Chapter 1: Mirrors
“Even in the deepest mountains - jagged, ice-capped peaks cradling the sky, hemming it in, caging the stars and the moons and the brilliant light of the sister planets - the remoteness is freeing instead of overwhelming. The expanse of space arched above you is little more than an exorbitant, ornately-carved ceiling that protects and shields and shelters from the elements beyond. The night sky is vast and unknowable, but protective. The intersection at the horizon gives the illusion of finality. The ground beneath your feet and the crisp smell of moonlit frost in your nose reminds you that you are firmly within the world. The dangers are real, certainly, but controllable. Charms to protect you from frostbite, weapons to protect you from the slavering animals that haunt this austere wilderness, fabric specifically engineered and magicked to provide you lightweight, effective shelter.”
Human beings are disturbingly good at bending the world to suit them, but we’ve had much more practice at surviving on our planets than we have surviving off them.
Beyond the arch, the solar winds rage, threatening to tear away the very air that sustains you. Should you choose to venture beyond, the expanse claws at the seemingly insubstantial walls that separate you from the cold vacuum of the void. Silicon and metal and magic fuse together to hold back the freezing darkness. Wings spread outward from your craft to catch that same solar wind and light, strange alchemy turning the hazard to fuel. The same wings can gather minute particles from comets to make water, which in turn can grow food. It makes us think that we can survive.
But the spaces are cramped, the open air available planetside is nothing more than a fleeting memory. The air instead smells of stale magic and recycling chemicals and the food that you cooked over three hundred days ago. If you weren’t so used to it, you’d be tempted to throw open a window.
But you are used to it. Your body adjusts, finds a balance in this new normal that you’ve created where the air has a constant, mechanical breeze, the walls are just wide enough to let you and another person pass shoulder-to-shoulder, and your bunk is little more than a closet. Even so, you breathe a desperate gasp of fresh air whenever you’re planetside.
And the people who own the ship and employ you worry. They repeat rumors in hushed tones about unbalanced crew members and the damage that they caused to personnel and property when they finally slipped. They announce plans for retreats and training to combat the psychological gauntlet that is open Space. Somewhere along the lines, someone sees a research report referencing close quarters and the simple need for more room and latches onto it. ‘We need to give them a place to breathe,’ they say. As if something that simple could solve the off-kilter, all-encompassing panic that comes along with surviving in this environment.
No amount of protest could turn them from this solution. Suddenly, the large spacefaring vessels had porches. Walkways enclosed in high tech, reinforced glass allowed people to step beyond the slightly-less dubious safety of their ship and into the definitively dubious safety of the catwalks.
The enormity of the stars holds up a very unforgiving mirror. So many find themselves wanting.
People went out, of course. Any additional space in the vessels was utilized immediately. But staring up at the stars without the feel of a good solid planet behind you, well. It was no wonder some people went mad, shaken to the very core by their insignificance.
For others, the enormity is a blessing. A tiny speck in the vastness can be so easily forgotten, ignored.
Given the size of things out there, how much can you really matter?”
Fai paused, leaning back from the microphone. Rust coated the edges of the rough panel and partially obscured the glyphs etched around the perimeter. He idly rubbed at it with the corner of his thumb.
“You matter a whole lot, of course. Who else is going to report if I suddenly stop transmitting?” He rapped his knuckles next to the collar of the speaker panel. “This is the Aphelion Dusk station on the two hundred and fifty second day of our ongoing mission. Current station time is 2100 hours. Stay tuned for tomorrow.”
He flicked a couple of switches on the panel, shutting down power to the subspace relay and antenna. Diverting the power back to the hydroponics on the lower deck meant that he wouldn’t personally have to supply as much power to the plants, and he would rather save it if he could. Too many people died out here because they spread themselves too thin to cover the eventual disaster,and traveling through space meant perpetually standing on the brink of said disaster. A skilled technomancer could hold the damn ship together and even keep most of the air in it through sheer will alone for the few crucial minutes it would take to get to the escape pods if they were well rested.
Besides, the automated receiver on the other end of galaxy from Fai was only that - a receiver. His antenna was locked to a single point and, although it could theoretically receive transmissions, the computer listening to him at that distant station didn’t have enough autonomy to suddenly start speaking back. All incoming messages were sent via a subspace chat function through a completely separate system, but Fai hadn’t heard anything from his superiors in months. He supposed that if he stopped sending in reports, he’d get an earful from the powers that be, but otherwise they were silent. Alternatively, the government that had sent him out here could have collapsed in the past year, and he would be none the wiser.
That was a comforting thought and a refreshing change.
He’d stopped completely, his hand hovering over the dial as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to turn it back to the standard frequency. The porthole window off to his left offered a spectacular view of the planet they’d been orbiting for a little over a day. The one to his right, however, looked out on deep space, or as close to deep space as you could get this close to the galactic center. With the antenna aimed in that direction, the transmission that he’d picked up while scanning the less-commonly-used frequencies must have come from out there.
It was a station that he’d never heard of, but that in itself was unsurprising. With the number of governments jostling for more space in the outer reaches, it seemed like four new stations sprung up for every one that you heard about. Kurogane scoffed slightly, tapping his finger on the dial. It just made his job more difficult. It was hard to guard your back - or anyone else’s - when you couldn’t figure out where the proverbial wall was.
“Given the size of things out there, how much can you really matter?”
He could just see the oxidized metal of the catwalk if he sat a bit straighter. Too expensive to remove and too expensive to retrofit with opaque sheeting. Most of the older ships had catwalks like this, left abandoned and almost forgotten. Crews tended to take advantage of the precious space available now that the doors didn’t need to be accessed. Panels and storage lockers were welded haphazardly across the entryways. Some crews tried to maintain access to the catwalks for the rare thrill seekers who wanted to try it out. The higher-class cruise ships offered it as a kind of interstellar base-jumping - a way to get your blood pumping whenever you got sick of visiting the buffet.
The big cruise ships could get away with it. They had enough money and staff to monitor you for the 24 hours after you went you just to make sure you didn’t slip a gear. The smaller vessels didn’t have that luxury.
Kurogane had gone out there years ago. It had been spectacular, in the same way that the line of massive volcanoes looming over Suwa had been spectacular, the same way the ocean stretching out to meet the horizon had been spectacular the first time he’d seen it.
“Given the size of things out there….”
He grumbled under his breath. As if the size of things out there was what mattered. The make or break moments - good and bad alike - were not the sort that sent ripples through the universe.
“Are you expecting to be able to detect some peril out of the static?”
Kurogane shook his head and twisted the knob sharply back to the standard frequency. “My job is to keep you safe. Since you didn’t take my recommendation to use a ship that’s not one stiff breeze away from falling apart, I’m doing the best I can to look out for threats that are not mechanical.”
Tomoyo gave him what could only be described as an indulgent smile. “The ship is not going to fall apart on my watch.”
“I’m not doubting your skills - I’m simply trying to keep the hordes of people who’d rather see you with a knife in your back from succeeding.”
“An impressive feat for them to dock with us and board without me noticing.”
He glowered, despite the fact that he knew - and she knew - that it would have little impact. The opportune moment wouldn’t come while they floated untethered in space, but rather in several days when they descended to the planet and isolation was no longer an option. Kurogane had been scanning the frequencies in hopes of picking up clandestine transmissions. Unlikely, yes, but it gave him something to do.
“….how much can you really matter?” The barely concealed hope in that distant voice - as if not mattering would be the greatest gift - burrowed in deep.
Kurogane left his hand on the dial long after Tomoyo left to check on an anemic klaxon ringing from somewhere in the vicinity of the galley.
Chapter 2: Soul-Searching
Two-way communication is always more satisfying than one-way, but this time - perhaps unsurprisingly - it raises more questions that it answers.
“Worlds exist out there. Well, of course they do. They have to, or where would we have come from?”
The voice paused for a long, long time. The audio quality was pathetic - a combination of antennas not primarily designed to pick up this frequency and a presumed distance - but Kurogane was sure he could hear a ragged breath in that silence.
“But worlds exist out there that no one remembers. The charts have been redacted, the memories black-listed and forbidden in a desperate attempt to keep everyone away. It’s not that hard. For worlds like that, the populace never makes it off-planet before the end. Sometimes it all happens too fast. Sometimes someone makes sure that they don’t escape. Disaster. Quarantine.The names crop up like cryptid species every once in a while, whispered in dive bars at the back end of the universe by people who swear that their cousin’s best friend’s sister knew someone from Omdera. Or Ja’varan.
As if anyone made it out of there alive.
As if anyone would be stupid enough to admit to surviving those places.
Because - even if you don’t buy into the conspiracy theories of how any and all survivors will be silenced for the sake of the rest of the universe - there will always be questions. What happened? How did you escape? Why did you escape? Could you have saved anyone else? Are you sure? Couldn’t you have tried harder? All those idiotic questions that people seem to think they need to ask.”
Another pause. Kurogane leaned forward and hit the transmit button. “What are the smart questions?”
A complicated string of syllables burst from the speaker. The computer made a brave attempt to translate before just broadcasting the words as is, but Kurogane smirked anyway. Profanity was easy to recognize, no matter what language.
The man on the other end blew out a long breath. “It’s officially happened, hasn’t it? The darkness of space has claimed my sanity.” The voice was lighter, more jovial than the one moments before.
“You’re transmitting. It’s always possible someone out there is receiving.”
The slight burst of distorted static might have been a chuckle in another life. “Ah, yes. But I’d say it’s a bit more accurate to say that you’re intercepting?”
Another possible chuckle. “Diverting, then. Good to hear. I’d hate to think that you blocked me entirely.”
“Too many fans waiting to hear your latest installment of the….spooky universe?”
“Trying to insinuate that you’re not a fan, hm?” A faint tapping echoed out of the speaker - fingers drumming on the console, perhaps. “Too bad, you would have single-handedly doubled my listenership.”
“Hope their connection is better than mine.”
“Oh, don’t worry. They have a direct line.”
Not just ghost stories then. No one would bother with the cost of the customized antenna needed to broadcast and receive on a non-standard frequency just to hear random urban legends. “You’re telling them something they need.”
This time, the laugh was clear, as was the horrible bitterness wrapped around it. It came out in a bark that almost immediately bled into a smoother, self-assured thing, as if the man had surprised himself and only just recovered. “Oh no, not really. My audience could really care less what I have to say, just that I’m saying something.”
“Not exactly the standard verbiage for a checkpoint.”
“After two hundred and fifty-three days? Boring. Whoever would want to listen to standard verbiage for that long.”
