Space. Fuck space.
Six days out now. Six days at a hundred thousand hertz and for what? Nothing. Nothing and more nothing and maybe a few specs of dust in between if you’re lucky. That’s the final frontier for you. But maybe this time…
Down to my last four frames but we must be getting close now. Or was that yesterday? Probably. Anyways, best clock I’ve found yet. Pop the last one off and that’s when we’ll get there. That’s how it works. That’s how it always works.
Either this or dramming, and at least I have my eyes open. Hundred trillion bogo company and they can’t even bother to spring for the good stuff. Not that the rest of them care. And it’s all the same anyways. All the same and all shit.
Better to pop a frame or two and stare out there. Romantic, I know. But there’s something about it… One blackness just becomes another. But at least I have my eyes open.
The orange dust…
Need more medicine. Take another, take another and let it fade away.
Down to three. We must be getting close now.
I’m jolted awake by Ebps’ voice over the intercom.
“All crew members. All crew members. Please report to the briefing room, at once!”
Briefing room… LAR! the way he handles himself you’d think he is Admiral Sei himself, with the whole XLATTing fleet at his command. Yeah, the Great Rear Admiral Ebps, with his mighty five person crew, commanding what’s got to be one of the oldest setups still in service. Damn thing’s probably worth half of what the company pays to bribe the inspectors. And I’m not even under his command, although, for a manager who falls back on “procedure” as often as he does, he conveniently always seems to forget about details like that.
I’m gonna need another boost to make it through this.
“Run out of milk bottles in there, Mr. Hughes?” a grinning Axel greets me.
You must think you’re pretty damn funny there Axel, you and your LODDing references. How the hell did I end up here?
“Well, now that you’re here,” Ebps says sharply, without even looking up, “let’s get on with it.”
I take an open seat between Dex and Bexxel at the opposite end of the table.
“You ok?” Psye asks.
“Yeah, yeah… I guess.”
Bexxel cuts in, “Dramming huh? Pretty good stuff, right! Makes me almost forget about the ol’ fam for a minute, not that I could ever forget them.”
He talks quickly and energetically, all pep and superficiality.
“I was just telling Dex ALL about it, wasn’t I Dex? Oh man, you should have seen it! I can’t even describe it it was so amazing! So, there I was, on the island again and you wouldn’t believe it but…”
“Oh I just don’t believe it Bexxel,” Axel cuts in wryly, flashing that big toothy grin of his. “I just don’t believe it one bit…”
“How can you know if you didn’t see IT!!!”
The holotube clunks to life.
“Quiet! Quiet down,” Ebps barks. “He’s starting…”
I almost don’t recognize the face on the screen at first. More of a corpse really. But then it strikes me: it’s Mandus. Gotta be. Hasn’t appeared publicly for years now and, looking like that I can’t say I blame him, although I guess anything looks good at his supposed age. I always assumed he was dead.
“…the need for complete secrecy,” Mandus’ voice is frail, but there’s still something in it that smacks of the chair throwing CEO I’d heard about back in the day. “You must understand that I could not risk telling you the details until know. We cannot rule out any threats, external or internal.”
“I selected you for this mission. It is of the highest importance to The Company… and to me personally.”
There’s something else in his eyes. I don’t like it. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it so many times.
“His work will… fix things,” Mandus continues. “We need him. I need him…”
His voice trails off.
“That is your mission. You must find him, no matter what. Find Kurtz… and bring him home.”
The recording is over.
I look around the room. Real pep talk there Mandus. Well, at least it had an effect on someone.
“Did you hear him?” Ebps asks himself quietly, still staring reverently up at the screen. “Mandus! Counting on us… On me!”
The rest of the crew is either too shocked or too indifferent to show much reaction, but I’m leaning towards the latter. I think Psye will pretty much do whatever the company needs without complaining, while Axel’s happy as long as he can fly around and crack wise. And Dex genuinely doesn’t ever seem to give a fuck about anything. She’s ok.
As for me: I think that old bastard is senile. He’s dangerous. I knew we were going after Kurtz, but I’d never have accepted this job if I knew that was who was behind it. You can see it in his eyes: Mandus believes in something – Zuse knows what – but something. If these last twenty years have taught me anything, it’s watch out for his type. Too much trouble.
I only took this job after that suit tracked me down on Cadet and asked if I wanted to get out and make some money. All business with him. He didn’t say who he worked for and I didn’t ask.
The Suit didn’t let on much at first. Something about a mission that required my “particular set of skills and experiences,” but what the hell did he know about me? How did he even find me? I thought I was keeping a pretty low profile.
So he showed me some reports, handed me some papers, and set me on a transport. That’s the last I saw of him. And it was The Suit who insisted that I go with these guys. Something about “company oversight” and “specially selected crew” and bla, bla, bla. Well, if this is Mandus’ prime crew, it’s the real cream of the crop. Probably couldn’t even handle a milk run to Bechdel III.
Dex looks at me, “Hey, you know anything about this?”
I glance around. They’re all looking at me. XLAT!
What the hell am I supposed to tell them anyways? All I know is what Mandus just said, and what The Suit told me back on Cadet. That’s all what, not why. They didn’t hire me for why.
And, by now, they’ve heard the story. Everyone has. With someone as high profile as Kurtz, even The Company couldn’t cover it up forever. Even they had to finally admit that they lost contact with Kurtz about six months ago, due to an “equipment malfunction.” Kurtz – their finest man, the visionary hacker, The Company’s savior – stranded and awaiting rescue. Nice. Clean. Neat. That was their story.
It wasn’t a lie. The company doesn’t lie. Oh no, not them. They make the truth. And why not? they make everything else.
The Suit told me that they had lost contact with Kurtz, and, to the best of The Company’s knowledge, there had been an equipment malfunctioned, and that Kurtz was stranded somewhere. Hell of a malfunction… Must explain those transmissions he showed me. It wasn’t even code towards the end… But that must just have been a malfunction, garbling up the transmission. And then the transmissions just stopped. Nothing.
But that was all nearly two years ago, not six months. How they even managed to keep it secret that long is beyond me.
They sent people looking for him, sure. Five crews found nothing and the sixth stopped transmitting about two months back. And now here we are.
Hell of a malfunction.
“Look,” I begin, “you all heard what Mandus said. Company brought me in to track Kurtz down. I don’t know where he is or what happened out there, but I’ve got a feeling that it wasn’t anything good. Now you know everything I do.”
“Well that’s just flushing great,” retorts Ebps angrily. “Why the buff did The Company even hire you if you don’t know nothing?”
I wish I knew that myself.
Before I can respond, Bexxel chimes in with that sickening pep of his.
“Sounds like a real adventure! How long you think we’ll be out? Shouldn’t be more than a few weeks, should it? That’s what I told em’ back home…”
I feel like saying “never” just to fuck with him, but the poor bastard would probably believe me and go into hysterics.
“I don’t know,” I tell him and Bexxel’s grin droops momentarily.
“So where we headed then Mr. Con-trac-tor?” Ebps asks sarcastically, turning back to me. “You’re the one who wouldn’t tell anyone where we were going for all this time. Somewhere near the border from the look of things. Some higher ups told me that Kurtz was working on a secret project in deep C-Space. Real cutting edge stuff.”
I hate to admit it, but, for once, Ebps is correct. We’re heading to Fort Ran, last outpost before C-Space. Everyone passes through Fort Ran on their way out there. Kurtz had too, The Company knew that much. Good place to pick up news, along with more frames. Which reminds me…
From somewhere, the approach alarm sounds.
Best clock I’ve found yet.
The place reeks.
All stations have their own smell, their own unique flavor if you will. I grew to be quite a connoisseur over the years.
This station though… Shit. I can never figure it out.
Beyond the normal stench of the cubes, there’s something else here. They say the smell was here even while they were building the place. Maybe it has always been here. Maybe some space just stinks.
Flavor really is the right word. You can taste it. It sinks into your clothing, into your skin, and then, five days later and fifty billion cycles away, you step off your ship, skin rubbed raw and covered in cheap cologne and thinking you’ve finally left that smell behind, only to see anyone who comes within ten feet of you recoil. That’s Fort Ran for you.
But, even so, when the hatch swings open, I can’t help but take a nice long, deep breath. There’s something about it that I’ve missed. I can tell you how much it stinks sure, but really, some part of me is glad to be back. Or maybe that’s just all those years of conditioning talking.
It’s coming on quick now. I can feel it. Not much time.
I tell Ebps some BS and head off towards The Main alone. Don’t ask me why everything always has to have cutesy names, that’s just what they call it. Some fucker probably thought they were being pretty clever back in the day. At least it’s accurate though. The Main is the heart of Fort Ran and if anyone knows anything about Kurtz, that’s where they’ll be. And, more importantly, I can stock up on another set of frames. If I don’t get some soon, it won’t be pretty, and I’ll need all I can get to make it through this mission.
It’s easy to get lost in Fort Ran if you’ve never been here before. Seems like they just kept expanding the damn thing outward, tacking on more and more and more until you’ve got the mess that exists today. It doesn’t help that the entire station was built out of interlocking, identical 10x10x10 modular rooms, or “cubes” as they’re officially called. More cutesy bullshit.
And we docked in the lower station too. Down here is where all the scum settles, not that the scum above is much better. Worse perhaps even, at least in my experience.
You get used to it all after a while, but coming back… The Cubes overflow their squalor and filth into the corridor, their open doors offering glimpses of every imaginable deprivation. I instinctively reach for my medicine but then I remember. VAX!
