Changing Babylon

A Short Story
Hubble is cool

John Mathews had never been this cold. He could hear the rustling of the wind outside of the thin nook in which he hid. Only hours before he had been walking in bright sunshine on a warm spring morning; or rather, he had been running. His pursuers had followed him until the storm started. He had heard the sweeping hum of their robot scanners following his trail for almost two hours after his escape. The storm had come swiftly, overrunning the chasers and destroying their robots. John had been grateful at the time, thinking perhaps his luck had changed. Indeed it had, but not for the better. He raised his head from the cold induced daze and glanced at his bare feet. They were already blue. His toes were almost black. There hadn’t been time to build a fire, only enough to seek the nearest shelter from the biting wind.

The snow obscured his vision, blotting out the view of his frost-bitten feet. Delirium overtook him then, and he sunk his head back down to his chest, suddenly conscious of his eyes getting cloudy. And then he was in the past. He was in a dojo learning martial arts. What was this? Oh yes, a Koho Kaiten Ukemi. His opponent was throwing him into a backwards roll. This seemed so familiar; he’d done this a thousand times before. He heard his sensei speaking, instructing the students to exercise control and restraint; an unnecessary injury in training came with swift retribution. A sudden gust of wind brought a flurry of snow across John’s memory as the vision unfolded around him. Suddenly it was years later, again in the dojo under the same sensei. John had just thrown his sparring partner flat onto the bamboo floor, knocking the wind out of him. At sixteen, the years of training had fleshed themselves into his psyche, buried the knowledge of death deep inside his mind. He knelt to deal the fatal blow, but pulled at the last moment, instinctively holding back. He stood and bowed to his winded partner, to his sensei, then knelt near the edge of the bamboo platform with the other students.

The crack of a tree branch brought him abruptly to the real world, half buried in snow drifts freezing to death. Somewhere in the distance he heard the limb crashing into the snow, the sound fading in the wind. He strained to recall where he was, why he was out here killing himself in this wildly unpredictable weather. The fifth moon of Epsilon Centauri was no easy place to escape from. As snowflake after bitter snowflake bombarded his face he looked out and thought he saw shadows moving in the wind. The cold overcame him then and he fell over, back into his memories.

He’d just knelt down after a sparring match. He shivered as he sat, the bitter cold of reality biting into his hallucination. Sensei called another sparring match, this one between two students John knew well. One, Sasuke, was gentle, caring, compassionate. The other a ruthless fighter and skilled martial artist. There was only one way this match could go, and the whole class knew it. John glanced at the sensei and saw distaste in his eyes – he didn’t want this match, someone had ordered it. The fight began; at first glance both fighters seemed equally matched. But soon exhaustion gave way, and the match lost its balance. It was over quickly, Sasuke lay dead. John felt a tightness grip his chest – this wasn’t the cold but part of his memory. Somehow he knew, against the years of training, that this death was wrong. He looked toward the sensei and saw that he felt it too.

The vision faded, almost to black, but there was something important there. John felt it. He struggled to keep the vision alive for just a few moments longer against the cold that was slowly killing his mind. The sensei had come to him after that class, took him aside and said something. What was it? That’s right. “I know you saw it, John. This death was wrong. You’ve been trained as an assassin, and death will soon be your entire life, but remember when I tell you that it is not right.”

Class the next day brought a new sensei, a ferocious looking man with evil in his eyes. John realized then what price his old sensei had paid for those few words of advice. Two days later he was running. Running… Running from what? The scanners, he remembered the scanners. Then snow. Snow had stopped the scanners then. He opened his eyes and looked out into a drift of snow piled against his face. His sensei had gone on to tell him something else, something about a world where he wouldn’t have to kill to live. Something about getting away.

The sound of approaching footsteps caught his ears, and a voice blowing in the wind; perhaps the sound of dogs yelping in the distance. He strained to lift himself from the snow, but couldn’t move. His blood felt frozen, slush pumping through his veins. His eyes closed, the voices approached, and John, in a momentary burst of lucidity, gave thanks for the few moments of freedom he had before falling completely unconscious. As the darkness encased his mind he tried not to think what the dogs would do with his frozen, lifeless body.

The room wouldn’t focus. He tried to blink, saw the black shrouds moving across his vision, but could see nothing beyond them. The vague notion of light reached him, coming from somewhere to the left. He blinked again, but his vision became no better. A voice, distorted and weak came from somewhere above him. Or was it behind? As he listened he became aware that he was laying down. What was the voice saying? He couldn’t make it out, the sound was too distant. A dark shadow came over his eyes, prying them open one at a time, making room for a blinding light to flash before him. He tried to blink again to clear his eyes of the strain. He tried to speak only to find that his throat wouldn’t move, as if something were lodged in it. He began to cough reflexively, then a pressure on his arm, then blackness.

He opened his eyes again but still saw only a blurry mush. He had the notion that a great deal of time had passed. He blinked and saw his vision improve. The gray above him became piping and conduit. Shadows became more distinct. He looked around and saw metal walls on either side of him, and a voice again behind him. This time he could make out some of the words. They spoke of traveling, of stars and planets, of cargo and money. He swallowed and noticed the constriction in his throat was gone. He sat up.

The room was lit by a single strip-light along the wall to his left. Myriad devices lay scattered upon a few small tables on either side of him, and a door sat straight before him, closed and with the appearance of being locked. He reached down to turn himself, and only then realized what he’d lost. His legs were wrapped in sentimus gel bags, an attempt to salvage some living tissue from the ice. His left arm was gone, cut off at the elbow. He looked up and saw the black flesh that once was his hand sitting on a shelf in a small freezer. A vision of dogs leapt into his mind, thrashing and gnawing at a frozen body in the snow. He shook his head and forced himself to think. These weren’t dog bites, only the horrible damage of extreme frost bite. He looked around again, trying to ascertain where he was.

It was then that the voices noticed him. “He’s awake.” It was a feminine voice, firm and resonant. Two sets of footsteps drew nearer as he strained his neck to peer behind him.



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