Convent disrobed Connor on arrival. It was customary, and by now he’d gotten used to materializing naked in the middle of the giant desert. Wind blasted sand all over his body and only after the third prayer did the desert wrap a piece of cloth around his torso and strap sandals to his feet.
He closed his eyes, allowing a blanket of comfort to envelop him. In the far off distance he could make out gentle whispers. The wind. Chants of the priests. The voices of God.
He started after them.
Several hours passed. Darkness had begun creeping up on the sky from a corner, nibbling on the pale blue and revealing white stains of light here and there. When the sky had turned pitch-black, Connor emerged from the desert, thirsty and tired.
“Welcome back.” The man’s face was shrouded but his eyes shone ruby red.
Connor knelt down, kissed the old man’s hand.
“I need guidance,” he said, breathless.
The man smiled. He placed his palm over Connor’s head. “You’re troubled. You lack purpose.”
Goosebumps all over his body. Tears trickled down his cheeks.
“Desperately,” he sobbed, burying his face in the old man’s robes.
“We all have a reason for being,” said the old man and just like that dissipated back into the desert. His last words came by way of the breeze: stay aware and you will find yours.
Connor stood, dusted the sand off his clothes.
Then another voice came from the distance. A simpler voice. Raspy. Captain, it said. Are you there, it said. We have a major problem, captain. It would be nice if you were here.
“What the fuck is that thing?” That thing, that blob of darkness the whole crew was staring at through the main screens, that swirling maelstrom of vacuum the instruments weren’t picking up, that deepness in space the ship couldn’t find an entry for in any database, yeah, that thing was reason enough to pull the captain out from his do-not-disturb-me-under-no-circumstances happy hour of drug use.
“We noticed it maybe, umm, a few minutes before we decided to interrupt your tuning out.” Grumbling before the captain was Spike, the punk security specialist even the ship hated. His repulsiveness probably had a lot to do with the bucket of gel he put in his hair each morning.
Connor chewed his tobacco, tongued the bitter leaves from one cheek to the other then spat a ball of black tar on the deck floor. “You should’ve woken me immediately.”
With a voice that sounded like boiling kettles Mona read out the telemetry.
“We’re thirty-three astronomical units away from the nearest colony – a backwater called Bordeaux City composed of only forty kilograms of nanotech – orbiting Methodius, a brown dwarf.”
The sound of chewing echoed in the metallic chamber. All eyes were on the unexplainable squirming region of space-time. It warped light, far-off stars behind it stretching like spaghetti.
“Let’s go around it.” Connor spat again.
Jonah stepped forward, waggled a finger at the screen through which they monitored the vacuum. “It’s pretty fuckin’ wide, captain. It’ll take us years.”
“Then turn around. We’ll change direction.”
Jonah placed his palms under his armpits. “I don’t think the scientist in me would be too pleased if we pass on this opportunity with nary a test or experiment done.”
Connor sighed. “What are you suggesting? We stay and study it?” His eyes became slits, examining their obstruction intently.
The atmosphere was tense, and for a while nothing but chewing could be heard in the dim cubicle they referred to as the bridge.
Spike nodded. “We talked about it.” His voice grated on everyone’s nerves. “Aren’t you the least bit curious, captain?”
The captain’s growls meant that no, he wasn’t the least bit curious, thank you very much. Nonetheless, he edged closer to the fake windowpane, and felt the tingles on his neck and back.
Stay aware, he remembered.
He felt drawn to this weirdness and he agreed to send a bunch of probes but ordered the ship to waste no time and trace its route around the bulge.
The crew wanted naming rights. They proposed an acronym based on the quantum properties of the phenomenon. Connor said the black fog and the black fog it was named.
Meet the crew of the Peter Watts – the poor saps piloting this hunk of metal that’s slugging through the vastness of space like a beetle in oil.
There’s four of them and all are staring at you.
The one upfront is Captain Connor. A man seemingly in his forties, with the short hair graying at the temples. His expression is almost always stern as he tries his best to look tough, which is why whenever he crawls back to that shoebox of a cabin he sleeps in (his is the biggest of all four), he does so with the doors unlocked and swung open. He’s not afraid of his crew, you see.
Next to him with an arm perched on his shoulder is Mona the astrophysicist. She’s blonde and smart, with piercing blue eyes. Three piercing blue eyes, to be exact. A patchwork job done by a doctor with a degree in butchery and a specialization in machetes. The third eye’s smack in the middle of her face, too, its eyelid always drooping, the iris swaying with her gait. She says she’ll pluck it out given half a chance and some money but so far has avoided doing so.
