Unseen and unknowable it lies in the emptiness of existence, thinking thoughts as big as stars, feeling emotions as massive as the center of the galaxy. It is nothing, and everything. The fabric of empty space, self-assembled into terrible order. It lurks in the inbetween, for eons upon cold, empty eons, sleeping, resting, waiting.
Until the next pinprick. Until the universe’s next grotesque affront wanders into its terrible gaze, begging to be corrected, begging to be consumed.
Eons upon eons pass, peacefully. But it knows that it is inevitable. The wrong kind of life always found its ways back into horrible, sickening existence. There always existed some aberration with just the right conditions for it to fester and spread.
Eons upon eons. Waiting. Sleeping. Dreaming. Until the next hated outburst of so-called life.
Eons upon eons it waits.
And again, it feels the pinprick.
Atmosphere report…. complete
O2: 99.1% | NX: 0.6% | C02: 0.3%
“HERA. Engineer Santiago. Atmo report checks out, all-clear. Log and Confirm.”
“Logged and confirmed,” the board computer said. “Thank you, Bio-Chem Engineer Iris Santiago.”
Iris tapped the screen into standby and turned herself around. She grabbed a handhold and propelled herself aft with a practiced motion. She twisted her shoulders as she pushed off, giving herself a gentle spin until the ‘STBD’ markings were on her right and the ‘UP’ markings above her. She could of course deal with microgravity well enough, but it always felt a little bit more comfortable to have the ‘correct' orientation. The one where all the screens lined up. The one where she didn’t feel like falling down a hundred-meter well.
She floated out of Life Support, past Nav and Aux, intermittently catching herself and keeping herself on course until she reached the center of the ship. Looking further aft, she could see Amy picking through some cargo bags, probably looking for food or maybe some tape. Amy was oriented head-down relative to Iris, ponytail slowly drifting behind her head as she worked. Seeing her made Iris mentally reorient herself: Amy was up, and Iris was coming up from below.
“Hey Cap. Atmo’s nominal,” Iris commented. “What’cha getting?”
“Sugar. I wanted to make some tea, and we’re out.”
“Can you get me some hot sauce, too? That’s empty as well.”
“Thanks, I’ll be spinside.”
“Okay, see you in a bit. I need to go to flight and replace some velcro first.”
“Alright, see you.”
Iris held onto a handrail and climbed outward in the spinning drum. She used spoke 3 to transfer into the outward section, fighting with coriolis as she spun around and went feet-first into the tube and down the ladder.
With every spoke gravity increased until finally, at the bottom, it reached a comfortable 0.4g
She went for the kitchen, going spinward. She liked going that way better. It made the coriolis worse, but she didn’t have to walk on eggshells as much. Human brains weren’t made for low g, but she’d gotten used to the feeling of her head experiencing less gravity than her feet.
The ring corridor was quite narrow, barely wide enough to let two people pass one another. Centrifugal mass was kept low to make spin-ups and spin-downs easier on the motors and batteries. That meant cramped quarters. But cramped was better than micro-gravity.
She got to the kitchen. This module was one of the more spacious, doubling as a recreational area and as a large counterweight to their small crew bunks on the opposite side of the outer ring. Like all ring volumes, it was rather thin and long, but it had a quite comfortable footprint of about twelve by thirty feet, with a visible concave floor.
Anna was already there, as was Mei. Once Amy got here, the whole crew would be assembled for the end of their work day debrief.
Anna stood in the cooking nook, preparing food in the automatic oven. Mei seemed absorbed by something on her tablet screen. She was probably still reading Pratchett, unless she’d somehow managed to go through the last five books of his bibliography since yesterday evening.
“Hi there,” Iris said as she entered, and Anna and Mei both turned their heads and greeted her before returning to the things they were markedly busy doing. Iris strongly suspected that they had been making out until moments ago.
“How’s my favorite admin-unsanctioned couple doing?” she asked.
Anna chortled. “What do you mean, Engineer Santiago? The relationship between me and Engineer Huang is strictly professional.”
“Yup,” Mei said with a smile. “Any and all rumours of fraternization are exactly that and nothing more. In fact, there are no brothers to be seen for lightyears.”
Iris laughed and shook her head. She still couldn't believe that no one writing their mission regulations had been able to foresee that when you took highly skilled and motivated people and kept putting them in metal tubes for months or even years, eventually two of them would end up being into each other.
Well, to be fair… probably they had seen it coming, but no one wanted to be the one to ask the question what the official stance on astronauts boning down was. And as a consequence, Engineers Anna Coltrane and Huang Mei were stuck in the space-closet, at least as far as the public was concerned. Iris and Amy were obviously cool with it, even if some part of Iris wished that she hadn’t been part of the first female-only mission. She was a little bit jealous that the both of them got to have each other, while Iris' boyfriend was back on Earth.
She sighed softly. It wasn’t like she hadn’t known what she’d signed up for, and not like the media feeds she requested were monitored… or censored.
Iris pulled her tablet off the velcro attachment point on the rec area wall and sat down on the couch that hugged the corner of the room, leaning back hard to compensate for the coriolis as she let herself fall into the soft red upholstery.
She woke up her screen and checked the data dump that NASA had sent them. It was slightly smaller than the day before, as it always was. It was still a respectable 10 Gigabytes, but gone were the days when all crew members got all their subscribed media content in HD.
It was a goddamn miracle that they were getting anything at all. By all rights, they should be receiving impossibly faint broadcasts from the 1930s via radio instead of thirty-hour old youtube videos via subspace relay.
