Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Schrödinger’s Catastrophe [Part 1]


Editor’s Note: Instead of two original science fiction short stories this month, we have for you a single novelette (presented in two parts) by Gene Doucette, which is about twice the length of a regular Lightspeed story. So, although you are getting one original SF story instead of two this month, you’re still getting about the same amount of fiction. We hope you enjoy this minor deviation from our usual offerings, and rest assured we will return to our regularly scheduled programming next month. —eds


Things began to go badly for the crew of the USFS Erwin around the time Dr. Marchere’s coffee mug spontaneously reassembled itself.

Dr. Louis Marchere was not, at that moment, conducting some manner of experiment. Well, he was, only not on entropy and the nature of time. He was running several other tests, of the kind that make perfect sense on a scientific vessel such as the Erwin. About half of them were biological in nature, concerning how small samples of cellular material react to certain deep-space factors. Other tests were more at home in the general field of astrophysics. But—again, as this is important—he was not conducting a test on entropy.

He just dropped his coffee mug. More exactly, he elbowed it from the corner of the table, while he was concentrating on things unrelated to the nature of falling objects. The mug fell onto the hard, ferrous metal of a lab floor, shattered, and sent his coffee—which was already disappointingly lukewarm—everywhere.

Louis Marchere was pretty upset about this. He’d been on dozens of deep-space scientific missions over the years, and this mug—a white mug with a black swan—had made it through all of them. It was a gift from his daughter.

But things break. No use dwelling.

Then, while Marchere was fetching a towel and a broom, the shattered pieces of the mug re-formed, rose up, and settled back on the corner of the table.

The spilled coffee remained where it was, either because it had decided that it wanted no part in whatever nonsense the mug had going on, or so as to verify—for Dr. Marchere’s sake—that what he witnessed had actually happened.

Which, of course, it had not. Shattered mugs don’t simply decide to reassemble themselves. They don’t decide to do anything, because they’re inanimate objects with no agency, subject to the whims of the same laws of physics as everyone and everything else in Louis Marchere’s laboratory, including Louis Marchere.

This was true irrespective of where that laboratory happened to be located. It had to be.

In this particular instance, the lab was in the middle of a ship that was in the middle of deep space, in a previously unexplored quadrant. The part about it being unexplored was unusual, but only a little unusual. The quadrant in question—C17-A387614-X.21, but everyone called it Brenda—was right in the center of a fully explored space grid. There had been many exploratory missions to all the other cubes on that grid, but nobody had bothered to check out Quadrant Brenda.

Probably, this was because Quadrant Brenda looked incredibly boring. There didn’t appear to be anything in Brenda—no stars, planets, or moons. Comets showed no interest in visiting, and asteroids kept their distance. In a universe that could be defined as “enormous patches of nothing, with occasional, albeit incredibly rare, bits of something mixed in here and there,” Quadrant Brenda somehow managed to contain even more nothing. This was probably why nobody had bothered to explore it before. It was definitely why the USFS Erwin was there, as this much nothing might mean something.

So far, two days into the quadrant, Dr. Marchere could confirm that it was just as boring on the inside as it looked from the outside. Three thousand different sensors on and outside the ship confirmed that sometimes a quadrant full of nothing is just a quadrant full of nothing.

And then the second law of thermodynamics—which was both extremely important and incredibly reliable—stopped working.

Dr. Marchere knew that wasn’t what really happened; a dozen better explanations were surely available. He just had to find one of them.

First, he checked on the lab’s artificial gravity, which he did by going to the wall panel and examining the settings, rather than by jumping up and verifying that after having done so, he also fell down.

The control panel confirmed that he had artificial gravity, and that nothing anomalous had transpired recently, either near the coffee mug, or in any other part of the lab.

Louis returned to the table and picked up the coffee mug, half expecting it to fall apart in his hands. It did not; the mug appeared intact, with no indication it had been in seven pieces quite recently.

“How did you manage that?” he asked the mug, which didn’t respond.

Dr. Marchere held the mug over the floor and considered a practical but possibly irreversible test. Would the mug reassemble itself a second time? If so, the anomaly could be pinned down to something peculiar about the black swan mug his daughter gave him some years back. Perhaps it was even a trick of some kind, just waiting for the day he dropped it. She bought this trick mug based on certain assumptions about her father: that he was naturally clumsy, or vindictive about mugs, and would have shattered it before now, revealing the gag.

