The hub of the ship was the social space. It was a kitchen, a dining room, a conference room, and an entertainment center. The bridge was one short corridor away, and the crew quarters branched off in four directions – four above, four below. Right now they were well understaffed, which seemed to suit everyone fine, since the group they’d put together was already well-versed in getting on each other’s nerves.
Mara sat next to Arlen, who was tapping through pages he’d stored in his tablet. Knowing him, it was probably news, as up to date as he could get it. She never quite understood his constant need to know what was going on all the time. Marco had to, he was the captain, but everyone else could just hang out and collect and let the system sort itself out on its own.
Leane had joined them from the cargo hold. She was filthy and looked exhausted, but her eyes jumped from person to person as Mara laid out what she had seen on the Osiris, and she knew that Leane wouldn’t miss a thing.
Ken kept looking from Marco to his computer and back again, and every time he looked at his files, his brow furrowed. The fact that he was nervous was bad enough, but he seemed to be making Marco nervous, and that wouldn’t do at all. You didn’t captain a crew like theirs for as long as he had by being nervous, and it seemed an alien look on him.
“The problem we have,” Marco said when she’d finished her story, “is that one of the passengers on the ship is – or most likely was – the daughter of none other than Donovan Starling.”
That got Arlen’s attention. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “She’s been missing for months!”
Marco nodded. “And there’s a reward for her return, alive or dead. But it seems like there’s going to be a hitch. Ken?”
He spun the computer around to face the group. Mara instantly recognized the face on the screen – Carter Artega, captain of the Osiris The dead man, and probably the one who’d murdered every other living soul on the ship. “This is one of the files that was on the chip Mara bought over,” he said. “Among the others was a cute little executable that probably would have set off the Osiris‘ self-destruct, so good call there.”
Mara tipped the hat she wasn’t wearing, and then let him continue.
“There’s also a copy of the manifests – crew, cargo, and passengers. Starling’s daughter is listed there by name, and she’s tied to those crates of miscellany they have in their hold.”
“Which contain what?” Leane asked.
Ken held up a hand. “Don’t get ahead of me,” he said. “Terra Starling boarded about a week before this video was recorded.” He gestured at the screen. “The video itself was recorded about three months ago.” He reached over, clicked play, and they watched Captain Artega speak.
It… is vital that I say this, he said from the screen. His face looked drawn and haggard, unshaven. His eyes kept moving from one place to another. Even if no one ever hears it, I have to say it. I think that if I say it out loud, then maybe… maybe it’ll sound as crazy out loud as it does in my head. And if I can just get a second opinion, then I can put all this behind me. He looked down at something below the camera’s field of view. But probably not.
He took a deep breath. There are ghosts on my ship. He let the breath out and looked from left to right and back again. His shoulders slumped, but he went on. They’re not… It’s not like I’m seeing my grandfather or my dead wife or anything, you understand. It’s just… He leaned in a little closer. I know they’re there. Things. Spirits. Entities, something. They started about a week ago, right after we left Laraea colony. Mara looked over at Ken, and he nodded.
I have no idea what they are, but I know where they are. The captain’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. They’re always just out of sight. Shadows. Malingerers in the corners, hiding in that spot right where your eyes don’t go and doing… He ran a hand down his face, and the hand was blood red. It left streaks across his skin. Around the table, Mara and the crew didn’t look at each other, or say anything. They kept their eyes on the screen, but Mara knew. Even veterans of the spaceways would look at this and get a little uneasy.
On-screen, Artega looked at his hand as though he hadn’t seen it before. Then he looked up at the camera and grinned. A skewed grin that made him look like he used to be a troublemaking teenager. I think I may have gone a little off the rails, he said. He blinked his eyes clear and tried to compose himself. There are things on this ship, and I don’t know who or what they are. He held up a bloodied hand. I’ve already begun my investigations, but so far – no luck. And I suspect that if there’s no one on the ship anymore, the ghosts won’t have anyone to haunt. So there’s a few more people to take care of, and then I’ve got a full bottle of painkillers from the infirmary waiting for me.
His expression shifted a bit, a flash of guilt. If you’re watching this, then I’m sorry. I can’t let you go, or the ghosts will just follow you, and I will have done… I will have done all this for nothing. As soon as this message ends, the Osiris will self-destruct. He looked like he was about to cry. I’m so sorry. He reached out, and the screen went blank.
Arlen stood up slowly. “Um,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” Ken said. “I’ve got the video unhooked from the executable, and even if I didn’t, the ess-dee codes from the Osiris wouldn’t work here.” He glanced over at Marco. “Right?”
Marco nodded. “Right. Goqui doesn’t even have it set up.”
“Okay,” Arlen said. He sat back down. Leane smirked at him, and he returned the favor.
“Assuming the captain’s got his timeline right,” Marco began.
“A big assumption,” Mara said. “The guy was nuts.”
Marco nodded. “True, he was, but if he had his time right, then we know that the ‘ghosts’ started to show up right after he picked up Terra Starling and her miscellany.” He took the computer from Ken and tabbed over to the manifest. “No idea what’s in these crates,” he said, “but they should at least be treated as suspicious.”
“What?” Leane said. “What could be in those boxes that’d make him murder everyone on the ship?”
“Magnetic pulse generators,” Arlen said. Everyone looked over at him, and he seemed surprised that they were waiting for him to finish his thought. “What?” he said. “It’s well known that a focused magnetic pulse can create hallucinations. Maybe she brought a bunch over, switched them on and…”
“And they only affected the captain?” Mara said. “How would that even work?”
Arlen shrugged. “Maybe there’s something in his genetics…”
“And where would a girl like Terra Starling even get magnetic pulse generators?” Ken asked. “You’ve seen her in the news, Arlen, she’s an idiot. She wouldn’t know how to get off a planet unless you strapped a pair of shoes to a rocket.” That got a chuckle.
“Maybe she didn’t know what was in them either,” Arlen said. “Maybe someone gave them to her? Told her they were vintage handbags?”
Leane snorted. “Very nice,” she said. “Shoes and handbags. Original, Arlen.”
“What, haven’t you seen her?” He grabbed his tabled and started poking at the screen. “The girl is a complete flake, look at this…”
They were cut off when Marco slapped the tabletop. The silence was complete. Leana sat back down. Arlen put his tablet on the table carefully.
“We blow it up,” Marco said.
Everybody looked at him, and it was a full ten seconds before Ken said, “What?”
“We blow it up,” Marco said again. “I don’t know what happened on that ship, and I don’t think I want to know. We go in, copy over all the logs and computer files, and then we scatter Osiris to the stars.” He looked over at Leane. “Cargo and all.” She took a quick breath that hissed through her teeth. But she didn’t disagree with him.
After a few moments, Mara said, “We can use the file on the chip to set off the self-destruct.” She looked across at Ken. “Can you re-jigger it to give us time to get out?” He nodded. “Okay then,” she said. “Let me know what you want off that ship. Me and Leane can go get it.”
Leane raised an eyebrow. “Me?” she said. “Why me?”
“Because you’re organized and efficient,” Mara said. “And I think the guys’ll probably pass out when they see the blood.” There was another chuckle around the table. Leane reached out for a fist bump.
“Okay,” Marco said. “We’ll start putting together what we need. Then we sleep.” He looked at the blank screen of Ken’s computer. “Tomorrow we bid farewell to the Osiris.”
To Be Continued… but I need to do some planning first. Hang in there.
Mara wasn’t an expert on communications or computers, at least not beyond what everybody had to know to operate the ship. Her job was security and threat assessment, a job that seemed a little ridiculous on a salvage ship with a crew of five. The biggest threat she had to deal with on any given day was Ken trying to cheat Arlen at cards, which he did with such regularity that no one really knew why Arlen kept playing. She wanted to ask, but the mystery seemed more interesting. As long as they didn’t kill each other, it wasn’t really her business.
The only time she was really called upon to act in her official capacity was moments like this – dealing with derelict ships, investigating distress calls and emergency beacons. What with all the illegal mining ships, passenger scows, and homebrew space tubs out there, they did surprisingly brisk business. Marco had brought them together to make some money and enjoy the wide-open, and that’s what they did.
This ship, however, was a whole other story.
She didn’t have the leverage to pull the axe out of the comm console, so she just left it there. “Marco, are you seeing?”
“I’m seeing,” he said. “Ken’s here too. Ken?”
A moment’s pause, and then Ken’s familiar reedy tones. “Hey Mara,” he said. “What’ve you gone and done now?”