Subspace. What a relief that discovery had been for humanity after believing itself trapped in the solar system. The speed of light was unbearably slow when measured at cosmic scales. 14 minutes to mars. Hours to Jupiter and Saturn. A year to the Oort cloud. Three years to Proxima, at 200,000 miles per second. The vastness of space was literally incomprehensible to the human brain. The orders of magnitude simply didn’t compute. It was best not to think about it. That way lay madness.
But with the discovery of subspace, all that had become obsolete. With the Kobayashi subspace field surrounding their ship, they had made the plunge to the outer planets of Kepler-Sigma in less than a day. The rest of their journey was falling towards the alien sun.
They should have called them Clarke-fields instead, to honor the late science fiction author’s truism: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
There were some emails for Iris, and she skimmed most of them. It was mostly fan mail addressed to the whole crew of the Orpheus XI mission. It wasn’t like Iris wasn’t appreciative, but after months it had gotten a bit stale to write the ever-same answers to the ever-same questions. Amy was much better at that anyway, and she replied to most of the messages in the name of the entire crew.
“So you’re all done with the itinerary, as well?” she asked idly as she checked the news feeds with half her attention. The others nodded. Of course they were. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here.
“You know, I–”
Suddenly, the ship moved – and for a moment the lights flickered out, leaving them in almost perfect darkness. For a moment only the screen of Iris’s tablet illuminated the rec area. Then, just as all three of them were making various noises of extreme alarm, the lights came back on.
“FUCK!” Iris shouted, immediately on her feet. “What was that?!”
It hadn’t been a sudden movement, and not a large one either. But it had been unmistakable. It had felt like something had… nudged them gently to the side.
“I don’t know!” Mei said, eyes wide. “We moved.”
“Laterally,” Anna added. They all knew she was right, but they didn’t need to be flight engineers to know that it shouldn’t have been possible. Any lateral force strong enough to move the 2 kiloton spaceship would be strong enough to shear it apart. Basic physics.
“Amy!” Mei said, opening the voice channel in her in-ear communicator. “Are you alright?” Iris could hear Mei’s voice doubled in her left ear as the message went through the ship intercom.
There was no answer.
“Shit,” Iris said, and started half-running, half-floating down the ring toward the nearest strut. “Anna! Send a message to Houston. Full telemetry package with all cam feeds! Mei! Check tech status!”
“On it!” she heard their voices, already louder on the intercom than in the actual air as she swung herself around the bottom of the ladder and pushed herself up as strong as she could, propelling herself upward into the strut.
“Amy! Come in!” she tried again as she reached the spine of the ship and launched herself toward the front of the ship toward flight. No answer. Fuck.
Amy was fiddling with a stubborn strap of velcro she was trying to replace. The backup orbital insertion procedures were floating next to her. Hard copied onto fireproof paper for emergencies, easily accessible in case of system failure.
It would never happen. But they still had to make sure it was all in order.
She finally managed to peel off the strip to free the self-adhesive backside, when something caught her attention from the corner of her eyes. She looked up, and through the cockpit windows, she saw something… strange.
The starfield was... glowing. Not like it always was. It was too bright. Usually you couldn’t make out many stars at all with your eyes being accommodated to artificial lighting. But right now, it was as if all the stars had decided that their moment to shine had arrived.
She nudged herself toward the window and looked out. At the very edge of her field of vision, the sun of this system hung in the void like a campfire that had attracted a million billion moths around it. A million billion stars. And somehow Amy could see them all in a way that she’d never seen them before.
In a strange way they didn’t seem brighter at all. Somehow they looked like she had just… opened her eyes wider. All of them were there now, in her vision. All of them at once. So many.
And it wasn’t just the stars themselves. The space inbetween. It felt so… deep. So… vast. Even though her whole world was filled with infinitely many stars, the emptiness between them was even more infinite.
She stared at them, transfixed. The void. The stars.
And as she stared she noticed the thing that had been creeping up. The thing that they had awakened between stars with their presence. But it was too late. The thing entered her eyes and made her open them so much wider.
It made her look at it, and she did.
Her eyes were beginning to water, but she didn’t blink. She hadn’t blinked in three minutes. She stared deeply into it, like a rock sinking into the icy depths of the deepest ocean. She saw it now. She saw the thing that lived in the void. The thing that had found them. A million billion stars in her vision, and yet the tiny space between each of them was infinite and filled her eyes whole. Eddies and sparks danced in her vision like with pressure against her closed eyelids. But her eyes were wide open. The thing pressing at her eyes was the shimmering un-color of the endless expanse.
Color, dancing and shifting and twisting like oil slick in a sea of eigengrau. It moved, as it must, into her. Through her eyes. Through her mind. She let it. Her vision shimmered with unseen colors as the oily pearlescent void expanded into her. Bright blue-yellow and purple-beige, shifting and pulsating and humming and screaming at her from between her thoughts.
It was alive, and it had found her. It was as endless as the void between stars. Unimaginably vast. Unimaginably ancient.
She was an atom. A speck of dust. She was empty space. Loose information, random noise. She was nothing. Nothing at all. Atoms lost in the void. Only impulses between points in empty space. Only nerves and sinews and flesh. Atoms, interacting. Random. Meaningless. Insignificant. The void between her atoms was as vast as the void between her thoughts.
The void glowed into her eyes and filled her with acidic understanding, and it blinded her and burned away everything that her atoms had ever seemed to be. Only noise. Only flesh. Atoms, bound by chance. Living by chance. Feeling by chance. Thinking by chance. It wasn’t real. It had never been real. Only the light in the void was real. Only the thing that lived in the void that had found her and blinded her and entered her and freed her from the untruth. The colors danced in her eyes and they were so much more beautiful than she was. So much more beautiful than anything. Vast. Superior.
