“How much longer now?”
“You asked me that an hour ago.”
“Well, I’m bored.”
“Go be bored somewhere else. There’s a whole ship to explore.”
Lex rolled her eyes. Sal hated being spoken to while he was flying, even if the ship was functionally on autopilot. Anytime he was in that seat, which was little more than battered metal and a thin, deflated cushion, he developed a God complex. She didn’t really get it, but then again, she was an engineer. It didn’t matter what she thought, so long as the ship kept working.
“I notice you’re still here,” said Sal, turning in the pilot’s chair. A short beard, gristle really, had begun to grow around his significant jowls. Razor-burn spotted his neck, and his eyes were sullen and low, as if he’d just come off a bender.
“Just hangin’ with my pal, Sal.”
Sal snorted. “You really want to look out at all that?” One hand waved across the view-screen. The fathomless black firmament, barely speckled with a few points of light, was all there was to see. It unnerved Lex. She’d been flying with the Gunnison for a little more than eight months and had spent a lot of time looking out of windows. Short-haul ships weren’t equipped with cryopods. Something about frequent cry-cycles damaged the cells, so they were stuck at sub-FTL speeds, bouncing between the supra-light buoys marking the trade-lanes.
“No,” answered Lex, “not really. It’s kinda fuckin’ boring. Why’s it so empty, anyway? Don’t we usually see more stars?”
Sal shrugged. “Charting new trade routes takes you to some weird places. Maybe a black hole? We’re pretty far out. Lots could be here we don’t know about. Ask Polina. She’s the physicist. She might be able to tell you what’s what.”
“But she wouldn’t do it with the same gusto as you, Sal.”
“Love you, too.”
“Get goin’, now. Go play cards with Briggs or Moray or somebody. Leave me alone.”
“Just so long as you promise not to tell me why you’re so keen on being alone.”
“Remember when I told you to fuck off?”
Lex laughed, waved once, then left the bridge. The doors slid shut behind her. Sal was finally alone. He looked once over his shoulder, then checked the comm-link. “You still there?”
“Yes,” came the reply. “Do you think she knew I was listening?” A faint accent indicated the speaker had grown up someplace metropolitan. Maybe Prosperity, or one of the stations around it. Sal made a mental note to ask Polina about it sometime.
“No,” he said. “She didn’t have a clue. Just coincidence she noticed the same thing about the missing stars.”
“Do you think the others will notice?” asked Polina.
“Not likely. They spend more time drinking and playing games than they do looking out the viewports. She’s the only one with half a brain.”
“Well, let’s hope she uses the correct half and keeps this to herself. I don’t want the crew to panic.”
“Well, I gotta tell Sharp. But after him, that’s it.”
“It better be.”
“Do you think we need to panic?”
There was silence for a long moment. Too long. Then the reply: “Not yet.”
“Roger,” said Sal, closing the link.
The noise of the mess pressed itself upon Lex as soon as she entered; over half the crew was here now, and those three other people made it feel like three times that. The mess was the biggest room on the ship, but that didn’t mean much aboard the Gunnison. It also happened to be the ugliest. The walls were steel-grey and looked like little more than sheet metal hung vertically, covered only by strips of seldom-used netting moored to the wall at the top and bottom like the masts of an ancient ship. Lex liked how they looked, even if they were kind of pointless; though the ship was hardly modern, it had been retrofitted with an artificial-gravity unit that kept the floors where they belonged.
Across the mess, Moray was stirring something in a pan. It made a sizzling sound that promised a better meal than Lex knew Moray to be capable of delivering. The big man waved at her as she entered and gestured to whatever was in the pan. Lex shook her head, then turned to the table where Sharp, the captain, and Briggs, the other engineer, sat. They had scattered cards across the table and were looking at one another intently. Lex grabbed a seat at the end of the table and watched them for a long moment where neither moved.
After about a minute, she interrupted: “Are you guys actually playing this game, or is it just a staring contest? What kind of money do you have on the line?”
If Sharp heard her, he showed no sign of having done so. Lex turned to Briggs, who shrugged. “Don’t worry about him, Lex. Staring at the cards isn’t gonna make ‘em any better. He knows he’s cooked.”
