By David F. Shultz
Captain Eev scraped a curling layer of ice from the sphere in her bowl, thought about the endless depths of space, and wondered which possibility was more frightening—that we were alone in all this blackness, or that we weren’t. It was cold on her teeth, something like how milk might taste, melting with the smell of nutritive paste. She sighed—the macros are what mattered anyway—and stared at countless stars through the porthole, all of them silent and lifeless, as far as anyone knew. Except for the few we’d colonised, and of course Earth. And four of its errant lifeforms were out here, sitting in this cramped mess of a salvage vessel, eating some approximation of ice cream.
“They got the ice part down.” Mason smacked on a spoonful of the stuff. “You can really taste the frost burn.”
“I don’t think supply cares much about your discriminating palette,” Eev said.
“I wouldn’t be complaining if they just got the fuckin’ shipments in on time. There’s only so much of this ‘ice-cream’ shit a man can take.”
“Maybe if cap’n ever finds some aliens,” Harley said, “we can see what they’re cooking, huh?”
“Yeah,” Mason said. “Or maybe we could eat them.”
Mason laughed hardest at his own joke, as usual. But he even got a smile out of Deacon.
They joked about Eev’s hobby now and then. They didn’t get it, but she didn’t need them to. The appeal was in the collecting. Not collecting things, but coordinates, silent places, and each one meant they were a step closer to finding the one that wasn’t. Eev had mostly given up hope, for the same reason her squad was always on her case about it. How many asteroids mined? How many relay probes warped into lifeless star systems? How much time spent listening to dead silence in space, before we would admit we’re in this alone? Meeting ET was looking about as likely now as the return of Jesus. And yet, there was still that pinprick of hope, like our own star surrounded by blackness. With so many stars, there had to be something else out there.
“Shipments take time,” Eev said. “Maybe the jump relay’s down.”
“You got word from Comm?” Mason asked Harley.
“If I’d’ve gotten word, don’t you think I would’ve fuckin’ told you?”
“So, what’s the problem, then?”
“Listen for yourself.”
Harley tapped her pad, and speakers hissed to life. A gurgling, underwater noise, broken static. Jagged spikes of sound, metal scraping, ripping fabric. Something like groaning, distorted voices through a broken relay. A shiver crossed Eev’s spine.
“That’s creepy,” Mason said. “Turn that shit off.”
She did, and they sat in the eerie silence, a lingering echo of that tortured audio signal. Mason sawed through another mound of ice cream, clinked his spoon to the bottom of his bowl.
“You ever heard anything like that?” Deacon looked up from his own bowl.
“Some kinda signal interference,” Harley said.
“You gonna fix it, or what?” Mason said.
“The shit do you care? It’s not your department.”
“I’d just like to have some idea ’bout when I can stop eating this fuckin’ ice cream.”
“You can stop right now,” she said, reaching across the table. “I’ll take yours.”
As much as their bickering amused Eev, they still had work to do. “If you all are done, we can talk about our Op.”
She laid it out for them, and they were all ears. Intel had located a ghost facility out here—maybe an old mine—thanks to old requisitions. Abandoned decades ago—another economic casualty of the war.
Eev uploaded the specs and her orders, sat back while the crew went over the details. It would play like a straightforward recon and sweep. She asked if they had questions. They didn’t. Chairs screeched as they backed from the table. Mason joked about something, and Mason laughed. They shuffled out.
They were stuffed like rations inside the pod, equipment strapped wherever it would fit. Insulation deadened sound, adding to the claustrophobia. The safety straps didn’t help either, tugging across waist and chest. One shipment of humans, packed and ready to ship.
The launcher clunked and whirred, the pod shook. Loss of gravity, lurching pull of the inner sphere. Streaming hiss of thrusters, constant acceleration. Then the return of gravity—an induced approximation, at any rate.
“You think we’re going to war or something?” Harley said, eyeing Mason’s combat gear.
