Damocles Curse

The ship creaked like an ancient sailboat, the gravitational shearing forces rotating and twisting its carbon fiber and metallic hull. From the outside, it must’ve looked as bright as a blue giant star in all its blazing glory, but inside, all Ly could see was the dim outline of the hallway. He could just make out its bulkheads, and the darkened screens of the damaged access panels, but he wasn’t sure if that was just memory. He blinked and shook his head. Some of the details were gone when his vision focused again.

A whisper of air crawled through the ship, along with a puff of steam from the temperature difference between the humidified oxygen tanks and the deathly-cold walls. Ly knew it was just the life support system, but his skin crawled just the same: he’d been alone for three days now, and all his senses were heightened by the dark. He’d been getting used to the near-silence. Sitting on the sloped panel that connected the vertical and horizontal walls, he’d almost started drifting off to sleep.

He’d wedged himself there, guarding against floating away in zero gravity by pushing his feet against one wall of the corridor and his back against the other. It’d given him a hollow sense of safety, yesterday, to have something “guarding” his back. Damn it. He’d have to stop anthropomorphizing the ship. That habit had begun this morning, and he didn’t want to speculate concerning why.

He needed to get up soon. Forage for some food, maybe water. The comfort of this spot was fading rapidly anyway. When he shifted his feet towards his body, Ly began to float free of the corridor. He pushed off gently down the long hall, when he had worked up the courage. He knew there wasn’t anything on the ship to hurt him; there was no one else on it. But that was the problem— the solitude made him jumpy. Since he’d turned the lights off to save fuel, the unease had just gotten worse and worse.

As he continued down the hall, he passed the crew accommodations. He couldn’t bring himself to sleep in any one of them, even his own— not after all that’d happened. They were sure to be booby-trapped. He still regretted what he’d done, but he had just been defending himself! Ultimately, at least. They’d have attacked him eventually, he knew. They didn’t have any choice, and neither had he… He shivered as he passed Jo’s room. Her body was still there; he might end up eating it, if things became truly desperate.

As he passed the thermostat, it occurred to him that he should turn the temperature down. Save more power, hopefully. He caught himself on the adjacent handle, feeling the roughened metal dig sharply into his hand as it halted his forward momentum. He grasped the hand-width circular dial and turned it to the left; he couldn’t remember what the lowest survivable temperature for humans was, but thirty degrees Fahrenheit sounded good. That gave him a few more days of power. Keep the engines going and the air pumping. That was the goal.

Home. He needed to survive long enough to get home and save up enough power for the engines to stop him when he got there. He hoped they’d understand what he’d had to do, when he got back there. It would be amazing to be with people again, and have them treat him right this time. They hadn’t been good to him on this ship, but on Earth they’d surely show a returning survivor of space a little kindness. Jo hadn’t understood what he’d done. He hadn’t had a choice, he’d told her. He’d just done what he had to do! He’d told her that, too.

Ly let go of the handle with a small push, letting the small momentum of the movement drift him away from the wall again. Just before the handle was out of reach, he remembered to push himself down the corridor again. He felt a chill as he did that. Was the new temperature already taking effect?

When he finally arrived at the end of the hallway, it was with a thump: he tried to slow his momentum with his hands and feet, but he wasn’t strong enough. When he hit the wall, the impact precipitated a series of clangs from behind the walls. He tried to imagine what was making the noise and failed. He didn’t know a lot about the ship’s inner workings. Whatever it was, though, it couldn’t be good.
The dim, blue-tinted light of the mess hall squirmed out of the door to his left. He had propped it open with a metal pipe, a few days ago, just in case it ever got it in its head to close. He wasn’t sure why it would do that. He grabbed the pipe and used it to pull himself into the room beyond. It was a cavernous octagonal room, shadows skulking at the edges and lurking behind the serving counters. The source of the murky, vague blue light was a lonely glass-fronted fridge. It contained a few disgusting meal packets and greasy water, along with some colored vitamin water that often left him thirstier than before he’d drank it. There were other stashes of food around the ship, but this was the biggest one. That wasn’t much of a credit to it, size was a low bar to clear. The refrigerator reminded Ly of an open-casket at a funeral; likely because he’d be putting his crewmates —what was left of them— in there when he ran out of other food.

