the void between the stars is cold dark and more lonely than one could possibly hope to imagine but it is foolish to see it as completely empty
They waited a heartbeat. Two. Half a dozen. The emergency power finally kicked in, bathing them all in a reddish glow that contrasted harshly with Eve’s blue. With a start, Lillian realized that she wasn’t actually sitting on her bed any longer, but rather floating a few centimeters above it.
She looked over, Madeline was doing the same beside her. On her other side, Eve seemed unaware of the fact that they should be floating and was still sitting resolutely in Lillian’s chair. That puzzled her for a second longer than it probably should have until she put it all together. The power was out. And with it, the artificial gravity, apparently. It should have been on the emergency circuit, but apparently it wasn’t.
“What the heck?” Lillian said aloud, half hoping for but not really expecting a response.
She got one anyways, from Eve. She said in a halting tone, “the Borealis is gone.”
“Gone?” Madeline said with an edge of panic in her voice. “What do you mean gone?” As she talked, she was gesturing with her hands. The end result was that she floating even higher off of the bed. She squeaked quietly and reached one hand up to the top of the bunk to stop her movement.
“I mean that I can’t see her network anymore.”
“Just the wireless network though,” Lillian asked.
“Nothing. Modern computers have several levels of wireless networks even below the networks that you generally connect to. Almost all communication between systems is wireless now days.”
Lillian knew all of this, she’d had to maintain several different levels of transmitters and receivers before.
She stood. Or rather tried to stand. She wasn’t used to dealing with a complete lack of gravity. Rather than get to her feet, her feet went one way and the rest of her the other, canceling her momentum. She ended up floating in essentially a standing pose, but at close to a 45 degree angle with respect the to the floor. With some effort, she pushed off and managed to get herself into a more dignified crouch.
She could feel the pile starting to rise in her throat. It had been a while since she’d actually experienced free fall. Even in the shuttles–really the only place without continuous artificial gravity–she would have been strapped in.
“They’re all quiet,” Eve went on, still seemingly oblivious to troubles her more solid compatriots were having.
Lillian whistled softly. Now she was floating up near the ceiling, but at least she’d stopped moving. Madeline–still a half dozen centimeters off the surface of the bed–didn’t react at all to the news, she seemed to be somewhere else entirely. Perhaps trying to pull something up on her augs. After a moment, she said, “I still have my augs. I can see all of my own vitals and whatnot, but they aren’t even seeing your system right now.”
“That makes sense,” Eve replied. “Augs run on their own internal network to connect pretty much everything in your own local network, but to communicate with other people they use a central computer as a mediator.”
“Why?” Lillian asked. She’d never actually put much thought into how her augs worked, they’d never actually given her any problems before. She’d heard horror stories of augs that seemed to develop a mind of their own, but had never had such a problem herself.
“Augs are touchy,” Eve replied, taking on almost the tone of a teacher lecturing her students, “and they’re tuned directly to the body of their host. At first, their systems are pretty generic, but over time they grow more and more adopted to your particular peculiarities.”
“Hey!” Lillian said without thinking.
Eve’s hologram appeared to smile at her. “Yours in particular. My point is that each set of augs grows to be completely unique. So much so that each set develops what you might call their own dialect. Most are similar enough that they could still translate, but some are truly unusual.”
“Long story short…”
Eve glared at her, but continued anyways. “…the augs occasionally need to communicate with another’s system. They can’t directly and don’t usually have the spare processing power to translate another aug’s language, so they rely on the more powerful central computers to do the heavy lifting.”
“But what about when you’re not on the Borealis? I remember hiking on Mars after I left the Daedalus and I could still access external information…”
“Do you remember a bit of an unusual lag when you did so?”
She thought back and nodded. She hadn’t made a big deal of it while she was out, although she’d actually run a system diagnostic when she’d gotten back. Completely clean, of course.
“Satellite. Exactly the same situation we have here, it’s just the central computer was whizzing about in orbit above the planet.”
“This is all well and good,” Madeline broke in, “but HOW DOES IT HELP?” She was yelling by the last four words. Something in either her movements or her yelling had given her a bit of angular momentum, and she was slowly spinning in place. It was rather disorienting.
Both Eve and Lillian backed away from the volume in her voice. Or rather, Eve backed away and Lillian flinched in place. She didn’t have the leverage to back away. No matter her stature or lack thereof, Madeline had some impressive lungs. Seeing them back away like that–Eve more so than Lillian–Madeline seemed to deflate slightly.
