Horace Peters was having the singular kind of day that made him wish he’d never taken the position for Security Chief on A05675962-56. It was the kind of day wherein he began doubting the path he had taken in life that had led him to this moment.
You’d think that on an advanced space station, Horace thought, the toilet wouldn’t clog.
The maddening aspect of the entire situation was that it hadn’t even been his fault. After finishing his rounds the previous night, and just before going to bed, the water level in the toilet had been fine. Yet in the morning he had woken up to the whole thing overflowing with something that must have been processed waste matter.
Horace shoved the wire pipe-snake down the opening and pressed the trigger to engage the sweeping laser that would hopefully vaporize the clog no matter how far down it was. More and more of these types of issues had been popping up on the space station of late. It all spoke to poor maintenance, of course, but that just wasn’t possible. That was Horace’s job, after all.
And he couldn’t blame the issues on anyone else since he was the only person on the space station.
Well, Horace thought with a grim smile, the only person not imprisoned here, that is.
Horace met the Earth-Mars Alliance Marines at the airlock like he always did whenever they showed up. They came every few months, making the long trip from either Mars or Earth, to offload their cargo. The cargo, as it happened, was prisoners.
Asteroid A05675962-56—or “A-Station” as it was called to avoid a mouthful of numbers—was a prison anchored to an asteroid along the Jupiter-edge of the belt between the Mars and Jupiter. In all their wisdom, Earth’s governing body—with the approval and inclusion of Mars’ own government, naturally—agreed to the make use of the asteroid belt for the Earth-Mars Alliance’s more… undesirable criminals.
The exact location of A-Station was a strictly kept secret. As far as Horace could tell, not only hardened criminals were dumped off at the space prison, but also anyone who went against the respective governments of the EMA. And since the positions of specific floating hunks of debris amidst a field of floating hunks of debris in an asteroid field was rather impossible to track, the only way to access A-Station was to know the exact frequency of a transmitter within the installation anchored to the asteroid. It was the type of secrecy the governments all seemed to go for, since they could literally throw criminals and political prisoners into a cell, then forget about them forever.
The track lighting of the main airlock pulsed yellow to indicate that the pressurization cycle was almost completed. The light switched to green and pulsed twice, then the door slide open. Two EMA Marines walked through, pulse rifles shouldered and in full combat armor. It never failed to give Horace a brief sense of unease whenever they boarded A-Station. Not because they of the deadliness of their training, armor and weapons… no, that was to be expected.
It was that they never spoke a word to Horace. They never made the visors on their helmets translucent so Horace could see their faces.
The lead Marine went straight to the nearest access port and plugged in a datapad. He tapped on it a few times while his companions began escorting in a group of ragged prisoners. A-Station’s airlock wasn’t massive, but it was big enough to fit in a few dozen of the manacled and gagged prisoners. Depending on the size of the group, it might only take the Marines a few trips in and out of their ship.
Once aboard the prison—a habitable loop that circled around the asteroid and penetrated just below the surface of the rock—the prisoners were each put into cells that were then locked. Those locks didn’t open until the people inside were dead, and the internal sterilization system had removed all traces of that prisoner from existence.
In all honesty, Horace couldn’t figure out why the EMA bothered bringing out all these prisoners in the first place. He didn’t care how dangerous or bad they were, the expense of flying out a bunch of criminals to a remote and secret prison was astronomical. Horace had puzzled over that question for the better part of year with no success.
“Section 6 is going to be where you take them this time,” Horace said. Even if they didn’t respond—and they never, ever did—it felt good to talk to people. As part of the three-year contract Horace had signed, interaction with the prisoners was prohibited. He had no family back on Earth, but even if he had, communication with them would have also been prohibited.
“I just finished clearing the cells four weeks ago,” Horace continued. “Everything looks in top shape, as usual. If you head back that way,” Horace pointed to door to his right, “you’ll end up there.”
He was just about to say something else when the Marine at the datapad suddenly straightened. It wasn’t a massive change in posture since his—her?—suit wouldn’t allow that, but he definitely had changed positions. Horace noted a very slight trembling in the Marine’s armored hands. The other Marines began quickly walking the prisoners—almost running them—to the door Horace had indicated earlier. Their gestures were sharper than normal, and Horace had the impression that they would have been freaking out if he could see their faces and hear the conversations they were undoubtedly having on private channels.
“H-hey, what’s the hurry?” Horace asked. “Guys, what’s going on?”
They ignored his growing protests and shoved the prisoners into the individual cells in Section 6. Ten minutes after that was done—the minimum time needed to cycle the airlock for departure—they were in their ship and gone.
Horace tried to connect to the same terminal the Marine had used, but couldn’t find whatever it was that had spooked the EMA’s military goons.
What is going on? he wondered…
[“Plague Ship” by Steven L. Peck is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]
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!]