Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

An Ever-Expanding Flash of Light

“Ladies and gentlemen, everyone you know—the entire world you know—is now dead.”

Murmurs ripple through the assembled cadets. Not because they’re shocked—everyone knew what they were signing up for—but because it all happened without fanfare, a jump across light-years of space unaccompanied by any grand orchestral swell or roaring engine thrusts. The wiry guy with a shaved head standing next to Tone mutters, “Jesus, I didn’t even feel anything.”

The staging deck has no windows, but Tone knows that if he could see outside, the stars would all be askew, inexplicably in the wrong places, like the sky had been ransacked and hastily reassembled by sloppy spies. He pictures Orion with his belt drooping, toga around his ankles. The striding bears Ursa Minor and Major curled up in hibernation.

“Dreaming about your mommy, Coleman?” Sarge snaps, jumping out of her rehearsed spiel to berate Tone, bringing him back to the present. “If I see so much as a hint of a tear, so help me . . .”

Tone thrusts his chest out, head back, spine straight. “Sir, sorry, sir,” he says. It’s an odd mix, the Earth Merchant Force, a chimera, hard to tell just where civilian life ends and military begins. And he was never one for rigid rules, following orders. But there’s not a lot of jobs out there, and he needs the money. The money and the time.

Sarge paces, her tight black braid swinging every time she rotates. She returns to her speech, and Tone wonders just how many times she’s given it, how many generations have passed on Earth while she’s flitted back and forth trading with alien worlds.

“The time dilation means that more than a century has already passed. Another and change by the time your tour is up and we drop you back home. Those of you who survive the next year of ship-time will be returned to a new world, a world devoid of everything familiar. Many will turn right around and sign up for another jaunt. When you do, I will shake your hand and welcome you aboard. Hell, I’ll pour you a drink.” Sarge stops and faces them. “Until then, you are mine. The Earth you know is gone. Everyone you loved is dead. I am your mother, your father. The people to your left and right are your siblings. This is your family from now on. Let that sink in.”

She finishes up, dismisses everyone. Some walk shell-shocked back to bunks, others mingle, getting to know the people they’ll be spending the next year with. Tone stands in place, a smile playing on his lips. Maybe everyone they know back on Earth did just die as the ship jumped a hundred years into the future due to the quirks and magic of general relativity. But Tone knows someone they don’t.

• • • •

“I picked a stupid thing to study,” Tone says. “I’m sorry, baby. I regret it every day.”

“Don’t say that,” Irina says firmly. “It’s not like quantum physics is exactly a high-demand job market either.” They are lying next to each other in bed, her head on his chest, his arm wrapped around her back and shoulder, a finger tracing her cheekbone. “I can’t ask you to do this. I don’t want to ask you to do this.”

“I know. But nothing else makes sense.”

“We’ll think of something.” She burrows her head into his shoulder, relishes the crinkle of her hair against his skin, realizing she might need to start counting down the number of times she has left to do this. Then realizing that she’d started counting down unconsciously before this conversation ever began.

“A cryopod’s the only way to buy time,” Tone says. “And the Merchant Force is the only way we can afford it.”

Irina props herself on her elbow. Tone stares at the ceiling like he can’t look at her.

“It’s going to be okay,” she says, but she knows that nothing she says can reassure him. He has an idea in his head. He won’t let it go.

“How much time do we have?” he asks.

“Which option?”

“Cryopod. Putting you to sleep.”

This makes her burst out laughing. “Jesus, don’t put it like that!”

A second for it to sink in, and then Tone is laughing too, finally looking at her, falling atop her and planting kisses on her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her neck.

When the laughter subsides, Tone gets sad again. He tries to hide it, but Irina knows what her husband looks like when he’s sad and doesn’t want to show it. His eyes are soft and hollow as a dandelion in autumn.

“Buying time,” he says, shaking his head. “What a turn of phrase. Something’s almost poetic about it.”

