The Substance of Shadow

We have quite the dread-inducing treat for readers today: It’s the newest short story from Brett Talley, a major voice among the New Lovecraftians. Space is the most harrowing place of all, even before strange entities start playing tricks with your mind …

They tell me that space didn’t always drive men mad. But I find that hard to believe. Well, I suppose if all you ever did was float around the earth, go to the moon, take a walk in the void, then space is an adventure. But it’s not like that anymore. Not out here.

“This can’t be right.”

David is talking to himself. He keeps looking at the same coordinates. I know he isn’t talking to me, so I just let him repeat it over and over again. “This can’t be right.”



They say that the problems began when they started going farther. To Mars. Venus. Beyond. It was Earth, you see. People were fine when they could see Earth. When it was just beyond them. Like they could reach out and touch it. But when it was no more than a great, big, blue star . . . when it was gone, truly gone, irrevocably gone . . . then they would break. And it’s a dangerous thing, that. Nothing worse than a mad man when you are oh so very far from home.

I had woken David from his cryo-sleep. The message came through at 22:30 hours Earth-time. It sounded like words, but none I could understand. I traced the origin of the signal to a blank part of space a half day from our location. Just a dark and empty spot. Nothing there. Not at first.

“You’d better wake Captain Alexi.”

I’ve thought I was losing it before. On the interstellar flights. When it’s not just the Earth but the sun itself that dims into blackness and the void. Those flights only take a few weeks now, since they invented the FTL drives. I remember when I was a kid, they said that was impossible. That our physics wouldn’t allow it. So we found new physics to fit our dreams. So now we can do it all the time. Flip a switch, watch the Earth and Jupiter and Neptune disappear behind you. And then it’s just you. Just you and some points of light to keep you warm. But they give no warmth.

One story always stuck with me. One story I never forgot. They talk about it, whisper about it. Some say it was the Chronos, others the Excelsius or the Kobiyashi. I don’t guess it matters. But they all agree that the ship left Earth with a crew of three men, just like our ship. Two were in cryo-sleep. Just like our ship. But something went wrong. The one who stayed awake, somewhere he saw something. Something so terrible, so terrifying that he couldn’t go on. Some say he killed himself. Others just say he snapped. That he walked into the crew’s quarters, overrode the computer and went to sleep. And so the Chronos never reached its destination. Instead it sails on through the void. For hundreds of years it will continue, until the ship has gone so far that it leaves our very galaxy. Until even the Milky Way is just a pin-prick of light in the distance. But one day the crew of the Chronos will awake. Thousands of light years from home. Never to return. Lost in pure, unflinching darkness.

I tap the screen and bring up the computer’s cryo controls. I slide the image of a tab upward and click yes to confirm. Captain Alexi will be awake in thirty minutes. Which is plenty of time. The ship—the one that wasn’t there before, the one that seems to have appeared from nothing—won’t intersect with us for another few hours.

Ships disappear sometimes. Just vanish. They shouldn’t, of course. Not these days. Not with our technology. You should always be able to find something. A beacon. A signal. Debris. That’s what we like to tell ourselves. We like to say that if something happens, the rest of the world will know. We won’t just be lost. We won’t just disappear. Unknown but not forgotten, with families left behind that don’t know whether to hope or to cry.

And you see things. In the darkness. You look out into the void where there shouldn’t be anything. Nothing but emptiness. And you stare. You stare until the black hole seems to be a thing unto itself. Then you see it. In the corner of your eye, in the shadow beyond. A shimmer, a ripple. Where space seems to curve and turn.  Twisting and writhing. And you see it but you say you don’t. That it cannot be. But you saw it. You did. You know the truth. And that’s why some ships never come back.

Captain Alexi walks onto the bridge and pulls on his jacket. “What’s this about?”

He is stern but not angry. He’s scared and I see it but he is trying to hide it. He knows that we would never wake him unless something was wrong.

“Jake received this transmission three hours ago.” David flips a switch.

The sound starts to play from the speakers above us and we all look up as if looking up will help us hear it better. It crackles and scratches for a second. Then the static breaks and the sounds are no longer formless and without purpose. We all hear words. But we all tell ourselves that we don’t. I look at the other two and watch them. I see that flicker of understanding in their eyes, too.

