Aphelion Issue 255, Volume 24
October 2020
 
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Dark Was The Night

by Joe Jeffreys



“Let me just say how wonderful it feels to hear that your husband of thirty years has been jumping between universes, fucking everything that moves”.

He bowed his bald head coyly and began fiddling with the collar of his filthy overalls. She hated when he did that.

“If you would just let me explain..”

She chuckled sarcastically. He knew there was no real justification for what he did. He was totally at her mercy, standing there proudly, her long red hair gleaming. Damn she looked good and damn did he hate it.

“Ten jumps from payout. Everything we’ve worked towards.” She slammed her fist against the wall. An ashtray smashed to the floor.

 

“I haven’t been doing well lately and I made a mistake. A big mistake. I wasn’t thinking straight. What can I do? Tell me what to do.”

A deep voice came over the crackling tannoy: “jumping in five, four…” Deafening. She was screaming at him. A face of pure despair. Fire in the eyes, her body rigid and pointed like the tip of a spear.

#

Two silent days crawled by. The ship’s computer had proudly identified a black hole and had enabled energy collection procedures. What a dull and tiring job this was, ripping the final resources from another dying universe. The probes went about their work, chattering to each other about the latest lightning ball results. He just sat there and listened. Listened to that endless, inane back and forth as he always did, looking through the frost rimmed viewing platform to those immense spheres hung against an ever-expanding darkness. An infinite graveyard of lost memories and the cold corpses of untold worlds, lifeless, useless, waiting for their turn to fade. He cracked open another beer and stretched out.

When he spoke to strangers in the cafeteria back at base they would always ask how incredible it must be to see such sights, how awe inspiring to behold.  He would smile weakly; perhaps nod if the moment caught him. In truth, there was nothing to be awed over. There was nothing and that was it. After your thousandth dead universe there wasn’t much else to see. Boring. Soul sucking. Those were the words he’d use to describe his job, sourcing the energy from another fucking black hole for some unknown fucking reason. Sitting here. Every hour of everyday wading through another corpse filled time stream.

The beer was finished. He took a gigantic drag from his cigarette, felt his lungs corrode to a suitable degree and tried to think of brighter things. Nothing came to mind.

#

The ship jumped again and again. Silence greeted him like an old friend along with the same tired scenes: black dwarves collapsing in on themselves; the distant glimmer of some desperate war or a streak of shimmering light cascading into the unknowable abyss. It was all the same shit. While the ship hung in a vacuum of total darkness permeated by the rippling hum of collapsing space-time, she kept herself locked down in the engine room. Not a word. Well no, that wasn’t true. Sometimes she would appear, tactically when he was half asleep. He would grab for her hand as if in a dream; she would spin from his grasp with the grace of a young ballerina. He’d be distracted, breaking up an argument between the increasingly stressed group of collection drones and before he could turn around full of pathetic contrition, she was gone. The door would slam; he would swear.

Old cliches clogged the brain pipes. A long balustrade of tired excuses and exhausted apologies. “It had been a mistake, a momentary lapse!” He’d been tired or drunk or hungry or confused after a long shift. God he worked long shifts, such long shifts would make any man forget himself. “Please listen to me”.  That blue skinned mechanic, twenty universes back, had sensed his weakness. He’d been used for her pleasure. Surely there was nothing for any man to do. That was it! This fearsome, warrior-like female choosing him as her next conquest was simply unavoidable. In fact, it was a miracle he’d made it out of there alive. In some ways he’d done the relationship some good; in some ways, the fact he decided to come back showed the true strength of their relationship!

This was pitiful stuff and he knew it. But his mind still pumped out excuses like a factory conveyor belt, carrying a product nobody wanted to buy. The blue mechanic had not been some overpowering behemoth. He had been catatonically drunk. In fact, the only real moment of dominance on that ill-fated evening came after crashing his speeder into a truckful of imported dream vapour,  only to be pinned down by some fat creature in a faded wig.

His thoughts began speaking to themselves in an endless cycle, creating new realities from a mountain of shit. By far the most painful jabbing from this bed of nails - fashioned entirely by his lack of control, emotional maturity and intelligence - came in the knowledge that this newfound flame, this drunken early morning street meet, was somehow less impressed by their brief and muddled copulation than his wife. That three eyed look of vacant disappointment was unshakeable.

