Seven hours later and the freighter locked into an extended, solar-synchronous orbit— far from electrical storms and out of reach of the planet’s tremendous magnetic field. Almost immediately, the crew reported fewer headaches, and Guvvat improved dramatically. His voice returned and soon he began using full sentences and was able to feed himself. It seemed Swenno had been right: nightfall—the dark side—was dangerous. While on the surface, the first inflicted malans had fared best during the day when the sun had been at its highest and brightest. There was something to fear in the dark atmosphere, but the root cause and the real extent of the danger remained unknown.
The shift to a higher orbit effected Calyx negatively, but there was no time to address that his progress had slowed, that he tired easily, or that his eyes were slow to focus on the objects directly in front of him. If he no longer smiled when Phlox entered the room, this went unnoticed, as the distracted doctor’s own sleeping pattern had shifted. If he closed his eyes, he dreamed awkwardly, the visions almost always in grayscale.
He falls but never arrives, the wind is relentless, but the ground never solidifies. He falls from rock pillars, from trees, from tall, industrial buildings. Faces rush past with gaping blurred mouths. There are no hard landings, only short dives straight through bodies; puddles of cartilage, seeping to gel.
Suddenly, he is standing hip-high in brackish water. There is a fetid smell of over-ripe flowers and pus. Nothing stirs. Alone under a gray sky, he can hear his heart beating rapidly. Afraid to take a step, he slowly twists his upper body to survey the swamp. Even this small movement sends ripples toward high colorless reeds. In the twilight, they seem to stagger above the water line, wilted and drained of life. Then he hears a distant voice in stuttering melody: Perilune, perilune, lost moon. Perilune, perilune, death soon.
Phlox continued to float in dreams, talking in his sleep, his eyes twitching. Then he woke to silverware bouncing on a metal floor. He opened one eye.
“Stay off the table Calyx.”
“No.” It was his favorite word. Phlox just wanted to keep sleeping. Hadn’t that been Juun’s first word too?
“Get down Cal!” Swigg jumped gracefully off the table. It was going to be an energetic day, and he was the unwitting parent in an environment where still no one knew what to make of this re-born adult. Besides, everyone was distracted by the start-date for mining and paid little attention to the doctor or the babbling Swigg.
Calyx might recover his memories, become the same asshole he was before, but so far, this gangly malan showed no signs of remembering the past. He showed no ill intent towards anyone, and when alert, he was curious and friendly. It was much more than amnesia for he had lost much more than memory. He was a toddler, relearning high-level dexterity skills, and often acting autistic—unable to focus, unwilling to make eye contact. At other times, he was attentive and articulate, repeating word for word what Phlox had just told him, coding new vocabulary into the sponge of his developing brain.
“Talky tubes, talky tubes” The awkward and large framed malan put his left ear up to the tube, a strange smile on his face.
“That’s right Calyx. That’s how the ship talks to itself. All the data, all the information that the ship needs to know flows through there.”
But his patient wasn’t listening. Instead, he was dragging his hand along one of the tubes, an absentminded look tightening his face.
Now Calyx sat in a corner, one knee pulled to his chest as he rocked back and forth. His back was to Phlox, and with his chin pulled in and pointing downwards, he looked as if he were reading something.
“Calyx.” No response. Phlox flipped the room lights off, waited two seconds, and snapped them back on. Cal hopped up, startled by the light, turned slightly on his heals towards Phlox, but then turned back and hunkered down, his whole body shrinking. Phlox popped opened a plastic food container. “Come here. The food’s hot.” The malan turned towards him and winked. His body lengthened as he skipped to the table.
Despite himself, Phlox felt good. Was it because he could manipulate and get Calyx to do what he wanted? He was afraid it was something more.
Guvvat still complained of migraines but could now sleep normally. Swenno released him and two others. “Get to your craft. Captain wants you on surface as soon as possible.”
Phlox kicked gently in his sleep—a dull green dream in new rhythms. Gentle lime colored waters. His head below the surface, his arms flailing. A calm voice tells him how to position his feet, how to kick his legs. He obeys or gives in. Is it all the same? Regardless, his body responds with vigor as he swims to the surface and draws in clean air.
Awake, asleep? Do you hear me? Return to our pools. You’re not safe!
