He read the label on the wall:
“Warning: Maximum life support duration for escape pod: 72 hours.”
It was now more than 80 hours since he fell into the pod as the ship decompressed.
Reeves looked around.
“Is there anybody out there?” he said softly.
Running into a black string was the only thing that could have caused such a sudden and catastrophic ship failure. The only reason he was alive was that he was adjacent to an escape pod when the alarm sounded.
It was hard to believe, as fast as the ship was destroyed, that any emergency beacons were deployed. There was no sign anyone else escaped. No com chatter, no signs of other pods.
He was all alone with no hope of rescue.
The Warner Robins was a survey ship with a crew of only 30. It had been dispatched from a forward colony after electromagnetic anomalies hinted at an unknown sentient presence in a nearby sector.
Black holes were easy enough to avoid, even while in warp. Black String was another matter. The diffused streaks left by the Big Bang were impossible to detect during a warp drive blackout.
Reeves had been doing a simple patrol of exterior conduits when the alarm sounded. The decompression was instantaneous. He wasn’t sure whether he lunged for the escape pod or fell into it as the ship dropped away from around him. The ship must have struck a Black String head on. He was saved because the door snapped shut automatically as the pod detected the decompression.
He looked across the unfamiliar starfield. He didn’t see any debris–it was probably all sucked into the string’s gravity gash. The pod must have been thrown free at just the right angle and speed to escape the singularity.
The pod had a small emergency transponder, but it was designed to help someone who was directed to a star wreck’s general location by a ship’s emergency beacon. Without a ship’s beacon having even been deployed…
“This is Joseph Reeves of the Warner Robbins. Can anyone hear me?”
He had broadcast continually for hours after the disaster. No response, no indication anyone was within a parsec.
He gasped and grew light-headed. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open and read the oxygen level was down to 17 percent, while the rest was Co2. He took the pad he had been typing on and finished a message to his family, in case his remains were ever found.
He couldn’t keep his eyes open.
He began to dream. He was in a bright shining mist and saw he was back on Earth, on a morning when the early morning haze began to rise off a meadow in Tennessee, where he was a boy. He was back on the family farm in Smyrna, in a green valley nestled among some low hills. He remembered how comforting it was to know his family cared and watched over him.
His mother was peeling apples on the porch. She smiled and waved at him. His father had his head lodged under the hood of a decrepit PT Cruiser left to him by his father. He was tugging at wires and checking connections. He stood up and mopped his brow as he looked around. He saw Joseph and smiled.
Joseph stood up and brushed the dirt from his bare knees as he realized he was a boy again. He heard someone clear their throat.
His grandmother tapped him on his shoulder.
“Come on, Joe, your mama said you could come to the revival.”
He took ahold of his grandmother’s hand and they walked down a dirt road and past a wooden fence to a bright green meadow where a large gray tent sat.
He remembered that day. She had taken him to a traveling revival show. As they walked inside, he heard the minister start up an old hymn:
“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through…”
He looked up and saw his grandmother smile down on him. She was singing, too.
“My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue…”
He knew the hymn, and joined in.“The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door…”
He raised his voice.“…and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
He was jolted to consciousness, and realized he was hoarsely singing out loud. He gasped violently for air. The ports of the pod were all full of a bright bluish light. The hatch to the escape pod had pulled off with a giant tug from outside. Fresh oxygen came rushing in.
He was saved.
He took deep breaths and then thought, “That was close.” He turned in his seat and faced the hatch. Why wasn’t anyone sticking their head inside? He undid the belt, and walked in a crouch to the opening. He stuck his head outside.
Nothing he saw looked familiar. It was an alien craft.
A bimanual hexapod–a centaur-like creature of obviously otherworldly origin–walked up to the pod.
“We’ve had a strict policy of non-interference with your species, but we decided you deserved to be rescued,” the creature said in a thin voice that reminded Reeves of a narrow broadband communication.
Reeves slid down from the edge of the hatch.
“Thank you, thank you for saving my life – especially since our kinds have never made contact before.”
“Your mutant species is still under observation and is quarantined,” the creature said. “But we could tell you are of no danger to us.”
“Thank you – but how?”
