Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Deathlight

Els wondered again if she should start recording her final words.

If she could start recording her final words.

There was cold, and then there was cold, and the Tolstar was cold. Dun had shut off every heating system that wasn’t absolutely needed to keep systems running outside of the main control room, and even that he left cold enough to let ice crystals form. It had seemed like a practical solution at the time, seven, eight days ago: They had their bodysuits, they had extra blankets, they could spare just enough energy to melt water to sip on while they crunched their freeze-dried rations. Hot meals and drinks would come eventually.

If they could get out of here.

They could turn some of the systems back on once they were through this.

If they could get through this.

That had been eight days ago. Els had started shivering six days ago, and had not been able to stop since. She could almost shake the cold when she wrapped herself in blankets and reset her bodysuit to keep from slipping into hypothermia when she slept—for a few hours, at least, the energy in the bodysuit warmed her back to sleep and life. But even then, she dreamed of the cold, and she did not dare reset the bodysuit too often. Just enough for life, and she watched Dun carefully for his nod, as he watched for hers.

Eight days.

It’s your imagination, she reminded herself again. Your imagination. You’re warm. Warm. She checked her bodysuit readings again. See? Warm.

The ice crystals suggested otherwise.

If she killed him, the ship would use a little—just a little—less energy. She could stay warmer just a little longer.

If she killed him, she would probably die. He was, after all, why they were both alive.

And also why they might both die.

The drop mission had been routine, exactly like their last two. Exactly. So exactly that she’d often found herself blinking and needing to check chronometers to remember exactly when they were, especially when they’d found themselves rewatching vids, rehashing conversations. Probably why she had made the tiniest, tiniest navigational error, had forgotten once—just once—to do a routine maintenance check. Probably why he, in turn, had forgotten his own maintenance check.

They still might have lost fuel.

They still might have decided to cross through this nebula to save time. To end this journey just a little faster. To move on.

All kinds of things might have happened. What mattered now was what had happened.

And now this.

We shouldn’t have done this one.

IRIAN discouraged pairs from doing more than one mission; regulations set a non-negotiable limit of three. When Els first joined, she’d found that ridiculous to deeply short-sighted: Surely, if a pair worked well together, it was in IRIAN’s best interest to keep them together? She and Dun were perfectly matched on all levels: His strengths compensated for her weaknesses, and vice versa; they’d had parallel but not equivalent training; more importantly, he’d made her laugh. A year into their first mission, and they were best friends; a half a year later, lovers. Signing up for a second mission felt only natural. She couldn’t even think of enduring deep space with anyone else.

On this mission, they were both so desperate to finish, to end it—

His fault.

You need him alive.

I need him dead.

She turned her gaze to the viewscreens, telling herself not to feel sick.

Deathlight, she’d heard some people call it, something she’d never understood until she’d gotten inside a nebula, inside the ever shifting, ever dim light that always just seemed about to show something until it didn’t. The brightest spots were the worst: She could see nothing through them, and they showed nothing, only themselves.

Stars could be born here, she knew, but the only signs of life she saw were the dim tendrils of gas and plasma that, in the shifting light of the nebula almost seemed to move, as if reaching out to grab their ship—

It’s a nebula. Nothing but dust and gas and tiny bits of stars and other worlds. Nothing alive.

Another tendril seemed to shift.

It’s just the cold. Nothing but the cold.

Or something living. Something trying to eat us through the cold. She thought of old tales of space ghosts and stars, monsters living out in the dark. It’s the nebula. The nebula. A ghost nebula, hungry. Waiting.

Cold.

Final words.

She had to think of her final words. Document. Document. Document. Not that it was likely her words would be found, not out here. Transmissions rarely managed to pass intact through nebulas. IRIAN rarely sent more than one ship on any one route. She and Dun weren’t going to be rescued, weren’t going to be followed. And yet it was ingrained in her. Document. Document.

That tendril.

She swallowed.

