The shockwave rippled silently through space, debris searing through vacuum as the cargo unit exploded. The luminous orb of the planet peered passively at the unfolding chaos, omnipresent, unmoving, forgotten in the moment. Torpedoes streamed out of the spherical spacecraft like glowing wasps, gently rippling out to shatter the orbital drones.
Static and voices, like ghosts, travelled with the light and debris. Soft. Cargo unit one destroyed. Torpedoes deployed…
The blazing red insignia of the pirates glowed in the flare of the small sun—more drones streaked out of glowing ports . Space pirates. Bandits in vacuum. In other times, it might have seemed like a somewhat ridiculous idea. …Controller 4 to drone squadron 2. Watch your fire. Do not damage cargo units…what are you doing?…cargo unit destroyed, repeat do NOT damage cargo…cargo is target repeat…do NOT damage…The planet was called SB332. A code amongst vast maps, dotted with ore fields, and orbital paths. Planets and stars. Most useless, most empty.
…3 pirate drones eliminated. Cargo unit two in danger…extreme danger…
Far from the battle in space, there lay, basking in the glow of another sun, a planet called Earth. Everyone involved in the battle came from there. From Earth had spread the networks of mapping, of space travel. Ore lines. Metals, minerals, and fuels moving across vast distances, through the emptiness. All diverging from, and converging onto planet Earth. The centre of the web humanity had woven into space.
If one were to descend towards the planet’s horizons in this future of futures, one would find it layered with grey sheets of cloud. Descend, plummet through the broiling black, through tumultuous storms of blue fire and rain, down into the haze of the lower atmosphere where the towers of glass, steel, and concrete erupt through smog. Immense sprawling masses of civilisation spread across the continents, merging countries, bridging oceans and seas—threads of stone slashing the cold blue of water, now darkening. Deep, deep within one of the cities, riding on a highway a hundred feet above the ground, was a small, old car, amongst a thousand others. Riding the thick traffic of a dark evening. On planet Earth, the evenings have become long as days, and mornings too short to enjoy. Afternoons have disappeared. Night appeared often to sink across the glittering lands, unable to penetrate the haze of electronic illumination in the cities.
The small blue car, headlights cutting through the swirling smog, held two people. A woman who’s name was Aiena, and a man. His name was Valdan. The two were lovers, so to speak, for they had been bound in a ceremony of marriage several years before. Neon glowed all around, crawling across the sides of the stellar towers that loomed above slums of worn concrete. The highway snaked along the buildings, plummeting and rising.
Inside the car, the radio crackled tediously, relaying news that was more or less the same everyday. …Sentry probes along the orbit of planet SB332 have detected conflict…Sentry Monitoring Head Quarters representatives in Kelsan have confirmed that HSCTC Space Cargo Unit Transporter SYNAPSE-4 has been intercepted by Kelsan Sector pirates…Aiena ignored the drawl emerging from the speakers, driving desperately fast, the engines whining as she overtook other vehicles in the swarm. The neon glow of the city around the glass bubble of the windshield hurt her eyes, and shone in her jet black hair. She needed sleep. Badly.
But instead of turning her attention to the ache in her eyelids and the pounding headache behind her glittering grey eyes, she had convinced herself that she needed to find a hospital. A cheap hospital. Which would mean a private hospital. And quick. In the backseat lay her husband, Valdan, his flesh pale; tinged with blue, and bushy brown beard flecked with spittle. The plastic seat covers were slick with his vomit, filling the car with a pungent reek, his dark eyes glazed in a stare quite akin to that of death.
…dangerous loss of advantage. Repeat dangerous loss of advantage. We’re in deep shit here…SYNAPSE-4 is equipped with seeker torpedoes, repeat seeker torpedoes squadron 2 is losing integrity…
Safe from vacuum and silence, Mikal turned down the volume control slider on the high frequency tuner. Tapping into the pirate lines made little difference: they wouldn’t have the upper hand for long. Outside the coiled tubes and corridors of the reinforced steel sphere of SYNAPSE-4 was the battle, and they would lose it, soon. Seeker torpedoes. Emergency use only. They were running out of them. In volleys of five, metal plates flew of the shell of the SYNAPSE and released the missiles.
