Haunted

HAUNTED Illustration

Haunted

Bud Sparhawk and Cat Rambo

DATE/TIME: Long Light Years Forever

Silence. The darkness enfolds me.

While my mind roams free I wonder if my body remains on the station, lies asleep in a redwood hammock, or nestles in an alien starship’s living breast?

There is no sound, no sensation, no sense of being, so this must be another dream.  But why would I question that if I am dreaming? Or is that another fantasy?  Can one dream a dream about reality? And where does the dream end and reality begin?

Why do my voices not end this silence?

Is my destination death, revelation, or glory?

DATE/TIME: 5250 09 10

The sun had barely risen above the green horizon when I unfastened the hammock and brushed the dew from its surface. Far below me I could hear the chirp-chirp of a curlew.  A raven called somewhere in the upper canopy. A delicate pip, pip, pip, somewhere closer to the ground, followed.

The birds paid me little attention.  A morning flock swept below me through the green depths of the canopy like a school of fish, iridescent backs shining with reflected sunlight.

The breeze held a tang of the Pacific Ocean to the west, along with the forest’s scents of earth, bark, and compost.

My tree rocked in the breeze like a ship riding at anchor. The enclosing sleeping bag swung in a slow, steady arc in time with the sway of the redwood’s upper branches.  A lizard emerged from a crack in the bark, tasted the morning’s promise with flickering tongue, and scooted heavenward in search of something to break its fast.

This was what I had come for, this quiet communion with the great trees, the giants that reared a hundred meters into the sky to dominate the forest.

My perch was a hundred and seven meters above the duff-encrusted forest floor: a sleeping nest anchored to the tree’s trunk by an encircling soft rope and my Wilson’s hitch and four carabineers. The custodians of this old-growth forest frowned on anything that might damage the soft bark of their charges.

It had taken years to secure my one month permit, during which time I had been schooled in the skills of tree climbing and survival, the complex rules of proper behavior among the treetop ecology, and as much biology as I could handle.

The Mobility families had enlisted me to garner public support to clone these trees for the Martian climate and I was selected to discover all that I could of these ancient giants.  The Mobility already had access to all the scientific information gathered over the past hundreds of years but felt someone had to experience the nature of the massive trees, learn what secrets they might provide, and speak to the emotional hearts as well as the rational mind.

But even in those groves, humanity’s net embraced me in a gentle susurration of voices – the hum of daily life that permeated everyone’s existence from birth to death. Hardly a fact went unmentioned, an event unannounced, or a random thought unpublished within humanity’s noonospheric environs.  “The temperature is…, …good morning Steven.. in other news this morning…. anybody got a connect to..”  Despite my desires, the miasma of communication continued to flow even there, but in the solitude of heights, where birdsong and the whisper of wind prevailed, I could briefly ignore these interruptions to my morning contemplations of sky and trees, of wind and smells, of the sounds of an awakening forest far below as the sun’s rays fought to penetrate the shadowy reaches of the tree’s base.

After a sip of water drawn the previous evening from a pool atop the tree’s deadwood crown and a nutritional ration I secured myself to my climbing rope and emerged like a butterfly from my cocoon.

Gulliver, this redwood, stood one hundred and seven meters tall and contained nearly nine hundred cubic meters of wood. Its diameter was over five meters at the base, and maintained that girth to its living top.  Gulliver had fifty extra trunks and four fire caves from near disasters in the past.

Much of its center was probably rotten.

For months I had lived among the ancient redwoods at North America’s Jebediah Smith forest and the less dense but no less amazing trees of Muir Woods, both isolated from tourists and the encroaching world to preserve their unique ecologies.  There I had breathed deeply of evergreen, mold, and decay. I’d slept the most peaceful sleep of my life suspended in a hammock thirty meters above the forest floor.  There, like the trees, I dreamed slow dreams of sunlight and wind, of drinking deep from the forest’s base and sipping the air to create the supporting wood.

Only later, after I’d left those refuges, did I learn the delicate miracle of chemistry and physics that combined the oxygen and hydrogen of water and the air’s carbon dioxide too produce the redwood’s lumber; a wood so prized by the early settlers that they’d pillaged the forest, not realizing the wonders they destroyed.

DATE/TIME: 5268 01 Noon

I had imagined my stay in the Graveyard as sentinel would provide a similar refuge.  And, as I’d imagined then, I was out of range of all but the most insistent of signals, and even those were weakened by distance.

I recalled how I’d pressed close against the small transport’s port for my first sight of the Graveyard a year before, peering though the shuttle’s spiderlike tracery of spar and line, cable and post.  The port framed distant stars as we moved on a trajectory that would intersect the Graveyard’s long path about the sun and find the station that would be my future home.

“I confirmed our approach,” the pilot said over his shoulder. “Enjoy the free fall while you can.”

I tapped the kitten’s carrier, a transparent sphere in which she was amusing herself by caroming off the inner surfaces. She swatted at my finger and did a backwards somersault.

“Enjoy it while you can,” I echoed, “Gravity’s coming.”

Not a moment too soon for me, I added.  My stomach had complained since we left the larger transport ship. Even the slight induced gravity of my new residence would be welcome.

The pilot made an adjustment. Stars danced up and to the left. “Don’t know how you can even think of staying out here. I’m already getting the shakes from being away from my collective.  I don’t see how you can possibly stand the fucking silence!”

Unlike most humans, I never found warmth and comfort in the constant contact with others that was supposed to wrap me in a blanket of concern, caring, and openness.  To me, the subvocal hum, the embrace of my extended families, of friends, lovers, and others of lesser relation, was smothering. I found myself smiling out the port at the dancing lights with anticipation.

“Man,” the pilot went on as the stars wheeled by, “somebody must really have it in for you to give you this job. You couldn’t pay me enough!”

“My choice, not someone else’s,” I answered. “I chose to do so because it’s so isolated.” Soon it would be my place of refuge, a haven made of silence and isolation.

I didn’t explain that my collective held partial stake in the ancient Thistledown experiment, although few of its members other than myself valued it. Over the centuries a few stubborn individuals had insisted on maintaining ties to the search, thinking that someday, somehow, it might pay off.

The pilot’s silence told me he thought me insane, subhuman, or a fool.  To his thinking, no one in their right mind would volunteer to spend an extended period in complete isolation, cut off not just from humanity’s din, but from his own collective.

Until I chose otherwise, I would answer to no one but myself as I maintained the integrity of the Graveyard.  From this point on, only the occasional arrival of an automated resupply vessel or an infrequent packet of news and messages from civilization would interrupt me.

And some day, perhaps hearing a returning ship bearing the good news.

The pilot interrupted my reverie.  “Might as well lean back.  You can’t see much out here.”

I pulled back, embarrassed. My excitement had made me lean forward into the pilot’s personal space to better see our approach.  I should have known better: the Graveyard – I hated that term — spanned a large volume, each widely spaced ship a barely visible speck of light. Even from my station they would be almost indiscernible from the multitude of other stars.

In my mind’s eye I envisioned the Graveyard as a constellation of ThistleDown ships, sparkling. Glorious. Ready to be launched again.  But in reality the Graveyard’s starships had been demoted by obsolescence and time, not just from lack of purpose.  Now, through no fault of their own, they were just drifting derelicts far from Earth, abandoned by the civilization that had created them.

This was a graveyard for the dead dreams of a thousand years: a graveyard of failures and shattered hope.

The pilot twisted the shuttle to orient with the approaching station.  “Last guy out here went crazy. Artist, someone said.”

“Yeah, Himblot.”

The mysterious disappearance of the last senitnel/guardian was one reason my Family was so reluctant to permit me this opportunity.  Fear that near-total isolation, that separation from the web of human interaction that permeated every moment of our lives from birth, would unhinge my mind.

They’d gone over concern after concern, but I was nothing if not persistent and, eventually, all resistance was worn away, leaving my path open for this solitary life. The collective agreed.

“Anybody know why he went insane?” the pilot asked, still talking about my predecessor, the Artist.  “Personally, I think anybody who wants this job is crazy already.” He stopped abruptly, conscious of my proximity.

I said nothing, but chuckled in his ear and enjoyed the flinch.

Within seconds following the shuttle’s gentle kiss to the station, I boarded, dragging my personal gear behind: a few ancient books, images of family and Family, the two living beings that had accompanied me here, and little else.

Orbital mechanics dictated that the pilot had a very narrow window to detach the cargo pod before the shuttle continued on to rendezvous with the transport ship, his home, and his own family and larger collective.

Leaving me bereft of my own.

“Best of luck,” the pilot broadcast. His was the last live human voice I’d hear until I chose to end my isolation.

“Calm seas and gentle breezes,” I answered, feeling pretentious as the words left my mouth. I hoped he understood the ancient reference.

But there was no reply as the shuttle boosted away on a puff of crystallized snow that glittered in the starlight before vanishing.

“Heavy,” complained the kitten as I set her transport ball and the potted sapling aside while I prepared to secure the cargo pod containing all I would need until the resupply capsule arrived.  Automated latches had already secured it to the station, connecting power and air. In time, as the pod emptied, it would provide me with additional living volume.

“Hurts,” she cried as I opened the ball to let her roam about the confined space. She took a tentative step, glanced around, and jumped onto my bunk, a good meter and a half above her head.

“Strong,” she mewed proudly.

“No,” I replied, wondering how to explain that since the station wasn’t equipped to provide Earth’s normal gravity, her leaps would only seem stronger.  But then why was I even trying to explain to a cat? Just because the animal had a rudimentary vocabulary didn’t mean she was intelligent enough to understand physics.

Gravity felt strange after more than a day without.  I glanced around and set my personal kit aside. The decorators of this place had adorned the walls with complex and seemingly random decorations, covering any location not occupied by equipment or display or ports. But I chose not to examine them and instead busied myself with setting up housekeeping, ensuring the supplies were as promised, and generally putting my own stamp upon my new residence.

Closer inspection of what I had assumed to be decorative splatter on the walls set me aback. These were no random squiggles in the faddish mode of the late ‘50’s when ThistleDown had built this station, but exquisitely detailed images incised into the metal by a patient engraver: gazelles, unicorns, bison, and cats, along with a host of extinct and alien creatures that never walked the Earth. Six-legged beasts of fantastic shapes gamboled by others resembling aqueous octopi and squids.  Ropes of what might have been snakes or twists of vegetation wove in, around, and among the hundreds of creatures populating the incredible bestiary.

My predecessor must have done this as his last and possibly greatest work.  Was that why he’d chosen the isolation of this station or was this art a manifestation of his isolation? Did it have anything to do with his ravings shortly before he disappeared?

What could have driven him to draw these familiar and fantastic animals and plants? Had his loneliness, the apartness, the separation from other humans led to his supposed madness? What could have inspired him?

The images fascinated me initially, but as time passed and daily necessities dominated, the art simply became a part of my surroundings, no more noticed than the patterns of the stars beyond the ports or the small dots of abandoned graveyard ships.

Although sometimes I imagined that the walls spoke to me.

#

For now, the Graveyard was far from its dominant neighbors but in fifty-six years Jupiter would close and Neptune drop further back, lessening its effect on the configuration. In another seventeen years Saturn would begin to make its presence known and, as Jupiter waned, distort the arc again. Only the sun provided a constant attraction that kept us all in our orbits.

The three giants tugged constantly on the ships, reaching across the vast distances with their gravitational arms.  The station, with its active positioning systems, maintained a stable reference point to the rear of the pack.

