A Plaintive Song In The Big Dark
Allatross spoke to the silence, some nights.
As most junior on the crew, she was left alone during this shift nearly every night (although she always wondered how one could call it night, so far out in deep space). The crew slept far away beneath her, and Allatross, barely fifteen years in the world, and so far out here all alone, had to keep watch over them all.
Of course, the instruments kept vigil with her, and were more reliable besides, but Allatross had shown herself to have keen attention, an alertness of eye, and the good sense to know when to keep it shut, and that was needed in the cold dark of night, when not everything that the vessel came across in the night could be seen by machines, or read on a screen.
As the small cutter Millicent, barely half a mile along, shifted through the night, keenness was what was required, and strong coffee, and strong wits besides. The tiny observation booth she occupied was a glass ball, suspended out at a diagonal to the prow on a two-meter thick mast of steel which went out half the length of the vessel again. It had been explained to her, her first day on the ship, when she still had a nerve to ask, that it was so far out front to better allow for seeing things that they were coming up on. Then she was beaten soundly around the head and shoulders, and learnt a lesson about asking questions of her betters besides.
But Allatross liked this ship, and this life, and now that she knew her place, the beatings were fewer.
This night, Allatross scrunched her eyes right closed, and when she opened them, she saw a smudge in her vision – a small piece of dark that wasn’t moving right, out past her feet. She blinked again, but it was still there. Checked the glass down there, creasing herself double. Still there. Kept a watch. It was definitely something out there, moving steady, big as the Millicent, bigger still. They were on an arc to pass it, close-by but not an emergency.
The other ship was running dark, and no prox alarm had sounded, indicating that it wasn’t alive with crew. Allatross came awake properly. Waking the crew for a false urgency would earn her another beating, but if there was salvage afoot?
She checked the instruments, and sure enough, there the thing was – it hadn’t been obvious before, down to it’s low energy footprint, but it was there, a dull mauve shadow on the radar. She set a query script running on that section of space, and pulled out the readback. High quantities of organic material – large nutrient reserves – fluids, and trace minerals.
Not a high value yield, but whoever had left this ship wrecked in space had left it drifting with the larder full. Allatross worked her sense around the problem. Fresh meat and bread was rare to come across in the dark, and a click and a tap brought up the Millicent’s larder inventory – they already had enough supplies to see them to their next resupply. But still besides, if Allatross made the judgement call to check the other ship, and there was fresh meat and luxuries, and ale besides, she would be a hero among the men, and the captain would be thankful for the chance to travel further without stopping.
If the remains were rotten, Allatross might find herself left behind among the crusts and flyblowns, waiting for some other far-flung ship to find her there as bones.
And then, she watched the shape grow more convincing in the dark as it moved… as she now saw, as it swam. A different black from the dark around, the creature (for she saw now that that was what it was) moved, vague and flickering as she saw the familiar signature of sixth-dimensional space travel shifting along it’s body’s curves.
And now she saw that the readback had misled her, because this thing was vast, and beautiful in it’s vastness, and Allatross felt bad for her previous daydreams of fresh meats and drinking. A single, deep black eye moved along the surface of what Allatross took to be it’s head, and as it swam, huge and sleek in the dark beneath her, she was sure that the creature looked straight at her.
The thing seemed so impossibly close that Allatross bent double again, resting her palm flat against the glass between her feet, and imagined that she could touch the creature’s flank.
And then a resonance grew in the glass around her, a sound building and building, a noise she took to be the creature’s way of talking, at a frequency only felt, an impossible vibration through the dark itself, as the creature spoke, and Allatross listened.
“BOOOoooOOONDA” was the sound, and Allatross guessed it must be a name, of all things, and she hadn’t heard many prettier besides in her short, short, long life. Then, the monstrous, wondrous, amazing animal was gone, and there was only the dark to contend with again.
Some nights, Allatross spoke out into the night. And some nights, now, Boonda answered.