Beautiful, undulating lines of fiery exhaust that carved out delicate patterns in the black of the ether. They wove in and out, and quickly converged with the thicker lines of the pirate drones that disappeared in silent explosions, like lightning against the horizon of SB332. He had watched through the portholes, admiring the conflict, swallowing hard the nausea of fear. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, weightless in the cold air of the vessel. It calmed him somewhat, as he let the gentle green light of the SYNAPSE’s bowels wash over him, with flickers of cold blue from the control panels, and flashes of orange and white from the portholes.
Yet, a cold sweat was breaking free from his flawless skin, slippery under his nylon bodysuit. HSCTC emblazoned on the breast. The craft shook under the constant rain of fire from the pirate drones. The bandits were converging.
"Mikal, we’re running out of seekers," said a voice, his lover’s voice. When they had set out, away from the sun they had known on their planet Earth, they had not been lovers, but colleagues. Bound by the Space Transport Federation to serve. But lovers they had become, over the years of cold, empty travel. Seeking solace from crushing tedium, cold aches, and longing in each other, in each other’s lips, bodies, and minds. The soothing voice of the SYNAPSE’s channel tuner, tapping into the lonely voices of humanity travelling through space, had been their only companion, their only music, as they danced, weightless. Now, there were pirates. Space pirates, ready to steal what they had pulled across solar systems. Running out of seekers.
"I know, Sandrel. I know." He opened his eyes. She was beautiful, as always. Platinum hair free, rippling like water against the light of the portholes, filtering in as the space battle continued. "They can’t attack unit two, can they? They can’t be that foolish…if they destroy unit two…we’re…..do you think they will leave us in peace, Mikal? Do you think they’ll take the cargo unit and leave?" Cargo unit two, attached to the sphere of the SYNAPSE by a slim tail framework, contained something precious. Too precious for words, one of the prize catches of humanity’s space web. On the shell of the unit, flickering in the sun: HAZARDOUS. A bright yellow symbol, foreboding.
"Will they let us live?"
"When we run out of seekers, we’ll see."
Aiena kept driving, panic quickening her breath. Time was running out for Valdan, and her eyes were beginning to water from the miserable headache. She wondered if it was a migraine. But she kept driving. Because Valdan was her husband. On a giant screen above the highway, flickering holograms said something about yet another space battle in yet another remote space sector along the ore routes.
…reportedly in danger. STF has deployed security shuttle units, but representatives have informed us that the distances are too great for the SYNAPSE-4 to be saved in…
Drive. The scarlet bruise on her cheekbone, marring a startlingly pretty face, itched. But she didn’t scratch it, because it hurt when she touched it. And because she had to drive to a hospital. Find a hospital. But it itched. And throbbed like her headache. There, and on her ribs, and back. Where Valdan had hit her. And kicked her. Put on knuckledusters greased with his rancid sweat, and struck her again and again.
She was descending into the slum districts, the towers of the city too high to even see, stretching all around, dark canyons that disappeared into the grey stratosphere. The smoldering lights of the lower city hurt her eyes less, but it was still bright. He heard Valdan convulse in the backseat. Running out of time.
It hurt so much. Why? Why did he have to hit her? She remembered. It hurt so much. She heard him spasm in the grip of a fit, the wet plastic seats squeaking. If only he had known that his hitting her would later endanger his own life, would take away precious time as he died, ever so slowly. Died, in the grip of his addiction.
Benzador-24. Bluedrake. His life. His drug. Yet another prize catch of humanity; a fat fly squirming in its web, swollen with potential. The pleasure germ, it was called. One of the four extraterrestrial species of life discovered in mankind’s myriad paths across the cosmos. All four were bacteria. One was lethal in its effects on the human body. But strangely enough, stimulated the human mind to such highs of intoxicating pleasure that they ended up fighting for it, giving up their lives for it. Benzador.