Three ships lay in the plane of the ecliptic, as did the station.  Two more orbited “below” and one lagged “behind.”  Above the plane were the other four, the furthest nearly nine hours away. That was problematic as my suit could only protect me for twenty some hours, given my normal exertion levels.  I’d have to get my positioning measurements more quickly on the outermost ships.  If there were any perturbation, then I would have to take additional air to perform orbit corrections, as they usually took an entire day.

The remaining ships ranged closer, the nearest a mere two hours “behind” and “below” me.

ThistleDown

ThistleDown arose as a private organization when it became obvious that none of Earth’s politicians held the long-term perspective necessary if humanity were ever to reach the stars. Politicians and public sentiment were continually buffeted by the winds of circumstance – a hurricane here, an earthquake there, pernicious famine, banditry, epidemics, and scandal. The list was endless, ever distracting from any projects that extended beyond the next election cycle.

The ThistleDown project had been a massive, multigenerational effort. A dream of contacting distant races and becoming one with a vast galactic community.  Each starship cost a significant portion of the world’s wealth, consuming the most brilliant engineers and scientists, all to ensure that their ships would be the one to make contact.  The ThistleDown ships had been launched for centuries, seeking life, civilizations, and the companionship of like souls. Each contained a human mind, the only thing that could be counted on to be able to react to aliens, to have the plasticity of language that could lead to communication.

ThistleDown started with a few generous benevolences, a public lottery that became a charity, then a brief and shameful political issue, and finally matured into an international organization of patrons who shared the belief that humankind’s ultimate destiny lay in reaching the stars.

DATE/TIME: 5268 01 15

For the first few days on the station, I didn’t dress – why bother with modesty in such a small space while so alone? I would eat my carefully programmed breakfast before a grueling turn on the treadmill to keep myself in condition.

Part of the daily routine was to check the habitat’s systems, the levels of supplies, and clean, clean, clean. I had not thought of the copious amounts of skin flakes and hair I would produce, both of which accumulated on the filters.

Then there was the endless cloud of kitten fluff that clogged the filters too often.

While I wasn’t familiarizing myself with the small sled’s operation or the complex arrangements of the suit I must wear, I tried to decipher the compressed packet that barely made it through the sun’s blanketing static intact as Earth disappeared around its arm for four months.  It would have been unintelligible were it not for the AI’s corrections and filtering.

Most of the news held no interest, as it had no relevance to me.  Nevertheless, despite my unwillingness to expose myself to new information, I always wondered about the parts of stories that I didn’t hear.

After a few weeks I stopped listening and began to contemplate the ships and their brave pilots.  I kept cheating, just a little, before I finally stopped suckling at the news teat for good. I told the AI to cease monitoring that channel. There were other matters at hand. The news was irrelevant and unimportant.

#

My initial days at the Graveyard were spent ensuring that the station was in order, that all my supplies were properly stowed, that the kitten’s routine was established, and that my sapling was sufficiently watered and protected from the occasional depredations of kittenhood.  Even after all my preparation I was reluctant to go beyond the relative safety of the station into the emptiness of cold space, and actually visit Ardent, the nearest ship, once piloted by Olivia Delacruz.

Of all the starship pilots, her words rang the most plaintively for me in that tintinnabulation of sorrow. “I’ve reached into the night only to discover that we are alone,” she wrote. “And there aren’t even deadly wolves howling on the empty plain.”

I knew I had to be careful on my first foray and do everything by the book, check every item off the procedural list. The universe is not unkind, but it is terribly unforgiving.

I checked my suit multiple times, drilled with the sled till I could maneuver it with precision, and triple-checked the charge of all my necessary devices. Finally, there was nothing left to do but begin my first visit.  Ardent awaited

I struggled into my suit, boarded the sled, and engaged the drive.  The stars wheeled around me as the sled’s AI turned us almost one hundred and eighty degrees horizontally, sixty vertically, and pitched two hundred to point directly to the distant Ardent.

Acceleration was so gentle that it took me moments to realize I was moving.

I risked a glance back as I left the vicinity of the station. The Milky Way slashed vertically across the star field. Perhaps it was a trick of the helmet’s visor but I could see a rainbow of myriad colors within the dense span of stars.

The solar system’s position on an outer arm of the galaxy both blessed and cursed humans.  From here we could see the grandeur of our galaxy, but our location held few nearby stars when compared to the closely packed core. There we could send ships to hundreds of suns while here we could span relatively few.

The station disappeared among the stars.  For the first time in my life I was face-to-face with immensity. The true meaning of infinity lay concrete before me. I was a mote: a microscopic, insignificant speck in a universe vast beyond imagination.

How must the pilots have dealt with such a sight, out there among the distant stars?  Had they felt the same awe and wonder or had they been so preoccupied with the technology surrounding them that they paid it no heed?

The stars gave me no answer as I moved towards my first sight of Ardent.

Ardent looked nothing like the silver bullet rockets that had infested the covers of ancient cheap fiction. Instead Ardent was a second-generation ram scoop, diamond spider webs surrounding her, sparkling in weak imitation of the surrounding stars.

Graceful she was not.  Neither was she streamlined for three dimensions.  Instead her form was designed to slip smoothly through the seven dimensional spaces of the real universe.

I tried to stay calm as I approached her, steering as carefully to avoid the butterfly fan of photon collectors as I’d once avoided scraping the giant redwood’s bark. I didn’t want to disturb the tracery of collector threads surrounding the massive hull that contained the pilot’s casket at its core.  Instead, I chose to approach Ardent’s stern and its massive engines.

The first sight of her glittering hull puzzled me. Had she gathered portions of the distant suns to herself while traveling? No, I corrected myself. I must not let my lyrical imagination get the best of me.  There had to be a rational explanation for the glitter.

As I drew closer to the main body, Ardent’s immensity made me feel a fly in comparison. The collector stretched away on all sides with insubstantial threads so thin that they became invisible in less than ten meters.

At the web’s center lay the great starship with its massive propulsion engines, the bulge of the Tsu drive, and the huge casing holding life support apparatus, all supporting the pilot’s casket at its heart. That tiny bit contained the singular purpose of all this expensive technology: the pilot explorer.

The pilot’s container was little more than a casket, although no terrestrial coffin was ever so technologically appointed. It provided every necessity, including AI precautions against insanity or worse.  No alien presence could penetrate Ardent’s impervious shell nor gain purchase on its ultra-slick surface.

My only duty was to ensure Ardent’s position in reference to the station.  I would never glimpse what Ardent once held. Olivia had been decanted and revived centuries before I was born. I had only her quote of failure to provide me with context.

The surface of Ardent was pitted from micro-collisions with debris particles. Her once smooth metal glimmered as the coating of dust caught the light from my sled. My fingerlamp illuminated glittering swaths as I floated close to put my hands on the hull.

She was unyielding beneath my touch. Real. I was finally touching a ship that had conquered the heavens, gone unimaginable distances, and returned. Ardent was no longer a promised dream but a solid actuality.

Dust glittered away from my gloved fingers, falling into the void as I caressed the hull.

To the civilized, Ardent might only be an artifact of a bygone, futile effort, no more than scrap to be recycled. But to me she and her sisters possessed souls. No heartbeat throbbed below my palm, no blood pounded in her tubes and veins, but surely she only slumbered, waiting to ride the skies again.

I breathed out and moved away from the hull after placing the theodolite on her glittering surface.  I hoped that nothing had happened to perturb her in the five years since mad Himblot had performed this task.

Meticulous in my inspection, I skimmed the hull to get a closer view of the massive engines, drive torus, and the outswelling McDevitt manifold. I sent my light along my flight path, shadows jittering away from me in nooks and crannies.

The theodolite’s reading scrolled on the right side of my vision, the confirmation readings flashing green before fading away.

When I checked the time, I had four hours left. The return trip to the station would take a little under three. I had an hour to spend communing with Ardent, contemplating what she might reveal of her brave voyage and ignoble return.

I listened for Ardent’s voice. Could the communication or steering components still speak?  Perhaps a bit of consciousness remained of this ship’s absent pilot, a residuum in her AI component?

I wanted so badly to hear her story.

The radio crackled and I jerked in response.  Had that been an actual voice or just static’s sudden blare?

Damn. My imagination, run rampant, was giving voice to my desires. There was no other explanation, not here, not so far from everything that another’s thoughts could be known.

Yet I certainly thought I had heard something.  What could it have been?

When I’d communed with the redwoods they’d spoken with rustling branches and sloughing bark, showers of needles and moaning of the trunks as they rocked in the wind. I could not understand their language but that did not keep me from understanding what they were saying of their long years of growth as they struggled for sunlight.

As they struggled for photons.

Other photons still struck Ardent’s great collection web and sent their minuscule energy to the ship. How long had those photons now striking the net been traveling?  Light creeps across the heavens with unbearable slowness.  A photon ejected from the first star Ardent had visited had reached the solar system two hundred years after Olivia’s death. Photons emitted from the most distant stars visited by later ships would not arrive until all of humankind’s artifices were as long gone as the age of mammals.

Would Ardent remain to receive that photon? Would Ardent grasp the immense time that had passed?

There!  I heard a barely discernible crackle, the end effect of quadrillions of photons striking the web and depositing their jots of energy to the ship.  If I listened hard enough, could I hear voices from afar, from ages past, from stars now nothing more than ash?  Or could that stream be modulated by Ardent, by the circuitry that once informed Olivia? Would it, could it speak to me now? If it did, then what would I hear?

Listen, listen. I strained my ears to hear.

“Crackle, crackle, pop,” sang Ardent in a language I desperately yearned to understand.

#

I had no knowledge what the kitten did as I visited the ships. Probably something foolish. Or maybe she slept the entire time, like cats had for all time. There was little chance that anything she might do would affect our lives.

“Hungry,” was her greeting when I returned from visiting my ships.

“Glad you missed me,” I replied as I scooped ration into her bowl, but got neither acknowledgement nor reply as she haughtily dined.

You would have thought that I welcomed her conversation more, that it would have alleviated the loneliness.

But conversations built of single words are frustrating, lacking context. We build settings for our words.  Cages of prepositions and articles tell us how we should view ourselves, our situations, and our lives. The cat presented me with single words, uncut stones that didn’t know what shape they wanted to become, unassembled into any sort of structure.

There was something about the single-mindedness of the cat’s limited conversational gambits, always turning the dialogue self-referential – the antithesis of human interaction.

Still, despite the limited conversation, the cat at least pretended to listen. My redwood sapling was considerably less talkative, but also significantly less entertaining than our companion.

My next trip would be to Hooligan, I decided.  She was at 298 degrees “ahead” of the station’s position and six hours away.

Planning the trip and examining what data I had on her beforehand gave me an illusion of purpose.

Redwoods

A massive redwood with a six-meter base diameter is not something one approaches fearlessly.  Human reactions are rarely subtle in the presence of these unfathomably ancient and enormously tall giants. Their age stirs atavistic fears that we are not the masters of this Earth but mere scrambling, ephemeral creatures.

Among the massive, closely packed trunks, the emerging saplings of the fairy rings, and tough roots was Gulliver, whose girth exceeded six meters. It must have put down its first, thirsty roots thousands of years ago, perhaps before the Magna Carta was written or Wang Shen set out to create the Great Wall.

How many fires had it endured?  How many lumberjacks had it evaded, and how many storms and droughts had it survived?  Yet, for all its apparent beauty, this tree was a menacing, viciously aggressive force in its environment.

Towering above other tree species, it robbed them of the sunlight, making it nearly impossible for them to grow. Heavy chunks of dead wood had shattered smaller trees: hemlocks, spruces, Douglas firs, or big-leaf maples. Throughout my travels to Gulliver I saw the remnants of other upstart species.

