Copyright © 2021
Nathan M. Hurst
“It’s a revolution, man. I’m tellin’ ya. The world’s gone to shit and we’re stuck out here doing milk runs. This is bull. Transfer me, or somethin’. Just get me off this boat and to where the action is, somewhere I can do some good. Can’t do anything stuck here. Skipper, give me the god-damn transfer!”
No matter how many times I had this conversation with Hester, he always backed off. Sure it took him a few days to recover, to cool off and get back to the engine room, sulk the rest of the shift away working his way to the bottom of a bottle. But after that, he would be back, keeping the old girl ticking and powering forward.
Long hauls always made the crew skittish, the Black eventually closing in and getting into their heads. I had no idea why it didn’t affect me, but then, I’m about as old as they come. I guess that after a time in the darkness the ghosts become your friends. There’s nothing that the Black can throw at you that the eternal machinations of your own daemons haven’t already tormented you with. If you can survive them, and many don’t, then the Black is just so much noise in the void.
“Sure, Hester. Next stop. We get this job done, just give me the transfer code and I’ll press the buttons.”
“Shit, this war’ll be done. It’ll be another six months before that happens.” There was always a war.
“Well, there’s nothin’ I can do about that. Can you get any extra out of the engines? Might get us there faster.”
“I can work a few moves, maybe gain a couple of percent. Don’t know. Let me think on it.”
“Will do. Just make sure you get me that transfer code.”
“Aye, Skipper. Thanks for the ear.”
And round it went. He’d forget to send the transfer code at the next stop, be back in his bunk after a belly of booze and sleep until we were on the next leg. Next time he needed to vent, he’d be back at my door thrashing my ears for the transfer again. He was consistent in one thing, it was always the same cause he’d pin his flag to. The Hearts of Hope, the religious zealots of the Allgod. Can’t tell you why, they’re no worse than half a dozen other groups, and their message the same. Save the people.
Save the people? From what? As far as I could tell, you’d need to save them from themselves. I’d been in the game too long to know that the only people you looked out for was you, me and mine. If enough people had the same idea, then things went smooth. Friction happened when someone got too greedy. Money, fuel, food, skins, land, the resource type didn’t matter, but get too greedy and you’d be taken down.
The door closed.
Shift was in 30 minutes. I worked my way to the coffee machine in the galley. I needed the hit before I sat in the chair. You want to know the weird thing? I hate that chair. Worked my life to get it, now I’m here, I can’t stand it. The endless decisions and everyone expecting you to have the answers to every question. What am I, a bloody oracle? Yeah, you can keep the chair. But I wear it like a damn chain around my neck, ‘cos I owe people. Mainly the banks, and a few investors, but shit, what else would I do? Train your whole life for a single task. That treadmill never ends until the grave.
Still, every day I slip on the captain’s mask, do my duty to the god of fortune, and keep answering the endless questions to keep the share price of the Gold and Fury on the rise, and the shareholders happy. Worse than a captain that hates the chair, is a captain without a ship. So I do my part, and the old girl keeps heading out into the Black, cargo an’ all.
08:00. My backside hits the chair and I strap in. You get used to the weightlessness. It’s less a physical thing, more a mental fog. It’s like your brain is constantly trying to work out where the horizon is, or something, and while it can’t, part of your mind is clouded by the mental activity of that one continual conundrum. You can get pretty good at ignoring the feeling, but it never fully leaves you.
Commander Palmer and Lieutenant Fallen. Good souls.
“What’s the news gentlemen?”
“Give me what you got.”
“Aye, Cap. Caught a breach in Cargo-Two at 03:30. Now plugged and contained. Loss was minimal.”
“Couple of grand, cash dollars.”
That was nothing. We had millions of dollars in that one pod. Hauling through the belt, you expected to be down some. Small rocks just put holes in the ship. Nothing you could do. Patch the hole and take the loss.
“Dyllon reported a weird signal on comms. Started around 04:00. Drifts in and out. Some girls voice he reckons. I’ll send you the latest. You can listen for yourself. Other than that, we’re on course and on time,” said Palmer.
