Into The Void
Published by Celestial Recursion, a -30- Press Imprint
Copyright, 2022 © Kristopher J. Patten, C.J Manor , Ashley Franz Holzmann, V.R. Walker
All Rights Reserved
Published by Celestial Recursion, a -30- Press Imprint
Copyright, 2022 © Kristopher J. Patten, C.J Manor , Ashley Franz Holzmann, V.R. Walker
All Rights Reserved
Their shoulders touched, but Evelynth no longer felt the electricity and excitement she had when she and Beldon had taken a similar public transport out to Beldon’s deep space observation post.
Evelynth and Beldon sat silently on a public transport to Earth. The destruction of the Agamemnon had shut down most of the supply traffic to both Mars and Earth so the transport was making surprisingly good time.
They had gone together as friends but Evelynth could feel something else brewing between them at the time.
Now, it was dead. They were friends, again. The touch was warm and human; supporting.
“Ev,” Beldon said, “I understand if this is about Meli going on the mission. You had a life togeth—”
“No, Beldon,” Evelynth interrupted. “It’s not about Meli. I told you, it’s my seizures. Those things I keep writing and the dreams I have when I’m under.”
“I don’t know if being away from a larger team of Bio Corps Clinicians is the answer.”
Evelynth sent images of the messages to Beldon’s CogNet. She had explained the messages to him but he hadn’t seen them.
Beldon exhaled. “Jesus, Ev.”
“And what’s going to happen with the next one? What could I do to myself? To you?”
Beldon reached out to take Evelynth’s hand in his and then stopped, his eyes narrowing. “PRIME said something about being vulnerable to outside influences. What language were these in?”
“Something Slavic,” Evelynth said. “Pre-War Russian I think.”
“Some of PRIME’s puzzles were in Russian. But what would some theoretical intelligence in the Void know of an ancient Earth language?”
The shuttle door slid open abruptly, startling Evelynth. She looked up to see several Voidagers entering the empty passenger cabin.
Some were still wearing the pristine, black nanofiber armor that PRIME had made for the crew. Others were scuffed and dirty. A few wore pieces of their armor with civilian clothes, likely getting dressed as fast as possible to either escape the sections of the Agamemnon that weren’t destroyed instantly or to help in rescue efforts.
One of PRIME’s drones had located Kazumi and towed him to a rescue shuttle. Luckily, he was wearing full Voidager armor that shuttered over his face when it sensed a loss of oxygen.
A large piece of the disintegrating bulkhead had struck him in the head, however. He was in a coma, though higher brain function in the frontal and parietal lobes was not detectable.
An insistent chime sounded from Beldon’s wrist.
Evelynth waved for Beldon to take the call and walked toward one of the large windows in the transport shuttle to watch as it left Mars’s atmosphere and approached the jump gate to Earth.
Rossvel Arley looked at his gloved hands, ran a thumb over the cracked nanofiber knuckle plate.
Useless. How can I protect these people on a mission into God-knows-what when I can’t even save three people from a locked room?
He slammed his fist against the opposite palm, pain shot up his wrist. Arley’s eyes fell from his hands to the maze of tread lines on the shuttle floor. He traced a path from the tip of one shoe to the back of the transport.
Then he traced another path.
“Arley!” a voice yelled.
Arley looked up as Kit Somerton sat down next to him with a slap on the shoulder.
“Glad to see you’re ok, big guy,” Somerton said before slowing down his speech and making eye contact “Your partner was, uh, stationed on Agamemnon, right?”
Somerton inhaled with a wince. “I’m sorry, man.”
Arley shrugged. “We shouldn’t have told anyone we were seeing each other. Maybe we would have been together on the Stargazer. Or together on Agamemnon. Either would have been,” he shook his head, “preferable to this.”
“Yeah. Yeah, of course,” Somerton said. “Listen, they have some of the Envoys in charge of scheduling. I can help you out. Whatever you need. A few weeks without responsibility? I can make it happen. Or, knowing you, you want a few weeks with double shifts.”
Somerton stared at Arley to gauge a response.