I hear seven words. And so do they. Those words are followed by the sound of rending metal. Then, nothing.

“Can’t make it out,” Alexi says. “Pull up the ship’s course.”

I look up at David. His face is white but he just nods. I tap a couple commands on the computer and the course of the ship is displayed on the screen. It leads back to that empty bit of space. No farther.

“Pull up the rest.”

“That’s it, sir.”

He looks at me and I think he is angry. Another mask.

“What do you mean, that’s it?”

“When the message first came in,” I say, “I triangulated the signal. I got this quadrant of space. It’s empty. Blank. There’s nothing. Not a planet, not a moon, not a ship for three day’s journey. So I ran a diagnostic. But before it could finish I looked up and . . . well, there it was.”

“The ship?”

“The ship.”

Alexi leans over, spreading his arms wide across the console and staring hard at the image below, as if through concentration an answer will present itself. I watch a bead of sweat crawl down his cheek, and I know what he is thinking.

“What are our options, Mr. Sykes?”

David swallows hard and says, “Well, sir, under the laws of salvage she is ours if she’s derelict. But we aren’t required to act, of course. Only if there are lives in danger and we can assist without putting ourselves at risk. And there is no evidence that anyone is still on that ship.”

I watch Captain Alexi jerk his head up and look at David. He knows the truth as well as I do, and even if Alexi wants to believe the lie, he can’t do it with a good conscience. So instead he points to the screen and says, “Jake, are we close enough for a scan?”

“Yes, sir,” I say. “I ran one as soon as we were in range. The hull is intact. No signs of damage. But none of life, either.”

“Well, we know how accurate those scans can be.”

Not very, I think. But good enough for an excuse when one is needed. However, Alexi is determined.

“We will intercept her in four hours. Jake, Mr. Sykes and I will go aboard. You will stay on the ship and monitor our progress. I have a feeling we won’t find anything alive, and it will be a nice salvage award for us all.”

I look up at David and I see nothing but terror in his eyes.

* * *

The ship is still thirty minutes away when I can first make it out through the visual scanners. It’s a freighter, only slightly bigger than ours. Probably crewed by three men at the most. It could be carrying any manner of cargo. Just another ship. Nothing to make it any different from all the others that ply the void. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

The comm flashes and I tap a button. The screen changes to the airlock. Alexi and David are both in their flight suits.

“Bringing her in now, sir,” I say.

The computer does most of the work, lining us up perfectly so that the universal locks can align themselves. The ship shudders and I with it. We are connected. Alexi and David pull down their masks just in case there was a decompression that is not reading on the scan. As they do, the screens to my left and right flicker. One is now David’s view; the other, Alexi’s. I watch through their eyes as the airlock door spins and then opens. A mechanical arm retracts the door of the other ship and the two men step through the portal. I am alone. I pray they are as well.

Alexi’s voice cackles over the comm.

“Airlock intact. No sign it’s been used. Accessing the computer.” His hand moves up into the screen and I see him tap a few times on the panel. Nothing happens. “Power seems to be out. We got no lights in here other than our own. Computer isn’t working. If the doors won’t open, then this will be a short trip.”

He reaches in front of him and pulls the manual release on the main door. It slides clear in a rush and a crash. The boom echoes into the black maw that opens up before them. Then silence.

“Looks like the power to the doors still works. We are going in.”


shutterstock_181832207[Image via Wonder World Music.]

Alexi’s light pierces through the blackness and reveals nothing but a bulkhead beyond. David follows him. Very closely.

“We’ll head to the bridge. Should be able to find out what happened there.”

They turn down a main hallway. I watch as they walk past darkened corridors that run off in any direction, and I sense my eyes deceiving me as I see movement beyond, an illusion of what cannot be. Only the sound of the men’s breathing can be heard. That and the tinkling of footsteps, the sound of which I tell myself is only of two men, not more.

And then they came to the door to the bridge.

To that point, nothing had been wrong. Nothing was amiss. But the door. That door! They should have turned back then. I would have told them so, if I had the words to speak. But the only sound was of Captain Alexi unclasping his sidearm.

There was nothing extraordinary about the door itself. No, it looked exactly like the one that led to our bridge. But something had happened. I barely know how to describe it. It all seems so fantastic. But in the center were five lines. Five jagged lines, running parallel together like lightning bolts from right to left.

Alexi put his hand up to the door. He removed his glove and ran his fingers down those horrible indentations. And as he did my mind stretched for excuses. For something to explain those five lines dug into titanium. When I saw Alexi raise his weapon, nothing ever seemed so impotent a gesture. Then he pulled on a lever and the door slid to the side.

The lights of both men flooded the room beyond. And as they did my mind played a dozen tricks on me, and I saw things that would have sent me screaming into the night if I had been on that ship. But then the room cleared and there was nothing. Just some blank display screens and empty chairs. The two men moved inside. Captain Alexi walked to the computer and removed a portable power supply he had carried from the ship. He plugged into the console. The screen flickered once and died. Then it sprung back to life. The captain input an emergency code and the ship’s logs came up. No emergency life pods had been deployed. No damage was detected. Then the face of a woman met us—the ship’s captain.

There was nothing unusual. She was smiling. She explained the nature of the trip. They were transporting T-97 terraforming units. And that’s when I felt my blood run cold. I saw David and Alexi look at each other, and they knew the same thing I did. Alexi reached down and pushed a button. The date of the entry came up. Fifteen years. It had been made over fifteen years before. The T-97 had been obsolete for the better part of a decade.

I could hear Alexi’s breath like waves pounding against the rocks. He punched buttons on the computer ten times, past log after log until finally he reached the last one. Until finally he would have the answer. But there was nothing. Just another smiling face. Another peaceful day. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing strange.

“That can’t be,” he said, and I heard panic there. “There has to be something. There has to be an answer!”

There was a sound. Both men froze. I can’t describe it, and I doubt they could either. It was like a scratch, but not. Not smooth enough. No, it was like an echo of an echo. A yawning, stretching screech. But in truth, it didn’t matter what it sounded like. It was a sound, and that was enough.

“Oh God, what was that?” It was David, and he was scared.

“Shhh!” Alexi commanded.

My eyes went back and forth between the two screens while the two men looked around the room, trying to find the sound. Alexi stopped.

“Wait. What . . .” he began, but his words failed him. I stared at what he stared at. I stared but I did not see. “What. . .” he tried again. Then, in the corner of his eye, in the corner of mine, I saw movement. I saw the shimmer. He turned to look at it, and both screens went black.

I sat there, staring at nothing but white snow. I clicked the comm button. I called, I begged, I pleaded. “Come back!” I screamed. “Captain! David! Anybody!”

And then I wished that they hadn’t heard.

One television came on, Captain Alexi’s, though I couldn’t tell what was going on. It was like the camera was swinging back and forth. I felt the urge to vomit, and it took all I had to contain it. And then I realized what I was seeing. Captain Alexi was running. Down the main corridor, closer and closer to the airlock. Closer and closer to escape.

“Captain! Captain, what’s going on!”

He didn’t really answer me, and I realized only then that he had been talking the whole time. Talking, screaming, gibbering. Talking to no one. Talking to everyone. In words I couldn’t understand.  I heard him mention God. I heard him ask for forgiveness. I heard him mention my name. And then he stumbled and the screen went blank again.

“Captain!” I cried. And then I heard. I heard and I didn’t hesitate before I turned to the computer and disconnected the airlock. Before I swung the vessel around and engaged the engines. Did it surprise me that there was no longer a ship on my screen? That the computer registered nothing but blackness and void? No, no it didn’t surprise me. And I have never regretted what I did that day.

Because, oh yes, I heard.

The captain’s screen went dead. It did. But his comm didn’t. No, his comm played on. It wasn’t the sound that made me act. Not the sound that Captain Alexi had heard on the bridge, nor the one that followed, the one that rent through the air like wrenched metal. It was no mere sound that terrified me, that broke my mind in half. No, it was seven words. The same seven words that I had heard hours before, the ones that had led us to that accursed place. The same seven words that will go with me to my grave.

“God help us all . . . They are coming!”


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