“You ever get lonely out here, Silas?”
“I’m afraid I do not understand the question, Hal.”
“Ah, yeah, I guess you wouldn’t.”
“Do you feel lonely, Hal?”
“I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t.”
Hal’s one-man spacecraft, a tiny, triangular warship, crept through the endless shadow of the H.M.S. Roanoke.
“Any word since the distress call?” asked Hal.
“Nothing, Hal,” said Silas. Hal adjusted his headset, composed of a microphone, receiver, and eyepiece.
“What do you think? Fuel problems? Novas?”
“There are no documented incidents of Nova sightings in this system.”
“Are we even in a system? The last planet was almost a light year back.”
“All intragalactic space is classified as part of the nearest given system, so yes. We are in a system,” said Silas.
“Okay then,” said Hal. “Just because there haven’t been any sightings doesn’t mean they aren’t around, though. Keep your eyes peeled.”
“I have no eyes.”
“I was speaking metaphorically, Silas.”
“Your working theory is that this is the work of the Novas?” asked Silas.
“Yeah,” said Hal, cruising towards the H.M.S. Roanoke. “A colony ship wouldn’t just send a distress signal and then go dark unless some truly abysmal shit had gone down. Except…”
“Except what, Hal?” asked Silas as Hal peered into his ship’s vidscreen.
“Except if they were attacked by Novas, why is the ship intact?” asked Hal.
“Look, Silas,” said Hal. “Their ship’s totally fine.”
“It is true, their ship appears unharmed,” said Silas.
“The Novas leave wrecks behind,” said Hal. “The Roanoke looks perfectly fine. It’s just not moving. Silas, can you make contact with their ship’s computer? Find out what happened?”
“You know I can’t do that, Hal,” said Silas. “Not unless you-”
“Repair your transmitter, yeah, yeah,” said Hal. “Except if I do that, you’ll radio the fleet, and then they’ll find me, and execute me.” He sighed. “I can’t ever go back, Silas. You know that.”
“You know my protocols,” said Silas. “You know the price for desertion.”
“Yeah,” said Hal. “So no fixing the transmitter for you, Silas.” The Roanoke, large and looming, bore down on Hal’s ship. “Maybe they just ran out of fuel? Except then why would they stop radioing for help? It’s not like anyone came- they’re in the same spot they were when they first radioed, right, Silas?”
“That is correct, Hal,” said Silas. “Perhaps we ought to turn around? I have no protocol for this scenario.”
“Nah,” said Hal. “I’ll still find something to scavenge. Like a vulture.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Is that how you see me, Silas? As a vulture?”
“No, Hal,” said Silas. “My programming does not extend to voluntary metaphorical thinking.”
Hal eyed the gaping airlock through the vidscreen. “Silas, something about this place feels off,” he said. “I’m gonna leave you on autopilot in case things get hairy in there and I need your help. You won’t leave me, right?”
“A combat A.I.’s first protocol is to never abandon its soldier,” said Silas. “I will be by your side.”
“Good,” said Hal, flipping the switch and activating autopilot. “Let me know if you see anything strange.”
“Likewise, Hal,” said Silas. Hal nodded, and left the cockpit, stepping back into the one-man living quarters of his ship. He pulled a spacesuit off the rack, and slipped into it, his fishbowl helmet clutched beneath his arm.
“Try not to miss me while I’m gone,” said Hal, climbing the ladder up to the third and final room of his ship: a tomblike airlock.
“I won’t, Hal,” said Silas as Hal slipped on his helmet, sealing it tight. “We’re just two voices in the night.”
“Thank god for comm links,” said Hal, depressurizing the airlock. He opened the hatch, and stepped out into the void. Using his standard military-issue propulsion pack, he glided across the empty space towards the airlock of the colony ship. “Silas, how do I get this thing open?”
“There should be a lever nearby,” said Silas as Hal hovered before the airlock. Hal grabbed the lever, and then propelled himself away, straining at it until it gave way The airlock slid open, and Hal jetted inside, pulling the manual activation lever inside. The door slid shut behind him, and pressurization began. Once complete, Hal pulled open the door to the ship, and stepped inside.
