Must become used to reckoning the passage of days now without any sun. Elijah Blood maintains its own endogenous rhythm, which surprised me until I snuck down into an access hull and found what looks like grafted biological engineering. Interior lighting rises and falls, and even simulates weather. This is one of the oldest generations I have seen still fit to launch; and the more I explore, the more I think it probably three or four squandered vessels patched together. There was some speculation on our maneuver through Trellsi Binary that such a bizarre collection of parts might not have passed Clearance at all, but that Captain Maul had some words in private with the deputy inspector. I do know that three of the inspector’s men went into the captain’s quarters laughing loudly and came out again pale, and that afterward Elijah Blood was given codes for locating the sinkholes without further distraction.
Maul: even the Trellsi had heard of him. One of them, a Cryoassist who was so augmented his skin tone had gone blue, gave me a narrow rotten grin on his way off-ship.
YOU LOOK FRESH MEAT he tapped out, eyeing me the way you would a prostitute. The crewmen around me chuckled. I faced him directly and said it was my first time aboard a hunting party but that I didn’t know what concern that was of a hired iceman. The Cryo smiled again with those grotesque blue-white teeth and looked over all of us, slowly, as if he was viewing a room full of the damned. The neck-support hissed as it turned his head.
“ALL OF YOU SPACING WITH A GHOST,” he wrote.
As I return my copy of Dracula to the cargo slot this evening, I confess I feel a bit like Jonathan Harker being forewarned by the villagers against the terrible presence of the tyrant.
Given that we are still confined to our quarters by skin-seals across the doors, there has been a remarkable amount of work done. We have labeled every item stowed by each crew member; we have run core diagnostics on systems that will probably fail at the first turbulence; we have cooked and hand-frozen at least a quarter of the foodstuffs that are within our reach. I touched one of the skin-seals myself today; they have a rough but pliant texture, one that seems, at first, as if it could be punctured by a knifeblade, but that beyond a certain point resists pressure with absolute fixity. Tiny veins cross-hatch their sides, sometimes in root-like patterns, sometimes in the precise delineations of a motherboard. The skin-seal is a living thing, and will hold its seal, only allowing for oxygen flow, until the semi-organism reaches adulthood, at which time it is designed to tear open like a sheet. Until then, we work alone.
The walls fade down to ocher and then vanish while Elijah Blood sleeps, but even at ship-night the core drones on all around us, as the coffins to which my section has been assigned are the closest to its brain. The sound, I am told, is not in the air at all, but comes from somewhere within our own subconscious brains, like a resonant string in the presence of slow vibration. Soon I will drift off myself, hopefully to no more unpleasant dreams.
They say Maul does not sleep.
Passed through the outer rim of the great sinkhole yesterday and vomited. First time in, after so many years of wondering about the experience. Outu-u, the moonie, hit me hard between the shoulder blades while I was trying to regain myself and said it was just like sex: “First you can’t believe it, then you get used to it, eventually you get bored with it.” His comments are crude, but I believe he means well.
To think my father wanted me to be a preacher.
I have onboard the last gift he gave me: a King James Bible, leather-bound, with actual pages. Yet he never knew how much more his other antiquities have inspired my life: Treasure Island, Dracula,The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. I have read them all a half dozen times—but the repeated story, with its conclusion foretold, is a comfort to me, like a reliable companion.
Though Elijah Blood only touched the outermost edge of the sink, the effects onboard were enormous. The cabin screens showed the hole itself not just as a vague absence, but as spiraling outward in three great arms, like some kind of detailed anti-galaxy. Recalled when I was a boy watching the great sinkhole blot out the summer stars, a little more each night, a huge disk of nothing in the sky.
Holographic trainers provided by the ship told us before passing through to expect all sorts of mental phenomena: an “undertow” of deja vu, muscle ache, and memory flashes. Some of the older crew even claim to have seen themselves for a moment standing in other parts of the deck. Outu-u says if you hit the hole just right, “you can give yourself a blowjob while in there.” The humor is as bizarre as the man.
This evening Trellsi Planetary System, where I have lived my entire life, no more than a faint bluish haze.
I have heard him walking on the foredeck. Quiet among the crewmembers when they noticed it, a sudden break in the ten-language banter. The sounds he makes are subtle, like the whirring of mechanical circuits, but they appear to fill even the hardened crewmembers with a kind of dread. Aman with an access patch grafted onto his left temple ran a magnet over it once for so long I believed he was going to pass out,But even he only gritted his jaw and stared at the bunk ahead of him.
On the foredeck itself, from what I can see, everything shines immaculately white. Maul does not abide inconsistencies in his environment. He himself has yet to appear, though from time to time a lean shadow will grow and recede from the vicinity of his quarters. Amazing to me is the fact that the mere shadow itself is met with the same trepidation among these workers, at least some of whom I know for certain board on hunting crews continuously to evade some serious charges that would apply to them if they ever were to land.
Met with more recruits today as the cabin skins began opening. Several old timers, one with a magnificent beard tied by string, who had been out with Elijah Blood before. Another loud, thick-necked man with raised purple marks all along both his forearms and hands; something from working in a radiation zone. When he caught me staring, he asked how I liked his “pretty tattoos,” but I just remained quiet, which is how I have seen others avoid trouble. Later he found a fight with another mate that ended with the smaller one being taken to MedDeck.
Postscript: After the sink jump, our motion through space in normal time seems infinitesimal. We wait . . . and we wait.
“Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath, nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.”
Thank the true heaven for quick friendship! While the moonie’s own skin was at first so unusual-looking that it made me uncomfortable to be around him, he has nevertheless shown a determination to attach himself to me, which tonight was my salvation. The man is kelly green in an ornate circuitry pattern that runs entirely over his chest and up across his bald cranium. He glitters like a gem even in shadow—a graft of some sort, saprophite technology.
Outu-u (or, as he corrects me, ou-TOO) is from one of the smaller moons back at Trellsi, and says he was a miner there until the Oeli hunters started passing through our system looking for recruits. Lethal work; fewer than sixty percent of any given mining crew survive the job past a decade. Though in one sense we lived close to each other, his dialect is so odd I miss a good deal of the conversation—something about an industrial oversight that stranded two work colonies, where they seem to have made their own society for years. I told him about my youth on the inner planets, feeling hopelessly inadequate; all my dreams of adventure have been only that, dreams. But the moonie, instead of despising my inexperience, patted my neck and smiled.
Though I took it as a kindness, it was a disquieting gesture. His teeth were filed down to points.
I woke from a fitful sleep only an hour later with the mate with the purple radiation scars putting his hands under my shirt. When I tried to fight, he forced himself into the coffin and on top of me in such a way as to bend my spine backward. I cried out, but the man cut off my breathing with thick, black-tipped fingers, sticking the things right in my mouth. The next I knew he was off of me and Outu-u was beating his head fiercely against the desk. Elijah Blood started sending flashes up through the floor to record the transgression, but the moonie only laughed.
When I could move again, I shouted at him to stop. The mate, brawny as he was, was pleading. One of his pink eyes had swollen shut already and there was fluid coming from his nostril. Outu-u leaned down and bit off a wedge of the man’s ear.
I have seen him.
The few remaining cabin lips opened this morning, the earliest ones already shriveling to black and being slowly digested by the ship. A general meeting of the crew was called on the foredeck in front of Maul’s quarters. I had not realized how badly the muscles on either side of my spine had been pulled by the late-night attack: even standing straight was a sharp pain, and from time to time colors swam in front of my eyes. There had been word of small schools of Oeli in our vicinity, or at least of the eddies they leave behind. No official sign given that Elijah Blood was going into attack form, but all morning that weird hum in our heads had been deepening. To me the ship sounds eager.
At ship-noon the main systems came on and all hands gathered: my first glimpse of what the true body of Elijah looks like.
I had no accurate conception as to its enormity. The stars are visible in three vast strips across its curved ceiling, appearing through impressed data-sheeting that analyzes their spectra in a rainbow of displays. Where we stood, the ship was entirely active, opening broad pits in the floor from which circuit pillars rose, every screen—the ones inside our quarters seem pathetically basic now, compared to these mammoth displays, with their floating holographic signs—calculating the geometry of flight.
No one interacts with these; indeed, though they have the general shape of consoles, the standard contacts have all been removed and I could make out no ulterior access of any kind. The resulting sensation was very much like standing in the midst of an enormous, working brain.
Then came that weird hush among the men, all from different outposts, all from different races, that I had witnessed before, as if some current had passed invisibly through the short hair of our necks. They were looking silently up at the balcony that led to Maul’s quarters. The cabin lips parted, and then I knew why.
Great God! I had heard stories when the hunting parties came through each year of what had happened to this captain, how he had been wounded in the chase and of what kind of a halfling he was as a result. But no story prepared me for the actual vision. The captain is dead—or, at least, the human side of his face is entirely gray and desiccated, one eye resting lifelessly in the socket like a deflated thing. The other half of his face—
no, the other half of his body—seemed entirely android. A claw hung from the left arm, and the left eye burned fiercely with a digital intelligence as it scanned our heads.
I recoiled in more than horror—in revulsion at the spectre before us. The man is a grotesquerie, a scarecrow who has been not merely kept alive, like the Cryoassists, by massive artificial implants—but completely taken over by them, which havenow become his only motivating force. I believe the disgust and amazement must have shown on my face, for Maul’s red eye stopped on me, and from his balcony fifteen feet overhead it seemed to look into my heart with something like hate.
He has given us our orders. Minor eddies in space have been located off the third rim of the sinkhole. They may be ancient wing-prints from the larger Oeli, but the ship believes them to be fresh, possibly made by several of the young.
I leave my imaginary adventures hidden safely in my cargo slot. Now comes the true experience.
The attack pods are sprouted, and we board within the hour.
I was placed on the third pod, lucky position for a first- timer. All we actually did was to watch the other two close in and execute an attack. Such beautiful creatures, the Oeli—
they move through space with the grace of birds, which they roughly resemble; at least in the extension of titanic, sloping wings that reach out from the flanks of an otherwise featureless, even headless, body. The wings of course do not beat, but the visual effect for someone raised in an atmosphere is unavoidable.
The Oeli were both young, as the ship suspected, and there is a law against killing these; but Maul is apparently a law unto himself. At one point the eddies caused by the larger one attempting to escape curled over onto one of the pods and it re-emerged several seconds behind itself, almost on top of us. Our forescreens burned until they became unusable and we had to return blind.
Postscript: The ship is navigating dangerously along the periphery of several minor sinkholes spawned by the Binary. These must be fresh holes, as they were not present on any of the charts. Crew extremely agitated by this—after the initial leap, we were supposed to be well out into deep space. Even the smallest holes could compact the Elijah Blood in a picosecond, or send us somewhere from which no return would be possible. But now I know why no one questions Maul.
Tasted fresh Oeli for the first time tonight. The internal flesh is sharp and bitter, and flakes apart like ashes in the mouth. The crust of the beasts is the precious material; even though it is dead, one can feel a weird tingling in its presence from as much as a foot away, like passing your hand through a strong magnetic field. Enough silicon basics in the carapace plates of one of these to feed a colony the size of my own for weeks.
I was not present on the hunting party that brought in the first adult, a creature some century or two in age. The mature Oeli is enormous, its shell-like exterior smooth and blue-black. The men suspend it in the central butchery by chains (by chains! It is still the simplest way), slowly pressurizing the room before the cutting begins.
Nausea again tonight as I slept, and more nightmares; the Oeli flesh turned acidic and terrible inside me. But I am not the only one feeling a strange illness. Struggling to the crew toilets I found Outu-u himself, who almost lives on the things, spitting drops of blood. I was concerned but he only gestured to his head, signifying space sickness, and something else about the circuitry printed on his chest. He grinned to show me he was unbothered, but the man does not look well.
There is an increasing sense of horror regarding the captain, greater even than that which has attended him since the beginning. I spoke to no one here of my own shock, but it appears I was not alone in my repulsion. One old timer, who spaced with the man before, claims to have known nothing about his pseudo-death. The last he was aware of it, Maul was still at least half human—propped up by machinery, but a man. He speculates that the synthetic half may be continuing to operate on the dead captain’s last wishes, like a walking feedback loop. If so, then Maul may not be a conscious thing at all, but an impulse, the obsessive reiteration of a man.
God help us, now I know what the laughing Cryoassist meant about our spacing under a ghost. Like the mythical ship Demeter that bears Count Dracula into England, we sail with a dead man at the helm.
Still hugging much too closely the outline of the sinkholes. Time disturbances reaching inside the cabins now, though the ship strains to rebalance. To add to the danger, some of the holes that have been appearing are as small as meteors, and moving too quickly for Elijah Blood to navigate safely. Even a microdot traveling through the ship would be lethal, and the large-scale warp waves are making all hands ill. No more solace in my nineteenth-century fictions; at night I simply lie in my coffin and feel spacetime rocking around us like a troubled fluid. Before and after becoming arbitrary in minor but noticeable ways.
In a weirdly persuasive fashion, I feel that I have keyed in these words a dozen times already, as if everything that is to come, the account of which will fill these chips, is already written, indeed written by my own hand.
At breakfast the radiation-scarred mate stood up abruptly from the great table and smashed his ration to the floor, accusing Maul of running us on a suicide course with the last sinkhole in the tail of Trellsi Seven, the great nothing that is the only one visible from my home. The shaved hair around the stitches Outu-u had given him made his aspect only more wild and dangerous; he called the captain an insane program executing itself inside a corpse, and began shouting for immediate mutiny. Someone else seconded the call, a miner whom I did not know, but just as I was expecting real violence there came that silence again. The shadow of the captain was standing motionless along the corridor wall.
Later that afternoon word was passed, though many of our cabin screens remained disturbingly blank, that Maul had called another meeting. We waited in the great room underneath his balcony for twenty minutes before he showed, long enough away from our stations that I too felt the tense interruption of routine that seemed to be on everyone’s face. When Maul appeared, he had the mate who had called for mutiny suspended in one hand. It was the coppery-tinted claw, and it pinched the struggling mate by the jaw.
“Who goes with this one?” the captain roared, and his dead mouth never moved. The stocky mate was held off the floor by a foot and a half, kicking like an insect, and Maul held him out so we could all hear the sounds. When he tossed the body down at us, men scattered to the sides as if it were infected. It hit with a sickening weight, but Maul apparently has remote access to internal ship circuitry, because as he stared at the crumpled form it rose slowly and hung some five feet in the air, like a ruined marionette.
“Now we are clear with you,” Maul said, the three digits on his claw clicking back and forth. “Listen well to what we do. At the center of the seventh major sinkhole in the tail of Trellsi nests the greatest Oeli yet recorded. Elijah Blood has seen it in there, spinning its web out of space. An Oeli larger, more powerful, than any so far captured. We say that to bring it out means a fortune for every man on this ship.”
“Trellsi Seven is death,” a voice shouted from the crowd. I turned; it was the old-timer with the string-tied beard, having forced his way through the crew and standing under the suspended body. He was looking from the shattered form up toward the captain and back again like a mad prophet, his dry lips quivering. As if to corroborate him, the dead man’s mouth let go a trickle of dark blood that spattered audibly onto the floor. “Trellsi Seven is the size of a moon. An Oeli that can nest inside there will tear this hulk to shards. It cannot be pulled out again—not by us—not by any ship!”
“We say it can,” Maul answered him, his crimson eye burning. “We say it will.”
“Not by us . . . not by any . . .” the old man called still, but his voice was weakening. For a moment I believed he was going to shed tears; then something seemed to burst inside him.
“Captain!” he cried out. “Listen to me! I spaced under you for many years . . . while you still . . . lived . . .”
But the old man fell silent as the blood that had marked the floor began dripping upward, colliding again with the suspended form as if it were trying to return to its source.
“Do you mean to turn from the greatest Oeli that has ever been burned? The greatest meat that has ever been stripped?” Maul hissed, his torso turning to us now as a crowd. There was something in the electronics of his voice that made it resonate directly in my ear, as if that frightful visage were only inches away. He leaned over the balcony, his head turned to the side and the lifeless eye gazing blankly off at the stars. I saw then the swarm of tiny microtronics that traveled over his dead parts like silver maggots, keeping the flesh from total decay. “Will you return to your home worlds cowards, turned aside by the pinnacle of our calling? Will you hide yourselves from the yearly sight of the hole in the sky out of shame? Are we hunters or not hunters? Are we not committed to space?”
And, if there had been anything left living in his face, I might have believed he allowed himself a grin.
“Are we not men?”
“Maul!” someone shouted from behind me: an engineer. I caught Outu-u’s glance, then, from across the room. His broad arms were folded and his greenish face was dark. But he said nothing.
“Maul!” another voice took up the cry. “Maul!”
They were raising their hands to him, one and then another and another, in gross imitation of the claw. The old-timer got up on a table and tried to say something else, but he was hit behind the knees by two men and held to the floor. The shouting swelled, became tidal; they were mad with space poisoning, this skeleton crew, mad with fear and with disease. But mostly they were mad with him.
“Maul!” the crowd started thundering in unison all around me, like the booming blood-pulse of the ship. “Maul! Maul! Maul . . .!”
Elijah is descending into the black center of Trellsi Seven like a bird diving into the sea. Wave after wave of time disruption washes over us; the nature of location and of event is become as unstable as a dream. I myself have seen the ghosts of crew members walking through their cabins well after they have left those rooms. Men encounter images of themselves, and in the faces of the images they see horror. And Maul is everywhere, even inside these walls. I know now that the ship and he are one. I have seen him peel the dead flesh away from a portal in his forehead and link himself directly to Elijah Blood‘s brain through those grafted biological ports. He laughs when he does it, a screeching sound that echoes in the weirdly rippling air.
How far I am from my home! I no longer move from this coffin at all, lest I meet my future self and have to see the look on his face as he encounters mine. An hour ago—if that has meaning—I keyed open my cargo slot and found my father’s books crumbled into ashes. If I were to look again, would they be returned once more—pages fresh, binding still uncreased?
I will not join the attack pods; this will be the last accounting of our unalterable voyage. Already we are too close to return; of that I am almost certain. And if it be so, then let my last words be Jonathan Harker’s:
I may find a way from this dreadful place; and then away
for home! Away from this cursed spot, from this cursed
land, where the devil and his children still walk with
earthly feet. At least God’s mercy is better than that
of these monsters, and the precipice is steep and high.
At its foot a man may sleep — as a man. Good-bye, all!
The precipice is steep and high, and we have crossed its threshold. As time unfolds its weird fabric around us I once more feel in myself, more strongly than ever, the sense that we have all existed through this event many times before, chips sent out smoldering from something that has burnt throughout the ages. I see myself making this long descent into the maelstrom, time and time over, the screaming crew like spirits around me and something so unconquerable at the center of the vortex that it is beyond both beast and conquest. Something that defies the human spirit.
In this dreamy thought, then, comes solace. For perhaps this is not truly the end for me, but only the middle; one of a hundred or a thousand iterations in a thread that is spun out through history, my own experience only a temporary nailing down of something that, in itself, sails unencumbered. If it be so—if time is such that we are doomed always to repeat the major text of our lives—then in the end, the individual is a bird nailed to sinking mast: both pinned and elevated by the nature of his existence.
From the confine of his coffin, this dead man says: let it be so. And let us once more descend.
William Christopher’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award. His second collection, Across the River, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award; Reviewer’s Bookwatch called it “a serious novel, maybe even an important one, in the tradition of Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness and The Red Badge of Courage.” His poetry and fiction has appeared in over 100 small press publications, and he has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.