I did not worry when the red signal flashed on the screen, warning that the ship was low on thilium. I knew there’d be enough to get us to Xovu.
I did not worry when the onboard AI informed me we had gone off course. I made the required adjustments and we only lost six hours, which still allowed for a comfortable margin of error.
I did not worry when the comsystem started glitching. I had little use for it anymore, though I was puzzled what had caused this.
But when I began to cough blood... that was when I became worried.
Things only went downhill from there.
We had left Zinthuria forty days ago, not knowing that a stowaway had come on board. Two days later, Zevvi started coughing blood. Headaches followed. Then fever, hallucinations, and death.
Each member of our crew became infected, one after the other. We had no cure. All six of them died, and only I was left now.
I thought... I had hoped that I was immune.
I was not.
The virus was consistent, at least. So I knew I had twenty-four hours left. We were due to reach Xovu in twelve. They had the best doctors there, which meant my chances of survival were high.
I set a countdown timer on my wristpad and lay down to get some sleep.
Three hours later, I was woken by an alarm.
“Incoming collision,” warned the ship’s AI.
It felt like I had needles poking inside my brain and the blaring alarm did not help one bit.
I jumped out of bed and ran to the control room. Halfway there, there was a loud sound and I was jolted against the wall.
Then, all of a sudden, the ship powered off. No more lights, no more sounds, nothing but silence and darkness.
“Status?” I asked.
As I suspected, the AI did not respond.
Shit! This can’t be good, I thought.
Nor did it make much sense. A collision would do damage, but not to this extent. The engines were at the back of the ship, a closed circuit controlled the lighting system, and the AI was a crystal sphere inside the control room. To affect all three...
“The thilium core!”
I was petrified. If something had happened to the core, I’d have no way of getting the ship to move again and I’d be drifting in space for all eternity... of course, the virus would kill me way before that.
Still, what were the odds? The core was the most secure part of the craft, protected by a quantum cube at the very heart of the ship. Reaching it required going through a series of indestructible doors, each with its own access code. Even the captain (who had died two weeks earlier) had not known all of them. Theory was that no problem could ever arise justifying entry into the Coreum—everything could theoretically be resolved by other means. So far, this had always been the case. Besides, it’s not like anyone on board would have known how to fix the core anyway, if it ever came down to that.
I stood up... and waited for my head to stop spinning.
When I felt like I would not puke if I opened my eyes, I took a deep breath and activated my wristpad. Thankfully, the device had its own internal power source. A few taps on the screen produced a light. At least I’d be able to see where I was going.
The silence was eerie.
After my crewmates had died, I had to take over all of their duties. It kept me busy. But the current situation was bringing it all up in a rush: the loss, the grief, the loneliness...
Don’t get me wrong, being alone had its perks. Now at least I no longer had to deal with Cassandra’s cooking or put up with Jonah’s poor attempts at singing “The silent march”... The silent march! Talk about irony. Silence was all I had left now. But truth is, I would gladly have endured the bad cooking and singing just to have someone to talk to.
It took me ten minutes to reach the Coreum, using side corridors and emergency shafts to move between levels, since the elevators were no longer working.
I was relieved to find the doors sealed and walls undamaged. Nothing had gone through. The core was safe.
But then... what was going on?
I wiped the sweat off my forehead. The fever was starting. I’d taken some meds from the infirmary in anticipation of this. I swallowed a pill. It’d help keep me on my feet.
As I headed toward the control room, I heard a rumble and thought I saw some movement from the corner of my eye.
I turned around, but there was nothing there.
Or was there?
I directed the light toward the spot, and the darkness expanded.
That was impossible.
I wiped the entire length of the corridor with the wristpad’s beam. Every time it moved to that specific spot, it was as if the light faded, disappeared... or was it engulfed by the darkness? That made little sense. But then, not much of all this made any sense.
A sharp pain in my head made me cringe. I closed my eyes for a second, breathed, then stepped forward.
The size of the spot did not change as I moved, creating the illusion that I was standing still. It was unnerving. I held out a hand to touch the wall on my right. I wiped up and down... and froze.
When the beam hit the ceiling, it revealed two dark red circles with a black dot in each. I only saw them for half a second, then they were gone. There was a flurry of movement, then silence again.