He checked his momentum on a stainless-steel table not far from the corner where the refrigerator squatted. The strangely shaped shadows, made curved and organic by the decor of the mess hall, momentarily registered as a thick liquid —his mind gave it a burgundy color— before his recoiling fingers finally touched the surface. He shook his head in an attempt to put a finer point on his focus, and pushed off towards the fridge. When he got there, Ly greedily took out a fistful of food packets before forcing himself to put all but one back. With the Damocles Drive dismantled —his one self-admittedly heroic act— it could take almost a year to return to terra firma. He had to conserve everything.
When the madness had started seeping into their eyes, Ly had known it was contagious. Then they began acting aggressively, leaving him out of things, eyeing him, grimacing at him, invading his personal space. For a time, they seemed to keep the infection, the curse, at bay. But all the while, Ly knew. Ly saw. He’d secretly dismantled their Drive, turning a light-hop of seconds into a trek impossible for a five-person crew. He couldn’t allow this disease to reach Earth. But the Curse only grew worse when they found out. He’d known then that he would have to act before they got him. Before it was too late. He began planning. Storing weapons. Making traps. He was sure they were doing the same, when he wasn’t looking. When they’d come to get him —to lock him up because they were worried about him, they’d lied— he’d begun his plan. He’d killed all three of them. Jo found out the next morning, and he’d killed her too: he was sure she’d caught the Curse as well.

Now, however, he didn’t have the expertise, or materials, to rebuild the Drive. So, he burnt home at one end of a fusion rocket; it was off right now, waiting for the flip-and-burn to stop at the other end, but the fusion reactor’s exhaust was still star-bright. Comforted by the thought of the reactor dutifully performing its correct function, he tore into the single food packet in his hand, although it didn’t last very long. He found some water in the fridge and drank that too. He floated beside the open casket for a time, the distorted faces of his crewmates fresh in his memory. So fresh he could almost… see them.

“Ly, what have you done?” a soft, inflected whisper tickled his ear.

Ly’s shoulders tensed and he turned to answer Jo, only to see her cold, grisly corpse floating beside him in a grotesque mockery of a lifelike pose. Of course; she was dead. Wait! That wasn’t right. The corpse was in her quarters. Ly blinked, screwing up his eyes tight enough to cause little imagined fireworks under his eyelids. When he opened his eyes, her corpse was gone. He breathed a shuddering sigh and pushed himself back into the gloomy hallway again. From there, he floated into the electric lift, and let the motion of the metal coffin press him into the floor, creating a kind of gravity. It couldn’t be more than a third of a g, but he felt his disuse- and malnutrition- weakened joints groan. He effortfully raised his scarecrow-like arm and pressed the button for the bridge.

He had to keep himself from the bridge by force of will, most days. Well— he didn’t know if they were real days in this damned eternal twilight. But it felt like days. He always wanted to check the distance from home, to watch the indicator obsessively. He shivered. The new temperature setting was surely taking effect now. He could see his white breath puffing out in front of him. He had let himself up here this time, in the hopes that he might find some warmer cloths in the special captain’s locker. Or so he told himself.

When the crew had begun manifesting the Curse, and even afterward, until he confronted them, they had acted totally normal. Only when he had confronted them initially had they begun to act aggressively, but he knew they’d been changing in secret. They were planning to kill him the whole time, that much he knew! he began to suspect, now, that they’d been infected the whole time they’d been on this ship, and he’d only started to notice it as it got worse. He wasn’t positive Jo had been Cursed at first— but her reaction to his deeds had been proof enough. As this last revelation (they’d been cursed the whole time!) occurred to him, the lift beeped and screeched to a halt.

When he pushed out onto the bridge, he had a moment of vertigo. It was constructed as a sphere of flexible displays, surrounding a lonely group of stations (chair and desk groupings), affixed to ridged, cephalopod-like articulated arms. The displays were based around organic light-emitting diodes, one of the reasons they could be flexed to form a perfect sphere. The blackness of space seemed to seep into the bridge through the displays, thanks to their capability of displaying true black. They did a lot of that in space, besides the pin-sized multicolor lights formed by planets, stars, and distant galaxies. Right now, to his left, he could see a nebula smeared across the infinite blackness: it was like stepping out into space unprotected.

Overcoming the momentary vertigo, Ly pushed off a nearby arm, feeling it give slightly underneath the pressure, and floated gently to the captain’s command station. It had the ability to clone the displays of any of the other stations and present them on this one, in any combination of overlapping or split-screen; this let the captain view anything that the crew was doing, and direct the action more effectively. Ly’d set it to a twofold display: engineering and navigation. The former, so he could see the energy reserves, and the latter so he could see the ETA for home. The combination was not hope-inspiring. It said that the ETA was a year and a couple days change. The power display, however, displayed a few days more of power than before, thanks to his temperature adjustment, but still not nearly approaching a year. Ly shivered again, and turned, pushing off to the lift again. The power would still only last for a few months before it started eating into the reverse-burn allocated energy. He needed to bring his power consumption to sustainable levels; but out here, in the desolate gaps between the stars, the solar panels weren’t producing much power.

