Captain Annie Klo looked around the cockpit yet again, searching for something to do. All checks had been performed more times than they needed but the alternative was to talk with the boffins down in the hold pouring over her unexpected find.
It had been a touch over a day since she had set out from Yuland Station M-3 for a water run to the rings of Saturn. Things went as smoothly as she could hope for in the ageing ‘Water Rocket’ as she left the helium-3 mining platform and set the scanner to find the biggest ice clump in her sector. When it pinged less than a minute later, showing a sizeable floating berg, her face cracked into a wide grin. It was going to be the quickest run of her career.
Manoeuvring the ship in close and avoiding another great formation that lazily pinwheeled through space, bumping and bashing into others and sending shimmering displays of ice shards this way and that, she set the autopilot to initiate the capture procedure as she leapt and bounded through the cramped corridors to the hold. It was generally accepted that once capture procedure was initiated the pilot need do nothing but kick back in the chair and relax until the ship was done. Perhaps it was due to it still being her first year on the job but Annie couldn’t stand that mentality. Since her first run she had made it a habit to dash down to the viewing room within the hold and watch the latest berg rising up through the open doors until it was floating within the ship’s space, followed by the grated floor closing beneath it in the vacuum silence and ending with that satisfying boom as the artificial gravity pulled the ice to its resting place.
This time had been no different. True, as the ship neared the berg it pinged a warning that not all of the mass was ice water but that wasn’t really anything new. A lot of bigger pieces tended to have particulates in them which would be filtered out by the ship once the ice had melted through the grating and into the plumbing. But once there and watching the procedure she could see something off with the berg. The striking blue sheen was dulled by a mass at its centre, the ice distorting the image so much Annie found it impossible to figure out what it could be. All sense and reason told her it was a chunk of rock, some wayward asteroid that got caught in Saturn’s pull. She shrugged and waited for the heaters to do their work even though she knew she should be getting on her way back to M-3. Why, she wasn’t sure. There was a niggling sensation in the back of her mind that pushed her to see what was in the ice before taking it back.
Turns out she had been right to do so as after a while it became evident that it was no simple space rock caught in ice. She marvelled as inch after inch was revealed, showing a perfectly cut cube roughly twice her height. When she could get closer (after rigorous scans by the ship told her it was safe) she could see a sheen to the cube that made it look metallic but upon touching it the material felt more like rock. As she marvelled at the find the ship chimed in through her wristband saying that the cube was cut with laser precision. Annie concurred with a few muttered curses after cutting her finger on an edge.
The following hours had been a deluge of communications with Titan which ended with all agreeing that a small group of scientists would be sent to her ship, that due to the unknown nature of the cube it would be safer to inspect it where she was before taking it to any populated station. Annie had waited for the group to arrive, welcomed them as they boarded and showed them her find. It didn’t take long for her to tire of their talk, dense with terms she didn’t understand, and leave them to it.
Now she was bored out of her skull. Curiosity was gnawing at her insides and when she finally caved, jumping from her chair and deciding to join the academics she paused as her communicator signalled a call.
“Captain Klo,” she said.
“Captain, my team are leaving,” came the voice of the lead scientist.
“All done is it?”
“Not even close Captain, just done for the day. We shall go home, rest, go over our preliminary findings and return.”
“Wait, so I’ve gotta stay here?”
“Entirely up to you Miss Klo, it–,”
“Captain, not Miss.”
“My apologies Captain. As I was saying, you can take a pod back to M-3 but your ship must remain. The cube does not appear dangerous but it is still quarantined until we can be absolutely certain.”
Annie made faces at her wristband but knew he was right. With a sigh she said, “Fine, show yourselves out.”
“Thank you for your understanding Miss, ah, I mean, Captain Klo. See you in a day,” the voice said before disconnecting.
Annie waited until their ugly pod ship was just another dot of light against the blackness before wandering down to the hold. The ship’s plethora of hums, buzzes and clicks were the closest thing to silence one could have and Annie had learned to tune them out on her very first run. Closing her eyes she breathed deep of the recycled air and stepped into the hold.
There it was, fascinating as ever. The thought crossed her mind that maybe it was something mundane and boring, and that she was simply too ignorant to recognise it. The thought was briskly pushed aside. After all, a team of eggheads had spent hours studying it and were coming back for more. She walked alongside the cube, a hand out to gently brush against it as she travelled its width. Her fingers tingled as if through a slight electric pulse.
As she came to the end of the face she pulled her hand back sharply, not wanting to get cut again. At the same time a strange young man came around the corner and was promptly slapped as he got in the path of her moving hand. He let out a yelp of shock, held his cheek and looked at her accusingly.
“By Sol’s fire!” she yelled at the same time, heart hammering in her chest. “Who in the hell are you?”
