To Our Most Beloved and Learned Archivist:
Find herewith two separate records that I have interlaced together into one account, ordered by inferred chronology. In italics, I have placed a stylized record pulled from the dendrite memory pattern reconstruction of a perished human found floating in deep space. I am aware of your interest in biologicals and believe you will find this account of particular merit. The male subject was located during a scan for carbon anomalies in the interstitial spaces of galactic cluster Y899JJL. At 3134.73 lightyears’ distance from the subject, the additional accompanying text recorded by this man in an active vocal log was found broadcast among the chatter of a transmission sent with a simple light-speed photonic wave device common to the period for transmitting digital signals, thus confirming exactly how long ago the man was set adrift. The brain pattern reconstruction and the audio log the man produced were integrated to reconstruct this text, which gives the circumstances of his death. I send this to you because of the details of the ship recorded herein. Note also that the vessel described herein has not been found, despite an extensive search. The danger revealed in this account may occasion your Excellency’s attention.
I am your fervent servant,
# Textual reconstruction from dendrite architecture 1 #
A thousand worlds beckon me into the darkness. I am no stranger to the silences between the stars, and in them I find my animation. My ship, and dare I say companion, Keva—that indomitable spacefaring beast whose form and intelligence has evolved into a universe-jumping vessel—knows the tides and winds framing the fabric of the universe. He steers a seasoned course in search of rare treasure found in places sequestered in realms that cannot even be pointed to from our dimensions. Rumors of those faraway lands are hard to come by and the search is long and often fruitless. Today, however, luck finds us.
* Digital voice log broadcast A*
“I’ve got a hit.”
It’s been a while. My fishnetter, Robin, smiles up at me from the console. As always, she is wearing gold jeans and a red-dirt t-shirt advertising a mountain bike rental company in Moab, Earth. Her eyes are shining and she motions to her screen with a glance. Her kid is standing beside her, smiling. He’s not suppose to be on the bridge, but Robin insists and frankly I don’t care.
I can see on her display a chaotic splash of nearly numberless dots forming a spiderweb of networked galaxy-like projections.
“Age?” I can hardly speak. I’m surprised to see my hands are shaking. It looks like a hit.
“Based on expansion and the physics, maybe twelve billion.” She is grinning fiercely. I know the expression. She’s crewed for me for seven years, and that bright-eyed look means business. It means good fortune.
She turns back to the display.
“Physics?” I ask, still a little cautious. Not ready to abandon my pessimism.
“On the edge, but full in. Not like anything I’ve seen, so likely some treasures. Gravity equivalent looks about like ours and they have enough subatomics to produce an abundant set of chemicals. I’m thinking life-rich. Given the age, likely some intelligence—civilizations too—probably even a few multiverse jumpers.”
“We’ll need to avoid them,” I state unnecessarily. Everyone knows we don’t want someone who can follow us home. Robin lets out a grunt suggesting obviously and starts to say something, but cuts it short. We’ve all been on edge, but the mood is starting to lighten up fast—no sense falling into patterns of conflict.
“Keva?” She dutifully asks to follow protocols, but is already closing her eyes, sending the message from her internal neuroset.
The sentient ship responds, “Yes, Robin.”
“Start calibration protocols. This looks like it might be a hit.”
“Aye,” The ship answers.
“Relax the protocols, Keva,” I say. This could be a strike and I don’t want to be too conservative. I invented the rules; I can break them.
The ship brings up a schematic on the universe we just found. Our eyes are focused for a likely place to hunt. I tell the crew of about one hundred and twenty families to prepare for a descent, batten down the hatches and all that. This is good news.
# Dendrite reconstruction 2 #
We are hunting on the forward edge of nowhere. It’s quieter out here. Less noise. Less distraction. A tiny smudge of light, just a fuzzy pinprick really, can be detected visually from the aft observation lounge. That’s our seventeen-billion-year-old universe. Seen from this far away it is only a stripling—maybe two billion years old.
