Falling Off The Edge of The World
by Suzanne Palmer
Sunset is beginning, a sweep of red across the sky chasing the blue over the remains of the ship’s stern, dragging darkness behind it like a thick sheet over the day’s face and declaring it done. Stars, such as they are, will come on soon, one row at a time, perfectly spaced and aligned. Gabe mentioned once to Alis that he thought he remembered stars twinkling, and since then they have, blinking gently in symmetrical, rhythmic, soothing patterns until he falls asleep, and after that, what did it matter? And if some of the ones in the distance that blur together anyway, in Gabe’s failing eyesight, have been turned off to conserve power—that too was nobody’s to notice.
Early on, Gabe had tried to pay attention to the passage of time, believing someone should, and he had kept a journal numbering the days and then weeks. It was only when he lost track during an extended illness that he gave up, and never picked it up again as the months turned into years. “No going back to it,” he’d told Alis. “No forward, either.”
Most of the time it seems to him like it’s been centuries, possibly forever, but he still flails out of bed mid-nightmare, remembering the sirens and the terrible, ear-piercing shriek of the hull giving way, as raw as if it were all just yesterday. Memory is a cruel jokester, if left free to wander, but it is what he has.
Overhead, the first row of stars has now come on, right on time. He stands for a long while, staring at that artificial horizon. “What are you thinking about?” Alis asks, through the earbud that connects them.
“I wish I wasn’t too tired to visit,” Gabe says, by way of answer.
“It’s a long walk,” she says.
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. But I can see you from here, and if you wave, I’ll see.”
He waves, until his arm gets weary and drops again to his side. “But I can’t see if you wave back,” he says after a while.
“I am, though,” she says. “Close your eyes and imagine it. Maybe tomorrow you’ll feel strong enough to make it to the edge, then we can wave at each other as long as you like. But you forgot your cup of tea again and it’s grown cold, and it’s getting late.”
He laughs. “You have better eyes than me. Younger eyes, maybe.”
“Only by a little. But I also have all our survey equipment over here, including telescopes, perimeter cameras, and magnifying scanners,” she says. “They give me an unfair advantage. Now go warm up your tea, because it helps you sleep.”
It takes Gabe a while to find where he left his mug, atop the autofeeder bin that’s humming as it prepares the next day’s output. He stares at the small bits of straw and dust that have fallen into and are floating in his cold tea. Making a face, he slowly dumps it out into the grass beneath his feet, where it will soak through the thin layer of substrate atop the old cargo floor and be reclaimed, reprocessed, and returned to him as clean water again, indistinguishable—and undistinguished—from new.
Alis is right that tea helps him sleep, and usually calms the nightmares, so Gabe walks back in under the edge of the torn hull, all jagged and tortured metal, and through the open emergency bulkhead toward the officers’ mess, now all his own. He moved a cot in here for when the night rain is on, but mostly he prefers the hammock he’s strung between two support struts out on the floor. Even though it’s not logical, he feels safer on the grass and under the high dome of sky than in the closer confines of the wreckage of the ship, and rarely stays inside longer than necessary.
He puts his mug under the beverage dispenser, hits the button for tea, and closes his eyes to listen to the hum of the machine and the silence of everything else. When his mug has been refilled, he turns around and realizes he’s been followed.
“I should just leave you out for the night, all alone,” he tells the habitually wayward animal. “Maybe then you’d learn.”
The truth is, if he did, he would worry all night, so he picks up the duck and carries him back to the makeshift barn out on the cargo floor, creaks open the door, and sets him inside before any others can rouse and rush the door. Not that they do; Boots is the troublemaker of the flock, Gabe’s exhausting, exasperating, escape-artist favorite.
Done, he heads back into shelter for bed, and does not see all the stars—all except one, fuzzy and indistinct through the woven fabric of the sky, inexplicably moving—go out at once as soon as he is out of sight of them.
* * *
“We are go for drop, in ten,” Roz says. “Everyone not buckled is gonna be bruised, no refunds.”
Dr. Natalia Syra is already in the airlock vestibule, fully suited and strapped into one of the emergency jump seats. She closes her eyes, counts down the remaining seconds—three, two, one—and then there is that momentary sickening, inside-out feeling of dropping out of the jump conduit back into normal space. When she opens her eyes, she can see the other three people in her team, buckled opposite her, looking unanimously amused at her discomfort.