“Johann! My name is Johann,” he said, holding both hands up defensively as though he thought he was about to be struck again. Between his hands he peered and quickly his face brightened. “You’re Captain Klo right?”
“Yes,” she breathed with a hand to her chest in a vain effort to soothe the rapid thumping. “Why are you on my ship?”
“I was with the others, you know, the ones who keep calling you Miss? Those guys.”
“Not helping,” Annie said with a sneer.
“Ah, yeah, figured as much. I’m a scientist, I’m here to study this find, I’m not some old fuddy-duddy who needs to go home in time for boiled cabbage and bed. I honestly can’t fathom why they’d want to leave this after just a few hours.” He looked up and down the cube, his dark eyes glistening with awe.
“So you’re a stowaway.”
“No, not one bit oh Captain. I’m excited beyond words and…well I’m not interfering am I? I mean, you’ve been told to stay put.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.”
“Least now you’ve got some company right?”
“Aye, fantastic, stuck with nothing but an egghead all night.”
“Oh brighten up, you’re about to go down in history as the discoverer of…whatever the hell this thing is.”
Annie’s eyes brightened. “So you don’t know?”
“Well, it’s definitely a cube.” Johann laughed nervously and scratched the back of his head causing the mass of feathery blonde spikes that was his hair to shake wildly.
Annie looked at the cube and ran her hand over it again. “I had my doubts it was important, that maybe it was something lame I just didn’t recognise.”
“Nope, we’re as baffled as you. More so now than when we arrived.”
“Tried to take a sample for testing back on Titan but this thing is made of some seriously hard stuff. Haven’t left so much as a smudge on it after trying every tool in the box.” He reached down and picked up a smart, compact box made of powder blue metal. “Literally.”
Annie relaxed considerably. Her heart had calmed and the young man’s relaxed demeanour made her think that perhaps the night would not be as tedious as she thought. She leaned against the cube as Johann seated himself on the grated floor and stared intently at her find, fumbling through his toolbox until he produced what looked like a comically oversized silver pen. As the end of it lit up, illuminating a small spot of the cube in bright green, Annie thought she may as well make the most of the company.
“Where are you from?” she said.
“Titan, born and bred.”
“Cool, never been there myself.”
“Really? But your job is all about flying around Saturnian space.”
“Not a whole lot of downtime to go visiting the moons though. Most time is spent either on my way to the ice or hauling it back, what with these ships being so damn slow.”
Johann grinned and looked up from his studying. “Any reason they’re so bad?”
“Cheapest ships with the biggest holds that aren’t needed for military haulage. Only thing that needs fitting is the grate and plumbing system which they’ve got down pat these days.” She looked around at the sizeable hold, kicked the grated flooring with a faint smile and said, “But I loves her anyway.”
“Of course, why wouldn’t you, a piece of history like this?”
“Careful what you say about my girl Mr. Scientist,” Annie said with a smile.
Johann barked with laughter, silencing himself quickly as the echo bounced around the metal walls with alarming volume. He looked at Annie with mild shock before laughing again.
“What’s it like on Titan then?” she asked.
“Better than Enceladus.”
“Sorry, automatic response.” With a slight groan Johann pulled himself up to his feet and turned to Annie. “Titan was the first Saturnian moon to be colonised, Enceladus was the second but by over fifty years. Many people see that as the only reason Titan’s preferable, it’s been around longer and so’s a more developed colony.”
“Sounds like you’ve got another reason.”
“Ever heard of cryovolcanism?”
“Sciencey name for ice volcano right?”
“Yup. Both moons have ’em but on Titan the colonists set up shop as far away from ’em as possible. The Enceladus guys on the other hand, well they decided to plonk their asses down right by the Tiger Stripes with a notion of harnessing the crazy amounts of cryovolcanic activity. Less than a decade after there was the Raklin incident. Now they tend to leave the Stripes alone. Many wanted to move the colony but the higher-ups said it’d cost too much. Their idea is to extend the colony away from the Stripes and dismantle the parts closer to it.” He stopped to shake his head and chuckle. “It’s so weird, like this gigantic robotic worm inching its way across the moon.”
“Makes me glad I grew up on Earth. Though it gets a bit boring when there’s so much out here to see and learn,” Annie said.
“That’s the thing, there isn’t. I mean sure we learn incremental stuff all the time but to me it feels like there’s no big mystery left in this system. I’ve been on a waiting list for three years to get on one of those expeditions past the Oort cloud. Then you called this bad boy in and suddenly it feels like this place has more to tell us. Heh, it’s a marvel. Such a marvel that I don’t care we haven’t learned a damn thing about it yet.”
“Really? Doesn’t annoy you that you can’t even get a sample?” Annie said with a raised eyebrow.
