Short Stories

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Darkness. ©

Part 1. The Salmon.

Two sets of heavy boots hit a metal gangway. Two sets of knees bend and one hand splays out on the floor to give extra balance. The rustle of two protective suits initiates the next phase of movement.

Behind the silver clad runners a grate swings, waving them good bye.

“Captain, I have an anomaly on channel seventy one. Sending it over.” Small and white and rimmed with collected sweat. The button, pressed, began the transfer.

“Got it, thanks.” The captain looked down at his screen. Channel seventy one was his window into the engines; a small virtual pipe that stretched through cables and air all the way through the ship to where matter was converted to thrust.

“Call that an anomaly? Don’t waste my time. We have years of travel before we even get close to communication range with home. I don’t want to use up my all my energy on blips like that.” The captain flicked a few switches and returned to the card game he had been playing with the computer.

“Joe, Have you heard about Eridanus?” Albert was leaning against a tree. He was picking idly at the shell of a hazelnut. Occasionally he would use his teeth and spit the sharp fragments onto the ground. His companion, Joseph, was a few years younger and had no taste for nuts. Using a large stick as a bat he was seeing how far he could send his pickings into the next field.

“Nope.” Shielding his eyes from the sun, which was setting behind the next hill, Joseph watched his latest projectile fall short of the fence and swore under his breath.

“It’s the river that flows to Achernar. Below the Great Bull.” Albert paused to pick pieces of nut out of his teeth. His friend took the opportunity to interrupt.

“Is this something from your fantasy books? You know I don’t read that stuff.” Joseph was now facing the tree. Starting on a new nut, Albert continued.

“No. It’s in the sky. We will be able to see it when the sun has gone down fully. Achernar is the eighth brightest start. We can trace the river up from that.”

“I wondered why we came out here. I didn’t think it was because you wanted some nuts.” Joseph sat down next to his friend and looked at the sky. “Why the sudden interest in constellations?”

“It’s where they sent the new ship. The one that has been in all the papers.” Reaching into his bag, Albert pulled out a page from a magazine and metal case about the size of a large loaf of bread. Joseph took the page and read the headline aloud.

“New Ship sent to swim up river.” Joseph heard the catches click on Albert’s case and looked over. The top half of the case came away completely. Inside was a compact telescope.

The two silver suits are motionless. They are standing next to a door. Turning, the taller of the two faces the second. The front plates of their helmets recursively reflect the shape of their heads back and fourth.

The shorter of the two speaks and waves an arm at the door. The helmets block any sound. The taller figure shrugs.

Holding up the arms of their suits both figures look at a small displays embedded, and glowing red, just below the wrist. The shorter figure kicks the door and shouts something; louder but still retained.

Sitting, both figures lean against the corridor wall and stretch out their legs. The porthole in front of them, on the opposite wall, shows nothing but complete darkness.

“Time for me to check out for the evening boys and girls. Wake me if we get out of this nothingness.” The captain turned off his console and slipped his feet back into his shoes. The air conditioning had made them cold and unfriendly.

“Good night captain.” chanted the remaining people in the room. The captain walked the long way round to the door, glancing over each persons shoulder before leaving the room. Everything was painfully normal on all but one of the screens. The last, right before the door, was still showing the blip on channel seventy one.

“I’ll have another look at that in the morning. If it’s still there.” The captain left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

“Come on, take it off. Mine’s green.” The taller of the two suited runners, a man, sits with his helmet between his knees. Tapping on the face plate of his companion’s suit he waggles his arm so the green readout is obvious.

Managing to turn the action into a rude gesture, the man’s companion shows the still red square on the arm of their suit and the second helmet is not removed.

“Point taken. I am reckoning that you’re still red because you’re a woman in there.” The sound of his voice makes the still helmeted woman turn towards him. She bangs both sides of her helmet and shrugs.

“Can’t hear me? Oh well, no need for introductions yet then.” The man pushes himself up off the floor and takes two steps towards the porthole. Breathing on the glass to steam is over he slips off the glove on his right hand and dots the condensation with his index finger.

Part 2. The River.

“Wake up captain.” The voice above his head brought the captain back from sleep. Reaching up from under the covers he pressed a button next to the speaker; acknowledging the wakeup call.

“Did we hit stars again?” The captains voice was sleepy but hopeful.