“It’s not uncommon for a species to have a death song, sung before battle, but we realized you have, how do you say – religion, as you call it. You left your communications channel open and as you lost consciousness you sang a song of the afterlife and the world to come,” the creature said.
It walked around the pod as Reeves saw many other creatures enter.
“Not all sentient races have souls, as you call them – a spark from the higher plane’s consciousness embodied in flesh – but those who do have a more respectful and cooperative relationship with other species, because they are aware of higher powers. They know they are not the apex of the quantum universes,” the creature continued. “Any awareness of this higher multi-dimensional consciousness, however imperfect, is always a positive sign.”
“We call it spirituality,” Reeves said.
“As is common in a mutant species, your individuals vary widely. Your race still appears to us enormously potentially dangerous. We are still deliberating whether to reveal ourselves or not,” the creature continued.
“I’m grateful to you for saving me, if that means anything,” Reeves said. “I hope I can help you know my kind better.”
The creature made a strange expression, almost like a grimace.
“I’m sorry if you expect to be able to return to your base of operations, the quarantine is still in effect, we will not return you to your people. But you can stay with us, at least for now,” it said. “If some time in the future, relations are established, perhaps you can return. But we control a considerable segment of this arm of the galaxy, and we have a long history of staving off incursions and invasions.”
“We were just exploring; we didn’t know you were here.”
“But you must have suspected, or else why travel this distance?”
“You are correct, and I understand your position. I can accept it. I supposed I had prepared mentally myself for the afterlife, I guess this is it.”
“Your consideration of our position is a sign of your race’s potential reasonableness,” the creature said. “Your world is not your home any more, but we will share ours with you. Perhaps you can help us understand your people better. We will take you to our forward base and provide for your care and comfort.”
“I will try to be the best representative of my people I can be.”
“Can I ask a question, uh…”
“You may call me Tardom. I am captain of this patrol ship.”
“Captain Tardom, do you know what destroyed my ship?”“A wisp of residual material remaining from the inrush that created this universe,” Tardom said. “From before matter and anti-matter separated. You blundered directly into it.”
“Yes, we call it Dark String, we have no way to detect it while in warp.”
“If our relations are eventually established between our two kinds, we can share a technology for such detection,” Tardom said.
“I will try my best to make your people understand we are not dangerous and could be potential allies,” Reeves said.
“I would like that,” Tardom said. “Now we can begin, as you called it, your afterlife.”
Reeves looked around and saw the other creatures staring at him.
“I’m grateful for the second chance,” Reeves said. “Like the old hymn says, ‘I once was lost but now am found’.”
The captain gestured. “Come with us, then.”
Food for Thought
One of the traditional signs of wisdom is knowing that you don’t know some things – that there are limits to anyone’s knowledge.
It has also been observed that modern atheism is the height of arrogance, because if the adherent is honest, they claim to possess supernatural knowledge – to know the unknowable (of course, in the United States, atheism is really anti-Christianity and essentially a religion of its own).
We assume any advanced race will eschew the delusional stance of current Terran atheists, and have some of teleological explanation of the universe, whether they view that “Higher Power” as a “hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin” – to quote the famous National Lampoon parody, “Deteriorata”.
We also think that, regardless of the details, they would look auspiciously upon any other species that has enough curiosity and self-awareness to take up the same questions.
About the Author
Lou Antonelli started writing fiction in middle age; his first story was published in 2003 when he was 46. He’s had 95 short stories published in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia, in venues such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jim Baen’s Universe, Tales of the Talisman, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, Greatest Uncommon Denominator (GUD), Daily Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, and Omni Reboot, among others.
His collections include “Fantastic Texas” published in 2009; “Texas & Other Planets” published in 2010; and “The Clock Struck None” and “Letters from Gardner”, both published in 2014.
His story “Great White Ship”, originally published in Daily Science Fiction, was a 2013 finalist for the Sidewise Award for alternate history. His short story “On a Spiritual Plain”, originally published in Sci Phi Journal, was a finalist for the Hugo award in 2015.
A Massachusetts native, he moved to Texas in 1985 and is married to Dallas native Patricia (Randolph) Antonelli. They have three adopted furbaby children, Millie, Sugar and Peltro Antonelli.
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