by Joel Van Valin

Ships go down, by sea or air or void. In the case of the Finlander, it was the abject blackest patch of space imaginable.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



"But I don't know," Gdameric said, blowing nervously on his coffee, "I suppose one of the neutrino coils could have been debried."

"And to think of it, there was that comet last night, bright as the moon," the entropy specialist threw in, a match-stick of a man with a protuberant nose and knees that stuck far out. He was dressed in a motley assortment of shirts, suit clothes and blankets; so were we all, for the ship was ice cold and chilling by the hour.

It was the Beauty of Lisbon, a planet sounder, and there were five of us there in the parlor. On board it was about two in the morning. We had all—save Mrs. Rheingold, who wandered the ship at odd hours—woken to some rather nasty vibrating from the direction of the fusion emitters, and could not get to sleep for the sudden cold. It was an ominous cold, prompting us to break open the high cupboards and maid's closets in search of blankets and warmers. Then we tried falling asleep—a futile effort, as anyone knows who has experienced one of these little knocks in a small ship lighthours from any habitable body, in the abject blackest patch of space imaginable (wherever you are out in those regions always seems the blackest patch imaginable).

So we congregated in the parlor, an eccentric little room you will find on most vintage planet sounders. A coffee table, several chairs, a divan, and a dinette against the wall with tea things—that about sums it up. Most parlors have a decent port window, say six feet by nine, with curtains of course, and this is the only element of those tin-can ships with the least breath of luxury. There was Gdameric and I, with medical transfers to Port Ibsen; Mr. Shady our specialist in entropy; a luminous young woman—Miss Curie—whose eyes sparkled like quartz; and the old madame. I seem to remember the girl was traveling with a lover, but the lover had mostly kept to his room as the centrifuge upset his stomach; at any rate the three of us men were absently trying to make a play for her. Coffee all around, and a hand of cards which we could not play for lack of concentration.

The entropy specialist and the young woman were all for going to the captain, but it was not quite time for that yet. "These things happen rather frequently," I said, with the authority of a jaded veteran of the void. "Not to worry. The microbots shall have it all patched up by breakfast, whatever it is."

"Could be anything." Gdameric was holding his coffee by the rim, staring out into the Plead cluster. I was always fond of him, but he was a worrier.

"Indeed, indeed," Shady affirmed, with his quaint outer-rim accent. "There's precedents. The Bluelake, the Lucretia... "

"The White Ship," my partner echoed. "The Titanic, the Hindenburg, the Challenger. Ships go down, by sea or by air or by void." Miss Curie's eyes were growing large.

It was then the old woman coughed and, in a voice like rough-running water, began her tale...

* * *

"You forgot to mention, in your inventory of shipwrecks, the Finlander. That's the ship I was on. I was eighteen, and traveling alone.

"My parents were sending me to a special school on Earth. I wanted to be an architect, you see. For the past year I had dreamed about it, the journey, of having a shipboard romance with a handsome officer and all that. But when I got there I found that people tend to be tired and short-tempered out in space, and once you got the hang of it it was incredibly boring. The three girls who shared my room were all high society, so I spent much of my time in the library or the large garden that had banana trees—it was a real starship, the Finlander, a great city of a craft, and I came to know it well. I wandered around a lot, even back then.

"But on the night it happened, I was sound asleep. I woke because the other girls were whispering—for the engines had stopped. And also that soft sucking sound that came from the fusion tanks. We were far out from Fox Heath but would still be picking up speed for another week before the jump. Yes, doctor, we were right smack in the middle of the blackest patch of void imaginable. And I lay there for some unknowable amount of time, we all lay there, listening, just listening. The merest pip from a wall sensor probably would have driven us out of our senses—you know how that is. I had that feeling, that you get in dreams sometimes, when it seems something very important is wrong and yet you can't imagine what.

"And then it came—like being hit on the head with the blunt side of an axe. I flipped off my bunk and onto the floor, on top of one of the other girls, and we all lay there, on the cold metal, dazed. Then the lights went out, all but the ghost lights in the hall.