“You kiddin’?” Johann’s face was splitting at the seams he was smiling so wide. “There’s no material known to humankind we can’t cut to some degree. Now I’m part of the group that finds an unknown material that we can’t even blemish? I’m ecstatic. You should be too! Get involved Captain.”
“I…I don’t know. I’m a pilot y’know? Not one for studying anything more than ‘which berg is bigger’.”
Johann stepped behind Annie, placed his hands on her shoulders and said, “Look at it. Don’t think of anything else, just the cube. You know nothing about it as it sits there. What’s your first question?”
Although slightly unnerved at the mildly manic stranger holding her Annie went along, staring intently at the cube until a question popped into her head with sudden clarity. “Well, I guess…”
“Don’t trail off Captain.”
“It sounds stupid.”
“Most questions do until you hit the right one.”
Annie turned around to face Johann and said, “Is there anything on the bottom face?”
Johann’s face drew down in a way that Annie couldn’t quite understand. “See, stupid question,” she said.
“I…crap on a cracker that never occurred to any of us,” he said, running a hand through his hair and blushing.
“Really? Ha, go Klo.”
“Yeah,” Johann said with a chuckle, “go Klo indeed.”
He looked at her in silence. Moments before it became uncomfortable he blurted excitedly, “Can we flip it?”
His excitement was infectious. Annie looked around, saw what she was after and gestured to a rack with four objects that looked like wide barrelled rifles. “Gravity beams, we should be able to turn it over with a couple of those.”
“Can’t we just turn the gravity off in here?”
It was Annie’s turn to chuckle. “Not in this ship sunshine. Gravity’s either on or it’s broken.”
“Ah yes, piece of history, how could I forget,” Johann said before bounding over to the gravity beams like a child who spotted his most wanted toy in the shop. “How do we use these bad boys?”
“Point and shoot.”
“There’s got to more to it than that.”
“Well if you gave me a second to finish my sentence I’d have told you.”
“Right, sorry Cappin’,” Johann said with a mischievous look and sarcastic two fingered salute. Annie narrowed her eyes at the peculiar man but smirked nonetheless.
“Once the beam touches an object it will move in tandem with your movements of the rifle. Each beam has a maximum mass it can carry so we’ll need to work together.”
“What happens if I muck it up?” Johann was studying the rifle this way and that without a look towards Annie but he seemed genuine in his concern.
“The cube will drop. You damage my floor I’ll have your hide,” Annie said with a finger pointed sharply at Johann. He nodded silently and followed her back to the cube.
“You, go the other side –, wait take this earpiece. Will save us shouting at each other,” she said, throwing the communicator.
“Good plan,” Johann said, already dashing around the cube’s corner. “Hear me?” his voice crackled in her ear.
“Loud and clear. Now remember, work with me and this shouldn’t be too difficult. When it’s in place and I give the word, press the red button on the side. Do not touch it until I say so.”
“I think I can manage that.”
“Lets bloody hope so.”
The next ten minutes were difficult. Lifting the cube was not an issue but rotating it without either beam losing its hold was quite the task. At one point when the cube was high in the air Johann didn’t move quick enough and there was a sickening moment where it began to fall. Thankfully the scientist was faster than he looked and once caught all was good again. Annie could feel sweat dripping down her forehead as she concentrated, internally she begged for it to miss her eye at such a crucial moment. The bead of sweat didn’t listen to her pleas so she spent the final manoeuvres half-blind.
With a loud and satisfying koom! the cube landed exactly where it had been but with its bottom face nice and accessible. Annie took the rifle from Johann and leant both against the cube.
“Hello, what have we here?” she said. Peering closely at the cube she could see something etched into the material.
“Woah!” Johann yelled, incapable of vocalising anything more intelligible. He leapt forward, pushing his face next to Annie’s in order to study the etching. “This…this is astounding. What is it? What could it mean? What could’ve cut into this?”
“Dunno, probably the same thing that cut the cube in the first place I’ll wager.”
“Well sure, but that raises even more questions.”
With a slight tremble Annie traced the lines of the etching with her finger, her mind racing with excitement, possibilities and a slight tinge of fear. “Johann?” she said with increasing worry.
The lines had begun to glow. Each passing second the glow brightened. Something deep within Annie’s brain stirred, pushing her logical mind aside and yelling wordlessly that something was very wrong. She turned to look at Johann and saw the worry on his face. “We shouldn’t have done this.”
The glow of the etching shone bright, a silent and powerful flash that stung the eyes causing dark spots to dance before Annie and Johann’s eyes. A moment later and their vision was clear. The cube was opening. A circle formed on the face, taking up a large portion. It shimmered as if liquid before disappearing. Unable to stop herself but knowing she should Annie poked her head through the hole.