It was hard to concentrate when my brain felt like it was being kicked around by a pair of excited teenagers. But those red circles had looked, felt a lot like eyes. I was not alone anymore.
Whatever that thing was, it was not human.
But how had it come on board?
I knew deep in my heart that it was the cause for the power outage. It had to be. Though I could not think of how it could have pulled it off. Let alone why.
My heart was pounding fast, almost as fast as my throbbing head.
Wait. I was sick. How could I know if this was real? Maybe I was starting to hallucinate. Yes. That had to be it. There’s no way anything could have come into the ship. Where would it have come from?
There had been a collision, yet I had seen no evidence of structural damage. If it had been some alien ship, or even a meteorite, there would have been a breach in the hull, creating a vacuum in the corridors. Under normal circumstances, there were safety measures in place that would have sealed off the damaged sector. But since the ship had powered off at the moment of the impact, it would not have had time to shut the required doors... If there really was an opening into space, all the ship’s air should have been sucked out by now.
So the only explanation that made sense was that I was seeing things. It was expected, though I had hoped the visions would not come until much later.
The one thing that this did not explain was why the ship had powered off. That part I hadn’t imagined. And if I didn’t figure that out soon, I’d be dead in... I looked at the timer. Twenty hours, give or take a few minutes.
I was at a loss about what to do next. I made my way back to the control room, for lack of a better idea, though I did not expect to get much out of it. It would be just as dead as the rest of the ship—or as I would soon be. If only I could get the AI up again... well, I could always look at its sphere when I got there. Maybe I could jump-start it.
As I was walking, I started feeling uncomfortable, as if someone was watching me. I looked around, but the light beam revealed nothing unusual.
Then, as I started up one of the emergency shafts, I was blinded by a sudden burst of light from above. It made me lose my grip, and I fell from the ladder...
Darkness, my silent companion, has witnessed my sorrow. It writhes and thrives in this void that is nothingness. I go where it goes, I grow when it beckons, I grieve when it withdraws...
I opened my eyes and waited for my head to stop throbbing and the afterimages to fade. I could still see spots of colored light dancing before me, daunting me... remnants of a dream I never had.
Above me, it was just as dark as everywhere else. It had been another illusion.
A moment later, as I stepped out of the shaft, my light went out. For a few seconds. Then I realized there had been movement in front of me, and it made me wonder if something hadn’t rather blocked the beam.
It occurred to me that if there really was some alien creature on board, then perhaps I should find myself a weapon. It was more likely the virus messing with my head, but it couldn’t hurt to be prepared. Just in case.
I took a detour to visit the armory and grabbed a phaser.
When I finally reached the control room, I was out of breath and sweating like a pig. Pitchforks were dancing in my head, and I felt like I was going to die.
I lay down on the floor.
I needed to rest... just for a few minutes.
I swallowed another pill and closed my eyes.
Silence, my dark companion, it wriggles and whines as I slide through the lights. The sorrow in me is fed by its call. I know not when it will end. Or if ever it will.
I bolted upright, suddenly wide awake. I wasn’t alone. I knew it with every fiber of my bones.
Phaser in hand, I stood up and scanned the room. I was surrounded by darkness... but the darkness was moving!
Shifting and swirling, in varying shades of black, it expanded toward me.
I aimed and took a shot.
There was a loud, piercing shriek as the weapon’s ray hit its target. The thick, writhing darkness sped out of the room into the corridor.
I ran after it and saw it go right through a wall.
This thing, whatever it was, could move through solid matter. Which, I realized, could explain how it got into the ship. Though that’d also mean it could breathe in space. Which hinted at a radically different type of metabolism.
It got me to wonder if the darkness was real. Maybe the power was still on, but this alien thing had spread through the entire ship, hiding the light...
No. That couldn’t be. There’d at least be sounds. Of the engines and all the other working parts of the structure. Not to mention the AI.
I headed back into the control room to check the crystal sphere. It was there, but lay dormant.
A familiar melody rang through the empty and silent corridors. A distant humming.
I frowned. Where had I heard that before?
Following the sound led me to the dining hall. Before I stepped in, I recognized his voice as the words took form.