“We’re out,” Roz announces. “Unidentified object just in range, bringing up sensors now.”
“Is it the Hellebore?” Benibeni asks, before anyone else can, though everyone has the same question; it has been a long, long search, and too many disappointments.
“It’s . . .” Roz tails off, and Nati braces herself for what already feels like bad news. “I don’t know. It’s the right size and mass, but . . .”
“Can’t be that many wrecks out here this deep in the Barrens, matching the Hellebore’s specs,” Osla, their engineer, chimes in from where she is stationed near the defense systems.
“Yeah, well, you all look at it and tell me what I’m seeing, because I’m not seeing a wreck,” Roz says. “Or anything familiar whatsoever. Data incoming to you all.”
Nati reads it, reads it again, then meets the eyes of her team. No one seems to have much to say, for once. “Anyone?” she asks, just to be sure.
“I’ve got no matches,” Osla says. “It does have an energy field, but it’s stable, no fluctuations whatsoever, and there’s no indication of movement. Or any indication how it would move, if it can. I don’t even have guesses what this is.”
“Can you get us closer, Roz?” Nati asks. “The mass equivalence seems an awful stretch to just be a coincidence, and this is right along the Hellebore’s last known trajectory.”
“It’s been lost for almost thirty years,” Roz reminds her.
“Long past time we found it, then,” Honne—Dr. Honnelin al Matti, physician, chemist, level-headed, nonbinary second cousin—says, from their seat beside Benibeni. “And if we haven’t, this is a mystery all on its own worthy of us. We are scientists and explorers, and we will not go home empty-handed. And besides, it doesn’t seem to present any obvious or immediate danger.”
“I agree, reluctantly,” Roz says, “so I’m nudging up near it. If it moves, I reserve the right to get my selfish ass out of here and ask all your forgiveness for continuing to live later.”
“I’m keeping an eye on it,” Osla says.
“Not as close as I am,” Roz replies, and Nati is sure that’s true. Paranoia on the bridge is not a bad thing, when you are this deep in uncharted territory, far from any welcoming star systems, refuge stations, or rescue.
Roz nudges their ship, the Agastache, closer, at what seems an unbearably slow speed, and when nothing happens, closer still. Nati reads over more scans as Roz and Osla send them to her, then decides. “I want to go in for a closer look,” she says.
Honne nods. “Me too,” they say.
Osla, who is still busy doing calculations on her handpad, looks up just long enough to wave one hand in what Nati takes as assent. And that means Benibeni the xenobiologist, who hates to go new places almost as much as he hates being left behind, is in as well.
There is muffled noise over their suit comms, likely Roz with her hand over the bridge mic while she swears up a storm at them, but in the end, she comes back on and says, “We’re now close enough and parked. You ready?”
“We’re ready,” Nati says. “I’m going first.” She unbuckles herself from her seat, reflexively runs one more check on all her exosuit systems and oxygen supplies, then cycles herself into the airlock. It’s big enough for all of them, but there is an old saying about eggs and baskets that applies surprisingly readily to sending out your entire exploration team in one go.
The outer door rises, the flashing red warning lights along its edge reflecting in the curve of her faceplate like an ominous ghost at the very edge of her peripheral vision, while her heads-up display says green, green, all is good. Her magboots hold her tight to the floor, and she stands on the edge of the precipice, staring out into space.
Ahead of them, where they were hoping to find the Hellebore, some answers, and some peace, instead is a rounded, fibrous shape nearly a half-kilometer in diameter. It resembles, far too uncomfortably for coincidence, a giant cocoon. And through it, an impossibly long, impossibly thin needle of light.
She releases her boots and floats out, and behind her the airlock cycles closed again. As she orients herself, she unclips, one by one, a half-dozen of her survey drones from her equipment bandolier and releases them into space around her. They will measure, record, analyze, observe, with precision and without distraction, and already the periphery of her faceplate’s display has the faint fluttering green aurora of their status lights.
Which is good, because she is distracted. The bright, shimmering gold line that pierces through the cocoon, like a toothpick through a cocktail cherry, still has no discernible, measureable physical structure. Her own scanners keep deciding there is some negligible mass there, then backtracking that into uncertainty. What it does have is energy, and lots of it.
“It’s like a bolt of lightning frozen in the act of striking,” she says. “What if the Hellebore is inside there?”
“Then it died fast,” Roz says.
“Any changes since our approach? Indications it’s still an active weapon?” Nati asks.
“Then I’m going across,” she says.
“How about the rest of you?” Roz asks. “Last chance to change your minds. Anyone?”
No one does, and ten minutes later, her team is outside with her. Honne, Benibeni, and Osla, the best of the best: her team, her friends. Family, in any way that matters.
“Keep your tethers on so I can haul your asses back if that thing tries to bite,” Roz adds from the helm of the Agastache.
“What if you’re not fast enough? Or you’re asleep at the helm, like usual?” Benibeni asks, only slightly less casually than he probably hoped it would sound.
“Then I’ll use your body to go chummin’ for space whales,” Roz answers. “Waste not, want not. Now get a move on before whoever stuck that thing with a giant lightning bolt comes back and goes all homicidal Zeus on us, too.”
“You heard the captain,” Nati says. “Let’s go do this.”
And they leap into the dark.
* * *
“Hello? Anybody? Hello?” Gabe calls out. His voice is getting hoarse, the words themselves losing meaning with repetition. He had been down in the cryonursery when something hit the ship and threw him full across the room into a wall of incubators, leaving him unconscious for a time, then addled as he tried to work out where he was, what had happened, in the pitch dark.
The air is getting cold, and there is no light at all. Has the whole ship lost power? He imagines the engineering crew have a lot more urgent things to do right now than look for one hapless livestock manager who is not in immediate danger, as frightening as everything is. He wishes he knew just enough more about ships, and the ways they have problems, to be more reassured that this was just a semi-routine hiccup, for all the drama.
Still, he is antsy. The main safety doors out of the bio area are shut tight, and the instrument panel that would tell him if they were safe to open is dead. The ship has multiple backup power systems, but maybe they are needed for somewhere more vital right now, so he leans his head against the heavy door, his ear against the cold metal-ceramic alloy, to listen.
He hears nothing.
“Hello?” he calls again, and bangs on the door. “I don’t need rescuing yet, but I need to know what’s going on and that someone knows I’m in here. Please answer. Anyone?”
* * *
They circle, survey, and eventually crawl around the circumference of the cocoon, as they have all come to call it, staying carefully away from where the hair-thin line of energy bisects it. The surface texture appears woven, or wrapped like a ball of twine, overlapping thin bands of an unknown material. As touching it has elicited no discernible response, Osla nudges one of her hovering sampler drones closer. They all watch as it attaches itself to the exterior of the cocoon, and she floats beside it as it does its thing, the incoming data scrolling swiftly in green and yellow text across her faceplate.
“Base material signature of the fibers matches the alloys that Hellebore was originally constructed from,” Osla says, and heaves a deep sigh. “I guess we finally have the where and what, now it’s just the who, the how, and the why.”
“And the how is deeply interesting,” Honne says, already scrolling Osla’s reports. “The way this material has been repurposed on a molecular level—”
“I had an aunt on the Hellebore,” Benibeni interrupts.
“Osla lost a second father, and Nati and I three cousins,” Honne reminds him, gently. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t do my job unless I detach from that fact.”
“I know,” Benibeni says. “I’m sorry. This is getting to me.”
“Take what time you need,” Nati says. “We haven’t hit anything that needs your attention yet.”
“Whatever did this, there’s not much else out here,” Osla says. “The Hellebore might have just been too tempting a package of rare resources. Pirates—”
“. . . would have stripped it down of everything useful and then gotten the hell out of here,” Roz interrupts from the bridge, still comfortingly close enough if they have to beat a hasty retreat. “Why, if some mystery aliens needed the resources, did they take the time to build this and then just leave it?”
“Who says they left it?” Benibeni answers. “We don’t know what’s inside.”
“We don’t yet,” Nati says. “Osla?”
Osla takes the small fragment she’s cut off the exterior, pops it in a drone tube, caps it, and sends it back toward their ship for more extensive analysis later. “Sample one off,” she says, logging it. “A gift for you when we’re back aboard, Honne.”
Using the controls of her suit vambrace, Osla pulls a larger cutting drone in, looking for a good position. “Core sample time,” she says, and locks on.
* * *
It takes Gabe about six hours, in the dark, to find a handpad that hadn’t been smashed during the impact. It has its own powercell, so it shouldn’t have surprised him when it turns on, but the sudden glare of light against his face after so many hours of dark and fear is the most starkly beautiful thing he can remember.
Most of the handpad is operational instructions for caring for the colony’s cryo’d livestock and seedbanks, which were all things he knew anyway, that being his chief—and only—qualification for having been along on this trip, but there was also a cache of general ship data, including emergency instructions.
Using the light from the handpad, he finds the recessed panel near the door and gets it open. The cryo facility has its own power system that should have kicked on when the main ship power failed, but there are steps for manually starting it.
He follows the sequence, cold hands stiff and trembling as he pushes physically switched buttons, and then waits. He is sure it won’t work, that the system didn’t reboot on its own because it was too damaged, but as he sits hunched on the floor in front of the panel bereft of any further ideas or hope, the handpad goes to sleep, and in the absence of that glowing rectangle, he realizes he can now, dimly, see.
Is it his imagination that it is also, just very slightly, warmer? He can’t say, but just the faint bit of light around him is enough that he finally feels safe enough to cry.
* * *
“Gas leak!” Osla shouts, even as she withdraws the first drill head and fires an emergency sealant into the newly cut hole. Everyone backs off as she studies the readout from the drill sensors.
“What do we have?” Nati asks.
“Tell me it’s not going to explode,” Roz adds from the ship.
“No, it’s . . .” Osla says, then checks the data again. Her expression is impossible for Nati to read. “It’s breathable. Mix and pressure. It’s viable atmosphere, at least according to the drill sensors. Honne, you’re the chemist, you want to double-check me?”
“Happy to,” Honne answers, and takes Osla’s place near the drill hole. From their backpack they pull out a long needle-thin rod and slide it carefully through the sealant. Nati can see the reflection of Honne’s heads-up display flash across their face as they scan and re-scan the data.
“Yep,” they say at last. “Beenjai mix, even. 20C, about 35% humidity. Anyone else want to take a stab at the implications?”
Nati knows all too well the danger of getting hopes up. “It’s been twenty-seven years,” she says. “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. One step at a time, people. Osla?”
“Emergency boarding bore?” Osla asks. “It’ll keep things airtight.”
Nati nods. “Do it. We don’t want to let any of that very fine air escape, after all this time.”
* * *
Alis’s voice, from the tiny earbud beside his bed, wakes him up. It’s still dark out, and he is confused, brain still awash in whatever anxious dream he’d been in the middle of, and it takes him a few moments to come to his senses enough to find the handheld control on his makeshift night table and turn the lights on low.
“I’m here,” he says, rubbing his face with his hands, his brain still feeling full of holes. She would not call at this time if there wasn’t an emergency. He remembers when they both became desperately sick from bad water, during their first year here, and the terrible weeks of silence when he didn’t know if she was still alive. The idea that something might have happened to her makes him feel queasy, terrified. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I think . . .” There’s a pause. “I think we have company.”
Gabe tries to get out of bed too fast, his legs caught up in his blanket, and he falls. When he catches his breath, he holds onto the edge of the cot to pull himself up again, hating the way his left knee clicks and feels uncertain, the way his hips and ankles ache. He’ll have some good bruises later, he’s sure. Up now and awake, he gets water (thirty minutes ago it finished dripping into the cistern from the filtration unit; five hours before that, it was cold tea seeping through the cargo floor substrate) and puts his earbud on. “Say that again, Alis,” he says. “I don’t think I heard you right.”
“Someone is here,” she says. “Outside.”
“Outside?” Gabe is no longer sure what that means. “Who?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m sorry I woke you. I shouldn’t have, without knowing more. Sometimes my thoughts are more fragmented than others.”
“It’s okay,” he says, having long since stopped feeling entirely solid himself. He sits back on the edge of his bed and finishes his water. “What do we know so far?” What does she know, really, as all the ship’s instruments and controls are on her side of the ship, on the bridge, in her much more capable hands.
“There are people outside, trying to get in, I think,” she says. “I’ll find out more. Just . . . until I give the all clear, stay inside, near the door, in case they puncture an air seal. Okay?”
“Sure, Alis,” he says.
He refills his water and, despite having just said he’ll stay inside, wanders back out onto the cargo floor, barefoot in the grass. Nothing feels different at all; there is only the near-silence he has come to think of as absolute after decades of tuning out the background hum of what was left of the Hellebore, and eventually the slow degradation of his hearing. He can’t quite bring himself to go back to bed, though.