But that hardly seemed possible. It would require that self-healing mug technology existed, which it did not. And if it had, there was still the problem of the mug also returning to the tabletop.

He decided that this was a scientific problem, while wanting to keep the mug intact was an emotional problem. But he’d already reconciled with having broken the mug his daughter gave him, and felt confident that, if she were there, she’d understand.

He let go. The mug fell, broke into five pieces . . . and remained broken.

Of course it did. How could he have expected otherwise?

He fetched the towel and the broom, cleaned up the mess, and made an appointment with the medical wing. One of the twelve remaining possible explanations to consider, before upturning the second law of thermodynamics, was that he was going mad, and that was information that couldn’t wait.

Dr. Louis Marchere didn’t make it to the medical wing for his checkup.

• • • •

“Final approach,” the computer announced, in a cheerful sing-song.

Corporal Alice Aste was in the rear portion of the shuttle at the time of the announcement, performing some light calisthenics to get the blood moving in preparation for . . . well, something. There was no telling what she was headed into, but there was an excellent chance that it would require her to be limber. This was an old combat-readiness technique that had less applicability now, in peaceful times, but she knew of more than one soldier who didn’t live to become an ex-soldier due to a pulled hamstring.

She climbed back to the front of the cabin to get a look at the side of the vessel through the front windshield. The United Space Federation Science Vessel Erwin was right where Alice expected it to be, free-floating in the middle of Quadrant C17-A387614-X.21-slash-Brenda and doing absolutely nothing.

She opened up the comms.

“USFS Erwin, this is Corporal Aste of the USF Security Force. I’m on approach, and intend to dock. Please respond.”

No answer.

“Again, Erwin, this is USFSF Corporal Alice Aste, on approach, requesting dock. Please open bay doors. Respond, Erwin.”

She waited for a few seconds, in case someone over there felt chatty, then left the line open and went back to the rear of the cabin to get ready.

In any normal circumstance, Alice would be speaking with a hangar tech now, working out the details on how and where she’d be parking her shuttle. These weren’t normal circumstances. What she expected from the Erwin was continued radio silence, just like when Alice sent a transmission from the base ship—the Rosen, parked at the edge of the quadrant—and just like the same radio silence the science vessel had been honoring for a little more than six weeks.

The last official transmission from the Erwin was recorded forty-seven days ago. It was from Captain Hadder, and it read: We aren’t here again today. It was received, as were all of the science vessel communiqués, at the research station relay hub and then forwarded to the main cluster, where it sat for several days before anyone actually looked at it. And then, the only reason they did was that no subsequent communications came through and somebody thought that was notable.

Protocol was for a twice-daily check-in. Granted, the “day” these transmissions were sent and the “day” they were received were hardly ever the same, given the vast distances the signals had to cross, even when using the FTL ports. Still, ships like the Erwin had to transmit on a prearranged schedule, even if that transmission was nothing more than a not much, what’s up with you?

Self-evidently, something was now up with the Erwin.

Once it became clear that the cryptic message had no obvious, direct meaning, it was handed off to a linguistics team, and run through some databases. It received a partial hit on an old Earth song by The Zombies, and an even older poem by Hughes Mearns. Neither made sense in the context of deep-space communications from science vessels.

A message was sent back, asking for clarification, but no clarification arrived. Someone got a linguist involved, who decided that in order to get a proper response from the Erwin, base had to answer in kind. He offered several suggestions, such as: If you are not there, where are you? and Are you here again now?

When that didn’t do the trick either, somebody dug up The Zombies’ song and broadcast that, to see if it triggered a response, and then tried reading back both the annotated and full versions of the Mearns poem.

Still nothing.

By then, one of the network’s orbital satellites got an angle on the ship, and sent back a video feed. The USFS cognoscenti were able to determine that: (1) the Erwin wasn’t moving, (2) it had a heat signature, strongly implying the ship still had power, and (3) there was no evidence of outgassing, so it either still had atmosphere, or all of the atmosphere had escaped already.

All that was left to try was a crewed mission, which was how the USFSF Rosen ended up at the edge of the Brenda quadrant, and how Alice ended up on the shuttle.

The shuttle’s autopilot sounded a gentle alert.

“Bay doors remain closed,” it said.

“Computer, transmit bay door override to the Erwin, on my authority.”

“Transmitting,” it said calmly. Then, “No response. Collision imminent. Course correction strongly recommended.”

Sometime in the past twenty years, the people in charge of these things at the USF standardized the vocal communications from all Space Federation computers, and it was decided the voice they used should be, above all, serene. It worked fine in most situations, but came off as ridiculous to the point of self-parody in high-stress circumstances. Phrases like explosive decompression in five seconds aren’t meant to be heard in a voice meant to soothe unruly children.

“All right, keep your pants dry, computer,” Alice said.

“This computer has no pants.”

“Pull up from the current course and bring us alongside the hull. I’ll go in the side door.”

“Course corrected. Would you like to hear about the explosive charges inventory?”

“That’d be great, thanks.”

The computer navigated the shuttle right up next to the Erwin, about twenty yards from the rear hatch. The hatch’s functional intent was to allow someone from inside to get outside, to make repairs on the hull or to unjam the bay doors, clean a filter, touch up the paint job, or whatever. It wasn’t meant to be used to get in from the outside, and almost never was used that way. Despite that, hatches like this were called pirate doors.

The good thing about pirate doors, and what made them so useful in times like this, was that there was an airlock on the other side, so if she had to blow the door with one of the many explosive charges on inventory she wouldn’t be breaching the entire deck.

After gowning up for the spacewalk, Alice stuffed a few charges in a bag—like her, the bag was a veteran of combat, and came with a steel panel that doubled as a piece of armor in a pinch—added a couple of blasters, and headed across on an umbilical. She expected to have to blow the door, but it opened easily after a few turns of the hatch’s wheel.

Alice unhooked the umbilical, ordered the shuttle to hold position, stepped in and sealed the hatch from the inside. The wall panel indicated the ship had power, so she pressurized the airlock and let herself into the inner door.

Then, theoretically, she was free to take off her helmet.

“Computer, run a check for airborne pathogens,” she said.

The computer—the one built into the suit this time—blinked a silent confirmation on her visor.

“Negative results,” it said, after checking. “Atmosphere breathable.”

Alice was standing at one end of a modest hangar, with two parked shuttles exactly like the one outside and room for two more.

“Then where is everybody?” she asked, as she appeared to be alone.

“Please be more specific,” the computer said. “Whom would you like to locate?”

“Never mind.”

“Never minding.”

Alice took the helmet off.

The air smelled like the standard filtered air she’d been breathing for most of her adult life, and the gravity that held her to the floor of the bay felt like Earth-standard. Both good things. Yet even if the crew of the Erwin wasn’t expecting a visitor, there should have been someone in the shuttle hangar, if only to ask her what the hell she was doing there.

“Hello?” she shouted. She heard her voice echo back, resonating with a slightly metallic hum. No doors opened, and nobody came running.

A quick inspection of the bay confirmed only that there weren’t any bodies lying around.

“Is anybody here?” she shouted.

Nothing.

The Flying Dutchman, she thought, referencing an old Earth maritime ghost story she remembered liking as a child. It wasn’t, of course, but that was what always sprang to mind in situations like this.

Alice had investigated her share of wrecks in her day, but usually the explanation was self-evident, and she was just there on the off-chance someone managed to survive whatever drastic event had killed their ship. Hardly anyone ever did, because spaceships were surrounded by the vacuum of space, which was actively hostile toward human beings.

This time, there was no obvious explanation. The ship seemed to be working fine, albeit on reserve power—she could tell from the feel of the floor that the Erwin’s engines were definitely offline—it was just that everyone was somewhere else for some reason.

So where do I begin?

The USFS Erwin had five decks total. The captain’s bridge was on the top deck at the front of the ship, which was the farthest point from the hangar. Alice felt obligated to start there—if for no other reason than to announce her arrival to the person who was supposed to have already authorized that arrival. At the same time, it was pretty far away; surely, she could find someone closer to her current location, who could fill her in on why the entire vessel was running silent. Or rather, drifting silent.

Alice found the door that led to the rest of the ship, and hesitated.

“Computer,” she said, addressing her suit, “synchronize with the ship’s computer.”

“Synchronizing,” the computer said, in the tone of voice waitresses used when asking children what flavor ice cream they wanted. “Synchronization complete.”

“Computer, report life signs, total. Human only.”

The synchronization allowed Alice to leverage all the ship’s systems for her inquiry. It was supposed to help clear things up. It did not.

“No life signs detected,” the computer said.

This was obviously incorrect. Aside from the fact that the Erwin had a complement of eighty-five, Alice was herself alive. Anything less than one was an error.

“Computer, recheck life signs, human only.”

“Rechecking.”

Alice pressed her face up against the window of the door she was about to go through. The hallway on the other side was well lit, and entirely empty. It ran the length of the lower deck, and—if she recalled the vessel’s specs correctly—was home to about sixty percent of the crew. There should have been somebody around.

“Two hundred and six life signs detected,” the computer said.

“No . . . no, that’s not the right answer either,” Alice said.

“What is the right answer?” the computer asked.

“I don’t understand.”

“What is the right answer?” the computer repeated.

“Computer, I’m asking for an exact life sign count of all the humans on board this ship. I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s a round number that one arrives at by actually counting those life signs.”

“Understood. What is your expectation?”

“I don’t know the right answer, or I wouldn’t have asked, but I would expect it to be anywhere between one and eighty-six.”

“Rechecking,” the computer said. Then, “Seventy-two life signs detected.”

“Is that the real count, computer?”

“As requested, the total is between one and eighty-six. Is this acceptable?”

“If it’s the actual count, yes.”

“The actual count is seventy-two.”

Alice was pretty sure the computer didn’t perform anything like an actual count, which was a minor problem masking a much more serious one. Clearly, something was wrong with the Erwin’s computer; counting things wasn’t a difficult task.

“Computer, run a full internal diagnostic.”

“Running diagnostic.”

“Let me know what you find,” she said. Then she pressed the override code for the door and left the hangar for the crew living quarters corridor.

“Hello?” she shouted. “Is anyone here?”

Nobody responded.

All the doors were closed. Alice’s override code could open any one of them, but—and this was a decidedly odd but undeniable truth—she was afraid to do it.

Alice Aste had been working with the USF Security Force for fifteen years, and before that she’d been a veteran of five interplanetary conflicts. She’d once spent two months adrift and alone in a disabled life raft, rescued by chance some fifteen hours before her oxygen ran out. Before that, she’d suffered a childhood of privation during her waking hours, and nightmares when she slept. She came to grips with her own mortality when she was ten. She did not get afraid, or rather, she wasn’t afraid of the unknown. (Fear of the known, on the other hand, was quite sensible.)

And yet, on an impossibly empty vessel adrift in an unusually empty deep space quadrant, Alice had to admit that she was one loud noise from freaking the hell out.

“Anybody?” she asked. She hesitated at the first door.

Just plug in the code and ask whoever’s on the other side what’s going on here.

She didn’t plug in the code. Her pulse was up, and her breathing was shallow. She wondered if this was what a panic attack felt like.

“Calm down,” she said to herself. “Just go straight for the bridge. You can see the stars from the bridge.”

That was one of the tricks she picked up when she was ten; there is comfort in the vast emptiness of space. At least for her.

“Diagnostic complete,” the computer said. Alice jumped two feet in the air.

“Computer, report results,” she said, once she got her heart started again.

“Results are terrific,” the computer said.

“. . . computer, please repeat.”

“Terrific. Self-diagnostic reports computer is terrific. Perfect score. Computer would report a thumbs-up if computer had thumbs.”

The Erwin’s computer had evidently lost its mind. This was, of course, just as impossible as the constantly adjusting life sign count. Computers had no minds to lose.

“Are you certain, computer?” she asked.

“Computer is certain. Computer has no thumbs.”

Alice wondered if a full reboot of the ship’s computer was in order. She’d have to do that from the bridge, but that was where she was heading anyway. It might take a while, but if there really was nobody on this vessel aside from her, she’d need to interrogate the ship’s logs. For that to work, a sane and rational computer would be important.

She headed down the hall at a normal walking pace that quickly devolved into a jog. A door might open and that, she decided, would be bad.

There’s no such thing as irrational fear, she thought, recalling the wisdom of one of her academy trainers. Your instincts know why they’re afraid; you just gotta catch up.