When Ly eventually arrived at the wardrobe room, he was shivering constantly, and navigating was getting increasingly difficult as he lost feeling in his hands and feet (which he left bare for better maneuvering). Almost afraid to see what could be happening to them, he looked at his stiff, clawed hands, while telling himself that there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with them yet. They were very red, the blood having rushed to them to warm his extremities up, but there was blue hiding under his fingernails. He looked up again, continuing with his mission for now. He’d worry about frostbite later. Or— he’d worry about it now but deal with it later. The wardrobe was a very long, very thin room, almost like a hallway, except that it was lined with closets. Their presence made the space even tighter, but they also made navigation somewhat easier; a lot of footholds and handholds.

He floated down the space, left hand running along the closet doors, feeling the details of the metalwork as a constant, buzzing vibration in his hand and forearm. Fingers bumping up and down, making a blur that also made a funny sound. He hummed a little in the hopes that it would improve his mood, while he looked for the cold weather clothes. The ship hadn’t brought many, but it paid to be prepared. Everything was cheap, of course, but they did cover their bases. Eventually, he found them, neatly folded and dry in the farthest closet. Just as he’d finished pulling out and shrugging on the clothes, including gloves and shoes, he heard a loud clang followed by a pop-hiss.

He felt his stomach churn. His throat felt like it was constricting. He couldn’t breathe! To compensate, he started breathing faster. A little faster, and he’d be able to get enough air again. Just a little faster. His peripheral vision was gone, now. Blackness and spots burst and smeared before his eyes. He felt hot, now. Ly sat down slowly— before realizing that he was in zero gravity. He had to calm down. Breath slowly. Purse lips, breath in through mouth. Breath out through nose. Repeat. Slowly! This room wasn’t losing air, at least yet. He had to find where the micrometeoroid impact was, before it did become a problem, however. He’d disabled the geodesic redirection field to conserve power; thinking, at the time, that it wouldn’t be a problem. In the wasteland between the stars, even rocks were rare: a micrometeoroid strike so far in deep space was a one in a thousand event. Well, this was that one.

How was he going to locate the hole, though? Built in orbit around Luna where it wasn’t limited by air drag or gravity, the Daedalus’ Autobiography had begun its life already very large. After decades of service (most of those before Ly had come aboard), it had grown misshapen, distended, and bulbous with post hoc additions. Finding anything in the geriatric monstrosity was difficult, especially if you weren’t sure what to look for or where. Ly wished momentarily that the old crew was around— being alone for this didn’t help. Wait! If he was alone, the air would be largely static. So, the puncture would constitute the only major motion in the artificial atmosphere. He just needed to open all the interior doors on the ship so that the air could flow freely, and a way to see the air’s motion readily.

The first thing was easy, as it turned out. He made his way up to the bridge once more, accessed the captain’s console, and opened all the doors. It took him a little fiddling with the crystal-holographic interface, but in the end, it turned out to be reasonably intuitive. He mentally commended the display’s engineers. The next task required slightly more thought, although in the end it wasn’t that difficult to pull off. He concluded that the best way to go about this was to embed something in the air, to show its flows more clearly. The material had to be something liquid or finely particulate, colorful (to stand out even from a distance) and copious. Eventually he settled on the vitamin water, which came in a multitude of artificially colored, cloying flavors. Ly regretted wasting the liquid, but the bridge readouts were already blaring alarms. Forcing open all the doors didn’t help, but the air would’ve leaked out of the ship eventually anyway. He grabbed a few cold bottles and dumped them into the air, shaking the bottles quickly to separate the droplets before they froze on contact with the air. The liquid formed misshapen, amorphous blobs of swirled color before it began to freeze into a slurry. Once what seemed like enough had been emptied into the air, he sat back and watched as it spread itself towards the door, following the airflow in long, witchlike pointed fingers. Pointing the way.

When he found the hole, some half-hour later, it turned out to be a fist sized puncture in one of the “lower” decks. He used a hull patch kit from the inside, reaching between the two hulls that formed the ship’s flesh and bones. He was wearing a cheap, crinkly EVA suit provided by the ship’s wardrobe, and he could feel the chill from space, even through that and his even cheaper winter clothes. When the hull was patched, it didn’t look solid. Hopefully the shearing forces didn’t grow too strong, but he doubted they would. Not unless he was close to a planet, and that planet would have to be Earth based on his heading. Then, it wouldn’t matter. There’d be someone to save him.

It’d been a few days since he’d run out of food, now; Jo’s bones floated in the refrigerator. Ly had been violently ill for a few days after that meal…

“You little bastard! I’m coming to get you for what you’ve done to us!”

Ly started from his drowsy reverie— it was so, so cold but he couldn’t seem to fall asleep. Every time, just before he was about to slip into the warm and loving embrace of sleep, the cursed ghosts of the ship began to taunt him.

