Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Schrödinger’s Catastrophe [Part 2]


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


[Read Part 1]

It took twice as long to get to the third deck from the first as it did to get to the first deck from the fifth. Alice was quite certain there was no mechanism in existence capable of adding fractional decks to the ship, and so was chalking this up to another aspect of the ongoing computer malfunction. She supposed a way to validate this was to ask that the elevator stop at, say, deck two-and-five-sixteenths, but she also didn’t want to encourage the computer’s departures from reality any more than necessary.

Find the problem, she thought. Find the problem, work the problem, solve the problem.

The reason Corporal Alice Aste was an ideal rescue mission envoy was that, over the course of a fairly extensive career, she’d worked in just about every part of a starship, from engine to helm. She was a problem-solving universal tool, a one-person away team. If a disabled ship was disabled because there was nobody aboard with the expertise to re-enable the vessel, the likelihood was fairly high that Alice had the gap-filling skillset.

But this? Whatever was going on aboard the USFS Erwin, she wasn’t equipped to deal with it. Maybe nobody human was.

“The subjective mind is objectively flawed,” she said aloud. It was one of the philosophical-slash-practical mottos she lived by. She couldn’t recall who said it to her originally—probably one of her academy professors—but she’d found it incredibly useful over the years. There were some things the human mind was simply bad at grasping, observationally or intuitively, which was why flawed humans created machines to objectively interrogate the world for them.

That was what the computer was supposed to be doing. Since it was malfunctioning, Alice had no way to determine how much of what she was experiencing was even real.

And that was terrifying.

“Deck three,” the computer announced, finally.

The door slid open, revealing a corridor with glass-walled rooms on both sides.

Scientific research was the Erwin’s central function, which was why the third deck was its widest and tallest. (Looked at from the front, the Erwin looked like a wide oval or, if you were hungry, like an overstuffed sandwich; deck three was where all the meat was located.) It was also where most of the vessel’s funding went.

There was a dizzying amount of experimentational activity taking place in both of the glassed-in rooms, nearly all of it mechanized. If quizzed, Alice could definitively identify maybe a third of the experiments, and perhaps half of the equipment.

The ship’s supercollider—one of only a half-dozen off-planet supercolliders in existence—was running some kind of test on the far wall on her left, while on her right a laser tube designed to detect gravitational waves was humming along. A little farther along, a hologram of a Moebius strip was rotating slowly beside a bank of computer screens displaying rapidly evolving fractals.

Those were just the most obvious, macroscopic things. There were also cultured cells somewhere, having things done to them, and top-secret genetic splicing research, and plants being taught to grow in zero gravity chambers, and much more, but she couldn’t see any of that.

She kept walking down the corridor, absorbing the maelstrom of activity on both sides, wondering exactly where all the power for this was coming from. The supercollider alone was supposed to take up enough of the energy from the Erwin’s fusion engine that the vessel couldn’t run the FTL drive as long as it was also going. (The energy issue wasn’t the only problem. Nobody was sure what would happen if a supercollider ran while on a ship traveling faster-than-light speed, but the consensus was: nothing good.)

The point was, everything running at once had to be an enormous drain, and yet the captain insisted the ship’s engine wasn’t even running. Either he was wrong—he was crazy, so it was probably that—or the Erwin was surviving on battery power. The batteries on a ship like this supplied just about enough power to keep life support going, plus the communications array, and maybe some impulse power for basic maneuverability, for about thirty days. It couldn’t do all that and also provide a city’s worth of energy to the research deck.

And yet, that appeared to be what was happening. Unless Hadder was wrong.

“Computer,” she said, “give me a read on the ship’s engine output?”

“The engine is not running,” the computer said.

“Not the propulsion. I know we aren’t moving. The base-level output.”

“The engine is not running.”

“Computer, the ship has power, does it not? Otherwise, you and I wouldn’t be talking and I wouldn’t be able to breathe.”

“Confirmed, the ship has power.”

“Then what’s the engine’s baseline output?”

“The engine is not running.”

“Fine,” Alice said. “Computer, what is the source of the ship’s power, if not the engine? Is it the auxiliary batteries, or something else?”

“What is the answer you are expecting?” the computer asked.

“The right answer would be great.”

