The Long Death (Part VI)

Peters bounded forward, his feet barely touching the ground as the tether connecting him to Annie’s pod unwound behind him. When he reached the spot where Gia had been standing just moments before, now dark and inert, he stopped and looked helplessly this way and that. “Gia!” he called out again, as if that would help anything. Michael was once more clinging helplessly to the surface of the object – the Bridge, he mentally corrected – and all he could do was watch the other man rage wordlessly near the pillars.

“Michael? Michael? Are you there? This is Professor Hoshi…”

“I’m here,” he said.

“Good. We’re on a new frequency; the signal just cut out a few minutes ago. What just happened?”

“There’s…there’s really no time for me to explain it all.”

“One of the astronauts from the other ship just disappeared.”

“I’m aware of that, professor.” He tried to spread his hands on the floor beneath him. The texture on his gloves was made up of thousands of complex micro-ridges that would help them adhere to even a smooth surface like this one, but he could feel the movement of the vast object beneath him, and momentum was against him. He could be thrown clear at any moment. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the pod from the Hawking floating off into space. Tymoshenko had been killed instantly by the feedback of energy that had burst out of the pod’s control panel and hurled them into freefall. Lucky for her: if she’d survived, her death would have been lonely and cold. Like he was sure his was about to be.

“Michael, the energy just released by the object has caused its orbit to degrade even further,” Hoshi was explaining, “it’s moving quite erratically and it’s going to take us a longer to work out the correct trajectory for the rescue mission.”

“I understand.”

“Can you get in the other pod there?”

“The one from the other ship?!” he asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

“You want me to steal it and pilot it back to you? To leave Peters behind?”

There was silence from the other end of the line. “Michael, he’s already dead…”

He remembered what he’d heard Peters say earlier about the Long Death. He’d almost forgotten about it with everything that had happened – an almost alien experience for him – but now it came flooding back. “Why didn’t we bring them additional supplies?” he asked.

“Michael, let’s not talk about that right now…”

He realised that not everyone knew about this. The crew of the Hawking must have been aware of it though – they’d know exactly how much food, water, air and fuel they had on board. They must have known all too well what was happening. It explained a lot about how they’d treated the science team. “Why?” Michael repeated, finding a depth of feeling he hadn’t before realised he possessed.

“There was a…a change of plan…”

“What change?”

“I don’t think we should…”

What change?”

“You, Michael. We had an extra passenger. The resources required to bring you with us replaced the additional supplies for the Little Orphan Annie.”

He couldn’t think of a reply to that, so he just stared at Peters, who was now bouncing in his direction. He could make out through his visor that he was saying something, but there was no corresponding sound in his earpiece. Peters seemed to realise the problem as he got closer and Michael tried to make the best helpless, apologetic expression he could while keeping his hand splayed flat. “Michael,” Hoshi said, “you’re going to have to find a way to get to the free tether that the woman left. It’s still connected to the pod. You can…”

Her voice suddenly cut out as Peters made an adjustment on the panel on his chest plate. “You hear me now, kid?”

“How do you keep doing that?”

“You don’t go into space as many times as I have and not learn a thing or two about playing with radio waves. Just you and me now, all right?”

“Peters…”

“What happened to Gia?”

“I think…no…I don’t want to speculate…”

Peters was close to him now and he crouched down. This time there was no helping Michael to his feet. “Speculate, braniac. Where did she go?”

“I…I don’t think she went anywhere. I think she’s dead.”

“Dead?” His voice caught as he spoke. Was there something going on between him and Gia Sanchez? Michael felt an uncharacteristic stab of jealousy in his chest, but then realised that it didn’t feel right. Gia had wanted to go home. There was someone there waiting for her.

“She…she was vaporised. I thought the Bridge might transport her somehow, but it didn’t. I think something went wrong.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

Peters grabbed him now and lifted him up roughly. He was a lot taller than Michael. He pressed their visors together so that, when he spoke, Michael could feel the vibration through his helmet, slightly out of synch with the sound of the man’s voice over the radio link. “You can read the symbols on this thing. You seem to know more about it than anyone. You travelled halfway across the solar system just to look at it, and now you don’t know how the fucking thing works?”

