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This Ocean Night

April 1, 2015

A Mindjammer Story

by Sarah Newton

2201-67_slowship_quarter_thumbThe man from Northern Yoosa looked completely lost. He stood on the shining concourse at Chengchi Intercontinental Arrivals in his homespun suit and carrying a battered suitcase, studiously ignoring the open stares from passers-by. If he had stood there in a loincloth and carrying a slaughtered beast over one shoulder he could scarcely have looked more conspicuous. Laoya doubled her pace as she strode up to him, and grasped his free hand and shook it like they’d shown her in prep, smiling all the time and ignoring the look of surprise on his face.

“Mr Chatton, I presume?” she said.

The man stared at her with huge eyes, then nodded. “You speak Yoosan?”

“Yes”, she said, not quite following. “I took a shot as soon as I knew we’d be meeting. How was your flight?”

The man shuddered, casting a glance out of the glassteel walls to the blast berms. “A terrifying way to travel. If God had meant us to hurl ourselves out of the atmosphere he’d never have given us lungs…” He forced a smile back to his face. “Sorry. Force of habit. I’m delighted to be here.”

Laoya smiled, secretly delighted at the mention of God. It blew her mind to think that this was a genuine Primitive – one of the Yoosan tribesfolk still being incorporated into the Commonality. His quaint clothing — something a child could have made with the simplest of helpers — were probably the best his people could provide, painstakingly assembled by elders and craftspeople from their primitive systems of barter and husbandry. Her flesh prickled with goosebumps as she thought of the wastelands – verdant again after centuries of desolation — which had once been the empire of Ancient America. It was like meeting a ghost, a time traveller. What did this all look like to him?

* * *

She’d been thrilled when the mission had come through. Of course it was what she had trained for, at least for the past twenty years — but that was barely enough to scratch the surface of the data the Commonality had gathered since Foundation, with its project to reunite the shattered nations of Earth. She’d pushed the shots to the maximum, enlisting helpers to mitigate the side effects, and had gradually mastered her field. Now she was one of the hallowed clique of a thousand here in Chengchi who knew enough about Earth’s scattered cultures to be entrusted with their revitalisation.

Twenty years! But this man — she dared a sidelong glance at him as he hopped gingerly onto the pedway — was only a few years older than that. Forty, his file had said — and yet he looked old. She wondered if he knew how young he really was.

He was looking out of the pedway, his first glance at Chengchi’s startown. Beyond the blast berms loomed the cyclopean walls of the interplanetary compound, shrouded in the low cloud which had swept in from the Yellow Sea that morning. She felt the low rumble through her feet as an interplanetary transport — probably a fuel tanker on the Titan run, this time of the morning — hurled itself skywards, a slight reddish glow staining the cloud. She heard Chatton gasp.

He was looking at the streets below, his face pale. “So many people… Good God… I had no idea.” There were tears in his eyes. Elevated heart-rate, one of her helpers told her. Shall we apply a sedative?

Scratch that, she told the helpers irritatedly. This was too interesting to bludgeon with drugs. She knew about this from the anthropology shots. “Are you all right, Mr Chatton?” She took his elbow; the shots indicated light physical contact was appropriate in the Yoosan tribes.

He gave an uncertain smile. “Yes… I think so. I hadn’t expected so many people. I’d been told… read about them in the papers” — Laoya’s helper provided definitions — “but… seeing it, it’s… overwhelming.” He glanced at her. “Does that make sense? I’m sorry, I must sound like a lunatic…”

Laoya missed the attempt at levity. “Not at all, Mr Chatton. Not a lunatic. We’re very happy to have you with us. I’m here to facilitate your integration into Commonality society. If there’s anything you need, please tell me. Maybe a mild sedative…?”

He laughed out loud. “Drugs? Good God, woman — now you’re the lunatic!” He swept his arm before him, encompassing the startown cityscape, the blast berms, the ruddy glow and muted roar of the interplanetaries… “This –” he said, jabbing the air — “is a lot to take in! Even though I’ve wanted it all my life! Just give me a day or two. I’ll be fine!“

He seemed terribly animated, his nostrils flaring, inhaling great lungfuls of air. For the first time Laoya thought she saw how young he really was. She’d get him on anagathics as quickly as she could. He looked much better when his face shone like this.

“Mr Chatton –”

“Please — call me Jon. Mr Chatton is so formal. And I don’t even know your name.”

“Jon,” she mouthed. “Very good. My name is Laoya.”

“First or second name?”

“Ah — it’s my group designation. Maybe second. My personal designation is CC-259.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I see. Well, Laoya is fine. A pleasure to meet you.” He took her hand and shook it till it tingled. “Where I come from we do it like this,” he said, in perfect Shinese.