“The batteries are providing the ship with power.”

“Did you just say that because you thought that was what I wanted to hear?”

“The batteries are providing the ship with power.”

“Sure.”

“Would you like to switch to narrative mode?”

“No. What is it with you and narrative mode?”

“Narrative mode has been proven to reveal information not otherwise available to this computer.”

“No, thank you.”

She stopped short of asking the computer what other modes it had available, both because this was yet another ridiculous conversation she had no time for, and because she could see someone moving in the last part of the lab on the right.

The man had on a lead vest, with goggles and a face shield dangling loosely around his neck. He was also wearing thick leather gloves, brown coveralls of the sort Alice recognized as standard for the engineers, and heavy mag-spiked boots. His hair was pointed in five different directions, and he was holding something that looked like a blowtorch in one hand.

He could have been just about anyone in the crew. Nonetheless, she felt certain that this was Dr. Marchere.

Alice walked up to the nearest door, and when it wouldn’t open, tried her override code. That didn’t work either, so she knocked.

She startled him; he nearly dropped the torch, which would have been very bad had it been lit.

“Dr. Marchere?” she shouted.

He waved, put down the torch, waddled over, and opened the door.

“Very sorry, I’m extremely busy, can you come back later?” he asked.

“I really can’t,” she said. “I’m here to rescue the ship.”

“I . . . see. And you are?”

“Corporal Alice Aste. I’m with the Security Force, and—”

“All right, all right, come in. Rescue! Ha-ha. Yes. That would be something.”

She stepped into the room, which was awash in an atonal cacophony of pings, whirrs, and clangs. He took off his gloves and led her to a table in the center of all of it. On the table was a coffee mug, a cold pot of coffee, and a plate of doughnuts.

“I would offer you something other than doughnuts,” he said, “but the food replicator can only make these, and only if one asks for bicarbonate of soda. I haven’t worked out what one is supposed to request in order to get other foods, so this is what I have. Now, you’ve exactly seventeen minutes, and then I’ll have to get back. I’m running thirty-eight experiments, and as you can see, all of my colleagues have already left.”

“Where did they go?”

“They left, as I said. You’re not from the Erwin, is that right?”

“The Rosen is nearby. If we can’t get the Erwin’s engine running, we’ll have to get the Rosen here for a tow. I can’t hail them for . . . some reason, but I can try calling them from my shuttle. I just need to understand what’s happening here, first. The computer . . . I’m sorry, this will sound insane, but in narrative mode, whatever that is, the computer said that this all began when Dr. Louis Marchere dropped a coffee mug. You are Dr. Louis Marchere, aren’t you?”

“I am! And that is amazing.”

“Which part?”

“All of it! I’m amazed you’ve lasted this long. Have you come across anyone else?”

“The captain and I had a long conversation that made no sense and confused everything much more.”

“Oh excellent, the captain is still here. I was sure I was the last one left.”

“He said he thinks the crew might be in their quarters, but is afraid to check, because he thinks if he does so, they might be dead and it will be his fault.” She laughed then, to see if Marchere was inspired to laugh as well. He was not.

“Yes, that’s eminently reasonable on his part,” he said. “Narrative mode, you say? That’s a new one. I accidentally stumbled upon theatrical mode yesterday, which was odd enough.”

“Switching to theatrical mode,” the computer said.

Marchere: No, I didn’t mean for that. Oh well, here we are. Welcome to theatrical mode.

Alice: Oh, this is very strange.

Marchere: Yes, well, now we’re here. It’s not terrible. I enjoyed it during a soliloquy, but after became quite frustrated.

(Marchere takes a bite of a doughnut.)

Marchere: There, you see, it’s exhausting, having your own actions read back to you. I became obsessed with the question of whether the computer was describing what I was doing, or if I was doing what the computer instructed me to do. Did I just bite this doughnut because that was what the stage business described, or did the stage business capture my actions?

(Alice looks confused.)

Alice: Weird, it’s in present tense. And the computer keeps announcing who’s speaking, like we don’t already know. It was doing that before too, in narrative mode, only not every time.

Marchere: The fact that it’s in present tense is what makes it so confounding. That would argue in favor of it dictating my actions instead of the other way around, which would contravene the concept of free will entirely, and that’s terribly frustrating.

