Chapter 1:

A Lukewarm Welcome

The Propaganda Games

The last thing I remembered before losing consciousness was being locked into my hibernation pod. The doctors had set me up with an IV and O2 mask before shutting and latching the pod's door. I'd never experienced claustrophobia before, but I felt pretty nervous being locked in a little pod like that all alone.

"Okay, Samuel," said the doctor in a muffled voice from outside the pod. "You should start to feel pretty tired soon. Just close your eyes and relax, okay? Soon enough you'll b—"

Before she could finish that sentence, I was out. Then, after what felt like no time at all, my eye's fluttered open, just in time to see a young man in scrubs dash out of the room.

"He's waking up!" the man yelled from the hall.

A few moments later, he re-entered the room, now joined by a tall, middle-aged woman. She held a clipboard and wore a white coat with black embroidery that read "Dr. Simmons".

"Hello there, uh . . ." Dr. Simmons paused and glanced down at her clipboard. "Samuel. Is it alright if we call you Sam?"

I tried to respond, but all that came out was a horrible raspy sound, followed by a coughing fit. My throat felt dry and scratchy, worse than when I'd had strep throat as a child.

"Great," she said in her monotone voice. "We need to run a few more tests on you now that you're awake, okay?"

The man in scrubs, presumably a nurse, shone a small flashlight into my eyes.

"Ah!" I grunted, instinctively closing my eyes.

"We're gonna need you to keep those eyes open, Sam," said the nurse.

"Samuel," I muttered.

Without acknowledging the correction, the nurse checked my eyes again. "Pupil dilation is normal."

"Good, good," said Dr. Simmons, scribbling on her clipboard. "Sam, your blood work looks pretty good. Your vitamin D is low, but that and the expected muscle atrophy aside, you seem to be in good health. We'll need some stool and urine samples too, but those'll have to wait until after you've eaten and drank. The MRI and echo came back looking normal too. Your lungs and heart are in great shape for a guy that's been asleep for, what, ninety-six years now?"

"Actually, he's only been asleep for eight," said a deep-voiced man standing in the doorway.

"Oh, Dr. Walden," said Simmons, turning to look at the man who'd just entered the room. "Yeah, that's right," Simmons continued. "And accounting for the hibernation, he's only biologically aged two years, hasn't he?"

"Man, I can't believe those Future Tech guys actually pulled this off," said the nurse. "They send a twenty-two-year-old through a wormhole, and he comes back ninety-six years later as if he'd only been gone two years. I thought he was dead for sure."

"We're all surprised, Bill," said Dr. Walden. "I wasn't sure his ship would make it back at all, let alone with a living, healthy passenger inside. But here you are," he said, gesturing toward me. "Alive. And awake only a day after being removed from your pod." He smiled at me. I shifted uncomfortably. "You know, Sam, we lost contact with your ship over eighty years ago now. Comms were damaged; not sure how yet. It was quite a surprise when we detected your ship re-entering our solar system. We had to rush around to find the old Future Tech records of where you'd land. Barely set up a safe landing pad in time. Those Future Tech bastards were brilliant, but their record-keeping was, well, not up to our standards here at Parallax."

"Parallax?" I said. "What happened to Future Tech?"

Dr. Walden cringed as I struggled to choke the words out. "Bill, could you go get Sam here some water?"

"Sure," said the nurse as he exited the room.

Dr. Walden sat down next to me on the hospital bed and looked into my eyes. "Sam, we've got a lot to tell you. I mean, you've been gone for ninety-six years. Think about everything that happened between 2007 and 2103. That's how much you've missed; probably more."

The realization of exactly how long I'd been gone, how much I'd missed, started to sink in, but I didn't feel sad or upset. I was excited. There was nothing and no one I really cared for in 2103; no one who missed me or thought about me after I left. I was all alone in an uncaring world. But now, people cared. Now I was special. I was unique. I was, perhaps, the most interesting man on Earth. People would flock from around the world to speak to me. I'd be interviewed by all the big news channels. Maybe I'd even get a biopic with an all-star cast from some famous Hollywood director.

"All that catch-up will have to wait," Walden said, snapping me out of my daydream. The nurse re-entered and handed a bottle of water to Dr. Walden. "Right now, you have to eat and drink," Walden said, handing the bottle over to me, which I shakily lifted my hand to receive. "And do your physical therapy. We need you up on your feet for your press tour next month."

Press Tour? My eyes widened, and a grin crept across my face. I took a big gulp from the cold Parallax branded water bottle and looked up at Dr. Walden with determination. "So, when does my PT start?"

The Propaganda Games