At the same time, among the debris and in the deep shade of their elders, young redwoods thrived in thickets of slender trunks, the only trees growing.  Most, if not all, had arisen from their parent’s roots as clones. Only rarely did the giants grow from a nearly microscopic-sized seed.

DATE/TIME: 5268 05 08 11:32

By the time my redwood sapling had recovered from transportation and put out two new leaves, I’d developed a routine. I varied the lengths of my visits to the Graveyard’s starships, determining the sequence by their likelihood of drift.  Out here, in the void between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, the careful arrangement of abandoned starships was perturbed only by the gravitational attraction of those two massive attractors, leaning Jupiter-ward at one point and Uranus-ish at another.  But since neither of the giant planets was currently on this side of the sun in their decades-long orbits, only the Sun’s photonic pressure or the random impact of some bit of flotsam nudged the starships from their positions in the cluster.

Starship PC-14558 was my current target.  The lack of a proper name marked the time of construction when humanity had thought itself beyond that infantile practice for nothing more than a piece of sophisticated machinery.  That self-delusion lasted decades until romance reasserted itself into humanity’s Jungian unconscious and granted subsequent ships with proper names: Hand of God, Valley Forge, and Prometheus.

PC-14558 lay on the ecliptic plane just four hours toward the Graveyard’s leading edge. An easy transit for my sled.

PC-14558 was a third generation ship.  That meant my approach had to be done with great care lest the sled strike the hair-thin diamond fiber stays–the wires that held the sail in place–or the outriggers. The number of the stays also meant that it would take time and gymnastic ability to wend my way through the maze and attach the theodolite.

As many times as I’d visited the starships, I never failed to be stunned by their beauty.  As PC-14558’s outriggers ponderously wheeled about its spine the hair-thin stays sparkled with reflected sun- and starlight and its golden body glittered from the adhering microparticles. I took in the ship for a moment, appreciating its solitary splendor.

The sled halted shy of the dorsal outrigger so I could begin the mundane task of checking its relative position with the theodolite. The theodolite would use its laser to measure distance and bearing in three dimensions against the other ships and alert me to any drift from PC-14558’s designated position.

As I maneuvered through the maze toward the anchor point for the instrument, I wondered what songs this ship could sing? Would it speak in dulcet chimes, or an organ’s bass tones? Would a touch of my glove upon a taut stay produce a note unheard in the vacuum?

That thought bemused me as I crossed the gap between the anterior outrigger and the hull.  My forward motion was abruptly stopped. The ship and stars rolled around. It was as if some hand had grasped my shoulder

My immediate concern was that my momentum might have perturbed PC-14558. If so, it would take weeks of painstaking work to nudge her back into position.

But that concern was further down the line. First I had to extricate myself from whatever had snagged me without adding any additional momentum to the ship.

I felt about with my free arm.  As soon as my glove touched a stay, I realized what had happened. I had failed to take proper care–one does get sloppy when doing a routine task–and had become snagged on a stay. All I had to do to free myself was reverse my arc.

Only–which way had I been heading?

Calm, I told myself. Stay calm and reason this out.

The first step: figure out where I was attached. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that any movement would make me rotate about the attachment point? Once I determined that, I could figure out what to do next.

But something unexpected happened. I heard the ship singing, but not over any of the communication paths open to the sled or my distant station. It was in my helmet!

The ship’s voice was musical, plaintive and haunting – truly a song of the stars.

I immediately corrected myself.  Ridiculous! PC-14558 had been abandoned for too many centuries. There had to be another reason, not the momentary fantasy I had summoned.

I ignored the song. Time enough to figure out its source later, after I’d freed myself.

I had twisted and rolled so that I no longer faced the direction of my travel.  Should I back up or would that entangle me to even more?  I groped behind me to touch the stay again, but could no longer feel it.  I kicked, trying to impart some rotation that might tell me where and along which axis the problem lay.

Shoulder high was the answer.  Could a stay have snagged my helmet, my backpack, or the recorder on my left shoulder? I unhooked the backpack’s straps and, taking a deep breath, disconnected myself to float free.

I spun and saw that the stay had been caught between my suit and the pack, somehow inveigling itself into that narrow separation to press against my helmet’s baseplate. That must be why I heard the song: simply the transfer of vibrations to my helmet, nothing more.

I cleared the pack and reattached before continuing on my way, fearing what the theodolite would reveal of my impact on the ship.

I was ashamed that my imagination had even momentarily been distracted me from basic safety procedures.  This far from any possibility of aid, I could die and no one would be the wiser for another two months, when Earth once again peeked around the distant sun and I could again communicate with ThistleDown.

Or not.

I vowed to take greater care in the future as I set the measuring equipment in place.

#

I had a good night’s rest after returning from my inspection of PC-14558. No matter how far we come, I mused, our origins cling to us. The term “night’s rest” had little meaning this far from Earth’s diurnal rotation, but nonetheless my atavistic brain insisted on its natural twenty-five hour cycle. So, lockstep to tradition and habit, I slept, with the song I’d heard still tangling my thoughts, haunting my dreams.

In the morning, my mind refreshed, I pondered the strange effects I’d encountered while struggling with the entangling wires the previous day.  I knew that I hadn’t heard an actual voice. It was only the result of my overactive imagination and the wishes of the moment.

But it wasn’t just noise that it sang? I was certain there were words.  “Dreams,” it had whispered, barely audible within the humming of the stays. “Want,” it had intoned in counterpoint as I must have disturbed another of the tensioned wires and set it to vibrating. There had been other words, but only those were the only two I recalled.

The cat butted my knee and I laughed, reaching down to rub behind her ears.

“The so-called ’voice of the ships‘ was only a metaphor,” I told her as she purred. “A figurative expression of the stories people glimpsed between the lines as they contemplated the logs of a starship’s vast voyages, hoping to find something missed by the searching pilots.  None of those ancient AI’s, sans pilots, retain enough intelligence to converse, to remember, or speak.”

I certainly had not expected to hear one singing.

But was my memory of the words within the song a reliable memory?  Was I recalling a real experience or had I only dreamed the voice after my return, inserting it into the memory? That was equally nonsense.  Dreams fade away as one wakes, not overwriting actual memories.

Perhaps, but why was the memory so clear, so resonant with my desires? I couldn’t have heard those voices so clearly. It was impossible.

Impossible!

DATE/TIME: 5268 05 14 Morning

My simple life as an isolate in the Graveyard would be unbearable were it not for a rigorous unchanging routine that anchored me in the here and now.

Without a set routine I could easily be cast adrift, losing sight of purpose and objective. A steady, simple schedule knit the day together, with moments marked off for meals, exercise, meditation, contemplation, and sleep broken only by my periodic visits to the starships.

Maybe it was obsessive to chart a daily routine, to worry about where one day ends and another begins. But my routine wasn’t THAT precise, that compulsive. I could have marked it out with much sharper precision, allotted moments specifically delineated rather than as broad chunks of time.

Part of the reason for mapping my day was that I worried that if I didn’t time might slip away and I’d realize one day, after all those moments had added up, that I’d be no more than Himblot, the creator of the dancing animals that adorned my walls.

That’s what concerned me about my elected isolation. Despite my desire for solitude, the loneliness could easily drive me mad. Worse, it might prevent me from noticing my sanity ebbing.  What if I started skipping some vital maintenance routine?

When I was very young, my friends and I enjoyed each of the old manias, inducing them chemically or otherwise. (Well, until our families noticed and put a stop to it.)

Some of us underwent the process with the zeal of a true collector, trying to tick off every entry on an imaginary scorecard. But I gave up after just a few.

Because the truth was: when you were inside the madness, you didn’t realize it. You weren’t able to step back and watch yourself like a connoisseur, noting how things had changed, skewed away from the normal, because normal didn’t exist anymore when you were caught up in abnormal.

Maybe my altruistic sojourn among the redwoods was just an attempt to re-create that and fool myself. Maybe it was as trivial as that effort had been.

Certainly that’s what everyone in my part of the family thought; that I was wasting my time. But what are human lives but chains of time to waste? We have so many directions we can go in, and so many of us do, that it seemed odd for them to carp at me for trying to find a new direction by submerging myself in solitude.

On ancient ships, mariners had a destination but it was often the journey, not the destination, that mattered.

That’s not what I wanted. I wasn’t interested in creating something new.  All I wanted to do was think deeply about the answer to ThistleDown’s question and, hopefully, discover an answer.

I chosen to take up this lonely role myself, even though I’d told myself it was for my collective’s wellbeing. Why had I been so eager? Was there another, deeper reason I desired solitude?

Often, in the times between scheduled activity and the busy-ness of measuring the gravitational drift of the relic fleet, I wondered why that previous occupant of my station, Himblot, had became so mentally unhinged. Surely he was as continuously preoccupied with managing the station and ensuring the ships’ gravitational drift was within bounds, or plotting his next forays.

What wild impulse led him to amuse himself with the incision of the strange, cramped iconic images that adorned my walls?  Did they express his insanity or cause it?

ThistleDown

Nobody’s Business, like Dauntless, had been a massive, chisel shaped marvel of metallurgy and engineering. Despite a poor understanding of the streamlining necessary to transit seven-space, she succeeded through brute force.

The results of Dora’s return from the stars provided the insights needed to plan a more efficient design that made better use of energy and enabled a ship to better navigate the buffeting winds of supra-dimensional travel.

Ardent was the only second generation ship and featured a ram scoop design that directed the dark forces it collected into the paired tori of the Tsu drive. While more efficient from a power standpoint, the ram scoop failed to improve Ardent’s navigational reach of less than two hundred light years and two-thirds of the way behind the expanding front of Earth’s radio waves.

Construction of Space Beagle, a third generation ship, used an outrigger design.  The collector pods were set at an angle to the direction of flight and equally spaced about the hull.  Spars provided stability while tensioning cables maintained their separation.

ThistleDown continued to improve the starships’ design. As a result, Hooligan, the most expensive ship to date, set out a thousand years after Dauntless, when Mars finally got its clearance to have its orbit nudged closer to the sun.

Hooligan’s double torus design improved the Tsu engine itself instead of streamlining the ship. Advances in power generation made the drive more powerful than ever and, with paired tori, the range of the ship could be extended beyond a thousand light years, finally passing the expanding radio wave front.

Four ships used this design before the discovery of twister technology refined it even further.

I often wondered if with better designs, ships that could bridge the galactic abyss, would have followed?  But that might remain unknown, since ThistleDown had finally lost its impetus. Supporters no longer believed in the dream, no longer desired to reach the stars.

Humanity turned inwards instead.

DATE/TIME: 5268 11 15 02:30

My lethargy disappeared the moment I heard the console ping from the onrushing capsule. I saw its flashing beacon, a remote dot, hours behind the station, racing to reach the station at the peak of its trajectory. There it would ever so briefly kiss the station during its few arc seconds at the apogee.

My sudden change from indolent blob to frenetic activity alarmed the cat, who sprang from deck to bunk in one scrawling leap. I ran about the station checking the systems, looking though the supposedly empty supply capsule to make absolutely certain not a morsel remained of the initial load.  Had I missed a ration box, a bag for the litter box, a stray cylinder of air, an unnoticed filter or coffee tab? Perhaps a bit of fabric, or a chip for the AI?  But, despite scouring the holds and probing the deeper recesses of the container’s bins, I found nothing save desiccated remnants of the cat’s midnight elimination when travel to the litter box was too inconvenient.

I ignored that, letting the recipients of this container puzzle over its meaning.

