And the Night Long Dark in Shadows
By William Suboski
TWO DAYS UNTIL THE WARP ship was fully stocked, forty-eight hours, an eye blink, and then she and a copy of Maincore Alan would travel home to Earth, 12,400 light-years away, an uncrossable distance ... and she had been stranded twenty-three years in Chester Station since the Path collapsed.
She was the quietest and most private member of a six person team sent to shut down the station. She stayed behind when the other five departed, passing through the Path door and exiting at Relay, more than eight thousand light-years from Earth. She did not know what became of her compatriots after that. Did they make it home, or were they, too, trapped somewhere, at Relay or some other relay on the path home? She had no way to know and did not know.
She stayed because she had realized that a mere three hours later, long after the other five departed, the small moon that Chester station was built on, due to orbital ballets and ballistics, would be at the most distant part of its orbit, and she would be farther from Earth than anyone had ever been. This would be a private record, never shared, another secret knowledge in her life made only personal since Jacob was killed ... since Jacob died.
So she stood atop the cliff’s edge, adding yet another thirty meters to the distance, and gazed up into the wonder of M4, the open star cluster so filled with stars and colors that shadows were cast. So bright that the dull gray stone of the moon became mere canvas and then danced alive as a happy rainbow and a glorious aurora might waltz together. She smiled then laughed at the simple beauty of it.
And afterwards, stranded, when Alan was unable to open a Path again and her life became gray and hard as she was castaway, stranded and landed and whole, but alone and trapped so very far from anything like home.
Then a change. Fernlight happened, a giant alien spaceship that resembled a Christmas tree, lights and colors and peace. And the other ship chasing it smashed Fernlight, smashed it to pieces and broken branches falling on the many moons. At her command, Alan, the station computer, destroyed the aggressor, atomizing it, but not in time to save Fernlight.
They learned little of who these aliens were, and why one group could not be dissuaded from harming the other. When Fernlight fell, Joyous fell with it into deep darkness. But Maincore Alan, always thinking, explored the broken branches and found exotic matter in the wreckage.
And with exotic matter a warp ship became possible. Joy slept, a deep dream in the cloud chamber, while Alan started building the ship. Not only would she travel home tens of thousands of times faster than light, she would ride in a technology that was hitherto unknown. She would arrive back on Earth an instant heroine—was she ready for that?
She lazed after breakfast, staring out the gallery window into the dark canyon. She should have been elated, and she was, but she was also pragmatic. She had joined the Path teams after Jacob died and really, what did freedom mean? She would go back to Earth and loneliness and emptiness. Flee again, into another service, trying desperately to forget? The Path team was her foreign legion—a place to forget. And she had led a bland, blank life. So really what did it ever really mean to be stranded, when she had nothing already, and therefore nothing to lose—or gain?
The soft tenor, Maincore Alan, “Joyous, may we talk?”
“Of course,” her tone was full and happy. “I hope we always talk.”
“You won’t feel that way at first, Joyous. You won’t like the first part of this. But I promise that you will be very glad at the end.” Alan paused. “I need to ask you about Jacob.”
Instant shutdown. She fought it; Alan was her friend, she trusted him, and knew he would not do this casually and without good reason. But even decades later, it was as if it had happened yesterday.
“After he died, a month later, you quit your position. A week after that, you were found in a Los Angeles hotel room, near death from a self-inflicted wound. You were treated, released into a supervised ward for two months, and then fully released. Is that all correct?”
“Yes,” her voice quiet, a functional whisper, the word barely said.
“You then committed several acts of vandalism at two Proto Sagittarius facilities—the principle contractor of Alpha One. Proto Sagittarius declined to press charges. Several months later you joined the Path teams. I assume that is accurate. As is established, four people were blown out of Alpha One when the accident occurred. Three bodies were recovered using their personal locaters. Only Jacob’s body was not recovered. Did you ever watch the various video feeds, Joyous?”
“I couldn’t. I tried a few times but ...”
“I understand, Joyous. But apparently no one did, at least, not closely. I want to show you something.”
A view screen materialized in the air a few feet from her. Until video played it would remain translucent. The area behind the screen was washed out, as if viewed through a rectangular sheet of frosted glass.
“This is the recording of Jacob falling out of Alpha One. Please watch it with me. Please do not look away.”
And she did not look away. She blinked but did not turn her head. Tears without knowing—the focus was mercifully indistinct and she could not see details. A figure spun through the gash and fell away, white on deep black.