“See?” Irina says, poking his chin with her forehead like a cat. “Who said studying poetry was stupid?”

• • • •

There’s a planet that the Earth Merchant Forces always visit, though it isn’t inhabited by any form of recognizably intelligent life. Not that there isn’t life on the planet, or that it isn’t in its own way intelligent. But the massive carnivorous and ambulatory flowers that dot the lush tropical jungles of the planet, known only by a string of letters and numbers that Tone can never keep straight and so refers to as the Flower Patch, either cannot communicate with humanity or have no desire to.

“All right,” Sarge barks in their morning review, “which of you little lambs wants to go pick some flowers?”

Tone volunteers. Not because he’s brave or trying to get on Sarge’s good side—and frankly, he doubts she has a good side—but because despite the drills, the exercise, the classes, this is his first chance to get off-ship, and he’s going stir crazy. The ship is enormous, but it is no substitute for open sky and solid ground.

It’s been a month, and his already lean body has turned sinewy and hard. His poet’s mind has been rewired to think not of rhythm and meter, but target and trajectory. Courses covering everything from fixing a malfunctioning oxygen regulator to Galsheki high-court protocol. Tone knows the risks, believes he’ll be safe.

Five others accompany him to the planet’s surface, Sarge monitoring all the while through their helmet cameras. She’ll go on missions—no accusations of softness here—but not this one. Let the kids out to play.

They fan out, approaching a clearing filled with decomposing flowers that, if they were still alive, could swallow each of the merchant-soldiers in two bites like armored canapés. The petals of the dead flowers are graying, but still the area resembles an explosion in a paint factory, shades of blue and red and yellow and pink all swirled and spread across the jungle floor. Tone and three others make the points of a diamond, heat rifles aimed into the surrounding trees, protecting the remaining two merchant-soldiers while they ransack the flower graveyard, searching for pods of pollen, which will be brought back to Earth, turned into expensive medicine. A few might try to pocket the edges of some petals to grind up, sell on the black market as a powerful hallucinogen. It’s said that the Earth Merchant Force looks the other way from such side business.

Tone knows realistically that any medicine to be discovered probably has been already, and that anyway it wouldn’t be someone like him who discovered it. But the unrealistic part of him—the poet part—imagines he’ll stumble onto some overlooked miracle. He’ll go home early, a hero.

He’s so deep in his daydream that he doesn’t notice the vine snaking from behind a tree and into the clearing, dipping above and beneath dead flowers and undergrowth. Doesn’t register the rustling until prickly green fingers wrap around his ankle and yank it out from underneath him.

Shouts burst out all around him as he goes down hard on his back, a sharp pain shooting from his tailbone to his shoulder blades. The heat rifle drops from his hands. He reaches for it frantically, jerking his foot back, trying to scrabble away from the flower. Behind the veil of trees and foliage, he sees something bright and pink, the inside of a very large mouth. The gun slips farther from his fingers, the tendril around his ankle tightens.

The others battle more attacking flowers, too focused on their own survival to help Tone at the moment. He just needs to get his rifle and he’ll be okay, he thinks. A blast of heat at the flower, and the vine will release, it will rush away, and so will Tone and the others. A scream pierces the air, and Tone smells something like iron and pork.

Like a child struggling with poorly tied shoelaces, his fingers probe and pry at the vine around his ankle. He digs his nails into it. Thin green fluid seeps from it onto his fingers and wets his pants. It drags him closer to the mouth.

The air around him ripples and shimmers and his face is instantly dry, feels baked and sunburned. The pink maw blackens and the vine loosens. He kicks it off, and pushes himself backward, almost knocking down a woman named Bethwell, his savior. She pulls him to his feet, screams in his face to move, get back to the ship. He doesn’t argue.

It’s only as the excursion ship approaches the docking bay, once his heart slows to something like its normal rate, that he recognizes something off, a strange feeling on his hand. His thumb moves to confirm as his eyes do the same. His wedding ring is somewhere below, mixed with the dead leaves and flowers or threaded on the tip of a murderous vine. He tries—he yells, demands, tries to override the controls—but no one takes him seriously when he says they need to go back.