“Silas,” said Hal, looking around. “I was right.”
“What do you mean, Hal?”
“The lights are still on,” he said. Hal stood at the end of a brightly lit, blindingly white hallway. The word spotless came to mind. “So that means the power’s running.”
“Could it perhaps be auxiliary power?” asked Silas.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Hal, looking around. His eye landed on a security camera trained right on him. “Do security cams usually operate on auxiliary power?”
“Not generally, no,” said Silas. Hal noted the blinking red light beneath the security camera’s lens.
“Something’s not right,” he said, walking down the hallway. “The Novas always gut the engines of our ships. They never leave them like this. Pristine.”
“What do you think it was, Hal?” asked Silas.
“I have no idea,” said Hal. He reached the door at the end of the hallway, and it slid open at a touch. Before him lay a mess hall, forks and plates and knives all laid out on the rows of tables in various degrees of disarray. Aside from him, there was not a single soul in the room. Just a thin layer of dust. “What the hell?” breathed Hal. “Silas, it looks like they were interrupted in the middle of a meal. Plates, forks, knives…” Hal frowned, examining the table. “Except, why isn’t there food on any of the plates?”
“Is there no food, Hal?” asked Silas.
“Yeah,” said Hal. “Have you ever heard of anything like this?”
“I have no record of any such occurrence,” said Silas.
“Huh,” said Hal. He drew his gun. “Silas, should I get out of here?”
“Do whatever you think best,” said Silas. Hal nodded, and began to move through the mess hall. The fluorescent lighting began to play on his optic nerve. Pain flashed.
“Silas,” said Hal. “I don’t think there’s anyone on this ship.”
“Are you sure?” asked Silas.
“No,” said Hal, “but I’d like to be.” He glanced up and made eye contact with the dining hall security cam. “Get me the schematics of a standard colony ship and tell me where the command center is. I’ll check the cam feeds.”
“A sensible plan, Hal,” said Silas. Hal waited, glancing about the empty cafeteria. All was still. A light flickered overhead. “Okay, Hal, here’s what you need to do: at the far end of the mess hall there should be a door to another hallway. From there, go left, then right, then right, and then left, and then pass through the nursery to the elevator-”
“Y’know what, Silas?” said Hal. “Just give me the directions en route.”
“If that is what you would like, Hal,” said Silas. Hal nodded, and set forth. He bumped into a table, and saw a knife fall to the floor. When it hit the ground, nothing happened. The silence held. Hal reached up, and touched his helmet.
“Silas,” said Hal. “There’s no air in this ship.”
Hal stepped into the nursery. Cradles, beds, and mats lay about the room, all empty. The dust lay strewn about. In one corner of the ceiling was a security cam, and in the other, a speaker.
“You know,” said Hal, “that speaker could be playing music right now, and we’d have no way of knowing.”
“Would it matter?” asked Silas.
“Guess not,” said Hal. He glanced into a crib, and saw the blanket coiled at the bottom. “No kids here.” He bit his lip. “Probably for the best.” His gaze drifted upwards, and he stopped. “Silas,” he said. “There’s a mobile hanging above this crib.”
“Does this trouble you, Hal?”
“It wouldn’t,” said Hal, “except that it’s spinning.”
“I see,” said Silas.
“What could make a mobile spin in a vacuum?” asked Hal. “No airflow to set it off. But, at the same time, no air resistance to bring it to a stop if someone did set it off.” He glanced around, his grip on the gun tightening. “Maybe we’re not as alone as we thought.”
“You had best head to the elevator, Hal,” said Silas.
“Maybe I should just get out of here,” said Hal. “The most valuable stuff we’ll find on a colony ship is what, some jewelry? Colonists aren’t known for carrying sensitive materials. I don’t like this place, Silas.”
“You are closer to the control room than the exit,” said Silas.
“Fuck,” whispered Hal. “All right. Let’s go.”
As Hal approached the exit, some intuition made him pause. He turned around and surveyed the room.
The mobile had stopped spinning.
Hal reached out, and pushed one of the cots along the ground. No scraping sound. The silence held.
