The generation ship floated, gently, upon the solar winds of a distant star.
“Andromeda?” said Lieutenant Captain, First Rank, Tamblyn Sazor.
“Yes, finally,” said Rear Admiral Tomis Pannen. “The dream of our ancestors, visible to the naked eye.”
“Five million years of travel, if the legends are true,” Tamblyn breathed, the words catching in her throat. Andromeda had been visible, distantly, since even their grandparents’ time, but seeing it so close was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A distant clatter brought them back to the bridge of the generation ship — if “bridge” was the correct word, seeing as how it was the size of a small town on Terra, at least according to the historical tapes that teachers tried, and usually failed, to make children sit through. A woman was running towards them, barely noticing the sight outside, her arms filled with papers. Tamblyn and Tomis immediately who she was and what she carried — paper was far too precious to waste on anything but communications from the master of the ship.
“Sir, sir, He says there’s something out there,” said Communications Ensign Lee Suon, thrusting the top sheaf of paper at the rear admiral after a perfunctory bow.
“Well, of course there’s something out there — that’s why our ancestors sent us here, no?”
Lee shook her head. “It’s not a planet. He isn’t sure how to describe it.”
Tamblyn felt a pit open at the bottom of her stomach. Nobody could remember the last time words failed Him. “It couldn’t be a…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the last word.
“It’s not a mistake,” Lee said, side-eyeing the ambitious young lieutenant. “The Three Magi triple-checked the output.”
“Well, what can He say about it?” Tomis broke in, hoping to head off a conflict between the two rivals.
Lee shuffled through her papers. “It’s some kind of superstructure. Based on His description, the Three Magi have estimated it at 1.36% of Terra’s mass.”
“So a few times larger than the generation ship.”
“They haven’t detected any signals coming off it down in the sensorium — in fact, it seems to absorb photons. It’s a miracle He was able to detect it at all.” Upon hearing an invocation of His mysteries, they all subtly made the holy sign of awakening — the index finger of the right hand sliding between a circle made of the index finger and thumb of the left, then curling to make a hook.
“What does he suggest doing? Do we ignore it and continue as planned? Five million years of planning shouldn’t change just because of one unexpected rock.”
“Mm, He feels there may be other such structures that He has not been able to detect yet. Indeed, He feels they may even be…” She hesitated to say the curse word.
“Alien,” Tamblyn supplied. Lee and Tomis glanced over at her — Tamblyn was not known to swear freely, unlike some of her underlings — but given the gravity of the situation they didn’t comment.
“In any case,” Lee continued, “the Three Magi have calculated a threat assessment of Orange-Omega, which, as you know, demands an immediate exploratory team and a state of high alert among those with clearance.”
Tomis nodded thoughtfully. “We’ll need volunteers. I’m not willing to send good men and women to their deaths just to know more.”
“I volunteer,” Tamblyn said without hesitation.
“I knew you would,” Tomis said with a smile. “You’ll need a team. Do you have recruits in mind?”
“Then I wish you good luck,” he said with a nod. She saluted and marched off to find her people.
A week later, the ship drifting ever closer to the mysterious structure, Tamblyn had assembled her team.
She had gone first to her old friend Liz Shaunders, now an associate professor of linguistics and semiotics at the College of Rear Window. The trip to Rear Window had only taken a few hours, her military status granting her exclusive access to the high-speed elevator that ran the length of the ship, even if the conductor did not know about the Orange-Omega alert that compelled her urgency.
As for recruitment, Tamblyn knew Liz too well — she had barely begun to explain the situation before the stream of questions poured out of Liz’ mouth, her curiosity piqued.
“So we don’t know anything at all?” Liz said, eyes wide, when Tamblyn insisted there were no answers to her questions.
“The Three Magi are analyzing the rest of His output, but, as of right now, what I’ve told you is all we know.”
“Are we sending an exploratory team?”
Tamblyn smiled. “Funny you should ask…”
She visited the Gardens next, the row after row of wheat swaying gently in the artificial wind. Despite being more of a farm than a garden, she had always thought the Gardens had been aptly named — it was the only place on the ship that gave the feeling of outdoors that the ancient Terrans had been so fond of.
She found Razin Zhen right where she had been told he’d be — digging in the dirt, checking on the crops. Despite being the most prominent biologist of his generation, he liked to play at being a simple Terran agriculturist, checking on his crops before heading back to his hut for a night’s rest. She towered over him, shading him from the fluorescent lights far above. He turned and looked at her with a smile.
“They told me you were coming, you know.”
“I figured they would. So what do you think?”
“I think I’m a simple man with simple desires.”
“Like tending to your crops?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“And what if this… structure… threatens your crops? What if it’s some kind of weapon that annihilates all this? What if it’s…” She lowered herself to squat beside him, her voice merely a whisper. “Alien.”
He looked at her, then away, over his field of crops. He finally looked back at her. “Then I suppose I better go with you.”
Next, she went to the rats.
She walked through the glittering city of Starboardside, a favorite of the nouveau riche, who built their towers to look out the massive windows at the stars. As she left the outer wall of the ship and moved towards the belly of the ship, she noticed how quickly the buildings became shabbier. It wasn’t long before she passed the first ratboy, maybe three feet tall, his nose quivering as he sniffed the air at the strange new scent. As soon as he saw her, though, he grabbed his robes and huddled away, not wanting to get wrapped up with the law.
Soon she saw more and more — she was solidly in the underbelly of the ship, where it was night most of the time, and this was rat territory. A few scampered away at her approach; others jeered and called her mocking names. A rat grandma on a rocking chair nodded at her sagely as she passed. She saw a ratfight break out down an alley as she passed, the young teens baring their teeth and going for each others’ throats. She patted her gun to make sure it was still there — she was less speciesist than most of her contemporaries, but she still couldn’t help but feel out of place and unsafe here. That was how Raxton must have felt the whole time, she thought.