What she saw made no sense. It wasn’t confusing, it was impossible. She was peering into another world. A vast red sky with blood-clot clouds, a terrible and constant booming of thunder assaulted her ears, vibrating and pushing in on her. The ground was flat in every direction, stretching to, and no doubt beyond, the horizon. There was something off about the ground, it moved. She stared until it became clear. On this infinite plane, the ground was nothing but bodies. Writhing bodies of all shapes and sizes, piled who knows how many deep. As her hand went to her mouth in shock and disgust she could hear millions of voices wailing and howling beneath the booming thunder.
To her side she heard Johann losing his mind. He kept saying “no, no, no, no,” but wouldn’t or couldn’t look away. Annie tried to move her head, to look at the scientist and try to reassure him even as her own sanity was starting to crumble. She couldn’t. She was stuck, staring into madness, a sea of bodies squirming over, under, and at times it seemed through, each other. A thousand thoughts flew through her head but disappeared before she could comprehend a one of them.
As Johann’s mantra grew louder Annie became transfixed with a disturbance some distance away. Bodies began to bulge outwards in a bubble that grew and grew. Deep in her bones she felt a rumble that increased with the bubble’s size until it drowned out the thunder and howling. She felt her mouth drop, the bubble was enormous and for a few seconds it kept its size. Silence fell upon the place, smothering and awful. The thunder held off, the bodies continued to writhe but ceased their cries. Before Annie could marvel at the change the bubble of beings exploded with a titanic explosion. The myriad forms flew in all directions, the thunder returned with renewed vigour and from within the bubble emerged a giant.
It was humanoid in shape but had no mouth, no eyes, no ears. Its flesh was smooth, darkened from the red sky and fluids of the masses but Annie was sure it was the same material as the cube. The creatures it had risen from were crawling all over it, aliens or demons of such varied appearances, each found a spot on the giant they liked and stayed there. The huge being tilted its featureless face to the sky. Hundreds of thousands of bodies rushed in like water to fill the gap of the giant’s exit and one of the last truly rational thoughts Annie had was that she’d been wrong. It wasn’t a ground made of bodies, it was an ocean.
There was a thud and the presence of Johann by her side was gone, she didn’t understand what happened and still couldn’t turn away. Then she heard her friend scream. Scream like he was a victim to the worst torture imaginable.
The giant turned its face to her. It saw her. She knew it but not how. As the beings continued to crawl over it in search of a spot to hold on the giant threw its fists down to its sides and emitted a mouthless roar that put the thunder to shame. It terrified Annie in a way she’d never experienced before. It was the impossible and it was targeting her.
Starting with a laboured step through the masses it made its way toward her, each step increasing in speed. She saw with unerring clarity as each monstrous foot came down and crushed thousands. She could hear each death cry as if they were in her head. The giant picked up speed. Annie’s mind raced, she screamed and found the ability to move. Her mind was not what it once was and in desperation she hammered her hands against the cube. The giant neared, it was running now, scarring a deep chasm in the ocean of bodies that quickly filled. The masses screeched and howled, the giant roared as it closed, its face almost taking up Annie’s entire field of view. Annie’s right hand managed to hit the symbol. It sparked back to life as the giant stretched out a hand, grabbing at her. The portal began to close, relief was already washing into Annie’s fragile senses but at the last moment she saw one of the creatures that rode the giant race along its unfathomably long arm and leap. The portal sealed shut but the creature was out.
Annie spun around as it flew past her, its momentum causing it to go crashing along the grated floor in a bundle of limbs. As it got to its feet she noticed Johann’s prone body on the floor, he was catatonic, eyes staring into nothingness, his mind broken.
The creature screamed a weak imitation of its master and raised two insectival limbs above an oddly reptilian head before launching at Annie. She leapt out of the way, coming down hard on the grating as the maddening creature barrelled into the once again perfect cube face. Frantic, barely a thought left in her mind but the instinct to survive she rolled over, narrowly missing a pointed limb that shot out like a stinger from the demonic thing. Her hand touched upon the barrel of a rifle, she pulled at it, got it in her hands and pulled the trigger. At the same moment the abomination pierced the gun causing the barrel to lose integrity and explode.
Annie felt the kickback push her hard against the grating but thankfully the creature had been shot into the air away from her. With an awful crunch it hit the far side of the hold, thumped to the floor and quivered. Annie exhaled hard, gasped for air and almost cried in relief. She had less than a second before she realised the creature had struck the airlock release.
“No…” she managed before it opened.
The creature was sucked out instantly into the inky depths amid a cacophony of rushing air. Annie held onto the grating with white knuckles, reaching for Johann’s arm but he was already beyond her grasp. As he slid across the floor she screamed with all her might into the ship communicator to make it shut down the airlock. The noise was too much, the ship’s computer couldn’t understand what was being said.
The cube began to shift. Annie knew she was between it and the airlock. Her last thought before the cube flew through the air, crushing her body and sending them into the coldness of space was, “It can’t end like this.”