I don’t recognize anything. Four years. I wonder if anyone will recognize me. Was it the next turn or the one after that? Feels like everything is closing in. Have I been here before? No, I need to go up to the next level.
There’s a screech behind me and I turn around quickly enough to catch a shorter stumbling out of a room, holding something in his hand and I don’t like the look of whatever it is. Shorters are harmless, unless one gets a bad circuit from some cheep stuff. Even I tried to avoid it, but sometimes you just don’t care. And right now, it’s actually pretty tempting to go find whatever that guy is on.
No. Keep going. Next level.
I’d know that clacking sound any day: Shops. They usually set up in areas like this. Good place to find “motivated” candidates who’re not in much of a bargaining position. At least they keep the corridors clear up here.
I glance inside a few as I hurry past. Same as always. Same as it always will be. There they sit, their unmoving faces pressed almost right up against the ancient holotubes. Flashes of unintelligible code; copy and pasted together and littered with GO TO, like some bastardized assembly language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one them use a function or subroutine. Paid by the line and to XLAT maintainability.
“Hey sir! You there!” a skinny man in a dirty suits yells, grabbing my arm. “You get linked? You qualified!!!”
I break free from him, but see more of his type up ahead. They call out as I rush past: “Real great job, just for you!” “Best linking around!” “Free link when you start!” “No pressure, no pressure!”, “Leave any time!”.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before. They promise the world just to get you in there. Even told me I’d be working on something real special, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to escape. Then they linked my arm into some clear tubing running from the ceiling, showed me what to do, and gave me a free jolt of the stuff to show me why. Oh Zuse was it good that first time…
How long? I don’t remember. The only thing that mattered was typing enough to get that next jolt. But it never was the same. Eventually, it wasn’t even good, but it was better than whatever I was feeling… Glorified shorting dens, that’s all these Shops are. I guess it’s good that he got me out of here, but it really wasn’t much of an improvement, now was it?
Did they recognize you? No, they couldn’t have. Just keep going and don’t look. I don’t stop running until I reach The Main.
The Main. How could I ever stand it here? Where to go? Where to go?
They’re all about me now, whispering, eyeing me. Do they know about the mission? Do they know about Kurtz? Don’t look at them. They know you. Don’t let them see. Keep walking and keep your head down.
Something grabs me. I twist around and see him. White eyes stare out blankly into space, the face contorted in an pathetic, pleading expression.
“You, you,” the voice is quiet and raspy. The orange stained lips don’t even seem to move as he talks. “Please…”
“Get the XLAT off!” I shout, roughly brushing the ancient White Shirt aside.
I hear him calling after me, “Please, stop! You can’t…”
SHRD! They know! They must know!
Just keep walking and keep your head down. Don’t let them see.
Then I look up. Hollerbak’s. Thank Zuse! Who’d ever thought I’d be so happy to see this place again?
I look around. No one’s there. No one’s ever been there, you idiot. No one knows you. You’re just coming down. But down that alley and through that door, and this nightmare can fade away. I can feel the needle in my arm. It’s already happened. Time collapses towards that point. I thought I…
Stop! That’s just what that fucker expects. Don’t let him win. Remember, it won’t help, it will only make it worse.
Frames, information, and get out. Simple.
But as I turn down the familiar alleyway, my heart pounds and my hands shake. I’ve told myself it all before.
Faded letters above the door read: “The Holler.” Good Ol’ Hollerbak, he is a scrumfucker, but at least he does have a sense of humor. No, remember: no matter what he says, he’s not your friend. Get it together.
I take a deep breath and open the door.
Thin blue smoke. The smell of ozone. I close my eyes and inhale and for a moment I’m back on the floor, zapped out with the rest of the shorters, just like I never even left.
Focus. Get the frames, get the information, and get out.
A guard pats me down as I look over the room. Place doesn’t look like it’s changed a bit. Could even be the same shorters laying there for all I know. They’re all the same anyways.
Hollerbak’s behind his desk in the corner as usual. Talk about constant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him leave that desk. I don’t think he can actually. Hollerbak is a whole lot of man, must be 400 pounds at least. He doesn’t need to leave, information and people come to him, and when he needs something done out there, he’s certainly got the resources to make it happen.
But I think there’s more to it. In some weird way I think he must actually like it down here. A man like him doesn’t run a place like this for the money. Maybe he once did, but not anymore.
The guard seems satisfied. “Alright, go ahead,” he grunts.
An attendant calmly beckons me towards an open spot besides a gaunt man. I watch the man’s muscles rapidly tense and relax. Drool leaks out the side of his mouth guard. Must be a good one…
“No,” I tell the attendant, “I’m here for him,” pointing over at Hollerbak. The guard perks up when he hears this, and I notice him quietly move his hand to his holster.
This gets Hollerbak’s attention though. He looks up and stares across the room at me. Then, with that big, deep voice of his, “No! It can’t be… it just can’t be! Get over here!”
The attendant gently guides me over to him, past piles of cushioning and over twisted human forms laying on them. I look down at them. Innocent. Shameless. Hopeless. If it weren’t for men like Hollerbak, would it really be so bad? Seems pretty good right about now.
“Friend!” he greets me. “So good to see you back in The Holler. Almost five years now, no? and not one little visit to Hollerbak in all that time? I was just devastated when you left.” Sarcasm is all just a matter of degrees with Hollerbak. “So, what brings you back to The Holler? You want your old job back?”
“I’m not here for that. I’m here for information,” I say coldly, trying to focus.
He sighs, “Oh, it’s always business with you… At least you came to the right man. Hollerbak knows everything worth knowing.”
“You know anything about Kurtz?”
“Kurtz? I know Kurtz. Everyone knows Kurtz. Great man… I hear he’s working on something really big. Something revolutionary. Some people have even been heading out to find him.”
“I’m not interested in the rumors, do you know anything more? I know Kurtz passed through here on his way out a few years ago. Anything since then?”
“Well, friend,” he smiles and I know what’s coming, “Hollerbak hears so, so many things, but why don’t you take your old spot on the floor here while I think. We just got some Calcutta Specials in… Real nice stuff. And then, if you still care about Kurtz, then we can chat all you want.”
My hands are shaking and I feel the sweat running down my neck. LAR does a Calcutta Special sound good right now.
“Look Hollerbak, I don’t have time for your HLTing. What do you know, and how much do you want for it?”
His big face slouches as he puts on his best hurt expression. “Oh, friend! How could you say such things about daddy Hollerbak? Haven’t I always been there for you? Think of the good times we had together. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be rotting away in that Shop… But I saw your potential. I believed in you…”
But there’s a twinkle in his eye. He’s sensed an opportunity to make a little something. He can never turn that down.
“But,” he continues, “perhaps Hollerbak did hear something about Kurtz. Information like that though… not cheep. Seeing as it’s you though, let’s make it a thousand or so for all my trouble.”
He makes paying him sound like charity work. Good thing he doesn’t know who I’m working for, or it’d be a hundred times that. Probably thinks I’m just another one of those washed up crazies, heading out after Kurtz.
“Make it two, throw in six sets, and you got yourself a deal… And I want the real stuff too, none of that wAx shit you give the R00s.”
A thousand’s pretty reasonable for almost a hundred frames. Enough for a few weeks, hopefully.
“Oh friend!” he says with a smile. “You’ll bankrupt dear Hollerbak! Think of my family, think of the children! But, I guess I can do you, my closest of friends, this favor… Let’s see the bogos though.”
I turn my back to him but can feel him greedily trying to catch a glimpse as I carefully count them out. His eyes grow wide when I lay the wad on the table. He quickly reaches out, but I know his moves and rest my hand atop the little pile.
“Talk first for half, then frames for the rest – ok? And thrown in an extra frame beforehand to tide me over…”
Hollerbak gives me a questioning look, but he’s seen the money now.
“Deal,” he says.
He reaches down to get a stack from somewhere behind the desk, plucks off two, and slides them over to me.
“An extra on the house,” he smiles. “Looks like you need it, and who knows…”
I almost loose it at the sight of those frames, but Hollerbak’s watching expectantly, so I try to hold it together.
“Alright,” I mutter, popping one and reluctantly sliding the other into my pocket. In this state, one won’t do much but it’s better than nothing. “What else you got for me?”
Hollerbak looks furtively around the room. Just a bunch of shorters, same as always, but Hollerbak’s always gotta put on a big show. Satisfied, he gestures me in close.
“About a year ago,” he whispers, “some real interesting code started leaking onto the markets. Real exotic, real expensive stuff. Got lot’s of people talking. They said it could do things, impossible things. Vendors said it was from some fringe group of Algolytes, but wise ol’ Hollerbak thought otherwise.”
“So I start feeling around, see if anyone knows a little something they’d like to share, if I made it worth their while… And, turns out, a supplier had overheard one of the SysOps bragging about some new source of his”
“Where does Kurtz come into the picture?” I ask.
“Patience, patience my dear friend!” Hollerbak scolds, smiling. “Anyways… turns out the SysOp had been heading out alone to the border of C-Space once every month or so. No one knew what for. So I ask myself: what could be so important to make our SysOp friend leave the safety of their little kingdom, and head way out there all alone?”
“Oh, I can’t imagine,” I remark sarcastically. “Maybe he was meeting one of your girls?”
Touchy bastard looks genuinely upset for a moment. Never could take a joke.
