Fictional Short Story
© Darren White 2013
" H o p e "
d a r r e n w h i t e
He had come back for her.
He watched as the sun rose from behind the planet before him. The brilliant glare of the nuclear furnace escaped from the protective eclipse of the planet known to mankind as Hope. As it did, its radiance seemed to consume the colour in the sphere. The sudden eruption of light plunged Hope into comparative darkness. It became nothing more than an inky black circle, where only moments before, it had been a jubilant celebration of blue, white, and green.
It took the briefest of moments for his enhanced eyes to compensate for the violent new light. He became aware of a spot of black silhouetted against the sun's blinding aura. A dark tumour within the confines of the otherwise unbroken luminescence. He knew it to be his destination. He knew it to be the space island called Destiny.
As he stood on the observation platform of his ship, with the dispassionate void of space restrained only by the bubble of air protecting him, he felt a sudden swell of emotion. His heart raced, until he could feel the thumping of blood rushing through his head. He did not notice the overlays of information, nor the soothing drone of the ship's Consciousness, fed to him via his brain’s neural interfaces.
His only thoughts were for what lay inside that station for him.
He had come back for her.
He wasn't aware of the closing distance of the space island, as he sped through space, although TheHive whispered the information to him mentally. Neither did he give a thought to the proximity of the deadly vacuum of space. His trust in the smart suit providing a protective skin of warmed air round him, was total and unquestioning. He wasn't even really aware of the occasional controlled lapse in the air bubble, which caused sudden rushes of air, leaving shimmering crystals of frozen oxygen like a diamond trail, propelling him forwards.
His mind was elsewhere.
Half whispers and snatches of thoughts caressed TheHive. Yet he heard none of them. In his mind's eye he saw her; long chestnut brown hair, decorating a face of ivory stillness. Deep, dark brown eyes beneath rich, black lashes. He saw her mouth, defined by those sensuous, inviting, full lips. They formed a smile, displaying her small, perfect teeth. A figure hugging royal blue dress delinated the outline of her body. Her pale, bare shoulders, gleaming in the warm glow of the deck illumination. This was how he had last seen her. This was how he preferred to remember her. Before they had both been placed in Slumber.
Now, in his mind’s eye, he saw the medic who had revived him, his memory clouded in the haze of resuscitation. He remembered the feeling of sympathy that swept over him from TheHive. The distant voices that sighed in his head. The ecstasy of sorrow that threatened to engulf him, and the concentration of purpose that now drove him on.
He became aware of someone calling his name, repeating it over and over again. He realized that it was the ship's Consciousness, wrenching him from his melancholic remembrance. Before him stretched the seemingly endless expanse of the station. It hung in the black waste that surrounded him, revolving almost imperceptibly. The rough grey skin reflecting an imperfect image of the planet it shadowed. The station’s form was shrouded in a random crystalline growth of the bio-metal-alloy that composed all off-world structures. He only half heard a distant Hive monologue, describing the nature of the substance. How it can be engineered to grow to design, within a suitable ecoskin, and how it tempers once the skin is removed. The disembodied voice continued, describing how accelerated, uncontrollable growth could be used as a defence against damage.
Of course, he knew all of this already. Who didn't? Further, he had come fully prepared. Another voice, a familiar one, urged him to use the disrupter in his right hand to remove the cancerous growth surrounding the station.
He raised it, pointing it at the sights overlaid onto his vision by his implants. The notion of readiness, amplified by his brain interfaces and broadcast over TheHive, cranked the device into life. Its invisible influence ate into the metal hybrid, dissolving it into nothingness. As the ensuing rut grew to form a channel, a chink opened momentarily in the air bubble surrounding him, and a tiny spurt of ice propelled him gracefully forward.
A small, unnecessary voice had counted the time he had taken to reach the entrance platform, but he had given it only fleeting attention, even though some distant part of his brain now noted the elapsed time with interest.
As he cut away the alloy that enveloped the platform, he mentally reached out to any receptors inside the station. His ship had cautiously warned him that no recognizable emissions were coming from the station. Only he knew how distant this place was from the rest of TheHive. He knew how much defences interfered with transmissions. He knew how weak those transmissions would be, more importantly, he knew that there would be transmissions. He had felt it.
As he watched the boulder of alloy, that he had just cut free, float silently away into space, he became aware of its trajectory. He noted that it would harmlessly burn up in Hope's atmosphere, hundreds of miles `below` his unsupported feet. The majority of his mental efforts were concerned with trying to make contact with the interior. She was so close. He knew it. He could almost feel her presence.
He had come to get her, and he wasn't leaving without her.
He stretched out a foot and stepped onto the now cleared platform. He hadn't expected any response. He was resigned to the fact that no atmosphere would form about him. The ship had been monitoring energy readings from the island for some time now, and he was painfully aware of just how little of it still functioned.
Suddenly, a metallic hiss eased itself onto the sound stage of his mind. It seemed like an almost imperceptible attempt at contact. He knew that it had come from inside, and the ship agreed. Something within had awakened.
