The dull screech of ceramic on rock pinged through the suit’s hull, giving Vej the shivers. There was only a moment to think, and shi dug hir hands into the walls around hir, rewarding hir with another horrific, echoing peal that rung out into the clinging shadows of the asteroid.
This wasn’t like those old sci-fi shows, with the crew warping in wearing thin cotton jumpers; Vej had slowly maneuvered through a dense asteroid field, avoid microdebris that easily could have lacerated the front of hir shuttle. Shi’d flown with the blast screen down, given the high particle count, and relied on lidar to avoid anything big. Then, after securing to the slow-spinning rock, shi’d mapped a careful route along its exterior towards a cave mouth, a near 70-foot drop into the caverns below.
The stars listlessly arced overhead as shi clambered over strewn rock and sharp edifices. Entire vistas of death cascaded in front of hir, all waiting for the chance to pierce hir ceramic-laced titanium suit; once shi reached the mouth of the cave, shi realized it had not only been carved out but had been designed.
Then came the dizzying fall, slipping right off a smoothed surface within to tumble without gravity into the midst of sheer, unwelcoming nothing. Hir suit lights hardly penetrated into that stygian abyss, allowing scarce glimpses of rock face as shi scrambled and flipped end over end, struggling to right hirself. Hir ship’s readings were off: the drop must have been 130 feet at least, judging by hir suit’s indicators. Shi had almost righted hirself in the freefall when shi collided shoulder-first with an outcrop, then dug hirself into the wall to stop.
The suit creaked with annoyance, but shi managed to haul hirself up without major damage. Scraped coating on the exterior, but nothing hir patch kit couldn’t resurface. The small ledge perched eagerly over the dark maw below, surrounded in its nightcloak while above, the now tiny entrance looked painted on, barely more than a pretense of freedom.
Hir various systems blinked and beeped in that frozen pitch, suit lights casting an eerie glow over the dust and pebbles shi had kicked up. Hir display counted down on a timer; in a brief moment of frustration, shi nearly shut it off, but the perfectly still depths of the asteroid around hir stayed hir hand.
It was just like hir dreams.
The falling, of course, was usually more of a surreal plummet at mach speeds through a soupy blackness that never revealed more than it should; but opposed to the standard fare of otherworldly noises and smells that accompanied most nightmares, those dreams were eerily silent. The kind of silence that only the deepest, emptiest places could afford.
And now, shi found hirself thrust out of those dreams into their counterpart in reality: an asteroid in a boring sector of space, where a decaying relay beacon had dropped hir out far too close to the local star. Shi had awoken, two weeks previous, with coordinates in hir head – like someone had written them in with chalk. But stranger still, it had given hir a timestamp.
Vej knew, somehow, that shi had to go there, go before that time ran out. Shi’d been paying off a long-range hauler with oddjobs, and had worked hirself overtime smuggling across the systems to pick up an old Yusef-III Exosuit, as well as the necessary equipment for crossing an entire sector. Shi wasn’t sure how shi’d survived the trip; deLace drives were dangerous things to begin with, sometimes spitting you out ahead or behind when you should have arrived. Worse, they could make you spend years in-transit only to arrive twenty minutes later. Just in case, shi had a recycler and a hydroponics bay installed, just on the off chance shi was stuck in the inbetween for a while. But the deLacer, as shi called it, dropped hir right where shi needed, boiling hull aside.
And now that shi was down there, the only spot of light in a place that might never have seen such a thing, shi wasn’t sure shi could go through with what had to happen next.
In the dreams, shi had always tried to wake hirself up, tried to escape what felt like eons of falling with no success. But the last time shi’d dreamed that particular vision, 23 hours into the trip between Farcast Outpost and the aptly named Uri-45-aF4 system, shi had closed hir eyes – and shi had woken up to see a timer on every screen in hir ship. According to the logs, it was Vej who had put it in; shi had done it in hir sleep.
Now that timer clicked down on the upper part of hir vision, digital numbers decaying in front of hir eyes as the cloying depths threatened to pour into hir suit and envelope hir.
Shi shut the suit lights off. It wasn’t a thought, more of a gut reaction. The timer continued its slow descent to oblivion.
Shi slowed hir breathing to a crawl, hir eyes desperately trying to adjust to the complete lack of stimuli. Hir brain started to panick, trickling adrenaline down hir spine and drumming hir heart against hir ribs; like a caged bird beating against its bars.
But shi did not waver, only gripped the rock beneath hir tighter, titanium fingers crushing millenia-old deposits to dust. Shi had come this far, and it would be as treacherous to return as it would be to-
Vej shoved off of the ledge, and shut hir eyes.
A quiet beep signified the timer had ended. And the silence crashed in like the most benign tidal wave, a mute titan drowning hir in nothing.