“It’s your money, do you want to hear what you paid for or not?!”
“Yeah, I guess. Go on… but get to the point already.”
“Anyways, Hollerbak usually doesn’t meddle in other people’s affairs,” he continues with a wink, “but I do have, ahem, business interests to look out for. The new code… people liked the stuff, even though nobody seemed to actually understand any of it. For them, it seemed to hold something, some promise or hope. I don’t know, never could see the appeal myself.”
“Now, even Hollerbak knows not to mess with a SysOp directly, so I instead had someone follow one of his little monthly excursions. She tailed him out to one of the Collective’s outposts on the edge of C-Space, saw him exchange a package with someone out there. Didn’t get a good look at the other guy, but she managed to slip a tracker on the guy’s ship before he left…”
Hollerbak turns himself with a slight groan, fumbles with one of the computers, verifies something on the screen, and then spins the Holotube so I can see. I study the map.
“I don’t understand… This path stops out in deep C-Space… What’s out there?”
“That’s not where he stopped,” Hollerbak continues. “Yhat’s where the tracker died… As to where he actually went… I don’t know.”
“Anyways, the problem sorted itself out soon enough. The supply dried up a few months ago, right after…”
“And let me guess,” I interrupt, “you think the mysterious stranger was Kurtz?”
“Why not? Think about it… The timing works and we know that he was heading out into C-Space. Maybe he wanted to make a few extra bucks…”
“I can’t believe I paid for this shit,” I say disgustedly. I should have known better with Hollerbak. “All you’ve got is speculation, and shit speculation at that. Kurtz, going outside the company? What evidence is there? Where’s this SysOp at?”
“Ahh, but that’s where things get even more interesting. A few months ago, when the supply dried up, our SysOp friend also vanished. He headed out there, same as usual, but never came back… Well, you can imagine the stink they raised around here – even going so far as to accuse sweet, innocent Hollerbak – but I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
I’ll believe that actually. Hollerbak is arrogant but he isn’t a fool, and messing with a SysOp is a good way to get yourself killed on Fort Ran.
“Here, take a look,” Hollerbak says, opening up a few files on the computer. Code flashes by quickly on the florescent green screen. It looks familiar, but there something about it… I’ve only seen this sort of thing once before: the transmissions The Suit showed me.
“What the hell is it? Does it even compile?”
Hollerbak turns to me and grins.
“It compiles all right, but how… well your guess is as good as mine. As for what it does, well everyone seems to see something different when they look at it.”
I’ve heard all I need. Hollerbak slides the frames over and I hand him the rest of the bogos.
“Keep the map if you want, but if anyone asks, you know the drill,” he says with a wink. “Always a pleasure doing business with you. But can’t you stay just a little longer? How about a Special, for old time’s sake? First one’s on the house…”
I just look at him. There’s nothing to say. To think, I actually thought he was my friend once.
As I walk towards the door, I hear him call out after me, “Now, be sure to come back and visit real soon. There’s always a place for you in The Holler…”
He’s trying to joke, but there’s something pathetic in it. Maybe this time…
The metal door slams. Standing in the alleyway, I swear I’ll never go back, but I’ve told myself it all before.
Ebps is waiting outside the ship when I return.
“Get what you need?” he sneers.
“Here,” I shove the map at him. “Take us out along this path. There’s a Collective outpost just over the border. Someone there may know something about Kurtz.”
“Whoa there! Where’d you get this? And what makes you think Kurtz is out here? I’m not taking my ship on another drug fetch quest of yours…”
I ignore his provoking. “How soon do you think we’ll be able to start?”
“Soon as everyone gets back… Dex stayed shut up in the ship as usual and Axel just got back, but Bexxel’s still probably telebanging his wife and kids or whatever he does, and Psye’s still picking up some supplies.”
“CC, let me know when we get close.”
As I brush past, I hear Ebps mutter something about, “Fucking disgrace… If only Mandus could see…,” but I don’t care enough to listen.
I swear the stuff is growing thicker. I wonder what they thought was out here. Answers? Hope? Salvation? Kurtz clearly thought so, at least he used to.
That story about how they found him after his first mission keeps coming back to me. Deep space. Said it was a miracle. Couldn’t have had more than ten minutes of oxygen left. I don’t even want to think about the odds. No sign of anyone or anything. Just Kurtz.
I wonder what he thought when he saw them. How long had he been out there? Maybe he’d already come to terms with it, maybe not. I don’t know. But he was never the same afterwards. You see that in his work. It changed him. If anything, it made him more driven, more devoted. Some of his writing became almost messianic. He would save them.
Let’s go over it again. The code Hollerbak showed me must have come from Kurtz, that much I’m sure of. Too unique. Then, question is: how did it end up for sale on Fort Ran?
Option A: someone found Kurtz and “borrowed” the code from him. Possible. Possible for sure.
Maybe his ship really had malfunctioned and some reclaimer had come along and scavenged a few files. Or maybe Kurtz had run into a bad crowd out there. Always possible in C-Space.
But then what about the monthly drops? And, whoever found the code would have to have known its value. And also, Kurtz wasn’t exactly new to going out there, now was he? When he went out, he went prepared.
Option B: someone picked up Kurtz’s transmissions, knew they found something good, and sold them.
But no one outside the company could have broken the encoding, so it’d have to be an inside job. That old fuck Mandus certainly didn’t think it was impossible, but it would have to be pretty high level. Kurtz kept things locked down pretty tight and only a handful of people even knew about his second mission beforehand.
Option C: it was Kurtz himself, or at least one of his associates.
But that gets messy too. It’d mean that Kurtz was still alive and in contact with people as recently as six months back, almost a year and a half after the company lost contact with him. So no malfunction. And that would mean that Kurtz could return anytime he wanted to, unless something was keeping him out there… And Kurtz going outside the Company? Sure he’d get reclusive at times, but I don’t see it.
Three options, none good: dead, betrayed, or fuck knows. Could be multiple choice too. One thing’s for sure though, Kurtz has gotten himself into something bad.
I stop pacing for a moment and look out the window.
Why is the future always so cold and dark? What happened? Is this what it’s all been for?
There’s a knock. It’s Dex. “Mind if I join you?” she asks. I don’t say no.
She comes in. I go back to staring out the window. I don’t know what to say. We haven’t really spoken much, but something about her… It’s almost like I know her from somewhere.
In the reflection, I watch her flip through the reports on Kurtz scattered on the table and glance over my jumbled whiteboard scribblings.
“Did you… did you know him?” She finally asks hesitantly.
“No… Heard of him of course. Everyone has…”
We don’t speak again for a few minutes. She seems to be reading something on the table.
“Sometimes I wish I could see as he did,” she resumes. “Kurtz hoped. Kurtz believed.”
“Do you think he really did?”
“Once,” she replies quietly.
SHRD, I’m tired of looking in this window. I turn around.
She’s still standing at the table, looking down at the papers, but I can tell she’s not really there. I want to say something but instead reach for the stack of frames.
“Want one?” I offer.
Dex looks up and our eyes meet for a moment. I quickly glance away. She joins me at the window.
I take two for myself.
We turn out the lights and stand together, looking out into the darkness and waiting for it to kick in.
“Do you think anything’s out there?” I ask after a while.
“I hope so,” she murmurs, “I hope so…”
Everything is starting to fade now. I feel her take my hand.
The faint twinkle of stars. A swirl of orange dust. We disappear in the night.
“What are they like?” Bexxel asks as we crowd together to look out the window. The cratered surface of New Hyrd shimmers below. On the horizon, plumes of yellow dust rise high into the thin atmosphere.
“It’s been a while,” replies Psye, ans there’s something in her voice.
“Don’t worry there Bexxel,” Axel offers cheerfully, “They’re all bloodthirsty cannibals of course, but really quite friendly…”
Bexxel tenses up and takes a small step back from the window.
“I know these guys,” I begin, “good people, for the most part, but take some getting used to.”
Behind us, Ebps sneers, “Yeah, I know them too: a bunch of good-for-nothing thieves and idealistic nopheads. Mandus should have exterminated these parasites when he had a chance. We’re wasting our time trying to talk to them.”
Psye: “Well I don’t think they’ll have trouble spotting you at least there Ebps… Always hated corporate types and when it comes to The Company… I think you’d better stay here. Axel, we’ll take the SemiColonizer down, alright? Anyone else coming?”
“Good, I wouldn’t mind picking up a bite to eat,” says Axel with a glance in Bexxel’s direction.
“Dex, you coming?” I ask.
“Hmm, why not?”
“Big surprise,” Ebps sneers. “I still say it’s a waste of time. I’m going to try syncing back with the company, see what they think.”
“No,” I order. “Mandus said to keep a low profile. That means no contact.”
Ebps will always listen to Mandus.
“Fine. Fine. But make it quick… And Psye,” Ebps says, gesturing at Dex and I, “watch these two clichés and their suicidal wish fulfillment.”
Psye shoots him a disgusted look. “Come on, let’s go.”
“So you’ve been here before?” Dex asks Psye as we step over the airlock and take our seats in the SemiColonizer, a boxy beige colored landing craft.
“Not here, no… Grew up on Pedepe VII though. The Collective used to be strung out all along the frontier back then.”
“Ever meet Kurtz?”
Psye: “No, heard of him plenty though. My friends and I all used to idolize him, but we were just stupid teenagers. I still remember when his first manifesto came out…”
She pauses for a moment.
