Across The Void by S.K. Vaughn
A visceral space thriller is the landscape for this complicated love story—perfect for fans of Arrival, The Martian and Passengers. Across The Void follows Commander Maryam “May” Knox – the First Rank space pilot chosen to lead the unprecedented research mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, aboard the most advanced vessel to enter space – The Hawking II.
She becomes the sole survivor of a catastrophic accident, leaving her adrift in the void. Depending on her top-notch super elite intelligence and skills, May must survive, with her A.I. companion, as long as possible until she can communicate back to Earth. It is the voice of her estranged husband, Stephen, the NASA scientist who built the ship, who must guide her back home. The two must leave the past behind in order to survive the void that is now physically between them.
The year is 2067 and May awakens from a medically induced coma — alone, adrift in space on a rapidly failing ship. She has little to no memory of who she is or why she’s there. Slowly, with the help of her A.I. companion EVE, she pieces together that she’s the captain of The Hawking II — the innovative, first of its kind ship created by her husband Stephen. She was heading back from a successful first voyage on Europa only to find that she is the sole survivor of either an accident—or worse, a sabotage —that has decimated her entire crew. With resources running low, and her physical strength severely compromised, May must rely on someone back home to help her. The problem is: everyone thinks she’s dead.
Back on Earth, it’s been weeks since the Hawking II has communicated with NASA, and Dr. Stephen Knox is hopeful that May (his estranged wife) and her crew, are still alive. May’s decision to participate in the Europa mission, amongst other unfortunate circumstances, strained their marriage past the point of no return. But when he gets word that NASA has received a transmission from May, Stephen is among the first to head the rescue mission.
What he doesn’t know is that not everyone wants May to make it back alive. Featuring a twisting, suspenseful plot combined with relatable and compelling characters, Across the Void is a moving and evocative thriller weaving together space exploration with an entangled romance that readers won’t be able to put down.
Hawking II Deep Space Research Vessel December 25, 2067
May’s naked body lay suspended atop hypothermic gel in the spectral silence of an intensive-care isolation pod. Intubated and attached to every imaginable resuscitation device, her only sign of life was a chirping chorus of robotic noise. The pod, a bulbous cocoon with a milky-opaque skin, pulsed gently in time with her shallow breaths. Its glow was the only significant source of light in the darkened infirmary. Her gaunt face, framed by the frosted observation window, appeared dead.
Sensors detected rapid eye movement, the first light of consciousness, under a barely perceptible flutter of lashes. The pod responded, its white skin blushing, and gradually increased its warmth while administering neurostimulants. Vague flashes of light and muffled, distant sounds were all May’s dulled senses could perceive. Her fingers clawed the air feebly as a gal- axy of neurons fired throughout her sluggish brain. Her skin flushed under a thin layer of sweat. Every bone in her body hummed with agony, and her blood felt as though it were boiling through her veins.
Despite her rapidly rising vitals, May struggled to grasp lucidity through a seemingly impenetrable mental fog. She desperately needed a shove if she were to avoid death by asphyxiation from the ventilator tube as the pod’s life-support systems cycled down. It came in the form of a blast of holiday music that erupted over the ship’s PA, followed by a canned greeting bel- lowed festively in multiple languages. With the piercing swell of a child choir singing “O Holy Night,” May’s weakened kidneys released all the epineph- rine they could spare. The effect was similar to jump-starting a car that had been sitting for weeks in subfreezing temperatures. Her autonomic nervous system quickly followed suit, stimulating her muscles into a violent shiver to warm up her core. As fragmented awareness sputtered across her mind, the choir hit its shrill crescendo, and May opened her eyes.
“Patient revived. Deactivating isolation pod.”
The calm female voice of the ship’s AI rose over the fading sounds of the machines cycling down, and May’s respirator slowed to a stop with a weary sigh. The top of the pod slid open, and condensation from the inside walls ran out onto the floor. Completely disoriented, unable to focus her vision, and barely able to move her weakened limbs, she panicked. Her screams couldn’t escape the ventilator and feeding tubes, which were making her gag forcefully. She clutched them with her slowly thawing fingers and fought back the simultaneous urges to cough and retch as she pulled them out.
When they were finally clear, she started to sink back into the hypothermic gel, which had become warm and viscous. It crept up onto her chest and circled around her neck, threatening to suffocate her. An electric shock of panic sent waves of painful spasms through her muscles and set her skin on fire with pins and needles. The stinking gel slithered up to her chin, and May lurched and rolled to one side. The pod rocked with her and toppled over. When it hit the floor, she was violently ejected, sliding and thrashing across the room, her IV needles ripping out of her skin. She rolled into something that felt like a wall and lay there in the fetal position, retching watery vomit tinged with blood.
