Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Nostalgia Trip #4: PARTINGS

Just at that moment when I was looking for someone to assure me that my writing wasn't complete crap on a stick, PARTINGS was accepted by Paul Jenkins, editor of THIS WAY UP and appeared circa September 2001. The ezine seems to be enjoying a long haitus, but when it was publishing I saw some very readable stories, by H. Turnip Smith and other regulars whose ranks I was pleased to join.

Gabrielle appeared beside me in the control room an hour before we were going to do it. The sound of her breathing, if she made such a sound, was masked by the steadily-rising whine of the charging capacitors, which even the thick bulkhead walls couldn't mask.

"Joshua," she said, her voice a frozen whisper that scratched deep inside my skull.

I looked into, and through, her eyes. The outline of the hatch behind her took on a fuzzy look. Were her eyes filled with tears, or was that just my imagination?

"I hear you," I said, wishing I could hear her voice again instead of her thoughts.

"Anna's right, isn't she? You're going, aren't you?"

Damned right we were going. We were accumulating enough juice to blast us out of hyperspace and back to Earth, and nothing was going to stop us! Four long years of being trapped in hyperspace had driven us all to the edge of desperation. At that moment I'd have done anything to see home again—and, God forgive me, that included abandoning Gabrielle and the others, our shipmates, friends and lovers.

"You know we'll come back for you," I said, making myself believe it and hoping she would believe it, too. "The Company will figure out some way to get you home."

She turned her face away. "Anna doesn't think that will ever happen. She says this is something so new, something so strange, she can't see anyone ever developing a . . . a cure, if that's the right word. Anna says—"

"I know what Anna says."

Lieutenant Anna Richter, the human calculator, had figured the odds of our hitting another ship in hyperspace at something like three hundred and sixteen billion to one against, using Hartmann's fourth-dimensional elasticity theorem as the basis for her calculations. But you're supposed to pass through hyperspace and get out again as quickly as possible—you don't sit there waiting for something to hit you. Hartmann hadn't factored the witless stupidity of a supposedly intelligent alien species into his theorem. Neither had we.

The Denebans build big ships. The one we'd rammed was maybe a thousand miles long, a Worldship containing a colony of tens of millions. Not one of them had survived the impact. Denebans, or Eggheads to give them their informal name, aren't a hardy species. Internal force bubbles compartmentalized their Worldships and gave it enormous stability, but they'd inexplicably lost power, and their only protection had evaporated like mist. Our force bubble, on the other hand, had held, and we'd survived the impact, worse luck. Dammit, what the hell were they doing sitting stationary in hyperspace near the jump-point in the first place? None of them were alive to tell us.

"Anna doesn't want us to leave, does she?" I said. The needles continued to rise, shifting into the red. I wanted Gabrielle to get lost, to leave me alone so I could concentrate. Then it occurred to me that she might be able to read my mind. I swallowed hard. If she could, then we didn't stand a chance. Anna would think of something to stop us. . . .

Gabrielle put her hand in mine. I felt nothing except the cold shiver that ran down my spine.

"No, Anna doesn't want you to, but I do."

"Why?" I asked, watching the needles.

"If you don't know," she said, "then you're a fool."

I tried to remember those heady emotions of four years ago. Before the accident, before the damned Eggheads had parked their Worldship in the wrong place, Gabrielle and I had bonded. We'd asked Anna to adjust the maintenance crew rotas so we could dine together and see more of each other. But then we'd made the jump. Blam. The rest was history.

Four long years had passed, during which time I hadn't been able to touch Gabrielle or talk to her for any length of time without getting a crippling migrane. She and the others lived apart from the normal crew, in the nose section, which was buried inside the Egghead ship, wedged in the hole punched by our nose cone. They haunted our dreams and slowly drove us insane with the constant whispering chatter of their thoughts, forcing us to take refuge in the tail section. That was why we had to leave! That was why we were willing to risk blowing ourselves to kingdom come by sucking cosmic energy out of hyperspace itself and overloading the capacitors until we had enough juice to get us to hell out of there—or alternatively, to transform our ship into a microscopic black hole. It had taken us all that time to construct the cosmic energy attractors using components from the dead Worldship, jamming them into the mid section and connecting them to the main drive. Four long years. We couldn't take any more.