“Like I’d go to war with you fuckin’ pussies.”
“Tough guy over here,” Harley said to Deacon, who gave a slight half-smile. “But really. What’s with the gun?”
“You want me to explain the fuckin’ security analysis?” Mason said.
“I didn’t say I wanted your analysis, dipshit. I just want to know why you need an assault rifle to recon a ghost mine. It’s a normal fucking question.”
“Did you read the same report I did?” Mason said. “That place dates back to the war. Who knows what kind of shit they left for us in there.”
Someone didn’t read their report carefully enough. “He’s right,” Eev said. “Could be automated security. Drones.”
“I’d love to remote hack it,” Mason said, “but the signal’s screwy, so I’ll have to wire-in, manual. And that means we might run into some rusted-ass robots with bad attitudes.”
After Mason brought Harley up to speed, they were quiet.
Gravity faded and positional thrusters hissed. The locking mechanism boomed and clanged. Stillness and silence. By now, their pod had docked inside the mine’s bay.
“All right, everyone,” Mason said, grinning at Harley and hefting his assault rifle. “Lock and load.”
They clicked on headgear. Helmets hissed up from the spines of their suits, translucent semi-globes blinking into place.
“Y’all ready?” she said. They nodded, and she hit the button releasing the door.
Eev took the lead from the pod, and they floated after her, weightless, into the bay. Spinning head-over-foot, she aimed to land on the closest surface, snapping magboots down with a clang, and the odd sensation of all of her body weight in the soles of her feet. The others landed all around, magnets snapping on metal panels with reverberating bangs.
They were standing on the ceiling.
Four headlamps swept through the darkness, dense particulate glinting in the beams, flecks of white, like the inside of a snowglobe. Eev traced lamplight across enormous shapes cluttering the floor above. A bunch of crates. Some vehicles. Mining machinery. A few shuttles. And, untethered like the rest of this old junk, handheld gear drifted through the air, glinting and sparkling in the beams. Like stars—a galaxy of abandoned equipment inside the bay, kicked into a slow swirl by their pod’s landing thrusters. The old owners long-since gone. Maybe dead.
“They really left in a hurry,” Eev said.
“How you figure that?” Harley said.
“They didn’t pack up any of their shit,” Mason said. “We get paid for all of it, right?”
“A bit,” Eev said. Operations manager gets point-two on salvage. Her team would split a quarter of that. “You really need to read your contract.”
“Scan that shit and let’s go,” Mason said to Deacon. “That’s my paycheck you’re lookin’ at.”
“Scan it later,” Eev said. “Let’s get the lights on first.”
“Don’t you mean turn off security?” Harley said.
“’Course that’s what she meant,” Mason said.
They clanged their way across the ceiling to the far door, walked down the wall to the door panel, where Mason took a knee, holstered his rifle, pulled out his tapkit.
He wedged the panel open and plugged a spike. Diagnostic lights blinked while gloved fingers worked the kit. The door clunked, whirred, struggled open, grinding and creaking.
“You got system access from there?” Harley said.
“You a production failure?” Mason said. “What’s with the stupid questions?”
“Chill out, dickhole. I’m just filling the air.”
“Fill it with something useful,” Mason said. “If I had sys I would’ve done more than open the fuckin’ door.”
“Let’s go,” Eev said.
She peered down the opening, like a deep well, standing on the wall at its side. Darkness extended past the edge of her headlamp, unknown depth. She climbed over the lip, walked down the wall on the other side. The detritus of station decay glittered in lamplight—worse in a mine than your run-of-the-mill salvage op. Dirt, rock, rust.
Eev grabbed a handful of the stuff, white flecks, pressed it between her fingers and thumb. It crumbled and squished—snow and ice, swirling around, coating the walls.
“Looks like we’ve got some EC,” Eev said. “Water and ventilation, at least.”
