Exile by Starlight
How much do years really count in the dusty spaces between the stars where even photons travel with a lack of enthusiasm? Dixon didn’t know the date or the time. His days broke down into a few simple states of existence. Sleep. Awake. Hungry.
Hungry was the bastard child of the other two states. Sometimes hungry kicked him from one state to the other. Usually, it clung to Awake’s skirts and wailed until Dixon gave it what it wanted. Or at least what would shut it up for some uncounted time.
Cool, dry air caressed Dixon’s face and sent chilling fingers through the long wisps of his white beard. Clean, dry air that promised a sunny day would soon banish the faint chill. Except the sunny day never came.
Dixon leaned his forehead against the observation window imagining that the stars were something other than fixed points. Did he feel the cold outside seeping through the window? Or only imagine it? He must imagine it. The window wasn’t a window, no matter what it looked like. The full-rez screen looked indistinguishable from a window but it, and him, were buried in the core of the 1,000-meter long interstellar asteroid Ridley.
A faint hum nearby drew his attention from the window. Warden hovered just above the deck nearby. A sheen of blue light, like a gas flame, danced just above Warden’s silvery egg-shaped exterior. “Do you require anything?”
Warden’s voice was androgynous and Scottish. Why this was the case, Dixon didn’t know. Or care much.
“No, Warden. Thank you.”
“Would you like to play a game?”
“No, Warden. Thank you.”
“Perhaps something to eat then? A sandwich?”
Dixon shook his head and looked back out at the fixed stars. As fast as they supposedly traveled, it seemed like he should see the stars move. They did, of course, only not on a human scale. Everything was in motion from the atoms in his body to those distant stars and the unseen dark matter ghosts around them all, bound up in the threads of consciousness and form.
A rolling noise grew louder, and Wheel spun around the corner into the room. A meter high, white treads capped beneath the polished orange shell. Wheel accelerated with a high whine, bouncing up, and then slid to a stop beside Warden. Wheel emitted a querulous beep.
“I don’t want to go for a ride,” Dixon said. After however long he’d been on the Ridley, he didn’t need much help translating Wheel’s noises.
Panels shifted, blue pedals, grips, and the seat emerged from Wheel’s housing. A couple buzzing hoots sounded insistent. Demanding. Get on, it seemed to say.
Dixon shook his head. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
Outside, fixed stars. Fixed, for all intents and purposes. They wouldn’t change significantly in his lifetime. Whatever years he’d already spent on the Ridley, however many he might still live, they weren’t going anywhere near any of those stars.
Wheel banged into his leg. Not hard, a tap, that was all, but that was a surprise. An apologetic beep from Wheel.
“Orders? From Hugh?”
A low tone indicated agreement. Warden floated silently nearby, refusing to offer any commentary on Wheel’s behavior. Did the egghead feel guilty? Warden must have called Wheel. Or Hugh. Both, maybe, it was hard to say, and it didn’t look like Warden was going to offer an explanation.
“Fine. Let’s go for a ride.” Dixon climbed onto the seat, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the rests as he closed his fingers around the grips and slipped his feet back into the stirrups.
He flexed both feet back, and Wheel accelerated rapidly. Though clearly autonomous, Wheel followed Dixon’s directions, letting him drive. The thin windshield glowed with an overlay on the passage ahead. Thin green lines traced the contours of the passage, turning red at any of the crossing passages.
“Green lights all the way. He must be in a hurry today,” Dixon said.
Wheel beeped cheerfully.
“Let’s not keep him waiting.” Dixon extended his toes back more, and Wheel obligingly picked up speed.
They sped through the passage. All of the inorganic cross traffic stayed out of their way. Wheels, eggs, spiders, bipeds, avians, tall striders, and creepers—they all stayed to the side of the passage or stopped at crossing passages.
Dixon glanced back once. Normal business resumed behind them with silent efficiency. He faced forward again.
Not surprisingly, the route highlighted took them outward from the core and forward. No time for sightseeing today. They emerged into Pellucidar. Trees grew out of the sides of the massive cavern, limbs stretching in odd bowl-like shapes up toward the spark of the mini-star that floated at the heart of the cavern. Birds called among the trees. Water burbled over rocks. A bright blue and orange butterfly floated around Dixon as he curled his feet forward and brought Wheel to a slow start right as the path changed to gravel and moss.
“I’m good from here.” Dixon sat up and slipped off Wheel.
Wheel’s panels and seat retracted back into the shell. With a cheerful chirp of agreement, Wheel reversed direction and rolled back down the passage.