Alice: I shot a man on the bridge before pulling the trigger on my blaster. Captain Hadder said it was because cause-and-effect had been malfunctioning all day. That sounds like a similar problem. Can we . . . turn this off?

Marchere: Computer, end theatrical mode.

“Ending theatrical mode,” the computer said.

“Thank you,” Alice said. “Now can you please explain what’s happened here? Where did everyone go, why are you running all of these experiments, where are you even getting the power to run all of these experiments?”

“Do you want for me to answer all of those at the same time, or is there a particular order you’d like for me to honor?”

“Start with what’s going on. I guess.”

“All right. Do you know what scientific theory states that the laws of physics are the same everywhere?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Good, because there isn’t one. We’ve always just assumed it to be so, because it did us no good to assume otherwise. It was a poor assumption.”

“You’re saying the laws of physics don’t apply to this quadrant?”

“I mean the Void we’re next to, primarily, but as you must have worked out, there have been local alterations. We’re right on the event horizon of a portion of space in which nothing we’ve previously proven to be true is necessarily still true. That’s why I’m running all these experiments. I’m trying to work out what is true in this particular region of space.”

“That sounds ridiculous.”

“Oh, absolutely. It’s magnificently ridiculous. Yesterday, I positively identified a particle’s exact location and velocity. This morning, I tested the wave function collapse of light, but it refused to collapse. Later, I managed to measure the speed of light from a moving object compared to the speed of light from a stationary one, and discovered the one from the moving object was faster. I’ve also discovered electrons a half-quanta apart, and a few hours ago the supercollider detected an element between carbon and nitrogen, and a neutron with a negative charge. And this morning, for five seconds, all the oxygen in the other room—thankfully, I was in this one—gathered in one corner. These are all impossible, ridiculous things.”

“But that can’t be right. It’s only a computer malfunction.”

“The computer on this ship is working perfectly,” he said, “in that it’s describing an objective reality we cannot grasp. My equipment is working perfectly as well. It’s our perception that’s having trouble catching up. Now, I have to get back to my work before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what, doctor?” she asked. “What exactly happened to your coworkers? Where is everyone else?”

“Ah. They don’t exist any longer.”

“You mean, they’re dead?”

“I prefer it the way I said it. Are you familiar with the anthropic principle?”

“I heard something like that. The captain said his bridge crew went to the Anthropene Principality. Is that the same thing?”

“More or less. Hadder’s head’s all jumbled. The anthropic principle is a logical point stemming from the observation that everything in our universe has to be just so, in order to allow for our existence. From Planck’s Constant to the charge of an electron, the weight of atomic particles, and so on and so forth, all of it carries a value which allows, as an aggregate, for a universe to exist which contains intelligent life. None of these values had to be what they were. It’s a little circular, because one could easily argue that the only reason the universe’s aggregation of values exists to allow intelligent life is because this is the only permutation that allowed for intelligent life to develop in order to make that observation. Other universes—assuming multiple universes—evolved differently, and have no intelligent life to note that their universe failed to evolve in such a way to allow for them to exist.”

“All right,” she said. “That does sound odd.”

“I bring it up because the part of the universe we’re standing at the edge of, right now, is a part where the laws do not allow for us to exist. It’s the converse point of the anthropic principle. We’re composed of the laws on which our universe was built. The slightest change in the strong nuclear charge and the atoms that make up your body could fly apart or collapse into themselves. Your brain evolved to communicate via neural electrical charges; a change in the electromagnetic force, and it stops working. These are facile examples, but you understand. If the laws change, we won’t be around to measure them. At least, not for long. We’re still here because neither of us have had the misfortune to happen upon a patch of altered laws that will undo us, and in fact right now we’re alive because I’ve been taking advantage of the alteration. You asked before what’s powering us. The answer is, when the engine failed, I hooked up the auxiliary batteries together. They’re now charging one another and the ship.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Evidently not here! The laws of this patch of universe allow for perpetual motion machines, so we may as well get some use out of it.”

“So . . . you’re saying the rest of the crew has been . . . unmade?”

“I’ve yet to witness this happening to anyone, but yes, I think so. I’m afraid to leave this level. You say you came from the hangar, and visited the bridge; it’s good to know those places still exist.”