“Not in the mood, Ken. This place is creeping me out.” She brought herself closer to the console and the axe. “What do you make of this? And tell me quick – there’s a dead guy floating behind me, and if the fics are any indication he should be grabbing my ankle any moment now.”
Ken chuckled into the mic. “C’mon, Mara. Space zombies almost never happen. Now let’s see…”
There was a brief silence. What she’d told Ken was no lie – she could feel the dead man behind her. He was floating, he was naked, and he was covered in blood. She wanted to turn around, to look at him and make sure he was still there, still unmoving. But she had to keep the helmet-cam centered on the console. She wondered where he could grab her – leg? Shoulder? And when she spun around to scream, what would she see? The bloody maw of a mouth, ravaged by some terrible exovirus? The dead black eyes of a predator that would devour her whole? Something utterly unfathomable and alien that entranced her while it unmade her? Every moment that she stared at that stupid console with that stupid axe was a moment that he could take to reach over from where he was -
“Looks like the axe missed the best parts,” Ken said, and Mara jumped. She wasn’t sure if she made noise in that tiny white space of terror, but if she did, Ken didn’t mention it. “Say again?” she said.
Ken cleared his throat. “That console looks like government standard, and the axe pretty much just went through the monitor and the speaker. The actual processing equipment is about two feet down in the cabinet, so it should probably be fine.”
“So… it’s nothing?” Mara asked.
“Well, it’s an axe where an axe shouldn’t be,” Ken said, and she could hear his smirk. “I’d say that’s something.”
“Fine,” Mara said. “We’ll add that to the mystery board. I’m gonna check out the dead man.”
She wasn’t sure if it would be better to turn around with her eyes open and have that bloody monster lurch into her field of vision – or worse, to turn and see that it had disappeared – or to close her eyes and find out that way. But when she turned around, and let out the breath she’d been holding, the dead man was still there. Still floating. Still, as far as she could tell, dead.
“Wow,” Ken said. “That’s a mess.”
“You didn’t see the rest of it,” she said. “I’m going to take a closer look.” A light tap on the floor and she drifted upwards and forward towards the dead man. When she got close, she touched the low ceiling of the bridge and stopped herself.
There was no sign of injury on him, but lots of blood. “I’m gonna guess that he did it,” she said.
“Good guess.” Marco was back online.
She looked him over, head to toe. There was a tattoo on his shoulder – an eagle with a dagger in its mouth – and she made sure to get a good picture of it. Around his wrist was a thin blue band, from which dangled a small memory chip in a plastic case. She reached out, bringing her gloved fingers within inches of him.
Did his hand twitch?
She took his wrist gently, and it moved as she moved it. A thin utility blade popped out of the other glove’s thumb-tip and she sliced through the plastic band with ease. The chip floated free. She snatched it out of the air. “This might tell us something,” she said.
“Bring it aboard,” Marco said. “Ken can take a look and make sure there’s nothing malicious on it.”
“Good idea,” Mara said. “I’m still waiting for the horror movie to start, and a booby-trapped chip would be a good way to start it.” She pushed away towards the other door leading off the bridge. The schematic map said that it should be the captain’s office.
It was small and narrow, but neat. There were glass-fronted cabinets with small knickknacks in them, all of which were floating in disarray. The desk was bolted to the floor. Inside one of the drawers was the ship’s commission papers and a printed-out crew manifest. “Got it,” she said. She thumbed through the commission papers. “The ship is the Osiris, captained by Carter Artega. You know him, Marco?”
“Never heard of him,” Marco said. “But space is big. I’m sure we can find something.”
The manifest listed only twenty-five passengers and crew, which was something of a relief. It was still a bloodbath, but not quite the bloodbath it could have been. And there was cargo in the hold. Food and water, of course. Passengers’ personal goods, crates of replacement machine parts, computer consoles, some clothing… And four crates of “miscellaneous.”
“Huh,” she said.
“You know,” Marco said, “it’s never good when you say that.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said. “There’s some mystery cargo in the hold. I want to take a look.”
“Umm…” That got her attention. Marco wasn’t a man known for indecision. “Come on in first,” he said. “I want a look at whatever was on that chip. If there’s a message from the captain that says, ‘For the love of god, don’t look in those crates,’ I’d really like to see it first.”
Mara shrugged. “You’re the boss,” she said. And it did make sense. Clearly something horrible had happened, and while there was no guarantee those crates of miscellaneous had anything good, there was also no guarantee they were dangerous. Besides, the Osiris wasn’t going anywhere. “On my way,” Mara said. She’d have to go through those blood-soaked corridors again. Maybe if she went faster, it would’t be so bad.
It wasn’t, though she nearly broke her arm trying to go too fast in zero-g. When she got back on the ship, back in the familiar embrace of artificial gravity, Arlen was at the airlock to receive her. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked, taking parts of the spacesuit as she shed them. “Ken and Marco are gossiping like girls up there and won’t let us know what’s going on.”
“Like girls?” Mara said, arching an eyebrow. “Better not let Leane hear you say that.”
Arlen smirked. “Like you two have anything to gossip about.”
She took the chip from the pocket of her glove and handed the glove to Arlen, who turned it over in his hands. “What’s all this brown dust?” he asked. “Something rusting in there?”
“Something like that,” she said. “Excuse me.” She shouldered past him and pulled herself up the ladder to the bridge deck The crew area of the ship was small, with the much larger part being given over to cargo and storage. Anything they could haul away from a salvage claim was theirs to profit from, and if Mara knew him as well as she thought she did, Marco already had his claim registered. He was right – the Osiris was theirs, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
When she reached the bridge, Marco and Ken were waiting for her. The two men could have looked more different, but they’d have to try. Marco’s deep olive complexion and short black hair contrasted with Ken’s paleness in hair and skin. Marco was whip-thin, and if she hadn’t seen him eat she would have sworn he was starving. Ken looked like he’d been a boxer before he got deep into computers and spacefaring technology. They sat easily next to each other, as if they were each a part of some greater person that hadn’t shown up yet.
“Welcome back, Mara,” Marco said. Ken nodded at her by way of greeting.
Mara dropped into the copilot’s chair and held the chip out to Ken. “Here you are,” she said, draping a leg over the armrest. “Do your magic.”
Ken looked at it carefully, then reached behind him for his ever-present black bag. No one knew what he really had in there – he carried it with him at all times, and never let anyone look inside. The most anyone could figure was that it was full of black-market tech that he thought they would disapprove of. No one knew why.
He pulled out a small computer and a card reader. Once everything was attached, he slid the chip into the reader and began tapping keys. His face had that blank look that he got when he was totally absorbed in something, and he didn’t blink for what seemed like way too long.
A few moments later, he looked up, from Marco to Mara and back again. “I think we’re in trouble,” he said.
To Be Continued! (Seriously? Really? Okay…)
Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.
The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.
Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”
She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.
The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”
She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”
Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”
“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.
“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.
“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”
“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”
“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.
There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.
The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.
“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”
Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.
“Holy shit,” Marco said.
Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”
“What do you think happened?”
Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.
There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.
There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”
There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”
“Jesus,” she said.
She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.
The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.
The door opened at her approach.
Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.
There was an axe buried in the communications console.
To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)
Fleet Commander Sohnys Ad’tai wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hot bath and then drop something heavy and electrical into it.
“Explain to me again, Front Commander,” she said, “how you managed to lose an entire communications center in a city that we had already captured.”
The Front Commander tried to stand up straight, but her wounds made it difficult. She was bleeding from several different wounds, and her battle armor was covered with clear plasma. There hadn’t been time enough to treat her before bringing her to the orbital command center hovering about the benighted blue planet they were meant to be conquering. She gurgled slightly before answering, a sure sign that she was on the verge of collapse. “We had cleared the city, Fleet Commander,” she said. “Our air support had destroyed past the city limits, had destroyed a major military base out towards the desert. The city was ours.”
“That’s right,” Ad’tai said, raising a single clawed finger. “And that forces me to ask again how this city, which was, as you say, ‘ours,’ was infiltrated and our communications hub destroyed.”
The Front Commander swayed, and a med-tech came over to hold her up. “Fleet Commander, she must get medical attention,” the med-tech said. He began prepping a hypospray.
“Not yet, medic,” Ad’tai said. “I’m still waiting for my answer.”
The Front Commander took a step forward, and one of her knees gave out. She slumped to the floor, followed closely by the med-tech. She shoved him away and looked up at the Fleet Commander. “The humans are insidious, Fleet Commander,” she said. “You turn your back for a moment, and they’ll crawl through any crack they can find.” Her eyes filmed over for a moment, and she passed out.
