Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Something is eating the starship Stephen W. Hawking, chewing it slowly and efficiently to pieces. Hurtling through hyperspace, or merely hanging suspended therein (who can really tell about hyperspace?), the vessel has become entangled with an unknown entity that exhibits at least one recognizable attribute: curiosity. Possibly malevolence is one of its attributes as well, but possibly it’s just very clumsy, inclined to break things it’s unused to handling, such as starships and their occupants, like a child destroying a toy while trying to understand how it works—as before, who can really tell? The fact remains: in a theoretically infinite universe theoretically full of possibilities, the ship has had the infinite bad luck to run afoul of some kind of monster, and it is wreaking havoc with us.

This, anyway, is what I think. My shipmates have their own ideas about what is going on.

None of us denies that something is going on. Soon after the Stephen W. Hawking left normal space on the first manned faster-than-light voyage to the stars, the terrible dreams began, dreams of black tentacles coiling about the ship, reaching into it, touching us in our sleep, dreams of choking darkness. I said nothing about them to my shipmates, even though Systems Engineer Tilford, who shared quarters with me, sometimes woke me up with his thrashing and moaning. Out of respect for his privacy—privacy being at a premium aboard the ship—I said nothing to him. If Commander Bell or First Officer Sutter also suffered from nightmares, neither admitted it. Nevertheless, I could tell by looking at them that they felt as tired as I.

Next, things started to go wrong with the ship. The environment and food processing systems broke down. Sewage went untreated, and parts of the ship began to stink intolerably. The food processor dispensed a viscid brown sludge—nutritious, not bad-tasting, but hardly appetizing given its resemblance to the sewage.

Training, camaraderie, and shared purpose at first enabled us to take these things in stride, but lack of restful sleep took its toll in due course, and tempers grew short. Commander Bell, always a man difficult to approach, became remote to the point of nonexistence: We scarcely saw him at all. Sutter grew crisp to the point of snappishness.

As for Systems Engineer Tilford, whose omnicompetence had won him a berth aboard the Stephen W. Hawking, he could not fix anything and grew increasingly exasperated. “It’s like the source of the trouble is constantly moving around,” he complained to us, “and stays just out of my reach.”

***

Sutter discreetly approached me on the bridge during one of my watches. Without preamble, she said, “The commander worries me. He’s failing to command.”

“I have to admit,” I had to admit, “that he hasn’t seemed like himself since these problems started.”

Commander Bell, tall, lean, hawk-nosed, with dark eyes and close-cropped hair the color of iron filings—a Hollywood casting agent’s idea of a spaceship commander—did not simply look the part, he had lived it. He was already a legend, at least within the hermetic structure of the agency, when he was named commander of this mission. He had first distinguished himself as a pilot aboard close-orbit research ships out around the gas giants, territory with which Sutter and I had had our own harsh experiences. Commander Bell never spoke of it, and wasn’t the kind of person who would have spoken of it even in the absence of agency guidelines about possibly hurtful publicity, but fabulous accounts of his exploits had circulated through the middle and lower echelons. According to one of these stories, it had been Bell’s determination and ability that narrowly averted disaster during the first manned mission to the Jovian moons. Malfunctions had plagued the close-orbiter, compelling him to do some tricky seat-of-the-pants piloting so that the scientific team aboard could finish its work. Another version of the story hinted darkly that it had been the scientists themselves who were the source of trouble—that some among them hadn’t been able to cope with the sight of the great banded planet filling the sky, of the Great Red Spot gaping overhead like a ravenous maw, that Bell had held them in line by force of will.

Sutter, sitting before a console on the bridge, said, “Tilford worries me, too. I hardly ever see him any more. He never talks to me.”

“He spends all his free-shift time in the systems. Trying to fix things.”

“When you’re with him, in your quarters, does he tell you things? You know.” She made a groping motion. Her voice was calm, but she looked haggard and baffled. “Does he talk to you?”

“Not much. Not as much as he used to.”

