Handle With Care

Image by Parker_West from Pixabay

My nightmares always played out in vivid loops. The dreams themselves varied, whether hunted by a prowling beast of darkness, a coven of knife wielding witches sacrificing me to some foul god, or a demon intent on tearing the soul from my body… it did not matter.

It would always be the same. I would feel the panic, the fear, like warm dread sapping down my spine. I would evade my terrors by the barest margin, knowing from the previous loop they would catch me, knowing what it would feel like for blade or tooth or claw to sink into my flesh. And then it would all repeat again until, mercifully, I woke in a cold sweat, crying out for comfort but finding myself alone.

What was happening now was worse.

We tore down the rusty, grated corridors, our foot fall sent echoing reverberations throughout the ship’s stacked halls as steam vented and coolant leaked sickly colours.

“Just my luck,” Herna panted between frantic footsteps, “The one cargo ship I actually stow away on gets boarded by… things!”

A screech in the hollow space, a vibration in the grated floor, many large things swarming this way.

The terror was real, the panic was real, I had to escape this time.

“No time for regrets,” Allyn grabbed Herna by her wrist and yanked her along with him. “Kelsie, wait up!”

I had torn ahead of them, my heart was in my throat, my breath struggled to pass through it, but I had to run. We turned a corner and found a large hydraulic door, tall, grey and imposing. Allyn caught up with Herna in tow and shouted frantically for me to open it.

I had already torn open a panel and was feverously rewiring the circuits. A buzz of static, the panel lit up and the door lurched open. It grinded slowly with tired hissing as the approaching screeches and the rumbling in the grating grew stronger, nearer.

“Come on, come on, come on!” Herna jumped from one foot to the next.

The door slid up past shin height and Allyn dropped to his stomach and rolled under it. “Quickly!” He ordered, “Underneath!”

Herna and I quickly scrambled under the door, Allyn hefted me to my feet and I went to work on the panel on this side of the hold. Nervously rewiring the circuits with clammy hands and that hot, oozing dread creeping down my spine.

Something large with red scales and sharp teeth rounded the corner and charged for the door as it grinded close.

Impact, the creature slammed into the door and scratched at the thick steel. Another impact, and another, a chorus of screeches. They knew where we were now.

Allyn swore and scanned the hold, “We need something to fight back.”

“What?” I whispered, “What could three teens do against… against….”

“Monsters,” Herna finished the thought.

I spun too, scanning the room, “Monsters,” the word seemed too childish for the situation. “Is that a cryo pod mark?” I pointed out one of the larger crates in the hold, a black metal container with red markings.

“You don’t think?” Allyn wondered.

Another impact against the hydraulic door, a screeching of metal as the monsters peeled away the barrier with insidious strength.

“We have to at least try!” Herna bolted for the container and unlatched it, prying it open as Allyn and I caught up. She pushed the door open and sickly blue light radiated out form the dark box, she gasped. “It’s in use, it’s, it’s a Colony Guard!”

She shoved the doors further open. Within the large metal crate was a pod with a frosted glass front and monitoring equipment built in. It hissed with coolant and beeped monotonously. Within the pod was a frozen man, young, scarred and geared in bronze armour.

His features stopped me in my tracks. He was beautiful, and seemed so sad even in stasis.

“We need to wake him up,” Herna bolted to the control console and started the reanimation procedure.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Allyn asked, glancing at the hold doors nervously.

The pod beeped warnings as the coolant leaked from it, the frost melted and flowed down to the base, pooling at the standing Colony Guard’s feet. The cargo bay door screeched and buckled as the monsters tore further inwards. They would be in soon.

“I know a little,” Herna bounced from one foot to the next in agitation as she worked, “Used to lift from cryo goods.”

“That’s hardly the same thing!” Allyn protested.

“What does this marking mean?” I caressed the red imprint on the side of the pod’s glass, ignoring their argument as I was unable to take my eyes off the Colony Guard’s face for long. He started to twitch and come alive.

“I’ve seen that mark before!” Allyn claimed before jolting, the cargo hold door breached and the creatures pried it further open. “I’ve seen it on the space port docks. The workers who transported them said it meant the goods were dangerous, it means ‘handle with care’.”

“Are you sure we should be letting him out?” I whirled on Herna who was initiating the final procedure.

The hold door crashed inwards and half a dozen monsters swarmed in with a bone rattling scream, teeth barred and claws spread.

“No choice!” Herna squealed and hit the final release button.

The pod hissed and the glass slide up from the Colony Guard. He blinked his eyes open, confused, worried, taking in the three terrified young faces before him. Then his eyes honed in on the charging monsters.

I could have sworn, that right before his eyes hardened on the monsters, that a look of… resignation? Sorrow? Swept across his face.

“Stand back.” His voice was as chilling and as deep as the void of space.

We pushed back against the walls of the container as the Colony Guard leaped forward. He met the first monster head on, clamping his grip around its neck and squeezing until its yellow eyes popped out of its head. He ducked under the swipe of the next one then fell back under the flurry of bites and claws from its companions which glanced off his armour or raked at exposed skin. He bellowed and pillars of flame erupted form his gauntlets. Like a blade he used them to cut through the monsters, using his enhanced strength to crush their scales and his augmented blood coagulant to prevent form bleeding to death.

The Colony Guard were designed at a time when humanity fought existential threats when they first expanded into the void. They were the best warriors against those threats whenever they reared their heads, kept in cryo sleep until they were needed again.

The brawl was over within a matter of moments and the Guard stood heaving amid a pile of bloodied corpses.

Herna, Allyn and I peeked our heads out from the container, our eyes trained on the Colony Guard. In the sudden silence his rasping breath filled the room like a hurricane.

Then it turned erratic, he started shaking and collapsed on his knees sobbing, wiping his face with the green blood that clung to his hands.

And that’s when it hit me. ‘Handle with care’, not because he was dangerous, but because he was a person living in his own nightmare loop. How many battles had he fought? How many terrors had he encountered? Only to be cryo frozen again, knowing the next time he awoke he would have a new terror to face, new pain to feel, before the next loop.

Handle with care.

I thought of all of the times I awoke from my nightmares, of what I craved in those moments when the terrors faded from the edges of my room and my mind, and what I never received as an orphan on a space colony.

I stepped from the crate, ignoring the pleas for caution from Allyn and Herna. I stepped up to the sobbing Colony Guard, who flinched at my presence.

“It’s okay,” I said gently. I knelt down with him in the blood and the gore and held him close, I pushed his head into the nook under my chin and caressed his short hair. “It’s okay, you’re safe now. The nightmare is over.”

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