May’s mind was a broken hive, swarming with questions. What she could see in the dark, through her semiblurred vision, was nondescript. She knew she was in hospital, but where? She had no recollection of being hospitalized or even sick. But she felt very sick, as if she might be dying. Panic coiled around her and constricted, stealing her breath. She wanted to sleep, the whisper of death coaxing her to simply close her eyes and release her grip on life. It was compelling to the point of seduction, but she somehow knew it would prove lethal. She could feel it. Her hands reached blindly for anything solid to hold as the room spun sickeningly. With the clumsy squirming of a newborn, she began to crawl.
The counter along the wall was almost close enough to touch, so May zeroed in on it, clawing at the floor and shuffling her rubbery feet. Her knuckles rapped up against one of the cool metal storage cupboards, and a weak current of relief gave her the confidence to press on. Up onto one elbow, then the other, using all her strength to push, she found herself on her hands and knees, her weak, quivering muscles barely supporting her frame.
She had no idea what do to next, so she waited there until a decisive thought crossed her mind.
Water. Her tongue was so dry that it kept sticking to the roof of her mouth, which still tasted of blood. Dehydration. That was the name for what she was feeling. She’d felt it somewhere before, several times. Low blood pres- sure. That caused the dizziness and feeling of weakness.
Move. Her mind was shaking off the cobwebs, bringing the world into soft focus. At the top of the counter next to her was a medical exam station with a scrub sink three feet off the ground. The thought of standing was ludicrous, but she reached up and grabbed the edge of the counter and pulled herself up onto one knee, wincing at what felt like hot knives in every joint and muscle. Transferring power back and forth from legs to arms, allowing one to rest while the other worked, she managed to get into a squatting position. That small victory gave her the confidence to persevere. She pulled herself up high enough to throw her other hand into the sink and grasp the faucet. With all her might, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms until she was able to stand.
Staring into the metal sink, May smiled proudly. Her lips cracked and bled, but she didn’t care because water trickled out when she held her hands over the faucet. She bent over and let it run over her mouth, swallowing every drop she could catch. It tasted so good that she would have cried if she’d had the tears to spare. After a few more long drinks, the water sparked her light of survival. Her vision became much clearer, as did her mind. An emergency flashlight was cradled in the wall behind the sink. She pulled it out and switched on the dimly flickering beam, cautiously surveying her surroundings.
What the hell happened here? The infirmary was in complete disarray, the contents of its drawers, cabinets, and sealed vaults strewn about, seemingly torn from their housings by the hands of desperation. Desperate for what? Gurneys were stained and stripped. May thought it looked like war zone triage. How do I know what that looks like? She attempted to deduce causes, but the glaring deficiencies in her memory and cognition induced a bristling anxiety she was deter- mined to avoid. She told herself to focus on getting her body back to some semblance of normalcy before attempting to do the same with her mind.
“Keep it simple.” Her whisper of a voice sounded hoarse and foreign, but she was pleased to hear it. And she agreed with the sentiment: Keep it simple. She grabbed a gown from the floor and slipped that over her head, enjoying its immediate warmth. The water had been a godsend, but she felt the weakness and dull headache of dehydration creeping up again. Her flashlight beam passed over a cabinet with IV bags behind the glass. That was what she needed: a massive infusion of fluid to replenish what was left of her. Only ten paces away. She shuffled sideways, careful to maintain her grip on the counter so she wouldn’t stumble on debris.
When she reached the cabinet, it was locked. Trying to recall a pass code was a torture she refused to put herself through. As she looked around for something to smash what she was sure was bulletproof glass, she saw a hand-shaped scanner next to the keypad and put her palm on it. A small screen next to the hand scanner flickered and displayed:
Commander Maryam Knox, Stephen Hawking II Research Vessel
“Hello, Commander Knox,” the AI said cheerfully. “What?” May said, startled. “Hello, Commander Knox.” “I’m . . . I’ve just woken up, and . . . What did you call me?” “Commander Knox.” “Commander?” “I don’t understand the question.”
The fear May had felt flowering was now terror in full bloom. “I’m sorry. I can’t . . . remember. My memory. I’ve been very ill, I think. I’m weak and need fluids . . . and food. Will you please help me?”
“Of course. What is your illness? Currently, I am unable to access the ship’s network to review your medical files.”
“I don’t know,” May said sharply, punishing her tender vocal cords. “I’m sorry to upset you. There is a rapid-scan unit just behind you. With that I can help assess your condition.”