He checks on the ducks, and if it seems one is missing, he’s too tired to count, and anyway, eventually that duck needs to learn on his own not to wander off.
Nothing has changed, and there are no signs anything ever will.
There is still enough of the sleeping tea in his body that his thoughts are muddled, and he’s already not entirely sure what the conversation had been about, so he decides he probably dreamt it. And anyway, he doesn’t want to wake Alis just to confirm his own runaway imagination.
That settled, he goes back to bed, hoping for quieter dreams.
* * *
With light and warmth, Gabe begins to assess his situation. The extended power outage has wiped out all his mammal cryostock, though the seeds, insects, and some of his bird eggs seem potentially salvageable, if they are revived fairly soon. He can tell the ship is not moving, because the ever-present vibration of the engines throughout the floors and walls is gone. But he has air, and it seems to be refreshed, so there is time.
Time, fear, hunger, and boredom.
There’s an emergency locker, and in it a box of tools, a temporary airlock doorkit and a pair of exosuits. He’s worn suits—he had to prove basic competence at putting them on and sealing them up properly before coming aboard—but hasn’t in a while, and hasn’t often besides. But death from a suit malfunction would still beat starving to death, so he sets up the temp airlock kit just in front of the bulkhead door, forming a secondary layer, and zips himself into his borrowed, slightly too-large exosuit between them.
“Here goes,” he says to nobody, and pulls the manual release for the bulkhead.
He is not swept out into space, which he’s not a hundred percent relieved about, but he does find himself in the dark again. This time, he knows how to turn the lights on, and does.
When he can see, he sees the first of the bodies.
It’s Teinar, one of the other livestock techs who must have just been coming on shift. Although all the heavy furniture and fixtures on the ship are fastened down, the people are not, except when sleeping, during entrances and exits from jump conduits, or the occasional safety drill. Although Gabe is no medic, it’s pretty obvious that Teinar’s skull hit one of the bench corners, and that was the very messy and final end of that. Not far away another body lies sprawled, and he already knows it’s Rojo, one of the water system techs, but he has to go see anyway, and is surprised that Rojo is still breathing.
He doesn’t want to move him—Rojo’s neck is at an odd angle—so he sits on the floor next to him and holds his hand and tells him help is coming help is coming help is coming you just have to hang on.
Rojo doesn’t wake up, and some hours later, having exhausted himself into a near-doze with his own desperate mantra, Gabe realizes the tech’s hand is cold, and the breathing has stopped.
He sits a while longer and thinks about his own inevitable, probably very near, death. There are some seeds in the bank that, if swallowed, will kill him, but it would be a long, agonizing death. He could also seal up his exosuit again and disconnect the oxygen tank, suffocating himself, but the idea is terrifying. He could do it if there was someone to hold his hand, maybe, but there is no one.
There’s a surgical kit in the emergency locker that might offer something faster, some blade or overdose where the deed is done before you realize it. He lays Rojo’s hand gently on his unmoving chest and gets up, stands a while unwilling to yet concede the obvious defeat. Then he draws a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and turns back toward the bio facility and locker.
There is a crackle of sound, somewhere on the floor, and he sees that Teinar’s handpad is blinking from underneath the bench that ended his life. “Hello?” says a faint voice, one he doesn’t recognize. “Is there anyone else out there? Anyone? Hello? Please tell me I’m not alone.”
Gabe nearly hits his own head on the bench, scrambling under it to answer.
* * *
The emergency borer has done its job and cut a circular hole two meters in diameter through the strange surface of the cocoon, and as it withdraws it leaves behind a long plug with a two-sided lock into it. The outside perimeter fills with an adaptive sealant that seeps into the spaces between new and old, hardening in seconds. Sensors from both sides of the lock confirm the seal is good.
“You first,” Osla says, and pushes back from the surface to give room.
“Me first,” Nati agrees; she’s the leader, surveyor, and archaeologist of the team. Together, they’ve explored countless human and alien wrecks and civilizational remnants, until they were drafted into the long search for the Hellebore. The colonists of Beenjai did not abandon their own.
So she unhooks her tether, opens the exterior lock, and pulls herself into the confines of the tube. Then she opens the interior lock and floats cautiously through, her suit’s faceplate display giving her a cross-spectrum scan even as it sends a live feed back to her team.
Inside the cocoon, she is surrounded by strange structures, adhesions springing in an almost organic form in strands and clumps from the cocoon shell in toward the center.
“It looks like the fiber goo inside a pumpkin,” Roz comments over the channel from the ship. “If you find seeds, don’t even think I’m going to let you bring them aboard.”
Nati thinks that’s an apt analogy, but she is grateful there is nothing—seedlike or otherwise—hanging amongst the fibers. There is also no movement, no signs of anything or anyone in the interior space with her, no sense of danger, so she reaches out with one gloved hand and uses the nearest of the strands to pull herself farther in. For all its organic, grown look, the strand is unyielding and solid in her grip.
“Are those made of the same woven stuff as the exterior?” Osla asks.
“Looks like it,” Nati answers, as she threads her way through the vague maze of it all further inward.
“I want to come in and take a sample,” Honne says. “We clear?”
“Roz? Everything still quiet from out there?” Nati asks.
“I don’t see any signs of trouble, but be careful. There seems to be some signal loss from inside. Team, you are go to teamify. Teaminate. Teamogrof—”
“We got it, Captain,” Benibeni says. He sighs. “Biologist bringing up the rear, as usual. One of these excursions, it’d be nice if we actually encountered some bio.”
“You say that, but when something leaps out of the dark and eats your face, then how will you feel?” Osla asks, already cycling herself and a subset of her drones through.
“Glad I’m in the rear. I’ll get it all on camera for later analysis and future publication,” Benibeni answers.
“I guess I better hope the alien doesn’t chew off my more photogenic side,” Honne comments. They are already through, and examining one of the support structures.
The banter means the team is on high alert, but still comfortable enough to take pot shots at each other. If they stop, then she’ll worry. Once Benibeni is in, Nati moves further in toward the interior of the structure; her scans tell her there is something more solid ahead.
She is not prepared for when she reaches it and finds the smooth exterior surface of a ship hull, with the Beenjai shipping guild logo still legible on it, between the fibrous struts.
“I’ve lost visual feed,” Roz says. “What are you seeing?”
“The Hellebore,” Nati replies. “It’s here.”
“Let me by,” Osla says, floating up right behind her. Nati moves over, and puts one hand out against the ship surface. There is no vibration, none of the mechanical pulse of a living ship, but even so, this feels extraordinary. She sends out her drone fleet on reconnaissance, lateral to her position, instructed to stay at least 15° of arc away from the energy intrusion. Quickly they report back a wall; the cocoon is chambered.
“Hull sounding suggests atmosphere inside as well,” Osla says. Everyone else is quiet now, and caught up to them, though Honne is still poking curiously at the struts with various instruments.
“So the hull is intact?” Benibeni asks.
“I didn’t say that,” Osla says. “If the ship was intact and holding air, why would there be air out here, in between the ship and the outer shell? And that shell was woven from material from the Hellebore’s hull, and I would estimate it would have taken approximately 22 percent of existing material to make it. If you had the tech to do this—which certainly we don’t—why not just repair the hull?”
“I can’t even guess,” Nati said. “If the intent was to use the ship for something after attacking it, why leave it like this? And why match the air? If it was space pirates, there’d be much closer overlap on atmo mix, but—” she gestures around her “—clearly not pirates. Not human ones, anyway.”
“I found the old airlock,” Honne says, from further astern. “It appears to still be operational.”
“That sounds like a trap,” Benibeni says.
“I’ll go,” Nati says. “Roz, I’m going in. I might lose signal entirely.”
“Be careful,” Roz answers.
Nati uses the struts to pull herself around to where Honne is, then gestures them away. “Everyone back off and be prepared to immediately evacuate if this goes wrong,” she orders.
She activates the lock, and after a long delay, the outer door creaks open. With one last look back at her team, she cycles in, and then out the far side into the Hellebore’s airlock vestibule. Dimly, lights come on, and the artificial gravity kicks in, and her magboots hit the floor and click on.
Something in the room moves, and she utters an involuntarily curse as she steps back toward the airlock, before she makes out what it is.
“Uh, Benibeni?” she calls over their comms.
“Here,” Benibeni answers, the connection faint and crackly. “You okay? I can’t make out any visuals.”
“I’m fine, but we’re not alone,” Nati says.
“An alien?” he asks.
“No,” Nati says. “There’s a duck.”
* * *
The voice is a systems technician named Alis, who he thinks he might have met once, during pre-trip orientation. She was in an airlock troubleshooting a glitchy door—and fully suited up, as a precaution—when the collision happened, and that saved her life.
She’s able to tell him a bit about what happened, though it’s clear she’s still piecing things together. Something high-energy and high velocity struck them in jump space, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. The Hellebore’s catastrophically damaged safety systems dumped them back out into normal space—without jump stabilizers, staying in the conduit would have quickly torn them apart—but the emergency backup power systems that should have kept vital things like the relative inertial shift compensators online failed, so their exit to normal space was not very distinguishable from running head-first into a brick wall. Gabe doesn’t fully understand the science—not his field—but he sure knows exactly what that had felt like.
Alis is up at the bow of the ship, has gotten access to the bridge and engineering, and although she hasn’t been able to restore atmosphere on her end, she’s got some minimal power up, and is working on rerouting around the damage to try to get out a distress call.
She has also been, one by one, sending bodies out the same airlock that saved her. She hasn’t found anyone else alive either.
“Do we know what hit us?” he asks.
“You can’t see it?” she asks in return, surprised.
He tells her he’s only got access to a few internal spaces.
“It crashed through us,” she says. “We dragged it out into normal space with us, and it damn near tore us in half. It’s still there, forward of the main cargo floor.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Once I have power back, I’m going to try to get some sensors online so I can scan it, but it’s going to be a while. I’m doing everything by myself, and I dislocated a shoulder during the collision.”
“You should come here,” Gabe says. “I have heat and air, and I can try to pop it back in.”
“Did it already myself,” she says. “I don’t recommend that, unless you have no other choice. But I don’t think I can get to you, anyway. Most of the center of the ship is destroyed and open to space.”
“But . . .” Gabe starts to say, but what is there to argue against? Or admit he is just afraid of being alone? “Okay. But we can do more as a team.”
“I didn’t think anyone was going to answer. I really thought everyone else was dead,” Alis says. “Even if I can’t see you, or you me, yet—and I’m not giving up, don’t think that—just hearing your voice gives me hope.”
“And me yours,” Gabe says.
“I need to sleep,” she says, after a long pause. “I’ve been at this too long, and I’m so tired I can hardly focus my eyes. You’ll still be here when I wake up?”
“I’ll do my best,” he says, because that’s the only promise he can make.
* * *
“Mother of moons!” Benibeni swears. “That is a duck.”
* * *
Gabe wakes again, still not quite before dawn, and rubs sleepy glitter from his eyes as he swings his feet over the edge of the cot and sits up, back and neck sore, but mind feeling refreshed. “Alis?” he asks, slipping the earbud into place, his one, tenuous human connection. “Did you wake me up last night or did I dream it?”
“I did, I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t interrupt your rest; it just makes things confusing.”
“You said something about our air seal possibly getting punctured?” he asks, as he does his stretches, thinking about food, thinking about going to bed again for another half-hour just to make another slow, identical day go by a little bit faster.
“Yes, but it’s okay, they’re being careful, and I’m keeping an eye on them,” Alis answers.
“Them?” he exclaims. “What do you mean ‘them’?”
“The people,” she says. “I can hear them, and they’re from Beenjai. They’ve been looking for this ship for a long time.”
Suddenly the day is not identical at all, and there is so much to do, he doesn’t even know where to start. Oddly, he is afraid—will he even know how to talk to people, other than Alis, other than his ducks, after almost thirty years? What will it be like to see people, be near them? He has only been able to see Alis, across the gulf of the wreckage or via their few working screens, never near enough to touch.
“Why are you so quiet?” Alis asks. “Aren’t you happy?”
“What if . . .” he says, then pauses. He has walked out onto the grass, his comfort place, and feels it beneath his bare feet, this reality they built from near-certain death. “What if I don’t know how to live among people again?”
“You’ll be fine,” she says.
“We’ll be fine, I hope,” Gabe adds. “We’ll still be friends, right? I mean, it’s not just because you were stuck with me and no one else to talk to?”
She laughs, which she does so rarely. “I could’ve left anytime, you know, just gathered up my things and flew away into space, like magic. I guess I liked your company enough to stay. So stop worrying about it. They’re almost to you, coming up toward the aux seed storage unit. Go say hello.”
