ACT I: INDEPENDENT & CONTROLLED
The door falls open quietly, yellow light from the hallway behind her spilling into the dark room beyond. She hesitates for a heavy half-second.
Then she takes the first step.
The darkness of the room swallows her up, but she forges on grimly, moving closer and closer to the pinprick of light on the far side – making her way ever so slowly to the beacon glowing amongst the thick blackness.
The screen doesn’t flicker, just as the concentration of the woman watching it doesn’t waver, even when Brigette clears her throat behind her.
“Anya,” she calls gently. She flicks the lights on.
Finally, the woman at the small desk turns to look at her.
“It’s late,” says Brigette, unnecessarily. The time and date are stamped quite clearly on the screens Anya is watching intently, currently displaying, among other things, a navigational map. A bold red line curves along the screen, tracing a clear path from Earth to the target.
Proxima Centauri b.
A hunk of rock in space. A possibly habitable planet orbiting the closest star to the sun. The subject of Dr. Anya Sotto’s most ambitious and game-changing project; practically her life’s work.
“Just keeping an eye on things,” Anya replies. She taps one finger on the desk, eyes fixed on the black dot inching at a snail’s pace along the crimson path. Brigette can see the faintest of shadows under them, concerningly visible on her already dark skin.
“What do you suppose you’ll find?”
“Well -” Anya huffs out a short laugh. “Nothing at the moment. I really should go, there’s no use in staying.”
Still, when she gets up, she does so reluctantly, pushing her chair back slowly with her eyes still fixated on the dot.
“I mean,” Brigette tries again, “on the planet. Proxima b.”
“Oh, I – I don’t know.”
“Well -” Her voice grows quieter and sharper in the same instant, a moonbeam cutting through shadows. “What if you do find something?”
Anya pauses in her almost unconscious shutdown of the monitor, her once-ginger movements around the fragile equipment now muscle memory. “That’s…what this project is for.”
“I mean – something bad.”
“Well, we’ll deal with it.”
She exhales harshly. “Anya.”
“What,” Anya says, in the same tone of voice. She moves onto the next screen. Its white light flickers onto the faces of the two women who don’t face each other, spectres fading in the glow of a futuristic candle. When that ghost light dies, it does so abruptly and quietly.
“What if we find something that we can’t deal with? What then?”
“Well,” says Anya, “by then there’s nothing we can do, because it will have also found us.”
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I.”
She crosses her arms. “So – what? You’re just going to let it happen?”
Anya mimics her. “Are you going to do nothing?”
“You said it yourself -” she scowls. “If we find something that can know who we are, where we are -”
“That’s our goal, Brigette. That’s why we’re here at all. That’s what we’ve been working for, hoping for, from the start. Why bring this up now?”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Your job isn’t to worry so much about the results of an extremely expensive mission that you try to convince the scientists to abandon it.”
Brigette huffs again, leaning against the wall to her left. Her posture isn’t as perfect as when she’d first entered the room, Anya notices idly. She slouches around Anya.
“My worry is justified.”
“And my work needs to be done.”
“You’re not even going to consider it?”
Anya shakes her head, reaching over to dim the overhead lights to near blackness. “Honestly, no. I’m not going to stop just because you’re afraid.”
“And what will you do if you find something?”
“Say hello,” says Anya firmly, and – monitors neatly shut down – marches out of the darkened room.
He tends to get what he wants.
It’s not as if his family is exceptionally rich or important – his mother immigrated here much later than most of her peers around her age, and his father’s side…well. He’s never been a prodigy of any sorts, never had any real social – or physical – weight to throw around. Nor is it pity – even before his mother’s promotion, when they actually had the money to get him his prosthetic, he knew that sheer pity wouldn’t get him anywhere, nor did he want it to.
The simple fact of the matter is that Cal is incapable of giving up.
(Or, as a twelve-year-old Tam had so eloquently put it, “His superpower is being a stubborn mother -”
Then one of Tam’s mothers had slapped a hand over their mouth and spluttered something about baje kotha bolo na, Tamanna, which he’d been laughing too hard to ask a translation for. He’d gotten the gist of it, anyway.)
He decided he was going up to space as a child, and kept that tenacious grip on the idea for years and years – through arrival into a family fractured and reforged by fire, through shattered bones and amputations, to scholarships and internships and, flying on to distant stars, spaceships.
He knows it, because he’s very nearly there.
“Haque’s pretty dead set on the Proxima b mission,” Tam says conversationally, as Cal sits on the floor, systematically checking between Rosogolla’s teeth. The frustrated Persian cat claws at his hands, and he dodges each vicious swipe easily.
“Out – spit it out, ‘Golla. Yeah, seems it.” Cal shrugs. Rosogolla takes this as a personal affront, and decides the best course of action is to launch herself at his face.
“Think he’ll get it?”
“Are you serious? After the missions to Venus, Europa, and Ceres? EUSA loves Cassandra. I dunno if branch favouritism is a thing, but if it is, Cassandra has it. I’d be more shocked if Haque didn’t get the mission. The only thing EUSA has to do now is announce it, make it official.” Cal hisses as the seething ball of rage in his lap lands a hit. “Speaking of love, guess what I’m not feeling from this demon?”
Tam perches on the arm of their singular couch. (Working for the great conglomerate of spacefaring companies that is EUSA, the ‘unified face of Earth as it travels into space and the future’, does not make the Cal-Ed Corridor cost of living all that much easier.)
“Oh, hush, we only have her for another week. Then my ammas are back from their vacation and you can go back to pretending you don’t miss her.”
“I don’t even have time to miss her – even if I did. Your ammas go on vacations, like, every other day.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
They roll their eyes, but can’t quite hide their smile as Rosogolla goes for another vicious attack only to hit Cal’s prosthetic leg. She bats at the metal, confusion growing as it doesn’t give way.
“That’s right, you bloodthirsty jerk,” he mumbles. Her big brown eyes meet his. He sticks out his tongue.
“Not that watching you pretend not to adore Rosogolla isn’t extremely entertaining, but – you really think ‘branch favouritism’ is a thing? Haque made it clear from the start that Cassandra wasn’t too close to EUSA.”
“Close or not, basically every spacefaring company on Earth is kinda part of EUSA. That’s the whole idea, right?”
Tam hums. “So you don’t think Haque has his own motives for wanting this specific mission so bad?”
“Well – ‘Golla, off -” he wrangles the beast off of his forearm, which she’s decided is her new chew toy – “It’s pretty big, isn’t it? First humans on a planet out of our solar system. Even if said planet is confirmed to be barren. He said that’s what he wanted right from founding Cassandra. And EUSA is more than happy to…do whatever it is they do in this case, I guess? Haque can definitely pay for the mission on his own.”
“Cassandra is pretty independent compared to other companies,” agrees Tam. “But in my opinion, you should probably be a little more invested in the Proxima b mission.”
Cal slowly ceases his attempts to fend off Rosogolla, much to the little monster’s delight.
“…And why’s that?”
“Well, I’ve done my research, I bet the third ‘naut’s done their research, and you wouldn’t want to be the only one onboard without a clue of what’s going on.”
“You’re kidding,” he breathes, even though he’s absolutely certain they’re not.
There’s a thousand things he probably could have said, but his mind is still stuck trying to process what exactly is happening – the fact that he’s going to do what he’s wanted since childhood, that after years and years of relentlessness, step by painstaking step, he’s finally going on the kind of mission that changes the world – and what he ends up saying is, “That’s – that’s incredible. Who’s gonna take care of the cat?”
Anya tips her head back and breathes in the bright March afternoon. Things are always less daunting in the daylight, when the light breaks through and reveals the truth. The monsters howling at your window become the shifting of branches in the wind. The murderer hunched over and waiting in the corner becomes a haphazard stack of clothes.
This mission, this probe and the pictures it sends back – this is going to bring light to the darkness of ignorance. It’s going to shine a flashlight into the thick fog of obscurity, cut a beam of knowledge through the dense mystery that is Proxima Centauri b. Earth will know what awaits on the surface of another star’s planet.
Is it truly habitable? Are there alien creatures waiting up there, scanning their own skies night after night the same way humans do? Do they wonder what’s out there, wonder if it’ll come to them? Or have they launched their own probes, their own missions, cast their own glimmering lure into the dark sea of the unknown, hoping to catch an answer?
Amber leaves sweep past in the wind, and Anya grins up at them. She doesn’t know, and she’s itching to find out.
And now –
“The first images from the Ariadne probe, launched by Minos scientists on behalf of the Earth United Space Agency, are scheduled to come back to Earth on the 30th of March, 20 -”
Anya switches off the radio, cutting off the news anchor’s voice. Her smile is a mile wide. The photos come back today.
– Now, she can.
Her hand is on her phone before she even realises.
She frowns down at the traitorous limb, wondering if she even should call. Wondering if she’d show up.
But…they’ve known each other for so long, and – she trusts her. Regardless of their little arguments, this is a big moment in her life and career, and she knows before she even makes her decision that it’s a moment she wants to share.
“Brigette,” she says, in lieu of a greeting. “Have you heard -”
The other woman cuts her off. “I’m already outside the building.”
Anya’s grin returns in full force as she hangs up.
For her part, Brigette is less torn up than she thought she’d be.
It’s an easy decision to make, despite her worry. At first, she’d thought that she shouldn’t even see the photos, give Anya’s project a fighting chance if it turned out she really had found something terrible – but she’d have to clear their release to the public, anyway, so it didn’t really matter. And the Ariadne project was everything to Anya, the culmination of all her dreams in one groundbreaking, world-changing project.
Anya hopes she will change the world. Brigette is afraid of the very same thing.
Because if she does find proof that there’s something out there that’s threatening or dangerous…would it be wise to let Earth know? Or would it be better to let her best friend’s life work fall into nothing?
She’s given it far too much thought. Still, when the call comes, she’s already waiting outside – because despite all her doubts, Anya is still the one person she trusts a nearly unreasonable amount, and if she wants Brigette to tag along for this step into the future…
…who is she to say no?
They take the shortcuts that Anya knows by heart, taking sharp turns and skidding down long corridors. Brigette waves at a passing researcher as Anya tugs her along. They offer her a puzzled wave back.
It helps ease the tension, seeing just how excited Anya is, seeing Minos laboratories in such a comfortable chaos. Worry churns at the back of her mind, but it’s easy to ignore when Anya is practically cheering with giddy joy ahead of her.
But it rears its head again at the familiar mint-green door, and when Anya unlocks it to let them in, it flares. When she boots up the monitors, fingers trembling imperceptibly, it starts to churn in Brigette’s stomach. Every static moment in which the answer draws nearer at an unbearably slow rate kills her.
The main monitor doesn’t fizzle or flicker as it turns on, smoothly blossoming from a single speck of light to a screen full of it.
Brigette leans one elbow on Anya’s chair, a poor impression of calm.
The first data from the Ariadne probe landing on Proxima Centauri b – the first data from the first probe to land on a planet outside of Earth’s solar system – is a button press away.
Anya is practically vibrating with tension when she reaches for it, like a spring compressed tightly between fingertips. One small moment away from everything she’s ever dreamed of.
Deliberately, surely – she hits the button.
New light fills the screen, and – oh.
Beatrice Bitao’s nails are ragged and chewed, Cal notes when he shakes her hand, and her dark hair is frazzled in its ponytail. Although it might have been a side effect of being an engineer, he doubts it – this would be her very first trip beyond Earth’s territorial space, if he recalls correctly, and, of course…
He watches with faint amusement as she tries to decide on an appropriate expression for the occasion. Tam always said it was cruel of him, but he finds it sort of funny when people trip over themselves trying to figure out the correct balance of polite and awed.
“Mx. Ara,” Beatrice greets, taking the offered hand with trembling hands and voice. “It’s an honour to meet you.”
Tam grins, crooked and slightly awkward. The only reason Cal isn’t wheezing with laughter is out of respect for Beatrice. She seems nice, and he wouldn’t want to make her think he’s laughing at her.
Besides, he doesn’t want to make enemies with the only people he’ll see for quite some time.
“Likewise,” says Tam politely. “I’ve heard your name around, and I have a feeling this mission will be a tremendous success…”
Cal tunes them out after that. It’s stiff, formal conversation, and though he’s only been on short missions (Venus at the furthest and comparatively low-stakes) he knows the awkwardness won’t last long. If it dares stick around, he will chase it off himself.
See – Tam is kind of a EUSA legend. They’re not quite a household name (yet, Cal always says, and he really does believe it), but their work on several EUSA game-changers has made their name synonymous with success in astronomy circles. Beatrice, too, has had the spotlight more and more often. Cal might not be as familiar with her work, but from what he’s seen, he’s impressed. Both she and Tam were obvious picks for the Theseus mission.
But he wasn’t surprised with his own selection, either.
He might not be a legend like Tam or a prodigy like Beatrice, but he knows how to make people relax, how to be approachable and charming – how to make friends. It doesn’t seem like a useful skill until your fifth or so month confined to one ship floating in the great void with the same people, when the shiny veneer of professionalism starts to wear thin and crack. Really, there’s only two options. The crew either becomes friends, or the mission starts to fray.
That’s where Cal comes in. Keeping missions on track, keeping the air amicable, keeping the crew running as they run the mission. He jokes that EUSA only keeps him around to play nurse, gives him research assignments as a front, but Tam cracks a smile and agrees – which is how he knows they’ve figured it out, too.
“I never asked -” Cal starts, and Beatrice startles violently, whirling around so fast she nearly loses her balance. He grabs her arm before she can fall off the roof.
“Sorry!” she squeaks.
“Ah, no, that’s on me, my bad.”
Careful footsteps approach the two of them. Tam’s voice is low and amused when they speak.
“He’s quiet, right? You wouldn’t expect it from him, but he is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cal grins up at them. They take a seat on Beatrice’s right, dangling their legs off the ledge. He takes that as his cue to sit, too.
It’s become something of a tradition since spacefaring missions really started to be more and more common, back in the 2050s – the night before their launch, the crew of a mission meets up at the headquarters of whichever EUSA branch is running their mission, usually on the rooftop. They’re really not supposed to be up here, but most every mission so far has done it, and the Theseus will be no different.
They sit for a moment, watching the lights of the city below and the stars above, twinkling specks of light stabbed into the darkness. The only noise is the whirr of the generators converting and storing the day’s sunlight behind them, accompanied by the rhythmic clack clack clack of the turbines and the whistling rush of wind.
Finally, Tam breaks the silence.
“You were saying, Cal?”
He lets out a long, slow breath, stares into the velvet night.
“What do you think is up there?”
“I can’t wait to find out,” says Beatrice, fast and breathless. Cal blinks in surprise – it’s the quickest and most eager she’s ever spoken in the months they’ve been preparing for the mission. Even so, her tan skin flushes slightly as neither Cal nor Tam respond.
“I mean – that’s – this mission is the biggest step we’ve taken so far – the first humans to leave our solar system! Whatever we find up there…doesn’t even matter, really. Just being up there is going to change the world. You know? And I – I can’t believe I get to be a part of that.”
Her hands form tight fists on her knees. She looks about two seconds from curling into a ball, and…well, Cal’s not exactly a stranger to saying too much. He gets the feeling. Before he can even open his mouth, though, Tam beats him to it.
“I agree,” they say, professionalism scrubbed away in the face of excitement. “The planet itself is shrouded in mystery. Even if it really is as bleak and blank as it’s supposed to be – even just seeing the surface of the planet, just knowing what’s on it – on a planet outside of our solar system, seen by human eyes -”
“I know!” Beatrice’s eyes are alight. She sighs, high and wistful. “It’s incredible. I almost can’t believe it -”
“Like you’ll wake up tomorrow, and it’ll all be gone,” says Tam. “What about you, Cal?”
“Oh, uh -” he hesitates. Probably for too long, because they’re both watching him expectantly and he has to say something and –
“I’m – with Beatrice. It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and all that, right?”
Tam snorts. “Nerd.”
“Hey, no, the moon landing was cool, okay, even more revolutionary than the Theseus mission -”
It’s not a lie. He’s eager to be one of the astronauts taking this monumental step into the future, hungry to know what the world looks like beyond the end of humanity’s leash.
No. It’s not a lie. And it’s not a bad portion of the truth, either.
The stars shine unbothered and undimmed in the black sky above. Tomorrow, he and the Theseus crew will be among them.
But tonight, like so many nights before for so many years long gone, he simply sits and watches and wonders.
It’s too much for her to even comprehend.
Anya tries to make a connection, tries to string together at least one thought – she’s a scientist. Thinking, connecting the dots – that’s familiar ground. But in the face of this, all she can do is stare.
It’s – too much, she never would have even dreamed of this. Is she dreaming? It’s too much, too good to be true, too – incredible, too horribly overwhelming to be real.
Anya stares at the steady, bright screen, the information brought back by the probe – by her probe, her work – and knows with a breathtaking, awe-filled certainty that this is going to change the world.
And that’s exactly what Brigette had been afraid of. It’s too much for her to even comprehend. Even as she stands behind Anya, frozen in shock, her brain is taking this information and running with it, looping red string around brightly coloured push pins in her mind. It connects seamlessly, this – this upturning of stable ground, this casual flippant dismissal of the ignorant world as it was. Yet even as her mind screams, she can only stare.
It’s – the confirmation of all her worst nightmares. She almost wants to pinch herself, see if this is real – it can’t be real, doesn’t Anya know what it means if it’s real? Doesn’t she know how dangerous this is? Brigette is a protector – she’s the protector for the whole country, that’s her whole and most important job, and this is – this is terrible, it’s awful and she’s awe-struck and it is so, so quiet, so still and silent for the ticking time bomb that it is.
The replay button glows steadily on the screen, bright and horrible and ready to change the world.
And Anya knows that it’s going to change the world. There’s no way it won’t – because Earth has to know about this. There’s no way around it. Already, she can see it unfold before her eyes. The future looks so different through this new lens, there’s so much more made possible by this discovery, and everyone deserves to know. Every single branch of EUSA, every single country on the miniscule, knowledge-hungry, bold blue planet has to know. It’s groundbreaking, and it must be shared.
And Brigette knows that it’s going to change the world, and it’s all going to fall apart. She can see it – she doesn’t want to, but she can, and if Earth ever finds out about this –
No. There’s no way around it. This never leaves Minos – if she can convince Anya to keep it silent, it doesn’t even have to spread around Minos itself. All of EUSA – all the countries on this fragile glass-blue planet have to be spared. It’s earth-shattering, and the Earth must be spared.
There’s a skip in Cal’s step – no, hold on, does swagger sound better? Swagger sounds like the kind of walk a kid would walk when pretending to be a pirate on the playground, and while Cal had always leaned more towards ‘cramming himself into the washing machine while pretending it was a spaceship and giving his mother a heart attack,’ he does believe it’s a good walk to be walking at the moment.
So, there’s a swagger in Cal’s step as he makes his way down the central hall of the Theseus, trying to absorb the stars glinting in the distance, so much closer yet still so far, and the way the artificial gravity feels slightly like walking through water (look, no matter how great the technological advancements, the fact of the matter is that unless you’re zooming through space in a metal frisbee, the artificial gravity’s gonna be the tiniest bit different. And while the metal frisbee sounds fun, it’s reserved for static stations instead of space travel. Some nonsense about safety and staying on course, not flinging astronauts at random into the void. Whatever.)
He comes to a stop before the biggest door at the end of the hall. It’s unlocked, and the faint whirr of mechanics that’s ever-present on the Theseus is joined by another buzzing hum – the noise of active navigational technology.
“How’s the course looking, Tam?” he calls, knowing full well the answer is ‘perfectly fine.’ He also knows they’ll be checking it obsessively over the next couple of days before they’re finally content with checking the route a reasonable amount.
“Straight as an aro,” comes their dry response, and Cal has to snicker.
“You see, Tamanna, the issue is – I can’t tell what that means, because the idea of aro is that -”
“The ship is fine, Callum. And I am well aware of what aro is, thanks.”
He almost giggles. It’s overwhelming – it’s overwhelming for all of them, but while Tam keeps an obsessive eye on anything that could go wrong and Beatrice – no, Bea, she’d said – while Bea grips anything she can – presses her fingertips into whatever they’re on, a mug or a wall or her own arms, so tightly that her nails turn white and she can be sure she’s not dreaming…Cal is a giddy explosion of energy. He’s fireworks in the night sky, multicoloured flowers blossoming among the stars, pretending for just a moment to be like them. That’s them – that’s the Theseus – some human-made facsimile of a star, rocketing through the void.
Whenever he thinks about it too much, he gets the urge to collapse in laughter. It’s just – so much. It’s so much, and so incredible. Anything could make him break down now.
Cal hangs a sharp left at the door, leaving Tam to their own business while he tracks down the third member of the crew. He doesn’t have to go far – she runs into him just as he crosses the threshold, quite literally.
“Sorry, sorry!” she cries, and he waves a hand.
He grins, but her brown skin loses some of its colour.
“No – no, I -”
“Oh, no – that was – a joke. Sorry.”
“I’m -” she bites her lip, casts her eyes around. They land on the still-ajar door.
“Straight as an aro?”
She looks like she regrets saying it immediately. Granted, she looks like that most every time she says something, which is definitely an issue. Cal has no idea what might make this trip less intimidating for her, but he’s resolved to try to find out.
Right now, though, he’s sticking to the basics – joking around.
“Yeah. It might not seem likely, but Tam has a secret reserve of puns in that genius head of theirs…they’ll pretend they don’t, sure, but -” Cal quirks an eyebrow. “They can’t hide the truth.”
“Oh, I meant – I just thought you two were -” Bea breaks off, flushing. “I shouldn’t have assumed, sorry -”
“Most people do,” Cal agrees. “If you mean together, we are…in a sense. You do know what a queerplatonic relationship is, right?”
“Oh, right – yes, I. I do. I’m – also -” Her face is going dangerously red. “Ace. So, you know…”
Her voice trails off into indecipherable mumbling. She gnaws at her bottom lip.
“…heck yes,” says Cal.
Bea looks up from where she’s trying to melt a hole in the wall with her gaze. “What?”
“We,” says Cal, “are an incredible astral superhero team trio of space aces.”
There it is, the common ground he’s been looking for, the link between the three of them that might diffuse the tension in the ship’s sharp and geometric hallways. (And it’s always nice to meet fellow aces.)
“That…certainly is a name,” says Bea carefully.
“Well, Theseus is the ship, and the crew of Theseus makes us sound like a terribly psychological paradox puzzle. The crew is too casual, too commonplace, you know? However, the epic incredible astral superhero team trio of space aces -”
At that, she really does crack a smile. “Point made.”
Still, after that, the silence spreads. Cal exhales. Right to the point, then.
“Hey,” he starts, and maybe the sudden drop to a softer tone puts Bea on edge, because she jumps when he speaks.
“I get that it’s a big change from life on Earth, and it’s pretty scary, but you don’t have to be afraid we’ll – like -” he wrinkles his nose – “I dunno, kick you off the ship, if you say anything? That’d be pretty rude, considering you’d freeze up in the void of space, et cetera, et cetera. That’s – no. Okay.” He shakes his head. “What I mean is – don’t be afraid to speak up, alright? From anything to…if you catch some freaky space disease and only have a few hours to live, to if you spotted a weird looking asteroid and want to show us. We’re a team now, okay? We’re the Theseus crew. We have to stick together.”
There’s a moment where he thinks it might just brush past her like any other reassurance, bland and halfhearted, but then she takes a deep breath.
“…You mean,” she starts cautiously, “we’re the awesome epic incredible astral superhero team trio of space aces.”
“I sincerely hope Cal came up with that name,” calls a new voice. Tam, evidently satisfied that the ship will not have a freak accident and stray off course, joins them in the hall.
“It has charm to it,” Cal defends.
“Yes, the charm of a kindergartener trying to describe their favourite 3V show.”
“Exactly! We are cool enough to warrant a 3V show.”
“I think,” Bea pipes up, “on the whole, we’d have a better soundtrack than animation, and the concept would be fantasy.”
A beat, then –
“We’re on a spaceship! A ship in space! People used to write so much sci-fi about that.” Cal sighs dramatically, swooning onto a stock-still Tam’s shoulder. They pat his head. He can almost see their eyes roll.
“I like the idea of fantasy spaceships,” they declare. “Bea’s onto something.”
He (melodramatically, of course) pulls himself into a standing position again. “Well, if you like the kids show, Tam ‘I-binged-all-five-seasons-of’ -”
They slap a hand over his mouth.
“Mmph hmm hmm hmmph.”
“I agree, you shouldn’t have said that.”
“There’s no shame in liking children’s cartoons,” Bea offers, though she’s clearly trying to hide a smile. “My sister actually -”
“How old is your sister?”
Tam makes a buzzer noise. It’s lackadaisical, so Cal shakes their hand off and makes another, better buzzer noise of his own.
“Invalid,” they say. “Absolutely invalid.”
“Bea’s right,” Cal says. “You’re never too old to watch a good five seasons, in one night, of – hmm!! Mmph!”
“Have you ever met a man named Cal Leifson?” Tam asks casually. “I, personally, have never even heard of anyone by that name -”
“Hmmpphhhnnn – you can’t erase me!”
“I mean – whether or not he exists,” Bea adds, shooting him a quick grin, “he has a point, I think. Just because we’re…” She makes an all-encompassing gesture at their surroundings – the ship, the void behind the metal walls. “Doesn’t mean we’re not still…just people. Regular, tiny people sent out to space, hoping we’ll find someone like us out there.”