Kurogane snorted. Story time around the campfire was a time-honored tradition of crew bonding - bonus points for scary tales that kept your crewmates awake and leaning towards you. Even a fictitious enemy could serve as a source of commonality. Irrational fears, although so much easier to dismiss, were good at taking up your whole consciousness. When the truly rational fears - the emptiness lurking just outside the walls of the metal canister you called home, for example - didn’t have any room to distract you.
People jumped when they caught their reflection in the mirror, but they didn't hyperventilate every time they passed a porthole window. Just because space travel had become common didn’t mean that everyone viewed it as mundane.
Still. “Protocol is there for a reason.” The verbiage was specifically designed to assess the crews’ mental status - a fact that everyone knew and everyone ignored. The algorithm that the psych teams used to translate the words, the pauses, the pitch, the stress, and who knew what else was so convoluted that no one had been able to figure out a way to trick them.
“Come now, I made it nearly an entire week before giving up on it. Besides, my checkpoint is automated. No one’s out there to yell at me about breaking protocol.”
“You must be running out of stories.”
“Like I said, automated. There’s no one to complain that I’m repeating myself.”
“And when your crewmates throw you out an airlock?”
The line fell silent except for random bursts of static - distorted transmissions on other frequencies spilling over. For a long moment, Kurogane wondered if he’d lost the connection. They wouldn’t pass into the planet’s shadow for another ten minutes or so, but the transmission was tenuous in the best circumstances. This arm of the galaxy was particularly fraught with issues. The pulsar at the center of this system sent out interference that had been playing havoc with the communications since they arrived. He hadn’t looked closely at the charts, but he remembered mention of at least one black hole in the general direction of the Aphelion Dusk station.
It was a hell of a place to live, but Tomoyo was here to help broker a peace between the handful of habitable planets in the system because none of them had anywhere else to go.
“A fair point. Lucky for me that I don’t have to worry about that either, then.”
His hand dropped from the transmit button. Alone. The window that looked out towards the source of the signal, towards deep space and the endless expanse of nothing between those vastly separated stars. Alone out there for the better part of a year with nothing but an automated checkpoint. When was the last time he’d actually spoken to someone?
Who the fuck had thought that was a good idea?
“All I have to worry about is including the required items - date, station name, a long enough transmission that they can get a voice print. It doesn’t take much, but I suppose I could leave an open broadcast channel and ramble at them - and you apparently - every second of every day if I wanted to without the risk of boring anyone. It’s rather pleasant, actually.”
A faint beeping emitted from the speakers, something coming from the ship on the other end of the line. “Well, that is a…. thing .” A puzzled note had crept into his voice. “That I’m afraid I’m going to have to deal with. So, this is Fai Fluorite of the Aphelion Dusk station on the two hundred and fifty third day of our ongoing mission. Current station time is 2124 hours. Talk to you tomorrow.”
The name was not crucial. The name was not something he’d bothered with on the last transmission. An automated checkpoint would have been looking for voice imprints - it was too easy to call yourself by any name that you wanted, too easy for someone to get a recording of you saying your name. He lunged forward and pressed the transmit button even though he wasn’t sure that the Aphelion Dusk was still receiving on that frequency and said quietly. “Kurogane.”
Silence answered him, but he wasn’t surprised. If he didn’t know better, he would have expected that this was part of an elaborate psych eval. Tomoyo wouldn’t have allowed them to mess with him while he was on active guard - she was confident but not an idiot.
“That is an even more pensive look that you usually have.” She sat carefully in the jump seat at the console beside him.
“What are the smart questions?”
“Well now, Kurogane, that would depend on what sort of answers you’re looking for. There are always smart questions to be asked, after all. But it is not always the same ones. Asking you ‘why’ can be profound in one breath and profoundly stupid in another.”
He surfaced from the mire of his thoughts, mentally shaking himself. “I picked up another transmission today. He mentioned the lost planets - Omdera, Ja’varan…”
“Ceres.” Tomoyo said the name mere seconds before he could get it out.
He frowned at her - coincidence liked to claim a close friendship with Tomoyo, but he’d been around her too long not to place significance on every single occurrence. She worked outside the bounds of coincidence. With the list of lost planets growing exponentially every decade, she had more than fifty to choose from. “Ceres,” he confirmed, although he was sure he didn’t have to. “He made a point about how everyone always asks the non-existent survivors the stupid questions.”
“And you are not sure what the smart questions would be?” She cocked her head to one side and leveled her infinite and ageless stare at him. “Of course you know what the smart question is, Kurogane, you more than most.”
Worlds exist out there. Well, of course they do. They have to, or where would we have come from?
His planet was not lost - Tomoyo represented the reigning government, after all, but she ruled over significantly less of the ground and population than she would have two decades ago. Ravaging plagues and monsters conjured from those trying to contain the illness and fight their way out of quarantine zones both had taken their toll. Scorched, barren earth now wrapped almost half the planet.
What happened? How did you escape? Why did you escape? Could you have saved anyone else? Are you sure? Couldn’t you have tried harder?
Tomoyo smiled patiently at him.
He gritted his teeth, shoving the memories aside, and didn’t bother to voice the answer to his own question.
Are you alright?
Survivors of cataclysms had no desire to be quizzed about their actions - the memories were either buried with no intention of revisiting, or they walked the memories so often and so long that their metaphorical legs were exhausted. Every opportunity scrutinized, every choice weighed against the correct choice that could only be revealed by hindsight. They cursed themselves for each misstep and every lost opportunity. Rehashing their decisions for the judgement of someone else was pointless.
What can I do to help?
They would take the guilt - perceived or otherwise - of their actions to the grave.
Offering them the assurance that they had done the best they could was patronizing. Of course they hadn’t - they were alive, after all, when so many others had failed to make it out alive. Whether or not it would have been at their own expense was moot.
Do you need someone to talk to?
Chapter 3: Pet Names
Space can be absolutely breathtaking in the right circumstances, and absolutely terrifying in others. Sometimes its a complicated mix of both.
A faint chime was ringing somewhere deep in the spacecraft. Fai turned from the console, the smile that he’d failed to keep off his face despite his best efforts fading. Out of habit, he switched the broadcast system off before stepping through the door and into the hallway beyond. The narrow corridor continued for a few steps before dropping into a vertical shaft with a ladder that ran the height of the ship. Fai grasped the railing and leaned out over the space. The sound was coming from somewhere below him - a fact that was both unsurprising and unhelpful as the communications room took up the highest point of the ship and literally everything was below him.
The chime was faint but insistent. An alert, then, but not one of his. He tended to use sounds that actually related to the alert - it made things so much easier. He’d strategically taken apart and reprogrammed the station bit by bit, but he hadn’t gotten to everything. He stepped back, prying one of the panels off the wall. The wiring behind it was a tangled mess, but he didn’t need to find any particular one.
Magic crackled to his fingertips, ready at a moment’s thought. It was burning away inside of him, always more than he needed, more than he could ever spend maintaining this ship. He quickly traced a glyph in the air above the wires and flicked it away from his fingers. Iridescent lightning shattered into myriad pieces, each drawn into the wires and carried to the ship’s extremities. He closed his eyes. It was always easier to picture the station with his eyes closed. His magic spooled away from him, bleeding out into the systems and searching for the one that triggered the alert. His hand spread stiff over the opening, waiting for the signal to be sent back. Where are you coming from?
Where….where…. A spark creased the center of his palm, information - a location, a system - carried along with it.
Fai pulled his hand back, frowning. “Meteorology?”
A sudden gust of solar wind hit first, rocking the ship about its axis. Fai slammed into the railing and pitched precariously over the shaft. The panel skittered out between his feet and clattered into the bowels of the ship. He jammed his foot under the lowest rail, hanging on white-knuckled and riding it out. The ship’s computers would right it eventually, he just had to wait until navigation recognized that they had a problem. Echoing crashes from the lower decks made him wince. The scientific detritus of the past few days had been spread out across the table in the galley.
After an impossibly long moment, the ship rocked back, teetered past its equilibrium and canted the other way. Fai shoved away from the rails, letting his feet slid across the floor. He needed to get down to navigation but didn’t dare risk the access ladder while the ship was still oscillating. Every once in a while, the computers could overcorrect and make a problem worse before it got better. He got a hand on the doorframe of communications. If he could interface with the system there, he might be able to reach navigation virtually and give the computers some assistance.
The debris hit just as he tried to step through the door.
Now the klaxons started in earnest, screaming through the station. All of Fai’s carefully constructed alerts intended to help pinpoint the problem overlapped and echoed over each other. The cacophony drilled into him. He dropped to his knees and clapped his arms over his head. His jacket and arms helped to muffle the sound, taking it from ear-piercing to just mind-splittingly loud. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on separating out the sounds. Navigation, instrumentation, communications all fought for dominance, but amidst them all was a long, punctuated, rising tone used across planets and centuries for true life-ending peril.
The hull wasn’t breached - yet - he would have felt that. The whole damn ship was connected, and he would have heard the doors sealing even over the racket the alarms were making. The magic-infused metals used to make crafts for deep space could take a bit of beating before failing, a sensible safety precaution in case your shielding failed.
But it wouldn’t survive forever. He needed to know if the barrage was continuing, or if the debris had tapered off. He freed an arm and gestured. Thank the encompassing stars that the panel was still off the wall. His alarms, his magic, his control. He could shut them up if he wanted to, he just needed access to the systems. It wasn’t exactly advisable, but considering that everything was yelling for his attention right now, he could probably get away with assuming that everything was failing and act accordingly.
The alarms cut out abruptly. Fai sagged onto his hands, panting in the sudden silence.
Or, almost silence. Without the blaring klaxons to cover everything up, Fai could hear the hollow impacts of debris on the hull.
The sound threatened to drag him under - a lifetime ago and half a universe away, hunched close to the fire as hail hammered on the sturdy roof and reinforced windows. A hand resting on his shoulder, a voice telling him not to be frightened, that he was safe, that he was always safe. Let the storm could rage outside, the voice had said, let the world batter at our doors. In here, is your haven. I will protect you, remember that.
He shoved the memory aside brutally.
Getting to his feet took more effort than it should have as the ship rocked and bucked under him. The computers were still fighting for equilibrium, and the random impacts were doing more harm than good. He couldn’t reach the shielding systems from up here - the wires were hardened and isolated specifically to prevent any interference, nefarious or accidental. If he wanted to keep the ship from catastrophically depressurizing, he’d have to get down. A brief moment of weighing his options at the top of shaft - how much magic did he need, how much magic could he spare - and he threw himself out over the abyss.
The lights went out. Never let it be said that the universe doesn’t have a perverse sense of drama.