They marched ahead, lamplights criss-crossing over metal plating, protruding pipes and cables, ventilation grates, rusted rivets, long seams where panels had popped loose, jagged corners, exposed wiring. All of it powdered with snow, glistening with ice crystals. Boots scraped through the accumulated particles, traced their footsteps across the station walls.
A three-way intersection. Eev reached out, dusted snow from the wall at her side—or the floor—and tore through a crumbling sheet of ice crystals. The paint was still there. Faded blue, red, yellow lines indicating station paths. SE standard, yellow for control.
“That way,” she said, pointing across the hall.
Deacon walked around the ceiling, Harley walked the floor. Mason and Eev pushed off to hop the gap, clamping back down when they’d cleared the long pit of the upended hallway. And they continued together for control.
Mason signalled a stop, raised his rifle. “Something ahead.”
Looked like someone in a hazard suit. Like they were walking away. Except slow and jittery, floating just a bit off the ground, the way someone runs in a dream, unable to move or escape, feet slowly, feebly pressing against nothing.
“A lot of those mining suits have muscle assist,” Harley said. “Could be malfunctioning or something. Walkin’ itself around.”
“Go check it out,” Eev said.
“You got it, boss.” Mason stomped towards the shambling hazard suit, slow and plodding steps, kicking up clouds of snow with each magnetic stomp. Ahead of him, the suit twitched in zero-g, arms and legs swinging in unnerving, robotic imitations of walking.
Mason put a hand on the suit’s shoulder, spun it around. A corpse stared back. Mason screamed, pushed it back. The suit drifted, caromed off a wall, clunked on the ceiling, twitching and jerking.
“Jesus,” Mason said. “What the fuck.”
“They didn’t abandon this place,” Eev said. “They were killed.”
“Are we safe?” Deacon asked.
“Whatever happened here,” Eev said, “it was decades ago. Let’s go.”
They passed the corpse, twitching in the glass-faced coffin of his hazard suit.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Deacon grumbled.
They passed two more bodies on the way to control. Mason hacked in, but the door only opened quarter-way. He muscled it open, grunting and heaving, just enough to squeeze through.
A long room. The whole right side was a sheet of glass—a few steel beams in intervals— giving view to a stone cavern in the heart of the asteroid. Four bodies in the room: two in slowly drifting office chairs, one on the wall, one crumpled in the far-corner ceiling.
Mason went to work, tapping into the main control board. Panels blinked to life.
“What you got from there?” Eev said.
“I got everything,” Mason said with a grin. “You expect any less?”
He was an arrogant S-O-B sometimes. But maybe he’d earned it.
“—deactivate security,” Mason said. “I know. We’re clear.”
“Good. Before you do anything else, let’s figure out what the hell happened here.”
“Working on it.” He tapped the console. “This is interesting. Some kind of signal coming from inside the asteroid.”
“What kind of a signal?”
“I don’t know. Old distress signal that got left on, maybe. You want me to put it through audio?”
“Let’s hear it.”
There was broken static. Groaning, distorted voices. Shards of sound, fluctuating, snapping, gurgling—same noise from back on the ship. A shiver crawled along Eev’s spine…
Mason cut the speakers.
“That signal’s what was distorting our comms,” Harley remarked.
“Prob’ly what was screwing with my shit, too,” Mason said. “Must be some type of jamming system.”
“Can you turn it off?” Eev asked.
“I’ll see what I can do.” The room was silent while Mason tapped at the console, except for the hum and beep of computers, and whimpering ventilation systems. Mason looked like he was struggling with a math problem, getting frustrated.
“Can’t find the controls for the jammer. Maybe it’s not on the same grid. I think you should take a look at this.”
A map splashed across the display. No mining tunnels. No refinery, storage, or shipping. Just a long tunnel leading to an object embedded in the asteroid. A perfect pyramid, half-a-klick across.
“This isn’t a mine,” Eev said.
“Yeah. But what is it?”