“I didn’t think…I didn’t know she’d…”

“You told her to do it! You even explained how!”

“I just wanted to help her!”

“You killed her! You bastards killed us all!”

“I…no…I didn’t…I didn’t know…I…” He really didn’t. It was all some horrible cosmic joke, but he knew that explanation wouldn’t appease this man. According to the manifest, there were seventeen crewmembers on the Little Orphan Annie, and all of them would die the Long Death because of him. He didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. He had no defence except that it hadn’t been his decision. But what did you think would happen to them? a treacherous part of his brain asked.

“She’s dead!” Peters said, shaking him by the shoulders. “Burned down to atoms by some alien machine!”

Not alien. But now wasn’t the time for that argument. “I don’t know what to say,” Michael whispered.

“No. No I suppose you don’t.” Peters stepped away, letting his hands drop away from Michael. The sudden change in balance was enough to destabilise him and, as he tried to correct, he pushed himself away from the surface of the Bridge just a tiny amount. And then suddenly, horrifyingly, he was floating freely in space. Millimetres became centimetres and then he was just there, hanging weightlessly in space as the Bridge, the only raft he had in this vast, black ocean, receded slowly away from him. He had no words for this emotion. No way to transpose his thoughts into anything intelligible. He experienced no physical sensation except from his own body. He was neither cold nor hot, felt no pull of any force: he just floated helplessly in the void, his mouth a fixed ‘o’ of surprise and terror.

Peters watched him dispassionately, but then seemed to come to some sort of decision and, with an audible grunt, launched himself after Michael. They collided and spun lazily in space as the various forces tried to equalise themselves out and resolve their direction of movement. “You’re lucky,” Peters said.

“Why?”

“I’ve been in space too many times. I wouldn’t let anyone die like this. Hold on, kid.” Michael gripped on fiercely as Peters grabbed his tether and began to haul them back towards the Bridge. As they moved closer, Michael caught sight of something: a glowing symbol just in front of the pillars. It wasn’t one of the ones in his ad hoc dictionary of the ancient language. He frowned at it as the tether almost fully retracted and they found their feet near Annie’s pod. Peters took the other tether and clipped it to Michael’s belt. “What’s done it done,” he said, “now we have to figure out what to do next.”

Michael was still looking at the strange new symbol. It faded on and off slowly – that meant the meaning was unclear, as if there was doubt, or a choice. It looked a little like one he’d interpreted as the number two. “It means ‘again’…” he murmured to himself.

“What?” Peters looked around and followed Michael’s gaze. “What is that?”

“The symbol there. I think…I think it means ‘try again’!”

“Huh?” Michael was already floating towards it, his terror completely forgotten. “Kid! Don’t be ridiculous!” Peters shouted after him. “You’ll get yourself killed! Shit, you might get me killed…”

“You’re already dead, aren’t you?” Michael heard himself say as he angled himself down towards the symbol, palm outstretched. He bumped softly against it and it lit up at his touch. He could feel Peters tugging at his tether, but it was too late now: he’d activated whatever it was and was rewarded by a bright glow that emanated outwards, suffusing the darkness with a warm yellow light. Peters hauled him back and he bumped against the pod’s side.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded.

“Watch…”

The light got brighter and brighter, and their visors were overwhelmed. They were forced to turn away, squinting against a burning radiance brighter than the sun. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it faded, leaving Michael with purple afterimages all over his vision. He blinked a few times, then looked back towards the pillars. There, lying on the ground, was a figure in a spacesuit. It was Gia.

*

Am.

No. That was wrong. Another word.

Being.

Alive.

Yes.

Alive and here. Here on the Bridge. It used to be called something else. Not now. She had the right word now.

She?

Yes. Female. That was right. Name? She’d had a name. She searched. Search not working. Wait. No, it worked differently. She had to remember. She had a name. Now that she was alive, she had to have a name to go with that. But so much was forgotten. She felt…incomplete…what had happened to her? She had been here at the Bridge, then something, then nothing, and now this.

Home.

She was supposed to be Home.

This was not Home.