Fai swung his arm in front of him. Blue fire licked along the edges of the symbols he drew, illuminating the rushing walls of the shaft beside him. Of course the gravity was still working - he wouldn’t get such luck as a controlled freefall through the station. Wind blasted from the symbol in front of him. It would wreak havoc on the data recorders and various scientific paraphernalia in the lower decks, scattering the dust and detritus that accompanied any human habitation. He had more important things to worry about.
The force of the wind slowed his descent. Light flickered across a handful of doors as he fell through the top three stories of the ship. One floor up from the bottom, he stuck out a hand, snatching the railing and swinging himself over the edge into a graceful roll that bled out his remaining momentum. Another glyph, and he was holding a fistful of blue light. The smooth globe bent slightly under his clenched fingertips. The klaxons may have stopped, but the hammering of his heart drove him on as surely as any alarm.
That was okay. He needed the anxiety to keep from slipping into a false sense of security, and he could fix everything from here: the main computer, the ship’s heart. The smooth console at the center of the room remained dark. Systems were failing all over the ship - it would be too much to expect the interface to be powered. Fai dropped to his knees and tore the cosmetic panels away. He pulled a knife from his boot. A few quick motions severed the power cables from the generator and stripped the protective coating.
The main server room of the ship was austere to the point of absurdity. Almost all the other rooms had bits of odds and ends lying around that he could have repurposed into what was effectively going to be a magically battery. No such luck here. He traced a complex mesh of letters and lines around the hewn ends of the cables and poured his magic into the make-shift container. The sight threatened to turn his stomach. It was akin to watching someone fill a beaker with your own blood. The deep animal instinct inside of you knew that material was important and belonged in your body and wasn’t entirely sure how long - or if - you would make more of it. Fai had the benefit of long practice of ignoring the safety measures inside his head whispering that the console really didn’t need that much magic to run, and that he would be weaker for the loss.
The console lit up obligingly, his magic liming the rim of it and causing each of the menus to glow perceptibly brighter. He shoved a slew of warnings aside, instead tapping through the options to access the shielding. Knowing why the shielding had failed was the first key step to figuring out how to fix it.
The shielding status came up with a handy 3-D schematic of the ship. The wings - a technomancy wonder of wire and talismans that stored energy from the myriad electromagnetic waves that filled the cosmos - were effectively shredded. The intricate wire mesh hung limp from several points around the main scaffolds. Fai tapped his finger next to the diagram. All of the components were still there, but the magic on the wings was programmed to work only under with the original connections. It was optimum, the most efficient way to store the energy of the technomancers who’d built it. When wings like this came off an assembly line, burning out your batteries wasn’t advisable. But optimum didn’t mean only, which meant that the wings were still functional. Fai just needed to rework the code.
He called up half a dozen windows on the console, including a black input box that he could write directly on. After a brief moment’s consideration, he started scrawling glyphs onto the box. They scrolled off the side, spooling away into the depths of the console, whisked away along the intricate wiring that led to the sprawling wings.
Everything remained dark for a long minute after he stopped writing, and then the console made a satisfied humming noise.
The lights came back on. A heartbeat later, so did the shielding. The sound of impacts cut abruptly, the debris rebuffed a few, albeit crucial, centimeters.
Alone against the void and with the ship falling apart around his ears, he had survived. Fai felt his lips twist into a sharp smile that should have surprised him.
He wanted to tell someone.
The oscillations on the ship had dampened at some point during his struggle with the main computer - that room was gyroscopically stabilized and he hadn’t been paying enough attention to the hallway outside to notice when the ship had righted itself. He swung out into the shaft and clambered up the ladder to the communications room. The radio wasn’t working. Fai snorted. That wasn’t a problem. He sparked a bit of magic to his fingertips, vaguely intending to press the transmit button with charged fingers until it connected, but then remembered that he’d switched it off before the storm had hit.
Stars, it had been hard to climb the ladder. He switched the system on, laid his head down on the console, pillowing his check in the crook of his arm, and jabbed at the transmit button. He had a stitch in his side that he rubbed at before speaking. “Kuro-rin.” He drawled the name out. It made him snicker. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d called anyone by their name, and he wasn’t sure why shortening it seemed so appropriate.
“You seemed so surprised that I’m up here alone. Maybe it’s because I call everyone by obnoxious names? It’s not, though. They needed me - they didn’t have anyone else who could maintain the ship on a mission like this. But the psych eval. Oh, I think I scared them. ‘I like the catwalks,’ I said. ‘There’s something peaceful in the enormity.’ The people who were up for the mission with me started edging away. They asked me how I felt about the cold of space. I told them about the snow and the ice and the endless midnight sun that brought no warmth. And I told them, I said, ‘Don’t send anyone up there with me. I can keep the station running. I can do the research you’re asking the others to do. Give me six months to…to figure it out. You’ve already built the ship, but think of the money you save by only including resources for one crew member.’ They liked that, Kuro. They thought I had a great idea. And here I am. King of a five-person ship.” He blew out a breath, chuckling like he’d made a joke. “King. I hadn’t thought of that. Isn’t that just idyllic.”
“No.” He frowned. “Idyllic? That’s not… That’s not what I mean.”
“Kuro-myu!” This was inexplicably funny. Fai coughed out a giggle. “Welcome, welcome!”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Oh, you know, another day in the void. I think the stars are trying to kill me. Can’t say I blame them.” The clatter on the other end made Fai jump. He frowned and settled his head back on his arm. “Are you alright, Kuro? You can’t keep…falling over things. I’m…comfortable over here.”
“Are you alright?”
“Course I’m alright! Fixed the ship, didn’t I? Best….” Fai’s frown deepened. He couldn’t think of the word for what he was. It should have been right there, or at least right on the tip of his tongue, but it was just gone. In the back of his mind, he knew he should have felt something about that statement - that he was the best whatever he was - but the emotion was gone to. It should have worried him. It didn’t. “What….was….” The thought skittered away. “What was I saying?”
“That’s what you are.”
“No. No, no, Kuro…. I….”
“They wouldn’t have sent anyone else out there alone. It would be too dangerous.”
Alone? He tried to raise his head from his arm to look around, but it seemed a herculean effort. “No one goes out alone. It’s the deep snow - too dangerous. That’s why….” That sounded wrong. He hadn’t been worried about the snow, had he? It had been something else. He was almost sure.
A burst of unintelligible syllables echoed from the speaker. “Fai, listen to me. Check your life support.”
“What? My…” Trying to understand Kurogane’s words felt like plodding through sludge.
“Where the hell is your oxygen?”
“Around me? There’s air, you know, Kuro-rin.” This caused another burst of giggles.
“You’re hypoxic, you idiot. Find your damn breathers!”
Too much effort to do that. He was pretty sure he knew where they were, but didn’t want to be bothered. “Maybe later. Too tired.”
“Not later, and don’t go to sleep. You’re going to die.”
“Oh, good.” That statement released a knot in his chest that he couldn’t remember having. “It’s about time.” He let out a contented, peaceful breath and let his eyes slip closed.
He was standing in the center of a vast lake. Shifting his foot a bare inch caused a cascade of ripples to spread out, refracting around small imperfections in the lake’s surface and interfering with a myriad of ripples coming towards him from all directions. The lakeshore was lost somewhere in the darkness that surrounded him, and he couldn’t make out the source of the other ripples. He craned his neck back. A vague feeling of being underground persisted, but the arched dome above him was scattered with innumerous clusters of stars. Fine lines shifted and traced between them, mirroring the intersections of the ripples below his feet.
“Sorry, Fai Fluorite, but it is not going to be that easy.”
He turned slowly.
As the girl approached, the ripples bent, refracting until she seemed to be standing at the center of a maelstrom in miniature. Each wave passed out the other side untouched and unaffected by its proximity to all the others. She was a focal point that observed and transmitted, powerful indeed to touch all of that without upsetting the individual courses. He didn’t envy her the challenge of trying to sort through the chaos at her feet.
“Dying?” He asked, although he didn’t really need to.
“It never is, is it?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“No, I suppose you would not. Not for lack of trying though, I think?”
He bypassed the fact that he had never actively tried to kill himself, figuring that she wouldn’t be particularly interested in the semantics of it all. “You know who I am.”
“You tried so hard.” She said, as if she hadn’t even heard him. “You burned so much of your magic up in fixing the station. You turned the alarms off. Did you think you would overlook something? It would be easier that way. Fighting to the end to save your life, but being just not quite good enough to succeed. A believable fault.”
“Better than laying down and letting the station fall apart around me.”
“I am glad that you decided to put in some effort against it. I am not sure that I could have saved you otherwise.”
“I’m hypoxic and unconscious. You can’t just reach in and move my body.”
She smiled slightly. “No, that I cannot do. But you are, however, not unconscious, only dreaming, and I am capable of waking you. Moreso, I can plant the image, the idea, in your mind so deep that even the hypoxia can’t steal it.”
He stared at her. A dream-walker then, and more powerful than any he’d encountered before. In dreams, the physical distance was shortened, but even then, the drain of transferring an idea to him across that vast distance would be fearful. That anyone would put that kind of effort into him…. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I have been asked to save you.”
“Why?” He shouted it, anger tearing through his words. He was close, so close.
“Because not everyone knows who you are, and because some people believe that no one deserves to die alone.”
Fai laughed bitterly. “We all die alone.”
She blinked slowly and canted her head to one side. “You are not.”
He opened his mouth, trying to work up a protest or snide remark about not asking her to be there, but he never got the chance.
“Of course,” she continued. “You are also not dying.”
Fai started upright, his hand clasped over the breather that covered his nose and mouth. His body was taking deep, shuddering, treacherous breaths of the oxygen. He didn’t remember leaving the communications panel, didn’t remember finding the oxygen tank, fumbling it open, or getting it over his mouth. His mind was clearing with the oxygen. How long had he been talking? Five minutes? Ten? More? He couldn’t be sure, but his magic had certainly helped to wall off the important parts of his brain to stave off loss of function.
He stood up, mildly surprised that he still remembered what his legs were for.
“I’ve got my breather.” He heard a shuddering exhale through the speakers and the sound of a fist colliding with something hard. He leaned his head back, trying to remember what he’d said before passing out.
“Then get up and fix your damn life support.”
“I’m up, I’m up, Kuro-tan.”
“Don’t call me that."
“I just about died today. I think that entitles me to call you whatever I want.” He sank into the chair, waiting through the long silence that followed.
Finally, Kurogane grunted, a sound of agreement or assignation or any number of other emotions that Fai was too tired to deconstruct. “Keep talking. Shout if you have to. Just… Keep talking until you get your life support fixed.”
“Very sweet, but you’re not going to be able to stuff my breather back onto my face if this all goes sideways.”
“Sometimes it’s just about knowing what happened.”