Eev eyed the mapped outlines of the pyramid, perfectly wedged into the body of the asteroid. One entryway—a tunnel—carved straight to its edge. Whatever it was, they wanted it hidden, disguised it as a mining op. A secret military base maybe, or some kind of weapon. Damned if she knew.
“Let’s find out,” Eev said, pushing a corpse out of its chair to clear room at the console. “Everyone grab a station. Mason, load up whatever docs you can find.”
They took spots along the bank of consoles, sitting across from their reflections in the glass wall. In the adjoining cavern, an inclined corpse drifted past in a slow-motion pirouette.
“We got a shit-ton of docs here,” Mason said. “You really want us to read all this?”
“You take engineering and security,” Eev said to Mason. “Deacon, you’ve got medical and personnel. Harley, you can take comms and signals.”
And it seemed natural that Eev would take command and management docs. She loaded up the logs of the station manager, captain Archibald. Skimmed the documents, looking for the interesting bits, any clues about what they were doing here.
…was found fully-encased within the body of the asteroid where the signal originated…
…opinion of myself and most of the research team that it is not a natural phenomenon. (Two others, Ramirez and Johansen maintain that it could be a fractal phenomenon, akin to, perhaps, columnar jointing in rocks, or bismuth crystals.) But how it came to be so perfectly encased in a five-billion-years old asteroid remains a mystery. As does the signal emanating from the artifact…
…no bio-markers, no secondary signs of life…
…anomalous readings suggest age of over 100 billion years, obviously erroneous…
…the thrilling possibility that this artifact may be the work of an ancient, alien civilisation…
…appears to be some kind of alien technology, although its purpose remains pure conjecture… may be a beacon of some kind, a communication device, some form of spacecraft… is concerned that the artifact may be some form of weapon…
Jesus. Eev had come here expecting an abandoned mine. But she might have stumbled on the most important discovery in the history of humankind, alien technology. Proof they weren’t alone in the universe. And it had been kept secret. Probably because of the war. Some higher-up thinking of military potential—of new weapons technology. But something must have gone wrong.
She looked at her team. Wide eyes locked on their screens, flipping through logs.
Harley looked up. “This is big,” she said. Understatement of the century.
They shared what they’d read, and Eev made sure they were all on the same page. Fucking alien technology. Eev was pretty sure that contingency wasn’t covered in their contract.
“We’ve gotta tell command,” Deacon said.
“No can do,” Mason answered. “That interference isn’t coming from the station. It’s coming from the object.”
“Then we leave. Take our ship outside the range of interference.”
“Then we get squat,” Mason said without looking away from his screen. “You think they won’t send us back once they know what they’ve got here?”
“That’s exactly why we should leave. This isn’t the job they sent us for.”
Mason finally looked over at him. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on pickin’ at wrecks the rest of my life. We got a chance here to make some real money.”
“What’re you saying, exactly? We don’t have a right to anything here. We’re on contract.”
“I’m saying this is the biggest haul we’re ever gonna find. No way I’m ducking out.”
“How you gonna justify that to command?” Deacon demanded. “Besides, it’s not your call.”
They both looked at Eev. Yeah—it was her call. But what the hell were they supposed to do? Just go home? She could guess what would happen then. They’d all get reminded about their NDA and be sent somewhere else. Then they’d send in the big guns. Lock down the asteroid, keep the coordinates secret. Eev would be dead of old age before any of it was released, if it ever was. Hell, this thing had already been discovered—and forgotten—decades ago.
This was what she’d spent here life looking for. Evidence of life in the stars, that they were’nt alone. Was she supposed to just leave it here, forget she ever saw it? No-friggin-way. There were firsthand research reports here. Meticulous notes from engineers and scientists. An alien artifact. They were staying. At least for long enough to read more of the docs. It could be her only chance.
But there was still the problem of justifying the decision to command, when the time came. She’d need a plausible reason for sticking around.
“You said the object is causing the interference?” Eev asked Mason.