May turned and pulled the scan-unit cart over to her. “Exhale into the pulmonary tube and place your finger on the blood-test pad.”May breathed into the tube and fell into a coughing fit. The test pad pricked her tender finger, and she yelped from the pain.
“I am not detecting any known pathogens,” the AI reported. “However, you are severely dehydrated and malnourished, and your lung functions are well below normal.”
“You’re a genius,” May said sarcastically. “Thank you. We will begin intravenous therapy immediately.” Guided by the AI, May pulled a vitamin-rich electrolyte hydration bag and steriline pack from the cabinet, along with two epinephrine pens. She slowly transferred these items to an empty gurney, and the AI instructed her to administer the epinephrine pens first before lying down to receive the IV bag. Pulling back the sleeve on her gown, she looked for a decent vein among the tracks of bruised needle entry points. Her arms were dotted with strange red blotches, which she also found on her back and legs. Some had scabbed over. Perhaps they were associated with her illness? Her head ached.
“Commander Knox, please insert the IV needle.” “All right, all right. Jesus.” May grunted and found a vein that had not yet been abused on her thigh and slowly and carefully pushed in the IV needle. It felt as if she were being impaled with a searing fire poker. Then the drip started going strong, and the rush of energy that washed over her was so invigorating that she was finally able to squeeze out a few tears of joy. The icing on the cake was put- ting on the breathing mask and deeply inhaling the oxygen-rich air mixture. She instantly felt stronger and more alert.
“I’ll give you a mild sedative to help you sleep,” the AI said soothingly.
May shook her head. “No. I’m . . . afraid I won’t wake up. And I need to know what’s—” She yawned and laid back, out of breath. “It’s imperative you allow your body to rest. I will monitor your vital signs closely and wake you up with a stimulant if there are any issues. Also, the epinephrine you’ve had will prevent a deep sleep. Does that allay your fears?”
“Yes, thank you,” May said reluctantly. She had no reason to trust the AI. Who was to say it had not been the cause of whatever disaster had befallen the vessel? Maybe the sedative was not going to be so mild? If the AI wanted you dead, you would never have gotten out of the intensive-care pod. But AI became aware of you only after you woke.
May shut down her internal dialogue and chalked it up to paranoia brought about by whatever affliction had beaten her into submission. Of course she felt vulnerable. But if the AI was not to be trusted, she was lost anyway. And she had no recollection of having had a problem with it before all of this happened. Before all of what happened? She prayed that when she woke up, she would realize it was all just a nightmare. She could joke about it with her crew, and they would all have a good laugh.
Her crew! She closed her eyes and concentrated. She could see some of their faces. They were blurry, but bits would come in and out of focus, along with partial names. A memory of them slowly assembled itself. They were together, looking at something. Their mouths moved quickly as they spoke, but May couldn’t understand what they were saying. Eyes were narrow with concern, maybe even fear. Briefly, the scene sharpened. The crew was looking at her, peering down as if she were on the floor. Hands probed, feeling her neck for a pulse. A man moved in closer and listened to her breathing. The name Jon came to mind. Had she stopped breathing? They were shout- ing “Commander Knox?” clapping their hands in front of her face, shining a light in her eyes. They were trying to revive her.
“Commander Knox?” the AI called out.
May woke back in the infirmary with a start. The scene from her dream lingered. I was dying. My crew was trying to revive me. My crew. She tried to hold on to the memory of their faces, but they kept slipping out of her grasp. I was dying.
“How was your rest?” the AI continued. “What? Fine.” “Do you feel better?” “A little. Stronger.” “I’m glad to hear it. Please remove your IV needle and dispose of it in the proper receptacle.”
May slowly drew the needle out from under her thin, tender skin and felt strong enough to walk it to the medical waste container. “Silent Night” was now piping through the PA—some sort of polylingual falsetto pop version sung by what she pictured was a chorus of eunuchs in red turtlenecks. All was not calm, and all was sure as hell not bright.
“Could you please shut that horrible music off?” “Yes.” When the music stopped, May could think a little more clearly, but more questions arose, demanding her attention. She fought to clear the cobwebs. I am Commander Maryam Knox. Hawking II Research Vessel. NASA. Where was Mission Control? Why weren’t they helping? How could they have let this happen? What is “this”? She tried to recall what happened, but her memory was like a television with intermittent signal cutting through static. Random fragments danced mockingly on the tip of her tongue, just out of reach.
“I was dying . . .”
“Please repeat,” the AI said. “I’m trying to remember. But my head . . . things are foggy.” “Are you experiencing memory loss?” “I can see bits, fragments of things, people’s faces. I can’t put it all together. I can’t remember. God, what happened to me?”
