Darkness upon the Deep
by Hristo Goshev
Nikolai is gone. I still can’t come to terms with this, even though the honorary list of names on the hangar wall is a constant reminder of the stark reality. My dearest friend, my loyal brother in arms, the most skilled pilot and the noblest person I’ve ever known—dead, sacrificed upon the altar of this unfathomable abyss in which we’ve now been drifting for more than two solar days. In that horrific instant when his lone Valkyrie plunged into the swarm of red-and-black insects, buying us a few precious seconds to prepare for the jump, both of us knew we’d never see each other again. There was no time for goodbyes, and still I can imagine what his final words might have been. “Live, Cobra!” Or perhaps: “Go back to Lynn in Deneb, you know she’s got a crush on you!” That’s how he always was—putting others before himself, a true hero.
Now that he’s lost, no amount of tears can drag him back from oblivion. A part of me already gets it, and yet I can’t stop my sobs as the memories pull me back to all the trials we went through together. Isn’t it strange? It wasn’t the fifteen years of closeness and shared dreams that turned us into brothers, but the last few months, filled with constant terror and struggle for the survival of humanity. As I rise to my feet from the cold metal floor, my gaze turns to the vacant spot his fighter used to occupy, and I promise myself that if I somehow live to have a child one day, they will bear his name. This is the least I can do to honor his memory.
But even his self-sacrifice wasn’t enough to save us. We’d escaped the enemy’s ambush, but something went wrong during the jump. We’d left behind the warm light of Vega and the distant nebulae ablaze with colors, but the sight of what lay on the other side of the tunnel proved unbearable for some. Each time I lie down on my narrow bunk and close my eyes, I hear poor Allison’s screams in my head. She never recovered from the shock, along with many others from the deck crew who were on shift that day.
While n-dimensional physics and subspace navigation have never been my forte, and our science teams remain as mute on the issue as a batch of freshly formatted androids, I do have my own version of what happened. I believe we overloaded the Bastion’s reactors, forcing them to do something they were never designed, let alone tested for. With a nearly impossible set of conditions coming together—enemy nihonium shells penetrating Engineering, the meson chamber’s magnetic confinement failing just as we entered subspace—we must have jumped outside the boundaries of the known cosmos or into some otherwise inaccessible dimension. Unlike the rest of the crew, I hope that we are alone here, but despite all sensor data confirming this so far, some indistinct foreboding keeps haunting me.
Whenever I pace the ship’s vast corridors, even the slightest creak of contracting metal, a flickering light, or the distant squeal of a rat is enough to tantalize my senses and make my stomach knot in dread. Inevitably, I envision countless animate appendages that silently creep out of the walls just outside my view, waiting for a chance to wrap around me and tear my limbs apart. I would otherwise attribute this to overdosing on combat stims, but I’m not the only one experiencing it. Almost everyone on board is acting as if possessed, and that’s hardly surprising. Nobody can stare into the chasm for so long and retain their sanity.
I can’t think about this without a shiver of anxiety, the cause of which is difficult to comprehend. We’re trained to combat technologically and numerically superior foes, to endure inhuman amounts of physical and emotional fatigue, and to look death in the face without fear, but this is different. We don’t even know what we’re up against! We’re stuck in a place that all the eggheads in the Galactic Terran Union may never be able to figure out. There’s absolutely nothing around us. No near or distant stellar bodies; no ships, space stations, or any other artificial structures; not a single microscopic von Neumann probe—no evidence that anyone or anything has been here before. And not a single ray of light.
The Destroyers didn’t follow us here after the Vega massacre, which inspires relief and perturbation in equal measure. In this bleak sanctuary we no longer have to perish under those mechanical demons’ relentless cannon fire—but at least they, for all their mute brutality, are somewhat predictable. The immeasurable darkness holds something even more incomprehensible and sinister. I’m a regular fighter pilot—I can chase and take down aliens for hours on end without a single word of complaint, but this sort of crap is way above my paygrade. And what could someone like me make of it, when our most advanced instruments detect no mass as far as their range extends, when there’s no source of electromagnetic radiation, but only intense gravitational waves that smash continuously against our vessels? The monstrous gravitational anomaly nine light minutes from our position cannot be a black hole or a neutron star—even from this distance the accretion disc’s radiance would be blinding. Instead, we float in utter blackness.