She walked to the address she had on file and tried the doorbell; when that did nothing but let out a little buzz, she knocked heavily instead. A rat opened the door, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at this human. “Whatdyou wan?” he squeaked, slurring the sentence together the way young rats often did.
“I’m looking for Raxton,” she said, hoping she sounded authoritative.
“Yes I am!” she heard a surprisingly deep bass voice say from the back. Raxton walked into view, his arms still more muscular than you would expect. “Miss Sazor, is that you?” He had never gotten into the habit of calling her “sir,” which had earned him more than a few citations — though, to tell the truth, Tamblyn had never minded.
“May I come in?”
“Of course, of course. Please excuse my cousin.” He laid a paw on the still-suspicious cousin to direct him away from the door. He turned and headed for the kitchen, Tamblyn following, after stooping to enter the room that was only maybe 5 feet tall.
She sat at a little faux-oak table as Raxton poured lemonade. “Got an uncle that works in the Gardens,” he said by way of explanation — lemons were not exactly cheap. Tamblyn attempted to make small talk, never her strong suit. Raxton had just explained how his dad had been holding up after his mom passed — the sudden illness had caused him to drop from the service — when he suddenly changed topic. “Now, I mean no offense, Miss Sazor, but I know you don’t come here without a reason.”
“Astute as ever, Raxton. But before I tell you, I have to ask — have you kept up your, ah, skillset?”
Raxton laughed, the surprisingly deep, booming laugh missed by everyone in the refectory. “I’ve got a garage full of disassembled elevators and ‘puters, if that’s what you mean.”
“And how about assembled elevators and ‘puters?”
“Yeah, I can still slap some parts together.” He smiled, his nose twitching slightly. “Why?”
“There might be a job for a sufficiently-motivated engineer.”
“Who says I need a job?”
“I didn’t tell you what the job was.”
She turned to the door. “Who else is?”
Raxton rolled his eyes, then got up and walked out the door. “I need some peace and quiet, kids! Get goin’!” She heard the thump of a few younger cousins rushing out the door. “That means you, too, Suze!” A few more thumps.
Raxton came back in and closed the door. “Now it’s just us.”
Tamblyn nodded. “We’re on Orange-Omega status, so, you know… Need to know basis.” Raxton nodded. “He found something. Something floating out there, in space, between us and our goal. Something that might be…”
“Alien,” Raxton said bluntly.
“Exactly. We’re putting together a team to explore it. And that team needs an engineer.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Raxton muttered, staring off into the corner, calculating. “Sounds like I might not come back, and as you can see, I have a lot worth coming back for.”
“It will be dangerous. I’d tell you that it’ll pay well, but the truth is it won’t pay nearly well enough to count. And anyway, I know you don’t care about the money. I already know you’re going to go.”
“What do I care about, then?” Raxton said, still distracted. “Why am I going to go?”
Tamblyn smiled. “Because you’ve always had a chip on your shoulder. You’ve always wanted to prove you’re better than everybody else — that you’re just as good as any human. That’s why you joined the service. That’s why you got your commendations for bravery. That’s why you’re the best damn engineer on this entire damn ship. And you’re not going to let me walk out that door without taking you.”
Raxton looked her straight in the eyes, deadly serious, then burst out laughing. “You’re right. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I let a bunch of humans go someplace new without a rat.”
The truth of that statement would be up to the theologians to determine, Tamblyn thought later, as she climbed the steps to the Cathedral of the Holy Light. She stepped quickly through the hushed rows, a few worshippers huddled along the pews. She found her way to the altar, the artificial light coming in through the stained-glass window to brighten it. Father Pedra stood there waiting for her. Though young — maybe 30 — and low in the church hierarchy, he was a popular figure with his flock and, perhaps more importantly, had the kind of adventurous spirit that led one to preach all over the length and breadth of the ship.
“Father,” she said respectfully as she approached, forming the sign of awakening. “Thank you for meeting with me.”
“To the contrary, thank you for considering me.”
“I really must thank you for considering it at all. I know it will be dangerous, but…”
He dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand. “We all have sacrifices to make. Perhaps He intends for this to be mine.”
“Perhaps. Now, if I may ask something that verges on sacrilegious, do you plan to bring a Spark of the Divine?”
“But of course. In fact, it’s already been prepared.” With a flourish, he presented the small, black augury device. “And if it soothes your soul, I would add that that question was not sacrilegious at all. Lacking faith is one thing, lacking preparation is quite another,” he said with a smile. “If I may ask one thing, why did you choose me? I profess I am perhaps not the best suited to such a task. Did you not consider Father Jubal? Or Mother Talla?”
Tamblyn leaned in conspiratorially. “We will have members of a…. rodent persuasion.”
“Ah. Then perhaps the more… conservative members of the church are a poor fit.”
“Exactly. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
She had one last person to recruit. She found her way to the barracks, past the sparring ring, into the gym. She found Alia there, her biceps outlined by the stale fluorescent light as she did arm curl after arm curl. Tamblyn had never met anyone so obsessed with maintaining peak performance.
Alia almost dropped the weight when she noticed Tamblyn standing there, watching her. She clumsily dropped it, then with perfect poise snapped to attention, saluting along the way.
Tamblyn almost laughed, but managed to maintain a serious face. “At ease.” If there was a difference between Alia at attention and Alia at ease, Tamblyn couldn’t tell. She went straight to the point. “We’re on Orange-Omega status, so everything I’m about to tell you is classified.” Alia’s right eyebrow went up a fraction of an inch, but she said nothing. “He found something out there, and we’re to investigate it.”
