Behind the Barrier
S. R. Gabriels
She was cold, but the comet they had been trailing for the past year or so was a fast one and close to a small sun. Resting by a bay window, she daringly poked at the burning glass. The sun’s hue was pure gold. She could spot its metallic rays even through the black-tinted pane.
“Gonna burn yourself,” Ozzy warned. He sat at a table and spoke to her without raising his eyes. She paused, glaring at him. Squeezing her fingers into a fist, she waited for the right moment.
Her hand hovered in the air for a couple minutes as she watched Ozzy get sucked further into his project at the table. He had been fiddling with pieces of scrap paper for the last hour, pulling each corner to meet its opposite. He kept doing this, folding again and again until an odd starburst shape was formed. He was entranced.
She let her fist collide with the smoldering window. Thud. Ozzy jumped.
“Why?” he asked, soon realizing the prank. “Seriously,” he grunted, shaking his head. “I hope you break your hand.”
She laughed. “And I hope you realize that origami, or whatever you’re doing, is not your calling.” Ozzy acted tough because he was tough. But she liked his human sense of shock. Smiling at him, she relished in the moment.
“Ozzy, promptly to Unit 8,” a voice sounded over the intercom. Quickly, he stood and rounded his crafts up into his pockets.
She looked back out the window as he left. The ship had circled this particular sun about twelve times every day, but she couldn’t think of a name to give it. She knew she liked its sheen; it reminded her of a mask she wore for a school play once—a paper plate with cut-out eye holes, the whole thing dripping with glitter glue.
She was born and raised on the ship. So were her parents and grandparents. Interstellar travel promised “unique experiences and opportunities” on which folks could base their pride. The honor to bestow personal titles upon celestial bodies was a contagious interest among passengers. With roughly seventy-five hundred onboard, people first wondered if everyone would get a chance to claim an alien planet or immaculate constellation as their own.
But it was space. Endless things to “own.” It was a bored pastime among them now. The comet they currently pursued was called “Trixie’s Comet,” named after a two-year-old who lived in Unit 54. Other plots owned by the toddler: “Moon for Trixie,” “Trixie’s Planet,” “Trixie’s Blue Planet,” “Trixie’s Orange Planet…”
The ship pulled out of orbit and stabilized ten minutes later.
Well, it’s about time, she thought.
“Alice, please approach Unit 13,” another staticky voice prompted over the intercom. She would have to think of a name another time. It was already called something else, but she felt it deserved something different.
“Were radars down when ya left last night?” Vidal asked Alice as she came through the Unit entryway.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Why? Are they acting wonky?”
“Yeah,” he said. “For some reason, the calibration won’t lock like it’s suppose’ta,” he explained. Alice looked across the large white room. Flustered navigators poked at screens and disassembled computer parts. Route developers consulted code experts through phone calls, hoping to free the systems from its stagnancy.
“I can’t get anything to work,” Vidal said, smacking the side of his monitor. “I mean, it’s not like everything’s frozen, but some stuff is displayed in only two dimensions. An expensive ship can’t afford for its expensive equipment to bug out…” He shook his head and sighed. “It’s suppose’ta work in three dimensions—THREE,” he emphasized.
“I work here too,” Alice reminded him. “I know how it’s supposed to work. Let me check under the O.R.B.,” she said. The Observational Radar Beacon was the large, spherical radar map which sat in the middle of Unit 13. It projected the ship’s whereabouts and surrounding entities in real time. “Maybe the projection lasers are misaligned,” she suggested.
As Alice approached the O.R.B., she leaned in closely. “The space-time spherical ratio is up-to-date,” she called over her shoulder to Vidal. “It’s just some stars and other debris that are failing to render in three dimensions. Call the triplets over, and we’ll see if we can find anything loopy under the server.”
“Piper! Matt! Ché!” Vidal shouted as he waved down three distinct workers. They were called triplets, though they were far from it. They weren’t even related. They were engineers like Alice, but irony begged to be the root of their shared nickname as they were all so starkly different from each other in every other way.
The triplets jogged over to meet Alice. “Pop under there and give it a look-around,” she told them. “I’ll join you in a second.” They nodded.
“Hey,” started Alice as she returned to Vidal. He was cleaning between the panels of his monitors. He looked up. “About time, right? We finally get a reason to exit orbit?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he coughed, dust floating into his nostrils. “Unit 8 gave the green light to move ahead. Everything was fine until the O.R.B. stopped working and our navigational computers failed. I radioed up to Unit 1 to let ’em know, and they didn’t wanna move forward until our systems were fixed.”
“Makes sense,” she said. “If anything, the ship’s steadier motion might help recalibrate the systems faster.”
“Hopefully,” Vidal coughed again. Alice walked back to the O.R.B.
“Anything?” she asked, sliding underneath the server. All three shook their heads.
“I don’t see anything wrong,” said Piper. Matt agreed.
“All inputs and outputs are functional,” Ché said. “And it’s not the projection mapping either.”
“Huh,” said Alice, stumped. She scooted back even further to the center of the server. She unscrewed and removed a metal fastener. “Charge is good,” she said. She shifted over and made sure the wiring was taught. “Cables are in good shape.” The ship lurched to the left. A few people gasped.
