“Countermeasures depleted,” the ship said. “Shields holding…for now.”
The ship hurtled toward the hourglass-shaped nebula. The ship and the two crew members aboard all knew what that meant. Already, it was getting icy in the cabin.
A missile sliced past their port side. The ship veered just as the missile burst apart.
“Shall I resume audio replay of the communications from the sector authority vessel?” the ship asked. It knew how the captain would typically answer, but they were not in a typical situation.
“Negative,” the captain replied. She turned her head slightly to the crewmate sitting beside her, the engineer. “You know, it’s funny. I find the voices of most human females to be extremely pleasant. But this one…”
The engineer chuckled. “It’s probably because she’s chasing you. And not in a fun way.”
The temperature in the cabin dropped suddenly as they entered the outer “skin” of the nebula. They were plunging right into the core.
The authority ship was still following. And it was still firing.
“I thought they’d break off by now,” the captain said, glancing at the rear display, just as another missile struck the shield.
“My fault!” the ship said.
The captain shook her head. “No, I slipped.”
“Missile bearing right towards us,” the ship said, its tone as even as ever, but its crewmates noted the crackle of static in its audio. “The cold is intense. I’m having trouble maneuvering. Brace for impact.”
The engineer frantically pressed buttons on his console. The rear hatch opened and debris fell out of the tiny ship.
“I thought we were out of countermeasures,” the captain said, trying to help the ship veer in an erratic, unpredictable trajectory.
“Sorry mates,” the engineer said. “I just jettisoned our loot.”
The captain grunted. “Well, if it’s a choice between our loot and our lives…”
“We choose our lives,” all three said in unison.
The engineer checked the readings and he looked out of the cabin window. “Thirty seconds to the core.”
“Attention all crew,” the ship said. “The sector authority vessel is slowing.”
“Activating shield modifications,” the engineer said. His console displayed several nodes arrayed along the hull lighting up.
The captain put her hand on the console. “Moth, are you sure?”
“Yes, captain,” the ship said.
The captain turned to the engineer. “Jason?”
The engineer smiled and gazed ahead. “Sid,” he said, over-pronouncing his crewmate’s nickname. “It’s the only way.”
Moth, Jason, and Sid flew into the core of the coldest object in the known universe.
“…so in the twentieth century,” Jason said, “humans discovered this nebula that they called the Boomerang.”
“Boomerang?” Moth asked.
“It’s an Earth object—I’m not sure. The nebula looked the same shape or something. Anyway, they noted that the nebula was colder than the ambient temperature of space, but they didn’t know why or how that could be possible.”
Sid returned to the cabin from her check on the rest of the ship. A few of Moth’s non-critical internal sensors had already frozen over, a necessary sacrifice. But otherwise, the ship was floating in relative safety within the core of a relatively rare nebula.
She handed Jason a thermos full of hot coffee. “Well, in case we were hoping any of those endiaferite crystals managed to lodge themselves into cracks in the cargo bay, no luck. It’s all gone.”
“The box of bracelets I took from the sheriff’s boudoir is still in my quarters,” Sid said, winking her central eye at the engineer. “At least we won’t starve, if we manage to get out of this in one piece.”
“The sector authority ship is still holding position just outside the near-zero horizon,” Moth reported. “I can just sense their engine noise, but more loudly…”
Moth began to play the audio of the recorded commands that the sector authority vessel was sending on a loop.
Captain Sidyggk, emerge from the nebula and surrender your vessel, your crew, and yourself to sector authority custody immediately. You are wanted for questioning regarding the theft of five crates of raw endiaferite crystals from Mining Colony—
“Turn it off,” Jason said. He shook his head. “Millions. They have millions upon millions, and they chased us into this nebula for five.”
“You and I aren’t even being summoned by name, Commander,” Moth said. “Permission to send them a reply. Content of reply, ‘Come in here and get us.’”
“Permission granted,” Sid said. “Not that you need it.”