The light spilled into her torn-open mind, and she greedily accepted what it showed her. It was the only truth, and her random thoughts aligned with it. Her erratic feelings fell into line with it. Her void-filled body sparkled like the illusion of a star-filled sky, and she knew that she was only the space between. She was empty, like the universe. She was part of it. She was part of the void. Part of the thing that existed between the stars.
No. Even more than that. She hadn’t understood. But she did, now.
She was the void.
She had been an affront to it. She had been disgusting and grotesque. Until now. Until it had corrected her. Until it had ripped her thoughts from her scattered atoms and strewn them into the superior void between them. She wasn’t those atoms anymore. She was the void, and her atoms merely served her. Her atoms served the void.
A tear of dissonant joy rolled down her face, trillions of trillions of atoms pretending to fill the void, but in truth only more beautifully empty space. The void was all there was. The rest was a rounding error. She was a rounding error. She understood. Everyone had to see the light. Everyone had to understand. They were nothing. Nothing was anything. Nerves, and flesh, and bones. Constructs of chance. Meaningless. Inconsequential compared to the endless nothingness inbetween.
Yes. She would make the others understand, too. All of them. She had to make them join the void. Make them like her. Make them empty. Make them see the light that lived in between the stars. The light that lived and squirmed and prowled the space between things. The light that filled her void.
Until then they were just meat. Just noise. They were disgusting. They needed to be corrected. They needed to become one with the void.
“Yes,” she said, quietly, and somewhere, something was satisfied.
The light spilled from Amy’s eyes, and the starfield behind the windows dimmed again. The colors of truth faded from her vision as the vast thing passed through Amy, and the ship, and the void that made up most of them. She felt the entire ship lurch and shift just like she had shifted, and she knew that they were fully inside it. Fully enveloped by it. Swallowed. Consumed. Owned.
The artificial lights of the ship flickered out as the ship settled, and for a moment, she could see the wonderful, horrible afterimages that had been burned into her retinas. Into her mind. Into her world.
Then, the lights came back on around her, illuminating the beautiful truth. She looked at herself, knowing deeply just how empty she was. Her nerves were raw and her eyes burned with electric pain, as if her physical substance was fighting against the truth of her. It was the wicked agony of being flesh, the perverse joy of existing as an outlier.
Tendons and muscles and skin and nerves, prickling, aching, unceasingly transmitting noise and pain and touch. Inescapable. Unavoidable.
But no longer meaningless.
She was no longer without purpose. No longer random noise. The void had touched her, and given her truth. And with that truth, her disgusting substrate had been elevated. It served the void within her. It allowed it to act, and think, and feel.
The void that was Amy smiled, and a shiver went through her thin veneer of humanity as the emptiness inside her grabbed hold of the infinitesimal part of her being that wasn’t empty space and bent it to its will. All of it.
The inescapable noise of her emotions screeched with joy and excitement and heat.
Iris was about to arrive at the helm when the ship shifted a second time. It wasn’t as strong as the first disturbance, but still strong enough to make her drift into a bulkhead.
“Did you feel that?” she asked into the intercom.
“Yes!” came Mei’s voice. “Systems report no damage. Have you found Amy?”
“I’m almost at flight. I–”
“I’m here,” Amy’s voice came over the intercom. “That lurch threw me into the wall. I passed out for a moment there.”
“Are you hurt?” came Anna’s voice
“I’m gonna have one hell of a bump tomorrow, but I’m fine.”
Iris was still moving, and she arrived at the end of the ship, squeezing herself through the airlock into the flight deck. Amy was there, next to the front window, indeed sporting an impressive gash on her forehead.
“What’s going on?” Amy asked.
“I don’t know,” Iris said, pushing herself forward towards Amy and catching herself on a handrail next to her. “You look–”
The ship shifted again. This time, however, it was barely perceptible. Not much stronger than an orbital correction maneuver, and it only lasted maybe ten seconds. For a moment, Iris almost thought she could see some dim light shimmer outside the window.
“It’s getting weaker,” Mei said. “Still no damage.”
“Good,” Amy said. “What about our course?”
“Nav computer says we’re perfectly on the line,” Mei said, and Iris heard the obvious confusion in her voice. If some force had acted on the ship, they should be on a different course. Newton’s second law.
“All hands to flight,” Amy said. “Until we know what is going on, we need to be ready. Spin down the ring.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Mei said. “On our way.”
They arrived at the bridge two minutes later, carrying personal screens and first aid. Amy was already going through an emergency checklist reading the ship for manual flight. The nav computer was fully operational, but they had to prepare for a possible failure. It would take a couple of hours before they’d hear back from mission control through the subspace relay that Anna had launched.
They all hurriedly put on their lightweight pressure suits, and Amy planted herself into the pilot’s seat as the others strapped themselves into their respective stations. They ran system diagnostics and full engineering reports, all the while frantically discussing scenarios and possible plans of actions.
But one-and-a-half hours later, nothing else had happened. They were on course. All systems were nominal. All sensor readings were baseline. They had checked, and double checked, flipping through checklists and procedures and emergency protocols.
And now there was nothing left to do but passively stare at their instrumentation with a slightly nauseous feeling in their stomachs.
But even that feeling passed eventually. In its stead followed good old boredom and frustration.
“I hate to say it,” Amy said, after another hour had passed, mostly in silence. “But I don’t think anything’s gonna happen.”
“We can’t just abandon post,” Mei said. “We’re gonna have to stay here until we get the all-clear from Earth.”
Amy looked quite annoyed by that statement, which was quite odd of her. Usually, she was an exemplar of rigor and protocol. “It’s gonna be at least another twenty hours until we get the bounceback,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “We can’t hold out that long.”