"My companions immediately commenced with hysterics, of course. Thank god they bolted, went to their mother or father or councilor or whoever it was looking after them, and I never saw them again. I stayed in my room, like we had been taught in orientation. I forced myself to sit down in the chair and take a deep breath; I found a bit of wire and kept winding and unwinding it from my fingers. And then I was all right. My mind became clear again, and I somehow slowed my pulse down. I stood in the doorway looking down into the darkened hall. At first many people rushed by me, all the population of our wing it seemed, for then there was nobody. After they left the ship seemed haunted, in that weird blue glow. I'm not sure they do now, but back then space mariners had superstitions about chamblins, tortured deamons that haunted deep space and were drawn to ships, which they would destroy with squeals of joy reminiscent of small girls at play. I used to know a mariner who swore it really did happen to him once—that just before he had to abandon a ship he could feel and hear phantom like things flying about, and this girlish squeaking all around the ship. That never happened on the Finlander, though I felt at the time a certain dark presence had crept on board...

"So I stood there for maybe a quarter of an hour and finally a man—an officer—appeared at the end of the corridor.

"'Girl, come on! What the hell you doing back there? We've gotta jump ship!' He said something like that, and I replied, quite reasonably, that they hadn't announced it yet. And then he ran past me without answering. Yes, doctor, an officer, I'm sure he was. The lights had come back on by then, but now from the engine deck we could hear the sounds of moaning metal, and the air was being pumped in at full force.

"No one ever discovered what happened to the Finlander. When the rescue ships arrived, they found her with a hole the size of a house ripped in her central hull. She was carrying wheat, wheat and avocados. The avocados were strung along the void—rescue ships had to dodge them as they pulled up even with the wreck. But there was no debris of any other sort, such as a comet or asteroid fragment would make. And there was very little in the hold, more wheat and unescaped avocados, and some glass. And a body, the exploded body of a man who must have been a stowaway, for all the others were accounted for. Where the glass came from they never knew. Or the man. And no one has ever explained how a man with a few pieces of glass was able destroy a ship. And yet the universe is full of such things—ghosts, chamblins, ships that go down for no cause in perfect conditions...

"So there I was, eighteen years old, alone on a ship that was breathing her last. There was a great wind in the corridors now, with the air pumps slowly being mastered by the enormous breach. One found it hard to move at all against such a wind, but I somehow made it to the shuttle ports. Most of the senior crew was huddled there, and the last of the passengers, and of the twelve shuttles only one was left in the bay. I could see through the windows beyond the shuttle, and there were bodies floating there—I learned later that some hysterical passengers had, in the first moments of panic, unwittingly opened an emergency access door, and so had been sucked out into the void. And you know at first I didn't even recognize them as bodies, I thought they were rocks. Nothing seems even remotely human out in space, not even humans themselves.

"The captain and the navigator and the engine chief were all there. They were yelling things above the wind and gesturing, and the passengers and other crew members clustered around them, sheep-like, and so they hardly noticed me when I came up. The captain, she didn't want to abandon ship, but the engineer was adamant. He kept gesturing to the shuttle, and looking at his watch, and shaking his head. A few crew members were towing out the last shuttle, working furiously, and yet in their space suits in the vacuum of the bay they seemed hardly working at all, it was more like they were children playing a game. A giddy, surreal feeling began overcoming me, and I realized that I was starting to lose my mind. That's when I felt someone touch my hand, quite gently, from behind.

"She was a passenger, a woman in her early thirties traveling with two small children. They were all suited up, and she was pointing me towards the wall where emergency suits were hung, and it was only then I realized everyone there was wearing a space suit, except me. She helped me on with it, this clear-headed woman with curly dark hair, a large, rather comely nose and large eyes. Grey. To this moment I still remember how grey they were, those eyes, with a soft yellowish edge to them. One would think a civilian, a young woman with two children, would be incoherent with terror, but she was very calm, courteous even. I still remember the touch of her hands as she zipped me into the suit, calm, reflective, making sure each tie and valve was as it should be. And we never exchanged a single word, for it was too windy for anything but shouting.