• • • •

Irina dreams. She dreams of losing her hair, of her teeth dropping out one by one, clicking together on the ground like dominoes. She dreams of rushing toward the door of her apartment building, but no matter how fast she runs, how many steps she takes, it gets further away, shrinking into the distance. She dreams of her dreams, and scoffs at how predictable they are, straight out of an intro to psychology textbook.

She dreams of Tone, their wedding day, their first date. She dreams he looks down on her in her cryopod and whispers that he loves her. She dreams that she smiles.

• • • •

Outside the cryopod storage building on the outskirts of Cork, Tone and Irina stand holding each other as tightly as they can. Hours from now, Tone will get on a ship, leave Irina asleep for a year, for hundreds.

The courtyard of the building is ringed with planters of stumpy hydrangeas, interspersed with benches. The people sitting there pretend to eat their lunches, to scan their tablets, to not eavesdrop.

“It’s just a year for you,” Irina says into his shoulder. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

“It’s going to be so long for you,” Tone says. “Centuries. Who knows what you’ll wake up to. I don’t—” He can’t go on.

“They say cryosleep is like a dream,” she reassures him. “Things will happen in my mind, but they’ll dissipate when I wake up. Like fog in sunshine. Time won’t mean anything to me.”

Tone steps back, holds her hands in his, runs his thumb over her wedding band, tungsten because they couldn’t afford gold. She never minded. She never cared about money, their lack of it.

“Don’t worry about me,” Irina says, and smiles. “Think about your adventure. The things you’ll see. From Earth, your ship could go anywhere. Light spreading out in an ever-expanding cone, in all directions, and you’re going to ride it. You’re going to spend a year seeing things I can only dream of.”

“Now who’s the poet?” Tone says, and he smiles too, but his lips quiver. Irina hugs him again. She’s not a crier. She likes that Tone is. She kisses his cheek, soft, then his lips, hard.

When they finish kissing, it’s time for them to part, her to the cryopod, him to the bus that will bring him to spaceport farther down the coast.

“I’ll miss you,” she says, “but I won’t know it. Don’t miss me too much.” Another wan smile. “But don’t miss me too little, either.”

“I love you so much,” Tone says fiercely. Then he smiles too. “I’ll love you to the end of my light cone.”

“Oh, sweetie,” she laughs. “That’s not even close to making sense.”

• • • •

He sees worlds of endless cities, moons of ice and eruption. Stars that seem to dance with the ship as it slingshots around them. His year passes while he looks the other way. The next thing Tone knows, the ship jumps toward Earth. His tour is over.

Conciliatory, almost friendly, now that her merchant-soldiers are just people again, Sarge shakes his hand when he disembarks. “Maybe I’ll see you again,” she says, smiling. It was a good trip. Losses within expectations.

Tone smiles back. “I hope not.”

Walking on Earth shouldn’t feel any different from being on the ground of other planets, shouldn’t even feel any different from being on the ship. Gravity is gravity. But something about it just feels right, and Tone can’t keep a grin from his lips as he puts his foot on the pavement outside the ship. They’ve landed in the same spaceport they left from, not far from Cork, not far from Irina. His tablet starts buzzing and pinging the instant he’s outside. It knows what he wants to learn, and he holds his breath for a moment as he reads what it has to tell him. His heart rises and collapses. He thinks about turning right around, getting back on the ship, but he wants to see Irina first. Even if she can’t see him. Even if she’ll never know he was there.

The trip between the spaceport and Cork is faster than it was before. More people on the transport shuttle, more people on the roads, biking or else packed into automated cars like matches in a book. All these years, some two centuries since he’s left, and there still aren’t flying cars. So many things have changed, but so many things are the same. Like walking into his childhood home, and all the furniture is the same, the same pictures on the walls, but everything shifted one foot to the right. Plus ça change, he thinks, but can’t remember the rest of the phrase. Irina would probably know.