“Something…” Alia hesitated. “Non-Terran?”
“Possibly. Long-range scans aren’t picking it up, so we can’t rule anything out until we investigate.”
“Six, including the two of us. Raxton is joining as well.”
Alia nodded. Her friendship with Raxton was well-known — in fact, Tamblyn wouldn’t have been surprised if she knew all this already. “How much surface area to cover?”
“Twice the size of our ship, give or take.”
Alia’s left eyebrow now had its turn to raise, but she didn’t question her superior officer. “How were we chosen?”
“My choice. I need a variety of skills.”
“And what’s my skill?” Alia said it with neither malice nor curiosity, only the blunt need-to-know of the soldier.
“The other three are non-combatants. Raxton can build weapons, but he can barely use them, and I haven’t had a reason to fire a weapon since the Rear Admiral called me up to the bridge. So we need a good shot, and you’re the best shot on the ship.”
Alia looked away and nodded, a flicker of satisfaction showing on her face.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Tamblyn said, heading for the door.
Alia shouted after her. “Is this an invitation, or an order?”
“It’s an invitation,” Tamblyn said, turning back to Alia, “but if you say no, it’s an order.” She turned again and headed out as Alia laughed behind her.
Tamblyn stood at attention as Rear Admiral Pannen scrolled through the biodata she had provided for each member. His nose wrinkled up in distaste when he came to Raxton — ironically, in much the same way a rat’s nose would, Tamblyn thought — but he continued without saying anything. He looked up at Tamblyn again, her back straight, her arms held behind her back. “These are all good choices. The ship will be in good hands.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“There is just one adjustment I would have to ask for.”
“Oh?” Tamblyn stiffened, preparing to defend her choices.
“Don’t worry, it’s not about any of your choices. Not even the rat.” He stood from his desk and walked to the window, looking out at the once-in-a-lifetime glare from the star. “The Ship Council has made a formal request that we send a journalist with the exploratory team.”
“They don’t trust us?”
“Perhaps.” Tomis shrugged. “Or perhaps they want images for their own purposes. Who knows. In any case, the request was approved by the Three Magi, so you’ve got no choice now.” He turned back to the table and picked up the tablet. He flipped to a different page before heading it to Tamblyn. It now showed a profile of young, hotshot reporter Thoman Mirri, who had cracked the Engineside Murders a year or two back and was now knee-deep raking the muck surrounding the Church’s coffers and their misuse.
“This is who they want?”
Tomis nodded. “You can veto him if you want, but there will be a journalist on the team.”
Tamblyn put the tablet back on the table. “I’m surprised he agreed. It’ll be dangerous.”
Tomis laughed. “It’s the story of a lifetime — the lifetime of the whole ship. What self-respecting journalist would pass that up?”
The structure drew closer. It continued to avoid the sensors of the ship, even as He continued to insist it was present. Finally they drew close enough to see if with their bare eyes, a blank spot where the stellar background should have been.
Tamblyn put the finishing touches on her will — ceremonially written on precious paper — and put the octopus-ink pen down. She owned little besides a temperamental cat; she signed it all away to her aunt in the event of her untimely demise.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then rolled up the will and sealed it in the little iron cylinder. She carried with her as she left her cramped office and headed down the hall, dropping the cylinder in a mail tube. She heard the pneumatic whoosh as she shut the door of the tube.
When she arrived at the landing bay, the others were already present, standing around the piles of supplies being loaded onto the exploration vessel. Raxton was speaking quietly to Father Pedra by the corner of the ship, interrupted by Alia picking him up and spinning him around, to much protestation. Thoman the journalist was sitting next to Liz atop a crate of provisions, deep in conversation about some esoteric topic in semiotics. Tamblyn rolled her eyes; she knew Liz’ preference in men all too well. Razin squatted next to one of the other crates, apparently double-checking the instruments he had packed.
Tamblyn stepped into the center and cleared her throat. Raxton and Alia immediately snapped to attention, while the civilians slowly settled down and turned towards her.
“Thank you all for coming,” Tamblyn said. “Obviously, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’m not going to pretend it’s without risk. I’ve already filed my will, as, I’m sure, have most of you. I wouldn’t have picked you if I thought you would turn tail and run.” She looked around at the group. She was met with determined expression all around. “All that’s left is to suit up.”
They donned their protective gear carefully, the glass helmet the only sure protection against whatever was aboard the structure. They boarded the exploratory vessel, not much larger than the average two-bedroom apartment in Starboardside, cramped even further with the crates of supplies they were bringing aboard. There was enough food, in the form of nutritional wafers, to last maybe a week, and enough fuel to orbit the structure a dozen times or so. Each had brought various supplies of their own, most notably Alia, who had a crate full of firepower.
Luckily, Alia was a pilot as well as a private, so she was left in charge of steering the vessel to the structure. All seven of them crowded into the cockpit, built to serve two, as they lifted off from the landing dock, a few of the pit crew waving at them as they did so. Alia gently pushed them forward and they raced out into the darkness.
The massive generation ship slowly receded behind them. All except Alia, strapped into the pilot’s seat, floated towards the ceiling as they left behind the background rotation of the ship that emulated the gravitational pull of Terra. They were steadily accelerating, reaching a measurable fraction of the speed of light, but the structure would still be a few hours away. Tamblyn patted Alia on the shoulder and floated back to the main room, followed by the others.
Raxton offered a pack of cards to pass the time, but, never having left the warm embrace of the ship, he wasn’t used to the freefall. The cards had floated away as soon as he opened the pack, to Liz’ muffled laughter.
After an hour or so, Thoman took off his helmet, depressurizing his suit.
“You really think that’s wise?” Tamblyn said. Thoman just shrugged. A few minutes later, the rest had done likewise, including Tamblyn.