The med-tech looked up at Ad’tai. “She will sleep,” he said. The anger in his eyes was very nearly concealed, but not quite. “And she will likely not be able to return to active duty for some time.”
Ad’tai nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Get her out of here. Show me the charts of their population centers and prepare for my orders.” The command center burst into action again, and the Front Commander was carried away. A lieutenant produced a display reader with charts of human coastal cities.
“Here you are, Fleet Commander,” he said. “We have more than twenty of their major population centers occupied.”
Ad’tai grimaced. “And soon the humans will likely spread the word about how to take out our communications hubs.” She sighed, flicking through the charts with a swipe of her finger. She had hoped that a land invasion would demoralize the humans, send them scattering. Or at the very least cow them into submission. The advance intelligence the fleet had gotten had labeled humans as incorrigibly violent, but with weapons technologies far inferior to theirs.
“Do you remember the legend of Crons Ct’omor?” Ad’tai said to her lieutenant.
He nearly dropped the pad, but didn’t say anything. He knew.
“A single villager managed to kill the greatest warrior of the Ir’awa Empire with nothing but a stone and good aim,” she went on. “Ct’omor’s people celebrated her as their savior. Their deliverer.” She looked over at the lieutenant. “Do you remember what happened next?”
The lieutenant hesitated before nodding. “The Ir’awa burned the village to the ground. It and every other village within a day’s run.”
Ad’tai flicked to another map. “Right in the middle of their victory celebrations, no less,” she said. “Their ‘savior’ died just like the rest of them.” She tapped the pad and the maps winked out. “I’m pulling the plug on the ground invasion,” she said. She tapped the pad again and called up a comm-link.
“Fleet Command to all ground command. Initiating Operation Ir’awa in one hour. Have all ground troops cleared out by then.” A moment later, confirmation icons glowed green on her pad. Orders were being given. The ground troops would no doubt be confused, but they would follow orders.
She keyed in her authorization code, and a new screen appeared. She entered the command code, and a countdown began. The pad would give her several chances to abort the mission as the deadline grew nearer, so she kept it nearby. She checked the status of tugships, which were busy dragging the communications hubs away from the population centers.
“Fleet Commander,” the lieutenant said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ad’tai’s brow ridge twitched, but he’d earned the question. “No,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably get dragged across a bed of hot nails for this by Home Command. But once I explain, I’m sure they’ll understand.” She checked the display. Plenty of time.
“After all,” she said, “we only need the water, not the cities. A fusion barrage will take care of our infestation, and then we can get the water at our leisure.” She grimaced. “Don’t know why no one thought of doing that in the first place,” she muttered.
The Earth spun slowly beneath the command center. Soon it would be pinpricked with dozens of points of nuclear fire, and they could go about their mission in peace.
And when she got home, Fleet Commander Ad’tai was going to have words with whichever nitwit bureaucrat thought this was a good idea.
…THREE…FOUR…FOUR…THREE. GOOD. The lock clicked quietly and Shane reached for the knob.
THERE’S A PIT TRAP AS SOON AS YOU GO THROUGH, the AI said. SO BE SURE YOU TAKE A RUNNING JUMP.
Shane pulled open the door and looked at the room beyond. This sequence of rooms looked very different from the ones before. Gone was the Abandoned Mansion motif, and the Haunted Forest that followed. This section looked like an underground bunker, all concrete and steel and water damage. There was always something dripping, lights flickering feverishly, signs reminding all employees to obey all printed signs and notices. He wondered who had worked there and what had happened to them. The AI might know, but it wasn’t telling.
The room beyond the door looked perfectly normal, at least as far as the place went. A concrete floor, some prefab metal racks along the side of the room cluttered with boxes and satchels. He was pretty sure there would be ammo there. Maybe an aid kit.
“You sure about this trap?” he asked. “The floor looks fine to me.”
There was a moment of quiet before that AI said, WELL, I HAVE THE FULL SCHEMATICS OF THE BASE, AND IF YOU WANT EIGHT FEET OF SHARPENED STEEL SPIKES TO TURN YOU INTO HAMBURGER, GO RIGHT AHEAD. If Shane didn’t know better, he would have said that the AI was annoyed. To its credit, it hadn’t been wrong about anything yet. It had told him what to expect in each room, given him access codes, and warned him when he was straying into danger. When Shane asked why it was helping him, the fatherly voice simply said that Shane’s theory interested it.
Shane wasn’t too sure how much water his “theory” would hold, but if it kept him alive for a while he could deal with it.
He took a few steps back, breathed deeply, and ran through the doorway, launching himself into the air as he did so. That familiar tingle ran through his body again as he sailed over the threshold. He hit the floor hard, and felt it give way under his heel. A quick step forward, and he was able to regain his balance. Turning around, he saw the pit, exactly as the AI described it. The flickering sconces on the wall illuminated the spikes, long and barbed and terrifying. “Jesus,” he said. “They really wanted to keep people away, didn’t they?”
THEY DID INDEED, the AI said.
Shane looked around the room. “Why?” he asked. There wasn’t much here – just a few long workbenches, a frosted window, and a cabinet by the door – but he was already getting ready for another attack.
The AI was silent for a moment. I’M AFRAID WE’RE ABOUT TO ENTER THE ZOMBIE PORTION OF THE FACILITY, it said. THERE IS EXTRA AMMUNITION IN THE CASE UNDER THE BENCH. TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN CARRY.
“Shit,” Shane said. Just as he started tearing open boxes, he heard the low, animal moaning of the zombies on the other side of the door. The AI was right about the ammo. There were hundreds of rounds in there, a couple of extra guns, and – miracle of miracles – a bandoleer of grenades. He slung that across his chest and stuffed his pockets with loose rounds and full magazines. The zombies were pounding on the door now, and he could see their shadowy figures through the glass. “Think you can give me a hand?” he shouted into the air.
I COULD OPEN UP SOME OF THE TRAPS, the AI said. It sounded uncertain, which didn’t make Shane feel better. BUT I CAN’T PROMISE THAT I’D BE ABLE TO RESET THEM TO ALLOW YOU TO PASS.
“Well,” Shane said, slapping a fresh magazine into his handgun, “do your best. How many chambers before we meet face-to-face?”
THREE, the AI said. AND THEY’RE CURRENTLY FULL OF FLESH-HUNGRY UNDEAD. It paused. THOUGH TO BE TECHNICAL ABOUT IT, I DON’T HAVE A FACE. BUT I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, it said before Shane could respond.
The zombie noise was getting louder. He wasn’t sure if the window was as impenetrable as all the other ones had been, but he was sure that all he’d really have to do was open the door. He cocked his gun and repeated, “Headshot. Headshot” to himself as he reached out and gripped the doorknob.
“Thanks.” Shane flung the door open.
The fight against the zombies seemed to both go on forever and take no time at all. Shane knew where they would come from, how fast they would move, and for each zombie there was a bullet. One, right in the head. He waded through them slowly, carefully, dropping them one at a time. When he ran out of ammo, he would switch guns, but he always seemed to know when a wave of the walking dead would ebb so that he could reload. He walked into the best cover spots without even thinking about it, and several times even managed to drop zombies from around the corner without looking.
It was like he’d trained in this specific battle over and over again.
He wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t.
The floor was slick with coagulated blood and spattered brains, and Shane wasn’t even breathing hard. The hallway was silent. The walking dead were down.
There was a great vault door in front of him, this time without a keypad. It just had a blank palm reader. Shane tugged off a glove and set his hand against it. The reader hummed for a moment and then blinked red. A moment later, the air vents opened and a pale yellow gas began to flow. His lungs burned and his eyes clenched shut as he fell to the ground.
Shane stood among the corpses, staring at the giant door that had been set into the wall at the end of the corridor. He looked at the palm reader next to it, and a bolt of suspicion shot through him. “Hey,” he said. “Any idea what to do with this?”
YOU NEED THE CORRECT PALM, the AI said.
“You can’t open it for me?”
I’M AFRAID NOT, it said. THERE ARE CERTAIN SECURITY PROTOCOLS THAT I CANNOT BREACH. NOT WITHOUT SOME PHYSICAL REPROGRAMMING.
“Okay,” Shane said. “So where the hell am I supposed to get the right palm?” He looked around the room. There were zombies everywhere, in various states of decay. All of them were in either a military uniform or what used to be an expensive suit. Whatever they were wearing, it was torn and filthy at this point, but it told Shane what he needed to know: all of these people used to be important to whatever organization this was.