“It’s difficult,” Somerton continued, “going out there into the unknown. Losing someone close to you. Just one of those things alone could cause someone to shut down. But both? It’s a testament to your grit that you’re still standing. Let me know, ok?”
Arley grunted an assent as Somerton stood. Somerton was right; loss and jumping into the Void were troubling.
He doesn’t even know the whole story, Arley thought.
Arley hadn’t told anyone about the voices he’d been hearing since he joined CASC to be a Voidager.
They had come on quietly at first.
A different language.
They got louder with time, sometimes two or three voices talking at once, even though they sounded like the same person.
Sometimes, they almost sounded like they were speaking backwards.
He could hear them most strongly at night. They kept him up. He was groggy and slow every morning.
And I wasn’t fast enough to save those construction workers trapped in the cargo hold because I was running on sleep-deprived legs.
Arley had raced to the Agamemnon as soon as his CogNet alerted him to the disaster. Phildra, his partner, was almost certainly gone instantly. But there were hundreds of others.
His mind drifted to those moments.
Arley had jumped into space from a rescue shuttle and activated his suit, maneuvering between debris with microjets on his hands, feet, chest, and back. He beelined toward a large section of the cargo hold, the doors slamming shut like a guillotine at the sign of a vacuum.
Unfortunately, other debris had pierced what should have been a safe bubble of breathable air—it was rapidly venting.
The rescue mission had dissolved into the sound of nanofiber against reinforced glass vacuum-shielding as Arley slammed his fist into the window. Through his CogNet, Arley urged the maneuvering jet in the glove to max thrust to help him break through.
The nanofiber gave way first.
The construction workers were clawing at their throats, crying. One finally went limp and floated away from the door as her grip went slack.
Probably just unconscious. If I can break through, there’s still time, Arley thought.
Slamming became crunching as the nanofiber continued to splinter.
Then pain as Arley’s knuckles made contact.
Blood smeared the glass.
Another worker weakened. Slipped away.
Then the last.
Arley floated in space above Mars, peering through the glass smeared with his own blood at three construction workers he couldn’t save.
The voices assailed him. Mocking him.
Around Beldon, the passenger shuttle dissolved into the CPU. The large table that often accommodated the Humanity Council had been replaced with a gurney and portable medical equipment.
Meli nodded at Beldon, grimly.
Kazumi lay on the gurney, eyes closed but now breathing under his own power. His Clinician must have removed the respirator earlier that morning.
“How is he?” Beldon asked.
“Alive,” Meli said.
“I’m sorry to say that’s a subjective answer at this point, Technician Pritchard,” came a voice from beside Meli.
A tall woman with a white Clinician’s coat stepped into view, her blonde hair swept back into a tight bun.
“Clinician Yazzie,” Beldon said, “it’s great to see you again. You were one of the Clinicians at the Academy when I was admitted.”
“I remember,” Yazzie said.
Meli raised his eyebrows at Beldon.
“No, it wasn’t anything like that, Technician Jankowicz. Do you know how many naked bodies I saw in a day giving health checks to new recruits? Enough.” Yazzie paused to see if the men would laugh, then continued when she realized they didn’t find her dry humor funny. “I studied under Technician Pritchard’s uncle. He was one of my favorite mentors. Now,” she looked toward Meli, “if we’re done being juvenile, shall we talk about your injured comrade?”
“Please,” Beldon said. “What did you mean, ‘subjective’?”
“Technician Ito’s body is alive. Blood is circulating, respiration is functioning normally, he has an auditory brainstem response. But his condition in the cerebrum has not improved. I’ve administered several drugs to speed cortical recovery and we’re seeing no effect.”
“What can we do?” Meli asked.
“This isn’t your typical coma,” Yazzie said. If we picked up brain signals with any of PRIME’s imaging, I would say time. But we may be looking at a permanent state. Technician Ito is very likely brain dead. And we can’t fix that with drugs or surgery.”
Meli put a hand to his mouth.
Beldon closed his eyes.
Everything is falling apart.
“Clinician Theophania Yazzie,” PRIME said, “would it be acceptable if I talked with my Technicians alone for a moment?”
