Ride the Night Home
Seventy-four years ago we left our solar system for the first time. Why? Well, because we could. There was no global disaster or severe shortage, only curiosity and greed.
Nineteen years ago the first settlement on Alpha Centauri A Prime — Ri Chu — was officially declared a city. The main change was a baby-boom and a shopping mall.
Six years ago ACA Prime declared its independence from the United Earth Government. That went as bad as could be expected — the mall was almost closed due to supply shortages and 54 people were killed when the navigation grid was maliciously crashed, causing car and shuttle accidents. Civil unrest followed.
A few months ago, under the pretense of the biggest asteroid mining operation in history, we started experimenting with physics-bending energy sources.
Shuttle 042 was on its way back from that operation when it went dark. Its destination was ACA Prime.
Memories, Like the Light of Distant Stars
I am Pathfinder. The words echoed in her aching head, the instant Kat regained consciousness.
“Where are we?” Stella’s voice was very shaky, yet she talked slowly. Stella was always nervous. Kat had no idea how she managed to become the captain of a space shuttle.
I am Pathfinder. I am the northern star, the eye that sees it and the thumb that feels the wind. The stupid chant was like a part of the horrible ringing in her head.
“Kat! Where the fuck are we!” Kat realized Stella growling at her meant that she was OK. Without her, Kat would lose all paths.
“No idea.” They had crashed. She got distracted by something, she couldn’t remember what it was, and probably miscalculated the warp path. Kat groped for Stella but her seat was too far.
“Fuck,” Stella said, squeezing the “F” through her lips like she was inflating a balloon.
“I wish” Kat opened her eyes for the first time. It was dark, and the blast windows were closed so they couldn’t see outside. The cockpit was lit only by a few red indicator lights, which conveyed the obvious: the situation was bad. Stella’s food somehow got spilled all over Kat’s lap.
“We are probably at the deep end of this asshole of a star system with 800 tons of cargo and 2 tons of passengers. Your jokes are not funny, Kat.” Stella’s voice became firmer. As Kat’s eyes got used to the dark, Stella’s long blonde hair stood out in the dim light. She was small and all her features were sharp: her curves, bones, even the shape of her dark-colored eyes.
“Asshole, huh,” Kat mumbled.
“What does the log say?”
“You know, these two tons of passengers, these people feel like they know us, you know?”
“Fuck people, fuck what they feel, and fuck what they know. Get me the log,” Stella said in a voice so calm you might mistake her for an AI.
“Last entry, six minutes ago: ‘Emergency warp’”
“Nothing. Maybe it happened so fast, that the…” Kat stopped and thought she felt the ship vibrating for a moment.
“I know you have a penchant for those glitches. Find us, Pathfinder.”
Hololink (or simply “link”) was the next step in connecting people and machines. A neuro-computer was injected into the neck, making virtual worlds part of the real one. The intuitive way we control our bodies and give order to our thoughts was now extended to information that we never learned, limbs we never had, and sensations we had never felt. From knowing the meaning of a word by wishing so, to controlling the engines of a spaceship like a muscle.
There are many types of links, and devices that a link can connect to (called “nodes”). Some links are made only to access information, like the internet, while others were for operating nodes — from phones to spaceships — and some for much more sophisticated tasks. One of the most complex links is the Pathfinder, used for space exploration. It is usually offered by NASA to promising science students, not before passing a series of mental and neurological tests. Those who pass, after many years of hard training, become an interface to millions of data streams on planets, satellites, and ships. They can sense solar winds like wind on one’s skin, locate gravitation wells like moving a palm on a surface, and smell the atmosphere of a planet.
But the price of having the known universe exposed at your fingertips is high.
In order to locate the ship, Kat needed a node with some kind of observation or measurement modules, and the ones on the shuttle were damaged. This was a task the Pathfinder was made for.
Kat closed her eyes, and with her link-senses looked for the nearest node. There was an old out-of-orbit satellite. She looked inside it and found that it was even older than she thought, maybe one of those first warp-scouts from Earth. She tried to sense its position, look out its windows, but they were shut and broken.
The last location was recorded more than 8 years ago. Kat went back there and opened the window. She felt a heat wave and knew its temperature was around 2000 degrees Celsius. But it felt like being out on a hot summer day, and her skin tingled a bit. For a second she could smell and hear the sea, but it had nothing to do with the link. She opened her eyes and saw a giant red sun. They were extremely close to it. She could tell what particles it was emitting, where and when exactly they were, and what important events have happened that day. She fast-forwarded the recording and in a matter of seconds Proxima Centauri was all but a dot in a world full of stars. And then there was nothing, they probably got hit by some space rock that trashed most of the satellites’ instruments, making it a floating memory, like the light of distant stars.