After a few hours of boredom — punctuated by quiet chatting, the crunch of a nutritional wafer wrapping being opened, a game of poker when Raxton finished collecting all the cards — they heard Alia call out from the cabin. “I think we’re getting close!”
Tamblyn drifted back into the cockpit. The blank spot covered almost the entire viewport — only at the very edges could any stars be seen.
“Already on it,” Alia replied.
“We should put our—“
They couldn’t hear the crash because, of course, there is no sound in space.
Tamblyn saw the burning ship through bleary eyes.
She tried to sit up, her head pounding the entire time. She looked around. The ship was there in front of her, quietly burning. Blurry figures were moving around it. “She’s up!” she heard, and the figure — which slowly resolved as Razin — came towards her.
She looked around. They seemed to be in a tremendous hallway, the roof a mile or more before them, the hallway curving slightly as it ran a mile or more until curving out of sight. They must have crashed through the outer wall of the structure, but there didn’t appear to be a hole through which they had come, only a smooth, black wall. The hallway was cloaked in gloom, a faint amount of ambient light the only illumination aside from the burning ship. A few pieces of the ship pinged off into the darkness, where they were snuffed out like a candle at dawn.
Razin, with the help of Thoman, picked her up and propped her up. Razin looked the worse for the west, a long, bloody gash cutting across his forehead. Thoman was luckier, looking only slightly bruised.
“We’re trying to get Alia out of the cockpit,” Razin said, turning back to his task. Thoman stayed there with her and explained more.
“There’s something about the atmosphere. The flame isn’t burning as hot as it should.”
“Where are the others?”
“Raxton’s working on the cockpit from the inside, Pedra and Liz are recovering over there.” He indicated two other darkened figures, sitting on a couple smashed up supply boxes.
Tamblyn walked over to join them as Thoman rejoined Razin. They nodded at her. Father Pedra was clutching the spark of the divine, as if it might suddenly start spewing out secrets about this place. For all Tamblyn knew about them, it actually might.
They heard a loud moan. Raxton had gotten the cockpit open — Tamblyn would later find out her had to override an automatic safety disengage, whatever that meant — and had smashed open the viewport from the inside, scattering glass around the floor of the hallway, where they seemed to melt away. He pulled out a small knife and cut away the straps binding Alia to the cockpit, then Razin and Thoman clambered in and carried her out. They set her down gently atop another crate, before heading back into the ship to save more of their supplies.
Tamblyn ran to Alia’s side, checking her pulse. She was cold and clammy to the touch. Thoman wasn’t kidding about the air here. After a few seconds, Alia began to shiver, finally bolting upright.
Tamblyn waved a hand around panoramically. “You landed the shuttle, more or less.”
Alia smiled, but only for a moment. “Any casualties?”
“Most of our supplies, looks like, but no major injuries.” Father Pedra started limping over towards them, aided by Liz. “Actually, it looks like the good father hurt his leg.”
“Something’s not right,” Alia suddenly said, staring at Tamblyn with scared eyes. “When I was knocked out, I had… dreams. Strange dreams.”
Tamblyn tried to remember if she had dreamed anything herself, but it was lost to the darkness. “Can you remember them?”
Alia concentrated, but then shook her head. “No, I just… I know they were strange.”
Pedra and Liz finally made it over to them. “I find it curious there’s no signs or symbols,” Liz said. “We won’t know where to go.”
Pedra held up the spark of the divine. “We’ll ask Him.” He didn’t see Liz roll her eyes.
Tamblyn marched over to help Thoman, Razin, and Raxton pull out the rest of the supplies. She looked it over — most of the crates had been completely destroyed. “That leaves us with maybe a day or two of rations,” Razin said, looking it over. He glanced at Tamblyn, the added drily, “And I notice our ship is destroyed.”
“Can we still get a message out, Raxton?”
Raxton shook his head. “It’s best to consider the lander a total loss. Radio’s dead, even if it could penetrate this hull.”
Tamblyn nodded. “We’ll just have to press onward and hope to find another way off, then.” She started biting her fingernail, an anxious tic she had had since childhood, and suddenly stopped. She still wasn’t wearing her helmet.
“It’s breathable,” Razin said, tapping the portable monitor strapped to his wrist. “Actually, it’s closer to the hypothesized atmosphere of Terra than our own generation ship.”
Alia, apparently no worse for the wear, appeared beside her. “At least some of the weapons survived.” She picked up a pistol and handed it to Tamblyn, then grabbed an assault rifle for herself. Raxton pulled up a large revolver that was as good as a rifle for himself. Alia looked around, holding out a pistol, but there were no takers. “I see why you brought me,” she said to Tamblyn quietly.
The spark of the divine carried by Father Pedra lit up in the gloom and quietly started prognosticating. There were no doorways nearby, only the long, dark hallway, so it was merely a choice of whether to go one way or the other. The spark of the divine told them to keep the apparent outer hull to their right.
They walked slowly at first, on account of the priest’s leg. After a few steps, however, he began to visibly improve, and after no more than a dozen feet he was walking normally again. Razin, Liz, and Thoman pulled the few intact crates along with them. Every so often, Razin would insist they stop so he could take another measurement with his monitor, but the air was remarkably consistent each time, as if controlled down to the molecule. Liz kept an eye out for any markings or indications, but the hallway was completely smooth, and she soon started chatting quietly, if not a little anxiously, with Thoman. Alia continually swept around her field of view with her rifle, but there was little to aim it at.
After a few hundred feet, Tamblyn glanced behind them. She thought she could see the ship melting, slowly, into the floor, just like the shards of glass from the cockpit had, the fire guttering out like the last embers of a hearth.