“Oh, and H is in the infirmary again. Food poisoning, says Doc,” reminded Fallen.
“That’s third time this rotation. Anyone else?”
“No, just H. He must have a weak stomach.”
“Or a deal with the Doc. I know the food ain’t great, chef does the best with what he’s got, but something is going on. Check the food stores. Make sure there’s no contamination. ”
“Aye, cap. I’ll get someone on it,” said Fallen.
The girls voice was eerie. It was definitely a voice, and singing. No music, just the voice, like she was absentmindedly singing to herself, only she’d left the comms switch on and was broadcasting across the belt.
“What do you make of it, Dyllon?” I anchored myself by the comms station, foot hooked under a handhold. Called them handholds, don’t know why, we mostly jammed our feet in them to keep us steady.
“I reckon it’s close, Cap. Maybe a thousand clicks, no more. Fades in and out with the rocks around here. But with all this interference…” he shrugged the end of the sentence away.
“Can you get a fix?”
“It’ll take a while, but yeah, I can get a fix for you.”
“Do it. Let me know as soon as you get some numbers.”
It played on my mind. It wasn’t a beacon. If it was a rescue beacon we could divert the ship to assist. As it was, it just sounded like a voider, not uncommon on the long duration missions. As I said, the Black takes its toll. But sometimes these people can be saved, they just need time back in the community. Maybe we could do some good today.
“Got it, Cap. Signal is centred here,” Dyllon said, tapping the screen.
“That’s, what? 400 clicks?” I asked.
“Yeah, heavy rocks all around. Won’t be able to get the ship anywhere close, but the boat should do it. Couple of hours there and back.”
“Problem is, we’ll be on the clock. We can’t slow the ship, it’s company time. We can send the boat out and pick ‘em up on the way past. If they miss the catch, they’ll be chasing, and they’d run out of supplies before they ever caught up.”
“So we get it right, and save a fellow traveller in need.” Some people were just romantics. Humanity in the darkest places.
“If it was you, hey?”
“Aye, cap. Wouldn’t feel right just flyin’ by.”
Dyllon volunteered, I also took Fallen.
The boat was small, space for ten in the cabin at a squeeze, but floating in a three-dimensional volume, you’d be surprised just how small a space could accommodate ten people. I sat in the command seat, Fallen the pilot spot and Dyllon the comms seat. It was cosy.
Rounding a rock, the source of the broadcast became clear on the boat’s screen.
“That’s it,” said Dyllon, confirming the obvious.
“A station? Here?” said Fallen. “It’s not on any of the charts.”
“The ‘cast. It’s stopped,” said Dyllon.
This was all damn peculiar. The station was dark. No lights, no greeting.
“Dyllon, say ‘Hi’. Inform them we’ll be docking.”
Before Dyllon had finished his transmission, the docking lights blinked on.
“Looks like they’ve rolled out the red carpet.”
“Let’s take it easy,” I said. “Something about this place… Feels wrong.”
Moving through the airlock, Dyllon ahead of me, Fallen back in the boat, the place looked deserted. Corridors headed out to the left and right of us as we boarded the station, and elevators awaited to offer the journey up the spine of the station to its command decks.
“Which way, cap?” asked Dyllon.
“No reception, no people,” I said, distracted. Brain not sparking the usual way. That fog was getting thick. “Fallen, run a search on the station archives. Who is running this place? I want its designation.” Then turning and pointing past Dyllon to the elevators, “Up, we go up.”
Strapping in to the elevator, my mind was clouding over. I began to feel disoriented, more than usual, more than the background. There was a pop in the helmet headset, and Fallen’s voice crackled across it.
“Research facility, is all it says. No names, wait… Aspect Foundation. That mean anything to you?”
“Nada,” said Dyllon.
“Nope, nothing,” I replied.
“The station commander is listed as, Dr Helena Koistinen. Bridge deck is level 4. Her quarters are situated the deck below. She’s not responding to my comms. Neither is the bridge.”
“On the upside,” said Dyllon, “that girl is across the waves again. Is it me, or has she got the voice?”
