Cold. He remembered cold. Freezing, biting, gnawing into his bones. A feeling of being cocooned, trapped, mummified in ice. A nightmare. But he was awake, and he couldn’t move. Couldn’t … couldn’t breathe. His body writhed in the plastic sheeting that surrounded it and he tried to shout but all that came from his lips was a whisper, cracked and hoarse.
“Help. Help me.”
Suddenly, the sheeting around his face was pulled away and he saw a man looking at him.
“This one’s conscious,” said the man.
“Good,” replied another male voice, and then there were two men looking at him. One of them lifted his eyelids and shone a torch at him. He blinked and tried to look away. This seemed to please the man, who muttered something about visual stimulus and wrote something down on an electronic clipboard that he had in his hand. Something about the men was familiar. Their manner, their white overalls and the lights they wore on bands on their heads. His body twitched again, straining against the ropes that held the sheeting around him. One of the men turned back.
“Steady on,” he said, calmly, then, “Do you know where you are?”
“No,” again the whisper.
Good? Why was that good?
“And do you know who you are?”
“No.” more of a sob than a whisper this time.
“Excellent. I will tell you who you are. You are a soldier under the command of Kane. You will obey his orders implicitly. You had no life before this and you will have no life once your mission is fulfilled. You exist only to serve Kane. Do you understand?”
“Yes. You are Kane’s soldier. You have no life other than to serve him. Do you understand?”
There was something hypnotic about the voice. It seemed to creep under his skin. Almost without him meaning to, his mouth opened, and he said, “Yes, I understand.”
“Good. You will be released shortly; we have one or two more tests to run. You will remain calm and obey any orders we issue to you. We are acting on behalf of Kane. Do you understand?”
The man turned back to his colleague, who was calling for his attention. The man who had woken looked out of the pod he was confined to. As his eyes adjusted to the light in the room, he could see others, some partially wrapped, some fully, all in pods with close-fitting doors. The two men who had spoken to him were now talking to another man, and there were other white overalled figures at work too, opening pods and releasing those inside. The man tried to turn his head, cautiously. He heard the men who had spoken to him questioning the other man.
“Do you know who you are?”
Suddenly, a voice spoke inside his head. Not the hoarse, broken whisper that had come from his lips, a younger voice. It said, “I am Marial. My uncle was Leofric. Kane killed him. I helped Kane kill him. I will not serve Kane.”
Now he knew why the men looked familiar. They were the scientists who had frozen him to serve in Kane’s army. Marial wondered how much time had passed since he had been frozen. He couldn’t tell if the scientists looked older. His memory was returning, but slowly and with gaps. He remembered … he remembered Belazs and Rodell, how they had questioned him and how he hadn’t given away the girl he had found in the scientific section. They had been going to kill him. Then Kane had intervened and he … he gasped, and his body twisted again as if it too remembered the cryogenic process. One of the scientists hurried over and released a strap across the pod, and Marial fell to the ground, still writhing.
“We’d better get that one out,” said the scientist, “it’ll injure itself if it goes on like this. Get a blanket and we’ll get it stretched out on that. The spasms will pass, but we can’t risk damaging any of Kane’s troops, he needs them all.”
Marial closed his eyes and felt himself released from the sheeting and then lifted and placed on a blanket. Gradually, his muscles began to relax, and the twitching subsided. He lay still, not knowing what would happen if he tried to move. Nobody must know that he remembered.
“Excellent. I wasn’t expecting that many spasms, but we can get on now,” said one of the scientists. He bent down next to Marial and said,
“Soldier. Stand up.”
Marial tried to obey. He got as far as his hands and knees, and then wobbled into an almost upright position, before falling back on the blanket again.
“Stand up,” the scientist repeated.
The second time he managed to stay upright for a few more seconds, and to catch himself on his hands and knees again rather than falling completely.
Marial could hear the other members of Kane’s frozen army being instructed around him. Some were being asked to walk, or to stand, or to move their arms or legs. He tried again, with the same result. The scientist repeated the instruction. Marial lost count of the times he fell down, only to be told to stand again. Once he had managed to stand, he was instructed to walk, with a similar result. One step, a fall, two steps, another fall. His limbs seemed unwilling to obey him, they moved stiffly, and his joints felt taut, as if they had rusted together. Marial had to give his full attention to movements he would previously have made without thinking. Eventually, the scientists seemed satisfied, and he was returned to the pod and secured with straps around his wrists and ankles and across his chest. He heard one of the scientists say something about “unpredictable mental side-effects, we don’t want them wandering off.”