Half-dazed, he makes his way to the cryopod storage building, which has a new sign, but is otherwise unchanged. A new building has sprouted next to it, full of more cryopods, more rich people freezing themselves to wait for a better world or to free their brains to roam in posthuman awareness. Tone gives Irina’s name, her pod number, is led down rows of cryogenically frozen people. He looks at his wife’s face under hard plastic. He’s not allowed to touch it, doesn’t know why he even wants to. What comfort would he get from running his fingers along cold steel and plastic? He sits for as long as he can take it, quietly says he will see her again soon. Leaves the storage facility and takes the ride back to the spaceport, where he will sign up for another tour, another chance to let time pass.

It’s been more than two hundred years since he left Earth. The greatest minds of those generations have worked on the problem. Posthuman intelligences have pooled their collective knowledge and quantum processing speeds searching, experimenting. There is still no cure for cancer.

• • • •

Tone rises to the point where he stands beside Sarge while she tells the new merchant-soldiers that everyone they know is dead. She knows by now that this isn’t true for Tone. Over the past three years, they’ve become, not friends exactly, but compatriots. At night, they’ll sometimes share a drink, stories of an Earth that the new recruits have only seen in history vids.

Three years gone, more than half a millennium. Tone has spent a cumulative hour at most with his wife and she has no idea.

The first night of his fourth tour, Tone sits in Sarge’s cabin long after the recruits have been intimidated and dismissed. He sniffs at the glass in his hand, an amber rum. Notes of vanilla and leather.

“One benefit of this shit,” Sarge says, lifting her glass in a toast then taking a small sip. “I buy one barrel of this before going out, and by the time I come back I have a stash of nicely aged bottles waiting for me when I get back.”

Tone mirrors her toast, drinks the rum, swirling it around on his tongue. “I don’t use the word genius lightly . . .”

Sarge laughs, then turns somber. “I’m sorry to see you back, Tone. Really. Every time, I always hope—”

“We always come back,” he replies, waving her off. “Good old EMF has a hell of a reenlistment rate.”

Sarge sniffs. “That’s because none of us have anything to go back to. You . . .”

Tone eyes his rum, takes another drink. “Yeah, well,” he says. “Maybe next time.”

• • • •

Three months into his fifth tour, Tone’s ship visits a planet he’s never been to before, a rarity these days. The Galsheki are an old race, around long before humanity, before any of the other star-faring species that anyone knew about. An ancient and venerable people, that was how Tone had been instructed to refer to them in his courses on Galsheki etiquette and protocol, which he has been taking since his first tour on the off chance that the ship would visit their system. They don’t take well to outsiders, don’t encourage travel and expansion at all. Ruins of their cities dot worlds around a dozen suns, but now only their home planet remains inhabited. They don’t talk about why. Not asking about Galsheki history is another thing Tone has been taught about them. His instructor quickly amended that lesson. Better not to ask the Galsheki about anything. Keep your eyes averted, leave whatever you’ve brought, take whatever they give. All the details would be worked out ahead of time by people above Tone’s rank and pay-grade.

What no one knows is that Tone has been planning for this moment. Signing up for the protocol courses on those first days in anticipation of this later opportunity. Setting everything up, waiting for the payoff.

His heart pounds as the Galsheki workers place nondescript crates in front of the Earth Merchant Force delegation, Galsheki ambassadors standing back silently, observing that everything unfolds as it should. Tone knows he should stand where he is, eyes down, but head up, not reacting, certainly not speaking. Words bubble up his esophagus.

The Galsheki are covered all over with a fine downy hair, clear, reflecting all light back so their bodies glow snowy white. As if the hairs pick up on the vibration in Tone’s throat before he even speaks, the workers suddenly stiffen, the ambassadors turn their many stately eyes upon him.

One of the ambassadors—they are a gender-fluid species, treating human gender norms with the same bemused tolerance they treat most everything about humanity—speaks a single word, cutting off Tone’s nascent question.