Like the early Phoenicians who would never sail out of sight of land, we keep it in view so we can find our way home. We come out here because we need the calm seas to troll for treasure. We need to escape the staticky, noisy space near stars, the roar in the midst of galaxies full of licking waves, dense forces, fields of such variety that it clogs your sensors with its busyness: magnetic, light, gamma- and x-rays, dark matter, gravity—an endless array of presences that can be detected almost anywhere. Even the great voids that honeycomb the universe, where galaxies are rare, are too cacophonous for the quiet we need.
It’s different out here. Here in the primal emptiness beyond the edge there is silence. There are tiny fields, barely detectable, leaking from a universe so far away as to be but a whisper in this darkness. But care is needed. There are terrifying stories. Ships whose crews popped into far-space. The nowherelands so deep in the matrix of the multiverse that there is nothing on which to fix a heading. Without any sense of how to get back, they are forever lost in a nothingness vast and unforgiving, for by any measure the ‘great all’ is mostly empty. To think about it too deeply pummels one into disequilibrium and vertigo…
[“Plague Ship” by Steven L. Peck is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]
Available for sale today! SPACE ELDRITCH II: The Haunted Stars brings together returning names and new contributors — like Larry Correia, Michaelbrent Collings and Eric James Stone — to give you eleven tales combining space opera with Lovecraftian horror! Available today as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords, coming soon in print!
Father Phai walked the halls of Saint Stephan University, ignoring the tech serfs who scuttled about like brain-damaged insects. The high stone ceilings of the building vaulted over his head as his feet shuffled along smooth marble floors. He paused in the middle of the hall and turned to Father Aristeides.
“You’re saying that God can’t create a rock so big that not even He can lift it?”
“Of course not,” his friend, also a priest, said. “God is all-powerful. He can lift anything.”
Father Phai shook his head and started walking again. A tech serf limped by on two mechanical legs. One was longer than the other; they looked as if they’d been made in different decades for different people.
“If He is all-powerful, He can certainly make a rock He can’t lift. He can just make it so that He can lift it again the next moment.”
“That’s stupid,” his friend said, “and you’re stupid for thinking it.”
Father Phai smiled and started walking again. “People have debated that one for five thousand years.” If it wasn’t for Aristeides, Phai would have been alone ever since he left Frona to join the seminary. The man was more than a friend. He was a personal salvation.
“Just because half of them were stupid,” Aristeides said, the smile clear in his tone even if his face was stern.
They pushed down a side hall and several of the priests smiled and nodded at Father Phai. He didn’t know half of them, but he’d always been good at making friends. Even the tech serfs treated him with a little more familiarity than they did the other priests. They didn’t seem to hold it against him that he was a priest in a religion that damned them with one doctrine while blessing them with another.
“I hear the border problems have heated up again,” Aristeides said.
“Russians,” Father Phai said, because you didn’t need to say anything more on the subject.
“They’re claiming this one isn’t fueled by the Church. They’re saying it’s just straight politics.”
The split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church still drove tensions between the two peoples, even so many centuries after it happened. ”It’s good to know that hatred isn’t just an ecclesiastical trait,” Father Phai said.
They walked down a narrow stone hall now. Up ahead, scaffolding blocked half the passage and two tech serfs, their cyberware suited for heavy labor, braced a wall as they worked on the cracking stone. People walked sideways to pass one another beside the scaffolding.
“They still haven’t admitted to destroying the Daedalus,” Aristeides said.
“The Russians are heathens, and monsters, and rogues, but they wouldn’t destroy a ship,” Father Phai said. Thou shalt not violate the sanctity of a working ship—the most inviolate of the proscriptions. “They’ll violate commandments all day long, but a proscription? Unthinkable.” Except for the violation caused by the tech serfs, of course, but those were only done out of necessity.
“They say that a Greek ship found the remnants of the Catherine the Great,” Aristeides said. “They think it was the one the Daedalus tangled with before the end.”