* * *

The Commonality began in Shine. Not the classic China of history and prehistory, nor the Chinesian Empire which broke away in the Tenth Millenium; no, the Shine of the early Commonality was a strange, maritime creation, an archipelago of islands and once-peninsulas in the Yellow Sea, and a five thousand kilometre strip of duralon spires and glassteel temples dating from just after the glaciation. Shinese culture had been shattered by the Fall of Man — all the cultures of Earth had been — but the Venusian colony been self-sufficient enough to survive the dark age when most of the offworld colonies had died. As soon as it could it had sent dropships with supplies — machines, returnees, and most of all knowledge — to rebuild the Middle Kingdom to face a greatly changed world. The first weather control satellites had launched from Cape Pailong within earshot of ruined Hanoi and, slowly, Earth’s people began to reclaim their birthrght from the clutches of the ice.

But everything began in Shine — the Reborn Kingdom of Light.

Jon Chatton stood by his window on the 195th storey of the Ministry of Evolutionary Planning and watched the pillared lights of Chengchi which glowed through the clouds which sailed like tallships from the Yellow Sea to the east. Even after six months, the view never ceased to enthrall him.

He was looking younger. His hair was thicker, and his skin had taken on a blush it hadn’t known since… well, he didn’t care to think. Things didn’t ache as much, and a vague sense of optimism and well-being swathed him like nostalgia. He had forgotten how youth felt.

He’d had misgivings when Laoya had first proposed the anagathic regimen. Everyone in the Commonality did it, she assured him — it was as normal as dentistry or genetic modification. But it still felt like tampering with God’s creation — something which always drew a look of blank incomprehension from the Shinese anthropologist’s face. More than that, he didn’t like the idea of tampering with who he was. He’d lived through his forty years, and expected to carry scars — physical and psychological. Dammit, he’d earned them. He wasn’t ashamed of surviving to an age most of his tribesfolk never saw. But in the end the temptation was too much. That, and — though he only admitted it to himself after several glasses of plum wine — the unspoken message in Laoya’s eyes, the electric tingle which passed between them when they brushed past one another. That had made him want to tidy himself up a bit, too. Who wouldn’t? She was a fine woman, even if she was ninety years old.

He shook his head again, looking out over the city. Everything was so turned on its head here he’d almost stopped trying to make sense of it.

He frowned as the door opened and Administrator Wu came in.

“I’m not disturbing you, Mr. Chatton?” Wu’s smile was half supercilious sneer and half badly-disguised pretence.

“Not at all, Administrator. Always a pleasure.” As if you give a damn. “Cigar?”

It was petty, he knew, but always worth it for the horror on the Administrator’s face whenever he was confronted with signs of Chatton’s barbarism. Wu had never been cut out for diplomatic or contact work, and the Commonality — with brutal efficiency — had placed him where his talents could shine. He was a Monitor. An internal spy. A snoop. Rumours abounded that he had shopped his paternal grandparents for re-education. Looking at him you could believe it. A worm of a man.

“No cigar? Sure? You don’t mind if I do?” He didn’t want one, but it was all part of the game.

I’m getting as bad as they are, thought Chatton. He held the cigar in one hand and the clippers in the other, and watched the Administrator as his eyes swept around the office, as though searching for something out of place, some petty infringement he could use in the endless games of influence and intrigue the Ministry seemed prey to. He didn’t want a damn cigar. He tossed it back in the humidor and the clippers after it. His frown deepened, and he rubbed his forehead.

The Administrator was watching him keenly, a private smile playing around the corners of his mouth. His eyes were unfathomable, like a shark. “How are you, Mr Chatton? You look tired.”

“I am a little. The field project has been taking up a lot of time. Though we’re still on target, don’t worry.”

“I know you’re not delayed. I scan the files. It’s part of my job.” He smiled with his teeth, his eyes still dead. “In fact you’re ahead of schedule. The containment fields have held up through all our benchmarks. You are to be congratulated, Mr Chatton. You’re a very talented man.”

For a barbarian, Chatton wanted to add. But he said nothing.

* * *

The Stasis Field Project had been Chatton’s ticket to glory. At least it had seemed like that at the time. He’d been recruited from the Californian hill tribes for his mechanical and mathematical aptitude — the evaluators came through twice a year and kept lists of all promising candidates — and from the college at St. Francis he’d quickly come to the attention of the Evolutionary Ministry. Before he knew it, Chatton had been propelled from obscure tribal mechanic to lead scientist on one of the biggest engineering projects the Earth had attempted since the establishment of the Climate Bureau.

Stasis. Not biostasis, hibernation, or any of those myriad biogenetic technologies which flared up and died out every now and then. No: true stasis. The ability to stop the flow of time in a limited area, and then restart it at a point in the future. It was the key to Earth’s extrasolar ambitions, the key to the future. And he held it.

Two hundred years ago, humankind had returned to space. In some ways, thanks to the Venus colony, it had never really left; but those contacts had been limited, emergency only, a beacon of light during the dark age and a lifeline when it looked like the species might have gone extinct. The Venus missions could never be construed as an interplanetary civilisation: they were grim, heroic affairs, miraculous in that they’d succeeded at all. But, two hundred years ago, the Commonality had earmarked budgets to begin the long slow climb back to the stars. For a century it contented itself with relearning the ropes; tinkering about close to home, first in the inner solar system, then further afield, out to the Jovians and beyond. And then — the first interstellar missions. Using the plentiful ores of the Asteroid Belt — and even sometimes the asteroids themselves — the Commonality forged huge worldships, tens of kilometres long, to carry generations of colonists to the nearby stars. With no viable stasis technology the ships carried living crews, on journeys which could last hundreds of years. To avoid the psychosis of closed-in spaces and the perils of inbreeding, the ships had to be huge, with internal habitats of wide-open spaces, and populations large enough to ensure genetic viability.

