Story Excerpt

In the Stillness Between the Stars

by Mercurio D. Rivera

 

Emilio sat up inside the REMpod, discombobulated, and took deep breaths. He thought he heard Tomás shout “Dad!” from a distance before the cobwebs cleared and he regained his bearings.

The Seed. He was aboard the Seed.

Tomás had been dead for centuries.

His shortness of breath gave way to a sob. He covered his face with his hands.

Rows of REMpods, like pale-blue neon-lit coffins, surrounded him in the darkness. The steadiness of the blue glow signaled that all the sleepers on the cavernous deck remained in stasis. The cityship was still en route to Proxima b.

“Sorry to wake you prematurely, Dr. Garcia,” LEE3 whispered into his earpiece.

“Pre—prematurely?” he said, teeth chattering. His throat felt dry.

“Afraid so.”

“How long . . . ?”

“Two hundred fifty-one days. We need your help with a medical issue.”

Only eight months? Tomás was still alive then, still a child. He clutched the locket around his neck and felt an enormous wave of relief as he strained to stop his shivering.

“Dr. Lo?” Emilio said. “Dr. Srinivasan?”

“Still in stasis. Only your services are required right now.”

His services? Someone on the skeleton crew needed a psychotherapist? He was about to ask why an AI therapist hadn’t been activated when LEE3 added, “My algo concluded you’re the best suited for the problem at hand, Doc.”

“Understood,” he said. If the alien algorithm had selected him for the job, that settled the matter.

He stretched his arms over his head and took a few minutes to allow the lightheadedness to pass before standing. Then he stepped out onto the ladder leading past the stacked rows of REMpods to the deck below.

*   *   *

As he exited the shower stalls, the dressing room remained veiled in darkness, lit only by the indigo glow of the phosphor strips lining the edges of the ceiling.

“LEE3. Can you do anything about the lighting?” The ship’s AI presented now as an androgynous hologram, bald, with high cheekbones and pouty lips. It appeared to sit on one of the benches in the dressing area.

“We’ve gotta watch our energy consumption, Doc. In-transit travel protocols,” LEE3 said, shrugging apologetically. Its mannerisms and colloquial speech patterns were designed to make listeners feel more comfortable, no doubt, but they struck Emilio as odd. “But you do have local power sources.”

“Oh?” Emilio flicked on a mirror light and powered up the holomonitor. The shower had done him good. He felt fully awake, at least.

 A few seconds later, a star-map projected overhead, revealing the Seed’s location. They had cleared Neptune and were just a week away from a layover on Pluto where a thousand colonists would board the Seed and enter stasis.

The trip to New Earth would take three centuries. After a hundred years—the maximum amount of time the human body could tolerate stasis without permanent brain damage-—the passengers would all awaken to life aboard the cityship. And upon arrival at their destination, the Seed would serve as a ready-made home base while their descendants studied and terraformed their new world.

“So, what’s the nature of the medical issue?” he said, applying shaving gel to his face.

“Three days ago there was an incident. Angela Velasquez, an engineer.” LEE3 pointed at the star-map hovering next to Emilio and the image faded, replaced by vid of a REMpod. A brown-skinned woman with long curly hair lay inside, her body twitching, eyelids fluttering. “As you can see,” LEE3 said, “she was dreaming.” The AI’s voice dropped to a whisper, as if afraid the sleeping woman might be wakened.

“Dreaming?”

“Experiencing intense nightmares, actually. Her blood pressure spiked, and when the heart palpitations started, I woke her.”

The vid faded, the star-map reappearing.

“How is that possible?” Emilio asked. REMpods suppressed all neurological activity while a traveler slept—including the rapid eye movement associated with dreaming, which was how the pods got their name. REMpods were alien tech. Library Tech. And Library Tech never malfunctioned.

“No clue. One of the members of the skeleton crew is examining Ms. Velasquez’s REMpod right now, looking for some defect—as improbable as that may be—but in the meantime, she’s still tormented by nightmares. She barely sleeps, and when my algo suggested she see a therapist—you, specifically—she finally agreed.”

“Where is she?” Emilio buttoned his shirt, staring at himself in the mirror. His hair had more gray in it than he remembered.

“Aft District 7. Want me to connect you?”

“No, it’s best I handle this in person. Can you give me directions? And let her know I’m coming.”

*   *   *

Emilio stood at the dimly lit station and pressed the Tram button. He strode to the front of the platform and with each step, the phosphor strip lining the floor lit the area ten feet ahead of him. With the citylights and holo-sun turned off, it felt as if he was navigating a dark dream. He’d seen the cityship from this vantage point when he first boarded the Seed, and had felt overwhelmed by its immensity. The towering hullscrapers and verdant parks, the wide streets jammed with transport vehicles, the central lake with ferries skimming the surface of still waters. The sprawling city—larger than Beijing—seemed infinite, the ship’s curves creating the illusion of an endless blue horizon. But now as he stood alone on the silent platform and stared into the distance, all he could see was darkness.

In two minutes the empty tram pulled into the station. The doors slid open and he took a seat in the vacant car, lit faintly in the violet phosphor glow.

“LEE3,” he said, as the tram accelerated into the abyss, “please show me a copy of Ms. Velasquez’s full biofile, including medical records.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” the AI spoke into his earpiece.

He expected the text to appear instantly in mid-air, but nothing happened. After a few seconds, he repeated his request.

“Heard you the first time,” LEE3 said. “Interesting. I can’t access it. There seems to be some corruption of the biofile.”

“Corruption?” he said. “How is that possible?” The AI, the datafiles—in fact, most of the tech that allowed for construction of the Seed—originated in the Library. And the alien Cataloguers weren’t known for defective tech. Sure, maintenance was required, but with a hundred thousand passengers all in stasis, the Seed’s tech had barely been used.

“First Ms. Velasquez’s REMpod, now her datafile,” LEE3 said. “Weird. I’m currently discussing this with a member of the skeleton crew at Stern District 33.”

Although capable of maintaining simultaneous conversations, LEE3 showed him the courtesy of fading out.

Thirty minutes later, the tram pulled into the Aft 3 stop. Emilio exited onto the desolate station platform and stared ahead into the darkness. High above, a faint light shone in a window. He headed toward it, the pathway lighting up in front of him with each step. His footsteps echoed in the stillness, creating the impression of someone following him.

Eventually he reached the sliding glass doors of the medical facility. He crossed the cavernous lobby and rode the elevator to the seventy-sixth floor, then walked to the suite number LEE3 had given him.

*   *   *

“Dr. Garcia?” the young woman said, extending her hand. “Angie Velasquez. I’m sorry to wake you.” She wore an engineer’s bomber jacket, her hair swept back into a ponytail. Dark creases underlined her deep-brown eyes.

“Eight months sleep is plenty. I feel refreshed,” he said.

As he shook her hand, she directed him to the cushioned sofa. “Sorry about the lighting in here.”

“I’m getting used to it.”

She made small talk about the cityship and the upcoming layover in orbit around Charon before he gently redirected the conversation. She raised an eyebrow when he explained the difficulties accessing her biofile.

“It’s hard to describe my problem in a way that doesn’t make me sound . . .” She smiled as the words trailed off, pain etched on her face. Her eyes filled with tears.

“You recognize you need help,” he said. “That’s a good sign, Angie. It suggests things aren’t as bad as you might think.”

“I do need help,” she said, wiping her nose with her sleeve. She had a constant, nervous sniffle. “I’m just not sure what kind.”

“Tell me what’s troubling you.”

She hesitated. “During prep for boarding the Seed . . .” She shook her head, took a breath, and started over. “I worked for EncelaCorp out of Mexico City for the past five years. My husband Marc and I studied Library Tech, specifically engineering, and worked on a number of high-profile projects: the NAM-European Air Rail, Polar Solar, the Antarctic MegaWell, a few others. But when we learned about the Seed, about the project to terraform New Earth, we knew we’d found our mission. Our mission in life, I mean.”

“I understand,” he said, thinking about his own passion for the Seed project, his own sacrifices.

“Ever since our postgrad days, Marc and I had studied the plans in development to travel to Proxima b—this was back before it had been christened New Earth. We even dipped our toes into the ion sail research, developed some expertise so we could add value beyond ordinary Library engineering.”

He smiled at the phrase “ordinary Library engineering.” Humanity had left “ordinary” far behind after discovery of the alien Library hidden in the ripples of a gravity wave, an entire database transmitted through microscopic rips in the fabric of spacetime.

“We applied to join the crew,” she said. “You can imagine our excitement when we both made the cut. A dream come true. But there was a complication.” She lowered her eyes. “Our four-year-old, Sofia. We weren’t just making a choice about our own lives, but about her future as well. An irrevocable one.”

“No doubt,” he said. He thought of the life he’d left behind. His son Tomás. His family. His friends. But the thrill, the wonder, of the mission to New Earth had overridden his guilt.

“Initially, Marc and I were on the same page. Then he started to have doubts. We were sentencing Sofia to a lifetime aboard this ship, he said, and punching a one-way ticket for her children to a dangerous—potentially deadly—environment. I understood that, believe me. But the way I saw it, isn’t the entire expedition premised on the notion that we have the right to determine the future of our descendants? That we have the right to decide that our children, and their children, will serve as the pioneers of New Earth? That they’ll have a chance to begin all over again, and get it right this time?” She stared at him pleadingly, and her expression softened when he nodded.

“It’s a difficult decision for everyone on the mission,” he said.

She stood and paced across the room.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit?” he said.

“There’s something else. Something I need to get off my chest.” She sat down in a chair facing him, then averted her eyes.

“Go ahead,” he said.

A long pause followed.

“I was cheating on Marc.”

“Go on.”

“Marc and I had our share of arguments, but I loved my husband, Doctor. Really, I did. The fling . . . I can’t explain it.” Now the words poured out of her. “I met Stefan at a local coffee shop. He was a college kid, a German expat. I can’t say we had much in common—he was ten years younger than me. It started out as a harmless flirtation and then became a one-time mistake. Everyone’s entitled to one mistake, right? And after the first mistake, what’s one more? And then one more after that?” She smiled ruefully. “We began seeing each other.” She stopped suddenly, clearly expecting him to make some judgment about her extramarital activities, but when he stayed quiet she continued.

“I eventually won the argument with Marc. About our future. About our daughter’s future. He agreed we’d join the Seed’s crew, just as we’d always planned, and that Sofia’s life would be dedicated to ‘a greater purpose.’ Good for me, right?” she said bitterly. “We made our arrangements, said our final goodbyes to family and friends, and tied up all the loose ends of our lives in anticipation of leaving Earth for good. One happy family, sailing off into the cosmos.” She stood up and began pacing again. “Marc never found out about Stefan.”

“Is this something you feel you need to confess to him?” Emilio imagined the poor fool asleep in his REMpod, oblivious to his wife’s deception, being shaken awake, told the bad news, then placed back into stasis.

She sniffled and shook her head almost imperceptibly. “N-no.”

“You’ve been having nightmares,” he prompted.

“There’s this song. Marc used to sing it to Sofia at bedtime.” She cleared her throat. “‘When the wolf’s in town, it gobbles you down, down . . .’” She bared her teeth, made a snapping sound. “. . . down!”

He flinched. This was a kid’s song?

“Since I woke up I’ve started hearing it, coming out of the Seed’s ventilators. A high note, a lower one, then another. The other day I swore I heard it in the elevator—except the elevators on the Seed don’t play music. Crazy, huh?” She caught herself, clearly unhappy with the word she’d chosen.

He’d heard of psychological priming—a past stimulus coloring a person’s future response to similar experiences, making them see numbers or patterns that didn’t really exist—but not manifested in this way, with music.

“That’s not all,” she said. “I’d been dreaming of something . . . twisted, dirty. A shadow. A shadow that follows me wherever I go, just out of sight. And the past two days I—I’ve sensed it even when I’m awake. I’m afraid it’s been . . . freed. From my mind. Set loose on the Seed. It’s after me. It wants to punish me.”

“I see,” he said. “And what exactly is this ‘thing’ that’s after you?”

She bit her lip. “A monster. That’s all I know. It hides in the dark, but if I pay attention, I can see movement, black within black, out of the corner of my eye. I saw it clearly—just once—for a second. If I stare directly at it, it disappears.”

He removed his scribbler from his pocket and handed it to her. “Can you draw what you saw?”

She stared at the hexagonal device. “Is this Library Tech?”

He nodded.

“Good, ’cause I’m a lousy artist.” She dragged her index finger along the surface for a few seconds until the device read her intentions and made adjustments to the image on its own. She handed it back to him.

“At first, I caught a glimpse of it crouching behind the REMpod stacks,” she said. “Then I spotted the shadow at the far end of a corridor. Distant enough that I wasn’t sure it was real. About eight feet tall, shrouded in a black mist. It has this . . . stench of rotting flesh. But what scared me—what truly scared me—was when it spoke. It whispered profanities. Promised to skin me alive.

“I know how this sounds, doctor. I’m not an idiot. I know what you’re thinking—the same thing I’m thinking. That I’m hallucinating, that it’s not real, that it’s just my guilt getting the better of me. I woke you, in fact, to convince me of this. To prove I’m imagining it, that it’s all in my head. Because the alternative . . .” Her lower lip twitched. “I’m afraid that the hallucination—if that’s what it is—is taking over.” She leaned forward, her face inches away from his. “The monster’s creeping closer and closer every time I see it. And in the end, if I believe it’s real—if I believe strongly enough—it doesn’t much matter whether it’s actually real, right? That’s why I need you to make me stop believing.”

He stared at the sketch on the scribbler. The image resembled a diseased black bird, a huge shroud with a tattered outline. Only it bore a human head. And a face that looked just like Angie’s.

*   *   *

Emilio prescribed an anxiolytic to help her with her nerves and insomnia, and LEE3 directed them to the dispensary on the third floor to retrieve the meds. They walked the long darkened corridors together, and though he didn’t admit it, he couldn’t shake the feeling they were being watched. Her story, fantastic as it was, had unnerved him.

“Let’s talk again tomorrow,” he said upon their return from the dispensary, leaving her at the door to the entrance to the patients’ suite. “The meds will help.”

He took residence in the corner suite a few doors down from hers. The space had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Aft 3 District, which normally would have provided a spectacular vista. Now the view consisted of a thick, daunting darkness. After staring at the image on his scribbler for some time, he asked LEE3 to forward it to the Library Liaison on Pluto for further study. He’d have to provide an opinion on Angie Velasquez’s mental state when they entered orbit around Charon next week. While this might require him to violate doctor-patient confidentiality, the privileged nature of their communications had to take a backseat to mission safety prerogatives. And having a mentally troubled passenger aboard the Seed was inconsistent with those prerogatives. After hearing her story, however, he wanted to see if he could find a way to avoid forcing her off the ship, especially since her husband and daughter were still in stasis.

He opened the locket around his neck and stared at the picture of Tomás. It was seven p.m. in Puerto Rico. From the moment he’d woken up, he knew he had to do this. He’d never said goodbye, but now he had one last chance to make things right.

“LEE3, connect me to Earth.” He gave the AI the number of his ex and waited for the q-comm link to be established. Before Library Tech, the four-hour lag time in transmissions from the outer Solar System to Earth and back made holding a live conversation impossible, but instantaneous quantum communications had changed all that.

A dining room blinked into view. His ex-wife frowned into the camera.

“Jesucristo. You,” Nina said.

“Nice to see you, too. Is Tomás there?”

“What is wrong with you?” She clenched her fists, as if to punch him from across the Solar System. “No. Just, no. I’m not going to have you do this to him again. You made your choice.”

As she spoke, Tomás popped onto the screen beside his mother.

“Dad?” He wore a baseball jersey, a smear of guava jelly across his face. In just nine months, he must have grown three or four inches.

“Tomás!” Emilio said. “How are you, m’ijito? Are you still in Little League?”

“Where have you been? I needed your help learning to hit a curveball. Are you coming to my birthday party next week? I really want you to come.”

A pang of guilt stabbed his gut. Nina was right; he shouldn’t have called.

“I’m sorry, I can’t be there,” he said, his throat closing up.

“Dad?” Tomás said. “I can’t hear you. Are you coming?”

“Hello?” Emilio shouted. “Hello?”

“Dad?”

The image faded.

“LEE3? I’ve been disconnected.” He felt partly relieved, partly sick to his stomach.

“Hmm. That’s odd,” LEE3 said. “We’ve lost all communications with Earth. I’ll alert the skeleton crew.”

The REMpod, the biofile, and now communications.

“LEE3?” he said. “Is Angie Velasquez’s biofile still inaccessible?”

“Yeah, Doc.”

“What about her husband’s?”

Before LEE3 could answer he heard footsteps scampering outside the entrance to his suite. “Angie?” He pulled open the door and peered out into the corridor. At the far end, he thought he saw a shadow move, black within black. He blinked, and it was gone. “Angie?”

*   *   *

LEE3 walked beside him, matching his gait. “You okay? You seem a little preoccupied.”

“I wouldn’t have asked you to activate your psychotherapy program otherwise,” Emilio said. Like most shrinks, he’d been consulting a therapist off and on for years. The consults became more regular after his divorce a year and a half prior to launch of the Seed. Now he was forced to commiserate with LEE3’s psychotherapy subroutine.

They made their way through the skyweb, dark crisscrossing corridors—some stretching kilometers—connecting one hullscraper to another. He needed exercise to help clear his head. When they reached the top floor of an accompanying ’scraper, a door opened to a gymnasium steeped in darkness. Above them, a massive skylight framed the dusty constellations, his own private Starry Night, the Universe itself as art.

“I would say we’re dealing with straightforward projection on her part, guilt manifesting as an imaginary monster that now stalks her,” Emilio said. “It’s interesting she’s self-aware enough to have considered that possibility herself. And she doesn’t seem the type to react in that manner. If the human psyche worked this way, half the population would be haunted by monsters.”

“Aren’t they?” LEE3 smirked. “Are you decommissioning her when we arrive at Pluto?”

“I don’t know yet. I want to find a way to help her.” He stepped onto the treadmill. “Power Off” displayed on the monitor and he slapped at the handlebars in frustration. “She hasn’t been entirely forthcoming with me. Still, I’m impressed she sought help.”

“After some arm-twisting by me.”

“She did listen to you, though.”

“My, you’re giving her every benefit of the doubt, aren’t you?”

“Am I? What are you driving at?” He wondered if LEE3’s psych subroutine required it to duel him with cryptic platitudes.

“Ever consider that you’re acting this way because of her child?”

“I don’t see that her daughter has anything to do with—”

LEE3 sighed loudly. “From one therapist to another: give me a break.”

Emilio gave up on the treadmill and made his way to the track, starting a light jog. The circular pathway was bathed in the faint indigo, making it easy to stay on course. His mind wrangled with LEE3’s question.

“Okay. As a parent, I empathize with her.”

“And why is that?”

“She chose to keep her family together,” he said. “Either they all went or they all stayed. There was no other option for her.”

In his case, the family court judge had cut through all the accusations and recriminations in the custody dispute by sitting down with Tomás and asking him to choose. The boy had picked his mother. The court order had limited Emilio’s visits to alternate weekends, and after a few months even those visits had tapered off as he became immersed in preparations for the Seed mission. Once he’d committed to joining the crew, the question of appealing the custody decision—or of any contact whatsoever with Tomás, for that matter—became a moot point.

He circled the track, LEE3 jogging beside him.

“Emilio?”

“Yes?”

“There’s an incoming q-call. From Pluto.”

He slowed down and made his way to a wall monitor. LEE3 stood next to him, mimicking the movements of an exhausted runner, a towel around the neck, hands on knees. The AI must have decided Emilio needed the company of a workout buddy.

He tapped the screen and a wide face beamed at him. “Dr. Garcia. I’m Aulani Kahanahuni, Pluto’s Head Librarian. I’m responding to your query. I wanted to let you know there’s a Library match.”

“There is?” While he’d forwarded Angie’s sketch to Pluto on a hunch after she’d mentioned studying Library engineering with her husband, a match was a long shot, at best. Pluto’s orbital grav-wave detectors and deciphering team provided the finest Library access in the Solar System.

“The Ancient Cataloguers’ wisdom knows no bounds!” Aulani said, looking skyward. Plutonians had a reputation for their devotion to Library knowledge, a devotion that veered toward mysticism. Given the miracles of Library Tech, he couldn’t say he blamed them. The problem was the difficulty in distinguishing between Library entries on science versus belief systems, history versus mythology.

“You’ve drawn an illustration of an anomaly known to manifest on Cataloguer ships, often right before an accident.”

“You mean like a gremlin?” he asked. “Or a poltergeist?” He sounded more condescending than he intended.

She stopped smiling. “The Cataloguers did have some scientific theories on the cause of these anomalies, but my staff is still conducting its research. And I wanted to answer your emergency query as quickly as possible. There’s also an entire mythology developed around these apparitions. Most notably, that they target and torment those persons guilty of terrible sins.”

Typical, he thought. A mishmash of fact, fiction, and superstition. “Would someone studying Library engineering come across information on this anomaly?” he asked.

“Oh, absolutely. It’s cross-referenced quite often in entries on spaceship engineering.”

So, Angie would have seen this image before. Adding her face to it, however, spoke to . . . deeper issues.

“You haven’t actually encountered this phenomenon,” Aulani said.

He hesitated. “No.”

“I should be able to present you with additional information when you arrive at Charon.” She waited as if expecting him to say more, but when he volunteered nothing else, she lifted an arm and looked skyward again. “Well, let’s thank the Ancient Cataloguers for their wisdom.”

A girl appeared on the viewscreen and yanked at Aulani’s blouse. She leaned down. “Not now. Mommy’s busy.”

“When the wolf’s in town, it gobbles you down, down . . . down!” the child sang, staring directly into the screen at Emilio.

His heart skipped a beat. “What was that?” he said.

“I’m sorry, Doctor. Just a silly nursery rhyme. Very popular these days. Is there anything else I can assist you with?”

He shook his head.

“We’re all looking forward to the Seed’s arrival.”

After the communication link clicked off, he turned to find that LEE3 had vanished. The gymnasium seemed darker than before.

 

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2019. In the Stillness Between the Stars by Mercurio D. Rivera

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