* * *
Gabe is getting more comfortable wearing the exosuit, and decides it’s time—three weeks now since the accident, according to the careful tickmarks he’s made on the wall, counted not by any of the smart consoles still down and dead, but by the predictable once-a-cycle deep hum that he can feel through his feet, through his bones, of the water systems discharging cleaned water back into the reservoir tanks and pulling in whatever accumulated gray water and sewage is next in line.
He doesn’t imagine the water system has much to do, but it does it anyway, faithfully and like clockwork, which is one less big problem than he could have had. Alis has gotten more of the bridge consoles working again and has activated some of the repair drones to work on the important things, like the torn holes in the hull, radiation shielding, and fixing their external communications array so they can call for help, so he doesn’t complain about his own boredom, even if he wouldn’t anyway.
He’s finished exploring all the areas at his end of the ship, and having sent seventeen of his fellow crew—mostly acquaintances, a few friends, one cousin—off to their eternal rest in the sterile garden of deep space, he wants to see a living person. Needs to, if he can.
The cargo bay floor is as bad as Alis had warned him, when he finds a working airlock and gets out at last. The Hellebore has other holds and storage spaces, but this is the big one, a vast floor nearly two-thirds the length of the ship and most of its height, where all the farm and terraforming equipment was tethered down beneath vast canopy doors big enough to accommodate all but the largest droneships for rapid loading and unloading.
Alis had not been exaggerating when she’d said the Hellebore had been nearly torn in half, and Gabe honestly can’t fathom how it hadn’t. One of the canopy doors has been ripped entirely away, and what remains of the other is bent and twisted backward from the impact point, allowing him to see, between the stacks of equipment that had stayed fast and the jumble of those that hadn’t, the blinding arrow of light protruding from the ship’s corpse off into space.
“What do you think?” Alis asks in his ear.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve seen much,” he says. “I don’t know who could have had anything against us, much less such a grudge as to do this.”
“I meant the cargo area, but you think this was a weapon, some sort of attack?”
“You don’t?” he asks, surprised.
“I don’t know. If it was intended to destroy us—”
“It came close enough to count,” Gabe says.
“It hasn’t finished us off, though,” Alis points out.
“Maybe because whoever shot it at us knows they don’t have to waste the effort. What chance do either of us have?” Gabe is angry at himself as soon as he says it, because even if he thinks it’s hopeless, he has an obligation to act otherwise for her sake. “It’s an alien thing. Who knows why aliens do what they do, or why? What did you mean about the cargo area?”
“Well,” she says, “you’re not wrong. We don’t have much of a chance. I’m a systems tech, not a navigation expert, so I can’t give you numbers, but dropping out of jump in the middle of the Barrens is bad. We’re a needle in a light-years-wide haystack, and it’s going to take people a while to find us. Maybe a long while. So we need to make ourselves comfortable. We’ll need food.”
“There’s enough for a long time, in storage,” Gabe says, because it was meant to feed a crew of sixty-two, not two. Then it occurs to him that the storage he means is on his half of the ship, this side of the divide. “You have food over there, too, don’t you?”
“Some,” she answers. “For a little while. If I can find a way to get the cargo area sealed again, do you think . . . do you think you could terraform it? Just the floor? Grow grass, maybe some crops? Can we revive any of the livestock?”
“The fowl, maybe,” Gabe says. It’s a wild idea, as impossible and inconceivable as it is an attractive challenge. “I need to think.”
He has been winding his way between the crates and diggers and plows as they talk, climbing up on them when they’ve fallen in his path, and it takes him nearly an hour to reach the far side of the cargo floor. His legs and arms ache from pulling himself up, over, between. There is another airlock there, and when he catches his breath he opens it, but it opens on a gaping maw of torn metal. Through it that beam of light, no thicker than his leg, burns nearly as bright as a sun, and his suit’s faceplate automatically dims it to a bearable glare. The thin shreds of the hull that hold the two halves of the Hellebore together seem fragile and few, though some must still carry intact conduits of power, water, some small lifeline of needs back and forth, or they would both have already been dead.
Across the gulf—not so far, though insurmountable—he can see another airlock, and above it an observation window, and there she is: Alis.
She looks tired. There’s a bandage on her head, and her face seems swollen, red, wrong. But she is smiling, and she waves to him, and he waves back with every ounce of hope he can. There must be some way to survive, to build a bridge, to not each die alone.
“We can try it,” he decides. What else is there? “Let me know what you want me to do.”
Copyright © 2022. Falling Off the Edge of the World by Suzanne Palmer