Saturday Storytime: Deathlight

Sometimes you just have to try, whatever the cost, as Mari Ness reminds us.

If she killed him, the ship would use a little—just a little—less energy. She could stay warmer just a little longer.

If she killed him, she would probably die. He was, after all, why they were both alive.

And also why they might both die.

The drop mission had been routine, exactly like their last two. Exactly. So exactly that she’d often found herself blinking and needing to check chronometers to remember exactly when they were, especially when they’d found themselves rewatching vids, rehashing conversations. Probably why she had made the tiniest, tiniest navigational error, had forgotten once—just once—to do a routine maintenance check. Probably why he, in turn, had forgotten his own maintenance check.

They still might have lost fuel.

They still might have decided to cross through this nebula to save time. To end this journey just a little faster. To move on.

All kinds of things might have happened. What mattered now was what had happened.

And now this.

We shouldn’t have done this one.

IRIAN discouraged pairs from doing more than one mission; regulations set a non-negotiable limit of three. When Els first joined, she’d found that ridiculous to deeply short-sighted: Surely, if a pair worked well together, it was in IRIAN’s best interest to keep them together? She and Dun were perfectly matched on all levels: His strengths compensated for her weaknesses, and vice versa; they’d had parallel but not equivalent training; more importantly, he’d made her laugh. A year into their first mission, and they were best friends; a half a year later, lovers. Signing up for a second mission felt only natural. She couldn’t even think of enduring deep space with anyone else.

On this mission, they were both so desperate to finish, to end it—

His fault.

You need him alive.

I need him dead.

She turned her gaze to the viewscreens, telling herself not to feel sick.

Deathlight, she’d heard some people call it, something she’d never understood until she’d gotten inside a nebula, inside the ever shifting, ever dim light that always just seemed about to show something until it didn’t. The brightest spots were the worst: She could see nothing through them, and they showed nothing, only themselves.

Stars could be born here, she knew, but the only signs of life she saw were the dim tendrils of gas and plasma that, in the shifting light of the nebula almost seemed to move, as if reaching out to grab their ship—

It’s a nebula. Nothing but dust and gas and tiny bits of stars and other worlds. Nothing alive.

Another tendril seemed to shift.

It’s just the cold. Nothing but the cold.

Or something living. Something trying to eat us through the cold. She thought of old tales of space ghosts and stars, monsters living out in the dark. It’s the nebula. The nebula. A ghost nebula, hungry. Waiting.


Final words.

She had to think of her final words. Document. Document. Document. Not that it was likely her words would be found, not out here. Transmissions rarely managed to pass intact through nebulas. IRIAN rarely sent more than one ship on any one route. She and Dun weren’t going to be rescued, weren’t going to be followed. And yet it was ingrained in her. Document. Document.

That tendril.

She swallowed.

Moving. Towards the ship—

To conquer fear, one must face it, she chanted to herself. Face the nebula. Watch it. How many people have this opportunity? How many people survived to say that they had this opportunity? IRIAN explained the statistics to everyone who signed on: 37.2% of deep spacers were never heard from again. Those were the ghosts. Not this nebula. She didn’t need a computer, with its reassuring stream of data, to tell her that. She just had to look again.

Which is when she saw it.


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Saturday Storytime: Deathlight