It’s pointless to dwell on this any longer; other duties require my attention. My terminal alerts me whenever it’s time to marshal what’s left of my squadron for the next patrol, and good thing that it does. With no landmarks in sight, even time eventually loses its meaning here. Timelessness also reigns across the decks of our interstellar destroyer, the good old Bastion. She survived so many battles only to end her journey ingloriously in this dead end of the universe.
It just doesn’t seem fair.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been standing in front of the row of shiny silver Valkyries, my mind wandering in search of a way out of the paradox our existence has become. Finally, I pull the gloves off and run my palms across the slick neosteel plating that covers the machine before me. Even in the hangar’s tepid air, the metal is ice-cold to the touch, and my fingers twitch instinctively to avoid sticking to its surface. It’s this chill that pulls me out of my numbness and reminds me that I’m still myself—the pilot with the second-highest kill count in all five terran fleets—and as long as I wish it, my deadly angel can once again lead me through thermonuclear firestorms and hurricanes of plasma shots and shrapnel, just as it has many times before. It’s given me plenty of reasons to feel grateful, but also envious. Unlike me, it never feels the burden of fear or doubt.
Even the most insignificant details suddenly appear captivating when one’s psyche has been derailed from its usual routine. I’d never noticed how much effort the mechanics had put into painting the huge hooded snake on my fighter’s armor—its bared fangs oozing venom, its eyes a promise of a swift and painful death. Then I remember Nick—back in the Academy, he was the one who came up with my stupid call sign, which stuck—and the tears start again. Perhaps it’s for the best that he’s no longer with us. For someone who has never known surrender, a situation like ours would likely be tantamount to madness.
“Flight Lieutenant Carter!”
Not far behind me, someone is trying to outvoice the incessant background hum of engines and machinery. He’s clearly addressing me, but I have no desire to turn around and face him. I need a few seconds to put a face to the timbre: it’s Captain Russel Benson of the 13th. A decent man and an all right squadron leader, promoted prematurely in place of the late Captain Mao. He never wanted this responsibility, but war waits for no man. As Ensign Kaldre would say, it’s an entity that evolves regardless of our will, and one either adapts to it or dies. I have no idea where the snot-faced brat must have found this dictum, but he’s been spouting it so often over the last few weeks that it’s been drilled into our heads.
It seems that he won’t leave me alone. I dry my face on the sleeve of my uniform and slowly turn toward him. I don’t answer right away. Military protocol dictates that I should properly salute a senior officer and acknowledge their remarks, but we’re long past such formalities. The last few pilots on the Bastion understand each other with few words. That’s another side effect of war: it’s capable of turning even the most incompatible bunch of individuals into a large and complex organism whose parts think, feel, and act as one. If anything at all can save us from the purgatory we find ourselves in, it’s this tacit solidarity.
“The boys and I have your back, Cobra,” he assures me, and rests his meaty hand on my shoulder, the sympathy in his gaze mixed with ill-concealed tension. “We all miss him, you know. I think he would have wanted us to leave this damn place… together.”
I muster the strength to nod, but I still don’t trust my voice enough, and I don’t want a hardened veteran like Russ to take me for some sort of wimp. Then an idiotic, nervous laughter starts building up in my gut, and I barely manage to hold it down. Does this even matter, when we’re all likely to die out here, in the void, lost and forgotten by the Union? Sure, the Bastion has provisions for several months of independent operation, but somehow I’m convinced that not one of its three thousand crew members is going to last that long. The infirmary is already packed with people overcome by all sorts of mental disorders, from PTSD to good old paranoia and neurosis. It’s only a matter of time before the officers on the bridge start declining as well, and it will be a steep and brief descent toward the end from there.
“It’s going to be all right, Phil. We’re getting out of this mess. The admiral hasn’t failed us so far, right?”
In spite of the forced optimism in his words, the captain’s pained expression betrays his true sentiments. I know what they are, because the same thoughts stubbornly keep spinning in my head as well—a throbbing mass of unanswered questions that threatens to demolish the last remnants of my sanity. Where did we go wrong? Can we return at all? What’s waiting for us out there? How much time do we have left before we start devouring one another? The feeling that something ancient and nameless is watching us is growing stronger by the hour. No one dares to say it aloud, but I can see it in the eyes of the sailors, the techs… hell, even the cooks in the canteen.
“Aye, sir,” I answer robotically, and without further ceremony make for the pilot quarters. I feel no particular need to sleep, but I reckon I must already be at the brink of psychosis, so I should at least try to slow down its onset in any way I can.
The thing about g-force is that it’s only scary before or after a dive. During is fine—the primitive parts of your brain take over, keeping you from fretting too much, and most actions become automatic. That’s why I’m hardly ever flustered in a dogfight.
My fighter’s ECM system gives off three sharp beeps, alerting me to the fact that I’m being targeted. I instantly increase my velocity and angle of evasion, but so does my pursuer. What he doesn’t expect is that I’ll cut my thrust mid-curve, making him overshoot, and then in turn paint his rear.
“Not again, boss!” Min-ho’s disheartened whine, which once used to crack me up, now only stirs up reminiscence of happier times. Still, I maintain a professional facade.
“I can’t imagine what they taught you back in Sirius, but this is how you do a rolling scissors, Teacup. Your go, Hans. Impress me.”
The three of us are all that’s left of the ill-fated 242nd squadron. Five days of brooding patrols in the vast emptiness are enough to drive anyone crazy, so I try to shake them up with training exercises as often as I can. There’s nothing else to do, and it just might save our lives one day.
The dance begins again, with me taking the lead and Alpha Three on my four o’clock, looking for an opening to spike me. The kid has improved a lot, and he knows it, but I intend to put him in his place. I’m pushing the engine to build momentum for a snapshot, and then it happens. Reality crumbles in a heartbeat, and I find myself alone in the endless ocean of black. I can’t see the Valkyrie’s controls or the Heads-Up Display; even my hands, which were gripping the control stick a second ago, have become invisible. There’s no sign of my wingmen anywhere; the hulking Bastion with her multitude of blinking lights is gone too. Only nothing, nothing, and more nothing surrounds me in all directions. Warily, I touch my head and body—at least my helmet and flight suit are still here. I shout on the intercom, but no one answers. I scream again. And again. Nothing else comes to mind.
This feels like being in the isolation tank—a mandatory and hated part of every pilot’s training. Spend enough time in utter darkness, and your brain starts constructing various shapes and textures to compensate for what your eyes can’t perceive. What I’m seeing now, though, isn’t the random, harmless product of associative thought patterns. Endless spirals stretch out into the depths ahead, their colors constantly shifting and merging into each other. Elaborate non-Euclidian architecture appears on top of them to assemble what can only be likened to a floating city of extreme proportions, which, unaffected by any known law of physics, transforms itself continuously, taking ever stranger appearances. Its innumerable edifices and passageways almost look man-made, but are all deformed in various manners, as if born of a surrealist artist’s ravings. Between them, much smaller figures seem to circulate, rendered unrecognizable by the distance.
The mesmerizing image fades as I drift further into the nothingness, and a sense of something colossal and inconceivably alien begins to emerge in its place. A ravenous, metastatic presence saturates the deep, lurking in its infinite folds. Drops of cold sweat trickle down my neck as I hold my breath, afraid that even the slightest movement might provoke it. It’s not a being. Nothing like that could be alive. I need to escape, or it’s going to swallow me and erase all traces of my existence. My psych conditioning insists that this can’t be real, that I’m descending into lunacy, but its voice is only a faint whisper now, powerless to banish whatever is out there.
It takes all of my willpower to evoke the old survival mantra we were taught as fledgling cadets in the Deneb Academy. I am the Union’s sword. When I fight for humanity, all of humanity fights with me. I am the Union’s shield. There is no enemy I cannot stand against. I act with purpose. Fear, pain or loss will not stop me. How hollow it feels now, as I repeat it frantically, my eyes squeezed shut in awe of the unseen.
The hostile entity draws closer still. You can’t see or hear or touch it, but you feel it’s there nonetheless. Stalking you. Waiting. Or perhaps it isn’t interested in you at all; whether it crushes you or passes you by may be a matter of sheer chance rather than some macrocosmic malice or benevolence.
I realize I’ve started moving faster. The acceleration is constant and steady, unprovoked by any tangible force. Unlike in my dreams, I’m unable to control or counter it, and that’s the final blow that tears down my mental defenses. It starts as a tremor in my arms and legs, then come the violent contortions of my insides. My skin turns icy, my lungs are hyperventilating, my entire body is trying to destroy itself before reaching the dreadful destination I have been hurled toward. I scream a sustained aria of terror, but no sound escapes my throat.
I’m plummeting into the abyss.
The real nightmare begins with a barely perceivable crackle in my helmet’s headset, just as the faint rustle of trees in the wind foreshadows an impending storm. At first I can’t make out what I’m hearing, but voices soon emerge from the noise, and I recognize them. One of them is mine.
“—can’t shake him, One! Need some help here!”
“Easy, Hansi, break high and extend. Cobra, cover his six.”
“Roger. Alpha Two, Fox Three. Hey, Kaldre, try not to empty your bowels in there again. Take some pity on the deck crew, you bastard!”
“Leave the rook alone, Phil. Tally visual nine low, four clicks out. Those bogeys are not gonna splash themselves.”
“You’re killing all my fun, boss! Seriously, when did you turn into such a bore?”
The scenery shifts in the blink of an eye. I’m in the cockpit once again, my hands running feverishly over the control console, the HUD showering my eyes with telemetry from the allied ships on the battlefield. We’re back in Vega’s outskirts, flying through a hail of plasma—turquoise and crimson drops of superheated matter that slash the vacuum like fireworks in the night sky. To an observer all this must be a grand sight, but for us, every millisecond of delay means a step toward oblivion, so we don’t pause to enjoy the show. It’s like being in one of those interactive movies, except that I have no control over my actions. I don’t want to be here and live through this all over again, but there’s no one to heed my protest, and I let myself go with the flow. I know what’s coming next anyway.
Except this time, events don’t play out exactly as I remember them.
I’m chasing one swift insect-like fighter at two hundred meters per second—the Valkyrie’s top maneuvering speed—while two others are hot on my tail, blanketing my flight path with ionized fire that my shield manages to absorb. My target twists and rolls and dives, the scarlet flares of countermeasures blossoming in its wake, but that won’t work on me.
“Guns,” I hiss as I squeeze the trigger. Blazing clumps of particles cut through the enemy vessel, turning it into a ball of radioactive junk. “Scratch one. Who’s in the lead now, Mongoose?”
“Just you wait, Cobra,” Nick replies cheerfully, as if we’re out on a picnic and not in the middle of a skirmish. “I’m not done with them yet.”
So far it’s mostly been according to script, but then four alien heavy cruisers slip out of subspace—twice as many as I recall. The Bastion launches a volley of antimatter torpedoes at them, and I watch with increasing alarm as most are neutralized by the Destroyers’ flak artillery. One cruiser does go down in a spectacular pageant of colors, the shockwave jolting my craft even from three clicks away, but the rest encircle our flagship like a pack of hyenas mocking an aged lion. You don’t have to be a genius tactician to know that we stand a snowball’s chance against such concentrated crossfire.
“This is the CIC to all deployed units,” the intercom bursts with Lieutenant Kunisada’s voice, as emotionless and collected as ever. “Admiral Keller is ordering a full retreat. All personnel, brace for a shock jump.”
As our destroyer’s subspace engine is charging up to warp space-time, the few surviving terran pilots head for her massive hull. Nick and I are last. The gaping hangar doors are beckoning just a few hundred meters ahead of us when a new red glint on the radar screen catches my eye. A cold tentacle wraps around my spine as IFF identifies a dozen enemy bombers aiming for the Bastion’s vulnerable stern. The counter on my HUD shows seventy-three seconds to jump readiness—long enough for the bastards to take out a critical subsystem and endanger the lives of everyone on board.
What is this travesty? I clearly remember landing in the hangar well before that last wave had arrived. I remember the surge of horror sweeping over me as the huge optics display showed Nick engaging the Destroyers on his own to buy us time. I remember my tormented screams and the deck crew’s hands holding me down so that I wouldn’t rush back into my fighter and commit suicide by his side.
If that’s not how it really went, then…
“You with me, Two?” he asks, a tinge of tense anticipation sneaking beneath his casual tone. The bombers are now under four clicks out, nearing their effective range.
“You know it, boss.” My response arrives half a second too late to sound convincing. Although we’ve never faced so many of them by ourselves, we should be able to hold them off somehow. After all, we’re the untouchable Union aces—role models as well as a source of envy for every terran pilot from here to Earth. My Valkyrie’s thrusters roar joyously as I take an attack formation next to Nick and accelerate toward the wall of red-and-black death in a series of wide barrel rolls to avoid incoming fire.
In the last moment before contact, I do something I would never have believed myself capable of.
As I realize what’s about to happen, my mind begins to thrash around in a frenzy, trying to break the hold this vision has imposed on me. Nonetheless, my hand tilts the lever, my foot eases its squeeze on the thrust pedal, and the Valkyrie obeys without question, heading for the hangar. Nick stays his perilous course. His fighter doesn’t wobble in the least as it cuts into the cloud of dark metal, vanishing from radar. For a split second I catch sight of it again—its cannons still wreaking havoc in the enemy ranks, its shields depleted, its fuselage about to rupture. He must know that he’s doomed, but he doesn’t utter a single sound of panic. I shriek hysterically, venting out the guilt and shame that have been hiding dormant in the farthest, darkest recesses of my consciousness.
I’ve always been grateful for having you beside me—it was through your help that I was able to achieve anything of meaning—but I also resented you for so many reasons. For rescuing me from the delinquents in our home district on Deneb F. For the fact that Lynn loved you in her own unassertive way, but you wouldn’t take advantage of that, knowing what my feelings were. For perpetually surpassing me in everything and never boasting about it, which made your dominance even more maddening. For me never being anything more than your shadow.
That’s why I left you to die, alone among the monsters.
The flashback reaches its end, the picture before me freezes, and out of the ashes of my conscience, a revelation begins to form: I must be in hell. This unimaginable void is nothing but a simulation, some grotesque virtual reality that exists for the sole purpose of forcing me to admit that not he, but I, should have perished in Vega. That I’m a small, sad, selfish wretch who has always envied Nikolai, secretly longing for a reality free of his overshadowing aura. It seems fitting that Dante once reserved the lowest circle of Inferno for betrayers. My stomach convulses at the parallel, and I barely quell the urge to throw up.
Then uncertainty takes hold of me again, replacing the initial shock, and I can’t help but wonder. What kind of force would it take to pluck us out of regular Einsteinian space? How much longer do we need to wander in search of a non-existent exit? Could that damn thing in the darkness be just an illusion? The thought that keeps bothering me above all else is why all the others have also been forced to experience my nightmares. I’m confident that a few thousand people can’t be the product of my tortured subconscious. Then again, maybe this dream isn’t mine, but Nick’s. His parting curse over those who saved their lives at the price of his.
I come to my senses as abruptly as I fell into the vision—the Bastion is back at my port side, and the other two fighters are chasing my exhaust trail. According to my instruments, I was out for less than three seconds. I even manage to complete the maneuver I was demonstrating without losing too much face.
“Did you just fall asleep, Lieutenant?” Hans bickers in his raspy voice, still carrying the echo of adolescence. “If you had a bandit on your six, you’d be toast by now!”
“And if you could fly half as good as you talk, you’d have obtained an aspect lock on me,” I blurt out, to reassure my subordinates as well as myself. It seems to work with them, but I’ll need a double dose of the strongest sedatives in sickbay to shake the feeling of unreality and the stifling disgust that hold me. I only fear that if I tell the medical staff what I’ve experienced, they’ll lock me up with all the other nut jobs—and with good reason.
When we return to the Bastion, the hangar strikes me as even more chaotic than usual. Between the rows of fighters, bombers, ammo crates, and fuel cells, members of the deck crew are scurrying around like insects whose hive has been disturbed by some rascal’s stick. It’s not until I talk to Senior Chief Clarke that I finally grasp the cause of all this turmoil. During our patrol in the abyss, a riot broke out in the infirmary, the squad of space marines on guard opening fire on a group of frenzied patients wielding surgical tools and screaming in unison something about “the deep.” The end result was eight fatalities and twice as many wounded. Meanwhile, Admiral Keller had offed himself in his cabin—bullet through the head, no death note—with the ship’s XO, Commodore Block, refusing to take command. We’re running out of time.
The morning of our seventh day here finds me standing shoulder to shoulder with Russ on the bridge. Before us is what’s left of the Bastion’s officers—with more than a third of them incapacitated, the faces of the others reveal that they too are just about ready to surrender to apathy. What matters is that both of our senior navigators are still holding up. They’re the only ones capable of leading us out of this infernal factory that threatens to grind us into dust between its gears.
No one dares to look the others in the eye. A sense of hopelessness permeates even the ship’s metal walls, but it isn’t the officers’ despondency that has brought us among them: there’s a concrete reason for us to be in the CIC. Two hours ago, the destroyer’s radar arrays picked up millions of subspace transfers in a perfect spherical pattern around the disembodied gravitational phenomenon. We now know that we are not alone here, but that brings little comfort. So far, our scientific personnel has been unable to identify the objects exiting these tunnels, let alone establish contact with them. Some of them are very close to us—a few light seconds away—but sensors detect only fluctuating energy signatures and no mass whatsoever. No one seems particularly surprised at this blatant violation of relativistic principles. Subtly, madness has become the norm on board.
We know it isn’t the Destroyers. Their ships may appear terrifying in their monolithic blackness, but they still show up on radar and explode when bombarded with enough firepower. But how can one defend against the unseen?
Even worse, the strange units are converging on the center of their formation, the intensity of their fields gradually increasing. We can only guess what’s going to happen if we’re left outside of this energy web. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe we’ll miss the last train to depart from this backwater station. Or maybe space will fold and shove us all into a single proton’s radius. I can’t really blame our scientists for not having a clue. Probably at least a few centuries of research separate us from unraveling this mystery.
It’s quiet enough on the bridge to hear the blood pulsing in my eardrums. Everyone’s gaze is centered on the ranking officer among us. I don’t want to be in Russ’s shoes—the prospect of three thousand lives depending on my decisions seems unbearable—but being the XO isn’t a much lighter burden. As soon as I confirm his orders, I’ll be just as responsible for their outcome. Had anyone told me that at the age of twenty-seven I would be taking part in the command of a battleship, I would have asked them for Deneb lottery numbers too.
We don’t have a lot of options. In fact, there’s only one. No one wants to say it, but everyone is thinking it. It’s our helmswoman, Dawn Harrington, who puts an end to the uneasy silence. Basked in the cold synthetic light of radar screens and volumetric tac-maps, she looks much older than she really is.
“We should head for the anomaly. It’s our only chance.”
She’s right, of course. Before us lies the unknown, but demise is creeping slowly at our backs. I, for one, don’t want to be around when it catches up with us.
“We can’t stay here.” Russ nods reluctantly. “But we can’t just jump blindly into that… well, or whatever it is. Someone needs to scout ahead. Clear a path.”