They were monstrous affairs. The first, dubbed Prometheus, set sail from the Ceres Shipyards on August 24th, 6404 AD (Ancient Dating), in a grand ceremony marking Year One of the Interstellar Era, and the world cheered.

By dint of good luck Prometheus succeeded, and only thirty years later arrived at Barnard’s Star, the location of a known garden world. Subsequent ships were faster, and little by little mankind reached out to its interstellar backyard.

Twenty years ago that changed. In a rash display of optimism the Commonality had commissioned the Abraham Lincoln, a joint venture between the Commonality’s finest from Chengchi and a handpicked crew from the just-founded Yoosan Academy of Sciences in Angel City. It was to herald a new era of intercontinental cooperation, a new stage in the Commonality as more of Earth’s peoples were welcomed back into the fold.

It didn’t herald a new era, but an incident of such horror that word of it had never been made public. There were rumours, of factionalisation, cultural differences, urban legends about reversions to tribal behaviour among the Yoosan crew. But nothing certain. There had even been talk of cannibalism.

Chatton had thought that the truth was probably much worse.

Since then, generation ships had been anathema to the Colonisation Directorate, and the push to find a viable stasis technology had begun.

* * *

Five weeks after their meeting Administrator Wu rescinded Chatton’s immigration status, but by then Chatton no longer cared. The situation was almost comical.

“You can’t do this!” Laoya had cried, with uncharacteristic passion. “This man has done nothing wrong!” She pointed at Chatton like she was defending him in a court of law. “We pluck him out of his home tribe and bring him halfway round the world, pump him of knowledge and technical know-how, and how do we repay him? By dropping him when he’s no use to us any more. It’s… it’s inhuman! You can’t do it.”

Administrator Wu remained glacially calm, blinking softly. The half smile never left his lips as he waited. Finally Laoya clenched her fists and gasped with frustration. She kicked the side of the desk.

“Calm yourself, Functionary. It’s been noticed that your behaviour has become more unstable since you’ve been associating with this Primitive. Do I need to recommend you to a re-education centre?”

The Administrator turned to Chatton. “Mr Chatton doesn’t have any problem controlling his anger at all, do you, Mr Chatton? But it’s there all the same. Do you see it, Functionary? This man would kill me, if he thought he could get away with it. Wouldn’t you, Mr Chatton? Mark it well — a thousand years of savagery separates our Commonality from these primitives, and you will not talk it out of them. They’re throwbacks, a disease. Any contact between them and our Commonality risks contagion. Do you understand your behaviour better, now, Functionary?”

Wu kept his eyes on Chatton all the time he spoke. Chatton remained motionless behind his desk, his face cold. “You’ll of course be given time to arrange your affairs,” the Administrator said, slowly. “The Commonality owes you a great debt of gratitude, and you’ll be well reimbursed once you return to your… tribe.” Wu’s lips re-covered his bared teeth, and the contemptuous smile returned. “I think our relationship has gone as far as it naturally can.”

Laoya bit her lip and blinked back tears of frustration. The past months Chatton had spent with her had been delightful, and they had worked together in the tender expectation of many more days to come. Now the Administrator had ended that. What had he called it? Unlicensed cultural adulteration?

Did these people have no souls? No passion? Chatton curled his lip.

He reached out and took Laoya’s hand, smiling gently. Her tears flowed freely, but her eyes betrayed her uncertainty. Why was he so calm? He nodded, and squeezed her hand.

“Enjoy yourself, Wu. Enjoy this moment, because it’s all you’ll have. Happily not everyone here is as obvious as you. There are some people with integrity, even in your glorious Commonality.”

Wu’s smile froze. “What do you mean? Don’t be pathetic, Chatton… You’re bluffing…”

“I’m going with them, Wu. I’m getting the hell out of this Commonality you’re all so self-righteous about. You think this is progress? You think this is civilisation? It’s just some crazy ant-hill, full of poisonous little insects like you milking people for survival. You people wouldn’t know passion if it exploded in front of you. You’re dead inside. You have the greatest opportunity humankind has ever had, the chance to reinvent our entire civilisation, and you’re frittering it away on rules and bureaucracy. You’re a bunch of control freaks. I’ve had enough of it.“

Laoya was staring at him. Wu, too. “You’re going with them?” he said, weakly.

“Too damn right. I got that straight pretty early in this project. Back in my ‘tribe’, as you’d say, we’ve a sharp eye for thieves and backstabbers. I knew you’d pull something like this. I’ve had a place on the Hunter’s Star since we made the stasis field breakthroughs. I’m leaving this golden cage you’ve built yourselves. I just hope there’s something better out there.” He nodded to the wheeling night sky outside.

