llie was in tears. The rest of us were silent. Cut up.
The moment we made a safe distance, Reed fired up our ship’s engines and we became lost in space. One more non-descript dot in a sea of darkness punctuated by non-descript dots.
“I am running the ship on essential power only,” Reed announced. “That way we save fuel plus our signature is mostly hidden.”
That was fine. I run around the outside of the deck to keep warm. I do push ups in my room, to help me think. The rest do their own thing too. The ship, in sadness, becomes a hive of activity, each of us honing our body because we have little else to do and no other way to channel our feelings.
“I need to get to my dad,” Ellie’s eyes were red with tears. Her breathing interspersed with sobs. “I need to get to Andromeda 6.”
Just like that we are full circle again. I am back on the loading dock of GT-701 contemplating an easy passage to a new life and Ellie is a passenger on a nondescript cargo ship that’s going to become the focal point of a Regulator boarding party.
“It’s not safe,”
“I still need to get there.”
Great. I remind her of the Regulators who came on board the cargo ship. They most likely knew where she was going. To even try to get to Andromeda 6 is to walk into a Regulator trap. They don’t really need to find us and hunt us down. All they have to do is wait and scoop us up when we appear.
Ellie is persistent. “If I reach out to my uncle, he’ll know what to do,” she says. I veto it. The Regulators are likely to be monitoring every channel. Raynar agrees. So does Tessa. Only Reed remains silent. Ellie tries begging me. I am not going to budge.
“Perhaps there is a way,” Reed volunteers at last.
“There is a group of erm, shall we say entities, we can reach out to.” He describes the Wired to us. A fringe group, leaving out in space. More machine than human. They could get a secure message to anyone, anywhere.
I have never heard of them, but then again they don’t sound like the kind of beings likely to cross my path. “How do we contact them?” I ask.
“That’s easy. I shall sent out a subspace message on a particular frequency. Something that normal instrumentation is likely to see only as background space radiation. The Wired will pick it up. Get back to us.”
It seems the easiest thing in the world. “What’s the catch?”
Reed hesitates. Then: “They’re a bit … erm, quirky shall we say?”
Quirky? That coming from Reed sounds quirky in itself.
“There’s no telling what’s important to them. They will only tell us once.”
“And it’s secure?” this from Raynar.
“Ok,” I say. “Do it. Send them a message.”
I watch Reed’s eyes glaze over as his mind goes elsewhere. I can’t help wondering just what it must be like to live inside his body, part of it augmented with all sorts of internal circuitry. The sensorium he experiences must be so different to the rest of us I actually wonder if he is entirely human.
“Done,” he announces. His eyes blink rapidly, clearing. He refocuses. “I have a location. We are to meet them there.”
‘There’ - turns out to be an old disused communications relay station. These used to be vital at one stage when mining planets were closer together and comms tech was more primitive. Turns out they were vulnerable to space radiation, burning out just when you needed them most. They were abandoned and fell into disuse when subspace communication was made possible via Hilbert space configuration.
“Some of them are still around,” Reed explains. It’s like he just read my thoughts. “They’re still used to communicate through, erm … not quite the way you think.”
He doesn’t explain anything else and now I am thinking that all of this is way too easy.
We fly through space without incident. I take some time to talk to Ellie.
“I will get a message to your uncle,” I say, “see also if he has an update on your dad’s whereabouts. But if I sense anything’s wrong you will do exactly what I say.”
She’s not impressed, but what choice does she have? I watch Reed flick through his dials and I realize that at a certain level he must be the closest thing to Oscar with his neurally linked pals, there is. Who is he in communication with, I wonder.
My eyes flit over the other two occupants of the deck. Raynar is practicing drawing the blaster. He puts it in the holster by his side and then with a flick of his wrist it appears in his hand. He’s fast.
Tessa is busy writing down notes on an old style tablet. She’s using a stylus for that and one of the alphanumeric alphabets. The moment she completes each paragraph the tablet converts it into binary and stores it in an internal archive. I find it fascinating that she’s working at a time like this.
I bring my mind back to what we are doing and I wonder at just where I ended up. I am as far from my original destination and intent as any human can possibly get.
“I am a little derailed,” I say to no one in particular. There is no point in feeling sorry about yourself. Everything is a choice and in getting to this point, here, I certainly made plenty of them. I could have left Ellie to the Regulators, a long time ago.
I have learnt to live with my choices. I quietly take myself off to one side, away from the others. I go through a punishing round of upper body strength exercises and stretching. The pain of the physical effort involved grounds me. It makes me forget how sorry I feel and I focus, again, on the life force I sense inside me. The thing that makes me who I am.
By the time I finish, drenched in sweat, we are almost there. I get to Raynar. “Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he returns. He was watching me exercise.
“I was wondering. If no one survived, how do the Regulators know what really happened?”
He thinks about that one for a sec. Shrugs. “Dunno. Cameras maybe?”
“Well, they must have had something to create the narrative.” I persist.
“Yeah I guess. Didn’t really think about it before.”
