A Light in the Dark

The Outward Path (Short Story – 5000 Words)

Now available in all ebook formats, free of charge. Download here from Smashwords or purchase from Amazon (I’m still waiting on Amazon to discover that it’s free on Smashwords, so for the moment, it’s only free on Smashwords. I’ll update this when it’s changed).

Captain Sanesh lowered his head, clasped his hands together, and tried to remember the last time he’d seen any captain sit, cross-legged, on the cold, metal floor. His knees were a respectful distance from the bodybag. Martin had placed strips of fabric around the room, and each was painted with symbols that Sanesh had seen tattooed on Martin’s skin, and printed in Martin’s books. Tall, black sticks ringed the bodybag, like miniature obelisks, exhaling smoke toward the ceiling. A tingling sensation played under his skin.

On the other side of the bodybag, Martin sat cross-legged with his robes spread across his lap. Arms outstretched, hands held over two of the black, smoking sticks, Martin nodded as if he was paying careful attention to someone only he could hear. A fist-sized stone, dented and round, rested in the gap between his legs.

Martin bowed his head to the bodybag, “Your thoughts become our beliefs. Your dreams become our passions. Your gifts are our gifts. May you forever light the Path.”

I wonder, Sanesh thought, how many more times he’s going to do that.

Sanesh squeezed his fingers and shifted his weight, but the tingling sensation wouldn’t go away. He was beginning to suspect that it wasn’t from a lack of circulation. He eyed the smoking sticks.

I shouldn’t have let him do this. His legs were cramping, and he heard a buzzing sound. He wasn’t sure where it was coming from.

“As you sleep, so we awaken. Bill, you have changed us. May you forever light the Path.”

Maybe Aless is right. Maybe Martin is unstable. He looked over to Martin, whose eyes were rolled up into his eyelids.

Clack. Martin’s chanting stopped. Vents whirred into motion, sucking the smoke out of the room. Every breath of filtered air seemed to diminish the buzzing in Sanesh’s head.

A feminine voice crackled through the room’s speakers, “Captain Sanesh, you are needed on the bridge. Captain Sanesh.”

“What happened?” Martin sucked on something behind his teeth, “Captain? I thought we turned the EC off.”

Sanesh shook his head, less as an answer, and more to clear his mind.

The speakers fizzed and popped, “Captain. Damn it, Sanesh, get up here.”

Sanesh coughed to clear his lungs before speaking, “What is it, Aless?”

“We’re within visual range of the planet. It’s not right, I don’t see any atmosphere.”

Sanesh tilted his head to the ceiling, “Any sign of the satellite?”

“No contact.”

“I’m coming up.”

Martin put a shaky hand on the floor, and struggled to untangle his legs from his robes. Sanesh stuck out a thick, brown arm and helped him up. They stood, side-by-side, staring down at the bodybag.

“Goodbye, Bill.”

“Bill,” Martin bowed his head, and held his hands over the insulated bodybag, “May your life ever echo, may your deeds ever shine, and may we meet again at the end of the Path.”

“Well said.” Sanesh added, and he meant it. Martin means well. It was an accident, nothing more.

Martin smiled, “Those were the last words of the First Seer. You know of the First Seer, don’t you? He was a great man, Captain, I could tell you so much about him.”

The speakers prickled and Aless’s voice called again, “Sanesh. Now.”

Sanesh had to hide his relief. Martin shrugged.

Sanesh put a hand on Martin’s shoulder, and spoke in a low voice, “Remember what we said. Try not to talk about the accident. And don’t tell her that I let you keep using the wax. I told her I made you stop.”

Martin bowed his head gracefully, “Yes, sir. Won’t say a word, Captain.”

They turned off the lights, dropped the temperature, and the two walked out of Bill’s room for the last time.

#Dr. Aless Inge, planetary geologist, was glued to the viewport, forgoing the detailed sensor readouts to watch the approach of the planet with her own eyes: a vast, orange disc, swirled with grey, cut in half by the black terminator of night. Smooth craters and mountain ranges and seas of cooled lava spattered the planet like brush strokes. There were a hundred million planets just like it, but Dr. Inge knew this one was special.

“Look, the mountains, the craters, everything’s been weathered, probably recently. But I don’t see an atmosphere.”