Most of my waiting activity was simply done to kill time with meaningless efforts.  My suit was already prepared and waiting in the lock. I debated deploying the capture nets – unnecessary, they’d assured me, since the approaching vehicle would match speeds for the brief time it should take to trade containers. Nevertheless I worried about the consequences should the trajectory be in error.  Insurance, I assured myself.  I would be ready. I deployed the nets.

I checked the screen every minute to assure myself that the incoming vehicle remained on target as it crawled toward me with agonizingly blinking slowness.

”Come on, come on,” I whispered under my breath, eyes fixed on the light.

The cat took this as an invitation to launch herself onto my bare, unprotected shoulder.

“Pet me,” she wailed as I tried to ignore the prickle of her claws.  I had long ago learned not to brush her off as it only resulted in her digging her claws deeper.  Better to suffer a few small punctures than experience a more serious and unwelcome feline surgery.

I donned my suit when the capsule was five meters “behind” the station and creeping at a relative one millimeter per minute toward the transfer boom. I ensured that my tools were firmly attached, my faceplate clean, and that my hands had stopped trembling from excitement.  A transfer was no time for fumbling.

When I attached myself to the boom, the nose of the craft was almost within touching distance. I resisted disturbing it and waited as the supply container’s clamp approached my waiting hand.  In my other hand I held the cable end connected to the empty and already disconnected container.

My glove touched the clamp. I snapped it free and attached the arresting cable.  Responding to a simple tug, the empty container drifted free and, just before the clamp passed beyond reach, I snapped the cable to it.

This was an intricate ballistic ballet: the new container glided into place as it was replaced by the empty one, the two slipping past each other with less than a meter to spare. The carrier’s departure seemed slightly faster than its arrival and headed back to the Belt, Mars, Earth or wherever it was destined.  Only when it was well clear did I reel in the new container and attach it to the hab.

If my anticipation of arrival had been painful, waiting for the new supply container’s internal atmosphere to equalize with the station’s environment was agonizing.

As I waited to open the connecting hatch I fantasized about its contents.  Certainly my collective had sent the necessaries: food, entertainments, air, and water, but I hoped more for the data stores that it might hold.  Since this new container had been launched shortly after I’d left Earth I doubted there would be much about the collective’s many activities that I would be unaware. Nor would the news of other activities be that much different.

But neither of those mattered.  What I wanted was to hear the voices of people saying something original as the pleasures of conversations with the AI, cat, or myself had long paled.

As I drummed my fingers and paced the confines of the station, fifteen short steps forward and back, ten to the side, the cat sensed my mood and skulked beneath a seat, reenacting ancient predatory ways as she stalked shadows and dust motes.

#

I parceled the news items out to a few hours a day, living the news as if I were there as it unfolded.   The collective provided full cross-channels news from all of our neighboring associations, far more than I would normally encounter.

This was welcome.

For the first time I had the leisure to discover what all of humanity was engaged in, discussing, casting my nets wide rather than the small space I’d focused on before.

The deep ocean cities with their much genetically and mechanically modified citizens were fascinating.  Pressure and temperature requirements had forced the human form into something like a manatee with arms and a bulging forehead that, I later learned, was a dolphinic modification for echolocations and remote conversation.

There were discussions of further modifications for colonists on Europa, but that had to wait until the radiation problem was solved.

I had scarcely brushed the surface when I resumed my visits to the ships.  The arrival of the new material had renewed my psyche and filled me with renewed energy.

It was amazing what a little news from home could do.

ThistleDown

ThistleDown used its funds wisely, investing in research projects to support its long-term objectives.  Nothing happened in the first few years. As ThistleDown’s research grants produced little that would enable a starship, they did create many developments and inventions that enriched the coffers of the society.

A generation after its beginnings, Anna Tsu came up with the concept of an elegant and compact dark energy drive that could carry humans to the stars.

ThistleDown pursued the concept with all the resources it could muster and, nearly a hundred years later, had technology capable of building the Tsu drive.

Unfortunately, since the capital assets necessary to actually construct the drive were insufficient. ThistleDown launched an aggressive growth program, investing in any emerging technology, exploitive industry, and banking instrument that offered a high rate of return, compounding the funds from investments into ever-larger schemes.

The investments of huge funds warped the economic picture and sent several countries into bankruptcy, caused two civil wars, and resulted in dozens of failed attempts to curtail the organization’s rapacious behavior.

None of these attempts slowed the steady advances toward a capital fund capable of building and launching starships.

DATE/TIME: 5268 10 08 14:52

Even when enough time had passed for the sapling to put out more sets of paired leaves, the ships still awed me.  I spent as much time admiring them as taking measurements with the theodolite. I was always hesitant to move closer, half afraid I would touch their hulls and disturb their glittering coat of dust.

Despite long exposure to the vision, I still saw the ships as whole beings instead of the isolated parts of hull, torus, outrigger, stays, spars, engines, and drives that dominated my sight at closer range.

At a quarter kilometer’s distance sunlight twinkled off the dust coating each ship’s surface, making them appear decorative ornaments rather than derelicts.

Some day, I promised, you will again span the heavens in search of life, of habitat, of the dream that we cannot express fully as we seek, explore, and discover.  You are the tools that will reach out again to carve human destiny across the skies.

#

My redwood sapling was now three feet tall, its soft green stem so unlike the thick and fragrant bark of its elders, its roots encased in a ball of earth surrounded by clear plastic, so I could see the roots starting to press against the container’s confines. A leaf’s edge had started to brown, its color even darker when contrasted to those two new leaves, so I scrupulously trimmed away the edges.

Pruning soothed my worries. I fell into a reverie of random thoughts about the next ship on my somewhat idiosyncratic schedule. Dora was a first generation ship and completely unlike PC-14558. Since it lacked the stabilizing lines for a sail, I had no expectations that it would speak to me in dulcet terms.

I snapped out of my reverie.

In the name of all that’s holy why had I had so casually accepted the idea that any of the ships could actually speak? Of course none of them would or even could. PC-14558 hadn’t spoken. Not a word.  Nothing.  That voice had been an imagination-fueled dream, nothing more.

I wondered if, contrary to my expectations, being away from the constant interaction I had grown up with, my mind was supplementing the missing conversational din by supplying voices. That was a caution: if my mind was playing such tricks, I must be careful with my preparations for my next foray. I would do nothing that wasn’t standard practice. No deviations. No alterations.

I couldn’t afford a single misstep.  Not here. Not so far away from everything.

#

Between visits to the ships, I socialized with the AI aboard the station–a mandatory exercise designed to keep me from losing contact with reality–and relaxed by listening to books.  My electronic library held more than ample material to engage my restless mind, material that wrapped me in an illusion of normality.

Mine was a deliberately solitary life, but a bearable one and more than that – a predictable one, whose events were changed only by my own whim. I visited the ships, I fed the cat, I tended the redwood’s six new leaves.

Which is why I was startled beyond measure when the station’s AI announced an anomalous blue dot along the planetary plane at an estimated distance of half a light year. “Blue” meant the object was moving toward the solar system at an appreciable fraction of light speed.

My heart leaped. Could the blue spark mark the firing of an engine, slowing a starship in preparation for the multiple loops it would take around the sun before dropping into more modest speeds that matched the Graveyard’s orbit?

The Graveyard was not an accidental accretion of abandoned ships, but the nexus where the starships would dock at their long journey’s end.  The distant isolation was deliberate, designed to keep contagion from the heart of civilization within the inner parts of the system.  This station, now my home, had once been the launch and capture control for each starship, long before it became just an observation point and later, a caretaker’s cottage.

Until now.

Hope snatched at my breath, made my heart shudder with excitement. It had to be a returning ship.  What news would it bring? It had to be one of the last ten launched.  Would it be Jacob’s Ladder, Far Star, or Zephyr? Could it be an earlier ship like Nobody’s Business or Dauntless?  But most likely it would be one of the later four: Heart of Gold, Lusankya, Inconnu, or Perhoen, all programmed to visit stars lying beyond two thousand light years.  What sights those ships might have seen, be seeing yet, be seeing for a hundred years or more?

I leaped around the station like a madman, and the cat scrambled to keep from under my dancing feet. News of success would answer ThistleDown’s centuries-long prayers, fulfill its long-term goal and reinvigorate the imagination of mankind. I lost no time in framing an alert to my Family regarding the signal and then realized that Earth’s position behind the sun would prevent communication for another two months.

I quickly calculated that if the ship was eight light months away then it would cross the station’s orbit at blinding speed on its first pass toward the end of the next eleven months. I doubted I would see it in other than my imagination, since I didn’t know our relative positions or its current speed.

But I’d still peer out the port, praying for a glimpse of it, long before the expected crossing.

Why had it had taken so long for the incoming ship to return? Why had the other nine not returned as yet?

I recalled that one pilot had succumbed to grief at the void and ordered his AI to turn off life support as the ship automatically returned.  Had this ship’s pilot done the same?  Had something in the great beyond evoked despair in the pilots’ too human hearts?  Was the only inhabitant of the distant stars dark emotion?

Time would tell.

DATE/TIME: 5269 01 07 Night

The reply from ThistleDown was dismissive and not at all joyful. Considering the time delay for the broadband laser signal to reach the station, it must have been the result of a hastily called meeting of the Family’s critical components following my message.  That the reply contained multiple messages meant a lack of unanimity.

The first part was a stiff little directive, ordering me to send confirmation, almost declaring my sighting nothing more than a hallucination.

The second part was shrill, demanding daily reports and informing me that there must be certainty before a team could be sent to decant the pilot.

Subsequent parts inquired about the station, the Graveyard, and my general well-being. I interpreted the latter as a veiled inquiry about my sanity. There was no mistaking the doubt that ran through them all with a slight hint of suspicion as subtext.

I ignored them, seething at the accusation that I might have lied about something so momentous.

Daily reports indeed: Let them wait. I would report when and as I felt like it.

Let them wait.

#

We all have our own obsessions. Things we cling to. Things we use to define ourselves. That’s what humanity lost when we learned that there was nothing out there to reflect us. There was no Other, and so we began as a race to look inward.

I’m no exception. But my focus lies in the contemplation and analysis of that act of inward gazing. Of our habit of building houses of status reports and favorites and hanging our shingle of identification on that facade, in a way that I, alone of all humanity, seem to think detrimental.

That’s why I wanted the blue spark of the returning ship to bear good news, imagining what that information would do, the windows its knowledge would open, praying that it would finally encourage us to lift our gaze outward once again and evolve as a society.

If the incoming ship had met nonhumans, we’d collide with new ways of thinking, entirely new ways of perceiving nature, and benefit. We’d finally become something other than what biology had confined us to, what all the others never questioned.

I dreamed of the returning ship at night as I lay awake, hearing the hum of the life support systems, and feeling the ventilator’s breath trickle across my face. Wanting to know so badly that it was an almost physical pain.

A child thinks if they want something strongly enough, it will surely come into existence. As you age the world batters you into the realization that that wishing does not make it so. But ever there remains that sliver of hope, needle thin, that makes us believe in luck and wishes, and that dancing with the universe will force it to your desires.

And so I too hoped.

If you listen to anything long enough, you begin to hear patterns. Time and time again, my attention  lift to the whispery static of the fan as though faint voices lay on the other side of it.

I sat by the console hour after hour, listening, waiting for that distant blue dot to speak and tell me what was it knew.

I heard nothing but the rustling of the sapling’s leaves, but hope still flickered.

ThistleDown

Two hundred and fifty years after the founding of ThistleDown, Dauntless was launched to explore the stars within fifty light years, a fraction of the distance the wave front of Earth’s first radio transmissions would have traveled. 

Pilot Jerry Kress slumbered in slow time, his processes beating slowly, only to return to the pace of real time whenever he neared a star. Between times he measured Earth’s years as hours, and the span of his friends’ lives, in days.

Dauntless’ cost nearly bankrupted ThistleDown. Undeterred and knowing that her return was at least a hundred years in the future, the organization began laying the foundation to build a second ship, Nobody’s Business, that would travel along the arm toward the galactic center.

ThistleDown continued to fund other ships to cast further afield, to reach beyond the galactic local arm and into the denser regions.  Those ships would take longer to return, but the payoff could be worth it.

That had been the pattern for all that followed – ship upon ship at one to two hundred year intervals, each a prayer for contact, for knowledge that humankind was not alone in a desolate universe.  Surely, generations of ThistleDown’s builders thought, a ship would eventually make contact with a great galactic civilization, discover favorable worlds, or return with some knowledge that would alter history.

So they thought. So they dreamed.

Redwoods

Twenty feet above the ground Gulliver’s bark was charred and pitted with fire scars hundreds of years old.  Further up was an outcropping of fungus growing from the furrowed wall of wood and at the very peak, a miniature garden of lichen, fungi, and assorted mosses.

A white, sugar-frosted crust of wart lichen covered the peak, mingled with splotches of grayish-green Lepraria dust. Fingering spurts of beautiful pale-green tongues of Cladonia lichen grew among it. Elsewhere were trumpets, javelins of other growths, stalks of pinto beans resembling bones, clouds, and even tiny, red-capped guards.

In the midst were the tiny pumpkin pies of Ochrolechia and Scapania liverwort amidst tufts of shimmering, bright-green Dicranum fork moss. This miniature landscape existed far above, seen only by birds and flying squirrels.

Far below were clumps of sword ferns, the rotting trunks of fallen trees, and groups of saplings surrounding their cathedral parent.

DATE/TIME: 5271 01 21 15:30

I prepared more thoroughly for my next visit to Hooligan, which had been piloted by Buck Clemens. It floated slightly more distant than Dora but not so much that I would need to increase the capacity of my suit’s supplies.  A short, six-hour trip out and back would afford me a leisurely four hours to do the measurements and make any minor adjustments.

The only thing to occupy me on my way out to Hooligan was the glory of the heavens.  Few of those dwelling on the inner planets would ever see such unobstructed view save as images.  Nowhere did the wandering spark of a satellite, rocket, or station cross my sight. Out here, between the outer planets’ orbits there was nothing but the pinpricks of distant suns, each a beacon calling for exploration.

Or so I dreamed and hoped. Surely the returning ship would convince others to heed that beckoning and once more take up the grand objective of exploration.

Slightly before the sixth hour arrived, Hooligan’s tiny spark gradually brightened and finally resolved into its double ringed glory.

Hooligan was a fourth generation starship that I knew would be a much less challenging prospect than PC-14588 had been.  Absent of entangling webs, Hooligan’s matched tori encircled the hull.  Stout spars anchored the paired tubes to a central hull that surrounded Clemen’s lonely coffin and the machinery that supported him during the long journey.

I slowly circled the hull from stern to prow keeping well beyond the torus surfaces.  Later I would pass between them and the hull while avoiding any contact with the spars that might perturb Hooligan’s position.

Up close both tori and hull glittered with the same accretion of microdust as the other ships.  I wondered again if this was the result of travel through seven-space or later, during her time in the Graveyard. I always intended to sample some to make that determination, but later, always later.

Hooligan’s prow seemed lumpier than it should have so I pressed closer to see if the diamond surface had been mangled, although the idea of anything torturing the supposedly invincible hull seemed far-fetched.  More likely Hooligan had encountered something that, with no prevailing wind to dislodge it, remained affixed.

The mangled mass did have that appearance on closer examination, reminding me of barnacles or the fungal growths on a redwood’s crown.  Strange that I would make such a simile, that the accretions were other than dead minerals.  Was I so separated from humanity’s clamor that my mind was beginning to assign life to inanimate objects? What next: would I start seeing aliens hidden in the dark recesses of the ships, creatures brought back from supposedly lifeless planets?

No, I had to keep my imagination in check.  Too much lonely time remained to my stay.

Yet, in some twisted way the cluttered prow of Hooligan reminded me of a redwood’s crown.

I knew Hooligan had returned with something new. But it was not anything the ship encountered, but rather the music that welled up in the pilot’s slow mind as he traveled between the stars. Even today, children learn his plaintive song, Starlight Lullaby.

I had sung it to myself as I lay in my hammock, high among the redwoods, in Gulliver’s crown.

DATE/TIME: 5271 02 13 09:45

As the sapling continued to grow, I began to accord the starships greater respect.  Each time I tethered myself and positioned the theodolite I used great care so as not to impart so much as a microjoule of impulse.

Floating there above Black Cockatoo, waiting for the theodolite to complete its calculations, the barest suggestion of a soft, indistinct whisper made me start.

Had I really heard a voice? I had no active communication channel open, the sled’s AI was, as usual, quiescent, and there was no way sound could transit the vacuum.  Since it couldn’t possibly have come from an external source it must have been caused by the suit’s operation – air, recycler, or something.

It must have been my imagination but, just the same, I strained my ears to hear only the suit’s raspy whisper. Could my mind be playing tricks again?  Was I more tired than I realized?  Had I mistakenly fallen into reverie and begun dreaming?

My suit’s alarm blared, warning that I had little time remaining on my oxygen supply.

Where had the time gone?  That damned voice had ensorcelled me into ignoring basic safety procedures.

My cold hands and feet told me my suit was rerouting power to keep my core warm. I had little time as I fired the sled’s drive.

It refused to move. The batteries were dead.  There was no other excuse for something so simple as an ion drive to fail. What had drained them while I dawdled, entranced by my imagination?

I fumbled to reroute my suit’s power to the sled, praying that I would not freeze before reaching the station. My fingers, numb with cold, were clumsy and imprecise. My heart pounded as I made the connection and activated the drive.

Wondering what the cat would do if I didn’t return, I allowed the sled’s AI to take over.

The sled tumbled to point towards the station and began to move, but too slowly.  It would have no awareness of my suit’s present limitations and so, fearing the worse, I instructed it to ignore safety restrictions and boost as fast as possible.

Even so, the trip was excruciatingly slow.

I was almost there when I began to feel sleepy, a sure sign of carbon dioxide buildup. I gulped stale air, hoping it held a few molecules of oxygen. How ironic it would be to almost reach the station.

The sled slammed into its dock with such force that it nearly dislodged me.  I clawed at the lock controls, hurled myself inside, closed the hatch, and unlatched my helmet even before the lock achieved full pressure.  My ears popped, and I saw droplets of blood fly from my nose as I took a deep and grateful breath seconds before fainting.

Even in the redwood forest, the air had not smelled this sweet.

#

I felt uneasy after my narrow escape.  What had so distracted me if not the voice?  Was there something wrong with my mind?  Had my imagination conjured up some chimera, much as it must have for Himblot?

But it was more than the voice – a general unease had been growing within me.  It was not something I could define with any accuracy. As far as I could tell, nothing had changed in the immediate environment since I first arrived.  The starships remained intact and as firmly in place as the laws of Newton, Einstein, and Milgrow could make them.

Nor did I find comfort in the station’s food or entertainment.  Even the cat’s chatter failed to amuse. Every time I suited up and got onto the sled, every time I set the theodolite on a hull, and every single time I confirmed the position of one of the ancient ships, I felt something watching and waiting. Something that might, when I was least aware, speak in a language of static and crackle.

When would the returning ship arrive?

At first I discounted my unease as a simple case of nerves – an unconscious accommodation to my solitary life so distant from the community of the collective, so bereft of humanity’s constant assurance of companionship.  I theorized that my mind was filling the empty mental spaces with voices, much as visual fantasies are sometimes experienced by the newly blind.

To imagine that there was sentience among the ships or that some alien infection persisted was ridiculous.  Any alien presence remaining on a ship after so many years in this vacuumed void was equally a fantasy.  It was insane to give credence to such ideas.

I dwelled no more on that mysterious voice and went on about my duties as usual.

I checked the blue dot to ensure that the ship was still coming for me.

#

The cat hopped on my lap and butted her head against my fingers, demanding to be petted.

“Treat?” she said. Hope springs eternal in the feline breast.

“No,” I told her. “You’re getting fat.”

I took out my scriptor and made a dot on the far wall, just below where my predecessor had inscribed an impossible six-legged creature.  Her ears pointed forward, lifting in anticipation.  When I moved the dot, the needles of her claws pierced my thigh an instant before she flew across the gap to strike the wall before falling to the deck.  I let the dot of light flicker everywhere as she chased it wholeheartedly, careening off any convenient surface in her pursuit.

I envied her that single-minded ability to ignore all other concerns. She remained so solidly self-contained.  She had no question of whether she was deserving or worthy of my attentions but existed only in and of herself.   How could any human being hope to achieve such certainty? If I thought about things too hard, I became aware of watching myself, and watching myself watch myself, splintering into fragments of perception like a broken mirror.

The cat’s antics lifted my heart and allowed my attention to be given entirely to her actions. Maybe that was why I had her, in the hopes that I could learn that impossible thing.

I had my redwood sapling too. Not just a souvenir of my time among those trees, I thought, but I wasn’t sure what it was a reminder of anymore. The insistence of life, how it kept putting out new leaves, kept growing despite its existence in a new, undreamed of place? That same certainty the cat displayed, an unquestioning acceptance of the imperative to survive, to breathe, to propagate?

What did it mean that I seemed to be losing my certainty? Were these the thoughts that had plagued poor mad Himblot?  Had he stared at the stars and imagined voices, images, stories? Did being so isolated make his life seem meaningless?

Or had he just given up to his mind’s demons?

The cat’s tail switched side to side as she focused on the dot of light.  I watched in fascination as she gathered her haunches, her rump rising, then giving that little wiggle as she prepared to spring.  That latter action signaled me to flick the dot away the instant she pounced.

I knew she didn’t expect to catch the dot. She just wanted to play with it. Maybe the chase and pounce were merely biological hard wiring, but I liked to imagine that she loved the game for itself.

She somersaulted off a shelf, cartwheeling and twisting mid way to launch herself in another direction, agile as an acrobat. Then landed solidly on my lap, although her claws were tucked in. “Treat!“ she demanded, as though sensing my mood.

And what could I do but give in? She was giving me a purpose, at least if only pleasure at her whole-hearted involvement.

It took me out of myself for a moment.

DATE/TIME: 5271 02 13 21:30

If I was hearing voices, how to account for them? Were they those ancient pilots, somehow reaching forward in time to find me?

I researched their lives, matched name to ship:

Ariadne Quinteros, who come up through the Brazilian favelas, the slums that one kid in a thousand makes it out of, let alone going on to win a full scholarship to West Point. She came back singing Clement’s songs, works that earned her a tidy living until her suicide by self-starvation two years after her reconstruction.

Buzz Reeve, pilot of Lazy Eight, a former boxer turned pilot after he lost both his legs in a sunscoop accident. He didn’t return alive, but his log sent his love to his fellow pilots, hoping their journeys had been more fruitful than his own.

Elijah Al-Ghamdi, of Black Cockatoo, who knew he wanted to fly among the stars when he was six years old and worked all his life towards that goal, reaching it at an amazingly early age, the day he was eligible to be hired. By then he had logged over a thousand flight hours already.

Were the ghosts of these pilots speaking to me or something else?

Surely it was not just my imagination.

No, something whispered to me as though standing by my left ear. I jumped sideways while the cat jumped in the other direction.

I said, “Hello?”  There was no answer. The cat crouched under a bench, battering the floor with her tail, eyes narrowed.