Once the subjects of the exercises had been secured, the scientists departed, leaving the cryogenic room still and quiet once more. Marial turned his head cautiously and looked around. He couldn’t see any sign of consciousness in his fellow prisoners. All around him they stared ahead, blankly, as if they were asleep behind their open eyes. Marial shivered. He wondered what Kane had planned for this army of human automata.
There was no clock in the room, so Marial was unable to gauge the passing of time. He had been tempted to close his eyes, but decided that he risked falling asleep, so he kept as still as he could, in imitation of the others. After what might have been hours, but could have been minutes, the door of the cryo chamber opened and Kane came in, flanked by a group of scientists and members of the guard. The scientists hurried around the room, releasing their charges from the pods and instructing them all to stand still and to listen to Kane and obey. They were followed by the guards, who distributed weapons and repeated the instruction to listen and to obey. Marial grasped the gun he had been given firmly and fixed his eyes on Kane.
Kane’s speech was short. He instructed the assembled troops to cause chaos and to spread panic and destruction and to drive the inhabitants of Iceworld onto the Nosferatu, the ship he had confiscated from Shabalom Glitz. While he listened, Marial tried to work out what Kane’s motive was. His cruelty was without question, but why would he choose to drive the people of Iceworld onto the ship? Marial knew that Kane had given an order to destroy the Nosferatu, he had been at the port when the order was given, only to be countermanded by Belazs. Kane’s speech ended and Marial found himself running towards the commercial centre, behind a group of others who were firing their weapons over the heads of the terrified populace. Marial overtook the group and ran towards the port, his muscles protested with every step, but he had to get ahead, to see if he could find out what Kane was planning. Behind him he heard crashes and screams as the rejuvenated army wreaked destruction on Iceworld. He rounded a corner and came face to face with a family, parents and two young children. The children screamed when they saw Marial, and the parents turned and ran, pulling the children with them. He didn’t call after them. For one thing, he wasn’t sure if he could. For another, he had no time to explain what had happened to him. He reached the port and looked out through the viewing panel at the Nosferatu. It looked ready to launch, as far as he could see. There was no way of inspecting the exterior more closely without a spacesuit, and he couldn’t get one of those. The only other option was to get on board. Marial turned and ran for the access tunnel. Already he could hear the sounds of shooting and screaming and hurried footsteps coming closer. He entered the tunnel and closed the hatch behind him, hoping to buy himself some time.
The layout of the Nosferatu was unfamiliar to Marial. He had studied ship and engine design, but he hadn’t actually piloted one, or, for that matter, travelled on one. Iceworld wasn’t a place that people left, which made Kane’s decision even stranger. Hoping that he would notice if something wasn’t right, Marial followed a corridor that led to the bridge. To his eyes, the Nosferatu looked ancient, like a model from one of his history of engineering textbooks. He leaned on the control panel, breathing heavily, trying to ignore the screaming of his muscles and the fog of exhaustion that threatened to engulf his brain as the adrenalin generated by his race to the ship subsided. He tried to think. How would he know if something was wrong? What would tell him? He found the panel that would enable to him to run a diagnostic check of the engines, and entered the instructions to do so, hoping that the result would come in time. While he waited, he heard people arriving from the tunnel, and soon they began to crowd into the control room, until a woman's voice ordered them out. He turned his back, so that they couldn’t see his face. Having seen the faces of the other frozen troops, he knew that his own must be just as alarming. The woman came alongside him and began to check the instruments.
“You’re running diagnostics?” she asked.
“Yes,” again, that dreadful whisper.
“Are you Ok?”
“Yes, never mind me. Something isn’t right here. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong.” Marial coughed, then paused to draw breath. “But I don’t know how we can find it.”
The woman looked at him, but he kept his face averted, pretending to consult another instrument panel. An indicator beeped, and the woman looked at the screen above it.
“Engines are clear and fuelled, we’ve got clearance to launch.”
Marial coughed again, wracking his brains for any idea of Kane’s motive.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked the woman. She put a hand on Marial’s shoulder and moved infront of him.
“Oh my God,” she said, “you’re one of them. What are you going to do to us?”
“I’m not … I’m not going to do anything to you,” said Marial, slowly and painfully. He staggered and, almost by reflex, the woman helped him to a chair. A voice on the radio from the port control announced that the ship was cleared to launch, and the woman sat down and strapped herself into the commander’s seat.
“I can get us launched,” she said, “we’ll set a course once we’re away. And then you can explain what you’re doing here.”
“I… I remembered,” said Marial, “He took all the others’ memories, but I kept mine. He froze us, to make us into robot soldiers. But I don’t know why he has done this. Why did he drive you all here?”
“Does it matter?” asked the woman, “we can get away. We are lucky this ship was still here.”
“He nearly destroyed it,” said Marial, then, “No. That’s it, that’s what he’s going to do.”
He tried to stand and lurched forward, gripping the control panel.
“Where’s the self-destruct?” he asked.
“The self-destruct. There must be one. Check it.”
“There isn’t time. You may be on the right side, but the others aren’t, and they were right behind us.”
“But that’s what he told us to do. He told us to drive you onto the ship. Please,” Marial’s voice almost gave way and he coughed again, “please, check the self-destruct.”
Something about the urgency of his tone caused the woman to stop her preparations and look at him. She nodded and began to press buttons on another part of the console, looking intently at a small screen. The noise behind them in the main body of the ship increased, a man put his head around the door of the control room and shouted, “for goodness’ sake take off!” but the woman didn’t reply. She was staring at the screen. Marial staggered until he was next to her.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s been bypassed. The self-destruct has been bypassed. It’s on a remote control and there’s no way to disable it without risking activating it.”
“That’s it,” said Marial, “Don’t you see? He’s going to blow the ship up, with everyone onboard.”
“How could anyone?” began the woman, but Marial interrupted her.
“There isn’t time. You know about these ships?”
“Enough to launch one. The layout differs from ship to ship but…”
“Escape pods,” Marial was almost incapable of speech now.
The woman looked at him as if a light had gone on behind her eyes.
“Yes, I know where they should be,” she flicked a switch on the control panel and spoke into a microphone.
“Passengers, this is an emergency. Make your way to the escape pods. They are located on decks three and four, starboard side. Follow the signs and be quick. This is an emergency. Don’t stop to think, just go.”
She sat back and looked at Marial. Then turned to the panel again.
“They’ve taken over the launch,” she said, dully, “the countdown has started. We’ve got five minutes.”
“You’d better go then,” replied Marial, “how close to… when can the pods be launched?”
“You mean how close to an explosion? Almost simultaneously. They should be hardened, and the blast will drive them away from the ship. Were you thinking that he might shoot them down?”
“I wouldn’t put anything past him, but you’re wasting time.”
“We’re wasting time, you mean,” she said, gripping Marial’s hand and pulling him upright, “come on, there should be a pilots’ pod under this panel, if my training course was right.”
She lifted a panel behind the controller’s seat and lowered herself into the opening it revealed.
“Come on,” she said, and Marial followed her into the pod and closed the panel behind him.
The pod contained two seats and what looked to Marial like a very basic control panel. The woman strapped herself into one of the seats and activated the controls.
“Good,” she said, “all systems go. I can control the release of the other pods from here, but we have minimal directional control and not a lot of fuel. Once we’re away, we’ll have to hope that someone picks us up soon.”
Marial nodded and fastened the straps on his seat. The woman continued to prepare for launch, then turned to him and said, “what’s your name?”
“I’m Selina. I would say it’s nice to meet you, but…”
Marial laughed and coughed again. Selina smiled and opened a radio channel to the other escape pods, explaining that there was a risk of a faulty launch of the main craft, and that, in the event of an accident, the escape pods would launch, so all passengers should remain in the pods until the launch was safely over and she had given them permission to leave.
“Let’s hope that keeps them there,” she said, dryly. A voice from the control radio began to count down to launch, in a flat, impersonal tone. Selina glanced at Marial. The pod shook as the engines started and the Nosferatu released from the dock. The voice from port control announced that the launch had been successful. The ship turned and moved away from the planet. Selina watched the instrument panel. Suddenly an automated voice came from the panel.
“Self-destruct engaged. Destruction in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three,”
Marial watched Selina, her fingers hovering over the panel. He understood. Kane wanted them dead, if the pods were launched too soon, they might be detected. The countdown reached one and Selina gave the command to launch. Marial closed his eyes again.
Marial opened his eyes. Selina was there, they were still in the pod. They must have got away. He almost laughed at himself for having to work that out, but after his recent experiences, he was taking nothing for granted. Selina looked at him and held out a flask.
“Here, you passed out for a bit,” she said.
“Thank you, but I don’t know if I can…” Marial took the flask and tried to sip some of the water. It seemed to go down the right way, but he didn’t want to take too much. “How long… how long was I?”
“About half an hour,” replied Selina, “We’ve cleared the debris and we’re hopefully far enough from Svartos that we won’t be spotted unless they are really looking for us.”
“Good,” said Marial. He passed the flask back. As he did so, Selina said,
“Is that a tattoo?”
“No,” said Marial, wearily. “I was one of Kane’s guard. The elite. Chosen by him and sworn to him. We took his sovereign.”
He held out his hand so Selina could see the scar made by the frozen coin.
“But you… you said he froze you?”
“He did. I …” Marial paused, “I chose to join the guards. He may have beguiled me, even hypnotised me a little, but I made the choice. And because of that choice I… My uncle was the quartermaster of Iceworld. I was ordered to arrest him and bring him to Kane. I knew that Kane would kill him, and I did it. I arrested my uncle and Kane killed him.” He paused again, looking down, as if staring into the past. “Then there was a report of an intruder in the scientific section. I went to investigate, with Rodell. It was a girl, a kid. I’d seen her with my uncle. I didn’t know who she was, but if she was with him, if she knew him, I couldn’t arrest her. I’d failed him. I knew I had. I should have saved him, and I didn’t. I told myself I didn’t have a choice, but when I spoke to the girl, I knew I did. So, I pretended it was a false alarm. She had my uncle’s key, a child had found it and given it to her. I let her go and I destroyed the card and pretended it was a false alarm. They didn’t believe me. They were going to kill me, but Kane wanted me for his army. So, they … they…” Marial began to shake, and Selina put her hand on his arm.
“Don’t. I don’t deserve any pity. I made a choice and I’ve got to face the consequences.” He coughed and leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes again
Selina withdrew her hand and turned back to the control panel, saying, “I’ve activated a distress signal for the pods. I didn’t do it at first, but I think we’re far enough away now.”
“Good,” said Marial without opening his eyes. He turned his head, so that his cheek was resting on the back of the seat and slept.
When he woke, Selina was talking into the radio.
“Yes, confirmed, thank you. Do you have capacity for all occupants?” she asked
“Yes… that is…” said a man’s voice, which was vaguely familiar. Then a woman’s voice interrupted.
“Yes, confirmed, of course we have, don’t mess them around. We have food, air and accommodation for all occupants and have established your location. Nosferatu II will retrieve all escape pods and transport occupants to safety. We'll see you soon, Captain Ross.”
“Thank you, Nosferatu II, we await further instruction,” said Selina, closing the connection.
She opened a new channel, then relayed the information she had just received to the other escape pods. Noticing that Marial was awake, she told him that the distress signal had been picked up by a ship, which, to her amazement, had turned out to be the main body of Iceworld, now named Nosferatu II by the captain, one Shabalom Glitz. She had been cautious about accepting any offer of help from Glitz, his reputation preceded him throughout the galaxy, but she had spoken to a woman who had named herself as Melanie, and who had assured her that the occupants of the pods would be rescued and taken to the nearest safe port.
Marial looked at her, bewildered.
“Iceworld was a ship?” he asked.
“Yes, all the time. They didn’t tell me much, but Kane is dead, and Glitz and Melanie are transporting any remaining personnel to the same place as they will take us, unless they choose to stay in Glitzes crew. Oh, except for two of them, Melanie said that the Doctor and Ace had their own means of transport. I don’t know who they are, but perhaps you do?”
Marial thought for a moment. The Doctor meant nothing to him, and he thought that Ace didn’t either, until he had a sudden mental picture of his uncle, Leofric, and the girl he had seen him with in the wardroom. She had been wearing a jacket with a word embroidered on the back. It hadn’t meant anything to him at the time, but he must have noticed it without realizing. Ace. That’s what it had said. So, she was safe. Marial closed his eyes again. He didn’t know how long he had left after his life had been interrupted by the cryogenic freezing, but he felt as if he had been given a second chance that he didn’t really deserve. He smiled.
“Are you OK?” asked Selina.
“Yes,” Marial replied, “wake me up when they get here.”