*

“My God,” Peters whispered, “it’s really her. I was sure she was dead. It was like I could feel it. Even before you said it, I just knew. I guess I was wrong.” He cradled her head on his lap, holding her tightly – perhaps to stop her floating away, perhaps for some other reason.

“She was dead,” Michael said. “I saw her die.”

“Where did it take her?” Peters asked, ignoring him. “She wanted to get back to Earth. Do you think she did?”

“No. I think…I think she was…stored…somehow…”

Peters finally looked at him. “Stored? What does that mean?”

“I heard a voice, when I lying down before. It said something about matter-energy conversion. I think you were right about what you said about wormholes.”

“Wormholes? What?” Peters obviously didn’t remember. Michael had observed that happened sometimes.

“They collapse if you pass matter through them, but energy is different. I think this machine, the Bridge, converts matter into energy and then somehow shoots it through a wormhole.”

“Do you know how crazy that sounds? What kind of technology could do that?”

“I don’t know. But if it did, it would have to store the information somewhere before it transported it. Hence…well…storage.”

“You’re saying that it didn’t kill her, it just turned her into energy and stored information about every atom in her body? How is that possible? Doesn’t it violate quantum physics or something?”

“Yes. But…” He looked down at Gia. They couldn’t see through her visor and it took Michael a second to realise that it was because she had hair crammed into her helmet that was obscuring her face. “Her hair grew back,” he said.

Peters looked down with a confused expression on his face. “How long was she gone?”

“I don’t think that’s what it is.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t know. But, Peters, you have to understand something. When she was…stored…she really did die.”

Peters looked at him like he was talking nonsense. People did that to Michael a lot. “She’s here, isn’t she?”

“No, what I mean is…if her body really was converted to energy, there’s no way she could survive the process. A wormhole can transmit energy – information – but all it would be is a kind of…of…blueprint. A pattern to reconstruct a physical object from matter already at the other end.”

“So you’re saying that all it does is…copy…someone?”

Michael nodded silently.

Peters looked down at the woman in his arms. Her chest rose and fell slowly. She looked like she was sleeping. “So is this Gia or not?”

“I don’t know if there’s a way to answer that question.”

“We have to get her back to the ship.”

“Which ship?” Michael looked across at the luminous shape of the Hawking, bright and sleek in the distance, and then back at Little Orphan Annie, a jagged lump of worn, dust-streaked metal studded with receivers and instruments like spires, floating much closer.

Annie’s nearest. Our oxygen will run out soon. We have to get her into the infirmary.”

“But…”

“Listen, kid,” Peters growled as he lifted Gia up – in the weightlessness of space it required no effort at all, “you can come with me, or you can stay here and wait to die alone. Unless you think your scientist pals have any chance of saving you.”

“All right,” Michael said. It was perfectly logical but for maybe the first time in his life, Michael had no desire to do what was logical.

*

The Little Orphan Annie was very different from the Hawking. As Michael clambered through the narrow hatch that led to the pod bay airlock, he looked around in consternation. In contrast to the white, brightly-lit corridors of the science ship, these were dingy, discoloured passages, like holes bored through some hideous metal skeleton. Everything was built around a central rotating hub, and the conditions were murderously cramped. Peters sagged under Gia’s weight as they returned to a facsimile of gravity, and Michael moved to help him. He was surprised at how leaden his limbs felt again after his time in the vacuum and he felt more tired than he’d ever felt before. As they moved up the curving corridor, a man stepped into their path. He was tall and slender, south Asian, and he had a bruise under his right eye. He stared balefully at Peters. “What happened back there?”

“That’s what we need to find out. Let us get to the infirmary, Kuar.”

Kuar, if that’s who he was, looked at Michael and narrowed his eyes. “One of the scientists?”

“Yeah. He helped save Gia.”

“Well then I suppose we should be thanking him.” Michael didn’t understand the tone in the man’s voice. It sounded a bit like sarcasm, but he obviously wasn’t making a joke. Indeed, his whole demeanour conveyed menace. Michael shuddered inwardly. How long until the people on this ship found out he was responsible for their impending deaths?