“Are you able to recall long-term memories, such as where you were born, the names of your parents, and where you were educated?”
May reached into the past and found it refreshingly accessible. She wanted to run through as much as possible for fear she might lose it.
“I was born in England. Hometown Bournemouth. My mother and father, Eve and . . . Wesley. Both pilots, now deceased. My father passed when I was very young. He was a Royal Marine. Killed in action. I remember pictures of him in uniform . . . holding me as a baby . . . his brilliant blue eyes and white-blond hair, brushed back . . . he always looked so razor sharp. Mom raised me. She was an RAF pilot. The only black woman in her cadet class to make wing commander. Very strict. More of a drill sergeant than a mom. But she taught me to fly . . . I have no siblings. Prepped at Duke of York Academy. Royal Air Force College at Cranwell. Officer training. Then test pilot program, space program. My husband is Dr. Stephen Knox—”
May stopped short. She felt an ache of sadness mentioning Stephen but had no idea why. In that moment, she realized there was something about their marriage, something wrong, lurking in the edge of the shadows like a restless spirit. She could barely bring herself to acknowledge it, let alone mention it to the AI.
“All of that feels solid,” she marched on, “as though it happened yesterday.”“What about your training and duties as commander?” the AI said.
“A bit murky when I first woke up, but now most of it feels readily accessible, like instinct or muscle memory.”
“Do you remember falling ill or being intubated?” “No. That’s the thing. I have no recollection of any of that. And other more recent memories are spotty, a lot more fragmented.”
“I am not able to formally diagnose you without a full neuro panel, but based on the fact that you are having the most difficulty recalling short-term memories versus long-term ones, you may be experiencing a form of retro- grade amnesia.”
ACROSS THE VOID 11
“Amnesia?” May scoff ed. “I thought people only had that in shitty B movies.”
“It is quite common in cases of traumatic brain injury, encephalitis caused by infection, and exposure to large doses of anesthetic or sedative medications—”
“In my case, that may be all of the above,” May lamented. “Is it permanent?”
“I am unable to find any predictor models for recovery. It appears that is determined on a case-by-case basis.”
“What about treatment? Are there drugs that can help?” “No. Retrograde amnesia patients are usually treated using occupational therapy and psychotherapy techniques that use cues to stimulate memory recovery over time.”
“Over time,” May repeated. “That is correct. Depending on the patient, that process can take as long as—”“I think I’ve heard enough for now, thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” May thought about the mission. The further back in time she went, the more clarity there was. She recalled the launch and a good deal of the journey to . . . Europa. But that was when things began to fracture—reaching orbit, the planetary expedition. The pieces became even smaller and more dissociated on the return journey, when she had somehow become ill.
“Would you like me to run some more tests to assess the problem?” “Later,” May snapped, her mind rubbery and her stomach growling angrily. “I’m dizzy and starving, my head is aching, and I’m about to start crying. I hate crying.”
“Your blood sugar may have dropped below normal. There are glucose tablets in the compartment near where you found the IV bags.”
May ate as many of the tablets as she could fit in her mouth. They were sickeningly sweet but dissolved quickly and made her feel more focused. They also reduced her headache to a dull, distant throb.
“That’s better, thanks. On to the galley.” May realized she wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the galley. “Uh, can you guide me there?”
“Please place your palm on the wall screen and log in to the command console. I will provide a highlighted route on the vessel map.”
May placed her hand on the wall. The wide, wrapping screen came to life in vibrant splinters, and the NASA logo appeared, followed by a dossier photo of May in a NASA flight suit with her name and title. Her image took her breath away. The woman in the photo was happy and healthy, with radiant brown skin. Her mouth was slightly curled in the beginning of an ironic grin that sparked brilliant eyes possessing all that they surveyed, like the subject of a painting whose gaze one couldn’t escape. She examined her reflection on the screen to make sure she was looking at the same person. The resemblance was there, albeit painfully vague. Everything about her now looked sickly. Her once closely cropped hair, with subtle gold highlights on the edges of her curls, was now matted and dull, and her skin had gone pallid. The grief she felt for her lost self—not just what she’d looked like but what she’d known and who she had been—brought on bitter tears.
“Is everything all right?” the AI asked. May couldn’t answer. Every word became a lump in her throat. It was imperative she do something, anything, to improve her hideous appearance. She tore open the staff supply closet and traded her filthy gown for fresh surgical scrubs. Booties warmed her freezing feet. After sucking down some nutrigel packs in the closet, she scrubbed her face with soap and warm water. On to the hair, which was matted beyond repair. She had no other choice but to shave it down to stubble with surgical shears. When she was finished, she looked in the mirror. Some of the color had returned to her skin and her eyes were a bit brighter.