She made it to the other end of the hall, to the elevator, punched the button for the top deck, and checked the corridor behind her twelve times while waiting for the elevator to arrive.

It did. She jumped in, and the doors swished closed reassuringly. Up she went.

And up, and up. The elevator should have taken less than thirty seconds to reach the bridge. After well over a minute, Alice became concerned that maybe deck one wasn’t where they were headed, except there was no further point to travel to while still remaining on the Erwin.

“Computer, are we going to deck one?”

“Confirmed, deck one.”

“What’s taking so long?”

“Traveling from deck five to deck one takes a non-trivial amount of time,” the computer said, “and time is a construct.”

“That isn’t a helpful answer.”

“Would you like to try a different narration?”

“A what? No, I just want to go to deck one.”

“Deck one, coming up.”

Alice sighed.

“When?” she asked.

“I cannot provide an exact time,” the computer said.

“All right. Computer, if I stopped the elevator right now, where would I be? What deck.”

“Would you like to stop the elevator right now?”

“No, just tell me where I would be if I did.”

“You would be on deck one-and-five-eighths.”

“Computer, this ship has no deck one-and-five-eighths.”

“That is incorrect,” the computer said. “There are multiple fractional decks.”

“How many?”

“Unclear. How many would you like for there to be?”

“Never mind. Is it a finite amount?”

“This computer infers that the amount must be finite, as otherwise, deck one would be unattainable. It is coming up shortly, and is therefore not unattainable.”

Alice had an unkind response for that, but then the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened.

“Arrived, deck one,” the computer said.

Alice stepped out onto the bridge. For a vessel of this type, the bridge was really very small—especially as compared to the military ships to which she was accustomed. It had two seats at the front, a raised seat in the middle for the captain, and two seats in the back, with instrumentation spread throughout.

Captain Matthew Hadder—unshaven, in dirty clothing, looking tired, and shorter than she expected—was in the chair, and an ensign she didn’t know was at the console to her left.

“You’ve shot Ensign Anson,” Hadder said, which was an interesting thing to say given that Alice hadn’t done anything of the kind.

But then the ensign fell over dead, having indeed been shot by a blaster. Still more interesting, it was only then that Alice drew her blaster from its holster and fired it. It struck Ensign Anson directly in the chest two seconds prior to being fired.

“What?” Alice said.

“Ensign Anson has been shot,” Hadder said. “By your blaster, which you used to shoot him with.”

“But I didn’t shoot him.”

“He was shot, and then you did it. Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. It was, because if you hadn’t run in with a gun, Ensign Anson would not be shot, but the shot came faster than the blaster off your hip. Don’t worry, it’s been happening all day. He’s dead, but only now. He wasn’t earlier, and may not be later. Who are you and what are you doing on my ship?”

“I’m . . . I don’t understand. How could I fire my blaster before I fired my blaster?”

“It happened before you decided to do it, but if you want to know why you decided before you decided, I can’t provide you with that. He may have been about to shoot, with a gun he both had and did not have. He does not right now have a gun, but may have had one before you decided to shoot.”

“He’s unarmed. I shot an unarmed ensign.”

“I can testify to Ensign Anson being both armed and unarmed at once, if it comes to that. Also, the ship’s cause-and-effect has been acting up all day. But enough about the dead ensign; once more, who are you and what are you doing on my ship?”

“I’m Corporal Alice Aste, USFSF. I’ve been sent here to find out what happened to this ship.”

“Quite a lot! We just lost an ensign, and the rest of my command deck crew have reported nonexistent. But what’s the rush!”

“Your last communication was over six weeks ago, and you’ve been adrift since. I’m here to find out what kind of assistance is needed, and then to get that assistance for you.”

“That’s hardly possible,” he said. “I sent a message just yesterday.”

“None have been received.”

“No, no, no, I would’ve remembered if I had sent silence. I didn’t. I sent a message that went like this: Please stay away.”

“That wasn’t it. What we received was, We aren’t here again today,” Alice said. “Do you remember sending that?”

“Ahhh.” Captain Hadder clapped his hands on the side of his head. “I got it wrong, I meant to say, I wish, I wish you’d stay away.”