Chapter 4: Rough Around the Edges
Life-saving efforts are typically rewarded. Unfortunately, Fai and the Aphelion Dusk are far from typical.
“High over the Illyran horizon hangs their spaceport. It used to be the jewel of their skies - a tribute to human ingenuity and triumph over the elements, large enough to be seen easily from the ground. Even after years of exposure to space dust and the upper atmosphere, the metal of the tiered and nested docking rings would still catch the sun at dawn and dusk. A second star to brighten their nights. In times when they needed courage, the people of Illyr would look towards it as a reminder of their unfettered potential.
They don’t look up anymore.
One side of the spaceport is ripped open, the rings shattered and torn outwards. The once bustling spaceport is hollow and abandoned, but in too stable an orbit to decay and re-enter the atmosphere. A blessing, perhaps, because the mass would almost certainly survive reentry. Children ask questions about it. It’s a cruel, wicked looking thing, and they understandably worry.
The response is matter-of-fact - an accident, an unstable engine.
They don’t go into details.
At 5:43 pm, station time, on the day of the accident, a long-haul space freighter docked in the center of the outer ring. The crew were overworked but not underpaid and halfway through a delivery that was supposed to take them several lightyears past Illyr.
In the aftermath, some people would say that the crew looked haunted, jittery. Whispers spread like wildfire about a mysterious cargo, destroyed along with its records. Everyone claimed to have a friend who knew the safety inspector who’d ventured onto the ship after docking and found ominous proclamations scratched into the wall.
The safety inspector did not make it onto the ship. He was held back by another arrival that had limped into port and failed to meet even the most basic requirements for human space travel. By the time he worked himself free from the pleading of that captain, the docking ring was already closed off.
At 6:05 pm, the crew disembarked. Security videos show them laughing and joking in the hallway, received to be back on something that approximated terra firma, even if they were still hanging hundreds of kilometers above the surface of the nearest planet. They headed for the hub of the great station, looking for food and entertainment and conversation that wasn’t the same rehashed stories they’d heard from their crewmates over the last several months.
At 6:38 pm, an alarm started to ring in the engineering section of the station. The night shift engineer, who’d just taken over for their dayshift counterpart, frowned and tapped on the display, as if that would change the alert. The alert was polite but insistent, an update that something wasn’t quite right. He sighed. The pressure being anomalously low in the outer ring wasn’t a true emergency, but low pressure could mean a leak, could be the precursor to catastrophic decompression. Had it been the middle of the day with ships queued up and waiting for a space to become available, he would have filed it away as something to monitor. But it was night, and the outer ring was all but deserted. No one needed to get to the ships out there, and if he didn’t close it down now and send a technician to investigate, he’d have to deal with it during the day.
At 6:54 pm, the station personnel finished evacuating the docking ring and sealed the pressure doors on either side of the affected section. The long-haul freighter happened to be located in the approximate center.
At 7:01 pm, the freighter exploded.
Most spaceships don’t explode. Did you know that? Fires start that burn the oxygen, leaving a floating husk. Leaks are slow, and the metals and magic we use to build the hulls are reinforced and far stronger than they need to be. The charms hewn into the outside of the crafts keep the air in long after the technomancer carved them and long after the ship becomes a lifeless husk because that’s what they were designed to do.
But not this freighter. Granted, the largest piece they found was roughly the length of someone’s forearm, and a good portion rained into, and burned up in, the Illyran atmosphere, so what actually happened is a bit sketchy. But the imaging equipment on the station captured the first few seconds of the disaster, and the investigation team were able to just make out the ship, quite literally, coming apart at the seams.
It took nearly a quarter of the outer ring - and the handful of ships docked there - with it. Only the pressure doors that engineering had sealed earlier saved the rest of the station.
When they interviewed the captain, he’d bitten his fingernails down the quick and clasped his arms so tightly that he’d drawn blood. They asked him what was wrong, and he just kept repeating, ‘Not again. Not again.’
Odd, for sure, but he’d had a severe shock. The authorities chalked it up to trauma; it was easier that way.
But then someone went looking. They found the captain’s records - another ship, another station, another crew, but the same failure. The same accident. The same narrow miss for station and inhabitants alike. The investigations found no sign of foul play. A terrible accident, they said, but we thank the stars that no one was injured. Ships, after all, can be replaced.
As you might imagine, people were less-inclined to believe the captain’s innocence this time. He was the only point of commonality. Rumors sprang up about insurance claims, affairs, all of the seedy, hissing insinuations that come up whenever something like this happens. Digging went on for years, but they were never able to find any evidence to implicate him in the accidents.
He grounded himself - planted his feet so deep in the soil that he never left the surface of Illyr again. Even the skies seemed beyond his capabilities. He was forced to fly to the capital city as part of the trial and requested sedation so strong that he needed three full days of recovery after arriving. Some people insisted it was guilt. Some people insisted it was post-traumatic stress.
No one suggested it was both.
He hadn’t done it of course - that would be boring. The universe is enormous and the range of human behavior even moreso. Two cases of insurance fraud would just be a drip in the collective bucket.
No, he hadn’t done it. No one had. He wasn’t targeted by some nefarious cult seeking to destroy him for unnameable reasons. He was just unlucky.
But the universe is enormous. So enormous, in fact, that coincidence has absolutely no business being a part of it. The odds of this man randomly being present for, and holding the same position in, a duplicate event are, if you’ll pardon me, astronomical. Was he unlucky? How could anyone possibly be that unlucky? Are the things that happened coincidence…or his fault?
Not intentionally, of course, they disproved that with the investigation. But something inherent and insidious to him that triggered these catastrophes. How could he trust himself to be around people, around machines? Guilt over something he had no control of. Trauma because he was terrified of the impact he might unwittingly have on another ship and another crew.
After all, he’d been very lucky to avoid any casualties. How long would that luck last?
How long until being around him was fatal instead of just costly?”
Fai’s voice paused; the intervening silence was contemplative.
‘I am a bad penny.’ He told the investigative team after the second explosion. ‘I am cursed.’
A possibility, for sure, but at least his was a considerate curse. Imagine the same scenario, the same disasters, but without the miraculous close misses of the station and crew. Imagine the captain floating in an escape pod, bracing himself for the heat and chaos of atmospheric reentry and watching the station drift away, lifeless.
And he recognized that. ’I am cursed,’ the transcriptions of his interview continue, ‘but the curser is kind. I’m sure others are not so lucky.’
Another pause, another breath close to the microphone, an imagined half-smile, sardonic to match the tone of the voice.
This is the Aphelion Dusk station on the seventy sixth day of our ongoing mission. Current station time is 1825 hours.”
Kurogane stared at the console for a long moment. Fai’s transmission had ended several hours ago, life support repaired and the station stabilized. He’d survived his two hundred and fifty third day and was now sleeping towards the two hundred and fifty fourth. As he’d sat in the long silences, listening to the clatters and murmurs echoing around Fai’s ship, he’d thought about the amount of time Fai had been broadcasting.
The thing was that humans were exceptionally good at reaching out. Even the age of prolific space travel, they tended to set up arrays of listening devices to record just in case they might pick something up. A distress call, a warning, a greeting from another portion of the universe. The planet below them was no exception. If they were a little farther along in their orbit, he would have been able to see one of the large antenna arrays. Designed to pick up the standard frequencies, they wouldn’t get perfect recordings of the atypical frequencies, but they would still pick it up.
On a hunch, Kurogane had sent a request for recordings of any transmissions over the last year on the frequency he was using to speak to Fai to the antenna array managers. Fai had been broadcasting for the better part of a year. He figured odds were that they’d managed to pick up something.
They’d sent back a handful of recordings. Some were snatches, a few words here and there before the relative positions of planet and ship obscured the signal. Some were too distorted to be intelligible. A few, like the one he’d been listening to, were crystal clear, better than what he could get with his ship’s antenna.
Almost two hundred days had passed since that recording and the first transmission that he’d intercepted. Fai’s tone had barely altered. The solitude wasn’t forging him - it wasn’t even touching him.
That had happened long before he’d set foot on that ship.
The mystery of it dug in. Whispered hints that he couldn’t quite slot together but that seemed like they would make perfect sense if he only knew a little bit more. His hands were still shaking at how close Fai had come to the end.
“Oh, good.” Fai’s voice echoed in his ears. “It’s about time.”
He’d thought, in the moment, that the solitude had shaken something loose. Human beings, for the most part, weren’t designed as solo creatures, and it would be a hell of a thing to find out hundreds of days into a mission of unknown duration. The transition from coping with the loneliness to not coping would be insidious, a slow slide sideways.
But the records of Fai’s transmissions - at least the ones that were clear - spanned the days from the very beginning to just before he’d tuned in. The shift wasn’t there, perhaps didn’t need to be. It wasn’t the solitude then, but something else. It puzzled him.
To be fair, it also fascinated him.
The speaker in front of him crackled to life. “Kuro-chi?”
He shook himself out of his thoughts and reached forward to press the transmit button. “You’re alive.”
“Fancy that. Looks like this hunk will stay together long enough for me to take a nap.”
There was something in the tone, a hint that what was being said was carefully picked to include the truth but not the whole truth. “It is going to hold together longer than that?”
The sound of Fai settling in at the console on the other side was clear - clearer than it had been the previous day. He suspected Tomoyo was meddling with the array. Since they were still in an effective quarantine waiting on negotiations start, she was trapped in a small environment with little to do but make repairs to the ship. Her hands never stayed still for long, and a challenge of retrofitting a receiver to pick up a frequency it had never been designed for was right up her alley.
“How long is long enough?”
“It’s a three hundred and twenty day mission. I can limp along until the return ship arrives. The miracles you can work if you just throw enough magic at things are phenomenal.”
He didn’t bother to comment on the limited magical resources of any given technomancer. The brightness in Fai’s voice hadn’t wavered - whatever he’d done to keep the ship afloat had barely dented his reserves. Kurogane had seen technomancers burn themselves to exhaustion on simple repairs. He’d seen the magic fatigue, had learned to recognize even the earliest symptoms so that he could spot in Tomoyo, not that he’d ever needed those skills.
Her efforts never made any dent in her reserves either.
“Sounds like the voice of experience.”
“I just spent the last fifteen hours doing exactly that, Kuro-myu. I think I can claim the experience.”
He bit back the comment that Fai’s knowledge of his limitations - crucial if he’d been out there for the better part of a solar year - implied that his experience predated this particular catastrophe. “And how much magic are you going to have to pour into the ship in order to continue the mission?”
“As opposed to just limping along? Almost nothing, I’m doing observation of a stellar phenomena that they think is associated with an ancient pulsar.”
“You’re a technomancer and astrophysicist?”