There was an antidote, of course. As expensive as the germ, bred in underground caverns, in the dim blue light of ultraviolet panels and mists of refrigeration. Aiena knew all about bluedrake. The alien drug. Hauled across the paths of planets to reach Earth, by brave smugglers. Earth, where it was reproduced and distributed. She knew. Because Valdan knew. Because her husband injected the germ, swimming in blue fluid that dripped from razor sharp needles, into his veins every week. She knew, she watched him soar, and quiveringly pierce his skin to deliver the antidote as the high began to fade, and the rigour in his muscles set in. Because he had given up everything else for it.
The killer bacterium was not bought cheap. She had to work hard, and when she could not make enough money, he hit her. Hit her hard, many times, knuckledusters glittering in the lamplight with her blood. Hit her, as he shuddered in withdrawal. But this time, this long, long evening he had forgotten. He had drifted into his Benzador high, soared and rolled his eyes as she watched, pretending to sleep. Eventually she had fallen asleep. But he hadn’t come out of his high when she awoke. This time, he had forgotten to get the antidote.
The slums rolled past, signs glaring, declaring news, advertisements. …report loss of communication with SYNAPSE-4. Security shuttle units have been dispatched, and representatives claim they will reach SB332 in approximately 67 hours. This just in: Balsan Sector…
Valdan convulsed. A tear rolled down Aiena’s cheek. He was her husband. Then, out of the canyons, a flickering blue cross: shimmering in a holographic field at the end of the cramped horizons, drowned by the towers. A hospital.
They embraced, in the silence, the tuner switched off. The static and voices shut off. Outside, the space battle continued, as silent as their kiss. Just flashes in space. Two squadrons destroyed, reduced to flotsam in the ether.
Ten torpedoes left.
They had agreed, the two astronauts. Back on Earth, there were called cargonauts. Forgotten workers in space, trawling ores and minerals across leagues of darkness. Sandrel would go to the lower levels of SYNAPSE-4 and detach cargo unit 2 from the rest of the ship, attached as it was by a slender stalk of indestructible alloys to the spherical craft. Because something had happened. Just two missiles from the pirate orbital drones had missed their mark. Missed the SYNAPSE and hit the cargo unit, despite the frantic warning of their controllers. Outside, drifting…you fucking sons of bitches you hit cargo unit two I said DO NOT harm cargo units repeat cargo unit 2 hit retreat retreat re…
Mikal and Sandrel had watched the warning klaxons blossom like flowers in the tubular corridors of the SYNAPSE, flushing red with blue. The shell of the spaceship was a kaleidoscope, colours blooming and spinning, while the portholes showed the pirate drones retreat, chased by the quivering lines of seeker torpedoes. Like falling stars, colouring the skies of SB332. Unit two, overheating rapidly. In a minute, it would most likely explode, causing a shockwave far worse than unit one.
They had agreed. Sandrel, platinum white hair glinting in the swirling lights, floated down the corridors and disappeared, and Mikal was left alone, to stare through the glass at the drones, and the torpedoes. Like falling stars.
The paralysis had started in Valdan’s body, slowly immobilising and stiffening his muscles with each bout of convulsion. Benzador-4 was ravaging his body, the pleasure germ running amok, reproducing and colonising his spine, imprisoning his nerve impulses. In time, if he was not treated properly, he would lose all movement, and eventually die. Fade away like the high the miniscule bacteria had given him.
Aiena slammed down on the brake, wincing as her ribs slammed against the seat and sent a jolt of pain across her body, making the headache entice a ripple of nausea that she had to struggle to suppress. The cross glowed above, barely distinguishable through tears of pain. Of frustration. The hospital. She had taken the back entrance.
An alleyway, dank with rot and swirling with the detritus of news media, fluttering shreds of holotape, soaked clumps of newspaper. The small door under the cross, high, high up on the peak of the hospital, was stained. Stained yellow. Beside it leaned a man, shaved bald and wrapped in cheap folds of plastic jackets and black cloth. He was shivering, the cold of the night smothering him, the night sky invisible from his little alley, the only place where he was king. Invisible, trapped out by smog and towers.
He knew his job. He saw, through eyes dried of tears by the cold. He saw the woman, so pretty. Startlingly pretty, with grey eyes and hair as black as the smoke lined sky. Blacker. Prettier. She was bruised, and crying. This was a hospital. But the man knew his job.