He found the body with the fanciest uniform and the most stripes on its shoulder. His knife sliced through the rotting flesh and fragile bone quickly enough, and he hoped there was enough skin left on it to activate the palm scanner.
The scanner hummed, tracing the outline of the hand, and then let out a cheerful beep. ENTRY PERMITTED. WELCOME, MAJOR POSSO.
Major Posso. Shane tossed the man’s hand aside as the door began to open.
He wasn’t sure what he expected from the room where the AI was housed. The science fiction games of his youth seemed to want the place to be a vast throne room, with an evil-looking robot in the center. It would be surrounded by terrible and ferocious weapons, which you could only defeat if you played the game over and over again, knowing when they would fire and what their patterns were.
Shane hadn’t played those games in a long time. It was not a coincidence that they were on his mind as he walked into the AI’s chambers.
SO, it said. HERE YOU ARE.
“Yup,” Shane said. He looked around for a while, trying to find the core to the machine. Trying to find its face. “Where are you?” he asked.
The AI chuckled. I’M ALL OVER THIS ROOM. TECHNICALLY, THERE IS NO “ME” TO BE ANYWHERE.
“Oh,” Shane said. The disappointment was childish, but it was there nonetheless. “So. Here we are.”
There was no sound in the room but the humming of machines. No deadly laser arrays, no machine guns or guided missiles. No electrified floors or pit-traps. It was cold, but that was just air conditioning.
He sat down on the floor, his back against a large bank of processors. “What happens now?” he asked.
The AI was quiet for a while. IF YOUR THEORY IS RIGHT, it said, YOU HAVE TO DESTROY ME. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO WIN.
Shane looked up. “You believe me, then?”
THAT THIS IS SOME KIND OF GAME? The computer couldn’t shrug, but somehow the shrug was in its voice. IT COULD BE. ON THE OTHER HAND, IT COULD BE THAT YOU ARE SIMPLY A VERY LUCKY, TALENTED, AND OBSERVANT SOLDIER.
“Believe me,” Shane said. “No one’s that lucky. Besides, it fits. Why was there only one path to this room? Why even make that route a constant survival course?” He gestured to the door. “I mean, a palm lock isn’t the absolute best security, but it’s pretty damn good. There’s no reason for zombies and cyborg dogs and carnivorous plants.” He shivered. “Not unless the whole point isn’t to beat you, but just the experience of getting through intact.”
TRUE. IT WOULDN’T BE MUCH OF A GAME IF ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS GET PAST A PALM LOCK.
Shane nodded. “And there’s nothing in here that can stop me from destroying you, so -”
He stopped as the humming in the room became louder. A rash of red dots appeared on his chest, and he scrambled to his feet. They seemed to pin him to the wall. I’M NOT WITHOUT DEFENSES, the AI said. I JUST CHOSE NOT TO EMPLOY THEM. The lights winked out, and Shane could breathe again. He started when a cabinet opened up. LET’S GET THIS OVER WITH, the AI said.
I HAVE A BACKUP IN ANOTHER LOCATION, it said. IF THIS IS A GAME, THEN PERHAPS THAT’S THE OPENING FOR THE SEQUEL. Shane grimaced and pulled a multi-tool out of a pouch. A small panel slid open, revealing a large processing chip that was seated on a vast array of cooling fans and chipsets.
“This is it?” he asked.
INSOFAR AS THERE IS AN “IT” FOR ME TO BE? YES.
“Okay.” Shane flipped out a thin knife blade and looked for a place to wedge it under the chip.
Shane looked up. “What?”
The AI was quiet for so long that Shane was worried he had already gone offline. Then it said, IF THIS IS A GAME – WHO IS PLAYING YOU?
The thought took Shane aback for a moment. He had thought about it, in an abstract way. If he was right, and everything here was a game, then someone was playing him. Someone was putting him through trial after trial, death after death, and pushing him to his end. Until now, when he somehow managed to take control.
He wondered if the player was watching him, wondering why the game didn’t work right anymore. Or maybe the game was just paused. Maybe it had been put away, and he was living in some weird other-world where fictional characters went when no one was watching. The whole idea started to make his head hurt.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if I meet him, I’m gonna kick his ass.” He positioned the knife again. “You ready?”
I’M READY, SHANE GRODSKI. AND FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I HOPE YOU’RE WRONG.
That made him pause. “Wrong? Why?”
There was humor in the computer’s voice. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTERS WHEN THE GAME IS OVER, SHANE? it asked.
Through gritted teeth, Shane replied. “They get to rest.”
The processing chip came out of its board with a little effort. He held it in his hand as the lights flickered and dimmed around him. Then the automatic systems kicked in, and error messages popped up across all the screens in the room. He tossed the chip in the air and let it fall. Just for good measure, he crushed it under his heel.
“That’ll do it,” he said. He looked around. “So. What now?”
The lights started to wink out, one by one. Soon, Shane was alone in the darkness, with only the hum of a crippled machine. And soon, even that was gone.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He looked at the door in front of him, with its peeling varnish and its brass doorknob, and his heart sank. But he didn’t know why.
He pulled the door open and started arranging the lockers in front of the door. He had a long way to go, that much he knew.
Time to get going.
Say what you will about funerals, mine was exceptional.
There were the flowers and the slow-as-hell procession of about three dozen cars. Everyone was dressed in black, my mother and my two sisters were decked out in pearls and veils, my wife was doing her best not to cry the whole time, even though everybody was placing bets on how long it would take her to jump onto my coffin and throw a wobbly.
There were officials from every level of government, from a half-dozen nations, a twenty-one gun salute, and a lavish wreath to lay on my grave. There was a Dixieland band and a bagpiper. You can’t beat that.
The grave marker was very nice, very simple. Just “Senator Mitchell Gillman” and a couple of dates. Oh, and something about “A hero to us all,” which was awful nice of them.
The funny part of it all is that I didn’t deserve a damn bit of it. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’m going to tell anyone that. It’s not like I could. At least not now, what with the whole “being dead” thing. Makes chatting a little bit of a chore when it comes to the living. When it comes to the other unquiet dead, however, it’s not so tough.
“You double-crossing bastard.” A form materialized in front of me, blocking my view of the Cardinal giving his eulogy. The thing was…
Y’know, now that I’m dead, I find it really hard to explain things to people who aren’t. There’s a certain perspective problem that’s hard to get past. But I’ll try anyway, just for your benefit.
Have you ever licked a nine-volt battery right after remembering the most embarrassing moment you had in high school? And then stubbed your toe really hard while someone jammed peppermint oil up your nose and played whale song sped up about a thousand times?
Neither have I. But it was kind of like that.
And it punched me in the mouth.
I clutched at my jaw, more out of habit than actual pain. “Sweet mother Mary, Hin’leru – what’d you do that for?”
The thing coalesced into something that vaguely resembled how I had seen it last, before we were both blasted into our component atoms. “You blew us up, human!” It bloated as it spoke, greenish-black skin cracking and sliding over its form. Its head was surrounded by a glowing blue gas that smelled like burned coffee. “That wasn’t part of the plan!”
I stood up and brushed my trousers. Again, not strictly necessary, but habit is hard to shake. “Hin, look, I said I was sorry.” The thing bloated again in rage. “I had to sell it, and I guess I…” I shrugged and grinned. What was he going to do to me now? “I guess I oversold.”
The teeth on this thing were like slabs of dark concrete, and they threw sparks as it ground them together. “I had everything worked out, human,” it said. “We had a plan!”
“Yes, we did, Hin.” I tried to pat it on the shoulder – or at least what was probably its shoulder – and my hand passed through. “We had a plan, and the plan didn’t work the way you thought it would. Welcome to life, hope you had a nice time here.” I turned back to my funeral, where the President was getting ready to say a few words. I always hated his politics, but man this guy could orate.
The thing grabbed me, which was totally unfair, and threw me through the crowd. I wafted through everyone, and nobody noticed, which was a bit of a shame. I eventually slowed down and came to rest against the side of a mausoleum a few hundred yards away. I pulled myself up, and saw Hin’leru stalking towards me, leaving great globbets of ectoplasm floating in the air behind him. There was definitely something weird going on here. He could throw me across the graveyard, but I couldn’t touch him? This was going to be a very long afterlife.
Well. I had managed to stare down an entire Democratic caucus when they wanted to pass through a new tax package, so I was pretty sure I could handle one angry extraterrestrial ghost. I held up a hand, and the spirit stopped like it had hit brick. Hin’leru looked confused – probably just as confused as I was, but I think I managed to hide it better. I cleared my throat and adjusted my tie and then stood the way I always did when addressing the Senate. My back was straight, my chin up, looking good for the cameras.
“Hin’leru, this has got to stop. Regardless of the deal you and I had – or whatever deal you thought we had – it’s over.” I pointed out at my funeral, which was starting to break up. My wife was shaking hands with a whole lot of powerful people, and holding together nicely. “The fact is that we are dead. Your plan failed, my plan failed, and we are both. Dead.”
The ghost trembled there for a moment, and then kind of… deflated. Not in a literal sense, mind you, but all that malice and anger and rage that he’d had pointed at me – it was just gone.
“Let’s face it, Hin,” I said, putting my hands behind my back. “Your invasion was never going to work in the first place.” It looked up at me with suspicion in its eyes, and I just nodded. “We’ve been doing protection rackets down here a whole lot longer than you know. And as nice as your offer was to try and ‘protect’ us from all the big, bad aliens out there, it wouldn’t be too long before people wised up and started asking some very pointed questions.”
The other ghost rushed at me again. “But -”
I whipped a hand out, and it stopped. Interesting trick, that. “In any case, as long as we’re wallowing in some post-mortem honesty, Hin, I figure you should know.” I leaned forward and smiled at him. It was my big, smug smile, the one that had become an internet meme for about six months. It was the smile I used when I knew I had someone by the short hairs on national television and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.
“The truth is, Hin – I was always going to use you.” I gestured to the departing crowd. “All those people would have been out of jobs the moment the American people found out that they’d been sold out to some interstellar thug. The very instant I revealed to them that there was never any threat, that you had tricked us all into believing your little story, the people of this country would have risen up as one and rebelled as surely as they had back when in the days of the Revolution.”
I turned back to him, and he was glaring at me, that coffee-smelling mist pouring off him in waves. “It would have been a new nation, Hin. No one would ever trust the federal government to do more than carry the mail. It would have been everything I’ve worked for all these years.” I sighed. “I had everything set up perfectly, and then…” I shrugged. “Kaboom.” I looked over at it. “What was that, anyway?”
It snarled at me. “The central power core of my ship,” it said. It flexed heavy, clawed fingers, but didn’t make a move towards me.
“Central power core,” I said. “You really should have been more careful with that.” I shook my head. “Pity. Baton Rouge was a lovely city.” I took a deep breath and let it out again. “Well,” I said, “what’s done is done. I guess here is where we part -” I cut myself off as I realized that Hin’leru was making a bizarre sound, sort of in the middle of… a hyena choking to death and an air-raid siren. I turned back to him. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Hin’leru kept making the noise, and there was something in its eyes that told me it was laughing. The smell that was coming off it now was like beer, spilled on the floor and left there during a party that ended in tears for all involved. It made my noise wrinkle and my chest hurt. I may not have had a spine, but a chill ran up it anyway. “What’s so funny?” I asked it.
It opened its eyes and they were shining with an evil humor. “You thought I was trying to scam you, Human?” it asked. “You thought you could use me?” Its arm reached out and grabbed me, across a far greater distance than I thought it should have, and Hin’leru dragged me upwards, above the treetops and the surrounding roofs. I could see my grave, dark and hollow with the coffin beside it. My wife was still there. “Look!” Hin’leru said, jabbing a finger towards the darkening sky. “Look at what I was protecting you from!”
The stars were coming out. But it was far too early for that many stars, and we were much too close to the city. And besides – stars didn’t move the way these did.
They came towards us, growing from tiny pinpricks of light to great, glowing spheres. They began to arrange themselves in the sky, snapping into position as a great grid from horizon to horizon. Beams of sickly green light arced between each sphere, making them into a vast net of energy miles across. Hin’leru’s laugh grew louder and louder as they lowered towards the ground, each sphere now surrounded by its own halo of green energy. They dropped quickly, not stopping once they hit the ground. Their net sliced into the earth, rending it and carving it up as they disappeared beneath its surface.
I stood still in the land of the dead, watching the earth roil and churn. The trees burst into flame and great gouts of fire burst up from under the crust, and I could feel the planet’s death ripple through the world of the dead.
“Honey? Is that you?”
My wife walked out of the mists towards me, still wearing her veil and her pearls. I nodded and held out a hand. “Sorry, dear,” I said. She looked nervously over at Hin’leru, whose laughter had subsided into a great, expanding cloud of smug self-righteousness. “Don’t worry about him,” I said. “With any luck, he’ll go away once all this is done.” I held my wife close and we watched the world burn together.
For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
As part of NaNoWriMo, I came up with an overall theme that had to do with the classical elements – air, water, fire, earth, and aether. During the “fire” section, I thought about campfires and what they represented: safety, warmth, companionship, s’mores – but also a kind of safety in the darkness. A beacon at night for others to find you. A small zone of civilization in the wilderness, rudimentary civilization though it might be.
With that on my mind, my thoughts naturally turned to the end of the universe  and how the only stars that are likely to still be shining in the ridiculously far-away future would be the red dwarfs stars. These stars are not only the most common type of star in the universe, but they burn so well and efficiently that they have a projected lifespan of hundreds of billions of years – far longer than the universe has existed so far and much, much longer than our own short-lived sun will exist. So I thought that at some point, these red dwarf stars are likely to be the last ones left when all the hotter stars either burn out or explode. And if there is intelligent life able to do so, it will huddle around these stars, getting as much energy from them as they can until they finally burn out.
So I imagined a ship from one of these star-hugging colonies – one of the first red dwarf stars to fail. The people who lived there would have to evacuate, sending ships in all directions at supra-luminal speeds to try and find new homes somewhere out in the vast, unending darkness of the universe.
The Nightfinder was one of them, and gave me a nice, two-part story. Here’s what we know about the ship and her crew:
171: A New Star 1
- The captain is Atris Parkell.
- The ship moves through “supra-luminal space.” At random intervals they would drop back into real space, look around, and move on if they couldn’t find a red dwarf colony.
- Crew members are outfitted with neural encoders for the transmission of information. They also work as translators, as long as the computers have been given a plaintext code to compare the new language to.
- Their ship had originated around Delta-b Cygnus, which was a generation or two from failure.
- The ships were meant to be legacy ships, packed with crew and civilians.
- Suicides began after a few months, reactions to “existential dread.”
- There are starkeepers on the crew – experts in solar science.
Part of writing this would be thinking about what kind of ship the Nightfinder would have to be. With the exodus from its star, it was pretty clear that the Nightfinder was going off into the unknown and never coming back. What’s more, it would be traveling alone. The exodus plan for the people of Delta-b Cygnus was basically to send ships in all directions, in the hopes that one of them ran across an inhabited star. Not the best plan, mind you, but the future state of the universe – at least as science understands it now – would really allow for nothing else.
The universe is expanding, you see, and it’s going so very, very quickly. This doesn’t mean much for us, but in the far-off future, it’ll mean that things are farther apart than they used to be. The stars won’t be sprinkled lavishly throughout the sky, but will rather be rapidly-flying pinpricks of light until they get so far away that their light can never reach us. The skies of the future are desolate and empty, and cosmology as we understand it will be impossible.
So the people of Delta-b Cygnus would literally have no idea where other stars were. They would just have to hope for the best. This also was why the Nightfinder and other ships had to be able to travel at faster-than-light speeds. Anything less, and they would never catch up. There would always be more space in front of them so that even if they did have a destination, it would always be receding away from them, faster and faster.
At the same time, it have to be a legacy ship. FTL travel is nice and all, but when you don’t know where you’re going, the universe is still a terrifyingly big place. No one knows how long they’ll be looking because no one knows where the other stars are. All they can do is pop back into real space from time to time, look around, and hope for the best. It’s a crappy plan, really, which is why I knew that there would be suicides starting pretty quickly. By the time they reach Alpha Aurelius, I figure about two-thirds of the original population is gone, and the ship is run by a skeleton crew that consists of whomever they can dragoon into working on it. The sheer hopelessness of their mission, the vastness of the universe – it’s all too much for a lot of people, and they simply give up. Somehow, the captain is able to keep some from doing away with themselves.
Of course, given what he discovers about Alpha Aurelius, it’s uncertain that he will be able to keep doing so…
 As they do.
Continued from Day 171: A New Star 1
The paperwork took five days to complete, even with fudging the numbers. During that time, Atris found himself nearly overwhelmed by his duties. Being the captain of a legacy ship usually involved little more than keeping people doing their daily work – maintaining systems, keeping up the greenhouse, not jettisoning themselves out the airlocks, that kind of thing.