She searched for a signal from another node, and after her mind got used to the dark she found something. It was a weak signal yet it felt much closer. Kat could not find a simple way in, but it seemed to be leaking data. She tried tasting it, and it tasted like danger. She felt her real body getting tense, and a mix of dark and bitter flavors was in her mind.
“Kat, where are you?” It was Stella’s’ voice, softer this time.
Kat brought her senses back to her own body. “Right here”, she said. She could feel Stella’s bony fingers touching hers.
“Sorry, still no idea where we are.”
Stella tried to get up for the first time but felt as crippled as the ship. “Fucker!” She murmured and pushed herself up. Her legs were shaky, and she felt a familiar muffled anger rising inside her. She groped her way to the door. Kat tried to wipe out the remains of Stella’s food off her pants, “Did you stage all this to force-feed me, Star?”
Stella was trying to open the door with no success. “No,” she grunted while pushing it, “but I will put a tube in you at the first sign of malnutrition.”
“My stash ran out two days ago. You know I can’t touch this space shit.”
“You spoiled Earthborn. If you had grown out here…”
“I would have been eating this alien goo with a smile, heard this one before, love. How hard was it to put a food printer here? Cheap assholes.”
“The corner-cut legacy of the UEG. We won our independence, but some people out here could never even imagine a better life.”
“That’s why you need spoiled immigrants like me,” Kat said with a slightly crooked smile.
“I am going to put out a beacon and scan the ship, try to locate us again.”
Kat looked dead when she was linked. Her eyes open wide and there was barely any sign of movement on her stick-thin body, wrapped in layers of cloths that were several sizes too big for her. She had buzz-cut of black hair, and although Stella thought Kat was prettier when it was long, she loved the feeling of running her fingers through it.
Locked inside the cockpit, they were isolated from the passengers and from the world. Kat was the only link out. Stella linked to her ship and felt crippled. Both the flight and warp engines were dead. The sensation was like waking up and finding your legs missing. The hull was intact but she had no way of communicating with any of the passengers or crew.
When she came back, she saw Kat’s body tensing and her eyes growing wide.
“What do you see?” Stella asked quietly.
“Shit,” Kat whispered.
“What is it?”
“Star, love, get the windows open. I need eyes closer to us and can’t find any.”
Stella linked to the ship and looked for every possible way to get the electricity back to the cockpit. She dove into the wires trying to find a way to reroute the power, like finding her way through a maze, but to no avail. She realized only the option she dreaded remained — to open it manually. She got up, and at that moment, felt a weak tremor moving through the ship. Kat moved in her seat and said silently, “Can you see what’s out there?”
“Working on it,” Stella said in a voice that sounded like pebbles falling one on top of another. She moved with the help of her hands towards the front window and groped for the emergency lever that opened the blast shields. She pulled it with all her remaining strength. A moment before she thought she would faint, something shook and all the windows opened up.
Dim light slowly crept into the cockpit. Under twilight sky laid a rocky waste, barely lit by two small suns. In the distance Stella saw a huge, mountain-like structure that was a bit too geometric to be dismissed as natural.
“There is some structure out there, might be human…”
“Do you love me, Star?” Kat disrupted silently.
“Is it bad?”
“Do you love me badly?” Kat smiled.
“Kat, for fuck’s sake! What is out there?!” But Kat did not answer, her eyes moved as if she was dreaming. Stella stepped away and started pacing nervously in the small space, then she went back to Kat, leaned over her, close to her face, and whispered “Get back already.” A stronger tremor shook the ship.
The Little World
The world was extremely hot. It was a newly formed planet thrown out of its orbit around Alpha Centauri B by some impact, and although the Centauri suns barely lit its surface, its boiling guts kept the surface at a steady 800 degrees Celsius. That was all Kat could gather from the web. You could find ice asteroids with more information on them. That was the first time she had the disturbing thought that that crush might have been intentional. There must be something special about this rock.
While online, Kat saw a message from her mother, asking how she was doing and saying she misses her. Kat’s mother on Earth had no idea of Kat’s current occupation. She scribbled a laconic “everything’s great” reply, adding a photo of Stella and herself from the last shore leave on ACA prime. No word about them being the pilot and Pathfinder of an interstellar shuttle working for a top secret military-scientific operation in deep space. It was time to head back to the only node she could find — the bad one.