Captain Hadder had been going in and out of rhyme for the entire conversation. At first, she thought it was just an accident of word-choice. Now she was thinking he was doing it on purpose, and also that he’d begun to lose his mind, just like his ship’s computer. Unless she was losing her mind. She’d just shot a crew member, but if asked to explain how that happened, the best she could come up with was that the shot was fired before she pulled the trigger.

“Why did you want us to stay away?” Alice asked. “You seem in need of rescue.”

“Rescue! It’s only been a day.”

“Again, it’s been more than six weeks, captain.”

“Computer, how long has it been?”

“It has been a day, captain,” the computer said.

“There, you see?” Hadder said. “If you received that message six weeks ago, that’s hardly my fault. I sent it yesterday; you should be receiving it now.”

“Captain Hadder, you know there’s something wrong with your ship’s computer, don’t you?” Alice asked. “It’s been providing me with inaccurate information since I boarded.”

“Not at all! It’s adjusted quite well. You must have been asking it the wrong questions.”

“Computer,” she said, “how many life signs are there aboard the ship?”

“There are between one and eighty-six,” the computer said, “or zero, or two-hundred-and six.”

“There,” Alice said. “See? That’s an unacceptable response.”

“Why, it’s a ridiculous question!” Hadder said. “The answer is clearly variable from moment to moment. You should expect to have a different answer every time. Now where is Ensign Anson?”

“Isn’t he the one I shot?”

“Yes, yes, but he should be back by now.”

Ensign Anson was still lying dead on the floor, and Captain Hadder was clearly insane. Alice put her hand on her blaster, reflexively. It was probably a bad idea, given she’d only just not-shot-but-also-shot Anson, but instincts existed for a reason.

“Once again, captain, why did you send the stay away message? Did something happen here? An accident maybe?”

“Nothing is the matter,” he said, which was clearly untrue.

“Then why did you send that message?”

“Because nothing is the matter! Ask Anson; he can explain it better.”

“Maybe I should ask someone else from the crew,” Alice said slowly. She’d begun to talk more slowly and deliberately with Captain Hadder, the way one might talk to a person in a bomb vest. “Captain, can you tell me where everyone else is?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But if you didn’t see them on your way to the bridge, they’re probably in their quarters.”

“All right. Don’t you need them in order to work the ship? Maybe you can find your own way out of this quadrant, with a little help. One of the engineers?”

“Ensign Anson and I can handle the bridge ourselves,” he said. “Little to do when you’re adrift.”

“My point is that you don’t need to be adrift. Some members of the crew could be enacting repairs.”

“I see your reasoning, but about the engines, there’s nothing to be done. They work perfectly, or they would; it’s the physics that are wrong.”

“Then someone, should fix . . . the physics?”

He was surely speaking non-literally. Alice remembered a particularly sarcastic first officer who—in the middle of a war—would say things like, “Barring some change in the laws of physics, this next torpedo will be a direct hit; brace for impact.” Captain Hadder’s delivery was wanting, but she felt certain that he was aiming for the same sort of droll wit.

“They’re not broken, they’re wrong,” he said. “I’m amazed you’ve survived on board the ship for this long, corporal.”

“I haven’t . . . Captain. Just tell me where the rest of the crew is, and I’ll go find someone who can help.”

“As I said, they could be in their quarters. Computer, are the crew in their quarters?”

“The crew may or may not be in quarters, captain.”

“There, see?” he said. “They may be there.”

“Then should we go down and check?” she asked. “I passed the quarters on my way.”

“Oh, goodness no, don’t do that. Imagine the consequences.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Corporal, it’s really very simple. I don’t know if they’re alive or not. If I check, I will definitely know. Who wants that on their conscience?”

“They’re either alive or they’re not alive,” Alice said.

“The computer confirmed, they are both. Have you ever seen a person who was both alive and dead?”

“Of course not. Those are binary states.”

“Neither have I. Therefore, if they are currently both alive and dead, and one of us were to go down to see which one it was, and we have never seen a person who was both alive and dead, then by checking, we will ensure that they are either one or the other, and I want no part of that! Neither should you, after what happened to poor Ensign Anson. Already enough blood on your hands.”

About ninety-five percent of Alice thought this was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. The five percent that didn’t was the same five percent that was in charge when she ran down the corridor in deck five, in the midst of something like a panic attack. She didn’t want to open those doors either, even before having her intelligence assaulted by Captain Hadder’s nonsense.