#

The next day he decided to boot up the ageing holo room, one of the first of its kind. He loaded a personal template, designed long ago in case of emergencies. A candlelit dinner for two, overlooking a bustling metropolis fading into dusk. He sat and superimposed a clean shirt over his work overalls. The image fizzed. He spoke briefly to the waiting avatar in a series of code lines and received a sharp nod of understanding. Everyone else went on with their meals. The comforting hum of chattering tables wove seamlessly into the lilt of a twinkling piano. With the scene set he took a deep breath and typed out a sequence of code into a swaying holo screen, hovering his finger over the red “confirm” button. He jabbed at it nervously. The room was suddenly bathed in flashing red light and a high pitched siren could be heard many floors above. Within moments she arrived, bursting through the door covered in sweat, her red hair wrapped up tightly, her white vest and overalls hanging loosely off one shoulder. The alarm shut off and there he was, a clammy, twitching bundle of anxiety. He forced a smile but couldn’t crack the eye contact code. The avatar - made up ridiculously in the style of an ancient, Old Earth server - glided over to her, bowed, then offered to take a non-existent coat. She politely declined then left the room with a terrifying calm. He sat there for an hour, staring glumly at an empty plate. Eventually, with an infuriating lack of irony, the server placed a gigantic bill on his lap which drew up such a wave of anger that he stormed out, much to the horror of the surrounding imaginary diners.

That night he dreamed of her. They shared a glass of champagne, looking out across the city. There was a warmth between them. He finally felt calm. Then a velvety voice over her shoulder. Three eyes, blue skin. The mechanic, the succubus.

“Would you like a refill?” she hissed.

He said no but as he spoke the world blurred. Suddenly he was plummeting down through the sky and she - his once-beloved,  his disappearing love - fell too, her head turned away towards the setting sun.

#

Blue light. He raised his head from the control console. Leaning back, his feet dragged through a mass of empty beer cans. After a few moments of blind searching his hand ran over a floating orb recessed into the ship’s control console.

“Anomaly detected”, announced the ship.

Squinting hard he perceived a pinhead of gold lying flat against the darkness of space. Without thinking, he delicately increased the ship’s thrusters and inevitably the shape grew in size, enough for the idle collection drones to begin muttering excitedly. There was a definite quickening of the heart. Day after day of sullen darkness suddenly interrupted. Perhaps he was dreaming? She’d slipped something into his drink as revenge! He cocked his head back then whipped it down into the console’s surface with a deafening thud. Nope, this was certainly real life, the burning dent in his forehead was proof. Typing furiously into the command field, he sent one of the younger drones to scan. No life forms, no traces of damage or infestation by foreign bodies. It was a vessel of some kind but its engines were long dead. He ordered the ship to boot up all tracking systems, a request which began a pointless back and forth including numerous claims - on the part of the ship - that he was obviously still drunk and that booting up the tracking system had never been done before, and as a result would expend a large amount of processing power, pushing him and his wife over their quota for this job, meaning he’d have to reimburse the company for each utilized core. He told the ship “to do its fucking job”; the ship made a mental note to short circuit the opening mechanism on the cabin fridge.

Within an hour the object had been sealed in the cargo hold below. Apparently, his ex-beloved had missed all the commotion. He tried banging on the engine room door but there was no answer. The stinging scent of burning incense wafted through the cracks in the frame, the kind she’d always flame up when things became “too much”. He let his neck go limp and his head lolled forward against the door. After a few quiet moments he walked slowly away, down into the bowels of the ship.

#

The cargo hold was frosted over. She’d told him to fix the cracked depressurizer unit and as he shuffled forward - his breath visible in the dust laden air - he resolved to be much more responsive to her demands, if she ever made one of him again. The reclamation unit sat at the centre of a long shabby room; a clear cube of glass frozen from its exposure to space. There, hung in the blinding whiteness, was the object. Only it’s base could be perceived; the rest rose up into a cloud of steam. It was a grey cylinder and attached to its side was a disc of faded gold. After hurriedly donning a protective suit he stepped into the unit and followed the curve of the disc’s circumference with two trembling hands. Leaning in he saw a series of strange etchings on its surface and proceeded to delicately tug until the disc loosened completely, revealing a smaller disc underneath all shining and pristine. Here, barely perceptible grooves wound round a ribbon of black in ever tightening circles. This ribbon wrapped around the disc’s center, upon which something was carved in a complex series of lines and curves.