“No,” they say, but softly, as if this ambassador at least feels sorry for Tone. They don’t shake their head—that isn’t a universal trait—but they convey the same.

Tone bulls ahead, hoping to convince the Galsheki ambassador, to explain. “Please, you must have a cure. My wife. She has cancer. Please help me.” His eyes water. He tries to hold back the tears. The other merchant-soldiers shift toward him, back away, look to each other for guidance. Is it a bigger faux pas to tackle one of their comrades or let him keep ranting at the Galsheki? The course didn’t cover this.

The Galsheki ambassador that spoke holds up both their hands to placate the merchant-soldiers, a gesture learned from many years of trade with the Earth Merchant Force. “No,” they repeat. “We cannot help you. There is no cure.” They pause, stretch their spine almost like a cat. “My own . . . Someone I was close with. I am sorry.” They fade back into the ranks of ambassadors.

It’s as if a spell has broken. Like a record needle has scratched off of an album, but is now replaced. The world starts to spin again, two merchant-soldiers firmly grip Tone by each biceps. Without making a scene, they haul him back. He goes willingly, no fight left in him. He launched his Hail Mary pass and watched it flop to the ground. He’ll be punished back on the ship, discharged maybe. He can’t bring himself to care. Without his job as a merchant-soldier, there’s no way Tone and Irina can afford the cryopod. But if a species as advanced, as old, as the Galsheki haven’t come up with a cure, what’s the likelihood of anyone doing so? How long can Irina stay in the cryopod, dreaming of a day that will never come?

• • • •

Before Irina says a word about her diagnosis, before she’s even home from the doctor’s office, she knows how Tone will react, can anticipate him almost word for word, lip quiver for furrowed brow. It comes close to making her smile, but she doesn’t. A smile now wouldn’t be appropriate. She couldn’t explain it to Tone in a way he’ll understand. Her sweet, sensitive man. Her dewy-eyed poet.

“They must be able to do something,” he says. “Surgery. Or radiation. Chemotherapy.” Reciting the words like a litany of protection.

Irina shakes her head. “It’s too deep to operate, they said. And too far along for anything else.”

“There’s always something else. What about some sort of experimental surgery? What do they call it? A clinical trial.”

“There’s no way our insurance will cover that.”

“Did you check?” Now Tone’s brow really beetles, as though he can just put his head down, focus extra hard, and figure this out.

“You know it won’t.”

All along, the plan was to let Tone down easy, but what she hadn’t counted on was him trying to keep lifting himself up. Lifting up them both.

He pulls her into a tight hug. “Don’t give up. Please.”

“That’s not what this is, and you know it,” she says into his shoulder. He nods and shudders, and she knows he’s trying to hold back tears. She lets him cry silently into her for a minute. Then she steps back from his hug. “Okay,” she says. “What can we do now?”

• • • •

Wild, impossible ideas flit through Tone’s head. Waiting until they pass close to the Flower Patch, then taking a shuttle and rocketing out on a search for his lost ring. Going back to the Galsheki, begging, demanding, offering up his life for whatever knowledge they have, any hint of a hope for a cure. Something to hold onto. He grasps at straws and knows it and doesn’t care.

Somehow, he still has his job, though he’s been demoted a rank. Sarge acts as though he hasn’t. She still shares her rum.

“You got off easy,” she says, standing in the doorway of his cabin while he cleans it, preparing to move back to shared quarters. She takes the bottle of rum from under her arm, finds a clear spot on his bunk-side table, pours them each two fingers. “I’d’ve flogged you.”

Tone kneels, rummages under his bunk and pulls out his duffel bag, places carefully folded clothes in it, tops them with his few possessions. A framed photo of him and Irina on their wedding day, an oversized worn paperback book titled Understanding Physics. He zips the bag, stands, and takes the rum from the table. Holds it out in a toast.

“Sláinte,” he says, tipping it back.