“I’m trying to understand all this. I’m trying to take stock of the situation. I just want to know how he really feels. I need to know, I really am trying to stay on top of things, but I—I don’t know.”

“Tilford feels—not being able to keep the systems working eats at him. Professional pride. I think he may feel personally responsible for our morale problem.”

“Well, maybe he ought to feel that way. Systems are his responsibility. He is our engineer.” Sutter swiveled in her chair and slapped her fleshy hand down on the console.

“We’re all showing signs of strain,” I said. “I personally think it’s—we’re just apes, Sutter, and here we are aboard a starship, stuck fast in hyperspace. I think we’re up against something we never foresaw. Something sentient and malevolent that’s playing with us, playing with the ship, too. Playing with the systems and programs, causing all our problems. A monster of some kind.”

“A monster.”

“Yes.”

“Good God, I’d hoped that you, at least, could still be relied on. I hope you’re not serious.”

“I’m perfectly serious.”

“Then you’ve watched too many science fiction shows. There’s nothing outside this ship that can chew up computer programs and people’s minds.”

“Then how do you account for the malfunctions?”

“Malfunctions occur.”

“And ourselves?”

“I personally think it’s Commander Bell’s fault,” she said. “Instead of pulling us together as a team, he’s let everything fly apart. If the person in charge is derelict in his duty, the subordinates will—Tilford hides out in the walls of the ship, you, you’re going on about space monsters. There’s nothing out there. Your brain’s turning to mush.”

“Obviously,” I said, “my opinion is worth nothing,” and I left the bridge. To hell with whose watch it was.

About an hour later, I encountered Commander Bell in the main passageway just as he began his rampage. He had got hold of one of Tilford’s tools, a heavy wrench—Tilford himself was off somewhere deep inside the ship, doing who knows what—and even as I watched swung it against one of the monitoring devices. I made to stop him, but he took a vicious swipe at me, and I got out of his way and stayed out. Bell was a big man, bigger than me, and it was a big wrench. I followed at a discreet distance as he left a trail of shattered equipment. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he kept yelling, “come out!” and the wrench would strike high and hard, and he’d grunt with evident satisfaction and go on to his next victim. And all the while I could hear Sutter and Tilford screaming in the background, demanding to know what was happening.

The commander was approaching the bridge, and I was beginning to realize the need to act, to save the delicate controls, when his fury passed as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had come. He tossed the wrench aside, sat down amid the wreckage of the last object of his wrath, and looked dazedly about. I crept forward to kneel beside him. “Oh Jesus help me,” Bell sobbed, “oh Jesus I’m in trouble now,” and at his side I murmured to him, softly, with tender solicitude, and said to myself, We’re all in trouble now.

Sutter arrived then at a dead run from the bridge, and the two of us managed to get Bell to his cabin. Sutter had me administer a light sedative.

“I think,” I said as we left the commander sleeping in his cabin, “the time has definitely come to discuss the future of this mission.”

“So do I,” said Sutter. We returned to the bridge. Tilford addressed us from the intercom speaker, tsk-tsking over the damage. “As though I didn’t have enough on my plate,” he said.

“Where are you, Tilford?” Sutter demanded.

“Deep inside the ship, trying to find a gremlin. Do you need me there, physically?”

“No. Go on about your business. I’ll bring you up to date later.”

“Roger.”

I noticed then that Sutter had brought along the wrench I’d taken from Commander Bell. She seemed to notice, too: With a sigh that could have signified surprise or disgust, she laid the thing on the console and regarded it unhappily.

“Any idea at all,” she asked me, “what might have precipitated Bell’s funk?”

I told her that something was eating the ship.

Now she regarded me unhappily. “I’m going to pretend you haven’t said anything as ludicrous as what you’ve just said. I have to believe you and I can depend upon each other in this crisis. Unless and until we bring Commander Bell out of his funk—”

“We can’t do anything for him here. He needs help we can’t give him. I think the best thing we can do for him, and for ourselves as well, before we all go crazy—before we’re chewed up by this thing outside the ship—is to cut the mission short and return to Earth.”