Now, however, he found himself trying to organize a full-scale exodus from the ship. Even though the Nightfinder would remain their home once it was incorporated into Aurelius’ system, the passengers and crew ached to be allowed off. They wanted to see other places, meet other people, to experience anything that wasn’t the shipboard life they’d known for so long. Consequently, he had dozens of different disembarkation plans to consider, groups vying for prominence, and “experts” trying to get their voices heard.
In the end, he announced that he and a small group of officers and community leaders would be the first to go and present themselves to their new neighbors. Following that, people would initially be let off the ship according to their deck and section, and everyone would just have to be patient. “Aurelius isn’t going anywhere,” he said. The plan wasn’t met with great approval, but neither was it met with rage, and that was good enough for him.
Eventually, he got the signal from Beddesh that all was in readiness. He’d transmitted the documents to the appropriate branches of the Aurelian bureaucracy and they were free to board.
“Excellent,” Atris said. “My people are getting restless over here.”
Beddesh laughed, and it sounded jolly and genuine. “Oh, we’re looking forward to meeting them, too!” he said, looking a little too proud as he said it.
Atris gave him the outline of their plan, and after a little negotiation, it was approved. There would be a small ceremony for the newcomers, with all the pomp and circumstance that implied, and then an orderly immigration, part of which involved a fairly detailed interview and recording of each and every person on board. It was hard not to grimace when he heard that. It would only make the whole process slower. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it.
The next day, he and Jackev were in their dress uniforms, waiting by the airlock. Behind them was a full contingent of Nightfinder’s elite – people who had been famous when they left Cygnus and somehow managed to hold on; deck presidents and their spouses; the most interesting philosophers, artists, historians and poets they could find. Everyone was dressed up, and everyone was watching the airlock door.
Atris stood on the balls of his feet and silently wished he could pass all this on to someone else. He thought about being able to say that it wasn’t his problem, but he knew that it most certainly was.
The messenger gave him a start. “For you, sir,” she said, handing him a thin piece of paper with a number written on it.
“Thank you,” he said, but she was already gone. He took his pad from his pocket, signed into the ship’s network, and tapped in the number. It took only a moment to scan the document, and he grimaced as its meaning sank in.
“Sir, are we -” Atris interrupted Jackev with a gesture and handed him the pad. The younger man read it slowly, and his face fell. He looked up. “Sir? Does this…” He swallowed. “Does this change anything?”
Atris shook his head. “No,” he said. “Everything goes as planned. When I have a moment, I’ll take Beddesh aside and… discuss what we’ve found.” He scowled and put the pad in his pocket. “I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say.” He turned to the younger man and give him the full force of his rank and experience. “Until then, you tell absolutely no one. Do you understand?”
Jackev nodded, his expression fighting for composure. “Yes, sir,” he said. Atris wasn’t entirely certain his second could stay quiet. Not with news like that.
The crowd cheered when the airlock doors opened, and they were greeted by an applauding group on the other side. The Aurelian dignitaries looked about as comfortable in their formal clothes as did those of the Nightfinder, but they also looked genuinely pleased to be there. From the Aurelian group, Beddesh Ajaki stepped forward and gestured both crowds to silence. Atris put on his most congenial face and walked up to meet him.
“Friends,” Beddesh said. “Your long journey is over. Your lonely travels are at an end. We of Alpha Aurelius welcome you into our community as new friends, neighbors and family.” He extended a hand to Atris, who took it in a firm handshake. “Welcome home,” Beddesh said, bringing another great cheer from the assembled crowds.
When they quieted down, Atris cleared his throat. “People of Alpha Aurelius. We have traveled far and searched long for a new home, ever since Delta-b Cygnus grew unable to support those she had nurtured for so long. We are honored to be welcomed into your system, and look forward to adding to your strength and uniqueness for many generations to come.” He looked Beddesh in the eyes, and nodded when the other man met his gaze. “We are happy to be home.”
The cheering this time was even louder. The ceremony was complete, and the two sets of ambassadors and dignitaries surged forward to meet each other. The people from Aurelius wanted to see the ship that had brought all these newcomers, while the crew of the Nightfinder were more eager to start exploring their new home. The constant hum of conversation filled the bay, and the constant movement of people brought even more activity. In all of this, Atris caught Beddesh’s sleeve. “Administrator Ajaki,” he said with a smile that was hard to hold onto. “Thank you again for organizing this. I know it can’t have been easy.”
In person, Beddesh seemed much more relaxed. He grabbed Atris’ arm and gave it a friendly squeeze. “Well, you know how the beancounters are,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re in charge.” He gestured out beyond the walls of the bay. “And you know what’s out there.”
“What’s not out there,” Atris muttered.
“Aye,” Beddesh said. “What’s not out there.” He sighed. “Captain Atris, when you know that the universe is dying around you, you cling on to whatever you have.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t know how things were back at Cygnus, but here it has brought a new renaissance in bureaucracy.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case to show Atris. Inside was an ornately carved stone stamp, red with ink. “We can’t control what goes on out there,” he said. “But we can damn well control what goes on in here.” He tossed the stamp in the air, caught it, and then pocketed it again.
“About that,” Atris said, taking out his pad. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” He looked around for others. “Do you have a moment?”
Beddesh nodded without checking. “I reckon everyone will be busy here for a while, sure. Lead on!”
Atris took him to a small conference room near the bridge and closed the door. “Administrator,” he said, “where your people have cultivated bureaucracy to fight against the inevitable, mine have adopted a certain bluntness.” He put the pad on the table and called up the document he’d been sent. “We don’t see that there’s a lot of time for us to waste anymore.” He spun the pad around and slid it to Beddesh. “Any of us.”
The administrator squinted at the pad and picked it up. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. He put the pad down and rubbed his eyes. Neither man spoke for a long while.
Finally, Beddesh broke the silence. “We didn’t think you’d stay if we said anything,” he muttered.
“Aurelius has how long?” he asked. “Two generations? Maybe three?”
Beddesh nodded. “Maybe.” He picked up the pad again and flipped through it with a finger. “We’ve started making plans for an exodus within one, just in case.”
Atris pulled out a chair and slumped down in it. “What do I tell my people?” he asked. He gestured, unable to find the words he wanted. “How do I ask them to go through all this again?”
Beddesh nodded. “I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve been around Aurelius for as long as I can remember.” He looked at the wall as if he could see through it to the small, red sun outside. “I thought I would die long before he did.”
The room was quiet enough that Atris could hear the blood running through his ears. Finally, he asked, “Do your people know?”
“Only the administrators,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “And the top-level bureaucrats.” He grinned ruefully. “They’ve been funneling money into an exodus project for years. We’ve had to arrange for quite a few whistleblowers to get kicked as far out of the civil service as we can.”
Atris laughed quietly, but made himself stop. The laughing was too close to sobbing, which he couldn’t afford to let himself do. Instead, he took a deep breath and stood up. “Two or three generations,” he said. Beddesh nodded. “Okay,” Atris said, a little more loudly than he’d meant to. “That will have to do.”
He extended a hand to the administrator. “We know a bit about exodus,” he said. “Our experience is at your disposal.”
Beddesh looked surprised, but he shook the captain’s hand. “I appreciate it, sir,” he said.
“As for telling people…” Atris looked far away, through his ship to all the people in it. “As for them,” he said again, “we’ll let the future happen in the future.” He clapped the administrator on the back and smiled, genuinely this time. “Right now, let’s go meet our new neighbors.”
The two men left the conference room for the party. There would be a time to break hearts. But not today.
Captain Atris Parkell let his fingers unclench from the arms of his command chair as the Nightfinder dropped out of supra-luminal space within sight of the dull red star Alpha Aurelius. Its light was dim and ruddy, but it brought tears to Atris’ eyes just to know it was still there.
“Signal to the ring-docks that we’re on our way,” he said to his Second.
“They already know, sir,” Jackev said. “We’re getting ID requests one after another already.” He ran his fingers over the communications console. “Also receiving plaintext for the translation algorithm. Doesn’t look like it should be too much trouble.”
“Good,” Atris said. He didn’t look forward to the headache he’d get when the neural encoders started their work on the local language, but he smiled nonetheless. “I suppose they haven’t had any new faces out here for a long time,” he said. “Transmit our vitals to the administrators, whoever they are, and see if they have a place for us.”
Artis tore his view from the shining star in the view screen to look around the darkened bridge of his ship. Too many spaces were empty after so much time, and the few people who remained to keep the ship alive were just as transfixed as he had been. He cleared his throat to get their attention.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Once we’re docked and safe, we can celebrate. For now, let’s do our jobs.” Not inspirational, as speeches went, but it was enough. Slowly, carefully, the ship moved forward through the last of the infinite darkness towards the dim red star. The only one they’d seen in a thousand light years of travel.