Moving. Towards the ship—

To conquer fear, one must face it, she chanted to herself. Face the nebula. Watch it. How many people have this opportunity? How many people survived to say that they had this opportunity? IRIAN explained the statistics to everyone who signed on: 37.2% of deep spacers were never heard from again. Those were the ghosts. Not this nebula. She didn’t need a computer, with its reassuring stream of data, to tell her that. She just had to look again.

Which is when she saw it.

“Dun!”

• • • •

Dun wasn’t pleased to be wakened. He had given up on his shift, given up on everything except for sleeping. She was pretty sure that he hoped to drift off that way, sleeping, in the cold. She was also pretty sure their bodysuits wouldn’t let that happen. The water systems would fail first. That, more than the cold, could kill them.

She couldn’t think about that.

“Dun!”

She pulled him out of the narrow cot and towards the control room, not listening to his invective, and shoved him in front of the viewscreen. “Look.”

“Yes. A nebula. That we’re—holy shit.”

Els released a breath she hadn’t even known she’d been holding. “It’s not just me seeing things, then.”

“Could be an optical illusion, but—I’ll fire up a couple of sensors.”

Cold. “Dun—”

“I know. But that—” He pointed, although it wasn’t necessary—“That might just be the extra scraps we need.”

• • • •

It took Dun four hours to turn on just enough heat to allow a few of the sensors to turn on, just enough heat to turn on one computer. Meanwhile, Els stayed by the viewscreen, staring, as the wisps of dust and gas blocked and then unblocked her view. Deathlight, only this . . .

. . . might be life light.

Might.

Something metallic, at least. She’d thought at first it was purely cylindrical shape, but as they drifted closer, she could see that wasn’t quite true—one end sloped into some sort of cone shape, giving the object the appearance of a tower that had fallen into clouds. Or maybe one of the ancient rockets that she’d seen pictures of during tedious history classes. Something. Whatever it was, the shape seemed made, not natural.

Whatever it was, it was more than dust. And it might—it might—

She was not going to let herself get excited. She was not.

But she was going to document.

She didn’t turn on any systems; simply picked up a marker and began writing on the wall. If they were lucky—even if they were just “get through this nebula” lucky—she’d be able to enter her notes into the computer. For now, she just wrote. Silvery white, reflective, apparent length about 500 meters—

“Els. Ready.”

He was the engineer; she the pilot. Two sets of eyes would be better, even if neither one of them had exactly been trained for this.

“Radioactivity looks pretty low. Seriously low.”

Her heart sunk. That reduced the possibility of potential fuels.

“Nebula clouding the scanners?”

“Maybe. Or whatever this is just been here for a long while. A very long while.”

“No signs of life, either,” she said.

His eyes darted to her, annoyed, then returned to the screen. “Huh. A lot less mass than I’d expect.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But look—here—here—signs of something heavier?”

He swallowed. “Els—”

“What? You know this isn’t my thing.”

“No—not that. Just—Els. Look. Low radioactivity, signs of heavy mass in some locations. I’m thinking heavy metals.” When she didn’t respond, he continued. “Rare metals.”

“Oh.”

He took a deep breath. “It could make us. Not just for this trip. But—”

After.

Something neither one of them had spoken of. Els had just assumed that after for her meant more drop missions, with a different partner. A new partner. Someone she would not be dreaming about killing.

“I think we have to check it out.”

He had not mentioned fuel. She hadn’t either. But they might be able to do something with the heavier metals. Might.

And it was better than freezing here.

“See what you can give me for the controls.”

• • • •

It took another two hours for Dun to reset the controls, carefully, cautiously; another four hours before Els could equally carefully, cautiously, move the Tolstar closer to the object, as Dun continued to study the readings.

“I’d almost swear it was manufactured,” Dun said.

“Hmm?”

“You know. Not natural. Human made.”

“It does look a bit like a tower,” Els said, after a minute. “Or maybe one of those really old ships—what did they call them?”

“Rockets, I think,” Dun said. “Not quite the right shape, but close.”

