by Rich Larson
When the slaveship arrived, we thought we were saved. We had been adrift for days in the Big Black, absorbing radiation from a catastrophic reactor failure, slipping further and further away from the trade route. The chances of another ship coming across us were infinitesimally small, so the arrival was like seeing an angel appear.
Some of us thought it was a hallucination, in no small part because the ship defied all geometry. It seemed to bloom and shimmer like a slick of oil, concentric globes of translucent material swelling and dwindling in counterpoint, flanges unfurling and disappearing. Only the most basic features of a starship were recognizable — an engine, a heat radiator, a solar sail — but these were distorted, cartoonish impressions meant not to function but to communicate familiarity.
The slaveship enveloped our craft and in a sense digested it: I watched the alloy hull dissolve like a painting around us even as our ambient temperature and atmosphere in the hold, where we were huddled by the life support system, changed not an iota. It was clear that our rescuers were no known race. In our desperation, bodies sick from the radiation and minds bending under the crushing void, we did not question our salvation.
The hold fell away and we found ourselves in a softer darkness. The walls seemed to creep away from our touch, expanding as we slowly explored our new environs. Light appeared in the form of glowing silver ribbons that slipped in and out of the walls like eels through black water. I recall the wonder on our illuminated faces. The hierarchy of our crew seemed to crumble there; we were remade as equals by the novelty of our situation.
Eventually we became aware of another presence there in the dark, an eighth shadow added to our seven, who shuffled about with us but did not speak. Normally this would engender fear or alarm, but I remember neither. This figure never approached the silver lights, or perhaps the silver lights never approached them, and so they remained unseen. My impression from their movements was that they were slowly remembering how to walk.
“You are welcome here,” they said. “I recall my humanity.”
“Who are you?” I asked, though I was not the captain — this much of the hierarchy I remember.
“I am your host,” they said, “because I recall my humanity. The damage to your cells has been repaired. Follow me now.”
They walked in a particular direction and we followed, still absorbing their words, guessing at their truth. I know now that the radiation had indeed been scrubbed swiftly and effortlessly from our DNA, but in the moment it was difficult to believe — as was the claim of our host to humanity.
Suddenly what I had thought to be a corridor unfolded in all directions into a vast hall, and overhead we were struck by a vision that remains near indescribable, even after untold eons spent beneath it. The rush of forms and colors defied the eye. Geometric patterns, red, blue, red-blue-green, branched and evolved and were subsumed by others in an instant; wheels of raw-flesh pink and gunmetal gray interlocked like cogs; beads of pure white light split and collided and finally exploded.
But any visualizer can simulate chaos. The most unnerving element of this display was its oscillation between chaos and order. I could feel intent and then abandon, concentration and then madness. I knew that my senses were ill-equipped to experience anything but the tiniest fraction of this vista, and even with that knowledge deep and heavy in my bones, I was overwhelmed.
“You are seeing what you may think of as time,” our host said. “Do not be afraid. We are sheltered from it.”
I looked at our host then, and I was afraid, if briefly. They had recalled their humanity, but not well. In the illumination of the maelstrom above us, I saw that they were composed of disparate parts: a slice of leg, a jagged bit of torso, a piece of skull with teeth below it, a drifting arm. These parts were wired together by a dark filament and moved in concert as if they were a body entire.
“Where are we?” one of us asked.
“We are burrowing,” our host said, teeth orbiting beneath their skull. “Our ship was created to navigate these cracks in time. We expose ourselves to the arbiter only when necessary.”
A bell sounded, though later we likened the noise to a baying animal, and the hall was filled with a multiplicity of beings. I saw a scattering of the known races, but far more unknown, some recognizably biological, others composed of metals or gases or silicates. I tried to guess at the ship’s original creators, but it was fruitless. I have since decided that they are not represented when the bell bays, or perhaps never existed.
The beings formed a pair of lines, and it was in watching this assuming of order that I first tasted our captivity. I could sense that they were cowed, that they dreaded what was to come. At the end of the hall, where the floor narrowed to a knifepoint, there was a high plynth.
“Choose one among you,” the host said.
I do not know why I was chosen, or if I chose it for myself, but somehow I was distanced from my companions and began walking toward the plynth. The host walked with me, though only one gnarled foot touched the floor.
“We are sheltered from time and entropy,” the host said. “But we are also fuelled by them. For this reason we must always seek new passengers.”
I did not understand anything except that I was going to be sacrificed in the stead of my companions, and in that moment it seemed a noble thing. The host produced a shred of shifting color, kin to the maelstrom over our heads, and handed it to me. It moved like an amorphous animal in my arms. At first it seemed to be a bird, pecking at the skin of my wrists, and then a hissing cat I could barely hold. My mind was making it so, for it was neither.
I cradled time and entropy in my arms as I walked the blossoming steps of the plynth. At the top I was surprised to encounter dirt — true soil, not the accumulation of dead skin found even in space. I had not seen true soil since childhood, and it seemed most out of place here. With invisible palms pressing against my spine, I lay down in the dirt.
Above me, the maelstrom parted and I saw the Big Black, a shard of space dotted with distant stars. Then the animal in my arms began to consume me. I was paralyzed, watching the hand nearest my face wrinkle with age. My veins bulged; brown spots welled up on my skin as it creased and sagged. The bones jutted up like bridges. I began to decay.
Across from me, beyond my mummified hand, I saw a skeleton rising out of the dirt beside me, uncovered as if by a desert wind. I stared into the cracked and empty sockets of its eyes and knew that it was my skeleton being reconstituted. I clutched at its clawed hand even as my own hand lost its last shred of papery yellow skin. The pain was beyond pain, screaming its rage in every scrubbed cell of my body.
On the altar before the stars, I realized my companions and I would live forever. As of this moment, the anguish has not abated.
Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.