Phlox stares up at the pitch-black. There is a loud sound like someone coughing, repeating over and over. The sound does not bounce off any walls. There is no metallic tin. He is not aboard Splinter but floating somewhere outside its walls. He can hear the sound of blood flowing through the folds of his ears. After a while, he hears the beeping of an alarm clock. He tries to ignore it as he twists in the nothingness that surrounds him. The alarm is soon a siren and now it echoes off metal and plastic surfaces. There is nothing soft around him, nothing to absorb the shock of the sound waves.
His room was dimly lit, warm and familiar but something was wrong; he couldn’t remember coming here to sleep. He was in danger. He had to get Calyx. He jumped to his bent door and pushed it open. He didn’t believe in premonitions, but then, and again, what was moving his feet at a quick pace along the metal floor wasn’t about belief but a more primitive feeling. Running along the corridor he radioed Tii. “Get to your shuttle now!” He was not sure if the line was dead or recording.
A quick sweep of the Labs and Swigg was nowhere to be found. “Cal! We have to get out of here.” The computer said he was in the Lab Three, but he must have hidden himself. A quick search of the floors, and he found the broken bracelet that had allowed the computers to track him. He stopped-still in the center of the lab and listened carefully. He knew he must find him—knew with a strange sense that he would. He cocked his head to one side and thought he heard a scratching to the right.
He opened the lowest cabinet and found Calyx with his huge body curled into a shockingly small space. His soft, new-grown fur filled the corners, making his body a solid cube. He could see Calyx’s face only in profile, but it was taut with fear, his nose dry and pale. He held the palm of his hand firmly over his exposed ear. Phlox made eye contact and put out his hand.
“Calyx, we have to leave the ship. It’s very important. We will be okay, but you must come with me right now. You’re too big. I cannot carry you.” Calyx trembled, and then contracted into a tighter ball and pulled himself farther into the cabinet.
The doctor gave up. He was strangely calm—as if still within a dream—while he inventoried and quickly chose what medical supplies would be best ferried to the surface. The calmness was supported by the irrational yet solid sense that he knew what was happening. It had come from a hallucination, but the conclusion to leave was lodged in a section of his brain where there were no doubts.
He had filled two packs when the life-support alarms began to blare; pulsing in annoying, quick fits and then quiet for a few seconds. The captain began shouting evacuation instructions between the sirens, but Phlox didn’t need to listen. He listened instead to the freighter beginning to creak and strain from torsion, a squeezing beyond design limits. Then he heard wailing, the baritone child crying out. He moved back to the cabinet. He would try once more.
“You are not safe in there, Cal. You are not going to be safe in any of these rooms. Something has gone wrong. We have to leave Splinter and go to the surface.” The sirens blared three times, and then the lights went out. The backup lighting stuttered in fits of light and dark and then stayed on. Swenno grabbed for Calyx’s hand, or really anything that he could catch. “We have to go; you need to walk. Now!”
He was able to catch him by the wrist, but Swigg tensed as the alarms blared again. Even as he was jerked off balance he kept his voice calm, “Cal, I need you to trust me.” The room pitched backward, and everything loose in the room slammed into the wall. Calyx slid uncontrollably out of his hiding spot. The freighter continued to pitch, and Phlox held firmly to that thick wrist as they fell through the room. Along the wall, vials, boxes and tools tumbled with them, and the ceiling became the floor. Then the pitching slowed and stopped altogether, but somewhere mid-roll Phlox had lost his grip. The large malan scampered away along the opposite wall—now turned floor. The ship pitched again, and Phlox lost sight of him as he slid back towards the real floor.
He struggled to pick himself up from the deck-plating, but he lay in a heap, the muscles in his legs trembling. He yelled, his voice now deep with urgency and anger. “I will leave you behind you little shit. I don’t have to take you. Do you think it’s dark now? Just you wait!”
From somewhere among the racks of hiberchambers, between the bleating of the alarms, Calyx began to howl.
The sirens intensified and with each series he expected it to be the last. The Splinter shuddered, rolled forward, and then hard to the right. The bright glare of the planet filled the rooms with intense white light. The doctor jumped up without thinking and shot down the ladder to the hibernaculum. He used his nose to track the odor of Cal’s warm fear, and found him curled up in a nearby bed. He snapped his arm forward to reach behind Cal’s head. He grabbed the bristling hairs at the nape of his neck. He pulled hard, felt the hairs pull the loose skin away from his taut muscles, and watched himself from outside his own body, as Calyx came out obediently, with his back rounded and head down.
