The Drift

To Lay in the stellar waters

I haven't heard back in quite some time. I try not to reach for the radio. I don't want them to know I'm worried. After a few more minutes, I pick up the mic and say, "Fraeia? Are you all-"   "Shh…" They cut me off. Their voice sounds off like a slow drip of honey in the cold. "I'm alright...calm... drifting."   I'm clutching onto the mic harder than Intended but I keep my mouth shut. My eyes stare at the screen, a small black dot slowly nearing a wall of wreckage floating in the void.   Eventually I hear them laugh. "You're worried?"   "I am," I reply. I couldn't imagine just floating in space like that.   "Why?" They ask as if the word slipped out during a long sigh.   "There's no control, no safety."   "No control… yes." I hear their voice shift, suddenly more aware but still somewhere far far away. "I'm not so sure about the latter. I'm safer out here than you are in there."
 
 
Fraeia feels nothing. They drift, weightless and beyond the touch of fear. For weeks, they bore an unimaginable burden on their shoulders. So much has happened. So much has changed. It's nice to let it all go.   Amber isn't talking. Fraeia couldn't help but smile. Amber's ship is nothing but a glint of light orbiting the moon of Alphia from where they were. The light of the Fever breach caught Fraeia's attention next. It was glorious.   Amber's voice calls out, panicked yet fierce. "You're nearing the wreckage."   "Understood." Fraeia carefully adjusts themselves, the boosters pulsing all along the joints in their suit to keep them aligned with their destination.   "Careful. Move too quickly or with too much force, and you'll just spin out."   "I know how space works, Amber," Fraeia replied.   "Sorry."   There it was again, the tone from before. Is she ashamed? Why? "It's a good thing. It's easy to get lost in the drift. Don't apologize." After landing on the wreckage Fraeia adds, "Your concern is endearing, though. I mean it, Keep talking."
   
       
The eden are fascinated by the void. They're drawn to it. It's a cosmic dance with death. They could survive a lot longer in the vacuum than a human could, but it's still a death sentence if exposed and without protection.   Fraeia calls it "the drift." It's a meditative state; a lethargy that consumes their thoughts as they confront the stellar ocean around them. There's no up in space, no down either. They stare down infinity and are humbled by it. It's an automatic response, an instinct. The cause is a genetic artifact in their genome, possibly an evolved or engineered trait appearing due to their countless millennia as a space faring species.   Their mind enters an altered state, similar to shock. It comforts them. If cast into the void from an exploding vessel or left behind by the enemy, it makes their death easier to swallow. They experience it from their first time in the void and will do so every time thereafter. Whether it be a spacewalk or casually drifting toward potential salvage, they all chase The Drift.

Flying high

The Drift floods a lebha's brain with adrenaline, or at least something similar to adrenaline. It doesn't tire them out when leaving the system. It doesn't compel them to fight or run away. It compels them to drift, to see where the solar wind takes them.   The first time is always the strongest. Neophytes report hallucinations. They see strange geometric patterns and hear whispers in the dark, as if the stars could speak. They report seeing vast unknowable creatures watching them out of bored curiosity. They will never experience it to that degree again.   With each recurring exposure to the void, the effects steadily decrease. It's as if the void is toxic and they are building an immunity to it. At best, an adult of the species feels extreme euphoria. They are calm, serene, and in their element. On a rare occasion, the untrained will find themselves in a fugue, forgetting what they are supposed to be doing and even who they are.
     

The Horrors of the Drift

Remember those unknowable creatures I mentioned? Sometimes they aren't so indifferent. Some lebha on their first spacewalk report being attacked by them. It's a violent assault, as if these demons in the void are offended by their presence.   For the eden who "survive," It's an ill omen. Some believe it means you're destined for The Loop, an affront to nature. Others believe it means you'll be a breaker of chains, a mad rebel unable to escape your fate.   While it would seem to be nothing more than a bad trip, the eden take these hallucinations very seriously. They study them, using what little information they can glean from neophytes training for life in the void. Due to their nature, they haven't come very far in their studies.