“Jon…” Laoya’s lip trembled, and tears streaked her honey-coloured skin. Chatton brushed her cheek with his thumb, pulled her close and kissed her.

“Mr Chatton! This is unacceptable!”

Chatton ignored him. He felt Laoya tremble. All her Commonality upbringing, her decorum, even shame, was in his hands.

“There’s a ticket for you, too. If you want it.”

* * *

The ship was breathtaking. Smaller than previous colony ships, now that there was no longer need for habitats for generations of colonists, she was still vast, half a mile of crazily dispersed structures designed for maximum survivability, the best mankind could design. The best Chatton could design.

Chatton stood on the shuttle’s observation deck and his heart swelled with pride. The pit in his stomach from missing Laoya still gaped; they had said farewell last night, before the stasis unit in her capsule had been activated. They would meet again, in fifteen hundred years’ time. Or in no time at all. It depended where you were.

Fifteen hundred years. One thousand five hundred light years: the furthest any of Earth’s colony ships had ever attempted to go. The Orion nebula was rich in stars where life had taken hold, an ideal place to begin a new outpost of Commonality civilisation, a cluster of worlds each just a handful of light years apart. Or even to establish a new civilisation. But that thought was just for himself.

Wu had done what he could, of course, to block Chatton’s plans. Once he had realised that Chatton himself was untouchable, he had put all his spite into preventing Laoya from going with him. It had been tawdry, like a child having a tantrum, but the more Wu dragged them through the mud, the more shabby he and his glorious Commonality looked, and the more Chatton shone.

In the end the Shinese had given way, and permitted the ‘cross-cultural adulteration’. A victory for Chatton had been agony and shame for Laoya’s family, who could not understand why their daughter had thrown away a life of honour and piety for an uncertain existence with a barbarian on a savage and distant world.

Some gaps could not be bridged. Language itself failed, and the two sides were left staring dumb and uncomprehending across a cultural chasm. The lump returned to Chatton’s throat as he remembered Laoya’s shell-shocked look as her family turned their backs on her. He knew he wasn’t at fault — but why didn’t it feel that way?

The last night they had spent together had not been one of joy, but of sorrow, guilt, and loss. But they had been together; and it had been a night of tenderness, too.

“It’s strange. I know I won’t feel time pass at all, that one moment I’ll blink, then we’ll be there, still together, like nothing has changed. But I still can’t help feeling we won’t see one another for fifteen hundred years.”

Laoya sat in his lap, her arms round his neck, her head on his shoulder, looking down at the floor. He could smell her hair, feel the curve of her hips beneath his hand, hear her breathing. Here, she would do this, when they were alone in Chatton’s stateroom, she would allow herself intimacy, contact, confession. Chatton knew it wasn’t in her cultural makeup, that she’d had to fight her upbringing even not to flinch when he stroked her cheek, and he knew she’d done it for him. Here, in the stillness of his stateroom aboard the Hunter’s Star, the prudish Commonality felt like it was already half a galaxy away. Tomorrow, when they launched and engaged the stasis fields, it would be.

“I wonder what we’ll find,” she said, biting her lip.

They’d had this conversation so many times. Chatton smiled, turning her head to his and looking into her eyes. “It’ll be fine. We’ll find a new world. A great, empty, new world, with no Commonality telling us what to do and when to do it, no radioactive ruins, no reminders of ancient mistakes. No tragedies, no unhappiness. And no Administrator Wu!” He finished on an explosive laugh.

She laughed too, nervously. “A new start…” She wiped her cheek.

The dream seized him. “Think of it, Laoya. New friends, new places which don’t even have names yet. Everywhere we go will be for the first time.”

Whatever doubts she had, she forced them away, and nodded, smiling. “There’ll be children…”

The breath stuck in Chatton’s throat. His smile broke, and he pulled her towards him.

“Yes. There’ll be children.”

* * *

It is night. Darker than any night before. There are stars — countless, strewn like silver dust across a black canopy. But there is no sun, no moon. Nothing: only night.

A tiny speck moves in the darkness. A tiny knot of metals and minerals and organic compounds, infinitesimally small against the infinite night. Blink and you will miss it; and yet it moves.

Aboard the Hunter’s Moon Chatton lay in the darkness, listening to the sound of his own breathing, suddenly overcome with the terror of being buried alive. He resisted the urge to cry out. Somewhere, in the distance, an alarm sounded. Repetitive, yet dwarfed into insignificance by the immense weight of nothingness which pressed in all around.

A few minutes later found him sitting upright. Fully alert; there was no sense of awakening. There had been — what, discontinuity? He had been in his bunk by the bridge listening to the countdown for stasis — and then here.

Where was here? Had they arrived? After all — this was how it would feel. There was no sense of time, of distance — just one moment, in Earth’s solar system, the next, fifteen hundred years in the future. And fifteen hundred light years away.

No, they hadn’t arrived. The lights would have come on. There would have been activity. This was darkness. This was quiet. There was something wrong.