She went on in a more normal voice. “We don’t have main power. And the emergency lights are running on their batteries rather than the ship’s backup systems, so we barely even have that. Or haven’t either of the two of you noticed?”
“We’ve noticed,” Lillian replied dryly. Eve nodded along with her.
“It’s worse than that,” Madeline cut in. “If we don’t have enough power for the artificial gravity, then we almost surely don’t have enough for the shields.”
Lillian jerked straight. She hadn’t thought of that. The three biggest drains on the ship’s generators were the engines–which had been shut off for years now, since the Borealis had reached its cruising speed–the artificial gravity, and the shields.
Madeline smiled, but it was an almost vicious smile with little to no warmth in it. “Thought that might get your attention.”
“But if we don’t have any shields…” Lillian started.
“We might as well be flying into a meat grinder,” Madeline finished. As if to underscore her point, there was the sound of a dull echoing crash that came from somewhere further down the ship.
All three turned to each other. “You don’t think?” “No.” “Couldn’t be.”
Another crash, this time from the other direction. This one was more high pitched and sounded almost as if someone had dropped a stack of plates on the floor. Or something else fragile. Although without gravity, Lillian couldn’t quite decide how that was possible.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Lillian said. “We’re in deep space.”
“Even in deep space…” Eve started.
“I know about the interstellar dust,” Lillian cut in. Eve bowed her head in a half nod as Lillian went on, “but that wouldn’t even be nearly this dense. Not two…” Another crash, closer than either of the first two. It might have been in the next room over. “…three collisions all together like that.”
“Then what?” Madeline asked.
“It’s probably just people crashing into things in their rooms in the dark. Most of us probably don’t have any zero gravity training, and not everyone has their own personal glowing blue light source that isn’t tied into the ship’s central computers.”
It as Eve’s turn to say, “hey!”
“What?” Lillian replied, “it’s true. And it’s not like it’s a bad thing.”
Eve shrugged, but said nothing. She had an odd expression on her face.
“So what do we do?” Madeline asked.
“I’m guessing we should go out and try to find the Commander. If anyone knows what’s going on, it’ll be him.”
“He’s probably floating around in the dark, like anyone else.”
“Sure, but anyone that knows anything will go to him first.”
“True enough. But what do we do about light?” She was looking at Eve as she said it, who stared at her for a heartbeat before saying, “You can’t be…”
Lillian just smiled. She reached up to the emergency lighting–she was actually only floating a short distance from it by now–on the ceiling and carefully twisted off the red light that was attached along the bottom. It came away with her hand, still glowing with that soft red light. The contrast with Eve’s vibrant blue was rather shocking, casting all sorts of interesting shadows on the walls.
“Oh,” was all Eve said. After a moment, her hologram blinked out. Both Lillian and Madeline blinked in the sudden darkness of the room. The blue light had been messing with their night vision more than they’d expected. Lillian’s first thought was that Eve had somehow run out of power the same way that the ship had. But before she had a chance to become too worried, Eve’s voice came out of the darkness from the direction of the writing desk. “Take me with you.”
Lillian turned towards the voice, although she couldn’t entirely make out her desk in the gloom until she turned the red light in her hands towards it. “What?”
“Take my shell. If the central computers are down, I won’t be able to communicate with you over a distance of more than a few feet. But if you keep me with you, I should be able to tap into your augs directly. Possibly even act as a temporary bridge for just the two of you.”
Lillian and Madeline looked at each other and shrugged. I guess it does make sense, Lillian thought to herself. She braced herself against the ceiling and then pushed off, floating down towards her closest. She grabbed one of her spare utility belts. Each had a number of spots with light netting on them to hold a wide variety of tools. She pushed off again and picked up Eve’s shell–surprised again at just how light it was–and carefully strapped it in. It fit. Barely.
“Much better.” Eve’s voice sounded to be coming from inside Lillian’s–and judging from how she jumped, Madeline’s–head. Probably using her comm directly. Lillian took a quick second to run through the rest of her aug’s systems.
Many of the continuous programs she had running to monitor various systems on the Borealis had flat lined–no surprise there–as had the mapping programs and medial feedback. She could still see her raw vitals, but there wasn’t any of the general messages or aggregated statistics that relied on the medical computers. She was starting to realize just how much they’d all come to rely on having an active central computer.
“Lillian?” It was Madeline’s voice. She snapped back to reality. It was still dark, lit only by the red glow of the emergency lighting she held. Whether because of her response or not, Lillian didn’t know, but Madeline went on, “weren’t we going out to check on the rest of the ship.”
Lillian nodded, then realized that Madeline probably couldn’t see it. “Yes. Come on.”