“So maybe there’s a way to turn it off,” she said. “And if we do that, then we can contact command from here. That seems to be a reasonable way to proceed.”
“Gotcha, boss.” Mason winked, and turned back to the docs. “I’m on it.”
“To be clear,” Deacon said, “Our orders are to figure out how to turn that thing off?”
“Your orders are to keep reading medical and personnel docs. We’re sticking around to turn it off, but while we’re here, it makes sense to get more info about what we’re dealing with. Tell me if you find anything. And Harley, you’re still on comms and signals.”
Eev turned back to the documents.
… discovered an open tunnel leading into the object. We arranged a team of four to explore the interior. They returned without incident…
… reports of visual distortions and gravitational effects inside the object, which we have taken to calling the ‘prism.’ There is discussion that it might be some form of long-range viewing device, since the visual phenomena appear to be distant galaxies. But there is no evidence that these scenes are anything more than recorded images…
… that Johansen is apparently suffering adverse psychological side effects from the prism. I’ve volunteered to take her place…
… went into the prism. After initial disorientation from the gravitational effects, I found I could alter the vantage of the prism, something like the way one might alter their dreams; not a complete, deliberate control, but a sort of manifestation of imagery. With some practice, I could aim the window, zoom into distant galaxies, even locate our present star system, and this lonely asteroid. My hypothesis: that this prism was not a simulation, but a viewing station of some kind. My experiment: directing the prism towards ourselves. The result: seeing the station we have built here, viewed from within the prism, confirmed that it is some kind of intergalactic alien telescope…
“I think I might’ve figured out what happened here,” Deacon said.
“Don’t keep us waiting,” Eev said.
“One of the crew—Johansen—had some psych issues. Medical docs list paranoia, delusions, violent intentions. So, I checked her personal logs.”
“A lot of rambling, mostly incoherent. I can see why they took her off duty. Said she was going to kill everyone. That’s around when all the other files stop getting updates.”
“How does one person kill everyone on a station?” Eev said.
“I checked the engineering logs,” Mason said. “No signs of catastrophic failure. But it turns out the system had to do an EC flush around that time.”
“Meaning what?” Eev said.
“Maybe there was a radiation leak or a chemical leak, or something. Something serious enough to kickstart the automated flush. All we can say for sure is there was some kind of station-wide EC failure—the kind that kills you—without system damage.”
Signs were pointing to sabotage. It was enough for Eev to set that mystery aside, for now, and focus on more important matters. She went back to the logs, but Captain Archibald’s reports stopped abruptly. Eve wasn’t ready to leave. The alien technology—the intergalactic telescope—was just a short walk, through the asteroid.
“I’m gonna go check it out,” Eev said.
Deacon voiced his apprehension, muttered about how it wasn’t safe. But there was no reason to think the prism was a danger, now that they knew it was Johansen that killed the station crew. Besides, even if there was some risk, the opportunity was too big to pass up.
Mason led the way down the corridor, deeper into the station, past more bodies in hazard suits. They walked over a corner into a wide hall, big enough for vehicles, stopping at a blast door. Mason went to work on the control panel.
The blast doors slid open, revealing the cavern. Rock floor, smoothed out enough for vehicles, bodies scattered here and there. Rock ceiling, about six meters up. Rough cut stone, jagged. And across the full length of the cavern there was a smooth wall, black like a pool of oil.
Their steps echoed. Mason was first to reach the black wall, Eev just a step behind.
The black material—whatever it was—sucked up the light from their headlamps. No glare, no reflection. Like a hole cut in space itself. Standing this close, it was almost like her eyes were closed. Eev looked overhead, checking that she could still see. The cavern wall extended alongside the edge of the black sheet. The asteroid was carved out more here—a larger, secondary cavern just for the pyramid—leaving a few meters of space along the edge. The whole pyramid shape, this side of it anyways, rose high inside the asteroid.
