Not everyone was cut out for Sweeping. It was spacer talk for the method used to collect gases and trace mineral elements found within nebulae so that they could be processed into usable compounds and fuel. It was dangerous work, but the pay made it easy to forget that. Flynn set up the V.A.C. collecting units, large gas collectors that connected to the ship, while Buck kept an eye on the sensors from the safety of the cockpit. This job was fairly standard and completion was expected to take no time at all, but in Sweeping, much like in life, things were rarely so simple.
Flynn activated the final V.A.C., starting the Siphon, when a large flash of light burst in front of him. He felt himself falling, more like drifting, out of reality. He found himself someplace familiar. He could smell the ocean air and hear the gulls in the distance. His family’s summer cottage was behind him. There was another flash; he was going in to kiss Sara Frankel for the first time just before his first deployment off-world. His uniform was tight, especially around the collar. Johnson joked that it was to remind them that they were now slaves to Corps. Another flash — he could hear screaming and could see Johnson on the ground bleeding from the round he took to the chest. Flynn heard his cries for God, the cries for his mother, and then nothing.
These memories were as vivid as the moments in which they had occurred despite the decades that separated them. Both those he had cherished and those he had tried to forget.
What he was seeing now was no memory. He saw lungs breathing and a heart beating. This thing was alive and letting him know it. It was in his mind. More images. A hand waving hello. Inexplicably, he knew it meant him no harm. Questions raced in his mind, questions it heard despite him not uttering a sound. Memories that weren’t his own emerged. There was a cluster of planets with a bright warm star in the middle. Another image — an analog clock was spinning quickly. A sun was rising and setting over and over again on an alien horizon. Time was passing until the star exploded.
The creature’s home was destroyed. Flynn saw the planets become scorched and sundered. It had survived, although the blast injured it greatly. It was a cracked and fragile shell of its past self. It had lived here since, too weak to move. In the dust and ashes of the dead worlds. Thoughts raced in his mind. He wanted to understand it; how old was the creature? It heard him despite the silence.
It was dark and cold. The night sky was empty. The worlds were empty. The universe was empty. Nothing was everything. It was the time before.
There was a flash, particles expanded outward from the dark forming molecular clouds. The analog clock was spinning, quicker than before. Time was accelerating. The clouds expanded and some clustered together. The dark sky was slowly filled with small glowing balls of light. The first stars. It saw the universe take shape and come to life. Something resembling a time frame emerged in Flynn’s mind, but the magnitude of it was impossible to comprehend. The creature traveled in its ever expanding home watching stars, planets, and galaxies form and grow.
Are you God?
More images. These were more intense. The creature was scared and in pain. The creature was begging for help. He saw Buck in the ship, through eyes that weren’t his own, monitoring the Siphon. The V.A.C.s were killing the creature.
Flynn felt himself emerge from his meld with the creature. It was as though he had been splashed with cold water. He saw the analog clock on the wall, but instead of it spinning faster in time it was ticking slowly with the minute hand almost at midnight. Even without direct contact the creature was still able to project images into his mind, but this phantom link was growing weaker and fainter by the second.
Once, a supernova would not have even scratched it. Even before the destruction of its home the creature knew its time was coming to an end. It had steadily become older and weaker. This corner of the universe was meant to be its quiet refuge until the hands on the clock rested over 12. What was meant to occur in a millennium was now happening in minutes and was being further accelerated by the Siphon.
Time was running out. With his suit’s systems back online he began emergency retraction and the tether let out a quick sudden jerk before it started pulling him backwards towards the ship. The ship came into view and the airlock opened. Flynn raced down the hallways and into the cockpit, still in full gear. Buck turned around after he heard the metal boots clanging behind him.
“Flynn! I’ve been trying to reach you. I thought you got fried!”
“No time.” He was out of breath; the suit weighed an extra eighty pounds outside of the vacuum. “Need to stop Siphon.”
Before either of them could react the cold voice of the computer rang out:
“Siphon Complete. Vacuum Accumulation Components retracting.”
Flynn’s heart sank. He ran out of the cockpit with Buck yelling out after him. The airlock hatch opened and Flynn’s suit thrusters blasted. He returned to the spot where he had initiated emergency retraction. Maybe it wasn’t too late. His hand reached out and he expected to feel his connection to the creature restored. Instead, his hand went through the thin layer of gas. There was nothing else beyond. The creature was gone.
For a moment he could faintly smell the ocean and hear the sound of the gulls. He could almost make out the summer retreat of his youth, before it faded away.
Shain Miles is an occasional writer of words.