Alone in the Dark
Out here, the sun was no bigger than any other star. But it was still the only one in sight. Its rays had washed the sky as clean as a bright day on Earth, and all around her, space was a deep black in every direction but one. And as she and Gabriel raced away at thirty kilometers per second, Elena couldn’t help but look back at that light and stare.
She held tight to the ship’s hull with both hands, legs splayed behind her and floating freely. There was nothing between she and empty space but her grip. Elena had spent nearly half her life without gravity, and would have traded half of it again to keep the freedom to fly without wings. Zero gee came to her so naturally that she didn’t bother with the small thrusters that jutted from the back of her suit, and instead pulled herself hand over hand along the fuselage. It was like clambering headfirst down the side of a cliff.
Elena paused a little more than midway along Gabriel’s spine. The fuselage stretched into the distance, a football field long in either direction, and the topside sails towered above her to left and right. When she glanced up at them Elena felt as if she were crouched at the bottom of a dry metal gorge. She turned to starboard and began to slide laterally along the curve of Gabriel’s beam, one hand at a time, until she she had come to the base of the sail. At the moment its gray metal expanse was as cool and leaden as an overcast day. But when the rockets fired and dumped their waste heat into their coils, the four sails unfolding from the hull would burn red like wings of fire.
You have not selected an item to display.
Elena arrived at the starboard access tunnel, cut into the side of the wall, and hesitated, one hand on the door. She turned to her right, back to the sun and the beams of light that, in little more than half an hour, had traveled nearly all the way to Jupiter to see her.
Heat burned brightly against the backdrop of space, and even with her engines cold Gabriel still smoldered with residual warmth. The crew endeavored to keep the shipon a line between Jupiter and the sun at all times, to mask her radiating sails. Each of the four ran nearly the length of the ship, and each was as tall as Gabriel was wide, high enough to blot out the sun and cast the ship in shadow. Once on the outside, beyond the Asteroid Belt, there were no running lights per the General Orders, and any part of Gabriel not exposed directly to the sun was bathed in the darkest night. The access tunnel, and her destination on the other side, was pitch black.
Even the reflected light from Jupiter was feeble at this distance, and any object in the sail’s shadow was hidden completely from view. At the touch of a button she could activate her visor and project a false-color image onto the inside of her helmet, so that she could “see” what she was doing. It was effective, but the sense of unreality—like painting a picture blindfolded, while someone else called out directions—unsettled her. Elena had no choice but to trust that what it was telling her was true.
Only once, in her hundreds of hours of walks, had her visor ever malfunctioned. Elena had been in her first year at Phobos Academy—every officer of the Space Agency had spent four years at Phobos, or four years as a licensed civilian astronaut—performing a solo thruster drill as the tiny moon raced through its orbit and into the sunset side of Mars. In space Elena was always intellectually aware of the vacuum, of the enormous void in which she was suspended. But it had never bothered her until that day, when her world had gone as dark as if God had flipped a switch.
The night was total. Elena had looked down, and the arms and legs that she could still feel moving beneath her had disappeared. Her body had gone and left only its phantom limbs behind. Phobos was not just unseen, but nonexistent. The world had vanished around her.
She had closed her eyes to shut out the nothingness, but that just made it worse. Soon she could feel the walls of the universe recede into the distance, leaving her alone in an emptiness so impossibly vast that the sheer size of it seemed to be crushing her. Elena had opened her eyes as wide as they could go, but the night still shrouded her. And then she had felt something else in the darkness—a panic that was swimming in the deep and rushing up to meet her.
She had known this terror before. Her father had loved the mountains, and had taken her camping every time the two of them in concert could force her mother into surrender. By then the smoke layer above the clouds had crumbled, and up there in the thin air, far from the cities, the stars were as clear she would ever see them on Earth. Elena would look straight up into the sky, into the bright and beautiful light of the night, and feel as if the galaxy had wrapped itself around her.
But one night a storm had come in before dawn, sudden and violent, and had ripped that sky from her. Elena had awoken in her tent to wind and darkness, and the flap had torn open and she could see into the outside, into the raging power that was threatening to throw her off the top of the mountain. She had waited for a bolt of lightning that never came. In her nightmares her high screams drifted into the wind and were lost.