"They opened the door to the last shuttle just before I clamped my boots. The crew who had readied the shuttle did not come out—they stayed inside the shuttle and would not listen to orders; some of the rest of the crew ran in and joined them—one couldn't really blame them, most of them were so young, and dying in a uniform is no different than dying in any other clothing... So of course there was not enough room for all the passengers; five or six of us were left behind with perhaps twelve of the crew. I remember these passengers—one of them was a fattish business man who had accosted me in the canteen (he seemed a brute at the time), and another a small silver-haired old man stooping, as best he could in his over large space suit, over a white cane. And also there was this woman who had helped me with my suit. She had gotten her children on board the shuttle, but had not gone aboard herself. How she did that—what force within her could command such mad bravery or power of self-sacrifice—I cannot imagine. And the other three passengers were all younger, athletic looking men. Strangely I had never even seen them until that moment. Hell, you never meet them, I thought, unless you're in some jam and can't possibly sleep around or do anything else about it. And I burst out laughing—a sound that was painfully enormous in the small area of my helmet—and found it hard to stop.

"We stood watching the last shuttle drift off and put on engines, and then the chief engineer turned the air off, and we could all hear the captain's voice in our suit speakers.

"'Okay, folks, I guess this is our lucky day.' She had a soft, lispy voice, which you would not expect from a ship's captain. 'So listen up. Mike here tells me the Finlander is going explosive in ten minutes, so we'll be dancing the void. That's right, free fall. Your suit warmers and the insulation should protect you for twenty-four hours. Your oxygen should last eight. Hopefully an emergency jump ship will be here by then to pick us up. You see this?' The navigator had brought out a large stick with several handholds angling out from one end. The stick was glowing a vibrant blue. 'This is what's known as a drift candle. Six of us will hold on to it, and the rest will hold on to them, and so we drift together, with the light. So grab someone and don't let go; get close and snuggle up to someone. Because it's going to be a long, dark night out there, if you (heh) get my drift.' Oh yes, she was a tough bird, our captain. Thank the stars she was, or it would have turned horrible much earlier on.

"The exhaust from the last shuttle had burnt out—we could see several of them now, flitting about the open void with their glowing tails, like fireflies. I had never heard of these drift candles—they were really designed for robots, not humans; for there was plenty of space for all humans in the shuttles, only the first few had left in a panic, with only a few frightened passengers on board. But nothing could be done about it now. We gathered around our little candle, and as it happened I was gripping one of the bars. And the young woman whose children were now safely away put her arms around my waist and I looked again at her grey eyes and comfortable little smile. Then her lips moved; I couldn't understand and shook my head, and so she moved them again and then I understood: 'Don't let go.'

"And then the captain burst in on the speakers again telling us to get into position. They turned on the last of the air and unsealed the magnetic doorways, and a great gust of wind literally swept us off our feet and out of the shuttle port. And the next thing I saw looking down was the Finlander far below us, whirling still, like some monstrous Ferris wheel gone awry. And then I was almost blinded, for they had lit our candle, and it seemed to be giving off as much light as a small star.

"How can I explain it, doctor? This feeling of complete weightlessness and freedom, and at the same time the prison-like grip in my hands and in my mind and over my whole spirit. Do you know how it is to be choked by fear? Literally, choked by it so you could hardly breathe? I must have eaten up a fifth of my oxygen in the first ten minutes, and when the Finlander did explode—strange, watching an explosion in total silence—I almost let go. I could see the helmets of the others around me, but not their faces, because of the glare. We almost collided with one of the exploded bodies, a woman dressed only in her bra and panties, and I began laughing hysterically again. I remember thinking: this is really something. I'm really living through something here. But I had no idea what it was, really, even now I don't. It is too much for the human mind to comprehend, I think, this complete freedom, this lack of any boundary. Because we were nowhere. It is a strange place, that nowhere, clinging to our candle as it waded through the utter and absolute abyss. But all that time I felt those arms of hers. I felt the pulse in them, and the touch of her helmet as she leaned into my thigh. Lucky kids, I thought, with a mother like that.

