In thirty minutes I’m going to climb into the hypersleep compartment and set it for proximity auto-wake. The escape pod’s only built to sustain a few weeks of activity, and my hysterics used up a lot of oxygen. Survival seems improbable, but anything that would increase my odds—plotting a course for home, setting a distress beacon—could endanger whoever found me. Better to drift for a few decades, chance discovery by some passing ship or bio-probe.
I’m powering down the systems, one by one. The monitor no longer shows the Chandra orbiting the colossal mass of ice behind me, shrouded in rocks and space dust gathered from eons in the void. Waiting for the right star or planet to change its course, draw it into a rough embrace that would shatter its outermost layers.
All this time, hurtling through the darkness, and that collision has never yet happened.
Strains credibility, but I’ll take it. Yeah, I’ll take it at this point. Better to think that than—anything. Any fucking thing to make—in the whole of space—
No fucking gibbering.
I’m starting over.
My name is Marcus Chen. I am… was… geologist and cultural agent on the U.F.P. Chandrasekhar, an exploratory vessel out of Gliese Station D/η. Not the best-equipped platform, but it was home. Our long range scanners located an object passing relatively nearby, but off the normal space lanes. It coincided with no known object, and the radiation it produced was incomprehensible—unique in the records. We sent probes, but they all went dead half a million kilometers out, and none of them got anything useful. Messages flew back and forth, and the fuckers on B/γ almost got tapped, but Command ultimately chose the Chandra.
If you’re listening to this, I assume that I’m dead or still sleeping. No idea how much objective time has passed, but our mission began Earth 251.4315/Zarmina 22.2476. We had a crew of four: me, Shar Kohatsu, our pilot, Raj Gupta, who did systems and agri, and a bot named Aster. There were plenty of workbots on board, of course, but Shar had spent years on Aster’s programming, and it served as medic and half-assed social worker. We were a good team, each of us the kind of quiet and self-contained you need for deep space.
We did a nice, easy burn around Gliese, deployed the sails, and hyperslept the rest of the way. The first thing I saw on waking was Aster’s brassine grin.
“Wakey-wakey, Marcus,” it said, spritzing the caul of vascuwebs from my face with a spray that smelled like lavender and tasted like chlorine.
“Status?” I mumbled.
“Fine, fine. We’re a week out. Primary systems above nominal, life support good. Still no useful data from the object.”
“No name yet?”
“I’ve been calling it ‘Nodus’ in the log,” said someone off to my left.
It took me a moment to process. Someone else awake, female, how big was our crew? Ah.
“Shar,” I said. “How long you been up?”
“Hey Marcus. Aster woke me a few weeks back when we were passing through a gravitational anomaly.”
My vision was still blurry, the ceiling like a piece of gray felt. Shar was no different when she came into view: brown corona of hair, the rough planes of her face like soft wax.
“Astrogation regs, sleepyhead. ‘Human helm oversight must be re-established if, in the course of interstellar transit, any unexplained gravitational variation exceeding ± 0.09 standard—’”
“Got it, got it,” I said, wishing my brain would speed up. “I… Wait. If that happened…”
“Yeah,” Shar said, softly this time. “Aster says we passed through a dust cloud three years back, and that’s it. Only one thing out here could have caused it, unless we’re talking some kind of dark-matter-microsingularity-hand-of-god-type crap, and that’s your department.”
I braced myself against the surface of the bed and levered myself up on one elbow. My joints screamed, and I was shaking like a sick dog, but coming back from hyper’s never fun. The sooner you start, the sooner you feel human again.
“God doesn’t have a gravitational field,” I rasped.
Shar and Aster both laughed, and Shar propped a few cushions behind me. I talked with her about nothing in particular while Aster started me on the usual sequence of injections and musculostimulants. An hour passed before I realized that Raj hadn’t commed to greet me, but I figured he was busy playing peasant in the agri module.
“Better let you rest,” Shar said a while later.
“I’ve been asleep long enough. Gotta be something for me to do.”