Sanesh stood next to her, his shoulder pressing against hers. The bridge was the largest room on the ship, complete with four secure chairs, each coupled with command consoles bolted to the floor, and a long, forward-facing viewport. Martin had declined to join them.

“Why weren’t you at the funeral, Aless?”

Aless clenched her jaw, before continuing as though she had not heard the question, “If you look on the screen there, you can see patterns in the flat areas, like debris was dragged across the surface. It all points the same way, too. Command needs to send more satellites here, I don’t care how ghosted this sector is. One satellite can’t possibly give us enough coverage. Even if the observation net was working, it wouldn’t be enough. Look, do you see an atmosphere?”

Sanesh squinted. He planted his hands on the long, metal table in front of the viewport, careful not to touch any of the screens or other equipment, and looked at the edge of the planet for a sheen that might indicate an atmosphere.

“No, I don’t.”

“Good,” she smiled.

He leaned with his back to the viewport, watching her face, but she was as unreadable as ever. As beautiful as ever, too, he thought.

“OK. Do you see the rings around the equator?” She pointed to the segmented bands of loose rocks and ice orbiting the planet. The inner bands sparkled like silver, the outer bands were the color of rust.

Sanesh turned around and squinted, “They look sort of bent.”

“They’re thin, yes, but you can tell by their size that this planet has enough mass for an atmosphere. I checked, there are plenty of volatiles in this system, water vapor, hydrocarbons, but no atmosphere.”

“Any theories?”

In management training, they had taught Sanesh how to phrase questions to sound like you were in control.

“Something might have siphoned it off. It might have evaporated, but I can’t see how, there are no sources of heat close enough. Initial readings indicated this planet was First Gen, but I’m not seeing any moons. I need to get a drone down there for samples.”

“What happened to the satellite’s drone?”

Aless shrugged, “If the satellite isn’t responding, I assume the drone won’t either. We’d need to re-establish a connection with the satellite to find out for sure.”

“Let’s hope it’s as easy to repair as the other ones.”

Her finger thunked against the glass as she pointed at the planet, “This has to be a find. A real find, Sanesh. Please, you have to ask Command for more satellites.”

Sanesh stroked his chin, pretending to contemplate his options, something else he’d picked up in training, “I’ll try. But we need to give them something, first.”

“Give them what? The satellite is unreliable, our data suggest it was unreliable before it even entered orbit. All we have is our observation.”

She gave him that look, that urgent, pleading look which sent a sensation right through his insides.

“Did Martin say we could salvage any of the data?”

The look evaporated. Aless turned back to the viewport and crossed her arms.

Oh, I get it, he thought.

“Aless, how long has it been since you’ve talked to him?”

She tilted her head away until her hair fell over her face.

“Priya, why didn’t you go to Bill’s funeral?

A dusting of small, solid particles showered against the viewport, and dissipated. Aless’s eyes brimmed with tears. In the months he had known her, he had only seen her like this when she told him about her parents. Sanesh wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer.

“I couldn’t go see him. Bill- he seemed like someone else, the past few weeks.”

“He was happy.”

“He was addicted.”

“Do you blame Martin for that?”

She clenched her fists, and for a moment Sanesh thought she might bang on the viewport, “Of course I blame Martin. Why did you let him bring that stuff on the ship? Why did you even sign him on?” Aless swallowed hard, shaking her head ‘no’, “I hate him. I hate all of them. They’re everywhere and none of them know how wrong they are. He’s just as deluded as the rest of them.”

Though Sanesh would never tell her, he felt much safer with Martin on board. Martin was great at his work, despite what had happened to Bill.

Poor Bill, Sanesh thought, Even though it was his fault.

I feel so guilty, Sanesh,” she slid her arms under his, and squeezed her face to his chest, “Bill and I…”

“I know. I remember. He demanded that I sign you on, you know.”

She looked up at him, and he bent down to kiss her.

“I just wish there was something I could have done.”

“Priya, there was nothing to be done. It was an accident, nobody could have foreseen this.”

He hated lying to her, But, sometimes, he thought, the truth won’t help anyone. They stood in silence, enjoying each other’s warmth.