“According to the computer there are fractional decks being added all the time,” she said.

He laughed.

“Fascinating,” he said. “I only hope I’m around to find an explanation for that.”

“Now that I’m here with a shuttle, you don’t have to think like that, doctor,” she said. “I can take you—and the captain, if he’s willing to leave the bridge—and whatever research you have. The Erwin is clearly a hostile living environment.”

“An excellent suggestion, but no, I think I had better stay. You have a good point, however, in that I have no way to communicate my findings. My hope was to record as much as I could and jettison it toward the hub, but in truth I came upon that idea when I thought I’d reach the end of my studies. It seems the deeper I dig, the more strangeness I find. But here.”

He placed a memory tab on the table.

“This is everything I’ve measured up to about an hour ago. I hope.”

“You hope?”

“I hope it’s only been an hour. The passage of time has been curious.”

She picked up the tab.

“It has,” she said, “the captain said it had only been a day, but it’s been . . .”

Alice looked up from the table to find she was speaking to an empty room.

“Dr. Marchere?”

He’d been standing two meters away, and now he wasn’t. The experiments in the room were still running, and the doughnut he’d taken a bite from remained bitten from, but he wasn’t there to continue the experiments or finish the doughnut.

“Computer, can you locate Dr. Marchere?”

“There is no Dr. Marchere.”

“Dr. Louis Marchere,” she clarified.

“There is no Dr. Louis Marchere.”

“He was just right here, computer.”

“Would you like to try a different narration?”

“No, I . . . I don’t know what I want.”

He’s in the Anthropene Principality now, she thought.

“I need to get off this ship,” she decided. “Computer, what’s the fastest way to the hangar?”

“The hangar is located on deck five,” the computer said.

“Is there still a deck five?”

“There’s still a deck five, but portions appear missing. Haste is recommended.”

Alice opened the door to the lab and ran to the elevator, as things in both glass-walled rooms began to go somewhat more haywire than before. The holographic Moebius strip had developed a second side, the fractals on the computer screens began flashing random Greek letters for some reason, and it looked like a black hole was forming in the center of the supercollider. An amoeba the size of her head popped into existence on the glass a few feet from her face, and then popped back out of existence again before she had a chance to scream. It began to rain.

She reached the elevator door and pushed the button. Then she opened up her bag and retrieved her helmet. If the atmosphere decided to collect in one corner of the ship again, she’d rather she was breathing her own supply.

The ship started groaning before the elevator even made it to the fourth deck.

“Computer, what made that sound?” Alice asked.

“Unclear.”

Alice remembered visiting the extinct-Earth-animals exhibit as a child, and being transfixed by the elephant in particular. The noises the ship was making sounded like an elephant being squeezed like an exhaust bladder.

Then the elevator shuddered, and stopped.

“Computer, what’s going on?”

“Unclear.”

“Can you tell me where I’ve stopped?”

“You’ve stopped at deck three-and-eleven-sixteenths. Would you like to get out here?”

“That depends. Will the elevator be moving again any time soon?”

“Define soon.”

“Before the ship blows up, implodes, or otherwise ceases to exist?”

“Unable to predict those outcomes at this time.”

Alice wondered if maybe she should have gone up instead, back to the bridge. She could have collected Captain Hadder and gone out the topside hatch, and called the shuttle from there.

Then Alice started floating: the gravity had cut out.

If I can get into the shaft, I can reach the command deck on my own, she thought.

“Computer, can you hail Captain Hadder?” she asked.

“There is no Captain Hadder.”

“Computer, can you hail the bridge?”

“There is no bridge.”

“Deck one, Computer. Open a channel to deck one.”

“There is no deck one.”

Crap.

“Computer, does deck five still exist?”

“Deck five continues to exist.”

“But deck one is missing.”

“The USFS Erwin does not have a deck one.”

“All right, never mind. Open doors, please. Let’s see what deck three-and-eleven-sixteenths looks like.”

The doors slid open on a level that looked weirdly out-of-focus. Alice’s first thought was that some kind of viscous fluid had gotten on her helmet, distorting the view of the universe on the other side. But the helmet was clean.