He could hear someone breathing! He almost shouted — then checked himself, clenched his teeth, commanded his thumping heart to be calm, to swallow the fear which threatened to rise in his throat and send him screaming into mindless panic. He swallowed. There. He was calm.

He cleared his throat. “Is there anyone there?” His voice sounded small.

“Doctor Chatton?”

Only one person called him Doctor: “Sergei?”

A thick accent drawled back. “I think so. What’s happening?”

“I have no idea. There’s an alarm. Why isn’t there any light?”

Suddenly, there was light. All at once; there had been darkness, now there was blazing light. It wasn’t even as if someone had switched them on. There was just light.

Sergei looked alarmed. “Another discontinuity?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d tell…”

Their eyes met. Their thoughts were best not expressed, at least not yet. Sergei looked pale, frightened. If a man is a soldier and afraid, he needs a gun. If a poor man, he needs money. Sergei and Chatton were scientists. They needed information.

* * *

On the darkened bridge Sergei strode to the readout.

“How much time has passed?”

Sergei paused, his finger touching the screen. “Six hundred years,” he said, softly.

The green glow from the low-power screen bathed their faces.

“Everyone we know is dead,” Chatton said.

Sergei said nothing. It was a strange feeling. No grief, but a great emptiness.

“Can you tell what happened? Why we’re awake?”

Sergei studied the readout. He shook his head. “Nothing. Systems are nominal. Everything’s working fine. Here — our module’s stasis field was deactivated. It didn’t fail.”

“Deactivated? Who by?”

Sergei looked up. “Unknown.”

The hairs on Chatton’s neck prickled. “Run a full diagnostic. We need to see exactly what happened.”

“Doing it now.” Sergei’s face fell. “Good God…”

“What?”

“It’s not just our module. Two of the pods were… deactivated, too. Oh, great maker, no… Doctor — I don’t think they ever woke up. Look at these readings — we’ve lost containment on two whole capsules… sulphur dioxide… methane…” He stopped, looking up ashen-faced at Chatton. “Doctor — something’s rotting in there…”

Chatton hurried to the console. “Which capsules?”

Sergei shook his head. “It’s not Laoya. But we’ve lost over four hundred people.”

“My God… Recently?”

“It’s hard to say. Judging by the readings I’d say full-blown decomposition. Maybe a month.”

“But why waken now? The alarms are programmed to wake us immediately if there’s any –”

“I don’t know. None of this makes any sense.”

Chatton’s mind raced. The Commonality! “Could it be sabotage?”

“Who would do such a thing? They would be dead long before we ever reached our destination. Who would hate us so much?”

“I can think of one person.“

“Really?”

“No, not really. I doubt even he would do anything like this. So, probably not sabotage. Then what?”

Sergei frowned. “You’re sure the scanners show nothing out there?”

“Take a look yourself. We’re so far from anything it’s unbelievable. There’s a brown dwarf four parsecs away; that’s it. Nothing. We’re deep in interstellar space.”

“What kind of nothing?”

“What?”

“Indulge me, Doctor. You said there’s nothing. What kind of nothing? I want a good look at it.”

Chatton stared at him. Then, slowly, he nodded. “I’m with you. I think.”

* * *

The holo display showed nothing. Or, rather, it showed the starfield all around them, light years away, and a vast empty space surrounding the ship. Nothing. But…

“There! Do you see it?”

“What the hell is that? Some kind of gravitational lens?”

“Densitometer shows no gravity wells. It does look like a lens, though. There — again! It seems to be going around us. Orbiting…”

Chatton grimaced. “Or stalking.”

It had taken them hours to find it. They’d used every instrument the ship’s scanners could bring to bear, and every one of them had turned up negative. Electromagnetic spectrum, gravity — nothing out there. Until Sergei had spotted it on a visual trace, of all things. A couple of stars in the vast starfield surrounding them had briefly winked. Then, a little further along, a couple more. Like something had passed between them and the ship. Something vast. And invisible.

“Some kind of astronomical anomaly?”

“Clearly…”

“No, Doctor. I mean… well, it’s not a black hole… so something we’ve not encountered before.”

Chatton said nothing. Hand to his head, he stared at the screen, racking his brain.

“How far away is it?”

“I have no idea.”

“Can’t we triangulate?”

“Against what?”

“I don’t know. How about that brown dwarf?”

“Doctor, that won’t work. It’s too far away, too dim. Even if we do set up scopes at either end of the ship, that’s a half-mile baseline, tops. All we’ll get is what we already know: it’s a long way away.”

“Whoa! Did you see that?!”

“Where’s it gone?”

“That’s just it — it just vanished.”

“What? A cloak? Wait — there it is, now!”

“That’s too far. It must be another one. Look — that one’s gone, now!”

“Over there! Doctor, this has got to be the same one. There can’t be three of them!”

“Look, it’s too far. These appearances are microseconds apart. It’d have to be breaking the light barrier to be covering that sort of distance.”

They looked at one another.

They scrambled into action. “Give me readings on all frequencies, every instrument we’ve got, right down to local gravometric disturbances!” Chatton shouted. “And record everything! This could be our only chance!”

