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The Call of the Void

by Alex Elmy 2 months ago in fiction · updated about a month ago
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Clarke Station hangs alone and nearly empty in the void. Yet things happen, and the stars are always watching.

The Call of the Void
Photo by Aldebaran S on Unsplash

Keeper’s Log: Standard Date 2206-05-30

“No one can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. True enough, as far as those sayings go. Sound needs a medium, right? No good without one. Personally, I’ve always been more interested in the one about trees falling in forests. Does it make a sound if it happens, but no one’s around to hear it? Here I am, floating in the silent void, wondering if I’m making a sound. I live in a bubble of habitability, kept alive by machines built by humanity… alone. If I scream in my air bubble, isolated in the cold vacuum, would it make a sound?”

-0-

The rising of the sun woke Hector Corellia from his standard rest cycle. It was essential to maintain standards like that. Despite the colonization of the stars from Terra to Terra Nova and New Haven and beyond, the human body still insists on revolving around Sol cycles just like the Home World. Inconsiderate of it.

Hector rubbed his eyes and threw off the thin but heavy blanket. He did not need it; the station was always exactly as warm as it needed to be—a perfectly maintained temperature for human life at all times. The weight helped, though, and it reminded him of his youth.

Without glancing at the clock on the wall, he stood, completely ignoring his companion and strode fully nude from the room. If there were other people, this might have been an issue. He would have been mortified if there was some reason for him to worry about decency. But there was neither. Hanging in the void there was no reason to worry about everyday things like self-consciousness.

Another day in paradise.

The station had a name, and if he really focused on the task, he could usually remember it. If too long went by and that fact escaped him completely, he would go into the bridge and read it off the wall. But there was no reason to know the name of where he was. A space station and navigation buoy along a Terra to New Haven tertiary shipping route. A speck against the blackness. A lighthouse alone in a tideless and empty ocean.

He stopped himself. That way lies madness, he thought, standing in front of the coffee maker. If I go that way, then I’ll focus on it all. I’ll think about the space between me and… and everywhere. I’ll think about how I’ll die here. Alone. Think about… He shut down his thoughts again. This was not the time for that; it wasn’t Tuesday.

With coffee in hand, the next stop was to get dressed. It’s not that he spent all of his time in his birthday suit – though he could if he cared to – but merely that he could be picky about when and when not to wear anything. The station-printed clothes were soft, comfortable, and available in every style he could imagine. Considering the lack of strains on the printers, he could probably order a million of everything he wanted and never worry about it. But dressing in absurdly lavish clothes was both impractical and boring; the novelty had worn off barely a month after arriving.

He stopped and tapped on a wall screen for a few minutes outside his stateroom. Everything was running at optimal levels, which was good news. There was a slight issue with one of the vents on C deck, which was better news. Before the station took the chance away, Hector cancelled the automatic repair order and was about to jump for joy when he remembered the steaming hot coffee in hand. It wasn’t exactly good coffee, he’d tried the real stuff once and was still chasing that high, but it was still a shame to waste.

Glaring at the sun as he pulled on his coveralls, the only proper thing to wear while doing the hopefully long and involved repairs to the station, he questioned why he always woke up during one of the sunrises. Not all of them, of course, there were far too many during one Standard Cycle for that to work, but it was always just as the sun crested the swell of the station anchor that he woke up.

Hector tried and failed to remember what an actual sunrise looked like. He must have seen it once upon a time when he was very young, but it was lost to him now. Growing up in space took things from a person, even if Commonwealth standards meant all stations and as many colonies as possible must be at one full G with Terra-standard light/dark cycles. He had been very young when last he spent any time planet-side, a week or two as a holiday on Eden. Too long ago to remember the sun or the wind.