The final remnants of alcohol desperately gushed from his pores; a thin film of cold sweat coated his face, arms and body. He felt numb. The jabbering maniac inside his head was silent. In a clear voice he asked the ship if a translation of these symbols could be made. The ship sighed like a tuning radio. Eventually it said: “these symbols are a language. It reads: The Sounds of Earth”.

#

“Shut up for one second. One-”

“You need to take a long fucking look at yourself.”

“You need to listen to me, for once! I found something.”

“You no longer have the right to tell me what to do. We are two days from the end. We split the earnings and go our separate ways. There’s nothing else to say.”

She pushed past him, threw open the preserving capsule and pulled out three beers with a claw like grip. Her face was red and slick with sweat. It was clear she had been crying and the sight made his heart sink. Now when she entered the room every corner seemed sharper. His mouth became engorged with unspoken words and when he finally spoke it was a complete gamble, like running across a minefield with planks of wood strapped to your feet. In his mind, he was pushing a cart laden with gold up a steep mountain. With every word spoken he felt the cart nudge higher  and higher but when - inevitably - he said something to make the situation worse, the cart would tip over and plummet down to the ground. He would trudge down and try again, delicately piling the gold. Perhaps the mountain had no top, perhaps she’d climbed down the other side. In this desperate frame of mind, the object down in the hold took on a strange importance. It was something to break the monotony, something to remind them both there was still mystery in the universe. Plainly it was also something to talk about and after so much silence he wasn’t going to give it up so easily.

“I found something out there”, he squealed, pointing vaguely towards the infinite emptiness of space over her left shoulder. She glanced and noticed the group of collection drones arguing besides the ship. Anger gripped him. He leapt towards the ship console and screamed into the communicator, “get back to work or I’ll turn you into scrap!” By the time he’d turned around, she was standing in the engine room door. She sighed and rubbed her face in exasperation. “I don’t care”, she said weakly, “just get the job done.”

That was that. The cart went tumbling off a cliff. It was only then that he realised how futile any attempts to repair the situation would be. She was in the distance now. Two passengers waiting to get off at the next stop. He didn’t even notice her close the engine room door, he just slumped down in his chair as the ship stifled a distortion twinged chuckle.

#

He awoke much later from another drink induced slumber. Some foggy vision wafted up from the gloom, of a full beer can clattering to the floor followed by a fit of ape like rage and a desperate search for more booze. He’d found a dusty bottle behind a photo of her on their honeymoon and had proceeded to drink greedily. Swimmy memories of the ship talking to him, telling him he’d fucked up, that he deserved what he got for breaking her heart. As if still deep in conversation he’d suddenly decided to tell this disembodied cunt that it was none of it’s business, only to fall off his chair in the process and hit the floor like a dead cow.

 

The drones had long returned to their resting pods and one had even left a garbled voice memo, explaining that the group felt it best to leave the energy collection unfinished and return to the ship for relaxation until proper supervision could be given. It was “for their safety of course”. He hung on this final phrase for a moment, wondering why or when he’d ever care about the safety of a collection drone. With this moment forever behind him, he rose delicately to his feet. A tower of empty bottles slid from his rotund belly and smashed to the ground as he plucked out cigarette butts pressed into the surface of his overalls. An asteroid excavator went to work in his head. Through foggy eyes he checked the collection gauges and ran a few rushed diagnostics. He dragged a sticky, smelly hand over his face, pulling the skin taught, swaying back on his heels. Eventually he slumped back into the pilot’s chair and lay all the way flat, stretching out his arms and legs as if in a coffin.

Then there was a sound, the likes of which he had never heard before.

It came from the engine room. A deep plucking tone bounding along over a bed of shrill overlapping pitches, rising and falling separately before interlocking with one another. Images suddenly flashed into his mind: his mother’s house overlooking the green valley, some flowing river bathed in starlight. He moved towards the sound, through the door and down the stairs. Here, an oppressive heat rippled off contorted walls, all bathed in the pulsing yellow light of an ion accelerator. She sat it’s base, eyes closed and legs crossed, gently gliding an outstretched hand over a holo field mapped onto the floor. Surely this was just another bedraggled dream full of vague horrors and even vaguer meanings. But no, the sound wove on and pulled his heart upwards in it’s trailing threads. For the first time in age he felt a smile click into place.