And over the shrieking of the storm she had heard her father in the next tent, just meters away and impossible to see. He had been singing. Though the storm was strong, his low voice had slid beneath its screams and she could hear him clearly. He had been singing to her. If he had left his tent to reach her the gale might have toppled him, and who knows where he might have fallen—but he had done for her what he could.
En tu cuerpo flor de fuego tiene paloma, un temblor de primaveras…
Elena knew the song, and began to sing as well. They sang every verse in harmony, came to the end together, and returned to the beginning. It was an older song, a song that had been old when her abuelos had been young, and she had to struggle to remember the words, to keep time with him. Her voice was high-pitched and didn’t carry, and she had wondered if he could hear her.
El sol morira morira, la noche vendra vendra…
And there, singing in the dark with the wind in her ears and the rain on her face, she had fallen asleep. The next morning her father had already been cooking breakfast when she left her tent, and neither mentioned the storm.
There in the sky above Phobos, with the panic snarling and tearing at the edges of her brain, Elena had begun to sing. Her thoughts, mindlessly racing, slowed as she fought to recall the lyrics. She remembered who she was, where she was, what she was doing. The pre-planned list of maneuvers she had been given returned as she reached the second verse, and by the third Elena knew which she had performed last.
Envuelvete en mi cariño, deja la vida volar…
Still singing, Elena had taken her thruster controls and completed the drill. By the time she had been retrieved, she had already guessed what she was told next. The “malfunction” had been a test of her composure, and she had passed. What Elena hadn’t known was that everyone on her radio channel—a group which included a number of her instructors—had greatly enjoyed her singing voice.
Elena clung to Gabriel’s wing and looked up into the black, to where the outsiders were waiting for her, unseen. She knew that she had been right to fear the darkness. This time, the monsters were real.
Her communications circuit was open now, and both the bridge staff and the airlock operator could hear her. Elena didn’t sing. Not out loud. Instead she grabbed the next handhold, took a breath, and plunged into the nightside. Only then did she turn on her visor.
Elena clung to the missile pod with one
hand. Her legs dangled before the yawning pit of the launch tube. She squinted involuntarily. Telescope 35, mounted on top of the pod, had cut out an hour earlier and had not responded to remote checks. Regulations required a visual inspection as soon as possible, but Elena could see nothing wrong through her visor. She dimmed the brightness, and a ring of fire arose in the darkness. Elena put her other hand out and felt it slip through the center, and into the void where the telescope should have been. A meteor, probably no larger than a seed of corn, had nailed a million to one shot and blown a crater in its barrel. The edges were still hot.
Elena ran one hand along the twisted metal ridges, and felt them jab against the fabric of her glove. The wound was only one of many. Gabriel was six months out from Earth, and her pearly hull, carbon skin once iridescent in the sunlight, was now tarnished and pitted by the hundreds of impacts, large and small, that occurred each day. Elena had seen ships returned to port after a long haul with craters deep enough to fit her arm to the elbow.
She squeezed the torn edges of the wound. Then she braced her legs against the pod and kicked off, and dove back up towards the sail. The sun grew stronger as she approached the access tunnel, and her illusory image of the ship faded. Elena pulled through the gap in the sail into the light, and after a brief phosphorescent battle, reality won and she could see naturally once more. She made her back along the topside hull at a steady pace.
The airlock door was a rounded bowl three meters across and sunk below the surface of the hull. Elena halted at its edge and tapped quickly at the broad graphene bracelet wrapped around her left wrist. It blinked slowly with an amber sheen that arose from within its translucent depths. Elena waited.
She raised her eyes just in time to catch the falling star. It struck the airlock door before her and exploded, and sprayed the hull with sparks of every color. Elena threw her arm out, but it was too late. A shower of blazing debris washed over her, and static flooded her visor.
When her vision cleared a moment later, the fire had disappeared and left behind nothing but a gentle light at the corners of her eyes. Elena looked down to see that she was glowing. The tiny dying embers had embedded themselves into the ribbing of her suit like diamonds in the rough, and shimmered softly against the dark blue of her polymer skin. She brushed her arm, and a trail of sparks wafted into space.