“We’ll call it the tower then.” When he darted another look at her, she shrugged. “We can’t just keep calling it ‘it.’”

He gave a half smile. “Tower it is then. Not that it looks like anything human I’ve ever seen. Then again, they shot all kinds of crap off from old Earth back in the day.”

“This is as close as I want to come,” she said.

His eyes narrowed. “We should be able to chute from here.”

“Dun—”

Cold.

“Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

He heard her thought anyway. “I’m not sure we have that much of a choice.”

And for the first time in a long time, she almost found herself liking him again.

• • • •

IRIAN had protocols for this sort of thing. Els and Dun ignored almost all of them as they drifted closer to what Els was now calling the tower, overriding the multiple systems that would not—yet—let them access their pressure suits, much less the chute that could be used to connect drop ships, and in this case would let them access the tower.

“What if we can’t get in?”

“We should be able to access something,” Dun said. “Besides—”

He looked away from the nebula.

She didn’t say anything.

They pulled out two arc welders—another definite protocol break for IRIAN, and something Els wasn’t thrilled about using either, to be honest: They would need oxygen, and although the Tolstar was still cleaning and replenishing oxygen from carbon dioxide, it wasn’t doing so quickly. But hours of watching the tower drift closer had yielded no sign of a door.

They waited until they had drifted just close enough before hopping into the pressure suits and releasing the chute.

After her training, Els had hoped to never enter a chute again: The clear walls, suggesting that nothing stood between her and space, terrified her. It was no better this time, even with Dun ahead of her, proving—proving—that the chute really was there. She couldn’t see him. All she could see was the deathlight from the nebula, the clouds of gas and dust that, from the chute, now looked like tiny thorns ready to prick open the chute and send both of them whirling out to the void.

It was a relief to reach the other object; a relief to pull out the arc welders and start cutting through. Even a relief to find herself having to push away from the floating bits of metal in the chute.

Not at all a relief to see the inside.

She pushed herself away to give Dun a chance to look through the hole, to give herself a chance to breathe a little. She watched his body jerk; wondered if she’d done the same.

“So much for being hollow,” Dun said, turning his helmet towards hers.

Something must have shown on her face.

“Well, we won’t find those metals out here.”

“Be careful.”

He took a deep breath. “That goes both ways.”

But you’re the reason we’re doing this, she thought, and then stepped inside.

• • • •

Inside was an assortment of crystals: hard and round, sharp and smooth, some attached to the walls of the tower, some floating in midair, some solitary, some interconnected, all tossed together in disarray.

There’s got to be a pattern. Science forms a pattern. Humans form patterns. Aliens form patterns. Ghosts form patterns . . .

Cold.

Cold.

Pattern.

She made sure she had two lines tied to the chute—one IRIAN protocol she did agree with—and checked Dun’s as he checked hers. Then, with one more mutual nod, they began trying to move through the shapes.

Els’ head began to hurt within seconds. It wasn’t just the shapes, it wasn’t just the sense that everything she saw should have been leading somewhere, but wasn’t, or even the carefully restricted food rations she’d been on for months—her body was used to the last of this by now, anyway. No, it was the sense that this was all wrong, that they shouldn’t be here, that they weren’t the ones meant to be here, meant to open this—this—Tower—

“Cesium.”

“What?”

“What the scanner is indicating. Along with some other alkali metals. Up there.”

She followed his finger towards what looked like a lattice of crystals extending across the entire tower.

“Think we can make it?”

“Maybe.”

They had to move carefully, pushing themselves from crystal to crystal: Many of the crystals were visibly sharp, and their suits could be punctured. The ambient temperature here was even colder than it had been on the ship: negative 150. She wondered idly how many of these crystals were pure water; they could possibly use more of that too. At that thought, a crystal seemed to move closer.

You’re imagining things. Stop it.

Cold.

God, that’s beautiful— “Dun?”

“I see it. Colors. Might mean that the metals really are there. If in compounds. Or might mean something else.” His eyes were scanning back and forth along the lattice. “The question is how to get in—”

“Maybe we can just push it and see if something moves.”