Sutter stared at me in frank amazement and disbelief. “Cut the mission short? That’s out of the question! The agency didn’t send us all this way just so we could turn tail and run home at the first sign of trouble.”

“There—”

“No, shut up and listen to me. We’ve got some problems here, I admit that, but I’m going to straighten everything out. We’ll put this thing back together. It’s all up to us.” She reached and wrapped a hand around my forearm and pulled me a step closer. “What we’re doing here is important. We can’t throw it away. The hopes and dreams of—”

“For God’s sake!”

“—the human race ride with us. We can’t let everyone down.”

I said, “Sutter, listen,” and no more for she cut me short with a vehement shake of her head.

“Not a word,” she said, and her voice suddenly had an angry deadly cold tone I’d never heard before. “Don’t even open your mouth, because if you do I’ll put my fist in it. This mission is not going to end in failure. I personally am going to see to it that it succeeds.” It was at this moment that I noticed that the particular console at which she sat housed the emergency manual override. She loomed before it protectively. “Regulations cover such situations as we now have aboard this ship—an infirm commanding officer can be removed and replaced. I am taking over as of now.”

“Sutter—”

“I don’t want to talk about this any longer, I don’t want to talk about anything right now, so just get the hell out of here. That’s an order.”

Sutter—”

“We can’t pack up!” she exploded. “We can’t go back and tell them, ‘Ooh, things got scary and messy, so we came home.’”

***

Things got scary and messy during my next watch, when the commander somehow made his way from his cabin to the shuttlecraft bay. And opened both the airlock doors. My first intimation of this came when one of the consoles beeped a warning and a lighted panel began to pulsate. The readout on the panel said, BAY DEPRESSURIZING. I screamed for Sutter and ran from the bridge, knowing, even as I went down the axis toward the shuttlecraft bay, that I was too late. Bell had let the monster into the ship.

We found Bell himself smashed against the outer airlock door. He seemed to me to have been broken open and examined thoroughly. Part of him appeared to be missing. Sutter, however, muttered something about explosive decompression and ordered Tilford to present himself. It was our task as subordinates to clean up the mess.

Nevertheless, I felt calm, at peace. Now Sutter was inarguably in charge of the expedition. The commander’s death would bring her to her senses, make her realize that our only course of action was to return to Earth.

Tilford was pale and tight-lipped when he arrived. We gingerly slid the commander’s remains into a plastic bag, and then came the accident. The bag, improperly sealed in our haste and confusion, split open, and part of the commander slid out onto the deck, splashing Tilford and myself. He and I screamed and kept on screaming, or at least it seemed so, until Sutter came down from the bridge to see what was the matter. Tilford shut up when he saw Sutter, while I went on yelling God, God, get me out of here, I can’t stand it, I’m not going to take this any more! And Sutter, overcoming her own shock, had reached for me only to have me turn on her and curse her, curse the commander and Tilford, curse the ship and the mission. Then, muttering, not looking back, I left them in the shuttlecraft bay.

They moved the commander’s body to the freezer without my assistance.

***

During the next watch, I actually saw Tilford for the last time. He was removing a large access panel preparatory to crawling within the walls of the ship again. “I’m going to track the gremlin to its lair,” he said just before he disappeared, “and kill the little bastard with my bare hands.”

***

I sheepishly reported to Sutter on the bridge and apologized for my earlier behavior. She seemed not to care, almost not to hear, as she sat hunched before a console, her face flashing red, green, yellow as lights winked on and off and on again—the ship’s way of reassuring us that, despite everything, as far as it was concerned, all was well. I knew better, and I’m sure Sutter knew better as well. I felt tired and sad and sorry for her and for myself. I said, “I think we’re way out of our depth here. I think what they did to us on Earth to prepare us for this—it wasn’t enough, it could never be enough. They were too eager to get us aboard the ship and get us on our way. They were in too much of a hurry.”

“They did the best they could. Next time, with what we’ve learned on this trip, they’ll do better. Be that as it may, though. I am now in command here, and I say we’re going to carry out our mission to the best of our ability.”