"The others were arguing about whether they should stay in the nose section," Gabrielle said. "They think maybe there's a better chance if they—"

"I already told you, the best thing for you to do is migrate to the Worldship and wait there 'til the Company sends a science vessel to study your situation. Trying to leave hyperspace in your present condition might kill you."

Even Anna hadn't been able to figure out exactly what had happened. Were she, Gabrielle and the others dead? Or had the titanic EMP from the collision, warped by the unpredictable effects of hyperspace, changed their physical state, shifting them onto the hyperspacial plane itself?

If I'd been in the nose section with Gabrielle when we hit the Worldship then I'd be a phantom, too. But I wasn't. Half of us were still alive, still real, and we were going home no matter what the risk. Or the cost.

"Anna thinks leaving with you might change us back to what we were," Gabrielle said. "Living, breathing human beings, instead of. . . ." She searched for the right word. "Instead of ghosts." Her sudden anger pulsed painfully at my temples. "Joshua, none of us wants to continue living like this. We can't even touch each other, let alone touch you. We're every bit as desperate as you are."

I slammed my fist down upon the edge of the control panel. "No!" I said. "We're trying to escape from hyperspace. You're part of hyperspace now. Anna said as much herself. Who knows what will happen if you remain aboard? You might stop us from breaking out. Don't you see? You have to stay here, aboard the Worldship. Someone will come for you. The Company techs will figure something out. I know they will."

"But, Joshua—"

"You said you wanted me to go, Gabrielle. If you and the others don't move into the Egghead ship then I'll never return to Earth. None of us will. Don't you understand?"

She bowed her head. "I understand," she said, even more softly than usual. "But we may be here forever. I'd rather die than go on living like this, knowing I can't ever touch or feel or do anything except be there, a ghost of my former self." She sighed, the sound like a gentle wind through my mind. "Time has no meaning for us any more. I look at that clock on your control board and see the numbers changing, but for me it's just the same. I no longer have any sense of continuity, of advancing into the future. Is this what eternity is, Joshua? Am I doomed to stay here for eternity?"

Sending Gabrielle to needle me had been a shrewd move on Anna's part. She was plucking the strings of my heart, but I couldn't afford to compromise. None of us could. "Gabrielle, you mustn't—"

"No, please," she went on quickly, "don't try to say something that's supposed to make me feel better, because it won't. I'll go back and tell the others . . . try to convince them you're right."

"Do that," I said. "Please."

She didn't rise and pass through the bulkhead wall, like ghosts are meant to. Instead she simply faded until there was nothing of her left. I stared at the empty seat which she hadn't really occupied, and silently cursed Anna and the other phantoms who wanted to ruin everything for us. I called Mac in the tail section and felt relieved when I heard his solid voice on the interphone, rumbling in my ear above the banshee howling from the charging capacitors.

"Josh, what's up?"

"What we discussed may become necessary," I said softly, hoping that only Mac heard me.

"Right," he said, his voice flat. We both hung up.

The clock was still running. I watched the needles slowly move across the dials. The capacitors had passed the hundred percent mark almost twenty-four hours ago. Now they were deep into the red, showing one hundred and fifty percent. The manual said the ship couldn't take this punishment for long but we had to have that additional safety margin to catapult us out of our prison, into normal space. We'd only have one shot. If it didn't work then I'd rather we blew the ship to bits, and me along with it.


Startled, I swung to face Gabrielle. She sat—or appeared to sit—in the same position as before. Her small hands were clasped in her lap and her expression gave nothing away.

"Damn, I wish you wouldn't—"

"The others accepted my argument," she said. "They've moved into the Worldship, as you asked."

"Anna, too?"

"Yes, Anna too."

I could have wept with relief. "Gabrielle, what we're doing is the best way—the only way. Maybe we'll get home. If we do, help will come. The Company never abandons its crews. Never." The clock continued to run and I licked my lips nervously. "We've run out of time. It's only a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds, before we're leaving. You have to get into the Egghead ship, Gabrielle."

Lights on the door control panel behind her head winked on and off, and for a disturbing moment I thought her eyes were glowing with suspicion. Did she know about Mac and our plan? Had the phantoms found the explosive charges, or watched Mac setting them? Could Gabrielle read my mind? I hoped not.