“But then he goes and joins The Company. Contractor, you worked with them, so you’d know how they are. Hell, they wouldn’t even forgive me, and I’m no Kurtz… Axel, all set up there?”
“Yep,” Axel calls back from the pilot’s seat.
“Ok, launch when ready.”
As I sit there, I try to imagine a young Psye, or young Kurtz even. If I squint hard enough, I can almost see him out there in the desert, fighting against the wind. He must have been a real fucking Mary Sue. But I don’t think if he was ever really young.
My hand is shaking. That image of Kurtz. Where is he going? Did he know?
The airlock closes.
“Ok, here we go,” Axel calls out. His voice is echoey and distant.
The ship separates. Damn harness is too tight. Can’t breethe in here. I close my eyes and struggle to reach my pocket…
Then I feel her take my hand.
“It will be ok.”
The outpost appears before us suddenly: a jumble of crumbling mud structures and rusting piles of junk.
“Well, ain’t that a sight,” Axel calls out.
Even back then, The Collective could never have provided what Kurtz needed. He had to leave. Now it seems like the encroaching sands are slowly overtaking the place. Many structures on the outskirts are already partially buried.
Dex notices that I’m awake.
“Yeah… thanks. Always hated that part.”
“Looks pretty empty from up here,” Axel calls back has we circle the settlement. “You sure anyone still lives in this dump?”
“Probably not many,” Psye tells him, “but the true believers will still be here, you can count on that.”
Axel sets the SC down at one of the port’s crumbling stations. Clouds of dust kick up around us.
“How you want to play this?” Psye asks me as we suit up.
“I ran a few jobs for these guys a while back,” I tell her, “probably fifteen years ago now. Let’s see it that’s still worth anything.”
“What kind of jobs?” Dex questions.
“Nothing too bad, mostly getting stuff through The Company’s blockade…”
Dex: “Oh yeah, I remember hearing about that… No wonder they hate The Company.”
Psye: “You have no idea.”
The doors slide open. A blast of hot dry air rushes in.
“Anyone home?” Axel yells. His voice echoes emptily in the large dome overhead.
“I don’t understand,” Psye says, seemingly to herself. “No signs of trouble or anything. It’s like they just left…”
“I don’t like it,” I mutter. “Even The Company couldn’t force these guys out, and they tried for years – must have spent trillions on it – and what, now they just decide to leave?”
“Well,” Dex sighs, “we’ve already checked most of the other buildings. Where else could they be?”
Psye: “Just the library left. Maybe there’s something there.”
“Great idea Psye,” Axel says, before turning to smile at me. “After all, real cool kids fill their head with knowledge, not drugs.”
“Loadhigh,” I say sarcastically, making like I’m grabbing another frame. I think I’m actually starting to kind of like these guys.
“Cute,” Axel responds. “But you should have said: ain’t no high like a libre-high.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense,” Dex observes.
“Ohhh Dex!” Axel says, playing like he’s deeply hurt, “If anyone would understand libre-tories, I would have thought it would have been you…”
“Ughh,” Psye groans. “Come on, this way.”
There’s a clunk then a whirring noise, and the massive central computer flickers back to life.
“Got it!” Dex calls out. “It’s just a Multitux system. Everyone knows those.”
“New Multitux,” Psye instinctively corrects.
Dex: “Oh man, you really were a Collective brat weren’t you? Hey computer? Computer?!”
A smiling, bearded avatar appears on the huge holotube at the front of the room.
HELLO, I AM KARL AI. PLEASE SAY A COMMAND.
“Ask him about the Blue Fairy!” Axel peps up.
“Oh go nose-fuck yourself Pinocchio,” Dex dryly snides.
“Like herding cats,” Psye grumbles. “Hey Karl, what’s going on here? Where is everyone?”
ACCESSING… UNKNOWN QUESTION
Axel: “Maybe try sudo?”
Psye: “I swear Axel, if you don’t stop it, I’m going to…” She doesn’t bother finishing the sentence. “Karl, what happened to the people of this outpost?”
ACCESSING… UNKNOWN QUESTION
Psye: “Ok, ok! Karl, what happened here?”
ACCESSING… UNKNOWN QUESTION
Axel: “Shit Karl, what the hell can you do? Can you even surf the STARNET?”
NEGATIVE, KARL AI DOES NOT SURF. KARL AI IS KEEPER OF THE COLLECTIVE’S KNOWLEDGE AND HISTORY. PLEASE SAY A COMMAND.
Dex: “Let me try. Karl, show me your latest entry.”
ACCESSING… FILE FOUND
“Why’d it work for you?” Psye exclaims, a hint of annoyance in her voice.
A few lines of text flash onto the screen.
Dex: “But that’s from over four months ago…”
Just received another transmission. Work is progressing faster than anticipated. We’re so close now.
The last ship heads out in about an hour. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even wait that long. There’s nothing left for us here.
There’s some talk going on about how this is the “end of The Collective,” but this is just the beginning of something far greater than our founders could have ever imagined. So much more than just a new way of coding, a entirely new way of being…
Anyways, time to sign off. He’s waiting.
“Well that’s certainly clear and reassuring,” Axel quips. “But I guess that’s standard when you find a note or recording laying around a place like this…”
“Hey Karl,” I begin. I already know what to expect, but I ask anyways. “Show us that last transmission.”
ACCESSING… FILE FOUND
Code fills the screen.
Psye: “What’s wrong with the file?”
“Nothing,” I say, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. “It’s more of the same shit we’ve been tracking.”
“Maybe, maybe… Karl, what do you know about Kurtz?”
ACCESSING… INSUFFICIENT DATA
“Oh come on, Kurtz?”
ACCESSING… INSUFFICIENT DATA
“Worthless piece of junk,” I say, giving the computer a little kick.
“Looks like our friend Karl here is getting,” Axel pauses and reaches up to do something with his face, “lightheaded…”
I swear I have no clue what he’s talking about half the time.
Dex just ignores Axel’s comment. “Karl, show us where they went.”
ACCESSING… FILE FOUND
A map pops up on the screen.
“Contractor, that looks like the same path you showed us,” Psye observes.
It’s true. The paths overlap, but this one continues past where the other stopped.
“Karl,” Dex continues, “show us the destination.”
The map pans over to a seemingly empty spot in space.
Dex: “But… but, there’s nothing there!?”
I study the map. Those coordinates… I know those.
“No, not nothing,” I say slowly, “It’s the Void Star.”
Everyone’s quiet for a moment. Then Psye speaks up.
“The Void Star? Why the hell would they head all the way out there? Even The Company gave up on that place after The Crash.”
But it’s all starting to fall into place now. The Void Star: so that’s where they went. That’s where he is. That’s where we go. It all makes sense.
That first mission. Near the end of his fifteen year plan. He set out promising to change the world. He believed in something, that he could make things better, and you couldn’t help but believe in him.
Nearly a year with no contact. Everyone thought he was dead.
And then some traders find him, floating alone out there near the boarder and almost dead. No sign of the other crew members. But that didn’t matter because Kurtz was ok.
And he had found it out there – he had seen a future where anything was possible – or at least that’s what he said, and you couldn’t help but believe him.
The Company nearly bankrupted themselves building up stations out by The Void Star. Never found shit. The Crash was just the excuse they needed to cut their losses. But from those documents, I know Kurtz never stopped believing.
“I don’t know they went out there,” I say, “but that’s where we’re heading.”
Psye: “Fine, I guess if that’s what you say… but Ebps isn’t going to like it. Dangerous space out there, been a no-go for The Company even since then.”
“Good thing he doesn’t have to like it. Dex, you good to go?”
“Alright, let’s head back.”
“Oh don’t bother asking Axel,” he comments dryly as we leave the building, “He’s just the pilot. Of course he wants to go strolling through some of the most dangerous space around, after big dumb Kurtz… And you know how much Axel loves metaphysics and whatever the hell you call this shit, so I’m sure it’ll be just great.”
“Glad to have you with us,” I say, slapping him on the back.
I step. Space rushes about me. Cool. Not cold. Like water.
I turn back. The ship isn’t there. A glint on the shimmering white surface below.
A field of pure white ice, blue clouds on the horizon blending into the blackness of space. Still. Pure. Perfect.
The pyramid. A figure at the apex.
The icy landscape stretches below me. His familiar voice, deep and calm: “Do you see it?”
I look around. There is no one there.
All the lights are flashing and every alarm in the place is going off. For a second I think I’m still dreaming, but no, this is real. We must have hit something.
I stumble into the corridor. Axel and Ebps are shouting somewhere. Psye’s up ahead, half asleep and holding a shirt over a nasty looking cut on her forehead. The ship shakes violently again and there’s the sound of metal tearing. Seems like the whole thing is coming apart. I grab onto Psye and we stumble into the main cabin.
“The HTL’s happening?” I yell over the noise. Bexxel’s nearly in hysterics and blubbering about how we’re all going to die and praying and generally moaning, but I catch a few words and I don’t like what I hear.
“Shouldn’t you know!” Ebps yells back. “Shouldn’t you know! You’re the fragging Con-trac-tor!”
Even when we’re all about to die, good ol’ Ebps is still Ebps.
“They’re fragging attacking us!” he continues. “Probably those coredumpers from Möbius Computing or those shellsucking akw-heads from Triglyph Optima. How the ferrer they even know we’re out here?”