“No sir, sorry sir. It’s that blip we saw earlier on channel seventy one. It’s not so little any more.” The voice cut off with a click.

“On my way. This better be one large blip you have woken me up for.” Reaching for a shirt, and sticking one arm into a sleeve, the captain pushed his way out of his cabin and into the corridor that would take him to the control room.

“Okay. I am green now too. I am Flower by the way.” The woman’s voice has a slight lisp.

“You’re a flower? I’m Patrick.” Turning from the porthole Patrick extends his un-gloved hand to Flower.

“No, my name is Flower.” There is a hint of annoyance in hint voice.

“Oh, right. Hi Flower. Interesting name.” Patrick and Flower shake hands. Flower has not removed her gloves.

“Looks like were stuck back here. The captain has locked down the entire section.” Taking off his second glove Patrick strikes the door with the flat of his hand. “If we are in full quarantine then it will be seventy two hours before we can go anywhere. Kind of makes me wish we had not dropped into this section.”

Flower wrinkles her brow and swears under her breath. “I knew I shouldn’t have followed you. I thought you were from the Garden like me.”

“Flower from the Garden. Nice. Why did you follow me then?”

“Don’t take the piss. I followed you because you are wearing one of our suits. Where did you get that by the way?” As she speaks she takes a step back and folds her arms.

“No need to get so aggressive. I work in reconditioning. You know, where you send all your broken stuff to be fixed. This was the first suit I found that fitted me.” Patrick pauses for a second as he notices the reason for Flower’s lisp. “What happened to your teeth?”

“Oh, these? I had my canines removed. I am a Vegetarian.”

“Keep reading while I set this up. I think you will enjoy it.” Albert poked the first leg of the telescope into the ground.

“Using an ultra-dense micro fuel the Salmon will slingshot around Achernar.” Joseph looked up from the page. Albert was attaching the gimble to the top of the three legs stuck into the ground. “What’s the Salmon?”

“The ship.” Albert dug around in the metal case. “Keep going.”

“Achernar is an ideal star to initiate the multistage slingshot up the river. Its extreme rotation speed, which leads to its ovoid appearance, will give the Salmon enough energy to easily reach the next star. This star will, in turn, give the Salmon an extra boost to continue its journey.” The first section of the telescope was attached to the legs. The sky was turning a deep inky purple. “The Salmon’s mission is to investigate the newly discovered planetary systems which populate the river; Eridanus.”

Joseph coughed and took a sip from the straw attached to the flask on the upper arm of his jacket. “What are they investigating?”

“Shit.” The captain kicked his chair away; it slid up to the end of its rail and stopped. “Stuck in the middle of this damn void with no communications and, now, no engines.”

Everyone else in the room was silent.

“Any ideas?” The captain walked up to the large window which pointed out into blackness and turned to face the control room crew.

“We could try and jump start it?” The voice was quiet.

“Good, do it.”

“But, there are significant risks captain.” The same voice came across the room.

“Any other options? No. Right, jump start the bloody thing.” The captain dragged his chair back down its rail and started jabbing at his console; flicking through pages of statistics.

Patrick is standing at the porthole again. Each time the glass clears he breaths a fresh coating of condensation and pokes a new set of finger marks. Flower has a small book in her still gloved hands.

“What the hell are you doing? I can’t concentrate with your incessant huffing.” She looks up from her book. Patrick’s head obscures the porthole.

“I am drawing stars.”

“What? Why?”

“There aren’t any. Not here. But then again I don’t imagine you would notice in the Garden with your blue dome.” Patrick moves away from the porthole so Flower can see.

“No stars. You are right. Why is that then?”

“You don’t know? We have been in a void for nearly three years now and you have never looked out of a window?” Patrick is looking at Flower, trying not to stare at her teeth.

“In the Garden we believe that to keep the plants growing we have to fully commit to the idea that they are growing in a natural environment. We talk and act as if we are on a sunny warm planet and the plants grow better. So no, I have not looked out of a window in the past three years. No need to be so stuck up about it.” Reaching up to the porthole Flower wipes away the remainder of Patrick’s breath with her glove.