"You have to go," I said. "Now."

She reached out to me and I took her hand—or more precisely, my hand occupied the same space as hers appeared to. Gabrielle faded until there was nothing of her left. The chair and the hatch behind her lost their fuzzy quality, becoming solid again.

It was then that I heard her voice for the last time—so far away, lost forever in the void of hyperspace, filled with sadness and regret: "Goodbye, Joshua."

I swallowed hard and said, "Goodbye, Gabrielle."

"Josh, it's Mac," the interphone rasped. "We're seeing overload warnings on two of the magnetic bottles."

His words struck me like ice water. "Mac, check the nose section," I said. "Multi-spectrum internal scan. Quickly!"

Long seconds passed, then Mac said, "Showing clear. There's no one there. The spooks are gone. They must have moved aboard the Worldship, like you wanted. If you're going to do it, Josh, now's the time." Emotion made his voice tremble. He was as desperate to escape this hell as I was.

Capacitors read 151 percent. Alarm bells began ringing throughout the secondary control room and the ship was shaking all about me. We were seconds from disaster. I reached out and curled my fingers about the lever, but hesitated at that fatal moment, hating myself for being so damned suspicious, so untrusting.

"Mac, blow the nose section," I said.

"What? But they're no longer— "

"Blow the nose section, dammit!" I screamed at him.

The ship shuddered its entire length. I pulled the lever to initiate the firing sequence. I barely had time to reach a gee couch before the capacitors released the torrents of energy that would either kill us outright, or save our sanity.


They say that time heals all wounds.

They don't know what they're talking about.

The Worldship was just as we'd left it, a thousand-mile-long wreck with a tiny hole punched in its side, marking the spot where we'd impacted and killed its entire population with a kinetic energy release measured in gigatons.

Eggheads: they have huge brains, eggshell-thin skulls, and they hadn't stood a chance when the blast-wave swept through their Worldship's unshielded ecosystem. Be warned, their species does not appreciate omelette jokes.

I guided our ship—a salvage scow, not a Company rescue ship or a science research vessel—in close. Mac, beside me, said nothing. He was lost in his own reflective thoughts, just like I'd been lost in mine since we'd begun this journey.

As soon as I locked our ship onto the Worldship's hull, I turned the controls over to Mac. Neither of us was in the mood for conversation. There would be plenty of time to talk during the forthcoming months. We had a thousand miles of Worldship to salvage, and there was just the two of us.

We'd never told anybody about the phantoms—about those doomed souls who had physically perished when we'd struck the Egghead ship but, through some quirk of fate, or hyperspace, had lived on as ghosts of their former selves, haunting us day and night, pushing us to the brink of insanity. Would anyone have believed us? Hell no. The Company psychologists would have had a field day and we'd have ended up in a laboratory, subjected to endless batteries of tests. We'd kept our mouths shut instead, worked our contracts and pooled our payoff money to buy the second-hand salvage scow.

The rest of our crew? They were just happy to get back to Earth alive and be with their families again. None of them had wanted to return to hyperspace with us. They didn't care if they never saw the Egghead ship again—didn't want to think of the dead friends they'd left behind. Some had told me they still suffered from whispering nightmares and woke up in the middle of the night, chilled to the bone and sweating. Others had sought therapy. Privately, of course, without the Company knowing about it.

I got our gear ready—survival packs, maneuvering units, cutters and everything else we'd need to begin our assault upon the ownerless Worldship. Then I suited up and waited in the nose airlock until Mac finished his multi-spectrum scan.


A shudder ran through my entire body but it was Mac's voice in my helmet earphone, not Gabrielle's.

"Go ahead," I said, forcing myself not to shout.

"I'm not picking anything up on the multi-spectrum scans. The Worldship's empty. They're gone, Joshua."

I didn't reply. I'd ordered Mac to vaporize the nose section and everything aboard. Maybe that included the ghosts who were hiding there, unhappy shades who'd feared they might have to exist, alone and unfeeling, for all eternity.

Had I murdered them when I'd told Mac to blow the charges? I don't know, and with luck I never will. We had work to do; it was time for us to start living again, and leave the ghosts of the past behind. Yet there isn't a day goes by when I don't hope to hear a voice amid the radio static, whispering my name.

The End

No comments: