Floating. Always floating; bobbing along the interstellar currents, cold winds from nearby stars buffeting them, breezing over their skin like a hot wash of fire, a blast furnace’s bellowing voice in the infinite dark. It was deep and rumbling, playing the same three low notes over, and over and-
The low beeping dug through Hara’s cryostasis like a needle, a strange mechanical noise in that murky fluid void-dream. It made them think about gutting the console again, but they knew they’d have to fix it afterwards. They managed a raspy mutter, palming the comms panel clumsily as they sat up against the pod, trying to breathe fire through aching lungs.
Ferrence’s familiar voice buzzed through Hara’s skull. Too loud. They tooled down the volume and asked for a repeat, eyes struggling to refocus against the harsh screen light.
<Update on Destra-Hologasi system for you: 43 stellar bodies, multiple gas giants. Trinary star system.>
That last bit interested Hara. “And what’s the min/max distance for that trinary?”
They rolled their eyes and staggered off to purge the cryogenic fluid. The two of them had been travelling the outer edge of the Inner Ring for nearly three months, and Ferrence was getting…lazy? Could artificial intelligences even get lazy? Hara wrote a reminder on her armslate to ask Brycken about it when they sent their next data bundle. Brycken was a whiz with older model AGIs, and if anyone could find a way to motivate Ferrence, it would be him.
By the time Hara was on their third round of nitric rinse, the system data came scrolling down the bathroom mirror. Most of it was boring: metallic bodies closer in, iced-over rocks further out. The gas giants might be worth something to someone, but they were barely class I. The stars, though…
<Star classes: F, G, K. Minimum distance: 12 Ls. Maximum distance: 90 Ls.> Ferrence chirped proudly.
Hara nearly choked. That was spitting distance for giants like that – it was a wonder opposing gravities hadn’t shot the main binary apart. They studied the projection data and swished the rinse thoughtfully around, weighing the risk of approach and possible errors in the calculations. “Safest point of entry, Ferrence. Map out our drop point between the F and G.”
<Hara, need I remind you what happened the last time you->
“Ferrence.” Hara sighed, head still fuzzy from the chemical cocktail. It felt like someone had pumped oil into their veins to quench a gas fire. “Just take care of it. I trust you.”
The AGI gave a clipped beep and streamed complex algorithms for system entry across the mirror, but Hara was too groggy to bother deciphering it. They knew Ferrence could handle it; besides, last time was a fluke, at best. They let it run the data while they looked over the ship again, wanting to get first-hand inspection in case that last set of jumps through the Heath left a mark.
And to take a walk while their body burned internally.
Hara had shelled out most of their earnings before this trip getting the Gantry – a mid-range ship well past its expiry date – up to snuff: a new-ish sK.atter drive, which gave their ship a significant jump boost; they’d increased the hull’s plating to account for the excess Platiyat-Gorcheb radiation; hell, they’d even sprung for a full hydroponics bay. Fresh Porsha nuts and pepper-apples made it worth all the dry showers and protein packs.
Though upon second or third smell, a wet shower might be in order; cryo left some weird odours.
Now that they were more themselves, that voice felt like warm liqueur, and Hara smirked to themselves as they called back, “Yeah, Ferr?”
<I’ve plotted our route. However,> Ferrence paused, something it rarely made time for, <I think it would be prudent to send out a bundle, should we end up crispier than our current state.>
“Alright. Normally I’d give you the gears, but you make a fair point. We wouldn’t want Brycken or Vej to worry.” Hara patted the inner hull affectionately. “But you’re a tough beauty. If anyone could survive that jump, it’s you.”
Their relationship was nonstandard, even in vibrantly-weird places like the Inner Rings. Out here in the Heath, where people sported some crazy mutations and cultures, a human and an AGI wasn’t even considered. Adding on that Ferrence wasn’t interested in a “meatsuit-knockoff” body, it meant their relationship was on a need-to-know basis. Even Vej didn’t know until shi walked in on us during modding, Hara thought with a wry grin.
After making a full inspection of the Gantry’s moving parts, Hara moved to the bridge and started strumming their fingers through the holo-interface, weaving a message out of coordinates, feelings and data bursts, then waving it off to the nearest Relay Post. “Done, bo-diddlums.” They dismissed the hologram and keyed in a short sequence on the touchpad. Two sizable ports filled with a thick, dark-blue substance opened on the armrests, and they dove their hands in up to the wrist, sensory information pouring through the gelatinous membrane within directly into their skin. “Let’s drop.”
Ferrence beeped concordantly, and the ship began to tremble like a scared mutt. Normally, that was – well, normal; sK.atter tech was notorious for its dramatic effect on spacetime (and ships running it). Hara adjusted some resonant frequencies to lessen the harsh ringing in their ears, and the hull started vibrating, screens and magnetic plating rattling in their housing.
“You’ve got this, love. Come on, just another minute until we’re back in realspace…” Hara muttered through gritted teeth, arms sinking up to the elbows as they strove to harmonize with Ferrence’s subroutines, reaching out to grasp at the outer hull and squeeze it back into place. There was a blip, like a bug bouncing off their skin – an asteroid? Maybe some space debris. Then another blip, and another, like rain out of nowhere. It was like-
In a blink, there was a deafening roar of air rushing past Hara, and they couldn’t close their mouth fast enough. They blacked out before so much as a gasp could sound in the rapidly-venting cockpit.