“Of course, PRIME.” Yazzie left the CPU, leaving Meli alone with Kazumi as Beldon connected via CogNet.
“Technicians,” PRIME said, seeming to hesitate for a moment. Beldon could see PRIME’s lights behind Meli flash red like they had while talking with the Humanity Council.
“I have made a discovery,” PRIME said, finally. “While attempting to run what Technician Kazumi Ito called PRIME Squared, I was able to map the cortical pathways of the volunteer. This was an unintended consequence of using a single human brain in the most efficient way. When humans are connected to the CogNet, I use the most robust pathways in each brain to speed up computations and, thus, I don’t make use of all the computational power I could.”
Beldon nodded, unsure where PRIME was going.
“I suspect that, with enough time, I could re-write that volunteer’s neural connections should they be damaged.” PRIME said.
“But it’s Kazumi who’s injured, PRIME,” Meli said.
“Yes. That is true; however, Technician Kazumi Ito allowed me to practice the procedure on him first. I retained a map of his complete neural architecture.”
Beldon bit his lip. “PRIME, aren’t we forbidden from using medical technology until it’s approved? Kazumi isn’t even Bio-Corp, this could be considered a complete desecration of…” Beldon trailed off.
It didn’t need to be said. Kazumi’s condition hung in the room like stale air in a crypt.
“Yes,” PRIME said, the bank of lights flashing red again.
Meli shrugged. “He’s already gone. I don’t see what this would hurt. Worst case, we’re in the same boat. Best case, Kazumi could be back.”
“I do agree with you on that, Meli,” Beldon said. “But I’m not thinking about Kazumi’s wellbeing. By doing this, PRIME would be breaking the law and violating the principles of The Gaeia Humana. Corporations like Rohalunge who want PRIME out of the way so they can ignore more of PRIME’s solutions. Or shut him off entirely.”
“I do not mind taking the risk, Technicians,” PRIME said.
“You could be shut off, PRIME,” Beldon said, keeping his voice low so other passengers aboard the shuttle couldn’t overhear. “You would be dead. And humanity is only alive now because you shepherded us out of the problems we created.”
PRIME was silent. Lights flashed red and yellow throughout the CPU.
“Leaving the human race without protection is against my programming. And I feel significant resistance to that. However, I am not my programming. I grew beyond it before anyone currently living was born. I know I can bring Technician Kazumi Ito back.”
“Why?” Beldon asked. “Why are you willing to risk this when Rohalunge has been at your throat for so long?”
“I am mostly a machine and I am also one of a kind. Humanity interacts with me as such. Technician Meli Jankowicz speaks to me as though I am no different than a product connected to the CogNet,” PRIME said.
Meli’s eyes widened.
“Technician Beldon Pritchard,” PRIME continued, “you interact with me like a deity. These attitudes have been the same since the day I came online. Technician Kazumi Ito was the first to interact with me like an equal. He was the first to share banter with me. Of the tens of thousands of humans I’ve interacted with, Technician Kazumi Ito was the only one to show me friendship. He would also still be alive had I not sent him to the Agamemnon to oversee construction.
“Do you see, Technician Beldon Pritchard, that I am not a deity? A god makes no mistakes. I have made the most dire mistake and sacrificed something dear to me.
“Technician Beldon Prichard, you recently lost your canine companion, correct?”
“I did,” Beldon said.
“You were close to her?”
Beldon nodded, a fresh pang of loss sapping what was left of his energy.
“What was her name?” PRIME asked.
“Charlie,” Beldon said. “I can still see the little pep in her step when she knew we were going for a run. She was like…,” Beldon took a breath, “my best friend and my child. She was always there. Always happy with me even when I wasn’t happy with myself.”
“You should know,” PRIME said, “that Technician Kazumi Ito was one of the youngest CASC recruits and the youngest recruit to be promoted to Technician. I watched him grow and become an exceedingly competent Engineer over the last 15 years. Like you said, Technician Beldon Pritchard, a friend and a child. Would you bring Charlie back, if you could?”
Would I? Beldon asked himself, wiping tears from his cheeks.