“How about if we just open a comm line, right now?” she asked. “We can hail the Rosen.”

“Oh no, that’s impossible. Nothing on the bridge works right now.”

She looked around. The panels were lit, which wasn’t an expectation on a non-working bridge.

“You have power. It all looks like it’s working.”

“It’s not,” he said. “Hasn’t been since yesterday. And even though we clearly do have power, the engine isn’t providing it. Couldn’t tell you what is.”

She pointed to one of the chairs at the front of the deck. “May I?” she asked.

Captain Hadder stepped aside and waved her through.

She sat down at what was—if she remembered the ship design specs accurately—the helmsman’s chair. It had all the navigational instrumentation, and the communications matrix.

All the ships in the USF communicated locally by sending concentrated radioelectric bursts in tight, targeted beams. A similar approach was used for long-range communications, only the local transmission was sent to a relay, which repeated the information through an FTL tunnel.

The Rosen was just at the edge of Quadrant Brenda. In a rational universe, the Erwin would already know the Rosen was there, either because the Rosen pinged it when it was in range—which it did, as part of the ongoing effort to establish communication—or because the mid-range sensors have only one job, which is to detect nearby objects and keep track of them.

Possibly, the Erwin was no longer a participant in a rational universe.

She asked the ship to perform a full sensor sweep, and while there was some good news—it did pick up the Rosen, and her shuttle—according to the survey, there was nothing on the starboard side.

Not just nothing, as in, space is pretty much a lot of nothing anyway nothing. This was a nothingness that far exceeded any previously recorded nothing, on a scale that made it quite a remarkable something. There were no quantum fluctuations popping in virtual particles, or the evidence of gravitational force acting at a distance to warp the fabric of spacetime, or microscopic space debris. There were no solar winds. There was just nothing.

Alice was reminded of the ancient Earth maps: those two-dimensional rectangles meant to approximate a portion of a spherical object. The early ones weren’t large enough to encompass the entire planet, so when one drew a line to the edge of the map, it wasn’t an expectation that the line would pick up again on the opposite side. There was nothing else there because the mapmaker had stopped drawing what came next.

This is the end of the map, she thought. Here be dragons.

“No, that can’t be right,” she said. “It must be a sensor malfunction.”

“Sensors operating at full capacity,” the computer said, helpfully.

Alice stood up and leaned, to get a look at that side of the ship. If she didn’t know better, she’d have said someone was out there, hanging a gigantic piece of non-reflective fabric over that part of space. Maybe they were.

“Oh no, don’t do that,” Hadder said.

“Do what?”

Stare at the Void. Never a good idea.”

“You know about this?”

“Of course I do. It’s why the ship isn’t moving.”

“Great, now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me what it is, and then maybe we can work up a strategy to get away from it.”

“It’s nothing. You read the sensors. I don’t know why you’re acting so surprised, I told you what the problem was already.”

“You didn’t mention the giant Void in space,” she said. “I would have remembered that.”

“I said nothing was the matter with the ship. That’s very clear.”

She sighed, and resisted the urge to draw her blaster again.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can still see the Rosen. I’ll hail them, set up a tow.”

“Best of luck!”

She opened a channel.

“USFSF Rosen, this is Corporal Aste, on the USFS Erwin. Please respond.”

The transmission came from the radar array at the highest point on the top of the Erwin, with secondary and tertiary arrays on the underbelly in the event of damage from space debris or an act of violence. When Alice sent the transmission, the signal was transmitted by all three.

Alice already knew this was how local communication worked, but this time she got a dramatic demonstration of it, because for some reason the radio signal she sent out became visible for five full seconds, before falling apart.

It was hard to get a total count on the number of things that was wrong with this. Radio waves weren’t supposed to be a part of the visible spectrum, so that was a big problem right there. Also, before the signals dissolved (or whatever that was), those beams of impossible-but-true visible light slowed down.

Alice checked the communications array to confirm that the frequency she chose to send the signal on was a normal, non-visible-spectrum frequency. It was.

“Don’t try the laser,” Hadder said. He meant the high-burst pulse communicator, which was meant for long-range emergency signaling. “Unless you dislike the Rosen.”

