Nothing was working. No matter which way I tried to move the wings, no matter which propellers I attempted to use, the ship would not move.
“Just let it be for awhile and let’s see what happens,” I said to my captain, Parvin.
His grip loosened. “Okay.”
Parvin laid down on his bunk, which was just a few feet from his captain’s chair in the small ship he, myself, and Kyle, the technician, shared. It was Kyle’s turn to sleep. He was in his small bed in the back of the pit, where the tools were kept.
“I think it’s a black hole,” I said, my voice cracking, then jumping down an octave or two mid-sentence.
“Run the numbers.”
“I’ve run them four times.”
Parvin was quiet. He stood up, moved to his control board, and pressed some buttons while the computers worked. “No, look,” he said, pointing to the screen.
There was a message: “We’ve got you.”
Parvin and I were silent for a long time.
“Korlonians?” I finally said.
“If I had to guess, yes.”
“What did they call it in training? A Korlonian spider-web?”
“I didn’t think they were real.”
“Yes,” said Parvin, eyes vacant, looking at his boots. He reached for the controls and adjusted the viewfinder, focusing on a ship no more than half a light-year away from us. The ship was old, one of the first models used by the Human Intergalactic Army, one that we all knew from edu-movies.
Parvin walked to the larger scope, the one that provided a 180-degree view of our surroundings, and, putting his eye to the receiver, saw a graveyard of ships, all at a complete standstill. Focusing further, he could even see people in the cockpits of some of them. Some of them were dead. Some of them were not.
“So it’s real,” he said.
“I always thought it was a myth,” said Kyle.
“No one has ever even seen a Korlonian,” Parvin explained. “We’ve only ever gotten messages from them. They send us those odd cryptic poem-like things, but they also sometimes attack and kill us for reasons we haven’t discovered. The Korlonians seem to have a mastery of time and space unparalleled among all of the known species of the universe; sometimes their messages simply appear, scrawled onto tabletops or written on slips of paper, without anyone having ever seen them delivered.”
“How do we know it’s the Korlonians?” I said.
“If it’s not them, it’s something just as powerful.”
We looked up at the screen and at the ship in our view, sitting there like it had been placed on display in a museum.
It wasn’t long after that Kyle walked into his room, locked the door, and never came out again.
I was pressing buttons at random on my control board. I had been doing that for an hour or two. Parvin let me be, but he wasn’t as warm toward me as he had always been. He stopped putting his hand on my shoulder. He stopped brushing my hair away from my eyes. He hadn’t kissed me since we figured it out.
We hadn’t eaten in days, but neither of us felt hungry. We’d fasted for weeks in our training, but this wasn’t a fast. We just weren’t hungry.
Kyle had not responded to us when we knocked, or when we attempted to use the intercom from the ship’s cockpit to his room, but we could see him on the security camera. He looked like he was either meditating or praying—he had been sitting for days in the same position, sometimes with his eyes opened, sometimes with them closed, but only once had I seen him move, to grab a meal ration bar from the pile in the corner of his room. He hadn’t eaten it. He just looked at it for awhile, then tossed it back into the pile.
After what should have been days, it became clear to us that not only had the ship stopped, but that time had also stopped. We weren’t sure how powerful the Korlonians were, but I knew that if they could stop time itself, we would be here for as long as they wanted us to be.
“What if this is it?” I asked.
“What if we are stuck here forever?”
“Don’t say that.”
“Think about it. Are you hungry, Parv?”
I kept pressing buttons, looking away from Parvin as he paced the cockpit.
“Parv. Are you hungry?” Still no response. “Because I’m not hungry. I haven’t had to use the bathroom. I don’t really feel like sleeping. I don’t really feel the need to do much of anything, anymore, really.”
“Just stop talking.”
“Think about it. Time has stopped, or someone has stopped it, or something. I don’t know. Have you looked closely through that scope? You’ve seen the people moving around in those ships.”
He turned his head toward me, and looked at me like he had the first time we had been alone. “Yes.”
“Some of them are wearing uniforms that are fifty years old, but they look like they’re twenty-five. We’re in a living time capsule here. Some of them look insane, if you can get a close enough view. You’ve seen the naked ones?”
“They do nothing but have sex.”
“We have more advanced technology than they do.”
I laughed. “Advanced technology? We’re caught by something we can’t even fathom, by creatures we can’t even see. We’re not even sure they exist. The only thing we can know for certain is that our ship can’t move and our clocks have stopped.”
