A Sea of Stars - Ch. 17 - Darkness

         all
        those
    who are afraid
     of the dark
     are   afraid
    for       good reason

           in
          the
    cold dark of space
     there is no one
       there    to
      save      you

The second time she came to, it was to a sharp pain in her side. Although she was still floating in the near darkness, her light was in front of her this time, so there were no shadows to threaten her awakening. As she woke, one hand flew to her side where it met with Eve’s shell.

“Do you mind?” Eve’s voice sounded in her head.

“Whawazthat?” Lillian tried to speak, but her mouth wasn’t entirely communicating. Her brain was getting up to speed, but the rest of her body felt sluggish and almost like she had been dipped into burning oil. Everything stung.

Eve sounded slightly abashed. “Ah. That was me. When you wouldn’t wake up, I administered a minor electrical shock through my shell. When the first didn’t work, I upped the voltage.”

“Youshockme?”

“Yes. I shocked you. Lillian, I need you to wake up.”

“Amawake. Why?”

“There’s someone banging on the door.”

And she heard it. Measured taps on the metal bulkhead.


Jacobs was speaking. “Hans is trapped on the other side.” As if in confirmation, she could hear taps coming from the door in front of her. She realized she was standing in a well lit corridor, at the bulkhead between storage and command. But that wasn’t right, was it?


Another sharp pain in her side and she was back to floating in the darkness.

“Lillian. Stay with me.” There was a note of pleading in Eve’s voice. “Please.”

“I’m here.” Her voice was still thick, but at least she could make out her own words easily enough.

The relief was thick in Eve’s voice. If she’d had a throat, Lillian would have said that she sounded choked up. “Good.” There was a seconds pause, then she hesitantly asked. “The door?”

“Right.” She started swimming towards the door. As the seconds passed achingly slowly, turning to minutes, she kept thinking that whoever was tapping was going to give up. Any second now. But they didn’t. She let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding and tried to rap back on the door. It took a few tries to get enough strength up to make a sound and every time she hit the door, she’d go floating back a few centimeters so she had to keep swimming forward. But eventually she managed.

Immediately, the tapping ceased. After a second, three strong taps. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Lillian took a deep breath to steel herself and tapped back. Tap. Tap. Tap.

She heard excited sounds coming through the door, extremely muted. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, just that there was at least two people on the other side of that door and that they’d

A sudden wave of exhaustion rolled over her again and she must have blacked out again for a second or two, because the next thing she knew Eve was halfway through speaking. “… interfering so I can’t be … theoretically create a bridge.”

Sounds good, she thought. “Do it.”

There was a slight crackle, then she could suddenly hear Madeline’s voice in her head. “Is that you? Lillian? Are you there?” Her voice was rough, it sounded like she’d been yelling.

Eve added her own voice. It was starting to feel like a party in her head. “Just talk. She’ll hear you.”

Lillian started to nod, but her head felt too tight to even incline that much. There were stars dancing about in her field of vision. So she gave up on the nodding and tried to speak instead. It came out as a croak, but it came out. “Madeline?”

Madeline’s voice stopped mid-word. She paused for a second and then came back. The connection was rough and kept cutting out. “Oh, Lillian, it … saw the collision … worried … quarters are gone … that way you were going … all of those poor …”

The connection faded entirely. Lillian’s head was swimming and she couldn’t quite put it all together. Collision? What collision? The floor had come at her with a vengeance, she could remember that much. Had that been what Madeline had been talking about?

There was another crackle on the comms. Lillian couldn’t be sure if it was immediately after the connection had faded or longer than that, time was behaving oddly. The stars had been replaced by odd collections of shadows moving about. She was pretty sure they weren’t actually there, but they were disconcerting nevertheless.

“Lillian, are you there?”

“I’m here. Madeline… what’s going on?”

“Can’t quite … you … connection is pretty … for that matter … you even talking to …” The connection faded again. This time, it came back almost immediately, but it was much weaker. Lillian could hear Eve muttering to herself under her breath–not that the saying really applied in this case. Lillian started laughing to herself. No breath. Haha. No breath for an artificial intelligence.

”… laughing? Why are you … you ok?” Her focus changed. It sounded like she was talking to someone else. “We need to … door open.” There was a pause. The quality was different than the problems they’d been having with the connection earlier, actually silent rather than distorted and crackling. “… do you mean? I’m talking … just fine.” Another pause. “… don’t know …”

Eve’s voice came over the comm, overpowering Madeline’s easily. “I don’t know if I can keep this up. She’s moving around over there, which surely isn’t helping, and her augs are a bit eccentric.”