“Hardly. I send the data back to headquarters and the scientists there do the heavy lifting. They trained me in the basics, and there’s a significant amount of overlap with my expertise.”
“What’s the verdict on the phenomena?”
“Oh, they’re not very talkative. We have back and forth text communication but not voice - the time delay is just too significant to have a proper conversation.”
“Right, and abandoning someone on a three hundred plus solo mission is an excellent business model for success.”
Fai laughed, the sound dark and sardonic, and neatly avoided being baited into the discussion. “They can always reach me if they’re unsatisfied with the results. It’s a good indication that I’m completing my mission up to their standards since I haven’t heard anything for months.”
“Not a peep.”
Kurogane snorted, the mismanagement setting his teeth on edge. “Unacceptable. Just because you claim you’re alright with a solo mission doesn’t mean that they should just let you go without bothering to check in.”
There was a long pause on the other end before Fai spoke again. His tone and solidified, crip and clipped. “You scrupulously didn't question my capabilities in terms of magic. Don’t question my capacity to weather this mission. This is the Aphelion Dusk station on the two hundred and fifty fifth day of our ongoing mission. Current station time is 1235 hours.”
He lowered his head to the edge of the console.
“His ship is fixed.” Tomboy offered from the doorway behind him, answering a growing, bone-deep concern that he hadn’t bothered - or needed - to voice. “His mission continues.”
He aimed a glare at her that had quelled fierce men and wild beasts. It bounced off harmlessly.
“Just remember that I warned you.”
The sort of vague proclamation would have been laughable from the charlatan fortune tellers that decorated the seedier streets of the universes markets. From Tomoyo, it was enough to give him a moment of pause. In the end, though, she’d warned him but hadn’t told him not to. She knew that the warning wasn’t going to stop him, it just gave her ample opportunity to say ‘I told you so.’ later. He grumbled and queued up the console to connect to the galactic archives via the planet below.
“Query?” The emotionless voice asked. Synthetic voices had come along was over the years, but there was still a strange flatness that no amount of programming could remove.
“Aphelion Dusk, interstellar mission.” He dug back, looking for any other information he’d gleaned from Fai’s statements. “Would be on it’s two hundred and fifty third… fourth day.”
“No records found matching search criteria.”
“Just try Aphelion Dusk.”
“Fourteen records found, playing the most recent one.”
A small window appeared in the center of the console showing a poor-quality video recording of a woman clutching a tablet computer to her chest. She was speaking rapidly, but clearly, and in the false tones of excitement and intensity used by reporters everywhere.
“Well, Glarus, I was able to attend the press conference, and even though cameras weren’t allowed inside, we’ve been given several official statements to pass on to the public. As our viewing audience is no doubt aware, a week ago, the Aphelion Dusk completed the third week of its mission and all communications ceased. After an exhaustive search of the arc second where the Aphelion Dusk is supposed to be, RST industries has been unable to find any electromagnetic signatures associated with the ship. As of today, RST has officially declared the Aphelion Dusk lost to us with a suspected catastrophic systems failure rendering it silent to all of their best instruments. With no indication of the ship’s current position, a rescue mission is unfeasible.
There’s a lot of empty space out there, and there’s just no way to know where to start searching. Of course - and I’m sure this goes without saying - most of us here and our listening audience at home are unsurprised by this turn of events. Experts have predicted the failure of this mission was predicted as soon as RST announced their plans for solo manning. As I’m sure our listeners remember, the higher echelons of the government expressed their concern about the stability of anyone who would agree to serve on such a mission. With the loss of the Aphelion Dusk, RST has suffered a complete loss that counteracts any cost-saving they may have gained from reducing the crew. It will be many years before RST recoups their losses from this utterly bungled mission.
We are, of course, saddened for the loss of RST’s employee, Fai Cerargyrite and offer our sincerest condolences to any of his acquaintances. This event will certainly shift the standard procedure for psychological evaluations prior to any significant missions. Perhaps proper screening can prevent another technological loss like the one that happened here.
Back to you.”
The video ended, but Kurogane just stared at the black screen. Forgetting the implications of the news report itself, his attention was locked onto the galactic date displayed at the top of the screen. The quality of the video made infinitely more sense once he’d noticed it.
The final report on the Aphelion Dusk had been recorded nearly three centuries before.
Chapter 5: Family Matters
Traveling forward in time is not impossible - we do it every day. It just take a horrendously long time.
Hundreds of little clues snapped into place. Of course it was old - it had to be. Illyr was ancient history - the catwalks were ancient history, even though most ships were still equipped with them because everything was recycled and reused until it literally fell apart. Omdera, Ja’varan, Ceres - people whispered their names, but only people who studied history even had bits and pieces of those stories. Omdera was well-known thanks to a sensationalized book that came out a few years ago, but the others were almost lost. Fai spoke about them as stories that he remembered from his childhood.
Time for technomancers was strange - the magic within them tended to heal and maintain their bodies long past what could be expected for normal people. They aged slowly and lived longer, but this was beyond anything that Kurogane had heard of before.
“Time travel?” He asked, knowing that she was still standing in the door. She’d known; she must have. The anachronism would have clung to him.
“Not entirely.” Her eyes were distant. “Wherever he is, he is not now . I had to reach back to reach him.”
“Centuries. If he has traveled in time, he has moved little.”
Which meant that the signals were doing the traveling. Given the hellacious stellar neighborhood they were currently in, even faster-than-light communications might be diverted, and the planet below them had been picking up Fai’s transmissions almost back to the very beginning.
He’d been broadcasting the whole time - the Aphelion Dusk’s signatures had been there the whole time - but the signals had failed to reach the ship’s home planet.
Stars above, the return ship wasn’t coming. The company that built the Aphelion Dusk thought it lost, had thought it lost for the vast majority of its mission. He didn’t even know if the Aphelion Dusk was capable of long-haul spaceflight - most of the observation ships weren’t. Built too big and with two little in the way of engines, they were designed for short jaunts around the neighborhood and long-distance transport in one of the large freighters.
Fai was limping the ship towards the end of a mission that would never come, and the only people who knew that he needed rescue would be hundreds of years too late.
Tomoyo’s hand settled lightly on his shoulder.
The voice, and accompanying burst of static echoed through the ship. Fai’s head snapped up, and he frowned up at the ceiling and at communications room beyond. He hadn’t turned off the relay - a waste of energy even though he had enough to spare. One day of doing repairs with Kurogane listening in, and he’d fallen out of the habit of powering everything down.
“Are you there?”
He leaned back and hollered a word of assent. The microphone was jammed open, but it would take him a minute to climb back to the communications room.
“Miss me already?” He aimed for a teasing tone and ignored the shreds of hopefulness that clung to the edges. In the long silence that greeted him, he wondered if Kurogane had heard it, wondered if Kurogane would ignore it.
“There’s no return ship.”
“Well, that’s rude. Any particular reason they’re planning on stranding me out here?”
“The Aphelion Dusk was declared lost after the first three weeks of its mission. Your home planet stopped receiving your reports and was unable to find any signature associated with the ship.”
Home planet. Fai skipped over the factual inaccuracy. “Probably a publicity stunt. RST was famously jealous of their technology and known to do anything to protect corporate secrets. Clearly there’s a signature associated with the ship. You’re hearing me, after all.”
“From 300 years ago.”
“I- what?” That caught him flat-footed.
“Look, you’re observing a pulsar. This system has at least two local black holes that we know of. Your transmissions are getting diverted.”
Not entirely impossible, for sure. Fai sat back, staring at the communications console without really seeing it. So this was it. “With that much warping of the space-time fabric, I might have been diverted to.”
“Tomoyo…” Kurogane paused, as if having a quick, silent conversation with someone on the other end of the line.
The voice burned all the way down to his soul. He was thrown immediately back into the echoing cavern and the dream-walker. ‘Sorry,’ she’d said. ‘But it won’t be that easy.’ As if anything that had gotten him to this point - alone on the edge of the universe with nothing beholden to him but himself - had been easy.
“Good. You remember.”
He barked out a laugh. “I’d wondered why you even knew about me.”
“Despite being an exceptional bodyguard who rarely holds back, Kurogane has some significant qualms about people dying when they don’t deserve it.”
“An interesting way to phrase it.”
“I’ve been inside your dreams, Fai. I know exactly how to phrase it.”
He gritted his teeth. Of course she did. Dream-walkers, by their very nature, were sensitive to others’ emotions. Even a quick glance like she’d had into his mind would be enough to draw some very specific conclusions about his state of mind. She might not know the details as to why, but that wouldn’t stop the omniscient overtones.
“I also know that you’re not in our time. I had to reach back to reach you.”
So no time-travel. Just a warp in space looping his transmissions centuries into the future.
“There’s no return ship.” He agreed. They’d had longer to think about it than he had, but in the face of the facts, the conclusion was unavoidable.
The hydroponics would last longer than original mission completion date. He could probably get another year out of them before the nutrients were too leeched to successfully grow anything. The power cells would run down eventually, perhaps a couple of decades after her ran out of food. The water reclamation….
He should have just let the damn ship get torn apart. The inevitable conclusion would have been much more pleasant in the long run.
“We have a thought.” Kurogane had taken the microphone back from Tomoyo, but Fai was sure that she was still there. “The schematics for the Aphelion Dusk were publicly available.”
Of course they were. The mission had been half publicity stunt and half genuine scientific interest, and the Aphelion Dusk had captured the imagination and ire of the local citizens. A deep space observation mission with toys, action figures, and blueprint posters of the ship for children to hang in their bedrooms. Hell, half of the funding had come from merchandise, and when the government had backed out on most of the other half of it, sending Fai alone had made up the rest.
“The main corridor in the ship - there’s a unbroken two and a half meter section towards the top.”
Fai glanced back over his shoulder. He hadn’t actually thought about it, but the estimates seemed right. The communications room occupied the uppermost echelon of the station and you had to gone down quite a ways before you reached the next door. It was partially to make space for the next module down and partially to physically separate the communications room from the interference of the lower levels. “That seems accurate. Are you measuring for curtains, Kuroi?”
“I’m looking for a place for you to build yourself a cryo-chamber.”
All snarky responses died on his lips. The roaring in Fai’s ears almost drowned out the sounds of Kurogane pointing out that he’d watched the publicity videos for the Aphelion Dusk mission and he doubted Fai was over two and a half meters tall. “No.”
“What the hell do you mean no?”
“No, I am not going to build myself a cryo-chamber. So what? So I can hang out for the next several centuries while my magic slowly bleeds away? I guess freezing to death in the vacuum of space won’t be quite such a terror if I’m already a popsicle.”
“I’m going to come get you, you idiot. But I can’t be there for another few hundred years.”