Kat used all her willpower to concentrate on finding the node. It was like looking for an underwater current by feeling the water moving on her skin. She could feel a few streams going in and out of a central point that was near. They all had the same foreboding overtone taste she felt the first time.
Suddenly, as she felt closer to locating the node, Kat heard a voice: “Do you know where you came from?” She stopped and listened while the electricity of fear rattled in her guts. This was not an AI. AIs always present themselves. It could only mean there was someone else on that planet, and he or she were there before the crash.
Kat could hear Stella ask, “What do you see?” She was probably noticing the tension on Kat’s body.
“Shit,” Kat heard herself murmur. She knew the node was close to the ship but she could not locate it and get in. “What is it?” Stella asked.
“Star, love, get the windows open. I need eyes closer to us and can’t find any.” Kat hoped Stella would see something outside.
Now what the hell is he asking me?
“Who are you?” Kat asked.
“My name Adam. Do you know where your shuttle comes from, Katalina?”
“Who are you?” Kat asked again in a firmer voice.
“I sorry for bad landing but I had to bring you here. Your beacon damaged, so I sent out another, you be found soon. You passengers are mostly unharmed.” He had a strong accent and reminded Kat of her big brother, whom she could not stand most of the time. He was arrogant and loved playing pranks on people. He was usually the only one laughing.
“Hey Adam, listen to me now, if you know my name you ought to know where I come from. I am no ordinary Pathfinder, I was groomed for this since I was nine years old! I got my BA before graduating high school and my doctorate before I was twenty. Can’t say it was a happy childhood, but I don’t think even Stella realizes how smart I am! So you think you scare me with your cryptic mumbo-jumbo? You are probably some rich and bored asshole hacker-kid from Earth who can’t get laid! So, Adam, even if I die on this shit-hole of a rock I will make sure you are found and paid in full!”
“I am from future. There is structure close by, it is time-incubator called ‘The Little World’. I was unnaturally born here about two thousand years from now and I am not completely human. I was given the name Adam because I was first of kind and I here to prevent very dark future.”
“Huh,” Kat snorted, unconvinced, and asked Stella: “Can you see what’s out there?” She got a “working on it” and a silent growl in response. Kat knew Stella might feel weak or disoriented because of the pilot link and the damage to the ship. She felt an urge to hold Stella’s face with both her hands and tell her that she is OK.
But instead, she had this weirdo to deal with.
“So, Adam, you were saying you want to ask me out? Because although I usually prefer girls, I have a soft spot for assholes from the future.”
“You are telepathic, rare, but you are strong one. Look!” Suddenly Kat knew the exact location of the node. She entered, expecting it not to be bigger than the one on the satellite. The surprise hit her like the headlights of a truck speeding out of the darkness. It was bigger than the busiest nodes she visited on Earth. It was like being thrown, drunk, into the night on the most crowded street of New Tokyo. Kat was overwhelmed by the sensations, her brain swirling and skin buzzing at the unimaginable amount of information passing through, but she could not concentrate enough to comprehend any of it. That was when she had tasted that overtone again. It was stronger and had a flavor of an emotion. Kat focused on it, through her link, and knew that these were Adam’s emotions — he was the node!
“There is some structure out there, might be man-ma…” Kat heard Stella’s voice, but she interrupted her:
“Do you love me, Star?” She silently asked Stella. For a short instant, that was all Kat cared about.
“You see now?” Kat heard Adam’s voice coming like a silent echo from every direction. She was too shocked to have a witty answer.
“We go deeper now, need to show you.” Suddenly Kat realized what was off about Adam’s language: it was as if he had just learned to speak, not any particular tongue but communicating via speech in general.
“Is it bad?” Stella asked. She sounded tense.
“Where I go shadows follow. They closing in on your ship, we have no time,” Adam said.
“Do you love me badly?” Kat asked in return, hoping to break the tension.
“Kat, for fuck’s sake! What is out there!?” As expected, the joke rubbed off Stella and Kat knew there is no way she can explain all this, so she took a deep breath and told Adam: “So, are you taking me on a date inside your head, computer-brain-man-from-future?”
“Can you sense the parts that you cannot access? These are non-human parts of me, your tech cannot take you there, but I can. Follow this.” Kat suddenly felt a very clear sense of direction, like a path made of fireflies in a dark wood.
Everyone ignores my jokes today, worst day of my life. She thought when she made her first step.
“Get back already,” Stella said, but Kat was already too deep in the woods to hear her.