Kuar made no move to get out of their way, so Peters squared up to him, still holding Gia by the arms. He was taller and more heavily built than Kuar, even without the bulky spacesuit, and after a few seconds, he backed down and stepped out of their way. As they shuffled past though, he gave Michael a dark look that made him try to quicken his steps.

They reached what passed for the infirmary – a narrow space that, like everything else, was built along the outside edge of the huge, ever-spinning wheel at the heart of the Little Orphan Annie. The doctor was a surly looking man whom Peters introduced to Michael as Suarez. They laid Gia down on the bench that ran along one low wall. Suarez tugged her helmet free and frowned. She had a full head of hair – long, dark and lustrous – that tumbled free. “Well..” was all he said.

“Any ideas?” Peters asked him.

“No.” He looked at them. “I’m going to have to give her a full examination, try to figure out what happened here.”

“Probably a good idea,” Peters said.

“Thanks. I’m only the ship’s bloody doctor. Get the hell out of here and give her some privacy, would you?”

They crawled back out through the hatch and then stood in the corridor awkwardly. Michael was still wearing his sleek, form-fitting spacesuit. He was unwilling to abandon it. “I should contact the Hawking,” he said.

“Let’s go to the control room.” That proved to be another tiny, dark room. Michael didn’t like to imagine how old this ship was, how many bits of it were patched together or salvaged from other vessels. The Hoshi-Wójcik Corporation cut corners where it could. Space travel was never cheap, but there were ways to make it commercially viable. He’d had to sign plenty of waivers before leaving – the desperate men and women on this wreck must have put their thumbprints to a magnitude more.

Another man was in the control room, shortish and white, as bald as the rest of them, although this time it didn’t look like it was by choice. “What happened down there, Peters?” he demanded immediately.

“Ask the scientist, captain,” Peters answered, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Michael.

So this was Captain Levitt. He was looking at him expectantly. “It’s…um…complicated…”

Another man folded himself through the hatch, older and very gaunt looking, with bulging eyes. He was carrying a tablet. “I’d like some answers too, if you please.”

Michael realised he must be Ostenfeld, the ship’s principal scientist. It was getting very crowded in the small control room. “I think the Bridge is some sort of transportation device,” was the best way he could think to start the conversation.

“The bridge?”

“That seems to be what it’s called,” Peters explained, “Gia seemed to know more about it.”

“Before you left, she said it talked to her,” Levitt said.

“Hm,” was all Ostenfeld said about that. “Transportation device? How so?”

“I think it uses a wormhole,” Michael told him.

“Don’t be silly. Wormholes are unstable, you’d never be able to…”

“I already said that,” Peters interrupted. “Tell him about the matter-energy thing, Mike.”

“I think the Bridge can convert matter into energy and store it as information. Then it transmits it through space faster than light using a wormhole. At the other end, I suppose local matter is reconstituted following the pattern encoded. I assume you may need another Bridge at the destination.”

“Hm.” Ostenfeld looked down at his tablet. “You said you think it stores matter as information?”

“Yes.”

“That explains the changes in the object’s internal structure.”

“What changes?” Michael stepped closer to the scientist who angled his tablet so he could see it. He’d memorised every interior view of the Bridge captured using various imaging techniques, and felt he knew its structure intimately, so he was stunned to see such a profound change. The crystalline structure had been altered somehow.

Peters leaned over. “Looks the same to me…”

Michael shook his head and pointed at the image on the tablet. “No, look, there are more layers. There’s an added band of complexity along the surface, as if new data has been put down.”

“Is that…is that Gia?”

“The new structures are similar in basic form to some of the other strata interwoven through the object,” Ostenfeld said, “and obviously we have no way to interpret what it could be. The pattern of crystals is obviously some kind of data storage, but we can’t speculate beyond that.”

Only a few hours before, Michael would have agreed with him – he hated making any kind of guess, even an educated one – but now he was struck by a kind of inspiration he’d never felt before. He pointed excitedly. “Every time this machine has transported someone, it’s had to store their physical – and I suppose their mental – pattern. Each traveller lays down their own strata of new crystal growth, then that’s used to create the energy pattern that gets transmitted. When we asked it to ‘try again’, it regenerated Gia from its databanks where it stored her!”