A few hours later, with miles of gloomy, featureless hallway passed, at least according to Razin’s monitor, Tamblyn called them to a halt. Thoman and Alia opened a crate and started to hand out the small, but highly nutritious, wafer cakes that would serve as dinner. Raxton had thought to bring a lamp, complete with portable stand, as you would see on the elevator platforms on the ship, and he busied himself with setting this up. They were all glad to have a source of light other than their flashlights and the low ambient light that seemed to have no obvious source. But Tamlbyn noticed that even this light, powerful though it would have been on the ship, barely illuminated a ten-foot-by-ten-foot area, into which they all huddled.
“What does the spark say?” Tamblyn asked Father Pedra, quietly. By some unspoken rule, they had spoken in no more than a loud whisper since leaving the wreckage — something about the silent atmosphere around them discouraged anything more than that.
“It hasn’t made a peep in an hour or more, even when asked directly. It seems He has little to say about these halls.”
“No surprise there,” Liz muttered, with a hint of acid. She was not exactly known for her faith — in fact, if Tamblyn recalled correctly, she had been Vice President of the Freethinkers’ Club when they were in university together — but she was usually respectful of those who were. They were all under great stress, but Liz was likely especially bitter due to the feeling her skills were not useful to the expedition so far. Tamblyn decided to simply ignore the comment.
“But you still think this was the right decision?”
“He was most insistent about that, yes.”
Tamblyn let them rest for a half hour — though that felt luxurious in comparison to the interminable walking earlier — and then they packed up their miniature camp. Thoman took some photos of the process, which he hadn’t done since a brief spurt of excitement when they started out. It didn’t take long — partly because there was not much to put away, but mostly because Alia was just as methodical at camping as she was at firearm maintenance.
They continued walking, chatter completely cut away now. Liz still waved her flashlight around, hoping to see something, anything, of interest, but the others had long since given up. So it was that Liz was the first to notice the hallway, ahead and to their left.
The party came to a stop in front of the hallway, their flashlights peeking down it like children peeking their head behind their parents’ door. From what they could see, it looked virtually identical to the hallway they were currently in, albeit slightly darker. Distantly, though, Liz claimed she could see some kind of symbols or carvings on the walls. “We should go down it,” Liz said immediately after.
Father Pedra stepped up. The spark of the divine had started squeaking furiously as soon as they stopped in front of the hallway, and got steadily noisier the closer he stepped towards the hallway. “If I may, the spark says we should continue. In fact, it says we should not, under any circumstances, consider stepping even one foot over the threshold.”
Tamblyn nodded. She was just as interested in the markings as the others — well, maybe not as much as Liz — but she also had faith in the spark. Still, she knew she not command them all as easily as Alia and Raxton, so she put it up to a vote.
Liz, of course, wanted to go down the hallway. Thoman voted that way as well — “recording that stuff is what I’m here for, isn’t it?” Raxton, despite appearances, was deeply faithful, making the sign of awakening each time the good father passed him carrying the spark, so he voted to do as it said. Razin was ambivalent and Alia said she would simply do as ordered, either way. So, ironically, it still fell to Tamblyn to decide.
“We continue. If He feels that strongly that we’re not to go down that hallway, then we won’t.”
Liz and Thoman looked disappointed, but the group began to move on. Tamblyn had only taken a few steps, though, when she noticed Liz had fallen to the back, looking behind her shoulder repeatedly. Tamblyn stopped, bringing the group up short. She walked back to Liz, who by know was staring intently down the hallway.
“What is it?”
“I thought I saw…” She trailed off.
Tamblyn looked down the hallway and saw a ball of light floating around at the end of the hallway, illuminating the strange symbols on the walls. “We’re not going down the hallway,” she said, with finality.
“Yeah, yeah,” Liz said distractedly, “but that light… I need to know what it is.”
Liz looked at her old friend, then back down the hallway. Then she sprinted down the hallway.
“Liz!” Tamblyn sprinted after her, barely noticing that the ball of light extinguished itself as soon as Liz crossed into the hallway. Tamblyn almost did likewise, but she was brought up short by the frantic screaming of the spark of the divine. She watched as Liz sprinted away down the hallway, vanishing amid the darkness at the end of the hallway.
She turned and rejoined the group, her heart racing, the spark of the divine only calming when she was back among them. She caught her breath, before looking at the grim faces around her, knowing that she looked even worse.
After a moment, she spoke up again. “Onward?” The other members nodded, their faces showing the effort of avoiding the topic. Tamblyn walked to the front, leading them onward into the featureless hallway. Alia brought up the rear, aiming her weapon behind them every few seconds in case something should surprise them from the adjoining hallway.
“The hallway is getting narrower,” Raxton said.
They stopped and flashed their flashlights all around them. Nobody could perceive a difference between the hallway ahead of them and the hallway behind, but they all felt it — the hallway felt narrower now than before, despite being just as tall. “Actually, now that I mention it, I swear the hallway was already narrower by the time that…” Raxton trailed off, noticing the stricken look on Tamblyn and Thoman’s faces.
“Perhaps we’re getting close to where the spark wants us to go,” Tamblyn said. “Let’s continue. We still have at least an hour or two before we’ll have to make camp.” What she did not mention was that, as they had walked down the hallway, she had not yet felt the need for sleep.
They continued. After another half hour or so, the hallway could fit maybe five people abreast, despite showing no signs of tapering. They once again stopped and looked behind them, but as far as they could see, the hallway was the exact same width the whole way. After another 15 minutes, the hallway could only fit three abreast. Ten minutes after that, again with no noticeable change, it could only fit two abreast, so they began to walk in pairs. Five minutes later, they had been reduced to single file, the hallway barely accommodating one person with their arms outstretched.