There was a sudden mechanical grinding sound, the sound of gears that were being forced to move against their better judgment. The blast doors that had been sealed tight right in front of her opened a tiny fraction, paused, and then slid open a bit more. Lillian slowly rotated towards the hole in the doors. It wasn’t nearly large enough for her to fit through, only a half dozen centimeters across. She could see Madeline’s face in the hole. She seemed to be upside down. That was odd.

“Lillian!” she called out. Then she tilted her head to one side, a quizzical expression mixed with concern filling what Lillian could see of her her face. “What in the world happened to you?”

“Got hit by the floor.”

For a moment, the quizzical part of Madeline’s expression overpowered the concern. “Say what?”

“The floor. It hit me.” For some reason, it seemed vitally important to Lillian that she make Madeline understand this point.

Madeline looked at her for a bit, the concern back with a vengeance. “On second thought, never mind that. You just stay calm, we’ll get you out of there.”

Staying calm sounded nice. Very nice. Maybe she could take a nap. She started closing her eyes, but Madeline’s voice cut through her reverie. “Don’t you go on me now. That’s one thing they always say in the doc-dramas. Don’t let them go to sleep.”

That sounds reasonable, Lillian thought. She started to reply, but her brain finally finished processing what she’d been dealing with for the last few minutes and started yelling at her that she was wrong. Madeline was in fact not upside down. Lillian was. And that wasn’t at all how things should be. Unfortunately, her stomach concurred. She retched, doing her best to hold everything in. No matter what her stomach though, she didn’t want to be swimming about in zero gravity with her last meal’s contents floating about with her.

What felt like only moments later, her nausea subsided. Somehow, she’d managed to rotate herself right side up, still facing the partially open blast doors. Madeline’s face was gone with Jacobs’ taking it’s place.

“Oh, hello there,” she said. It seemed to fit.

“Hello Lillian,” he said hesitantly. “Just hang on. Madeline went to go get one of the medics. She’ll be back in no time at all.”

Lillian could feel another fit of laughter bubbling up inside of her. Hang on. Hanging on sounded like a most lovely idea, considering how everything kept floating about. But there wasn’t anything in particular to hang on to. The floor had a slightly spongy, almost rubbery texture, but you couldn’t get a grip on that. The walls and ceiling were plain steel. Perhaps the opening on the bulkhead. She reached towards it.

With a look of surprise on his face, Jacobs reclined from her approaching hand. “Lillian?”

“Hanging on!” she cried out. There was a singsong quality to her voice. Jacobs just shook his head. He didn’t move back up to the blast door either, staying a good distance back from it. Still close enough to see though. Lillian’s hand stopped just short of the bulkhead opening, her fingertips brushing against the edge. With a grunt of effort, she stretched the last bit and grabbed hold. Nice and solid. She used it to pull herself closer.

Beyond Jacobs, she could Madeline and one other person–a medic, based on the pastel blue-green of his jumpsuit–bouncing from wall to wall. In any other circumstances, Lillian would have stopped to watch as he walked by. He had wavy blond hair, just long enough and shocking blue eyes in a strong looking face. Unfortunately, he was having issues, crashing into the walls rather than bouncing off them gracefully as Madeline was doing. Madeline, on the other hand, seemed to be getting the hang of flying about in zero gravity.

It took them a few seconds more to get there. As she approached, Madeline grabbed Jacobs’ arm. He look a little surprised, but reached out to her and pulled her to him. The two of them spun in a tight circle, slowing as they both reached out their arms.

The medic was less lucky. He careened right into the blast door with a dull thud and bounce back off. He finally stopped when he crashed into Madeline and Jacobs who had just come to a stop. As they untangled themselves and the three of them floated apart in hallway, the medic turned to the door.

“Lillian, I take it?”

Lillian nodded, regretted it, and spoke instead. “That’s me.”

“I heard you’ve had some sort of altercation with the … floor?” The disbelief was clear in his voice.

“I did!” She said, putting as much emphasis into it as she dared. “It hit me.”

“Of course it did.” He still didn’t sound like he believed her. She opened her mouth to argue her point, but he cut her off. “And how are you feeling now?”

“Not so good.”