Elena’s entire body from the neck down had been wrapped in synthetic rubber, carbon fiber, and liquid armor. The spacesuit was a deep navy, heavily ridged and striated like sheets of blue muscle. Her uniform could stand up to the vacuum, space dust, and a few hours of cosmic radiation. It would even stop a bullet. But that meteoroid, as small and insignificant as it had been, would have punched through her and hammered the ship as if she hadn’t even been standing there. And in a few hours, Gabriel would be showered with projectiles much larger, much faster, and much more terrible than a mere shooting star. She was going to war.
Elena silently wished that she would live to see the sun again.
Her bracelet shone again with a soft green light, and the outer airlock door peeled open. Elena knelt and slowly fell forward into the ship, and flipped forward in free fall to touch neatly down on the inner door. She steadied herself on the rail that encircled the chamber, and looked up quickly. The airlock had already begun to close, to protect Gabriel’s soft innards from the same assault that had destroyed Telescope 35, and as the outer door slid shut its leading edge cast a curved shadow on the sunlit far wall. Elena kept her eyes on that light as it slowly died.
Finally it was gone, and a ringing chime and a single green light signaled that the airlock had been completely sealed. Gabriel had no windows of any kind, and that had very likely been the last sunlight she would see for the next few months.
The vents activated and began to flood the white drum of the outer lock with breathable air. Elena briefly imagined, as she always did, that she could feel the gentle breath of the currents tickling her. There was a slight popping in her ears as the pressure equalized— Gabriel’s air, normal Earth atmosphere, had been pumped into her helmet to replace the pure oxygen of her tank. A second green light began to burn, and told her that it was safe to come out.
Elena Gonzalez Estrella pulled off her helmet and set it aside to float at her right hand. Behind the faceplate was olive skin and dark eyes set above high cheekbones. She ran her left through her black hair, shoulder length but now pasted to her skull by the helmet, and began to comb it with her fingers. It loosened and fell, and floated around her head, as if she were underwater. Elena breathed deeply, and inhaled the acrid tang of the cosmic particles that clung to the air. The afterglow of the meteoroid had already died and left her uniform blackened and grimy.
The middle door peeled open, and Elena floated through into the inner chamber and let it close and seal behind her. The third green light flashed, and the intercom clicked.
“Captain on deck.”
Elena dropped through the inner door and caught its rim on the way down. She hung in the air for a moment as if she were dunking a basketball, and then let go and hovered in place beneath the bulkhead.
“Enjoy the fresh air, Capitan?”
Third Officer Pascal Arnaud saluted and smiled, then took her helmet to place it back on the rack beside him. He was a steward, the lowest hand on deck, drafted for airlock duty. The soft blue light that bathed the topside corridor cast an inky sheen on his dark skin. Each quarter of the ship was lit with a different hue—red and green for port and starboard, and amber for the bottom deck.
“It certainly brightened my day.”
Elena returned his salute, and favored him with a smile that she knew he needed. Arnaud had served under her for twelve months, but this, of all cruises, was his first trip outside. The crew selection process had come to an abrupt halt when Gabriel’s new orders had come down, and there hadn’t been time to leaven the roster with more veterans. There wasn’t a single person onboard now who hadn’t been with the ship six months ago.
Arnaud shut and dogged the airlock hatch, and smiled once more, as if he didn’t know what Elena was thinking. Out of forty five officers onboard the ship, only two people knew the whole story behind Gabriel’s hasty departure—Elena, and Pascal Arnaud. He had never spoken of it to her, and at some point she would have to begin the conversation herself.
But not today. Elena grabbed a handhold and pulled herself forward along the compartment. The ceiling that surrounded the door she had dropped through was curved outwards like the inside of a half pipe, and heavily threaded with pipes and cables that provided plenty of grip. A ladder ran along its hollow, but it was a point of pride among the crew to use this as little as possible. The deck below bowed upwards to meet her, a concave bubble that mirrored the bend of the ceiling. The inner compartments at Gabriel’s core were cylindrical, and ran from bow to stern like a spinal cord. Elena felt as if she were hanging from the roof of one dome and above another.