Dixon found Hugh at the edge of the pool beside the waterfall. The tall figure covered in a pine board-colored robe and cowl, stood facing the pool, arms clasped together behind his back. Hugh stood so still that he might have been a statue.
“Thank you for coming.”
Hugh’s soft voice carried. Dixon didn’t answer. He didn’t leave the path. He stood quietly and waited.
Hugh turned, coming to life in an instant. His arms swung down to his side. The face watching Dixon wasn’t human, but it was organic. The skin was lined and brown, darker than the robe, more the color of rich, wet earth. Thick yellow eyes studied Dixon through slit pupils. Goat eyes, with a hint of cat, and the look of something that had never seen the surface of Earth.
“Do you want to tell me today?”
Old ritual. Familiar, and dangerous. And there was only one answer that Dixon could offer. “No.”
Thin lips spread far enough to reveal sharp fangs and cutting predatory teeth in Hugh’s broad face. Powerful jaws designed for ripping into prey and cracking bones. Hugh spoke again.
“Then perhaps I have no more use for you.”
“You don’t.” Dixon wanted it done. Well and truly done. He almost added, please.
Hugh turned and the robe split, falling free of Hugh’s broad musculature. His skin gleamed as if oiled. Dixon didn’t know if it was or not, he’d never had an opportunity to find out. Hugh was hairless, and his skin bore darker and lighter patterns almost too geometric to be natural, yet not clearly artificial either. Though a biped, Hugh didn’t look human. Not for an instant. That bone structure, the shape and angle of his joints, it all spoke of a different origin.
The yellow eyes studied him. “You seek the end of your existence? The nothingness that follows?”
What could Dixon say? He couldn’t give Hugh the answer he wanted. He didn’t protect the answer out of loyalty. Or concern for others. He couldn’t give Hugh the access codes because Dixon didn’t know the codes. Hugh could torture him all he wanted, and it was all worth less than spit.
Hugh jumped down from the stones around the pool with easy grace. In a couple long, bouncy strides he stood before Dixon, drawn up to his considerable height and looked down at Dixon without mercy in his goat eyes.
Dixon woke with a start, his hand flying to his throat. The memory of pain as distant as a dream, fading already. He pushed himself up on his elbows, unsurprisingly in a medical bed. Subdued panels floated dimly nearby. As did Warden.
“You’re awake,” Warden said. “Hungry?”
Dixon sat up fully, letting the white sheet pool across his waist. He rubbed his face with his hands. “Couldn’t you have left me dead this time?”
“The mission requires a human presence.” Warden’s voice held the hint of condescension.
“Then how about getting rid of that alien? Do something about Hugh, so he doesn’t keep killing me!”
“As we’ve discussed before, there is no alien on board the ship.” If anything the condescension was thicker now.
“You know what?” Dixon swung his legs out of bed. “Your bedside manner sucks.”
He found clothes in the drawers at the side of the room and dressed. Pants, a loose shirt, he didn’t bother with anything else. He ran his hand over the top of his head. As smooth and fresh as a baby’s with hair just as fine.
Warden still hovered nearby.
Dixon looked over at the floating egg. “What’s your explanation for this death?”
“Cause of death was massive trauma and blood loss. The damage has been repaired.”
“Yes, but what do you think caused the trauma?”
“The damage appeared self-inflicted.”
“It wasn’t—how many times have I died?”
Dixon shook his head. That was one way to measure the passage of time, by how many deaths he’d faced. In the original plan, he would grow old, age, and die before the resurrection. It sounded like an offer of immortality when he took the posting. Until it became something else.
“And you don’t find that unusual?”
Warden was silent for a moment. “Scenarios considered the possibility of psychological instability, though this particular manifestation was unanticipated.”
“That’s because it isn’t a manifestation of anything! There’s an alien on board. He wants access to ship systems—which I don’t have!”
“Your access to ship systems was removed when the instabilities became evident.”
Dixon shivered. He shook his head, rubbing his hands against his face. Hugh existed. Had to exist. Warden, Wheel, the whole steaming population of robots and artificial intelligences, they couldn’t be right. Could they? Was it possible that Hugh avoided detection so completely?
“If I’m so unstable, why do you keep reviving me?”
Warden’s blue fire pulsed slightly. “Humanity has always demonstrated great self-destructive potential. We are simply giving you an opportunity to learn.”
Apparently, the conversation was finished as Warden floated on out of the room. Dixon remained. He opened a window on the wall and looked out at the unmoving, unchanging stars. Was that him? Was he as fixed and unchanging? Was it possible that Warden was right?
This story is licensed by Ryan M. Williams under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.