Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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A Chance Encounter

by Byard Clemmons


I'm sure you've seen the same recruitment posters that hooked me:

The Royal Mail isn't just for dole collection anymore.
Explore the universe!
Join the Royal Mail, Mining Division.

Maybe you even looked at those posters and thought about the romantic adventures possible in space travel. I did.

Don't get me wrong, those first few hauls to Europa were intense; I had a shit-eating grin on my face the whole time, and I still get goose bumps when I see those rings on final approach to Titan. But it's a three-month haul. That's a lot of nothing-time, you know?

I can't go online in deep space, and I can't reach out and touch someone. It's just me and the Maintenance and Guidance AI. Maggie'll save your ass in a pinch, and she'll get you anywhere you need to go, but for conversation she's pretty limited.

The job would kill me if I didn't have music. It keeps me sane. And I love all kinds of music -- metal, trance, classical, anything. Shit, I even put on some old-school country when the mood catches me. But the Ramones are the ones I really rock to. They were before my time by about eighty years, but they just feel right. They remind me of something. Better days, maybe.

You might have had some great life-experiences -- some, perhaps, that were truly numinous -- and I won't rain on your good times. I'm sure they were meaningful. But plugging in an axe and jamming along to "We Want the Airwaves" while slingshotting Jupiter is as good as it gets. It fills you up until you think you're going to burst from the raw energy and the fuck-yeah.

I get all the exercise I need by running through the holds and drumming on the hull and bulkheads. WIFI receivers connect to speakers throughout the ship, and I crank it up all the way to eleven. Who's going to care? In space, no one can hear you jam.

Or so I thought.

I was on a six-month haul. Europa and Titan were long gone and I was burning my way through dead space all the way to Triton in Neptune Orbit. I was delivering supplies and picking up air -- a direct shot from Saturn to Neptune this time. Uranus wasn't on the itinerary and it felt weird to cross her path without the giant in sight. It was like jumping a railroad track and wondering when that headlight would appear. She was out there somewhere.

I woke to a traffic alert and shuffled to the control chair. The radar showed a few earthbound vessels nearby, but I didn't speak their language. Truckers passing in the night. I yawned and waited for my cola to de-fizz.

"Maggie, just where the hell is Uranus these days? Can you show me an orbital map?"

"If it was up your anus you'd know where it was, wouldn't you?"

The map popped up on the HUD.

"You need some new material, Mags. Thanks though."

"Stuff it."

I put on some Scorpions and scanned the logs. All systems were running smoothly; time to take my morning run.

Flying solo through deep space in a freighter the size of a small town can be pretty creepy. It'll scare the shit out of you if you let it. That's why I make these daily ship runs (and why I do them at a run): to prove to myself that there are no stowaways or creatures from the dark side of the moon lurking in the shadows.

On went the Ramones, full-blast.

You've got to pick up the pieces...

I started at a lope, ducking through the cabin hatch and making my way to the holds. Floor-to-ceiling lighting swelled around me as I moved, leaving nothing but running lights in my wake. I flowed like a pulse through the corridors.

My brain is hangin upside down!

The cargo bays are really giant warehouses twenty stories tall. There are forklift tracks throughout, and skeletal shelves that tower overhead. All of this shelving and its contents would be unloaded on Triton and replaced by massive liquid nitrogen and oxygen tanks.

I need something to slow me down.

I ran faster, lowering my gaze to fend off vertigo. Rows of boxes and plastic-wrapped canned goods sailed past. Miles of dehydrated meats and fruits loomed overhead. I usually had to start pacing my breathing to my footsteps around the cream corn.

I wish I could have seen the Ramones.

I almost tripped. The soft voice had intruded over the music. It was like a DJ bringing in the next song a little too soon, only I was the DJ and I wasn't at the mic. Then the voice was gone, leaving Joey Ramone to belt it alone. I stopped and turned in place.

"Hello?" I felt ridiculous, and the echo didn't help, but it was all I could think to do.

Nothing.

The suddenness of it all threw me for a loop, but my senses slowly came back. The voice had come through the speakers. The speakers were fed by a signal from the control room.

Someone must be in the control room.

I turned and ran back. In my panic the music took on a tinny quality. The familiar route felt darker than usual, and I kept looking over my shoulder.

I slowed as I approached the control room. Someone or something might be waiting for me on the other side of that door. It was impossible -- I knew that -- but what was the alternative? Losing my mind? I didn't want to consider that.

It was impossible to hear anything over the music, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it hadn't heard my approach.

I edged up to the hatch between the corridor and the control room. There was a break between songs, and in those seconds of silence I held my breath and listened. Was that something else's breathing? Was it wheezing? Before I could hone in, the next track kicked in with a fast count of "one-two-three-four".

I turned myself around and mated my belly to the wall. The scrubber vent tugged at my shirt, filtering cold air around my midsection. Ever-so-slowly I tilted my head towards the hatch. The cabin revealed itself inch by inch. At any moment I expected someone to leap out and scream.

It was empty.

"Shouldn't you be running right now?" It was Maggie's voice, but I nearly wet myself.

"Jesus, Mags. You scared the shit out of me."