So there truly was nothing for me to do except kill her. Tilford’s heavy wrench, the one the commander had used to disable monitoring devices, still lay upon the console. I picked it up and hefted it. It felt good in my hand, primitive, efficient.

It did the job.

When I knew that Sutter was dead I went to my own seat. My head hurt; there was a buzzing in my ears that made me dizzy. Then I realized that, all around me, the consoles had suddenly begun to click and hum. A tremor passed through the deck.

Tilford said over the intercom, “Better buckle in. The ship exits hyperspace in twenty-one minutes.”

“Tilford? Tilford! What’re—”

“Stop yelling. I’m trying to concentrate here. Where’s her highness?”

“She’s—she’s here with me on the bridge.”

“You listening, Sutter?”

I said nothing. Sutter said nothing.

“Well, she’s dead, isn’t she?” he said. He didn’t sound too surprised. “I guess she must be. Good for you. I sort of figured one of us would end up having to kill her. She was determined to see this thing through no matter what. She would’ve got all of us killed before she’d admit failure.”

“Listen, I—”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry. They’re never going to know. The first thing I did was to dump all the stuff the monitors have recorded, lo, these many weeks past. That gave me the first real satisfaction I’ve had since we left Earth.”

“You said we’re leaving hyperspace.”

“Eighteen minutes from now. It’s too late for me to stop it now and too late for you to stop me.”

“Why—why would I try to stop you?”

“Why indeed? So relax. I’m in control here. I’m running the ship now.”

I moved to the console that housed the emergency manual overrides and tried to unlock it. It refused to accept my entry code.

“The overrides are useless,” Tilford said. “All of that stuff on the bridge, all of those nice buttons and switches and pretty lights, they’re all junk. It’s all for show now. None of it does anything. You can press all the buttons you want, dance on ‘em if you like, nothing’ll happen. The instruments lie. The agency lied, too. They built this ship and sent us out in it to be tested to destruction. They programmed the malfunctions. No wonder I couldn’t get anything to work. None of this was ever my fault.”

“That’s insane. Listen to yourself. Don’t you see how demented that sounds?”

“Demented, hell, it sounds downright paranoid. But it’s the truth.”

“No, it’s an alien entity, manipulating us, driving us crazy—”

“I was only kidding about the gremlin.”

“The gremlin is real! It exists! It’s hyperspace itself! We’re—”

“Look, I can’t stop to argue with you about it right now. I’m going to be awfully busy for a while—right up to phase-out. Better go buckle yourself in, bunkie.”

First, I took Sutter down to the freezer and returned to the bridge. I didn’t try to talk to Tilford again. Whatever he was doing, however he had managed to do it, it kept him busy. I got back to the bridge and into my seat moments before the tardyon-tachyon converter translated the ship and all it contained out of hyperspace, back into normal space. A sound as solid as a fist crushed me flat in my chair. All about me the ship screamed as it simultaneously compressed in and stretched through the void. So began that first, eternal nanosecond of the voyage home.

***

“I didn’t want to believe it,” Tilford said over the intercom. He sounded exhausted. “You know how much this mission meant to me, to all of us. But all those malfunctions . . .”

I was on the bridge, massaging the muscles in my left arm and enduring the torment of returning circulation. I had regained consciousness after phase-in to find myself on the deck, bleeding from the nose, with my arm pinned beneath me. I was doing a poor job of holding up my end of the conversation.

“I can’t remember when it first hit me,” Tilford went on, “or even when I stopped dismissing it out of hand. The idea, I mean, was crazy. The idea I’d been trying to maintain systems that’d been designed to fail. But I couldn’t take it any more. I had to do something drastic. Had to find out. I went deep into the systems and took ‘em apart. Killed a lot of stuff.” He tried to laugh; the sound was more like a groan. “Then I took over.”

“What now?”

“I don’t feel so good. Feel like I need to throw up.”

“You sound like you’re dying.”