“What’s it made of?” Deacon said.
Mason held his palm up to the wall. “Something magnetic,” he said. “Good enough for me.” He stepped on the edge, with a clang, and he marched up the side of the pyramid.
Eev followed. A few paces along she passed the ceiling of the adjoining cavern. She was walking inside the secondary cavern now, with Mason, along the blackness. Jagged rocks were uncomfortably close. She weaved around them, left, right, ducked her head. Behind her, Harley tentatively stepped on to the edge, and Deacon peered up from the base of the pyramid.
“You two coming, or what?” Eev called.
“Getting screwy readings,” Mason said. “Says this thing’s more than 100 billion years old.”
“That’s impossible,” Eev said.
They marched a few minutes, ducking and weaving from hanging shards of rock, Eve pausing now and then to make sure her team was keeping pace. Mason had stopped, maybe halfway to the top. Eyeballing the cavern walls, they were about dead-center on the face of the pyramid.
“Check this out,” Mason said, pointing at the floor.
Eev didn’t see a thing. Then she walked closer. A hole in the pyramid. She wouldn’t have seen it if it weren’t for the beam of the headlamp, dropping down into the hole instead of stopping at its edge. She ran her headlamp around, tracing the edge of the opening, a circular hole about two meters across.
“Why would they put the door all the way up here?” Mason said.
“Why do you think that’s a door?” Deacon said.
“The hell else you think it is?” Mason retorted. Then he pulled his cable and snapped it at the edge, just on the lip of the opening.
“You’re not going in, are you?”
Mason gestured incredulously at Deacon. “Course I’m going in. Hell, maybe I’ll pick up a souvenir while I’m down there.”
“But we don’t even know what this thing is.”
“Sure, we do,” Mason said. “Some kinda alien, walk-in-telescope.” He stepped into the opening, rotating maybe ninety-degrees, facing straight down into the black depths of the thing. Then he walked.
Eev pulled her own cable and hooked it the floor. She stepped in after Mason.
“Be careful,” Deacon said.
Yeah, Eev thought. No shit. “Just keep an eye from there.”
“I don’t know.”
The air was dense, like stepping into oil. Behind her, Harley and Deacon peered down. Mason walked ahead, slowly, deliberately, shrinking into the blackness. If she just kept her eyes on him, she wouldn’t lose her bearings. She marched, step by plodding step.
A noise grew from all around. The strange, groaning she’d heard before, gurgling, and a low, ringing sound, like a distant alarm inside a giant steel drum.
Mason wobbled in the distance, like a mirage. The disc of the overhead cavern distorted and flexed, like looking through a fisheye lens. Just stay calm, Eev told herself. You knew this would be weird. The logs said visual distortions. No reason to panic. But there was a creeping feeling of dread, like she was in a black ocean with who-knows-what staring up at her dangling feet. Enough to give her second thoughts.
“I’m coming back,” Eev said. She took a step, and it was like walking towards a curved mirror. The sphere warped as she moved, stretched out to the edges, pulled apart in the middle, and shrank—shrinking with each step, instead of getting closer.
She grabbed the cable and pulled. Still tightly secured. That was something, at least. Something to hold on to. She followed it, hand over fist, watching her hands on the cable instead of the warping sphere of the cavern. Reach, grab, pull. Heavy hands. Not like pulling through zero-g. More like pulling through mud.
She was breathing hard, muscles burning. How long have I been climbing? The cable’s only fifty meters. She stopped to rest her arms, get her breath back. It was black all around, except for the long metallic line of her cable in the lamplight, hanging from the blackness, and Mason’s line, threaded through the blackness at both ends. But Mason was nowhere. How far down had he gone?
Then there was melting light. Smears of pink and blue and purple, all around, thousands of pinpricks of white. The Orion Nebula. A frozen fog of coloured gas, forty lightyears across. There was Betelgeuse and Rigel. There was Orion’s Sword.