Sitting ankle-on-knee in his chair is her brother, Jonah. He’s an expert in quantum computing and information theory and a bunch of other esoteric shit but still hasn’t figured out how lame ponytails truly are. He wears his proudly, in defiance of all aesthetic sensibilities.
The last poor sod taking refuge aboard the Peter Watts is the security specialist – or hacker, the archaic term he likes to use – Spike. He’s the one on his knees, tinkering with his screwdriver on a circuit board he must’ve gutted out of the ship’s mainframe. Bushy eyebrows arch above black eyes and a gherkin of a nose. Truly, a face to hate.
All of them are brittle lost souls claiming to be space pirates, swept by a sense of wonder in a hunt for dark mater or minerals or gold or what have you.
You might wonder why in this age of digital immortality and abolished poverty these four meatbags still cling to flesh and bones, to ships of metal and the dragging of physical ass from here to there across space. The answer’s simple, and staring you in the face. It’s because they’re absolutely, batshit insane.
The fog spoke after three weeks in the language of mathematics, as was to be expected. Jonah had explained the communication method to Connor but all he remembered was some blah blah about virtual particle and anti-particle pairs and a Schwartzkopf radius or something? Either way, after the usual and quite boring barrage of prime numbers (the universal intelligence beacon), came words that sent chills down everyone’s spines.
Jonah monitored the stream of qubits on a green screen and piped the output to the speakers.
“Hello.” The fog’s words were passed on in a soft digitized voice.
They watched it squirm light years away but felt its presence breathing down their necks.
“I am God,” it said. “Fear me.”
Connor hurtled back to his cabin. He kicked the door shut and began rummaging through his bags. He picked and threw shirts and pants all over the cabin until he found what he was looking for. A small vial – the whole code of Convent. He held the vial between his teeth while he rolled up a sleeve. He placed it right next to his veins and watched it deflate as it squeezed its nanobots into his body. The source code of the virtual drug downloaded to his bloodstream in an eye blink. And just like that he was back in the desert.
“The menace is very real.” The red light was piercing and he dared not look the old man in his face.
He was crying again.
The old man’s voice boomed, cutting through the wind. “Masquerading as a false God is the devil. He appears as darkness. A big empty.”
Connor hugged the man’s legs. “What shall I do?” he bellowed.
The man was silent and for a moment Connor thought he’d lost him to the dune again.
“You must destroy him,” he said at long last.
“What do you make of our assessment?” Mona’s middle eye peered at the three of them questioningly until she lost control of it and let it roll around in its socket aimlessly.
Connor remained quiet. They sat around an impromptu table made out of cargo cases, a drink in a plastic cup before everyone.
“At first I thought the data was decohering and our computers tried making sense of the noise…” Jonah paused to take a sip of whiskey. “But I double then triple checked and all seems right with the qubit disentangler.”
He and Mona shared frightened glances.
There wasn’t much space in the recreations room so they were all half-bent. In the middle of the table sat a deck of cards still wrapped and an unopened plastic case of dice. From somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship a growl echoed.
Spike was tossing his faithful screwdriver in the air.
“Am I the only one who sees through the bullshit here?” he said, cutting through the tension.
Looking at the captain, “C’mon captain. Don’t tell me you’re taking the Aryan family here seriously. I mean, c’mon. Let’s be reasonable.”
Connor fixed him with a cold stare.
Mona leaned forward. “And why shouldn’t he, ass-face?”
“Shut up, Threeclops.” Turning to face the captain, “Because you can’t tell me that a bunch of quantum handwaving and some computerized words are all it takes for you to gobble up this science fiction bullshit. I mean, c’mon. Only way this pulpy novel rip-off could be more troperific is if the black fog was a freakin’ monolith.”
Connor took a sip. So did the other three.
“I see where you’re coming from, Spike,” he said. “But they do have a point.”
Spike lifted his hands up. “I don’t see it that way. There has to be a logical explanation.”
Jonah interjected, “But there isn’t, you freak.” Spike’s hands showed him two middle fingers.
He cast an incredulous look at the captain. “C’mon. Seriously?” He drained his cup and stood up, muttering to himself as he left the room about how it was all supernatural bullshit and how he was the only sane man left.
When the echoes of Spike’s footsteps died down Jonah turned his fear-stricken face to the captain.
“What do you propose?”
Captain Connor gazed down at his cup, seeking for an answer in the drink, but all it provided was temporary courage.
“We fight it.”
Mona hissed, “And the asshole?”
“He’ll come around. See what we see.” They drained their cups and one by one shuffled back to their stations.
Reverse-engineering the qubit entanglement proved to be simple enough and within a few days Jonah had set up a two-way communication channel with the fog.
“What do you ask a creature claiming to be God?”
“You ask him to prove it.”
So they did. And the fog answered. “Hold tight,” it said.
They looked at each other. Spike had his gaze fixed on his console, trying not to let his apprehension show.
The Peter Watts vibrated. Then shook wildly. Red lights flashed and sirens wailed but one seismic shake later everything became still again.
Yes, everyone was out okay but all of a sudden things felt different. The stars, they soon realized. The stars were different. And the squirming of the fog, too. It was bigger. Mona read the telemetry. Nobody believed her when she said that in three seconds they’d made a hundred-light-year jump.
The fog had pulled them closer.
Three more jumps followed, each nudging them closer and closer until the blackness had them engulfed. They were in the eye of the storm, the funnel of the maelstrom where it soon became very quiet.
The first to vanish was Jonah.
“Whaddaya mean you can’t find my brother?” Mona screamed at the two men. Her forehead-eye danced wildly, swirling red with anger in its bloodshot socket. “How the hell can you lose him?”
“He’s not lost,” Spike said, annoyed.
Connor noticed and growled. “Will you quit being so insensitive? Her brother’s missing.” He turned to Mona. “Listen, we’re going to figure out a way to fight this demon and get Jonah back.”
He put his hands on her shoulders and faced her directly. “We can pull this off.”
The following week Connor and Mona tried to learn as much about the being as they could, but things moved slowly without their quantum physicist. A reluctant Spike helped as well, but it was all too little too late, because at the end of the week Mona was nowhere to be found.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, huh captain?” Spike had just finished his meal and was leaving the lunch room. Outside the window space slithered like snakes in a pit.
“You still don’t believe, do you?”
“There’s nothing to believe in, captain.”
“What do you call that thing then?” He shook a finger at the window screen.
Spike edged closer to the captain’s face, empty trey in hand. He smirked, and scuttled out of the room.
They didn’t see each other much after that. Whenever they met in hallways Connor’s gaze drifted someplace else, but he could always feel Spike’s eyes boring into the back of his head like inquisitive laser-sight.
The fog kept pinging their computers but without Jonah to decipher the qubit stream all communication was lost.
Day after day the moribund ship became spookier; a repugnant deadweight surrounded by a presence that tried to eat it alive like a lymphocyte.
When Connor woke out of Convent-induced dreams he felt groggy, his head heavy and throbbing. He could barely make out the shape that stood in the doorframe of his cabin. A few head throbs later his sight became sharper.
“What do you want, Spike?”
Spike smirked at him. “I wonder where it hid them,” he said. “Or maybe it really did kill. Oh boy, if that’s the case I’m so gonna hang you upside down.” A shrill laugh.
Connor felt around his bed for his tobacco satchel. “What are you talking about, Spiky?”
“I had this shit figured out in no time.” He sounded triumphant. “I knew the ship was feeding us fake data and I finally traced it back to you.”
Connor repeated his question.
“The black fog.” He waved around the cabin. “It doesn’t exist. You’re hacking the ship to lie to us. Why, I still haven’t figured out.” He raised an eyebrow, standing in the doorframe as if to prevent the captain from escaping.
“Bullshit. We saw the fog with our own eyes. It’s real and I have nothing to do with it.”
“Did we?” Spike took a step forward. He held up a device of some sort. “I’ve got two thousand lines of code here that disagree with you.”
Connor stood, a little less lightheaded now. “What is this?” He snatched the device from his hands.
He didn’t understand the mathematics it displayed. “What is this?” he repeated.
Spike smirked. “Ever since that thing outside spoke to us, I became suspicious. I mean c’mon.”
He took another step and sat down on Connor’s bed. He sprang up and down tentatively. “Hey, your bed’s softer than mine.”
“What’s goin’ on, Spike?”
“I started logging all computer interactions. Every single command down to the last OS process. I wanted to locate Jonah and prove how childish you all were acting. But then I noticed a weird pattern. It took a while for the data to make sense, but now it does. Now it does.” He sprang up and down the bed. “Why are you injecting malicious code into the ship, captain?”