“You can’t possibly know that,” Ostenfeld said dismissively.

“You weren’t there,” Peters said in a low voice. “I think you might be onto something Michael.”

“Don’t you understand?” he looked at each of them in turn, trying to find some spark of comprehension in their eyes. He was used to being frustrated by that hope. He shook his head in despair. “The other strata are the patterns of people who used the Bridge millennia ago! The people who originally built it. If we can find some way to access this information, we can resurrect people who’ve been dead for hundreds of thousands of years!”

Levitt stepped forward. “Are you suggesting that a person could use this machine to store a version of themselves forever?”

“Well yes, I suppose…”

“Immortality,” the captain breathed. “Don’t you see what this is? We don’t have to die! We can store the whole crew in that thing until they can send a ship to rescue us. Hell, we could just tow the whole damn thing back to Earth and then bring us all back, good as new!”

“Levitt,” Peters said with a warning tone in his voice that Michael was coming to recognise, “we don’t even know what we’re dealing with yet. We only just brought Gia back, and we have no idea what…”

There was a crackle of radio static from a console to their side. Levitt frowned and pressed a button. “Hello?”

“This is Suarez. I think someone better get down here to the infirmary right away.”

Peters was at the console in a flash. “Is it Gia? Is she okay? Is she awake?”

“She’s…she’s awake. She’s definitely awake.”

“But is she okay?”

A pause. “I think you should just come down here.”

*

Light. Vision. Yes. She looked around, taking in her surroundings. She knew this place. She had been here once, Before. A man was standing over her. He looked like someone she knew.

“Home?” she asked.

He burbled something at her that she couldn’t understand. It took her a moment to remember the other thing she needed for this. Sound. Hearing. Yes. It all worked better now that she remembered that part.

“Home?” she asked again.

“Just relax,” the man told her.

“Home,” she said, more forcefully.

“Sanchez…”

She knew that word. That word meant something to her. No: that word was her. But how could a word be a thing? It didn’t make any sense. The man was babbling something else again. He looked strange. She didn’t know why his eyes were going wide like that, or why his face had gone so pale. What was wrong with him? She felt something. Something inside her. Something other than thought. What was that? It was…less…than a thought. Just a sensation of something, like a spark inside her brain that she couldn’t control. How awful. How terrible to have something unfamiliar inside her tidy mind, making her think things that had no words to describe them. It…it made her want to shut him up. It made her want to make him go away. What was it?

No matter. She reached out and grabbed him around the throat. He tried to break free, but she was too strong. She squeezed him until he stopped moving, then let go when it seemed like he would remain quiet. There.

How strange. Another pulse inside her brain. This time different. The opposite of the last one. This time it felt…pleasant…

Ah yes. She remembered now. They were called emotions. They were a lot like thoughts, in a way. She seemed to remember them being more important than this, Before. Well. No matter. They had served their purpose. She tucked away these strange sensations for now, and sat up on the bench. Someone else was coming. Maybe they would explain a few things.

*

“Gia!” Peters nearly fell through the hatch to the infirmary, then drew up short as he saw her sitting there on the bench. Michael crowded in after him, craning his neck over his shoulder to see what was going on. When he saw the woman they’d brought back unconscious from the Bridge, he recoiled instinctively. Peters too was stunned into silence. Michael could see the horror writ large in his movements and knew the other man was feeling exactly as he felt.

It was Gia. The same beautiful woman he’d first seen when she saved his life less than two hours ago. She had the same features: the same shapely nose, the same angled jaw line, the same high cheekbones, the same light brown skin. The only difference was the dark, tousled hair that tumbled down her back and the eyes. The eyes were like nothing he’d seen before. Midnight black pools, dark and cold as space. Lifeless. It was like staring into an abyss. Whatever had once been there, whatever had once made this person human, was gone.

“Home?” she asked. Her voice was the same, but coming from the mouth of this thing, it made Michael’s skin want to crawl off his body and find a place to hide.

Peters licked his lips and walked slowly towards the Gia-creature. His hands were raised, like he was approaching something dangerous, trying to show he wasn’t going to do any harm. Michael shuffled into the available space. For the first time he noticed the prone form of Doctor Suarez, lying at Gia’s feet. His eyes were staring lifelessly at the ceiling, and there was bruising around his throat. “This isn’t home, Gia,” Peters was saying.

“I need to get Home,” she said calmly.

“To Clarissa. I know.”

“Clarissa?” Gia seemed to give that some thought. If Peters had been expecting that name to make a difference to anything, he was wrong. She shook her head. “Home,” she repeated simply.

“It’s going to be all right, Gia,” Peters said softly, “we’re going to get you some help. We’re going to take you to the other ship, to the Hawking. They might know what’s going on.”

“Something went wrong,” Michael said to Peters, keeping his eyes on Gia the whole time. “I heard a voice after she was…converted. It said something about an unexpected emotional state.”

“You think that’s what this is?” he asked. “It isn’t just because she’s a…a copy…?”

“If this is what the Bridge brought back every time, would you ever use it?”

“I need to get Home,” Gia repeated.

“We’ll take you home, Gia,” Peters said. “Give me your hand, and we’ll go home.”

Michael felt a shudder travel down his spine as Peters took her outstretched hand. The idea of making contact with…with this…was too horrible to contemplate. Peters moistened his lips again as he helped Gia to her feet. Suarez hadn’t gotten as far as removing her spacesuit. He gestured for Michael to move out of the way, and he let them pass. Gia moved jerkily, like she didn’t remember how to walk.

Michael trailed after them as they made their way down the curving corridor towards the pod bay. They were a few metres down when a shout made him and Peters turn around. Gia ignored it, but drew to a halt when Peters did. The voice was Kuar’s, and he was heading towards them. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said.

“Now isn’t the time, Kuar,” Peters said.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the Hawking. We’re taking the pod.”

“Why?”

“I don’t have time to explain. Something’s happened to Gia and…”

“She’s not getting off this ship if we’re not!” Kuar pushed past Michael and made a grab for Gia. She turned as his hand rested on her shoulder and then he was stumbling backwards, a horrible expression on his face. Michael flattened himself against the wall. He had no idea what to do. He’d never felt so unsure of himself before. That morning, everything had made sense, but now he was living in some kind of nightmare.

Gia advanced on Kuar. “Home?” she asked.

“You…you’re not getting off this ship…” he stammered helplessly, wilting under her terrible stare.

“I need to get Home.” She reached out and grabbed his throat. Her eyes sparked, showing humanity for the first time, but it was, if anything, even more disturbing. Pure, undiluted rage. Animal fury. Michael covered his face with his hands. He could hear the struggle, hear Peters’s shouts and the sound of his body being thrown against the wall. He could hear Kuar gasping helplessly and wetly for air, and then the dull impact of his corpse hitting the metal floor. When he dared to look again, she was walking back down the corridor as if nothing had happened. Peters was staring down at what was left of Kuar. Half of his throat had been ripped out. There was blood everywhere. Michael felt his stomach curdle.

“What do we do?” he asked quietly.

Peters’s jaw tensed. “We have to stop her.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t let her take the pod. We can’t risk her returning to Earth. Not like that.”

Michael looked down at Kuar’s body. “I can’t go after her…”

“Why not?”

“She’ll kill me.”

“So far, she only seems to kill when she gets…when she gets angry, like that.”

There was bile in Michael’s throat. He thought he’d be sick any second, and it wasn’t the corpse and the blood that was doing it. “I’m the reason she can’t go home,” he whispered.

“What?”

“I’m the reason you’re all going to die out here. I’m the reason you’re all going to die the Long Death.”

Peters was frowning at him. For once, Michael was almost glad not to be understood. “Why? Why you specifically? Who are you?”

“I wasn’t on the original manifest. I begged them to bring me on this mission. I convinced them they needed me. I thought…I thought I’d just replace someone…”

Peters nodded. “You’re the extra member of the science team they brought instead of our supplies.”

“I didn’t know!” Michael said. “You have to believe me! If I had…” What? He’d suspected it anyway, hadn’t he? Yes, and thought nothing of it. He hadn’t cared in the slightest. They were just faceless corporate astronauts. Even if they’d told him the cost of his coming was their lives, he still wouldn’t have hesitated for an instant.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Peters said, “what’s done is done.”

“Look, maybe there’s something we can do. Get you onto the Hawking. Or Levitt’s idea about the Bridge. We could try and…”

“No.” Peters’s tone was flat. He sounded like the Gia-creature. “There’s no coming back from the Long Death. We all died the moment we found that thing out there. Now all we can do is make sure it doesn’t happen the same way as Kuar and Suarez.”

“I’ll stay. I’ll help you. I don’t have anything to go back to. It’s the least I can do.”

Peters shook his head. “You’re the only one on this hulk with a chance of surviving, kid. Go back to your ship, and fly as fast as you can back to Earth. Forget any of this ever happened.”

“It should be you. You take the pod.”

“There are fourteen other people on this ship as deserving as me. Better none of us take it. You go. Go home and, when you do, you find something back there worth living for. I spent a lifetime searching for that, and the only place I found it was out here, in the black.” He looked down the corridor, where Gia had gone, and Michael understood then. He didn’t know what to say. They both stood there for a long moment, then Peters gathered himself together. “Come on.”

They went to the pod bay. Peters got another spacesuit from the locker and quickly put it on. The older designs were more functional, utilitarian, but even so he donned it too fast, skipping the checks. Michael wordlessly took his helmet from where it was magna-locked at his belt and snapped it back on. They passed through the airlock and saw Gia standing unsteadily in the zero-g of the bay, next to the pod. She had replaced her helmet, but she’d done it awkwardly, and her long her was muzzed over her face again. She turned crookedly as they approached her. She obviously didn’t know quite what to do with the pod. “Gia,” Peters said. She frowned through her visor and cocked her head slightly.

“Can she hear you?” Michael asked.

“The radio link is still active. She probably doesn’t understand where my voice is coming from though. I don’t think she remembers much of who she was.”

“Home,” Gia said.

“I can take you home,” Peters said, “but you have to come with me.”

She looked back at the pod. “Home?”

“No, that way won’t work now. You need to follow me back into the ship. That’s how we get home. Home is back that way.” He pointed to the airlock. She began to totter towards him and then lost her footing. Flailing helplessly, she tried to move towards Peters, who had a firm grip on one of the handles set into the wall. “Now, kid. Get the hell out of here!”

Michael pushed himself across the room towards the pod. Despite its older design, he managed to work out how to open the archaic bubble dome and he quickly clambered into the cockpit. He looked back to see Gia close with Peters. It looked like they were locked in an embrace. He reached out past her and jammed his fist into the control panel. The bay doors rolled back slowly, exposing the room to the vacuum of space. Michael hit the pod thrusters, praying to a God whose existence he’d never even considered that there was enough fuel in the tank and oxygen in his backpack to get him over to the Hawking. As he shakily guided the pod through the doors, the last thing he saw was Peters fight free of Gia and send her spinning away end over end. Her arms waved feebly as she tumbled from the Little Orphan Annie and out into space. He didn’t see what happened to Peters.

*

Professor Gilbert sat down next to his bed. The infirmary in the Hawking was larger, cleaner, more brightly lit than the dingy little room back on the Little Orphan Annie. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

Michael swallowed. “I don’t know.” He’d been flitting in out of consciousness for what seemed like days. He’d gotten most of the way back to the ship before the fuel gave out. They’d managed to mount a desperate rescue mission and found him near death, his oxygen almost completely gone. It was a small miracle: no one had thought his will to survive would be so strong.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you express any doubt about anything in your life,” Gilbert smiled.

“I suppose I’ve changed.”

“They say space does that to a person.” They sat in silence for a while, then Gilbert took out a tablet – it was Michael’s custom-built one. For some reason, seeing it didn’t inspire the same sense of satisfaction it once had. “You won’t be surprised to hear that the energy fluctuations from the object caused its orbit to decay rapidly. It started spiralling towards the surface of Tethys about an hour ago. It should make impact within a day.”

“Good.”

Gilbert nodded, seeming to understand. “I won’t pretend I know exactly what happened over there, Michael, but I suppose that machine is something best left to ancient history.”