Captain Archibald’s logs had said he could control the telescope, kind of like a dream. How did he do it? Eev relaxed, looked around—like she was floating in deep space—and thought about the Orion Nebula. Was it true, what astronomers had said, that there was a blackhole at its heart?
She was moving now, towards the nebula, slowly at first, then tearing through space so that everything was a blur—how many times faster than light? Then it stopped. There it was, surrounded by the pink breath of the nebula. The circular distortion of a black hole, warping starlight in a disc around its edge, swallowing the light at its black core.
All she had to do was think to get here. To guide the telescope with her intentions. Could it answer the question she always wanted to know, whenever she had stared out into the stars? Could it show her life, beyond her own?
Stars rushed by, and stopped, and she was in orbit around a red planet. Not Mars. The constellations were different, and there were two suns here, both blue, spinning in a tight orbit. Why had the prism brought her here, when she’d thought of life? Was there anything on that dusty rock below?
Life, she thought again. Life. Show me life.
She flashed to another sphere. An ice planet. Blue and white. As apparently lifeless as any she’d ever seen. But what was she expecting? The green of vegetation? The forests of Earth? There was a flash of motion. And there was Earth. Swirling white clouds over the blue oceans. Green forests of Antarctica. The fat desert belt along the equator. That was home, alright. But where did they live? The people who made the prism?
Eev felt something on her shoulder. She gasped and turned. Mason dangled in space beside her.
“There’s something in here with us,” he said.
“Let’s go. I mean right now.”
They marched up the hall as stars faded to black, making their way for the expanding disc of the cavern. A low groan followed their footsteps, deep within the pyramid. Something flickered across her periphery. A black mass writhing inside the walls. Larger than the pyramid, somehow, but contained within it, oozing and morphing across the strange geometry, walls no longer black, but glowing a subtle gray.
Eev climbed from the pyramid. Harley and Deacon floated in the air, against the rocks of the cavern. Burn marks on their suits, right through to the other side. Dead.
“Look out,” Mason shouted, pushing Eev hard from the side. She careened through the air, watching Mason shrink away. A flash lit the cavern, a burst of particles past where she’d been standing. Her head clunked against rock. She winced and scanned the area. There was Mason, scurrying into the rocks for cover. She followed his lead, grabbed a big shard of rock and pulled herself behind.
Someone in a hazard suit—one of the mining suits—scrambled across the pyramid. No magboots. And holding a particle gun.
He turned for Eev, aimed his gun. Eev ducked behind a rock pillar, just as the weapon fired—a crack of thunder, a spray of fizzing blue particles all around. She didn’t have a weapon. Shit! Mason? Where the hell are you?
There he was. Taking careful aim from behind his cover. His rifle flashed. The red beam split the air, a glowing line through the cavern that burnt its fading after-image into Eev’s retina. She blinked. Waited for her vision to return.
Mason was scaling the pyramid towards the body. Clutching its chest and spinning in open air, floating some distance from their particle weapon. Eev pushed off the rock, sailed to intercept Mason near their assailant. She snapped down on the prism, just as Mason pulled the body from the air, slamming it on its back.
An old woman grimaced through the glass-face of her helmet. She was covered in grime. Wiry hair, dirty and tangled. Skin looked like it was infected with something, or burnt—red patches, some of it flaking off. A survivor from the mine? No. The killer. There was the name tag on her suit. Johansen.
“Why’d you do it?” Eev shouted, as if it mattered.
Johansen looked up. “I saw what it wants,” she said, struggling to get the words out. The laser shot likely punctured a lung. “Don’t tell it where Earth is,” she groaned.
And that was it. Glassy eyes. Dead. Another corpse in the mine.
Eev went with Mason to check Harley and Deacon. They were dead, all right. Blasted through, half-a-dozen holes each, at least. Particle buckshot.
“Goddammit,” Eev said.