“That’s what Madeline here was telling me. Let’s see if we can’t do a bit of damage assessment.” He turned to Jacobs. “Think you could get the door open a bit more?”

“I’m lucky I got it this far. We had to wedge open the manual controls to keep it from closing up again.”

“Keep at it.” He turned back to Lillian and started running through the standard doctorly procedures–shining lights and asking inane sounding question all the while. Lillian bore it as best she could, although the light was piercing. She was actually starting to feel better. The stars and shadows had both stopped dancing about and her headache had quieted down to a dull ache rather than the roar it had been.

Almost as soon as he started, he was done. He turned back to Madeline and Jacobs. “Good enough news. She’s got a concussion almost surely, but I don’t think it’s anything worse. I’d love to get a better look at her and get her to the infirmary, but she’s better off than…” His voice faded mid-sentence.

Lillian couldn’t see his face, but she could see both Madeline and Jacobs, who suddenly looked rather somber. “What in the world is going on?”

Madeline and Jacobs looked at each other for a second, their looks speaking volumes. Whatever it was they said, it was Madeline who carefully pushed off and floated over to Lillian. She grabbed her hand through the doorway. She had the clear look of someone about to deliver bad news and not at all thrilled with the idea.

“Oh Lillian. While the shield was down…” The pause stretched on long enough to become awkward. “Something hit us. As best we can tell, the living quarters are gone.”

The realization hit Lillian almost like a physical blow. She’d been a hand’s breath from the living quarters when the blast doors slammed shut. If she’d been even a touch quicker on any number of different occasions…

She shuddered.

Madeline squeezed her hand through the opening and Lillian squeezed back. She was watching her closely. “We know you were headed that way. That’s why we were so worried…” Her voice trailed off.

“All those people…”

“We’re guessing about half the crew. There might be a few night owls in the facilities, but not likely too many.”

Lillian flashed through all of the people she knew on the ship. Madeline and Jacobs were right there. At some point, he’d floated up right beside her. The medic was nowhere to be seen. “Hans?”

Jacobs shook his head. “In his room, as far as I know.” Madeline put her other hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He leaned into it. After a moment, he drifted off. It looked like he was going back towards the command center, but Lillian couldn’t be sure. Madeline too turned to watch him go.

Lillian hesitated before asking about the others. She wasn’t sure she actually wanted to know. But she asked anyways. “Quinn?”

Madeline answered this time. “No word. His shift in the kitchen was scheduled to start in about an hour though, so if he went in early…”

Lillian nodded. “Adrian?”

Madeline shook her head. “Also missing. He had tomorrow off as well, so who knows what he would be up to.”

Lillian slumped–as well as she could in zero gravity. Her two best friends on the ship were here, but Quinn? She could see a firm friendship in their future. And Adrian had known her mentor. She didn’t want to think of them just gone like that.

A terribly thought struck her. She straightened and looked Madeline straight in the eyes. “Madeline, when you say the quarters are gone…”

She hesitated. “Well, we can’t actually be sure. When I went to get your medic …” She looked about, but he was long gone. “… they said that there were people trapped on the other side of the far blast door. They’ve been passing messages back and forth with Morse code. No word from the living quarters though.”

Lillian brightened. “But that doesn’t mean anything, really. Maybe they’re just all in their rooms.”

Madeline shook her head. “They can see the damage from the observation deck. Whatever hit us tore a nice gash in the hull. It’s open to space.”

“But what about the rooms? If there’s a loss of pressure, they’ll automatically seal, won’t they?”

Madeline thought for a second and Lillian could see a touch of hope creeping back into her features. “I hadn’t actually thought about that. I think they would at that.” The lift was short lived however. “But it won’t make any difference anyways if we can’t get the power back on.”

Lillian started to ask why, but didn’t have to. After a moment’s pause, Madeline went on anyways. “Without the generators or backup batteries, we don’t even have a day’s worth of life support left.”

The silence that greeted that announcement was thick, almost palpable. Finally, Lillian broke it. “And we still don’t know what’s going on?”

“Well, actually we do.”

“What?”

“Some sort of computer virus. A particularly vicious one at that.”

Lillian raised her eyebrows. “A virus? Did all this?”

“Well, not the damage to the living quarters. That was something physical. But the power going out? That’s all computer related.”

“So why don’t we just reboot them?”

“It’s sort of a chicken and the egg problem. We can’t get the power routed back throughout the ship without the computers and the computers won’t work without at least a minimal level of the emergency power.”