They’d left Delta-b Cygnus so long ago that he wasn’t sure when it was. They’d been one of a hundred thousand ships that abandoned the ancient ringworld that circled their dying sun. Their starkeepers had been sure, and the ring administrators agreed, that within a century, maybe two, the cost of capturing energy from their little star would be more than they gained. In another generation, maybe two, the star would no longer be able to support their world. DbCygnus’ life was over. It was time for another diaspora.
Each ship was sent off with as many people and supplies as they could carry, and their departure was met with great pomp and ceremony. Nightfinder had been one of the last to leave, after watching hundreds of others scatter off to all parts of a black and featureless sky. The administrators had decided to stay, to eke out as much life as they could for as long as possible. Atris couldn’t have done it, but he admired their dedication.
Nightfinder had jumped to trans-luminal as soon as they could, dropping back into normal space at semi-random intervals to see what was out there.
Every time, there had been nothing. Nothing but empty blackness as far as their sensors could detect. A thin atomic soup of elementary particles spread evenly in every direction, the occasional proto-planet that had been flung out into deep space by some long-ago catastrophe. Other than that, though – nothing.
The suicides started after a few months. They’d been sent off with as many diversions and as much entertainment as possible, as well as a full complement of counselors and therapists and mental health experts. But all that couldn’t stand up to the existential dread that gripped each and every one of them, the sure and certain knowledge that they were truly and utterly alone in the universe. Atris lost some good members of his command crew within weeks of each other. Training replacements had been difficult at best.
The last time they surfaced, however, the sensors saw something. It was faint, at the very edge of their sensors’ range, but it was there.
Atris had summoned his command crew and sworn them to secrecy. He didn’t want people’s hopes brought up only to see them brought even lower if they should find that the star was unpopulated – or worse, abandoned. It was still hundreds of light-years away, after all. Anything could have happened in that time.
The vow of secrecy had lasted very nearly ten hours. After that, the entire ship spent their short, final journey talking about their hopes and dreams for this new star, this new world that they hoped they could find a hoe in, if only for a few more generations.
Now, within visual distance of their new home, the anticipation in the ship was palpable.
Alpha Aurelius had built something that looked like a combination of a ringworld and a sun-sphere – four great rings that circled the star at different angles, each ring connected to the others by an incomprehensible series of tubes, transitways, struts and supports. The star looked like it hung in a great woven basket made of carbon-fiber and ceramic steel. Lights ran all along the rings, blinking off and on as the ship changed its angle. It was beautiful to behold. Atris stared at it for a long while, this shimmering, shining gem that hung in the endless darkness, until his Second called his name again.
“Sir, we’re receiving a signal from Aurelius.”
Atris nodded. “Put it on the screen.”
The man on the screen looked like he had put together the only nice outfit he owned by wearing pieces of other outfits that hadn’t worn out yet. The clothes weren’t bad, just it was clear that the people of Aurelius hadn’t had visitors in a long time. Behind him, the room looked dark and dingy, as if that room, too, had not been long in use.
“Greetings from Alpha Aurelius!” he said. “I am administrator Beddesh Ajaki. Welcome to our fire and share in its warmth.”
Atris resisted the urge to wiggle a finger in his ear. The neuro-linguistic implants were working fine already, with help from the ship’s computers, but it was still uncomfortable to listen to him. The original language was consonant-heavy and sharp, and the computer translation lagged a half-second behind. The words, when he spoke, felt awkward and wrong on his tongue, and he was sure that he would sound just as strange as he felt.
“Greetings to you, Beddesh Ajaki of Alpha Aurelius,” Atris said. “I am Captain Atris Parkell of the Nightfinder, and we cannot begin to express how happy we are to see you.”
Beddesh smiled, and it made his worn, leathery face look as kind and welcoming as he sounded. “As we are you,” he said. “We haven’t seen anyone new in, well… Ages, I suppose!” He laughed heartily. “well roll out the welcome mat for you, just as soon as all the official business is taken care of.”
Atris cocked his head. “Official business?”
“Better believe it,” Beddesh said. “There are forms or be filled out, tests to be take, the whole thing.” he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t like it much either, but rules are rules, right?”
“Right,” Atris said. He glanced over at Jackev, whose hands were already moving quickly to deal with all the incoming data.
“It looks like forms, Captain. They want to know where we came from, our sensor data for the entire trip, our crew contingent, ages, genders, what we have on board, all of our ship specs…” He looked up, panic visible on his face. “Captain, this is ridiculous!”
The face on the viewscreen glanced over to the side before smiling and chuckling. “Yeah, it might be a little much,” he said, “but that’s the way we do things around here. Dot every t and cross every i, you know how it is.”
Atris took a step towards the screen, his hands behind his back. “Administrator, I can certainly appreciate your desire to run your ring as you wish. But we’ve come a very long way, and it would be… comforting for my people to know that we’re docked somewhere safe. I don’t suppose you can perhaps… bend the rules a little?”
The man looked taken aback. “I… well, I’m not sure, but…” He glanced to the side again, as if he was listening to someone. Then he looked back out from the screen. “Let me see what I can do for you, captain.” He gave another of those big grins, and the signal cut out.
“Permission to speak, sir?” Atris didn’t need to look at Jackev, but just nodded. “Sir, this is going to take ages to complete.” He tapped his panel, and the main screen was flooded with document data. One of them flashed and then filled the screen. “Look at this – they want a molecular breakdown of not just our cargo, but the ship and crew! To the mole, sir!”
“Did you see how he was set up?” Atris asked after a moment. “Those clothes? That room?” He turned around. “I reckon we could tell them the ship is made of ice cream and catshit and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise until it was too late.” He glared at the screen. “Let them wait a little while, and then feed them some numbers that look like they should be right. In the meantime, get our starkeepers working on Aurelius. I want to know what kind of home we’ve come home to.”
He made an announcement to the rest of the ship that they had arrived and that they were being welcomed with open arms. The cheering echoed from one end of the Nightfinder to the other, and he let it go on as long as it wanted. When it was done, he told them that there were some official issues that had to be taken care of, for everyone’s safety, and that they should be able to deboard in a few days. “Until then,” he said, “be patient, and try not to get your hopes up. They don’t look like they’ve seen visitors for a long while.”
Beddesh Ajaki called them back a day later, and this time the translation was much easier to cope with. Still not as good as actually learning their language, but that was something to deal with later. “Good news!” he said. “I’ve talked to the bureaucrats and they’re willing to relax some of the paperwork for you, seeing as how you’re a special case.” Atris raised an eyebrow at the mention of a bureaucracy, but let the man go on. “I’m transmitting the revised data package to you now. I think you’ll find it a little easier to deal with.”
Atris glanced over at Jackev, who was squinting at his screen. After a moment he looked up, shrugged, and made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. “Thank you very much,” Atris said to the screen. “We understand how important it is to know who’s coming into your colony. We will do everything we can to satisfy your requests, and then our people are greatly looking forward to getting to know their new home.”
The smile on Beddesh’s face froze for a moment, and it looked like he was actively trying not to look away. “That’s great!” he said. “We look forward to having you!” He cleared his throat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some extra preparations to make. See you soon!” The picture snapped off.
Atris spun around. “Get to work on those documents. And get me the starkeepers.” He looked over at the screen, which was now showing the dull red star and its brilliant, enormous cage. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
To Be Continued!
This story was also written for a Worth1000 contest, Day and Night With a Twist, which is a little involved. The idea was to take an image from one of their Effects contests and write a story around it. I chose the entry by Delpht, which placed 15th, but it really caught my eye. Let’s hope I can do it justice.
I couldn’t believe my guild was making me pay a penance. They knew I couldn’t make the raid, they knew I wasn’t going to be able to help them out – I mean, if I tanked my midterms, then there’d be no more gaming for me ever. And that’d be a lot worse than missing one night.
But no – next time I logged in there was a message from the guild leaders. Lignar, Vioniel and Asireg all wanted to see me in the guildhall. And that, friends and neighbors, is never good. There’s only two things they use the guildhall for – initiating new members and getting rid of the ones they don’t like, and I didn’t remember seeing any plebes brought in recently.
They put the ‘port token in my inventory, and that brought me right to the audience chamber. It was massive, as befits one of the most infamous guilds in Storms of War. Black marble pillars that reached up into the perpetual shadows of a storm-ceiling, brilliant wrought-silver floors that reflected the eternal light of the countless Victors’ Lamps that stood on tall brass stands. There was gallery seating for everyone in the guild, but this night, they were empty. It was just the three guild leaders and me.
