Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams

HellBent_Lightspeed_728x90_onsale

Advertisement

Fiction

The Spread of Space and Endless Devastation

This is the fifty-seventh time Ship has tried to stop Zander from entering the cellar.

By now, Ship simply watches over the feed as the mission gets underway. Zander and the other members of their crew open the front door and marvel at the lack of dust, the trickle of the entry hall fountain.

“It’s as if someone still lives here,” Kala says. As the crew’s historian, she is endlessly looking for ways to insert herself into the past.

“Like they just stepped out and will come back any moment.” That’s from Eun-ja, who spends xir off-shifts watching holos.

“Perhaps their ghost still roams these very halls!” And there’s Iope, who can never resist egging Eun-ja on.

“It’s just cleaning nanos,” Zander mutters from the bottom of the cellar stairs.

And that means it’s time: Ship sends an all-hands alert and the rest of the crew swarms back toward the lifeboat.

Zander ignores it, as he always does. He walks across the cellar and touches the device.

• • • •

The house is built of marble and glass, with ornate stucco flourishes on the pillars that line its veranda, half-obscured by vines.

Ship’s processors stutter every time they see it. Then their viewports zoom out.

Chaos.

Ruin.

An ever-shrinking torus of devastated spacetime. Ship doesn’t know why they can see it—why, when it comes to that, they are aware of the time loop while Zander and the others are not—but they know they have to stop it. They can’t let it reach the house. Can’t let it hurt their crew.

• • • •

The job was unusual from the start.

Kala found the listing in the local subnet of a station they were visiting. NEWLY REDISCOVERED ASTEROID, it said. STRUCTURE IN FIRST IMPERIAL STYLE; CATALOGERS WANTED. PAYS. There was no employer listed, just an anonymous number with proof of payment guaranteed by third-party bond.

Kala signed them up for it on the spot.

After yet another argument about why it wasn’t okay for Kala to accept work without consulting the rest of them first—again—the crew took a vote. Kala, Eun-ja, and Iope in favor. Zander against. (Ship abstained. They couldn’t bear it when their crew got into fights, but they also couldn’t bear to take sides.)

Zander relented with a long-suffering sigh, and Ship warped them out to the asteroid at the coordinates given in the listing.

The asteroid was so remote the warp took nearly a day. Eventually, though, they arrived, and the crew took Ship’s lifeboat down to the surface, where the house and its garden had hidden just outside of civilized space for millennia untold.

The rest, Ship thought, would be every bit as simple. Zander and the others would catalogue the contents of its house and its garden, and Ship would wait for their return. They would go home, they would get paid, they would all be happy for ever and for always. Or at least until the next time they got into a fight.

But then Zander found the device.

• • • •

On the mission’s very first iteration, Ship was the one who pointed out the markings on the cellar wall, as well as the device nestled underneath with its eerie, stuttering glow.

In the iterations since, they’ve tried everything to keep Zander away. Alerts, haranguing, reverse psychology. Pleading, bribery, ridiculous jokes. Offers to have their own nanos do everyone’s chore rotation for the next twenty years. On iteration forty-two, they reactivated their lifeboat and crashed it through the rear of the house.

No matter what, Zander touches the device.

• • • •

Ship spends iterations sixty through ninety trying to decipher the markings on the cellar wall. Are they letters? A diagram? Some kind of abstract art? Sometimes it feels like they change between loops, some form of lexical life.

On iteration 91, Ship is left with an overwhelming sense of certainty that they did understand the markings until a moment before, and they give it up for futile.

• • • •

The house is built of marble and glass.

Eun-ja lifts a vine from one of its pillars to see what’s underneath: all the people of an empire bent in supplication; a single figure, head bowed; an implosive, wheeling sun.

Kala gasps in wonder at a glazed teacup painted with circling fish.

Iope cracks a joke about undisturbed graves.

Zander touches the device.

Eun-ja and Kala hold hands when they think nobody’s looking, giggling like people half their age. (Everybody already knows.)

Zander touches the device.

Eun-ja, Kala, and Iope spend the mission in the garden, cataloguing plants and holographing statuary.

Zander touches the device.

Always, no matter what Ship does or says or tries, Zander touches the device and the devastation edges infinitesimally closer.

• • • •

By iteration 433, Ship’s attention starts to drift.

They don’t know who they are or what they’re doing. The crew has always been on the asteroid. Zander has always been touching the device, the markings always shifting.

And still the torus of ruined spacetime contracts.

• • • •

Zander touches the device.

• • • •

Ship has long stopped counting iterations when they notice that something has changed.

Zander still walks to the cellar, but the rest of the crew stands in the garden, shoulder to shoulder, looking to the sky.

No, beyond that: To orbit. To Ship.

What are you—Ship starts.

Zander touches the device.

• • • •

It takes another dozen iterations of Kala and Eun-ja and Iope in the garden for Ship to realize what’s going on. Their crew is as aware of the time-loops as they are—perhaps they always have been, all this time outside of time.

A dozen iterations after that, they realize something else: Zander’s refusal to stay out of the cellar is not some fluke of the time-loop but a sign of his willpower, implacable as orbital mechanics. He is triggering the loops on purpose to stop spacetime from collapsing while Ship still waits.

Ship’s processors nearly crash. They are not protecting their crew—their crew is protecting them. And even worse, they are keeping Kala and Eun-ja and Iope and Zander here through all these endless iterations by refusing to release them.

Still, they cannot bear it. They send message after message, imploring them all to get back to the lifeboat. Insisting there will be time for the lifeboat to reach their landing bay and for them to push away into warp before the torus reaches them.

Each and every time, Zander touches the device.

• • • •

At last, Ship sends a simple acknowledgment.

I see you, it says. I will always see you, even after you are gone.

They do not look back as they push themself into warp. They know that if they do, they will falter.

And so they do not witness Zander make his way into the garden. They do not see the torus collapse around the asteroid, around the home. They do not see, in the instant before all of it flickers out of being for good, their crew coming together—if nothing else, together, for one more last moment in time.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Stewart C. Baker

Stewart C. Baker. A white person with a beard, mustache, and long hair in front of a birch tree.

Stewart C. Baker is an academic librarian and author of speculative fiction and poetry, along with the occasional piece of interactive fiction. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and now lives in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet where you can find him at infomancy.net