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In Strange, Far Places

On nights likes this, I imagined ours as the only light on REQ.15-337, our distant glimmer just visible to the passing ships returning from the far reaches of the galaxy, making their long retreat from our great expansion. The failed colonists could not hear the tinkle of our toasting glasses or the bright bursts of our laughter, but maybe they saw our light, maybe they recognized and cheered the last pulses of life before we abandoned this system for good, as we had abandoned so many others.

There are twenty-nine ships left now, Emeline, my mother wrote me not long before that party. To appease her I knew one day I would board one of those twenty-nine ships docking at 15-337 and return home. I was lucky that someone cared enough to make sure I had passage, I knew. We had all heard the stories of the abandoned REQs in more distant systems, their last few inhabitants cut off from humanity, left to live out their lives in the void until the synthetic atmos failed or the oxygenating phytos died or the food ran out.

Most of us left on 15-337 were like that—once too poor to continue the human diaspora into the stars, now too poor to make the long, sad journey home. My flat was filled with the best of these remainders almost every night, a dozen of us reclining on rugs and cushions I’d pilfered from the abandoned quarters around mine, the room warmly lit by my bioluminescent lanterns. We were a queer, motley, lovely bunch wrapped up in whatever we could scavenge: Zealia curled beside me in a lilac silk kimono; Nix, Slix, and Quix in tight, oil-slick maintenance overalls and tattered top hats; Whipple wearing his bright white plastic suit; Lila and Delora in cut-up transit gear, their long pale legs exposed; Theobald and Humphrey in mismatched officers’ uniforms, one too tight, the other much too big; Io and Phoebe in gossamer nightdresses and heavy overcoats; Softly wearing his stern black three-piece as always, unrelieved save for the glittering eyes of its buttons. All of us third-wave expansion brats, born in the deep, pot-bellied transport ships, our parents still believing they were destined to reach the distant stars, colonize new worlds, mine the universe for her secrets. Some of us were mixed Europan, as had been the fashion years before, not half-breeds yet, but enhanced with a few strands of alien DNA, breeding huge dark eyes, gills, or patches of glittering scales into the mix-ostensibly in the hope it would up our chances of survival out in deep space. But I think they just did it because they could. That’s why they did everything.

Zealia was one of these, though, and I found her unspeakably beautiful, the scatterings of cerulean scales at her temples, the pale webbing between her fingers, her liquid gaze reflecting my own face back at me. She smiled shyly at me over her glass of phytowine. I meant to take her with me when the time came, although I did not know if she would want to return, a stranger among her own species.

Tonight was one of our quieter parties. It had been that way since the number of ships left to pass through our system dropped below fifty. The last ship to dock had had to use force to keep the REQers from rushing the boarding area. Eight people died. And while there was still food to be had, the gardens and groves at bottom level still plentiful, as the need for personnel dwindled, there were fewer and fewer ways to pay for it. Soon there would be people starving in the streets of the REQ, their lack of credits finishing them off faster than anything in system 15-337 ever could. Even cities in the void died of the same things, it seemed.

Humphrey passed me a pipe; I handed it off to Zealia without taking a hit. I’ll board the next ship, I decided. Really, this time, and I would convince my mother to let me take as many of my remainders as would come. Most of the others didn’t know I was the daughter of a fleet commander, although I think more of them had guessed than I liked. Maybe it wouldn’t matter.

My mother’s last message, all out of patience: Enough slumming. Time to come home.

Zealia was looking at me, concerned.

“We should tell stories,” I said instead of answering her unspoken question. My voice sounded too loud in the room; everyone else had been lost in their own thoughts, too.

Nix—or was it Slix? They were almost identical, androgynous and sharp-featured in the same way—smirked at me. “But we don’t have a campfire, Em.” Their eyes glittered. “How can we tell ghost stories without the proper…ambience?”

“It doesn’t have to be a ghost story,” I started to explain, exasperated, but at the same time Softly said, “I know a story.”

We all perked up the way we did whenever Softly spoke up. We had named him Softly as a joke, because no one knew his name or nickname or anything about him. “All I know,” Io told me when I asked, “is that he speaks softly, walks softly, and looks softly.”

“Bet he fucks softly, too,” Slix had said, biting their lip and smiling.

He never showed any interest, though, in any of us, with all of our incarnations of self and want and need. Softly was self-contained, troubled yet untroubled, and constant. I was as sure he had an exit strategy for the REQ as I was that he would not leave until the atmo cracked and the void rushed in.

“Our governess used to tell it,” he began. We looked around at each other, wonderingly. Softly had a fucking governess? I poured my glass full of phytowine, and Zealia snuggled up against my side, her borrowed kimono’s synthsilk cool on my skin. We twined our arms around each other’s waists.

“In the early days of the expansion, during the first wave, we pushed as far and as fast as we could. We didn’t stop to colonize; we mapped every system we found and installed the REQs on dwarf planets and asteroids. Little cities floating in the abyss of space, just like this one.”

I saw Nix roll their eyes. “Everyone knows that,” they muttered. But Quix and Slix elbowed them in unison and they subsided.