But I don’t think so, Ebps. You hear about this sort of thing happening sometimes: lone ship disappears deep out in C-Space. And if it really is them, Bexxel has every reason to be scared. We’d just better make damn sure that we save enough bullets to go around before they take care of things. Messy business, but at least it’d be quick, and it’s not like we’d have to clean up after all.
“Def’ho my fine stringy lads!” roars a coarse voice over the ship’s transmitter. “‘Tis hopeless. We have you surrounded. Include now, or face… EXPANSION!”
“EXPANSION! EXPANSION! EXPANSION!” chants the crowd in the background.
Yeah, it’s them all right: Pragma Pete and his marry band of Preprocessor Pirates, godless scourge of C-Space. We’re fucked.
“Shrd, shrd, SHRD!” I mutter to myself.
Ol’ Pragma Pete and his merry band keep up quite the chatter on the radio. I don’t think I’ve even imagined half the stuff they propose to do to us. Some real artists. They must take pleasure in their craft, and I can tell which option they’re hoping we select.
“Turn that NOPPing thing down,” I command. “Can’t even think with that lot rambling away.”
I try to talk calmly but my hands are shaking. I reach down into my pocket instinctively. XLAT! Must have left them in my room. Oh this is bad, and this is a real bad fucking time to be coming down. And where is Dex? I haven’t seen her. Is she ok?
“He’s right,” Bexxel cries. “We should just give in. They sound like a reasonable enough lot…”
Reasonable? I’m pretty sure I just heard one of them yell something about “stringifying their guts up all nice” and I don’t think he was being figurative.
“I agree,” Axel offers with one of those trademark winks of his. “I think it’d be fun to be a space pirate. And those macros! Think of all that freedom… How much vacation time do you think they offer?”
Axel is obviously slashsing, but Ebps’ sarcasm detector has never been strong, and he looses it when he hears this.
“What about the mission?!” he yells at Axel. “What about the mission? What about The Company! They trusted us. They trusted ME! No, we can’t surrender! Get everyone in here NOW! Where’s Dex? Psye, go get Dex, NOW! And Contractor, you’re supposed to be the expert, what do we do?”
I wish I had recorded that one. Would come in handy if we make it out of this.
“So I take that you don’t want to be a pirate, Ebps?” Axel offers slyly. Before Ebps can respond, the ship is hit again. They’re just toying with us. They know we can’t fight back.
“They just took out our left Gravity Providing Unit!” Bexxel cries, “We’re done for! We gotta surrender! We gotta! I’m gonna…”
Before he can start transmitting, Ebps pulls out a pistol and presses it against the side of Bexxel’s head. “You know Company policy,” he says coldly, “if you so much as mutter a word to them, going against MY direct orders, I have every right to… and don’t think I won’t do it either.”
Oh LAR, Ebps really has lost it. We obviously can’t surrender but maybe Bexxel’s onto something here.
“Look,” I begin, eying Ebps’ pistol cautiously, “the ship’s pretty much defenseless but maybe…”
“Give me a hand here!” Psye calls out as she stumbles back into the room. She’s supporting Dex, almost dragging her along.
I rush over. “What’s wrong? Is she injured?!”
“I didn’t see anything. May have hit her head or something… Ebps! you gonna just stand there, or are you gonna help us?!”
Ebps seems to contemplate something for a moment, before he holsters the pistol and helps us sit Dex in one of the chairs.
The whole time, Dex’s eyes are wide open. She stares out. No expression. Nothing. Doesn’t even seem to blink.
“Dex! Dex!” I try rousing her. “You hurt? What’s wrong?!”
“Is she dead?” Bexxel wails. “She’s dead isn’t she! Oh god!!! We’re all going to die! Tell my wife…”
“Hello?” Axel offers.
“Auxiliary circuit’s dead,” Axel calls out over Bexxel’s sobbing. “One more hit like that and there’s nothing we can do.”
A flicker in Dex’s eyes. She opens her mouth to say something, so quiet I can barely hear.
“It’s them, isn’t it?”
“Who? Dex, are you ok?”
She doesn’t respond.
“Contractor!,” Ebps cuts in. “What were you saying before?”
Ebps: “A plan? Something?!”
I glance back at Dex. She’s still just staring out. Then I stand up.
“I was saying: we can’t surrender and we can’t outrun them in this heap. That leaves one option: maybe, if we get in close, we can take them by surprise… Psye, you told me this crews’ been handling some pretty legacy stuff. Any chance you’ve still got some of that cobolite laying around?”
Psye’s eyes light up. “Oh yeah! at least three or four drums worth. I’ve been lugging it around hoping someone would pay a few bucks for it, but nobody wants that junk.”
“Ok, so here’s what I’m thinking: tell ‘em we’ll include, buy a few minutes. Pete’ll want us alive, so he’ll give time if we promise him something juicy. Meanwhile, we load up the SemiColonizer with as much cobolite and other reactive shit as we got, and send it off all nice, straight, and slow. Pete sees this, puts two and two together, and goes full table flip. Thinks we’re trying to play him. Thinks we’re trying to make an escape. So he sends out some guys to bring back the SC to him, so he can have his little fun. They bring the ship back and that’s when we detonate the thing and… BOOM! No more pirates.”
They’re all staring at me. Even Bexxel has stopped crying for a moment. Must have said something crazy again. Then Ebps starts the old slow clap.
“Well bravo Mr. Con-trac-tor! Bravo! Do you think everyone is stupid and that you’re some sort of genius with your intricate little plans? Pete will never fall for that shit… Plus, cobolite may be toxic but it ain’t no bomb.”
“Well Ebps, what do you propose then?” I say coldly.
“Look, let me talk to Pete, man to man. I bet we can come to an understanding… These ‘Pirates’ don’t seem all that tough compared to some of the customer’s I’ve dealt with.”
And he calls me out for arrogance.
“Alrighty then,” I say, surveying the room. “If we’re going to be all democratic, anyone else got any bright ideas?”
The ship shakes again. Bexxel whimpers.
“No one? Ok, three routes: surrender, attack, or diplomacy. Way I see it, we’ve all got just at much at stake here, so let’s vote. Those for surrender?”
Bexxel raises his hand eagerly.
“Well, no surprise there. How about attack then?”
Axel joins me. I glance around.
“Come on Psye? You really think that lot will listen to words?”
“Worth trying at least.”
Psye’s not bad, but she is a manager.
I look at Dex. She still seems to be in her own world. I don’t think she’s heard anything that we’ve said.
“Come on Dex… Don’t you want to explode some pirates? Dex, you there? DEX!”
She jolts awake, and looks right at me. There’s a flame in her eyes.
“Yeah, for Tred. Let’s make ‘em pay.” She raises her hand.
“Well, looks like it’s decided… Let’s roll.”
“Careful, careful,” I mutter as Bexxel and Psye heave the last drum through the airlock into the SC.
“How are things looking there?” I radio back to Axel. He stayed behind to “supervise” things, namely Ebps.
“Pete’s getting pretty anxious,” Axel responds, “but we’ve kept feeding him BS. Think’s we’ve got a whole class of BASIC programmers in here. You should have heard them when we told them that… But I don’t think we can fool him much longer.”
“Alright, good Axel… Hey Dex, how’s that trigger coming?”
“Almost got it,” she calls back from down the hall. Then there’s the sound of tape and a crash, followed by a torrent of profanity.
“Do you know who the hell Tred is?” I quietly ask Psye as she steps back over the airlock threshold. She adjusts her bandage. A mix of blood and sweat is running down her face.
“I’m not sure. You know Dex doesn’t share much, but over the years she has mentioned a brother or someone a few times. I don’t know if that was his name though, and she always changed the subject pretty quick if anyone asked anything…. Has that got all of them?”
“Yeah, I think so. Just need the trigger now and we should be…”
“What in the fuck is that? A dying giraffe?”
Psye: “Shit, the emergency launch alarm… Did you do something?!”
“No! You?! Damn trigger’s not even in place. Where’s Bexxel? Axel, you there? What’s going on?”
“We see you’re launching down there,” Axel radios back. “Everything all set?”
“No, no! We thought it was you. Cancel it, NOW!”
Axel: “Can’t… says here an emergency launch was initiated from inside the SC. We can’t cancel it from here. You’ve got thirty seconds…”
Psye: “I’m gonna cut the power. Stay here.”
“And what the fuck am I supposed to be doing?” I call after her. She doesn’t seem to hear.
I spin around. A big red button, that’s what I need. Where is it? Where is it?
“Got it!” Dex yells out, and I turn to see her walk into the hallway, holding the sketchiest device I’ve ever seen, all wires and tape.
It’s too late. There’s not enough time to hook it up. We’ve got to stop the launch.
Then a sobbing voice comes over my radio.
“I had to do it… I had to! You’ve gotta understand! For them… They need me. He’s only five and Karin…”
Bexxel! That JMPer’s actually trying to escape. Fuck him and his fucking family. I hope Pete concats the lot of them.
“Dex, Dex!” I yell to her. “Bexxel’s taking the SC! We need to abort the launch, NOW!”
She breaks into a sprint. Ten seconds.
“Go for the cockpit!” she yells, continuing past me.
“No Dex, stop! There’s no time…”
She vaults over the airlock into the ship, but then pauses. What is she doing?!! There’s still time…
“Dex!” I yell from behind the threshold.
She turns back. Our eyes meet… I understand. She’s already gone.
The airlock slams shut. The SC rockets out into space and I watch it disappear.
Why didn’t I join her?
I didn’t watch. I knew the end. She was right.