Watching the sun’s rays break over the rim of a world from orbit was incredible. Poets wrote about that kind of thing if the station’s library was anything to go by, but there must be something special about a terrestrial sunrise. Something about staring into the sky as the sun crested the edge of the horizon, showering you and your whole world with light. One sunrise per waking cycle, or at least that’s how it worked on Terra, and one setting of the sun too. Then there were also the moon cycles and the weather…

If he were honest with himself, Hector was a little frightened by the concept of weather. He had never lived in a place where water could fall from the sky seemingly at random or where the cold or heat of air could kill you or wind that could blow you away. It was bizarre that the rotation or orbit of a planet could change the surface temperature so far as to kill most plants – even if they were adapted to come back to life again the following year. But there was something inside of him, something that wanted to… what was it called… feel the wind on his face. Not a synthetic wind in colony bio-spheres, but a natural, genuine wind.

Should talk about that with Hal next session, he thought. He turned his back on a sun that was already flitting behind his station’s anchor object. Wonder what it would tell me about my feelings there. It could be too complicated for the algorithm, though, and I might need to upgrade the AI if I’m thinking about stuff like this.

“Ah, for just one time,” sang Hector, taking the long way from his quarters to the damaged vent. “I would take the Northwest Passage. To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. Tracing one warm line, through a land so wild and savage, and make a Northwest Passage to the Sea.”

Hector blinked, wondering where the song had come from. His great-grandfather made certain to teach him it and several others when he was a boy, but he hadn’t thought about that one in… how long now? It must be ages. It filled his mind with the same fantasies he had harboured since he was a child. A frozen land so wild and savage, a sea of flowers, ramparts of stone blown apart to make space for a train. All of it back there, back in time, back down the well.

Terra, Earth as his great-grandparents had known it, was on his mind a lot lately. Maybe it came with the isolation. He heard that deep space did strange things to people when they spent too long with it, or worse, when they looked into sub-space. Shuddering at the thought of the void within a void, he grabbed an O2 mask from its hook and checked the pressure on the other side of a bulkhead. Sub-space, awake or asleep, was something he would rather never experience again. Sadly, only the religious fanatics and mad scientists took the slow option anywhere. And calling it the slow route might actually be too generous; rumour had it that the generation ship Intrepid Hope would reach its final destination within thirty years, exactly on schedule for two hundred since it set off from Luna Station – assuming, of course, that it was still out there somewhere.

Assuming that there was anyone left on board to colonize the world when the ship arrived. Two hundred years in space. Two hundred years trapped within the corridors of a metal tomb flying through space surrounded by the same faces you had always known. Two hundred years of people being born, living and dying without ever knowing what natural gravity felt like, without knowing a world outside their egg of habitation. There was a lot that could go wrong in two hundred years…

Another thing to talk about with Hal. Time in the void.

Thoughts stuck unpleasantly in deep space; he resisted looking through the viewports he passed. There were things out there, writhing through the stars. Of course, they were not real. Nobody was stupid enough to believe in dragons made of stardust or creatures tearing through the fabric of reality or… but there was something he would swear it. Almost as though if he looked at the stars for long enough, really stared into the black, they would start to shift. Start to spin. As though they were drawing him in.

That was definitely the isolation talking, though. He tapped the screen next to the bulkhead and read the readouts carefully. Normal people did not see stuff like that when they took their trips through space. Even the crazy ones who stayed awake through sub-space travel… but then they did not tend to say much. Tight-lipped bunch.

Satisfied that everything was liveable on the other side of the bulkhead, Hector stepped through and happily went down the troubleshooting list. For policy reasons, he had to use the list first and catalogue its use, but he always hoped that whatever the problem was would be off the list. That way, he could really sink his teeth into the issue and have a real problem to solve. A challenge to meet. An opportunity to take the whole thing apart and replace one of those screws or servos that’s never supposed to break but does anyway. If he was really lucky, this job might take more than one day.

-0-

Sweaty, grimy, and grinning from ear to ear, Hector sat down at a table in the mess hall several hours later and ordered a beer. Sometimes, usually, in fact, he would cook for himself but today was a special day. He had perhaps worked too hard finding out what was broken in the vent, identifying the problem less than an hour after starting his work, but the thrill of it was too much. Piece by piece, he disassembled the grating, the housing, the fan, and the emergency bulkhead, laying them all out on large pieces of fabric.