Softly continued: “Every so often, though, the ships would come back through. For supplies or repairs. To drop off the unwanted. Nonessentials. Orphans.” Here more than one of his audience grinned. Grimaced. Familiar tales.

Except, perhaps, for me, stowing away on 15-337 when I was seventeen and sick of life careening into the stars and longing for something else, something I could not quite name then. For the misfit REQ children, more like me than the military offspring I grew up with ever were. Odd, odd Em.

Softly continued, a sickish smile on his face to match mine. “There was a ship, though, the Swan, which never came back. Its last REQ, 20-890, sat on the very edge of unmapped space, waiting. Years passed without word. Of course, it wasn’t the first time a ship had failed to return to its REQ. Accidents happen. Space is a dangerous place.

“20-890, in the Swan’s absence, prospered. It became like a real city in its own right. Families grew there. They did away with the hierarchies of the fleet, elected their own government. They did away with credits. Everyone worked and everyone had food. At first they thought these would be temporary measures, but the Swan never returned and a new ship never came. It seemed, for a long time, like they had been forgotten there, a city on the edge of the galaxy—peaceful, untouched, and happy.

“One day, almost ten years later, they caught the fragmented remains of the Swan’s distress signal. It was the only warning they had. They could not decipher the message; they only knew that the Swan had signaled for help. And then, they saw it: something so immense that it blotted out the stars beyond the REQ.

“There was no word for what was coming except for hunger and that does not begin to capture it. What approached 20-890 was more than hungry; it was all consuming. It seemed, maybe, like nothing, but we all know nothing is a static thing between the stars. It was the void, maybe, if the void had a purpose, a need. It was a thing but it was like nothing humans had ever seen before or have seen since. It had consumed the Swan; it had even consumed the signal the Swan had tried to send, leaving only fragments as a warning. It seemed capable of swallowing stars, it was so impossibly huge and hungry.

“It’s said most of the REQers went instantly mad upon seeing it. But before they succumbed, they put a few of the kids in the pods, ejected them toward the nearest system. Only one of them made it. Our governess heard the story from her grandmother, who was one of the kids in the surviving pod. She said she looked back in that moment and saw the REQ be consumed. Not destroyed, not crushed—just gone. Then it reached for one pod, then another, overcoming them. It reached for her, she said.

“It wasn’t like having a hand reach for you. It was like the nothing was reaching to swallow you. Not like a collapsing star draws everything into it—something that wanted to consume you, to draw you in, and unmake you. She looked into it and she swore it looked back, although it was so much more than looking.”

Softly paused and regarded the group of us. His voice had grown loud and tremulous as he said this last, and he ran one shaking hand through his wild hair. His eyes were very pale, I noticed, and he wore an insignia I halfway remembered on his lapel.

After he had composed himself, he continued, “When I was older, I looked up 20-890, but the records were redacted. I got flagged for even searching. There have been whispers, though, on the ‘net. A few years ago, before they reversed the expansion, though, it happened again. A missing ship, a REQ vanished. Then another. And then the orders came. Retreat. Run.”

“We ran out of resources,” Io said. She didn’t sound like herself; Phoebe took her hand. “We spread too far too fast, so they have to regroup.”

“Exactly,” Softly said. “We spread too far.”

“What a boogeyman,” Nix laughed. “You said yourself that ships go missing all the time. So do REQs, you know. Asteroids. Solar flares. They’re just pebbles floating through space, after all.” Confident as they sounded, they took a big gulp of phytowine and shrank between Slix and Quix.

Softly started to respond, but I interrupted, “You wanted a ghost story, Nix. I say Softly delivered. Have you heard the one about the admiral’s wife and the Europan?” Without waiting to hear their response, I launched into the sordid tale, complete with limerick.

Later, when nearly everyone had left in whatever configuration kept them warm at night, Softly paused by my door. I regarded him silently, waiting for him to speak. “You should go, the next time you get a chance,” he said. “Your mother will be glad to see you.”

“What about you?” I asked. I hadn’t quite worked out whose kid he was, but I had an idea. There were only so many admirals, after all. “Surely your family—”

“They don’t want me. They never did,” he said abruptly. He nodded towards Zealia and Io, who were sleeping at either end of my couch like two stray cats. “I’m not different from them. You are, though. You have somewhere to go.”

“You could, too,” I pointed out. I would write my mother that night, I decided. Ask for as many safe passages as she could offer. Insist. I won’t go without them.

Softly shook his head. Then, although he never had before, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Gently. Like a brother might.

I haven’t seen him since then. Perhaps he does not want to see us, or maybe we have been too busy making arrangements. I am anxious, in the way the others are not, counting down the days until the next ship. I walk the streets of 15-337 at all hours, looking up into the void through the synthetic atmo, so thin, so fragile. The emptiness relieved by the distant stars. Every so often, I think I catch the passage of a shadow through faraway systems. Even from here, it looks big.

It looks hungry.

A bit about the author:

Julia K. Patt does not know what lurks beyond the stars, but she has some theories. Her science fiction has appeared /is forthcoming in such publications as Escape Pod, Clarkesworld, and Bikes in Space. She also edits Seven by Twenty (@7x20), a journal of twitter literature--or twitterature, if you prefer. Visit author page