They didn’t need to speak to express the claustrophobia — even if they were all used to the confines of the generation ship, this was something else entirely. Soon they could not even stretch out their arms, but every time they looked back behind them, the hallway appeared to be uniformly wide. Even if they wished, it was beginning to look too late to turn back.
As they took step after step, the walls closed in. Soon it was all they could do to drag the crates behind them, the sides scraping against the walls. Tamblyn felt herself start to hyperventilate.
And then, all at once, she stepped into a vast chamber.
One by one, the team popped out behind her, spreading out and enjoying the feeling of agoraphobia. Behind them, the hallway they had come through was nowhere to be seen — only a vast, silvery wall, running for miles in both directions, a slight curve visible as it disappeared into the distance. Tamblyn craned her neck to look for the top, but it vanished into the brightness above them.
Compared to the gloom of the hallway, the chamber was almost uncomfortably bright — an overpowering light source glowing in the air far above them, reminiscent of the growing lamps of the Gardens but on a far grander scale. Beneath their feet, dirt — real dirt — spread out as far as they could see, small green plants sprouting up here and there. It looked like nothing more than the historical slides they were required to study in grade school — the great, lost grasslands of Terra, from whence their ancestors came.
They continued walking, stunned by the place they found themselves now in. On the horizon they could see something standing out of the ground — only when they got closer did they realize it was a tree, standing proud and majestic, the wild form of the paper production plants that the workers of the Garden tended back home. Alia gently fondled a bough hanging down from the tree, mouth open, until Razin snapped at her.
“We should rest,” Tamblyn said, “if we can. We have a tent to block out the brightness, don’t we?”
Thoman nodded and leaned down to unpack it from the crate he carried with him. Raxton took his turn to hand out the dinner wafers. The others, except for Razin, relaxed, taking in the scenery, planning next steps, avoiding the topic of Liz.
Razin, however, went straight to work. He began obsessively measuring with his wristbound device, checking the oxygen content of the air, the nitrogen content of the soil, reverently plucking a leaf from the tree to subject it to analysis. He found that, as he expected, everything about the chamber was even more hyperoptimized for plant growth than even the Gardens. Ignoring dinner, he wandered farther afield, finding patches of grass — studied historically in university, of course, but never present on the generation ship — and wheat, and then other fruits and vegetables, many of which he had never seen before, nor had his device.
He returned with a few apples — a precious rarity on the ship — and turned down the proffered wafer.
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Tamblyn said.
“Of course it is, it’s an apple,” he said, taking a bite out of it. “In fact, according to genetic analysis, it’s 99.9% identical to the apples aboard the ship. The 0.1% appears to have something to do with nutritional value.”
“So you’re saying that…”, Tamblyn looked around, as if someone might be watching, “the aliens eat human apples?”
Razin shrugged. “Or maybe humans eat alien apples.” He stopped chewing for a second, thinking. “You know, we could live off the food here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I suppose you’re about to say that we should continue on tomorrow. But there’s everything you need for human — er, and rodent — life, right here. Who knows how many miles this chamber goes on for? Who knows if there’s enough edible along the way?”
“We need to find a way off the ship.”
“Do we, though?” He looked around. “This looks just like ancient Terra, you know. We could all just… start a life here.”
“We continue. The spark said so.”
Razin looked unconvinced, but left her to continue eating his apple. Alia shot her a look, but said nothing.
They bundled into a pair of tents, set up at the base of the tree, blocking out just enough light that they could get a few hours of restless sleep. When Tamblyn awoke the next morning, she found Razin already up, his spacesuit gone, a walking stick from who-knew-where in hand.
“I’ve marked out a little plot of land,” he said, as if he was founding a city on old Terra. “I was thinking we could all mark out plots of land.” He looked around sheepishly. “As a biologist, you know…” He lowered his voice. “We do have a breeding population.”
Tamblyn looked at him coldly. “I said we’ll continue.”
“Then you’ll have to do so without me.”
She fingered the pistol still in its holster. “We may still need you.”
“I don’t care. I’m not walking any farther.”
She pulled the pistol and drew it on him. “You’re coming with us.”
He simply raised an eyebrow. “Am I?”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and flinched. She turned to see Father Pedra looking at her. “We had best get moving soon. Thoman is just taking a few pictures.” He nodded at Razin. “We hope you enjoy your solitude.”
“I will, you fools!” he shouted, suddenly turning and walking off.
“We might need him later,” Tamblyn said angrily.
“We might have needed Liz as well. Yet now she is, presumably, with her savior.” He laid a gentle hand on Tamblyn’s shoulder. “This expedition was supposed to be voluntary, and it was supposed to have risks.”
She sighed heavily. “You’re right. We had best move on. Does the spark indicate which way to go?”
He shook his head. “No, which I take to mean we can walk any direction we want.”
Tamblyn nodded. “Then let’s hope He is looking out for us.”
They walked for most of the day, watching Razin fade into the distance as he tried to establish his colony of one. They eventually agreed, however, that he had the right idea in eating the fruits of the Farm, as they began to call the area — they had already used up most of the rations. They would eat apples as they went, storing a few in the nooks and crannies of the crate for when the bountiful landscape stopped.
That wouldn’t happen for another few days. They stopped only to drink from the small streams that flowed lazily, camping overnight in the tents, the spark of the divine giving no indication whatsoever which way to go. Just as they began to suspect they would never find their way out — that the rest of their life would be bright light, apple tree, stream, waving wheat in the distance — they saw a shimmer in the distance. As they drew closer, it became apparent the shimmer was due to the way, looping around miles out of the way to meet them back here. Suddenly, the spark urgently told them to go towards the wall.