And here it is again, that moment of vertigo and trepidation when the universe briefly hesitates between two equally atrocious paths, with me standing at their crossing point. Time slows to a crawl, and all of a sudden I can see my comrades in their most unguarded state, their emotions almost physically palpable. The delicate flicks of Dawn’s fingers across the main console, unable to conceal their trembling. Ruud Jansen staring blankly through the intricate web of subspace holomatrices, one for each plotted jump. The tiny beads of sweat glistening on Toshi Kunisada’s forehead as he maintains his steely front. They’re all silently praying for a savior, a miracle, a release.
“I’ll go,” I finally proclaim. It’s not an act of theatrical selflessness. I’m just as scared as everyone else is, but I know I have the best odds of survival out there. Who else could we send, anyway? Timid Hans, or Min-ho, who arrived from the Sirius academy not even a month ago? Or perhaps one of the 13th squadron’s clunky bombers? No. There really is no choice to be made here.
I can see relief spreading across the officers’ faces, the first fragments of hope rippling like a wave through the room. Then the ever cranky Peter Voss jumps out of his seat and starts clapping wildly, the others immediately following suit. And just like that, in a few short seconds their desperation dissolves into a pool of euphoria. Next thing I know, Ruud is clenching my neck in his bearish hug, threatening to cut the blood flow to my brain.
“Gods bless you, Phil!” he shouts ecstatically in my ear while Dawn kisses my unshaven cheek, her happy tears soaking through my collar.
I forgive their gullibility. They have no way of knowing what sort of person has inspired their gratitude.
Before taking off, I inject myself with a noxious cocktail of stims. There’s no point in looking after my body anymore, and a few milliseconds worth of difference in my reaction time could prove crucial for the task ahead. As the rugged two-kilometer silhouette of the destroyer starts shrinking in my optics screen, I throw one final glance at it before activating the Valkyrie’s subspace drive. If Jansen and Voss haven’t messed up the calculations, I should be coming out two thousand clicks from the gravitational vortex—the minimum safe distance for a jump toward something so turbulent and unfamiliar. I dare not imagine what lies beyond. The universe? Home? Or…
Our military strategy instructor used to preach that divine secrets lie hidden in the temple of the unknown, and if the sword of curiosity ever brings down its gate, the burden of the insight gained could crush any man. Courage sprouts from ignorance; knowledge leads to resignation—or insanity. The last thing I want is to be a hero, but there’s no one else around to bear the weight of all these human hearts with their yearnings, fears, flaws, and ideals. I know Nick wouldn’t hesitate, but he’s no longer here. In that case, his traitorous shadow will have to do.
As I exit the tunnel, something immediately constricts my limbs and chest, as if some phantom liquid has filled the entire volume of the cockpit. The crushing gravity isn’t my only problem. Subspace orifices start to open all around me, spilling out more of the same mysterious entities we detected earlier, in numbers that overwhelm even my flight computer. At least it outlines the closest of them on the HUD—ghostly green spheroidal contours cutting through the blackness. Panic clenches my throat as I realize that they’re moving into a pattern that bars my trajectory to the target.
This time it isn’t a hallucination. With a disgruntled howl, the EWAR module informs me that something is trying to compromise my fighter’s systems, but the firewalls hold—for now. The menacing feeling isn’t coming from any one direction; it’s everywhere. Nails of primordial, instinctive horror pierce my gut, while some deranged inner voice keeps whispering that if I touch these incorporeal orbs, I’m in for a fate worse than death.
There’s no time for deliberation. With the safety limiter turned off, I kick the engine up to its full power, a 12 g-force pushes me into my seat, and my field of vision starts narrowing. Gasping for breath, I pull the stick toward me, then tilt it to the left, then press it hard forward—all of my skills, reflexes, and lust for life merged in the motions of my hand to guide me through this maze of ominous energy fields. That seems to help, or maybe it’s the drugs. I don’t care, as long as it gets me to my destination. My poor Valkyrie is shaking violently from the overload, and I can barely compensate with the flight controls. My pursuers aren’t giving up, but I’m faster, my space bird’s afterburner pushing me onward at over three clicks per second. Now it all comes down to my ability to fight off the inevitable blackout for just a while longer.
