Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

Hindsight

Second Coming is docked two miles underground. She’s made of a collapsible, repulsion-attraction subatomic slurry that the astrophysicists are convinced will survive the gravitational anomaly called Black Betty. Yes, the ship will survive; it’s her human cargo that’s doomed.

Sarah Vaughan walks between rows of gurneys in heavy Van der Waals boots. She’s been aboard Second Coming six months now, and has gotten to know the feel of this ship: her soft, organic skin; her hissing breath; her ceilings and floors, which flip-flop depending on the capriciousness of gravity. At first, buried so deeply under Omaha’s dirt, Second Coming was a citadel. But this close to the end of it all, ghosts inhabit the cabins of every room. Sarah hears voices over the speakers that aren’t quite human, and sees memories from life back in Scottsbluff that feel real enough to touch. “Doctor,” Sarah’s patients groan in a Greek Chorus that reverberates like microphone feedback, “Help me!

Sarah, a stout, practical woman of forty, surveys the wide wasteland of them, and wonders where to start.

Click! The overhead sick bay speaker buzzes to life. She strains to hear through the ion static:

Good Morning, Citizens of Second Coming!” Osgood Blunder, Captain and Emperor of the Second Coming, announces in monotone. His tracheotomy makes him sound like a drive-through fast food booth operator.

As you know, impact with Black Betty is less than four hours away, but our diligent computational engineers made a breakthrough last night. The upload of human consciousness to the safety of Second Coming’s mainframe is finally at hand. Rejoice! The flesh will fail, but the spirit, dear Romans, will endure!”

Osgood Blunder breaks for applause, and throughout the ship, even in the infirmary, manic screams of victory burst and then disappear like collapsing stars. Blunder’s corporation, Kliffoth Cybernetics, funded Second Coming, and hand-selected its passengers. Without Blunder, there would be no ship at all. During their long captivity down here, the crew have come to think of him as a God.

“I’ll see some of you on the other side. The rest, fear not, for you witnessed the next leap in human evolution, when mankind became his own God,” Blunder says as static whines. “We’ll be calling lottery numbers throughout the day. Remember, transgressors will be shot and stored as protein, so please Respect your Authority, and stand by.”

Sarah picks a path through the prostrate bodies. There are 2,104 colonists; 1,693 have surrendered their names for numbers and logged into her greenly-lit sick bay. Some occupy gurneys; others lean against walls or curl themselves fetal. She piles her tray with needles and liquid Valium. They’ll need it today because she gets the feeling that their luck is an upside-down horseshoe, all run out.

She calibrates, measures, injects. It’s routine by now. There’s no medicine left except for this. All day, all night, it’s Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt! Then move on to the next. And the next. And then next. Each have numbers branded against their foreheads. It’s best to look there, and not in their eyes.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Sarah stops paying attention at patient thirty-four, and almost gives the guy an air bubble heart attack. He wouldn’t notice—he’s insane. You can tell which patients have Black Betty’s Disease, because they’ve got no whites to their eyes. It’s like their souls are drowning.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!-Move on!

Best not to think about the Hepatitis she’s spreading. Or worse. It’s a mercy, she tells herself when she gets to patient 342, who’s just eight years old, with impossibly knobby knees.

Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!

He looks up at her with eyes that are entirely black, and there is movement between pupil and iris. There is something swimming in there, trying to break out.

“It’s really happening. They’ve started,” Sarah’s husband Joe Vaughan calls as he enters the sick bay wearing heavy boots that suction the slurried ground. His fine, blonde hair floats like jellyfish strands in this diminished gravity.

“Blunder went first, of course,” Joe continues. His voice sounds far away, but it echoes, too, so the words collapse on each other like overlapping Venn Diagrams. “He’s in the machine. The hard scientists are next, then they say we’re up.”

Oh, Christ,” Sarah answers. “I’m not ready. Are you?” Though Blunder has the textbook knowledge, he wants her life experience as a physician in the system. He’s promised to upload her family, too. But this close to the end, nothing is certain.

Joe hops up and down a couple of times. His boots make a slurping sound, and the image of him blurs as if he’s moving extra fast. Quite literally, he’s not the man she married. The closer they get to Black Betty, the more it messes with the chemistry of their brains. Like a magnet pressed against a head full of metal.

“We’d better get to the engine room with the kids. They’ve already shot some line cutters. There’s going to be a riot,” Joe says.

Sarah looks at her tray of meds, and across the room, too. She flicks on the sick bay’s satellite viewer, which shows images of space and of Earth.