As they crept closer, they suddenly passed some incomprehensible border, and all was cloaked in darkness. They looked behind them, where the bright lights could still be seen, but dimmer now; they looked beneath their feet, and instead of soft, loamy grass they found the black, glassy substance they had been walking along days before. They barely stopped for a second, instead continuing towards the wall, which now contained what appeared to be a massive door, maybe a mile in height. They stopped before it.
Father Pedra consulted the spark of the divine. “He says it’s a ‘puter.”
“That doesn’t look like any ‘puter I’ve ever seen. That looks like a door,” Raxton said, voicing what they all were thinking.
“Nevertheless,” Father Pedra continued, “He says it is a ‘puter, contained within the door, and if we are to continue — which He suggests — then we must consult the ‘puter.”
Tamblyn pointed at what appeared to be a vent — made of a slightly shinier version of the glassy substance — on the side of the door. “A maintenance hatch, I suppose. It’s only a few feet wide, but you could climb inside, Raxton — and, luckily, you know ‘puters the best.”
“That I do,” Raxton nodded. “Well, wish me luck.” They all did so as he sauntered over to the hatch, took out a multitool, and cut away the grate. He slid inside and disappeared.
They waited for a minute, then another. Thoman began to pace around. Alia kept her weapon raised, which she hadn’t done since they arrived in the Farm. Father Pedra sat on one of the crates and prayed, occasionally peeping at the spark to see if it had any more insight; it didn’t.
Finally, they heard some banging and scraping from inside the vent. Raxton popped out again and dusted himself off, though it was hard to imagine any dust inside the ‘puter. He looked anxious, in a way Tamblyn had never seen before, but he walked back to them quickly. “It’ll let us through now,” he said, to ragged cheers. Sure enough, they heard some kind of humming coming from the door, and the mile-high barrier slowly split open to let them through to another featureless hallway.
As they started down the hallway, Tamblyn hung back with Raxton. “What else did it tell you? You’re not the kind to get freaked out easily.”
Raxton shook his head. “Nothing else. It doesn’t matter.” He marched off to catch up with the others, leaving Tamblyn there to think.
The hallways continued as they had before reaching the Farm, the gloom settling heavily on their souls. They walked for a few hours, though they could tell only by the ticking of the watch on Tamblyn’s wrist, as it felt much longer. They had long since stopped talking, but now Raxton and Father Pedra were talking quietly, barely audible even to their comrades standing close to them.
They came to an intersection. To left and right they could see similar hallways, running off into the distance, but immediately in front of them the hallway took a sharp turn.
“Which way, Father?”
“I… don’t know.” He held the spark up, shook it, trying to divine what the divine intended. He swallowed hard. “All it says is ‘you shouldn’t have come.’”
A chill ran through the assembled group, besides Raxton, who looked on knowingly.
“Still, we have to decide… which way to go,” Tamblyn said, trying to keep up the charade of leadership. “Forward looks different. Any objections?”
They all shook their heads — they didn’t have any better ideas, after all. So the group continued straight ahead.
The hall turned sharply right, then sharply left, then left again. It twisted and turned, suddenly sprouting subhalls, occasionally opening into small chambers that reminded one of sitting rooms. One would get the feeling that they were lost in a maze, but being lost requires one to know where they want to be, and these travellers did not.
All the while Father Pedra became more agitated, even starting to mutter beneath his breath, when he wasn’t talking to Raxton. “You shouldn’t have come,” they heard him say. “One of my peers would have read it better,” he said, apparently while explaining the function of the spark to Raxton.
Finally, they arrived in another small chamber, and Tamblyn had to put a stop to it. “What’s going on, Father?”
He looked up at her, then shook his head. “Like I said, we shouldn’t have come. Raxton agrees.” Raxton nodded his head, his little snout bouncing up and down.
“And yet we’re here, Father, and we have to continue on.” She looked around at the ragged faces around her. “But perhaps we can take a break. This is as good a place as any.” She and Alia set up the little tent while Thoman handed out apples. They sat there and ate the apples as Father Pedra began to pace around. “You should join us,” Tamblyn said. Alia and Thoman looked at Tamblyn when he didn’t respond, but she merely shook her head. “We’re all under a lot of stress right now. He’ll be better after a good night’s sleep.”
They were busy setting up the tent when they heard a click. They scrambled out of the tent to find the priest standing there with one of Alia’s explosives. “We shouldn’t have come,” he said. “We weren’t meant to be here. I wasn’t meant to be here. You should have chosen someone else, Tamblyn.”
“It’s all going to be okay.” Tamblyn reached out her hands, beckoning to him. “Just put the explosive down.”
“No, we weren’t meant to be here, I’m sure of it, and there’s only one way out.”
“Put it down!” Tamblyn tried ordering it instead.
“No, I’m going to push this button here and—“
A single shot rang out. Father Pedra fell to the ground. Tamblyn turned to Alia, who held the rifle up. She had a pained look on her face, but then she spoke. “We couldn’t jeopardize the mission.” Tamblyn nodded.
“Erm, not to undercut the sanctity of the moment…” Thoman said, hesitating, “but has anybody seen Raxton since we had dinner?”
They heard an explosion, which sounded both distant and also like it could have been coming from the next bend in the labyrinth. They all looked at each other.
“Let’s pack as fast as possible and get going,” Tamblyn said tersely. They all fell silent — there was no point discussing any of it.
They packed in barely a minute, noticing a humming sound coming from the same direction as the explosion, which was the way they had come from. Tamblyn pointed towards the other exit. “Back into the labyrinth we go…”
They began to walk, Thoman now also holding a pistol that Alia had handed him. “The shooty part points that way,” she muttered. Thoman dragged the only remaining crate, containing the tent and an apple or two — they would have to leave the others. Tamblyn had the main light, in addition to the one slotted onto Alia’s rifle. They wandered back into the maze of featureless, gray tunnels they had spent the better part of the day wandering.