“Whatever we find,” says Cal, safely out of arm’s reach of Tam, “we’re crossing a threshold.”
“Cal, who doesn’t exist, is right,” Tam says brightly. “We are crossing a threshold – exactly as we should be. Come, let’s re-orient ourselves with the Theseus.”
Bea’s eyebrows furrow. “But we already walked through it before launch?”
Cal pats her shoulder. This definitely isn’t the last time Tam’s going to do this; still, there’s no harm in accompanying them.
“It might be different in space, you never know.”
She makes a questioning noise, but follows Cal and Tam anyway. They have a long trip ahead of them and a whole spaceship to make it in – might as well wander.
Tam just scoots over a little, patting the floor beside them, directly in front of the observation window.
“We’re going to change the world,” Cal says, in lieu of a reasonable sentence starter.
“Been established,” they agree. Head on their arms, arms around their knees, knees pulled up to their chest – Tam doesn’t look like a myth or a legend. They look small.
“And we’re just kind of sitting here.”
“Like. We’re just kind of…ambassadors. To a big, blank stretch of nothing planet. We didn’t even build or design this ship.”
“I think Bea had a hand in that, actually.”
“I – okay, Bea aside. You prodigies…” Cal pretends to shake a stick like what he imagines a grandpa would use to chase kids off his lawn, back when lawns were still a thing. He doesn’t really know how people use sticks, either. He always used either crutches or a wheelchair before getting the prosthetic. Kind of like crutches, he guesses. Maybe.
Tam just kind of exhales, slow and quiet. So that’s a no on the jokes, then.
“There’s no difference between day and night out here,” they say. “The lights just dim. Because there is no day or night. There isn’t even a sun.”
“I’ve wanted to be on a big mission since…forever,” they say defensively. “Of course I want to be out here -”
“But are you homesick?”
“…Saying it feels like giving up.”
“Have we turned around and left yet?”
“Well – no, I just -”
“We’re still going. We’ve carried on. It’s not giving up to miss point A while you’re travelling to point B. It’s giving up if you stop travelling.”
“You have a way of making things so simple, you know?” They tap one finger on the observation window, tracing the paths between stars. “It’s not always as black-and-white as you say it is.”
“But it gets us up and moving. Keeps us going.”
The two sit in silence for a while.
“Really,” Cal says, “we don’t have a choice. We’re going to change the world – we’re going to sit around on this ship and wait, and then we’re going to go down onto the surface of a barren planet and write some things down, probably, and then we’ll head right back. And just like that, we’ll change the world. We don’t have a choice.”
“We had a choice. We chose to come.”
“Fine.” Cal tilts his head. “If you had the option to turn around and go back, right now, would you take it?”
“I do have the choice. We have enough fuel for a round trip, even without access to the crash, not to mention we’re not even at the halfway point yet – more than enough to get us back.”
“But,” they say, “I don’t suppose I would.”
Cal spreads his hands. “Well, there you go.”
“Truth really isn’t that easy, you know?”
“And neither is changing the world. But both of them are going to happen, whether we like it or not.”
At that, Tam laughs a little. “What a way to view the trip of a lifetime.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked.” Cal shrugs. “It’s just a little easier to be pessimistic in the nighttime.”
“Night isn’t real anymore. But I guess that explains why you like sleeping in so much.”
Very seriously, Cal nods. “Oh, absolutely. Can’t leave any margin of error. Seven AM is too close to darkness to be safe.”
“Obviously,” Tam drawls. They stand, unfolding easily into EUSA’s fearless scientist, and offer Cal a hand.
“Come on. Shouldn’t linger in the night, right?”
“Night isn’t real,” he parrots, and they laugh, and the echoing, empty spaceship-night becomes a little less hollow.
“So…what now?” says Anya, slightly breathless.
Brigette snaps upright and marches out of the room.
“Hey – Brigette!”
Leaving the monitor on, Anya scrambles upright to follow her.
She’s muttering to herself in the dark hallway, pacing up and down. There aren’t windows down here in the basement, but she doesn’t seem bothered by the lack of light, because she doesn’t even look at the light switch. Nor does she look at Anya, who hesitates at the threshold, one hand on the door frame.
No, her eyes are fixed on the floor, and she’s whispering, “Fine. Fine, fine, fine, what now? Obviously it can’t…what, a missed landing? A crash? Camera failure?”
“You shouldn’t have brought me here.”
“What?” Anya shakes her head. “No, listen -”
“I -” Brigette tugs at the end of her ponytail. “I would’ve had to clear it to be released eventually, but – so soon – ugh.” She whirls, finally meeting Anya’s eyes.
“This can’t leave Minos labs.”
Anya reels back. “What?”
“What, what?” snaps Brigette. Anya’s still standing in the doorway, the only source of light in the hall, and Brigette stands in shadows.
“You can’t just – hide this!”
“Like hell I can’t. Do you know what could happen if this gets out?”
“Yes, I do! It’s not like it’s never happened before – like the single-celled life forms on Io. We found actual, literal aliens, in a place by all scientific accounts uninhabitable, and you know what happened? Practically nothing! We took the truth in stride. You think we can’t do it again? Are you serious?”
“Look, it’s not a happy thought for me, either, but it’s -”
“If you say for the best,” warns Anya, “I…”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why Brigette would – she’d been afraid, yes, but Anya didn’t think she would truly try to hide this, what they’d found. Whatever they’d found – even before she knew what was up there on that planet, even when whatever they would find was just theory after baseless theory, she’d never even considered that Brigette would actually try to stop it from getting out.
And she doesn’t need to try, realises Anya, heart sinking. She could do it – say the word, and Earth would never know what’s really up there.
That – can’t happen.
“I…okay, let’s not make any rash decisions, okay?”
She’s not quite fuming – but she’s getting there. “Rash decisions like blacklisting an entire -”
One hand raised, the darkness weighing down her shoulders, Brigette looks the most tired Anya has ever seen her.
Anya shifts her weight. The smallest sliver of light shines through from behind her – her halo, Brigette thinks grimly – and spills into the black of the darkened hallway. Brigette keeps her eyes on the light.
“Look,” she says, not looking at Anya. “Give this…one night, okay? You’ve found…something huge.” Cataclysmically so. “It’s a big shock to both of us, and neither of us is thinking completely rationally. Just – wait. One night. For me. Okay?”
For a moment, her glare doesn’t dim, just as bright as the light behind her. Fury mixed with shock mixed with – something she can’t place – hovers in her eyes…but she huffs, and drops the tension from her shoulders.
Brigette feels herself relax, too.
“There we go. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Anya fixes her with another look full of that whatever-it-is and stalks away.
Brigette sighs and goes to follow her.
It really is for the best. Even just Anya’s reaction is enough to convince her that this is the right thing to do.
But she remembers the light in Anya’s eyes, the sheer delight she’d had earlier this evening, calling Brigette with sunshine beaming from her voice, and – maybe she can rethink it. Maybe she’s a little on edge, too. Maybe it’ll seem a lot less bleak in the daylight.
(…Somehow, that feels like a lie.)
She switches the light off, locks the door securely, and leaves.
Tam’s cousin is studying classical literature, Cal recalls, with a particular interest in the life and times of Shakespeare – easily one of the biggest impacts on the world of literature, he can practically hear her say, ranging all the way into the late 2050s and even referenced, though less commonly, now. He’s never really understood her fascination with the written word, but he doesn’t really need to, anyway. Passion is passion, and passion is something he’ll always understand.
In any case, she’d been a slight nuisance when she was younger, before she’d made it into her prestigious school of literature – New Thomas Universities, if he remembers correctly. They’d fallen out of touch not long ago, but he still remembers her particular love, at a younger age, for Hamlet.
“To be or not to be?” she’d say, with an excess of flair to her voice, and Cal would flick the back of her head and say, “I don’t care as long as you don’t yell, Mishti.” Then she’d go into some long-winded explanation of each of the lines, their meaning, sometimes even their impact on modern culture, if she had the time. It was a common enough phrase, now that it was firmly ingrained in collective memory. Even if the true meaning is lost, the sentiment is there.
To be or not to be.
To speak or not to speak.
The thing is, he knows from experience what keeping a secret can do to the morale of a crew. Even if it’s nothing big (which it is, really, barely anything worth keeping hidden), the trust (or lack thereof) involved might drive a wedge through the functionality of the mission. Which is why it’s better that he doesn’t let on at all, right?
But also – he knows that he has.
“Tam?” asks Bea. Cal smiles a little – she’s come a long way from the stuttering, stumbling, half-whispered Mx. Ara. It’s good that she’s getting more comfortable. Even legends like Tam are idiots sometimes, and one of his favourite pastimes is lightheartedly reminding them as such.
Despite this, Bea’s shoulders are hunching inward now, and she seems like she’s trying with all her might not to bury her face in her hands. He’s about to enter the room when she starts to speak again.
“I don’t mean to – to pry, or anything, or – I mean, I wasn’t even sure if I should ask?” She laughs nervously. “I just – I know you and Cal are close – I – obviously, you’re partners – though that’s not – I mean, and you don’t have to answer me, but – he’s…hiding something, isn’t he?”
Cal freezes, one hand on the doorframe. Ever so quietly, he begins to inch back, praying his metal leg doesn’t hit any walls.
“Yes,” they say.
Cal waits. Bea waits. Tam seems content to stare at the navigational chart and the window beyond it, glowing coordinates overlapping with distant stars. Tension grows in the void left by their silence.
Bea takes a breath, recentering herself. “And you’re not…?”
“Worried?” Tam glances at her out of the corner of their eye, trying for a smile. “….No. I don’t know what it is he’s hiding, but I trust him to do it for a good reason. Or at least what he thinks is a good reason.”
They pull one leg up so they’re sitting criss-cross, tapping their fingers on their knee. “To be quite honest – it does bother me, and we both know it. But I trust him not to keep any secrets that could put us in danger, and he trusts me not to let him do so. Beyond that?” They shrug one shoulder. “I won’t go looking too deep. He’s owed his privacy.”
Bea pulls her knees up to her chest. Cal lets out a slow breath.
“You really trust him.”
It’s not a question, not a shocked demand. It’s just a statement. A pure and simple truth, like Tam is so fond of. When they speak, it’s lacking all the barely-restrained tension they carried in their voice before.
So they both know he’s hiding something, and – that should be the end of it, shouldn’t it? It’s not a big secret, far from a dangerous one, and easily resolved. All he has to do is just take a quick look around the planet once they get there, to satisfy himself and her memory playing in his head.
Besides, she – she’s old. She might not even have been in her right mind when she asked. It doesn’t mean anything, and he shouldn’t go blowing it up into conspiracies like she does when it’s just a small and simple request.
Yes, no use in saying anything. The crew will be fine.
He opens the door to the main deck.
“ – I’m serious,” Tam is saying. “The biggest expedition of our lives, and the first thing he does is ask after the cat.”
“No,” giggles Bea, sounding utterly spent. “But you said she -”
“Isn’t even our cat! I know!”
“Hey, hey, leave some of my reputation intact!” he calls, joining them at the map projected onto the far wall. Tam brandishes a cheerful thumbs-down.
“So -” He sticks a hand in front of the projector, creating a shadow bunny that lasts for all of two seconds before Tam smacks it away. He pouts at them.
“In answer to the question you never asked, we’re right on schedule and making good time,” they say. “Also, if you damage EUSA technology with your shadow rabbits, you are paying.”
“We have a joint bank account, Tam.”
“It’s the principle of the matter.”
Cal shakes his head. “Bea!” She blinks back, owlish, clearly prepared to fade into the background.
He offers her a grin. “Back me up here. The ‘principle of the matter’ doesn’t matter when…”
Yeah, the crew will be fine.
The clock on the wall, an ancient analogue thing, is ticking away the seconds out of time with Anya’s heartbeat. They clash in her ears, a thud and a click, seeming to echo in the otherwise silent study.
Perhaps…Brigette is right. Perhaps she hasn’t been considering the true ramifications of…this.
But what exactly are they? What exactly is it she should be so afraid of?
It’s a great deal of power, but she’s confident that it can be handled properly. After all, EUSA has been doing a good job of it so far, and it isn’t the first time something right out of science fiction has proven itself to be fact.
Why should it be any different here? If anything, this – this meant that Earth could move even further, even faster. Spin twice in a day, she thought giddily – who knew? It was bursting with possibilities, fireworks in the night, flowers pushing through the snow on an early spring morning.
“Right out of a sci-fi novel,” she says out loud, grinning at the golden lamplight tossed around the room haphazardly, banishing shadows where they land in splashes.
It’ll be worth it. It’ll all be worth it, when the daylight returns and the truth is a simple, revolutionary thing instead of a creeping danger. Brigette will understand – Anya can explain. And the world can go on spinning, taking the truth in stride like she knows it will.
Tomorrow, she tells herself – and then her phone lights up with a buzz. Her ringtone joins the clumsy rhythm of the clock and her heartbeat, weaving through the silence, as golden a beacon as the light.
Her smile widens. Or not.
(Call from: Brigette Lux won’t let me nickname her)
(Thursday, March 30, 21:43)
(Accept) / (Decline)
Despite the numerous incredible strides made in space travel, astronaut cuisine is still sorely lacking, Cal muses.
Oh, sure, EUSA had tried. Hell – all the way back when NASA was still a thing, Earth had been trying. So it’s not for lack of trying that their food is just…inescapably watery. Like the packaging process reached into the core of the food, took out whatever made it taste like food and replaced it with that airy, tasteless taste, that ever so slightly soggy texture.
“You know what I miss?” Cal starts. Tam doesn’t look up from their plate.
“I -” Cal deflates. “Okay, what. How.”
“We live together, dummy. Also, this…” Tam considers the food before them, poking at it experimentally. It’s always a toss-up as to whether it’ll actually look like food when it’s prepared.
“…Food,” they finish finally, “tastes vaguely similar. Just – waterier.”
“Oh, definitely,” shudders Cal. “You think they put this in here for me?”
“Maybe? Yumi did pop in to ask me about comfort foods while the supplies were being packed. Bea, what about you?”
Bea frowns, tapping the table. “Yumi is the woman who ran that project to better the quality of astronaut food back in 2066, isn’t she? Long hair – a bit longer than yours – fairly quiet, red glasses?”
Tam nods. “Yeah, that’s her. Did she ask you anything?”
“All I’ll say is that there’s probably an excessive amount of chicken adobo in our storage.”
This draws out a bark of laughter from Tam. “If that wasn’t such a mood. You have no idea how much polao they offered to pack. Not that I don’t love it – I just think if I eat nothing but off-brand watery polao for so long, I might throw up at the sight of it when we get back.”
“Won’t stop me,” Cal says cheerfully, “and I’ll gladly pick up your shameful polao-eating slack.”
“Sure, Cal. And I’ll just steal all of your cơm gà rau thơm, yeah?”
“I can eat all the rice, Tam. Don’t test me.”
“I can make more rice, Cal.”
“I can help eat the rice!” Bea pipes up.
Cal pumps a fist in the air. “You and your rice-making are outnumbered!”
“Is this going to be the first major boss fight in our kids 3V show?”
“Definitely, Bea. There’ll be this whole heartbreaking moment when I betray you with rice, and then a monologue where I explain why.” Tam twirls their fork. “It’ll all be very dramatic, and then I’ll reveal myself to have been a double double agent all along and eat the rice with you.”
“Tam coming in clutch with the redemption arc!” Cal laughs. “It’s kinda unrealistic, though, isn’t it?”
Tam pretends to swat him away. “It’s a kids show, we can make it as unrealistic as we want.”
At that, Bea grins.
“Can’t argue with logic like that.”
Another thing that EUSA might want to work on is adding a new course to their astronaut training. Honing intelligence and strength is great and all, but it all means absolutely nothing when you:
- a) Have a rather sturdy prosthetic leg, and a less sturdy flesh one.
- b) Have grown used to being able to stub your toes without repercussions thanks to said prosthetic leg.
- c) Slam your toe into the wall, straight-up roundhouse kick the metal (or at least that’s what it feels like), because you were distracted and the ship is out to get you.
Cal hisses out a slew of pained curses, stumbling back a good few steps. Yeah, endurance training can’t make this any less painful. They should look into that.
“Hi,” says Bea, when he whips his head around, trying to maintain the slightest hint of composure. “You…uh, okay?”
Cal waves his hand casually through the pain. Maybe he should be writing his will. “Fallible mortal hubris.”
She lingers for a second, before straightening her back and asking, “Was that Vietnamese?”
Cal hums. Technically, yes, though more expletive than actual language at the end.
“Broken and riddled with curses. But yes.”
“Oh,” she says. “Cool.”
He shakes his head. He’s pretty sure he knows what she’s unwilling to say, and he doesn’t mind, so –
“You can ask,” he prompts. “I’m not unused to it.”
Her shock only lasts a second before she’s straightening her back. “I just – it’s just out of curiosity, it’s not weird or anything. Lots of our generation has English names, especially mixed kids – I mean -” she waves a fluttering hand in the air – “my parents named me Beatrice. But I met your mother and sister before the launch, and their last name -”
“Ngô,” Cal says. “Yeah. I know I don’t exactly look like a Leifson.” He cracks a bittersweet smile. “It was my dad’s name. I was supposed to take my mom’s, but…” He shrugs. “Things changed. It’s Leifson in honour of him.”
“Oh. Oh.” Bea looks mortified. “I shouldn’t have -”
“I promise it doesn’t bother me as much as you think it does. Besides, I never met him. He died in a fire the same year I was born, so…never really had the chance.”
“Don’t be. I can’t resist a chance to talk. And besides – if you manage to ask me something I don’t want to answer, I won’t. Easy as that.”
She wants to ask him what he isn’t telling the rest of the crew. Even if it wasn’t clear in her fidgeting hands and shifting weight, it’s the logical conclusion to come to.
But if she asks…he doesn’t know if he’ll answer.
To his surprise, she does nothing but tilt her head and say, “Good to know.” He supposes all curiosity has its bounds.
“Night, Bea,” he says, moving towards the sliding doors.
A third improvement to make is the sound of the alarm.
It is a horrible, screeching thing, and astronauts should not have to wake up to this torture. Echoing through metal hallways, blaring from speakers set into the ceiling. The worst possible noise to wake up to.
Except, Cal realises, slowly, horribly, we set our own personal alarms.
…And they don’t sound anything like that.
He’s up in a matter of seconds, frantically zipping himself out of the sleeping bag and reattaching his leg with a sharp click. Stumbling into the main hall, he can faintly hear Tam’s panicked voice from the control room.
“What’s going on?”
Their head snaps towards him, standing in the doorway. “Where’s Bea?”
“Dunno. Probably still coming. What happened?”
“Something’s up with the lower left main engine. I don’t know why – or how the ship checks missed it – but it’s unmistakable.”
“The why and how don’t matter. We just need to get down there and get it back up.” Tam’s giving him that look, he knows, but it’s not the most important thing happening.
“Knowing why and how could mean we don’t make the same mistakes again. Or that we know where to look to find anything that might have similar problems in the future.”
They…have a point. Cal hesitates – then shakes his head. “We can’t focus on that right now.”
Tam frowns, opens their mouth, and then – Bea’s voice crashes through the doorway, the woman herself following moments later.
“Is everything alright?!”
Cal turns to face her, mind whirring. “Bea, good. You have the best understanding of engineering on this ship – there’s something wrong with the…Tam?”
“Lower left main engine,” they repeat, face still clouded with dissatisfaction, but rapidly being overtaken by determination. “Here – I’d guess some sort of coagulation, something blocking or stuck in the fuel lines -”
“Right near the end, I – yeah.” Bea nods thoughtfully. “Okay, I can figure that out.”
“It should be safe if we use the backup engine for a while – but,” Tam glares into the display, tapping their fingers, “that means eating into a little of our return trip power. We’ll survive, obviously, we have more than enough to refuel waiting at the crash, but it’s still -”
Cal cuts them off. “Dangerous? It’s always been dangerous. Bea, head to the engine as fast as possible. We’ll keep an eye out for any problems, unless you need one of us to come with you.”
“I – right.” Bea nods, steels herself. “Right. Um – I’m sure we can check up on the rest of the ship after I fix this? So we don’t have to worry about not knowing about other problems.”
“I agree – but let’s deal with the immediate problems first,” says Cal.
Tam purses their lips.
“Nothing seems to be in your way, Bea. You’re good to go.”
She tilts her head in acknowledgement, and off she runs.
And Bea fixes it. They make it.
“Well, that was the worst, I think,” Cal says mildly. Tam thunks their head against the wall lightly.
“I’m taking a page from your book. I refuse to wake up early for purposes unrelated to science.”
“My book makes no exceptions for science.”
“Your book is fundamentally flawed. I added a page.”
They don’t say anything about the argument, because it’s all been said already, a long time ago.
“It was the right choice,” Bea had said, trying to smile, before retreating to her room once more (probably to go back to sleep, like they should be doing), “and it’s not like we had to sacrifice one for the other! We can definitely still check out the rest of the ship for similar dangers.”
It was, and it made sense, and they both know it, and they’ve both said it, and now there’s nothing left to say.
Except, of course, “I really hope this isn’t an omen.”
Tam raises an eyebrow. “Of what?”
“The way the mission is going to go.”
They huff, almost a laugh. “Why, Cal, are you giving up?”
At this, he has to laugh, too.
The simple fact of the matter is, he won’t. He can’t. They’re on a ship, flying a steady and unshakable course to the future – and he has no intention of stopping.
“No,” he says. “You know I’m not.”
A pair of cool grey eyes, a stern, frowning face, streaks of silver hair in a tight knot atop her head – the late Mrs. Lux looked exactly like one would expect her to, from her demeanour. Even now, Brigette can feel her eyes through the glass of the photo, can hear her voice through the years and years of dusty memory.
“Brigette, if you decide you will protect someone, you cannot falter. It is a difficult task – and often you must make difficult decisions. But it is a good and brave thing you have done.”
Brigette had crossed her arms, a pout on her face, scrapes and cuts stinging in the chill.
“I had to,” she said. “They were going to hurt Anya. They broke her things.”
Her mother had shaken her head ruefully.
“You had a choice. You chose to protect. That was courageous – but you cannot back out once you have acted.”
A pair of cool grey eyes, and the little girl reflected in them, resolve building word by word.
“If you are to be a protector, Brigette, you must be unwavering and sure. You must actively protect.”
Then she’d sighed. One fingertip gently ran along a scrape on Brigette’s leg.
“So don’t go running into the role of shield too early, yes? Wait until you’re a little older to start making the big choices.”
Well, she’s older now. She’s older, and still the protector, and she has a choice to make.
It’s not safe, this truth. Not only could it bring them under the scrutiny of…well, she doesn’t know, and that’s just as scary – not only that, but what does it mean for humanity itself? She’s not as naive as Anya. She knows that sometimes what you need the most protection from is yourself.
The light batters itself against those eyes, still piercing even through the years, through the glass, through nothing but ink on paper. And that light reflects right back, viciously returned to the quiet darkness from which it came.
No, it can’t – she can’t let it – the world can’t know.
Brigette picks up her phone, and hesitates.
She could make the call right now – but in a moment of weakness, she scrolls back up.
Mobile: XXX – XXX – XXXX
Notes: Brigette I will set alarms on your phone until you give me a nickname. I will do it.
(Call) / (Text) / (Edit Contact)
I’m so sorry, Brigette thinks as the phone rings, but she doesn’t hang up, and then –
– And then –
– Then, breathless and bright, Anya says, “Hello?”
A flare cuts through the darkness. (Fireworks in the night. Explosive flowers unfurling on a velvet backdrop.) It burns steady but bright, pushing onward with a staunch determination. (The simple fact of the matter is…) Carving its path through the void, following an invisible string, pulling itself towards the behemoth growing closer and closer. There they are now – led and following, ceaselessly drifting to the shadow on the horizon.
The pushing and pulling of its parts. The tell-tale whirring and hissing of mechanical insides. The constant push, the consistent effort, stretching back years and years and years – of travelling and building and readying and beginning and wondering. The tireless, ceaseless forging into the future, the path towards knowledge paved in distinctly human design.
The Theseus carries on.
(TRANSCRIPT BEGINS 21:44)
“Brigette, hey! I was actually just about to -”
“…If you’re about to say what I think you are, Bri -”
“I can’t allow your findings to be released, Anya.”
“You know I’m not.”
“Why would you -?”
“It’s not safe, you know this, please, Anya -”
“Please what? Please sit by and let you hide this from the whole world just because you’re scared?”
“I – you know what – yes! Yes, I am scared, and other people will be, too, and you know what people are like when they’re scared!? You’re not stupid, Anya!”
“No, I’m just not a fucking doom-and-gloom cynic!”
“You have to look at the bigger picture, you’ll see -”
“What, fear? Do you know what would’ve happened if we hid away from the truth just because it scared us, Brigette? Do you know how far we would have gotten?”
“Because I don’t think we would have had the Astronomical Revolution. Maybe not even the Industrial – why don’t we go all the way back? Not even the Agricultural Revolution. If let our fear stop us in our tracks, do you think we would even be here? It’s – humanity has always wanted and worked towards this, this – knowledge! Progress! The least we owe our past -”
“Anya, do you know how dangerous this is? I’m not against progress in its entirety, but this is -”
“What, were you going to ease people into it? Tell them, ‘Oh, by the way, sorry we didn’t tell you before, but we were too afraid to tell you this ultra-important thing, that’s our bad!’ You really think that’ll be any better!?”