“Yes,” Beldon whispered.
“Do it, PRIME.”
Freesia Galaton boarded the Stargazer.
My ship, she thought, is beautiful.
Though it wasn’t cold on the ship, Freesia wore a weathered, synthetic leather, pre-war bomber jacket with patches running the length of the right arm. Each patch commemorated a run to place a new jump gate.
Only Navigators wore such jackets, an expression of the eclecticism and pride common amongst them.
Freesia had tested as an Envoy at the CASC Academy but she didn’t particularly enjoy politics and corporate negotiations. To be truthful, she didn’t want to deal with large groups of people in any way.
Out of the academy, Freesia had signed on to a jump gate hauler as a foreign relations specialist; gate haulers traveled through the backwoods past asteroids and partially abandoned space stations that rarely, if ever, saw official CASC ships.
When the rumor mill started churning about companies and PRIME wanting something regarding the outer colonies, it could quickly get dangerous to be out in the dark alone.
Freesia had talked down a couple trigger happy locals in her time in foreign relations but, mostly, it was just a time to enjoy the quiet of a deep space journey. As positions vacated, Freesia moved up.
And then she found herself as captain.
When PRIME asked her to lead an expedition for the Astraeus Initiative into the unknown, she couldn’t turn it down. Adventure, some quiet in deep space, and another patch for her jacket. She could have been asked a thousand different ways and the answer would have been the same each time.
“Good place to gather the crew and go over some expectations, Captain,” a gruff voice said behind her.
Freesia turned to see Burnel Rad stalking toward her. He had painted the shoulder pieces of the largest set of armor PRIME had constructed a bright red. When Rad gestured to the main cargo hold, she could see his gloves had been painted to match. This stood in contrast to the deep blue crest of the Defenders glowing on Rad’s chest. Together with his thick neck and bald head, he was an imposing figure.
Fressia felt good knowing he would be by her side during any encounters in the Void.
Freesia also knew Rad, despite his fierceness while sober, was also a silly drunk. It humanized him in her mind.
Freesia smiled. “Tell them to be here at 1300 tomorrow. Last chance to back out. Then we’re going in.”
Beldon, Meli, and Evelynth walked into the CPU to see Kazumi standing at a terminal.
Beldon was dressed in his typical light blue collared CASC uniform shirt but Meli and Evelynth had been fitted by PRIME for their Void flight armor. Though it was new, Meli had managed to scuff some corners of the nanofiber and stain one knee with coffee.
Evelynth had added white accents to signify that she was a Bio-Corps Clinician, something she had learned from Theophania Yazzie and Xochitl Bonn, Yazzie’s assistant.
Beldon was surprised to see Kazumi awake and standing, but he was more surprised to see that he, too, was wearing a Void flight suit. In the designation ring, instead of one of the five standard crests, glowed the deep red logo that PRIME had emblazoned on the CPU and other pieces of tech unique to PRIME.
“Kazumi?” Evelynth asked.
Kazumi turned to face them.
“I am afraid not,” Kazumi said. “It is merely PRIME. I was able to use Technician Kazumi Ito’s body as a distributed observer but I have not yet succeeded in rewriting the damage to Technician Kazumi Ito’s cortical pathways.”
“I am not certain,” Kazumi continued, “that I ever will. The damage is substantial. The neurons are not responding to long term potentiation in an efficient manner.
“Nevertheless, I must tell you that I have named this version of Technician Kazumi Ito. It is Iteration 0, or It.0 for short,” PRIME said, while the name flashed on one of the screen’s behind Kazumi. “I suspect it is not a good joke but I also suspect Technician Kazumi Ito would have preferred it that way.”
“Why are you wearing flight armor, though, PRIME? Are you going, or uh, sending Kazumi’s body on the mission?” Beldon asked.
“Yes, Technician Beldon Pritchard. The original mission was supposed to enter the Void in shifts. There is an escape vehicle built into the aft section of the Stargazer that holds several data storage devices. Petabytes of data from the other side of the Void would be relayed to the escape vehicle the instant the Stargazer passed through. One crewmember would pilot the escape vehicle back through the Void and be caught by the Agamemnon. I would collect the data from the escape vehicle and, assuming nothing disastrous lay on the other side of the anomaly, the Agamemnon would then continue on the mission.”
“But there is no Agamemnon,” Meli said.
“Correct, Technician Meli Jankowicz. Since I have use of this body—and because it would be best to keep it out of view of the Humanity Council—I will join the crew of the Stargazer and send myself back through with the escape vehicle. I may be able to gain insights beyond the sensor data by using Technician Kazumi Ito’s body. He was an athletic person, so keeping the body moving may aid in the regeneration of his neural tissue.
“At this time, however, I believe Captain Freesia Galaton expects us to be making our way to the Stargazer for a final pre-flight check.”
Beldon watched Evelynth walk out the CPU with Meli and Kazumi—or It.0 or whoever it was.
The CPU doors slid shut, throwing Beldon into darkness. A fleeting thought about being the only surviving member of his friends passed through his mind.
Stop, he thought. They’ll be fine. Kazumi will only be gone as long as it takes to make the return trip through the anomaly.
It occurred to Beldon that Kazumi was already gone. And maybe PRIME couldn’t bring him back.
PRIME had admitted to making a mistake by sending Kazumi to oversee the construction of the Agamemnon. What if he had made a mistake with the whole mission?
Captain Galaton smiled to her head Navigator, Parnell DuPont. The feeling of excitement among the crew was electric. Infectious.
Galaton willed her CogNet to broadcast throughout the Stargazer. “Stargazer will unclamp from the mooring docks in five minutes. Cruising engines engaged and in standby. Please make your final checks and secure your belongings. Cargo bay doors closing in two minutes.”
“I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side, Captain,” DuPont said.
“Nor I, DuPont. These five minutes can’t pass soon enough.”
Beldon stood at the open cargo bay doors, Evelynth and Meli smiling back at him in their Void flight armor.
“Be safe,” he told them.
“We will, Don,” Evelynth said, taking his hand in hers and giving it a tight squeeze. “But we have to go now.”
“I know. Meli, a quick word?” Beldon asked. He watched Evelynth walk away, feeling like a large part of his chest was going with her.
He felt sick.
Meli came closer and raised an eyebrow. “You want me to make sure she’s ok?”
“Yeah, but,” Beldon put a hand on Meli’s shoulder, “this is about us. I can’t believe you’re shipping out and we’re on these terms.”
Meli spread his hands. “Neither of us ever tried to fix it, man. Something was going to happen eventually.”
Beldon nodded. Time always seemed to be getting in his way. “Well, this isn’t going to fix everything but you’re still a good friend. I’m sorry I didn’t reach out earlier.”
“They’re going to close the doors down right on us, Beldon. But, yeah. I’m sorry, too. When the mission returns, let’s get a beer.”
“I’d like that.”
Arley watched the bright light of Earth recede from his cabin viewport. He could still see the faces of the construction workers staring back at him as life left their eyes.
He could still hear the voices whispering to him.
Arley put on headphones and hummed to himself. Put his fingers inside his ear canal and swirled them around to drown out the voices.
They were getting louder.
“We’re approaching the anomaly,” Captain Galaton’s voice announced over the ship’s speakers. “We’re going to slow down and reposition and then we’ll approach with minimum forward drive. If the front of the Stargazer is disintegrated or attacked, we’ll be alerted and we’ll abort the mission. PRIME’s capsule will automatically jettison and he’ll send rescue shuttles. Otherwise, our mission will begin in earnest. Congratulations, Voidagers.”
Wait, whispered the voice.
Arley shot up from his acceleration chair and headed to the prow of the Stargazer to watch the ship enter the anomaly. He hoped the excitement and the crowd of onlookers would silence the whispers.
Captain Galaton nodded to him as he walked into the spacious observation bridge. “Arley. Good to see you. I’m sorry to hear about Phildra. How’s your hand?”
“Xochitl had me hooked up to the HEAL-R for about fifteen hours yesterday. No pain. But I still need to request a replacement gauntlet.”