“You should have seen her,” Ebps told me afterwards. “It was incredible…”
He feels it too. The way he copes is by telling that story, I listen, and we both try to believe.
He’s not a bad guy actually. Yeah he can be a real asshole, but he really does care, even if he doesn’t know how to show it. They and The Company are all he has.
I didn’t watch but I saw the whole thing.
There’s the SC, dodging and weaving, three of Pete’s ‘crows tight behind. But they can’t touch her.
And there’s Pete, cursing away like all get out, until he finally snaps and turns his whole damn ship after her, cannon’s blasting away.
And Bexxel, bawling away there on the floor, holding a hand to a broken nose, and crying something about his family and pleading for someone to save him.
And Dex at the controls, humming to herself quietly. She knew where she was going.
She pulls back hard, soaring high above Pete’s ship, cuts the engines, flips the ship around until she’s got her target. Time seems to stop. And then the engines roar back to life…
There, silhouetted against the stars, she races into the unknown, and, for one brief moment, she outshines them all. Pete never knew what hit him.
Why didn’t I join her?
Can you see it? That patch of sky with no stars, nothing… Beautiful. That’s were we’re going. There’s where he is.
Close now, so close.
How long has it been? Hours, days, weeks? I don’t know. Even stopped taking my medicine. It doesn’t help anymore.
I stare out from the back of the room. Ebps and Axel are at the controls. Psye’s dramming in one of the chairs off to the side. It’s always been this way, but it’s time now. Right on cue, Axel breaks the silence.
“Looks like we’re in range.”
There’s a slight tremble in his voice.
Why do they keep going? Why? What do they think they will find? But I already know. Just look out there and you can see it. Everything collapses towards that point. And then…
“Good. Picking up anything yet?” Ebps asks.
“Nothing yet, but we’re still pretty far out and it’s pretty noisy.”
I look at the scanner. The display seems to pulsate, blips of static fading in and out across the field. The image remains unsteady for a while, then slowly, a few blips begin to stabilize and grow brighter. Something about those tiny specs in the vastness of the void fills me with dread.
“Got ‘em,” Axel confirms. “Still no signals though. Should I try raising them?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Ebps orders. “Try the standards for the stations in range. We’ll have to wait for the others to make it around.”
The voice is strange and distant. I look up. They’re all looking back at me with surprised expressions.
“Did you… did you say something?” Ebps asks. There’s genuine concern in his voice. Even Psye’s awake now.
I can’t say why, but there’s something about it that I don’t like. I take a moment to collect myself, then stand up and walk stiffly over to them.
“No, don’t broadcast yet,” I say slowly, “We don’t know who’s out there. Stay quiet.”
I see them dart nervous little glances at each other.
“Well, I guess we could try picking up a heartbeat signal or something,” Axel offers with a forced grin. “Any station that’s still operating should have one.”
“Alright,” Ebps concedes, “But if we still don’t pick anything up, we’re gonna have to try something else. I don’t want to spend any more time out here than we have to.”
I settle into the chair next to Psye. Axel dials in the receivers.
“What are we listening for?” he asks.
The low, soft hiss of static fills the cabin. It seems to pulsate gently, hypnotically. The sound of space rushing past. I try not to think of her.
Whenever I glance around, they’re all still awake and listening intently. I wonder if he is listening too. I wonder if he is staring out into the void again, hoping. Dex thought he still hoped. Oh Dex, you would have liked this. Why did you…
The sound was so faint that I thought I imagined it at first. But that’s how it always starts.
“What was that!?” Axel cries out. “Did you hear it? Did you hear it!?”
Everyone freezes, anxiously listening. Ten seconds; thirty seconds; almost a minute passes.
Then again: PING
“Try amplifying it!” Axel says, eagerly grabing at the control panel. The static fades in and out as he adjusts the settings, but it seems to work. Soon the pings start coming closer together, growing more distinct; one about every ten seconds or so. I keep expecting something else, but there’s only that ping.
“Axel, can you tell where it’s coming from?” I ask him.
“Hard to say exactly… Looks to be from one of the stations that’s just coming around now. No identifying data in the transmission, but if I had to guess, based on the location… either Simular or Cepre.”
Now I know.
“Cepre. That’s it.”
“Why are you so sure?” Ebps asks, “Shouldn’t we wait and let the rest of them come around?”
“No, that’s where he is. Take us in.”
The pings continues to sound. The pulsing static grows stronger.
“I don’t understand,” Axel says, “Scanner’s picking up a lot of noise.”
“What’s it supposed to look like?” asks Psye as she peers over at the screen.
“Well, not like that,” continues Axel. “Damn attack must have messed up the scanner or something. That looks like the core station there, but what’s all this junk?”
I look over to see what Psye and Axel are fussing about.
That’s Cepre there in the center all right, but Axel’s correct, the scan’s a mess. It looks almost like the station is surrounded in a debris cloud.
“Is the station damaged? Can you tell if anyone’s in there?” I ask.
“It looks more or less whole, but what do you think this is, Contractor? Our scanners can’t tell shit,” Axel replies. “How about we try raising them now?”
“No, you picking up anything else?”
No one wants to say it at first, but you can’t avoid it now: the scanner hadn’t been malfunctioning. We’re not the first one’s here.
The scans are pretty clear now. Some of the ships look to be mostly whole, while others are just pieces: half an adder here, fragments of a clock there, an assortment of point units floating beyond that. But this isn’t some Kessler shit show. No, too neat. There’s almost an order to it, like they were disassembled…
“Slow, slow,” Ebps says tensely.
Axel only looks at the instruments. There’s not enough light to see anything out there, except when some shadowy mass blots out a star. The ping continues to sound steadily. Everyone holds their breath.
Then there’s a loud metallic screeching.
“The ferror was that?!” Ebps says with a jump.
“Easy there Skylar,” Axel responds calmly. “Easy… We’re fine. Just nosing our way through. Almost there.”
The debris is growing thicker. Some larger pieces even seem to be connected together, forming what look almost like metal tendrils branching off of the station itself.
“Hmmm,” Psye remarks.
“The ship here,” she points to something on the scanner. “I can’t be sure, but I think… I think it’s Collective.”
Ebps: “How can you tell?”
Psye: “Well, again, I’m not sure. But see those pods? Collective usually puts their drivers on the outside like that.”
Axel: “Think it’s our friends from New Hyrd?”
Psye: “Could be…”
I look back out the window. You can see it now: a black ring rising over the black horizon. So this is it: Cepre. This is the “beautiful ring of glass and steel and infinite possibility,” that would, “expand humanity’s potential and save us.” Those were his words. He believed them, once. But you can’t see any of that now.
“Take us in.”
A rush of air. Cool, not cold. I step over the threshold.
“Atmosphere seems stable enough,” Psye calls out, “so there’s still some power at least…”
It’s pitch black, except for the tactical light from her rifle. As she pans over the room, the light glints off polished metal surfaces and over tasteful bamboo accents.
“Thank god for duck tape,” Axel mutters to himself behind me. “I just hope they didn’t put any closets on this station…”
Ebps is staying behind on the ship.
We look to be in some sort of reception area. On the wall behind the large wooden reception desk, is the logo of Mandus Data Processing. Looks like it used to be made of moss or something, but the plants are now all brown and crumbling. Next to the logo, a bright yellow poster reads: “Only Code”. Oh Dex… you would have had some appropriately cynical comments about this, I know you would have…
“Come on,” Psye says. “Let’s see if we can get some lights on.”
She starts down a passage to the left.
Large rooms branch off on either side of the hallway. We peek into a few. Jumbled piles of desks and chairs line the walls, and scrap bits of electronics and metal lie in neat piles on the floor. Still no signs of anyone.
My foot bumps something. A hallow clattering sound. Psye whirls around.
“A bit on edge there?” I say, squinting into the light.
It was just an empty bottle. She sweeps the light down the side of the hallway. Empty bottles of coconut water and green juice litter the edges of the hall. I pick one up and study it. There’s still a bit of residue.
“Looks fresh,” I observe.
We continue on. Then the passage forks.
“Which way?” Axel asks.
Before anyone can respond, there’s a crash, followed by what sounds like scoffing. Axel and I bunch close to Psye instinctively. It sounds like it came from the hallway to our right. Psye tensely keeps the light pointing down that way. Then I spot a pair of hands emerge from one of the doorways.
“Don’t shoot… don’t shoot,” a man calls out in a lighthearted tone. The hands wave about humorously. Then a well groomed man peaks his head out. He looks to be about thirty, dark hair, thin, bearded, thick black rimmed glasses.
“Think you can put down the light,” he says, squinting as he steps out into the hallway. “Thanks. Man, is it good to see you. He said you’d be coming but I was starting to wonder…”
“Are you alone?” Psye asks cautiously.
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m one of his followers if that’s what you’re asking… But yeah, it’s just me… I’m just glad I found you first. They get protective sometimes.”
“Who? Who’s followers?”
“Why Kurtz’ of course!”
We look at each other.
“Is he… ok?” I ask.
“Well as good as can be expected,” the man says with a slight grimace. “Really been over extending himself though, but he’s close now… And you’re here to help him, right?”
A faint sound, like footsteps. The man spins around, staring into the darkness. There’s a wild look in his eyes.
“What was that?” Axel asks nervously.