“You were wrong, Ly! We were fine— happy, normal. We deserved to live.”

That got to him. “No! I know what I saw! What I learned!” he shouted back.

“Like how you’re seeing this?” It was Jo, standing in front of him as if there was gravity, somehow.

Ly shivered, a snake of cold running up and down his spine, and goosebumps standing out painfully against his skin. His hands began sweating and they began to uncontrollably clench and unclench, as if taking on a violent life of their own. He stepped towards her, and when she didn’t fade from view, his fear, illogically, lost some of its edge.

“I… I was saner, then.”

“You can’t know that. Remember, you thought we hid our insanity well.”

“You thought we were secretly insane. You thought you could know our inner heart and soul better than anyone else,” a new voice interjected. It was the chief engineer— the first man he’d killed.

“You’re the newbie, you remember that? You were the new one. Now, you’re the only one. One. One. One. One. One. One. One. One!” This time, it was the pilot, his second… victim.

Ly pointed spastically at all of them, waving his finger around as if it was a fencing foil. “You. All of you! It was obvious!”

“You were our captain! And then you killed us all on a hunch!” His penultimate victim: the XO.

Ly stepped back. The four ghosts stood before him, lined up in a row. They were lit as if they were standing in the daylight of the ship like it was before he’d killed them, even while the room around them was nearly pitch black. It gave them a blinding, empyreal quality which Ly felt as a practically physical force. He had the sudden urge to drop to his knees. To beg for forgiveness, or at least peace. Even death would be a welcome release, like falling into the arms of a black and ghoulish lover.

“Hmm. I wonder.” said the Chief, turning to the other three with a mock thoughtful look on his face. “He’s displaying violent tendencies…”

“He’s acting scattered, insane. Unwell.” said the XO. The group was fast acquiring a judicial quality.

“He’s been in close contact with us,” mentioned the navigator.

“He ate me,” growled Jo, refusing to look at Ly.

“Oh yes! I’m infected! Of course, it all makes sense!” Ly shouted, suddenly.

A twisted smile reached Jo’s lips. “Oh, that’d be so easy, wouldn’t it? Commit suicide, get away from the consequences of what you’ve done? The doubts?”

Ly suddenly felt weak. He collapsed to the ground, on his knees before this celestial council. The cold of the frost-coated steel floor bit at his knees, pressing into them as the weight of his body hit the ground, before he floated up again, helpless in the zero gravity. Jo walked forward, grabbing his overgrown and greasy hair. He had a moment of disorientation as two perceptions of reality smashed together— one, where he was simply floating alone in the middle of a room, and the other, where the ghost of one of his victims was touching him. Finally, the former reality shattered altogether, the contact with his overpowering guilt causing his psyche to smash it like a dissatisfying mirror. Jo jerked his head up to look at her and spoke, her voice overlapping with the others and taking on the aspect of a monastic chant:

“We sentence you, Ly Morton, to the hands of humanity, which you have deserted. Which you are no longer a part of. Let their final judgement be ours. Live in horror, Ly.”

Ly blinked. He had slept for some time, judging by how his body felt, even though the last few minutes didn’t feel like a dream. He didn’t feel rested, just as if he had lain for a very long time. His muscles felt stiff and atrophied. There was a buzzing, somewhere. The bridge! He slowly shook his head. It was just a dream. He’d change the gas mixture in the air and suffocate himself peacefully, after he checked what the alarm was about.

When he pushed his way onto the bridge, his heart sank into the pit of his stomach: a police light cruiser, sleek and pitch-black as the pit of space itself, hung before his ship among the stars, only visible as a surface blocking them. It had assumed that the Daedalus’ was a drifting hulk, left as junk or by the deaths of its crew, and had used a governmental override protocol to seize control of the ship and bring it in. It was obviously a distant-star patrol ship, tasked with policing a volume of space, and it was bringing in the freighter to sell it for what little money could be made off something so old.

In assuming control over his ship, they had also received crew logs and security camera footage, as well as life support controls. His escape was closed, and justice was assured— Ly knew now that no one on Earth or of it, would accept his rationale. He wasn’t sure he did either. He wasn’t sure he ever had— the crew had been unpleasant to him, and perhaps for a small, reptile, and vicious part of his psyche, that was enough. The buzzing was a communications request, tightbeam. He accepted it. There wasn’t much reason to do otherwise, was there?

“Ly Morton, you are under arrest for multiple crimes, including homicide and cannibalism among others. There is nowhere to run or hide. We are already onboard, and have surrounded the exit from the bridge. Step out and make yourself ready for prisoner transport peacefully.”

Ly bowed his head and pushed himself out of the bridge. He was met by armored police personnel. It would be a long, cold life in solitary confinement. He’d already begun it a few weeks ago.


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