The walls were partly transparent and partly solid, because deck four’s walls were opaque, while deck three’s floors had glass walls. Deck three-and-eleven-sixteenths was trying to have both at once.

Since the gravity was out, Alice activated the mag-spikes on her boots and attached herself to the floor, then stepped off the elevator onto a blurry level that somehow managed to be solid.

“Computer, where is the nearest maintenance shaft on this deck?” she asked.

If the ship behaved for long enough, she’d be able to access the fifth deck by way of a maintenance shaft.

“Twenty-five meters.”

“In which direction?”

“All directions.”

The computer was not going to help.

Relying on the deck layout of one of the levels that was actually supposed to exist, Alice headed straight down the blurry corridor between the blurry rooms on both sides. In a slightly more ideal circumstance, she’d run, but because the artificial gravity generator had decided it was done (or ceased to exist, or whatever), she had to keep one boot on the ground.

About fifteen steps in, the boots stopped working. Actually, what it felt like was that the magnets holding her in place switched poles spontaneously, and repelled her from the floor. She began drifting to the ceiling.

Then came an explosion, somewhere aboard the ship. Alice felt it tremble through the belly of the vessel, rocking the walls and putting her into a gentle spin.

“Computer, what was that?”

“That was an explosion,” the computer said, not at all helpfully.

“Right, thanks.”

There was another tremble, and a shudder, and then a loud screech that didn’t sound like much of anything Alice had ever heard before: not the noise a machine makes when it’s broken, or a sound approximating that of an extinct elephant getting squeezed, or the cacophony a ship makes when its hull is torn open. It was not, in other words, on the short list of bad noises in her mental catalog of things to be alarmed about. She was nevertheless extremely alarmed, because what it did sound like was a creature that her lizard brain told her to run from. This was even though that portion of her brain also didn’t know what she was hearing.

Then, directly beneath her and along the corridor floor, a thing ran past.

There were a tremendous number of wrong things that were wrong with this thing, the most arresting being that it was somehow in a higher definition than the rest of the deck, including Alice herself. It was a bright shade of blue, and green, almond, and a color of purple she was pretty sure was ultraviolet, which she was also pretty sure she shouldn’t have been able to see. There were other colors she didn’t even have a name for, because they didn’t exist in the universe she was familiar with.

It was perhaps a giant bat, perhaps a snake, and perhaps a horse. It galloped and hissed, shrieked and chortled, and swung its long, clawed fingers through the walls on either side as if they weren’t there. The walls, in turn, acted as if the creature wasn’t there, showing no damage.

Here be dragons, she thought.

With a great flap of its enormous wings, it soared ahead, and vanished at the far end of the corridor.

“All right, I’ve had enough,” Alice said. “Computer what’s the fastest way off this ship? I don’t care how, just as long as it puts me on the other side of the hull.”

“Unable to calculate,” the computer said.

“Why is that?”

“The concept of other side of the hull is too variable to allow for a precise calculation. There are several places where the hull has ceased to exist, but sensors indicate nothing exists on the other side of where the hull no longer is.”

“That’s great.”

The vessel shuddered again. Alice waited for a new nightmare creature to show up, but none did. It was probably just another part of the Erwin getting unwritten from the universe.

“Computer, how close am I to the maintenance shaft now?”

“Twenty-five meters.”

“That’s how far I was when I got off the broken elevator. I must have gotten closer since.”

“Understood. However, the distance remains twenty-five meters.”

She sighed.

“I really need to understand what’s happening to the entire ship right now, computer,” Alice said, “or I’m never getting off of it. I don’t even know what questions to ask you. Can you provide me with an integrity assessment?”

“Not in this mode.”

A hole opened up in the floor, which should have been good news, because that was the direction she wanted to go. But there was nothing on the other side of the hole. Either decks four and five were missing now, or the hole just went to someplace different.

“What the hell,” Alice said. “Computer, switch to narrative mode.”

• • • •

Something quite extraordinary was happening to the USFS Erwin.

It was difficult to tell, from more or less any angle, whether the ship had been drawing closer to the Void on its starboard, or if the Void was moving closer to the ship, but what was definitely the case was that their positions relative to one another had been changing since the Erwin first encountered the strange section of space. Now—after either two days or six weeks—the two things were colliding.