Each compartment was sealed off from its four neighbors—fore, aft, clockwise and counterclockwise—by a thick metal bulkhead with a hatchway cut through its center. Elena, small as she was, dove straight for the middle of the hatch and sailed through without scraping the edges. She grabbed a handle on the other side and halted her momentum cleanly. Laid into the bulkhead on either side of the hatch were monitors which displayed the current air temperature, composition, pressure, and motion. If a leak were detected in this compartment the monitor would flash red, the hatchways would slam shut, and the danger would be trapped—along with anyone happened to be left inside. By hovering next to a hatchway and angling her vision just right, Elena could see nearly a dozen such green lights falling away into the distance, all the way down the ship to fore and aft.
Elena slipped through another hatch and passed an interlock at the center of the inner hull, an empty vertebra that allowed her to cross directly from one side of the ship to the other. Inside this interlock was the door to her stateroom, and Elena was tempted briefly by the prospect of a cup of coffee inside. But the staff were waiting for her, at the next interlock. She came to rest at the forward bulkhead, palms flat on the door like a handstand, and hit the intercom.
“Captain Gonzalez, requesting permission.”
The voice that answered in English—every officer was required to speak at least one of the Global Union’s working languages, and just the one if it happened to be English—was much deeper than her own, and very English indeed.
The door opened, and she dropped inside the barrel. Elena could dimly see the front door directly beneath her as the rear entrance slid shut behind her feet. On the bridge there was none of the soft lighting that filled the deck, and she had to squint to make out the faces in the gloom. Gabriel’s nerve center was lit only by the glow of the touchscreens, and the luminous crater that had once been Telescope 35, which filled the center of the room.
The bridge stations were arranged in a circle around the edge of the cylinder. The four duty officers were strapped tightly into place, each equipped with three touchscreens, two control sticks, and an acceleration chair, which was a piece of technology about as sophisticated as a water bed. They sat facing the the center of the bridge, and Telescope 35. The image was the recording made by her visor, magnified and enhanced by the holographic projectors which ringed the room.
The man on duty at the flight commander’s station had a neat black mustache and soft brown eyes, and his skin and hair were exactly the same shade as hers, though they’d been born half a world apart. As Elena approached he unstrapped himself and came to attention.
“Chief Officer, I relieve you,” she said.
Vijay Nishtha saluted.
“Captain, I stand relieved. Officer Lamentov, please return to Forward Control.”
Vijay spoke with the Received Pronunciation of an English public school, though he’d never set foot on the British Isles in all his life. Elena would have guessed that he’d grown up in London or Cairo, instead of a refugee camp. The replacement officer at Elena’s station shut down her control panel, and then rose to drift silently out of the bridge. Vijay remained in his seat—it was standard procedure for the second-in-command to act as officer of the watch when the captain was on the bridge. When she was gone, Vijay spoke again.
Elena slid into her chair, and stared directly at the center screen. The microphones inside her desk had already read her voiceprint, and now the cameras scanned her face and retinas, and triple confirmed her identity. The flight station activated and loaded her control panel template. Each of her three three touchscreens lit up with graphics and text, arranged in her preferred layout—communications on the left, navigation on the right, and watch in the middle, with its endless sensor displays.
“Business before pleasure. Okay, for the log. Let’s get this over with.”
She cleared her throat once, a tic that had never left her, even though she knew that all Control would see or hear would be the transcription of her voice.
“1135 hours, 2 April 2153, GSA-1138, Gabriel, Captain Gonzalez commanding and speaking. At approximately 1045 hours today, Telescope 35 ceased transmitting telemetry. Prior performance had been nominal. Remote diagnostics were unresponsive, and pursuant to regulation Captain Gonzalez performed an extravehicular excursion from 1100 to 1130 in order to personally observe and, if practicable, manually repair Telescope 35. Upon visual inspection, the telescope had suffered catastrophic damage and was irreparable. Presumed cause of loss is a high-velocity micrometeoroid impact. Outsider activity is not suspected at this time.”
Elena had been speaking for only thirty seconds, and already felt the urge to cough.
“Telescope 35 performed wide-band, long-exposure spectral analysis for ninety degrees of sky off the starboard beam. The Officer of the Watch has already adjusted the reconnaissance schedule to accommodate its absence. Estimated coverage loss is one percent, and not considered mission-critical. Will proceed, pending confirmation from Mission Control. This concludes this incident report. Captain Gonzales out.”
Elena put a hand to her mouth, took a breath, and waited a beat. Then she coughed.