“I’m writing a message to Bill’s sister, to tell her about … about what happened.”

“That’s good, Aless. That is important.”

“I’m having trouble with it. I can’t explain to her how it happened.”

Blood rushed to his cheeks and his mind rushed to come up with something, “Give her the truth. The atmosphere was sucked out, and Martin said Bill was unconscious within a minute. He didn’t feel a thing. Aless, I need to ask you something.”

Sanesh didn’t pause long enough for her to question his explanation. She cocked an eyebrow, but did not interrupt him.

“I told Command we’d already fixed this satellite, and we were beginning return prep.”

Aless pulled away from him, eyed him darkly, “You told Command we’d already finished the mission.” It wasn’t a question. “What if we can’t fix the satellite?”

“We fixed the other nineteen, didn’t we?”

She surprised him by snorting.

“Sanesh, this is your first mission as captain. These lies are going to cause trouble one day. But,” She ran a finger over the fabric on his chest, “I think ambition suits you.”

Another shiver shook his insides. How does she do that?

“OK, go. Get ready, I’ll be here when you’re ready to get on the repair craft.”

“Thank you. I promise I’ll help you with the letter when I get back. And I’ll take recordings while I’m out there.”

They broke apart, but Aless clasped his arm before he could walk off the bridge.

“Are you sure you’re safe to fly?”

Smugness pulled at the edges of his smiles, “They didn’t make me Captain for nothing, Priya. I’ll be in and out before you notice.”

#There is truth in everything. There is truth in every place. You must explore yourself as you explore the universe. You must find your Path.

Martin smiled every time he thought about that first meeting with Seer Ashton. Ashton had pulled Martin off the streets and did more good for him in one day than Martin’s parents had done in a lifetime. It was a shame when Ashton was arrested, and on so many different charges, but Ashton said it was important for all Pathfinders to find their own way. A star lights it’s own fire.

Martin pulled his shirt sleeves over his tattoos: symbols and other images that reminded him of his noble purpose. He toweled his hair off once more, and tucked his folded robes back into their spot. From the desk in his cramped quarters, he drew out a thermos-like cylinder and twisted it open with a click. A breath of vapor escaped the thermos. Dipping his fingers in, he pinched out a dollop of a shiny, black substance. He opened his mouth, and dropped the dollop between the bottom row of his teeth and his tongue. Warmth, and an almost spicy sensation spread out from his tongue to his cheeks, until he had to blink away the tingling.

Martin laid on his bed, feeling the substance solidify until it was more waxy than wet. Rolling the Seer’s Stone in his hands, feeling every mark, every ridge, he ran both of his thumbs through a gouge that scarred one side.

The First Seer, Ashton had told him, The First Seer dreamed of hope, Martin. He believed more than anyone before that there is a Path for each of us. Ashton had shown Martin the stone orb, a replica of the First Seer’s relic, and let him feel the weight, Before he began teach, the First Seer was stricken with dreams, terrifying and wonderful. This stone is what he saw, and when everything else was devoid of meaning, this is what saved him. This, Martin, is our symbol of hope.

An alarm roused Martin from his meditations. There was work to be done, a dozen systems needed to be tested before Sanesh took the repair craft out. And he still hadn’t debugged it from the last run.

Poor Bill, Martin thought, I warned him not to run the script in a debris field.

With the Seer’s Stone still in his hands, Martin pressed the bare soles of his feet onto the floor, took a deep breath, and padded out of his quarters. The hallway curved steadily upwards in a way that used to make his calves burn, back when they first began the mission.

Tiny viewports were cut at even intervals on either side of the hallway. Mostly, Martin could only see the outside of the ship, spinning, or the stars, also spinning, but he caught a glimpse of the planet in one of the viewports, and for a moment he had a feeling which he couldn’t explain without using the word ‘strange’. He rubbed his thumbs over the gouge that ran down one side of the stone.

Maybe I took too much wax, he thought, trying to shrug off the feeling before he got to the bridge. The door to the bridge opened and his stomach dropped. Dr. Aless Inge was sitting at one of the computers.

“Doctor.” Martin said, as casually as he could, hiding the waxy lump under under his tongue. Martin slid into one of the chairs, tilted the seat up until he could rest his hands on the console in front of him, and laid the Seer’s Stone carefully in his lap.