The light from my wristpad revealed Jonah, standing near a table, singing “The silent march.” He waved when he saw me.
“This can’t be real,” I said. “You’re dead.”
He smiled as he continued to sing. His skin began to swell and darken.
“No, no, no, no...”
I shook my head and lifted the phaser.
“Shut up!” I yelled.
He sang on, even louder, the grin on his face widening... to the point where it became a parody of human emotion.
I shot at him and Jonah exploded into a thousand patches of darkness that swirled all around me. I shot again, and again, and again...
But it was no use. Whenever the rays hit a target, it would just split into more patches, until the dining hall was filled with them.
I ran out.
What did it want from me? Why was it here?
I hurried back to the control room.
It was waiting for me there, with its dark red eyes staring right at me. It was piercing and frightening.
Before I had time to lift my weapon, it rushed toward me and engulfed me. It was like a fog, though I could also feel it seeping through my pores, spreading through my veins.
I fell to the floor and screamed.
“None of this is real... it’s the virus... it’s not real... it can’t be... no, no, no...”
I was remembering things now from my past, things I had buried deep, that I did not wish to remember. The death of my parents, my first breakup... There was no physical pain, but I was in pain nonetheless.
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, the pain receded.
Make me understand.
I could still feel it inside me, prying and prodding. What was it looking for?
“Oh God, please make it stop... I can’t take this anymore.”
I sat up, back against the wall, and swallowed another pill, hoping it would lower my fever and make the visions go away.
Was that voice part of it? I could not remember the others saying anything about hearing voices.
And then, within the darkness, I saw the light.
It shone brightly, growing, until it too, finally, engulfed me.
We are one, we are all, we are ever moving.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t understand... am I going crazy?”
Within the light, images appeared. Unfocused, unclear. They hovered before me for a moment, then vanished. When they returned, they became vivid shapes: a tree here, a river there, then a house, a mountain... they sped by quickly and each time the matching name would pop in my mind, I sensed the creature was learning from it.
“What are you? Are you real? What are you doing here?”
The images faded, replaced with stars. Gliding among them was a vast, shifting mass of darkness. When it came close to a star, the star would die.
I felt its insatiable hunger as it fed on astral energy and understood that the thilium core had drawn it to the ship.
Despair overtook me as I realized I was now doomed. Without this power source, I would never reach Xovu in time.
I sensed confusion in the creature as it struggled with the concept of death. Then the confusion turned to panic.
All of a sudden, I was propelled through the ship. The entity was ignoring the walls, passing right through them, carrying me with it, until we shot out into space.
I looked back and saw the drifting husk becoming a small dot in the distance as we moved faster and faster away.
“What the hell?”
Not only were we shooting through space at incredible speed, but I could breathe.
I am carrying your air, it responded to my thought.
“God! This is amazing...”
Am I God? it asked.
“No. It’s just an expression. Although... I guess some might consider all of this godlike.”
I don’t think it understood, but it did not comment, and I fell silent to bask in the beauty surrounding me. I was no longer afraid. If I were to die, at least I’d have experienced something I felt confident no other human being had ever experienced, something so incredibly unique.
That was when I noticed it. A growing dot in the direction we were headed. A planet. And as we got closer and closer, I recognized the pattern of its continents.
“How is this possible?”
I saw it in you, came its simple answer.
“But won’t you destroy the world if you get too close?”
Again, it struggled with the notion of destruction. But when the meaning finally registered, a firm response formed in my mind.
Our hunger is vast, but it can be confined. We wish to feed, not destroy.
“Who is this ‘we’ you keep referring to?” I asked, intrigued.
As we shot down through the planet’s atmosphere, I was swarmed with a myriad images. Little of them made any sense, but they were indelibly stamped into my memory.
Before I knew it, I was lying on wet grass, not far from the capital.
The darkness was gone, and I was alone again.
It was only days later—healed and well-rested—that I finally understood the creature’s last message.
The entity was a conglomerate of organisms, one might even say an organic ship of sorts. It had never come across other living beings before. Our encounter had profoundly shaken the foundations of its beliefs—just as it had mine.
I might have been alone out there... but humanity no longer was.
Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
Image Credit: NASA (image of the day for January 14, 2021).