With just the right amount of tension he commanded the heartier stuff of Cal’s clammy flesh as he led him back to Lab One. Phlox was focused. With his hand still holding him firmly, they walked to the center of the room, and he handed his ward the large bag. “You’re going to carry this. You’re strong, and you won’t let go—we’re going to need these things.” Swigg nodded. He was standing up but his body was bent and humbled as he watched the doctor pick up the other backpack. The doctor glanced into Lab Two and saw Traccol standing in the corner, drool hanging in a long string from his chin while he patted his palms hard against his ears. There was no time to take him or the other two patients. “Come on! We’ve got to hurry.”
Ladin shouted into the labs. “Engine four is critical. Ten minutes—no more.”
Phlox surveyed the room once more, then pushed Calyx through the first portal and out to the spine. Emergency lights cast a murky glow. The walls below were moving, but it was the steady scurry of fur, of desperate Primalans migrating to the bottom of the freighter, to the only means of escape. The lift that was just above them was full of malans clutching tools, food and irrational personal belongings. The platform was overflowing and did not slow for them. Its passengers slid by staring wide-eyed at Calyx Swigg’s large frame and hunched back. They did not see that he was holding Phlox’s tail.
“Come on Cal, we have to climb down. Get off yer tail and let go of mine.” They looked at each other briefly, pupils wide in the feeble light, before Phlox moved to the side and jumped down. Swigg understood, and he had no problem keeping up. He jumped, swung downward as easily as the rest, and, like all the others, they became mute—impersonal pieces on a steadily moving wall. Movement was medicine, and the Primalans scurried even with backpacks bulging. An empty lift whirred past as it headed back to the top at full speed.
Phlox moved quickly, but it felt like heavy gravity again. Fully dressed malans wearing pressurized suits and helmets, gloves bouncing from belt loops, pushed past. They looked foreign, completely unidentifiable; unmarked by fur color or the length of their tails, they were a terrifying sight. This was it. They were going to die, robbed of everything that made them malan.
When they were almost to the first docking ring, Cal suddenly stopped. He twisted through the lattice of climbing bars and network tubes and placed his ear against the hull. He rubbed his hands together in fits and starts.
“What are you doing?”
Swigg turned his head towards him and searched with his hands across the large curving surface threaded by wires and bio-network conduits. “Talky tubes. Screaming tubes.”
“Calyx. I will leave you here. Come now.” But his ward did not even turn around. Instead, he continued mumbling. Phlox pushed through the bars and grabbed him by the wrist. He squirmed under his grip but he obeyed and continued climbing.
“Torsion limits surpassed. Evacuate immediately.” A mechanical voice rang through the center of the freighter, repeating three times. Calyx stopped and cupped his ears to listen, although neither action was necessary to hear the announcement.
Phlox tugged on Calyx’s hand and leaped out to catch a bar fifteen feet down. His patient did not jump with him and became a counterweight braced against the doctor’s momentum. Phlox’s arm pulled tight, and he hung for an instant, suspended in midair and then fell back to crash at Cal’s knees. Phlox howled but Swigg stood firm and held his hand tighter.
Swenno stood and punched Calyx hard in the stomach. The large malan snorted or was it a laugh? But he let go of Phlox and stepped back. The doctor leaped ten feet down and then jumped further down. He looked back, but Swigg was still not moving. He did not call up to him. If Cal wanted to stay, he would no longer risk his own life. He continued swinging downwards. He looked back once more and saw that he’d begun to climb down again. With large, surprisingly graceful swings, Calyx caught up with Phlox seemingly without effort.
They were getting close to the first ring and the walls were now thick with malans, but no one howled, no one barked. At intervals of 30 seconds, a loud bang reverberated from the bottom of the freighter.
Just above Docking Ring Two, the captain stood directing malans as if this were just a drill. “Life-support could go at any time. Get in a suit as soon as you enter your shuttle.” He glanced at Phlox, “Don’t let him slow you down,” then looked quickly away.
Swigg, who was half a pace behind, paid no attention to the captain; his eyes were focused, his mouth a thin straight line. As they kept marching, he did not mutter, did not hold his mouth agape, and his lips were uncharacteristically dry.
Behind them, Phlox heard the Kinsal shouting, “If the Splinter can’t hold then no one… Ya hear me?”
Sidd pushed past them without looking back. “Doctor, leave the idiot behind. He would’ve done the same to you or me.” Phlox didn’t answer him, but turned to look into Calyx’s face, but it was expressionless. He was not listening or had not comprehended.
There was a flickering and then the emergency lights went out. It was pitch black. They could hear the captain shouting, his voice still strangely calm and clear. “Go, go! Lights’re on your headsets.”
Tiny bulbs stuttered and threw cones of light that widened from malan foreheads. Bright light shot outwards, but an eerie glow cast downwards creating shadowed, earnest faces. Swenno was thankful that he had grabbed his and that it was fully powered. Calyx, who had no light, stepped close and grabbed for the end of Phlox’s tail. There was a loud clanking and a bright blue light appeared below. Sharp contrasted shadows danced along the spine walls. One of the strut portals had opened and a stream of malans pushed in. It slammed shut with a clang and the light went out.
They reached the level of Docking Ring Two and waited before the sealed doors. They stood still, listening to the creaking of the freighter’s frame. The doors opened. Bright light from windows beyond shocked the senses, but no one hesitated to enter. Then Phlox’s eyes adjusted to the brilliant columns of light from floor to ceiling and the black inkwells between. Every fifteen feet, small windows in the ceiling striped the corridor with Ettiquin’s reflected light.
In front of them, seven or eight malans jogged orderly along the strut, boots clomping. The group sped up while entering each swatch of white and slowed as they dipped back into the black shadows. Between alarm blasts, someone in that group yelled back—but maybe just to himself. “Don’t panic! Splinter’s tough. She’ll hold.” A few seconds later and they were running, distorted shadows fleeing along the bent metal walls of the wide corridor, as they split to one side or the other of the docking ring’s circumference. Phlox paused momentarily in the intersection, darting his head from side to side. The wide corridor curved out of view in two directions and seemed to have electric current, but it was only the displays at each door being powered by individual shuttles.
A new silhouette, bent and broken, pushed up from the wall. It was Guvvat and he barked curt orders. “Find your wings, Swenno. We’ve got zero power. Make sure each shuttle to your left and right is manned or you’ll need to unlock it. Disengage clamps manually, seconds before stolking.” The doctor pushed Phlox down the corridor to the right and turned to the sound of more boots coming up the strut.
“Sidd, spin the main bolts, start from A2. Set every craft that remains for auto from inside. Good. Sorrin go counterclockwise; do the same. That’s the long way to your craft, but we’ll need them all down below. We’ll blow the bolts with… ”
Phlox ran at full speed and right behind him came Calyx’s heavy breath, the slip of saliva through grit teeth. In front, pressure boots clanked against metal floor grates. Splinter rumbled and rolled hard to the left. Phlox was thrown against the wall. Others stumbled but remained on their feet. Calyx kept incredibly still, not by strength or agility, but as if he had known the shockwave was coming and had adjusted his body accordingly. Phlox pushed himself upright.
“Boiling blood. Mean green!” Calyx shouted.
“Stop being dramatic,” Phlox quipped.
The huge malan just stood there while the doctor stumbled forward. Phlox shouted back without looking, “I am leaving without you.”
Calyx shouted in a clear and articulate voice, “Don’t move!” Phlox turned his head to see that he had risen from the usual slumped shoulders and rounded back to his full height, chest thrust forward. Swenno turned his back on him and kept walking, but he shouted back, “Come here, Calyx Swigg!” The freighter pitched nose-down more than forty-five degrees, and Phlox was thrown to his hands and knees. Splinter righted itself, but not fully, so that everything still leaned sharply forward. From the floor, he looked back to see Swigg, unshaken, standing gracefully twenty feet down the corridor.
“Phlox. Feel what I hear,” his voice calm and mature. It was chilling to hear this malan articulate his name, the monster returning. So, in fascination, he staggered a few feet back towards him. He watched him reach his hands up, fold his large soft ears down, and cover them completely. The doctor continued to walk away from the exit, away from safety, and reaching out, he offered up his hand to Calyx. The large malan took one step backward and with his elbows out and his hands clamping his ears, he squeezed his head like a vice. Standing beside him, he tugged on the larger malan’s belt, but he would not budge and instead stood taller, more resolute. Phlox felt tiny under the arch of those huge arms. Calyx’s height was a result of some inner projection. He stood tall because he had found something to stand for.
The freighter—silent as it fell, followed an angle ever steeper.
Splinter rumbled from somewhere deep within but did not pitch or yaw. Suddenly, Calyx swung his arm under Phlox’s chin and the doctor gasped. It was happening; Cal was recovering his memories. The flashes of his attack raced before his eyes as his body was lifted. Dragged backwards by Swigg, his feet knocked uselessly against the grating. He tried to gain control, tried to dig into the floor. Calyx ran in large bounding leaps, never loosening his choke-hold on Phlox, who bounced wildly along, struggling to gain some control to right his body. He pushed a malan over and jumped through the portal and into the now vacant corridor of the strut. He relaxed his grip on the doctor who crumpled to the floor. Just then there were multiple explosions from deep along the curve of the docking ring. Green gas blew from the tubing and vents, flowing from multiple ruptures. Screams echoed, synchronized for a painful moment, and then—no sound. Everyone standing in the strut froze, too afraid to exhale.
Swigg looped one arm loosely around the doctor’s neck and with the other, rubbed Phlox’s forehead in awkward but careful circles. Calyx hadn’t been acting aggressively. He’d saved their lives. Phlox shook his head in disbelief, prompting Calyx to clutch him tighter. Phlox quit struggling against this new guardian, who then let go completely. He might live to find out why Calyx acted the way he did, but their path was blocked by spewing smoke and flash flame. “We still have to get to my shuttle.” Phlox started back to the docking ring.
“No,” Swigg’s voice was firm, but his knees were bouncing like an excited child. Splinter pitched forward again, and they both fell down. Something far away, maybe at the top of the spine, exploded. There were new cries, distant and distorted. There was no reason to believe that the oxygen generator was still functional, and green flames were greedily stealing the remaining air. The corridor was warm with the smell of smoldering plastic, pulse juice and something else horrible.
Calyx grunted, lunged forward, and pushed Phlox in the opposite direction along the curving outer ring, away from the explosion they both had barely escaped. “Mine is better.” Phlox followed with no idea where Calyx had his shuttle, remembering only that it was one of the fastest. The corridor was dark as the ring curved away from the planet, and with most of the shuttles gone there were no computer displays to light the way. Waving their hands blindly in front of them they progressed steadily but slowly.
There was a glow up ahead: windows and less smoke. They stumbled over two hairless malans: skin black and shiny, eyes vacant. There was a large rumbling sound and then an ear-shattering explosion followed by a rush of hot air coming from behind them. Phlox ran as fast as he could and did not look back. He could hear Swigg’s deep rasping breath and the loud fall of his feet directly in front of him. He was babbling, but then said in a clear deep iteration, “Sick hiccup. Hiccup. Sick hiccup.”
In the next shadowed section they ran into the chief-engineer who had a bloody nose and spinning eyes. Phlox grabbed the malan’s belt and he responded with undecipherable grunts, then staggered and fell. “Barjkus. Come with us. Your pod’s down here.” The engineer shook his head.
“Calyx, grab his arm.” Swigg doubled back and clamped his large hand onto the engineer’s thin arm. “Gently. Now don’t let go.” Barjkus resisted slightly, but Swigg dragged him along effortlessly.
Down the corridor, a monitor glowed—a shuttle warm and ready. They were running full speed for it. Then Calyx began shouting like a toddler, “Mine, Mine, Mine.” He pointed down the curving corridor. For some reason, Phlox followed him. Twenty yards later, at Dock Fifty-Six, Swigg slammed his hand against a switch, and the portal obediently spun open. He jumped inside, leaving Barjkus speechless on the floor and ran to the pilot’s seat. He drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his left arm around to hold them in place, close to his body. The thumb of his right hand went into his mouth.
Phlox closed the door. The engineer sat up muttering, and his hands quickly went to the controls to try to interface with Splinter’s main computers, but there was no connection. The doctor did his best to begin the launch routine. Swigg watched him intently. Phlox tried to unlock the portal locks. Calyx’s hand came quickly from his face, saliva flinging from his thumb, and pounded repeatedly on the lock control. Then he stuck his thumb back in his mouth.
Phlox stared at him and muttered. “Okay. Maybe you should drive.”
Swigg wasn’t listening but acting on procedural memory. He didn’t need to talk or really think. He got up and crossed back to the portal. He threw open a panel near the floor and heaved against a large lever. A loud metal pin dropped and a thud resonated across the shuttle’s floor.
“Lock’s off.” The malan nodded before sticking his thumb back in his mouth. Phlox fired the thrusters, and the shuttle fled from the freighter.
“So much for research and development,” Phlox mumbled, beyond panic and high on adrenaline. He turned to see Splinter rotate in bright sunlight. There it was in all its crystalline glory, Akkacia’s finest that would never return—submarine that will never surface. Words swam in his head, circling in eddies of incoherence.
The shuttle, its thrusters now silent, sped away and the hulking structure of the freighter shrank rapidly, but it felt as if they were motionless, as if the Sixty-Six was pulling away. All three shifted to the backward-facing window and watched as the freighter’s hull ruptured along its entire length. All the gases stored on board flashed brightly. Without sound, a second huge fireball began at the center and engulfed the structural remains of the craft. Then the super-bright glare subsided as quickly as it had begun. Only the giant hexagons of the Hyyperbolt engines remained, and they were fracturing in quick succession, shooting off and spinning wildly as they, too, blew apart. Large pieces of molten metal shot in all directions and some smaller fragments reached them with astonishing velocity, pelting the shuttle’s exterior and destabilizing it. Phlox struggled to get to the cockpit as Barjkus fell to the floor.
Calyx watched until there was nothing left to burn, then he took his thumb out of his mouth, and ambled back to the front of the shuttle. Their craft had stabilized, so Calyx became disinterested in the pilot’s chair. He stretched his body up towards the windshield that formed a low ceiling over the cockpit, and lifting up on his toes, he tried to press his cheek and the side of his head against the cold glass. He moved quickly away to stare straight ahead and then back again to press his jowl against the ceiling, closing his eyes and giving his body and mind over to just listening. He repeated these simple motions as if he could handle only one sensory input at a time, or that hearing and vision belonged in two different worlds.
Calyx’s huge frame blocked a good portion of the windshield. He was transfixed by the panorama of the planet as it began to fill the windshield with bright light. Soon the shuttle pierced the cloud formations and was lost in pure whiteness. The shuttle had dropped considerably, its hull now cool as moisture streamed against the glass, but the large malan stared out somewhere beyond the micro-beads of water streaming by. Eventually, he grew tired of standing and slumped down in a chair, incapable of grasping the significance of Splinter’s destruction. After a while, he started to mutter to himself and to intermittently hum fragments of both recognizable rhythms and original melodies.
Phlox closed his eyes and could still see the flash of the explosion, a green and blue glare flickering on his retinas. He was still shaking with adrenaline. His body was awake but his brain was shutting down. Language and the ability to rationalize blurred. How many, how many escaped? And the opposite, the unbearable opposite.
Bio-network tubes overtaxed, explosion maxed? Howls, screams cut short, and horrible sharp barks. Violence and thoughts, both tiny sparks. F-locks, your brain waves survive and your liquids pulse.
Calyx grunted and Phlox flinched, his eyes flying open as the large malan pointed at the shuttle’s instrument panel. This overgrown fur-ball was moving with exaggeration as he held the manual throttle controls. He was a child pretending to fly as he traced his hands above switches, or mimicked the spinning of maneuvering controls. Then he stopped, slumped down in his seat, and picked at the dirt under his toenails.
All of a sudden, Swigg jumped up and grabbed the flight-stick as the shuttle entered a heavy lightning storm. With a bored face he looked down at the dash and pushed a button. Phlox jumped up shouting, and then Calyx spun the controls to roll the shuttle hard to the left, just as an electric bolt flashed and tore from above. He had watched the ion cloud and just avoided a high charge zone. Or was he just messing around? Phlox stood beside him, uncertain if Calyx had really done that, or if the shuttle had simply followed a complex algorithm of reaction and automatically made the adjustments in propulsion. Calyx, with no regard for the gasp expelled from Phlox’s still open mouth, but simply because he was done, let go of the handles, and went back to cleaning his toes.
Air rushed by at hundreds of miles an hour, creating a dull never-ending friction against the hull. This was the only sound. The radio was open to all frequencies, but there were no voices on the communication lines. The shuttle picked up more than fifty bio-signatures, but individual codes kept flashing on and off. It was impossible to know for sure if Tii was alive. At least the violent rush of heavy air trying to scrape its way in helped block the overwhelming voices inside his head.
Finally, they broke through the cloud-cover and flew low above the surging sea. —its purple waters mad and capped in foaming tops. Calyx was at the controls again. But Phlox was still unsure if he was really flying or just pretending. He didn’t care. It faded to twilight outside, and they blew across dark green grasslands and open swamps, heading deeper into night. Maybe Calyx remembered a love for flying; maybe he was something totally remade, or perhaps he sensed things that no one else could see.
“My ship, my ship, let’s get flowers.” He suddenly shouted, but when no one answered him, he turned his attention back to the instrument panel. He was oblivious to the totality of their situation, and because his mind was born after any notion of Akkacia; he had fresh eyes undeterred by longing. They would soon live on a planet without a single tree, but Calyx Swigg would never be homesick. Phlox was jealous. He craved simplicity, an end to painful memory.
Their pilot broke the silence, sounding strangely adult. “What happened?”
Barjkus’s face animated, his eyes widened. “We,” he paused for a long time. “We just don’t know. My theory of data-corruption looked like the answer. I mean, the problems were all down in the engines. But then, some of the same redundancies and procedural line errors started showing up in navigational calculations, cartography and life-support systems.” He fell silent. Only his body had brought him this far. He stared at the wall, his mind in a conundrum, trying to understand the disease that had inflicted the freighter.
“Green hiccup.” Cal said picking his nose.
It was now full night and moonless as the shuttle dropped quickly. It landed without the aid of lights, coming to rest on soft ground. The craft powered down instantly, and it felt like being buried alive. Even Calyx failed to speak. Eventually the radio spat on. The captain’s voice sounded broken, distant in every way. He explained that everyone was to remain in their shuttles. He droned on, but Phlox could not concentrate. It seemed that his words blurred together, so he just kept his ears open and hoped to hear proof that someone was still in charge. “… protocol for attack. It was safest, unavoidable. We were in good hands… radio silence will be maintained… stay in your craft… the least amount of energy possible.”
Late that night, there was a thump on the windshield. Barjkus flicked on a flashlight and saw something slimy and blue slither across the windshield. It created finger-like marks along the tempered glass. There were no other sounds, so he turned off the light and everyone tried to go back to sleep. They were alone in the pitch black; not a single star shone through.
Phlox couldn’t sleep, could not see his dreams.
Before dawn, the shuttle buzzed and whirred back to life, and soon they were airborne, flying low to hide within dense fog. A soft light filled the cabin as Phlox sat rigid in the copilot’s seat doing almost nothing to fly the craft because Calyx, humming deeply, occupied the pilot’s seat. He was leaning back, feet on the flight instruments, but occasionally he would snap forward with purpose and flick switches and push his foot against the flight stick. Barjkus was slumped against the wall in the back. He and Phlox spoke words out of habit, but they did not look at each other and instead, succumbed to the dull and hypnotic brush of air against the hull.
The doctor watched Calyx’s hands moving automatically across the myriad controls. What difference did it make if he was really flying the craft with his hands or his toes? If he did something wrong, there would be an alarm, right? Hell, it didn’t matter. Any of them would be lucky to survive a year here let alone the years they would have to wait for a rescue vessel. How many ghosts would follow them to the surface? Silhouettes were here already, crowding his peripheral vision. What about the disease that had already infected them? Back on the surface, what would stop the illness from returning, spreading, and killing again?
How many weeks of food could be aboard all these shuttles? He had calculated it before; was it four months? Could a smaller craft make it in less than five years? A chilling realization: food would last longer if malans had died on board. He sat very still: unanswered questions raced in a hundred directions, spinning out in useless calculations and variations. The computer could verify most facts and was only inches away, but he could not bear to move a finger.
Rotation 13/Revolution 9754
Toral Blue: In my dream they have thin skin, long hair and brittle minds. They fly across our land and stomp across a bed of rubies.
Xal Violet: In my nightmare they are parasitic pillagers with their own sick greedy dreams and a metal home that splinters heaven.
Chorus: Small insects to be exterminated. Explode the exoskeleton.
Blue Toral: We’ll dream that ship into the ground, so it will never spark again. Stop the flow of electron and mark their vessel dark coffin.
Xal Violet: But they may survive as wilted flowers will. Keep this one named Cal-iks and the rest we kill. In the sleeper cell implant a spiral code.
Blue Toral: Streams of algae thread their vessel like tiny veins. We can infiltrate, saturate and speak in dreams to this very green. We will untie every line.
Violet Xal: Unbundled, we’ll bring its shards down.
Chorus: Unbundled, we’ll tear bright shards apart. Unbundled, we’ll bring it down.
Rotation Irrelevant/Days and Nights Blended
Pop! A familiar flash went through me. Zap, the very sap, burning light. What? Quorum’s electric tonight. With white hot, rancor they call out… not to me, not for me. Their violent intent rings deadly, but who is the target?