Through his helmet, he looked dubious. “Carefully—if we push too hard—”

“I know.” Her moment of almost liking him again might not last too long at this rate. “Still. As you said. Metals. Push.”

They started to push lightly against the crystals on the lattice, making their way across the chamber. Els should have been surprised when a section easily detached, but somehow she was not. She gestured to Dun to follow as she let herself float up and—

Cold

no

colors

colors colors colors

scarlet emerald turquoise violet aqua the words weren’t enough, they weren’t enough, human words weren’t enough—

deathlight

death

light

“Els!”

Her head snapped back, sending the bottom of the helmet into her neck. She hissed.

“You all right?”

Cold.

“Yes. Just—” She forced herself to look around. “What the hell is this place?”

“You seemed out of it for a minute.”

Deathlight.

“The shock of—” she paused, tried to think of words, resigned herself to just flapping her hand in the general direction of the room—“this.”

Room. It was a room; she had no idea why she was so certain of that, but she was. The ceiling was covered with various clear panes that allowed the deathlight of the nebula to enter. Inside the crystal matrix formed a floor, and on the sides, in between the panes, were swirls of tiny crystals that she was certain—certain—had been deliberately placed there by design.

And hovering in the center, a giant sphere, connected by seven slim strands to the room’s walls.

She looked at Dun. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Hoping not.”

They said it together, the way they’d done so many things together, before. “Aliens.”

• • • •

IRIAN had been dutifully searching for alien life, as had every human explorer since, Els supposed, the very first liftoff from old Earth, back in—she couldn’t remember the date, and it wasn’t worth trying. Nothing much had been found, apart from some compounds on a few planets that might, if left alone for another few million years, develop into viruses and bacteria, and some stones on one planet near Rigel that a group insisted were sentient. But that was it.

Otherwise, humans were alone.

Very alone.

But this.

Els had heard of some objects that formed clear geometrical shapes. But this was different. The panels, the swirls of tiny crystals—those had to mean something. She floated over with her tablet and began taking vids of the crystals and the patterns. Even if she couldn’t find anything there, IRIAN had decoding programs: Surely something could give her a sense of a meaning.

“Els.”

“Working.”

“I think you need to see this.”

He was floating above the sphere. She kicked off as cautiously as she could from the crystal walls—nothing looked disturbed, she noted with relief as she looked back—moving gently towards him.

“Look down.”

The top of the sphere was covered by some substance that looked like dark glass. And beneath that—

Cold.

Vermillion amethyst rose mint scarlet blue lemon no the names were all wrong the names were all wrong they weren’t enough, they weren’t enough the names the names

cold

ah the cold coldlight

Something slammed her against the wall. She heard a scattering of ringing sounds. Her suit vibrated, making her shake. It took her a moment to see Dun’s gloved hands on her arm.

“What the hell?”

“Sorry,” he said, in the tone that said he wasn’t sorry at all. “I thought I had to get you away from it.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I called out to you about five times and you didn’t respond.”

“Forgive me for just maybe finding this more interesting than your goddamn voice.”

He didn’t apologize this time.

She took a deep breath and kicked off again.

“Els—”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Els—”

“I need another look.”

From the corner of her eye she could see him following her. She ignored him. She had to look into the sphere again.

This time, she could see.

The dark substance—glass? Crystal? Something else?—on the top of the sphere was only dark from below or the sides. Not from above, under the deathlight, which revealed hundreds of tiny, brilliant spheres beneath that substance. A thousand colors; a trillion. And between the sparkling, shimmering spheres, thick—strings? Tubes? Like the strings connecting the sphere to the wall. Tentacles. Cold. The nebula. She shook her head. Her eyes hurt. Her head ached. And yet she had to move closer.

Three centimeters away from the sphere, and the strings—no, tiny tubes, she was suddenly certain of that—came more into focus: She could see the individual shimmering fibers that made up each tube. They, too, glowed with color. Were they the source of the faint energy readings? She had to get closer to tell.