Together, the two–three if you counted Eve’s shell–stepped out into the hallway.
The scene in the corridor was surprisingly sedate, considering the gravity–or lack thereof–of the situation. There were only a few people floating about in the hallways as they were, with either the emergency strips from their own room or some similar source of lighting. One person had some sort of glowing aug in their hand that gave off a slightly orange glow, while another pair almost out of sight around the curve of the station were navigating by an eerie green glow that Lillian couldn’t identify.
Without a word, Lillian set off down the hallway, carefully jumping from doorway to doorway. It almost felt natural to be navigating without zero gravity, which surprised her. She had some experience with it–Tanaka-sensei had insisted that she get the training necessary to spacewalk–, but it had been years since she’d been able to float free without gravity. Whenever there was repair work to be done on the Borealis, they had the shuttles and those still had gravity plating. But the whole experience felt natural. Fun even. Madeline followed, gracefully for the most part, although a few times she missed hand holds and hit the walls a little harder than she probably liked.
As they went, they were attracting a crowd. People that had been milling about aimlessly started to follow after them. By the time they moved from the section with the living quarters to the facilities, they probably had a half dozen. By the time they reached command, they had a full dozen.
Command was nearly deserted, with only a single low ranking officer on duty–at least until their group arrived. Then it suddenly became rather more crowded. Most likely, the majority of the crew was asleep. Lillian looked down to check the time and was only halfway surprised that it was nearly four in the morning, ship time. At least she wasn’t scheduled to work in the morning. Of course with power still out throughout the ship, that plan was likely up.
Unfortunately, without the Commander present, the group began to lose focus again, milling about. The on duty officers eyebrows rose with each additional person that came in. They’d managed to attract a few more somehow that Lillian hadn’t noticed earlier, bringing their numbers to almost half of the crew.
Lillian went over to the on duty officer and, without prelude, asked him, “Where’s the Commander?”
He had an unfortunately high pitched voice which went higher at the end of each sentence. It sounded as if he was asking a question each time. It took Lillian a moment to realize that he actually wasn’t expecting a response. “He’s scheduled to be in tomorrow morning. Other than that, I have no idea. Probably in his bed?”
“Have you tried waking him up?”
“How?” He asked. He gestured around the dark command consoles. “Power’s out.”
“Exactly,” she said, the beginnings of exasperation coloring her voice. “Thus why we’re looking for him.”
“But I’m not supposed to leave my post.”
She shook her head. “What good are you doing here?”
She cut him off. “Fine. I’ll get him. Where is he?”
“I already said…”
“Right. Quarters. Which?”
Rather than answer, he shrugged. His mouth was compressed into a thin line. Not getting anything more out of that one, she thought. She floated back off towards Madeline, who at some point met up with Jacobs. They were floating almost to the ceiling and talking between themselves when she coasted over. She caught her momentum on one of the lights on the ceiling.
“I don’t know why we even have people like that on the ship,” she said, half to herself.
Both turned to her and shrugged, almost as one. Madeline replied, “because someone has to be on night duty.”
“But couldn’t it have been someone competent? Is that too much to ask?” She paused only a heartbeat. “Actually, on second thought. Don’t answer that.”
Madeline closed her mouth on whatever she’d been about to say and shared a look with Jacobs.
Lillian shook her head at the both of them and continued, “I’m going to go get the Commander. Do you two want to keep an eye on the people here?” She eyed the milling masses. A few people were playing with the consoles, trying to get anything to turn on, but it was a seemingly futile task.
“Are you sure you don’t want company?” Madeline asked.
Lillian shook her head. “I’ll go faster by myself. Anyways…” She glanced meaningfully down towards her belt. Both Madeline and Jacobs followed her gaze–Madeline’s eyes brightening with understanding and Jacobs' eyebrows raising in confusion.
Going to have to come up with some explanation for that, she thought to herself, but turned her back on them instead. She kicked off from the ceiling, floating down to the floor.
Since the Commander’s bunk was on the far end of the living quarters, so it was quicker to go through the storage area than back through the facilities. She turned to the right and launched herself from the doorway.
Once back in the hallway, she picked up speed quickly, throwing herself from wall to wall far more quickly than she could have if she were running along the floor. She crossed her fingers as she flew along that the power wouldn’t come on as she was flying down the hall. Good for the ship, but she didn’t particularly want to leave a Lillian shaped smear on the floor.
The halls this way where completely empty. It was creepy to be flying along so quickly with only the periodic emergency lighting to guide her. She still had the red strip light, but it only did so much to light her way. For the most part she was flying from red lit island to island, otherwise flying blind.