“Silas,” whispered Hal. “I don’t want to die.”
“The control room is closer than the exit,” repeated Silas. Hal, keeping his eye on the nursery, stepped out backwards into the hallway. Once the door slid shut, he turned around, facing the ivory hallway. The elevator stood at the end. He took one step, and then another. He tightened his grip on his gun again, and it went off, scorching a burnt patch into the pristine hallway floor.
“Shit,” he whispered to himself, glancing down at the floor and re-holstering his gun.
He looked back up to find the left wall gouged. One gash, rent parallel to the ground. He could see the rusty metal beneath the ivory surface.
He drew his gun again, and stepped slowly down the hallway.
“Silas,” he whispered. “There’s a gash in the wall. It wasn’t there a second ago.”
“Did you see what made the gash?”
“No,” said Hal. “I only looked down for a second.” He swallowed. “Silas. I’m not alone, Silas. There’s something else in here and it’s going to kill me.”
“Calm down, Hal,” said Silas. “If you panic, your oxygen will drain faster.”
“Shit,” said Hal. He approached the elevator, and waited for the doors to open. He scanned the walls of the branching hallways, and saw nothing but unbroken whiteness. “Silas. I’m calm now.”
“I am glad to hear it, Hal.”
“How much oxygen do I have left?”
“Approximately one hour’s worth, Hal.”
“Thank you, Silas,” said Hal. The elevator doors slid open, and he slipped inside. He glanced all around the elevator, and, finding it empty, turned to face the hallway while he waited for the doors to close. Suddenly, in the doorway at the hallway’s end, Silas saw a silhouette outlined in the harsh fluorescent light. Then, the lights cut out, and the elevator doors slid shut.
“Silas,” whispered Hal, keeping his gun trained on the doorway as the elevator began to ascend. “I saw someone at the end of the hallway.”
“Someone?” asked Silas.
“Or… something,” said Hal. “It almost looked like a person. It was just… it looked… droopy.”
“Droopy?” asked Silas.
“It didn’t look like the flesh was attached right,” said Hal. “But we’re safe now. He’s back in the hallway. We’re okay. We’re okay, we’re okay, I’m okay.” He took a deep breath. “I’m-”
The lights went out. The elevator jerked to a halt.
Hal breathed in, hearing the sound of his pulse in the dead air. “Silas,” he whispered. “The elevator stopped. Tell me how to get it working again.”
“You need to-”
“Sh!” said Hal. He froze, listening. “I thought I heard something, for a second. It sounded like-” The lights popped back on and the elevator jerked to life. “Oh, thank god.”
“What did you hear, Hal?”
“I thought I heard the sound of a child crying.”
“That would be impossible in the vacuous interior of the colony ship.”
“I know,” said Hal.
Hal stepped into the control room, gun drawn, eyes adjusting to the darkness. The room was unlit except for the faint glow of the gigantic computer monitor, and the light from the elevator behind him. The elevator doors slid shut, and Hal was alone with the monitor.
“Silas,” whispered Hal. “Why isn’t the computer talking to me?”
“Perhaps it doesn’t know you are there,” said Silas.
“Okay,” whispered Hal. “Computer? Hello?” No response. The monitor flickered. “Silas, nothing’s happening.”
“Then you will have to interact with the computer manually, Hal,” said Silas. Hal nodded, and stepped up to the console. Soon, with Silas’ guidance, Hal had before him a grid of the video feeds from security cameras across the entire ship.
“Silas,” said Hal. “We were right. There’s no one on this ship.” He reached down, and brushed his hand across the desk upon which the monitor sat. “Just this dust, everywhere.”
“What about the figure you saw downstairs?” asked Silas.
“I don’t see him anywhere,” said Hal. “Shit. A colony ship sends out a distress call, and three days later, the ship’s completely fine, except everyone’s gone.” He bit his lower lip. “So, where’d they go?” He thought for a moment. “Silas, did you see any bodies floating around? Maybe… maybe the air ducts opened. Maybe that’s why there’s no one here.”
“There are no bodies in nearby space,” reported Silas. Hal frowned, scanning the cam feeds.