Her lips moved, beautiful lips. Shining under the harsh pink, yellows. Neon lit her tears, glistening on her skin. She was speaking. The man listened.
"…please. You’ve got to get him inside, he’s badly…he’s dying. But…no police. It’s the germ. Please get him in."
He watched, fascinated by the plumes of frost emerging from those bright lips. "Yes, ma’am. That’ll be the front entrance."
"No…no, please. I know what this is for. This is the back entrance. You don’t, don’t understand….I don’t have any money. And it’s the germ. I don’t have any money…please help me." She was crying, little jewels slipping down her cheeks. Somewhere, far off, amplified voices echoed through the night. …no progress reported on SYNAPSE-4 attack, communications still cut off. On the Balsan Sector situation, no…
The man’s chest ached, watching the woman cry. There was someone in her car.
"Please…" she whispered to him, moving closer. Desperation tinged her voice. "I have no m-money. Please…I’ll…I can give you other things. P-please. Quickly, he’s dying. I can give you something else…n-now please quickly now please p-please" She was too close. He knew his job. Maintain distance, make sure you keep the stragglers out. Let in the germ victims, but only if the green is shown. The green. His supervisor’s words. But she was whispering now please please she was crying, she was too close. She could fell the frost now, the frost that was her breath. Feel it on his skin, on his mouth. Only it wasn’t like frost, it was warm.
Her tears dripped on his jacket. "I can…quickly…now…give, g-give. He’s dying, quickly please" Too close, she was too close. Her hand was on his leg, on his thigh, grasping. So cold. He had not made love to anyone for a year. She was close. Favours. Not money, favours.
Aiena had not made love for longer than she could remember. She had been with Valdan. But there was only pain. She had not made love. For a long time.
"Quickly, h-he’s dying." The whisper was soft, nearly inaudible. Aiena’s hand moved up the man’s thigh. Too long, too close. Quickly, he’s dying. He’s dying. No whisper. The tears dripped, searing, across her face—she had to do it, had to. There was no choice. Surrendering, she moved her face closer to the man’s. He did not resist. Their lips touched.
She cried, cried so much. Because it felt good.
Mikal watched through the porthole. Cargo unit two was detached, and floating away. Far from the SYNAPSE. It was going…but not far enough. Overheating, the hazardous cargo would collapse and expand into an explosion very soon. Very soon. It was far, far. But not enough. It was disappearing, a black rectangle against the gleaming circle of SB332.
He spoke through the microphone on the glowing panel. "Sandrel, its not going fast enough." His lover’s voice, a shadow of its real self. I know, Mikal.
Flash. The porthole turned white for a fleeting second, the heart of a sun seeming to erupt over the gleaming planet and engulf the black of space. Mikal shut his eyes against the flare. Cargo unit two, destroyed. The flare vanished, and Mikal saw through the glass the heart of the explosion, small and far away, a rippling flower of white, and blazing blue flame. An orb of light, the black shower of debris swallowed. It was like a moon, or a new star over the silent planet. The explosion itself, also soundless. Sullen.
Mikal watched the explosion expand, seemingly slow. A rippling blue-white shockwave, like a tide of pure, undulating fire, emerged from the eruption and enlarged. Suddenly rapid. The wave of light was approaching the SYNAPSE. Very fast.
It was astonishingly beautiful, so fast, and yet so silent. He pressed his palm against the cold glass, drifting as the burning shockwave travelled through vacuum. He watched as three fleeing pirate drones vanished into debris as it passed by. So beautiful.
The very universe seemed to vibrate. It came closer, closer. 1, 2, 3, 4 where was Sandrel. Where was she? Where was
The microphone hummed, sweet in its destruction of the silence after his scream—the arc of fire was coming fast—…Mikal, its me. Its too late. Outside, the shockwave was three hundred metres away.
"NO! Where are you! SANDREL! COME UP!" He slammed against the portal, pushing the skin of his hand against the glass, but only floating, soft. It was bright outside, the wave of light was under the porthole now, the entire universe from his perspective a sea of shimmering light, with the explosion at its centre.