It’s shocking, how quickly the planet has changed… Unfathomable quantities of garbage spin like Saturn’s rings around the Earth’s fattened waist. Sea water laps the continents; across Central America, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans kiss.

Joe reaches the knobs, and sharpens in on Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where they used to live. A lone wanderer wearing an atmosphere suit scavenges through a drifting pile of husked wheat from a broken silo, but the grain pelts him hard and fast. It’s like sand slipping through his fingers.

Joe puts his arm around her, and, with their eyes, they follow the wheat through the air, and into space, and finally, through Black Betty.

“Hand me the Valium, will you?” Sarah asks.

Joe squints with bad eyes until he finds the proper bottle. He’s been eating carrion; Sarah suspects prion infection.

“We could wind-up stuck inside Second Coming, part of the machine,” Sarah says. “It might be better to die.”

She’s said this before, or Joe has. Each time the issue arises, they assume opposite sides of the argument, and fight until they’re tired of words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to do it, no matter what.

“We’ve got to go,” Joe says. She hears the words again and again, even though she knows he says them only once.  Déjà vu. Time is slowing and spreading. Her ghost of five minutes ago injects an eight-year old boy with dead eyes. Comfort him, her present self wants to scold. He’s all alone.

The sick bay is a field of bodies. Abandoned. Forsaken, because the engineers believe their insanity will infect the machine. They’ll meet Black Betty in corporeal form from this room, while the lucky few whose numbers get picked will live on inside Second Coming. Technological Singularity trumps Gravitational Singularity. It’s a boxing match: Mankind in one corner, God in the other.

“Let me finish with the injections, so at least they’re calm when it happens,” Sarah says.

Joe shakes his head. The kids are waiting, is what he’s saying without words. The kids come first. Before morality. Before their parents’ survival. Before the rest of the human race, if necessary. She knows this. All parents know this. But still, she can’t leave her patients without offering them some solace.

Onscreen, the closer they get to the anomaly, the more she expands, like a pupil exposed to dark. Just inside her edges, something moves. Something like life.

Or maybe something like God.

Three more hours to impact, and counting.

Joe punches his suction boots against Second Coming’s slurry floor, which is becoming less solid with every passing second. “Okay,” he says. “For you.”

Then he lifts a syringe, and together, they Flick!-Puncture!-Squirt!, until every patient in the ward is drugged or dead.

From the corner, the ghost boy watches.

#

The day Black Betty appeared, Sarah was still home on maternity leave with baby Sally, but she’d known something was coming. Already, magnetic north had reversed without warning. You could see the Northern Lights as far south as Costa Rica. Migratory birds’ internal radar had jammed, too. They flew outside the troposphere, then plummeted from loss of oxygen. Roads and roofs and empty farmland hosted their open graves. No one knew how their loss would affect the ecosystem, but mornings without their songs seemed more bereft.

Baby Sally was swinging happily in her rocker that morning, and three year-old Bradley toddled between the kitchen and television room, calling out names of things: Shoe! Knee! Strawberry! Sally!

On the radio, the regular morning program got interrupted for a special report. “Jack the Jerk-Off” cut off a geriatric Salieri clone’s rendition of “Me and My Shadow,” and read:

Ladies and Gentlemen, do not be alarmed!”

Sarah listened as she rinsed a glass baby bottle. The water spun counterclockwise.

Initial reports are sketchy as an Etch-A-Doodle, but the Department of Defense, in tandem with Kliffoth Cybernetics…. Is this a joke?”

Sarah walked over to the radio. Bradley bobbled between her legs, then out, then in, like a maypole dance: “Mommy… mommy… mommy… leg!”

Static flushed the frequency even though it was a clear, Nebraska day. Jack the Jerk-Off returned:

Okay, folks, they say it’s not a joke, but so did Orson Wells, so we’ll see. Put it this way, if they’re wrong, sue somebody else. I’m not liable, bitches! Anyway, Kliffoth Cybernetics, the American Government contractor for science, health, incarceration, propaganda, the national and state lotteries, consumption, toxicology, humanitarian aid, and defense, says they think the reason polarity shifted so suddenly and completely is because of an anomaly about twenty million miles between Earth and Mars…”

Sarah braced herself against the counter while Sally chirped like a small bird in her swing, and Bradley danced.

It’s a gravitational anomaly,” Jack finished. “They say it’s growing.”

Joe came home an hour later. He’d been working on a case for Santo Monico, a subsidiary of Kliffoth Cybernetics. They wanted reparations from all the rice farmers in India who’d used old strains of seed, instead of buying the new patent.

