I’m told that all hundred and twenty-one that made it this far should make a full recovery.”
Sovina smiled, and raised her glass in a toast as she tried not to think too much about the world she'd woken up in; that could wait. . “Then, Maiori, we are at your disposal.”
"V, did you do something foolish?"
"Yes, and it was glorious."