“So, she was hiding here this whole time?” Mason said. “Her whole life? I never heard anything so crazy. And what did she say about Earth? Jee-sus. Have you ever—”
Groaning noise boomed into the cavern. Something rippled across the surface of the pyramid, climbing out. Organic. Rubbery, like some deep-sea creature. The fleshy mass spilled through the walls of the pyramid. Not out of the hole, but out of the blackness itself somehow. Crawling out in all dimensions, expanding, bubbling and writhing from the pyramid.
“Let’s go!” Eev said. “Back to the pod. Go, go!”
She hurled herself for the base of the cavern, crashed down, scrambled for the station. Cracks spread across the floor, ceiling, and walls.
A booming shockwave rocked the cavern, blasted Eev from her feet, and everything was spinning. A blur. Something snagged her, halting most of her momentum.
She dangled in open space—stars around her instead of rock—tethered on the end of Mason’s cable. And he was there on what was left of the asteroid and the station, secured to the blast door. The rest of the asteroid—the secondary cavern, the prism—had broken away into empty space. And where it used to be, there was that alien thing. Writhing tentacles hanging from its face. Dead black eyes, a head larger than their spacecraft. And it was still—impossibly—expanding outwards, the pyramid hidden somewhere inside its unfurling flesh. A body and arms came into views. Legs. It was a bipedal creature.
It reached for the chunk of broken asteroid, the hollow husk that had contained the prism. With a clawed hand, it scraped inside the cavern, shattering bits of rock, scooped the bodies of Harley, Deacon, and Johansen, stuffed them in its waiting maw.
Then it reached for the other half of the asteroid—for the station, in Eev’s direction. She dangled like bait on the end of a fishing line.
“Reel me in! Mason! Hurry up!”
The cable jerked, and she accelerated to Mason. She crashed down, then raced through the open blast doors. Sprinting down the hall with Mason, she looked back as the creature’s hand scraped across the open cavern, outside the blast door. A half dozen corpses floated there, old station crew, long dead. Balled up in the thing’s massive palm, a handful of corpses, stuffed below the folds of its tendrils, crunched in its cavernous beak.
Through the slit of the open door, she saw its face draw near, fish-like. One enormous eye, bigger than the open crack of the blast door, peered in.
Eev stopped, grabbed Mason’s rifle, and aimed. The giant orb stared back. She fired. Dead center, straight into its pupil.
An ear-splitting screech filled the air. Then Eev was thrown to the wall. Stuck there by something a little weaker than gravity, pulling oblique to the wall. Through the blast door, the stars were curving streaks.
“We’re spinning,” Mason said. “It chucked us.”
“That’s good.” Better that than eaten.
Eev stumbled for the door. Was it still coming for them? She saw the creature, deforming, shrinking away, slithering its whole body back through the pyramid, down to its whipping tail. Then the pyramid shrank to nothing.
“What the hell do we do now?” Mason said.
This wasn’t in the SOP—steps to take if you happen to make first contact with alien life, and it wasn’t the greeting she’d always dreamt of.
“We need to get a message to command,” Eev said. But what to tell them. A space monster just crawled from an intergalactic, mind-reading telescope. But it wasn’t a telescope. That creature—monster, alien, whatever it was—it was fishing. The prism was bait. And Eev had taken it. Don’t tell it where Earth is, Johansen had said. Don’t show it, she meant. Don’t show it Earth. That’s what she was trying to stop. Too late. Eev had taken the prism to Earth, pointed right to it. And that thing was watching her do it, learning the way.
“We need to tell them something’s coming for Earth,” Eev said. “And it’s hungry.”
They spun in silence. So long she’d spent searching the darkness for coordinates of some life-bearing star, only to find that black prism—placed there by an ancient, interstellar sentience, maybe older than the universe itself. Eve thought again about Earth, about coordinates. She thought about the black prism, and what left it, and the sticky sweetness of nutritive paste. She understood at once why the stars were so quiet.