It was not until later, as I lay awaiting sleep, swinging between drowsy and not drowsy, drowsy and not drowsy, that something occurred and snapped me awake.

Perhaps the cat hadn’t jumped because she was startled by my motion? She’d heard the voice, I was absolutely certain.

#

More times than not, I’d fallen asleep with ships and pilots and the far stars whirling in my head.

Such it was when a sound woke me.  In my fuzzy, half wakened state I first thought it was a sepulchral voice calling me. I discounted that odd fantasy as I pushed the fog of sleep away.  How could there be a strange voice in an otherwise empty station light minutes away from civilization?  It must have been a bad dream; nothing more than the cat’s mew or a random contraction of the hull that my sleeping mind misinterpreted.

I fell back to sleep with no more thought of it.

There were no other odd occurrences over the next two weeks.  I ate, slept, watched entertainments, played mentally stimulating games with the ship’s AI, and debated sending reports of the approaching ship, but why bother – hadn’t they practically accused me of hallucinations?

Each morning I scanned the heavens, hoping to detect the incoming resupply container.  Each night I awaited the ping of its homing signal through the random static.

When the dumb ballistic craft arrived, I would only have moments to exchange the incoming container with my empty one before the carrier continued on its trajectory back toward the belt.

Ballistic trajectories are unforgiving – an insignificant error could place it kilometers off its predicted target and possibly be lost forever among the debris of the inner system.

The supply ship would provide a break in the routine.

My brief conversations with the cat were never particularly rewarding.  The truth is that cats, even vocally augmented cats, retain a cat’s limited mental and conversational capabilities. Their vocabulary remains confined to concerns of sleep, food, comfort, and the litter box’s unforgiving biological imperative.

I often wondered if we’d done cats any favors when we granted them the power of speech? Did speech alone make these barely domesticated animals any more caring of humans than they had before?

The debate over whether we had the right to make these cats slightly more companionable was decided long ago by the courts as well as the intense popular desire for such charming pets.  Centuries have passed and now it’s only the subject of casual conversation as the time for debate is long past.

People passionate about the augmentation are legion, if only for the novelty of a talking cat.  Those who are not particular to cats might or might not feel otherwise and most ignore the ethical issues entirely. Nevertheless I was glad that I had my cat in this lonely station.  Without her I would be forced to listen to my own ramblings and the neutral voice of the station’s AI.

My cat would never ask a question. She would always assume that the subject of our conversations were only about herself, plus random sounds of no interest to her.

The days passed as I tried not to think about the other approaching ship, still so far away, which had not repeated itsblue spark.

Not once.

ThistleDown

Dauntless never returned. It was suggested that there had been some mischance, some misunderstanding of the drive, or had if it been captured by aliens. The theories compounded but were all equally unresolved.  The Tsu drive was a proven technology. It had to be something else.

Had to be.

But Nobody’s Business also failed to return. 

Dora, the third ship, returned empty-handed. In her examination of stars within one hundred and fifty light years she had found nothing resembling anything Earthlike, much less intelligence. 

Dora’s pilot reported that the sole occupants of world after world were anaerobic bacteria that grew happily and unchanging in a reducing atmosphere.  Only on Earth had cyanobacteria developed to enrich the atmosphere with the oxygen that led to macrolife.

Of the two-dozen ships sent out only after Dauntless, only nine returned.

The public’s will to support ThistleDown’s ships waned as PC-14558, Beagle, and Lazy Eight returned without success. Three of the nine ships had not returned, leaving open doubt about their failure to return.

DATE/TIME: 5272 04 15 07:30

Another supply capsule’s arrival stirred me back into activity. Soon after, I revisited Polaris, launched over a thousand years before and aimed directly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system.  It explored along that general direction for at least fourteen hundred light years.

That range was chosen deliberately to remain within the expanding wave front of humanity’s initial radio broadcasts, which now stretched its nebulous and faint signals nearly three thousand light years and at the limits of Polaris’ assigned reach.

Even at that distance the possible stellar habitats were few and those thought to be promising, even fewer.  Should Polaris encounter any advanced race it was hoped that our signals had been detected and we, consequently, would be not strangers from the void but anticipated visitors.

The sorts of visitors Earth had ever hoped for and been denied.

Polaris had been built along the lines of a double torus. I would have to be careful not to scrape the delicate hull through inadvertent contact. The thin walls were as soft as a redwood’s bark and as easily damaged.

I noticed a small scar on one pod, near its nose and slightly to the outer facing side. I doubted the parked ship could have been struck by anything large enough to have such an impact so the scar must have happened when it was being placed in the Graveyard.

The location and size of the damage indicated it might have been struck by a tug.  Anything later impacting the diamond-clad ship would have pushed it out of position and the theodolite’s records said that had not happened.

I descended closer to the hull where I noted more of the glittering surface dust, confirming that the entire graveyard must have moved through a cloud of such material at some point. Could the dust have been attracted by the ships’ residual static charges? That was possible: the ships still maintained a trickle of housekeeping power that could place a charge on the hull.  Vacuum cohesion would then keep the dust in place.

I scraped a sample into a container and sealed it in my pouch for later analysis. I doubted it would reveal anything startling. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, and the clusters of moons that filled their orbits with so much junk that the dust’s spectral signature would surely match one of theirs.

My measurements complete, I used my remaining time to contemplate the ship, the last to return from the distant heavens. I could not linger long since the trip back to the station would take nearly nine hours. I would get home with scarcely any reserve to my air supply.  I resolved that the next time I visited Polaris I would bring sufficient supplies for a longer stay.

What had it been like for the pilot, I wondered as I floated near the hull, when he achieved that outermost limit of his search?  Had he felt the disappointment that everyone on Earth would experience upon his report of failure?  Perhaps he’d become resigned, disappointed surely, and had accepted it as having drawn another bad angle to explore.

I am certain that he had little emotional reaction. The resident AI would have mediated such feelings by adjusting his chemical balances to maintain a sunny and sane disposition as he selected other targets to visit and examine. Despite the medication he certainly must have felt pride at having covered such an immense distance.

The AIs of all the ships were marvels of sophistication, approaching near human intelligence in the later models, so close that they became part of each pilot’s consciousness.  History recorded that when Polaris’ pilot had been decanted it had taken a massive effort to restore his sense of self.  “As if I’ve had an amputation,” he’d phrased it later.

The historic records don’t indicate if he ever felt normal.

But I wondered about the AI.  Did it go through the same separation anxiety and feelings of abandonment? Perhaps it was nonsense for me to suspect human feelings in a machine, but what if?  What if?

What if that was where the voices came from?

I pressed my helmet to the hull to hear any sound conducted from within. Hard to tell, given the wash of random noise in my ears from the suit’s recycler, the hiss of the pumps, and the hum of my power supply.

What if I shut those down so I could hear the voice of the ship?  What would it tell me? What would it say?

But of course I could not shut down. Only an idiot would disconnect his systems this far from any possibility of help.  I had done that once and I had no desire to repeat it.

Perhaps I could hear other voices in the hissing radio bands, in the crackle of static impinging on my environment. Out here in the realm of the outer giants there was random radio noise aplenty.  But an AI calling out for its pilot could not be mistaken for random noise. No, it would call with a structured signal, easily recognized by anyone who elected to listen.

Certainly those who consigned this ship to its lonely fate had no interest in listening. Nor had anyone else. After all, what did the feelings of a mechanism matter? An AI was a convenience, an amusement.

Like talking cats.

Still hovering near the hull, I searched through the bands. Was that a signal? Was that? The lack of pattern might simply mean that my human perceptions were not up to the task. Back in the station, I could enlist technology to ferret out any trace of deliberate signal, I decided.

I stayed there, ears strained, until the alarm I’d set pinged to let me know my time with Polaris was at its end.

Reluctantly I pulled myself away and back to the sled, setting it to return to the station, the cat, and my mundane existence.

Back in the station, analysis yielded no pattern.

DATE/TIME: 5272 04 25 17:42

I heard a whisper as I hung beside Polaris. Was this a dream or reality? I checked my communications, but found no sign. How could there be? How could I have heard a whisper out here where there was nothing but an abandoned fifth-generation ship?  I was alone, as alone as the pilots had been.  It could only have been my overactive imagination once again. But then again . . . .

“What was the transmission I just received?”

“You have received no transmissions,” the sled’s AI reported.

“Something’s wrong with the audio feed. I know I heard a voice.”

There was a few seconds pause, engineered to give the user the illusion of consideration although the AI’s examination would have been accomplished in picoseconds.

“Audio functions are within normal parameters.” Another pause. Then, “Checks reveal no audio signal other than your own.”

I listened, straining my ears, but heard nothing but the sound of my own breathing and the mechanical noises of the suit.

I hung there, waiting, so long I began to hear my own heartbeat, a sound I’d seldom noticed before.

I fled Polaris as though afraid I might hear and surrender to the imagined voice. As I did so I stared, out and out and further, to where the stars burned with a fire made chill by distance, and tried to clear my thoughts.

Had I been surrendering to the same madness that had impelled Himblot to decorate the walls of the station?  What if the voices were not imagination, but something alien that found me a willing recipient?

Nonsense.

Then, just as I’d settled into rationality, a voice clearly and unequivocally whispered “No.” It was so clear in intent that I panicked and accelerated the sled to escape that damning voice.

I had to find help, but that was impossible. The station, the Graveyard was far beyond any chance of help.

I was alone.

Another idea came to mind.  Could the voice be from the incoming ship? Perhaps its pilot had discovered some alien technology that supplanted our pitiful electromagnetics and was speaking directly to my mind?

No, no, no: That was equally insane.

I needed to exorcise whatever it was that was haunting me.

#

Something woke me and, below the hum of the station’s machinery, the steady breathing of the cat nestled at my throat, and the whirl of the life support systems I heard a voice, low and barely discernible.

Was it calling to me again, I mused in that fuzzy, half-awakened state before wakefulness returned?

Right, I thought.  As if there could be a voice in an otherwise empty station in deep space. It was an impossible idea – crazy. One of those things that appear momentarily sensible until you became fully awake.

I dismissed the sound as the internal rumblings of the cat or a random contraction of the hull that had sparked that same anxiety I’d had before.

My anxiety abated as I recalled all the station’s AI had explained about madness, insanity, and the seven danger signs that one was in its grasp, the sixth of which was an inordinate questioning of one’s own sanity.

I didn’t bother with the seventh sign and returned to sleep, hoping rest would provide the peace I needed.  I never failed to wake refreshed. Perhaps it was the lessened gravity or the relative calm that was so soporific and allowed me to sleep so soundly.

Yes, I assured myself, that must be it and returned to uninterrupted sleep.

#

The console pinged shortly after I rose and while I was refreshing the cat box.  It startled me so much that I scattered litter on the deck.  There should be no ping from the console, not so far from civilization.

Could the ping be a cry from some automated carrier heading outward or perhaps a ship passing, so far off the established routes that it wished acknowledgement?

Or was it from that ship, still approaching, the source of that enigmatic blue dot?

I opened the console and listened to the popcorn crackle of cosmic interference nearly drowning a distant voice.  “Gr. . . ngs, fr. .  come . . . . hip,” it said and then fell silent.  I amplified and replayed it again and again with no better resolution.

The ping, and more importantly the voice, was puzzling.  I had not known that I could receive a radio message through the console nor could I remember where I had learned to operate it.  I put those thoughts aside and attempted to put the mysterious message out of my mind as I concentrated on preparations for my next visit to Sequoia, which had ranged several millions of light years further than any of the other returned ships.

I knew little else of Sequoia than its litany of dead planets, cold planets, poison planets, and, of course, endless airless worlds.  Surely there was more to Sequoia’s voyages than that. Surely this ship had caught something of the wonder of the universe as it ranged the far skies.

#

Something landed on my chest to wake me.  Her claws clung to my tunic as I tried to pull her away. Her head butted my chin. Her ribs vibrated beneath my fingers. She was purring with anticipated pleasure.

“Pet!” she insisted and butted once more.

I sighed and gave in, my fingertips circling along her neck as she leaned into them, the dream fading with each stroke of finger and fur.

She’d keep me from despair.

#

I awoke refreshed and alert and went about my daily routine until all obligations were satisfied and I could once again consider the ramifications of my increasingly overactive imagination.

Without prompting, bits and pieces, fragmentary memory flashes of my strange dreams surfaced in my thoughts.  My mind kept wandering back to Sequoia and its possible meaning.  No ship had ever been christened by that strange name and certainly none named Sequoia were present within the Graveyard.

Clearly the repeated occurrence of Sequoia was a dream metaphor, but for what?  It certainly couldn’t be my subconscious telling me of a parallel between the redwoods and the Graveyard.

Unbidden, the image of the menacing, enticing dark form swam into my head. I had entirely forgotten that part of the dream until it appeared with too sudden and concrete familiarity.

Did the incoherent form represent a nascent AI lingering within one of the ships?  I knew that all were dormant save for their housekeeping functions of power flow and station keeping.  No, it could not be the avatar of an AI, as much as I might have liked to think that. Stick to the facts, I concluded, but doubted that dry facts would be enough to dispel my unease.

I felt I had to do something besides dwelling on fragments of dreams and busied myself with chores, tending the filthy cat box that had gotten unbelievably rank, checking the levels in the automatic feeder that was strangely low – almost a full day’s worth!

I glanced at the chronometer and with a start realized that I must have been lost in my reverie for days!

How was that possible?  I must have fed myself, performed my ablutions, and played with the cat, but I recalled nothing – only thinking about the dream and . . .

I could not complete the thought.  Amnesia, I wondered, although I could think of such a short period of memory loss.

How had the time passed without notice?

Redwoods

I found a clear space below a strong tangle of trunks growing from the main trunk, secured my hammock, and dangled in air as I ate an evening meal.  In the distance the sun was setting over the Pacific as an evening breeze blew seaward. Gulliver’s branches and needles serenaded me, a hissing concert in time with its sway.  It sounded like it was speaking to me as it slowly breathed.

In time with Gulliver’s movements, the surrounding trees also swayed, but in different directions. The movements made the trees seemed intensely alive and, when I listened carefully, I heard their voices join Gulliver’s. The long, slow creaks spoke back and forth, as though I was among a pod of conversing whales.

As darkness fell, the wind died, and the forest fell silent. A birdcall fluted from nearby to mark the time for contemplation and sleep.

As I rested among the trees for the first night, I tried to see beyond time’s illusory qualities of minutes, hours, days and instead contemplate the passing of centuries. I stopped thinking about my own life or future accomplishments, of the imperatives of the collective. For the first time I had a sense of Gulliver as an individual, a being. It was a moment when I lost my perspective as a human and adopted that of the tree.

Gulliver and his neighbors had no voices, but spoke of the deep time they’d lived in wooden memory. Each tree was a unique immortal being, surviving the ravages of time, of weather, of geologic changes, and not incidentally of my earlier ancestors.

Below me ephemeral forest creatures rustled through dense ferns.  Their lives, like my own, were scant seconds when measured against the centuries the redwoods and sequoias survived.  I felt how insignificant my own brief life was, its compass scarcely wide enough to fit a single growth ring on the tree’s wooden history.  My collective, old as it might be, would scarcely be wider.

DATE/TIME: 5272 06 08 23:52:13

“Come,” the voice whispered in the dark.  “Come to me.” It was a voice rich with promise, an invitation that I felt compelled to heed.  This was what I had come for, this intimate communion with a ship that had sailed the starry seas.

In the virtual blink of an eye I was upon the sled and racing toward Sequoia, the Graveyard’s tenth and final relic.  As we closed, her barely discernible dot steadily resolved into a jumble unlike any I’d seen before.

It looked unlike any of the other starships, this ancient relic.  As I grew closer I saw that it was encrusted with protuberances of varied colors and shapes like the crowded aerial gardens of my redwoods with their lichens, fungi, brush, and new growth.  An outcropping of blue rock resembled nothing more than an outstretched arm, a purple cluster of spindly limbs formed a grasping hand at the tip.

Close to the stern, or what I assumed to be the stern of this asymmetric jumble, a spray of orange shelves surrounded what might have been a trapezoidal maintenance portal, touching the rim as if sucking off whatever leaked from within.

About the Sequoia’s waist, where a Tsu torus might otherwise be located, was an array of spars so confusingly arrayed that I could not grasp the sense of them.  One spar crisscrossed its neighbors while it contested with others.  Not a single spar was straight; all twisted in different wise to each other, unique in that sense but the same in dimension – about the thickness of my leg.

At the base of this tangle, close by the hull, lay a dark and mysterious shape. I could only glimpse portions in those spots where my light penetrated the tangle.  What could it be?

As if in answer, the voice responded. “Come to me.”

I felt a strong need, no, desire to comply so I would learn the answers long held by the starships.

But how to reach that mysterious, haunting shape calling for me from the tangle of spars? I could see no clear path inward, so I circumnavigated the hull above the tangle, peering deep within to discover a passage and also to see if there were other forms or if the speaker was singular.

It took no effort to find other wells of darkness, each one third of the circumference apart.

Strange.

Frustrated in my attempts to enter, I pulled myself to the nether end of the ship, a portion I arbitrarily thought of as the nose and discovered more random acquisitions dotting the hull.  These were less rigidly defined, more amorphous, yet equally arranged to touch the very edges of each portal. Were they moving or simply changing their shapes and colors to resemble those of a Lichen Simplex fungus, or perhaps an orange cluster of Ochrolechia?

It was difficult to pull my attention away from these strange growths, but I had to discover the answer to the greater mystery of the ship.

While the fungi morphed into yellow-green variations I looked back at the tangle at midsection, hoping to get a more revealing glance at what lay hidden at its base.

I was frustrated that the curve of the hull prevented a clear sight and began to move, edging closer with gentle puffs, careful not to make contact with this strange ship’s alien growths.

“Soon,” the voice cajoled, ripe with promise. “Soon,” it whispered in the cat’s voice.

The promising voice invoked dreams of glory, of joining the galactic collective. ThistleDown was to be vindicated after all these long light years.

My heart pounded with excitement as I neared the base of the tangle. “I will tell you everything,” it promised.

My lamps still could not resolve the shape of the dark form because too many spars blocked the view. It was obviously too large to have penetrated the tangle so it had to be integral to the ship, yet I could not think of what purpose it might serve.

“Come,” the voice insisted. Demanded. I desired nothing else than to climb into the tangle to meet my destiny.

There was scarcely space to squeeze between the limbs of growth.  My backpack kept catching on the spars so I disconnected it.  My suddenly reduced girth allowed me to slip between the spars and past the huckleberry bushes that tore at my sleeves.  Pieces of bark flew whenever I touched the furrowed spars’ delicate surfaces as I continued to penetrate the ship’s crown.

“Hasten,” the cat-like voice insisted.

I struggled onward, gasping for breath, a body’s length away from the alien shape, an arm’s length and then . . . .

“Hungry,” the cat purred as she pounded my chest with loving paws.  “Feed me.”

I shook my head. The abrupt change from the surface of. . . What had it been . . . a spaceborne tree, an alien starship, or a bit of undigested ration?  Already the dream was dissipating into fragments, the memory shredding as I examined it.  I tried to recall the shape of the dream ship, of the growths, and the sound of the haunting voice that beckoned me onward and inward, but failed.

All memories of the dream’s contents vanished, disappearing like morning fog among the fern beds on the Pacific coast. All I could retained was a burning desire to learn . . . something?

I fed the cat and stared at the engravings.  Had the artist heard these voices, imagined this ship?

It was worrisome.

ThistleDown

Later ships were more elegant in design.  Where superdense titanium clothed the early ships, later pilots rode in diamond, impervious to everything but a sun’s fierce heart.

The theoretical distances spanned by the final nine ships enabled the ships to span two thousand light years.

DATE/TIME: 5273 08 28 Morning?

I awoke blind: not blind as though in darkness but an absence of interpretation. What I saw made no sense, a conglomeration of colors and meaningless shapes. I felt a sickening disorientation, like discovering that my body no longer fit in the universe.

I stumbled. I couldn’t tell what was near and what was far. With every hesitant step, I flinched back, fearful of encountering some unseen object.

This jumbled world was at once hideous and beautiful. What might be monsters leered at me, or were they angels singing my nerves afire?

“Hungry. Feed now.” came to me as though from a great distance.

The cat.

I fell to my knees, extended my hand, and felt her small head under my palm and let my fingers seek out the soft fuzzy spots behind her ears.

Suddenly my disorientation made sense.  I had not been transported to demonic realms. I was still in the familiar station and, with that realization, the strange images and sounds dissipated like morning fog in the forest glen.  I was in the main room of the station.  The cat purred loudly as I continued to stroke her soft coat.

I breathed in deep, shuddering gasps, waiting for my heart’s panicked throb to slow.

“Food,” the cat commanded.

I obeyed.

 

Throughout the day, I tried to determine what had happened. I ran medcheck after medcheck, but the lights remained green, not even wavering into amber, let alone the blinking red that would signal a physical breakdown.

The cat watched through all this with a steady gaze. I would like to think she was concerned, but the truth was, she got as bored as I with my unchanging routine.

The routine. Surely that was to blame. My mind had simply gotten tired of looking at these surroundings. I needed more variety. I printed out images of the redwoods and stuck them on the walls to cover the dancing animals, trying to pretend they were windows. But I knew the wall markings were crawling behind them, transforming whenever and wherever I couldn’t see them.

I would not let my rampant imagination master me, I told myself. But even so, I spent the rest of the day replaying news from home, trying to pretend it was fresh, that I hadn’t heard it before.

I went about my daily routine, still refusing to contemplate the bizarre passage, until all obligations satisfied, I sat down. I again fell into reverie, letting my mind free to search for a key that would help consolidate these various dreams and voices into a unified whole.

I was certain if I could only find the key I could understand what was happening.  But where or what was the key?

I kept waiting for more voices. The next time I heard them, I determined, I would reply. Perhaps I would only be speaking to some small insane part of my mind, but maybe, just maybe, there was something more.

But when no new voices spoke I began narrating the course of my day to the cat, explaining things that she could never comprehend. As long as there was food and the occasional game, she was content enough to listen.

My narration was endless. I found myself reciting details of childhood, my collective, even my time among the redwoods, and even as I spoke I felt the memories were pale and unsatisfying in comparison to those of my dreams.

I considered suicide. A copy of me might be recreated, but these dream memories — imagination or madness — would be gone. They’d remade me, would I be just the same, and decide to come to the Graveyard?  If I did, would all of this happen again?

It was a thought that kept returning so I finally took the medkit’s necessary spray and toyed with it, placing it on my arm, then taking it away.

The cat watched. I don’t know what she thought.  If I killed myself, she’d die too. Out here.  Alone. I put the spray back in its case.

I couldn’t do that to her.

#

When I awoke, the cat didn’t greet me and there was a foul smell, which I traced to the untended litter box with at least four days of waste lumps rudely strewn about.  A double portion of cat food remained in the bowl. Had I slept for almost a week?  I wasn’t hungry so I must have eaten at some point, though I scarce remember doing so.