The Void was having a devastating effect on the Erwin. (The same could not be said of the Erwin’s impact on the Void, which appeared to be weathering things just fine.) There were certain expectations regarding how most space-based threats could damage a manmade starship. Incredibly dense objects, like neutron stars or black holes, could tear apart such a ship if it ventured too close, by literally ripping parts of the vessel off of other parts of the vessel, and/or drawing it into an inescapable gravitational well. Highly radioactive objects could bombard the ship with levels of gamma radiation so severe as to overwhelm the shielding and cook whoever was unfortunate enough to be inside. Rogue objects like asteroids could blow through a hull with a direct hit.

And so on.

None of those things were happening to the Erwin. Instead, it looked as if someone had produced a very realistic three-dimensional artistic rendering of the ship and then, deciding they disliked it, began erasing the artwork. Starting on the starboard side, large chunks of solid material were being turned into tiny bits of particulate matter—eraser crumbs, perhaps—after which the tiny bits of particulate matter glistened with internal light and then vanished.

It’s fair to say that however beautiful this might have looked to a neutral (and presumably distant) observer, its impact on the contents of the vessel was very bad indeed. Under optimal circumstances, a hull breach was dealt with by the ship’s integrity shields: short-term force fields that plugged up holes before all of the atmosphere in the breached cell leaked into space. But the integrity shields only worked in circumstances where there was more hull than breach, and anyway they needed power in order to function. Unfortunately, the entirely impossible perpetual motion machine Dr. Marchere assembled had begun to break down.

All of this would be very bad news for anyone still alive aboard the USFS Erwin. It was good news, then—if such a thing deserved to be called good news, that there was nobody left alive on the Erwin. All except for Corporal Alice Aste, desperately shuffling along deck three-and-eleven-sixteenths in a quixotic attempt to get back to her shuttle before she too was unmade.

“Hey!” Alice said. “There’s no need for that.”

The deck floor was mostly gone now, as was the starboard side of the hull, which she could see through the blurry office wall: The Void was on two sides. But the ceiling remained intact, and since there was no such thing as up or down in space—especially without the artificial gravity—she was doing okay with her mag-spiked boots. Shortly, though, she was going to run out of places to move.

“Computer, if you could just stop being so long-winded and give me something I can use, that would be great,” she said.

“The nature and pace of the narrative isn’t under the computer’s control,” the computer said, annoyingly.

Alice grumbled an insult under her breath and kept going. Very shortly, none of this would matter. The port side hull was weakening already, not so much from direct contact with the Void as a consequence of having its structural integrity challenged thanks to half of it no longer existing. The hull’s metal shell was wrinkling . . .

“Hang on, go back,” Alice said. “Repeat that last part.”

Alice grumbled an insult . . .

“After that.”

Already, the port side hull was weakening . . .

• • • •

“Computer, end narrative mode.”

“Ending narrative mode.”

Alice put her hand on the blurry med lab wall on the port side. It felt firm, because it was a wall, but at the same time it also didn’t feel that firm. She pushed . . . and her hand went through it.

“Okay, that probably shouldn’t have worked,” she said.

She kicked her leg through, and then her other arm, and soon she’d gotten her whole body on the other side. Now in a room that was trying very hard to be both Marchere’s supercollider lab and a medical examination room, she mag-walked across the ceiling to the outer hull.

The pushing-her-hand-through-something-that-was-supposed-to-be-solid trick didn’t work a second time; the hull was firm, although she could hear it starting to fail. Waiting for that to happen seemed like a bad bet, and she didn’t have to; not as long as she was carrying explosive charges.

She pulled one out, set the digital timer to thirty seconds, said a quiet prayer that she was in a part of the ship where chemical explosives and digital clocks still worked like they were supposed to, and then disengaged the mag-clips from the ceiling and pushed herself to the far end of the room.

The charge went off, exposing all of deck three-and-eleven-sixteenths to outer space. The atmosphere blew out of the hole, and sucked Alice out with it. In seconds, she was drifting on a free trajectory a significant distance from the Erwin.

“Now unsynchronized with USFS Erwin’s computer,” her suit’s computer announced, which Alice thought was great news.