“Uhh, probably just a few of his followers. They don’t mean anything, but I think we should be going soon… You got somewhere we can talk?” he continues. “Name’s Logr by the way, Johan Logr.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Psye says, looking nervously down the dark hallway. “Let’s head back to the ship… Ebps, you there?” she calls over the radio.
There’s a few tense seconds of silence, and then he responds, “All good here. Find anything?”
“We’re coming back in. Bringing someone with us…”
“Kurtz?” Ebps interrupts eagerly.
“No,” Psye replies. “Says his name is Logr. Might know something about Kurtz.”
“Ok, I’ll be ready,” Ebps confirms.
“Anything you want,” Logr says, glancing back over his shoulder, “but we really must be going.”
“First off, who the hell are you, why the hell are you here, and what the hell do you know about Kurtz?” Ebps asks, with a flash of the old Ebps I loved so much.
“And nice to meet you too,” Logr says with a smile. “As I told them, the name’s Johan Logr. As for my story… well, it’s really not that interesting.”
Ebps: “Out with it. You with any companies?”
“No, no, no,” Logr laughs, “Ahh, I feel like I’ve been here forever, but it can’t have been more than a few months…”
“Before coming out here, I was just another burnt-out, cynical young blogger, looking for purpose and adventure. The whole Inner-Zone scene was just too played out and boring, so I headed out to the frontier. That’s where I first came across his work. I didn’t know it was his at the time of course, but the code was a revelation. It’s more than code… it’s a declaration on being, a manifesto on existence, man! I felt him calling me, and somehow I just knew where to go….”
“So Kurtz has been writing that code?” I ask him.
“So you’ve seen it too?! You must know then. But that’s nothing compared to what he’s doing now! You just gotta see it…. The man’s figured it out. Any day now… He’s a hacker philosopher in the classic sense. Kurtz doesn’t just program, he doesn’t just write code, man, he’s reprogramming the universe itself. Do you understand? He’s working on a whole different level; beyond me, beyond you, beyond anyone…”
Logr trails off, staring meditatively off into space.
“But what exactly is he working on?” I ask.
“Life, man! And he’s solved it! His work will give hope and meaning to everyone. An entirely new way of being… The next stage of existence…”
“Is it full of stars?” Axel remarks dryly. His irrelevant brand of humor seems lost on Logr.
“Stars? You’re still thinking small, man! That star out there, that’s only the how, not the what… He’s gonna take us way beyond that, lift us out of all this, he’s gonna free us… But you just gotta talk to him. He’ll make you see… I should let him know you’re here.”
Logr tries to stand up, but Ebps puts a hand on his shoulder.
“And why the hell should we trust you?” he asks bluntly.
Logr looks confused.
“What? You’re here for Kurtz, right? And I’m telling you, he’s waiting. All I have to do is let him know you’re here.”
“You seemed pretty scared when we found you,” Psye says, “What aren’t you telling us? Who are his followers?”
“That? Oh, that was nothing… Kurtz takes all comers. He’s a real lover of humanity. They and I didn’t always get along at first of course – and when they finally brought me to him that first time, I thought it was over for sure – but now, we’ve got an understanding. Kurtz knows how important it will be to have his work documented so he keeps me around. They listen to him. But do you want to see Kurtz or not? Let me go talk to him. I know he’s eager to see you.”
“Well,” I say, looking around at Axel, Psye and Ebps, “I don’t like it either, but what other choices do we have here?”
No one responds. I knew they wouldn’t.
“Ok. Logr, go tell Kurtz we’re here and want to see him right away.”
Logr’s face lights up in a big smile.
“Oh, you can count on it man. You can’t imagine how excited he’ll be.”
“How’d it go?” I ask Logr when he returns. There’s a small cut on the side of his neck. I don’t remember that being there before.
“Better than expected, all things considered… Haven’t seen him that excited in a while. The sooner the better.”
“Ok, ok… Hey Ebps, Psye, Axel, let’s get ready.”
“No, not them. Kurtz wants to see you… Only you.”
“Why? What does he want with me?”
“That’s between him and you.”
“What’s going on?”
“Kurtz wants to see me,” I tell her. “Alone.”
“Just you?” Psye asks. “Why?”
“I don’t know either.”
“He was very insistent,” Logr chimes in, “and you don’t argue with a man like Kurtz.”
Ebps and Axel are standing around now too. Psye glances around at them, then looks back at me.
“You’re not going to go, are you? How do we know it’s safe?”
“Kurtz is a man of his word,” Logr says, “He’ll protect you. You can count on him.”
“And there’s no other way?” I ask.
“Afraid not,” Logr offers with a shrug. “But just think, Kurtz wants to meet with you. He asked for you. You…”
At this point, who cares? What do I have to lose?
“Ok,” I tell Logr. “I’ll go… And Ebps, while I’m gone, keep the ship ready. I’ll try to stay in contact but If I’m not back here within an hour, leave, no questions asked. Understood?”
Psye looks at me pleadingly but doesn’t say anything.
“Understood,” Ebps confirms.
“Good. Here, give me that pistol.”
Logr frowns again.
“Oh no, no, no… He won’t like that. He just wants to talk. You’ll understand when you meet him.”
“Alone and unarmed, into the unknown. What is this?”
Axels opens his mouth like he wants to say something, but Logr cuts him off.
“Just trust him, man! If he wanted you dead, you’d already be dead…”
“Well that’s reassuring,” Ebps comments under his breath.
“…he needs you and you need him,” Logr continues. “He’ll open your eyes, man. He’ll show you what life really is. He’ll save you…”
“Enough BS! Look, I’m going. This is why I’m here isn’t it, so let’s just get on with it then,” I say grimly.
“Great!” Logr exclaims enthusiastically, jumping to his feet.
Psye: “Just be careful.”
Axel: “I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.”
Ebps walks over and shakes my hand. “Good luck out there… I know you’ll do great. We’ll be on the radio if you need anything.”
“Thanks… just remember.”
“Come on! Let’s get going,” Logr calls out eagerly.
“Just a minute!” I yell back, annoyed. I take one last look around at all of them. “See you on the other side.”
Axel lights up at this, “Not bad Contractor… Not bad at all…”
“Through there,” Logr says, pointing down the dark hallway. “I envy you, man,” he says with a sigh. “I bet he’s finally made his big breakthrough and has just been waiting to tell you about it. He’s been so close for so long. He’s gonna save us, I know he will…”
I look at Logr one more time, and then start down the dark passageway. I’ve got a very bad feeling about this too, Axel.
The flashlight only seems to reach a few feet in front of me. The edges of the beam pulsate in the darkness. It’s quiet, only the metallic echoes of my footsteps.
Wait! What was that? Almost sounded like… I freeze, listening. My heart race. I don’t hear anything, so I continue.
No… there is something now, I’m sure of it. I stop again and listen. It’s faint but…
Something glints in the light and I stumble backwards. Two unblinking eyes. I cautiously pan the light over him. The dark figure sits cumpled against the wall. Only his lips move. Seems to be in some sort of trance or something.
“Are you ok?” I call out to him softly, cautiously edging forward. He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even move. “Can you hear me? Are you ok?” Still no response.
I’m close enough to make out what he’s saying, the same words over and over again: “…will save us. Kurtz will save us. Kurtz will…”
More of them line the sides of the passage up ahead. All ages. All types. A few are wearing the tattered robes of the Collective and some are holding nasty looking, angular blades. They glance up at me menacingly or reach out to touch me as I pass, but they do not try to stop me. I continue through them. They all murmur the same words: “Kurtz will save us.” Why do the believe in him so much? It’s pathetic, and yet…
Rooms branch off. I glance in. Gaunt faces lit only by the soft glow of the small holotubes. Long wood tables, forty or fifty per room. More of that code scrolls past. What are they working on?
Finally. The circular chamber. No light, except from banks of screens circling the elevated platform in the center.
There! That must be him, laying on the platform beneith the sky light. Seems to be wearing some kind of pressure suit. A thick keyboard rests at his side. He’s not moving. Is he dead?
More of his followers lurk in the shadows. I can just make them out. They converse quietly among themselves in an unknown language.
Over wires, over pieces of electronic debris. Closer. Closer. Every step echos in the stillness of the chamber. No movement.
The skylight. Faint lights on the edges, but the center is black. The blackness of nothing. The Void Star.
The figure moves suddenly. I jump back in surprise. His motion is slow, as if each movement requires tremendous effort. He turns his head towards me, revealing a gaunt face, but it’s Kurtz all right. Those eyes… looking right through me. He doesn’t blink.
“I’ve been waiting.”
His voice is raspy and quiet, but is somehow unnervingly direct and clear. I don’t know what to say. I’m frozen in place.
He raises one hand in an almost imperceptible gesture. There’s a soft shuffling and I spot his followers quietly leaving the room. Now we are alone.
“I knew you’d come,” he continues. “Do you know why you’re here?”
My mind has gone blank, so all I stupidly say is: “Kurtz?”
“Yes, Kurtz… Kurtz… Kurtz…” He trails off.
I take a moment and try to think.
“Kurtz, how long have you been out here?”
“Yes, thank you… It has been a long time, hasn’t it? But you’re right on schedule.”
He closes his eyes now. It looks like he’s gone to sleep.
“Almost two years Kurtz… Are you ok? What happened?”
He keeps his eyes shut and doesn’t respond. I’m not sure he even heard me.
“Is it true?” I try again. “Did you find something out here?”
He opens his eyes again, slowly turning his head to look back up at the skylight.
“Something? No…,” he exhales. “I found it though…”
“What? What did you find?”