“As soon as you’re back up to speed,” she said brusquely. “Why don’t you finish your wake-up, and then come see me.”
That was Shar at her best. Even with things already beginning to go wrong, she didn’t waste time on what she couldn’t change. She just carried on.
The day cycle passed quickly as I ran through my waking regimen, my own particular blend of prayer and yoga and mnemonic exercises. The familiar confines of the rec module centered me as much as anything—the mottled blue padding on the walls, the holo playing a mix of vids and nature scenes. By “evening” I was ready to get moving, even though my part of the mission wasn’t really going to start for a while yet.
“How’s she doing, cap?” I asked on walking into control.
“You know as well as I do,” Shar said.
I smiled. Captains really do have the easiest job, basically just sitting back and watching unless something goes drastically wrong. The computer always does the real steering work, and the Chandra was perfectly capable of getting us into orbit around Nodus—even landing, if that was feasible. As my body had started to wake up, I’d felt the occasional changes in course as directional thrusters fired.
“Do we know what it looks like yet?”
“See for yourself,” she said, twisting a dial until an image came onscreen.
“Why so grainy?”
“I don’t know. The cameras have all been marginal since I woke. Aster says it started when we passed through whatever-it-was.”
The screen showed the same thing that cameras generally show in space—stars and void. At the center of the scratchy image, however, there was a roughly oval dark patch. It could have been any of a thousand asteroids or random pieces of space debris that clung to no star and had no neighbors. Sights like that always remind me of the vastness of space, how rare light and life are. The archipelago that humans have built out here is tiny by contrast, and either uniquely precious or utterly insignificant, depending on your perspective.
“Get any good readings yet?” I asked.
“Yeah, dozens,” Shar said, grimacing, “and they’re all different.”
“How will we know if it’s safe to orbit?”
“I’ll decide when we’re closer. Things should be clearer in a couple days, anyway.”
“Choose wisely, jefe.”
Shar looked over at me, cool as ice. I held up one hand, signed a quick apology, and then we just looked at the screen for a while.
“Maybe Raj can fix the cameras, or the relays, or whatever,” I said.
Shar looked back at the screen, muttered something too low for me to catch.
“I said we need to go see Raj.”
The sick bay was tiny, befitting a small scientific vessel with a small crew, but it did have a suspension chamber for isolating an infected or otherwise dangerous crew member. For all that space is an airless vacuum, and it should be dangerous, I’m amazed at the number of bacteria and viruses that thrive out here and nowhere else.
Raj hung in his harness like a sleeping baby, silent and unmoving, but for the rise and fall of his chest. I tried to observe dispassionately, consider him as just one element of a complex mission, but I was having a difficult time. Aster put its hands on my shoulders, kneaded the still-stiff muscles. Shar was studying the readouts, comparing them with something on her clipboard.
“No change,” she said. “None at all. He’s sleeping more deeply, if anything.”
“But his face,” I replied shakily. “And his arms…”
“We don’t know how or why the growths started, but it was after I woke.”
“Completely anomalous,” Aster said. “Wherever the tendrils came from, they’re built along cancerous lines, and the cells keep dividing and changing. If Raj wakes up, he’s in for one hell of a surprise.”
I stared at Raj, thinking about his sur-daughter, Sita. She’d been a shadow in an incubator when we left, and she’d be moving toward middle age by the time we returned. At this rate her genetic parent would appear more anemone than human when she saw him for the first time.
“He won’t wake,” Shar said. “We tried gas, stims, heat, cold. No effect.”
“Is he still in hyper?” I asked, curiosity aroused in spite of his horrific transformation.
“No Rip Van Winkle here,” Aster said, “and no coma either. He’s just sleeping, though it looks from the readouts like—”
“He’s dreaming,” Shar whispered, laying one hand on the glass. “Nine days he’s been dreaming, and the growths just keep getting longer.”
I looked at her hand, and not for the first time I felt a surge of jealousy, imagining her caressing him. Shar and Raj weren’t coupled, but I knew they’d been together on past missions, back before I was transferred to the Chandra. I wasn’t to either of their tastes, but spacers aren’t supposed to be bothered by these things. That’s true enough, though it’s definitely easier with Aster on board on the rare occasions I get lonely.
You probably think it’s strange that I’m talking about sex at a time like this. It’s just—with everything that happened, I’ve been turning it over in my head—what makes a human. Not the basic physical act. I think it’s the connection, the ability to intellectualize it and make a culture of it, a tiny civilization against the darkness.
Someone might have been able to love Raj at that point. A person with very unusual tastes, but it could have happened. How he got later, though—it would have been impossible. When you think—
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Years had passed back on Zarmina, on the orbital colonies, everywhere—but for me it was less than a month since we’d left the station. The fear slowly encroached as I imagined what was happening to Raj, wondered what had caused it, if it would happen to Shar or me. I went about my duties, readying the mobile lab in the lander, poring over the conflicting data. All the while, I wondered what we’d find on Nodus, or if it had already reached out to us.
The pace of our activity increased as the object grew larger on our screens. I didn’t get much sleep, but I didn’t mind, and it kept my mind off of Raj. We checked on him constantly, and I pleaded to God on his behalf at every moment I could, but he slept on as the tendrils grew. The shifts in our trajectory came more frequently, until one day they stopped almost entirely. I was in the bay, going through checklists that Raj would normally have run, when I felt it, and then came the clank and whine as the sails retracted.
“How does it look?” I asked after making my way to control.
Shar and Aster were seated side-by-side, monitoring readouts and dealing with the operational stuff I never touched. Neither looked my way immediately, so I leaned against a wall and watched the monitors. They’d set them to cycle through the spectra filters, and even with the static, it seemed likely we weren’t looking at some intergalactic ambassador ship or battle cruiser, or even an oversized prayer bead. It looked like a giant asteroid, or perhaps the ghost of a planet that never was, and I tried not to be disappointed. As a geologist, it was my professional duty not to be disappointed by the mundane, but I still had to restrain a sigh.
“I heard that,” Aster murmured.
“You hear too well,” I said. “So we came out here for… an asteroid.”
“Not quite,” Shar said. “Whatever Nodus is, the core isn’t solid. Still not clear how big it is—probably larger than Mimas or Scylla. Metallic and mineral exterior, and ice below that, but there’s something else down there.”
“Fluid? A cavity?”
“Hard to say, but the density varies wildly. Magnetic fluctuation, changing levels and types of radiation.”
Silence for a moment, except for the ever-present hum of the Chandra around us.
“Hope it’s safe to land,” I said. “After what happened to Raj…”
“Humans,” said Aster, in its joking-but-not-really voice. “Find two things and you’ll figure out a way to tie them together.”
“Hush,” said Shar. “I’ve found a candidate zone. Readings are more consistent there than elsewhere, and our suits are rated for six hours in Hell.”
“So we’re going.”
“That’s why we’re here.”
Time’s running short. The lights are down, and it’s starting to get cold in here.
We strapped into the lander and descended, smooth as the easiest flight sim. Aster stayed in orbit, constantly on speaker as we descended. Shar put us down in the open space she’d found, first peppering the ground with glow-bulbs. Between those, the floodlights on the lander, and our suit lights, we were throwing more photons at Nodus than it had seen in a very long time. Maybe ever.
For the first few minutes, we did the usual stuff: hopping, grinning, taking pictures, planting a flag. After that I got down to business and started to sample the rocks and dust around us. The light didn’t extend far enough to reveal much at all, but the scalloped line of black where the stars stopped meant there were peaks in the distance. The ground was a milky shade of green where light struck the ice. The layer of soil and rock on the surface was patchy and thin here, and it immediately made me long for more time to explore. But the next time we came down, there would—
“Hey guys,” Aster said over the com. “Progress?”
“We’re fine,” Shar said.
And that was all. No reprimand for Aster’s informality, no status report, just “we’re fine.” I was too excited to have my boots somewhere completely new to notice that Shar wasn’t all there anymore. I hummed and took samples, until I stopped and really looked at what I was holding.
Those rocks. I’ve never seen anything like them. I hope I never do again. Maybe the eons-long exposure to the radiation emanating from Nodus had altered their chemical properties, but that was the least of it. They simply looked wrong.
I know that’s vague, but you’ll have to trust me.
Their color seemed to change as you looked at them. They looked like shale or limestone when seen straight on, but they glittered like quartz in your peripheral vision. Can rocks ooze? Perspire? Maybe somewhere, but they shouldn’t be able to do either in a vacuum.
“So pretty,” Shar said, her voice crackling from the speaker in my ear.
Shar was staring out across the field, watching something. I couldn’t tell what at first, but then I saw it. A black line that stretched into the darkness on either side was racing toward us, dividing light from shadow, the glow-bulbs winking out as it approached. My mouth fell open, and my stomach clenched as I realized that whatever I was looking at probably wasn’t geological. The line was long, slightly curved, and—
In my memory, that’s when everything quieted.
Underneath the ice, there was an eye. That eye had an eyelid, an eyelid that was now closing, and by that action somehow extinguishing our lights. Before I could move, darkness had swept over us completely, and suddenly Aster was talking rapidly—waves of radiation, Raj stirring, vibrations inside Nodus.
That curve, that eye.
I’m a scientist, trained to think, to estimate. I know rocks, but I know biology, genetics, and the forms that life, both simple and complex, tends to take. It developed in similar patterns on Earth and Zarmina, and close enough on the less-hospitable worlds where we’ve found it. I know about ratios, about proportions of sense organs to body mass.
In that moment, I understood—enough to lose part of myself, and it hasn’t come back.
Beneath the ice was a thing. A living thing. A creature the size of a small moon, trapped inside a rocky, icy shell that was carrying it through deep space.
Shar started screaming, and I remember some of it, but I was screaming by then, too.
If anyone ever finds this, I have one request: please be kind. I hope that’s not too much to ask. This is my first time going into hypersleep without prayer or sutra whispering through the speakers. No tinkle of cymbals, no scent of sandalwood to ease my mind. Everything’s jumbled inside me right now, and I can’t stop thinking about what happened to Raj, and about that dark, curving line.
I can feel the Som taking hold now. The docs call hypersleep sopor vacui, but spacers call it “the short death.” Always hated that, but I find myself hoping it’s true this time. I’m afraid to dream.
Will Shar be there, face pale as she removes her helmet and walks into the airless dark of Nodus, no longer in need of breath? Or will Aster be staring at me, asking how I could have fled like that, the lifespan of atomic batteries dooming it to centuries of isolation that could only result in madness?
Or Raj, colors rippling across his skin in waves when I last saw him, pounding on the glass of the suspension chamber. Raj, who was speaking strange, guttural words to me when I closed the com channel.
Despite all of that, I think my mind is mostly fine. The pod’s internal scanners claimed I was all right, and there’s no reason to distrust them.
It traveled through deep space for eternity before we came, never once shattering. That can’t be coincidence. Either that thing is guiding itself, or something guided it. That’s what I’m… imagining right now. Does it have a destination, or was it steered away from everything, in the hope that no one would ever find it?
All that time, and it’s still alive.
That bell was the hypersleep compartment. Temperature’s plummeting. Gotta go.
One last thing.
At the end, Shar said “that creature, she can see the lies inside” before severing her air hose. If she wasn’t just insane, and the females of that creature’s species… if it has a species… bear the young, then where are they? Under the ice with her, or are they hurtling through the darkness between other stars?
Too many questions, and knowing the answers would change nothing.
I hope there are no dreams.
J. T. Glover has published short fiction in Fungi, NewMyths.com, and Underground Voices, among other venues. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, these days he lives in Virginia. By day he is an academic librarian specializing in the humanities. You can find him at www.jtglover.com.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.