For a long moment, Sarge just looks at him, head cocked, ghost of a smile forming. “We’ve still got a ways to go,” she says. “Before you’re home.” She shakes her head. “Surprised you made it this long, honestly.”

Tone smiles back, finishes his rum. “No one ever accused me of being a fast learner.”

“Yeah, well,” Sarge says. She holds her rum up in the air, watches the butterscotch light refracting through it. “L’chaim.” She downs the drink. When she goes, she leaves the bottle behind. Tone puts it in his bag and heads for the shared barracks.

• • • •

A light cone, as best Tone understands it—which admittedly isn’t great; he’s a poet, after all—is what is formed when a light flashes in one specific time in one specific place, bursting out in all directions of space-time. That pinpoint flash of light expands outward in space while simultaneously moving into the future and past. Along that cone are all events that will happen, all events that have happened. Everything along the cone, interacting with each other, all events and times and places lining up to create one past, one future, stretching infinitely, inextricably linked.

• • • •

Earth still revolves around the sun, people still live on it, cars still don’t fly, cancer still has no cure. Tone learns all this before he’s even on-planet. He doesn’t bother to catch up on world news or anything else, makes his way to Irina in her cryopod as quickly as he can. Being away from Earth for so long has taught him that even though what he sees might look inconceivably new and different, nothing really changes. Not important things.

The young man at the front desk scans bio-signature with a device the size of a house key and confirms that Tone is allowed to wake Irina.

“She’ll be in room four,” the man says, tilting his head toward a hallway. “Down there on the left. It’ll be a few minutes.”

Waiting, his knee bouncing like a nervous little kid’s, Tone wonders if he’s doing the right thing. But he couldn’t wait any longer, it didn’t matter how long they waited anyway, and if he did wait much longer, he’d start to get old too. Already, he’s older than Irina. He wishes the room had a mirror. Does he look older? She’ll recognize him right away, won’t she?

More than a few minutes pass. Tone worries what could be taking so long, plays out nightmare scenarios in his head. He paces. He drums his fingers on the arms of his chair. He counts upward until he forgets what number he’s on, then starts again. Finally, just as he’s ready to storm out front, to demand answers, the door hisses open, and Irina stands in front of him for the first time in nearly a millennium.

He tries to say hello, I love you, anything, but words fail him and he gawps like a goldfish.

Irina crosses to him on unsteady legs, arms out, smile threatening to split her face in two. “You’re back,” she says again and again. “You’re back.”

“You’re here,” he replies, and she laughs, the greatest sound he’s ever heard.

“Where else would I be?”

He pulls her close and holds her as tightly as he can, and that’s when the tears start. Everything he’s been through, but he can’t keep from crying now. “I’m sorry,” he says through halting sobs. “I don’t have anything. There’s no cure.” He holds up his left hand. “I lost my ring.”

“It’s okay,” Irina says. She strokes his back, kisses his cheeks, his lips, his chin, his neck, everywhere she can reach. “I still have mine.”

“There’s no cure,” he repeats. “Not here. Not anywhere else. I looked, I swear. I tried. Irina, I’m so sorry.”

She shakes her head, sniffling laughter. “Stop apologizing. We’re together. That’s all that matters.”

“I should’ve kept waiting. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to be with you. It was the only thing that was important.”

All this time talking into each other’s hair and shoulders. Irina steps back, Tone’s hands in her own. “Honey, I figured that out centuries ago.” She looks around the windowless room. “What’s it like out there these days?”

Tone shrugs. “I came right from the spaceport.”

“Well,” Irina takes a step toward the door, holding Tone’s hand, leaning on him slightly to support her weakened legs, “let’s find out.”

Timothy Mudie

Timothy Mudie

Timothy Mudie has had fiction published in Lightspeed, Metaphorosis, DarkFuse Magazine, Perihelion SF, Abyss & Apex, and several other magazines and anthologies. He lives outside of Boston, where he works as an editor at a publishing house.