Shi fell for what felt like hours, perhaps even days. But shi kept hir eyes shut. Somehow, shi knew shi must, no matter what – as if shi had been taught.
Unexpectedly, shi began to slow. The motion shi had accustomed hirself to was diminishing, hir limbs and head pulled backwards gently to halt hir descent. Shi held hir lids shut even as instinct begged hir to peek.
Shi felt the suit being manipulated from outside, as though something sought to get in, get through to hir. Shi refused hir brain’s panicked cries, its bargaining brushing against hir stubbornness.
Whatever was out there was getting through. Shi put hir faith, such as it was, in the dream, and awaited the sudden decompression with a sense of satisfaction; shi had no death wish, but at least shi had followed something with a fervor and drive that shi could be proud of hirself.
But the void’s embrace never came. Instead, something else touched hir.
Shi shivered at the alien sensation, something shi couldn’t describe – not for lack of words, but for lack of context, lack of any relatable explanation. It was not unpleasant, nor was it pleasant. Hir brain, already stretched beyond normal limits, was overwhelmed by the feeling, and shi simply gave in.
Accordingly, whatever was there in the black began to assuage hir fears, giving hir the kind of assurance that only a lover could, despite the absolute stillness of the environment around them. There were no words, no recognizable signals to say “Its okay”; instead, touch supplanted all of it, a touch not only of physical nature but mental, perhaps even temporal.
Shi gave up hir conscious thought, letting hirself slip away into the truly strange and indescribable bath of emotions and senses that beckoned hir.
Shi felt hot and cold at the same time: body pulled between extremes as if shi were straddling some gigantic divider, teetering in existential bliss between a feverish warmth and a shocking chill. Hir body couldn’t help but respond to the touch, unbound by worry as it was, and shi followed its lead into the unknown gloom, hir mind filling in gaps in understanding with imaginative leaps – or perhaps, being filled in by something.
Shi sensed shi was among an intelligence, though what kind shi had no way of knowing. Eyes pressed shut against the true void of space, shi briefly wondered if this were the feeling of death as hir suit failed; but the sensations redoubled, almost comfortingly, but in a way that distracted hir more pleasingly than shi had felt in recent months.
Vej had shared a bed with many folk, even an android and a takli-morph, but a recent dry spell had left hir decidedly put out. All hir normal flings were flung across the stars, making a life in their own ways, and wouldn’t be back for some time, if ever. Life had struck hir sex life with a drought that felt undeserved.
And here, now, shi was being flooded with the deluge of exotic and incongruous vibes from some otherworldly force in the depths of an asteroid. Sometimes, the rain in the desert is worth waiting for.
Shi drifted in and out of consciousness, hir dreams tinged with so much colour it stung, and every time shi stirred back to that blank vacuum, there was the force again, holding hir in ways no living thing could.
Eventually, shi blacked out from the absolute overload shi was exposed to. When shi finally stirred from dreams that beggared the imagination, shi found hirself back at the mouth of the cave entrance, holding a stone the size of a small oxygen tank.
At first glance, it looked to Vej like the stone had a mirror finish on it, reflecting the stars around hir; once shi had a moment to clear hir head, however, shi noted that the stone wasn’t smooth at all. In fact, it was covered in hard angles and jagged spikes, and was not reflecting stars at all; instead, it almost seemed to grasp them within itself.
Shi was torn from hir inspection of the stone by hir suit’s warning lights, indicating hir oxygen was low. How long was I down there? Shi gazed up through the asteroid field around hir, as if that held the answers. Finding nothing but ancient debris, shi made to stand, finding hir legs wobbly and hir suit surprisingly moist in parts.
Well, long enough to make a mess of myself. A sudden rush of memories cascaded up through the cave mouth, memories of eons spent in alien bliss, and shi struggled to diverge hir urging thoughts lest shi suffocate out there.
As for the rock, shi wasn’t sure what to think of it. Shi needed to be somewhere else before shi could really study it, and shi wasn’t sure shi’d even get a consistent answer.
Vej knew something had happened down there, in that unknowable pit – something beautiful and terrifying and altogether inexplicably real. But convincing hir brain of that would likely take a few more weeks.
As shi hauled the surprisingly warm stone back to hir ship, pointedly ignoring the slick feeling of hir suit’s lining, shi felt a last shiver up hir spine from the cave mouth behind hir.
Hir shuttle hurtled off and up, out of the asteroids and back to hir waiting ship. Back home. But Vej couldn’t shake the feeling of a last goodbye – to something shi’d never said hello to.
I was inspired to write this by some of Guillaume Singelin’s sketches, as well as my time in the game Elite Dangerous. As usual, the inspiration was the leaping off point, and I had to race to keep up as the story got ahead of me. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope it left you with more questions than answers!