“Or are you just not going to tell them at all? Pretend it never happened, that it doesn’t exist?”
“Anya, please -”
“What do you think this will do, Brigette?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I know what you think but – don’t you see? It can’t be released. It’s not good, but it’s…”
“Better than the alternative?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. I am.”
“…You are, huh.”
“I am. This…this cannot be released to the world.”
“Good night, Lux.”
(CALL ENDS 21:47)
And just like that, the whole ordeal is over.
It doesn’t even take five minutes.
“Ready?” says Tam’s voice in his ear.
(They’d had to fasten down any stray objects floating around, for the shift in gravity and in case the landing was rough. Bea would be the one overseeing it, though, and in all the time they’d spent on the ship, Cal never grew less impressed at her skill with machines. It certainly inspired confidence – even if this was her first big mission. Even if it was all of their first big mission, the first time they’d really be up close and personal with the next big leap of mankind, the most recent upturning of all order, the latest beautiful revolution.)
He grins at them.
(He doesn’t know when it had started – three days before? A week? Two? – but it was like the first few days after the launch all over again. Tam holed themselves up in front of the navigational displays for hours on end, while Bea clutched walls and tools and water bottles like they’d disappear if she let them, while Cal practically floated around on a cloud wherever he went, while the ship filled with a nervous, buzzing energy. It all built up to now. Everything they’d done to this point – ever since they were on Earth, ever since they were young and dreaming – it all led to now, this moment, here.)
Neither of them is facing the other head-on, so Tam can’t see him smile, and he can’t see them, but they both know. They both share the giddy joy of the moment.
“First humans on Proxima Centauri b,” muses Tam. “It’s gonna be one hell of an accomplishment.”
Cal shakes his head. “Oh, Tam.”
“There can only be one.”
He hears them freeze, mind racing as to what it means. He sees it click.
“Cal, I am not racing you to the surface. We have procedures to follow.”
“Just thought I’d say it for old time’s sake,” he shrugs. “What, you’ve never wanted to be part of your very own space race? Never wanted to race in space?”
“Shut up, that’s not what the space races were and you’re fully aware of that.” They shove his shoulder, gently, although he barely feels it through the suit. They’re not as bulky as they used to be (those early designs give him nightmares) but they don’t know what the surface of Proxima b will be like, so the designs don’t take any chances. “Besides, it’s not like we even could race. Quit stalling.”
“All I’m hearing is that you want a race, Tam.”
“Is that a yes?”
“…It’s okay if you’re nervous, you know.”
“I am the picture of confidence, Ara. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I mean, it’s a big thing. Off to change the world and all. It’s okay if you need a minute.
“But,” they continue, “the world isn’t going to do any changing unless you open up that door.”
“I…” Smiling, he shakes his head. Of course they’d know exactly what to say.
“I could do it, if you’d like.”
“Nah, I’m good.” He shoots them a set of finger guns. “Guess I’ve just gotten into the habit of sitting around waiting for the world to change on its own.”
He doesn’t turn to see it, but he’s sure they’re rolling their eyes.
“Get moving, you massive nerd.”
Grinning ear to ear, he finally goes to open the airlock.
“Let’s go see what world-changing nothingness we can find,” he says cheerfully, and the doors open.
Almost immediately, he wants to close them again.
Tam gasps. They step forward as he inches back, edging closer and closer to the – the – well, he did say it would change the world.
“Oh…my,” says Cal weakly.
She sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, and barely resists the urge to hurl her phone across the room. Instead, she very carefully and deliberately places the thing beside her, face down.
“I did the right thing,” she tells the dark room, as the traffic tosses shadows around like limp rags outside. She did. She made the right choice, for the sake of safety. Because she is the protector.
Brigette pulls her legs up, curling into a ball at the end of the couch. The leaves of her houseplants wave slightly in the breeze from the aircon.
Her thoughts return to that moment in that darkened room, watching the screen, hoping that whatever change it would bring, it would be for the better. Seeing Anya’s trembling hands press Play on the recorded message, watching the blue sound waves dance on the screen, lighting up the room. Hoping that they would sing a song of safety and calm and light. Hoping they would speak of something harmless, that it could change the world without a bang and she could go on quietly.
But hope alone never did much, did it?
Her hands are trembling as she slams the phone down, though she doesn’t know which of her frothing, jagged emotions is causing it – rage – shock – betrayal.
That’s it, isn’t it? It’s betrayal that takes the stage, tears its vocal cords out with its vicious song. It’s betrayal that makes her hands shake, betrayal that spins the wheels and gears in her mind.
She’d thought – she’d been so sure. Brigette had always been skittish around the topic – but she’d never thought – how could she?
How could she let her fear do that to her?
No, not just to her. To the whole world. This isn’t just about the two of them anymore, never had been, really – this is about the whole of the Earth. Why would she try to keep that knowledge from them? Why – no, she can’t. Anya can’t just let her.
She remembers being in that room, in that one crucial minute – she had hesitated before playing the message, a half-heartbeat of anxiety and anticipation swelling into one tense crescendo. One brief pause before the universe was upturned.
And Brigette wants to hide that. To pretend it doesn’t exist, that it never happened. It’s a cowardly move, and a pointless one, too.
Knowledge wants to be free.
So help her, she’ll free it.
[Someone takes a deep breath.]
UNKNOWN ASTRONAUT: Right.
[The quiet sound of idle tapping starts as the astronaut thinks (presumably)]
UNKNOWN ASTRONAUT: Might as well just – start. Hello…Earth? I – hah, I hope this is Earth. Who even knows anymore. Anyway – hello, Earth, I – it’s –
[They pause, recollecting themselves.]
UNKNOWN ASTRONAUT: Earth, this is Callum Leifson of the Theseus mission, 2072 – I don’t think there’s been any other Theseus missions, but I’m not even sure how long this will take to reach you anymore, so I’ll put it out there just in case. Uh – yeah, 2072, Proxima Centauri b, big supposedly barren planet outside our solar system – ringing any bells?
[He laughs humorlessly.]
CALLUM: We have a bit of a problem. As in. We might be kind of actively in danger. It’s – we’re probably going to stick around here a bit longer, try to figure out –
[He breaks the sentence off, exhaling harshly.]
CALLUM: Try to figure out…what exactly is going on here. Because I have no idea. About anything. But, um, three cheers for changing the world, right? We’ll let you know if we find anything. If we can.
[He falls into silence.]
CALLUM: Being honest, I…I don’t think –
[A loud sound – something on metal – echoes through the room, violent and sudden. Callum swears.]
CALLUM: Tam? Bea? Is everything -?
Message received by Minos Labs 30 March 2045
(Close) / (Replay)
END OF ACT I
ACT II: DEPENDENT
The airlock doors slide shut.
Cal pretends to be extremely invested in the pressure level display until the inner doors finally open. His world is narrow because he doesn’t know what to do with the wider one. Breathe in. Out.
Tam lifts their chin – the first movement they’ve made since the inner light of the Theseus had chased away every tint of Proxima’s green.
“Nothing else,” they report sharply, stepping across the threshold. “Other than…well, the obvious.”
Cal follows them, voice light as an autumn leaf and just as shaky. “As much as something like that can be obvious.”
“Maybe not the message, but the planet…doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation.” Bea smiles tightly. Her fist is curled in a grip that looks like it could crush steel.
“So we need to find out more,” Tam says. “That’s our job. Find out more. About the message, about the ruins.”
“Not to disagree,” says Cal, even as it echoes strangely in his own ears, “but. We were just… you know, warned of our imminent painful deaths by a dubiously trustworthy message that told us literally nothing else -”
“I know. We…” They glance between Bea, fighting hard to keep her gaze level, and Cal, who knows he’s not being subtle as he leans on the ship’s walls for support but it’s just – so much. It’s so much, so terrifying, so world-changing.
“We should at least try to get word back to Earth,” Tam says, mouth pressed into a hard line. “Even if we have no real idea about…about anything, Earth needs to know.”
“Can’t disagree there,” mumbles Cal. He glances at the airlock like he’ll be able to see outside.
Maybe it’s better that he can’t.
It still hasn’t sunk in all the way, what he and Tam saw – even just in the airlock, watching the doors open with bubbling anticipation that turned to lead in half a second.
Proxima Centauri b is wrecked.
Far from the plain surface that they – that all of Earth – had been expecting, they’d landed on a barren, rocky swath of land before an endless wave of ruins. Charred, crumpled buildings in architectural styles entirely unrecognisable to Cal twisted towards the alien sky. Built entirely of what must’ve once been gleaming metal, sickly mint-coloured spots dusting their bases, the structures looked half melted and half torn apart – like some vicious god had raked their sharpened fingertips through the area, gouging, shredding, pulling up fuel for the fire like a farmer ploughs fields to sow seeds.
Cal shudders. He pulls his eyes away from the airlock doors.
That hadn’t even been the strangest – the most terrible thing they’d found.
They’d been too shocked to move for the first few seconds, and after several more beats of radio silence, Bea’s hesitant voice buzzed through their helmets.
“We’ve, uh.” Cal switched on the tiny camera in his faceplate, almost unthinkingly. “Take a look?”
Then Bea fell silent, too.
“We’re going to check it out,” Tam had informed her eventually. They’d never discussed it. It was inevitable. What else were they supposed to do?
Casting his gaze around the half-burnt, half-seemingly-buzzsawed ruins, Cal’s eyes fell on the base of what might have been something like a fountain. It wasn’t covered in the same powdery green rust as the rest of the ruins. Instead, the site was carefully cleared away.
Something gleaming and bronze lay in the centre.
He snaps back to attention.
Tam tilts their head. “We’re gonna look into the message. Can you contact Earth?”
There’s a look in their eyes that he knows well enough to translate. Without speaking a word, they ask, Are you okay?
He tries to smile.
“Yeah, I…I’ve got Earth covered, don’t worry.” Don’t worry.
They raise one eyebrow.
“…Right.” If you say so. They turn to Bea. “Do you have the device…?”
It’s almost too easy for Cal to tune them out as he drifts into the adjoining room, quickly locating the broadcasting device. His hand hovers over the button for a second – what does he even say? Obviously they’d been sent up here to find something, but now that they actually have…does it seem too implausible?
(Landing in the ruins of a previous, seemingly intelligent civilisation, immediately being warned away by an anonymous…what, alien? Yeah, that’s pretty solidly in the realm of too implausible.)
(Half burned half torn by what by what by what? What could have done this?)
(Cal switches the recording on.)
– whether or not they believe him, Earth deserves to know.
Pressing the heels of his palms into the counter, he takes a deep breath. In. Out.
“Right. …Might as well just – start. Hello…”
He tries not to go too in depth – don’t want to scare Earth into inaction – but he makes sure he doesn’t sugarcoat what’s happening. Even if he’s not entirely sure what exactly that is. After stumbling through a few sentences that he hopes gets the point across, Cal’s finger comes to rest above the blinking END RECORDING button.
But he hesitates.
“Being honest, I…”
He bites his lip. “I don’t think -”
Something smashes into the ship.
It’s strong enough to send little vibrations through the walls; for a moment he just stares at them in mute, fascinated horror. Then his brain catches up with his body, and he curses, tapping blindly at the END RECORDING button as he turns.
“Tam? Bea? Is everything alright?”
A glance back reveals that the message is already being transmitted, so he leaves the display to shut down on his own and runs.
Anya’s steps are measured and calm, steady and sure, smoothly moving forward, carrying her with a uniform focus towards her front door. Her mind is anything but.
Still – she’s settled into the rage. It ebbs and flows and whips itself into a frothing fury in the back of her head, but she won’t let that interfere with what she has to do.
In her hand, silver and shining, a thumb drive flashes in the headlights of her car as they blink on.
It’s still dark when she takes to the road. She doesn’t look at the clock – it’ll be, what, twelve, one? Doesn’t matter; she doesn’t care. She has the master key.
The wind paints the navy air with leaves. It’s too dark to see their colours, but they flash bright gold and crisp orange for just a moment when Anya skids past.
Above, the rolling grey clouds in the pitch-dark night speak of rain.
No other cars are out this late – Anya’s eyes dart to the display – early. Huh. It’s 3:26. That makes sense.
Brigette would be worried, she thinks. She’d say something about making reckless decisions, something about not getting enough sleep. Anything to slow Anya down, stop her from charging in head-on, stop her from crashing.
She knows this isn’t the healthiest thing to do. She also knows that her senses are sharp, her head is clear despite her rage, and she’s fully aware of what she’s doing.
Something stupid, probably, something soon-to-be-illegal. Doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care.
Brigette would be worried, but Brigette’s worry stops her from moving, stops her from changing. It keeps her stuck. Safe and trapped. So what if Brigette would worry? Her worry is the reason Anya is out here at all.
That’s the balance they used to have, she muses. Brigette would hold Anya back, Anya would egg Brigette on.
What a mess that’s made.
She stops in front of Minos Labs and is out the door before the engine even finishes rumbling to a stop. Flicking her wrist to lock the doors, she strides to the side entrance.
Most everyone’s forgotten about the flaking metal door – it’s old, one of those that can only be unlocked with a metal ‘analogue’ key. Technically, she has clearance to access all the rooms in the labs – could easily just enter through the main doors. But she doesn’t want to show up on the records until absolutely necessary. Manual entrance it is.
The hinges squeal as she pulls the door open, harsh and grating. She pays them no mind, instead striding purposefully and with perhaps a little more force than necessary down the corridors. Sharp turns, hidden twists – she knows Minos Labs like its hallways are her own arteries and veins, like the map is painted on the insides of her eyelids. It takes her practically no time to reach the room containing the monitor – holding the changing of the world behind that simple green door.
It slides open noiselessly. Anya switches the lights on.
The monitor is exactly where it was, power button pulsing with faint blue light. That’s right, she’d forgotten to turn it off. It must have gone dormant. Still – if it’s stayed that way, that means nobody else has been in here since she and Brigette had left.
Anya brushes her thumb over the button before pushing it down firmly and surely.
“Hi again,” she says to it, as the light spreads from screen to screen. Her job here is simple, now – transfer the data onto the drive, make sure there’s at least one backup.
She lifts the shining silver device…and hesitates.
Could she, perhaps…
Well, what if -?
Tam grabs Cal’s arm as they and Bea meet him at the threshold. Bea still holds the device, but nothing about it looks different, so he can’t tell if they’ve made any progress in figuring out anything about it.
“Run the other direction,” Tam chides. Another crash sounds from the doors, and they wince. “And, uh, do it fast.”
Now that there’s more time and distance between him and the surface, bravado comes to him easier – “Excuse me for wanting to make sure you weren’t dead by blunt force spaceship trauma.” Still, he does follow them as they sprint back up the length of the ship. “What – what exactly was that?”
“If I had to guess,” Bea says grimly, “that’s whatever it is we were warned about.”
“Ugh. I was hoping they meant ‘your death approaches’ in, like, a metaphorical way.”
(Another crash. It almost sounds like metal on metal, if he listens close enough, which he’s trying not to.)
He’d picked the thing up, of course. Probably not the greatest idea, but he hadn’t dropped dead, and it seemed like a good place to start figuring out what cataclysm they were standing in the aftermath of.
It looked almost like another scrap of metal from the ruins, bronze and tarnished, the faintest layer of green flaked upon it. But its edges were smoothed, and the charring and ash was rubbed away, and it looked like it was placed carefully down, not tossed away in panic. Still – even if whatever had left it here had tried to clear away the green dust, it had returned to rebury the device, slowly suffocating it in that pale powder.
Or at least until Cal gently knelt and dusted it off.
“There’s something carved on it,” he reported to Tam, whose disapproval at his recklessness visibly combatted their curiosity.
“What is it?” It was Bea’s voice that spoke, not Tam’s.
“It looks like a…symbol? A letter, maybe, or a number?” Cal traced the lines with one gloved finger.
He almost dropped the thing when the message started playing.
Bea frowns. “What would that even be a metaphor for?”
“We have more important questions to worry about,” says Tam, eyes fixed ahead. They turn a sharp corner. “This way.”
Cal furrows his brow. The route seems…familiar. But why would they…?
“Where are we going?”
“Control room. We’re getting off this planet.”
He isn’t going to stop them if they’re that scared, but – Tam? Wanting to abandon a mission – to abandon answers?
They glance back at him. “Calm down, Cal. I can hear your brain cells rupturing from here. We’re not going back yet, but I think we could do with figuring this out in orbit.”
“You think we’ll be in less danger off-planet,” he realises. That’s…huh. He hadn’t even considered it.
“I’m not sure. But it’s worth a shot.”
(Crash. An unsettling creaking following it; an even more unsettling silence following that.)
The three of them keep running.
A crackly, monotonous, nearly robotic voice emanated from the bronze, speaking words that Cal didn’t recognise. It started and dropped several sentences, a different one each time, until –
Tam inhaled sharply. For the briefest of seconds, it had spoken in Bangla.
It carried on, switching through languages that Cal did recognise this time – something like Russian, what sounded like Greek, Portuguese, Sandawe, and then –
“Whoever you are -” it started, in halting Vietnamese. “- You -”
Then it cut itself short and spoke again in Tamil. Then it cut itself off and – and just kept going.
“You – heard that, didn’t you?” asked Bea, as if they weren’t sitting right there as the – what, universal translator? – droned on. “It – that was Tagalog – it said -”
“It started to say something. It’s continuing to start to say things. Yeah, that’s -” Cal tightened his grip on the thing. “Now how do we get it to stop?”
“Try pressing the letter again,” suggested Tam. “It could be a play-pause button.”
“I mean – yeah, why not.” Cal didn’t move as it kept clicking through languages. “I’m gonna wait for it to get to -”
“Whoever you are -”
Tam shushed him. The message played on.
“ – You have made a mistake by coming here. Leave immediately. Your death already approaches you. It is not a pleasant one.”
…Maybe he wished it hadn’t.
With a final click, the device fell silent, as did the crew of the Theseus.
Finally, Tam spoke.
“Take that with you, Cal. We should get back to the ship.”
The door to the control room slides open as they approach; Tam doesn’t even stop, just barely clearing the sides as they skid to a stop.
(Quiet. A scraping noise, brief and faint. Quiet once more.)
“Let’s get moving.”
Quite honestly, Anya doesn’t care much for the consequences of this.
She hesitates before the monitor, but she knows – from the moment the notion had first entered her mind, when she’d stepped inside the little room and the door had locked behind her, she’d known – that she’s going to do it.
What could be the worst thing that would happen? At the very worst, the crew of this “Theseus”, 27 years in the future, will be aware of who exactly they’ve reached with their broadcast. They deserve that, she thinks. Besides, she couldn’t live with herself if she’d had this chance and let it go because she was scared.
Fear stops you in your tracks when you least need it to. Anya doesn’t care much for that, either.
She places the drive down with a sharp click and reaches for the monitor. A few keystrokes are enough to set it up.
Taking a step back, she nods.
Steadily on the screen, bold in the darkness, shines the command:
“Hello, crew of the Theseus…”
“Good to go?” asks Cal. Bea shoots him a thumbs-up. Tam nods sharply.
“Right, then we can -”
He’s interrupted by the worst of the crashes so far – a sickening, drawn-out screaming of metal, a tearing and crunching he really doesn’t like the implications of.
Bea’s face is pale and drawn when she whispers, “What was…?”
Cal shakes his head. The display screen before him lights up.
He doesn’t even have the energy to – what’s a proper reaction in this scenario? He thinks it might be uncontrollable screaming. Maybe they all should’ve been screaming from the start.
“I don’t like that silence,” says Tam. Cal just stares at the ship display.
“What are your feelings on the entire right engine fan being ‘inoperational’?” he asks weakly. “Also highlighted entirely in bright red on the display.”
There’s fire in Bea’s eyes when she marches over. “Show me.”
He motions her towards the display. Her eyes flick over the damage for a while – she reaches up and zooms in and out of several areas – before she shuts the whole thing off, frowning.
“We can fly without it, but it’ll be – dangerous, to say the least. We might be able to make it into orbit, but there’s almost no chance we’d make it back to Earth.” She takes a deep breath. “Or we could try to fix it.”
“You sound…unsure,” says Tam. “Is it something we can’t fix?”
Bea wrinkles her nose. “Judging by what the ship says, it’ll be difficult to fix, but it’s nothing I can’t do. No, I…I just…”
She bites her lower lip, glancing at the doors.
“The – whatever it is that broke it in the first place,” Cal realises. “Where is it?”
The quiet that falls over the crew is only emphasised by the utter lack of noise coming from the planet outside.
“It…could just be done with us,” tries Bea. Cal can tell even she knows how flat and unconvincing it sounds.
“…Let’s not assume anything,” Tam says, which Cal knows is a nicer way of saying, Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? “I think we should try to fix it. There’s no confirmed danger, and we have a better chance of – well, we have a better chance with a fully operating ship.”
Bea purses her lips.
Tam is right – Cal knows they are, and he knows Bea knows, too. At the same time, though, this is…well, they did sign up to be the first to face the unknown, but it’s a little easier said than done when you’re staring the unknown in the face and it doesn’t seem particularly keen on letting you hold on to your life. So if Bea wants to take their chances with a broken engine…well, he doesn’t like it, but he understands.
But she takes another breath and straightens her back.
“I…you’re right. Let’s fix this ship.”
Cal cracks a grin.
“That’s what I like to hear,” he says, waving open the door to the rest of the ship. “Anything we need from here?”
“I have a bunch of tools we’ll probably need in one of the workshops, but that’s in our way.” Bea steps through the door, glancing from side to side. The ship’s hull is still intact, according to the display and the continued silence from whatever it is that’s been hounding them, so there shouldn’t really be anything to worry about, but…worry doesn’t care much for logic.
They walk in tense silence – though there’s no way of knowing what’s attacking them or how it attacks, even whether or not it has a mind of its own or whether it’s a physical, tangible thing at all, none of them want to alert it. Bea grabs her tools, and Cal and Tam decide in the span of one glance that they’ll keep watch while she does, even if it only takes a few seconds before she joins them again. None of them want to take any chances.
The right engine fan is…well, Cal takes solace in the fact that it’s not melted and tries not to draw too many connections between the gashes torn in its metal and the clawed-up buildings outside.
Key word being tries.
“It almost looks like…an animal attack,” breathes Tam, reaching up like they want to touch it before recoiling sharply.
Cal stiffens. “Everything okay?”
“I – yeah. The edges are sharp. Didn’t think it’d be the best idea to touch it.” Tam shrugs.
“Probably isn’t,” agrees Bea, running a careful finger along one jagged wound. “I think I can fix this – it’ll just take some time. And I can’t promise it’ll be quiet.”
“Do what you need to do, Bea,” says Cal.
Tam lays a hand on his shoulder. “We’re here to help if you ask.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t need much help in the work aspect of it all. I just…um, if you could stay…that would be nice? I don’t really want to be alone here.”
“I don’t think any of us want to be alone right now,” agrees Cal. “We’ll stick around, don’t worry.”
Bea offers a shaky smile before flipping open the kit and turning to the fan – and Tam straightens, alarmed.
“One new message,” they report, eyes on the compact display on the inside of their wrist. “Went right to main command…I can’t access it with just this, though.”
On one hand, they could easily go check out the message now, but Bea had asked specifically not to be left alone. The idea of leaving anyone in the crew to fend for themselves against potential threats right now isn’t really…
Tam catches the look on his face.
“I get it,” they say. “It’s probably just a ‘we hear you’ from Earth, anyway – it can wait a bit longer.”
Cal tilts his head in acknowledgement. Thank you.
They smile ever so slightly, shaking their head as they take up a cross-legged vigil on the floor. Of course.
Ever so often, Bea asks one of them for a piece of metal or different tool, still half-buried in the engine. Which Cal isn’t too happy with, either, without someone at the helm making sure it doesn’t fire up randomly. He knows it’s extremely unlikely, but…still. He worries. Worry doesn’t care much for logic.
It is loud, whatever she’s doing – Cal guesses welding, by the occasional sparks, but he doesn’t know much about spaceship design, so it’s a shaky guess at best.
“Really stepped up our game from dramatic rice betrayals, huh?” he asks, voice low under the hissing of metal.
Tam tries to smile. “The rice was the most important part of this arc, I don’t know what you’re on about.”
“The rice is the glue that holds the whole show together.”
“Didn’t Bea say it was the soundtrack?”
He laughs faintly.
They fall into silence.
“It’ll be fine,” he says. “We’re a cool awesome epic incredible astral superhero team trio of space aces. We’ll make it.”
“You really need to stop adding adjectives to that sentence.”
There’s a clanking, crashing cacophony of metal as Bea wriggles out of the vent, clutching the edges of a single blade of the giant fan. She looks around quickly, spots Cal and Tam, and visibly relaxes.
Halfway to standing already, Cal waves.
“I’m good,” she grunts. Tam wedges their boot under another blade before it can crash to the floor.
Bea lowers it fully then, shooting them a thankful look.
“I don’t think anything’s coming,” Cal offers. “Maybe it doesn’t track via sound.”
“We don’t know if it even can track, but we should still try to keep quiet,” Tam counters.
“Oh, I fully intend to. It’s something about the atmosphere – if I tried yelling here, I think the law of spooky vibes would smite me dead on the spot.”