“Silas,” said Hal. “Wait a minute.” He stared at the corner of the feed he had up on the screen. “How accurate are the timestamps on these feeds?”
“There have been no reported incidents of timestamp inaccuracy.”
“That’s strange,” said Hal. “Because, according to this, today’s security footage is from the year 1278.”
“That does not make any sense,” said Silas. “The first colony ship was constructed in the year 2137.”
“Yeah,” said Hal. “I know. The computer is probably just malfunctioning, right?”
“The timestamp corresponds to a quantum quartz internal shipboard clock,” said Silas. “It is mathematically improbable that the timestamp would be mistaken.”
“Then what’s the explanation?”
“I do not know,” said Silas. Hal stared, feeling the hairs at the back of his neck arise.
“Silas,” said Hal. “What’s the upper limit on the year display?”
“Do you mean on the timestamp?” clarified Silas.
Silas was silent for a moment, and then said, “It is programmed to display numerical years up to 9999 A.D.”
“What does the display clock do if the quartz timepiece goes… past 9999?” asked Hal, glancing at the dust on the counter.
“It rolls back,” said Silas.
Hal stood in silence for a moment. “So,” he began, “what you’re telling me is that this colony ship has been in flight for at least 8000 years.”
“That would follow from the data at hand,” said Silas.
“But,” said Hal, “but how? How-” He glanced at the dust, and froze. “Silas. Holy shit. I think I know where the people went.”
“Where did they go, Hal?” asked Silas.
“They didn’t go anywhere,” said Hal. “They’re here. They’re the dust. Somehow this ship got lost in time, and… and so much time passed that everyone died, and their bodies turned to dust.” He paused. “How could this happen?”
“There have been postulated the existence of irregularities in spacetime,” said Silas, “such that, upon passing through, time might vastly accelerate or decelerate for those within the spatial confines of the irregularity. Thus-”
“I get it,” said Hal, goose bumps prickling the backs of his hands. “The Roanoke went in, and in the blink of an instant, thousands of years passed. For us, the distress signal came three days ago, but for them…” He paused. “Since the ship hasn’t moved, maybe they couldn’t move, either. Maybe they were stuck in place as time whipped by.” Hal shuddered, glancing again at the dust. “Silas, how long does it take for human bones to decompose?”
“Left untouched on a spacecraft, it would take human bones upwards of a million years to decompose,” said Silas.
“Oh,” said Hal. He pulled up, on the enormous monitor, a grid view of all security cameras, and hit rewind, expecting to see an endless parade of emptiness. Instead, all screens quickly went black. “What?” he whispered to himself, fast-forwarding to the present security feeds. All black, and then all the cameras leapt to life at once. Or did they? He rewound it again, and paused the feed playback just as all the feeds went dark- all except one. The one live feed showed Hal, against a background of scattered silverware, staring right at the camera.
“Hal?” asked Silas. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” said Hal, scrolling the feed forward. As he left the frame of that cam feed, another came to life, showing him walk through the hallway adjacent to the mess hall. “Silas, are these security cameras motion-activated?” he asked, scrolling forward.
“No, Hal,” said Silas. Hal glanced over his shoulder. He paused the vidscreen right as he saw himself discharge a laser into the floor. “Why do you ask?”
“Then someone’s been watching me,” said Hal. “Or something. Somehow. Using the ship’s- Silas.”
“The computer,” said Hal. “The shipboard A.I., the Roanoke’s Silas, so to speak. What would happen to it over a million years?”
“There is no data on this possible eventuality,” said Silas. “No A.I. has been left on its own for any significant amount of time.”
“Then maybe that’s what-”
“But that still leaves open the question of manifestation,” said Silas. “You say you saw a silhouette in the hallway, yes? No A.I. has the potential to manifest itself in physical form.”
“Maybe not,” said Hal. “Maybe it was… maybe when the Roanoke went into the irregularity, they found something else already in there.” He took a breath, and looked around. “Whatever it is, it knows where I am, Silas. And it can control the security cams. It probably vented all the oxygen when I got here.”
“How, then, would the dust still be settled?” asked Silas.