“What’s happened to the Annie?”

“The other ship?” Gilbert put his hands on his knees and sighed. “There’s nothing we can do for them. By the sounds of things, it’s pretty bad over there. We transmitted the final message and left them to the Long Death.”

“The final message?”

“Yes. There’s something they send to crews in that situation, just two words that convey everything necessary. I’m surprised you don’t know about this.”

“I never paid attention to things like that before,” Michael said. “It never seemed to matter to me. What’s the message?”

Gilbert shook his head sadly. “A simple thing really. They just tell them, ‘die well’. That’s all. I mean, that’s the horror of the Long Death I suppose. To know you’re fated to die, and have all that time to just wait it out, counting down your supplies until there’s nothing left. So you wish them a good death.”

Michael closed his eyes. “They won’t have one. Not after this.”

“Maybe not.”

After a while, Michael opened his eyes again. Gilbert was still sitting there, not saying anything. “Will anyone know about any of this?”

“I doubt it. What’s to tell now? The Bridge, as you call it, will be long destroyed by the time we get back.” He lifted up the tablet. “We wrote down some of what you said when we rescued you, and combined with the readings we got when it was activated, it paints a pretty vivid picture. It was some sort of huge teleportation device, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. It could probably move people across space faster than light.”

“And you still think humans built it?”

“I know they did. Some ancient civilisation, forgotten in the passage of aeons, mastered technology far beyond our wildest dreams. And all we have left of them is about to crash into a moon and be forgotten forever. Can I have that?” Gilbert handed him the tablet and, with shaky fingers, Michael brought up one of the last interior images of the Bridge. It was like the one Ostenfeld had shown him, but captured with the Hawking’s superior instruments. He traced a finger across the crystal strata near the surface. “This was her. The pattern of her physical form and her thoughts, stored as raw data. But something went wrong. She wanted to go home so badly, and it caused a malfunction. It didn’t store her right. When we tried to bring her back, we got something less than human. All she wanted was to go home, but it was never really her at all – just a poor copy. And these…” he ran his hands across the other patterns in the crystal structure, “each of these must be a human pattern as well. An ancient space traveller from a lost era of wonder. Their captain thought it was a kind of immortality.”

“I suppose it is,” Gilbert allowed.

“No. It’s just copying. You die. What comes back is just another version of you, with the same memories and the same basic shape, but it isn’t you. And if the conversion process goes wrong, it isn’t even human. No, this thing is best forgotten forever. The Little Orphan Annie was lost, and its crew died the Long Death. That’s all.”

Gilbert stood up slowly, and Michael let him take the tablet back. He went to leave the infirmary, but stopped at the hatch and turned back. “The people who built this must have been quite a civilisation. They could travel across the stars, and they had some form of functional immortality. When we heard your muddled story, I got to thinking, put a few things together. I don’t have your brain, Michael, so it took me a little while to figure it all out, but I used your dictionary of the symbols and I looked at the crystal formations that you thought were the records of individuals who used the Bridge in the past. They were labelled, in a way. Microscopically. Obviously they liked to keep things organised. And you know, it’s funny, a race of people from the heavens, apparently immortal, you’d think we’d remember them.”

“I suppose…”

“Well, I think we did. I translated some of symbols assigned to those strata. ‘Sky Father’, ‘Thunder Lord’, ‘Light Bringer’. We could have met the gods, Michael.”

“Or we could have brought back demons,” Michael replied softly, “like we did with Gia Sanchez.”

“I guess you’re right. Like always.”

Gilbert shut the hatch behind him and Michael was left alone. Space changes you. That’s what they told him. They never told him how much. Out there, fourteen men and women were dying because of him. The awful knowledge of what they’d almost unleashed would make a mockery of the so-called final message. And he would return to Earth and pretend that nothing had happened.

But he’d never go home. He could never go home again, not after what he’d seen out here, in the black. He was as hollow now as the Gia-thing. The young man who’d been Michael Cohen had died out here; his body would linger on, but really he was dead. He too had met the Long Death in the end.

He closed his eyes, and the dark took him.

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