The entire Vaughan family sat in front of the television as Kliffoth Cybernetics’ CEO appeared on every Network and Webcast. The static made his talking head seem far away. “The best we can figure, a separate universe is spreading across the Milky Way. The laws of physics and time act differently once we approach the barrier of this new universe, which has collapsed on top of ours. The easiest way to think of it is like ink diffusing through a glass of water, only its source is self-generating and for our purposes, limitless. Pretty soon, the entire glass will be black as night,” Osgood Blunder announced in a ragged voice that Sarah recognized as sickly. “We think it came from another dimension—it tore a wormhole through either space or time. What’s unique about this particular anomaly, is that its barrier, or event horizon, to borrow from black hole terminology, ought to  be dark, and so infinitely dense with gravitational singularities that light can’t escape. But we’ve detected movement within Black Betty’s perimeter.

“There might be life in there.”

#

Outside that day, an entire flock of birds crashed through the Vaughan’s detached garage on Fort Triumph Street. Seagulls, thousands of miles from either ocean.

Sarah microwaved popcorn for dinner. The whole family fell asleep in front of the television. She dreamed about how she’d never cooked nutritious meals, and that this neglect had carved her children’s bellies with scurvy holes, into which insect mothers had laid their eggs.

Well, how in the heeeck are we gonna survive?” The Oprah Winfrey Holo-Host™ asked her science guest, esteemed astrophysicist Ipswitch Gustavson, the next day.

Sally peered out from under Sarah’s breast. She was a tiny, helpless thing that smelled like sweet milk. Bradley sat cross-legged and too close to the television. She noticed that his hair was especially staticky, like he was touching a novelty Eye of the Storm.

On the television, Gustavson frowned, like he couldn’t figure out if the hologram’s creators were imbeciles, or just writing her program that way for good television. “The anomalyBlack Betty, after my daughter who died of mercury poisoning from Santo Monico riceshe’s rolling in fast, and she’s getting bigger.”

Well, what does that mean?” Oprah asked with exaggerated, amused concern. Her shimmering eyelid winked.

She’s like a bucket of paint, splattering in real time, at this very moment across the Milky Way. As she rolls toward us, she’s changing our laws of physics, and pulling Earth and the rest of the solar system off orbit. Even if we could exist under the new laws of this alternate universe, we won’t have a sun, or the ground under or feet, or a food supply…”

“Is this fake, like global warming?” Oprah asked.

Gustavson shook his head. “I give the human species ten years on the outside. Probably less.”

Sarah got up from the couch, walked very slowly to the kitchen, and vomited in the sink. The water swirled, all wrong.

#

Months passed like everything was normal, even as the birds finally went extinct, the old died of pulmonary and cardiac disease at accelerated rates, and Black Betty’s Disease took root. People’s sclera’s disappeared, and their irises widened, so their eyes seemed entirely brown or blue or green. These colors contracted and expanded within their pupils, and the victims often lost their sense of balance, along with sight. Occasionally, they were violent. More often they babbled about the end of the world, or got stuck in loops of their own histories, where they repeated old conversations over and over again.

Joe won his case for Santo Monico, and the Vaughan family used the money to secure their seats on Kliffoth Cybernetics’ Black Betty escape pod, Second Coming.

Sarah reported back to work at the clinic where she’d performed abortions until it became illegal, and now delivered high risk babies with congenital defects such as organ dysplasia and spina bifida. Most died soon after they entered the world, and wound-up in county graves or donated to science. To commemorate them, Sarah and the rest of the staff took turns carving numbers into small quartz stones, then piling them in the courtyard where the nurses smoked their Winstons. Scottsbluff was the only high risk birthing clinic in six states, and at first, it had seemed heartless not to name them. But after a while, it was only practical.

In the lobby during those days after Black Betty, more and more women showed up high risk. Betty was altering the genetic structure of living things, and bending it in all the wrong ways. The clinic waiting room television, tuned to news, often aired real-time human sacrifice, as well as a reality television program based in Los Angeles called “That’s My Monkey!”.

In the delivery room, Sarah spent her days pulling crowning babies from between their mothers’ bleeding legs while picketing Jesus freaks warned about The Rapture through the windows. The worst part was consoling the mothers when it was over. Always, they’d convinced themselves that the tests were wrong, and their babies would be born alive.

Betty spread. Relativity turned fungible. Small objects floated up, and into space.