“A charnel house. Everyone inside dead.”
“It looks like they did it to themselves.
Father Phai stopped just before the scaffolding. “Insanity?”
“Well, maybe they would violate a proscription, then.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
Father Phai twisted sideways to slide past the scaffolding, the metal tubing of the structure brushing against his back. Aristeides started a moment later. Father Phai was just uncomfortably sliding past a deacon when a loud crack sounded behind him, like a pneumatic piston firing.
Blood sprayed across the wall in front of him. He looked at the deacon in shock. Blood doused the man. Father Phai couldn’t see the wound, but horror dawned on the deacon’s face and he screamed.
Father Phai reached out to help him, his movements wooden. Shock? He’d seen blood before, why would he be going into shock? He couldn’t quite reach the man, and the deacon pulled back in horror, screaming again.
“Phai!?” Aristeides shouted.
Father Phai turned to his friend. He tried to ask what was going on, but his mouth wouldn’t move.
“Phai, you’re going to be all right!” Aristeides shouted.
He was going to be all right? He reached up to his face, numb now, and found it sticky with blood. Confused, he reached farther, his fingers sinking into a hole in his forehead, the edges sharp with shattered bone. A hole. In his head? His fingers slid inside, felt slick blood and pulpy matter and he suddenly smelled apricots.
“Phai!” Aristeides screamed.
He slid to the ground. What was going on? He raised his hand again and it thumped against his face. Something was wrong. Something was wrong. Something was wrong. Something was wrong.
Are you there, My child?
Can you hear Me?
I can see you there.
You do not understand.
But you will.
Come to me and everything will be right again, My son.
Dreams of pain and rage. Dreams of loss and horror. Dreams of loneliness. Father Phai awoke, screaming in a hospital bed.
“Father Hephaistos Ganis?”
He stared up into the face of a doctor, awash in blurry light from the window. The room was too brilliantly white to focus. “Aarrgh,” he said.
“Don’t try to talk. You’ve been in a terrible accident. The damage was severe.”
He reached up for the hole in his head, the urge to stick his fingers inside overwhelming.
Strong hands grabbed his arms, but his vision wasn’t working right and he couldn’t see who they belonged to. He screamed in rage. He was trapped. He started to weep. It was funny. He laughed.
“There has been damage to your frontal lobe. Can you get control of yourself?”
Father Phai spat on the doctor, and his tongue felt weird. He bit it, winced at the pain, but couldn’t stop himself from biting it again.
“Nurse,” the doctor said.
A slight pain burned in his arm, then drowsiness. Then it all went black…
[“The Implant” by Robert J Defendi is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming MONDAY!]
When I was a child I dreamed of the stars. When I was a man the stars stole my dreams.
A man who cannot dream becomes nothing but an empty shell, but the thing about empty shells, there’s nothing left inside to corrupt. Space ate my dreams, tore them right out my head and left a gaping hole where my soul had been life. My life ended a long time ago.
Which is why I was the only one who survived.
“What happened on Atlas?”
The question woke me up. It didn’t matter. As usual, my sleep was empty. I wasn’t missing anything good.
“Please, Mr. Chang, we have to know what happened on Atlas.”
The desperate voice was coming out of the blank wall of my tiny cell. They thought I’d been exposed to a potential alien biohazard so I’d remained in quarantine. My clothing had been burned and my body had been scrubbed, attached to tubes and machines to be monitored in every way possible, isolated from the world of flesh and imprisoned in a totally sterile environment.
The precautions wouldn’t do them any good.
My words came out raspy and weak. “I don’t know.”
“The survivor’s awake. He’s talking!” She forgot to turn off the intercom. “Get the Captain. Hurry.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re onboard the Alert in orbit over Atlas. You’re safe now. Please, Mr. Chang, we need you to try and remember what happened to your colony.”
I remembered, but remembering and understanding were two different things.
It began with a news report.