“Yeah. Guess I should’ve given more though to protecting myself before I crawled in here.” He retched over the intercom. The fit lasted for almost half a minute. “Sorry. I don’t think I have the patience to die of radiation poisoning. I’m going to have to find a quicker way.”

He said no more, even when I called his name.

***

I enter and cross the cold silvery room to cry beside Sutter, my tears freezing on my cheeks. Stretched out on her back beside a bag containing the mortal remains of Commander Bell, she waits patiently until I’ve finished crying. She lets me talk. My breath comes out white mist as I argue my case for what feels like the thousandth time: hyperspace isn’t a place but a thing, a being—and it doesn’t like us.

Sutter doesn’t appear to resent my having bashed her skull in. Perhaps she still can’t quite believe I could have done such a thing. In other respects, she is as unyielding as ever.

The commander had a nervous breakdown, she says, Tilford was just paranoid, and you still believe in space monsters. You all failed me. You failed everybody. You failed the human race.

Commander Bell says nothing, but, then, he’s in no condition.

Tilford, who presumably has long since crawled off into some niche deep within the ship to die, comes to disturb my meditations in the cold room by telling me, If I had it to do all over again, I’d be more methodical.

He looks pale and drawn, like a ghost, and I can only think, Well, of course.

I’d kill you and Sutter, he goes on, and jettison the bodies before I went into the systems. Nothing very personal. Sutter always had that ramrod up her butt, but you were okay. It’s just that I hate untidiness. Spoils everything. I’d send the ship back to Earth in perfect running order. Just no bodies and no data. If the mission has to be a failure, better it should be an enigmatic failure. It’s the unexplained failures that infuriate. The puzzles without solutions.

I’m glad you don’t have it to do all over again, I say. I think the idea of being jettisoned into the void is horrible.

You’d be dead, what would it matter? Paying back those evil bastards on Earth is all that’s important now. Think about it. The ship gets back to Earth, locks into the proper orbit around the Moon. Everyone’s curiosity is already piqued because there’s been no answer to their greetings. The boarding party doesn’t find a damn thing, no records, no trace of us, nothing. A mystery that’d haunt ‘em forever. The Mary Celeste of space. It’s what those bastards deserve for what they’ve done to us.

I think you may be wrong about them. They didn’t send us out here to die. They just didn’t—none of us realized what we’d be up against. There was no way to prepare for what we encountered out here. No way on Earth.

That elicits a laugh from Tilford. He shakes his head and moves toward the hatch. Over his shoulder he says, Sutter was right about the necessity of what we were doing, or thought we were doing. I give her that. We could reach the stars if we’re given a fair shot at it. But they wanted to send out guinea pigs first, and throw unsolvable problems at them, and see what they did. Know what I’d tell them if I made it back? His face darkens with anger. I’d tell them, You betrayed good people who believed in the nobility, the necessity, the inevitability of what they were about. You betrayed the entire human race.

And his face, meanwhile, has continued to darken until it is black. He becomes a shadow. He opens the hatch and beyond is a vaster shadow that extrudes a tentacle into the room. The greater and lesser blacknesses merge and move toward us.

So, Tilford asks me, further thoughts on the matter?

Any more, I tell him, I really don’t know what to think.

 

© 2012 Steven Utley.

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Steven Utley

Steve UtleySteven Utley, a founding member of the Turkey City writing workshop in Texas during the 1970s, is the author of three story collections, Ghost Seas (Ticonderoga Publ., 1997), The Beasts of Love (Wheatland Press, 2005), and Where or When (PS Publ., 2006), and co-editor of the anthologies Lone Star Universe (with Geo. W. Proctor, Heidelberg Publ., 1976) and Passing for Human (with Michael Bishop, PS Publ., 2009). His series of Silurian tales, which have been appearing in Asimov’s SF, F&SF, Analog, Sci Fiction, and other venues since 1993, are forthcoming in two collections, The 400-Million-Year Itch and Invisible Kingdoms, to be issued by Ticonderoga in 2012-13.