“Well, we are in a void at the moment. It’s a huge area of absolute nothingness. No matter, no energy and no forces. As we pass through our engines push out gasses and stuff leaving a trail behind us. That trail, unhindered by anything, keeps moving away from us; as we move away from it. Eventually the trail will meet the edge of the void and collide with the wall of everything. That is quite a light show. We saw it on the way in.” Grinning Patrick shows Flower his full set of teeth.

“You sound like a page from the information channel. That’s where you got it from isn’t it? That little speech you gave there.” Flower doesn’t return Patrick’s smile.

“Yeah; I did get it from there. But there is nothing wrong with keeping informed.” Patrick breaths some new stars onto the porthole. “At the moment there is no way of judging the ship’s speed. No way of plotting where we are and no way of communicating with anyone outside the ship. There is a big argument going on about whether there is any point keeping the engines going at all. We can’t really use them to change direction and there is nothing out there to slow us down; like friction or anything. I think we could basically just coast all the way across. We can’t measure our speed. We could just be sat in the middle of no where not moving. They are pretty sure that’s not the case because of momentum and the lack of friction but…” Flower cuts him off.

“So why don’t they just turn the engines off? It sounds like a waste of fuel to me.”

“I don’t know really. The science is above my head. But from what I can remember of the official reason: Because we don’t know where the edge of the void is we have to keep the engine running so they are ready to provide the back thrust needed to slows us down on the other side. We need to push hard against the wall of matter on the other side so we don’t turn into a light show. They say it takes six months to bring the engines back up to full power and we would not be able to detect the edge in time to get them up and running again before…” Patrick holds up a flat hand and punches his fist into it.

Part 3. The Leaf.

“It didn’t work? What do you mean it didn’t work?” The screen in front of the captain was fully taken up with an image of the ship. A gradient of red to green showed him the radiation danger level spreading out from the engine room.

“The jumpstart blew all of the…” The voice was cut off by the captain.

“I can see what has happened. You lot have destroyed my engines. Now we are flying blind with no power and the back fifty percent of my ship is irradiated.” Just keeping a lid on his temper the captain laid out the emergency procedures. “Evacuate units E and F of anyone who is still alive. Send in the medical team and then lock down unit D. Boys and girls, we are fairly screwed here.”

“What was that book you were reading before? When you were sat down.” Patrick steps away from the porthole and tests the handle on the door.

“My book? You don’t recognise it? It’s the Book of Gods.” Flower takes it from her pocket. “Who looks over you Patrick?” Patrick is about to take the book but Flower pulls it back. “Not with your hands uncovered.”

“Looks over me? Someone on a ladder I suppose, or on a higher gantry.”

“Don’t be glib. Your God Patrick. The creators, builders and life givers. Which one looks over you?”

“God? Ah, no.” This time its Patrick’s turn to take a step back.

“No? What do you mean no? Everyone had a God Patrick. In the Garden, if you don’t have a God you can’t bring life to other things; your heart is not firm and you cannot accept the order of our beautiful universe.” Flowers eyes un-focus. “The Gods will greet all believers after death and guide them through the full beauty of creation.”

Silence.

“Keep reading it’s all in there. I have almost finished the scope. We should be able to see something soon.” Albert pulled the final item out of the metal box. It was a small laptop. Most of its top surface was a screen. Attaching a cable from the telescope caused the screen to light up and show a high resolution picture of some trees on the next hill. “Another ten minutes and it will be dark enough I think.” Albert touched the screen and made the telescope to rotate on the tripod. Joseph squinted in the diminishing light and continued reading.

“On the return journey the Salmon will bypass many of the stars passed on the outward journey by burning through the Super-void. This will be the first time any vessel, manned or otherwise, has attempted a crossing. It is hoped that the scientists onboard will be able to get a step closer to proving the existence of dark energy.” Joseph let out a small laugh. “Dark energy? Definitely sounds like something out of your fantasy books now. Is this dark energy wielded by the devil atoms which will help us get rid of these troublesome god particles you told me about before?”

Albert frowned. “Okay, I admit it all sounds a bit crazy Joe. But it’s all good science.”

Joseph turned his attention back to the page. “It’s getting too dark for me to read any more of this.”

“Don’t worry, you will be able to see what it’s talking about soon enough.” Albert touched a few controls on the screen; cycling through its different display modes. “Look, if I bring up background microwave radiation you can already see the cold spot.” The two of them leant into the screen. Red and yellow patches swirled around a central dark blue patch. “If I flick like this…” Albert made the screen change “then you can see that the red is mostly around stars and stuff. The dark blue is the Super-void you read about. Now, if I go back to visible light you can see the river running up here.” Albert drew a line with his finger on the screen and the computer joined the dots between the stars.