“No.” His hands were clenched around the edge of the console, hard enough to dent the metal if he’d really been putting the concentration into it. But his mind was light years and decades away, replaying the unmistakable hiss of the stasis pod unlocking and powering down. “You don’t know where I am. I don’t know what kind of state your ship is in. How much might I cost you on this foolish rescue mission? You’ve already risked your friend by asking her to save me before. To reach back that far - she could have died trying to save me. Do you understand? I put myself in a cryo-chamber, and then you have some minuscule gleam of hope. You push yourselves and your ship coming out here. What if your ship fails? What if the same phenomena that’s warping my communications affects yours and you are unable to send a mayday? What if you’re left, lost and forgotten, because of me?”
He was shouting, his whole body shaking and his voice confrontational in a way that it had not been for decades. Not having to look someone in the eye, not having to hold up the masks to obscure his past because who he was honestly wouldn’t matter for much longer, was liberating.
“We get to decide if we take that risk.”
The anger blew out of his voice. He was left feeling hollow. “No. You don’t. Not again.”
Pushing away from the console and rushing out onto the platform at the top of the ladder was a wasted gesture. Kurogane - and Tomoyo - wouldn’t know that he’d stepped away, but he had to distance himself. The remembered smell of the recirculated air of the stasis pod hung heavy in his nose. He looked over the railing and saw the length of corridor that Kurogane had proposed to turn into a cryo-pod. His knees gave out, and he sank to the floor, placing trembling hands flat on the decking.
‘I am a bad penny. I am cursed.’
“Please,” he whispered. “Not again.”
The channel was silent - had been for the better part of fifteen minutes. Kurogane kept hoping that Fai would return. It seemed ludicrous to refuse the offer of help. They had the knowledge of foresight, after all, and could leave their coordinates in the event of any disasters. It was practically safer than the majority of exploratory missions that were pushing the boundaries of the charted universe.
Besides, Kurogane wasn’t about to leave someone to die when a safe solution existed that didn’t even require anyone to trade their life.
He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, frowning at the speaker as if shear ire would conjure Fai’s response, but something was nagging at the back of his mind. Something that Tomoyo had said…
Tomoyo glanced up briefly at him. “What about it?”
“You said his name was Fluorite. So did he.”
“The news video listed his as Cerargyrite, or something like that.” He tipped his head to one side and sighed, suddenly realizing that she’d said his full name on purpose. “And you weren’t here when he told me his name.”
“You would not believe how hard it is obscure your true name from a dream walker. It encompasses everything about you - everything we can see and feel is colored by your name. I.… His name was harder to find than most. It still seams together the pieces of him, but he has put great effort into trying to hide it even from people like me.”
“He told me.”
“Perhaps he thought that it was little consequence - a random transmission that no one would believe. I can imagine that sharing a secret like that after it has been so long concealed would be liberating.”
If it was his real name, if he'd felt the need to use a pseudonym on the Aphelion Dusk mission, then.... Kurogane tapped a couple of quick commands into the console.
“Searching….” After a lengthy pause, the screen on the console filled with a long list of results. The myriad of records were authored by only a handful of people - it seemed to be a niche research community focused on piecing together the history of the lost planet of Ceres. Kurogane scrolled through until he located the longest one with the most frequent references to Fai. The record was entitled, “Depths of Winter: The Rise and Fall of Ceres.”
Contrary to popular belief, Ceres is not lost, simply abandoned. Given a sturdy ship, a willing crew, and a desire to disobey intergalactic mandates, you could visit it. Our summary in the following chapters is gleaned from what remains of the Ceresian records and the documentation of the exploration crew that rediscovered Ceres before the indefinite quarantine was emplaced. We have attempted to be clear where facts give way to our best understanding and where our conclusions are merely best guesses in the absence of any real data. As we have no access to the sole survivor of Ceres, our accounts must be subject to speculation.
Kurogane skipped forward to the first page where Fai was mentioned.
We know very little about Fai Fluorite, save for the conditions of his survival, which we will cover later. What we do know is that Fai was not originally from Ceres. He was recovered from a stasis pod captured by Ceresian gravitational field. Some accounts suggest that Ashura, Arcane King of Ceres, diverted the pod upon reentry so that it would land within his palace walls. Other accounts insist that the diversion was only to prevent the pod from crashing into the frozen seas. Whatever the reason, Ashura had almost certainly sensed the magical strength of the occupant and would not have wanted him falling into the wrong hands.
As far as we know, Fai Fluorite never offered an explanation for how he came to be in suspended animation within an escape pod. Some recovered documents suggest that speculation abounded and that the rumors were, in some cases, less than kind. It seems that Fai made himself available, however, to the populace and became a rather prominent figure within the local technomancy community.
Suspended animation within an escape pod floating in space. For how long? Had he known he would be rescued or was had he launched merely trusting that someone would locate him? No wonder he'd balked at the thought of the cryo-chamber. He flicked forward to the next entry, stared, and then scrolled back to the beginning of the section to read.
Section 3: Cataclysm
Winters on Ceres were perpetually difficult. Due to a highly elliptical orbit, Ceres annually transited from fifth closest planet to the most distant of fourteen. Thick snow blanketed the surface regardless of latitude. Customized heating charms and materials reinforced the major city structures, which served as massive shelters for the population during the coldest nights. The civilization adapted and survived.
Although our records are incomplete, we do know that some sort of catastrophe struck Ceres during the deepest part of their winter. We believe this may have been a large meteor strike in the northern hemisphere opposite the main city, but had no solid evidence exists for this inference besides the survival of the main city and ruling government. Whatever happened, significant debris in the Ceresian atmosphere decreased the solar gain and plunged the world into a darker winter than had been previously weathered.
Villages too far removed from the capitol suffered complete losses within the first few days. Too little magic to go around, the limited records say. The magicians of the capitol pooled their resources around the bunkers, and the people of Ceres were called home to roost, if you’ll pardon the expression.
Frantic construction within the snow itself helped to expand the bunkers to accommodate the influx of people. Nearly a quarter of the population of Ceres piled into the capitol. Food supplies dwindled quickly, and the artificial winter showed no signs of letting up.
At this point, we have no records save for those from the exploration team that first unearthed the Ceresian bunkers. We can speculate on the panic that must set in as everyone did the math and realized that the situation was not sustainable. The exploration team reported evidence, frozen under the layers of snow, of destitute conditions within the bunkers.
They also reported words scrawled on the walls, graffiti of a hopeless populace. ‘We’re all going to die’ had been stenciled in multiple places.
Over it, in a deep red ink and in angular letters, someone had written, “Not all.”
That mantra was plastered on almost every flat surface within the bunkers. Under the layer of hoarfrost, the ink looked almost black. In more clear areas, the exploration team documented that it looked, horribly, like dried blood. They never tested it, but we think their conclusions are sound given what they found at the center of the bunker.
The hallways of the bunkers stretched out like spokes from a wheel, tunneled into the snow to accommodate more and more citizens as the winter deepened. The exploration team was most of the way down the first hallway before they noticed the bodies. In their defense, the magics on the bunkers had been removed and the inner hallways were icy and snow-covered. The bodies were desiccated, hard to recognize, but the piles grew larger and harder to ignore as they approached the center bunker.
The bunker itself was full of the detritus of the people who had been living there. Someone had swept a circle clean in the center around a low bier.
In the recordings from the exploration team, one of the people can be heard exclaiming, “Stars above, is that a coffin?”
Cords and tubes spilled from the oblong shape on top of the bier, pouring out across the floor and connecting to various sockets along the far wall. Later investigation would reveal connections to a reprocessed nutrient slurry of dubious origins, no doubt connected to desiccated bodies dumped along the corridors. But their eyes were drawn to a twined cord still white-hot with magic that hung down the side of the bier and connected to a figure sprawled on the floor.
Ashura, the Arcane King of Ceres, was a husk brimming with magic potential. The power running from him supplied the needed energy to keep the semi-suspended animation pod running.
'We’re all going to die,' the walls had said.
'Not all' had been the only answer given, plastered everywhere, as if, through repetition, Ashura would force fate's hand.
Fai Fluorite was alive inside the pod, the sole survivor of the cataclysm of Ceres.
It was an insane gambit, Ashura had no way of knowing when the winter would lift or whether anyone would come to release Fai from the pod itself. The rationale for this is, of course, up for speculation. We were able to uncover incomplete documentation of Fai’s early life after arriving on Ceres, and it appears that Ashura adopted him as a son, and loved and treated him as such.
In the face of complete annihilation, given the choice between the death of all, or the death of most and the opportunity to save your child, which one would you pick?
Chapter 6: Got Your Back
No matter how many times you go over something, it takes an outside eye to catch the things that you've missed.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been leaning against the railing, his feet dangling out over empty space. Why he hadn’t shut off the communications console, he couldn’t begin to fathom. It would have been so easy to isolate himself. They couldn’t forcibly rescue him - this time, for once, he held all the cards.
“This is not Ceres.”
He was on his feet and back at the console before he even consciously thought about moving. “He put me to sleep! Everyone was fine, and he put me to sleep, and I woke up decades later to find that everyone - including him - had died to save me.”
“They would have died anyway. Along with you.”
“I was not more deserving of life than any of them!”
“How many other mages were there?”
“How many,” Kurogane said the words slowly, like he was speaking to a child, as if he’d noticed something that Fai, in all the years of revisiting Ceres hadn’t noticed. “Other mages were there?”
The sudden change in conversation shook him out of his single-minded tirade. “A handful in the capitol. Hedgemages scattered across the country who could work minor enchantments.”
“How many who could have survived decades in suspended animation?”
He opened his mouth, prepared to snap back with a curt retort. Of course there had been other options. Ashura had no right to pick him over someone else.
Except there hadn’t been anyone else. For the same reason he’d survived significant hypoxia without equally significant brain damage, the stronger the magic in any given technomancer, the longer their body could sustain the rigors of suspended animation. The name made it seem peaceful, but it was no such thing. The body fought against the freezing cold - living cells aren't particularly intelligent and cannot distinguish between a safe process and the threat of freezing to death. In a semi-suspended state like he’d been found in, it was akin to being in a deep sleep or deep meditation, and the magic’s main focus was keeping you from waking up.
Your body, ever insistent that staying in a deep sleep is contrary to continued survival, tended to fight harder to wake up the longer that the animation went on. Suspended animation was only used in the most dire cases, for short periods of time, and usually only on technomancers with strong magic. Their own inherent magic helped repair the damage levied from fighting off the imposed sleep.
To be put under for decades ? Only he and Ashura were strong enough to survive that.
He gritted his teeth. “Even if that’s true, he killed them all.”