There they were again: floating. Only it felt disjointed now, like a tumultuous river tossing them around effortlessly instead of a soft lilting stream. The winds were harsh and fierce, battering their face. Something was wrong.
“Ferrence!” They shouted over the din, and heard a clipped beeping in response, as if from lightyears away. The shared synthfield was still active, at least. “Shunt it all!” Hara bellowed, panic rising unbidden in their throat. “I don’t care if the drive blows out, shunt it! Shunt it now-“
Then utter, maddening silence.
Brycken had these magnetic toys that he liked to show off. They would click together beautifully, and you could make big, complex shapes with them. But sometimes, one magnet would get too uppity in its spot and yank its neighbour over, and the assembly made a sickening clacking sound as it collapsed into itself, as if it were bones colliding.
The world snapped back into place, hard. Hull plating groaned under the weight of the leftover atmosphere, framework nodes reconnecting to form over the hole in the side of the ship; they looked like gunmetal lichen in fast-forward. Hara’s lungs and nose burned and their face was unpleasantly dry, but that was good: unpleasant meant alive. They cast a weary look around and saw floating bits of metal, glistening in light. The viewscreen, blessedly intact, showed a view of a glitter field in all directions. Hara keyed through a few exterior cameras (half seemed inoperable), then recoiled in shock as a seemingly divine, overpowering light poured through the viewer.
Ahead were the two stars, locked in tight orbit. Hara half-imagined themselves being burnt to a crisp just looking at them, wheeling overhead in their slow stellar dance. A paltry ninety lightseconds away, the third star shone a wan orange.
The last time this had happened, they hadn’t lost pressure. Just some malfunctions in the Gantry’s drive servos, and the stim machine going fritzy. This time, there was no chastising from Ferrence. No unbridled beeping and oily whirring. Hara dug their arms out of the unresponsive gel interface and keyed their neck implant: a simple two-way comms they used to chat with Ferrence when they were off-ship.
It was dead. Fried, or worse; not even static.
They were dead in the void between two behemoth furnaces, bathing in the light of a third, and Ferrence wasn’t responding. Hara tried to raise it again, but it was no use. The panic started bubbling again, threatening to spill over. How long would it be offline? Would they be able to fix it? What if-
Hara quashed the feelings with a harsh laugh, nodding to themselves. Ferrence is fine, they lied to nobody in particular. It just needs a minute to reboot, that’s all.
They dug out the manual connector for the external viewscreen, dusting off the archaic visor before adjusting the straps. The resolution on it was crap compared to the full sensory input of the interface, but it gave them a fully 3D view of the outside. They wanted to get a good look at these beasts and see if there were any interesting anomalies, aside from the sheer impossibility of their distance. It also helped to distract them from the eerie lack of ship noise.
Looking at the two stars was like an optical illusion, like seeing two water droplets sat so close together that they would connect, should connect, but something was stopping them. Hara wasn’t an astrophysicist by any stretch of the definition; they’d barely qualified as an explorer with an outdated AGI. But something in their gut said this was wrong, that something else had to be at play here.
They spent another hour searching, beating back the panic that kept threatening to spill over like a boiling pot, until they finally saw a metallic shine. They thought they’d imagined it, but after a minute, there it was again. The tiniest glimmer of something, locked between the two fiery giants. Hara keyed up the zoom levels, and there it was: a tiny planetoid, barely big enough to command that title. And it was…weird.
Little lines ran the length of the surface. At first Hara figured them to be stress fractures or maybe artifacts from the poor resolution, but after a few adjustments they revealed themselves to be perfectly linear cracks, almost as if someone had carved them. And they ran along the entire length of the rock, all in parallel to each other, almost perfect along their paths and somehow unscathed by the sheer gravity of the stars, or even their thermal radiation. It was like finding an old puzzle-sphere in a kiln, totally unmarked.
That slow boil of panic was replaced by a rumbling excitement, and the more of the tumbling world they took in, the louder it became until Hara was practically bouncing in their chair. The entire planet – nearly a thousand kilometres in radius – was marked by deep valleys, each covered in vast and detailed reliefs. Hara couldn’t make out much detail, but some of the murals were kilometres high and definitely not human. Even if the folk that lived out here could carve like this, they’d never have the tech to touch down on that rock, let alone sculpt it. The skin of it flickered in the light of the twin suns, a neon-obsidian rock that somehow resisted oblivion between intense white and blue forges.
Hara splayed the images out in flattened view and tried to make sense of the full carvings, but it was no language or culture this side of the Pit. In fact, none of the small figures they could make out in the artistry looked remotely human, mutations or otherwise.
Ferrence might be able to make sense of it, Hara thought distractedly, but that’s if I can even get it back up and running. The hull groaned dully, sending a shiver of panic through them that shot them right out of their chair and down towards the airlock.
“Fix the ship, then fix Ferrence; can’t fix Ferrence if there’s no ship…” Hara muttered to themselves frantically as they went through the motions of donning a suit and snatching a sprayer and a pod of mycelium from the wall. “Fix the ship, then fix Ferrence…”
It’s not as done as i’d like, but I wanted it off my plate for now, so here we are.
One day I hope to have a little Twine game in relation to this story, too, so keep your eyes to the skies, and keep trying for change. ❤