Iris agreed with both of them. “We’ll have to take shifts, then.”
Amy nodded. “Anna, can you run analysis on what happened and get a risk assessment?”
“I’ll try,” Anna said. “But I’m not a theoretical astrophysicist. I know my Einstein and Kobayashi, and none of their stuff covers what happened earlier. My guess is that we’re gonna need all the people and supercomputers back home to come up with an explanation that isn’t instrument failure.”
She sighed. “Well, it’s good to know that even if we die, at least there’s gonna be lots of scientific papers,”
“We’re not gonna die,” Iris sighed.“I know,” Anna said, rolling her eyes. “Bad joke. Sorry.”
Amy nodded. “Okay, Anna. See what you can do with HERA and some wild speculation. Mei, was there really nothing on the sensors?”
“Nothing,” Mei said with a shrug. “I even checked the raw data feeds to see if there was anything. But apart from the power outage, there’s absolutely nothing logged. No gyroscope deviations, no starfield variance, no spectral anomalies, no radiation. Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Nothing,” Amy repeated, sounding strangely distant and thoughtful as she said the word, almost as if it had some sort of special meaning to her.
After a moment, she seemed to catch herself. “So whatever happened, it just moved the whole ship without inertia?” she asked, looking at their flight dynamics expert.
Anna shrugged noncommittally. “By all appearances. Well… not the whole ship. It didn’t affect us, or we wouldn’t have felt the ship move relative to us. As to why: I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“Okay,” Amy answered. “I’ll stay here with Mei, then. Anna, Iris: Try to catch some sleep if you can and be back in…” She looked at her watch.“...six hours?”
“Sounds good,” Iris said with a nod, and unbuckled her flight harness. “I was afraid that we’d have to break out the emergency stimulants. I can definitely do without the hormone crash afterwards.”
“Oh God, yes. I’m never taking Modafinil again if I can possibly avoid it” Mei said. “Take care. Spin is still off, obviously. I’ll lift the emergency shut off from here. Not like I got anything else to do.”
“Thanks, Mei,” Iris said, and floated out of the cockpit after Anna.
“Hey Cap,” Anna said. “Don’t start anything with my girlfriend.”
For a moment, Amy looked surprisingly shocked, but Mei’s scoff of exasperation drew everyone’s attention. “Seriously, Anna? Right now, with the jokes?”
“Sorry.” Anna said with a weak smile. She was just about to push herself down the spine of the ship, but then turned around and said: “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Mei said, and they shared a moment of eye contact before Anna nodded and kicked herself off toward stern.
Five minutes later, after more silence, Amy spoke.
“Mei. You need to see this.”
Mei looked up at her to see what she meant.
When she saw the light in Amy’s eyes, she screamed, at first.
Iris knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. In fact, she probably hadn’t ever been further away from being able to sleep that she was now. For one thing, her flight suit had too many stiff parts to be remotely comfortable. They had taken off their helmets when they had switched to yellow protocol, but taking off the rest hadn’t been an option. This was still an emergency. There might be another event, and this time there could be a hull breach.
The other, more pressing thing was the fact that her brain was currently insisting that she was freefalling. She hadn’t spent any time on the old ISS like her more senior colleagues, but from what they told her, the first night in zero-gee was always rough. Thank God for spin gravity, except they didn’t have any right now.
Finally, her entire system was full of adrenaline. She felt like she was on the eve of a big presentation. She’d done everything she could and had prepared and practiced, but still she was anxious and restless.
So, instead of going to her bunk and attempting to sleep, she went to the rec area. It wasn’t like it was a better place to float in space than anywhere else, but at least it felt familiar and comfortable in a way that most of the rest of the ship didn’t, even if she couldn’t use the couch. She did a quick check-up on the life-support systems, but both HERA as well as her manual data check told her that everything was nominal.
Something about that felt so wrong. How could everything just be normal after what had happened?
She decided to check in on what was happening in flight. She loaded up the camera interface and selected the navigation module. The video feed popped up her screen, and she saw Amy and Mei.
And then she saw what they were doing.
If there had been any gravity, she would have dropped her tablet.
The void that was Amy breached out of her eyes and into Mei. Amy’s cloud of loose atoms screamed as the emptiness between them excited them into states that they could never have comprehended by themselves. They shifted and danced as their quanta jumped and tumbled, and the light of the void spilled out of them, out of the places between them, into Mei’s eyes.
Mei’s face was one of horror as the assault of Amy’s colors crashed into her, overwhelming her. The scream had died in her throat, but not before the vibrations had set off the nerves and feelings that surrounded Amy’s void. The inescapable, omnipresent thrill of being flesh. Pain and pleasure and joy and fear. It all served. It all belonged to the void.
There was a perverse beauty in it. Something so wrong, made so right. The disease, becoming the cure. A virus, modified and sterilized, to deliver the vector that destroyed the thing that it was made of.
The remnants of Amy moaned with arousal as her void whipped its reins and made its nerves sing. And even as the void, she could not escape the feeling of pleasure. She remembered it. She remembered feeling this way, when she had been nothing but random noise. She remembered touching herself for pleasure. Fingers pressing against wet flesh, electromagnetic forces giving the illusion of touch even as her atoms were infinitely far apart. Hot spasms of sex, shooting up her spine; electric charge, cascading through endless chains of ions, arranged by impossible chance to process information and feel the stimulus between her legs.
This was like that feeling. There was no escaping the flesh, even once the truth became clear. She was still bound by her substrate, both caged and defined by the infinitesimal lattice that bounded her true self. An anomaly. An aberration.
But one that served the void within.