Tam sighs. “Sometimes I’m not even sure we’re speaking the same language.”
Not daring to laugh, Cal just huffs, smiling.
“Well, I could -”
That smile and accompanying sentence drops a second later when his gaze catches on something through the windows.
They’re small and rectangular and thin, sporadically placed where the wall meets the ceiling, the glass thick and distorted – but even through all of that, he can see it. It stands out, cold and unmistakable among the dead sheen of the mint and bronze ruins.
Silver metal, a design and style he recognises, familiar lettering in familiarly flaking dark paint. Earthen letters on an Earthen craft, in Earthen paint on Earthen metal.
Something’s wrong, don’t deny it. What is it? asks Tam’s sharpened gaze.
Thought I saw something, he can say. Just a shadow – I’m probably just on edge. Not a lie, again. Not the whole truth – again. He could say it, and it would be fine, except…would it really? They’re being hunted, and by something they can’t understand or run from or even see. There’s a living ghost out there on the surface – but would knowing about it help clear anything up or just make the air more tense?
Does it matter?
They deserve to know – what’s more, they’ll find out. And he doesn’t really see why he should hide it…especially now that his small white lie might not be as simple as he thought.
“…I recognised something, out in the ruins,” he says instead. “It’s not – it’s from Earth.”
He glances back outside at the blocky paint on the side of the machine, though he doesn’t know why. Maybe he’s hoping he’s seen it wrong, that the letters he read were a trick of the eye.
But when he looks, they’re right there, bold and unmistakable as ever.
“It’s the Ariadne,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s dead.”
“It’s done,” says Bea. “As good as it’ll get, at least.”
Tam’s eyes are still fixed on the smudged windows, still but for the tapping of their fingers. They don’t so much as nod.
“Thank you, Bea,” says Cal. She tries for a smile.
When they speak, Tam’s voice is rough. “So what now? Do we leave, do we orbit, do we try to find out more?”
Even if he hadn’t known them for practically all his life, it would have been clear to Cal which option they favoured. Tam craved knowledge first and foremost, and while they wouldn’t complain, leaving Proxima b and its mysteries alone in favour of safety would sting.
Cal clears his throat.
(Might as well be now.)
“I don’t know if this will help,” he says into the sudden dead silence. “To be completely honest – I don’t even know what all of this means. I don’t know if it means anything.”
Then he sighs.
“But – even if it solves nothing – you deserve to know why the Theseus mission is so important to me.”
“You said it was because of what it meant for the world,” Bea recalls, tone soft yet almost accusing.
“That’s still true,” agrees Cal, “but it was also because of what it meant to my grandmother.”
Crossing their legs neatly, Tam fixes Cal with a searching glance. They don’t know all the details, but they’ve likely known him and his family long enough to guess what he’s talking about. Still, they don’t speak, only implore him silently to go on.
Deep breath in. Out. Right.
“Right,” he says, out loud this time. “Both of you know how and when my father died, by now. Correct?”
The meaning behind his words hits Bea first – her eyes widen and she just barely stifles a gasp.
A crease forms between Tam’s eyebrows. They nod, slowly.
“It…well, it’s not like anyone came out of it completely unscathed, but it hit her a lot harder than the rest of us. Obviously, I mean, he was her son.” Running a hand through his hair, Cal sighs.
“Even now, I’m not…I don’t really know how to feel about it. I guess I don’t really think about it much. The more time goes on, the less any of us do…I mean, it happened back in ‘45. Time heals all wounds and whatnot.”
“Is that how you lost your leg, then?” asks Bea. Cal blinks.
“Uh, no, actually. I was born a few months after the fire, so…”
“It was unrelated,” Tam summarises. They would know.
“Still, when she learned that I got the mission, she asked me – just to keep an eye out, see if there’s anything amiss on the surface. She was convinced after the fire that something was – intentional, tampered with, I guess – and she wanted me to see if I could find anything on-planet.” He shrugs. “What was I supposed to say? No? I didn’t think much of it, and I didn’t think it would get in the way either.”
Tam hums, tapping slowly on the floor. “Do you think she’s right?”
She’d believed there was some sort of conspiracy, he knew. That, he didn’t believe. But looking back, at the ruins outside, at the message (and whatever had left it), at what looked like claws or horns tearing up the ship –
“I think,” he says, “there’s more to this than we know. That’s why I told you about this. I think we should try to find out what exactly is happening.”
Tam nods, a hint of a smile crossing their face for a fraction of a second.
“And I think,” they say, “we should go to the Ariadne.”
“ – I understand,” she says, trying not to let too much of her frustration into her voice, “I only – this doesn’t seem like overkill to you?”
A moment of silence.
“No, of course. If it’s a majority rule, I will respect that, but -”
“Yes, I know. I only mean to suggest that we should seek another route -”
She falls quiet as the voice on the other end grows steely. When she speaks, her own voice is just as cold and crisp.
“Understood. If this is what we’ve decided to be the best course, I will do my duty in accordance.”
A brief pause.
“Thank you, sir. Have a good day.”
For the second time in under two hours, Brigette Lux gently places her phone down when every bone in her body wants to hurl it. Or anything. But now’s not the time to be throwing a tantrum, even considering what she has to do.
Some part of her still insists, but why? Why does it have to happen like this? This can’t be the only way!
But she knows, in another, colder part of her heart, buried even deeper down, that this is the only path to take. The only option. Right from the beginning, she’d known it couldn’t end in any other way.
Gingerly, as if making any move too big or sharp or any noise too loud would shatter this – this haze, this resolve of hers, whatever it is settling over her and hardening in jagged layer after layer in her core like mica flakes, like ice chips, like pearls form – Brigette sits at her table and props open her laptop.
She has work to do.
Something’s different about the air now, as the airlock door slides open and spills their silhouettes on the green-dusted surface of Proxima Centauri b. There’s an apprehension that wasn’t there before, a tense terror in the careful steps and skittish glances of the crew. Like prey, Cal notes grimly. Defenseless creatures in the hunting grounds of a predator they know nothing about.
The Ariadne is not far – three hundred metres at the furthest, if he has to guess. After all these years, it, too, is dusted faintly in the same green substance that covers the whole city. Really, nestled on the rooftop of another wrecked structure, it looks right at home amongst the ruins.
It had managed to land on one of the most distinct buildings (or remains of buildings) in their immediate vicinity: a low, faintly domed cylinder, gently curved roof not yet buried under enough of that green dust to hide the carved lines decorating its surface, the grooves and channels vaguely resembling a Chartres pattern. The structure isn’t exceptionally tall, but it sits in the middle of a wide clearing in an otherwise crowded design, as if it came with its own personal force field. That doesn’t inspire too much confidence in whatever they’ll find inside.
Then again, nothing about this situation does.
“We can’t climb it,” says Tam. “Looks like we’ll have to get up to the roof from the inside out.”
They frown down at the display on their wrist, where the new message notification still waits, red as blood.
“I think this is the communications building. According to this, the message is being broadcast from the Ariadne to here, and from here all across the planet.”
“Kind of fitting that it landed here, then, considering its purpose,” says Cal. “Any way inside?”
The door that lies torn off its hinges as they draw closer to the structure is its own answer.
More of those same gashes run along its width and around the edges of the door, as if something had tried clawing its way inside before giving up and prying out the door itself. That was…an extremely unpleasant thought.
Cal holds up a hand. “Hang on.”
Not taking his eyes from the impromptu door, he finds a small shard of bronze on the ground and tosses it into the darkness.
The metal is lighter than he’d thought, and it makes a gentle clink-clink-clink as it bounces out of sight. Cal holds his breath.
No demonic planet-destroying fire beast comes through, so he gives the rest of the crew a thumbs-up.
“What exactly was that?” Bea asks. Cal switches on the flashlight on his wrist, casting the jagged, torn entryway in bloody light.
“I wanted to make sure there was nothing waiting inside.”
He can tell by her tone that some part of her would’ve preferred it if the idea had never entered her head at all.
Their luck holds, and they don’t come across any mysterious monsters as they creep through the hallways – or rather, hallway. The path they walk never branches. He supposes that makes their decision on where to go easier, but it’s…uncanny.
What seem like sets of sliding double doors are set into the walls, each fairly wide with a single, small window-like triangle set close to the low ceiling, right on the crease where the doors meet. Some of these doors are cracked open, their triangular windows melted or shattered, and when Cal shines a flashlight through the opening, they find the back wall quickly enough. They don’t come across any adjoining halls, nor any other exits.
Again, not very confidence inspiring.
The floor begins to slope up gently – or maybe it always had been and he’d only just noticed. Actually, a lot more things come into focus as their eyes adjust to the darkness. It had been slightly dim planetside, but inside the windowless building, their only light became their red-beam flashlights – so he definitely notices when they come across one mostly-intact room and a faint bluish light beams through its triangular window.
The crew of the Theseus exchanges glances.
“We’re going inside,” declares Tam.
“Obviously,” Cal agrees. “But, uh…how?”
A silence falls over them.
“Maybe it’s something to do with the triangle windows,” suggests Bea. “The doors that were left open all had broken windows, right?”
“You think we should break it?” Cal squints up at the glowing shape. “I think if they really were meant to be doors, the building would be slightly better designed.”
“I’m not saying we break them. Just that they could have something to do with the design.”
Tam hums thoughtfully. “Cal, do you remember how you started and stopped the message?”
“You think it’s just a matter of pressure?”
“I think it’s worth a shot.”
Cal steps back. “By all means, then.”
“Unfortunately, you’re the tallest.”
Tam sticks out their tongue before reaching up and pressing one finger to the centre of the clear window. They could probably cover the whole thing with their palm, Cal muses. If these really are just windows to see through, they’re pretty ineffective.
Which is why he’s not entirely surprised when, after a tense second of stillness, the doors slide open.
It’s not smooth by any means – the grating, scraping noise of metal on stone sets his teeth on edge. But the moment the doors are open wide enough for them to squeeze through, Tam is in the room, and with a rapidly shrinking degree of hesitation, Cal and Bea follow.
The light comes from a panel set into a counter near the centre of the room. It’s the only active technology they’ve found in the building, and Cal sees how Bea’s fingers twitch as she scans it almost hungrily.
Rows of unfamiliar symbols fill the centre of the screen, varying from – by his count – five to thirteen per line. While the screen is a pale crystal blue and the letters silvery white, the topmost row is written in thicker lines and highlighted with a faintly pink light.
“So this is it,” Cal says, though he’s not sure what ‘it’ he means. The source of the message? The room where they’ll look for answers? The most useful thing they’ve found so far?
“Yeah, this is it,” confirms Tam, who apparently knows what he’s talking about even when he doesn’t. He honestly wouldn’t put it past them. “The message came from the Ariadne to here.”
Cal steps closer. “Why not get the message from the source, then?”
“Because you’d have to go to the Ariadne, and we don’t know how to get there?”
“Would you let me have this moment, Bea.”
She doesn’t sound like it. Cal takes a moment to assume it’s a good thing that they’re all back to joking around. That means they’re getting used to the situation, right? That’s got to be a good thing. Or a…semi-good thing. A not-bad thing. A thing.
Returning his attention to the screen, Cal hums. “I think the top line is the message we’re looking for. Seems the most recent.”
“By all means, then,” Tam says.
“Oh, shut it, you.”
He doesn’t hesitate to tap the rose-coloured row. As the other lines disappear, the letters expand to fill the whole screen and remain there, blinking, for a second or two.
Then they disappear abruptly, and the whole room whirrs to life.
Panels set into the counter light up, while soft white lights tinted anywhere from amber to fuchsia power up all along the base of the walls, at about ankle-height. Tilted slightly upwards, they cast every corner of the room into faintly coloured light, throwing multicoloured shadows across fire-warped walls.
The first screen now projects an image into the air – a simple green line on a navy background, with a symbol Cal assumes is a play button superimposed over top. When he checks the screen again, the same symbol shines up from its surface.
“I sincerely hope this is from Earth,” he says.
“I sincerely hope that even if it isn’t, it gives us some answers,” adds Tam.
“I just sincerely hope it doesn’t raise any more questions,” Bea says, only half-jokingly.
Cal taps the screen.
The message unfreezes, sinuous ropes of green rising and falling on the projection, not unlike soundwaves.
A voice, crackly at the edges but in surprisingly good quality, begins to ring out from the counter.
“Hello, crew of the Theseus. This message was broadcast to, and the reply is being sent from Minos labs, Earth…”
The speaker hesitates for the briefest of seconds.
“…in the year 2045.”
Tam’s eyes go wide. Bea inhales sharply.
“Oh, rad,” says Cal faintly.
“Your message was a shock to me as well,” they continue. “I don’t – I don’t quite know what to do, to be honest. I’m hoping we can compare what we know to try to figure this out.”
“If you can, you – I ask that you try to get back to me as quickly as possible. I don’t believe myself to be in any danger, but…it’s not exactly the best situation back here, either.”
A beat passes in which they most likely consider what else to say. Finding nothing else, they close with, “I hope this message finds you in time…for both of us. End transmission.” Which is just – exceptionally cheerful. Great.
“Can we respond?” Cal asks.
“We should be able to,” Bea says. “I don’t know how this place works, but if it’s a communications centre…”
“Yeah, fair enough.” Cal turns to Tam when they clear their throat.
“I think this might be it,” they say, pointing to another, smaller symbol at the edge of the row.
“Only one way to find out,” says Cal.
A push of the button and the projected screen changes once more. That same Chartres pattern-like symbol glows in green – although now that he sees the full thing, its shape is more quadrilateral and its centre less clearly defined. A point of particular brightness tracing its way slowly along the labyrinthine pathways, finding its way to the centre and back out in a steady, hypnotic loop.
Labyrinthine. That’s it, isn’t it? It looks just like the Cretan labyrinth design, on all those ancient coins that Tam’s cousin dragged them to the museum to stare at for hours on end. (He loves the girl, but he’ll never understand her obsession with old stories and absolutely anything to do with them. Apparently that single-minded stubbornness is a family trait.)
Abruptly, the dot stops moving. From that one point, an image blossoms to full size on the projection – someone standing in a hazily lit room, their dark hair messy in its braid as if they’ve been tugging on it, a silver flash drive on the table beside them.
It all looks like fairly old technology, Cal has to admit. Even the chairs look like recreations from his mother’s time. Or, he supposes, his father’s.
“Hello?” says the person on the screen. It’s odd – even through all this distance, all this space – even through all the time that’s passed – he can still feel their eyes on him. Their gaze darts around the room – taking in the ruins, the odd lighting, the strange placement of all the technology – but it quickly returns to Cal, Tam, and Bea.
“Are you the crew of the Theseus?”
Anya only notices that she’s being hailed the first time she looks away.
It’s brief – her gaze flickers to the doorway, trying to discern whether those are footsteps or just the building creaking in the wind, and when she looks back the screen is alight.
She accepts the call without a second thought, heart pounding in her ears.
An image blossoms to life on the screen – three people in strange-looking uniforms, standing in a room lit with strange light. Is this what ships will look like in the future? Hollowed and odd, their lights shining up from the ground, labyrinthine spirals carved into the equipment?
She only just remembers to greet them before she breathes in a disbelieving rush, “Are you the crew of the Theseus?”
The astronaut in front waves.
“That’s us, hi. Am I correct in assuming you’re Dr. Anya Sotto?”
“I – yes. That’s me.” Should she ask…how they’re doing? How she’s doing, twenty-seven years in the future? What exactly is the etiquette for this scenario?
“It’s an honour to meet you,” says the tallest one, standing to the left of the first speaker. “My name is Tam Ara. This is Bea Bitao -” They gesture to the third astronaut, perched on a cubelike…chair? She’s pretty sure that’s a chair – “And I suppose you’ve already heard from Cal.”
“Yes.” This, she can work with. “Your message -”
“We’re not lying,” says Bea quickly.
Anya holds up her hands. “I’m not saying you are – I believe you. But this whole situation is quite concerning. If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear what happened from you.”
The first astronaut – Cal – hums. “Where would you like to start?”
“Ah…if you don’t mind, I’d like to start by going a little off topic.” Anya glances away from the screen, scraping a nail over the frame of the single chair. “…Is that your ship? The designs look quite different from what we have right now -”
“Before you start waxing poetic, you should know that this is not the Theseus,” Tam interrupts wryly. “We’re on the planet at the moment. This technology and architecture is just as unfamiliar to us as it is to you.”
“Ah.” Anya deflates. “I suppose I’d just like to know what’s different all the way out in 2072.”
“Aliens exist,” says Cal helpfully, earning him a gentle swat from Tam.
“Obviously aliens exist. We’re literally being hunted by one right now.”
For a moment, Tam’s fond tone and sheer impossibility of the statement means their words brush right over Anya’s head, and she begins to say, “Well, yes, we’re already found simple but living organisms on -”
“Wait, you’re what?”
“We don’t know it’s an alien,” says Bea, “it could also be a machine made by aliens. Or alien magic.”
“Okay, I’m gonna veto the magic option because thinking about it gives me a headache, but yes, we’re in danger.” Cal shrugs. His light tone isn’t as blasé as he likely intended. “Possibly life threatening. Who knows.”
“…I think you’d better tell me what’s going on,” says Anya.
Tam steeples their fingers in front of their visor.
“Well, EUSA – you have EUSA, right?”
“Yes, I actually – Minos Labs is under EUSA. Most anyone that deals with space is, nowadays.” Anya shrugs. “I hear some people aren’t happy with that. It’s never bothered me, but – what happened to them?”
“Well, most anyone became literally everyone,” Tam says. “Eventually, a branch of EUSA called Cassandra -”
“- Probably the shadiest branch, if I’m being honest.” Cal interrupts.
They glance over at him. “Well, yeah. Cassandra’s done a lot for Earth, but Haque is pretty secretive with his information. A lot of people don’t trust him because of it, but nobody’s been able to find proof that he’s doing anything wrong or bad…and it’s not for lack of trying.”
Frowning, Anya says, “Cassandra sent you up here?”
Cal snorts. “Oddly enough, Cassandra’s wanted to send a mission up to Proxima b since its founding.”
“There wasn’t supposed to be anything up here,” Bea explains, knee bouncing up and down. “The Ariadne reported that the surface of the planet was barren, see. The mission was to get a better idea of the planet’s composition, but also to push humans beyond our previous boundaries. It was all formalities, in a way. We weren’t expecting to find…”
She waves a shaking hand.
“I don’t think there’s any way to show you,” says Cal, “but the planet is all ruins. There’s buildings like nothing you’ve ever seen…and they’re all torn up and half-melted.”
“Whoever was on this planet, they seemed pretty far ahead of us technologically,” adds Bea. “There was this message, and I think it worked like a – a mass translator, almost -”
“And the translated message said that we were doomed and should get off the planet as soon as possible.” Tam cuts her off.
“You said you were being hunted,” remembers Anya. “Did the message tell you that?”
Cal shakes his head. “Only that we were in danger. And that ‘our death approaches’, which is always a fun welcome message. The – whatever it is – found us when we’d made it back to the ship.”
“You don’t know what it is?”
“We’ve only seen what it does,” Cal says. “It tore up part of our ship – it’s fine now, Bea here fixed it – and then went completely silent. We haven’t heard from it since.”
“Then why on Earth are you not off-planet?”
At this, he actually laughs a little.
“We saw the Ariadne and realised that your message was being broadcast to us from a point there. Decided to check it out.” Cal shrugs. “It’s our best bet at getting answers. And besides, that’s how we found you.”
“Speaking of which.” Tam crosses their arms. “You said you weren’t in danger, to your knowledge…but something was wrong. We’ve explained what’s on Proxima b -”
“ – My side of the story might lend some answers,” agrees Anya. “Really, it’s not much, I just -”
She breaks off, frowning at the ceiling.
“…According to you, the Ariadne said the planet was barren, but it’s not. Cassandra was insistent on sending people to Proxima b, but you don’t know why, or what they know about this planet, there’s obviously – there has to be something going on.”
She sighs heavily. Cal and Tam exchange the briefest of glances.
“I…have reason to believe my research will be suppressed. From what you’ve said…”
(Pulse jackhammering in her ears. Heart in her throat. She’s all out of place. This is all out of place – this is all wrong. “Are you serious?”
The silence is suffocating and the clock on the wall is ticking away the seconds out of time and –
“Yes. I am.”
Her boiling blood runs cold.)
“Well…the evidence suggests it might have been Haque or Cassandra who is responsible.”
(“Or are you just not going to tell them at all? Pretend it never happened, that it doesn’t exist?”
Her own voice hurts her ears when she raises it, and she almost wants to lower it, take it back, say she’s sorry, say they can work this out – but she knows they won’t. Neither of them is willing to budge.
“It’s not good, but it’s…”
Anya cuts her off, voice colder than she ever knew it could be. “Better than the alternative?”)
…Not all the evidence implicates Cassandra.
But she can’t believe that her friend would allow this secrecy, would allow lives to be put in danger. That’s not the woman she knows.
Yes, Brigette was scared. Yes, her vision had been skewed heavily by that fear – but all she had ever wanted was to protect. She never would have let it get this far. That much, Anya knows for sure.
The Theseus crew is watching her, and she realises they’re waiting for her to elaborate. She half-shrugs – she’s made up her mind, and she has nothing else to say.
“That’s…troubling, but I can see what you mean,” Cal says thoughtfully. “Are you suggesting that Earth isn’t safe?”
“I – no.” Anya purses her lips. “Cassandra on its own might be suspect, but returning to Earth is still your best option. Not only because it’s kind of the only other option -”
“We could cast ourselves into the void,” suggests Cal dryly.
Tam nudges him with one shoulder. “Shush, you. I understand what you mean, Dr. Sotto. Earth is our best chance for help – and even if they can’t, they deserve to know.”
Anya smiles at them through the screen. Is there anything more true to who she is than that? They deserve to know. Everyone does.
Her gaze falls to the as of yet empty silver drive on the table.
“My thoughts exactly, Mx. Ara.”
“So,” says the anachronistic scientist on the screen, “now that you know what’s happened with the Ariadne, will you return to Earth?”
“I think that’s the best course of action,” Tam agrees. “I think we’ll need to find the crash first, and then we can be on our way…hopefully without running into that thing again. We’ll let you know before we take off.”
Dr. Sotto furrows her brow. “…Crash? I thought you said your ship was fine?”
“It…is? That’s not what a crash is.” A thought occurs to Cal. “Wait, Bea, when -”
“Uh, okay. Crashes came into prominent use shortly after spacefaring missions really started to…take off…”
“Yes, Bea -”
“So around the late 2050’s,” she finishes, grinning. “Meaning -”
“I have no idea what that is,” agrees Dr. Sotto.
Bea drums her fingers rapidly on her leg, eyes alight. “Alright, so – essentially, when EUSA started sending out missions that went further and lasted longer, even with the increased fuel efficiency developed over the years -”
Cal holds up a hand.
“Bea, know that in other circumstances we would absolutely be down to listen, but I doubt we have the time.”
“Ah…right.” She bites her lower lip. “Okay, how to…basically, crashes are small disposable shuttles carrying emergency supplies – fuel and the like. They’re launched to the destination before the mission and designed to crash-land -”
“ – Hence the name,” adds Cal.
“ – They crumple up and compact on impact to minimise the amount of space junk left behind if the crew doesn’t retrieve them, while keeping the supplies inside safe. Every so often they’ll send out a mission – the Aegeus, if I recall correctly – to the black sites -”
“ – An indicator on the crash goes from black to white when the crew picks it up, so crashes that aren’t used are referred to as black sites,” explains Tam.
“ – To recover anything left behind, a system set up – oddly enough – after the initial concept of crashes were already in operation and had been for quite some time. I suppose that’s just the process of progress.” Bea shrugs.
“I…see.” To her credit, Dr. Sotto looks like she actually followed that. “So you need to find the crash, and then you’ll return to Earth.”
“Hopefully,” Cal agrees. “…What about you?”
“…What about me?”
“Well -” He hesitates.
What’s the nicest way to say, I think anything you do will be ultimately meaningless because we’re from a future where it is, also you might be in danger but I think you know that as well? Cal kind of really wishes time travel conversational etiquette existed.
See – it’s obvious she knows just as well as the crew that any efforts she makes are likely going to be futile, even without knowing what they haven’t told her, but…well, even then. What is she even supposed to do in this scenario?
Put yourself in her shoes. What would he do in this situation?
…Keep going, he supposes. Follow the inevitable, right to the end.
“…Good luck with your situation,” he says. Dr. Sotto smiles like she’d rather not be, like she knows exactly what just went through his head.
“Same to you.”
In a matter of seconds, the projection folds back into itself, and the screen goes dark but for that same green labyrinth, the speck of light returning to its eternal circuit through the twisting paths.
They all watch it for a moment in silence.
So suddenly that Cal jumps, Tam claps their hands.
“Right!” they announce, falsely energetic. “We should probably -”
Cal stares at the still-ajar door and the darkened pathway beyond, hoping he’s hearing things or that maybe it’s some ill-thought-out joke from the universe. Falling debris in the wind, or…something.
Crash. Crash. Thud.
“It followed us,” hisses Tam.
“Or there’s more than one.” Even as he says it, Cal’s fairly certain that’s not true, but Tam looks troubled.
“There wasn’t a door anymore, the way we came in,” remembers Bea. “Something tore it off the wall – it’s just a big hole now. More than big enough for all of us to fit through, and probably…”
She trails off. None of them want to finish that thought.