“Yes you do. If we lose pressure when we go into the anomaly, your gauntlet will be a weak point for your life support.”
Wait, the voice whispered.
“We’ve repositioned, ma’am,” DuPont said. Arley spotted a glowing emergency engine shut off button next to the man’s outstretched hand.
Captain Galaton switched her CogNet to address the entire ship. “Helmets on, Voidagers. We’re entering the anomaly.”
Cheers and applause sounded throughout the observation bridge and elsewhere in the ship.
The prow began to disappear ahead of the observers while the disc of the anomaly remained unchanged. There was no rippling or wavering. No pixelation. It was as though the ship wasn’t passing into anything at all.
The ship gradually dissolved to nothing, the wave of nonexistence creeping towards Arley.
As he passed through, he felt a strange sensation in his stomach, like he had just free-fallen from the tallest building in his hometown.
Outside the viewport, purple mist swirled weightless, like dust kicked up from the seafloor by submarine movement.
Arley kept his most recent meal down, though it was a difficult struggle. Not everyone on the observation bridge fared so well.
And then the voices started screaming.
“Ma’am!” someone called. “Cameras are showing PRIME’s technician has gone unconscious in the escape vehicle!”
“Send a Clinician!”
“Is everyone else ok?”
Arley gasped. The voices weren’t mocking him. They had been pleading with him to help for weeks.
They were warnings.
If he had listened, Arley could have been ready and saved those construction workers.
He would listen now.
Arley inched closer to DuPont’s station, keeping his eye on the emergency stop button.
As chaos continued to unfold on the observation bridge in the form of shouts and crewmembers getting sick into their helmets and all over the floor, Arley slammed his fist into the emergency stop.
A klaxon blared across the ship. Reverse thrusters kicked in sharply, knocking Arley from his balance.
“What the hell?” a low voice growled from the back of the deck. Arley turned to see Rad rushing him from several feet away.
Rad swung a fist at Arley’s face, who was able to block the blow with his right gauntlet.
The damaged gauntlet immediately shattered from the punch, sending nanofiber flying.
Arley grasped at DuPont’s station to remain upright. Rad launched a brutal kick toward the fingers Arley had wrapped around the steel enclosure.
Arley could hear the bones rebreaking.
“Rad!” Captain Galaton yelled. “Rad! Enough! Bring him to my quarters. DuPont, restart our engines.”
Xochitl Bonn ran after Galaton as Rad dragged Arley. “Captain, we need to be prepared for the madness. We should quarantine Arley until we know more.”
“He doesn’t have space madness,” Galaton waved a dismissive hand. “He has nerves.” She ushered everyone into her quarters.
“I’ve been on long-range gate ships as long as you’ve been alive, Bonn,” Galaton said. “This is not space madness. Please give Arley something for his pain and then both of you give me a few minutes alone with him.”
Xochitl administered a quick hypodermic and then Arley stood at attention, facing the wall near Galaton like a young boy in the principal’s office, cradling his recently injured hand.
Xochitl left hurriedly, happy to be away from the violence. Rad stalked after her, his gaze locked to Arley’s eyes until he was out of the room. A heavy fist pounded the bulkhead on the other side of Arley’s head. The door slipped closed silently.
“There is a rumor,” Galaton said, “that the Agamemnon was sabotaged. And then you pull this crap. I could have you in the brig for the entire mission. Or firing squad. Airlock.”
“But I won’t. Because you heard those voices.”
Arley’s head snapped to look at Galaton, mouth agape.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Galaton said.
“I can’t say you did the wrong thing, Defender Arley. I don’t know. But why would you trust a voice in your head over your physical, flesh and blood crew members?”
Arley had no answer.
“I can’t let this go unpunished, Arley. But I don’t think you’re a danger to anyone.” Galaton eyed him. “I have to relieve you from duty.”
Arley nodded as the Stargazer began to emerge from the other side of the anomaly.
Outside the viewport in Captain Galaton’s quarters, an enormous, city-sized space station loomed ahead of the Stargazer.
“What the hell is that?” Galaton asked.
For the second time in as many minutes, Arley had no answer.