After fifteen minutes, Alia spoke up. “There’s something following us.” They stopped and turned behind them, flashing the light behind them. A three-foot-tall oval was hovering along maybe thirty feet behind them, apparently made of the same black, glass-like material as the walls. As soon as they shined a light on it, it stopped. Alia lifted the rifle but Tamblyn gently put at hand on it. “Let’s just keep going.”
“You sure?” Alia looked, for the first time Tamblyn could remember, scared.
“It might not be aggressive.”
Alia shrugged. They kept walking, Alia checking behind them again and again. After another 15 minutes, she stopped. “There’s more of them now.”
They turned again. Now there were three of the ovals, all identical, all stopping. They were maybe twenty feet away now.
“They creep me out,” Alia said.
They turned and kept walking, Alia looking more and more uncomfortable, until finally stopping and turning. “Please, sir, permission to shoot?”
Tamblyn stared at the ovals. They were getting closer. She thought it over. “Permission granted.”
Alia opened fire, the sound strangely muffled, as if the walls had absorbed it. The ovals, too, absorbed the fire, the bullets simply disappearing into the black glassy surface, as if a leaf disturbing a pool. Still, when they looked closer, the ovals were farther away than they had been. They turned and kept walking.
They saw a different light at the far end of the current tunnel. Perhaps the maze was finally over? Tamblyn looked over her shoulder. Now there were seven ovals, floating only ten feet away.
“I’ll hold them off,” Alia said.
“That’s not necessary.”
“They’ll reach us before we reach the door.”
“They still haven’t done anything.”
“But what happens once they reach us?”
“You’re running with us, and that’s an order.”
They looked at Thoman, who had taken pictures while they were talking but now looked like he wanted nothing more than to get through the door. He nodded at them.
Tamblyn broke into a sprint, followed by the other two. Suddenly, they heard a high-pitched ringing from behind them. She didn’t stop to look.
But Alia did.
She opened fire, emptying a full clip into the ovals. Tamblyn and Thoman, now halfway between the door and Alia, skidded around.
“Alia! You can still make it if you run!”
She didn’t respond. The ovals were not being pushed back by the bullets anymore, and they were now less than five feet from her. Tamblyn felt a tug — Thoman knew, even if she didn’t, that Alia wanted a heroic sacrifice no matter what. They turned and sprinted.
As they reached the opening, Tamblyn turned and looked back behind them. The ovals had surrounded Alia and, though she tried to run, she was being absorbed into them. With her one free arm, she gave a salute.
Tamblyn saluted back, and she and Thoman stepped into the new chamber, the hallway disappearing behind them as if that maze had never existed.
Tamblyn and Thoman stepped towards the center of the large, circular chamber — maybe 40 feet across and 20 feet tall. A large podium sat in the middle of the chamber. All around them — walls, ceiling, floor — the black obsidian melted away as if translucent to show the stars. Distantly, they could see the lights that they knew came from the waiting generation ship.
They walked towards the podium, their feet still feeling the floor even if their eyes didn’t see it. The podium descended, revealing a small chamber inside, like a booth of the VIP lounge in one of the many clubs of Starboardside. They walked inside, sitting across from each other.
Thoman waved his hands, experimentally, in the air between them, and the stars around them shimmered and went out. They reappeared a moment later, showing different constellations. He waved again and the stars shifted again.
“Do you think we’ve moved at all?” he asked. “Like a… teleporter or something.”
Tamblyn shook her head. “I don’t think it’s scientifically possible.”
“Yes, but if it’s non-Terran…” He flipped his hands a few more times and the stars reset to the ones they recognized. The generation ship still hung out in space, slowly drifting towards past Andromeda.
They sat uncomfortably in silence for a few moments, before Thoman pulled out his camera — the only thing they had managed to bring, alongside Tamblyn’s pistol — and started to take pictures. Tamblyn couldn’t imagine they would turn out well, given the chamber was pitch-black as space, but she said nothing. Suddenly, he stopped. “Look, past the ship.”
“There’s something following the ship.”
Tamblyn turned her head, in shock, but she couldn’t see anything, only the distant stars. She said so.
“No, there’s definitely something there. I want to get closer.”
“Twenty feet won’t make it any clearer. Besides, there’s nothing out there.”
“It’s worth a try.”
He slid out of the chamber to take a closer look. As soon as he did so, the podium began to slide up. He turned back to jump back on, but he was too slow — it accelerated even faster than Tamblyn could move. Soon, it was surrounded on all sides by darkness — when Tamblyn reached out, it was cold to the touch.
The podium stopped in another chamber, though she could tell only by her sense of acceleration, for her surroundings showed no change — this chamber was completely pitch black. She got out of the podium. She began to walk.
She did not get tired.
After a while she could not tell whether the floor was still there or whether she had begun to float.
She felt she was being absorbed into the dark.
She opened her eyes. She could see the universe.
All the tiny pinpricks of light, each a possible home for a million billion sentient lifeforms. She swept her hands over them, feeling the vast distance from one to the other. She looked around and saw them extending out as far as she could tell — not infinitely, but close enough.
She could see the structure, distantly, as if in a dream. If she focused she could just barely pinpoint it in the field of stars, but it was hard to focus, like she was trying to stay awake in class before falling asleep.
Distantly, she could hear — or feel, really — other awarenesses, other consciousnesses. She felt some distant kinship to them — perhaps they had built the structure, once? Perhaps she had known them, once? Perhaps she was one of them?
She dimly felt an explosion rock her, but it was just so hard to focus, now. So hard.
She closed her eyes and absorbed into the universe.