Do not fear, Mikal. It is too late, but I l…"
The vessel shook, and Mikal felt his fingers pried from the glass with the impact. He was floating, free. The microphone was cut off, silent. The ship shook, and a muffled boom filled the world as the SYNAPSE-4, after many, many years of enduring the depths of loneliness, was cut in half by the fiery shockwave, sending the two halves of the metal sphere hurtling apart for miles. The explosion dissipated a quarter of a mile after it had destroyed the SYNAPSE-4.
In the upper half was Mikal.
In the lower half was Sandrel.
Mikal, even as the half moon of the sliced freighter flew through space, and its gaping wounds bled air into vacuum, managed to activate the emergency sealing operation, cutting off the sector of the ship he was in from the rest of the ship and thus preventing air escape. There was only emergency power supplies, and he would lose the little air soon, or starve before he did so.
The lower half exploded a few seconds after the shockwave cut the ship in two. It had contained precious fuel lines and valves, which were quickly ignited. Sandrel died quickly, her remains disintegrated by heat and her ashes scattered to the cosmos.
Trapped in half a ship, sealed into a dark chamber with a porthole casting the dark light of space onto his burning eyes, Mikal wept for her, as the debris of the second half of the SYNAPSE-4 winked out of flame and disappeared into space.
Near the floating remnant of the cargo transport unit, the Kelsan Sector Pirate controller vessel surveyed the destruction over SB332. It was of their doing. After a while, the ship approached the remnant, insignia burning in the light of the sun.
Aiena awoke in a chamber streaked with the light of the dawn, a dull orange that painted grey walls. The morning would last little, fading back into perpetual evening, and then night. But for the people of that future, it was still morning. And its light warmed her skin. It was a hall full of beds, sparse, empty. One wall lined with great windows that stretched to the ceiling, looking out to the dark sprawl of the city.
In the hospital, in a rest hall. There was no one there. Few could afford to pay for sanctuary in a private hospital. It was empty, but for the sunlight burning behind the black clouds.
There was another in the bed she lay in, a man. In the night, she had told him her name, and he had done the same. He slept peacefully beside her, chest rising and falling gently. He had not hurt her.
She remembered her husband, who had given his life away to the blue bacterium. Valdan. The dark bruise on her cheek itched, but it had begun to heal.
She turned to the man beside her, holding him. A tear rolled down her cheek, as she bid Valdan goodbye.
Mikal gazed out of the circle of glass, at the omnipresent eye of the planet SB332. Mankind had never stepped foot on it. It was untouched. Enchanting. Sentry probes had declared it uninhabitable. In the past few hours, for the first time, man-made metal touched the surface of the planet, flaming meteors of debris from broken spacecraft caught by the gravitational pull of the planet.
They landed, and smoldered on the empty lands, pieces of a vast race.
Mikal stared at the planet.
One hour after its destruction by the explosion of cargo unit 2, caused indirectly and through ineptitude and lack of training by Kelsan Sector Pirates’ orbital drone squadrons, the SYNAPSE-4 was visited by a pirate vessel. The same that had overseen the failed attack and attempt to rob it of its cargo.
At this point, Mikal, astronaut, found himself unable to breathe, and discovered that he did not want to die. He had lost his lover, and through his death, he would lose her memory. He did not want it. He did not want a slow, painful death, trapped in a hollow corpse.
Out of the silence of the transporter’s hallways came the thunder of metal upon metal, and the shell of what remained of SYNAPSE-4 quivered, one last spasm to hold on to its life. The half moon shivered, as another craft connected to it, fusing itself to the larger vessel through blackened ports. The darkened corridors of the SYNPAPSE were flooded with beams of light, and pumped with air. Into its gaping innards came faceless people, visors silvered, reflecting the stars that shone through the wounds in its hull. They hissed, and floated like ghosts through the dead transporter.
Near death, Mikal the astronaut was offered freedom and life, in the form of an outstretched hand, glittering in the light of the porthole. He took the hand. They offered him life, and he took it, in return for forgiveness.
