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Alma was climbing into her escape pod when another fusion core went supernova. The explosion rocked the Commissar, despite the colony ship being half the size of Rhode Island. As the ship lurched, Alma’s legs buckled, atrophied from decades of cryosleep, and she crumpled to the deck, dropping Dolly as her shoulder slammed into the cold steel.

“No!” she rasped. Dolly clattered to a stop several feet away, though the toy might as well have been on the other side of the ship. Long-dormant nerves were still crackling to life throughout Alma’s body, with millions of phantom pins jabbing every inch of her flesh. Each thought was an effort: her abrupt reanimation had ripped her from a half-century-long dream to awaken in a sterile corridor, shivering and covered in cryo-fluid.

Dolly, Alma thought, forcing herself to focus. Only Dolly matters.

She heaved herself toward her daughter’s favorite toy, her legs splayed uselessly behind her. Grasping a chunky plastic thigh, she yanked Dolly toward her abdomen and curled instinctively around the warmthless form. She wasn’t about to leave behind the only piece of Madison she’d been able to save.

“It’s okay,” Alma cooed. “I’ve got you.”

A crimson smudge trailed behind her thumb as she dragged it across Dolly’s cheek. The same catastrophe that so unceremoniously ejected Alma from cryosleep had also fried the life-support systems in Madison’s sector. Seeing her little girl’s face in gentle, eternal repose awoke something feral within Alma, and after tearing out most of her fingernails in a futile attempt to open her daughter’s defunct cryobed, she’d started pounding on its canopy, covering it in crimson handprints and jostling loose the bin containing Madison’s personal effects. There, right on top, lay Dolly, exactly as Madison had left her.

A blaring klaxon brought Alma back to the present. She sat up, still clutching Dolly to her chest, and took in her surroundings. Bathed in the emergency lights’ ghastly crimson hue, other colonists tottered aimlessly around the escape pod bay, caught in the throes of their own brain fog. If they had any idea the ship was about to become a superheated ball of plasma, most didn’t show it.

Alma forced herself to her feet, stumbled back to her pod, and climbed in. The aquamarine resistance gel sloshing around inside molded to her form. The sensation reminded her of Aunt Mary’s old waterbed, and for a brief moment, she was at peace.

Then she noticed the old woman standing next to her pod. The woman’s skeletal form was still soaked with cryo-fluid, her hair plastered to her head in erratic strands. She was frowning at Alma, but she didn’t seem upset; rather, she simply looked frustrated, as if she knew she’d just forgotten something very important.

“I’m supposed to go somewhere,” she said, her voice tight with barely-restrained panic.

Before Alma could reply, the escape pod’s transparisteel hatch hissed shut, and the woman was gone. The pod’s propulsion systems ignited with a muffled boom. Negative g-forces crushed Alma into the viscous blue fluid until she was certain it would absorb her entirely. Her stomach crawled into her throat. Fighting to keep from blacking out, she closed her eyes, squeezing Dolly tight and thinking once again of her aunt’s waterbed.

Then the pod fell silent except for the gentle eep eep eep of its life support systems.

Alma was in freefall.

As she left the dying starship's shadow, Alma wondered if she’d made the right choice. A great chasm had opened within her, and although feeling had returned to her limbs, she was unsure if the numbness would ever leave her heart. Maybe she should have shoved the confused, old woman into the escape pod instead, then gone back to wait alongside Madison.

She glanced down at Dolly, searching for answers, but the plastic girl’s lifeless little eyes offered neither admonition nor comfort.

A glimmering reflection caught her attention, and she looked up, squinting in the searing light of distant twin suns. All around her, other survivors' pods rocketed toward the surface of the unknown planet below. It would be habitable - the Commissar’s emergency protocols wouldn’t have allowed the navicomputer to reroute them here otherwise - but beyond that, only hardship was guaranteed.

As her gaze rolled over the other escape pods, Alma wondered if one carried a lonely child who needed a friend like Dolly - or a mother like her.


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