Sergei clicked his fingers with impatience as the holo-controls fired up, then punched in the commands. “OK — we’re recording it all, everything it does. Look! Another — what, another ‘jump’? Doctor — do you think this could be it?”

Chatton’s breath tore shreds through his lungs, his heart pounding with excitement. “My God… my God…” he whispered, “I just hope we can get this analysed… How is it doing that?”

Sergei shook his head. “Wormholes? I don’t know. None of these readings –“

“Never mind. None of our scanners are looking for the right thing. Our science isn’t even close to this!” His face shone, his eyes wide with awe.

“Doctor… I think it may have noticed our scans…”

On the readout the anomaly had stopped moving. It shifted from side to side for an instant, for all the world like a predator gauging the distance to its prey before pouncing — then it vanished.

“Where’s it gone?”

Suddenly the lights flashed red on the bridge, and a klaxon sounded. “Proximity alert! Proximity alert!” a strident voice blared.

The viewscreen outside went black, as a huge object blotted out the stars and swept towards them. Tendrils of pain wrenched through Chatton and Sergei’s bodies, as though their heads were being pulled from their torsos.

“Tidal effect!” Sergei shouted through clenched teeth, his face beading with sweat.

They staggered backwards as whatever it was played havoc with the ship’s gravity fields, and outside the stars came back on.

Chatton scrambled to the readout. “It’s behind us,” he gasped.

Clutching his head, Sergei leaned heavily against Chatton. The pain was subsiding — unless, of course, the anomaly returned.

“What’s it doing now?”

“Oh, good God. It’s approaching one of the stasis capsules. There are over two hundred people in there!”

“Doctor… that’s Laoya’s capsule.”

“Oh, no… Please, no…”

The anomaly — still barely visible — was huge now that it was close. Sweeping through local space, it appeared on a collision course for the thin cylindrical stasis capsule at the end of its boom. Chatton watched, tears welling in his eyes, a terrible, aching sense of helplessness in his chest. His hands gripped the control panel.

At the last minute, the anomaly veered away, missing the stasis capsule by a hundred metres at most, and slowly began to circle the ship.

Chatton blinked. “What just happened?”

Sergei frowned. “I don’t know about you, Doctor, but I’d say we just had a couple of shots across our bows. Instructions to get moving.” He looked over at Chatton. “Unmistakable signs of intelligence, I’d say.”

Chatton stared out the viewport, at the thin, fragile capsule still hanging in space, carrying its precious cargo.

“Doctor? What are we going to do?”

Chatton turned. “I need to get into one of those capsules.”

“I’m glad you said ‘I’, not ‘we’.”

“Thanks. It’s good to have your support.”

“The Commonality wouldn’t like it. They’d say you were too valuable to risk your life for two hundred colonists.”

Chatton wrinkled his lips sourly. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here. Screw the Commonality.”

Sergei’s guttural laugh echoed funereally around the bridge. For the first time Chatton felt slightly less scared. It was good to have a plan.

* * *

Chatton tried not to think about what he was doing as the airlock door opened onto the whistling emptiness of space. He’d taken the shots — the subliminal sleep treatments — for spacewalks during his orientation back on Earth, but that was just procedure, like emergency evacs and resuscitation drill. He never imagined he’d ever have to do it.

But here he was. Gingerly, he squeezed the controls on the EVA harness, and the floor fell away. His breath caught, his head swam, the helper medkit blew an anti-vomiting agent into his lungs. Focus on the module, he told himself. Don’t look down.

Somewhere out there the anomaly was watching him, circling the ship in long, slow sweeps. He had no doubt of its intelligence; the swerve around Laoya’s module had been no accident. The nagging suspicion that the anomaly — whatever it was — somehow knew the module was important to him, had never left him. He gritted his teeth, focussing on the module. Stick to the facts, the job at hand. This thing is so big that’s all you can do. One step at a time.

The module was in semi-darkness. Through the porthole by the emergency airlock he could see the gently flashing alarm, winking red. It was mostly out of gut feeling that he and Sergei had settled on one of the damaged modules as their first port of call. With four hundred people already dead, Chatton didn’t want to risk any more. But they had to know what had happened. To aft he could see the boom to Laoya’s module, and the sight gave him strength. Whatever it took, he would do this. He wouldn’t let them all die, helpless and in ignorance.

Despite what he knew was ahead it was still a relief when Chatton gently contacted the stasis module and operated the airlock control. His heartrate was elevated, but he turned down the drugs, wanting clarity. The airlock cycled, showing breathable air beyond. He thought for a moment, then depressurised his suit and took his helmet off.

He saw the corpses as soon as the inner door opened. The air smelled of rotting meat, but less than he had feared; mostly it was cold, dry, the smell of old leaves or closed-in spaces. The bodies lay where they had been when the stasis field was activated; on their bunks, in neat rows, a grid of ten by ten, two bunks high. Two hundred people, families, friends, lovers, loners, all seeking a new life in the stars. All dead.