The people in the pirate ship never attacked a vessel again. They set course for planet Earth, where they planned to join a planetary rebellion. It would take years to reach the world where they had come from, but they would reach it eventually. Mikal went with them. He thought he would, perhaps, join them.
Valdan awoke paralysed for life, for he had been found lying in the entrance of a hospital too late. The treatment had barely worked, the pleasure bacteria extracted from his body, but all he could move was his head. The rest of his body was left lifeless by his addiction. A nurse told him this. He had, he soon realised, also lost his wife. This he told himself, after waiting two days in his bed, attached to tubes and machines that hummed in the night. In the harsh blue tube lights of the hospital chambers wept, for his loss was unbearable.
Each time he woke, there was something muttering in his ear. Voices, pictures flickering in the ceiling. …SYNAPSE-4 found destroyed by Kelsan Sector Security units, controllers missing and assumed deceased. Pirates assumed to have escaped the Sector. On the Balsan Sector Conflict, new…
He could not make out the pictures, since his eyes were always blinded by scalding tears. He slept. And awoke again. To the voices.
…Representatives of HSCTC have informed us of suspected detonation of cargo cachement of…
On the fourth day, the hospital authorities came to him, and told him he was in debt of the Private Hospital Guild Council. While the suited men spoke, the voices moaned in the background. …HSCTC has declared the SYNAPSE-4 conflict case closed permanently. Now, on to further developments in the Balsan Sector Conflict, and hijacking of HSCTC Cargo Unit Transporter AXON-1 by Juntar Sector Liberation Party…
Valdan, paralysed and in debt, fled the hunting scouts of the Hospital Guild Council in an automated wheelchair. He sought sanctuary in a mentanet home, where people sacrificed their lives to be connected to a world wide network of thoughts, all woven together through the magical threads of technology. He lived the rest of his life in the shadowy recesses of the underground sanctuary, his body fed by tubes while his brain was connected to a thousand thoughts, a multitude of people, who had become one to seek comfort from reality. The mentanet. Most wanted to find an truth that no one knew of, many sought penance in an electronic hell.
Valdan had no other life to turn to. He had not learnt his lesson, but he had suffered. So he gave himself to the network, to the dazzling blue eternity of thoughts, his own, others’, all connected. He learnt many things in his sanctuary, while his body was tended by priests who devoted themselves to the care of those who surrendered to the mentanet. He died after ten years of weaving himself into the mentanet, connected himself to the whole. His body died, but his thoughts lived on in the pulsating network, connected forever to the millions of other minds, another fraction of the gigantic macrocosm. Ready to tutor other against the mistakes of Valdan in the flesh. In his loss, he was reborn, and immortalised.
The electronic ghost that was once Valdan sometimes remembered a woman with black hair and grey eyes, that had been grievously hurt. But it was not alive, and did not linger on such memories.
Her name might have been Aiena.
Aiena, husband of the immortal, might have been imprisoned in a life of constant pain, or might have killed herself, in other futures, in other paths. Had it not been for one night, one dosage of Benzador. One night that the one who was once her lover had forgotten to sooth the furious maelstrom in his blood. Had it not been for the connection that came after, beside a yellow door, under a glowing blue cross.
On this path, Aiena was freed of other futures. She eventually joined a planetary rebellion led by a crusader named Mikal, who’s people said he had once been doomed to wander the stars with a platinum haired woman. She had faded into the ether, and he had returned to his homeworld to cast out his fury on an omnipresent threat that none was sure of, but all were aware of, deep in their hearts.
The rebellion felled several branches of a strange corporation, snipped the buds of blossoming rocket ships. Also, they destroyed three branches of bluedrake smugglers. Aiena liked to believe that they were making a difference. That they were saving millions from the fate of a man she had known, and a self she had known.
Some said the rebellion would do much to change the world, or to take humanity to other worlds to start over, instead of spending time bringing bits of other worlds to the crowded Earth. Some said the members of the crusade would be the saviours of the world. In some futures, they were. In some, they weren’t.
The connections would decide which one the world would take.
Indrapramit Das is an 18 year old student from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. He is currently studying A-levels in the Calcutta International School Society and preparing himself for higher education.
Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.
Return to the Aphelion main page.