The crew smiled quietly. None of them were native Spanish speakers, but they all knew what that meant.
“You said ‘this’ twice in one sentence.”
“If they would let me transmit reports en espanol then this shit wouldn’t happen. Hassoun, get all that?”
“The part about the shit, Cap’n?”
Second Officer Hassoun Masri manned the communications desk, directly across from Vijay, who sat at her right hand. Hassoun’s boyish face fit his quick smile and thirty years.
“Yes Cap’n, log is ready to transmit at the next window.”
Strict radio discipline was observed on the outside. All messages to Mission Control were sent by microburst, and at this distance they had to be aimed with meticulous care lest, they miss the recipient by a few hundred kilometers. Communications would only grow more difficult as Gabriel drew closer to Jupiter—the titanic lightning storms in the atmosphere blanketed the entire region with electromagnetic interference.
Elena’s eyes swept the computer screens, as they did every five seconds or so.
“Anything interesting happen while I was out?”
“There was a brief discussion of when it is appropriate for the commanding officer to perform a routine spacewalk,” Vijay said.
“And the consensus?” It was too dim inside the bridge for the black deposits on her suit to be visible.
“We have decided that your blatant disregard for standard operating procedure forces us to relieve you of command of this vessel.”
“You’ll die trying. Demyan, did you have any part of this mutiny?”
Her navigator, Second Officer Demyan Yukovych, answered from the helm station.
“I fought, ma’am, but I was outnumbered.”
He spoke without taking his blue eyes off his screens. Gabriel was now traveling at over thirty kilometers per second, or about one hundred times the speed of sound in air, yet the massive rocket engines at the stern were ice cold. They’d done their hot, noisy work months ago and then gone into hibernation. With no actual propulsion to busy them, Elena’s navigators spent their shift monitoring Gabriel’s flight path and making minute adjustments with the dozen tiny thrusters that spotted the hull.
“You’ll be spared. How’s the avram?”
Gabriel would cross the border in a little more than six hours. If she crossed at all.
“Weapons check, Vijay.”
“Marco’s people have just finished, Captain. They visually inspected every gun, every missile, and every drum of ammunition on the ship.”
“Bueno. That’s good practice for when they do it again two hours from now.”
“From the moment I give the word, how long to fire up the ballista?”
“Yesterday’s simulation was five minutes, six seconds,” Vijay said.
“Hassoun, tell Officer Okoye I want that down to five minutes flat.”
Hassoun clicked away at his keysticks with both thumbs. The desk beneath the screens could arrange itself into an old-fashioned keyboard in any layout he liked, but typing with the keysticks—squeezing the triggers and rotating the thumb pads—was much faster.
“Are we expecting word from Control?”
“Good timing,” Hassoun said. “Incoming now. Lots of junk in here.”
Elena waited briefly. Transmissions from the Space Agency’s outposts in the Asteroid Belt were encoded, enciphered, and encrypted, and packed with gibberish to disguise their contents as white noise. It always took the computers several minutes to unlock and unravel the message.
“A solar flare hit Earth.” The moment froze and hung there. “Minor, looks like. Well, relatively. No outages, nothing to worry about.“
Elena breathed out.
“When should we expect it?”
Hassoun tapped his screen, and a map of the solar system appeared on the holo. In false color, the surge of radiation that had struck the Earth hours before looked like a tidal wave crashing against a mountain.
“Ten days, more or less.”
“What were you saying about good timing?” Elena ran her fingers through her hair. “Bueno. It’s fine. Que otra cosa?”
“Control is pleased to report that Michael was fully pressurized yesterday, and she’s taken on crew.”
A round of applause swept the bridge. The first of Gabriel’s sister ships was due to be commissioned in a few months, with Raphael following another few months after that. It would be just the three of them—Archangel, the pathfinder, had been lost with all hands on her maiden voyage to the outside, thirty months earlier. Elena knew that there were technically four more units of the class on order, but the new government at Cairo had put the contract on hold, unwilling to commit to the troubled Archangel Project any further. Yet another scandal was the last thing anyone needed.
“I do not suppose anyone remembered to bring cigars,” Vijay said. Elena smiled and waved at Hassoun to continue.
“We’ve got the latest political report. Looks like that Cantonese thing is going to get worse before it gets any better,” he said.