The lights along the floor line seem less like whimsical wonderland flora and more like fairy lights wrapped around the handle of a bloody axe. Funny how perspective changes things, Cal thinks dully. Funny how the wonder of newness fades away the moment you realise you’re alone and out of your depth.
He shakes his head, trying to snap himself out of it. Breathe in – out. They’re not alone, and the situation isn’t hopeless. They just have to keep moving.
“Let’s assume for the time being that the way we came in isn’t an option,” he says. “Is there some other way we can go? Any alternate routes?”
“If only this place came with a map in case of fire,” Tam says, but they cut a purposeful path to the table-like wall protrusions on the far side of the room.
Cal half-laughs, crossing the room to examine the opposite corner. “I think the fire’s long since happened, Tam.”
The room is startlingly empty, he begins to notice. Either the alien inhabitants of the planet were big on space conservation or someone – something? – had cleared it out when…well, when their world ended. Either way, counters are clear of any apparatus and what look like shelves or cabinets (folding out of the wall in a way that he has to appreciate, but with a squealing sound he most certainly doesn’t) are conspicuously missing any contents.
“Anything?” he asks the crew.
“There’s a panel here that might be it,” Bea answers. “I just need to…pry…it…”
With a grunt and a snap, a piece of corroded, green-bronze metal comes off in her hands.
At first glance, it looks like another labyrinthine carving, albeit a slightly different shape – closer to a spiral in a circle. This one, Cal notes, isn’t carved into the metal so much as it is out of it; like someone had cut the spiral shape out of the metal but neglected to remove it from the sheet entirely.
“Sort of looks like a…curled-up root,” mutters Tam, peering over Bea’s shoulder. Cal glances at them, then back to the carving. He supposes it could, with the little notches carved out of the central strip of metal in the place of tiny tendrils – if not a little short.
Frowning down at the metal, Bea wedges the pad of one finger underneath the centre of the spiral and pulls it up.
With a long, low creak, the carving is pulled upward, unfolding just like the projection from the screen…and Cal realises that Bea had found the map, after all. He whistles.
“They really had a thing for making everything in 3-D, huh?”
Tam squints at the filigree of rooms and little halls, none connecting more than a floor but for the spiral itself and the odd passage running straight down the centre. “This place is a maze.”
For some reason, the first thing that comes to mind then is not anything useful, but a distant memory. It’s what Mishti had always been so insistent upon, anytime he or Tam would make the mistake – and they did, over and over again – that while they were often synonymous, there was a technical difference between the word maze and its counterpart. In one, there were branching paths, dead ends, a hundred different possible conclusions to a hundred different possible journeys. In the other, though it may have twisted and turned, there was only one path – there was never a choice.
“Not a maze, Tam. A labyrinth.”
Bea turns the miniature model around, brushing a finger along the single, curving main path, and the carved-out boxes that must be the rooms along the side – sometimes connecting, sometimes isolated. She traces a path from the series of hollowed-out boxes at the very base of the spiral all the way to a similar hollow notch at the very top. The roof of the crumbling comms centre.
“Then I guess,” she says, “there’s only one way to go.”
In a matter of seconds, the light shrivels into a single bright pixel, and then the screen goes dark.
Anya lets out a long sigh.
“That was…something,” she says to the empty room. Which is – a hell of an understatement. Something like finding a line of communication twenty-seven years into the future – something like actually using it, speaking to people who’d be – something like newborns right now. Something like learning what’s up there isn’t as benevolent as she’d hoped, like learning that the future had been blind to what was coming, something like the mysterious Cassandra’s mysterious morals and the unbroken Ariadne and the hunch in Callum Leifson’s shoulders when he’d asked, “What about you?”
She’s hopeful – not an idiot. She knows what it means that the Theseus knew nothing but false truths about the planet before they stepped foot on it – but she’s hopeful. Anya Sotto has never been a cynic, and she isn’t about to start now.
Especially not now.
(“You know what people are like when they’re scared!? You’re not stupid, Anya!”)
“No,” she says out loud. “No, I’m not, Brigette Lux.”
It still hurts. It’s still a betrayal from the one person, above all, who she had always trusted…
She’s beginning to realise that – despite the hurt and the betrayal and the anger, the soft glow of truth sharpening into a blinding beacon – despite that, she does believe that Brigette’s heart is in the right place.
Brigette is afraid…but she’s not the biggest threat. Anya knows Brigette like she knows Minos labs – by heart. Cassandra is the unknown here – in motives, influence, and how it operates. Cassandra and its mysterious founder are what she should be worried about.
Anya sets her jaw, squares her shoulders, and turns to the door.
…Unless Cassandra doesn’t exist yet.
Her hand drops from the touchpad. Ugh. That’s the problem with time-travel plotting, isn’t it?
Besides, she remembers, turning back to the harshly lit room, it’s best to get what data she currently has onto the drive before she goes running off recklessly without a plan. Even if the Theseus contacts her again – she can always add those on, and it’s better safe than sorry.
Mind made up, Anya picks up the silver flash drive – and very nearly drops it again.
The screen is awake and alight once more, bright as lightning and just as heart-stopping as it washes over her in bleached white light. Staring at the message, she feels like the miniscule centre of the universe. (The world bends around this tiny room in the basement of a remarkably average laboratory, the world bends and changes around these pixels and lights and sound waves that cross time and space and -)
(What’s one more world-changing event, really?)
Hollow and half-destroyed, the alien communications centre remains just as ominously dark and empty as the crew follows the spiralling, gently sloping route up to whatever may await them on the roof.
The violent crashes do not stop. If anything, they increase alternatively in vigour or in frequency – battering relentlessly and viciously one moment before cutting off sharply; returning in steady, frame-shaking crashes spaced apart by minutes upon minutes of sick anticipation. Whatever it is, it’s circling the perimeter of the building, never making its way in but tearing apart what’s left of the place with such a horrible nails-on-chalkboard noise that Cal grimaces when it lands a particularly rough blow – even so far from the base.
“Do you think we should look for the Ariadne?” Cal asks, idly glancing over his shoulder. “It was on the roof.”
“I mean – why not?” Tam shrugs one shoulder. “If nothing else, we should get Dr. Sotto her probe back. We’re headed to the roof anyway.”
Because there’s nowhere else to go, they don’t say. We’re stranded without a plan or any idea of how to get to the crash, even if we can spot it from the rooftop, they deliberately avoid mentioning. Really, we’re kind of doomed, but this is better than sitting around waiting to die, they elect not to remind everyone.
Cal fights down the urge to start hyperventilating – in, out. We just have to keep going. As long as we keep going, we have a chance.
A horrible screech comes from below, followed by three deliberate and deafening blows of metal on metal. The blood red of their flashlights really adds to the mood.
“I feel like we should be running,” mutters Bea. “I mean, it’s just kind of -”
Fluttering scrapes and thuds float up to the crew, light and relentless like rain wearing down stone.
“We’re not exactly sauntering,” Cal says amidst the cacophony. “Plus, would you rather waste your energy sprinting while it’s not necessary or have energy for if that thing makes it inside?”
“I guess I’m just on edge.”
“We all are,” Tam agrees. “It’s understandable – but this place is big. The best course of action is still to -”
“Wait,” says Cal.
Tam and Bea stop abruptly, watching him.
“Listen,” he says, one hand raised.
Tam frowns. “I don’t…hear anything?”
“Exactly.” Cal casts another glance over his shoulder. Nothing. “Even when that…thing…was gearing up between attacks, you could hear it pacing – where is it now?”
His own dread is reflected in the faces of the crew as they strain their ears. Never did Cal think he would be hoping to hear the noise of an attack from a mysterious and relentless alien murderer slowly but surely destroying their only defense, yet here he is now, waiting to pick up that tell-tale metal creak, that thunderous crash.
Something shifts below them – but something’s wrong.
A crash and thud later, Cal realises what it is. The noise had always come from the outside in as the monster paced the perimeter, trying over and over again to find its way in, but now…it echoes from right beneath their feet. Closer than ever. He can almost feel the vibrations in the walls as something falls with a clatter, clatter.
He looks up and knows from the eyes of his crew there’s no use pretending.
“The monster,” breathes Bea. “…It’s inside.”
With a long, heavy sigh, Brigette pushes herself away from her desk, shoving her laptop into the far corner in the same motion. It’s not as if she’ll ever be able to distance herself from this – from what she’s doing, what must and therefore will be done – but she allows herself a moment to breathe.
Just a moment. Just one, brief second where she can take a step back, relax her posture, allow her doubt to return. And return it does – in crashing, flooding waves, eating away at her conscience like fire on dry wood the moment she stops and lets herself think.
This is big. This isn’t a petty quarrel in a darkened basement. This isn’t faux-lighthearted, vaguely tense ribbing in a cafe at the beginning of an ambitious and revolutionary project. This isn’t an abstract idea thought up in a whirlwind of wonder and hope, half past midnight on a university roof under a shower of stars.
This is big – this is real.
This will hurt.
This is necessary.
She smothers the last flickering embers of doubt in her mind, crushes them with fabricated steel will. This has to happen, and so it will. Simple as that.
Pulling her laptop back towards her, Brigette looks over her work.
Establish that the surface of Proxima b was found normal & unremarkable. Shut down the craft – mechanical error (on Ariadne’s end, not ours, easiest to leave Minos labs alone). The danger has not been leaked to the vast majority of Minos labs. Ensure that the information released to them is the safe version. (Take statements on topic from various lab personnel?) This removes all liability except for the original witness.
I believe Dr. Sotto should be left alone. It will be her word against the rest of the laboratory, so no other action needs to be taken.
Statements for public release:
The Ariadne probe, scheduled to send back its report on Proxima b earlier yesterday, the 30th of March, 2045…
Brigette grits her teeth.
Some might be torn up over the loss of the probe itself (sentimentality, she knew, she wasn’t immune to it either); others, mourning the knowledge lost. Many might not even give the story a second glance – and that’s exactly what they need. If the Ariadne fades into obscurity, if its mission is never given another second thought…
It’ll be a tragedy. It’ll be the end of this all. It won’t be the end of the world.
She takes a deep breath – or sighs – or throws the final shovelful of dirt, buries her doubt deep inside where it won’t interfere with what she has to do – and sends the document over to her coworkers.
For proofreading purposes. Wouldn’t want to make any mistakes in the story.
This is big, after all.
“Who are you?” asks Anya.
The screen is blank but for a flat blue line. She assumes, even if the Theseus had somehow contacted her from a different place, that they would at least be saying something.
Someone (something?) makes a curious noise – something between a sigh and the whirring of a fan – on the other end.
“…The -” A strange noise, like a series of stones hitting stones – “Is it your craft?”
The voice is strangely artificial – mechanical, almost, like an AI’s computerised voice. She blinks at the screen, frozen in disbelief.
At Anya’s silence, the quasi-melodic sounds of stone on stone bubble up in what might be frustration.
Just as mechanical, the…alien?…speaks again, this time in a different language. Anya thinks she recognises it as Siksiká – does whatever’s on the other end have a translator? An actual international translator? No, not even international – whoever they are, they’re almost certainly not from Earth, and yet they managed to –
Anya exhales sharply. Focus.
“Hello?” she cuts them off. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Could you -”
“No, I -”
More clicking stone noises. “…Guānhuà?”
“English is fine,” Anya says firmly. Although she supposes –
She shakes her head. Can’t get distracted.
“Who are you?” she repeats. “Are you from Proxima Centauri b?”
“I am from Proxima Centauri b insofar as you are from -” More clicking stone noises. She assumes that’s the alien’s native tongue. “Names are simply names. What is the name of your planet?”
“Earth.” They test the word out. “Very well. We – I – once called this planet Cr’t. You are the one who has sent this craft, the…”
“Ariadne,” says Anya. “Yes, that’s Earthen. What do you mean, you once called?”
A whirr of the fan like an exhale. “The other ship. It is yours too?”
“The Theseus? No, but it is from Earth.”
She notices that they haven’t answered the question. Under ordinary circumstances, she’d push for answers – but there’s bigger things to worry about at the moment. Besides, from what the Theseus had said about ruins…she thinks she might have an idea.
“You wish to save them.” They don’t ask, this time.
“I wish to help, in any way I can, for them to return to Earth with this knowledge.”
Though nothing changes in their robotic voice, the low rumbling they make sounds pleased. “Then listen. As long as Theseus is on Cr’tan surface, they are in danger. Even now they are hiding in the ruins. They will soon run out of places to hide. The beast is relentless.”
“Beast?” asks Anya.
“M’not-or. A most vicious and terrible thing. It will not rest until long after their bones have become dust. You and Ariadne can show them to a place to run – a place where it cannot go.”
She squares her shoulders.
“…How do I do that?”
A faint noise like pebbles in a tumbler crackles along the line, this message crossing through miles of space and years of time. A laugh, she thinks. It’s an awfully morbid situation to be doing so – but they’re laughing, bitter and free like they haven’t laughed in some time.
“I will teach you to use the String.”
Without a second thought, Tam straightens their back and begins walking back down the way they’d come.
“What are you – Tam!” Bea jerks as if to catch their arm, but hesitates.
“If it’s in here, we’re going to die anyway,” they say, voice not quite cold enough to hide the quiver. “I want to at least know what that thing looks like.”
“It makes pragmatic sense, too, Cal, don’t use that voice – if we can send anything back to Earth other than a halfhearted S.O.S., doesn’t it make sense to follow it up with a warning?” They glare at the darkness of the sloping hall like they’ll be able to see through it if they look hard enough. Cal lowers his eyes.
They’re right. And to be honest, he should have expected them to go charging into danger for answers. That was just what they did.
“If you go,” he says, “don’t go already having given up.”
“What do you mean?” Tam turns to meet his eyes. It feels like a challenge.
“I mean, be careful. Don’t just hand yourself over to – to whatever’s waiting down there. Don’t go acting like we won’t come back.”
Their eyebrows knit together. “We?”
“Like I’d ever let you go alone.” He turns to Bea. “You can stay here if you want, or keep going; we’ll be back before -”
“I’ll know when we get back,” she says, tilting her chin up defiantly, “because I’ll be there too.”
“Bea, you don’t have to -”
“I’d rather look that thing in the eye than walk through here on my own,” she says, and he’s only half sure she’s joking, “and…besides. I trust you.”
Cal almost smiles.
“Then let’s get going, Theseus.”
It’s oddly quiet as they make their way back down. The crash had been somewhere four floors down, if he could even call anything a ‘floor’ here. It’s really all one endless, inevitable spiral, but counting how many times they pass the same view outside a miniscule window helps focus his mind on anything but the way that they’re almost certainly creeping to their deaths.
The red of their lights grows – if possible – even more menacing in the complete silence. Wherever that thing is, it’s either grown bored of them (too good to be true), or it’s waiting.
Not for the first time, Cal wonders why exactly this is where the universe had brought them. He supposes there’s always danger to exploration and discovery, and the stakes are even higher with unknown risks – he’d always known that, and he’d accepted it.
This whole situation is making him seriously reconsider that acceptance.
It’s not really real until it’s right in front of your eyes, is it?
They reach the floor where the noise had come from. To his surprise, a hole has been smashed through the wall, so wide that the scarce outside light filters into the room. Curious, he tries to peek through it.
They’re pretty high up. Wherever this thing is, it must be a pretty good jumper – or it’s just large enough that it doesn’t matter.
“See anything?” Tam’s voice is barely audible, even through his earpiece.
“No,” he whispers back. “Just kicked up dust. No sign of any attacker.”
They fall quiet. Though nothing has attacked them yet…that doesn’t mean the thing isn’t inside.
Bea’s voice draws both of their attention – not only because it breaks their worried silence, but because of the amusement within it.
“Guys,” she says. “The crash.”
“Yes, the crash,” hisses Cal, “the crash we’re investigating because we’re being hunted by the thing that made it -”
“No,” she insists. “Look – the crash.”
He follows her pointing finger.
There, freshly crumpled and covered in dust, still surrounded by splinters of the wall it had broken through (been tossed through?), lies a familiar Earthen spacecraft.
Some things have changed, Cal notices as he abandons the makeshift window to join Bea and Tam at the small machine. For one, it’s so banged up that the indicator doesn’t change to white, even when he prods at it until Tam slaps his hand away.
The other thing is the…additions.
Carved into the side of the crash, blending into a patchwork of smudging and scratching, is that same mysterious symbol they’d found on the warning message. Loosely attached to its surface are a sharp looking double-bladed axe, what looks like a spool without any thread, and another bronze message plate, once again signed.
“This one has more letters,” Tam notes, pulling it free of the crash. “Look – if you look at it the right way, it almost looks like…”
“D – Æ – D – L – S,” says Bea, finger hovering over each of the letters in turn, not daring to press down. “…Is that a name?”
‘DÆDLS’, huh. Cal gestures at the metal scrap.
“Why not find out?”
Taking a deep breath, Bea deliberately pushes down on the engraving.
The voice starts up again, speaking in languages he doesn’t recognise that he’s sure aren’t Earthen, mechanical voice imitating sounds from the clicking of stones to the whistling of birds. Then it gets to their own little planet, starts making its way down the list –
“Travellers from Earth, you are trapped here. That -”
“Gotcha!” Bea cheers. Tam places a hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s see what it has to say.”
“ – is the dreadful fate of all who walk this planet, I am sorry to say. M’not-or – wretched offspring of Cr’tan foolishness – will hunt you until you have left or died. Already it has found you; I have barely incapacitated it. It is inactive and will be so for a time – enough for you to listen to what I say and choose what you will do.”
Cal glances at his crewmates. They look just as troubled as he must.
“This place was known once as Cr’t. You can see what is left of it. That is, among other things such as age and flame, the work of M’not-or.”
“The beast was created…” A rattling sigh. “From our hubris, our folly. Our refusal to accept the truth – our fear, our paranoia. Our belief that the world was nothing worth fighting for. Our inability to carry on. Long before the creature was formed – formed by our own smiths’ and craftsmen’s hands – Cr’t was rotting from the inside out.”
“Eventually, there really was nothing for us to fight for. There was no reason for us to carry on, no place to carry on in. Cr’t met a cataclysmic end. Even now, the fallout from that ending threatens you.”
“The M’not-or?” Bea whispers. Tam purses their lips and nods.
“I suppose I am the last Cr’tan. Though I saw the meager survivors flee this place, I alone did not. Let it then be my duty to warn you, and to attempt to lead you back to your ship.”
Pausing, they rumble another rocky sigh.
“Regrettably, I cannot lead you there myself. I am still hiding – not only for my own sake but for yours as well. Instead, I will do all that I can. At the moment, that means I offer you my knowledge…and present to you your options.”
Glancing back one final time, Cal diverts his full attention to the message.
“You could try to leave the way you came. I have halted M’not-or for the moment. Though I suspect it will not last long, you could try to run past.” They don’t sound entirely confident, even through the translator’s mechanical voice. “You might even make it.”
“Or,” continues the mysterious message from what might either be their saviour or another dead end, “you could take that small, bright device to the Ariadne – or rather the scientist behind it – and follow the String.”
Without his realising, Cal’s fingers curl around the spool. Gingerly, he holds it up to the crew’s inspection, as delicately as if the shiny silver cylinder were a fledgeling bird or a sharp piece of broken glass.
“I think -” Bea starts to say, before a sickening, slow scraa-aaa-aape floats in through the pseudo-window. A grinding of rusty metal on metal, the shrieking of corroded joints as they fall into motion again, the gruesome harbinger of an unpleasant truth.
“I think,” Tam says grimly, eyes fixed on the shattered wall like they’ll be able to see the beast far below, “we don’t have a choice anymore.”
(And maybe we never did, they don’t say. They all know it, anyway.)
“We were headed to the Ariadne already,” Cal agrees, trying to keep his tone light. “Now we’re just doing that, but faster.”
“Much faster,” Tam agrees, picking up the compact shape of the crash. “Come on -”
Bea grabs the axe, the weight hanging oddly in her hands, and Cal tightens his grip on the spool.
“ – Let’s get going while that thing – M’not-or? – is still waking up from its beauty rest.”
Something – dust, rubble, scraps of metal – scrapes and tumbles around outside as the sound of what Cal can now understand as either large fans or heavy breathing shudders to a start.
“I guess M’not-or isn’t a morning – uh, bloodthirsty and relentless hunting beast of vengeance – is it,” he mutters, and follows Tam and Bea back up the gentle slope of the communication centre’s labyrinthine floors.
“It’s just a bit hangry,” Bea says. “Poor thing hasn’t had the taste of blood in so long.”
The joke is so – so unexpected, so dry, carrying such bitterly fatalistic undertones – that Cal really does have to laugh.
Below, there’s the sound of a violent rattle before something thunders across the soil and slams into the side of the building.
The frames shake. The walls quiver. Cal nearly loses his footing.
“Run,” they command, and the crew does.
This time, it’s so violent that rubble skitters along the floor of the now-empty hall. The footsteps of the Theseus crew – frantic, stumbling, yet still desperately trying to mask the noise when they can – echo out from the darkness, beams of muffled red light flashing this way and that before fading into the black entirely.
But after the crash, it’s silent. Not a silence of abandonment but a silence of wait.
Through the hole torn in the bronze wall filters faintly green light from the sky outside as the unfamiliar clouds churn far above. Already, motes of that mint-coloured dust are floating in the beams of pale light, settling on the dimly lit floor – disturbed as, once again, the beast outside doubles up for its next concentrated attack. The dust rustles, the floors and wall shake, and there’s a faint creaking from the old metal.
The smallest, quietest tumult.
“You know what to do. I must go.”
“I – wait – DÆDLS?”
Anya is left staring at a silent, blank black screen.
She notices her hand caught midair, like she’d be able to reach all the way to Proxima Centauri b – to Cr’t in 2072, to stop DÆDLS and convince them to come back, to explain what the Theseus is in danger from, to tell her what activating the String will do other than “guide them”. Like she’d be able to pull answers from thin air, like she could defy everything stacked in her way, push aside the inevitable and demand reason show itself in the void that remains. She itches to know – always has. That’s how it’s always been. Looking too deep, asking too much, thinking too big.
No, no – she shakes her head viciously. This is important – the world needs to know.
But the longer she carries on, the more she achieves, the more she learns…the more Anya worries.
She’s learned so much. She knows so much now about the future, how the world is in 27 years, what incredible strides humanity has made, what incredible danger awaits their ambitious mission beyond the reach of their cosmic fence.
So why hasn’t she passed this information on?
It’s not like her to keep a secret – especially not one this dangerous, this vital to actual people’s actual lives. The only other option she can think of is…
Well – she’s already decided that it doesn’t matter what she thinks of. If Cassandra, whatever it wants, decides to try to suppress her work, she won’t just let it happen without a fight. She has to carry on.
And now she has a concrete purpose, an objective to fulfill. She’d best get to fulfilling it.
Anya’s hand hovers over the flash drive for half a second before she turns back to the screen. There’s work to be done; she can get all the information backed up in one fell swoop once she’s done.
Besides. From what DÆDLS had said (from how scared the Theseus crew had sounded) – this job seems just a little time-sensitive.
“Do you think -”
“I’m trying not to.”
“Yeah, clearly. Do you really trust this…DÆDLS?”
This makes Cal pause. “I mean – do we have another choice?”
“I…suppose not.” Tam sighs. “Lesser evils and all that.”
“It might not even be an evil at all,” Bea adds. “We just have to keep going and find out ourselves.”
Tam smiles at her.
“Well then – let’s carry on.”
“We…hadn’t stopped, why -”
A familiar lightness creeps into his tone; he’s surprised to find that it’s not faked. “Oh, I see how it is.”
“Do you?” they tease. “Then why are you still -”
The hall trembles around them as M’not-or slams into the wall again. Cal eyes the metal around them, which has started wavering in a way he doesn’t like very much. By the time the aftershocks have finally faded, some of the doors have shifted slightly from their hinges, cracks forming in their little triangular windows. He really doesn’t like that.
“…Right,” says Bea. They round a curve, but instead of the damage disappearing behind them as it had in their previous frantic scramble to the roof, the scene they come upon is somehow even more wrecked.
“It must be on this side,” Tam realises, pace slowing to a skittish halt. “…If we were to tunnel straight down – or to look down through that window – we’d see it.”
Their eyes are fixed on a room across the hall, its door ajar – though whether that’s because of the M’not-or’s battering or if it was left like that when the centre was abandoned is unclear, and wow this place is just loads of fun, isn’t it? – and he knows they want to look. Their curiosity is eating at them, sharpening their gaze and curling their hands into fists. But…seeing the M’not-or for themselves – well, it might settle Tam’s thirst for knowledge, but they can’t afford to slow down or stop any more than they already have.
“Tam,” he calls gently, and he knows they know.
“…Yeah.” They sigh. “Let’s -”
Oddly enough, he doesn’t really process all of it – the painful crash of breaking glass and tearing metal, the sudden flash of light from the hazy sky outside, the ripping and rending of what was once a sturdy structure falling into strangely delicate bronze ribbons – before he sees the slightest, fractional widening of Tam’s eyes. Just a beat, half a breath or so before it all falls apart – they understand. They know it’s too late.
M’not-or strikes the building, and it crumples. The beast has a purpose, after all, they know that now, and why did they ever think they could avoid it, it’s been fulfilling that purpose for years and years and – really, how long has the M’not-or been terrorising this empty planet, how long did it have to become larger than life, greater than anything left on Cr’t, how much time had turned it into something inevitable and relentless and unstoppable and –
– and –
– the frame implodes.
(The comms centre itself seems to tip when the far wall collapses in on itself, when they’re all tossed backwards by the force of the blow – maybe it runs all the way up the side of the wall, maybe it peels open the whole building, cuts a vertical line of destruction from the base to the tip, who knows? – but it doesn’t, it tilts at an angle just sharp enough to ensure they can’t pretend the building righted itself, that everything is okay.)
It’s not – because – the place is undeniably broken, their failing armour cracked down the centre, and that means the light should be flooding in. He should be able to see the wreck of the labyrinthine hall, lit in dim green, he should be able to see the undeniable, hungry mouth of the gash in the wall, he should be able to see his crew…
But all Cal sees is red.
When she remembers that night, all she sees is the velvet blue sky. Speckled with faint stars, diamond dust in the distance – the smallest scattering of something infinite and infinitely precious.
She lives for these quiet moments, she thinks – moments when the stars are out and the generator behind her hums its electric lullaby, when the roof is cold against her back and the traffic’s roar is meek far below. Someday, someday soon, she’ll bear the weight of the world on her shoulders by her own choice, but she ignores the ticking of the clock and the oncoming footsteps in favour of closing her eyes and basking in the quiet.
“I never asked -” she starts.
“I can’t imagine there’s a single thing out there that you haven’t asked, Anya.”
She opens her eyes crossly, sends an exaggerated pout at the boot by her head. “I was trying to create an interesting opener, Brigette.”
“Maybe,” says Brigette, smiling down at her, ash-grey eyes far softer than any of the clouds of the same hue above, “you should have gone into theatre arts instead of sciences.”
Anya closes her eyes again as Brigette takes a seat next to her. Some nights, they’d creep out to the very edge, Anya daring Brigette to go further and further while Brigette resolutely pulled her back. Some nights they wouldn’t even leave the stairwell leading up to the open roof.
“I’m going to change the world,” she informs Brigette, who shakes her head and continues running her fingers through Anya’s hair.
“Of course. Got a name yet?”
The familiarity in her teasing tone doesn’t mean Anya can’t pretend it’s not just as aggravating, and she crosses her arms, trying to glare up at Brigette from the floor. “I’ll have you know the name of a project is an extremely important part of -”
“Sure it is. Quit twisting, I’m trying to braid.”
She huffs half-heartedly, but stills without complaint.
“Besides,” Brigette continues, “it’s still just an idea. You don’t actually have to name it yet.”
Anya’s voice is half joke and half challenge. “What, you don’t think I can do it?”
“Oh, you absolutely will, you firecracker. But not right this minute – probably not even in the next two years. You have a long way to go.”
“But I’ll get there.”
Her voice is warm and sure – just like it is every time Anya has let her worry creep through. If ever she starts to doubt herself, at least she knows Brigette will have enough faith in her for the both of them. She sighs.
“I narrowed it down to two,” she starts. “…I’m pretty sure I know which one to scrap, but still…”
“Tell me,” says Brigette. Anya does.
Pausing in her braiding for a moment, Brigette repeats the word, testing out the cadence.
“Hm…that one’s kind of nice, though.”
“It’s just too pessimistic,” argues Anya. “No one ever believed…well, it feels like dooming it to failure. And you haven’t even heard the other.”
Brigette gasps overdramatically. “Why, Anya! I didn’t think you were physically capable of pessimism.”
“Oh, shut up.” Her voice grows quieter. “…I think I’ll call it Ariadne.”
“Like the Greek princess? Why?” Nimble fingers twist and tug at dark hair, the action long since turned to muscle motion.
“Labyrinths,” Anya says.
“She’s the one who leads the way out.”
Brigette brushes a finger softly over Anya’s brow. “Are we in a labyrinth?”
“A labyrinth is a puzzle, and we have no shortage of those.”
‘Of course.” She hears the smile in her voice. “And you want to lead us out of the labyrinth, Ariadne?”
“I know you will.” A colder, worried undercurrent rises under the warmth. “But what will you lead us to?”
Anya tips her head back. “The truth. What exactly are you braiding?”
“Demon horns, because you’re a monster.”
Brigette laughs. She lives for these quiet moments, she thinks – moments when the city lights are like sparks below and the wind whistles a cheery tune, softens its sharp edges, moments when the fire of conviction that forever burns in Anya is all gentle warmth and soft light.
As she braids a crown around Anya’s head, her mind drifts back to the acceptance letter waiting in her inbox. She hasn’t responded, but she already knows her answer. She always has.
Someday, someday soon once she takes this job, she’ll bear the weight of the world on her shoulders, and it’ll be by her own choice.
(Her eyes trace Anya’s profile, edged in moonlight, and her smile softens further.
“So…what was it that you never asked?”)
…but, she ignores the ticking of the clock and the tidal wave of the oncoming future in favour of closing her eyes and basking in the – in everything about the moment. In the moonlight carried on the honey breeze, the electric buzz below them as the lifeblood of the city rushes past in a blur of headlights, the stars splattered in Pollock-painting patterns on the cosmic canvas above them. Brigette closes her eyes and just lets herself breathe in this fiery quiet of theirs.
(When she remembers that night, everything is okay.)
One of his arms is pinned; he’d managed to wriggle the other out from the rubble of the far wall just far enough to test out his comms.
“Theseus, come in -”
Red light flickers on and off. The flashlight hasn’t been crushed beyond repair, but it’s not exactly in peak condition. All he can really make out is jagged shapes in the dark, monstrous outlines of the destruction wrought by M’not-or.
Breathe – breathe, come on, in, out. In, out. He grits his teeth. “Theseus -”
Some of the tension leaves their voice at his response. “Where are you?”
“Good…question?” He attempts another look around, but nothing becomes clearer in the flashes of red. “Hang on – I think I can hear you?”
An uncertain set of footsteps is approaching. “Here?”
Sharply, someone raps on something metallic not too far above him.
“Yeah – I think that’s it – stand back.”
To give them a second or two, Cal tries to trace the outline of whatever’s crushing him with his free hand – it seems like whatever’s pinned his arm is balanced precariously on a convenient support, so he might have had the luck of falling into a doorway. He tries not to think of it like the lid to a coffin.
Bracing himself, he aims a sharp kick at what he thinks must be the edge of the weight – his metal leg clangs against the wall, but the thing moves. He tries again.
“I think it’s working,” Tam says. “Here -”
As Cal kicks again, their gloved hands appear at the edge of the sheet, prying it off completely. They toss it aside and pull him up into a hug.
Finally, Cal allows himself to breathe.
“Fine. One of my arms might be a little messed up, but – better than I could have hoped for, really. You?”
“Doing better than you, apparently,” they say dryly, not quite able to keep all the concern out of their tone. “Have you found Bea?”
For the first time, Cal looks around the newly redecorated hallway – gashes in the walls, stacks of metal on either side, and a conspicuous lack of any mild-mannered Filipina engineers.
“She’s not with you -?”
“Still, then, she’s got to be around here somewhere – come on.”
Tam takes the left side of the fissure, and he the right. Though it might not do much if Bea can’t communicate with them in any way – they still have to look, they still have to try.
Still, time passes with no response, and Cal is about to consider trying to sift through the rubble itself when static crackles in his ear.
His heart jumps. “Bea?”
“Bea, is that you? Can you hear us?” Tam joins him on the other side of the tear. Its misty, dull glow falls jagged and green on the crumpled metal interior.
More static, and then – “Cal? Tam?”
“Bea!” He tries to make out where her voice is coming from, but can’t hear anything from the rubble. “Just hold on – we’ll get you out of there.”
“I -” She falters. “I think that might be…not the best idea -”
Tam shakes their head. “This is non-negotiable, Bea. We’re not leaving anyone behind.”
“I’m saying you might not have a choice,” she says. “I’ve been counting the time between M’not-or’s attacks -”
“Irrelevant. Where are you?”
“That doesn’t matter, you need to leave.”
“Like Tam said, we’re not leaving without -”
“Would you shut up and listen to me?!” she snarls. Cal’s never heard her this angry – or this scared.
“M’not-or,” she says into their shocked silence, “is going to attack any second now – and it’s almost certainly going to break this place further. If you want a chance at all, we can’t waste time arguing about this. You have to take the spool to the Ariadne.”
“Then what about you?” Tam asks – they can’t actually be considering this, can they?
Bea’s silence speaks for itself. Is that something moving outside?
“Yeah, no,” Cal says. “We’re not leaving you here to die.”
“If you stay, all three of us will die,” she counters. “I’m not – this isn’t the ideal situation for me, okay? But it’s what has to happen.”
Cal shakes his head. Why can’t she – why is she giving up? She can’t give up. If she gives up, she might as well already be –
“What do I keep saying, Bea? We are a great cool awesome epic incredible astral superhero team trio of space aces. Nobody gets left behind.”
Scraping and rumbling floats through the tear. Cal glares at it like it’ll have any effect.
“Tell us where you are,” Tam commands. “We don’t have much time -”
“We don’t have time at all!”
Bea falls quiet.
“We’re out of time, I know that, but -” Cal’s voice wavers. “Where are we if we don’t try?”
“Alive,” says Bea. “If you give up here, you get to keep going.”
What kind of twisted choice is this?
Evidently not one he gets to make. That horrible grinding of metal and stone creaks and croaks and crashes into the wound it’s carved into the communications centre.
“We can’t just -”
Tam yanks him across the divide right before it splits wider, a veritable sinkhole opening in the middle of the floor. Debris from the previous crash falls – first a trickle, building up into a landslide, sheets of bronze and flakes of green and chunks of thin orange stone and –
Her voice echoes through their helmets.
“I promise,” she says, “I’m not gone having already given up.”
Then there’s nothing but the tell-tale click of her comms shutting off, and that silence. He might hate the silence more than anything, because the silence is what follows destruction, he knows that now. Silence is what M’not-or gives them after shaking the foundations they stand on, after tearing down the walls around them, after taking one of their own in a shower of destruction and death. Silence is the only response when he calls out after her.
“…We need to go, Cal.”
“Tam, she -”
“Would have…gone…for nothing if we don’t keep going. We can’t go back now, Cal, and staying here is death.” He doesn’t look at them, he’s focussed on the newly made chasm that gives him nothing but darkness and the faintest glow of green, but he knows exactly what worry twists their face, makes them hesitate for just a second before trying again. “We -”
“I know.” Cal turns sharply from the destruction. He’s shaking and he won’t do anything about it. “Let’s go.”
Tugging gently at his arm, Tam leads the way out of the room.
He doesn’t say anything. In. Out. In – in – in –
He doesn’t have time to breathe, and he knows it, and Tam knows it, and so all they say to him is, “Stay close. Please.”
The climb up is full of more of that – that awful silence. Even the brutality of M’not-or’s attacks fades once they climb higher, the chasm in the side of the building shrinking to nothing but a slit, the shaking reduced to tremors.
Nothing can fix this, not all of them made it, it’s –
Tam’s voice is rough. “This should be it.”
“Just looks like another door. Just…horizontal.”
“If we’re lucky, it leads to the roof.”
“Right. Because we’ve had so much luck so far.”
They both carefully ignore the topic, climbing up in silence as the door grinds open. Sure enough, they emerge into the green light on the slightly domed roof, directly in the centre of one of those shallow channels, directly facing the Ariadne.
It’s odd, really, how terrified he’d been when he’d first seen the thing. It had been, then, a harbinger of mystery, of fear and the unknown – ironically enough. Now, though, with its chipping paint and scraped sides, the green dust covering it like a blanket, making it at home in the ruins…now it doesn’t look like a monster. It just looks like another part of the wrecked stage of what once was Cr’t.
Cal makes for it without hesitation, stepping over the thick grooves in the metal under his feet. “We can contact Dr. Sotto from here, can’t we?”
“We should be able to. Ariadne is the source of all the Earthen messages we’ve received on Cr’t…no reason it shouldn’t go the other way.”
I’m not sure, they don’t say, I’m no engineer.
We’ll have to survive without one, Cal doesn’t say. Without her.
Neither of them says anything.
What is there to say, really?
As a scientist, Anya’s gotten into the habit of checking and rechecking her work. After all, it’s important to make sure there’s nothing you’ve overlooked, an error or a missed step, a flaw in the process – making sure everything’s in place, every step of the way, is crucial.
Still – she glances again at the screen, where an animation of a twisting mass of green is slowly being wound and unwound around what must be a spool – there’s only so much rechecking she can do.
Ready, flashes a message below the labyrinthine mess.
“I know,” Anya tells it. It continues to blink. Unaffected, unsurprisingly.
DÆDLS had said the Theseus would be contacting her, but hadn’t elected to give any time frame. She can’t exactly switch gears right now, either – whenever they call, she has to be ready and alert. It’s crucial to their survival. It’s crucial to finally getting Earth to know what’s on the surface of that distant planet – what’s beneath the darkened seas of lies, within the thick fog of the unknown.
From the start, she swore she’d bring the truth, shine a light into that mystery – and that’s never changed. She’s wavered, but she’s never changed. And she’ll bring that illumination…once the Theseus actually calls, that is.
Anya sighs heavily. She leans one elbow on the table, resting her chin in her hand and idly tracing the image of the twirling labyrinth.
Ready. Ready. Ready. INCOMING MSG_BRD-THESEUS_PCB__ARIADNE_MINOS_2 –
Sitting bolt upright, Anya accepts without a moment of hesitation. Even the rapid unfolding of the image on the screen seems too slow.
Or…some of Theseus, anyway. Her eyes go from Tam to Cal to the conspicuously empty space beside them. Nothing but empty rooftop and, distantly, jagged and torn shapes shrouded in misty green.
“A contact of ours told us to find you and the Ariadne,” Cal interrupts, roughly masked bitterness leaking into his words. “Said something about a string.”
Tam just shakes their head ever so slightly.
“I’m…sorry,” Anya says. It’s not nearly enough and she knows it.
“There’s nothing to be done,” says Cal, and Tam squares their shoulders.
“The String?” they prompt.
“Ah – yes. I assume DÆDLS was your contact?”
Tam nods. “You know DÆDLS?”
“They just contacted me explaining whatever this…String is. A warning, though: I know how to use it, more or less, but not what it’ll do.”
“That…seems shady,” notes Cal. “Well – go ahead, then.”
“I – oh. …Right.”
She hesitates just before starting the program, wondering if it’d be prudent to ask if they’re doing okay. Wondering whether there’d be any point to it. Who would be, really?
Ready. Ready. Ready.
“You – ah, you should have something with you – the image it’s showing me is…about the size and colour of this…” She fumbles around for a moment, not willing to take her eyes off the screen, before finding the flash drive and lifting it up for examination.
“The spool.” Cal mirrors her, a small, shining cylinder in his hand. “What do we do with it?”
Anya skims the screens. “It says to…oh. Alright. So – the Ariadne transmits messages from this antenna of sorts – the spool should – yes, like that.”
The setup doesn’t take as long as she thought it would. From how DÆDLS had spoken, from what she knows is true, this could spell life or death for the Theseus crew (or what’s left of them). But it doesn’t slowly tick towards completion, inch by agonising inch, nor does it stun her with a flashing overload of everything, at once. It just – goes. At a normal rate, like everything is normal.
She makes a point not to look too long at the Theseus, or speak too harshly, or ask what happened. For once, she doesn’t want to know.
“That should be all of it,” Tam says, kicking light green dust off the edge. “Any idea why it wanted these channels clear?”
Humming, Anya scans the screen again. Nothing new, except for a large, blinking button at the very bottom of the page. Anchor String.
“Unfortunately not. The good news is, that was the last step. We’re good to start it up.”
Cal makes a thoughtful noise. “That was fast.”
“I’m trying to think of it as a lucky thing,” Anya mutters, probably far too truthfully. Cal sighs.
“Luck’s a dangerous thing to go off of.”
“We don’t have the option to cherry pick a safe route,” Tam reminds him. They turn back to the Ariadne and Anya. “Is there anything we need to do in the startup?”
“I assume you’d want to stand back.”
She doesn’t see it happen, at first, just the instructions screen blinking out so abruptly she’s sure she’s done something wrong – and then she sees the glow reflected on Cal and Tam’s helmets.
Steadily, in a way that almost reminds Anya of lava flow, the coppery light spreads from what must be the Ariadne through the grooves in the ceiling – a Chartres pattern. Light, flooding through the labyrinth.
String anchored. Proceed?
Anya doesn’t even hesitate.
Tam and Cal are staring at something beyond the Ariadne. Anya reflexively looks over her shoulder before remembering, and promptly pretends she hadn’t.
Although, is something…?
“You remember what Ariadne’s string was, don’t you?” Cal laughs, drawing her attention again. “I guess we really shouldn’t have expected anything different…”
Tam’s eyes are wide as they watch the glow. “A guide.”
“A map,” says Cal. “A path.”
Anya knows the answer before she even asks. It’s not like they have any other choice.
“…Will you follow it?”
It’s a scary thought, but even though they hesitate, Anya knows they know there’s no other choice.
“We’ll see you on the other side,” Tam says.
“I expect a call when you get there.” She tries for a joking tone, and she hears it fall flat before she’s even finished the sentence. “…Good luck.”
Only half-bitter, Cal smiles.
“Same to you.”
The screen folds back into nothing but blackness, and Anya…
…Well. Anya hopes that’s not the last she sees of the remaining crew of the Theseus.
“Did she seem…distracted, to you?”
“Hm?” Tam is focused intently on the red-orange light streaming back through the trapdoor.
“Dr. Sotto,” clarifies Cal. “She…”
She’s probably just concerned over the fact that we’re probably embarking on a death mission given to us that we have no other choice but to follow through, he realizes. That would certainly be enough to dampen his mood.
“Never mind. …So we just follow these?”
“Looks like it.”
Neither of them moves, though Cal doesn’t know what they’re waiting for – a miracle, maybe, some alternative falling from the sky or shining through in the form of another message. Something to tell them that this nightmare of uncertainty and finality isn’t all there is left.
The orange light continues to pulse through the channels, dipping down under the edges of the trapdoor.
“…We should get going,” Tam says, and they still don’t move.
Cal closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.
“This is…kind of a big deal,” he starts.
“Just what’ll decide if we live or die.” They shrug. Their eyes are fixed on the trapdoor.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “but – if we never get moving, it’s already decided for us.”
When Tam looks over, there’s real despair in their eyes, a weariness brought to the surface by battering and bruising nonstop.
“You still think we have a choice?”
He’s not sure. “I do.”
They turn back to the flowing lights and square their shoulders.
“Then we’d better get going.”
The trapdoor opens with a grating squeal, lines of light streaming down and focusing on one point of the wall.
“A mirror?” Cal wonders.
Tam nudges him with their elbow. “A path.”
They scramble down, and sure enough, the focused light bounces from where it landed on the wall to another point, entirely unremarkable at first sight but reflecting the light at just the right angle to point Cal and Tam back down the darkened slope they’d come from.
They exchange a worried glance before following that beam of orange into the cloudy dark.
For a while, it seems like it might just lead through the spiraling hall, and more than once Cal wonders if they’ve really gone through all of that, lost Bea, shattered the centre and wasted their time just to be led back to where they started – and then the light of the String hits a wall and doesn’t bounce off.
Cal waves a hand in front of the light, but it continues to lack a reflection.
“Is this it, then?” Tam gestures around at the fairly uninteresting scenery – though that’s all subjective, Cal reflects bitterly. Really, when shattered and cracked walls plunged in near-unbroken darkness of the crooked skeleton of a building are ‘fairly uninteresting’…well, it’s probably a sign that something is irreparably messed up and it’s probably best to ignore it.
“You’d think we’d have something more to go off of,” Cal agrees, tracing the edges of the light before dropping his hand sharply, catching on a small, protruding hook on the way down. He yanks it away. “Except wait – no, everything’s been vague and sketchy since we got on this godforsaken planet. At this point, I’d be surprised if anything actually…made…”
He trails off, unable to comprehend what’s unfolding right before his eyes.
“Ah,” says Tam. “That explains a lot.”
The glow of the String shines directly through the passage that’s just opened in the wall to a carved channel – this one made of mirrors, pulling the copper light down through what must be the very walls of the communications centre themselves. It never branches or wavers. The message, for once, is clear.
It’s pitch-dark when he peers inside, not even the faintest glimmer of green making its way to the very core of the structure. The darkness swallows even his flashlight, nothing but the stream of reddish light making it all the way down.
“I guess we should go in?” What’s probably meant to be a somber, final decision comes out as more of a question.
They have no idea what’s waiting for them – for all they know, DÆDLS is another monster waiting for them to fall into its trap. And if they turn and go back the way they came, they might have a chance of finding Bea…but they’d also most definitely find M’not-or.
Do they choose the evil they know, and know they can’t fight, or do they trust the word of someone – something? – that they know nothing about?
“Yeah.” Cal glances one last time over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
One after the other, they clamber into the darkness.
This new path, too, is a spiraling slope – thinner, tighter, and pushed to the sides of the narrow vertical tunnel they walk, but in essence very much like the road they’d just left. It’s thankfully small enough that the bright glow of the String never fully leaves them, though at their furthest points it’s so dim Cal can barely see ahead of his next step.
“I forgot to ask,” Tam starts abruptly. Their voice doesn’t echo in the dark. “Your arm…”
“Probably just bruised,” Cal reassures them. He hadn’t really given it much thought – they didn’t exactly have the time. But it seems fine, so he elects not to worry about more than he needs to.
This deep into the core of the building, it seems even M’not-or can’t reach – he knows that the building had cleaved deeply down a line, yet the walls remain unbroken. If the beast is continuing its relentless attack, the darkness absorbs and muffles its blows just like it does everything else.
They walk for…an amount of time that he doesn’t know. Probably could, if he could find the right setting on his helmet’s display. He mentions it to Tam.
“Mishti said,” they remember, “the ancient Greeks believed it took nine days to reach the lowest place in the Underworld.”
Cal glances back at them, their outline dim and wavering like a dying flame in the orange light. “You think it’s been days?”
“I don’t think it matters,” they reply simply, and the two fall into silence again.
Not long after that the stream of light falling down one side begins to widen, ever so slightly. Cal follows it down the wall to where it hits what must be the ground, seeping through cracks in its surface to form a smaller, more crude version of the labyrinth on the rooftop.
In the very centre of the design glows that same letter that DÆDLS had signed every message with, somewhere between a capital D and a tilted triangle.
Stepping onto the glowing platform, Cal glances around. So they’ve found their way into a cool-looking dead end, now what? There doesn’t seem to be –
Tam’s whisper-shout draws his attention. Sure enough, behind the mirrored stream of light, set nearly seamlessly into the wall, a massive outline sits patiently.
They don’t even need to push a button – the moment Tam steps closer, it croaks and creaks itself open.
On the other side is a decently sized room, made of faintly shimmering bronze, its insides untarnished by that green dust and lit by several strange devices emitting a yellow-orange glow. There’s tables boxing out one corner, littered with metal and wires, and shelves upon shelves of unfamiliar technology lining the walls. It all speaks of life, in the scattered devices left haphazardly across the room and the tables just slightly askew, as if moved aside in a hurry. It all feels so alive…and yet when he thinks about why the precious inventions might be scattered or the furniture carelessly moved, it rings hollow with the notes of death.
Cal thinks it might be the most beautiful place left on Cr’t, and the most sepulchral. The wholeness of it all, the soft butter-yellow light that’s almost like the sun against the odd air of its preservation, like the world’s most beautiful mummy – it relaxes him and sets him on edge at the same time. But – looking around at the mysteries on the shelves, it’s clear the room holds not only history but the future, or at least what could be the future. What could have been the future? He doesn’t know.
…He’s willing to bet Bea would have loved this place.
“There’s another message,” Tam says, bronze scrap in their hand already beginning to run through its languages. It lands on English, and they stop it.
“Theseus. Congratulations are in order; you’ve made it this far. …I hope you’ve made it this far.”
DÆDLS hesitates. “Welcome to my workshop.”
They make a clicking noise. “This isn’t all of it, just what my station was when I worked here. But it’s the last preserved glimpse of Cr’t as it was…before we tore it to pieces ourselves.
“There is a tunnel,” they continue, “and it will lead you as no further to your craft as anything else can, but safer than any route would. Simply follow it straight. Never stray to the left or right. If you must descend, descend, but never go up until you see the door.”
A harsh, grating huff.
“It will not be…pleasant, but M’not-or will not find you.
“I used to frequent this tunnel system myself, before my worry got the better of me. Being here made me happy, and thinking of it now makes me…well, as happy as one can be, in my situation.”
Pausing, they make a sound like rattling rocks in a container.
“I try to avoid it as much as possible. I meant to return and tidy it up, but the risk always seemed too great. If I accidentally led the beast here one day…”
The recording starts to crackle with static, and a noise like the sharp clashing of stones emanates from the letter. “I do not mean to take up so much of your time. Take this tunnel, and take your chance, Theseus. Go home.”
It shuts off abruptly. Tam stares at it for a long moment.
“I feel like we should at least be able to say goodbye,” they say finally. “We never met them, but -”
“A goodbye, or a thank you…just feels right. I get it.” Cal looks around the workshop, an idea beginning to form in his mind. “Maybe we can.”
Tam catches on in an instant. They smile.