A Form of Sleep

 
The drift is similar to what we call sleep. The eden sleep like we do, but they don't dream. Their bodies enter a sleep-like state that shuts down most nonessential functions. It's somewhere between sleep and hibernation.   They can use it for more than rest. They use it to pass time and some have used it for survival. If jettisoned into the void, they can enter this state to conserve oxygen or to limit the need for food in case help arrives, though it's unlikely.   When it comes to rest, it's a rapid process. By human standards, it's more of a power nap. Within an hour of "sleeping" they can wake up and feel perfectly refreshed. How lucky for them...
"Turning on the feed." Fraeia says. The screen on my right blinks and I see the wreckage from their perspective. "Don't forget to breathe."   They turn on the light in their visor, revealing a structure of twisted metal. I see what appears to be shattered glass and whatever was left of the decor. Fraeia takes a step forward and turns, the camera following every movement. That's when I see the bodies.   They float in a slow waltz toward empty space, dozens… maybe even hundreds of them. They're all Dhitol, at least I assume they are. Some have wings, outstretched as if they died trying to fly through space. Others wrapped themselves up when the time came.   Some of them burned in the blast, their bodies mutilated with missing limbs and horror frozen on their bat-like faces. I turn away from the feed at that point.   This was our fault. We did this. Hell, we didn't even bat an eye at the idea. I try not to think about it, the families that are now one soul short. There are now dhitol children that will never see their mothers and fathers again.   Fraeia speaks through the radio and it almost makes me jump. "What's wrong? Why are you breathing like that?"   "We killed them." I mutter.   "Oh…" Fraeia adjusts the camera trying to keep the bodies out of view. "Apologies."   "I didn't realize how many there were."   Fraeia replies as they continue to search the wreckage, "Would it have made a difference?"   I cross my arms and lean back in the chair. "No. I guess not."   Fraeia approaches a large door, still intact but sealed shut. "I'm being inconsiderate, I don't mean to be."   "Inconsiderate?" I ask.   They slowly work their fingers into the slot separating each side of the door and pry it open one inch at a time. I can hear the strain in their voice, though it sounds like they're trying to hide it, "Killing is different for you. Are all humans this way?"   "Not all, but I like to think most of us are."   They step into the room beyond the door. I see cracked screens, floating debris, and more bodies. "I found the bridge. What should I do next?"   I refuse to look at the screen as I reply. "Look for a terminal, one near the center of the room."   After a few moments of silence I hear them speak, "Will this work?"   I muster the courage to look at the screen and see what looks to be a command station. "That'll do it. Pull the black box. It should be a cube on the inside of the casing." They open a panel at the base of the terminal and shine the light inside. call out, pointing to the screen on impulse, "Right there, on the left"   They reach for a cooling fan, realize their mistake, then undo a set of wires leading to a black cube toward the back of the terminal housing. "Want me to look further in? If the bridge made it, maybe there's an antimatter missile intact."   I reply, rising from the pilot's chair with the mic in hand, "Sure. It can't hurt. I'm going to get myself a drink. One moment."   Fraeia pulls the next door open. "Of course. I will be here."   I set the mic down, walk to the kitchen, and pace a steel cup under a spout before pressing a button to dispense water.   By the time I start walking back, I hear Fraeia calling my name, "Amber." I freeze. That's not a question. It's like a statement, a declaration. It's urgent. "Amber, look."   I force my legs to move, turning the corner to see the feed from their suit. I pick up the mic, "What's wrong?"   Fraeia doesn't reply, instead they turn the camera so I can see. I see the light trace of static on the image but it's clear enough to see a tiny, empty room that likely served as a cargo bay. I shrug at first, moments away from blowing it off. I then see a tiny spark of light, followed by another.   The tiny black specks slowly drifting on the screen are dancing, pulled toward the hull only to interfere with each other. Each interacts, coalescing and splitting with every collision until hitting something other than itself. This isn't static.   "Fray, you good?" I ask.   "It's not like it can kill me." They reply, reaching their hand out. "Let's just take the black box. We can find another-"   I watch as a black speck, no bigger than a mote of dust, collides with Fraeia's hand. The result is a small flash of light. Threads of black blood spew from the open wound, carried on the escaping air as the suit decompresses.   I hear Fraeia take in a sharp breath and clutch at the wound. "What?"   I jump into the pilot's chair and the ship springs to life in seconds. "Get out, "I scream, "Turn around and leave. I'm on my way."


Cover image: by Kai Pilger

Comments

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30 Jan, 2022 20:14

You have me at the edge of my chair. I wanna know moooooreee

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31 Jan, 2022 02:25

This is so good. The Drift sounds mysterious and creepy. The story parts added extra suspense and were intensely engaging. I'll have to read more some time!

Lilliana Casper   I don't comment much, but I love reading your articles! Come check out my world, Jerde.
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Garrett Grace Lewis
27 Apr, 2022 23:36

So curious...more suspense...

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