I searched for the cat, calling her name and clicking my fingers to entice her with no success.

A glimpse of gray hair within the half emptied storage unit showed me that she had curled beneath a shelf. I called to her, but she didn’t move and, when I touched her, I realized she was dead.

Just a cat, I thought, but my welling emotions belied that dispassionate idea. I shook with grief, tears streaming, as I touched the soft, too-cold fur.

She was gone, and part of me wondered if she had been the only thing that kept me sane.

DATE/TIME: 5273 08 28 08:00

I awoke in the middle of the night, the vision of the spray in my head. What had I been thinking? If I killed myself, no one would know to recreate me.

Someone–something–had gotten into my head. I felt perfectly sane, not disturbed. I knew, knew, these wild urges couldn’t be coming from inside. They had to mean there was something else.

A ghost? But there are no such things.

A remnant of an AI, somehow lingering, trying to talk to me? But how?

Or a third possibility: that I’d discovered what all those pilots had been missing for all this time. Nonhuman life, revealing itself to me, because I’d believed enough to come out here and listen.

Because I’d believed in the dream.

I lay back in my bunk and let myself wallow in vainglorious dreams of eternal fame. The man who’d found the impossible and as long as humanity was alive they’d remember the person who’d opened this door to them.

Foolish thoughts. But they steadied me. They would help me go on.  I slept soundly.

#

Despite my burgeoning doubts of my own sanity and fear of once again hearing those voices or seeing that dread imago, despite the dead cat, the overgrown sapling pressing against its confines, I nevertheless took the sled away from the station to perform my scheduled measurements.

If I were fortunate enough and had understood the schedule correctly I would have an unrestricted view of the heavens as the incoming ship crossed the Graveyard’s orbit.

I realized it would currently be moving at a relatively slow speed, having lost most of its momentum on the third loop around the Sun. It was now being further restrained by Jupiter’s massive gravity well and would eventually match the Graveyard’s orbital speed in a month or less.  This, then, would be my first opportunity to actually glimpse its passing or, should I be so lucky, be able to contact its pilot or the ship’s AI.

I had calculated that she would appear to be coming out of the constellation Gemini at a distance of two hundred kilometers – practically a near miss in astronomic terms – and well within range of my suit’s optics.

The Graveyard station’s location had been installed as the ultimate destination in all star-bound ships so I had no fears of a closer encounter. Only on the ship’s final pass would I be able to coax it into the Graveyard with gentle entreaties and delicate invitations to finally rest from its long journey.

Since the station had continually broadcast a homing signal since Dauntless was launched, I was hoping the ship would reciprocate by transmitting data about its voyage and, hopefully, the joyous news of discovery that would render our long desire moot.

But I knew that communication to be a futile hope.  There should be no early release of whatever data it had collected, that would be the role of the extraction crews who should already be boosting toward the station to deal with the decanting of the pilot and deactivation of the AI, leaving this vessel another floating derelict for me to manage in perpetuity.

That is, if they finally accepted that the arriving ship was not a hallucination.

I checked my chronometer for the precise time lest I miss the ephemeral event of its passage.  The ship would flash by in seconds, a bright dot suddenly appearing and as quickly moving across the heavens to disappear into visual insignificance. I had locked my scope onto where it would first appear so that I could view images at greater magnification than my poor eyes could discern. Those same images would still the negative voices of ThistleDown.

Nevertheless I kept my eyes on the Geminids and my ears tuned to the indication that my AI was receiving any incoming information from the ship.

Then it appeared out of Gemini, growing incredibly from a mere pinprick to a discernable object before it diminished into insignificance among the crowded stars.

I was disappointed that I’d only captured images, but the AI had gotten a brief data chirp – a signal of some sort where none should have come.

At last, at long last one of the far-ranging ThistleDown ships had returned.  Had it made contact with another civilization? Was the chirp a message of hope or of resignation?

I did not think I could bear the latter.

I listened to the chirp as I pointed the sled back to the station, my theodolite task forgotten. I could make no sense of the flood of pips and squeaks and knew my anticipation had played me false.  As soon as I docked the sled I shed my suit in the lock and propelled myself to the viewer so I could see the magnified images my suit’s optics had captured.

The image displayed was nothing like any ThistleDown design.  Not even one of the sixth generation ships looked like this motley collection of strange protuberances on the screen.  Whatever was rushing toward the station was asymmetric and ungainly, ugly in fact, as if some alien life form had encased the hull.

Thin ropes and tangled sheaves of materials sprouted fore and aft and nowhere could I see a glint of metal.

I turned to the console and listened to the chirp once more, this time with the interpretive help of the AI.  The simulated voice that emerged from the speaker was not the pips and squeaks I’d heard earlier, nor was it a familiar human voice.  That alone dispelled any hope that this was one of ThistleDown’s ships.  An alien visitor for certain and I would be humanity’s first ambassador to the Galactic Congress.

A chill passed through me as a soft, distant whisper intoned over and over, “Come to me.” The voice, the words, the intent were all impossibilities, yet I felt drawn to the promise the enticing voice contained as it played over and over in a continuous loop.  I fell under its repetitive spell, drifting away from myself into a dream state.

Once again I imagined myself in the redwood forest and among the complex ecosystem encompassing everything from the tall trees to the tiniest fungi. I could see birds building nests in the branches and small tree voles, bats, flying squirrels, chipmunks and squirrels seeking shelter. The oldest giants looked like thunderheads from my earthbound position and I felt like Jove himself in my private universe of green heaven.

DATE/TIME: 72,324 19 32 16:15:54.5

A drumbeat upon my chest roused me from sleep and, when I opened my eyes, I saw the alien envoy resting nearby, her body curled, the whiskers of her alien face a scant arms-length from my outstretched fingers.

“Come,” she whispered in golden tinged tones, speaking not in words but in images fully formed in my mind. “It is time to depart.”

I rose from the bunk. The entire station glowed with golden light, every surface reflecting the envoy’s glory as I placed her into the chamber.

“We are waiting to welcome you,” she said before she disappeared inside.

I stepped to the console. A light blinked, telling me that I could broadcast my farewell before departing as the Solar System’s first envoy to the stars.

I hesitated, hoping my humble departure would instill in humanity the dream that filled my entire being, that my mission to the stars would rekindle the spark of adventure and of exploration that was our destiny.

I explained that they would join with me as we met the galactic host to engage ourselves in a glorious quest to understand the universe in all of its manifold glory.  My farewell ended their meaningless inward efforts.  Mankind was meant for more than contemplating navels and waiting to pass as the dinosaurs had done, leaving nothing but dry bones and faint footprints on the sands of time.

After I’d said all that and bade a final farewell to my collective in all its myriad familial ties, I stepped back and let the adulation wash over me until the joyous sound filled the station with a celebratory roar.

I glanced around and saw Humblot’s creatures for what they were, a message from other races, other times, all gamboling with abandon now that their message had been decoded.

But I had no time for reflection.  I hesitated not a second more, but donned my suit, lifted the envoy in her protective bubble, and exited through the lock.

I was amazed to discover that my sled had been magically transformed into a living vehicle covered with velvet brown fur.   I heard the envoy’s voice, now joined by a thousand others, all bidding me to hasten to the waiting ship, to their arms, to their welcoming bosom.

As soon as I mounted the sled and took hold of its pointed ears it spread its legs, unfolded a furry cloak, and leapt toward the ship that was now making its closest approach.  Like the resupply vehicle there would only be a brief moment before it departed.

I immediately saw in greater detail how Sequoia had been transformed, lengthened, altered to accommodate me. I saw the familiar clusters of gaily colored growths – orange fans, fluorescent red toadstools, delicate blue umbrellas, and orchid spires that turned the ship into a glorious circus wagon, festive and joyful and realized what my dreams had been forecasting.

I floated from the sled to Sequoia’s hull where my bare feet caressed its soft, furrowed bark.  At the urging of the envoy I hastened to the ship’s midsection where the tangled crown waited.

Deep inside lay the open black pit that I once feared but now knew awaited my repose. The tangled limbs spread wide, opening a passage so I could continue into yawning compartment.

I twisted to take one last look at the constellations that humanity had mapped for thousands of years. I would not see their formations again. A tear caught in my eye as I continued to drift, soft as a feather, into the pit.

The moment my back pressed against the ship’s core a warm golden resin began to coat and protect me for the long journey ahead, preserving my body and being for immortality.

I felt the ship sway as it accelerated and knew that I was finally on my way to commune with the great galactic host.

It was my destiny.

ThistleDown

But as ships returned empty of knowledge, empty of hope, and without the slightest hint that humanity might not be alone in the universe, the pace of shipbuilding slowed. Finally, no one saw need to build yet another. Their wisdom was confirmed with the latest ship arrival, as empty of knowledge as the others.

DATE/TIME: 1,000,000,000 34 21 35:72:32.5

I woke from my dream and the solitude rushed again at me, swallowed me up whole. I was mad, I knew I was mad, and yet there was something to it all. There had to be.

There had to be.

I can’t find the cat.  There was no trace of her presence but her absence was palpable. It’s as if she’d never been there. But I remember her so clearly. Remember talking to her. Remember her talking to me.

The sapling has grown and spread throughout the station, replacing it, till all the prancing animals gambol among the stars in a cage of green, while the leaves speak stories I cannot read.

Between and among the menagerie there are four lights blinking bright red. It wasn’t the cat that did it, I’m pretty certain.

Am I still waiting for that inrushing ship to bring news of something more, something other than the mirror we’ve held up to ourselves? I pray not, even if it is the only one available to us.

The creatures are getting too restless and the air so close that it’s hard to breathe.  I enter the airlock where only a single pane stands between me and forever. I put my bare hand on the cold glass, look at the stars, and wait for the voices to tell me what to do.

I lay a cheek against the silent glass and wait. As long as it takes, that’s how long I’ll wait, that’s how long I’ll listen.

The light is dim now and I am growing warmer.  I can sense the creatures gnawing at the door as sleep overcomes.

Is this another dream? A reverie while I lie encased in alien Sequoia’s breast or am I still lying on my bunk, dreaming of a dream in a dream?  Where does reality end and the dreams begin? Are they all of the same cloth, artifacts of the mind?

One by one the lights go out. I think I’ve been lying here for hours. When the last extinguishes I’ll still be here wondering.  Wondering if I will wake to galactic glory, to a cold station, or will there someday be another caretaker, someone else fascinated by the Graveyard?

Will they be here to replace me, as I replaced Himblot?  Would they wonder where I went, what I did, and why I did it?

Maybe I’ll whisper to them, the way the voices whispered to me.

_______________

Bud Sparhawk’s novel DISTANT SEAS is available from Amazon and other booksellers as trade paperback and eBook. He has a mass market paperback novel: VIXEN and two print collections: SAM BOONE: FRONT TO BACK and DANCING WITH DRAGONS . He has three e-Novels available through Amazon and other channels.

Bud has been a three-time novella finalist for the Nebula award. His work has appeared in two Year’s Best anthologies. Bud’s short stories have appeared frequently in Analog, less so in Asimov’s, as well as in five Defending the Future and other anthologies, publications and audio books. Find him at: http://budsparhawk.com. He also writes an occasional blog on the pain of writing at http://budsparhawk.blogspot.com.

Cat Rambo  lives, writes, and edits in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in such places as Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons – and she is a frequent A&A contributor She was the fiction editor of award-winning Fantasy Magazine (http://www.fantasy-magazine.com) and appeared on the World Fantasy Award ballot in 2012 for that work. Her story “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” was a 2012 Nebula Award finalist.

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