When the Fall Is All That’s Left10 min read
For Gabriele, gravity had ended. She spun unmoored, drifting in the outgassing light that spilled from the star she’d flown though. Her orbit deteriorated slowly. The skin of her hull was pockmarked and blistered, bubbled with plasma burns. What remained of her telemetric instruments was melted dross, cooling slowly from white to sullen red. Where she had known gravity, conjured through spin and mathematics, there was a hollowness inside her mind: a colorless blank, not formed enough to even register as dark.
“Like aphasia,” she explained to Iris in the pilot’s den. “A missing word with a shape I remember and can talk around.”
Iris floated, tethered by her ankle to the console with a torn-off length of electrical cabling, her pale hair a rough halo around her skull. Some of it had come loose from her scalp and was drifting alongside her. Nevertheless, under the simple electromagnetic spectrum of Gabriele’s internal vision, she appeared whole. The initial signs of damage were small and superficially within parameters: bruised hollows under her eyes, a scattering of purpura rising to the surface of the visible skin of her throat and chest in a clutch of reddish dissolving capillaries.
“So we’ve got no telemetry left at all,” Iris said.
“No gravity, no telemetry. Hardly anything but propulsion,” said Gabriele. “I flew you through a star. Does it matter where we ended up afterwards?”
“Only if we wanted to identify our position in a distress beacon.” Iris reached out a hand, stroked the dark console with fingers that trembled. “Which would defeat the purpose of flying through a star in the first place. Did we lose them, Gabriele?”
Long-range scan was as gone as gravity, and aside from the solar glow of the star Gabriele had torn through with her passage, local space was silent enough to her instruments’ dead metal. She said, “Yes, Captain,” and when Iris shut her eyes in relief, Gabriele was glad to not know with more specificity. Their pursuers had surely seen them dive in past the star’s corona. At the moment of plunging, Gabriele had expected their survival to be symbolic at best. In the terrible stretched time which had followed, of which Gabriele remembered chiefly the compression of hundreds of atmospheres and the burn as one quantum possibility after another sloughed away, she had grasped ever more feebly at instrumentation and blind luck to bring them through. Any hunter that remained to see if she’d succeeded had more faith in her astronavigation than Gabriele did herself. Now she wasn’t sure if she should be pleased to have managed it or terrified that she hadn’t managed it well enough to matter—but terror was still distant, a thing of the flesh, not a thing of the ship.
When Iris smiled, Gabriele could see how blood had begun to seep from her gum line. Her entire mouth must taste of salt and iron. Iris swallowed rather than spit; globules of blood and saliva would only contaminate the pilot’s den, and Iris was space-born: Gabriele knew she knew better. “Well then,” Iris said. “Here’s to being free women for the rest of our lives.”
Gabriele spun enough light to render a visible image of herself: a transparent version of her body as Iris would remember it, tall and red-haired and narrow through the ribs and at the wrists. She appeared sitting, cross-legged on the console next to the manual controls only solid hands could operate, the star field gleaming through her. She raised a can of beer in Iris’s direction, a sloppy toast in a physical language she only half-recalled. “Here’s to the next twenty minutes, Captain.”
“For a spaceship, you are incredibly morbid.”
“I was morbid before I was a spaceship,” Gabriele said. “Being a spaceship has nothing to do with it.”
“You flew me through a star,” said Iris. “This would have been functionally impossible before you were a spaceship.”
Gabriele made her image laugh: the head thrown back, the line of the throat exposed and open, the shoulders shaking. “Captain, if it wasn’t a star, it would have been something else. If we were both still human, it’d have been a hoverbike off the edge of a cliff.”
Iris said, still smiling, “That one’d be a faster fall.” The whites of her eyes had gone pink-red and a trickle of blood ran from her left nostril, beading in the air. “Cell damage is damn slow.”