Fai barked out a humorless laugh. “It made him stronger. It gave him a nutrient source so that he could put me in a semi-suspended state and make the whole contraption last longer. He was trying to eke out every additional second because he didn’t know how long I was going to be trapped, and he was probably more than a little bit deranged. I don’t know him anymore, probably never did. All I know is that they died hopeless and afraid just to give me more time.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh, you think they died willingly?”
“Stop being an intentional asshole for a minute and think about it. Believe it or not, Fai, I understand. You have survived when everyone else you knew perished. You want to be the villain in this story, but you’re not. He put you to sleep. He put them to sleep too. He saved them from watching their children and elders perish from starvation, saved them from freezing to death. And he died knowing that you were going to get a chance at outliving him, and he’d done everything he could to save you. Now get out of the damn chair and go measure your cryo-chamber for curtains or whatever else you are planning on putting in there to make the years more comfortable. We are coming to get you. You don’t get to choose what we do with our lives, and you don’t get to feel guilty about the choices that we make.”
When the exploration team had broken into his coffin, his eyes refused to function properly. It had taken several minutes before he was able to see more than just vague shapes around him. Two of the group members propped him up, helping him to bend his legs and step out of the capsule. When his eyes finally focused, they focused on Ashura’s form, lying boneless beside the bier. They’d had to tear him, wailing, away. The wails had quickly bled into screams of rage as they pulled him further along the tunnels and towards the warmth and safety of their base. Even with his brain still sluggish due to the after-effects of hibernation, he didn’t need that many active brain cells to draw conclusions between Ashura’s blood magic, the date the team had quoted at him, and the desiccated bodies lining the halls.
By the time they’d gotten him back to the ship, he was able to do little else but huddle in a corner with his arms wrapped over his head, trying to smother huge, gulping sobs.
His home - not Ceres, but his first world - had been a cruel place. Everyone from the king on down to the lowest citizen looked for blame in everyone but themselves. They demanded horrific consequences from those they presumed had wronged them. Cruelty driven by baseless fear had sundered Fai’s world, and he had been unable to see past that early lesson when trying to process the aftermath of Ceres.
“I’m not…” His voice cracked slightly. He swallowed and tried again. “I’m not sitting down, Kuro-myu.”
“Apologies." The words were softer now, humor creeping into the words to match the feeble attempt at levity. The change in tone felt like a recognition, even though Fai hadn’t fully voiced it and hadn’t even fully internalized it, of the shift in Fai’s perspective. "We can have this conversation face-to-face in 400 years, and I promise to keep track of your posture.”
It was a question, even though it wasn’t phrased that way. “Alright.”
Echoing clashes came faintly through the comms system. With less than a day to go before the summit, Kurogane was still hoping that Fai would be in stasis before they went to the surface. The rescue would have to wait until afterwards - he wouldn’t have left Tomoyo to fend for herself - but a few extra days would be nothing in the grand scheme of things. Even so, he would rest easier if he knew that Fai was weathering them in suspended animation, as opposed to puttering around the lonely ship.
Fai’d taken a moment to reroute the comms into the intercom that had been originally installed on the ship when RST had planned on a larger crew and was currently tearing the panelling out of the lower shaft in order to cobble together a ceiling and floor. The rerouting was crucial as the communications room would be cut off with the addition of a cryo-chamber. But even with the opportunity, they hadn’t spoken for several long minutes.
“It wasn’t just Ceres.” He didn’t frame it as a question, didn’t put any pressure on the words to make Fai feel obligated to answer it. “Do you need someone to talk to about it?”
“Actually, yes, Kuro-pon. Tomoyo would be excellent.”
“Understood. I’ll get her.”
“Please.” The word came out fast, and Kurogane had to bite down a laugh. “Don’t. She seems to be rather terrifying.”
“Excellent, I’ve managed to become a good judge of character. Regardless, she already knows…something. I don’t know how many details she could have gleaned from before Ceres, but I’m not sure I could stand to frame the story for someone who already knew the punchline.”
Kurogane waited. Even over the long-distance communication, even after their discussion about Ceres, he could feel the guilt surging over Fai. He knew that guilt - had felt it, lived with it even to this day after the deaths of his parents and most of the prefecture that had raised him. The people who’d rescued him had taught him to beat it back.
He wondered how long Fai had been coping with this alone.
“My brother and I…we….” Fai’s voice trailed off. “Suffice to say that our home planet held some rather terrible preconceptions about the impact of twins on the stability of the royal family in particular and the nation as a whole.” His voice had slipped into the same tone he used during the broadcasts, distancing himself from the story by making it out to be a tall tale of the void. “Threatened with banishment for one and execution for the other, we instead decided to escape. Unfortunately, when the actual night came, the ciphers on the controls had been altered since our dry run. He needed to initiate the launch sequence from the station side of the airlock, but the launch delay would give him ample time to board.
It did not.
He knew - had known all along - that this would be a solo trip. There was only one way to trigger the launch sequence, and the first action was to seal the door. He knew that, and yet...”
“He wanted you to be safe. You can’t fault him for that.”
“No. I just wish I’d thought of it first.”
In the end, building the cryo-chamber was almost child’s play. Fai had been responsible for a number of the constructions on Ceres and knew how to use magic to fuse metal and ward against the cold. He could even scrape together enough parts and knowledge to add a secondary life support system to the pod. Decompression was hard to accomplish in these ships, but if life support in the main ship failed again, the build up of carbon dioxide in the ship and the chamber would kill him easily.
The magics needed to put someone under suspended animation, however, where complex. After Ceres, desperate to know why Ashura had put him in partial-stasis, Fai had read every text he could get his hands on about the theory behind it. He’d rapidly become an expert in something that he never wanted to experience again. Complex, yes, but doable.
He shut down any nonessential systems - including the communications, which he did with a brief pang, and the artificial gravity. All power not maintaining the ship’s life support was diverted to the chamber. Fai considered building a makeshift battery to hold his magic as he had done with the main console, but the energy spent containing the magic would significantly shorten the length of time he could maintain suspended animation. Instead, he repurposed the longest cables he could fine so that they could connect directly to his skin and draw his magic straight from the source. He hovered below the chamber, connecting the cables to the thin skin over his collar bone, and shook off the memory of Ashura with cables protruding from his jugular veins.
With the dark ship around him and the silent communications room walled off, he felt truly alone for the first time since first taking up residence on the Aphelion Dusk. He caught hold of the ladder in one hand and propelled himself upwards towards the cryo-chamber. The opening suddenly looked impossibly small, but he gritted his teeth and dragged himself in. As he passed, he hooked a foot through the handle on the inside of the bottom hatch and pulled it closed. The deep noises of the bolts sliding home set his heart hammering. Fia took several deep breaths and tilted his head back, resting his skull against the smooth metal of the shaft and raising his eyes towards the ceiling only a short distance above. “Please.” His voice faltered. He knew what he wanted to say, but was afraid to voice it, afraid some perverse god would hear it and turn it in on him. “If something happens, if they….if they don’t make. Just, please don’t let me wake up.”
Forget the reconciliation, forget the fact that he wasn’t supposed to blame himself for choices that other people made, he wasn’t sure he could face waking up alone, again.
Activating the chamber required a minor spell. He raised his hand as far as he could in the narrow confines, bracing himself with his free hand, and traced a few quick glyphs into the wall. Blue light smoked and sparked across the metal, spreading outwards until the entire chamber was encased. Fai squeezed his eyes shut against the brilliance and sank into the darkness.
He woke to gentle hands on his ankles, pulling him from the chamber. The stasis was slow to release him. He couldn’t move yet and was only just dimly aware of the change in his surroundings. Swift, adept motions even in zero gravity got him moving and let him float slowly out of the enclosed space.
Not being able to move was unnerving, but perhaps a blessing. The unmistakable hiss of the chamber unsealing, the fog of a suspended conscious, all of it threatened to drag him right back to both of the times he’d woken up on Ceres, adrift and bereft. His heart slammed in his chest, and he would have flailed if he could. Without gravity, that kind of reaction would have gotten him and the person freeing him injured.
As his torso came free, hands closed around his upper arms, redirecting him and slowing his drift until he was floating just below chamber. Gentle brushes cleared the frost from his eyes and nose, leaving him blinking in the sudden light.
Kurogane was braced against the walls, boots jammed in the seams between individual metal plates to keep them both anchored. He kept a hand on Fai’s arm to help stabilize him as he checked for a pulse and shined a flashlight in each of Fai’s eyes in rapid succession.
Fai hissed. He tried to get his own foot against the wall to get enough leverage to push away, but Kurogane held on tight.
“Cut it out. You’ll send us ricocheting all around this place.”
“Do you even know what you’re looking for?”
“I’m the bodyguard for a dream walker.” Kurogane’s smile was wickedly teasing. “Believe it or not, I know how to look for the aftereffects of a magic-induced sleep.”
Fai grumbled but relented, letting Kurogane study the response of his irises, check his pulse at neck and wrists and, bizarrely, in the crook of his arm, and press an engraved token to the center of his forehead. His eyes followed the path of Kurogane’s hand until he almost went cross-eyed trying to look at the artifact.
A sudden pain lanced through his chest. He lashed out, but Kurogane caught his hand easily, holding up the cables with the other one. “I could have removed those.” Even with the limited space in the shaft, they drifted in response to Fai’s motions until they got their feet braced again. In the advent of prolific artificial gravity, he’d forgotten how irritating zero gravity could be.
“You really couldn’t.”
Fai looked again, paling at the jagged crystals encrusting the ends that had been plugged into his skin. Magical leakage could manifest in a myriad of different ways. He’d never seen something like this, but he’d never drawn so much magic from himself. At the sight of the cerulean, blocky crystals, he suddenly realized how hollow and drained he felt.
“Does the token on my face actually do anything?”
“Good,” He tried to raise his hands to the walls, to Kurogane, to anything to help steady himself, but his arms refused to respond. “Because I think I’m going to pass out, and if you put me to sleep with that thing, I would have to have serious words with you.”
“You’re going to pass out because you’ve burned through every last ounce of your magical reserves, not because of some sticker I used to distract you.”
Fai blew out a long breath. “I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do that before.” The whole world slipped sideways, but he could feel Kurogane’s hands on his arms, anchoring him. Just before he succumbed to a darkness that was entirely free of magic, he heard Kurogane chuckle.
“That’s not surprising. Look how long it took you to get here.”
Chapter 7: Explosive
Technology and magic advance in leaps and bounds over the centuries. At least there's something familiar to lean on.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“The escape pods put you stasis, but they don’t leave you in stasis. Power is, after all, only guaranteed for so long and can’t be drawn from the surrounding environment once you were planetside. The presence of strong gravity and a solid surface will trigger deactivation of any decently designed pod. The thought process has always been that you are better off waking up than simply dying in your sleep waiting for someone to find you. After all, there are a lot of planets out there that haven’t evolved intelligent life that would be perfectly survivable, provided that you aren’t in stasis.