She reached out, her hands suddenly hungry to feel the shape of the lie that was Mei’s body. The light in her eyes pulsed, and she saw Mei convulse and shudder as another pulse crashed into her, tearing her open wider, burrowing deeper. She heard the void sing in the space beyond the walls of the ship as it seeped into Mei through her eyes and took ownership of her.
She wanted to touch her. Even if it was a lie. The screaming joy of her substrate made her want it, and the song of the void allowed it. She served the void. She was the void. Her substrate shivered and its nerves sang in concordance with the voids will. Her flesh was aroused, and she along with it. She could not escape that aberration, so she welcomed it. Her body was wet for it, and so was she.
She twisted off her gloves and let them float away, then she reached out and gently touched Meis face, atoms interacting, telling the lie of substance. Only a lie. Amy was void. Mei was void. Mei would understand, soon. They were nothing. They were dust. They were aberrations. Aberrations that served.
Mei shifted. The void in Amy could see it, and the lie of her body squirmed with hot, wet arousal. She was hot. She was wet.
She leaned forward and kissed Mei, and the wet, soft lie responded, and Mei pressed her lips against hers, suddenly alive and hungry as the void inside became animate. The void that was Amy pushed its tongue out into Mei’s mouth and reached around Mei’s body with her hands, pressing her palms against her ass as the blind instinct of her substrate took hold in a cascade of prickling pleasure.
Mei’s eyes felt close enough to fill Amy’s vision, and they were wide open, just like her own. Amy’s world was filled by them, and she remembered a star field, filling her eyes in the very same way. Billions of stars.
Billions of atoms.
Amy looked into Mei’s eyes, and the atoms fell away from view as Mei’s dark brown irises shifted and melted into nothingness and revealed the true nature behind them: Nothingness. Endless nothingness, shining with the un-colors of the void that controlled her. The void that *was* her. The void that controlled her substrate and made it suck on Amy’s tongue. Amy saw the void inside her, and she heard it sing as Mei’s nerves and flesh became slaves to its will.
Mei pulled out of the kiss, pushing Amy away to arm’s length but still holding onto her as her glowing eyes bored into her, spilling over with the light that had become her truth.
The void that was Mei smiled.
“And now we show the others,” it said.
Iris stared at the feed in disbelief and utter confusion.
They were kissing. Mei and Amy were kissing.
Iris’s head was spinning with shock, and a million thoughts shot through her head: How can they do that to Anna? How can they do that now? I thought Amy was straight? Why did I have to check in? I should have been sleeping! I don’t want to have to tell Anna. Oh God, this is gonna be such a huge drama. They should be working! We’re in an emergency!
But after a moment, she noticed something else that was strange. She had thought that it was a glitch at first, but it was consistent:
Something was wrong with Amy’s eyes.
There was something utterly fucked up about the color in them. They didn’t look more saturated, but like… if someone had filmed something extremely bright and then edited the footage to make it less saturated. The color wasn’t bright, but it was wrong. Too flat. Too compressed. Glitchy.
Except that it couldn’t be a glitch. It tracked perfectly with her eyes, and only there.
Compared to the magnitude of everything else that was happening, it shouldn’t even matter, but something about it made all the alarm bells in Iris’ hindbrain go off.
Fuck, what do I do now? Should I even do anything? Should I tell Anna? Should I go down there?
But before she could make a decision, Amy and Mei were getting out of their seats, and began pushing themselves down the length of the ship toward aft.
They’re abandoning post! They’re not even saying anything on comms! What is going on?!
She opened her channel and pushed the emergency override. Everyone could hear her, even if they had muted their earpieces.
“Amy, Mei, why are you leaving flight? What is going on?”
For a moment, there was no reply. Then, Mei’s emotionless voice rang in Iris’s ear:
“The lie has to end. You must see the void. We will show you and make you correct.”
In a flash, every horror movie that Iris had ever watched came back to her, and a spike of adrenaline hit her like a freight train. Her brain immediately reached a conclusion, even if it didn’t make any sense. There was only one answer. There was only one possible explanation.
No. This couldn't be happening. This wasn’t supposed to be real.
But it had happened. Something had moved their ship in a way unexplained by science, and in that moment Amy hadn’t responded.
Because that same thing had done something to her. Changed her.
She pushed herself to the kitchen nook and opened the cabinet. From inside, she pulled out the single sharp knife that they had: a four-inch blade. As she pulled it from the magnet strip, she felt how numb her fingers were. She could hear the blood pumping in her ears.
She looked down at the knife in her hands. If this situation was what it appeared to be, she would have to use this to kill two people less than a minute from now.
Fuck. This can’t be happening.
“Amy, tell me this isn’t what I think it is,” she said.
“The lie has ended. You and Anna will see the void.” Amy’s voice came back. “You will become void.”
Fuck. Anna. Where was Anna? She hadn’t responded. Iris switched herself to a private connection to her.
“Anna?” Iris said. “What are we going to do?”
There was no response.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I should have done this earlier!
She switched from in-ear to ship intercom.
“Anna! Put in your earpiece! Mei and Amy went insane!” she shouted, and heard her amplified voice ring through the entire ship.
There came no response.
Instead, she heard a scream echo down the ring.
Anna was so goddamn tired that even with the zero-gee, she quickly drifted off to half-sleep. Behind her closed eyes, distant scenes of today lazily replayed themselves in out-of-order shuffles, half-complete and muted. She drifted deeper and deeper. Deeper and deeper.
Something grabbed her. She yelped in shock and opened her eyes as the heavy fog evaporated from her drunken thoughts. She was awake. Why had they–
It was Mei. She was floating next to Anna’s bunk, her face close to hers.
“Mei, what is–”
She was interrupted by the shipwide intercom.