“Could we route the emergency power manually?”

Madeline thought for a second, then nodded. “Probably. The problem is that we’d need access to all of the sections of the ship. Up until a bit ago, we only had command.”

“Well I can do the work in this section. And you said that there were people in the facilities?”

“Yeah. And I guess we can do without the living quarters for the time being. At least until we know more.”

Lillian nodded to her. “That’s something of a plan at least. So what needs done?”

“The virus sent out commands to redirect all of the emergency power into the loop-backs just before it shut everything down. So we have power, it’s just not getting anywhere. First thing is just to get that power to the rest of the ship.”

Lillian continued to nod. “That should give us back shields and gravity at the very least.”

“For a little while at least. Long enough to get the generators back online. Hopefully.”

“Hopefully.” He squeezed Madeline’s hand one final time and then let go, drifting backwards away from the opening. “Go. The sooner we can fix this up, the sooner we can find the others.”

Madeline drifted away, but at the last moment she turned back to Lillian. She called out to her as she floated backwards, “Be careful. Remember, someone had to have planted the virus.”

Lillian shuddered. She had a feeling she knew who it was all too well–the remaining Sympathizer.


She knew where the backup power systems where stored–behind a door that looked like any of the other storerooms along the corridor. They were marked with numbers rather than names or labels, but everyone on the engineering crew was made to memorize which rooms they might need to know when they first came aboard. Just in case of situations such as this.

The problem was that the locks on the doors were maintained with an electronic system. It would draw power from the emergency system, but without the connection to even that power supply, the locks would be stuck in whatever the last position that they had been in. In this case: locked.

Of course Lillian tried the doors anyways, but it was futile. The locks wouldn’t engage and the doors were too well made to budge no matter how hard she pushed. Not that she could get up much of a push without anything to push against.

She wanted to avoid destroying the doors if at all possible, but at this point, she couldn’t see any other option. And every second she spent debating was another second of their precious air and heat that was draining away. And they could always replace the door later. If there was a later.

She pulled out her plasma torch, ready to cut through the lock. As she did, she bumped against Eve’s shell. She had to wonder what had gotten in to her to make her so quiet. It wasn’t like she had the ship’s computers to talk to keeping her occupied.

“Eve?”

“I’m here.”

“Up to anything exciting?”

“Just hanging out. Literally in this case.” Her voice was extremely dry.

“You want to keep me company while I work?”

There was a moment of silence than Eve’s hologram appeared to her side as answer. A curious thought rose in Lillian’s mind and she tried spinning in place, carefully twisting her neck to keep an eye on the hologram. As she spun just far enough that her own body was between the shell and the hologram, bits of it faded out, starting at the feet and working their way up.

“Do you mind?” Eve’s voice was no longer in her head, but rather coming from the speakers on her shell. When Lillian was looking directly at the hologram, it seemed that she was actually talking from there. But when she looked elsewhere, she could see the lips moving on the hologram out of the corner of her eyes, but the voice coming from elsewhere. Some trick of the mind perhaps.

“Sorry. Just curious.”

“Don’t you have something better to be doing with your time?”

“Right,” she replied, chastised. She turned to the task at hand. It was a simple matter to cut through the lock, although it could get messy if the melting metal started floating through the air. She was careful to melt it slowly enough that the metal stuck to the doorway though, rather than breaking free. All the while, she kept up an idle banter with Eve.

It was an interesting experience. Almost all of Eve’s responses were spot on what she would have expected had she been talking with a flesh and blood human being. Although she supposed that was just as well, seeing as Eve had at one time been a flesh and blood human being. At least mostly. But every once and a while, there was a particularly long pause or an odd cadence to her voice that reminded Lillian that her partner was truly an alien.

Finally, the last bit of the lock gave way and with it their conversation. Lillian carefully reattached the plasma torch to her belts and, making sure to avoid the hot metal, pushed open the door. It slid open.

The room inside was dark, lit only by a pair of emergency light strips high in the walls and Eve’s glow coming from the hallway. As Lillian floated into the room, Eve did as well. it was small and the contrast of the red and blue lights was almost painfully sharp in the enclosed space.

She looked over the components before her and could see that Madeline was exactly right. The banks of batteries that stored the emergency power for this section were completely charged. There was no reason that they couldn’t provide enough power for even the shields and gravity for at least a couple of weeks, along with the rest of their needs. But the relays used to adjust the flow of power when maintenance on the system was necessary was all turned about, making the entire system useless. She started to turn them back into their proper places, thinking out loud all the while.