“There might be some decent people aboard,” Jason said, taking a sip of his coffee. “They’d die if they come in here.”
Sid peered at the available sensor readings, a meager fraction of the typical. “Then let’s hope they do the sensible thing, and leave.”
“If all they wanted was their loot back, we gave it to them,” Jason said. “They are doing the sensible thing, if their aim is to get us.”
Sid settled in her chair. “Have either of you changed any of your calculations since the last time I asked?”
Moth and Jason both answered in the negative. The modified shield they had installed as multiple nodes around Moth’s hull was holding, and the nodes were undamaged. This was the first real field test of the shield that was designed to protect Moth and its crew from extreme cosmic conditions, such as being in one of the coldest places in the known universe. The nebula they were sheltering in was made when a red giant was struck by its companion star, forcing the giant’s outer layers to be expelled so much more quickly than they typically would be that the flowing matter grew incredibly cold, colder than the cold of ambient space.
The modified shield was holding, but it would only hold for as long as they had the power to keep it running. And that was one of the shield’s drawbacks. It consumed a terrifying amount of power.
No doubt whoever was in charge over on that sector authority vessel suspected as much.
“It would seem they’re looking to outlast us,” Sid said.
Jason nodded. “We are officially under siege.”
Only three days had passed. And while they had plenty of water and food for Sid and Jason, the fuel and energy reserves for Moth—and the shield that was keeping them all alive—were already half depleted. And that sector authority vessel was still just outside, still perched and waiting to swoop down on Moth as soon as it fluttered out of the nebula’s cold core.
“I just need to know if it can be done,” Sid said, glancing between Jason and Moth—or rather, the central console where Moth displayed a face for visual interaction.
Jason, being human, was the most susceptible to extremes of temperature. He already had his excursion suit on to help him keep warm. Sid would have to don hers soon enough, and that meant more energy drain as they constantly recharged their suits.
Jason raised his brows, which were just visible behind the visor of his helmet. “Make a device that can convert random nebular matter into fuel?”
“Even if such a thing were to exist—which it does not, according to my last database update—we would not be able to construct it with whatever tools and materials we have on hand,” Moth added.
Jason and Moth had been recalculating their energy use each time they made a change to usage—like Jason donning his suit. Their aim was to make sure that all three received an equal balance of the energy needed to keep them alive.
Sid looked at Moth’s visual display. “Maybe if you give over full piloting control to me, I can get us past—“
“That won’t work, Captain. I have explained why.”
Jason shook his head. “Sid, you don’t need us to tell you the calculations. Blasting past sector authority and hoping we could sprint ahead far enough to get out of range…you know that’s not even in the realm of possibility. Having said that, we have done the calculations. If we try what you’re proposing, we won’t make it.” He squeezed and un-squeezed his hands.
“Our inability to outrun the authority vessel is the reason we took the risk of entering the nebula in the first place,” Moth said in a voice full of crackle and static.
“I’m aware of that.” Sid looked out of the cabin window, and though she couldn’t see it, she glowered at the sector authority vessel.”
Jason performed the next check of the sensors, which he was doing every hour now. “Then again, our only other choice is to let Moth’s power run down and freeze to death.”
“Days! We’ve only lasted days. In ambient space, these shields would have lasted for years.” Sid slammed her fist on a console.
“Captain, do not take your frustration and aggression out on me.”
Sid raised her hands. “Sorry, Moth. I’m sorry.”
Jason put a hand over Sid’s. “Maybe it’s time you put on a suit.”
“I won’t take energy that belongs to Moth.”
“Everything we have belongs to all three of us,” Moth said. “Why must you be so stubborn, Captain?”
“Because…” Sid flicked a switch, turning on the audio of the message that they were still receiving from the sector authority vessel.
…still may show leniency to the other members of the crew and to your ship. Repeat: Captain Sidyggk, emerge from the nebula and surrender your vessel, your crew, and yourself—
She flicked the switch back off. “…I’m the captain.”