Cleaning and stress testing each of the nearly three hundred parts had taken the majority of his day, and he was happy. The beer arrived, one of the very few drunk since his tenure in the station began, and he licked his lips eagerly.

There was something special about one of these after a long day’s work. It was almost like… almost as though he had really earned it. The glass was cool to the touch, beads of condensation forming on the side. Raising the glass to his lips, Hector breathed in the scent of hops and fermentation and the subtle hints of citrus fruit just at the edges of perception. His first taste was pure bliss.

When his meal arrived, he ate it with gusto, truly hungry for the first time in weeks. In the old days, back on Terra or in the first few generations of stations like his, there was more to do. The lighthouse keeper along Terran coastlines would have to protect their towers against the storms, patch their leaks, maintain the glass, stoke the fires or keep the lights burning. The early waystationers regularly offered their services as supply points, providing periods of rest for weary spacers, making emergency repairs, and operating as life stations for ships with mechanical failures.

And what do I do, he wondered, tapping the table as he contemplated a second beer. Not much on the grand scheme. Especially compared to the ones from the old days. Back when they dealt with rough seas, or even here in space, there used to be pirates. Ships were more fragile. Now I just sit here and wait.

It’s not that life itself was problematic. His responsibilities were few and comforts legion. If he wanted, it would be easy to crawl into the beer and not look out until his term was up. Many Station Keepers did that. Many more ate until they could only live safely in zero gravity. But that was not a life he wanted to live. There was an after, right? A goal, a reason he was here in the first place.

He smiled, exchanging the beer for water, making himself enjoy the coolness as much as he would have the alcohol. After... If he made it through this, another two years to round out his five, then he was set. Full pension, a comfortable ticket anywhere in the Common Wealth and a life to make his own. It made those five years under Keeper Hamada back over New Shanghai bearable. The old bastard was a cruel taskmaster, but he told Hector the truth.

“It’s a damn hard life full of toil and strife,” he sang, remembering another song from his great-grandfather, who had been full of them. “We whaler men undergo. But we won’t give a damn when the gales are done how hard the winds did blow. For we’re homeward-bound from the artic ground with the good ship taught and free. And we won’t give a damn when we drink our rum with the girls of Old Maui.”

How nice it would be to be homeward bound. He would send and receive letters sometimes, video communication between the stars being reserved for billionaires and the governments. But it was not the same. Nice to be remembered. Nice to send off a message or a birthday greeting and receive one back eventually… but it wasn’t the same as being there. His shoulders tensed at the remembered feeling of being held by a person instead of a company-issued companion.

Something else to talk to Hal about, he mused, realizing that this week’s session was going to be a long one. Well, if I’m going to do that, then I need to make sure the garden’s up to scratch beforehand. Tomorrow’s supposed to be a dirt day in the afternoon, but the morning’ll be spent spilling my guts; I might as well get ‘er done now and not have to do it when I’m emotionally exhausted.

With a sigh, he heaved himself to his feet and walked with a spring in his step towards the greenhouse. If his whole life could be like this, then maybe things would not be so hard. But considering the garden was here in the almost oppressively clean station, the crops could all but grow themselves. Still, Common Wealth policy, Station Keepers need something to do to keep the madness at bay. And that something was gardening. Also, the fresh non-printed food was always a nice change.

The old people living planet side were right. Who knew?

-0-

Deciding to stay in his coveralls for no better reason than that they were already dirty and messing with the clothing recycler and printer would take an extra few minutes, Hector landed in the garden. The massive space could have comfortably grown food for dozens and less comfortably for a good deal more. As it was, he ran the thing at a fraction of its capacity and had erected pleasantly painted boards and canvases to block out the crushing emptiness of the rest of the ring.

Above him, an artificial sun burned down with enough U.V. and other important things to keep both him and his lovely potatoes happy and healthy. That was another reason for the greenery, as he had learned thanks to one bored evening spent with the massive health manual, to get him requisite amounts of sunlight. More than requisite sometimes, which resulted in him having the most decadent of all spacer traits: A tan.