He allowed himself the briefest moment of elation. His spirits soaring. Yet the signal was so weak, so indistinct, that it hardly existed at all.
The entrance panel failed to respond to his cerebral command to open. The entry plate before him remained resolutely solid. Again, this came as no surprise. The disrupter would gain him the entrance he sought. He raised the weapon, noting how the ship altered the dispersal field, and prepared to fire.
Something made him pause, compelling him to turn around. He glanced over his shoulder at the planet 'beneath' him. It bathed in the reflected glory of the light streaming from its parent sun. Its still magnificence oblivious to the importance of this moment to him. A thought floated through his mind; he didn't know whether it was his or not, it didn't seem to matter somehow. How majestic he had once thought the world beneath him to be, how pure from human faults, how almost divine in nature. Now he just felt insulted by its apathy to his plight.
She had once adored this world beneath their former home.
He remembered how she had gasped when she had first seen its beauty. He remembered their first night on the station Destiny. How they had made love, with a hologram of Hope jacked into their minds, spinning serenely above them. The heavens sang to them; the stars playing the role of a thousand silent voyeurs. That was the night he had fallen back in love with love.
She had decorated the walls of their unit with ever changing scenes from the globe below and its moon children. Places that they had intended to visit one day. Even the ChangeDeck, when it formed a bench to eat from, was decorated with a spinning mental hologram; a centerpiece to the countless mealtime discussions. On more intimate occasions, it formed the warm glow which illuminated the joy on their faces.
He knew how much this place had meant to her.
In his hand the disrupter fired. A hole the size of a man opened in the panel before him, and two things screamed towards him. A rush of frozen air crystals buffeted the manufactured air skin around him; for a moment he feared that the membrane would be broken, and he would die. But then, almost as quickly as the assault had begun, it ended.
The second thing which assaulted him was more painful. It crashed into his head, and for a moment engulfed him in a blind, sickening panic. It was a scream from the station’s own Consciousness. A desperate distress call, a cry into the void for help. An almost human scream of pain.
It was the combined wail of a thousand dying minds.
But even this he had expected. The station's core was still intact and still functioning, he had sensed it via TheHive, and it was common knowledge that the station had been attacked all of those decades before.
And he knew there had been no survivors.
Images of the assault flashed into his mind's eye from TheHive's collective, virtual memory. Images as perfect as any actual experienced moment of his life. Images that had been broadcast over TheHive, by the occupants before they had died. Images made all the more vivid by the panic and despair experienced by the senders.
TheHive showed him the alien ships glide towards the station, menacing black silhouettes against the eternal night. He bore the fear that swelled within the station’s occupants, made even more terrifying by their inability to read the thoughts of the inhabitants of those ships. Gripped by a terror born of uncertainty.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a narrator began to mumble all that was known about this race. He only half heard the disembodied voice say; "... a race whose fear and intolerance of others was so severe, that they are known only as the Xenophobes. No official contact was ever made. Their home world, a dry and ..." He saw the streaks of their weapons strike out and lick the station, as the metal crystal raced to engulf and protect the structure. The call rang out amongst the inhabitants to evoke the NetherBubble around them. A thousand pleading voices cried out in pain and confusion. One of them was hers. Somewhere in his head, the voice continued, "...the only actual premeditated attack occurred near the planet Hope, upon the aptly named Destiny space island."
From somewhere a thought drifted through the ether,
"Ironic, is it not, that the first and only contact with a sentientl alien race should result in this." An instant later another thought came to him.
"We only won because we found their home world first. Destroyed them before they destroyed us. "
The web memory continued. He could see the blue sphere, spat from the alien craft, growing as it approached the station. Along its outer shell, forks of a denser blue formed and danced, like mobile veins under the skin of a giant hand. All about the edge of the ball, brilliant white sparks fizzed into the vacuum.
The mental screaming rose to a mind killing intensity, then abruptly died, as the deadly globe engulfed its target. He felt the sudden nothing of hundreds of minds being extinguished.
He knew that one of those minds was hers...
He banished the intrusions from his mind, sending them back into the sprawling super mind that is TheHive. He conveyed his wish to his ship to be disconnected from it. Right now he just wanted to be left alone, except for essential contact. He grimaced as all external perceptions left him. The icy fingers of loneliness seize his mind. All was quiet, all was still. He was alone in the frighteningly still void of self.
For a moment he wondered how mankind had ever survived in this supreme isolation, before the neural interfaces, before TheHive, alone to the paranoia and blackness of the lone mind.
Except that he wasn't quite alone. As his mind adjusted, a subtle perception revealed itself to him. He could feel the presence of the ship's Consciousness and the weak core of Destiny. He drew slight comfort from their being.
As he stepped into the corridor of the station, an intimate knowledge of its interior flooded into his mind. Courtesy of the core and TheHive. But he didn't really need it. It may have been more than three decades since he had last set foot here, but for him the trickle of time had been a tsunami. He was aware of the ship noting the damage reports, relaying them back to TheHive.