She made it to just shy of the bulkhead between the storage and living quarters. Without warning, the floor jumped up and smashed into her, throwing her against the ceiling. Hard. She gasped for breath. It felt as if she were being squeezed by a giant vise. All through it, there was a horrendous whistling sound coming from directly in front of her. As she watched, the bulkhead directly in front of her began to slide shut. She could feel her vision tunneling along with it. She fought, but couldn’t do a thing to stop it. Everything went black.
When she came to, it was to a pounding headache and what felt awfully like a broken ribcage. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t at first. She brought up her hands to her eyes, wincing as she raised them above level. She got them to her eyes and found them caked with some sort of gel like substance. She wiped it clear, groaning even at that slight movement. Whatever it was came clear after a few rubs and she opened her eyes.
She gasped. There was some sort of giant black mass directly in front of her, ringed in red light. It was reaching for her, closer and closure.
She tried to jump backwards but unfortunately, the gravity was still completely out, so the end effect of her trying to fling herself backwards was to start a slow back spin, head over tail.
As she spun, she saw that there wasn’t actually a monster on the ceiling where she’d been floating, but rather her own shadow, cast by the red light strip she’d been carrying. When she’d been knocked out, it had somehow ended up floating just off the floor. Nothing but her own shadow. She laughed at that, but it was a short laugh. Her ribs hurt too much.
When she managed to calm her frantic heartbeat somewhat–it took a fair few seconds–she took stock of her situation. The air had slowed her rotation to a halt and she’d ended up near one floor and the wall. Her light strip was right beside her, so she grabbed it.
The blast door she’d seen closing just before blacking out was firmly shut about a meter down the hall. A single baleful red light glowed on a panel right beside it. She tried to think back to the last time she’d been stuck by such a door–was it really only a few days ago?–but couldn’t recall if the same light had been there. They’d had power that time.
Groaning again, she mimed a swimming motion with her hands and rotated in place. It took long than she’d like, but eventually she got herself turned back down the way she’d come. The glow of the emergency lighting spaced out along the hallway was all she could see. Other than that the hallway appeared to be deserted.
Now what, she thought to herself. She didn’t both waiting for a response and started pushing herself back along the hallway. Can’t go this way. Might as well get back with everyone else.
As she pushed herself along, much more slowly than she’d come, Eve’s voice sounded in her head. “Are you okay?” The concern was clear in her voice. She sounded something like a mother over her grown child. Not as overly protective as when they were growing up, but still wanting to protect.
“I’m got access to some of your augs. Your vitals are all over the place. If I didn’t know better, I would even go so far as to say that you should be unconscious.”
Lillian laughed at that. It hurt. “Not my first choice.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Back to command.”
“Ah. I guess that makes some sense at least. You should see if you can find a medic.”
They drifted along in silence for a minute. Lillian could feel some small measure of strength returning to her limbs and her ribs hurt less. Probably just adrenaline, she thought, but used the reprieve to push ahead.
It took more than fifteen minutes to cover the same distance she’d covered in only a few before. All the while, Eve talked to her, mostly smalltalk. Nothing of any consequence. It was hard to pay attention for sure, but she thought they’d even talked about the weather at some point. Weather on a spaceship. Lillian chuckled at the memory, wincing as she did. The banter helped though. It gave her something to focus on other than the pain.
Finally, they reached the division between storage and command. Lillian saw the problem long before they got there, but she held her tongue. She didn’t want it to be true. But the ship didn’t seem to be listening to her internal wishes any more now than it had been when it had decided to punch her earlier. This bulkhead was closed as well. The same red light glowed steadily off to one side.
“Not fair,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“What’s that?” Eve asked. Lillian realized that the way she was turned, there was no way that the cameras on Eve’s shell could see anything of use. She rotated slowly in place. Eve was quiet for a moment, then “Oh. That.”
“That.” She felt so tired. Whatever boost she’d gotten while she was flying along the hallway, it was definitely wearing off now. So tired. She could feel the hallway starting to close in on her again.
“Lillian?” Eve’s voice sounded motherly again. Lillian tried to tell her that she’d be fine, but nothing came out. Her lips were moving, but she was just too worn out to make a sound.
As she drifted back into the blessed darkness, she could hear Eve continue calling her name both in her head and out loud, using her own speakers. Just before she lost consciousness, Eve’s hologram appeared to her side, brightening up the entire hallway significantly. She was standing on the floor, looking over Lillian and waving her hands in her face.
But it was no use. Lillian was gone.