“We’re here.” Reed announces.
Our destination is like a tin can hanging in space. It’s rectangular. As large as a house. Immobile, which means no gravity.
Reed explains how it works to us and it sounds crazy already.
“There’s no getting any closer than now,” he says, “These things have all sorts of field force protections because they were so easy to sabotage. We shall have to spacewalk, get to it. Get inside. “There is telemetry gear we can plug into, right there. You can talk directly to the Wired through your suit mic,” he explains.
I would much rather do it from inside the ship but there is no way this can happen. As you might have guessed, I am no big fan of spacewalks. They leave you too vulnerable, especially when you don’t really know what you’re walking into. Still, I reason to myself, whoever the Wired may be, whatever they may be, they need something from us, that’s not our lives, otherwise it would be much easier to sabotage our ship or simply broadcast our presence to Regulators. The thought calms me down a little.
“I will be with you every step of the way, from here.” Reed says, he points to the instrument console.
It’s no consolation. Once again I find myself stepping from an airlock into the cold darkness of space. I use my suit jet to aim for the comms relay station. It’s actually bigger than it looked from the ship. I revise my opinion upwards. About as big as ten houses.
“Sef, you’re approaching too fast. Ease on the jets.” Reed’s voice in my ear sounds reassuring. I follow his instructions adjusting for balance as well as speed.
Once on the relay station I get into a small housing. There are banks of crude equipment I don’t recognize all along one wall. Reed guides me expertly to one of them. Tells me what to do. It’s not complicated but without his guidance I would never have done it.
“OK, Sef, you’re in.” He says.
For the briefest moment there is nothing. Then a small jolt like a current and my helmet’s visor turns into a display. I see shadowy figures, five, six, maybe more. They are bunched together, leaning forward. Straining to see me.
“Is this VR?” I ask.
“Kinda,” says one. The tone is sibilant. I sense it more than hear it. I realize it’s bone induction. The sound is coming through the instrumentation.
I am not sure how to begin. “I - well, thank you for accepting our request. I was going to - “
“We shall let the uncle know the girl is alive. Wants to meet.” They cut me off.
Did Reed tell them already, I wonder.
“No.” They say. “We read your thoughts.”
Damn! Immediately I regret the reaction. I try to blank my mind, but realize I am not quite sure how.
“Interesting,” says one of them.
“We have a condition for our help.”
Of course. I stop any other thought from articulating. Damn telepaths! Oh -
They chuckle. “You’re funny.”
“Glad I amuse you.”
They tell me the request. What they want of me. Reed said they were weird. He wasn’t kidding. The display in front of my eyes vanishes just as suddenly as it had appeared.
“Well?” Reed’s voice cuts in anxiously. “Are you OK?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“We lost you there for a moment. We were getting worried.”
“Ah, they blocked you,” I say. “They will get the message to the uncle.”
“You’re starting back then?”
“Not yet. There is something I have to do first.” I wait, I know they are listening. Reed’s waiting also. “I need to run a maze.”
Silence. Then: “Come again.”
“A maze. They want me to run a maze.”
“Here. In space.” More silence. To be expected really. I take pity on Reed. “There is a maze inside the structure apparently. They want me to run it.”
“Like a rat?” Reed says.
It makes me wonder if he does have a sense of humor after all.
“They’ve given me a code. It opens the airlock. I run the maze. Come out. Get suited up. Get back. Easy.” I say.
“You’ll have no comms to keep in contact with us.” He’s right. Then again the Wired did cut me off while they were talking to me. I point this out.
“OK, Sef. Be careful.”
Yeah, right. Like a maze run in space is something you can ever really prepare for.
I punch in the code and get to the airlock. Take off the bulky suit. I strip to my underwear. Step through. Perversely enough it’s warm inside the structure. It’s dimly lit but my eyes adjust quickly. I look at the maze beginning before me. There is a red digital counter to my right. I know the moment I enter the maze it will begin counting down.
“Beat the countdown.” The Wired said. No mention of how long or short it might be. I assumed they are reasonable. My death holds no meaning to them. Still, there will be little time to dally.
“Ok Sef.” I tell myself. “Time to prove you’re as good as you think you are.” I take one last deep, measured breath and then I am off and running. Arms pumping and knees rising as I power through the maze, eyes and brain working frantically, solving the puzzle on the go.
The oxygen inside the structure tastes stale. As I gulp it down my lungs are burning and I wonder briefly if it is enough. Time seems to slow down. The walls of the maze stretch endlessly. I take turn after turn. Mark walls down with my mind, remembering angles and the way the shadows bounce off them.
Then, just when I think I can go on no more. Just when it feels like the oxygen has run out. I get to the end. I am drenched in sweat.
It takes me some time to get dressed again. Work my way through the airlock. Get back to the ship. When I get there I am exhausted.
“We got word from them.” Reed says while Raynar is helping me take my suit off. “The message went through. Leonidas Ri. Ellie’s uncle will be waiting at the Hub. Dock 17.”