There. Now you look like a proper corpse, she thought, managing a smile.
Cold as a grave, May thought as she trod into the corridor on her way to the galley. This was her first look at the ship outside the infirmary, and it appeared in stark contrast to what she’d triumphantly piloted out of space dock months ago. The darkness was consuming save for the dim flicker of a few weak emergency lights scattered throughout. The bright white beam of May’s torch cut a narrow path along the metal floor but failed to penetrate further. Other than the low engine hum, the silence was as pervasive as the dark. For a vessel so large, the impossible emptiness was deeply unsettling, casting a cold, penetrating shadow on any rays of hope.
“The ship is dark,” she said. “I see no signs of crew. I can’t even see.” Was this to be the sum of her accomplishments? A beautiful expression of all the strength and good intentions of humankind, cast out and falling with no hope of ever finding the bottom? How could I have let this happen? How could everything have gone this wrong?
“Is there any way to turn on more goddamn lights?” May asked the AI. No reply. “Hello? It’s like a cave out here. I can barely see my own hand in front of my face.”
Still no reply. She walked angrily back to the infirmary. “Why are you not answering me?” she asked the AI. “I’m sorry. I was not able to hear you.” “You can’t hear me in the corridor?” “Negative, Commander Knox. It appears my processors are no longer connected to the ship’s network. I am only able to see and hear you in rooms with command consoles you’ve logged into, like this one.”
“So you’re unaware that the ship has gone dark and the crew is nowhere in sight?”
“That is correct. I am not receiving data feeds from anywhere on the ship. Do you have any idea what is happening, Commander Knox?”
The question sounded oddly childlike, and it occurred to May that what- ever had knocked out internal power had also damaged the AI.
“That’s what I was going to ask you. From what I’ve seen so far, the ship’s internal power systems are not functioning properly at all.”
“That is very troubling.” “Not as troubling as the fact that you weren’t even aware of it. Or, worse yet, not as troubling as the fact that I haven’t yet seen or heard from another human being on the ship since I woke up.”
May was beginning to understand just how foggy her mind had been when she was revived. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least now she could grasp the basics.
“Protocol clearly states mandatory twenty-four-hour staffing.” Again, the childlike naiveté. The AI knew even less than May did. “I think we might be way past protocol here,” she chaff ed. “Do you know when you lost contact with the rest of the ship?”
“I am unable to determine that as I have no access to the ship’s clock.” “But you at least remember losing contact?” “I am unable to find any data related to that event.” “Well, that’s completely fucked,” May said. “I don’t understand.” “That makes two of us. But since it looks like we both have goddamn amnesia, I’m not sure what the hell to do next.”
“Perhaps you can reconnect me.” “How? That’s engineering. Not my area. I’ve never even been in there.” “If you go to my processor clean room, I will be able to help you assess the problem. If it is repairable, I can walk you through the proper maintenance procedure.”
“If it’s repairable?” “My processors are partially made of organic matter kept in a highly regulated environment. A power loss resulting in an alteration of that environment, even to the smallest degree, could be catastrophic. Because I have no connection to the clean room, I am unable—”
“I get it,” May said tersely. “Looks like dinner will have to wait. Please send me a new map showing me how to get to the clean room.”
“Sending now.” May shoved as many flashlights, nutrigel packs, and water bottles as she could fit into a pillowcase and hurried back into the corridor. Without AI, there was no hope for survival, and every passing second was critical if the organic matter in the processors had begun to die. She thought about the time she’d forgotten to water her mom’s flowers for a week and killed them all. They’d looked like dead soldiers in a firing squad line, bent over and ragged. You had one job, Eve had said accusingly.
“This is Commander Maryam Knox,” she called out. “Is anyone on the ship?”
She remembered some of her crew names and called for them. “Captain Escher? Gabi? Can anyone hear me?” Her flashlight dimmed briefly, throwing her into a panic as she tapped the battery pack to revive it. Could they have jettisoned for some reason? The illness? A sense of menacing isolation crawled into her stomach and tied it into knots. To clear her mind of the intense paranoia this and the darkness brought, she concentrated on recalling details about her crew. Jon Escher, pilot and her second in command. Gung-ho American Navy pilot who fancied himself akin to the swaggering cowboy astronauts of the past. With his buzz cut, square jaw, and aggressive exercise regimen, May felt he was more a caricature of that archaic persona. He was capable, but May had hoped for a more experienced pilot to be her right hand.