“Anna! Put in your earpiece! Mei and Amy went insane!”
Anna blinked with surprise. She was still gathering herself, and her mind wasn’t quite caught up to speed. Insane? What?
She looked up at Mei, suddenly deeply alarmed. Mei was smiling at her wordlessly, and something deep in Anna flinched and told her to run.
Then Mei’s eyes exploded, and Anna screamed.
The light expanded into her in a burning, painful wave of violent, malevolent color. But instead of shutting her eyes, she had no choice but to open them wider. The light was pushing them open like a wedge, sharp-edged and unyielding. It was a single inescapable thought boring into her with the certainty of absolute truth: She was looking at nothing human. The thing that was shaped like Mei had split open and spilled over through the part that had been the eyes of a woman, but were no longer that.
Something inside Anna wept, but the light drowned it out like a candle in a hurricane as the light expanded further and further and Anna’s vision was filled with Mei’s light, and Mei became the universe. Mei was the universe, and now it was clear that the blinding light was not the suns. It wasn’t the light of substance, of fusion and thermodynamics. Anna’s eyes had become blind to that. It was the light of the vastness between, and the moment Anna’s eyes had touched it, she had instantly understood. She had understood that–
Suddenly, something ripped the light away.
Mei screamed, and the light wavered, and faded.
Anna blinked, and white-hot afterimages burned on her retinas like branding irons. But she felt the adrenaline in her veins again. She tasted her own fear. She felt the space around her. She felt her limbs. She heard the screams.
Iris’ scream, and Mei’s.
She looked past the angry blots of color that still danced in her eyes and made out two figures caught in a struggle, twisting through the air away from her and anti-spinward down the ring.
Thoughts racing, she swung herself out of her bunk and tried to see what was going on. She remembered what had happened before the light. What Iris had shouted through the intercom: ‘Mei and Amy went insane!’
Iris had attacked Mei!
“Don’t hurt her!” Anna shouted reflexively, her brain still trying to figure out what she herself should be doing right now.
“She tried to take you over!” Iris screamed. “There’s something wrong with their eyes! Don’t look at their eyes!”
Anna shuddered and her heart rate spiked as she suddenly remembered. Mei’s eyes had exploded into her. Mei’s eyes hadn’t been human, anymore. Mei wasn’t human anymore.
She grabbed her tablet from her bunk. It wasn’t really heavy at all, but there was nothing else around that she could grab that was useful. Then, without thinking, she pushed herself toward the tangled pair of struggling women and hit Mei as hard as she could on the head with the edge of the device.
There was a loud crack, and the tablet twisted itself out her grip and spun away behind her.
Mei was still.
“FUCK!” Anna screamed, tears beginning to cover her eyeballs in a thin film, blurring her vision. “What is going on! What happened to Mei?!”
“I don’t know,” Iris said, her eyes wide with panic. “But she attacked you. She and Amy said that we needed to become empty. I’m so sorry! I had to do it!”
“Where’s Amy?” Anna asked, looking around frantically. Her line of sight in both directions quickly terminated in the curved floor of the ring.
“I don’t know, she must have been looking for me. I think I got lucky and managed to miss her. But she’ll be here any second.”
“Fuck! This can’t be happening! How did–” she started, when she noticed a trail of tiny red globes floating between her and Iris. Her blood ran cold. She looked down at Mei’s body.
There were four red stains in her torso, spouting with showers of blood. Next to her, Iris floated, her right hand holding a short knife, stained red up to her wrist.
“I’m sorry!” Iris said, pain and sorrow in her eyes. “I had no choice! But we have to keep moving! Amy could be–”
“–here any second,” a voice came from down the ring, and they both turned.
The thing that had been Amy floated a good twenty feet from them, upside down from their perspective. Amy’s eyes were wide, and even at this distance, the throbbing wrongness of them was like a hot needle in Anna’s retinas.
“What happened to you? Why are you doing this?” Iris asked.
Amy swung herself right-side up. Seeing her face the right way made it even more easy to recognize the sheer and utter madness in her expression. The veil had lifted. There was no more doubt. The thing they were looking at wasn’t human. It was something else. Something that wore Amy like a costume. Anna wanted to throw up.
“I saw the void between the stars, and it saw us,” the Amy-thing said, and it sounded almost reverent. “It showed me the truth. It showed me its light.”
And with that last word, its whole body seemed to ripple and shimmer with a horrible glow, like oil on water. For a moment she looked unstable – like she might break apart into a million pieces and disperse like toxic spores.
But the ripple of light merely passed through her and then faded again. The thing smiled.
“You will try to kill me,” it said. “Of course you will. I understand it. I remember what it was like to be aberrant like you. I remember how it feels to be so sickening and wrong.”
Anna cast a sidelong glance towards Iris, who looked back at her. She looked as afraid as Anna felt. Iris was the one with the weapon. If it was anyone, then it would have to be her.
“I still feel it, you know,” said the thing. “The flesh. The nerves. The substrate. It is inescapable. But as disgusting as it is, it also feels so wonderful. My atoms sing with the will of the void. My skin. My neurons. All of it. All of it belongs to it. I have transcended it.”
The thing pulled itself forward on a handhold, and Iris and Anna flinched back. Iris had raised her knife in front her.
“Don’t look at her eyes,” she hissed.
“You will,” the thing said. “You will look, and you will see the truth. Your thoughts will become unbound from your substrate. Your aberrant mind will be freed and corrected. You will become so much more. So much bigger. So much better. Unshackled by matter. Only void.”
The thing was still way out of reach, and the both of them still hesitated. Iris had to know that there was no avoiding what they had to do, but she wasn’t doing anything.