It started with plastic grocery bags, moved on to the engraved quartz stones in the clinic courtyard, and after twelve months, ended with human beings. They held each other, a chain that lasted for miles, until, one by one, they were gone. Some got lost in space, others ended up spinning with the garbage around the Earth’s orbit, like Saturn’s rings.

Sarah and Joe boarded their windows from rioters and stopped going to work. She was sorry for the women who would surely die in labor without her help, but not sorry enough to continue. By now, the infants had become disfigured abominations.

The Vaughans waited, and waited, and waited some more, for news that Second Coming was complete. Fresh food by then was gone, but they’d stockpiled cans, which was better, at least, than those who starved, or resorted to cannibalism.

On air one morning, Jack the Jerk-Off and the rest of his morning show killed themselves. With the laws of physics so confused, the bullets didn’t penetrate like they should have. They fired dozens of rounds, and still died slow.

Sarah, Joe, Bradley, and Sally listened to the slaughter from the kitchen floor. “It’s not real; it’s make-believe,” Joe assured the children while Sarah wound Sally’s favorite music box. Carved men spun tiny circles around a painted wooden peak while “Climb Every Mountain,” played.

Toward the end of life above, the cars and mobile homes took flight, like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Finally, the lights went out, and never came back.

Joe cashed his money into gold, and stole a gravity car. The family set out for the military base in Omaha, in the hopes that Second Coming was complete. They made it halfway before the engine died. The rest of the trip, carrying their gold bricks that were light as styrofoam, they walked. By then, the sky was dark, even during the day. The animals were gone. In two days, they reached the Kliffoth-American Military Base, eating only burrowing insects, and to slake their thirst, the blood Joe drained from his arm, and offered them to suckle.

Can you love someone more after something like that? Can it restore your faith in a mad world? Sarah Vaughan thought so.

When they arrived, Second Coming edged out from the earthy plains like an alien spaceship. Her skin was black and organic; her organs a neural net that glowed like jellyfish phosphor. For a quarter-mile in all directions, people gathered, and seemed, from the way they bowed and moaned, to worship. Some held each other. Others tied themselves to the cemented fences that would soon come loose. Armed guards lined every entrance.

They learned things as they pushed through the throng. It grumbled with intelligence, the way crowds do:

“They’re not letting anybody in, even if you’ve got a ticket!”

“It’s un-American!”

“They say if you’re good looking… They want breeders.”

“They say Osgood Blunder has gone mad…”

“They say the doctors all killed themselves. Same with the artists.”

“I have eight million dollars worth of gold,” Joe announced when they finally got to the front of the line. A small, thin guard stepped ahead of the rest, and pushed the nub of his flamethrower to Joe’s chest.

Money’s no good,” the guard said.

Sarah and Joe held their children tight, as if trying to make them unborn.

We have a right! We’re on the list!” Joe shouted, and then broke into tears. At the sight of their father’s surrender, the children, and Sarah, began to cry, too.

Let us in, you murderer,” Joe continued. “We’ve got children. We have tickets. We’ve got gold.

If only she was pretty, and could offer herself up to them, Sarah thought. If only Joe had married a trophy wife, like the rest of his rich friends, he’d be able to sell her now, and their kids would survive.

Move along,” the guard said. “I don’t want to kill you in front of your children.

They didn’t move. The launcher clicked, and methane loosened from its nose. Joe gasped. Probably, even with a direct hit, he would die slow.

Sarah remembered something from the crowd. “I hear Blunder is sick, and that your doctors refused to board because of crimes of conscience. I’m a surgeon. I’ll cross the strike line. I can operate,” she said.

The gun moved away from Joe, and to the center of Sarah’s back. It felt surprisingly heavy.

#

By the time they get the kids, it’s forty minutes before impact. The ship has turned to a soft slurry that does not stick to the bottoms of their boots, but instead oscillates in tidal pools toward the bow. Onscreen, along the vibrating corridor walls, Sarah can see images of Black Betty. They’re close enough now that she can see inside the anomaly’s pitch black edges.

Something moves.

It’s familiar, like the reflection inside a madman’s eye, and she’s reminded of the last child she delivered in Scottsbluff, who was born without skin.

In the engineering room, techies shout. Their voices reverb so deeply that she can’t make out what they’re saying. Some have gone mad with Betty’s Disease. They’re hitting their heads against soft walls, and chasing their own watery physical trails like dogs. Blunder’s body lays at the bottom of a pile of about two-hundred crewmen. They live in the machine now. She can feel their cold, atomic consciousness within the ship’s slurry, and in the vibrations under her feet.

