JELLYFISH • by Dani Ripley

Kapteyn is dead. No, that’s not right. He’s thinking, therefore not dead. His body is lost. He floats, smaller than an atom. No. That’s not right either. He’s confused. The sensation isn’t entirely unpleasant. He processes.

His thoughts are slow. Excruciating, to be so slow. He locates his limbs. They’re still attached — numb, not lost. He processes.

Eyes: they are there but won’t open. Frustration. Processing. Systems sluggish. Lights blink behind fluttering eyelids. Central nervous system reboot successful. Wetware reboot in progress.

Optical relays online. Kronos’s schematics appear; menus swim behind Kapteyn’s still-closed lids. He tracks progress as the ship proceeds with systems check. He tries lifting his eyelids again. They comply. Kronos’s datastream appears in the foreground of his vision; virtual surroundings blink into existence behind.

He’s strapped in the nav chair, biofeeds trailing from his arms. Kronos’s shielding is closed; Kapteyn cannot see out. Doesn’t matter, MAPSYS says they’re in deep space. Nothing out here.

His body is still in reboot. Wetware only handles so much input/output. Quantum robots remove cryo-solution from each of his individual cells. Others follow, mopping up damage suffered while travelling into interstellar space. More follow, making repairs, producing fluids. The procedure isn’t exactly painful. It feels like a waking limb, only universal. Pins and needles. Nothing to do but wait; he’s paralyzed until they finish. He processes.

Interface comes up, activating his telepathic link to Kronos. Kapteyn accesses shielding and raises the shade, leaving the radiation filters in place. He’s surprised by what he sees. Kronos has stopped inside a nebula.

Kapteyn scans, worried now. Their primary mission is to find exploitable resources but there’s nothing here. The nearest galaxy is thousands of light years away.

There is no malfunction. Systems check completes. He asks Kronos why they’ve stopped. Kronos doesn’t answer, instead states its intention to wake the crew in thirty minutes.

Kapteyn tries moving his limbs but can’t. He must access manual override and keep Kronos from waking the crew too early. If it’s true there’s nothing here they’ll use up too many valuable resources rebooting everyone for nothing.

Kapteyn is the Assessment Officer. The captain and higher crew are safely ensconced in an aft bay and outfitted with personal escape pods. The AO awakens first to perform system checks and assess risks to crew and ship, then preps the ship for habitation.

Outside, the nebula pulses: red, orange, yellow, blue. Kronos is parked in a fog of light. Stars are born here. Kapteyn thinks it’s beautiful. Lights dance across the bow. He shouldn’t be able to see the stars so close. They skitter across the hull like sparkling skipping stones.

These are not stars. He needs a closer look, impossible while paralyzed. He tells Kronos to identify the things outside. Kronos reads only background radiation not found in existing databanks. Kapteyn checks another angle of the datastream. The ship appears to be scanning the nebula for energy sources. This is why they’ve stopped.

Hundreds of lights outside dive and tumble together like a school of fish. Kapteyn has heard of fish but only seen them in uploads and VR. They’ve been extinct for hundreds of years, along with all the other ocean creatures on Earth. He tries his limbs again. This time they move but only slightly. The needling feeling intensifies.

One of the lights breaks off from the group and floats toward the ship. It’s about one meter in diameter. Its circular, gelatinous body has ten skinny appendages flaring off its center. It drifts to the shielding and sticks there using four of them. The other six wave around as if affected by air currents, which Kapteyn knows is impossible out there in the vacuum of space. Its body fills with light and throbs gently.

Kapteyn stares. He records everything through his eyes so the BioTeam can go over it later. On a hunch, he calls up images he remembers from childhood of extinct ocean animals, objects of legend and myth to him and his classmates. Among them is an image of something called “jellyfish”. The thing stuck to the hull and waving at him looks much like that.

The creature’s internal light beats in sync with the nebula’s pulse. As Kapteyn studies it, he in turn feels studied. His own arms pulse now as new blood, freshly produced, surges back into them. His eyes flick back and forth. Data float across his vitreous, obscuring his pupils.

Suddenly the creature releases its hold on the ship. It draws its tentacles in, floating. Then it puffs its body out and turns away, sending a cloud of pink plasma streaming out of its mid-section. Momentum pulls its spindly limbs behind as it shoots away from Kronos. The plasma jet propels it back to the others, who appear to be leaving the area.

His creature joins the school, taking up the rear. The others flicker upon its arrival. They move away, eventually disappearing into the nebula’s fog like a parade of brightly-colored Japanese lanterns.

Kapteyn struggles with Kronos. They must pursue. He tells the ship to give chase. Kronos refuses. The task isn’t mission-specific. It’s true — it’s not their primary mission, but the secondary mission is always making contact with life. Although the jellyfish-things didn’t register on their sensors, they were schooling and curious; that alone was significant. He’s sure the BioTeam will agree.

Still, Kronos won’t move. Worse, the ship aborts waking protocols and begins the shutdown procedure that puts Kapteyn back into cryosleep. Then Kronos will bend space-time and continue their search for resources.

The pins-and-needles feeling returns. Kronos closes the shielding. As it closes, Kapteyn sees the caravan of creatures once more, winking in and out of the nebula. He strains to keep his eyelids open and continue recording, but the Quants only allow it for another second before they’re shut for him. Quickly, he stores his data under filename JELLYFISH and streams it to the BioTeam. His relays wink out. Kapteyn is gone.

System shutdown complete.

Dani Ripley lives and works in Michigan where she dreams of spaceships and zombies (though usually not together) and all other things supernatural.

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