“This looks like the work of that second Sympathizer that Madeline overheard. Just a simple computer virus. Almost deceptively simple, and yet it managed to bring the entire ship to it’s knees.”

“Figuratively speaking of course.” Eve chimed in.

Lillian rolled her eyes and continued as if she hadn’t heard. “But the real clincher was taking down the shield. But how could anyone have known there would be something out here for us to hit. There’s nothing out here.”

Eve’s voice took on a sly edge. “Unless they found something on the external cameras.”

Lillian stopped in the middle of flipping a pair of overly large switches. She turned to the hologram which was cheerfully floating around a few feet away from her, appearing truly effortless. “Would that work?”

“Sure. There’s a bit of junk floating about, even out here. Debris ejected from planetary disks. Remnants of supernovae. Even whole failed star systems that didn’t quite get enough oomph to form. All you’d need to do it time it right.”

“But the odds of actually hitting something like that…” Lillian started working again, if nothing else to get her hands working again. She was nearly finished reconnecting the power. Just another half dozen or so relays to check.

“A slight tweak in the course. Could even have been weeks or months ago. Particularly if they changed the course programming. And judging by a virus that could take down the entire system like that, it wouldn’t have been hard.”

“That sounds like a lot of planning.”

“Not much else to do on an interstellar mission more than a decade in the making…”

“Touche.” She connected the last relay. There was a hum of the lights coming back on. They were dimmer than they would normally have been–an effort to conserver power when on the batteries–but still they were there. A second later, the artificial gravity kicked back in.

For the second time in as many hours, the floor raced upwards to smash into Lillian. This time, she was ready for it though and rolled with the blow. It still stung, but she managed to avoid the worse of the blow.

“That’s so much better,” she said, to no one in particularly.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Eve’s gloating voice came from her belt, but her hologram was still soaring about, overhead but off tot he side so that there was a clear line of sight to the shell even with Lillian on the ground.

Lillian just rolled her eyes and started back towards the blast doors. She was walking with a limp and her headache had grown into a dull roar in the back of her head, but there was no time for either. there was still work to be done. And a Sympathizer than needed to be found. Before they could strike again.


She arrived back at the blast door just as Madeline did, walking along the floor same as she was. The lights in the other section were back as well.

“I take it yours succeeded as well,” she asked when Madeline was close enough to hear her easily.

Madeline nodded and glanced up and down at Lillian. “You look like hell.” She did something on her side of the door, disappearing from view as she did.

“Thanks a lot.”

Madeline’s disembodied voice drifted from one side of the blast door. “It’s the truth. You really do need to lie down, at the very least.”

“I can sleep when I’m dead.” Although a few hours of sleep sounded absolutely glorious right about then. A few days even. “There’s more work to be done.”

As she spoke, the blast door suddenly closed, hesitated, and the slid open completely. There was a bit of hesitation in a few of the panels–most likely from whatever Madeline and Jacobs had done to jam it open–but they vanished cleanly enough into the walls. Madeline was standing there, just on the other side, standing up from fiddling with the control panel.

She looked up and saw the door was gone. Before Lillian could react, Madeline had flung herself across the intervening space and wrapped her arms around Lillian’s middle. It hurt, but in a good sort of way. She returned the hug with what force she could muster, but it was fading fast.

Madeline pulled away after a few seconds, looking up into Lillian’s face. “Come on. Infirmary.”

“But…”

“Yes, I know. Work to be done. But we’ve bought some time. We can get along just fine without you for a few hours at the very least.” By this point, she was half helping and half dragging Lillian along, past communications and command. Past the security stations. The infirmary was in the next section of the ship, but they’d already apparently gotten the power restored there as well. And the blast doors open. The bumped into Jacobs at that blast door, fiddling with the panels as Madeline had been with hers. He nodded them along, but seemed rather preoccupied with whatever he was about and didn’t follow them on.

The infirmary was crowded with people that had been flung about in the chaos of the past while. But there was still a single bed open and Lillian stumbled over to it–with more help from Madeline than she cared to admit. The medic she’d met earlier was there, helping out another patient. When he saw Lillian, he rushed over. He gave her some sort of pill as she lay on the bed, shaking his head for whatever reason. But Lillian was past caring. She was past just about everything at that point.

All she wanted to do was fall into a deep deep sleep…

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