A Shadow that follows my soul
A huge military warship was hovering outside, filling the view from the cockpit windows. Two bus-size lifeboats were descending towards the shuttle.
“Captain, rescue team is on its way. We will come for you last, the way looks heavily blocked,” said Commander Lee, the XO of the ACAS Haikou. Her voice was dark and hard, like shattered black rocks.
“I understand. How are they?” Stella said silently.
“No visual yet. My men are breaching your cargo bay doors as we speak.”
“Keep me updated.”
The vibrations were getting more frequent, and at some point they started feeling like the heartbeat of a giant animal sleeping beneath the ship. Through the ship’s sensors, Stella saw spots of absence of energy moving toward the ship. They stood out like sunspots against the heat of the planet but from the windows she could see nothing.
“I can’t do this alone K, where are you?” Stella whispered into Kat’s ear. “Commander Lee, do you pick up anything on your scanners?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure what, looks like shadows. Could be glitches. There are also waves coming from that structure. They’re getting stronger and more frequent.”
“It could be a countdown or a beacon.” Stella paced restlessly in the cockpit.
“Countdown to what?”
“To the time we should not be here. This crash was not a coincidence. Are you armed?”
“This is a Hun class warship. ‘Armed’ is an understatement, Captain.”
Kat moved slightly in her seat and moved her lips as if she was talking to somebody.
“My people got in,” said Commander Lee. “They report most your crew are fine and being moved to the Haikou.” It seemed to Stella like Commander Lee had little love for words, as if she cut each from a hard rock by herself.
Stella saw one life boat ascending back towards the Haikou when a tremor stronger than any before shook the ship, making her almost lose balance.
“Star!” Kat gasped suddenly.
“Thank the stars!” Stella murmured, “Where have you been?!”
“Are we alone?” Kat grabbed Stella by the arm and glared into her eyes. Stella stared back for a moment, and then she stared into some distant point and disabled all outside communication in the cockpit.
“We’re alone. Now will you explain?”
“The cargo of our ship can kill the future. We must not let it be salvaged.”
“You should have been writing poetry,” Stella said in a low stern voice. The ship shook, and they heard things fall somewhere.
“Yeah… well, my mom had other plans,” Kat said, mostly to herself. “Anyway, our cargo is some kind of space and time bending machine they developed out there. If I try to explain more, one of the following will happen: either your head will explode or you will dose me and give me to the paramedics as a link-gone-mad case. It is dangerous beyond their comprehension and I have all the proof, but there’s no time to explain!”
“Fuck the future, you know I’ll hate you if they ground me for messing with the cargo.”
“They won’t. Please.”
“I’ve had horrible dreams for as long as I can remember. The first time they ever stopped was in space. When I’m up there I rarely dream. It’s like I become part of the black.”
There was a silence. Kat moved her hand from Stella’s arm to her palm and held her tight.
“I’m going in,” Stella said. She took a deep breath and felt the ship.
Another tremor, but this time she could see it with her link eyes. All the electricity went crazy, short-circuiting and burning wires.
Stella could sense people moving towards the cargo doors but something else was moving throughout the ship, like bubbles void of any energy. The waves were interfering with the electricity and the feeling of immediate danger overwhelmed her. She tried to concentrate on her breathing.
Exhale. She sensed it with mindfulness.
The engines were dead, but that wasn’t a problem. Stella went for the cargo bay controls but the way was shut, there was too much electronic interference in the wires. She felt small electric shocks. ‘The hololink is completely safe and harmless.’ Yeah right, fuckers.
As she was looking for an alternative route the shocks were getting stronger and more painful. Something was fighting to prevent her from accessing the cargo bay controls. The closer the wires, the harder the shock.
It took all her willpower not to unlink and keep looking for a way in the labyrinth. I don’t know who you are so your pain does not scare me. The more pain she felt the angrier she got. But that anger was saved for special occasions.
Stella remembered the UEG police taking away her father, by force. She was twelve. Her mother cried inconsolably for days. A month later she joined the insurgency, fighting for independence from the Chinese slavers, pretending to be worldwide coalition. Stella was small and agile so they used her for scout missions mostly and although she barely saw combat, she got herself an old pistol. Before she had her first period, Stella could wield her gun as if it was linked to her. Three long years later they won, but the price Stella paid was a bullet through her right leg. It left permanent nerve damage, making it weaker and prone to ache.
Another wave shook her. In the middle of the electrical storm the shadows were moving towards the cockpit and the noise outside was getting louder. She still could not find the right wire.