“Does he? He seems pretty convinced he has a shot, here.”
“That’s the overconfidence of command. Once you put a guy in charge, he thinks he’s hot shit, needs to be humbled. This is me doing him a favour, really.”
“Shut up, Briggs, it’s been like four months,” said Sharp. His eyes never moved from the cards. “Fuck. Okay. Call.”
Sharp laid the cards across the corrugated metal table. There was no confidence in his face. He didn’t even bother taunting his opponent. A single vein bulged in his forehead. “Just show ‘em, man. Don’t mess around. Marlene’s gonna be pissed enough at me for gambling when I get home.”
Lex watched Briggs. The younger man was looking at Sharp, mouth agape. “I’m honestly shocked. Really, I am.” He held his cards in his fist, not even looking at them.
“Can you get this over with? Sal called me to the bridge like five minutes ago. Says it’s important.”
“And this isn’t? I was just going to say that I’m shocked you were bold enough to make the call. I honestly thought you’d fold.”
“Briggs. Stop being a dick. Just show me your cards.” Lex could hear the edge in Sharp’s tone. She’d worked with Briggs a lot longer than she’d worked with Sharp, who’d recently been re-assigned by the Company. Everything she’d heard about the man suggested that he was a perfectly affable – if somewhat bookish – captain. She’d also heard a series of stories about the lagoon-side casinos on Jollity that suggested he wasn’t as clean-cut as he seemed. She made a mental note to tell Briggs – remind him, really, considering he was the one who’d found that information on the captain – to maybe find a different opponent.
Briggs sighed and laid the cards across the table. Lex snorted. Briggs had nothing.
“YES!” cried Sharp, leaping to his feet. A barely-restrained smile crossed his face. “I didn’t think I had a chance, and I swore I wouldn’t be cocky if I won, but godDAMN does it feel good!”
“Good game, cap’n,” said Briggs, extending a fist. Sharp bumped it. “You got one more in you? Or do you gotta go?”
Sharp considered. “I should probably head. Maybe later.” He grinned. “I know your tell now, man. You’re gonna be in for it when I get back.”
Briggs opened his arms wide in a kind of who-me stance. “See you then, boss.”
Lex leaned toward him. “So why’d you let him win?”
Briggs shrugged. “Guy looked stressed about something. His comm kept going off.” He grinned. “I also got to see what he looks like when he’s got a shit hand. Not sure I needed the preview to figure it out.”
“Truly, you are a noble so–”
Without warning, the Gunnison began to slow. Then it stopped. Everything after was a blur. Lex later recalled it only in snapshots, seconds of memory preserved only for the horrors they held.
One. The ship stops. Plates, bowls, cutlery, glasses, liquids, food, the hot oil in the pan, the cards on the table, the loose metal nut that Briggs had dropped behind the bulkhead two months prior – it all flies into the opposite wall with a horrific metal crunching sound that makes Lex think she’s died.
Two. She watches Moray die. Unmoored to anything, he collides with the wall faster than her eye can follow. His body floats away in a crumpled heap, globules of blood already beginning to gather in the air, the gravity unit clearly damaged by the calamity. She and Briggs luck out – their heavy workpants and the short distance between thigh and metal save them from the same fate. Mostly. Lex hears a sound she can never unhear, then looks down at Briggs’s lap to see a white shock of bone extruding from his thigh. He’s screaming. She’s only just realized that.
Three. A klaxon is sounding through the Gunnison. The lights in the mess have vanished, replaced by dull yellow running lights like submerged fireflies. A tinny voice is speaking over the comms. Sharp’s. It takes a few seconds for the words to coalesce into anything that carry meaning. Siren so loud. They need to go to the bridge. Now.
Four. Lex pushes herself out of the seat. She’s floating but a few inches over the table. Her legs scream at her. They might not be broken, but they’re certainly bruised. She helps Briggs out of his seat, trying not to jostle his leg, trying not to even look at it. She wraps his arm over her shoulder, then uses the lip of the table to launch herself toward the exit.
Lex didn’t realize how bad it was until they arrived on the bridge.