My mind is racing at the same rate as the small meson reactor at my back. What are these formless sentinels guarding? What is it that I’m not supposed to reach… and why? I’ll learn soon enough. Then I venture back along the thorny alley of remembrance and once more glimpse the wasted happiness of years past, the faces of my parents, lost in the last war, and the most precious person whom I destroyed. If I could trade places with him, I’d do it in an instant. It’s not even remorse that fuels this thought. Mankind, the Union, Lynn… they all need men like him. I’m just his pale reflection, a flawed replica. Easily replaced. Not needed by anyone. Something warm is running down my face, but I maintain my grip on the lever.
Forgive me, Nick.
As soon as I say the words in my mind, a burst of light erupts in front of me and all comm channels come alive with a garbled cacophony of sounds. Is this an answer or a simple coincidence? I hope it’s the former, but regardless, anything is preferable to the deaf-mute wasteland that nearly claimed our souls. It feels as if I’ve pierced some veil beyond which all the stars in the Milky Way had been trapped. The sight is indescribable, majestic, and more than a little frightening.
“Bastion actual, Alpha One! Jump to my s-grid coordinates!”
That’s all I manage to bark out into the Union subspace channel. My HUD is aflame with glowing red signs, a high-pitched alarm tone drilling through my eardrums. The machine can’t make sense of what’s going on in the Schwarzschild space-time around the anomaly and demands that I alter my course, but I ignore its warnings. The tidal forces should have ripped my atoms apart long ago, but that isn’t happening, and I don’t have the luxury to wonder why. The only explanation I can think of is that this impossible black hole must be an artificial creation, and for some unfathomable reason someone or something has put it here.
With a myriad of glimmering dots, the radar registers incoming contacts not far behind my bird. One of them seems to have a friendly configuration, but before I can confirm, all electronics treacherously shut down, as if hit by an EMP blast. What more does this place want from me? Is it not enough that I’m offering myself to it?
I finally get it, and the revelation hits me like a rogue wave rising out of the calm ocean surface. Our exile here has never been any sort of retribution, but was a mere accident, a universal whim devoid of meaning or purpose. Our entire existence is an inane, futile effort to resist entities and forces that have been around for unspeakable eons and will outlast us by even longer. We’re like a colony of ants living at the foot of a skyscraper, incapable of grasping even its most basic properties with our rudimentary senses. And still we had the audacity to question why the Destroyers attacked us without just cause or fair warning. Do people care about the maggots they trample on when pursuing their daily business? To them we’re just dirt beneath their boots and nothing more.
I can sense the enemy closing in. Every fiber of my being yearns to turn the Valkyrie around, open fire, and drown in insanity’s embrace, but out there, in the real world, the war isn’t over yet. We need to go back and help humanity win, or at least survive. I owe it to Nick.
The white-hot blaze voraciously devours everything, but my foot keeps flooring the thrust pedal. Come what may, I’ve long since passed the point of no return, and the only direction that remains is forward. My fighter writhes and shakes ever more furiously, the roar around me becomes deafening, the photon cascades threaten to fry my retinas even through the armored glass. I’ve lost track of my position and can’t tell if the Bastion is still behind me, whether we’re being driven by our own propulsion or have been enslaved by the singularity, our futures doomed to terminate in its timeless clasp.
All of my instincts tell me that this won’t go on for much longer. I’ve never been a religious man, but now I’m filled with an inexplicable certainty that he and I will be together again—today, tomorrow or in a billion years. And how could we not, when we’re all made of the same stuff? We’re born, we grow up, we love and we hate. We fight, we perform villainy and heroism, we keep on living day after day and year after year… until all that’s left of us is stardust, carried by the cosmic winds.
I close my eyes. Suddenly, I’m not afraid anymore. The last thing I hear before the prolonged acceleration overpowers me is Toshi’s voice breaking sporadically through the static. And for the first time since I’ve known him, it’s filled with unconcealed jubilance.
“—is the Bastion… picking up multiple subspace manifolds in close… Voss says it’s an ER bridge… lating vector and charging auxiliary drive… it, Alpha One! We made it!”
I guess you’ll have to wait for me a little while longer, old friend.