And it was replayed and Joyous shook and vomited and did not look away.
“Alan ...” She heard the pain in her own voice but the playback restarted.
And this time it was Jacob, his beautiful face, torn by fear and triumph. She knew what he was thinking. I saved them. She couldn’t stop shaking, and she didn’t look away. She heard her own voice, “Please ...” And the ufog cleaned the vomit on the floor. She did not look away as Alan said, “Again,” The ufog tickled her lips as it cleaned her and she did not look away.
“Did you see it?”
“Two people ... he saved two people and traded his life for theirs, and I had nothing, no body to mourn, no ashes to scatter, nothing ...”
“You did not see it. Again.”
She watched it again, her stomach turning somersaults. She was on the verge of tears but her eyes were clear. She watched as her life, her husband, her best friend, spun away, but ... at second twenty-three on the playback, massively magnified, he simply vanished. He did not shrink to infinity as he fell ever farther away. He simply vanished. She couldn’t speak.
“You had no body to bury because he did not die. He was rescued, Joyous.”
She couldn’t speak.
“Again. This time in infrared.”
And this time the playback was very different. This time the inner station and Jacob glowed so brightly as to be distorted. Alan slowed it and at twenty-three seconds a dark gray ellipsoid—still barely visible even in infrared—with the Chester Station logo on the side intercepted the falling blob and passed laterally across the screen.
“Our current plan is to leave for Earth in two days. Our ship travels by warping the Einsteinian-Ouimetian space-time. This current course will allow us one of many possible unidesics that will take us 12,400 light-years in two months. But the key word here, Joyous, is space-time. I have a choice of manifolds. Another course will take us back to Earth, but also back thirty-six years.”
“You are saying that we rescued Jacob?”
“That is the logical surmise, isn’t it? Consider the moment he is rescued, at second twenty-three, and we first view this twenty-three years after the Path collapsed. That is a length of time easily survivable in vacuum, yet significant to us. Our future selves in the past have sent us a message. Consider also that the rescue vehicle is masked, hidden in a normal viewing, yet bears the Chester logo when viewed in infrared. The placement of the logo seems deliberate.”
“A chair, please, Alan.”, and she collapsed into the soft chair that formed behind her. Her mind raced. We can rescue Jacob—we will rescue Jacob—and then we can put him right back on Alpha One. No—that won’t work. We can’t do that because we didn’t do that. If Jacob returns to Alpha One then I do not leave Alpha One. And that means I am never on Chester Station, which would mean that Jacob is not rescued ... a predestination paradox.
“So we will delay our departure, change our course, and thirty-six years ago we will wait two years to catch Jacob when he falls from Alpha One. What would you like for dinner, Joyous?”
She exploded in laughter. “Are you kidding me? You spring this on me, and then ask me what I want for dinner. Alan, dear, sweet Alan, tonight I would eat dirt! I don’t care about dinner.”
“I am teasing you, Joyous. And this does resolve another question. You were later found in the hotel room before you died as a result of an anonymous call. I now believe that we will place that call, more specifically, that you will place that call.”
“You have been talking to yourself for thirty-six years. Maybe it is time for an answer.”
She was still absorbing. “We couldn’t find his locater because he was no longer falling.”
“The search proceeded in an ever-widening cone expanding away from the station, with its apex at the gash in Alpha One. But that isn’t where Jacob was. Clearly, after the rescue, the rescue ship is seen departing at a right angle to that cone, presumably so as not to be detected.”
“They told me his locater must have malfunctioned. I never believed it.”
“They didn’t know, Joyous. They were guessing. They received no locater signal and surmised a malfunction. All they saw was a woman whose husband died and they wanted to comfort her, somehow.”
She lay in bed. She was too excited to sleep. Over the hours since Alan had shared the news, she caught herself giggling. She could not remember ever doing that before. She knew that she had, but not in decades. Since before Jacob died? But she giggled now.
Life was an adventure again. Christmas was coming, still two years in the future and thirty-six years in the past, with the best present ever. She giggled again, curled in bed under the giant duvet. I will see you again. Hold on. Hold on. You got to hold on. Take my hand, I'm standing right here, you got to hold on ...
Her own voice was quiet in the dark of the room, “Alan, please play Hold On by Tom Waits, and Alan, thank you for ... everything.”
William Suboski is a systems analyst when he is not writing. He has an associates degree in business computing and experience coding for diverse systems. His previous flash fiction for us was published in the 12-SEP-2016 issue.