Gabriella Dos Santos, flight engineer. She and Gabi were kindred spirits, both young and overflowing with talent, but constantly fighting to prove their worth. Like May, Gabi was military brat and a bit of a mutt. Her dad was a Brazilian helicopter pilot and her mother a NATO flight surgeon. May hoped with all her being that Gabi was still alive somewhere on the ship. No one knew the Hawking II better, and she would surely get things sorted out. Matt Gallagher, payload commander. May had always joked that he was the most perfectly boring man she’d ever met. Everything about him was ordinary, except for his vast space engineering and research knowledge. He knew her husband, Stephen, well, as he’d worked under Rajah Kapoor, the man who designed the Hawking II for Europa. May had not suffered gladly the staggering complexity of taking twenty-six nonastronaut eggheads into space to conduct all the important work Stephen and his team had lined up. Matt had run perfect interference, managing their wildly diverse personalities while making sure their equipment operated at maximum efficiency. Good old boring Matt, she thought.
She heard a faint noise, distant and slightly mechanical, and stopped. “Hello?” The noise began again. This time it sounded very much like footsteps, heavy boots clopping along the metal floor with purpose.
“Is anyone there?” The sound was booming and picking up speed, as if something big had sensed her presence and was moving in for the kill. She had neither the weapons nor the strength to defend herself. What, or who, could it possibly be?“Stop! Who is—”
The rhythmic banging sped up to an explosive, deafening vibration. The ship shuddered violently and listed deeply to port like a schooner shouldering into a heavy storm swell. May fell hard, hit her forehead on the floor, and slid into the wall. She felt a support beam in her back and held on to it tightly to ride out what felt like an earthquake. When the ship settled and righted itself, she struggled to her feet, her head spinning. Lesser tremors persisted for several minutes, like aftershocks wriggling back and forth through the vessel’s bones. Her flashlight dimmed to a dull orange glow and died. Tap- ping the battery case didn’t bring it back this time.
“No no no no no . . .” A warm stream of blood from a small gash above her right brow trickled into her eye. She tore the breast pocket off her scrub shirt and held it against the wound. Her heart was hammering faster than she could breathe to keep up. Consciousness was slipping.
“Relax, Commander Knox,” she demanded. “Do your job. Don’t let your job do you.”
Inhaling deeply and suffering a terrible coughing fit, May kept her eyes closed tightly until the intense fear subsided and the cut above her eye was stanched. She grabbed a new flashlight and switched it on. The beam was not full strength, which meant it had not been fully charged. There was no way to estimate how much time she had until she was immersed in darkness, so she picked up the pace.
Do your job. Don’t let your job do you. The phrase jarred loose a memory of a man with bristly gray hair in an RAF dress uniform. Four gold bands on the shoulder and lower sleeve. Scrambled egg braid on the cap . . .
“Baz,” she said with delight. “Fucking Baz.” Her former commanding officer and mentor, RAF group captain Basil “Baz” Greene, flashed into her mind. When she was an officer cadet at Cranwell, Baz had taken her under his wing, so to speak. At first, she had thought he was singling her out for being a woman, trying to break her so she wouldn’t contaminate the mostly male environment. She’d been right: he had singled her out, but not in the way life had trained her to think. He’d seen her talent and wasn’t about to allow it to be squandered. In fact, he’d staked his career and reputation on her by nominating her for the test pilot program. Back then, deep-space travel had been on the verge of making unprecedented advances in propulsion that would defy physics and shrink the vastness of the solar system. Baz had helped May ride that wave. Pilot on pioneering commercial transports to Mars at twenty-five. Captain at twenty-seven. Commander of the first mission to Europa at thirty-two.
She laughed bitterly. “And look at me now.”
In the corridor leading to the clean room, a strange warm light glowed from an unseen source and waxed increasingly brighter. It reminded May of a sunset, with its orange-yellow hues. When she palmed the entry pad and the door slid open, the whole room was bathed in it. The door shut and sealed behind her, and May felt as though she’d found an oasis. She managed to take a deep breath that didn’t rouse a death rattle in her chest and took a moment to allow a small measure of hope back in. The only thing that would have made it better was if Gabi had been in there, ready to assist with repairs . . . and maybe offer a little contraband, some wine or a cigarette, perhaps. But the clean room was another lifeless neighborhood in the same ghost town.
May logged into the command console and resurrected the AI. “Hello, Commander Knox. Were my directions helpful?” “Yes,” May said curtly. “Still no sign of crew along the way. Could they have jettisoned in the landing vehicles?”
“I am unable to determine that until we—” “Right. Reconnect you. What’s next?” “My processors are in the vault directly across from the entry door. Please carefully follow the procedures listed inside. Failure to do so may result in contamination and permanent shutdown.”