“Security’s problem, not ours,” Elena said.
That was technically correct, and substantially untrue. The Space Agency didn’t operate on Earth, not even during the Nuclear Crisis five years earlier. But if not for the Cantonese civil war, or the border clashes with Brazil and Nigeria, or the riots in Britain, Gabriel would already be home right now, instead of deep outside.
“Another battle over Australia.”
“Who won this time?”
“We say we did. The independents say they did.”
“And when the report is declassified in fifty years, we’ll find out who’s lying. Is there anything in there we actually need to know?”
“Looks like that’s it.”
Even though she knew she had no reason to expect more, Elena bit her lip. Personal messages for the crew were common on most ships, but not on Gabriel. All non-official communications were forbidden while on the outside.
“Wait…Uh, no. A video.”
“Video?” Elena turned to Hassoun. “Sure about that?”
“Yes, Cap’n.” The gloom of the bridge hid Hassoun’s reddened face. “Sorry, I thought it was more garbage. Control never sends video.”
“Captain’s eyes only?”
“It’s unrestricted,” Hassoun said.
“On the holo.”
Telescope 35 shimmered and twisted in midair, and then blinked out of existence.
Poised at the center of the bridge was an elegant man, dressed warmly and topped by a bare head of silver hair, standing alone in a field of snow. Anonymous gray towers rose to the white sky behind his head, but everyone on the bridge recognized the scene immediately. This was the most photographed place on Earth, though Avramovich Square looked nothing like it had during its namesake’s time, over a century before. The laboratory at its edge, where Moishe Avramovich had built the device which had made him first the world’s most famous man, and then its wealthiest, was long gone, crushed by the glacier that had once buried St. Petersburg.
And Elena certainly didn’t need to be told who this man was. A light snow began to fell as Jacob Erasmus, the Prime Minister of the Global Union, began to speak.
“Two generations ago, delegates from sixty two nations gathered here, the birthplace of human space colonization, and vowed that the great project which we had begun would not die in its infancy. It was here in St. Petersburg that Moishe Avramovich had first dreamed of a new home for humanity among the heavens, free of tyranny and empty of hatred. It was his inspiration that carried us into space, but it was his aspiration that drove us there. His vision of a better world has been our lantern, always there to guide us in the night. Even the Storm, and the dark days that followed, could not extinguish that light.”
He began to walk forward, slowly, one deliberate step at a time.
“The Solstice, and her journey into the unknown, was to be a new dawn for humanity. We would send an emissary to the king of planets, and take our rightful place in the solar system once more. But the hand we reached out to the heavens was cut down, by an invader who had claimed our birthright for his own. The sunrise was stolen from us, and the night sky which once held so much promise now brought only fear.”
Erasmus stopped, and brought forth the hands had clasped behind his back.
“Today, we take the sky back. These world are our worlds, and they shall not be taken. Commander Azzam and the brave men and women who died with him aboard the Solstice that day had fallen, but they were not forgotten. And it is in their name that we send you outside the walls to meet the adversary. We do not send you to begin a war, because it was waged against us, without declaration and without warning. And we do not send you to end a war, because a struggle for the ages cannot be won in mere days. We send you, finally, to fight this war.”
The wind picked up and drove the snow into his face, but his words never faltered.
“The archangel Gabriel was a divine messenger, bearing with him the will of God. You too carry a message. It is much more humble, but no less noble. You are the messenger of humanity, and it is our will, and our wrath, that you carry with you. For decades we have hidden in the light from those who strike at us from the darkness. Those days end now. No more will we bow to those who would keep us from our rightful place in the sun, and no longer shall we be our own worst enemy. Today, all of humanity speaks with one voice, and raises one fist. But today is only the beginning. In the hours and days ahead, you will fight a battle in the the Solstice’s name. And in the years to come, we will fight a war in yours.”
Erasmus paused. He stared at the camera, head back and mouth parted slightly, as if he were trying to decide what to say. He squinted through the flurries.
“Men and women of the vessel Gabriel, we do not ask you to give us victory. We ask you to bring us hope, and the promise of a future free from fear. Good luck, and good hunting.”
Erasmus was silent. There was no cheering, and no applause. There was just an old man, standing alone in the cold. And then he was gone.