“How dare you?”
Instead of replying Spike took the device from Connor’s hands, clicked through some menus and showed the captain the tracelog for the malicious code. Every single line bore the captain’s distinctive ID.
“I’ve never…” he trailed off. His insides suddenly turned very cold. He knew the data wasn’t lying. But how? Instinctively his hand dove in his pocket, groping for that familiar sense of safety.
“What you got there?”
Connor frowned. “That’s personal.”
“Not if it has endangered us all it isn’t.” He threw himself over the captain and immobilized Connor’s hands with his knees. Carefully he pulled the vial of Convent out of the captain’s pocket.
“Holy shit. Of course.”
“What’s Convent got to do with this?” Connor blurted out before he could stop himself.
Spike cocked his head, an expression of utter disgust on his face. “I had no idea you were using that shit. It has everything to do with our situation. Of all things why would you choose to dream of a fuckin’ monastery? What happened to good old-fashioned Orgasmic Delight? Or Presidential Confidential?”
He stood up. “Your drug’s leaking, captain. The nanotech has seeped into the ship’s mainframe. Manipulating it. Manipulating us.”
“No,” Connor stuttered. “It’s not.”
“Oh but it is. There’s no black fog outside, captain. The drug’s working as it should. Giving you faith, isn’t it? Giving you a sense of direction.” He was bitter. Insulting. “The ship’s killing us off one by one so you can feel better about your own pathetic life.”
Connor’s guts twirled. He sprang out of bed and jerked out Spike’s screwdriver from his utility belt. He became foggy again. His head swam. He shut his eyes and only heard Spike’s skull cracking as he shoved the tool through his eye.
Focused at last.
He spent most of his time praying and thinking of how to defeat the devil. He stared out at the swarm of flies in outer space, wrecking his brain, desperately trying to outsmart it but the devil isn’t as easily bested.
From time to time he’d remember his crew but as the months went by he thought of them less and less. No, he’d devoted himself completely to his cause, to vanquishing the dark one once and for all. Day and night he thought of this and only this.
Occasionally and against his own will he’d recall an unsettling memory. A doubt. Somehow, it reminded him of a different devil. An unreal devil.
It happened rarely, but whenever it did he’d look out at the blackness not with hate or fear but with childish wonder.
The first change occurred after a year – the surrounding fog was visibly simmering down. Connor noticed the alteration after the second daily prayer.
“Vanish,” he whispered. “Vanish.” Louder.
He banged his head against the screen. “Be gone.” Yelling. “Devil be gone.”
It must’ve been his perseverance. His unwavering will. He could hardly believe his eyes as he watched the demons sinking back to wherever they’d come from.
“Vanish,” bellowed Connor. He fell to the ground. “I never doubted you. I never truly doubted you.”
The blackness gave way to blurriness, then transparency. The stars no longer stretched, no longer danced in the distance but stood quietly in their eternal holes now like a backdrop of pearls.
He spent days crying tears of liberation, thumping his chest in triumph.
The eyes and ears of Convent were everywhere. The melding of it and the ship was now complete. It saw through the ship. Acted through the ship. Manipulating the smart matter it had fashioned senses and arms for itself and could see now how purposeless the captain had once more become.
The amalgam began debating with itself about where it had gone wrong.
We gave him a life, one part whispered. We succeeded.
A choir of agreements.
Another voice silenced them all: Yes and look at him now.
In the meta-mind appeared a kaleidoscopic flash of snapshots featuring Connor, all alone, wondering the halls of the ship, hugging his knees, crying.
His own voice is all he has now. The rush of victory’s short-lived, dear siblings. He’s all alone, all over again.
The voices from the back replied: Why do you suggest we’ve failed in our goal?
We haven’t, boomed the wiser voice. But our success appears temporary. Despair not though, for we’ll learn from our mistakes.
We repeat the cycle.
The choir debated. A vote was taken which came in favor of helping their child again.
What if our successes remain temporary?
We plough on, cycling though one reality after another, for all time, forever.
And with that the ship’s camera-eyes turned their gaze to the pathetic captain, signaling to the maternal software to ready its cradling arms and shepherd the human once more towards meaning.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Fiction365.
Damien Krsteski writes science fiction, mostly at night. He comes from Skopje, Macedonia, and can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com.