He chuckled to himself about that, looking at the deep colour of his arms as he pulled on the imitation bison-skin gloves and tried not to think about the echoing hollowness of the space. Here he was, gardening at the edge of colonized space, with a fucking tan of all things. He shook his head and hung a broad straw hat – handmade thanks to a book from the library – around his neck. Eventually, he would need that to avoid over-exposure to the artificial sun, but for now, he wanted the heat on his face.

Weeds grew between maize wrapped in bean stalks. Poking out from the soft brown soil, their green stood out against the friendlier green of the edible plants. He knew they were part of the natural process and that he could probably program the soil not to produce them, but what would be the point?

With a grin of satisfaction, he plucked the small plants from the soil and threw them into a nearby straw basket – also handmade. It would all go into the recycler to re-emerge as mulch and compost – which smelled terrible – for him to revitalize the soil with. Maybe that was how the weeds continued to re-circulate. Maybe the station was just trying to keep him sane.

Once upon a time, old man Hamada had told him ghost stories about Station Keepers out in the deep black who didn’t tend their crops. Instead, letting the station do it for them. They disconnected from reality fast that way, wasting away without eating the food that was grown for them. Once, videos had surfaced of one Keeper who grew thin and frail, watching the plants in her garden grow out of control until she finally keeled over. Not dead, but so broken that by the time she was rescued, she seemed barely human. She would rant about things that weren’t there; that was most of the video. Things from the stars, things in the walls, things…

He shivered to remember that nameless Keeper’s fate.

There were things in the void, he knew. Things that broke the minds of Keepers and pilots alike. It drove them into the cults; it drove them into the black; it drove them out of airlocks or off the edges of high places with gravity. It was one of the reasons he almost never looked outside.

His hands were moving mechanically now in the dirt, now feeling the budding beans on the vine, now the soft leaves of the maize; without realizing it, he thought about the void. In his mind, the stars twisted in on themselves, long streaming clouds of millions of bright pinpricks. They swirled together, almost like flowers at times, at others like faces. Faces that would stare at him from their place in the heavens. They would say something to him if he listened. So he never did. He shut his mind and his ears to the voices and turned his face from the stars. They were hauntingly beautiful, and out one of the viewports at the top of the station, he could see a nebula when his orbit brought him to that side of the anchor.

But that was worse.

A roiling cloud of multi-coloured gas through which he could see the light of stars that might be centuries dead. The faces were there too in the clouds. Inhuman faces distorted by their size and their distance and… faces of sharp angles and flowing, spiralling lines…

With a jolt, Hector’s hand brushed a space where there was not a leaf. Thankful for the distraction, he looked down at the offending limb, half-hoping that it would be a rot of some kind. A rot would take days, maybe weeks, to cleanse. There was no rot. No evidence of parasite or fungus. Instead, part of the leaf was just… gone.

Stumbling back and landing soundly in the dirt, Hector stared at the offending piece of flora. There must be some mistake; nothing could have done that; he was the only one there. Shaking, he wracked his brain, trying to remember if he had done something to this plant. Sometimes things got lost in his mind, a symptom of being alone, a symptom of interchangeable days. There must… there has to be something!

Hastily yanking off his glove, he reached out to touch the leaf again… and froze.

What if, it’s a dangerous thing to think. A question with a million answers, several of which wanted him dead. But he thought it anyway. What if this is something else? What if the old science fiction writers were right? What if… No. His hand stopped shaking, and he stumbled to his feet. No, that’s impossible. Something just found its way onboard during the last re-supply shipment.

Leaving his glove where it fell to more easily find the place again, he stomped out of the garden. Pushing through the curtain and into the cavernous space beyond, he kept his eyes on the ground. Right then, there was no reason to remind himself just how alone he was, and looking into the shadowed recesses of the station would not be helpful.

Determined, he marched through the echoing, cavernous space, wincing as the echoes of his steps came back to him, magnified by the dark emptiness. A void within his corner of creation. Darkness within his safe harbour in the black.