The captain sat down on his bunk and lent forward so his head was between his knees. His tears dropped onto the rough reed mat beneath his feet. The piece of paper he had been holding was on the bed next to him. It was a report from the medical team he had sent into unit D.

Captain.

It is my sad duty to report that units E and F have been completely devastated. We have not been able to save any crew from these areas. The Garden has been completely destroyed and all members of the botanical crew have perished.

Unit D is still locked down and will have to remain so for up to three years because of the level of radiation that has permeated the structure of the ship. Units A, B and C will have to work on Emergency rations until a new Garden can be established.

Our medical teams will stay locked in unit D until the quarantine period is over. We cannot risk opening any seals. The engineers who made here have told me that the explosion has left the hull weakened. Any change in pressure could lead to a rupture.

Good luck on your side.

Dr. Faw.

“Get me Faw.” The captain’s finger was on the intercom next to his pillow. There was a pause. The captain slipped his feet out of his shoes and swung his legs onto the bunk.

“Doctor Faw here captain.” The voice was distorted by static.

“My son, Doctor? He worked in reconditioning.” After the captain let go of his button there was another pause. He looked at the build up of dust on top of the intercom.

“Sorry sir. Nothing.” The captain could hear paper being moved around on the other end of the channel.

“What do you mean nothing? Is he dead or alive?”

“We have his assigned suit, he was not in it. Reconditioning was cleared out. He has gone missing in the confusion sir.” Reaching behind him the captained turned off the intercom. He opened the porthole cover and looked out into the blackness.

Flower is reading her book, sitting on the floor with her legs crossed. Patrick is lying fully stretched out using his helmet as a pillow.

“It’s getting warmer.” Patrick lays his hands on the wall. “Or my hand could be getting colder.”

Flower says nothing.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of strange that there have been no reports for a good couple of hours now?”

Flower keeps her eyes firmly on her book and says nothing.

“Fine, ignore me. Fill your head with Gods and all that. I am going to find out what’s going on.” Patrick strands and grabs up his gloves and helmet. He starts walking back down the corridor. When she is sure that he isn’t looking Flower looks up and watches him go.

Part 4. The Tree.

Around the tree the night had become profoundly dark. What would normally be visible of the moon was hidden behind a cloud. On Albert and Joseph’s side of the hill all man made lights were hidden from view.

“It’s predicted that one night this week the Salmon should leave the void.” Neither of the boys had spoken in half an hour. They had both been huddled over the screen listening to the gentle noise of the telescope’s motors.

“If I point this in the right direction and put it on maximum magnification we should be able to see a point of light in the void.” Slowly the stars on the screen disappeared as Albert filled the screen with the blackness of the void.

“What light?” Joseph stared at the disappearing stars on the screen. Occasionally glancing up at the river with his own eyes.

“As the Salmon slows itself by pointing its engines forward, all the exhaust will hit the wall of matter at the edge of the void and create a giant plume. Because it is so dark in the void, we should be able to see that plume from here.”

The captain was woken by a loud knocking. “Captain, are you in there?” The voice was not familiar to him. It was not a member of the control room crew.

“Yeah. What?” Flicking a switch on the wall the captain unlocked his door. A short woman entered. She is wearing the insignia of a technician. In her hand was a folder.

“It wasn’t an accident captain.” Handing the folder to the captain. “The event in the engine room. It was not a result of the jump start. The data proves it.” The captain scanned through the five pages contained within folder. List of numbers with groups values underlined in red.

“Explain it to me.” The captain handed back the folder. “I take it these numbers are evidence of some kind of tampering.”

“Yes sir. The sections I have underlined show how over a period of some years the fuel supply to the engines has been contaminated to cause a much higher level of corrosion in the feed valves than the system was meant to deal with.” The technician was obviously in a state of excitement. “We have been sabotaged sir.”

“Sabotage? All the fuel we use is produced in the ship. Are you saying that there are people on the ship who want us all to die?” The captain’s face flushed and he clenched both his fists.

“I have more evidence and a list of suspects at my station captain.” The technician looked nervously at the captain. “May I show you sir?”