"And yet, and yet... I let go... somehow. She died, that lovely woman. How it happened I couldn't really say—later they told me that some random placement of the bodies clinging to it must have jerked the lamp. All I know is that suddenly my hands were empty, empty and grasping into the void and that bright light of the sun was receding away from us—me and that woman—and there was nothing there in front of me, nothing at all, because I could close my eyes and open them and nothing, save for a few dim stars, would change. Have you ever had that feeling, doctor, that you do not even exist?"

The old lady, thrown out of her reverie by the disturbing thought, looked over at me in the darkened, candle-lit parlor that was colder than ice. "Well, have you, doctor?" she repeated.

Realizing at last that it was not a rhetorical question, I fumbled to take control of my voice, which seemed to have gotten locked up in the general freeze. "Well I... I suppose when I was a child, yes. Before... well, before the realities of life sunk in finally. You know, all the accoutrements familiar to the waking world—coffee and taxes and showering, and things that..."

"Yes, things like that. But what if there were no things, doctor? What if everything were taken away? Not only coffee and taxes and showering and sex—yes, I know you were counting that in your 'familiar accoutrements', doctor—but earth and air and sky, truth and love and knowledge, everything."

"Save for a few dim stars," Gdameric echoed.

"They say I was out there close to eight hours, in freefall through the void. It's hard to even conceive of it now, much less remember. She was holding on to me and I must have panicked, thrown her off. Because when they picked me up I was alone. It was a miracle really, them finding me like that. They never found her. I made inquiries afterwards, about her children, but they told me the father would be coming out to get them. I never saw them, or any of the others. They sent me home, you see, on a slow and lumbering old ship that did not have banana trees. It took me years to get over it, of course, and still on certain nights I get the bad feelings again, the feelings of being lost and weightless, as if they had not found me after all, and I was still hurtling through that timeless void—quite a common reaction, you know. But anyway, that was the wreck of the Finlander, over fifty years ago in fair conditions, cause unknown."

* * *

Mrs. Rheingold had got up and wandered about the parlor in the course of her tale, but now she sat down again. I felt Gdameric shuddering in his blankets next to me and, looking beyond the cold expressionless face of the old woman, I saw Miss Curie, in the corner, winding her delicate gilt necklace furiously through her thumb and forefinger. Then the five of us seemed to notice, all at once, the faint hum that had commenced sometime in the last quarter of an hour—the ship's heating system had come back on line.

And now one of the officers ducked his head through the imitation wood doors. "Ah, thought I heard voices. Well, nought's to worry—we took a knock in the magnetic array. 'S all right now, folks, get some rest." He did not wait for replies; we heard the click of his boots echoing down the spotless corridor, crisp and rapid; and the whole ship seemed to stir to life, the fans and circuits and instruments and the happy and relieved voices that echoed back and forth along the corridors. But in the parlor no one rose. Not the entropy specialist, wiping cold beads of dew from his forehead, nor Mrs. Rheingold, with the vacant stare of memory upon her, nor Gdameric, who coughed, nor even the girl, with her siren eyes and trembling lips that giggled now unbelievingly, nor I. We all sat silent and stiff as death, until the old woman rose with an effort and, going over to the port window, pulled the little curtains firmly closed.





Copyright © 2008 Joel Van Valin

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Joel Van Valin is the publisher of Whistling Shade literary journal and the author of the fantasy novel The Flower of Clear Burning. His short fiction has appeared in Fifth Di, Alien Worlds, Writer's Hood and elsewhere. He lives in St. Paul.

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