He doesn’t respond for a moment. Then, he props himself up slightly and begins, very slowly at first, and pausing often to catch his breath:
“I remember when I first saw it. No one knew what it was. But something about it… something that both repelled and attracted me. I couldn’t look away. It held something. I knew it. I didn’t know what, but I knew it would change things.”
“I think we must have gotten too close. When we finally realized, it was already too late. We couldn’t escape its pull. The black expanse grew larger and larger until it seemed to consume everything. And then…”
He pauses, thinking. Then he points upwards at the skylight.
“That’s not a star out there – it’s death… chaos… nothingness. That is what I saw… And not just here. The star permeates everything. It has always been with us. Do you understand? And it will consume everything until there is nothing left…”
“But through the darkness, I saw something on the other side… So beautiful… And then, just as quickly, it was gone…”
“Oh, I was so close. Just a few more minutes…”
“But as I lay recovering, I realized why: I was supposed to save them, ave them from the darkness and take them to the other side. That’s why I built these stations, to understand the star and go beyond it… But The Company couldn’t see beyond the quarter’s profits.”
“So I returned. Alone, I started work on a new language. It was supposed to be perfect. It was supposed to give us true meaning and allow us to break through to the other side. It was supposed to save us… But every time I thought I had finally solved it, there it was again, and everything came crashing down.”
“They followed me out here. More and more everyday. They trusted me. I told them I would save them, and they believed. And I tried and tried and tried, but finally…”
“There is nothing beyond the Void Star. It is everything. It is all that ever has been and ever will be… We cannot escape it… You… you already know this, but they trusted me. I told them there was hope but there is none. It will consume us all…”
Kurtz pauses for a long time. Then finally:
“You’re here to take me back, aren’t you?”
“Is that what you want?”
He exhales slowly.
“You can go back to your life, Kurtz. The Company wants you back. Everyone wants you back. Mandus…”
“Mandus! he interrupts with a sudden burst of energy, “No… No…. You can’t let him see this. I can’t let them see… I can’t…”
“Kurtz, you need to get out of here. You’re sick. You can’t stay here. And don’t you want to come back?”
He doesn’t say anything for what feels like an eternity. Then softly:
“In the end, there is only darkness. And the darkness is without form, and void.”
“Kurtz? What the hell are you talking about?”
“There is no going back,” he continues, “I’ve taken care of it… I brought you here to…”
Taken care of? The way he says it fills me with a sudden horror. What does he mean? For the first time, I realize how helpless truely I am. This man could have me killed with a word and… Oh XLAT! where did he send his followers?
“What did you do Kurtz?” I ask him sternly. “Did you… did you, do something? Are they ok?”
He smiles faintly, “I… I couldn’t do it myself. I thought I could… wanted it so much, but I couldn’t. Please…”
SHRD! I don’t listen to the rest of what he says. I grab my transmitter.
“Ebps, you there?”
“Ebps… Psye… anyone?”
More static. I turn back and grab one of his arms.
“Tell me they’re ok. TELL ME!
“Oh, they’re ok now,” he mocks with that damn smile of his, “and soon, I will be too…”
Something crackles over the radio. It sounds like Psye but the transmission is too distorted to be sure.
“Psye! you there?” I call back.
“… get out … too many … can’t hold … Axel missing … Ebps … have to launch …”
“Are you ok?” I call back desperately.
“… out … can’t stay … goodbye …”
I’m trying to call back, when suddenly the station shudders violently and I’m flying through the air. That’s the last thing I remember. Then darkness.
The ground shakes violently again, but it’s quiet, so quiet. Why should I get up? Why should I open my eyes? There’s nothing good out there. Wouldn’t it be better to just lay here? Here… I can almost feel her next to me… Don’t worry, it will be ok…
No, no… what about them? You can’t leave them. We’ve got to get out of here, or at least try.
I open my eyes. Still here. Damn. I sit up slowly. One leg looks pretty banged up, but I can’t feel anything. Doesn’t even feel like it’s my body. Every movement feels automatic.
My hearing is coming back. A dull roar, punctuated by deep, percussive groans and the screech of tearing metal. What the hell happened?
Kurtz isn’t on the platform. A cracked screen on the floor near me is flashing red. That’s never a good sign. It’s a map of the station. A large chunk of the right side is blinking and there’s some sort of alert. Something about the orbit.
Some motion catches my attention. Something is moving over there, under all the wires. I get to my feet unsteadily and stagger over. It’s him, pretty tangled up, but he’s alive. I uncover him. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even seem to be hurt, just dazed. His eyes roll about and he just keeps repeating over and over: “nothing… nothing… nothing…”
“Kurtz,” I yell at him. “Are you hurt? We have to go! Now! The station is…”
As I say this, he suddenly turns his head and fixes me with his unblinking stare.
“Leave? No… no… no… It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I didn’t want this. You… you were supposed to… No… I can’t leave my station. We can’t let them see… Please, please, please…”
Then he collapses back, exhausted. His mouth still moves pathetically but no words come out. Oh Kurtz, this can’t be how it ends. I know he’s already almost dead, but I can’t leave him here like this. I have to try.
I untangle him and pull him to his feet. He’s lighter than I expect. There’s almost nothing to him.
Together we stagger out of the chamber. Dense smoke. I can’t see anything but somehow know where to go. Kurtz can barely even support himself. His feet drag along. Seems to be drifting in and out of consciousness. It’s hopeless, but I can’t leave him.
Shadowy figures writing about on the floors. They clutch at us. They open their mouths but no sound comes out. Just keep going.
And through it all, the soft, speechless rattle of his voice in my ear: “Nothing… nothing… nothing…”
Don’t listen. Just keep going. Almost there.
The passage dead ends. SHRD! I swear this was the way!
I backtrack and head down another passage. It too dead ends.
“Ebps, you there?” I try calling out on the transmitter. Static. “Ebps, are you there?”
“Who do you think is out there?” he mockingly whispers.
“Shut up!” I yell back at him. “Ebps… Psye… anyone?”
He only laughs.
“Can’t you see… Isn’t it obvious?”
“Quiet!!!”, I shout. There’s gotta be another way.
“It’s only ever been you…” says the voice in my ear.
I turn to head back. Maybe there’s another way. Something snags. That old fucker has probably grabbed onto something.
“Come on!” I yell, yanking him forward. The sound of tearing fabric. Nothing resists. In my surprise, I let go of him as I fall forward, landing hard on one hand. That fuck!
I look back, expecting to see him grinning there on the floor. But no…
The empty pressure suit lays in a crumpled pile on the ground. A large tear runs down the middle. There is nothing but a bit of orange dust inside.
I don’t remember how I got here. Maybe he was right. Maybe I never left.
Beneath the skylight. The station creaks and groans about me. We must be close now. Nothing. Not even starlight.
I’m sorry Dex. I’m sorry. I’m just glad you didn’t have to see it. I should have…
Thin cracks appear in the glass above. The entire station is coming apart.
The oscillations grow more and more violent. The glass shatters, the pieces sucked out into space, but somehow, I remain fixed on the platform. None of it seems to effect me.
I lay there, watching the entire station break apart in slow motion. There is no sound. The panels tear away, exposing the beams and wiring, and then these too disappear. Eventually, only the platform remains.
How much longer?
Right above it now.
So this is it? Can’t be far.
The surface… not nothing… it swirls and shimmers, glistening like mercury. A mirror. Is that what he saw?
Closer. Closer. So close.
I see them all reflected. Dex… Almost within reach. My hand brushes the surface…
I watch the stars fade until there is nothing left. I feel her standing next to me. Only darkness now.
“Ahh,” she sighs, “it’s such a beautiful day… I’m glad it ends this way.”
I look over at Dex. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her actually smile before.
We’re standing atop the white pyramid. Smooth planes of white ice surround it. Thin blue clouds drift lazily on the black, starless horizon. It is a beautiful day. That’s all that ever matters. “I’m glad too,” I say, and I take her hand. We stand together, looking over it all.
It doesn’t make any sense. Where is the light coming from? It seems to be growing brighter. We don’t say anything for a long time. Then: “I’m sorry…”
“What for?” I respond. “Wasn’t it all meaningless anyway?”
“More or less,” Dex responds with a self-aware little laugh, “but I don’t think that’s what matters… Even Kurtz…”
She pauses to consider for a moment, and then continues.
“When Kurtz looked into the Void Star, this is what he saw, this here is what he feared: meaninglessness, statelessness, nothingness. This is what he tried to save them from.”
“But Kurtz’s mission was always hopeless, because this is how it always has to end. I think some part of him knew this, but he had to try, and even when he didn’t believe it himself anymore, he couldn’t let their hope die. It’s beautiful… I just wish he could have seen this.”
The light is almost blinding now, but I try to keep my eyes open, gripping her hand tightly. I feel her fading away.
“Was it really worth it though? Will it ever be?”
She doesn’t reply for a long time, and when she finally does, it’s only a whisper in my ear, “I hope so…”
Me too, Dex. Me too…
Orange dust rushes past. How the hell did I end up here?
I sigh, and turn to look around the small cabin. Files on Kurtz are scattered over the table. I don’t feel like reading them again. There’s nothing else to do, so I go back to staring out there.
Space. Fuck space.
Six days out now. Six days at a hundred thousand hertz and for what? Nothing. Nothing and more nothing and maybe a few specs of dust in between if you’re lucky. That’s the final frontier for you. But maybe this time…