The last of the volcanic sand drained through the grated floor of the stasis chamber, leaving Connor dangling from a harness in the pitch black. He was naked and freezing. A violent shiver sent him swinging gently into the glass wall of the tube, rattling the padded metal buckles fastened across his chest.
Impulsively, he felt for the leather strip that hung from his neck and followed it down to the heavy, square shape of the stone pendant attached to it.
He palmed it.
Exhaled a sigh of relief.
He wondered what cycle it was.
Was he just waking up for the first time or fiftieth?
Those answers could wait.
Right now he needed to get warm.
Connor reached up and pried at the release hardware situated above his head. Even with numb fingers, his hands remembered the months of training, and it only took a few seconds of fumbling before he heard the click and felt his feet touch the floor.
He unclipped the chest straps and stepped out of the harness.
It clattered to the ground.
He peeled the spent defibrillator pads that had just jolted his heart back to life away from his chest and tossed them at his feet.
The chattering of his teeth sounded like machine gun fire inside his head.
Connor rubbed his arms for warmth.
Here in the stasis cavern, the temperature was kept at a permanent twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Good for suspension. Bad for waking up in the nude. At the moment, he estimated that he had ten minutes before his body entered the late stages of hypothermia. If he didn’t get to the emergency locker outside his stasis chamber where there were warm clothes and a thermal tube, he wouldn’t stand a chance of making it to the hot room at the other side of the cavern.
Connor groped blindly for the inset handholds on the rear panel of the tube. One freezing step at a time, he made his way up the wall to the lip.
He swung a leg over.
The metal was searing ice between his thighs.
With a foot, he probed around in the dark for one of the exterior ladder rungs that would lead him down the front of the chamber, but a few seconds of trying revealed nothing.
The ladder was gone.
No time to think about it.
He threw the other leg over and carefully lowered himself down the outer-face of the tube, pressing his feet against the glass to arrest the descent until he dangled with his arms fully extended.
He could barely feel his icy fingers holding on to the lip.
Knew they wouldn’t support his weight for long.
Connor crunched the numbers. His height, six feet even plus an arm’s length, subtracted from the estimated distance between the floor and top of the chamber.
Maybe a three foot drop?
It didn’t matter. There was no way he was pulling himself back up.
He felt his fingers start to give.
Connor exhaled two quick breaths.
It wasn’t three feet. The fall took hours in the dark. He struck the floor and went down hard on his side, knocking the wind out of him.
He lay there on the ground and wheezed.
When he could breathe again, Connor sat up and made sure the stone around his neck had survived the fall. He rose unsteadily and stood with a shoulder braced against the glass tube.
Touched his left side gingerly.
That’s a bruise.
Another violent shiver ripped through his body.
Turning, he felt for the glass front of the chamber and followed its curvature with a palm to where it met the rough stone wall. He continued on until he came to a shallow recess. He reached in and removed a small ceramic, propane lantern.
Connor worked it over in his hands like a Rubik’s cube until he found the handle that would pressurize the canister.
He gave it a few pumps.
Felt along the top for the turnkey that would start the flow of propane.
A steady hiss escaped.
He sniffed the air.
The propane smelled fresh. It amazed him that it could keep for so long. Then again, everything in here did. The facility was a vacuum constructed with durable stainless metals and 21st century ceramics.
He felt along the sides of the lantern again until he came across the rough surface of the strike pad. With his free hand, he pulled the necklace over his head, found a corner on the stone, and struck it against the pad.
His hands were so numb the flint nearly went flying away from him.
A momentary spark illuminated the chamber, and he caught a glimpse of the endless rows of suspension tubes that surrounded him just before they blinked out of existence again.
He twisted the turnkey a little more.
The flow of gas increased from a hiss to a dull roar.
Mumbled a prayer.
His hands shook hard as he took another swipe at the strike pad.
The chamber loomed around him.
He squinted in the meager, blue light, breath pluming like a mushroom cloud.
Cylindrical, glass-fronted stasis tubes rose from the stone floor at equal intervals and disappeared into the surrounding darkness. Each was sixteen feet tall and adorned with a dead LCD monitor and a metal plaque. The interiors were filled with coarse, black sand. Here and there, the icy, blue flesh of a limb or a finger occasionally exposed itself against the glass. Reflectors embedded in the stone floor ran down the middle of the aisle, punctuating the darkness with a brief glint whenever they caught the light.
His lantern emitted a twenty-foot radius of illumination.
He would have killed for a blindly bright LED, but batteries had a shelf life that couldn’t be circumvented, and nothing was as reliable as fire or kept as long as propane.
Connor cast his light around the side of his chamber. The detachable ladder responsible for the screaming pain in his ribs lay uselessly on the floor beside it. He must have knocked it loose when he had climbed back in at the end of the last cycle.
The emergency locker sat at the foot of his tube. It was a small metal box with a hinged lid, vacuum sealed to help preserve the contents. Inside, there was a heavily insulated jumper, a thermal tube that slipped into the chest lining, and, if things got really desperate, a few magnesium tinder bricks to start a short but hot fire.
He set the lantern on the ground beside him and crouched in front of the locker, teeth rattling uncontrollably.
With both hands, he grabbed the release handle protruding from the top of lid and wrenched it upwards.
Felt his heart drop as it swung open without resistance.
There was no pressurized gasp of air.
The seal had failed.
He grabbed the lantern and aimed the beam into the locker.
Connor reached inside to make sure the horror in front of him was real.
The clothing was gone.
As were the magnesium tinder bricks.
All that remained were the disassembled halves of the plastic thermal tube.
It wasn’t possible.
He pulled both out. Each one was eight inches long, three inches thick, and threaded on one end.
His fingers felt like they belonged to someone else as he struggled to screw the two halves together.
After some fumbling, they stopped rotating and he felt a click as they locked into position.
He held his breath and removed the dividers from both halves that separated the internal chambers where the chemicals were stored. Once they mingled, the reaction would take ten seconds to begin and only a few more before the surface temperature of the plastic reached a toasty one-hundred-and-twenty degrees.
He gave the two halves one last torque and shook the tube vigorously.
The liquid sloshed around inside.
After a few seconds, he stopped and put an ear to the plastic, straining to hear the hiss of chemical activity.
Counted down in his head.
The thermal tube remained just as cold as when he had found it.
Connor flung it into the darkness and let out an inarticulate yell, but his voice was weak from the cold and disuse. Even if he started walking now which he could barely do, it would still be ten minutes before he got to the hot room where the rest of the team would be waiting for him.
The reality seemed too big to fit in his head.
He wasn’t going to make it.