The men are dead. Strangled. In their sleep. Gods-be-damned if I know how to pilot a ship–not out here, in the vastness of the stars. I could do it en-atmos, where there are landmarks, but out here... blue hells, the stars all look the same.
“What about that one there, sir,” Errol asked, pointing to a pinprick of light that looked like all the others in the velvet blackness of eternity.
“What about it?”
I didn’t look at him. My stomach, it already flipped and swam like a roiling pot of water, and the skin… the skin dangling from lieutenant Errol Valener’s pointing finger… He’d been dead for a long time.
“There’s life there,” he said, and his voice was flat, grey, as true and as cold as stone.
My vision began to darken at the edges. I rested my head in my hands and leaned forward, propping my elbows on my knees.
“Why?” I whispered. My mantra.
“I can feel it,” he said in that same flat voice, colored by a spark of something--unless I was mistaken--like love.
I didn’t see the lieutenant. My eyes were squeezed painfully shut, willing away the rotting man beside me, but I could smell him. I could smell him all too well–excrement and fetid blood and rotting meat–and I heard the sloughing sound his shoulders made when he shrugged them.
He was only meat. Just meat. Just meat.
Just in your head.
“Why?” It was all I could say. It was all that the worn out circuits of my mind could spit out again and again and again. No answers, no solutions. No questions beyond that time-old, imploring word: why.
“You try bein’ dead, boy. Can you feel the sun on your skin when you stand outside? I can feel it.”
A warm waft of air from the ship’s heaters blew by, carrying on it the reek of death, and I gagged, suddenly, violently, and painfully. I leapt from the command seat, but didn’t make it to the head before vomiting out a thin stream of bitter, pink-tinged bile–all that was left in my abused stomach. I fell to my knees, wrapped my arms around my waist, and shuddered as a tear squeezed from beneath an eyelid.
“Huh,” Errol scoffed. “You think you hurt? Get a load of me. You woke up tired. Hah,” he laughed. “I woke up dead!”
“Only meat. Only meat. Only meat. Only in your head.” I rocked and tried to will away the phantom--will away the ship and the mission. I wanted to be at home. There was no way that I couldn't be at home. No way that this could all be happening and it wasn't a dream. Letta would be waiting for me. she would wait for me to call every night, but the ship's radio was broken. It couldn't be real. It couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real.
Sometimes... well... these things don't happen, right? Not in real life. They happen in books and stories. That was where they belonged, because nothing so terrible could be real. But there had been the snow, and the salt pan, and the crimson sun, and there was a weight dangling from my neck, suddenly so heavy. Suddenly crawling and itching to be touched--to be taken and loved.
“Only in your head. Only in your head. Only in your head." My voice was hoarse, and it clawed at my throat like broken glass. “He’ll disappear, just like the others. He isn’t real.” Then the blackness overwhelmed my head and I tipped forward, very still and very quiet. Maybe, just maybe, when I opened my eyes, I would be back home, and the ragged clawing at my throat would just be a cold. The shushing sound of the air circulators would just be the wind against the house. The cloying warmth that wrapped me--the warmth of sickness or the warmth of madness--would just be too many blankets that I could kick off and be cool and refreshed. Letta's arm would be around me, and I would turn around and put an arm around her, nuzzle my face into the hollow under her chin, and go back to sleep.
There was only the ship. Only the dim glow of the emergency lights. Only the reek of death.
The distant glow of that red-tinged star did pull at me. It was warm and comforting. There was something about it that, even with my eyes closed, still tugged at me like a campfire in the night. “Come closer. Rest your feet and your head. Eat and be restored.” I closed my eyes let the cold floor cool my skin, and gave myself away.
The rotten meat smell wafted again, and folded over me like fetid water. It was warm against my skin, like a fever–or maybe that was inside of me. Maybe the rot was already inside of me. Gods-be-damned, if only we hadn’t stopped at Qual-Hara 17. There was nothing there and we knew it, and we should have left it that way. We shouldn’t have poked our noses in places that had the right to stay empty. But we did poke our noses. And it wasn’t empty. And we had known that, hadn’t we? We had known that something was there. Something that had rested there and was ready to be found once again. I gripped the eyeball-sized gem where it hung on a chain beneath my shirt. It burned like a fever and gripped like a plague. “Take me. Sit by me. Eat of me and be restored.” Oh yes, we had known that something was on Qual-Hara 17, and, though it burned in my hand, it never warmed. It rested against my skin as cold as the frozen planes where it had waited. As cold as ice, and that ice settled into my stomach and calmed it. It settled into my head and soothed it. It settled into my heart and quelled its frantic pounding as it tried to run to anywhere but inside my chest.
The others… they hadn’t understood. They wanted to bring it back home and sell it on the market: “The Wonders of the Stars!” They hadn’t understood. It didn’t want to sit in a display case in some fat mayor’s office. It wanted to go home. It needed to go home, and they got in its way. They had to be removed from its path.
“Kid,” Errol barked. There was the flash of a lighter and a whiff of cigarette smoke–both illegal on board, but the dead have their exceptions. “I can’t set the course for you," he mumbled around the cigarette. "You’re gonna have to do it. Do you want to sail around with ghosts all day? Life, boy. I told you, there’s life over there, I’d bet my… well… my death on it.”
I stood, no longer shaking. No longer thinking or feeling, either. I was so very tired. All I wanted was to rest. Even death was a rest that I would welcome, if it came to that, but, for now, I had a job to do. “Come closer. Rest your feet and your head. Eat and be restored.”
I let go of the gem. It fell against my breastbone with a hard thunk and didn’t bounce.
Errol was gone. Dead. There was nobody else in the cockpit. The blowing heater carried in the scent of rot from elsewhere in the ship, but it didn’t make me gag. My fingers burned, and my toes. They had become pink first, then blue. I wrapped them in bandages while they healed, and the skin underneath squelched when I pressed the button to disable the autopilot. I think it was healing. I didn’t want to remove the bandages for fear that something might come off with them, but I think that they were healing. The smell that came from them was abominable, but, with time, they should heal over. I wondered what they would heal into, and I clutched the gem under my shirt again. The coolness of it soothed my aching fingers.
I set course for the red star that twinkled in its black setting like a jewel and reset the auto pilot. I sat down.
Errol was gone. Errol was dead.
Max was gone. Max was dead.
Genghis was gone. Genghis was dead.
The men were all dead, and I was so tired. I could rest for a moment. I could rest until I got to that distant campfire. “Come closer. Rest your feet and your head. Eat and be restored.”
Yes, I could rest just until then.
“Errol,” I whispered on vocal cords that burned with liquid fire.
“Yeah, kid?” The whiff of tobacco smoke.
“Wake me up when we get there.”
“Sure thing, kid.”