Dyllon was right, her voice was like that of an angel. It drifted amongst Fallen’s words as he made his report, but seemed distant – a little distorted. Nevertheless, it was distracting.
“Send me the detail, Fallen. I’ll need to speak to this Koistinen.”
Ten decks. I took a couple of minutes to scan Koistinen’s detail and that of the station. It said little. Corp-blurb about medical research and helping mankind ‘evolve’. All these labs were looking for the same thing. Genetic bioengineering of the human physical form to overcome the effects of deep space flight and longevity. It was a well-trodden path for little result. And it was mostly hokum.
The elevator came to an abrupt halt, forcing me and Dyllon against our restraints. Deck 4. I keyed the control for the bridge floor again. Instead the door opened. Dyllon looked at me quizzically.
“I guess we get off here?” he offered. “Maybe we can find someone to ask.”
“Okee. Let’s move,” I replied. Then across comms, “Fallen, we’re on level four. Elevator cut out. We’re going to try and find help.”
I heard nothing from Fallen in response, only the clear and hypnotic song of the woman ‘casting across the station. It was becoming stronger, more alluring. I couldn’t get her voice out of my head, it was soothing and tempting and promised all the companionship a deep-spacer wanted.
I shook my head, to try and get a clear thought through.
“She has to be this way,” said Dyllon, as excited as a teenager. The next moment he was gone. I couldn’t see where, the corridor was bright and cleanly lit, but swimming, like I’d fallen into the ocean. There had been nowhere for him to go.
“Dyllon? Where the hell you go? Damnit!”
There was only silence.
“Fallen, you get anything from Dyllon? Over.”
I could feel my heart begin to panic. How could they both have disappeared? I was beginning to become freaked out, mind erratic. This damn place! It was time to head back, but we’d come here to save the voider, I needed to see it through. I couldn’t leave her in this place.
Feeling suddenly stifled and unable to breathe, I grappled my helmet from my head and dropped it to the floor. Dragging in lungfuls of rotten air, I tried to calm myself. Don’t think it worked much, but I pushed on.
The outer ring of the station applied a two-thirds gravity on a centripetal rotation, a second elevator took me the last of the way. Stepping from the light of the elevator, the labs were in darkness, apart from a solitary glass walled cubical, in this section. The angelic voice across the ‘cast was now clear and pure.
A female figure stood in the window of the cell, plain orange clothing, simple white hair cropped short, crystal blue eyes. She was beautiful. If I had had dreams of beauty and perfection before that moment, they had been a shadow of the creature I saw before me then.
Large floor standing spotlights had been set up all about the glass cage, high intensity, wide beam to cover as much of the cube as possible. I made my way towards her in a trance. We stood centimetres apart, separated only by the glass between us, my pulse racing and nerves trembling. I hadn’t been this way in over sixty years; lust overwhelming.
“Hello, Captain.” said the voice. I was mesmerised. I could almost sense her breath on my lips, although the with the glass between us, it was an impossibility. My mind seemed to be spinning, in freefall. In that moment I had no idea who I was, only that I wanted to be there, and nowhere else.
Coyly, she extended a long elegant finger and pointed towards the door at the side of the glass room.
“Would you mind?”
It was all she needed to say, I felt like an dolt.
Stumbling towards the door of the glass room, I tipped a light and another in my wake, they fell like trees and thundered to the ground. I hardly noticed, my concentration was so intensely focused on the door.
“Forty-eight, ten,” she said, as she strode across the space to the door. I punched the numbers without thinking; an eagerness to please overwhelmed me. The door clicked and hissed aside. I caught a glimpse of her security tag pinned to her collar, Dr. Helena Koistinen. Something in me quizzed the sight, but brushed it aside.
But as the doctor moved into the darkness of the cell, the darkness created by my stumbling and overexcited actions, my focus on the identity tag noticed the clothing deteriorate and become ragged, smothered in grime and blood. Stepping fully into the doorway, the vision of beauty that I had witnessed, fell into a revolting flesh eaten form, teeth elongated and like needles gleaming in the dark, hands with claws like blades.