The soft whirr of the automatic door announced their arrival. Somebody must have hit a switch, because the alarm stopped as soon as she entered. She heard a short gasp, presumably at the sight of Briggs. Polina. The astrophysicist was strapped into the co-pilot’s chair, next to the ashen-faced Sal, whose hands were dancing anxiously on the console. Floating nearby was Sharp. Small bubbles of red rose from his head, but he seemed alert and gave the crew a sad wave as they entered. He was about to push off the wall and toward the arriving party when Sal unstrapped himself instead. The big man lifted the semi-conscious Briggs from Lex’s shoulders and set him into the pilot’s chair. Polina quickly rushed forward, filling the open wound with a medi-foam. Enough to keep him steady. At least for now.
“Moray?” asked Sharp, breaking the silence.
Lex shook her head. “Was standing when it happened.”
“What the hell happened? An asteroid?”
“No,” said Sal, shaking his head. “An asteroid would’ve come up on the sensors, even out here where there’s no light to bounce off of it. Also, we’d still be moving. But we’re not.” His eyes danced over to Polina’s, and he raised his eyebrows. Questioning.
Polina nodded, and Sal continued.
“Pol and I have been monitoring some unusual activity in this sector.”
“What kind of activity?” asked Sharp irritably.
“I was just getting to th–”
Polina spoke up. “–Don’t worry, Sal. I can take it from here.” She looked first to Sharp, then around the cramped room. “We detected an unusual phenomenon as we passed out of the last cluster. We’re still a few dozen parsecs from the nearest trade route, with no known objects in-between.”
“What was the phenomenon?” asked Sharp.
“We noticed that the stars were going out.” Polina’s voice was cold as she replied. It took a moment for Lex to realize it wasn’t the steely nerves of the scientist. Polina was afraid.
Sharp pushed himself into an upright position, or at least as close as he could get in zero-g. “What do you mean, going out?” Anger had begun to creep into his voice.
“As in, we couldn’t see them anymore,” said Sal.
“Right,” replied Sharp, “but did they actually ‘go out’ as in ‘go nova,’ or is it something else?”
“Something else,” answered Polina hurriedly, “but we’re not totally sure what just yet. We have some theories.”
“We think they’re being blocked. Obscured, that is.”
“By what? A rogue planet?”
“No,” said Polina sadly. “That would definitely have shown up on our sensors. Planets are composed of elements we know and can identify, even in the dark. This was all dark.”
“What the fuck?”
“It gets worse, too,” continued Polina. “As far as we can tell – and this is limited, based on scans that we can run – it’s not anything we’ve ever seen. It’s like there’s some strand of something, and we’re caught in it.”
“Well, let’s get out. Sal, throw the ship in reverse.”
“Can’t do it, boss. Front thrusters are buried in whatever this shit is. No way to pull ourselves out. I tried. We’re trapped.”
Nobody said anything then. The only sound was the low and rhythmic breathing of Briggs in his chair. Then their world came apart. A great shudder ran through the Gunnison like a death rattle, then the jarring, violent shriek of tearing metal. The sirens began to go off again, shining yellow across the bridge, and the bridge door’s locked shut. The whole ship shook, throwing everybody save the seatbelted Briggs into the nearest wall, though fortunately not as quickly as before. A hiss of air could be heard, indicating that the vacuum seals elsewhere on the ship had been breached. Then there was silence, and everything went still.
“What. The fuck. Was that?” asked Sharp.
Lex floated to the console, her hair cloudy around her head. She typed something quickly.. Next to her, Briggs had drifted again into unconsciousness. A tremor rolled through the ship as she worked, and the rest of the crew shifted nervously.
“Fast as you can, please,” said Sharp.
Lex wanted to call him out for being a dick, but decided that wouldn’t help anything. At least not yet. She swore under her breath. “That can’t be,” she muttered.
“What can’t be?” asked Sharp.
“This – all of this.” She turned to him. “I don’t really know how to say this. There’s no good way.”
“Just spit it out. We can worry about gilding it in our reports.”
“Something’s attacking us.”
Another long silence. Then Polina spoke, too scared to moderate her tone. “What, like an alien?”
“Not exactly. And I don’t want to leap to too many conclusions. The Confederacy hasn’t found any complex life in known space, but we know it’s out there. It makes sense that we’d run into it eventually. But this – whatever it is – is peeling apart the hull. The mess is totally exposed to the vacuum right now. I think it detected something there. Food, maybe. Warmth.”