"As if that would be any great feat. I've never seen someone spend as much time in the can as you."

"Mags... did you hear that voice just now? The one through the speakers?"

There's something deeply humiliating about having an artificial intelligence sigh at you. "Sure. I have nothing better to do than analyze each singer responsible for the garbage you seem inclined to play."

I eased into the control chair. "No, I mean there was a voice that wasn't part of the music. I need to know if I'm losing my mind here. I could swear I heard a voice say, 'I wish I could've seen the Ramones'. Or something like that. Did you hear it?"

"No. As I said -- "

"Yeah, ok Mags. Just give me a full bio-scan will ya?"

"I'll humour you."

I killed the music -- the loudness was making me uneasy.

"Why did you turn off the music?" said the alien voice.

I sat up fast and gripped the console. "Mags?"

"Yes?" It was drawn out, sarcastic.

"Tell me you heard that."

"Look, if you want me to start analyzing noises just say so. I'm busy running the first scan you asked for, so excuse me if I don't pick up on your flatulence. I'm sure it was a 'good one'."

"Goddamnit, Maggie, this is serious. Cut the shit and give me some multitasking. Listen for anything."

The voice had come through the speakers again. How could that be possible? I was sitting at the console, looking at the laptop that supplied the feed.

"Hello?" I called out. "Who are you?"

"I heard that," said Maggie.

I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists. "Only notify me if you hear something other than me please."

"Does that mean I can ignore your orders?"

"No."

There was no response from the voice. A bead of sweat trickled and tickled its way down my back and I rubbed after it. Outside was so much space. Countless stars watched and laughed. What an absurd little voyager I was.

"No life forms of note onboard," said Maggie. "No sonic anomalies so far."

"Thanks, Mags."

I looked down at the laptop. The music player's modulation animation sat frozen in mid-song. There was nothing else open that could have created the voice.

Then it hit me. I leaned down and rooted through a large box beneath the console. From the jumble of wires and batteries and assorted electronic junk, I fished out a microphone. I plugged it in and waited for the media player to register.

"Testing. Testing." My voice echoed back to me through the speakers. "Yyyello?"

"I prefer green," said the deep voice.

I fell out of my chair and almost dropped the microphone.

Maggie chimed in: "I heard that. Is that the voice you referred to?"

"Yes. Exactly that one." And then into the mic: "Who are you? Is this a nearby ship?"

There was nothing for half a minute or more. I tapped the mic and checked the connections. Everything seemed fine.

"I was hoping you might know the answer to that," said the voice.

I stared at my laptop, trying to make sense of what was happening. "What do you -- "

"It doesn't matter. I've been in this void existence far too long. How many years of silence before time loses its meaning? You're the first voice that has responded to me -- the first to be more than one-directional radio traffic. And so I'll offer it to you -- it's yours if you want it."

I pulled my knees up to my chest and switched the mic to my other hand. As hard as I tried to come up with a response, all I could think was, "what the hell?" The phrase repeated itself over and over until I realized I was whispering it like a mantra. The voice saved me having to respond.

"Is there a moment from your past that haunts you? There is isn't there? Something bittersweet? Something that lingers in your memory when you wake, as though you'd dreamt of it but can't recall the dream? I think we all have at least one. For me it was only one, and a strange one at that. Strange to others I mean. To me it made perfect sense."

I ran a hand through my hair and switched off the mic. "Mags, give me a rundown of all nearby ships and service stations. I must be losing my shit."

"The closest ships are the two from the previous traffic report, approximately one AU due Earth. No other ships detected. The nearest service station is point six AUs along our current course."

"Ok. Oh wait, can you trace this guy's signal? Can you pick up where he's coming from?"

"One moment," Maggie said.

"Are you still there?" asked the voice.

On went the mic. "Yes, I'm here. Where are you?"

A pause, and then: "It doesn't matter. You only need to listen and acknowledge that moment. The one from your past."

Maggie came back. "Approximate distances to the signal origin are shrinking. Current distance is roughly one hundred million kilometers."

"Ok, so that's... so the signal is coming from the service station?"

"Unlikely," Maggie said. "The first signal I traced was three times that distance."

"That's too fast. That's um... well it's faster than anything I've -- "

"Are you trying to remember?" the voice asked. "You spend so much time alone. I was the same. Memories always stay close at hand with so much solitude."

"That one was one thousand kilometers. Based on previous distances, the signal's origin should pass us in fifteen seconds."

I sat up fast. "Track it, Mags. Where is it?"

"I won't know until the next transmission."

"Hey," I shouted into the mic. "Who the hell is this?"

"This is getting rather cyclical," said the voice. "I'm doing my part, but you seem to be stuck on the same questions."

I covered the mic with my hand. "Mags?"

"Five meters from repeater one, two hundred meters from repeater two."

The repeaters were part of the ship's own radio array. "You're measuring the wrong signal, Mags. That's my signal."

"Wrong." Maggie was in rare form today. "Your signal is closer to repeater two and stationary relative to my antennae. The last transmission from the foreign signal came from cargo bay one, row eight. Beside the frozen pizzas."