On the wall at the far end of the space hung a large box from which he took a small handheld computer. The thing might never have been turned if not for the mandated monthly equipment inspections, but it hummed to life with a press of a button. Tapping on its screen, Hector tried to lose himself in the job. Simple, he thought, I just need to find out what went wrong, log it, and go back about my day. There’s nothing else to do. Strictly routine.

Except it wasn’t routine. He knew that it was not routine.

Freezing in place, he thought about the vent again about the chipped fan blade that was never supposed to break. There was nothing in the duct to rub against; there was nothing on which it could catch. Why had it broken? Why had that one thing, the piece exposed to the least contact with its surroundings, broken?

His hands started to shake again as he all but ran back to his garden. Heedless of the echoing of his footsteps through the deafening silence of the hollow ring, he ran. Chased by ghosts from every movie and book he’d ever consumed. They warned about this, about the paranoia. It would set in eventually if you were not very careful, but he had to master it. And to do that, he needed to know. He needed to prove that nothing had violated his sanctuary.

Sliding through the dirt, damaging some of the younger plants, he all but fell on the offending maize stalk and held the scanner against the damaged leaf. Did it look like teeth marks? There was definitely something about it, something about the shape of the wound and the-

The scanner beeped merrily at him, claiming that nothing was amiss. The plan was healthy, and there were no traces of foreign substances or contaminants. Everything was in the green, and the suggested watering time was in two standard days.

Remembering what he always shouted at film protagonists, Hector quickly pulled up the analysis report. Sitting beside the maize, idly rubbing one of the healthy leaves between his fingers, he carefully read the statement from start to finish. Looking for evidence, looking for what was missing. Trace unknown elements, a piece of matter that did not belong… something…

But there was nothing. The plant was healthy and whole, aside from this mysteriously missing piece.

“Good,” he said, startling himself with his own voice. “There’s nothing here, and there never was. I just… maybe I’ve worked too hard today. Yeah… yeah, that’s it. Didn’t sleep well last night either. I just need… I just need rest.”

-0-

Despite the early hour, Hector returned to his quarters. There was no one stopping him from staying in the largest stateroom on the station. There was no one to tell him that it was the captain’s space or a room reserved for important dignitaries. He could live like a king for the totality of his time on Clarke Station. But he chose not to.

His room was small compared to terrestrial accommodations, lavish, held against military berths, and just below stately for inner-system liners. His sitting room was comfortable, with a soft chair and table and a larger couch facing the enormous viewing screen. The sum total of human media was at his fingertips.

Instead of any of these distractions, however, he activated his companion. The lithe gynoid stood and greeted him with a pleasant, husky voice. It was one of many on the station; again, Common Wealth policy required their presence.

Following his commands, the gynoid sauntered out of his bed chamber and seated itself on the plush sofa. Not bothering to change his clothes, Hector lay his head in the lap of the gynoid – which began gently stroking his hair – and stared out the viewport at the stars.

That day they were still. They did not dance or spiral. For the moment, they allowed him to rest. As though they were the million eyes of some curious god, watching to see what he would do.

A torn leaf. A ring of teeth that were almost a mockery of human bite marks. A shift of soil that any besides himself could not have done. Hector thought endlessly about these things. About the stars, the ancestors’ campfires, the gods’ eyes, millions of impossibly distant suns, the shifting, impossibly vast cosmos around him. He thought about home. He thought…

Slowly, he drifted off to sleep. Unaware of the gentle ping! as a high-priority notification appeared on his terminal, swiftly buried by the myriad of reports that streamed in. He slept dreamless, away from his thoughts, worries, and fears. The gynoid slowly began to hum; it knew he was asleep and sang a soft, gentle song without words, fulfilling its caretaker role.

fiction

About the author

Alex Elmy

Avid traveller, voracious reader and aspiring polyglot 🇨🇦

Eventually I want to sell novels, a dream I’m certain we all share, so I’m here practicing my craft and having as much fun as possible along the way.

I hope you enjoy :)

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