OUTER SYSTEM, BD+56 2966
Icy, bone-cracking cold. Like the winter he was nine and fell through the ice rimming a backwater inlet of the Chesapeake. Only one of his legs had gone in all the way, but the ache in his femur and tibia seemed ready to explode out through his skin, even as the frigid water burned down into its nerve endings...
But this time that burning was entirely inside him, running the length of his skeleton, running in and out of his heart, his brain, his groin: conduits of fire that made him flinch, groan—
—groan as loud as the voice which said, "We are sorry, Caine Riordan. But we have no choice. You must awaken."
Riordan struggled to move, to turn his head, to open his eyes, to fight up through layers of subzero molasses. Perhaps his eyes had already been open, because suddenly there were lights. But too bright. With multiple halos around them all.
He reached to either side, discovered he was in a bed. Or in a pit. Or maybe a coffin. None of which made any sense.
Nothing made any sense, Caine realized as he scrambled to escape the claustrophobic box. The wheeling lights and surging sounds around him were unsteady, indistinct. His thoughts were a jumble of images that had nothing to do with each other: a ruined Grecian temple; then another half its size; explosions in jungles and massacres in cities; creatures and plants that seemed half vision and half nightmare; and finally, the head of a child's doll, rolling out of a roiling mass of smoke and debris in a war-torn Indonesian kempang...
Whether it was that last image, or the abruptness with which the fire streaming along his arteries changed back into debilitating icewater, his attempt to clamber out of the box-coffin was derailed by a fit of shivering...which quickly amplified into shakes so profound that his teeth did not merely chatter but clacked together convulsively.
His fingers weakened, his grip slipped, and he tumbled out of the box-coffin, catching himself unevenly. He swayed on his knees, still half-blind, discovering that the deck—or whatever was beneath him—was not only hard, but was even colder than he was.
Hands steadied him, kept him from falling over. But no, they weren't hands. They were clusters of prehensile tendrils, wrapping around his arms, his torso. He flinched away, horrified. "What—? Get off! Get the hell off—!"
"Caine Riordan, it is I, Yiithrii'ah'aash. Do not fear. You are safe. My fellow Slaasriithi will help you in every way possible. But we had to awaken you swiftly. We have employed drugs that accelerate your metabolism and heavy doses of chemicals that mimic your body's own epinephrine and endorphins, as well as neuromodulators and neurotransmitters. We apologize for the discomfort, but we had no choice."
Yiithrii'ah'aash: the Slaasriithi ambassador. The one who had snatched him from death's door after humanity's first diplomatic mission to his species ended in a furious firefight on the world known as Disparity. Images and ideas started swirling slowly into logical alignment; currents of order began surging up out of the frigid chaos. He realized he was clutching the side of the cold cell in which he had been placed when they had departed Delta Pavonis. "This mix of chemicals; are you sure it's safe? It's—very painful."
"We feared it would be." Yiithrii'ah'aash leaned into Caine's steadying field of vision, his tetrahedral head tilting downward as the tendril clusters at the end of his long, tightly furred arms gestured for the other Slaasriithi to resume assisting the human. "But our mission is in jeopardy. Human skills may be required to ensure its safe continuation."
No longer disoriented, Riordan discovered himself surrounded by the slightly shorter but even more lanky-limbed Slaasriithi that had been specially bred—or "engendered"—to dwell and work in low-and zero-gee environments. Now glad for their steadying "hands," Caine rose slowly. "What kind of jeopardy?"