It doesn’t take much effort, really – just straightening out the shelves, lining up the gadgets neatly. The tables are returned to proper order, delicate works of machinery are gently removed from the floor, splinters and shards tucked away in a corner. When they’re done, it almost looks as though someone’s about to come through the far door any minute and start tinkering away. DÆDLS in all their mysterious glory, maybe, or Cr’tan citizens – strangers to them, but maybe friends among each other – maybe even Bea.
Cal and Tam stand over the open trapdoor in the centre of the floor.
“Thank you, DÆDLS,” Cal says quietly, and Tam echoes him.
They bask in the buttercup glow for a hollow second longer than they should allow themselves. Then Tam nods, and takes a deep breath, and they both know: it’s time they headed home.
Admittedly, Brigette does work odd hours on occasion, but she thinks heading out before dawn might be pushing it. She’d probably try to banish the thought in other circumstances – her job is important, after all, and she’d suffer anything she had to in order to ensure that it was carried out properly – but now, she clings to it. Let her be another disgruntled car on the road, a set of headlights flashing far too early, footsteps ringing in the frosty air as the navy sky greys. Let her be just another commuter, another worker preparing to leave their house in the early morning.
She hesitates when she picks up her keys, letting herself be lost in the multicoloured shine of the semi-translucent chips. Magenta and cyan flash in her eyes as she stoutly refuses to think about what she’s doing.
The Ariadne’s death warrant has already been signed. What she’s doing is just a formality, really – just checking in, making sure nothing’s out of place in Minos Labs.
Brigette forcibly loosens her grip, drops the tension from her shoulders, keeps her face and mind blank. There’s nothing she can do anymore – and there’s nothing she should do. That means there’s nothing she would do.
As she’s picking up her phone, its screen comes to life.
(Call from: Zachary Ediety)
(Friday, March 31, 5:23)
(Accept) / (Decline)
The voice on the other end speaks quickly and sharply, but not in the stiff, superior manner she usually hears from her colleagues; in fact, they sound like they’re barely holding onto professionalism, panic crackling at the edges of their words.
Brigette’s grip tightens. “What?”
They try to elaborate, though what effect it has she’s not sure – she’s only half listening to what they say. Shaking her head, Brigette tries to make sense of it.
“Thank you for letting me know.” She cuts them off. “I’ll take it from here.”
Maybe she laughs a little at their parting words. (There’s bigger things to worry about than her own safety.) Maybe she hangs up without a sound. Either way, her sluggish motions drop all their reluctance, every action she takes once more exact and sure.
There’s practically nobody out on the roads. Well, good – less traffic means less stalling means less time wasted. She registers the gentle ticking up of her speedometer the same way she registers the still-cold sky above and the patient stillness of the morning, like something lying in wait: coldly, neatly, and automatically.
Once again, Brigette Lux has a specific, certain job to do, and she carries out each step at a time as they unfold into each other. She doesn’t waste focus worrying about what she’s going to do next. No time to bother about what happens when she gets there; what’s coming will come whether or not she’s there to greet it. And she will be. It’s imperative that she gets to Minos Labs in time to do so.
“No more excuses, I suppose.”
Right. Just…pick up the drive, and –
– but what if there’s something she misses? She should wait it out, get every single piece of information until –
“Until what, Sotto?” In a sharp and vicious motion, Anya grabs the drive.
She should download the data now. There’s nothing else to be done except wait for the Theseus to send its final broadcast – well, final broadcast to her, not final broadcast period, she doesn’t know what would happen if that was the case – so really, she should get this backed up as soon as possible. And she can always download any additional data later.
“No more excuses,” she repeats. This has to be done. This will save the truth, if not the world, and that’s what she’s always wanted, isn’t it? Right from the start. The truth. So why is she hesitating?
Anya thinks of DÆDLS and Cr’t. The last feeble attempts to share the knowledge of a doomed planet. Everything the Cr’tans had done was for nothing.
Will this be for nothing, too?
More than anything, Anya hates the thought of all this knowledge falling into nothingness and obscurity. This could help push Earth into progress, or at the very least prevent it from meeting the same fate as Cr’t – what happens if it all means nothing? What happens if every action she takes is futile in preventing the future from coming?
Does it even matter whether she downloads the data or not?
What does she do if it doesn’t?
As she stares at the drive in her hand, willing herself to move – to get this done no matter if it doesn’t matter, to keep going – something else draws Anya’s attention. It’s faint but persistent, a scent she can’t quite place…something like an overheating machine, maybe, or…
Cursing, Anya jams the drive into the central monitor and starts the upload without hesitation, stopping only long enough to ensure that everything is set up properly before whirling around to scan the room with urgent eyes.
Smoke in a lab is never a good sign.
Through a door across from the one they’d come through is a glass box of a room, with something like three or four square metres of floor space. Every clear pane is shot through with the same lava-like light that lit the path of the String, criss-crossing over the surface so that Cr’t in all its misty green glory is just barely clear. This room, unlike the workspace they’d just left, is stark and empty – it almost reminds Cal of an airlock.
There’s a trapdoor set into the ground, not prominent but not quite hidden, either. It doesn’t open with a begrudging and painful groan but smoothly and noiselessly – the first well-maintained door he’s seen in all the ruins.
“We shouldn’t wait,” Tam says, stepping back from the shadowed opening. “I don’t know if M’not-or can find us here, but I’d rather not find out.”
Cal hums an agreement. “Lead the way, then.”
“Nice try. I’ll follow you, seeing as I actually have full use of both of my arms.”
“My arm is perfectly fine,” Cal argues. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid.”
They tilt their head. “I’m not the one who’s afraid, Leifson.”
“Of the tunnel?” He laughs. “Can’t be scarier than anything else we’ve seen here.”
“Exactly,” they agree. “In fact, it seems a good deal safer to be the first one in, doesn’t it? It’s almost guaranteed that they’re as safe as anything can be here until they reach the end of the tunnel.”
He…doesn’t have anything to say to that.
“Odds are, though, nothing’s going to happen in the five seconds it’ll take me to follow you through,” they continue. “So – take your ‘just bruised’ arm and get going.”
Still, he persists. “If it’s just as safe here as it is in -”
“Oh for the love of -”
He’s tumbling through the trapdoor before he can even attempt to stop them. Luckily, the ground of the tunnel is barely a metre below where Tam stands.
Squinting at their silhouette in the square of buttery light, Cal sighs. “I feel like that’s cheating.”
“Complain about it on our way to the Theseus,” says Tam, stepping lightly into the shadows. Standing and shining his flashlight down the length of the tunnel reveals a rather unremarkable passageway, walls plain and smooth. There’s no trace of destruction, whether from fire or M’not-or – just a cavernous stretch of grey that continues for who knows how long beyond his flashlight’s range.
Behind him, there’s a quiet scrape as Tam pushes the door shut…but it tapers off just as soon as it starts.
Their voice is hushed and frantic as they strain to look further. “I see something.”
She barely gives her car enough time to stop running before she’s flinging the door open and scrambling onto the pavement of the lot. Above, the sky is just as cold as ever, clouds bunching like knit yarn that’s been left out in the dead of winter to freeze solid, but there’s still the warm glow coming from several windows in Minos Labs, spilling orange light into the morning.
In that moment, Brigette thinks she might give anything for that to be the only cause of the glow.
Half-focused on running across the lot that’s not nearly empty enough and half on berating herself, she risks another glance up at the building she runs alongside. The lights – the people, inside – refuse to be just a figment of her imagination.
Of course there’d be people around – a major scientific breakthrough has just been made, so obviously early birds would flit in to get everything set up for the data they think they’re about to receive and work with. All she can do is hope that Anya hasn’t returned to the labs yet to start spreading the information…and hope that if she has, she’s used what modicum of common sense she has to leave.
Standing in front of the front doors, among a small gathering of people, is a familiar figure in a cream-coloured trench coat; Brigette slows to a purposeful trot as she approaches him, trying to look like she hasn’t just been running.
Noticing her, he steps away from the group, raising his eyebrows. “Lux.”
“Verity,” she greets, thankfully not out of breath. “What – what is -”
“You don’t need to be here,” he interrupts, that ever-present faint smile of his stained more and more red as the light grows. “In fact, we didn’t see fit to inform you at all…it seemed like an unnecessary distraction. Your duty in this situation lies elsewhere.”
“Zachary told me – Ediety. They said…” She glances back at the labs, some part of her still refusing to believe her eyes. “There’s still – there’s people inside, Verity.”
Verity refuses to look the slightest bit bothered. “Yes. I imagine the lovely people I was chatting with evacuated because of the smoke, and the rest will quickly follow.”
“They’re in danger! Why hadn’t we evacuated the building beforehand?”
“Doing so would raise suspicion,” he explains, calmly, placidly, like Brigette hasn’t been working with the ISA for years, like she’s being unreasonably foolish. “We can’t afford any of that.”
Tucking his hands back into his pockets, he turns to walk away, clearly dropping the topic. Were Brigette just slightly less furious, less shocked by this upheaval of everything they stood for, she might have let him.
“Our job is to protect people, Verity.”
He pauses mid-stride, back straightening.
“Our job is to contain harm to humanity at all costs. Lux.”
Crimson is beginning to spread from behind the clouds, bloody light seeping into the sky. A faint thread of grey crosses it – smoke is beginning to rise from the laboratory.
“Besides -” Verity’s voice loses its frosty undertones, slipping easily back into his usual bland, cheerful politeness – “Someone will sound the alarm once the flame grows large enough to be more than suspicion, and it’s not as if we’ve barricaded the doors. They’ll make their way out, and the threat will burn away inside. Then its secrecy is ensured.”
Standing frozen on cold grey pavement under cold grey sky, bitterness numbing to dull acceptance in her core, Brigette lets her voice fall to a whisper.
“At what cost?”
“I’ve told you already.”
Verity turns to the sleek shape of Minos Labs, drenched in the gory light of the sunrise.
Already, the faintest flickers of flame are beginning to lick at windows. A shrill ringing rises into the air as the breeze catches the fire, snaps and pushes and grabs at it, riles it up until it reaches its wavering tendrils into the slowly reddening sky. Fire fades into fire as the sun carries on rising, as the world carries on turning, as destruction wraps its scorching fingers around the face of the future.
Brigette watches the letters crumple under the heat, dripping and charring and disintegrating to nothing. Minos Labs: the face of the future, collapsing into rubble.
Behind her, Verity sighs, sounding caught between disappointed and resigned.
“At all costs. At any cost.”
There’s nothing that seems to be wrong with the devices, no broken monitors or sparking wires pulled free from their ports. Nothing is unplugged just enough to cause problems, or overloaded to the point of crashing and possibly burning. Yet still the scent grows stronger, and wisps of grey begin to trickle in – she can’t pinpoint from where – until they’ve spread to every corner of the room.
Then, just in case the point hasn’t been made abundantly clear, a thin, wavering bell tone shatters the smoky silence, ringing its ear-splitting warning. The message it sends is unavoidable and urgent: there’s a fire in Minos Labs.
Anya glares up at the ceiling, like maybe if she looks at it angrily enough, it’ll magically rescind the issue. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t.
She should evacuate. She knows that; anyone would know that. It’s the obvious course of action for anyone who has a shred of self-preservation.
A weak flame bursts into existence at the edge of the table, and Anya curses, rushing to smother it. Still, the smouldering edges of the burn haven’t fully lost their glow when she removes her sleeve. Another sign that she really should leave.
(Uploading data: 77%. Please stand by.)
…the drive hasn’t finished uploading all of the information yet.
Anya hesitates, and in that moment, one of the monitors catches fire. It’s a small thing, yes, but the screen wavers and begins to warp before she can frantically beat the flame down.
That’s the problem. If she leaves, all this information, all this knowledge meets its fiery end down here for the world to forget. But unless she leaves, insists a voice in her head that sounds so much like Brigette, so does she.
More fire springs up, further away, stronger, and Anya just barely beats it down. She doesn’t know how big the fire is compared to the lab, where it’s strongest, why it’s started – all she knows is that she can’t keep this up. A cursory glance at the screen reveals that the situation still hasn’t improved…but it’s not exactly three hours away from completion.
If she can hold off the flame – not forever, but just long enough to take every last scrap of knowledge and compact it into that silver flash drive – well, she has to try. There’s too much to lose if she doesn’t.
Please don’t take too long.
With one more glance at the door that she tries not to think of as final, Dr. Anya Sotto stands her ground.
“I hope not. I…” Tam hesitates. “I don’t think so.”
“One good thing, I guess.”
“It’s…either far away, or small.”
“Both of which are considerably better than something close by and large,” notes Cal. “Two good things.”
Tam leans forward slightly. “I think it’s coming closer.”
“One bad thing.”
“Maybe,” they say, glancing back. “It could always be some sort of Cr’tan tumbleweed.”
“Probably shouldn’t draw too many conclusions right now,” Cal says. “Or test our luck. We’re already in the final stretch – if it’s something bad, we’re better off hiding. If it really is just a tumbleweed, well…we’re not missing out on much.”
“But – what if it’s something important?” They push themselves up on their palms, trying to see further. “If it’s the one thing that can make this all make sense, and we miss it -”
“Do you honestly think one more mystery will make it all fit together?”
“Do you honestly not want to find out?”
Of course he’s curious. This planet is one big question mark, and the amount of things that could be uncovered on it…well, he doesn’t have to be Tam to appreciate it. The difference between the two of them is that Cal appreciates being alive more than getting an answer. He knows it, they know it, and they’ve long since stopped trying to argue over who is in the right.
But if Tam chases this new question now, it might lead to their doom.
He hopes they know that, too, as they continue to gaze through the glass like they’ll find an answer if they just ask hard enough. Something seems to have caught their attention out on the surface, because they move up to their tiptoes, ready to climb up.
“I see it,” they say suddenly. “It’s not M’not-or…or a tumbleweed. It’s Bea.”
Cal inhales sharply. “She’s alive?”
“She might not be for much longer,” Tam says grimly. “She’s still got the axe, but…she’s not alone.”
He doesn’t ask. Some part of him might want to know, but that part is overshadowed by the sheer horror and revulsion in Tam’s voice when they say, “I think…that must be M’not-or.”
“Is it -”
“She’s barely made a dent.” They shake their head. “She -”
“She needs help,” Cal says.
“She needs a distraction. She – well, she has an axe, but even so, she can’t do much unless M’not-or takes its attention off her. And -” They wince. “If it doesn’t do so soon…”
“We need to -” He steps closer to the tunnel entrance, gesturing meaninglessly. “She needs help, we have to get to her -”
Tam doesn’t turn to face him.
“Only one of us, Cal.”
They file out like ants, like sheep, like any number of similes people use to insinuate powerlessness, external control, like any number of words tossed around by the dissatisfied, the suspicious, the fearful. Brigette knows fear. She knows what it can do.
She wonders if, perhaps, fear has done this.
Verity hasn’t wandered back to the early evacuees, instead simply watching the blaze with his hands tucked neatly into the pockets of his coat. He shifts his weight idly, watching the blaze with a face colder than the March morning is this far away from the fire. It’s unaffected by the fire – he’s unaffected by the fire. He keeps his distance, unaffected, unfazed.
Maybe he notices her shocked stare. Maybe he’s simply commenting to himself. But he shakes his head, any possible remorse in his eyes hidden under a steely determination Brigette has seen in the mirror one too many times, and comments, “Pity.”
They file out, like ants, like sheep, faces she knows, faces she doesn’t. At this point, she can barely see the outline of the lab through the smoke, lashed away only briefly by searing ropes of flame. Faces blur in the fog – they file out like ants like sheep like they’re escaping the jaws of a great beast – they file out coughing and stumbling and fearful but alive.
That’s what matters in the end, right? That they save people. That they protect people.
Brigette stares at the slowly growing crowd, trying to choke down the feeling that they’re not saving anything. The people gather and split, some of them turning to watch the lab, others stubbornly refusing to look at it, some of them moving away to stand on their own, others looking desperately around the masses, sprinting and spinning and searching.
It’s the searchers that catch her attention, their frantic and terrible dance sticking out in her mind – watching them, she knows. Something’s wrong, and it’s not just the sickening feeling in her stomach as she watches Minos burn.
“Pity,” he repeats. “Look, Lux – I’m being honest when I say this. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck.”
“How am I supposed to believe that?”
“The only danger was her discovery, not -”
“You don’t know her, do you?” Brigette whirls to face him. “But you know enough. You know that she’d die before she gave up on this.”
Verity raises an eyebrow. “I believe that’s your oversight, then, in stating that no further action needed to be taken.”
“I could have convinced her. You didn’t need to do this.”
“We didn’t do anything -”
At whatever look lies in Brigette’s eyes, he raises a hand.
“- To her, Lux. And besides, it’s not as if there’s no hope.”
In the distance, Brigette thinks she hears sirens.
“All we do now,” Verity says, faux-gently, “is wait.”
The glowing blue bar on the largest screen, warped and charred from a fire Anya hadn’t been able to put out fast enough, stands irritatingly still. Glaring at it hasn’t made it move any faster in the past, but she has to hope.
Smoke stings her eyes as she checks again. No change, except that there’s a new blaze on an already blackened CPU.
Coughing, she stumbles over to the flame and beats it down with one hand over her eyes. It’s gotten to the point where the only way to tell what’s happening through all the smoke is by the glow, whether that’s a crackling orange or fading blue.
It’s nearly there. She just has to hold off the flame for a little longer – even if the data banks are charred, if the silver drive is choking on ash alongside Anya – if she can get every last drop of knowledge out, even corrupted and sooty, then at least there’s something preventing this warning from fading away. If she can get this information out, whatever information she can get out, Earth is that much closer to falling out of reach of the darkness, escaping into a brighter future.
Coughing – hacking – wheezing through cracked lips, Anya narrows her eyes and focuses on the ethereal blue glow. It seems to swim in her sight, though that might just be the smoke covering it, distorting it, making it seem both closer and further than she thinks it really must be.
She struggles to get another look at the monitor.
A new blaze has come to life right at the end of the loading bar, eating up the surface of the screen. It dances away from her attempts to choke it down. Before she knows it, there’s another fire, waving a horrible hello in her peripheral, and by the time she manages to strangle the first two, another flares up behind her.
Anya can’t keep this up forever. Grimly, as she tries to rub away the smoke in her eyes long enough to beat down the new fire, and the one that appears after that, and the one after that – she thinks she might not be able to keep this up for another five minutes.
The screen is warped and wavering and curled, edges gnawed away by the flame, but the one thing that doesn’t change is the resolutely two-digit number on the screen. At this point she might as well just be flinging herself at every bright spot she sees, but they flare up too quickly, in groups that grow too large too fast, and only when Anya turns from the largest fire to face another quickly growing to match its size does she begin to consider that she might need to take the drive as it is and run.
It’ll mess up the upload, obviously, but probably not any more than the overabundance of ash and heat already has. Gritting her teeth, Anya bites down her doubt and spins, searching for the glowing blue among the grey, only to find –
She sighs heavily in relief – a relief not dampened even by the scorching smoke she’s forced to inhale immediately afterwards. Finally, she can just grab the drive and leave like she… admittedly probably should have a long time ago.
Locating the door poses a bit more of a problem, as it doesn’t glow like fire or the screens she’s leaving to crumple and melt away. Feeling her way along, Anya staggers blindly through the seemingly endless choking fog until her fingers meet a solid wall.
The door had been…to the left of the screens, hadn’t it? She’s fairly certain it had been – she can’t quite tell which way is left, though. Or where the screens are. There’s only – a flicker of red, now and then, cutting through the cottony, suffocating smoke – there’s only grey.
Anya stumbles back. While the walls had been almost dry to the touch, at least they hadn’t been overwhelmingly hot. This new surface, however, scorches her fingertips the moment they brush it. Unmistakably metal.
She’s found the door, then.
Though she can’t see much now that she’s completely given up on trying to control the fire, Anya glances back at the ruins of her lab as she gingerly pushes the door open…or at least, she tries to. When she clears the smoke away from her vision, the damaged keypad speaks for itself.
She tries again, ignoring the searing heat in favour of pushing with all the force she can muster.
The door does not open.
When they arrive, lights flashing in the red dawn, Brigette almost doesn’t notice them. She’s frozen – in the face of a bonfire, there’s frost creeping over her, holding her in place – there’s ice pushing apart cracks in her resolve, like mica flaking, ice chipping, pearls being crushed to sharp, sparkling dust.
“Help is here,” Verity says, tilting his head in the direction of the fire trucks. “You don’t need to worry about this situation any longer. Really, you never did, I don’t know why Ediety called you in the first place -”
Brigette doesn’t want to hear another word out of his mouth. She’s running before he can turn to give her that soulless, bland smile.
She hears him huff, mutter something about futility – she doesn’t care. There’s people gathered all around the building, if she can just make it past them, she can make it inside –
The moment she reaches the crowd, she realises her mistake. It’s chaos, the worry and relief and anxiety whirling through the people, stirring up their restlessness until they’re an impenetrable barrier. Her words fall on empty ears, her appeals on blank faces – she’s a whirlwind of her own worry, caught up in a veritable storm of others’.
“Lux,” Verity sighs, from the edge of the crowd, “there’s no use in it. What do you even hope to achieve, if you make it in at all?”
Unwilling to turn from the fire but desperate to make her point, she spins – “I have to do something.”
“It’s far too late for that.” He shakes his head. “There’s already people in place who can do much more than you can, in all your desperation – you’ve done your job. Let them do theirs.”
She doesn’t say anything, but lets him pull her away, his touch gentle as a corpse. Snatches of worried conversation float past as they make their way to the edge of the lot –
“ – You haven’t seen Rohan?”
“No, and I think Jialing was still -”
“ – James was in the Northwest wing, wasn’t that where the fire -”
“ – If Leif was -”
“ – Rayyan might still be -” “ – Gabby -” “ – Daria -” “ – Lorelei -” “ – Amidah -” “ – Lyse -”
So many names Brigette can’t keep up. She wonders, half-hysterically, what sort of memorial they’ll all be neatly printed into. Will they place a plaque over the ruins of the lab, maybe? Carve all their names on some sort of stone?
Rohan, Jialing, James, Leif, Rayyan, Gabby, Daria, Lorelei, Amidah, Lyse…Anya.
“I -” I’m sorry, she wants to say, but she knows she can’t. This had to happen – but it didn’t have to go this far – but –
“Let’s move along,” says Verity. He’s saying something about whether she can drive, if he should arrange transport, if there’s anyone she’d like to call…it all fades to white noise in her ears. She’s standing in front of the biggest inferno she’s seen in her life, and she’s numb and frozen to her core.
He can’t stop them and they both know it.
But when has that ever stopped him from trying?
“You don’t have to do this.”
“One of us will. It’s not a question of whether, it’s a question of who.”
“So that’s supposed to convince me to just drop it?” Neither of them wants to hear it, but both of them know it – “Whoever goes out there is as good as dead.”
“And with every minute we waste, so is Bea.”
That’s how it’s always been, hasn’t it? Tam is always right, and Cal never gives up. That’s who they are, who they were from the beginning.
“It’s not a guarantee, anyway. But at least one of us needs to follow the tunnel in case it is.”
“And obviously I couldn’t take the entire Ariadne, but -”
“ – The Theseus’ database should be picking up and saving these transmissions -”
Their hands are shaking, their voice is shaking, but their resolve doesn’t waver once when they meet his eyes.
“…Why does it have to be you?”
“Either of us could -”
“I can’t just let you -”
“And you think I could? Just watch you run off and die?”
“We’re -” Turning every so slightly to the trapdoor, still open, they shake their head. “We’re wasting time.”
“So then -”
“Look, you…your arm is pretty banged up – and whoever goes up there should be able to -”
“You don’t have to – Tam, we both know it’s barely bruised. You don’t have to make up a reason.”
“You were always a terrible liar, anyway,” he adds. Choking out a laugh, they pull him into a hug.
“I don’t want to do this any more than you do -”
“And leave Bea?”
Of course, of course, they’re right.
“Get going,” they say, stepping back.
Faster than he can react, they’ve pushed themselves out of the trapdoor and slotted the door neatly back in place. The click as it falls into place is horribly, solidly final.
“Oh, goddammit – Tam!”
“We couldn’t just keep arguing there forever,” they say through the door. “Sorry, Cal – knowing you, you’d end up talking both of us into going after her, and we can’t have that. Who’d take care of the cat?”
“You -” Cal shakes his head. “You…dammit. You know what I’m going to say.”
Tam laughs. It’s not at all bright. “Something about me being an idiot?”
The faint orange light of the String fights its way around the edges of the sealed trapdoor. Not enough to offer proper light, only enough to be there, unwavering, disappearing when he rests his fingers softly against that slightest glowing sliver.
“Just…don’t go having already given up.”
“Don’t go giving up on me,” they respond, and then their footsteps fade away.
Cal…doesn’t turn away as fast as he probably should. There might not be any time to spare.
Trying not to listen too hard for whatever might be happening on the surface, he turns to the unremarkable and unending tunnel and braces himself.
He’s not done here.
She’s not done here.
If the lock won’t open, she’ll – she supposes she’ll just batter the door open. It’s not the best option, but it’s better than standing there and waiting to die.
Smoke rises into Anya’s way – though there’s not much air left to spare in her lungs, she coughs out the smoke – she tries not to feel like a bird bashing itself against the bars of its cage, a pitiful ashy thing with too much determination and no direction. That feeling won’t end well, that implies that she won’t make it out, that implies that the drive is lost. The drive has to make it out – Anya doesn’t know who but her would try to preserve it.