“Look. We’re in this together,” said Parvin. “So we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.”
“I think that’s what they want us to do. I think they’re watching us to see what it is we will do.”
After a week, we found that the most fun we could have was by looking into the cabins of the three other ships and providing running commentary as to what the people in the other ship were saying.
“Well what do you think we should do, Johnson?” I asked in a mock-Earth accent.
“I don’t know, Amanda, but I think we’re stuck.”
“Well, what are our options?”
“We could make art.”
“Maybe someone will find us eventually and our ship will be filled with beautiful things.”
Parvin didn’t respond to that. He hit the button for the intercom. Kyle was still locked in his room.
“You hear that, Kyle?” he screamed. “You hear that?” He released the button for the intercom, picked me up, and carried me to his bed.
“I think they’re looking at us now.”
I walked over to Parvin’s scope and peered into it. “They aren’t moving.”
“It looks like they are staring right back at us.”
“This group is doing the same, I think.”
“Just looking at us?”
“So strange. We’re watching them watching us. They are watching us watching them watching us. Is this all there is to do? Look at each other for eternity?”
Parvin was fumbling at the clasp that held my shirt to my pants. His hands were always cold. Our lives had started to form a strange cycle. We’d have sex, look at the people on the other ships, have sex, try to fall asleep, and maybe play a game or two of Yichad. I won every time, but Parvin was getting better.
This time, though, just after we’d both gotten naked, Parvin stopped.
“What’s the point?” he said.
“I’m not sure, Parv. It feels good. Doesn’t it still feel good?”
“Yeah but what’s the point of feeling good?”
“What was ever the point?”
“I don’t know. I guess this just makes you think about it differently. Before we didn’t have unlimited time. I couldn’t just decide to do it forever if I wanted to. But now we can just do this forever. What’s the point of just sitting around making jokes and worrying and humping for eternity?”
“Why does there have to be a point?”
“I don’t know, there just does.”
“I wonder if they’re watching us.”
“Someone probably is.”
“I wonder what they’d say if they could talk to us.”
I stood up, naked, and walked over to the scope. I looked at each ship. A man was looking back at us from the cockpit of the largest ship, an old Imperial cruiser. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like the man was either laughing or crying.
I put my clothes back on and went to bed.
When I woke up Parvin was dead. I found an empty bottle of pain killers in his trash can, along with the rest of a bottle of his favorite scotch. His body was stiff and cold and greyish-pink. I kissed his forehead. I pulled his body into the expulsion chamber and ejected it from the cockpit. It flew a few feet before whatever force held us took ahold, directly in front of the ship’s cockpit, and through the glass all I could see was Parvin’s motionless corpse.
I read every book on the ship five times. And although I did not need the sustenance, I had eaten all the food. I played myself in Yichad. I’d tried to communicate with the pilots from the other ships, clapping in code, hoping they’d eventually pick up on the structure of my code if they watched me clapping long enough. They never clapped back.
Kyle was still sitting cross-legged in his locked room. Every once in awhile I’d bang on his door or scream at him, but he’d never respond.
Sometimes I just stared at Parvin’s corpse, floating still, never deteriorating in any way, never spinning or moving at all. I wondered about souls. If Parvin had one, was it just as stuck here as his body was? I was afraid that if I died, my soul, if I had one, would be stuck here.
I squatted and leaned forward onto my knees and stared at Parvin and prayed for what might have been days or weeks or months or maybe even years, I couldn’t tell any more, my whole existence became the same rhythmic chant, repeatedly imploring anyone that could listen to release me, begging the Korlonians or the ghost of Parvin or someone, anyone, to let our ship go.
But I knew that once I acknowledged I could never be free, once I really examined my situation, there was nothing that I could do.
So I sat on the floor for what might have been years. I tried to convince myself that here, in this ship, was the only place I would ever want to be. I repeated mantras in my head:
“I want to be here.”
“I want to be here.”
“I want to be here.”
And when, for a moment, I began to believe myself, when I stopped fighting, and I lay on the floor and relaxed, I heard the ship’s engines begin to turn, and the lights in the cockpit flick on, and a message flash on the screen:
“Thank you. You’re free to go.”
LM Alder is a writer and musician from New Jersey. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in decomP, Asimov’s, Ghost Town, Existere, Corium, and other places.