I fell backwards in my fright, the fog that had befuddled my mind now gone and the clarity of an adrenaline fuelled terror took hold. The room about me described a world of carnage, ripped and dismembered forms of the station crew were strewn all about the deck, but others stood and watched me silently from a distance, standing out of the circle of light in the darkness beyond.
“Thank you, captain,” said Dr Koistinen in a now more guttural, sinister tone. “Your ship will do us nicely. As will your pilot, but we don’t need him.”
She waved a hand at a figure hanging between two of the creatures that had been the station crew.
“Dyllon, no. What are you going to…”
I got my answer before I had got the words form my dumb mouth. He was thrown to the ground and a group of monsters descended on him and started to disembowel him. There were some initial screams, but death was quick.
I was petrified to the spot while the feeding continued, as if my brain refused to process the scene and felt it better to just shut down.
“You can’t.” is all I appeared to be able to mutter.
“No, we have need of you, captain. We have need of you.”
As fast as my old space-legs would carry me, I jinked past the thrashing arms of a couple of the closer crew and lowered my shoulder into a third, to send her flying into the darkness. Goals had become very short-term. All my effort was concentrated in reaching the elevator. I hit the control as I was grappled about the neck by what felt like an iron bar. Fangs sank into my shoulder as we collapsed to the floor; the door closed behind us as I thrashed and bucked against my assailant. The others howled in frustration at being left behind.
Feeling my energy draining from me, I placed all my effort into a final grapple, to wrestle myself free. My arms failing I found a handhold and pulled myself near, but without any further fight the chill in my shoulder subsided, the fierce grip on my neck released. The travel of the elevator had reached the outer regions of the station, gravity had reduced and weightlessness took effect. I turned in space to face my assailant, and tried to pull myself closer to the wall of the elevator.
The face was hideous and in what seemed like a state of bliss, eyes rolled back in its skull, a lazy smile at the corner of blood drenched lips. Her face was gaunt and ashen, grey and pale blotches seeming to redden with the flush of new blood. Whatever this creature had been, she was no longer. Now it was a killer in the afterglow, heady and drunk on the life force extracted from my ailing form. Now, it was a predator, so comfortable in her surroundings that it no longer worried about basking in its glory while its prey slowly took its final steps.
An escape route presented itself, the elevator doors opened and through blurred eyes I saw salvation. The boat was close enough to touch, but it may as well have been a light year away. I gripped the edge of the door and pushed off with retched hands, skeletal and leached of substance, my skin as ashen as the face of the monster I had left behind. Every minor effort was a foggy test of will to achieve. Pressing buttons and flicking switches in practiced sequence, I pushed the boat from the station and flashed the engines kicking me back into the void, the station tumbling in the viewer becoming a distant nightmare. I felt my head nod with the tiredness of sleep and the dizziness of something unknown.
I reached up to my shoulder, the blood which matted the suit lead to a tear exposing newly smooth skin beneath. I had expected pain, a gaping wound, something of the trauma, but the drunkenness and intoxication of change was taking hold.
Looking out and beyond the viewer I saw black. Stars, brilliant points in the sky leading my way, calling me back to my Gold and Fury. But the call was not one of homecoming and belonging, it was different, a call of lust and hunger was in my veins, malevolence and darkness. I held my hands before my face, seeing a new monster revealed. It was subverting my will, dominating my purpose, taking my soul.
I must act.
She has been my mistress for so long. All encompassing, her dark cloak about me my entire merchant life, an embrace to cradle me, direct and guide me. Waiting, for me, watching me. It was time to go to her. Don’t grieve. But be warned. Hic sunt dracones.
“That’s all we found, sir.”
“Just that log entry in the boat’s memory?”
“So, where’s the captain?”
“There were signs of a struggle sir. Boat was vented. Airlock was rigged fully open – both the internal and external doors.”
“That can’t be an accident. Voider?”
“Looks that way.”
“Sir, this is comms.”
“Go ahead, comms.”
“Picking up a weird signal, sir. Sounds like singing?”
Cover art by Graham Gazzard