The majority of the planet was too far to the left to see, but the planet’s sparse ring system drifted lazily in the center of the viewport.

“What’s wrong with the rings?” Martin asked, “They look bent.”

“Martin, I’m trying to concentrate. Sanesh is taking the repair craft out.” She was using her ‘diplomatic’ voice again, the one that let him know she still hated him. He made a conscious effort to not let her emotions bother him, just as Seer Ashton had taught.

“It’s a good thing the repair craft’s electronics are insulated, I guess. Or else everything in there would’ve frozen.”

She didn’t say anything, and he wasn’t sure if she was ignoring him, or just didn’t want to talk about the accident.

Fine by me. He turned his thoughts back to maintenance.

Immediately after Bill’s accident, Martin and Captain Sanesh had fully serviced the repair craft, twice, and they had come to the same conclusion: Bill had left the script on in a debris-heavy environment, causing the auto-pilot to overtake the environmental controls. The temperature in the repair craft fell rapidly, and Bill froze to death. Captain Sanesh and Martin agreed that the accident had been caused by the pilot’s disregard for regulation, and that’s as much as Command, or anyone else, would know. Now, Martin’s only job was to make sure the repair craft was ready to fly. Within minutes, he had all systems running at satisfactory capacities. Within an hour he had the engines calibrated to the mission’s probable maneuvers, and he even brought the precision point ten percent above regulation requirements.

He stood up, stretched his limbs, rolled his neck, and sat cross-legged on the floor, careful to choose a spot out of Dr. Inge’s sight. He slid the wax around with his tongue, pressing it into the roof of his mouth. Eyes closed, Martin whispered his favorite mantra.

“I am a traveler, I seek the Path.

The more I seek, the closer I am.”

After several repetitions, Martin was aware that he was being watched. Dr. Inge had turned sideways in her chair, and there was a look on her face that he had never seen before.

“What? Am I too loud?”

Her eyebrows creased inward, “Did you say the equipment in the repair craft would have frozen?”

“Mm-hm.” He tried to keep his mouth shut while the wax was still on his tongue.

“What do you mean everything would have frozen?”

Martin almost swallowed when he slid the wax back behind his teeth.

“The cold, Doctor. It would have frozen the electronics, but the repair craft is made with extreme temperatures in mind.”

There was a moment of silence.

“What happened to Bill, Martin?”

She was facing him full on now, her shoulders tall, and Martin had to stop himself from calling her ‘Ma’am’. He took a deep breath, trying to fight the urge to shake off the tingling sensation. I should really stop using so much wax.

“Uhm, well. He was, uhm, the EC wasn’t working- well, it stopped working, and eventually it went so cold that he froze.”

The color drained from her face, and her lips went tight, “I thought the atmosphere was sucked out.”

Martin scoffed, “Absurd. Why would I give him a script that would depressurize the cab-. . . ”

Martin put a hand to his mouth. Oh, no.

Nostrils flaring, Aless stood up and walked over to his chair. Deep lines formed on her brow and around her lips. With one hand on the back of his chair, she leaned in so close he could smell her; old sweat under the sharpness of clean deodorant.

She spoke through clamped teeth, “What. Did. You. Do.”

Martin winced away from her and let out a stream of words, “Bill wanted an autopilot script, so I gave him one. I told him not to mess with the priorities and I told him not to use it too close to the satellite in the debris field, but he didn’t listen.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know! Well, I kinda do, but-”

“What. Happened.”

“Something took over the ship’s priorities. He must not have been watching, and the temperature kept going down, until it was too late.”

“Something?”

“Look, Dr. Inge, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have given him the script, but he kept asking-”

Dr. Inge collapsed in the chair next to Martin, pinching the top of her nose with her fingers. Her hands were shaking.

Another shower of dust and some larger particles rained against the viewport as the rings grew larger. There was no sign of the satellite. Martin suspected it was on the other side of the planet right now, which meant something had altered it’s trajectory.

“Just tell me one thing.” She was sitting up again, “Was he using your wax?”

Martin swallowed, and he felt the wax in his mouth travel down his throat, almost closing off his esophagus. He tried to gag it up, but it was down too far. Shit, he thought, I’m going to feel this in a few minutes.