“It’s closing in, I have no control over the ship,” Stella said, her eyes wide open with paralyzing terror. A scene from an old nightmare flashed before her eyes, as a little girl standing in her tiny colony caravan home, but it is too big and empty inside, and from the windows she sees red sky. Stella had one last breath left in her, pain, fear and anger driving her like an avalanche.
“Shhh … It will be OK.” Kat looked straight into her eyes. “The passengers are almost safe, they are coming for us next.” She saw the focus fading from Stella’s eyes. Kat took her hand, and whispered “Let go, disengage the link, Stella!”
Stella tried a new, almost random, path and finally felt the sensation. It was like having a new limb she could control the cargo bay, with. But the limb was broken and each action cost her in pain. With all her remaining resolve, Stella managed to jam the cargo locks and then fried the controls.
The first real thing that Stella felt was Kat’s hand still clutching her own. It took her a moment to realize she lost consciousness for a few seconds and got unlinked.
“It’s done,” Stella murmured.
“Why are you crying Star?”
“What? I’m not.” Tears were running down Stella’s chicks; she had the most haunted look in her eyes. “K, I never said I’m sorry for hitting you, when we met. We boarded that immigrant boat, trying to save it. I thought you were the most insufferable know-it-all bossy bitch and I had no idea what I was doing. It was my first time as a pilot in space. I’m sorry.”
“I barely remember,” said Kat. “Just your shining hair waving in every direction.”
Another wave crashed over the ship and something hit the cockpit door, hard. Without hesitation Stella went for the gun compartment under her seat and Kat took a step back. The same something slammed the door again. Quickly and skillfully, Stella loaded and cocked the gun.
“If we come out of this, I want to see Earth,” she said, aiming at the door.
A World Full of Stars
For most of us it is hard to believe that humans originated from a single planet.
How can one imagine a whole galaxy, thousands of star systems inhabited by humans, that came from one small planet?
But there is a story of an impending doom looming over our singular home-world, many millennia ago.
Driven by fear of annihilation, the human science made unprecedented leaps. Little is known of that time, and the story known throughout the galaxy is composed the way most stories are: of exaggerations, half-truths, and wild fiction. But the core remains the same: an almost-everlasting energy source was invented. A battery the size of a man’s arm could make an interstellar ship go from liftoff to half the speed of light before leaving the planet’s atmosphere. But the catastrophe that happened on the day of the “star exodus” was nothing like the doom we feared.
Starships, as imaginary as the power source that was driving them, were built to take the entire human race to the stars. No one really knew what was happening at the deep space labs that developed the batteries. The legend tells of world leaders giving up their power, dreading the responsibility, but the only way to the future was through this one narrow strait.
Some say it was sudden, some say it was gradual and prolonged, some tell of a sandstorm and some of great fire but the end remains the same: the surface of the planet was turned to dust and ash, the water evaporated and the atmosphere burnt away.
The fact is we survived. The ships that took off on the day of Star Exodus made it, somehow. But if a lesson was to be learned, it was not: deep space labs are all under the veil of radio silence. The only communication goes through cloaked supply shuttles coming and going via secret routes. There, the fabric of existence is just another toy in a playground, to be stretched, bent and deconstructed.
“Is this the future we are trying to avoid?” Kat asked.
“No, this is the better future,” Adam said.
On the last wave the cockpit door opened and behind it were the glowing blue eyes of a military space suit. It was the rescue team.
“What the hell?” Stella looked shocked, still pointing the gun, now towards the marine. “Was it you banging on the door?”
“No ma’am, we just got here. Youר door was locked because of an electrical malfunction.” The soldier’s voice was low and deep. “We thought it was you. Lower your weapon please, and come with me.”
His voice was soothing, Stella took a breath and lowered the gun. “Do we need suits?” She asked.
“Take these breathers and let’s go, there is pressure but the air is bad and the whole boat might fall apart at any second. Some weird-ass electric storm is frying it.”
As they were getting ready to go, something made Kat take a last look from the cockpit window. There was a double sunset — both Alpha Centauri suns were on the horizon, the bigger one slightly bluish and the smaller greenish. The world was getting darker, and the sky had a deep purple-blue color to it. The rocky plane looked like a shivering sea, with the suns highlighting the sharp edges of the rocks. The Little World stood out like a black monolith, its shadow stretched as far as the crashed shuttle and the warship. From its top, a white ray shot out towards the stars, disappearing immediately and leaving a slight trace of dispersing smoke. Kat didn’t have to check — Adam was gone.