And since we don’t get to hear from the people who wake up on airless moons, in the middle of a world-circling ocean, or sinking inextricably into a swamp, the statistics overwhelmingly favor pod deactivation upon landing.
I say overwhelmingly, because it is, of course, not 100%.
Occasionally people wake up and are eventually rescued from whatever situation their escape pod has put them into. We can only draw conclusions of what might have happened. And how often the worst has happened to others.
Everything succumbs to gravity eventually. The larger the pod, the more dramatic it is when this happens. Imagine a hundred-person - two hundred, three hundred, it doesn’t really matter at that point - plummeting to the surface of a planet. Heat boils off the shielding as the occupants ride a burning comet to the unforgiving earth below.
I say occupants, but in this story, there’s only one. If there had been more, it may have ended different.
He wakes from stasis, but is hanging upside down from the one occupied harness in an escape pod meant to hold hundreds of people. There’s practically space for him to run laps inside the ship.
The runes and software responsible for righting the pod after a crash landing have failed. The landing gear - spidery legs tucked into every quadrant of the outer hull - jammed on one side. The remaining legs, unable to reach the ground and flip the pod, extend ineffectually and stall.
His brain is groggy from the aftereffects of stasis, but he recognizes first that he’s not facing the right way and then that the pod isn’t facing the right way either. It takes several moments for the thought to sink in, even more for him to find the coordination in his fingers to unlatch the harness and send himself sprawling to the floor - or rather, the ceiling. When he stands up on the canted surface, he realizes that the pod is not wholly upside down, but is rolled steeply onto its side with the door facing down.
He skids across the plating, trying to find his feet on surfaces that were never meant to be walked on. He stumbles over the arched ribs that make up the skeleton of the ship. The door, when he finally reaches it, opens with a grinding noise of gears-on-gears that make his teeth ache.
It opens a scarce finger-width and stutters to a stop.
His blood freezes in his veins. He pushes the door controls a second time, hoping that the software just glitched. Then he hits them, slapping hard with the palm of his hand. He jams his fingers into the gap and hauls at the door. He ignores the scraped knuckles he gets for his effort. The door is facing the ground, but he can see a crack of daylight.
He has magic but almost no experience using it.
He tears the panel off the door controls and randomly sketches symbols onto the wires. Spikes of magic jab out into the system and skitter harmlessly off the inherent programing. One gets lucky, finds a loophole in the spells laid out by the original technomancers, and slips in, carrying nothing but a young boy’s desire to survive. Wedged gears try to move, crack, and fall apart. Moving on his magic alone, the door slams open.
The sliver of light is little more than that. He could get an arm out but immediately recognizes the danger of the pod shifting and rolling over his arm. The rest of the doorway is blocked with snow, and he scrabbles at it until he’s cleared the snow away and reaches the frozen soil below.
He continues to claw at the soil long after his knuckles are skinned and his fingers are chapped and bleeding, frustration boiling over.
The ship is too big to shift physically, and he is too inexperienced to move it with magic. He huddles by the door, calling for help until he is too weak to make any more appreciable noise.
Before you get too anxious, remember that I’m using this as an example of the cases where the person in question wakes up to a disastrous situation but is eventually rescued.
It takes nearly a full week, and it’s only that short because the person coming for him knows exactly where to look. They diverted his path as much as they could, but ballistic motion is only so flexible.
He feels the magic just before it hits the pod. His nostrils flare at the strange scent on the air, and he has only seconds to scramble to his feet and brace himself for an attack. It hits the pod instead, detonating on the outside and rolling it ponderously over in the snow. The bulk and obstinate momentum makes the motion impossibly slow, and he worries that the ship will roll back and cover the door before he can get out.
But they know what they’re doing, and the ship creaks over onto its belly. The impact knocks his feet out from under him, but he gets them back under himself as fast as he can and sprints for the door. He doesn’t want to risk being trapped again.
He barrels into the frozen night, stopping only when his feet have carried him several meters from the pod. The ground beneath his feet and the crisp smell of moonlit frost in his nose reminds him that he is firmly within the world. He is alive, which seems simultaneously a relief and a cruel joke by whatever fate is controlling the universe. He collapses, or tries to collapse, but his rescuer catches him, guiding him to the vehicle that will take him home.”
Waking was a chore that he almost didn’t have the energy for. Fai skimmed the surface of conscious thought several times before finally rising. Pain burned through his skull - the aftereffects of using far too much magic for far too long. What had he done? For one horrifying moment, he was back on Ceres, in the escape pod, arms hanging loose in front of him and his head pounding from being inverted. He threw it aside, throwing the blankets aside in the same motion as if that would banish the memory, and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
As soon as his feet hit the floor, he froze. He didn’t know this room. Possibilities skittered past him, but he couldn't seem to slot them into an appropriate place. Stars above, his head hurt. The last time he’d suffered magic burn like this, he’d been little more than a child. Running yourself to the point of collapse was one of the joys of childhood, and children with magic were no different.
He raised his hand to grasp the corrugated metal of the wall and let out an involuntary gasp. His chest hurt too. His fingers brushed across ragged skin along his collarbone, scabbed now but previously badly injured. His brain scrambled at what it could remember - a voice, a spray of blue crystals, the unmistakable hiss and smell of recirculated air.
Suspended animation? He hadn’t been in stasis since Ceres.
He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple, attempting to hold his skull together. With one hand on the wall, he staggered slowly towards the door and into the hallway. The long hallway stretched out in both directions, and he realized with a start that he didn’t recognize the station at all. This wasn’t the Aphelion Dusk, which waffled from cheap, repurposed, and rusty parts to glossy, elegant, new technology depending on which part of the station you were in. This place looked vaguely old but was exquisitely maintained. Repairs to the walls where modules had been removed or added were masked with almost invisible patches. The floor underneath his feet was smooth, unlike the rough decking he’d grown accustomed to in the Aphelion Dusk.
The hallway led him to a closed door. He fumbled with the controls beside it, trying to get it open through the exhaustion and fog of pain. At least this one had modern controls. Some of the older doors on the Aphelion Dusk had to be opened manually. Since all of them were also designed as emergency hatches for sudden depressurization, they were heavy, unwieldy, and tended to close far more readily than they opened. Given the aches and general weakness that pervaded him, he wasn’t sure he would have been able to manage the old controls.
Modern controls, but nothing he’d ever encountered before. He frowned down at the panel and suffered the dawning realization that he had no idea how to open the door.
After a long moment of stupidly wondering how technology had managed to get so far away from him, he remembered why he was no longer on the Aphelion Dusk.
He staggered and pressed a hand to the doorframe, trying to stabilize himself. Then he knocked.
A muffled confusion of sound rose from inside. After a moment, he could hear the sound of footsteps approaching the door. The door slid open, and Fai tipped his head back, surprised to find that he had to look up to meet the eyes of the man on the other side. He vaguely remembered floating in the Aphelion Dusk with him, but his brain had been in the process of shutting down due to exhaustion and hadn’t been a reliable observer at the time.
After the better part of a year - or several centuries if you counted the time he'd spent asleep - of hearing nothing but his own voice and the whir of the Aphelion Dusk, he'd be hard-pressed to mistake the voice of one of only two people to speak to him. The recognition was easy, but processing it was hard. His mind had inextricably tied the voice to an impersonal speaker box in a communications room, and the shift in perception was almost more than he could handle. He stared for a long moment, connecting the voice with the reality of the person behind it. Whether Kurogane was what he expected seemed inconsequential beside the fact the Kurogane was a real person.
“Apologies for making you get up. I turns out that I can build a stasis chamber from scratch, but I can’t open a door.” He tried for flippant, and could tell by the expression on Kurogane’s face that he had missed by a mile. Something twisted within him, an aching fear of being entirely known for exactly who and what he was.
He opened his mouth, sorting through the options. What finally came out was, “Thank you, Kurogane.” The name felt weird on his lips, but using any of the myriad of shortened versions he’d tested out over the previous days seemed unfair. At opposite ends of the universe and, as it turned out, at opposite ends of time, the forced familiarity had significantly fewer consequences.
After all, being severely allergic to people dying was in a different realm than accepting any sort of relationship with someone of Fai’s past. Fai was beholden to Kurogane, would be for the rest of his life, for more than just saving his life, but he did not want to impose that connection the other way.
A whisper of a frown crossed Kurogane’s face. His deep red eyes narrowed, scanning Fai’s face. His gaze lingered briefly on the scabs at Fai’s collarbone, on the insignia of his heavily modified uniform, on his shaking hands. Finally, he huffed and said, “Don’t be an idiot.” He reached out a hand and grasped Fai’s elbow, taking the majority of his weight and stabilizing him.
“In retrospect,” This time, Fai’s voice came out bright and jovial - or as bright and jovial as his aching head could manage - and sincere. “Standing up may not have been the best plan.”
Kurogane let out a soft chuckle. “You need to eat.” It was true. His magic was desperately trying to replenish itself and would devour his body in the absence of any other power source.
“Are you offering to cook for me, Kuro-myu?”
“I make an excellent rehydrated stew.”
“Was that…” Fai let himself be steered towards the exit, grateful for the support since his legs had given up on supporting his weight. “Was that a joke?” He shifted, clinging to Kurogane’s upper arm so that he could lean forward and see his face better. “Or are you serious?” The answering half smile did little to answer his question.
“It’s all we have. The fresh items are all in a growth cycle.”
“So it was a joke?”
“The stew will at least help replenish your system. Even in full stasis, the lack of activity took its toll.”
“I hate to break it to you, Kuro-rin, but the lanky skin and bones thing has always been my aesthetic. Feeding me isn’t going to change that.”
Kurogane leveled a stare at him. “Says the man who ripped out half the paneling in his ship with his bare hands.”
Fai held up a shaking finger in protest. “I resent that implication - I had the help of a screwdriver.” He paused for a moment. “You know, I used to be able to fool everyone.” Ever since Ceres, no one looked past the easy or obvious explanation. He’d worked for RST for nearly a decade before the Aphelion Dusk mission - the longest time he’d spent anywhere after Ceres - and never faced that kind of piercing, knowing gaze.
“Then it’s about damn time that changed.”
Thank you so much to everyone who's enjoyed the story and to the people who have reviewed and given kudos! I had an absolute blast writing this, even though the last chapter was a bit delayed thanks to real life insanity.
Thank you again to Cloverfield for doing a wonderful job betaing!!