If her fingers had been tangible instead of composed of light, Gabriele would have reached out and touched Iris on the wrist, stilled her, reeled her in on her tether. “Twenty minutes is not slow,” she said. “Weren’t we supposed to get out of this alive?”
“One of us still could,” said Iris.
“Captain,” Gabriele said, “Iris—even if I had a cargo hold full of blood and bone marrow to transfuse you with—which I don’t—”
“Vitamins and clean living aren’t enough to get me through the level of exposure I just got, I know.”
It was comforting that Iris had said it first. Gabriele nodded, shrugged her image’s shoulders apologetically.
“I estimate,” Iris went on quite deliberately, her eyes fixed on some middle distance, “based on how much my head hurts and the degree of nausea I am experiencing, that of our twenty minutes I’ve got ten before I’m in the kind of neurological distress that won’t be any good to you at all. Seizures, cognitive incapacity, coma, etcetera.”
Gabriele held out translucent hands to Iris on long-unused bodily instinct. Then, ashamed, she vanished them along with the arms they were attached to and most of the torso, leaving her a sketch of legs, a hip, a face dissolving in the light.
One half of Iris’ mouth quirked upward. “Hey, Gabe,” she said. “It won’t be that bad, I think.”
“Kind of disagree, Captain,” Gabriele said.
“Come on,” Iris told her, twisting to untether herself with shaking hands. “Just ’cause I’m dealing with at least a couple thousand radians of exposure, that doesn’t mean you’re going to die.”
“Floating in dead space without telemetry and watching over your corpse while my orbit degrades sounds like the highlight of my experience as a ship, yeah. Thought I might speed it up a little. Dive back into the star. Afterward.”
Iris pushed off the console and floated down the short hallway between the pilot’s den and the cabinet where the guts of the ship lived, safe behind paneling designed to keep out as much cosmic radiation as possible. A small cloud of blood swirled into a perfect sphere in her wake. “Yeah, that sounds pretty grim,” she said. “It’s a stupid plan. We wanted to be free. Open your hatch, would you?”
At Gabriele’s command the cabinet unfolded like a flower. Beneath were wires and cabling, a deep nest of circuitry. Iris stared at it for nearly a minute. “Damn, you’re a long way down in there,” she said.
“You can’t fix the telemetry by rearranging my circuitry by hand, Captain,” said Gabriele. “Even if you had ten hours, and not ten minutes.”
“Not quite what I had in mind,” said Iris, and then abruptly spun herself around to vomit strings of blood and bile, hunched around her abdomen in midair.
“Iris—” Gabriele said, panicked and loud on every speaker.
Iris huddled in on herself, scrubbing the back of her hand across her mouth. The pressure left bruises, a streak of purple across her cheekbone. “Fuck. Okay. Gabe, honey, I’ve got a question for you.”
Anything. “Ask me.”
“Back when we met on the station. When we were kids. You used to pilot with just math and your fingers on a joystick.”
“Yeah,” Gabriele said. “I did. It’s why they let me be a ship—”
“Best scores in the sector, I knew you’d remember.”
“You think you can do it again?” Iris plunged her hands into the circuitry and began pulling it aside in great bundled heaps. A thousand alarms sounded in what remained of Gabriele’s systems, but she silenced every one, relegated them all to the absence where gravity had been.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“When I get you out of the cabinet, Gabe. If I unplug you. Can you fly the ship without being the ship? There are star charts and manual override. You’d just need to do the math.”
Iris’ fingers inside the circuits left wet patches, shorts and sparks. Gabriele realized that her fingernails must be bleeding. “I—Iris. Captain. I—”
“Yes or no? We do not have time for maybe-but-I’m-panicking. You’re a spaceship. You’re not supposed to be able to panic anyhow.”
“You’re about to un-spaceship me and die,” Gabriele said. “I think I’m entitled to panic.”
“Yes or no, honey.”