“No pressure.” May examined the processor vault. It was behind a seamless black wall with no discernible entry point.
“How do I get in? Answer a riddle? Use the Force?” “I don’t—” “I know, sorry. I’ll stop with the gibberish and await your instructions.” “Please put on a UV and antimicrobial protection suit first. The organic matter requires unfiltered sunlight for optimal performance, and bacterial contamination from your body would destroy it.”
“So you’re alive,” May said with wonder, and perhaps a hint of fear. “If by alive you mean the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter—”
“Never mind.” The black wall opened like an iris. May entered the vestibule, and it closed quietly behind her. She undressed in the sunlight, relishing its warmth on her bare skin. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine being on the beach, and an actual memory of her standing on a sugar-white beach somewhere in the tropics flashed into her mind.
“Commander Knox,” the AI said, interrupting May’s lovely vision, “it is not safe to expose your skin to the UV light for an extended period of time.”
“Every party’s got a pooper,” she whispered quietly to herself. May donned the clean-room suit. Unlike NASA’s extravehicular activity, or EVA, suits, the clean-room suit was more like something one would wear scuba diving—skintight and made of a thick, rubbery neoprene-type material. Its outer surface was crisscrossed with hair-thin fiber-optic lines. The helmet was also formfitting, and the gel packs inside it automatically adjusted to May’s head, molding around it. The visor glass curved under her chin as the helmet and suit sealed around her neck. The fiber lines embedded in the suit fabric lit up red, and the function display appeared on the inside of her helmet glass with the words “Initiating decontamination.”
Convincing herself that she wasn’t going to suffocate in the claustrophobic suit, May watched the color of the fiber lines slowly change to white, indicating decontamination.
“Clear for entry,” the AI said. “The clean room vault is an antigravity chamber with no atmospheric life support.”
“Why?” “Exposure to gravitational pull and oxygen accelerates processor aging.” “Right. Granny’s saggy tits,” May said under her breath. “Please repeat, Commander Knox. I was not able to hear that.” “I said, let’s do this.” “I will use your helmet camera to view the system. Activating that now.” The camera viewfinder screen appeared on May’s helmet glass. “Are you ready, Commander Knox?”
May nodded. “Please hold on to the safety bars. I am going to equalize pressure and gravity between this room and the vault.”
May held the bars as she became weightless and the glass on her helmet darkened. The airlock door opened, and May floated into a perfect sphere as large as a cathedral, with a seamless, semitransparent glass wall. As dark as her helmet glass was, the unfiltered sunlight in the room was still painfully bright. May recalled the myth of Icarus and his doomed flight to the sun as she hung in the brilliance, waiting for her eyes to adjust.
Behind the glass, an elaborate web of what looked like black plant roots snaked over the entire surface, branching out in every direction. May assumed that was the organic matter as it was interlaced with fiber-optic lines similar to the ones on her suit.
“You have a very interesting brain,” May said. “What’s it made of?” “It’s a singular organism made up of animal neurons and cellular plant matter, bound by a highly conductive plasma and fiber optics that connect it to the ship’s circuitry. It’s the most advanced system of its kind, capable of high levels of parallelism and versatility.”
“Not so artificial, is it, your intelligence?” “I’ve never thought of it that way. My creators told me the word artificial was added to create a sense of separation from human intelligence.”
“Or a sense of superiority. Human beings are a bit fragile that way.” “You don’t seem fragile, Commander.” “Thank you. I am feeling stronger, despite appearances.” May took a closer look at the processor organism. She thought she could feel a subtle vibration, as if it were attempting to make contact.
“Speaking of appearances, is the organism supposed to look like this? So dark?”
“Yes, the black color means it is healthy and fully functional. White indicates damage or death.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” May laughed. “What’s next?” “Activating maintenance portals.” What looked like a hundred circular windows, all a yard in diameter and distributed evenly, silently dilated open. Inside were translucent disks that glowed either red or white. The vast majority were red.
“Each portal screen has a status light. Red indicates complete malfunction. White indicates partial function. Blue indicates full function. Please scan all portals for me.”
“Copy.” May scanned the portals with a wide angle. “There are no blues and very few whites. That can’t be good, right?” “Life support failure is imminent without immediate repairs.” May trembled, imagining the ship going completely dark and becoming her own frozen mausoleum for eternity.
“You will need to work quickly.” “Ready.” “How much life-support time is left in your suit?” May looked at the function display projected on the inside of the helmet glass. “One hour,” she reported.
“I will prioritize critical systems.” Some of the portal screens began flashing. “Go to the flashing screens first. I will give you reboot codes for each. Enter them as quickly as you can, but carefully. Two incorrect entries will shut it down for sixty seconds.”
“Got it. One small thing: I’ve never been in this room before—actually more accurately never allowed—and I have no idea how to operate the suit thrusters.”
“They are operated by look and intention.” “Really? I only need to think about where I want to move and the thruster will send me there?”
“You also need to be looking at your destination. The system tracks your pupillary focal points for targeting and matches that with brainwaves associated with human desire.”
“I’ll be damned,” May said. “Condemned by the Christian God to suffer eternal punishment in hell? I don’t see the relevance of—”
“Figure of speech,” May said. “There are many more where that came from, so don’t worry about translating.
“Affirmative.” May stared down one of the flashing screens and focused on wanting to go there. She was shocked when the thrusters quickly responded and she glided to it. “First portal.”
“Using the touch screen, enter the following code . . .” May spent the next thirty minutes flying around the sphere and entering codes, but she wasn’t moving fast enough. Antigravity work was a bitch, and it didn’t help that she was starving and dying of thirst. Also, the suit’s cooling system wasn’t keeping up with the UV radiation, and she was sweltering. She could only imagine what a complete disaster it would be if she were to pass out in there.
“I’ve just taken an atmosphere reading in the infirmary and clean-room entry area, and life support levels are decreasing at a rate of 5 percent per minute,” the AI reported, adding insult to injury.
“But I’ve restored a third of the red portals.” “It’s possible the systems they control require mechanical repairs.” May looked at her suit life-support clock. Twenty-five minutes. Recharging it was moot if the whole ship was about to die. To reinforce this, she noticed that some of the branches of organic matter were changing from black to an unhealthy-looking dark gray.
“Commander Knox, I am concerned about your suit power. Based on the time you’ve been working, you have less than ten minutes of life support.”
“If I don’t get this done now, I’m dead anyway.” “Recharging the suit is more logical. We know when it will die. We don’t know when the ship will die.”
“The root things . . . the organic matter . . . look at them,” she said, deflecting.
May trained her helmet camera on the rapidly graying branches. “Accelerated decrepitude. I’m afraid what you’re doing will not stop or reverse that.”
“What does that mean?” “We need to try to preserve the matter that is still viable.” “How?” May yelled angrily. “I can reboot the entire system. Theoretically, that would reset all the portals and restore those that aren’t permanently damaged.”
“Why the hell didn’t we just do that in the first place?” May growled. “System rebooting is only done in dock, with no crew. It involves restarting all systems, including life support. The ship will go dark for at least five minutes, but that is never an exact number. And if the reboot fails, I cannot do it again.”
May could feel her own rapidly dwindling life support. The panting she’d been experiencing before was now almost gasping. She had to get out of there.
“Reboot the system . . . after I get out of here.” “Commander Knox, that is very dangerous. You could be killed.” “I’m dying . . . anyway. Have a little oxygen in the suit. When I get to . . . vestibule, I will connect suit to charger and you will . . . initiate restart. That’s an order.”
“Affirmative.” May flew to the vestibule door. The AI opened it, and May floated inside. As the airlock was sealed and pressure was equalized to the main vessel, she drifted to the floor and landed in a sitting position next to the suit-charging unit. She felt as if she were trying to breathe through a cocktail straw. She fumbled with the charger cables but finally got them attached. Her breathing returned to normal, but she shivered as the sweat in her suit began to freeze.
“It’s freezing,” she yelled through chattering teeth. “Ship atmosphere down to 18 percent.” May’s suit was charging, but she’d gained only a small percentage of juice. The visor display was not functioning with low power, so she had no idea how much time she’d gained being attached to the charger. If she waited any longer, the ship would completely lose power, and the AI would lose the ability to reboot anything.
“Reboot system now.” “What is your life support level—” “Just do it,” she barked. “Initiating system reboot in five, four, three, two, one.” The ship plunged into darkness and freezing cold. May could feel the heat leaving her body like air rushing out of a balloon. Every muscle in her core constricted painfully, then shook so hard it rattled her skeleton. She had to clamp her jaw down and hold it fast for fear of breaking teeth. Before losing consciousness, the only thing May could hear was the sound of what might be her last shallow breaths.
S.K. Vaughn is the pseudonym for Shane Kuhn, an author of three internationally bestselling thrillers. Kuhn is also a director and producer with twenty years of experience working in feature films, documentaries, and advertising. He is a cofounder and executive board member of the Slamdance Film Festival, and a member of the Writer’s Guild of America. He is the author of The Asset, The Intern’s Handbook, bought for film by Sony Pictures, and Hostile Takeover, the second book in his John Lago intern-assassin thriller series. He lives in San Francisco.