The golden disc - the one he’d pulled from the strange cylindrical object - was rotating slowly inside a pillar-like holding field. With the outstretched hand she was turning the disc under the tip of an engineer needle, angled with much ingenuity. Around the field, organised in various positions of comfort, were the drones. One swayed to the rhythm, one flipped casually through the fizzing pages of a pornographic pamphlet. The third had positioned itself right up against the field, visual sensors totally entranced. She was trying very hard to pretend she hadn’t seen him. He was now just another disruption of air currents, a lump of carbon no more significant than a tree in the forest or a grain of sand on the beach.

The music warped into the roar of a beast, the revving of an engine then a heartbeat thudding at speed. Leaves rustled in the wind, the light chirping of alien creatures and a warbling voice hovered over a thundering rhythm. He wanted to go over there and kiss her but he couldn’t. Instead he stuck his head between his legs. Just a tiny man hanging in space, hung between his mistakes with the shroud of night creeping over his shoulders. She looked at him; the drones looked from side to side.

#

That night he was back at the control console. One final jump. Power up the ion accelerator, check the gauges. Run a final diagnostic and begin counting down. Then came a brief flash of light and the creaking sigh of a ship long past its prime. Upon arrival the temporal measurement unit ticked up to the highest number he’d ever seen. This was a universe on it’s final drunken stumble. Here even the black holes were dying out. They were glowing and bursting across the great expanse. He was looking at an old picture, one last family photo for the album before the book closed itself for good. No point releasing the collection drones. This one was a right off.

He cracked another beer off the main console. The engine room was silent; the ship felt cold. Soon they would return to the company and part ways. She’d take the ship and off she’d jump. One final leap into the beyond at the company's expense. A reward for a lifetime of service leaving him alone. 

But then came another sound rising up from below. Rough, twanging notes sliding into one another in the stolid air, full of force and heat but also sadness. A voice rose up; a deep moan settling over the sorrowful strumming, quivering as if sung with a throatful of icy air.

“Ship, identify,” he stammered.                                                                        

“Accessing The Zero City Old Earth Database,” replied the ship robotically. “Audio match. Song: 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground' by Blind Willie Johnson. Release year: one thousand, nine hundred and twenty-seven of the Gregorian Calendar. Author’s note: One of twenty-seven songs included on the Voyager Golden Record, launched in the year one thousand, nine hundred and seventy seven as a message from Old Earth in the event of discovery by extra-terrestrial lifeforms.”

Another beer smashed to the ground. It took him a few moments to notice and when he did – bending down to clear up the mess with slovenly whips of the wrist - he cut himself. There was no pain, it didn’t matter. A message from Old Earth. A message from Old fucking Earth. How could this be? He asked the computer to check again and received the same response. A drunken hallucination. A message thousands of years old, a molecule floating endlessly in an infinite sea. Here at the end of all things. Another universe hundreds of times and out he’d plopped, directly into the object’s path. There was something at work here. Through the haze he briefly wondered what those hopeful souls would think, knowing their message would ultimately be sent to themselves. How many universes had died before it had been received? What was the purpose? For a beautiful few moments, he was lost in the implications but eventually the deep gash in his hand made itself noticed and the heady aroma of blood and aged beer invaded his nostrils.

She was standing in the doorway, haloed in red light. Instinctively he slumped forward with a fistful of blood and pressed his face against the floor trying desperately to appear submissive. She didn’t move. He was no longer thinking, he was propelled by the sound and moving to its command. The voice beckoned him forward and before he knew it, he was halfway across the floor, crawling, a thick trail of blood painted behind him. He reached out desperately for her feet but she was just out of reach. He began to sob. Not the deep, restrained kind but a spluttering, dribbling explosion. She slipped away from him, down the stairs. He crawled forward and saw her standing still and staring into the glow of the ion accelerator. The plaintive wailing rose up again and he followed it down.

Outside, the cold expanse grew and it grew colder. Night was drawing in.


THE END


2020 Joe Jeffreys

Bio: Joe Jeffreys is a young writer and film producer based in London, UK. Since graduating from The London Film School, Joe has continued writing short stories, scripts, features for film blogs such as Flickering Myth and Live For Film and has founded his own production company: Bad Day Films. Built on a lifelong love of sci-fi, Joe is currently working on a self published short story collection.

His website is Bad Day Films and some of his previous work can be found at Flickering Myth and Live For Film

E-mail: Joe Jeffreys

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