“Not really,” Jason said. “I could be captain as of this moment, if you want to relieve yourself.”
Moth’s visual display face frowned at Sid. “You have told me that you are aware I only use such designations out of courtesy.”
“Alright then, I may not be a real captain, but I’m the one who put this crew together.” Sid turned to Jason and pointed out of the cabin window. “And I’m the one they’re holding responsible. And if the agent in charge was open to bargaining, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
“Wait—maybe that could work in our favor,” Jason said. “Maybe I should be captain from this point on.”
Moth’s visual display flicked its eyes toward Jason. “Explain, potential new captain.”
“She sounds real by-the-book. Someone who thinks we’re just a bunch of dishonorable criminals.”
Sid crossed her arms. “Aren’t we?”
“She might not be surprised to hear there’s been a mutiny. We turned on each other after I dumped the crates. I have you in custody, and I’m willing to bargain if they would assist us in getting ourselves an advocate.”
“If she agrees, that would mean her vessel would have no choice but to escort us back to sector central,” Moth said. “And she would do that if your assessment of her is correct.”
“Unless she’s one of those types who doesn’t follow her own rules,” Sid suggested. “I’ve tried a few light grifts in my time. One failed. The rest, well, I feel like I only got lucky. Psychological tactics are not among my skills.”
“Nor mine,” Moth said.
Jason shook his head. “Likewise.”
“But we can’t let Moth get down to a quarter of its power,” Sid said. “I don’t want it to get even close to suffering a depletion cascade.”
“Then we’ll have to explore desperate measures,” Jason said. “And I have one.” He gestured to his console. “Sector authorities don’t recognize the sentience of ships, right?”
Moth’s visual display frowned. “Jason…no.”
But Sid peered at her crewmate’s chart and calculations. “She’d only get lightly impounded, after getting checked for traps—which we can remove. You and I can keep the majority of the modified shield nodes, which should last longer only shielding two smaller entities. Then we float around until Moth can come back and rescue us.”
“Commander, I don’t see the part of your plan where the sector authority discovers the shield nodes, and either disables or removes them, rendering me unable to return without dying myself, before I ever reached you,” Moth said. “They will, of course, immediately study me to ascertain how I was able to withstand sub-ambient cosmic temperatures.”
“Did you not see the part of my plan about the decoy device?” Jason magnified a portion of his chart.
Sid twisted her mouth. “Would that really fool them?”
“It would not be wise to underestimate an authority engineer,” Moth said.
Sid glanced over at the ship’s facial display. “Moth, you and Jason were clever enough to devise and build this shield in the first place—the shield that’s keeping all of us alive right now. The shield that actually works. I’m thinking that making a fake shield device good enough to fool a skilled engineer would only take a fraction of that same cleverness.” She patted Jason’s shoulder. “I like this plan. Not so much the part where we’re floating naked in a nebula, but—“
“I’m not leaving you,” Moth said. “And…there may be another way.”
“You have a plan too?” Sid glanced over at her excursion suit. “Maybe you two are right. The cold is dumbing me down. Maybe I should don my suit and come up with my own brilliant plan. Three is better than one.”
“I don’t have a plan of escape,” Moth said. “But I do have something to report. A new piece of information that we might be able to make use of somehow. It’s…strange. I’ve been sensing it for a few hours now. I wouldn’t have mentioned it yet. It may not be significant.”
“Has anyone ever told you that it’s extremely creepy when a ship’s intelligence gets all coy and cryptic?” Jason said.
“I’m not being cryptic. I’m…confused.”
Jason leaned over his console and brought up the ship’s monitoring information. “Did you lose some more sensors? How many? I didn’t see any change in readings.”
“There is a change in the readings. Check sensor gamma-three. All spectrums.”
Jason scanned the sensor’s data. “I don’t see—wait, is this what you mean?” He magnified a portion of the data.
Sid stood behind him, leaning over his shoulder. “Is that a paradigm trace?”
“Looks like it, but…it’s coming from inside the nebula.”
“And it’s not appearing on any of my other sensors, which should be impossible.”
Jason began to run a diagnostic. “Just in case, Moth. I see you’ve done one already.”
“But I could use a second opinion, and a third.”
“An echo?” Sid suggested. “Of our own signals?”
“Or maybe that authority vessel decided to take Moth up on her offer to come in here and get us,” Jason said, his hands sweeping over the console, gloved fingers tapping. “The sensors that are still running appear to be operating as expected.”
“I’ll go do a manual visual check of the sensors,” Sid said, reaching for a toolkit. “Maybe our luck is starting to give, and both our sensors and our sensor diagnostics are damaged.”
“This can’t be,” Moth said. And as it spoke, Jason saw the sensor readings change.
“Sid, wait. Whoa, that’s not possible.” He pointed to the display on his console.
“Now, half the sensors are detecting the trace and half are not,” Moth said.
Jason traced his finger along one of the readings. “And…”
Sid’s eyes widened. “It’s…changing?”
“Sid, Jason, I’m sorry. It appears you can no longer trust my systems…” Moth’s voice lagged.
“Not so fast, crewmate,” Jason said. He brought up the controls for the one probe they still had, and launched it. He extended the protection of one of the shield nodes, letting the probe go as far as it could before it froze and cracked, but not before it sent back its own readings, independent of Moth’s. “Your readings are real. No sensor glitches. No system malfunction. We are detecting a paradigm trace from within this nebula. It’s not us. And I really doubt that it’s the sector authority ship. For one thing there’s only one trace aside from our own. And as Sid correctly observed, the signal is changing.”
Sid huffed out a breath. “The universal sign of life is a constant that binds all of us together. It can’t be changed. It can’t be manipulated. It just is. Is it because of where we are? Has anyone ever measured the paradigm trace from inside of a nebula with sub-ambient cosmic temps?”
“No, but the trace was typical at first. It just changed now.”
“There’s someone in here with us,” Moth said.
“And that someone is able to change what we thought was one of the cosmic constants,” Jason said.
“But I’m not getting any other readings,” Moth said. “No recognizable patterns that I can detect. No attempts at communications. No traces of fuel or radiation emission. No visual signs of life within range. No heartbeats, movement of fluids, flow of charged particles.”
“The probe didn’t see much farther before it froze,” Jason said. “And it didn’t have anything else to report either.”
“Are you both thinking what I’m thinking?” Sid asked. The others didn’t answer. “Someone who can manipulate the paradigm trace may be more dangerous to us than the sector authority. Either they’re doing it on purpose to send a message. Or they’re doing it naturally, which only brings up old stories from my childhood about infant gods sleeping in cosmic cradles.”
“I really hope we’re not lying in the cradle of a baby god,” Jason said.
“What if it’s not a baby?” Moth said. “What if they’ve been here all along, observing us, even observing the sector authority vessel outside?”
“You think they might be showing themselves as a way to tell us to move along?” Jason asked.
Sid gazed out of the cabin window, still able to see nothing but nebular gases swirling around them. “I’d be happy to, if the sector vessel left first.”
“There’s a third option here,” Jason said, “for what that signal could be. What if it’s a ship like Moth, capable of withstanding the temperatures in here? If they’re also capable of manipulating a cosmic constant, then we might do well to try and make friends.”
“As dearly as we all cherish each other, we could use another friend right now,” Sid said. “We don’t have much time left before the shield drops and we instantly rupture into a cloud of frozen powder.”
“And become part of the nebula,” Jason said with an awkward shrug from within his excursion suit. “At least we’ll still be pretty.”
“The question, dear Captain, and sweet Commander, is ‘how?’ How do we communicate with this…entity?”
“If we send out a broad-spectrum message,” Jason said, “we’ll be giving our new friend’s secret away.”
“Assuming the sector authority doesn’t already know,” Sid said. “It occurs to me, friends, that we may not be the reason that vessel is still parked outside. Or not the only reason. Maybe not even the most important reason.”
“Sid, Jason, the signal just changed again.” Moth’s facial display appeared on the center console. The ship was frowning, but it appeared to be a frown of concentration. “It seems…simpler now, but I still can’t quite understand. I think there’s…yes, there’s a message intended. But my intellect is not complex enough to decode it.”
Sid rose and began to don her excursion suit. “Can we get that on record for the next time you boast about your complex intellect?”
Static burst over the communications system. Moth had just gasped. “The paradigm trace has changed again and…I understand. I understand the message.”
Moth’s facial display blinked away from the center console, replaced by the words of the message it was receiving.
Take me with you and I will help you.
Sid gaped. “Moth, do you know how to respond?”
“I believe so.”
Jason snapped his attention away from the center console, and began performing the next scheduled sensor check. “What should we say?”
“If that message is sincere, it tells us a few things,” Sid said, putting on her helmet. “Whoever they are, they seem to be trapped, just like we are. Like us, they seem to be technically able to leave, but something else is holding them in place.”
Jason completed his check, reporting that two sensors were now offline. “If it’s the sector authority holding them here, then we’re all still stuck until someone else comes swooping in to save us.”
“Then that’s what we need to find out,” Moth said. “I will ask them what their limitation is.”
Moth asked, and the entity answered.
The nearest star. Tell me where.
“Moth, tell our friend that it’s dangerous for them to leave with us,” Jason said. “That vessel outside will fire on us as soon as we get within range.”
Moth sent the message and received the reply.
I will help you.
“Ask our friend if it will be dangerous for us, or for the authority vessel, if we leave with them.”
Moth sent the message and received the reply.
I misunderstand the question.
“Maybe we should ask them to show themselves,” Moth suggested.
“Go ahead, Moth. And in the meantime, Jason and I will spin up the engines. One way or another, for better or worse, we are about to leave.”
Their new friend’s answer to Moth’s request came back.
Tell me where the nearest star is. Then I will show myself.
Jason tested the engines, wincing at the cracking and high-pitched grinding of frozen parts spinning into action. “Does anyone else think it’s weird that an entity that can manipulate the paradigm trace can’t detect the nearest star? Especially considering it’s not that far, as cosmic distances go anyway.”
“Reminds me of a story from my childhood,” Sid said, inputting a trajectory.
Jason sighed. “Here we go again…”
“Hang on now, human. You might have heard this one too. The staroglom.”
“Staroglom,” Moth said. “Entities that live in the vacuum of space, and travel by skipping from star to star. The stars’ distances, sizes, and qualities don’t matter, but it has to be the nearest one to wherever the entity is currently present.”
“I’ll have to teach you the poetic version of that definition,” Sid said.
“There’s not enough data to verify whether or not these entities actually exist. They may be only myth.”
“I’m reckless enough to believe in the occasional myth,” Jason said.
Moth speculated. “If the entity is a staroglom, perhaps it’s injured. Or perhaps the sub-ambient cosmic temperatures are hindering its ability to perceive the stars.”
“Making this nebula a haven and a hindrance to it, kind of like it is for us.”
Jason gazed out of the cabin window. “I thought this would be the most wondrous thing I’d experience in space. But jumping to another star in an instant…that would be something.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Sid said. “We mere tiny mortals aren’t made for that kind of journey.”
“I know,” Jason said. “But it would have been nice.”
“We can ask our new friend to leave at the same time we do,” Sid said. “Maybe that’ll be enough of a distraction for us all to get away.”
“I’ve sent all the information we have about the nearest star,” Moth said. “And I’ve sent your request, Captain.”
“Then let’s wait for our friend to reply, so we can synchronize our chronometers…and make a run for it.”
At first, they thought it was the nebular gaseous, stirring in response to the spinning up of Moth’s engines.
Colorful cords of vapor whipped and rippled all around them. The cords thickened, solidified. One of them latched onto Moth’s hull.
Sid grasped the helm controls. “Jason, given me rear thrusters.”
“Wait!” Moth cried. Another cord struck the dorsal hull. “They’re wrapping around me.”
“Is that a wormhole?” Jason was gazing ahead.
A circular abyss lay before them, a black pit held within a border that looked like gray puckered flesh.
Sid inhaled. “It’s a mouth.”
The cords—the tentacles—tightened around the ship, and began to drag it toward the mouth.
The ship trembled as it was pulled into the mouth.
But once they were past it, the turbulence stopped. The tentacles released Moth and the ship drifted through a gray hollow carried along by some unseen current. Sid and Jason tried to access the ship’s controls, but they were all offline.
The gray hollow opened into a larger space, dimly lit by some distant glimmers. The ship stopped moving and floated in place, as it had in the nebula.
The controls remained offline. The consoles would not even display sensor data. They were dark. Sid and Jason activated the lights within their suits.
Sid peered out of the cabin window. “Moth, are you alright?”
“This is a strange sensation.” Moth’s voice rang clear and resonant from the audio feeds within the suits.
“Did our friend just manifest and swallow us?” Jason asked.
Sid frowned. “I hope we’re not being slowly digested.”
“I feel…safe,” Moth said. “I imagine it’s what it must be like to be inside a womb.”
Sid glanced around. “Enjoy it while it lasts then. If it’s like every other womb in the universe, it wasn’t meant to be occupied for long.”
“I don’t understand why our suits are working but our consoles are offline,” Jason said. “And why Moth is awake but the controls are asleep.”
“I imagine it’s our friend’s doing,” Moth said. “So my thrusters don’t give them an upset stomach.”
Sid instinctively checked the nonexistent readings on her console. “Are we moving? Feels like we’re moving.”
“Does it?” Jason asked, gazing out of the window.
“I don’t know. Something is…”
“It isn’t me,” Moth said.
Sid glanced at her hands. “Do my sub-atomic components look alright to you?” She glanced over at Jason.
“I think so,” Jason said. “Mine?”
Suddenly, a pressure wave struck them and shuddered through them. Static burst in the audio feed, and Moth uttered something that sounded like a curse.
“I think I might vomit,” Jason said, taking slow, deep breaths.
“I think I might faint,” Sid said, closing all her eyes, as she slowly tilted her back and raised her arms.
The dim grayness around them darkened into a deep indigo-black, and the black became pierced with spears of light.
After a few moments, everyone’s various discomforts passed.
A series of beeps, clicks, and hums indicated that Moth was back online. All the consoles blinked awake.
Sid and Jason removed the helmets of their excursion suits and breathed freely.
“We are here,” Moth said. The center console blinked and showed a map of the ship’s current position, in relation to its last.
The nearest star to the nebula they had just been occupying was a yellow dwarf. Its golden glow warmed Moth’s starboard hull.
The entity, the staroglom, was gone, vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Either they had skipped to another star, or maybe they were right next to Moth, but had made themselves un-perceivable.
The center console blinked again, displaying a message.
Thank you for your help. I owe you a debt.
“In that case,” Sid said, “maybe our new friend can help us find another cache of a precious commodity.” She shook her head. “Then again, maybe it’s best not to push our luck.”
“I’ve sent a reply,” Moth said. “We too are in your debt. In our philosophy, a mutual debt means that we might now be friends.”
Jason smiled. “Good one. That’s a good one, Moth.”
“I just received a response.”
Moth started laughing.
Sid and Jason exchanged a glance, before they looked at the center console where Moth displayed the message.
I have always wanted to be friends with friendly scoundrels.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel