Stars, Hide Your Fires
by Ljubo Popovich
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Amid the annihilation of matter, the ship yawed and plummeted. The shielding glittered with impacts, and the cabin grew uncomfortably warm while I sweated through the jostling cataclysms of propulsion and intense gravitation.
It wasn’t until the cabin was lit by the cool light of hyperspace that I stopped shaking. I had always found the protoplasmic sheen calming. All the warp drives were fried, and the ramjet was toast, which meant fuel was now a precious commodity. Jumping out of hyperspace would consume a lot of it.
It wouldn’t be such a bad way to go: sliding through the interdimensional film for all eternity. Careening toward the unseen edge like a disintegrating comet.
Finally, I swung the lever and jacked the ship back into physical space.
The velocity was low; the ace in the hole had worked. I thought perhaps shipboard lighting had finally conked out, but it was just a disconcerting blackness oozing in from the windows.
I had only ever observed such perfect darkness once before.
As my velocity continued at a steady 9,403 km/sec, I felt blindly for the porthole to comfort my insensate mind with the sight of a few specks of stars I expected to see. But there was nothing.
Unbelieving, I felt at the glass. It was icy cold. I pressed my naked eye to it, wondering if I’d suddenly gone blind. Actually, I was peering into a void. The region of space I found myself in was empty. There wasn’t the faintest trace of light, just a few flickering dials on the console.
My mind groped for an explanation. Either no light had yet reached this far out and I’d outraced it from its origin... Or the Universe was nearing heat-death. The time dilation indicator had been one of the first components to expire, so there was no telling how immensely skewed time had become.
The thought of every star drifting dead, nothing more than inert cinders, was maddening. I yearned for the comforting blanket of hyperspace.
I don’t know how much time passed. Every so often I’d propel myself weightlessly from wall to wall and nibble at a protein bar or fumble into the closet to relieve myself into the bucket. I slept and woke and slept again. The temptation to engage the pharaoh pod was almost unbearable. It would be like going to sleep, that’s all.
Feebly, I fiddled with the controls. The dashboard was stubbornly unresponsive. I resigned myself to my fate.
* * *
It was very quiet at first. The sound. It snapped me out of a meditative trance. It came from outside the ship. Again I pressed my face to the window and again there was nothing. The sound grew louder. A distinct metallic hum, like the congregation of a billion robotic bees.
And then a light seared my irises. I forced my eyelids open as the humming got louder. Perhaps I was finally going mad. Parts of my ship dissolved in the light. The pieces flew apart as if magnetically repulsed. The air and everything else scattered, and I was lifted into a bubble of colorless light.
My eyes were unable to focus. Far in the distance, something glinted. I was floating in space, my ship had vanished somehow. But how was I still breathing? The glinting changed and I felt myself shoved gently closer to it. All at once I waved my arms, touched my face and body and realized that there was something pressing into my back, guiding me forward.
Soon the gleaming object turned into a surface that I fell onto and slid across. I spread my arms, but the cold metal seemed to be frictionless. Then it grabbed hold of my clothes and held me still. Lights began to wink into existence in the form of floating globes. I turned my head and watched as a large metal claw ascended from my back and receded. My heart pounded; I’d seen that claw before.
“Who’s there?” I called out. The atmosphere was thin and already I was gasping.
A voice sounded very close, “Commander Grayson, sir?”
It took me a moment to recognize my own name. A sentient gas? I wondered.
“You’re a long way from home,” it said. There was a vague figure in the distance, floating nearer.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“We’ve been following your progress for quite a while.” The voice hovered closer. It came from a shadow.
“Who are you?”
“Surely you remember me. Franz.”
I trembled, then seethed, grew furious and thrashed at the brazen darkness. “You’re lying!” I screamed.
“There will be time for explanation. More than enough time.”
“Where am I?” I demanded. “This is... The Black Isinglass?” I ventured.
“Please, try to relax.” The voice grew sonorous. Slowly, I recognized Franz’s voice from the dregs of memory.
“Franz,” I gasped, “what is this thing? How’s it possible?”
“You really went out on a limb.” Franz laughed.
Almost choking, I forced a chuckle, though my heart was still pounding.
“Why don’t we make ourselves comfortable?” he suggested. The claw swept me up and floated me through emptiness.
It set me down in a wide-open, glowing chamber. Light emanated from floating globes. I sat in a chair made out of the amorphous shadow-material. Unbelieving, I noticed Franz sitting across from me. “Well, I never thought I’d see you again, sir,” he said. “You’re looking well.”
I squinted at him. In the low-light it was hard to determine if he was a hologram. “So this is what death is like,” I mumbled.
“Excuse me, sir, but you’re not dead. Perhaps I should clear things up for you.”
“That would be nice, Corporal. Get to it.”
“I’ll speak freely, sir, if you don’t mind. You were incorrect assuming you could keep up with the Black Isinglass.”
“How fast is it then?”
“Speed doesn’t matter. It travels primarily through time.”
I let out an amused sigh. “How?”
“Stop thinking about this as a ship. Think of it as a life form.”
“What kind of life form?”
“It traverses the galaxies and beyond. Distance means nothing to it.”
I imagined a creature, camouflaged with an impenetrable skin of night, slithering between stars to feed on intelligent life. In my mind’s eye I saw trillions of them, swimming through the infinite void.
“Why does it abduct people?”
“It does what any intelligent creature would do. It observes and occasionally interacts with its environment. I have never considered myself a prisoner. I mean, after the initial shock. I could leave at any time.”
“But how are you here? How did you follow me to the edge of the universe?”
“Did you forget that you came to it?”
“So, you could’ve gone home but you chose to become one with an alien entity?”
“All the star systems you’ve seen, all the years you’ve lived, are as nothing compared to what it has shown me. The fact that I am sitting here in front of you proves that its power is almost infinite.”
“And why do you bother talking to me now, Corporal, if you have access to so much power?”
“I admire your courage, Commander. And I want to give you a choice. Why not join us?”
I stood up suddenly, thrust against the sponge-like surface of the floor and grabbed at Franz, who became as intangible as fog. “You’re not real,” I said.
“My physical body is no longer necessary.”
“This is all just happening inside my head.”
“Perhaps it would be simpler if I showed you.”
Without warning I stood on a beach. A blinding ocean scintillated as far as the eye could see. My feet were so ecstatic at the feel of solid ground that tears rushed to my eyes. I picked up a million grains of sand in a palm, tore off the rags I wore and felt the light of a powerful sun on my chest.
Trees sprang up and twisted toward the sky, sparkled with fruit and withered. Insects swarmed the fertile soil, devouring whole forests; volcanoes erupted on the horizon as darkness rushed into the sky, swallowed it, and poured molten pitch over the shifting landscape. Mountains shattered and dispersed as the ocean rushed through a colossal crevice to the planet’s interior.
Dark-skinned men and women, happy and naked, erected huts, conspired, hunted. They waged wars, wandered, conquered everything, and built giant pyramids like brilliant stalagmites. Whole cities rose as the sky was drained of color, filling with movement and gleaming vehicles.
The world burst apart and recreated itself a hundred times a minute, a thing too complex to comprehend, and my eyes were riveted. Eons passed, civilizations died out, slithered through the sludge of progress and were crushed by disaster. And finally stars spread before me, changing course, dancing to some imperceptible music and then flitted into invisible immensities like celestial sprites.
“You understand now,” Franz’s voice said, issuing from inside my head. Once again I stood in the disappointing darkness of the Black Isinglass, speechless.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” he asked. “You were never one to settle for anything less than the infinite.”
“This thing can go anywhere? Any time and place?”
“Of course. What more could you ask for?”
I stood silent for a long time, regarding Franz’s plain, immaterial face.
“I can show you more if you still doubt.”
“There’s no need, Corporal.”
“Then you’ve decided?”
“Not exactly. I want you to take me back to Earth. Take me back to the year 1519. In Spain. No, a few years earlier, so I can prepare.”
“What? Why?” Franz’s expression betrayed genuine perplexity.
“That’s an order, Corporal. That’s where I’m going. It’s the year Magellan set sail.”
Copyright © 2019 by Ljubo Popovich