She had never seen anything so beautiful, so wonderful, in her life.

Cold.

Hungry.

Cold.

Beautiful. So beautiful.

light

Dun had forgotten his concerns—or maybe just wanted to stay closer to her—and floated up behind her, clutching his own tablet, his eyes flickering between the tablet and the sphere.

“Faint. Really faint,” he said. “Probably why I didn’t get a read on it earlier, but I’m definitely getting energy readings here. Sorta steady, with tiny fluctuations here and there. If I can just find the source—maybe it will be enough. Maybe. And if it’s alien—”

Els tilted her head, just a little—and then saw it: a small shimmer of light pulsing through one of the fibers. “There!”

“Where?”

“Gone already, but—no, wait.”

Now she could see them, shimmers of light pulsing through the fibers, almost but not quite lighting up the tiny spheres. After a few moments, Dun was at an angle where he could see them too. She saw him touching his tablet again.

But she couldn’t pay any attention to that, seized as she was by a sudden new idea. “Dun,” she said. “What if what’s inside this sphere—what if it’s alive?”

The pulsing lights below her seemed to grow a little stronger.

Cold.

• • • •

Dun was willing to accept possible aliens, but not life. Sure, whatever was inside the sphere was pulsing. Sure, this—this tower now showed signs of intelligent design. Sure, whatever was inside the sphere had to be important—the position, the ropes of fibers connecting it to the wall—that all proved that. And yes, whatever was inside—

He swallowed.

Amazing.”

He had never liked using the word beautiful, even when they were together, Els remembered.

But none of that meant alive. Or even hibernation. Or even—

It wasn’t a word either one of them wanted to think about.

It still could mean finding something that could save them.

He insisted on more tests, more vids, more analysis. The pulses on the fibers could mean anything—could be from anything. They might not even be connected to the faint energy readings. The tiny fluctuations meant nothing—they knew this ship had been here for several thousand years, at least, if not more. Any system could have started to break down. Any. Just look at—

He choked back on that sentence.

Els ignored him. She kept thinking that if she kept watching, kept recording the pulses, that either she or the computer would figure out what was there. It wasn’t her thing at all, but maybe if she noticed a pattern or something she could work something out.

She couldn’t.

But that was only half the reason she found herself staying above the sphere.

It had been so long, so long since she’d seen anything but sickening nebula and cold stars, cold stars and sickening nebula. And now this: this pulsing pattern of light and color and deathlight and beauty. If Dun hadn’t dragged them both away for breaks, she thought she could have easily hovered above the sphere unmoving for hours. It was—

Beauty.

But for all of Els’ focus, it was Dun who found the small hole in the top of the sphere—made hard to see by the combination of the deathlight and the pulsing colors. A hole that, by all appearances, seemed to lead deep down into the sphere, perhaps right to its center, through the spheres and tubes.

“I almost wonder,” Dun started.

“Wonder what?”

“Never mind. Crazy idea.”

“This might be alien. How crazy can your idea get?”

“That just makes this sound even crazier.”

“What, then?”

“It almost reminds me of a finger or a retina scanner. Except that instead of a finger, you have to use one of those.” He pointed to the fibers connecting the spheres, the fibers that Els was starting to call tentacles in her mind. She followed his fingers.

He was right. The size of the hole, the slight indentations inside it—all looked like a perfect match for one of those glowing tentacles. And yet. She raised herself up, floating a bit above the cylinder, looking through the crystals to the pulsing, glowing, fibers below. And then pulled herself back.

“Doesn’t bode well for us getting it open,” Dun continued.

The hole was about the size of her little finger.

She had been watching the sphere for so long. For so very long.

Maybe.

Her little finger without its glove.

She swallowed. Negative 150 degrees. No. She couldn’t think about that. If she spent time thinking, she wouldn’t be able to do it. To do this.

One second to unsnap her glove. Another second to pull it off. A third second to pull in her other fingers as close to the palm of her hand as possible as she moved her hand towards the hole, inserting her finger and—

“Els? ELS?”

colors, colors, colors COLD colors red emerald indigo turquoise COLD COLD AH FIRE emerald emerald she didn’t have the words she didn’t have the words and everything was tipping, tipping, tipping and she was falling through colors, falling through colors and she could feel the fibers piercing her piercing her falling falling

“ELS!”

and she was no longer alone in the vast stars sleeping, no longer alone in the vast starts dying and the colors were dancing, dancing, alive and

falling

cold

light oh light

• • • •

She woke up to white walls and computer screens. Familiar white walls and computer screens. She shut her eyes and swallowed. Her hand—

Her hand.

She opened her eyes again.

“Did it work?”

“Since I don’t know what you were trying to do—”

“Open it. Touch her. Wake her.”

He drew in a sharp breath. “No.”

Everything felt oddly normal. The lights, the screens, the faint warmth—warmth?—in the room, Dun leaning against the door of the cabin. The tight wrappings around her palm and the four fingers left on her hands.

Phantom limbs. She’d been told about the sensation. Everybody got that lecture. But she hadn’t been warned that it would all feel so normal afterwards.

At least until she was past the shock. Probably why it felt—

“You turned on the heat.”

“A little. I felt it was worth the risk.”

“Freezing might have helped the healing process a little.”

“Or helped you lose the complete hand. Either way.”

Els looked away. “So beautiful,” she whispered. “It was worth it.” She raised up her other hand.

Dun’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “Your finger?”

“Yes. Even if I didn’t wake her.”

“Her.”

Red and blue and violet and green and beauty and warmth and warmth and warmth and someone, someone, someone pushing her into colors breathing colors breathe, breathe and—

“Just an expression.”

He looked at her hand.

“I need to show you something.”

• • • •

This trip back through the chute and the chamber up to the room was even worse. Her missing finger hurt. She was terribly cold. She tried not to think of what Dun had gone through to get her back to the medical lab area. Tried not to think of what she had seen up there. Of what she had felt.

“Stay down,” he said pulling at her as she was about to float up to the sphere again. “Look.”

He tugged her to another section—where the long tube from the sphere intersected with the wall, running his suited hands over it.

In the deathlight, this section of the wall shone with colors that looked somehow—distorted. Shifting.

“I’d noticed some radioactivity in this area.”

She felt a stirring of excitement. “An engine?”

Dun’s helmet moved back and forth. “Maybe. Maybe not. I still don’t even know if this thing has an engine. What I do know is that after you—” She could hear him swallowing. “Anyway, after that, the fibers going back and forth between here and this area lit up. I took another look while you were under, and—Els. It’s some specific heavy metals. Cesium, a few other things—Not much. But it might be enough. And some heavy metals, enough to make us—“

Her heart was thumping, loudly. “Enough to wake her up?”

His helmet was turned away.

“That’s not the point.”

Cold.

Vermillion. Aqua. Gold. Teal. Blue beyond blue.

“What is the point?”

“Heavy, Els.”

She waited. He sighed.

“Let’s assume that this—this thing—stopped moving for whatever reason. Maybe this.” He ran his suited fingers down a jagged line along the crystals and fibers. “If it did. Well. It’s just large enough to create a tiny bit of gravity. Not much. But just enough to start collecting stray particles of dust floating through space. Which in turn, with the ship, might be just enough to create bubbles of gas. Which would attract more gas and bubbles and—”

Els stared into the horrid colors, the strings of plasma and gas that still looked like tentacles to her. “You’re talking millions of years.”

“Possibly. Yes.”

“She can’t possibly be that old.”

“The universe is a lot older than that.”

no longer alone in the vast stars sleeping, no longer alone in the vast starts dying and the colors were dancing, dancing, alive

“God.” She had to try not to throw up. The pressure suit didn’t really accommodate that; she could suffocate and die by the time they got back to the ship, even assuming that Dun would want to take her back there in the first place. “So she’s been trapped here, all this time—”

“Which is a good thing for us.”

She snapped back to what he had been saying, what he had not been saying.

Cold.

“I can’t promise. But if I can get the lithium and rubidium out of here, maybe the cesium—”

“No,” she said sharply. “No. We can’t take it. We can’t.”

“Els—”

“No. If there’s a chance—a chance—she’s alive—”

Stop calling it she.”

“If there’s a chance—”

“That’s all there is, a chance. The same chance it’s giving us. You don’t know that it’s alive. I don’t know that it’s alive.”

“We can still wake her—”

“You were under for five days this last time.”

That rocked her. For a second. “I have another finger. Maybe she needs two.”

“Els. Els.” He placed his gloved hands on hers. “I know we’re past all that crap, but—” he swallowed. “Please don’t force me to watch you die.”

Cold.

no longer alone in the vast stars sleeping, no longer alone in the vast starts dying and the colors were dancing, dancing, alive

“No.”

She wrenched away from him and pushed hard against the crystal wall. It chimed in response as she floated upwards, over the sphere. Overshot. She pushed herself back down, slamming back into the sphere, as Dun in turn started floating after her. But she had her glove off and her finger in the opening before he could reach her.

• • • •

He didn’t have to say anything when she woke up. She knew.

The lights were on, not just in the medical bay, but the hallway outside. She was wearing only light pants and a light, if long sleeved shirt, and she was warm. Delightfully warm. She shut her eyes. The missing fingers twitched. She would not scratch them. She would not.

She stayed there, in the warmth, watching the white ceiling, for some time before she was willing to move.

He was in the control room, of course. She spared a quick glance out the viewscreens. She could still see the trails of the nebula, but the deathlight was failing. It stopped the rolling of her stomach. Somewhat.

“So.”

“So.”

Dun kept tapping on his tablet.

“I’m not going to thank you.”

“I didn’t think you would.” More tapping. “I didn’t take everything.”

“But it won’t be enough.”

“You don’t know what she needs.”

She shut her eyes.

“Neither do you. Did you see her? Hear her? Was she—”

“Els—”

“Never mind.”

She reached for her own tablet, took a moment to stare down at her eight fingers. Later, maybe, when she was drunk at a bar, she would ask herself questions, ask herself what she had been doing, had been thinking.

For now, she was just trying not think of falling into colors.

“Did we get enough power for a full transmission?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Not sure we need one, though. By the time anyone gets it—”

“Not for us,” she said, tapping her screen.

“Els.”

“Whatever you took—it was just enough to keep her pulsing. And we couldn’t see her in the nebula either. If there are others—others like her—“

He let out a long breath.

“Even assuming—Els. She was in there for a very long time.”

“I know.”

He took another long breath, and tapped his tablet a few more times. She swallowed as she saw more data, more vids, popping up on her screen.

“Dun—”

“I wasn’t just salvaging stuff back there.” His mouth twisted. “Plus, I know you. Document. Document. Document.”

She swallowed.

She looked down at her tablet, at the data.

“You know it’s a million to one chance that anyone will get it.”

“I know,” she said, keeping her eyes on the distant stars, just emerging from beyond the deathlight. “But it’s her chance.”

He sighed again, then put his tablet down and walked up to her, to squeeze her shoulder. “Then let’s take it.”

“Thanks,” she said, meaning it.

“And if it doesn’t—” He stopped again. “Eventually, you know, nebulas become stars.”

no longer alone in the vast stars sleeping, no longer alone in the vast starts dying and the colors were dancing, dancing, alive

She knew. She knew. “But we still—”

And at that, he pushed her tablet away, pulling her into his arms, rocking her back and forth as they left the deathlight and its pulsing colors, as she used her eight fingers to cling to him, rocking back and forth, trying to tell herself that all of that beauty, all of that waiting, was not too great a price to pay for a star.

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Mari Ness

Mari Ness

Mari Ness lives in central Florida. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and multiple other print and online publications. For more about her work, check out her blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.