They don’t know. They don’t know how important it is, what it holds; they don’t know this knowledge is something worth more than her life.
Gritting her teeth against the impact, biting her already dry lips against the heat, Anya – the caged bird – batters away – futilely, but relentlessly – at the door – at the bars – she can’t let go of the drive. Her head spins and she can’t seem to take in enough air, but she won’t let go of the drive. The door shows no signs of giving and her attempts grow weaker, but –
She can’t. She won’t.
Gritting her teeth and biting down a scream, pushing past the smoke and ignoring where the ash must be coming from, blinking away the sting and coughing out the heat – Anya refuses to give in, and the door does not.
If she’d thought that the halls might have been a reprieve – perhaps not the most logical of conclusions, more a hope than a hypothesis, but she’s quickly finding that hope is as difficult to kill as that imagined ash-grey bird in its cage – if she’d stumbled through that doorway, knuckles pale on the flash drive, hoping that she might have been granted a moment to breathe, the wave of smoke that rushes into the negative space left by her dramatic entrance snuffs out that hope quickly enough. She swats at it, sharp and irritated. There’s no time for this.
There’s not much to be heard beyond the roaring of the fire and the thrumming of her own pulse in her ears, but Anya doesn’t bother trying to figure out whether help is here – she has bigger things to worry about. Turning a sharp left, she leaves the door to melt and sprints down the crumbling hall.
Since she doesn’t see anyone as she runs, she assumes the building is more or less empty – for a moment, as she swerves to avoid a flaming chunk of wall that falls directly into her path, she wonders if she should try to find others, but quickly discards the idea; she can’t waste time on maybes when there’s a very real job she needs to get done – and even if it weren’t, she doubts anyone else would know about the side passageway. Maybe it’d be better to run for the main doors, but she knows that would take precious extra minutes she can’t afford. Besides, her first priority is the drive, not herself. If the paramedics take the drive – what then? She has to make her own way out; in any case, she can’t wait, and she can’t take the longer route.
Even through a haze of smoke and destruction, through cracked walls and stumbling steps, through a stinging dryness so thick she can barely see two metres ahead of her, Anya knows Minos Labs. Its crumbling hallways are her own choked arteries and veins, its map painted over in strokes sooty but bold. Sharp turns, hidden twists – it takes her longer than she’d like to reach the often-overlooked metal door, but she knows it’s by far the fastest route anyone could’ve taken.
In what might be the first stroke of luck she’s had since she’d first noticed the smoke, it seems the fire has overlooked the door, as well. It’s not in great condition, but at least she won’t have to kick it down.
Gracelessly and gratefully, Anya falls past the threshold and takes her first lungful of fresh air. It’s much quieter without the constant rumble of fire, of Minos burning and collapsing in on itself, and wherever she is, it doesn’t look like there’s anyone else with her.
Closing her eyes, she gives herself a moment too long to just…breathe.
But – her fingers tighten around the silver drive – but, she’s not done here.
For some stupid reason, Cal doesn’t turn his comms off.
He really should. It’s not as if there’s anything he can do, if something – happens, if a situation arises where help is needed…well, he won’t be able to provide it. All he can really do is listen, unhelpfully, and even with his end muted he might…he doesn’t know.
He doesn’t turn them off.
The ground, he notes, doesn’t have that slope he’d grown used to from the comms centre – though DÆDLS had mentioned the possibility of descent, the path he’s walking remains flat and…well, plain. Faintly red under his flashlight and almost concrete-like, albeit smoother, the tunnels are completely unremarkable.
Shadows fade to red, grey floor stretches into more plain grey, and the comms remain silent. Cal glances up – the ceiling is spiderwebbed with patches of that mysterious green substance. In its un-powdered form, it’s dull and looks like it might be somewhat pliable or perhaps brittle, though he’s not tall enough to test it. For the first time, as he’s not in active danger, Cal’s mind starts to wander to what exactly your average Cr’tan might have looked like. From the size of the doorways, the diameter of the tunnels, and the ceiling of DÆDLS’ workshop, he guesses the answer might be “tall”. To put it one way.
“ – n’t expect to -”
“ – ther way – t – can do?”
“ – see the – third s – labrys -”
“ – Oh.”
And then it’s all static.
More of that green stone branches out over the walls as he walks further in, creeping down from the ceiling in splatters that seem more like dried paint than rock formations. Not quite daring to touch it, Cal traces just beneath it, focussed on trying to hear through the comms rather than where he’s walking.
That proves to be a mistake when the ground disappears.
Even the static cuts out as Cal stumbles, just barely catching himself at the edge of the walkway that abruptly drops…about a metre and a half, if he has to guess. Other than the fact that it’s several feet lower, it doesn’t seem very different from the tunnel he’d come from.
On a hunch, Cal looks up.
Further forward, hovering above the new tunnel, a slab of that same plain stone intercepts the passage about halfway. It neatly splits one path into two: one that jumps up and continues horizontally, and another that follows the same path, lowered.
If you must descend, descend, but never go up until you see the door.
Well, the pseudo-cement walls don’t look like doors, and neither do the branching patches of green stone.
Descent it is, then.
Not much is different in the lower tunnel. It’s just as grey and unremarkable, though more of that green rock is splattered across the ceiling and parts of the wall, at about eye level now.
“ – t hit?”
“ – o, but – angrier.”
Up ahead is a carved doorway that takes a sharp ninety-degree turn to the left, followed by another that swerves right just as precisely. Cal takes note of the green stone curling over the edges of the threshold as he walks past them both.
Simply follow it straight. Never stray to the left or right.
It doesn’t take long for the tunnel to revert to unmarked stone once more. Even the branches or green taper out, eventually, leaving nothing but grey.
Not too long after that, Cal comes across another drop. This one doesn’t even have an upper level, but another doorway does branch off to the right, with two more doorways clearly visible beyond that, one of them painted green with the same substance, the other completely blank – even sporting a chip mark or two where it seems someone has scraped that material off. He duly ignores it all.
It’s clear that he could probably spend a lifetime in the tunnels, with all the mysteries he sees without even looking for them – the green stonelike substance, the thresholds, the branching paths. He doesn’t know what they lead to, what secrets they might reveal about Cr’t, about its golden age or its destruction, but beyond those carved passages is the chance of finding out. All he needs to do to find out is stray – from the path, from the task, from the next thing that needs to be done.
If he were Tam, that might have been a very real temptation.
But he’s not.
They’re up on the surface, possibly – probably – fighting for their life, and all he can do, has to do, will do, is walk through the tunnels.
The comms are – silent. Nothing. Not even static, none of that quiet tell-tale echo that you can’t quite be rid of, when the message plays within a sealed helmet. The comms are silent…but that doesn’t mean anything else is.
The comms are silent. But that doesn’t mean Cal doesn’t hear the scream.
That’s all he can think of it as, a scream; it’s harsh and guttural and thoroughly unnatural sound, somewhere between a jamming of massive gears and the cry of a wounded beast. It grates and tears and shrieks, and it’s so hollow it almost seems like it could echo in and of itself, without the help of the tunnels.
But the tunnels are there, and echo it does, that same horrible screech resounding over and over again, fainter and fainter, running in hapless circles through the passageways until it runs out of sound to echo. On the whole, it really adds to the ambiance of the whole pseudo-haunted tunnel thing, Cal thinks, if not purely to avoid thinking about what could have made that noise – what could have happened to make something make that noise. And to be honest, it’s true. The echoing, hollow scream is exactly the right touch to make the ominous tunnels even more ominous.
So of course, that’s when he stumbles across the first skeleton.
“Oh, what the hell -?”
It’s more a pile of bones than an actual structure, really, and at first he thinks they must be some sort of strange rock formation, pale and angled in ways he doesn’t think any bones should be. But they seem perfectly natural, and perfectly organic, tucked to the side like someone had meant to tidy them up but had elected not to carry them out. They’re in a haphazard sort of scramble, but from within the bony cage, Cal thinks he sees hollow sockets in a long-dead skull.
That’s only the beginning. As the corridor stretches on, he starts to see straying thresholds and green rock formations about as much as these…remnants, whether that’s a pile of bones in a rectangular alcove or some mysterious device tucked behind a doorway. They never seem scattered, per se – not forgotten or discarded, but carefully placed so as to be fairly inconspicuous. He wonders if that’s DÆDLS’ work – if they’d been tidying up the tunnels, so to speak. But why would they have left these relics behind?
He supposes it’s not his business to worry about. Still, just ignoring the bones seems like the wrong thing to do.
(And he is pretty certain by now that they’re bones. Once or twice, he’d tried to imagine what the being they’d belonged to would look like – he never really made it past the skull. It looked…unnerving, to say the least. He stopped trying soon enough.)
So instead, Cal talks.
“Sorry,” he says to a particularly large pile of boomerang-shaped bones, heaped at the edge of a passageway to the left. “I don’t mean to disturb you – I’ll be out of your way soon.”
The tunnel drops again, and a flat metal triangle about the size of his palm is propped up against the back wall, and he says, “If I make it back to Earth, I’ll make sure none of this is forgotten.”
“I don’t know what happened to you,” he says to a skull at the base of a branching green pattern larger than any he’s seen so far, almost forming an archway of its own in the middle of the tunnel, “but -”
“ – Bea!”
“ – fine – fourth pl – in – get going!”
“I’ll do anything I can,” he says, leaving behind the green stone and listening to the static slowly fade, “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
From far above comes another earsplitting, twisted shriek, metallic and sharp. It cuts off as quickly as it had started.
He tries not to think about it.
After so long walking through what almost seems like the same tunnel over and over again, with perhaps only a displaced doorway or patch of green stone to distinguish it, the exit is unsurprisingly easy to locate. For one, it’s in the centre of the largest fork he’s seen so far, and also the strangest – while most of the branching paths had split from the first at sharp right angles, these carry on diagonally, almost wrapping around the central path, barely even deviating from the original direction. Whoever had created the tunnels had also, for some reason, taken the time to smooth down the corners of each doorway and scrape off every last flake of green.
Right in the centre, though, the path rises again to another trapdoor. At the end of that path, on the wall just behind the door, is the carved bronze symbol of DÆDLS.
Never go up until you see the door.
Cal takes the central path.
Everything about the room is bright and clean, from the overhead lights down to each polished floor tile. It might be blinding, if she looks directly at it, each sparkling facet seeming like a sun in its own right.
“Alright there, Lux?”
She blinks as someone’s voice drifts into her awareness. They take a seat next to her, gingerly, and she forces herself to look up at their face.
To her knowledge, Verity hadn’t said anything about the fire, or, more specifically, who was caught in it. He probably hadn’t needed to, though. Judging by the sympathetic smile Hennin wears, some people already know.
“I am, thanks.”
She smiles. Hennin does not.
In Brigette’s experience, Veronica Hennin has a gift for seeing through just about anything, and this time that gaze is fixed on her.
“Try again, sweetheart, and be honest this time. We’ve all seen the news, and I know you and Ricky were on-site.”
Brigette almost laughs at that. If there’s anyone who could get away with calling Verity Ricky, it’s Hennin, and she knows it. Gentler this time, she continues.
“My point is that it’s not a secret in here, at least. You don’t need to try and hide anything.”
Maybe if it were a different scenario – if Brigette hadn’t just come from the ruins of the future, if Hennin didn’t know just enough and not too much about the situation – she wouldn’t have said anything.
As it is, her mouth opens seemingly of its own volition, and the words that come out are, “I really hoped it would have gone any other way, you know?”
“I just – it was a mess,” she continues, “from the start – I hoped none of this would have ever started to happen. I hoped she wouldn’t find anything dangerous on that planet, I hoped that she’d listen when I told her it wasn’t safe for the world to know. I hoped that the measures I set out would be enough. I hoped nobody would decide to take any further action.”
Hennin nods. Brigette knows she doesn’t need to elaborate on who ‘she’ is; anyone could guess.
“But the thing is, I knew. I – obviously I didn’t know what was on the planet, but other than that – I knew that she wouldn’t have listened, and that if she was really determined, and of course she was, the plans I made wouldn’t have come close to stopping her.” She laughs, bitterly. “Sometimes I used to think nothing could stop her.
“I guess I just hoped that whatever I did would be enough, instead of too much, instead of not enough. I hoped that I was doing – what I had to do, how I had to do it. But…hope alone never does much. I don’t think I’ll forget that now.”
Hennin frowns a little at that, but doesn’t comment on it. Instead, she says, “What will you do?”
Brigette’s gaze wanders to the door, just as blindingly bright as the rest of the room.
“I think,” she says, “I’m going to try to find…”
A night lit by faraway traffic, a sky speckled with distant stars, a name spoken carefully in the moonlight.
“That one’s kind of nice, though.”
A crown. An idea. A hope.
“It’s just too pessimistic.”
It feels like dooming it to failure, Brigette did that herself, she doomed it to failure, and –
“No one ever believed…”)
Maybe that’s a good thing. The surface is as misty and green as ever, but…it’s quiet. He doesn’t hear anyone – or anything – and there’s not much to be seen, either. Ruins. Plain ground. Scraps of unmarked, seemingly torn-off bronze in the dust.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
The trapdoor had led to another of those clear rooms, this one built into the side of a building that’s more scrap metal than actual structure at this point. Still, there’s somehow not a mark on the glass. What there is is that strange orange light characteristic of the String. Just like at the previous trapdoor, it’s shot through the glass in patterns not unlike that of the green stone.
Cal wonders how they’d missed these, the first time around. The Theseus is within sight of this one, after all – still far away, but not impossibly so.
He knows what he has to do; there’s really only one thing he can do. He doesn’t know if M’not-or is still out there, or if Tam and Bea are still alive, or if he’ll even make it to the Theseus at all, but he does know that he has to try.
Not yet, though.
Casting one last glance at the silhouette of the Theseus, Cal opens up the broadcasting tool in his comms.
Before he leaves on this final leg of the improved and improvised Proxima Centauri b mission…there’s something he needs to do.
There isn’t usually much to do on Friday mornings like these, so Roxanne is idly watching the sunrise. Even on a normal day – even on a busy day – she wouldn’t have been at work so early, but…well…
She doesn’t know the full story, but she knows there’s been a fire. Somewhere around this area, destroying an entire building, according to what she heard, and – well, she had to check. Her job might be odd – scheduling mysterious meetings with mysterious names and no discernible purpose, receiving mysterious deliveries that go to the front right corner of her desk space and straight to Haque from there – but none of that’s really her problem, and she’s somehow come to enjoy it. She’d miss it if it all burned down.
Haque had been there when she’d come up to the front doors, seemingly with the same idea as her. He’d given her an inscrutable look before unlocking the door and telling her she was welcome to take her usual place, but if she’d rather leave and return at the proper time that would be fine.
Roxanne had elected to stay.
Haque’s a…strange guy, to say the least. She’s still not entirely sure what he does, and she works for him. Maybe if she were higher up in the ranks…whatever.
It’s not as if she particularly cares, either way. The mystery’s just an interesting way to pass time when there’s not much else to do. On one particularly slow day, she had actually brought in some paints and canvas to get something done in the time she had (and maybe, a little bit, to see what she could get away with). Haque didn’t seem to mind – only commenting that she should clean up any stains when she was done on his way out.
Yeah. Strange. To say the least.
Nonetheless, it’s around 7 am on a Friday, so Rox isn’t actually expecting anyone to enter the lobby. Her attention is on the red morning light, pouring through the windows and filling the room with its glow, when –
“I’m assuming I’m in the right place.”
– the door slides open, and a voice floats through.
It’s rough and scratchy, as sooty as its owner, who stands silhouetted by the sun like she’s expecting a fight. And, well, she sort of looks like she’s already lost one. With a bonfire.
“No offense, love, but the right place for you is a hospital,” says Rox. “Do you need me to call -”
“I have something,” says the woman, ignoring her completely. “For Mr. Haque.”
Marching over to the desk, she holds out an ashy hand.
Glinting within it is a small silver flash drive.
Shoulders squared and gaze sharp despite the way she limps and trembles, the woman says, “I understand he has the interest and means to enter the field of astronomy. The information on this drive…may be corrupted, I don’t know to what degree. But I hope he makes good use of it.”
Rox…works a weird, weird job.
Unsure of what else to do, she closes her fingers around the drive. The strange woman visibly relaxes at that, dropping her hand so it’s flat on the desk.
“Thank you,” she says. “I hope…I hope it means something.”
With that, she turns again and limps to the door, leaving Rox a blackened handprint and a metal drive slightly warped and warm to the touch.
I hope it means something…I hope he makes good use of it…what’s on this drive?
It’s strange, yes, but to be fair, it’s only marginally stranger than other things she’s seen while working here. Anyone would be curious…but there’s really no reason for her to ask about it.
The red morning light reflects off of the unmarred surface of the drive when she places it down on the desk.
Front right corner. Straight to Haque. And then it’s not her problem.
The woman pauses, hand on the door.
“You…don’t want me to – call an ambulance, or -”
She shakes her head, turning again to leave, and Rox calls, “Can I at least ask your name?”
At that, for some reason Rox is probably far too in over her head to understand…the woman throws back her head and laughs.
It’s half a cough, really, rasping and painful even to hear, but it’s unmistakably a laugh, this sound the woman makes before she pushes open the door to an overwhelming sunrise the colour of fresh blood or flowers or a fire downtown and says, “Cassandra.”
And then she’s gone.
Brigette’s not sure how many of her coworkers expect her to stay.
It’s not uncommon for someone to quit after a shock, or so she’s heard. She’d never paid those sweetly trite words much attention – the burden of protector was one she chose to bear, and right from the beginning she’d decided that a little turbulence wouldn’t be enough to make her drop it.
This, though…this isn’t exactly a small thing. It’s serious, and it had serious consequences, and maybe it really was the only way but she can’t quite seem to convince herself of that.
So, to rephrase: Brigette’s not sure how much she expects herself to stay. Not knowing what she knows.
In a way, it’s an earthquake; it’s an upturning of stable ground, a betrayal she could have – should have – seen coming, but one that knocked her off her feet nonetheless. It’s an earthquake, and she saw it coming, but it was still too much for her to comprehend. She still hasn’t managed to come to terms with it, all the way, that they’re capable of that. That sometimes they’ll come face to face with the cruel only way and they’ll do something – that she might do something she never thought she’d be capable of.
What does she do, then?
She’s not sure. She’s not sure what she’s expected to do, or what she expects herself to do, or what the right thing is to do. Or – no. The one thing Brigette is absolutely certain of is that the right thing for her to do is protect. That’s her job – her whole and most important job, and what she’s always tried to do right from the beginning.
Because right from the beginning, she had a choice. She chose to protect.
“You cannot back out once you have acted,” her mother had said. “You cannot falter.”
It is a difficult task, and she must make difficult decisions. Right from the beginning, she’s known that. If this is an earthquake, Brigette knows how to keep her balance.
She’s not sure how many of her coworkers expect her to quit, and she doesn’t care. An earthquake brings down everything she thought she knew, and she knows it doesn’t matter. The world ends just a little as the sun rises, and Brigette…
Brigette Lux grits her teeth and carries on.
Marylin has tried her best, throughout the course of her life, to not judge any book by its cover.
Perhaps it is just fanciful thinking, but she has always believed that everyone has a perspective worth hearing from. That every story deserves to be told, regardless of its degree of subjectivity. Whenever she has had the chance to listen, whether she has the power to act on what she hears or not, she does her best to hear the story out.
She is, of course, old enough to know a reputable source from a cash grab. But this seems more of input from a lesser known small-name source, and that is exactly the sort of thing she loves to read. Those are the stories she loves to hear, the ones that are shouted over, the points of view rarely seen from.
Besides, she is not without reservations of her own concerning the fire.
Most news outlets had gone on and on about the tragedy of the whole affair. They had spoken at length about the loss of knowledge, the many experiments that were being carried on within the laboratory that were reduced to nothing but ash. The International Security Agency itself had released a statement, their condolences to the victims of this horrible accident.
Most news outlets had acknowledged the tragedy and then moved on.
Doubt began to spring up, in circles like the one Marylin is looking into right now. Doubt began to spring up in red-string theory boards, in the “suspicious timing of the fire,” the “conspicuous disappearance” of Dr. Anya Sotto and most any information from the Ariadne probe, other than blurry photos of a barren surface. In other words, doubt began to spring up backed only with unverifiable suspicion, and was quickly made the object of much barely-disguised ridicule.
That crossroads is where Marylin is caught. Because on one hand, she knows how vague findings can be, in a project this ambitious in this field, and she knows that it is extremely likely that Dr. Sotto’s disappearance is easily resolved by the fire. On the other, however, there is no denying the coincidences. There is no denying that the Ariadne team were not the ones to present their findings but the ISA, and there is no denying that Dr. Sotto’s disappearance is exactly that – not a death – not a confirmed death. A missing case.
Still. The one thing that both sides agree on, regardless of their stance on the conspiracy theories, is that there is no denying the tragedy. There is no denying loss, that the future is in cinders, that brilliant minds have been decimated, that Marylin’s grandson will grow up without a father, that Marylin has outlived her son.
Regardless of what is undeniable and what is not so easy to categorise, regardless of what can be called truth and what is theory, regardless of what is nothing but tragedy, there is only one thing to do, for the world as a whole. Once the news is done telling them how sad it is, once the unregarded thinkers run out of fuel for their theories, once they have faced tragedy and refused to bow, there is only one natural next step for the world to take. There is only one thing for it to do.
And so it does.
[Static is present throughout the message, possibly due to the quality of the recording, but most likely due to the corruption in its reception.]
CAL: Dr. Sotto? I’m – I guess I’m hoping this message reaches you, and that you’ve cleared up whatever it is that went wrong on your end. To be honest, I just hope your luck’s been better than ours…well, that’s ‘mine’ now, isn’t it? Though technically, I’ve been the luckiest.
[His voice grows quiet.]
CAL: I…have to hope they’ve been lucky, too.
CAL: In any case – you were probably joking when you said you expected a call, but I figure it’s best to cover all the bases anyway. We – I – haven’t found much of importance beyond what you already know – plenty of note, but nothing that would be relevant to the current…problems. There’s – I’ll say one thing, Cr’t is far from boring. There’s at least five full skeletons down in the tunnels – oh, and the fact that there’s tunnels at all – and technology it’d probably take years for us to fully understand, including the String itself, which might even act like some sort of defense? I’m not sure, but the ends of the tunnel are covered by this light, and I think it might be sort of a blind spot for M’not-or? …And I guess M’not-or itself. Not much wonderful about it, but it’s certainly – the planet’s burnt to a crisp and long since lifeless, but you’ll never hear me say it’s dull.
[Again, he fades to silence.]
CAL: God, I – what am I doing? It’s like telling jokes to myself. At a funeral.
CAL: Well, that’s not really necessary information – all I mean to say is, I’m going to try to make it back to Earth. The Theseus has this information, you don’t need to worry about that. I…hope the Ariadne turns out alright as well, but…in all honesty, I don’t think it will. I –
[Somewhat harshly, Cal laughs.]
CAL: I know that’s probably not the kindest thing to say, sorry, but it’s sort of unavoidable at this point, isn’t it? All I can do is hope, and all you can do is…well, I don’t know.
[Another solemn pause.]
CAL: I think this is our – my final broadcast to you, Dr. Sotto. I hope we both make it to where we’re trying to go.
[There is the slightest hesitation, perhaps, or just a moment of silence.]
CAL: Good luck.
Mess ge r eiv d by M nos La s 31 ar h 2 45
CAL: You both know what I’m going to say, right?
[He laughs shakily.]
CAL: I don’t know what else to say, really. I think between the three of us, we could have come up with something, but that’s not really an option right now, is it.
[It’s not a question.]
CAL: I want to make it clear that this isn’t a goodbye. Far from it. It’s an ‘I hope you’re okay’ and ‘I hope you can find this’. I hope that something goes right, and you can get to the Theseus in time. I’d wait if I could. I’m sorry.
[Clearly attempting to sound upbeat, though his voice shakes:]
CAL: For all I know, you’re already at the ship, and I’m recording this message for no reason. In that case, thanks for letting me make a fool of myself, I – honestly, I can’t say I’ll fight back. I can’t say I’ll care what you say as long as you’re there to say something. ‘Cause for all I know, you’re…well, for all I know, I’m recording this message for no reason.
[A silence falls.]
CAL: I – really it’s all down to luck, in the ways that matter, so – I hope you made it, and I hope you make it to the Theseus, and I hope I make it to the Theseus, and I hope we can find a way to make sense of this. And – really, I just hope it all turns out okay. As okay as it can get. I’m – I’ll be fine with that.
[He sounds unsure.]
CAL: You already know what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t go, wherever it is you are, giving up. Please.
[The noise of a material – glass, likely – moving, and a slight pick up in background static.]
CAL: All goes well…I’ll see you soon.
Message sent internally through system Theseus 14 June 2072
The door slides open the same creaking way most every door in the ruins has, orange light from the String woven through glass walls spilling into the foggy surface beyond. He hesitates for a heavy half-second.
Then he takes the first step.
The darkness of the planet’s surface swallows him up, but he forges on grimly, moving closer and closer to the pinprick of light reflecting off of unmarred Earthen metal in the distance – making his way ever so slowly to the Theseus, one final beacon waiting amongst the vast void.
END OF ACT II