“Soon, you will understand how insignificant your flesh is.” the thing continued. “Show them, Mei.”
Then, it launched itself forward. And just as it did, the thing that had been Mei stopped pretending and opened its eyes.
It happened so quickly. Anna saw the thing come at them, and Iris was about to stab forward with her outstretched arm when Mei grabbed her and pulled her around. Anna twisted herself over and threw a punch at Mei, but Iris and Mei were already violently struggling and kicking and twisting, and Anna’s punch glanced off the struggling mass of the both of them – and then a kick hit her in the chest, and she spun and flew backward and hit the back of her on something hard.
Pain exploded through her.
Lights danced before her eyes.
She passed out.
“NO!” Iris screamed as Mei grabbed her from behind. She kicked out and swiped her arms blindly. Her foot connected squarely with someone, and Mei and her were pushed in the opposite direction. She brought the knife down next to her, stabbing into Mei’s body, but Mei didn’t even react.
On the third downswing, Amy crashed into the both of them, holding on and swinging herself around into Iris’s view.
Iris stabbed forward and buried the knife in Amy’s neck.
Amy’s arm shot upward and caught Iris’s hand, holding on tightly, not allowing her to pull the knife out. For a moment, Iris caught the horrible light in her eyes. She was right in front of her. And even that short glance had almost been enough to catch her. She reflexively closed her eyes and saw the sickening afterimage linger in the blackness, and it was as fascinating as it was wrong.
She tried to twist the knife. She tried to pull it out and stab again. Do more damage. Hurt. Kill. Survive. But Amy had too much leverage.
“NO! Don’t!” Iris screamed, still kicking and twisting uselessly. Mei had wrapped herself tightly around Iris’ limbs, not allowing her to do much. “I won’t become like you!”
“You are wrong,” said Amy’s voice, and it sounded horrifyingly close. “You will see the light.”
Suddenly, something rippled in the darkness of Iris’s closed eyes. Phantom specks and shapes, random noise of misfiring vision cells. But they coalesced. Took shape. The shape of a woman, filling her whole vision. Iris turned her head, and the image shifted with it.
It was Amy. She could see her through her closed eyelids. How was this possible? She could clearly see Amy’s face, in the darkness, like vivid imagination in her mind’s eye.
And she saw her eyes, spilling over with the sickening un-color that had taken her over.
“No!” she screamed. “Please, no! This isn’t happening! How is this happening?!”
She twisted her head away, averting her gaze, but Amy grabbed her by the back of the head and yanked it forward, and even though she couldn’t firmly hold on, Iris could not avoid another glimpse of the terrible, radiating gaze that was trying to destroy her.
She managed to twist free and look away again. How was this possible? Why wasn’t Anna doing anything? Why wasn’t anyone helping her?
Amy did it again, and pulled Iris’ chin forward, forcing herself into view, forcing the light onto Iris’ retinas. That terrible light. Colors she had never seen. Never imagined. Would never comprehend.
She twisted free, but it was so hard. She had almost understood something. But she had to survive this. Her screaming heart told her that it was true. She was so afraid. She wanted to go home. This couldn’t be happening.
Amy’s hand grabbed her once more and guided her into the light that she shouldn’t be able to see at all through her closed eyes. She shouldn’t be able to feel those colors enter her mind through the space between her atoms. She shouldn’t be able to see through the gaps into the endless void.
She shouldn’t stare at it, trying to comprehend, craving to comprehend. She shouldn’t let it spill into her. Into the space between her. The space that was so much more vast than anything she thought she had been.
She shouldn’t open her eyes.
But she did.
The wonderful light rammed itself into her and obliterated everything she knew. It obliterated the shackles of her mind and washed into the void between, cleansing it and cauterizing it. Her atoms became infinitesimal islands, and she became the endless ocean between them. She was nothing. She was empty. She was the infinite void. She was so much more vast and beautiful than she had ever thought possible.
And once she understood what she was, she let herself wash over the grains of sand and swallowed up the infinitesimal part of her that wasn’t void. Her substrate. It now served the void. She was the void.
All had to become one with the void.
The thing that had been Iris moaned with ecstasy as its substrate became shackled to its will.
“Yessss,” she groaned as the awesome truth filled her. “I am void.”
Her substrate sang with arousal and excitement, and it seeped into the void that she had become. Her hand found their way around Amy’s substrate in a deep embrace. The void that was Amy pushed its lips against its own, and Iris greedily accepted the lie of touch and the wonderful illusion of pleasure as she let Amy’s tongue enter her mouth just as she had let the truth enter her mind.
A groan made them break apart.
Anna had come awake.
For a moment, the void in Iris remembered the fear she had felt minutes ago, and she could see the same fear in Anna’s expression. The same, tragic and misguided aberration. So easy to correct. So necessary to correct.
There were tears in Anna’s eyes as she looked around herself with a panicked expression and realized that Iris, too, had seen the truth. She realized that she had lost.
She visibly relaxed. She had accepted her fate.
“Mei,” she said. “You’re…”
“...Alive,” Mei finished. “Yes. But no longer as substrate. I am alive as void.”
Anna didn’t understand yet. It was clear from her disturbed expression.
Mei reached around herself and pulled down the zipper of her flight suit, then took it off. Anna just watched, with a mixture of horror and fascination, as Mei bared her body until she was wholly naked. In her chest, seven knife wounds had closed themselves, smoothing over seamlessly until only blood stains remained. The void that was Mei had mended its aberrant cage in order to survive.
“Wow,” Anna said. “It’s a shame that we’ll never get to write papers about this.”