I jumped out of my chair. "Mags, what the hell are you talking about? Why haven't you reported a security breach? Maggie!"

An unnatural silence swelled around me, as though my ears had filled with water. The soft roar of the air filtration; the hum and whir of the console; even the sound of my own footsteps; all of those things slipped away, leaving me in complete silence.

"Maggie?" The sound of my own voice startled me.

"Nothing to worry about." The foreign voice was ambient and rich now, surrounding me. "I just needed your full attention."

My legs buckled and I tumbled noiselessly to the floor. I winced -- or tried to -- but the impact was painless. I tried moving my arms but couldn't. I tried blinking with no result. I was unable to do anything but breathe.

"That's better," it said. "You'll have to forgive me, I'm sort of new at this. Never been much of a smooth talker. Always used my hands. I guess some things last beyond the mortal coil."

I stared at the ceiling in helpless frustration.

"Think now. Wasn't there some moment in your life that you always return to in your mind?"

A burst of light shot across my field of vision, accompanied by a static crackle. Then it was gone and I was staring at the ceiling again.

"For me it was the war. Most folks would think I was crazy to look back on those times with anything but fear and loathing."

Another flash of light, only this one shimmered and lingered. With it came a distant sound of rock music.

"It was hell, no doubt. But it was raw and powerful, too. There's something primal there -- a return to our ancient roots, I suppose. No bills, no nine-to-five. Just you and your mates, fighting for survival."

A crisp image filled my vision this time. No, a moving picture, complete with sound. An older couple walked hand-in-hand down a pier. I felt a sense of ease about the scene. It was a summer night. A warm breeze rolled across the dark lake in front of the couple, and shallow waves broke softly on the narrow shoreline.

Then they were gone and I was lying on the floor of my ship again.

"I went back," the voice continued. "Sure I did. The offer was too sweet, and even now, knowing the way things work, I don't regret it."

A mix of scents hit me first this time: sweat and shampoo and something medicinal. Then the full experience washed over me so suddenly that I cried out. Only I wasn't the one crying. A dishevelled young woman in a maternity gown sat back in a hospital bed. She was beautiful in her struggle. A terrified-looking man stood beside her and held her hand. He encouraged her and kissed her matted hair. She threw back her head and gave one last tired, hoarse scream. The doctors and nurses gave mild cheers and the young man began to cry and laugh all at once.

"Bear with me, I'll find the right stream." It was the voice again.

The vision faded, leaving me to stare at the ceiling. A hot tear ran down my cheek.

"You need to help me out here. This isn't like picking a TV channel. There's a whole universe of experiences and memories -- many universes actually -- so unless you supply the initial thread, we won't get very far. It's a strictly B-Y-O-M affair."

The voice laughed softly. Nothing menacing -- more like an old friend.

"Oh. Oh, here we are."

I started to shiver uncontrollably. Everything was happening too fast for me to recover.

"Well," the voice said. "It's hardly original, but why argue with a classic? She was the one wasn't she?"

I stood on a cracked sidewalk along a cobbled street. A faux gas lamp threw my shadow long across the stones, and neon signs flickered and buzzed on the high brick walls of the buildings on either side. A delivery truck grunted into second gear as it rolled past in front of me. I was waiting to cross the street. I didn't know where I was, but crossing the street seemed like the next logical step. It all seemed very familiar.

After the truck passed, I looked to the far sidewalk and saw her standing there. She was wearing the same school uniform I always remembered her in. She was with friends, and they were all laughing at something. Our eyes met and her laugh faded, replaced with a smile. One of recognition.

I felt giddy and nervous and elated. Her friends stopped laughing now to see what had caught her eye. They gave me a collective, unimpressed once-over, then they all broke into new laughter. All except her. She was still smiling at me.

"Do you want it?" The vision shimmered at the sound of the voice.

"Yes," I said. I didn't know what it was, but I knew this was that moment. The one I always went back to in my mind.

"I'm glad." And it truly sounded happy. "Maybe we can meet face to face one day."

A dark spot appeared in the corner of my vision and expanded like an approaching hole in the world. It hit me like a physical force.

Cold air rushed over me. I was bounced and tossed, but restrained. There were voices, and the occasional flashes of colored lights.

Something bad had happened.

It was the only thought I had. My mind orbited around it like a distant planet, occasionally zooming in and then back out again. Something bad had happened to me.

A siren worked its way through the darkness like a telephone that only wakes you on the third or fourth ring. It became the voice of my sun -- my one thought that I orbited. It was announcing and confirming that, indeed, something bad had happened.

A new bounce jarred me, so much harder than any before, and my world lit up with brilliant white light. It was blinding, but it quickly faded. The voices and the siren slipped away in the afterglow. There were no more jolts.

I opened my eyes.

She was still there, across the street with her friends. She was still smiling.

This time, I crossed the street.

THE END


© 2009 Byard Clemmons

Bio: Byard Clemmons lives in Oxford, England, and masquerades as a self-employed computer programmer. His love for the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror genres began at a young age, and he has carried that passion over to writing. His story, "It's Your Turn", was published in the Spring 2008 issue of ShadeWorks.

E-mail: Byard Clemmons

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