The ChangeDeck behind him suddenly erupted, reaching to the ceiling, filling the hole he had made in the outer hull, sealing him inside the dead walls of the station. He felt a rush of cold, petrified air as the smart suit killed his protective membrane. It had obviously analyzed the rush of frozen air that had accosted him on his entrance, and had deemed it adequate for his survival.
He noted the ship's time from its chronograph. He was also aware of the chatter of the ship interrogating and coercing the core into revealing its secrets. He recognized some of the techniques for counseling the damaged core back to health. From where he didn't know.
He was also aware of the ship trying to find her location.
He stepped purposefully towards the sealing plate before him; he knew what he had to do. The plate melted back into the deck as he approached it. He turned to his right and began to make his way towards the station's power source.
As he walked along the familiar corridors, the island's core began to whisper to him like a child. It told a story. A sad tale, and he recognized it as his own.
It told him of a man who had contracted an incurable disease. A man who had elected to remain in Slumber, in forced hibernation, until a cure could be found. Then it told him of a woman. A woman who's love for this man was so great, so consuming, that she couldn't bare to be parted from him, and she too had chosen Slumber.
They had laid in peace, as the island and its host had drifted through space, rotating around a warm sun.
Then, one day, he had been taken away from her, to a place far away where machines of truly loving grace hoped they had found a cure for his disease. An empty hope, as it turned out, the cure being many more years away. Still, he had been aware of none of this.
Outsiders had come, their reasons not known. They had murdered all those living on the island, making it a derelict, drifting tomb. She had died without ever being aware of her passing. When, many years later, a cure had been found, the man had been treated and his life saved, only awakening to find that he had lost something much more precious.
The man had come back for her.
The taunting voice slipped slowly back into the hushed conversation between his ship and the core, its immature delivery giving way to the tech speak of the recovery.
"There is nothing here for you," it told him, "just memories and pain."
"Oh, but there is," he told it, "there is so much here for me."
He stepped into the power chamber. The zero-point energy generator from the ship in his hand, his fingers wrapped tightly around it. Protecting it.
He placed the generator block onto its receptor. As he did so, a number of things happened. Firstly, the gloom surrounding him vanished, replaced by the glare of full, stark lighting. The gravity increased slightly, pushing harder onto his shoulders, making him feel heavier. Then the room instantly warmed to a comfortable level, and the air became fresh, sweeping the putrid, dead atmosphere away.
But something much more important occurred, bringing a melancholic smile to his face.
He became aware of her location. He knew exactly where she was.
The minutes that elapsed as he made his way towards her were spent deep in private thoughts. He contemplated the true consequences of finally finding her. The end of his search, and as he reached his destination, he wondered what lay in store for him, on the other side of that storage bay plate.
He knew, as he stood before the final barrier to her, just one more step would cause the plate to melt, and he would be with her again. He could take her back to her home world, and give her a proper, decent burial.
Then he could finally come to terms with her death, with his overwhelming loss. Begin to truly absorb it into his life. Learn to live with it. He could find the forgiveness he needed for leaving her here. He could believe that she was no longer alive, no longer with him. He could plead for mercy for living, when she didn't.
He could move on.
All of this, was just one step away.
As he stepped on to his ship's entry platform, the familiar dome of air formed round him, and he sensed his own protective sheath of air dissipate. He looked about and for the first time in an age he saw the beauty of the stars, rather than the darkness between them. The entry plate beside him dissolved and he saw the interior of the ship beyond the hole it formed.
Once inside, he let his hand slide over the interior wall of the ship. As always, it felt like nothing, like the fault in the fabric of space/time that it is. He heard the entry plate reform behind him.
He crouched down to sit and the Changedeck formed a seat which rose up to meet him. He sunk into its welcome comfort and rubbed his tired eyes.
“Can I have something to drink, please?” he thought. “Water?” A pedestal rose up from the floor beside him. A clear container grew out of the pedestal and filled with water. He took the flask in a shaking hand and drank deeply, sighing when he had had his fill. He commanded his brain augments to take the edge off his weariness. He welcomed their soothing effects washing over him.
"I have a question." The ship informed him. "Why have you come back to the ship without that which you came here for? Why have you left her behind?"
He ignored the question.
"Take me home." He said, out aloud. Again the dulcet, soothing tones of the ship drifted through his mind.
"Why did you leave her behind?" It asked.
He opened his mind to TheHive and felt himself slip back into its comforting embrace, like sliding slowly into warm water. He felt the tingle of a thousand possibilities, and became aware of countless voices at once.
"Because I had to..."
The navy explorer ship turned deftly in the void of space. For a moment it rippled as the Noeske bubble enveloped it. Then it began to glow a vague greenish colour, before it finally disappeared into the distant reaches of the eternal cosmos. In the shadow of a beautiful blue, white and green planet, known to mankind as Hope, a new star twinkled briefly, as the space island Destiny reduced itself to tiny fragments of its former wondrous whole.
Then, when the light had consumed itself, nothing remained.
Nothing, except Hope.