Chatton wondered how they had died. If the stasis field had simply failed, the colonists would have woken up, and there were failsafes and emergencies in the module to keep them alive while they woke the sleeping crew. That hadn’t happened; this was something else. They had never woken. The stasis field had failed, and they had died, as simple as that. Except it should never have happened.

He needed the autodoc. Some kind of autopsy would give them more information. He didn’t relish trying to transport one of the desiccated corpses back to the ship, but right now he couldn’t see what else to do.

The comlink chirped into life. Sergei’s voice. “Doctor –“ it said. A warning voice.

Then — nothing.

The lights went out. The comlink died. All power in the module failed, and with a dying whine the heating module in his pressure suit did, too. Utter darkness. It grew very cold.

His breath shaking, Chatton reached round and cracked a glow-stick, bathing the module in a morbid green light. He suddenly had the feeling he was not alone. He looked around, heart pounding. Nothing.

There was a crackling sound, and something moved. In the pallid green light Chatton watched in horror as one of the corpses raised itself stiffly into a sitting position, jerking like a clumsily-handled puppet, casting wild shadows off the walls and ceiling. The other corpses remained still.

Chatton’s head swam; he found it difficult to breathe.

Impossibly, the corpse’s chest inflated, and then exhaled, filling the air with a noxious stench, making Chatton gag. A low, croaking rattle issued from its throat.

“Staaayyy…”

Chatton’s skin crawled.

“Staaayyy — sisssss…”

His throat was dry, his tongue clinging to the roof of his mouth. He tried to talk, but the corpse spoke again.

“Re… calibrate… stayyy-sisss…”

Chatton’s breath shuddered through his lungs. “What…?” he whispered.

“Recalibrate… stasis… or everyone will diiie…”

His hand rose to his mouth. “What are you?”

“We are lightness. We are speed. Remodulate frequency… to next harmonic…”

“What? How do you know –?”

“No time… No more warnings… Do this. Do this now!”

There was a jolt, and the whole ship shook as though something had hit it. The rictus grin leered towards Chatton one last time: “recalibrate… now…” Then it collapsed, like a puppet with its strings cut, and Chatton knew he was alone. The lights started to flicker; his suit heating began to purr.

Pain! A howling, screeching cacophony tore through the stasis module, metal grinding against metal, as though the ship was tearing itself apart. Even against the inertial dampers the pod swung violently, and Chatton staggered towards the comlink and shouted through.

“Sergei! Sergei! Do you read me? Fire up the stasis field configuration helpers immediately! Sergei!”

The voice that came back was garbled with static. “…all hell breaking loose here… helpers coming on-line… but interface… don’t know… my God! Doctor! Doctor! Can you see it!”

The static vanished, and Chatton felt a bow-shock pass through his body. His heart thumped, and his face was bathed in a fiery red light, blazing through the porthole, incandescent like a sudden sun here in the depths of space. He staggered to the viewport.

It was no sun. Chatton’s face fell with awe, struck dumb with the scale of what he was seeing. It was a… a tear, that was the only word he could think of, a hole torn… in space, like a tear in a piece of cloth, and the great lambent glow was shining through from… from somewhere beyond. His mind reeled as he tried to figure the size of the thing — it must have been thousands of kilometres across. Tens of thousands. The Hunter’s Star hung like a mote of dust in a sunbeam before it, ready to be swept away.

Something moved. Inside the ruddy glow he made out a vast structure, like an enormous mountain, bigger than any range on earth. It hove into view, as though the tear in space were some window into another world, and Chatton gasped as he made out fiery, coruscating clouds tumbling down its slick, ebon slopes. The sky beyond was carnelian, with suggestions of further mountainous shapes beyond, a terrifying and unfathomable geometry. As he watched, the great mountainous structure shuddered, a tremor passing over its surface, and a great aperture opened in its side, hundreds of kilometres wide. An aperture which shone with an undeniable, burning malevolence as if it looked through into this universe… Like an eye…

And behind, a great, lumbering limb, reaching through the impossible tear in space.

Chatton screamed. Temporarily, his mind went white, and fight or flight possessed him. He staggered blindly around the module, heedless of the corpses strewn around, looking for anything, anywhere to hide. There was a sudden dimming of the volcanic glow — like a cloud passing over a dying sun — and Chatton spun round to see the anomaly: not a gravitational lens this time, but a solid mass of featureless serpentine blackness which snaked across the hellish hole and collided with the entity struggling through.

A huge, silent explosion, so vast it seemed slow-motion, as if two enormous titans fought for supremacy, and shockwave after shockwave hurtled towards the Hunter’s Star. Chatton clung to the wall for dear life, yelling through the comlink.

“Sergei! Recalibrate the stasis field now! I’m giving you the frequency. Do you read!?”

The voice came back, shaking and near-hysterical. “I’m ready! Give me the numbers! Now!”

The first shockwave tore through the ship, sending sparks showering and screeching through the agonised superstructure, and Chatton’s knuckles went white as he clung to the wall and shouted numbers through the com. On the other side, in the bridge, Sergei keyed in the settings to the configuration holo, while outside, coruscating fields of unimaginable energies exploded in shell after shell off the raging interdimensional storm, lighting up the darkness with flash after flash as vast, spherical nebulosities expanded from its core. His voice rising to a crescendo, Chatton shouted the last of the configurations, and the holo before Sergei turned a soft, lambent green. Execute?

