Of the Blackest Night

These are the spaces between the stars. An infinity of darkness, and yet not truly dark. Look closer. What fills those spacious voids but more stars? Look closer still. The gaps between those stars are crowded with others yet more distant. Again, look closer. A steadily blazing wall of light, now, without atmospheric interference to cause scintillation. Nevertheless, a star twinkles. Another winks out, briefly, and then returns. Now his neighbour vanishes for an instant. Look closer.

A black shape, eclipsing stars as it passes, and this is black. Not so much as a glimmer illuminates the surface. Look closer. A featureless expanse, an unlit plain of a scale impossible to determine. An obsidian pool rimmed by starlight. Look closer. Now there are stars no longer, only the darkness. Look closer. Look closer still.

******

“What? What is it? I’m awake!”
“Barbara Rush, that chick from ICFOS. We’ve got a level two inbound that she thought we might like to know about.”
Another one? Dammit, they could have installed a dozen automated defence systems with the money they spend calling us every five minutes.”

The International Centre for Orbital Safety had been established some fifteen years earlier, right after the ISS-2 disaster of 2053. A fragment of space debris no larger than a human finger had punctured the hull of the second International Space Station, killing all nine crew members in the resultant decompression. The Station took out several hundred communication satellites in a cascading chain reaction before crashing into the Aegean Sea, causing so much disruption to businesses worldwide that no-one was yet sure how many trillions of dollars it had cost. The flash-shields now routinely fitted to Orbitals would easily deal with such small objects, but are incapable of handling anything larger than a golf cart. Hence the ICFOS Orbital. The organisation had been set up to track the movements of every large piece of debris in the solar system, and issue warnings whenever something got too close. This, as it transpired, happened with annoying frequency.

“Just bring it up on the scope, Helen. Save your complaints ’til we know it’s nothing serious.”
“C’mon, Ray, don’t rain on my tirade. You know as well as I do that...yeah, check it out. Nowhere near us. It’ll impact the atmosphere and burn up. Why did they have to bother us with it? They must have known we weren’t in any danger.”
“They also know they’re not infallible. I’d rather be woken up by a ’phone call than by getting sucked out of the hull.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Helen conceded. Ray was short for an astronaut, about 5’7”, and she was a good four inches taller. His Napoleon complex got tiresome after a while, so she’d gotten used to allowing him to win arguments. If some comet-spotter wanted to make herself look important and justify her funding by continually interrupting everyone’s sleep, well, there wasn’t a lot Helen could do about it anyway.
“Think I might go pick up a breakfast tube. You want anything?” asked Ray.
“Nah, I’m fine, thanks” Helen replied “Could you grab one for Michael, though? He’s still pretty unwell.”
“Sure. What about Jean-Claude?”
“Ha! The Invisible bloody Man, you mean. Haven’t seen him in, like, four days.”
“You sure he’s OK?”
“Oh, he’ll be fine. Let him mope. It’s bad for his ‘strong and silent’ routine if you try and actually discuss things like an adult with him.”
“I’m going to check anyway. Take him some breakfast. He shouldn’t isolate himself like that.”
“Alright, fine. Do whatever you want. I’m staying right here. Don’t suppose I’ll ever get back to sleep now.”
She watched him float off towards the provisions storage cupboard. Ray, like all Orbitally-stationed astronauts, was completely bald. Shedding a hundred hairs a day was something you really couldn’t afford to do inside a space station, and besides, zero-g hair was an intolerable nuisance.

The tracking scope lit up about the same time as the comms board started making noises. Helen launched herself towards the scope, glanced at the readout, and reached out a hand to flick the comm. switch. It would be ICFOS, telling her what she already knew. Their harmless piece of class two space junk had just undergone a course correction.

You can find the complete version of Of the Blackest Night in issue 44 of TBD.

Stuart Crawford