He thumped a fist on his chest, trying to get rid of the choking sensation, and nodded his response, “I think he was.”

Dr. Inge shook her head back and forth like she was tasting something bitter, but couldn’t spit it out. He stood up, padded over to her chair, and almost put a hand on her shoulder.

“Doctor. It was an accident.”

Her hair swirled as she turned her head, and her eyes narrowed, “No.”

No? The word didn’t make sense. It surprised him. What does she mean ‘no’? It was an accident. What is she thinking?

A swishing sound distracted both of them, and Sanesh walked onto the bridge in his pilot suit, with a helmet tucked under his arm.

“Good to see you two are talking again. I’m going to climb into the repair craft, wish me luck.” He grinned, rounding out his shoulders and flexing his fingers, “Something must have collided, because I noticed quite a lot of dust out there. So Martin, I’m going to need you on alert. And Aless, if you wouldn’t mind helping me get into the repair craft.”

Dr. Inge followed Sanesh off the bridge, and Martin breathed a sigh of relief. He had to sit down, everything was spinning. There were noises in his head. Beautiful noises. Voices calling his name. He closed his eyes, and saw the light winding through darkness, brighter than ever.

#“Aless, please. We don’t have time for this.”

It was like he was sleeping, and she wanted to slap him until he would open his eyes. She wanted to shout.

“He’s been lying to us this whole time.”

“Priya, please,” Sanesh was half inside the airlock, trying to pull away from her. They were minutes away from optimal approach, and Sanesh clearly wasn’t in the mood to wait, “I’ll explain when I get back, but you have to trust me. It was an accident. Martin knows what he’s doing.”

Aless took a breath, and let go of his sleeve. She knew he was probably right, but she wasn’t ready to let go of the feeling that something was wrong.

“What if he tries something?”

Sanesh grinned, “I’m sure you can take care of him. He’s scrawny.”

The airlock’s aperture squealed as it closed, and the door sealed shut with a rubber kiss. She made it back to the bridge just in time to see the small, one-man repair craft jetting away toward the planet’s rings. Martin was back in one of the command chairs, eyes squeezed shut, whispering his prayers to whatever prophet he worshiped. She noticed he was curled over, with something in his lap. Aless took the chair on the other side of the bridge, but made sure to angle herself so she could still look up and see him.

The screen turned on as her weight sank into the low chair, and she connected to the repair craft’s cockpit. From her screen, she could see Sanesh flipping through the controls, running through his in-flight checks.

“Well done, Martin.” Sanesh’s voice crackled through the bridge’s speakers, “Everything’s in order.”

Martin nodded and let out a strained ‘mm-hm’. Tendons pressed out of his neck. Aless had to keep herself from grinding her teeth, and she told herself Breathe, focus on your breath. Don’t let him bother you. Thin veils of dust swept over the viewport, and half of the view was taken up by the orange planet, rotating slowly beneath them. Loose streams of rocks and dust gathered in a line below them, like a highway curving beyond the edge of the planet.

Sanesh spoke, “Still no visual on the satellite. Any idea how soon I will see it?”

“It should be on the other side of the planet, so fifteen? Twenty minutes?”

“Understood.”

Aless watched as his eyes darted around the cockpit, checking one instrument, then another.

Sanesh made a face, “Hey, Aless, this thing with the rings- is this normal?”

She pressed a key and her screen switched to the repair craft’s forward view. That was when she understood what they meant by ‘bent rings.’ The rocks, ice, and other particles should have remained in a band, in a tight orbit around the planet, but the bands were curving too tightly, and she couldn’t imagine how they weren’t being pulled to the surface.

“That is not normal.”

She was about to say something else, when a loud clang interrupted her. It rang through the speakers, and an alarm started beeping.

“Sanesh, what was that?”

For a moment there was no response, and Aless switched her screen back to the cockpit. Sanesh was buckling himself in and rubbing the top of his head. He reached forward, shut off the alarm, and said, “Rogue debris. Nothing serious, I just didn’t see it coming. Martin, I need you to rescan, see if there’s any other misaligned debris.”