The blank space that had been gravity yawned; its edges were wider than before, and Gabriele did not have words for what it might have already devoured of her, or what might be left if her human body was removed from the slow-cascading failure of the ship.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The sound Iris’ lungs made when she sighed was raw and fluid-filled, ending in a cough. “Figure it out while I get you free, then,” she said, and plunged her hands wrist-deep into the wires, tearing.
The coffin Gabriele’s old body was entombed in was reinforced Plexiglas and lead-coated steel, perforated with wires and plastic tubing. It was hardly longer than her body had been tall and held the flesh she’d worn paralyzed in a permanent, barely-living stillness. The eyes she used to see Iris bring it up into the light were ship’s eyes, cameras and infrared-scopes: to those it was entirely foreign, never before visible. It was smaller than Gabriele thought of herself to be, and more fragile, even bounded around with protective radiation shielding: a seed at the heart of the ship she was, and nothing more.
The automatic functions of the ship were located in the wires that Iris was unplugging from the coffin and in the physical mainframe that surrounded it. The body that had become the ship was merely wetware, useless for keeping an entire star-traversing machine in good function; human neurobiology was not complex enough to host the vast quantum-particle circuitry that faster-than-light travel required. But it was by virtue of her sentient observing mind that Gabriele could pick out from a thousand ship-generated possible paths the one which would subsume the others and become real. Looking at the coffin now, at the curled and bony flesh within it, she thought of it as a hand or a foot, a useful part of herself that did not and could not possibly contain her consciousness.
Iris, grey-green and breathing in rapid gasps, swiped her hand through the last of the wires on the top of the coffin and unlatched it. Gabriele’s camera-eyes went dark; she saw nothing, felt nothing, reached for the idea of sight and found it as impenetrable as gravity.
“Gabe,” said Iris, thickly. “Gabe, can you hear me?”
“I can hear you,” Gabriele said, and did not know what speaker she spoke out of.
There was a squelching wet touch on the back of her neck.
Waking to the flesh was a startling horror. Gabriele was one long scream of useless tissue, still pinned by the largest cable rooted to the base of her skull, a blind sack of desiccate guts. She felt the ship that she was as it whirled around her, unsynced and in falling orbit, and then slipped entirely separate, a seed squirted out from a mouth.
The sound of retching brought her hearing; the feel of Iris’ hands sliding clumsily over her cheek and unscrewing the cable bolted to her neck brought her touch. Gravity was still over. She floated free of the coffin and opened her eyes to an inchoate blur, a sweep of colors and the light pouring into the ship from the stars outside.
Some of the blur resolved into Iris, slumped next to the cabinet, floating with her head bowed over her knees. Gabriele tried to maneuver herself through the air, come closer to her. Her flesh strained for oxygen, heaved its lungs for her sake, trembled her hands.
“Oh,” said Iris. “It did work.” Her voice slurred.
With new-claimed lungs, Gabriele said, “Captain—”
Iris did not respond. Gabriele reached out, brushed her fingers along the line of bruises stretching from the corner of Iris’s mouth to her hairline. More of her hair came loose at the touch.
“Goddammit,” Gabriele said. And then, “Can I panic now?”
“Wait a day,” Iris said. “After—after you get somewhere new. Would be ideal.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriele said. “I could put you in the coffin—it might keep you alive long enough—”
Iris did not laugh or open her eyes. Blood leaked from her tear ducts while she smiled, while she shook her head. Gabriele could imagine it was a seizure tremor and not a negation, could hope with the rush of hope that wearing flesh allowed; but for the memory of having been her Captain’s ship, she did not.
“We got out almost clean,” she said instead and took Iris’s hand. “I’m going to pour you so many drinks before someone shoves me into another ship–” Her fingers squeezed.
She lasted twenty-nine minutes, which was nine more than she ought to have.
Afterward, Gabriele went to the console and stretched out her hands into the light. She could no longer feel the space where gravity had been. She had lost that with the ship. Slowly, she found the manual controls. She turned toward the empty places between the stars and began to move.