“Why hasn’t it attacked us yet, then?” asked Sal.
Lex hesitated. “Because there’s more blood at the end of the ship.”
Sal let out a long whistle. “Shit.”
“This is fascinating,” said Polina. “A life-form totally undetectable by any of our instruments–”
“Definitely,” said Sharp, in a tone that suggested he didn’t care in the slightest. “But it’s not my concern right now. My concern is getting what remains of my crew back into home space.”
“I told you,” began Sal “I don’t have a way to–”
“I think I do.” Lex. She finished a few last seconds of furious typing, then stepped back from the console. “It’s risky, it’s stupid, but I think it’s all we got.”
“Well?” asked Sharp. “What is it?”
“We blow the Gunnison’s reactor.”
“Just a small detonation. Controlled. One cell per second. Enough so that they propel one another instead of combining. If we trigger the ejection command on the bridge at the exact right time, the module will detach from the ship. Propel us away, back towards the Cygnus route. Or at least I hope. The inertia might not be enough, and we’ll have to survive on emergency rations. But it’s the difference between dying later or dying now, when whatever the hell’s out there decides to come back.” Lex’s voice was shaking as she finished. She wasn’t the talker, at least not to big groups. She had no idea where this had come from.
“It’s a stupid plan,” said Sal slowly, “but it’s also the only one we’ve got.”
Polina laughed. It sounded false in that small space. It might’ve been. “Agreed.”
“Cap, I’m gonna need the override codes to blow the reactor,” said Sal.
Sharp’s face had gone white, either from loss of blood or the fear of what came next. But he floated over to Sal and began to punch something in.
“Wait!” cried Lex.
“What?” asked Sharp.
“I forgot – I can’t believe I forgot. But we can’t do it on the console. It has to be manual.”
There was a long silence as the import of this fell on the crew. Then Sal said what everybody was thinking. “Lex, that’s through the mess. It’s all vacuum.”
“I’ll do an EVA. There’s suits in the bulkhead.”
Sharp shook his head. “If you’re setting the sequence manually, it’s still a one way trip. There’s gotta be another way.”
“There is no other way.” Everybody turned to the sound of the voice. It was weak, and strained, but it was Briggs. His face was practically grey, but his eyes blazed as he spoke. “I’m going with you, Lex. You need another engineer. We don’t know what’s happening out there. We need to stack the deck as much as we can.”
Lex’s eyes met her friend’s and thought of a million reasons to say no. Her lips parted in a grim smile. “Guess we’d better suit up.”
Inside her EVA suit, Lex took a deep breath and tried not to think of how little material separated her from endless nothingness. It was not easy to dismiss this thought from her mind, especially when the only distraction was the sound of her own breath echoing inside her helmet. Sharp had asked her to update them on their progress over the comms as they went, but Polina had piped up to suggest that, in the absence of any knowledge about whatever had attacked the Gunnison, perhaps all radio communication should be kept to a minimum. Their suits’ running lights had also had tape hastily applied over them, just in case the visible spectrum made them just as vulnerable.
These considerations did not provide any additional comfort.
Lex and Briggs floated inside the hallway just outside of the ravaged mess. The ship’s airlock seals had been activated automatically as the mess had been attacked. Sal had sealed the opposite end of the hall. When they gave the signal – just a quick on/off of the radio – he would open the mess door, and they’d float through in the dark, across to the opposite end, where a floor panel would provide an access ladder, allowing them to reach the reactor.
Lex counted about six hundred ways she could die in the next five minutes. She pushed them from her mind and looked over at Briggs. His face had a sickly, jaundiced look. Lex didn’t know how much of that was the poor light thrown by the runners or the wound. Another thing not to think about. She took a deep breath, then flicked the radio.
The door opened, soundless in the vacuum. Lex gestured to Briggs, and they floated through.
It took a moment for Lex to orient herself as she floated into the mess. While the fundamental structure of the room was still there, the entire roof and part of one wall were missing. Only a few lights were left on the wall to her left, scattering faint light in a thin halo like the last embers of a doomed campfire. A few stars could be spotted, speckled across the cosmos above her, but they disappeared abruptly when she looked too far to the right.