Aless looked up from her screen, and she felt a jolt in her stomach. Martin’s chair was empty. She almost leapt up before she saw the Pathfinder standing in front of the viewport. Idiot, she thought.

“Martin, get back to your station,” Aless demanded.

There was a rattling sound from Sanesh’s stream as more dust and pebbles pelting the repair craft.

“What is he doing?” Sanesh’s asked. Sanesh was focused on his flying, and his knuckles were white from squeezing the repair craft’s controls.

Martin held a circular stone in both hands, held it up to the viewport so that it knocked against the glass. A gouge deformed one face of the stone. His mouth was hanging open, and he swayed back until it looked like he might fall over.

In a hushed voice, Martin uttered, “It’s a planet.”

The shower from the speakers grew louder, and Aless could barely hear Sanesh over the noise.

“Martin! Get back to your station!”

“The stone- It’s a planet. It’s the planet.”

“— can’t find — where the dust —” Sanesh said, but the crackling showers rose in pitch until she couldn’t hear a word he was saying. His image was still clear on her screen, and she could see the sweat beading on his forehead as he shouted commands that nobody could hear.

Martin had his nose pressed to the viewport, like he was trying to soak in the planet with every surface of his body. Below, a huge mountain range crested into view, arching from the north pole, down to where they could not see it anymore. The stone slipped out of his hands and rolled across the floor. It came to a rest under Aless’s chair, with the gouge facing up.

“-too much- can’t-” Sanesh’s voice broke over the crackling.

A screech pierced the speakers. Sanesh’s video went dark.

“Sanesh?” Aless tapped on her screen. Her breath was gone. Like all the air had been sucked out of her.

No.

“Sanesh? Can you hear me? Sanesh, answer.”

No.

“Sanesh, answer. Please? Please, Sanesh. Captain? Answer me right now, damn it.” She could feel her heart pulsing in her neck.

Martin laughed, hands against the glass.

Aless gripped her screen with both hands, shouting, while Martin watched the planet reveal itself. Somewhere on the ship, an emergency signal blared: the connection with the repair craft had been severed. Through blurred vision, Aless saw unthinkable data from the ship’s sensors, gravitational readings that could not have been possible. Then, the sensors blinked out. She looked up, and saw the rings.

Emotion squeezed her throat from the inside-out. This isn’t possible. None of this is possible.

The rings curved inward, avenues of rocks and dust and ice, pouring down to the planet’s surface in a thin stream of super-heated matter.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” His voice was even, peaceful. Satisfied. “Look, Aless. Look, and know. The Path goes before us. We have found the Path.”

No.

Like a huge beast in a black sea turning onto it’s back, the planet spun, revealing another mountain range running parallel to the first. Together the ranges looked like the edges of a vast, open wound. Inside the wound, instead of a deep valley, there was a gouge, dozens of kilometers wide, and stretching south as far as she could see.

White streaks of cloud clawed out from the barren surface of the planet, over the mountain ranges, and pooled before slipping into the gouge. The fragments from the rings fell in a fiery stream, some fragments slipping into the gouge, others smacking and tearing away sides of the mountain range. As their ship arced over the edge of the mountains, the gouge seemed to grow deeper, and blacker, until she could not perceive it’s depth.

Something pulled her up, out of her chair. It was easy, walking to the stone on the ground. It made sense to pick it up. Everything fell into place.

Martin is wrong. He has always been wrong.

With the stone in both hands, she advanced on Martin. She could barely see the back of his head through her tears.

They are all wrong. There is no Path.

Before the Seer’s Stone cracked the back of his skull, Martin looked into void that went through the planet, and in the void, swirling and sparkling like sunlight scattered through shattered ice, a field of stars.

End.This full-length short story is something I’ve been working on for a while now, and even though I don’t expect most of my readers to invest the time to read the entire post, I needed to post it here anyway. For those of you who read it all, thank you.

This story was a process of many drafts and mountains of help from my readers and my supervisor. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I’m pretty proud of how far this story has come.

As always, criticism or other comments are encouraged. Ask me anything about the process, and I’m sure I’ll have tons to tell you. Don’t forget to like and follow the blog.

Image courtesy of John ‘K’ via Flickr Creative Commons

7 thoughts on “The Outward Path (Short Story – 5000 Words)

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