I didn’t know at the time that this particular blurb would mark the beginning of the end of the world but I followed a lot of news. Useless talking heads, pundits, bloggers, hoaxers, malcontents, and a handful of actual experts, millions of channels streaming in from two hundred solar systems and downloaded in the few seconds whenever the gate cycled open and we were briefly connected with the rest of the universe—even if it was all months out of date—and then I followed Atlas’s local streams when the gate was closed, which was the vast majority of the time.
Galaxy, system, world, or local, I followed it. War, politics, business, science, sports, entertainment, it didn’t matter. I had nothing else to do, so I listened as other people actually did. I was a pensioner, a useless parasite on the system, popping crazy pills and streaming feeds. On more pragmatic or desperate colonies they would have recycled me. On Atlas, I wasted away in my apartment and filled my brain with other people’s lives.
The local blurb had been an update on the Dark Side Dig, commemorating the sixteenth anniversary of the discovery of the ancient ruins that had changed Atlas from a backwoods mining colony to an archaeological mecca. Even though the natives had been extinct for millions of years, humans had only discovered a handful of planets with intelligent life so far, so it had been a big deal, even if the odd winged cucumbers depicted in their carvings had been relative primitives compared to some of the species we’d found on other worlds.
The Dig’s science team had found a new chamber to crack open. They’d dubbed it the Temple.
It should have pissed me off, because that was supposed to have been my job before a quirk of interstellar travel had ripped out all the creative parts of my mind and left me a useless, drug-addled husk, but anger just got in the way of my news addiction, so I kept listening. The report closed with an interview, just some puffery with one of the newly arrived archaeologists, about how the weird geometry favored in the alien’s architecture had given a few of them nightmares.
Nightmares… I would have killed for a nightmare.
Captain Hartono brought up the hologram. It showed a nearly skeletal man sitting on a slab, arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and forth, slowly muttering to himself. “What do we have on the survivor?”
“All colonists’ DNA is on file. His name is Leland Chang, contract transfer from Calhoun, been on Atlas for fifteen years.” As Dr. Riady spoke all of the pertinent tabs came up on the edge of the hologram.
The Captain opened the career data. “Xeno-anthropologist, supposed to be brilliant.” He went back to the holo. “The guy looks awful.”
“Malnutrition and dehydration, mostly. The servitors found some other minor injuries, but no serious trauma.”
“I listened in while the drop team lifted him out, lots of crazy babbling. Whatever happened down there drove him batshit insane. I need you to get in his head straight fast.”
“I don’t know if that’ll be possible.”
“Make it possible, Doc. The evidence the drop teams have recovered so far doesn’t make any sense. Command needs to know who did this and he’s our only witness.”
“I’m afraid Chang wouldn’t have made a very credible witness even before whatever happened down there.”
Hartono brought up the medical history tab. He swore under his breath. “Keziah’s Disorder? That poor bastard…”
“It’s extremely rare.”
“Thank God for that,” the captain muttered. “It doesn’t matter. Get him talking. I don’t care what you have to do. We need information and we need it now. Crack him and do a memory lift if you need to.”
“That’s not exactly ethical, sir.”
“At the last gate cycle, Atlas was a thriving colony. Thirty days later, it’s back online, we cycle through and somehow six hundred thousand colonists have gone missing and we don’t know why. So right now I don’t particularly give a shit about ethics.”
“I can’t memory lift an innocent man, Captain,” Riady stammered. “That’s—”
“There are no messages, no recordings, no notes, no vids. Nothing. Every AI on the planet is crashed. We’ve got ghost ships in orbit with their systems scrubbed. The forensic evidence doesn’t make sense. There’s battle damage, but no invaders. Over half a million humans vanished in thirty days, Doctor, and the only living thing we’ve found more advanced than a house plant is your survivor.”
“Give me a chance,” she begged.
Hartono frowned. They were stuck for now anyway. “The next available gate cycle isn’t for two days. You’ve got one…”
[“Dead Waits Dreaming” by Larry Correia is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming soon!]