“You tried it already?”

“It was like birthing a sun. Very beautiful! Given its speed and direction, I’m afraid that beam may be well on its way to annihilating everyone who lives in the Podolsky System. First Officer Hart worked that out.”

This was the first time Hadder mentioned a member of the bridge crew other than the departed Ensign Anson. She thought that was a significant thing.

“First Officer Regina Hart?” she said. “Where is she now? In her quarters?”

“I’m afraid not. She’s left.”

“L . . . left. Left the bridge? Left the ship?”

“She’s in the Anthropene Principality now. I’ll see her soon, I’m sure.”

“Where is that?” Alice asked. It wasn’t a place she’d ever heard of before. Not that it mattered if she had; it was impossible to walk off a ship in deep space and visit much of anywhere, and there was a full complement of shuttles in the hangar. Wherever it was, First Officer Hart wasn’t actually there.

Hadder laughed, and gestured vaguely at the expanse of space. Oh, you know, the gesture said. Let’s not be silly.

Exasperated, Alice sat back down in the helm chair and rubbed her head. She could feel a headache coming on.

“I wonder,” she said, “If one of you—captain or computer—can tell me what actually happened, or why, or even when?”

Hadder laughed again.

“Why, I’m not sure!” he said. “What an excellent question. I know what we can do. Computer?”

“Yes captain,” the computer said.

“Switch to narrative mode.”

“Narrative mode?” Alice asked. “That’s not even . . .”

The computer began speaking again, only this time in a deeper voice that wasn’t precisely the same as the sing-songy soothing one all the USF ships were stuck with.

“Things began to go badly for the crew of the USFS Erwin around the time Dr. Marchere’s coffee mug spontaneously reassembled itself.

“Dr. Louis Marchere was not, at that moment, conducting some manner of experiment. Well, he was, only not on entropy and the nature of time. He was running several other tests, of the kind that make perfect sense on a scientific vessel such as the Erwin. About half of them were biological in nature, concerning how small samples of cellular material react to certain deep-space factors. Other tests were more at home in the general field of astrophysics. But—again, as this is important—he was not conducting a test on entropy.”

“Computer, stop,” Hadder said. “There, that was helpful, wasn’t it?”

“What the hell was that?” Alice asked. “And why is the computer doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“It said Alice asked, when I was talking, and the same thing when you were talking.”

“It’s narrative mode. Useful! Now we know it all began with Dr. Marchere.”

Alice was deeply confused. She’d never heard of narrative mode before, and was nearly positive Hadder was playing some sort of elaborate joke.

“It’s not a joke!” Hadder said.

“I didn’t say it was!”

“The narrative did.”

“Turn it off,” Alice said. “I KNOW I SAID THAT, YOU DON’T HAVE TO TELL ME I SAID THAT.”

“Computer, end narrative mode.”

“Ending narrative mode,” the computer said.

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “All right, so, Dr. Louis Marchere. Where is he? Or did he go to the . . . whatever-you-said place?”

“No, I believe he’s still aboard,” Hadder said. “We were just speaking. Deck three, in the research lab.”

“Great. Let’s go.”

She headed for the elevator. Hadder remained where he was.

“Well, come on,” she said. “You’re the only survivor I’ve found so far; I think we should stick together, don’t you?”

“It’s . . . um, no. No, I think my place is on the bridge,” he said. “It’s safer.”

“Captain Hadder, I don’t think any part of this ship is safe. Our best option here is to find out what Marchere knows; if he doesn’t have a way to save the Erwin, we need to get to my shuttle.”

“Find out what you can,” he said, in a tone that sounded like an order, “and keep me updated! Much to do up here.”

He sat down in the captain’s chair, as if this settled things.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll, ah, I’ll let you know. Computer, deck three.”

“Deck three,” the computer confirmed.

As the doors closed, Alice could have sworn she saw Ensign Anson standing next to Captain Hadder.

But of course, she didn’t. That would be impossible.

[End of Part 1 – Read Part 2]

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Gene Doucette

Gene Doucette is the author of over twenty sci-fi/fantasy titles, including The Spaceship Next Door and The Frequency of Aliens, the Immortal series, the Tandemstar books, and The Apocalypse Seven (2021). Gene lives in Cambridge MA.