After that, there was nothing. She couldn’t call it an abyss, because that suggested some measure of depth of volume that indicated that there was structure or space to it. This was nothingness, pure and simple. As if a child had peeled back the wallpaper of the universe to reveal the howling black emptiness beyond.
It terrified her, but she tried not to show it as she took Briggs’s hand and used the frame of the door to launch herself across the room, careful not to apply enough inertia that her landing might hurt.
Or worse, that it might be noticed.
For a few brief, paralyzing seconds that felt like years, she passed in front of the expanse, trying not to look, not being able to do anything but look. She closed her hand tighter around Briggs’s and felt him squeeze back. Then they hit the far wall, more heavily than she hoped but not as hard as she’d feared. She found the console that opened the maintenance corridor, then pressed the entry code. It slid open soundlessly.
She gestured for Briggs to enter, then followed him. The door closed behind her.
“Well, that was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen,” said Lex. She’d taken her helmet off and tucked it behind the netting on the wall in the reactor’s room. Briggs had taken his helmet off. His breath was coming in short gasps, but his eyes were alert. They looked as scared as Lex felt.
“That wasn’t right,” he said. “Felt like we weren’t meant to see it or something. It was like my brain didn’t even know what to do, you know? I’m trying to talk about it now and I can’t. Like all my words’ve been stolen.”
“I hear you, partner. Let’s just get this shit over with.”
Together they rigged up the detonation sequence. It was relatively simple from an engineering perspective. The Confederation had mandated self-destruct sequences on all vessels – commercial, military, or personal – since the Internecine Conflicts seventy years prior. All captains were obliged to scuttle a ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands, lest reverse-engineering allow a lower-caste world to elevate itself.
The primary failsafe against misuse was that it required a specific set of codes, as well as manual detonation. Lex and Briggs each knew this, and once the sequence was timed, there was nothing else left to say.
“I need to do this,” said Briggs.
“Don’t be stupid. It was my idea.”
Briggs laughed. “What does that matter? I’m not doing so good, in case you hadn’t noticed. Don’t waste your life.”
“I wasn’t asking.” Lex floated close to him. “I think I could win a fight against the guy with the busted leg.”
“Now who’s being stupid?” Briggs laughed, a cold sound without mirth. Then, without warning, his hand shot out and grabbed a loose wrench. In the next second, he slammed it into the front of his helmet. A spiderweb of cracks spread across it. He held the wrench in front of its face. “I don’t want you to get hurt, and this shit will fly everywhere if I break it. Which I will if you don’t go. And your helmet won’t fit my suit, so don’t even think of trying to be a hero.”
“Fuck you,” said Lex. “Don’t put this on my conscience.”
“You heard Pol say how far out we are. Go. Get out of here. Tell the Confederation what happened so they can stay the fuck away from here.”
Lex looked at Briggs for a long moment. Each considered the other. Calculating. Then Lex relaxed her shoulders and nodded. She floated over to her helmet and put it on. She turned to Briggs and tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed quite right. So she simply raised a hand, then left that place, never to return.
Lex was barely settled back on the bridge when the detonation began. Sal sat at the controls, watching the readings with an uncharacteristic fierceness. Everyone else was silent. Thinking. Praying. Whatever people did when they retreated inside themselves.
It began as a series of tremors. Then there was a violent shaking sensation, and a sense of lightness as the bridge module separated from the rest of the Gunnison. A flare bloomed in the night, growing hotter and redder, propelling the survivors away from the site of the wreck.
The light from the dying ship had already begun to fade when Sal finally exhaled and opened the viewscreen for all to see. The fading glow lit up the emptiness, revealing the wall of black that extended beyond the top of their view. No stars could be seen past this structure, which was unmoved and seemingly undamaged by the violence at its feet.
Then something moved, a thin tendril of black against the dying ship. This glimpse at the indescribable sent a thrill of terror and sublime awe through Lex. For a moment again, she was a primitive on a long-dead world, looking at an unchanging and unknowable sky.
Then she was back, and they were hurtling through the dark.
Hurtling towards home.