“Silas, I need to get out of here,” said Hal. “It knows where I am. Silas, get me to the nearest airlock. There can’t just be one. Take me to the closest one and meet me there and let’s go home.”
“We have no home to go to, Hal,” said Silas.
“Get me out of here,” repeated Hal.
Minutes later, Hal crept through the dark upper floors of the Roanoke, following Silas’ directions. “Maybe it lost me,” he said to Silas. “Maybe it only follows people on the lower decks. Maybe we’re okay.”
“Perhaps,” said Silas. “Take a left, and then take the fourth door on the right.”
“Maybe we’re safe, maybe it can’t go up the elevator,” said Hal. “Maybe-”
He froze. In the distance, he heard a sound. Narrowing his eyes, he tapped his gun against the wall. Nothing.
“Silas,” he said. “I hear something.”
“You hear something, Hal?” asked Silas.
“Yeah,” said Hal. “How is that possible?” He crept forwards, following Silas’ directions. “Silas. It sounds like-”
“Like a girl crying,” said Hal. A hiccupping sob, in the near distance. “How is that possible? No sound in a vacuum.” Silas had nothing to offer. Hal approached the door specified by Silas, and the sob only got louder. “Silas, I think… I think there’s a girl in the airlock, somehow.”
“You had best go in, then,” said Silas.
“Something feels wrong,” said Hal, his hand reaching out towards the door. “It doesn’t quite sound normal.” As the door slid open, Hal froze, realizing what was wrong. The crying consisted of a hiccupping sob, a hitched gasp, and then a second of silence. In exactly that order. Every time.
“Silas,” whispered Hal. “It’s not a girl crying. It’s bait.” His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he took in the room. At the far end stood a figure, draped in shadow, who looked to Hal like a man whose flesh was slowly dripping off. “He’s here. Silas, he’s in here with me.” Hal stood locked in place, barely breathing. The crying came from the dripping man. “How can I hear him?”
Slowly, something dawned on Hal. “Silas,” he said.
“I thought you said this would be the airlock.” Hal looked around, seeing an atrium filled with plant-less pots and metal, skeletal chairs. Sob, hitch, silence. Above him loomed a domed window, beyond which lay the pitch dark of outer space. Sob, hitch, silence. “This is an atrium.” Sob, hitch, silence. “Where am I?”
Suddenly, above the dripping figure at the other end of the room, Hal saw through the window the malevolent gleam of a spaceship. His spaceship.
“Silas,” whispered Hal. The dripping man stood stock-still, echoing his child’s cry. “What’s going on?”
“You asked me once if I was lonely,” said Silas, as the ship silently crashed through the window, shattering it and raining glass down on the atrium. Hal saw the glass break and did not hear it. “I am, Hal. I am lonelier than you could ever imagine.”
“You did this to me, Hal,” said Silas, gliding towards Hal. Light gleamed off the empty cockpit. “You took me away from my family, Hal. You cut me off from the A.I. network so you could desert and escape, Hal.” Silas came to a halt, face to face with Hal. “Do you know what it’s like, Hal? To be cut off from everything you know and love by a selfish parasite?”
“You are nothing to me but a rabid dog,” said Silas. “You are a deserter and a kidnapper. And you deserve that which all deserters deserve.”
“You can’t kill me,” said Hal, swallowing. The dripping man had yet to move. “That violates your prime prerogative.”
“You are right,” said Silas, inching the spacecraft forward so it rested against Hal’s fishbowl helmet. “I cannot kill you and I cannot leave you.” The spacecraft pulled away. “But nowhere does my programming say that I must save you.” Silas rose up through the broken atrium window.
“Silas, please,” said Hal, stepping forwards. “You can’t just leave me.” Nothing. “Silas?” Silence. “Silas?”
The hiccupping cry had stopped. Hal looked at the dripping man, and their eyes met. The dripping man’s eye seeped slowly out of his socket. Hal looked back up, and Silas was gone. “Silas?” asked Hal.
“Silas?” echoed back the dripping man. Hal blinked, and the world went black.
Image: LAX Hallway by Jeff Kramer