“It’s okay!” shouted Vidal. “Rubble field coming our way. Unit 8 just confirmed the shift. Unit 1 confirmed a steady glide forward until our Unit diagnoses and solves the problem with our systems!”
“Affirmative!” shouted Alice from under the server. The ship’s sudden jerk had caused her to slide a foot to her right. “All markers are accurate,” she sighed but kept looking. “I’m not sure why—”
The ship shuddered and violently thrust forward. The vicious motion flung Alice up into the bottom of the server, busting her bottom lip. People began panicking and screaming. Alice felt a pair of hands grab her ankles and yank her out from under the contraption. It was Matt. She gave him a nod and got to her feet.
“What’s going on, Vidal?” Alice yelled over the noise, holding her lip. The ship continued to shudder, like it was vibrating. Vidal clutched a communicator. “Vidal!” Alice shouted, wobbling toward him through the shaking room.
“I—no—I can’t—what—I can’t hear—no, I can’t hear you—hello? Hello?” Vidal slammed the communicator onto his desk.
“What is it!” Alice shouted.
“A crash? I dunno! I couldn’t hear ’em!” he shouted back. People sobbed, lights flickered, loose items skipped across the floor… The doors to the Unit slid open and shut. It was Ozzy.
“Alright, what’s going on?” he asked.
“We dunno!” yelled Vidal. “Unit 1’s comms broke, and Unit 8,” he paused, glaring at Ozzy, “won’t pick up the dang phone!”
Ozzy stood still for a couple seconds, then turned to Alice. “What are we looking at?” he asked her.
“No clue,” she responded. “All our systems are hooked up properly. They’re down now because of the crash, but—”
“Crash? Who said anything about a crash?” he said, cutting her off. Ozzy eyed the two of them. “There was no crash, understand? Keep your voices down. Alice.” He faced her. “I need an engineer. Follow me to the observation deck.” He led her to the end of a hall and up two flights of stairs.
“What’s going on?” she asked as the walls and floors creaked and groaned.
“Something’s wrong with the ship,” said Ozzy. “Well, the outside of the ship.” They entered Unit 8.
“Tell me what you see,” he demanded in a soft tone. They looked through the large glass window at the front of the area. Alice had only been in Unit 8 a handful of times. She loved the place for its perimeter of floor-to-ceiling windows and its dark atmospheric feel. Unit 13 was clunky and bleak. Unit 8 was ethereal and free. Mysterious.
“Well?” Ozzy asked her again. But Alice found it hard to verbalize what she was viewing.
“Why are you asking me?” she whispered. “Why didn’t you pull some astronomer up here?”
“Because I didn’t need someone going on about hypotheses or theories or something. I need someone who can give me a straight-forward answer—someone like you—to solve what my brain isn’t understanding right now. I need your flat answer. Is this possible? Is it real?” He pointed.
Alice turned back to look through the glass. All windows onboard were plastered with the same black tint and special coating that completely removed interior glares, allowing for a further peek into the deep crevices of space. So, it was shocking for Alice as she stared at her own reflection beyond that window, a copy of herself floating out in the middle of the murky nothingness ahead.
Jagged lines and sharp edges jutted everywhere out there, splayed like streaks of lightning. The ship’s own massive reflection was sliced into distant wedges.
“It’s… it’s like a mirror,” said Alice, turning to Ozzy. “We just crashed into one, huge mirror,” she said, worried. “Like a barrier. How—”
She suddenly trailed off, her eyes growing in deeper shock. Ozzy whipped around to follow her gaze. His lips parted.
The sun from which they had just left orbit was… wrong. Ozzy and Alice watched as the ball of light slowly flattened as it revolved, stretching and squishing thin until growing back into a full circle. It was a flat yellow disk spinning like a coin.
“What’s happening?” Alice whispered.
Ozzy’s stomach dropped. There, on the other side of the coin-sun, centered and perpendicular to its flat surface, was Trixie’s Comet. Only, like the sun it circumnavigated, it resembled a pancake. Ridges and craters seemed painted, and its icy cold tail was just a collection of blue and white streamers flapping behind it. The ship had been following a flat rock round a flat doubloon in such an orbit as to perpetuate a spherical lie.
“Is this some kind of joke?” asked Alice. Squinting her eyes, she noticed what appeared to be silver lines heading up into the dark vacuum of space. They were like strings—one at the top of the sun, and one at the top of the comet. The strings were miniscule, practically invisible. Like light suddenly catching a spiderweb.
She looked back to the mirror outside, seeing the ship’s pointed bow stretched forward and impaling its own reflection. Quiet patter rapped against the windows to the right. A rainbow of small, multi-sized objects resembling shapes of distant stars bounced across the glass like dead balloons. They hung from the same webbing, but their texture appeared more like lanterns or papier-mâché. They were dragged along the front of the ship like they hung from some large, cosmic mobile.
“Arts and crafts…” muttered Alice. “Smoke and mirrors… to make the universe look bigger?” A clear name for that sun flickered across her mind. “It’s… fake,” she said.
“It's like God sketched out this corner of the universe but forgot to finish it,” Ozzy murmured.
“Ozzy,” Alice whispered. “Ozzy.”
Delicately, she pointed back to the break in the mirror. His eyes followed her finger. Eerie rays of green light seeped out through the cracks. “Something’s behind it.”
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