The speaker crackles. It’s Blunder’s voice, just as monotone from the tracheotomy she gave him, only now, it has flattened into some less than human. “The Vaughans,” Blunder says. “It’s so cold in here. A family. We could use a real family, to keep us warm.

The First Mate beckons them to four upload gurneys, equipped with used needles and tubes. It’s supposed to be a quick process—only seconds, since they’ve been imprinted already.

The ship by now has condensed. Its walls close in like waves.

Ten minutes to impact. Joe walks with the children toward the gurneys. Sarah cannot conceive of strapping baby Sally onto one of these tables, then leaving her for the crew to toss to the pile. She cannot conceive of never touching her children again, or never again making love to the man whose blood she drank. But perhaps this will be better than death.

Yes, she reasons. She must believe it is better.

The speakers now are gone. The ship is about to merge with Betty, and become fluid and solid and infinite. Onscreen, Sarah can see ghosts inside the perimeter of this new universe. She can see her own body, strapped into a gurney, screaming: “No. Stop. For the love of God! It’s not too late.”

Joe straps Bradley to the table. Then Sally. Sarah watches.

The ship’s oxygen is low enough that they’re gasping and cold, but it’s a pleasant sensation, like floating. Words no longer echo. Sound is gone. Thought is gone, too. It’s just images, reflections, memories of the past and present and very near future with no particular distinction.

She doesn’t want to do it. All her instincts tell her not to do it, just as they told her not to leave those women in Scottsbluff, and not to operate on Blunder, but instead to slit his monster throat. Just like they told her not to feed her husband and children human flesh. “There are fates worse than death,” Joe argued that first time, but even then, weeping, they’d known how it would end. They’d taken their rations, and told the kids it was chicken.

Joe’s hand is on her shoulder. He straps her in, then himself. There’s no time to kiss goodbye. They will lose their love, she knows. Its ineffable constancy will not translate into the machine. She is wet with regret.

The upload is quick. Suddenly, she sees her body from the outside, looking in. She races through the ship, looking for her family.

But the ship is a slurry. It opens up, and breaks free from the Earth’s crust, hurtling toward Black Betty.

Her babies. Where are her babies?

She sees inside the anomaly, even though she doesn’t have eyes. It’s ghosts in there. Three billion people. Flipper children eating poison rice, garbage rings, birds circling a gyre. It’s her family in there, looking back at her. It’s that moment on the road, when they shared blood, and did not know that the hardest time was also the best time. It is past, and present, but not future. It is Betty’s Disease, and like everyone else before her, Sarah Vaughan is drowning in it.

The Second Coming and Black Betty collide.

Sarah knows now, what drove her patients mad. It is the unspeakable truth about what caused Black Betty. It’s Second Coming, so dense with the ghosts of humanity’s regret, that she weighted through time and tore the past to warn them. Black Betty is the Second Coming.

Sarah remembers the doctors who killed themselves, and the women at her office, and the babies, all those babies, piled like rocks. It was their future she was marking, stolen from them by their idiot parents. It was the end of the world she was reminiscing, though she did not know it.

Black Betty and the ship crash together. The two become one. All things become one. There is no sound. The anomaly splatters across space, black and beautiful.

“My babies,” Sarah cries, as she swims through an ocean of infinitely dense ghosts.

And then, like a star, the anomaly collapses, as if it never was. It sucks past and present and future, and makes all of humanity unborn.

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Sarah Langan

Langan, Sarah

Sarah Langan is the author of the novels The Keeper and The Missing, and her most recent novel, Audrey’s Door, won the 2009 Stoker for best novel. Her short fiction has appeared in the magazines Nightmare, Cemetery Dance, Phantom, and Chiaroscuro, and in the anthologies Brave New Worlds, Darkness on the Edge,and Unspeakable Horror. She is currently working on a post-apocalyptic young adult series called Kids and two adult novels: Empty Houses, which was inspired by The Twilight Zone, and My Father’s Ghost, which was inspired byHamlet. Her work has been translated into ten languages and optioned by the Weinstein Company for film. It has also garnered three Bram Stoker Awards, an American Library Association Award, two Dark Scribe Awards, a New York Times Book Review editor’s pick, and a Publishers Weekly favorite book of the year selection.

2 Responses »

  1. Fantastic. I’m not much of a horror fan, but this is horror that doesn’t forget humanity. It’s a bit nihilistic, but riveting nonetheless.

  2. A very strong tale of darkness. Has been haunting me for days.

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