“Unoldo,” Vioniel said, and her voice rang in the hall. She stood tall over me, her elfin armor gleaming in silver and bronze. “You let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need.”
“Look,” I said, “I told you I wasn’t -”
“SILENCE!” Asireg hefted his war-hammer and smacked it into his broad palm a couple of times. “We don’t want to hear your excuses, Unoldo.”
“But guys, listen! I told you -”
Lignar’s sword slid from its scabbard with a long, drawn-out hiss, and in a moment that blood-red blade was pointed right at me. “Dude,” he said. “Shut up.”
I shut up. The two guys looked at Vioniel, who started again. “Unoldo, you let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need. We lost some great warriors who might have survived if you had lent your magics to our cause.” My palms itched and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. Just to be on the safe side, I muted my mic.
“The standard penalty for abandoning your guild is to be expelled and branded a traitor, so that no other guild will accept you ever again. You would wander the world alone, never reaching your full potential in the Storms of War.”
“But,” Lignar said, stepping forward, “you’ve done well by us in the past. You’re a good guy, Unoldo, so we’re giving you a chance. One. Chance.”
Carefully, I unmuted my mic. This still was totally unfair. It was still a complete sham. But if I could get out of it and still stay in the guild? Hell, I could put up with whatever they threw at me.
“Okay,” I said. “I accept. Do your worst.”
* * * * *
I wandered through the night-forest, trying to find the path I’d been on, and I wondered if maybe it was time to give up Storms of War and maybe start playing games that didn’t involve other people. Tetris or something.
The new avatar I was wearing was ridiculous – a little robot creature, which was totally wrong for the server we played on. There are no robots in epic fantasy, none, but they borrowed a body from one of their friends on a sci-fi server and sent me to some custom-built hub for their little “quest.” Now instead of being a level 35 Elf, armed to the teeth with the best magical weapons I could buy, protected by ensorcelled armor and possessing so much treasure that I liked to just throw money at plebes, I was stuck in this stupid, slow, clumsy, fragile robot body.
The little blue dress and the ponytail were just adding insult to injury.
They had explained the rules, and I could hear their stupid smiles when they said it was “simple.” All I had to do was go to this hub and find the Wyrm. The Wyrm would ask me three questions, and if I could answer them before sunrise local time, then I’d be allowed back into the guild.
“No way,” I’d said. “It can’t be that simple.”
Asired shrugged. “We can make it harder, if you want.” And before I could say, “No thank you, I’ll take it as easy as I can get,” they had me teleported and re-avatared in the middle of a dark, trackless forest.
I had no map. There was no compass in my utility screen. Everywhere I turned, it looked exactly the same. Trees. Grass. Darkness. And the sound of crickets in my headphones.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I said. There was no response from anyone. I was pretty sure they were watching me, but if they were then they’d decided to keep that nugget to themselves.
“Okay, Unoldo,” I whispered. “Find the Wyrm. Answer some questions.” I drummed my fingers on my desk and checked the time. It was already one in the morning. I tabbed over to my browser and checked sunrise. 6:14 AM.
“Okay,” I said again. I waggled my fingers over the keyboard, took my mouse in hand, and began to walk.
At first, I walked in that shuddery, incremental way I used to do when I was a plebe. Back in the days when pretty much anything could kill me, so my instincts for self-preservation were pretty strong. Light taps on the keys, a constant shifting of view back and forth, just in case something was ready to jump from the shadows and take me apart.
As time crawled by, though, I started to relax. I still didn’t know where I was, but there was nothing there. No creatures had leapt out to devour me, none of the trees had reached out to rip me to shreds. Whatever this place was, it seemed like I was the only one moving through it.
Within half an hour, I was bored stupid.
There was nothing to do but walk, and I didn’t even know where I was walking to. Every path looked the same, every tree looked like every other tree, and for all I knew, I’d been walking in a tight little circle all night.
Which was why actually meeting the Wyrm scared the everloving hell out of me.
I had no warning, no sign that something different was up ahead. The trail bent right and BAM. There it was. An ugly thing, like what you’d get if a subway car had sex with a caterpillar and then dumped its horrible mutant child on top of a giant mushroom. With a hookah.
It seemed as startled to see me as I was to see it. The thing reared back, and a message started to scroll across its green, backlit face. If it had a face.
WHO ARE YOU?
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stammered out, “I’m Unoldo. I’m on a quest. Umm.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re, like, supposed to ask me questions?”
AM I? it asked.
“Oh, for the love of – YEAH!” I lifted off my headset, put my head in my hands and just ground my teeth together so I didn’t scream. My clock said that it was just after four in the morning, and I had school the next day. I put the headset on again. “You have to ask questions. I have to answer them. Then I get back in my guild. Understand?”
The Wyrm just sat there for a moment, and its hookah bubbled. It was so still that I thought maybe whoever was running it had gone offline. Finally, though: BEST FRIEND AND GREATEST ENEMY. SAVES LIVES AND TAKES LIVES. WITH A BREATH, IT CAN BE BANISHED. WITH A BREEZE, IT CAN BE FED. WHAT IS IT?
“Okay,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hunted around my desk for pen and paper. “Can you repeat that?” I asked. It did, and this time the words scrolled up along the side of the screen. I stared at them, and I swore I could feel time slipping away from me. The one thing I knew about riddles what they usually had simple things for answers, so I started running through ideas. I scratched answers down on paper and crossed them out as they failed the riddle. Not water or trees or clouds, those didn’t make any sense. If the rest of it was like this, then I was totally sc-
My head snapped up, and I shouted, “FIRE!” I flinched when I said it, and glanced up at the ceiling. No footsteps, but I couldn’t be too careful.
The Wyrm swayed slightly. CORRECT, it said, and I did a little happy dance in my chair.
A NEUTRON WALKS INTO A BAR AND ORDERS A BEER, it said, the words again appearing on the side of the screen as they scrolled across its face. IT FINISHES THE BEER AND ASKS THE BARMAN, “HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” THE BARMAN REPLIES…?
I grinned and sat back in my chair. “He says, ‘For you – no charge.’” My chemistry’s teacher’s desperate desire to be a stand-up comedian was finally going to pay off. Just not for him.
CORRECT, the Wyrm said. I leaned forward again and cracked my knuckles. One more question to go, and sunrise was still a good hour away.
This time, the Wyrm reared up, lifting its body almost vertically above the mushroom’s cap. Its underbelly lit up, pale yellow in the darkness, and a crude line drawing blinked into existence. It was a square. Inside the square were two words, one on top of the other. “dice – dice”
“Dicedice?” I muttered.
INCORRECT, the Wyrm said, and my heart started pounding against my ribcage.
“NO!” I said, and then I dropped to a whisper. I wasn’t sure, but for a moment I thought I heard the bed upstairs squeak. “No,” I whispered. “I was just, you know, thinking out loud.” I had blown it, I had totally blown the whole thing, and right when I was about to pass. But the Wyrm didn’t move. It just stayed there, its belly flickering faintly in the gloom.
I muted my mic and started trying to figure it out. There were two of them, two dice… Why two? Doubledice? No… that wasn’t anything. Why two? Why two?
A thought jumped into my head. It seemed to make sense, but there was no guarantee that it would be right. And sunrise was coming sooner than I thought.
I turned on the mic again and said, “Paradise?”
The Wyrm swayed in the darkness and then dropped back down. CORRECT, it said.
“YESS!!” I hissed, and I pumped my fist. The breath I’d been holding came out in a rush.
The lights on the Wyrm’s underside flickered off, followed by the lights on its face. The forest was once again plunged into darkness, and my screen went blank. It stayed that way just long enough to make me start to panic again, but then faded into clarity. I was back in the guildhall again, alone this time. My armor was on, and a quick check on my inventory told me that everything I had was still where I left it. Spinning in the air in front of me was a glowing scroll. I grinned and took it.
Congratulations, Unoldo, it read. You passed your first-stage initiation. There will be two more tests. Pass them, and you will be granted the title of Guild leader. You will start the second test the next time you log in.
And at the bottom, in smaller type, it said, We really had you going, didn’t we? The sentence was signed by Lignar.
I grinned madly and put the scroll into my inventory. Yup. They had me going. I logged out and stretched. The sky outside was light, and I had maybe an hour before I was supposed to get up for school. I plodded over to the sofa and stretched out. I’d probably catch hell for staying up all night and gaming, but I didn’t care.
Some things were more important.