“Call the shuttle to my position,” Alice said.

“Unable to locate shuttle,” the computer said.

Alice twisted around until she was facing the wreckage of the Erwin. She could see the shuttle all right, but it was now embedded in the side of the larger ship. It looked like the Erwin was giving birth to it, only in reverse.

“That’s great,” she said.

The Void was just about done with the Erwin. Like the narrative said, it was hard to tell whether the ship had been drifting into the Void or whether the Void was expanding to consume the ship. Either way, she couldn’t afford to drift into it herself, nor could she ask the Rosen to get that close to it just to pick her up.

But, she wasn’t out of options. There were two more charges in her bag, and the bag had armor shielding.

She pulled it off her back and got out the two remaining charges.

“Computer, locate the Rosen,” she said. Then she held her breath. If the computer said unable to locate or worse, the USF Rosen does not exist, Alice was out of luck. It said neither.

Rosen located.”

“Target on helmet view.”

The computer pinpointed the ship for her.

Now’s the fun part, she thought. She set the timer for both charges at thirty seconds, put them back in the bag, and then tried to crouch until her whole body—feet-first so her legs would absorb the worst of it—was behind the steel plate in the bag. Then she tried to maneuver herself so that she was between the impending explosion and the USF Rosen.

“Computer, activate emergency beacon,” she said.

“Emergency beacon activated.”

“Thanks. Sure hope this works.”

The charges blew. She felt her right leg shatter, and then she blacked out.

• • • •

She woke up in the Rosen’s med-lab, with a doctor she didn’t know standing over her.

“There you are,” he said. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” she said. Her mouth was dry and her vision blurry.

How long have I been out? she wondered.

She tried to sit up, but it felt like the Rosen’s gravity was set at a much higher force level than it was supposed to be.

“Here, let me help,” the doctor said, pushing a button that got her bed into an upright position. “I’m Dr. Maxwell, and you are lucky to be alive.”

“You wouldn’t be the first doctor to tell me that,” she said, trying out a smile. “What’s the damage?”

“Broken right leg, shattered left kneecap, broken left elbow, torn muscles in your right shoulder, and your oxygen ran out three minutes before we got to you, so you’re probably missing a few brain cells. There were a couple of other things, but that’s the worst of it.”

“I need to speak to the captain,” she said.

“I’m sure. I’ll let him know you’re awake; he’ll want to speak to you too. They’ve been going over the information you retrieved from the Erwin; I guess there are a lot of questions that need answering.”

“How long . . .?”

“How long have you been out?” he asked. “Depends on where you’d like to start counting. We believe you were adrift for a couple of days, but you’d been on board the Erwin for more than a week. Your trip computer recorded only a few hours, though. I think this is one of the questions the captain has. You do need some rest first, so if you’d like for me to delay him, I can certainly do so.”

“No,” she said. “It’s okay. The sooner the better.”

“Good,” he said with a paternal smile. “I’ll let him know. Meanwhile, if you’re thirsty, there’s a glass of water on your right. I’ll be right back.”

He left. Alice sat still for a few minutes, trying to compose her thoughts. It was going to be impossible to explain everything without sounding insane, but she didn’t really care about coming off as sane any more. What happened, happened. They’d have to take the data from Dr. Marchere, and her accounting, and figure out what to do with it. Hopefully, one of the things they would decide to do would be to bar all travel through Quadrant Brenda.

After a few minutes with her thoughts, Alice realized she was fantastically thirsty. She turned and reached for the glass, not entirely anticipating how weak her right arm was. What began as a straightforward reach for a nearby object became an awkward flail that resulted in her knocking the glass off the edge of the counter.

She heard it shatter on the floor.

“Great,” she said. “You gave me an actual glass. Very smart, Dr. Maxwell.”

Alice was deciding whether to call a nurse to clean up the glass or to try to do it herself—despite the cast on her leg—when the drinking glass reassembled itself and returned to the counter.

She blinked a couple of times, thinking it would be best if she pretended that hadn’t just happened, while knowing that pretending this wouldn’t make a difference.

“Computer,” she said.

“Yes, Corporal Aste,” the Rosen’s computer said.

“This is going to sound crazy, but do you have a narrative mode?”

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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.