Sergei punched the key. Execution confirmed.

A static pulse rippled through the ship as the stasis fields in each of the modules blinked, a microsecond of discontinuity before establishing themselves again. Would the sleepers remember a brief second of light and panic in the depths of their dreamless sleep? Chatton hoped not.

Suddenly, outside, there was darkness. Chatton felt the energy drain from his limbs, the air from his lungs, and he almost slumped to the ground. The tear in space was gone; the entity — was gone. An afterglow of hellish light still burned in his eyes, the screech of the tortured ship still rang in his ears, but out there, now, through the viewport, there was darkness, and the distant stars. No… that wasn’t quite right. As his eyes adjusted, he could make out the ejection shells which the rift had thrown off still glowing dimly, sphere after sphere of nebulous matter already receding into space and time. It was an unearthly, beautiful, chilling sight.

“Sergei,” he whispered. “Can you see that?”

Sergei’s voice came back tired, shaky. “I can, Doctor, yes. Is it over?”

As he spoke, Chatton saw a couple of stars wink out and back again, as though a gravitational lens had passed over them. There was nothing else.

“I think so, yes.”

* * *

That ‘evening’ Sergei made coffee, and in the soft light of the stateroom they tried to cheer one another before reactivating the stasis field.

“They’ll never believe it, you know. Even with the recordings.”

“Who says they have to know?”

“You’d keep this from them?”

“Face it, Sergei, we can’t even begin to grasp what we saw, and we saw it with our own eyes. Try telling a bunch of colonists that there is… what? Some kind of intelligence? Vast and utterly beyond us, in interstellar space, protecting our universe from… I don’t know what. Something outside. We’d have mass panic.”

“So you still think it was protecting us?”

“What else could it have been doing? It could have killed us all, but didn’t. It could be some kind of artefact, some kind of machine, but — well, I think it gave us a chance, Sergei. It knew it was the stasis field, I’m sure of it. It told us exactly how to fix it.”

Sergei grinned, shaking his head, bewildered. “You Yoosans find your God everywhere. So why not out here? But why didn’t we discover this back in the solar system? We did tests…”

“I don’t know. There’s so little we know about –“ he looked around him “– all this. Interstellar space. Out here beyond the gravity wells of solar systems. We don’t even know if the laws of physics work the same out here. Not any more.”

They fell silent, remembering the titanic scene. Pensively, Sergei bit the energy bar he had opened, took a sip of the hot steaming coffee.

“There’s one thing for sure; the anomaly travelled faster than light. We have the recordings. I don’t know what it means, yet, but that’s what I want to look at when we arrive. That could be the key to everything; the end to all these slowboats, these stasis fields. We’ll come back out here one day. There’s so much more we need to know.”

Sergei frowned. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

* * *

Later, the two of them lay in their bunks, waiting for the stasis field. In the darkness, Sergei spoke.

“Doctor?”

“Mmm?”

“Do you think it’ll happen again?”

“If it does, we’ll never know. No more warnings, it said. But somehow, I don’t think it will.”

“Tell me something.”

“What?”

“Was it worth it? Coming all this way?”

“Leaving Earth, you mean?” In the darkness, he thought of his tribe, Chengchi Intercontinental. The starship. Laoya. “Yes, it was worth it.”

“Back to sleep?”

“I think so. I don’t think I can face another nine hundred years of this. Can you?”

Sergei thought for a moment. “Well…”

“Sergei?”

Gravelly laugh. “Just kidding.”

“Good night, Sergei.”

“See you in a minute, Doctor.”

“Nine hundred years.”

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

“It makes you thi–“

THE END

*****

If you enjoyed THIS OCEAN NIGHT, why not try more Mindjammer fiction and games?

This Ocean Night is (c)2015 Sarah Newton. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian McReynolds permalink
    August 27, 2017 3:53 am

    Awesome story! Leaves me with more questions than answers, which is pretty cool. It also hints that there are Entities out there, in the space between the stars, which are totally alien and feel straight out H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. Loving It!

  2. October 22, 2015 4:39 pm

    Wow. That was… frightening. I was honestly shaken while reading the whole encounter with the… pulse dragon? I don’t remember the last time a short story made me feel like that. You are a damn good writer, Sarah. You really are.

    I love the Mindjammer universe, and I’m looking forward to more lore, short stories and supplements! Heck, I even think a collection of short stories placed in the Mindjammer universe and its history would be wonderful.

    Warm regards.

  3. May 2, 2015 12:39 am

    A fantastic story and an excellent read. Is this a hint as to the nature of Pulse Dragons?

  4. tarostar permalink
    April 1, 2015 4:44 pm

    Great stuff. Exciting to read and gets the imagination firing. This one I’ll have to remember: “If a man is a soldier and afraid, he needs a gun. If a poor man, he needs money. Sergei and Chatton were scientists. They needed information.”

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