From around the bend in the corridor Flower can hear Patrick’s heavy boots. He is running. She tucks her book away and stands. As Patrick rounds the bend she pointedly stares out of the porthole.

“I found a terminal. Total lock down and quarantine.” Patrick is breathing heavily. “Unit D is locked down for three years and there is no mention of when E and F will be opened up.”

“Oh.” Flower stays staring out of the porthole. The corners of her mouth raise slightly.

“Oh? Is that it? I have just told you that the unit we are in is going to be locked down indefinitely. They won’t open it until D has been opened and stabilised.” Patrick throws his gloves against the floor. “Shit. I am going to die in this damn corridor.”

“Doesn’t bother me.” Flower’s hand is in her pocket on her book.

“Doesn’t bother you? You can’t be much older than me. I am early hundreds. I have at least another three hundred years to enjoy. I don’t want to die this young. How can you?”

“No need to shout.” For the first time Flower gives Patrick a smile. The two dark holes in the line of her teeth glare at Patrick like a second set of eyes. “I am happy to die early. All of us in the Garden are. In the last five years we have come to such a clear understanding of the will of the Gods that we no longer need our unnaturally extended lives.” She turns back to the porthole.

“Understanding? It sounds stupid to me. Why waste your lives?”

“We are not wasting our lives. We are true believers. When we die we will walk with the Gods. I told you this before.”

“Why didn’t you stay with your group of crazies then?” Pushing hard on her shoulder Patrick forces Flower to look at him.

“I told you that too. I made a mistake. I saw you running in that suit and followed. We were all meant to be going to the engine room.” Flower raises an arm and pushes Patrick’s hand off her.

Part 5. The Garden.

The captain looked up from the list of names. “There are two people from the Garden here un accounted for.”

“Yes. Flower and Trunk. Their suits never stopped transmitting like the others. We think they are still alive somewhere in unit E.” The technician pulled a map up on his terminal and pointed to an area next to the hull. “Trunk, as you can see, has been directly implicated by the figures. Flower seems to be a member of his religious circle. But not directly involved in the sabotage.”

“I want them dead.” Bridging his fingers the captain looked at the technician. “But we can’t send anyone in to get them.”

Back in the control room the captain studied the plan of the ship. Behind him the technician waited nervously.

“They are around here you say?” The captain pointed to the location of Flower and Trunk.

“Yes captain.”

“Now the medical teams said E and F were empty. Devastated. We can’t reopen them, and the engines there will be useless anyway.” For a full minute the captain stared out of the ships main window into the void. “Cut them loose.”

The control room around him went silent. The technician was the first to speak.

“You want to release units E and F? Just get rid of them and let them float away?”

“Solves two problems if you ask me. Rids us of two traitors and speeds up decontamination of unit D.” The tone of the captain’s voice was final and acidic.

“There are two Bert.” Joseph’s voice broke the silence and made Albert jump.

“Wow” Albert’s voice raised an octave with his excitement. “That either means something has gone horribly wrong and the ship has broken apart. Or there are two ships there.”

“Two ships?” The idea floats between them in the darkness.

“Yeah, two plumes could mean two ships. Maybe the Salmon made some friends out there.” Albert looked up at Joseph. The two boys studied each other for a second.

“Friends?” Joseph couldn’t bring himself to say the actual word he was thinking.

“Yes, maybe we aren’t as alone as everyone has been saying all these years. Aliens Joe. What if the Salmon has found Aliens?”

Patrick and Flower are standing and facing each other. Flower shifts her weight from foot to foot. “Well Patrick. I don’t see any point in me spending any more time with you. I won’t see you on the other side. As a non-believer your body and spirit will get distributed in the vastness of space. I am going to find a quiet place to prepare for the next stage of my journey.” Pulling the book from her pocket she moves off down the corridor. Turning back she shouts “If only it had been brother Trunk in your suit my end would have been so much happier.”

Patrick is left alone. Standing by the locked door and porthole. An alarm starts a little way off. The floor beneath his feet begins to tilt and the air around him moves; building into a tremendous wind. The floor twists again and his face is thrown hard against the blackness of the porthole.

“Stars.” As he speaks the air is sucked out of his body and is taken away with the wind towards the edge of the void.

Thank you for reading:

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