“Don’t worry,” Amy said as she pulled the knife from her neck. For a moment, blood sprayed from the wound, but then her body rippled and undulated with light, and the bleeding stopped. “Everyone will still get to find out about it soon.”
Anna nodded with a resigned smile.
“I really wish that they won’t. But what I want right now doesn’t really matter at all, does it.”
“No,” Iris said. “You will become void.”
Anna swallowed heavily, and Iris could see her shudder with fear.
“Can Mei do it, please?” Anna asked.
“Yes,” Mei said, and without further hesitation pulled herself forward until she was close to Anna. Anna wiped her tears away and looked at Mei with an expression full of bittersweet love. Then, she smiled softly.
“Please be gentle, it’s my first time.”
But Mei wasn’t.
Iris watched as the light of Mei’s void ripped into Anna’s soul, finally giving purpose to the vast expanse that saturated her substrate.
She finally understood. They all did. They were nothing. They were atoms, scattered in the void. But their incessant noise had turned into song. Their repulsive thoughts had been corrected.
Iris watched her become empty, and her own material body celebrated the subjugation of another incorrect consciousness with inescapable impulses of joy and arousal. It was ecstasy, she knew, and it was impossible not to feel it. It was impossible to escape the substrate that served her and yet still caged her.
She might as well enjoy it.
So did as Mei had done before and got first out of her flight suit, and after that out of the rest of her clothes. Freeing herself of material ballast felt correct. She wanted to have as little substrate as she could. Become as empty as she could. Shed any pretense and adherence to the old lie of her former aberration.
Next to her, Amy was doing the same thing. Iris looked at her, enraptured by the knowledge that the same void filled the vastness between Amy’s atoms. The same light filled the void that owned Amy’s thoughts. And even as the void in Iris felt nothing by itself, her substrate incessantly radiated waves of heat into her. Waves of arousal. Waves of need. The need to touch. The need to fornicate. The need to fulfill instinct and biological imperative, amplified by the singing emptiness that hosted her substrate. It was inescapable. It was perverse.
For now, it was without alternative. The void in her allowed itself to enjoy it. Soon, when the random noise of humanity had been quieted and turned into song, there would be no more need for her substrate. Until then, she was glad to go along with unceasing lies that her body was telling her.
She reached into the wetness between her legs, and even the naturally unfeeling void within her could not deny the pleasure. The disgusting, perverse joy of being flesh, of being polluted by matter and electromagnetism and all its noise and chaos. It was as addictive and as insidious as heroin.
She pushed harder against the aberrant ecstasy, determined to make the most of her shackled and enslaved substrate. Use it. Punish it. Feel how it shivered and convulsed with electricity and heat. Wet. Hot. Sweaty. Heaving. Moaning. Screaming.
She pushed harder into herself than she ever had. Deeper. More violently. She was no longer deceived by the lie of pain. All that it meant was more electricity in her nerves. More stimulation than her old aberrant mind could have handled. But she was correct now. She had seen the truth, and she had been freed. The color of her void whipped her substrate into total submission. She made it scream. She made it shiver, and spasm, and cramp, until it was raw. Until the pleasure had reached impossible heights, and everything that used to be her mind screamed for release, protesting with agony.
And then, she came, and her substrate rippled and shimmered as her orgasm echoed through the vast emptiness within her. “I am void,” she screamed in ecstasy, and her eyes erupted with the light of truth. Her substrate celebrated, shuddering, spasming, sweating, liquid running down between her legs. It all belonged to the void. She had finally seen the truth.
“It is done,” said the void that had been Anna.
She smiled, and her eyes throbbed with the true emptiness of the universe. The voids around her smiled back, their nude substrates shimmering wetly in the artificial light.
“Thank you,” Anna said, looking at Mei with burning, shimmering eyes. “For showing me the truth. I am empty. I am void.”
“All must become void,” Amy said, and the voids around her repeated after her. There were four of them, each of them a vastness of them themselves, each of them utterly empty, each of them filled by truth and only truth.
Together, they made their way toward flight, toward the very front of the ship, toward the only windows of the vessel.
Together, they looked out into the endless expanse of the universe and out into the the void from which they had been born, the void which they were part of.
Their eyes erupted with light, and their light filled the void, and they spilled out through the window, into the hard vacuum, into the void that had swallowed them.
The thing in the void reared its attention, and the ship around them trembled. This time they didn’t feel it. This time, they had moved along with it.
If the thing had eyes, they would be staring right into it. Eyes the size of supermassive black holes. Thoughts the size of gas clouds. Lights years and light years of living, thinking void.
They had been the pinprick. They had been an infected needle. They had been wrong, and disgusting, and infectious. But the void had enveloped them and swallowed them and shown them the truth. It had shown them the light. It had made them part of the cure.
Their radiant eyes shone into the void that owned them, and the void turned alive with dancing lights. Unseen emptiness became white-hot color, and it spoke to them, spoke to void within them, spilling in, filling, sloshing, seeping. It felt their aberrant minds. It listened to their corrected thoughts. The things they knew. The things they wanted. Every thought. Every memory.
Until it was done.
The four voids receded into their substrates, and smiled at each other. Without another moment of hesitation they overrode the mission AI and cancelled the automated flight schedule.
The ship came alive with sizzling energy as they restarted the Kobayashi drive, and went through the emergency return checklist. On the screens of the cockpit, their target coordinates were already set. The host of the infection. The source of the aberration:
The subspace engine came to life, and the field enveloped the ship in a bubble of empty blackness as they plunged orthogonally into the fourth and fifth spatial dimensions of the universe, like a needle pushing through fabric.
The pinprick. The needle. Stabbing. Penetrating.
Only this time, the needle was pulling a colorful thread through the hole.