The derelict revolves in space on its long axis, catching points of light like the blade of a sword. Intermittently it faces you with the thinner plane of its side and seems to disappear, then reannounces itself, showing the flat width of its hull. All of this glacially slow, apparent only upon hours of watching.
Which you do. Through the front viewport of your bridge which magnifies the far-off speck of a ship into plain visibility: a private yacht, well-built, on the older side but in excellent condition.
“Still nothing, Captain,” Comms reports from his station to your right, breaking the silence that’s settled over the crew. “No response to our hails, no SOS, no nothing. If anybody’s there,” he says, shifting in his seat, “they’re being very quiet.”
“And still nothing else nearby?” you ask Navigation.
It’s a classic pirate gambit, you know: to lay quiet in wait just beyond sensor range until the charitable or the greedy approach the unresponsive ship. Then, when the quarry shows its ass, surprise the heedless crew and take the ship. And you don’t want to be that quarry; don’t want to show your ass.
“No, ma’am, Cap,” Nav responds. “There’s gonna be a few waves of rough weather between here and the station in a week or so, but we’re still the only ones out here on this route. Aside from, well—” she stops, gestures at the viewport. “The obvious.”
The ship’s steady dis- and re-appearance lends it an insubstantial quality. In your mind, it takes on a ghostly shimmer: now gone, now there, now gone.
“We’re wasting time,” Comms says. “If somebody was watching the salvage, watching us, they could wait just as long as we can. Right?”
Keeping your eyes straight ahead, you use your peripheral vision to take stock of the crew. Comms, ahead and to your right in the co-pilot seat, his arms crossed over his narrow chest. The pilot to his left, his heavy shoulders slouched low in his seat. Behind them, Navigation, with her elbow propped on her station, her mouth pressed to her elevated knuckles.
When you were assembling the crew, the most qualified navigator you met seemed leery of working for a woman, then outright balked at working for one who was sleeping with her mechanical engineer. You hired Nav instead, a local to the station whose family had already moved on to the colonies. She’s young and green, but good.
Behind you, Mechanical—Meg—leans back, alert, against the bulkhead next to the door, as she always does. You can’t see her; you don’t need to.
Beyond the limits of your vision, there might be someone watching you. There might be no one. “No, give ‘em a chance to get antsy and give themselves away,” you say. “Let’s wait.”
You have the time: the last trip along this route was notably smooth. Supplies unloaded to the colonists, payment acquired, without a hitch. You’re headed back to the station a full two days earlier than you’d planned. You know this puts the crew in a position to get another payout sooner than later. But if the derelict is as abandoned as it appears, in as good condition as it seems, the salvage will be better than any routine payout. Enough to afford a few weeks of easy rest and a decent supply of food and coffee. For you and Meg, and for your crew. So you give the order to wait.
At the end of the day you send them to bed, leaving Comms alone to keep watch. Nav and the pilot peel off to their respective bunks. Meg leaves hers empty, the bedclothes as undisturbed as they were at the beginning of the route, to join you in your quarters.
It’s a tight square room, made tighter still by the two of you squeezing into the space allotted for one. Meg doesn’t like to sleep in the dark; she once whispered to you that on a ship, the darkness of a bedroom went soft at the edges, spilling out, and became indistinguishable from the black nothing outside. So you keep the orange runner along the ceiling lit, keeping the light and the heat in the room with the two of you, keeping the cold outside, casting the skin of your hands and forearms in a bronze glow, Meg’s eyes glinting amber.
Meg sheds her jumpsuit and shudders a little. “If we salvage it, can we invest some of the payout in a better heat generator?” The skin of her arms stipples with cold.
“Of course,” you say, sliding into the bunk. Though you’re taller and broader-shouldered, you contract in bed: facing the wall, curled into a tight ball, your knees pulled up to your chest. Meg presses in behind, her wiry arms around you, her deft little hands clasping your knees.
“I’m sorry it’s always so cold in here,” you say. “It’ll be better for us soon.”
Like that, you sleep, keeping the warmth in.
The pilot relieves Comms at the top of the next day. “Still nothing,” Comms slurs, “not a damn thing.” His sharp elbows stab the air in front of him as he massages his eyes. Slinking past you, he mutters something about payouts and losing time. You ignore him. You know he needs sleep to keep his head clean just like anyone. When you sell the derelict, he can sleep for a month. You and Meg can, too.
You wrap your hands around a cup of thin, brittle coffee. “Alright, everybody,” you say, “settle in.” Mild heat leaks into your palms and the stale air at your throat.
With your ship stationary, the pilot has little to do. Nav, too, keeps half an eye on her sensors and marks the time with periodic announcements that no other ships are within range. That you are sharing space with the derelict and nothing else.
Your eyes rest on the blade of the ship in the viewport. Always that steady rotation, the glint as it catches light, the vacancy as it disappears into invisibility along its thin flank. Always that spin, and the nagging awareness that zooming in on its image makes you vulnerable, clueless to what’s around it. Around you.
The crew restless, performing patience. Meg cracking her knuckles behind you, Nav flipping through screens on her display. The cold settling on the bridge. That’s how the day passes. And the next one.
Meg and Comms are loaded up in their EVAs. From the cam mounted in an upper corner of the airlock, you watch them wait. The two suits are indistinguishable from one another aside from Meg’s tool pack, perched on her back. Smaller cams peek over their shoulders, feeding into your display. Comms gives Meg a thumbs-up, and you imagine you’re seeing the gesture through her eyes.
Beyond your display: the viewport and the steadily approaching image of the derelict. Still spinning, silent, returning no hails. Nav coughs into her elbow, punctuating the quiet.
When you’re in range, the pilot changes course to match its speed and rotation, closing space at a perpendicular. At this distance it seems to float in stillness before you as the stars careen beyond. Their arcing streaks of light, now above, now below, cocoon the two ships in cold slow brightness.
A final hail goes again unresponded. The pilot reports the derelict’s defenses are down, so he’s able to remotely access its mainframe. He can access the airlock and the shields, but wouldn’t be able to pilot it from here. Neither the ship nor anyone on it has any interest in keeping you out. Or protecting itself. A clang and lurch as it accepts your airlock connection.
“Alright, you two, proceed and report,” you say, affecting something like nonchalance. “And y’know, be careful.”
Meg hmms an affirmative. You watch from above as she and Comms vacate the airlock, trudging forward in their clumsy EVAs, leaving the grey floor empty behind them.
Their shoulder cams reveal no crew to meet them at the interior airlock. No signs of struggle or distress beyond; the loading dock, running the length of the ship’s lower deck, is quiet. As they investigate further, the derelict reveals itself to be something like you expected: a luxury yacht, big enough for a family. Engines fast enough to blow your hair back, but built for comfort and flashiness. None of the defenses of a military craft, none of the bulky storage units of a light freighter like yours.
The pilot, still plugged into the ship’s mainframe, confirms that the engines are live, comms responsive, life support strong. Still, you maintain that Meg and Comms should stay in their EVAs for now as you track their progress on your screen.
They proceed up a deck and into the bridge at the tip of the sword. Its plush seats show mild indentations, having seen some use, but everything is in good order. Displays ticking away.
Further back down the blade of the ship is a dining chamber, appointed with deep, luxurious banquettes and richly lacquered tables. Well-stocked with meal provisions. A coffee maker with a dark brown stain at the bottom of the glass.
“Someone’s definitely been here, Cap,” Meg reports, her voice fizzling over the mic. “But they’re not here now.”
They continue into a narrow hallway until it opens before them into a cavernous cathedral of empty space. The hull seems to disappear above them, revealing a vast, flat viewport and the vista of stars that appear to orbit them in their rotation. Set deep into the floor below are plush round couches, recessed like tide pools.
“An observation deck,” Meg says. The kind of waste of space reserved for luxury vehicles like this, or that you imagine the very wealthy might have in their apartments at the crest of the station.
It’s a dizzying effect, following the perspective of Meg’s shoulder cam as it peers back up at you, your freighter at a clumsy perpendicular to the yacht’s graceful length. Then, as you turn your gaze from the display and up to the exterior of the derelict laid plain before you, you see their white figures below and imagine them craning their necks through the viewport above them.
But seeing the interior of the ship through the degraded image of your screen, the word derelict seems less apt: someone has loved this ship, cared for it, taken pride in its sleek excesses. You imagine them lounging in the sunken couches, looking up at all the nothing above them. You try out other words for it: the yacht. Sword. Ghost ship.
Beyond the observatory, they encounter a series of sleeping quarters. All well-maintained, all empty. From Meg’s cam, you see Comms turn toward her. Toward you. “Looks like everything’s in pretty perfect condition,” he says.
Meg shrugs, the gesture muffled by her oversized suit. “Guess I didn’t need to lug my tool kit,” she says. Comms chuckles.
At the far aft of the ship, they enter a cylindrical chamber with four doors, each leading through a sealed port to a respective lifeboat. All of which, the pilot confirms, are accounted for and in working order.
Meg peers through the glass into one of the lifeboats. “They’re pretty small for a vessel this size,” she mutters. “Only enough room for maybe two passengers each.”
Comms turns his helmet toward her. “So?”
“Well, there’s easily space for six or eight aboard the ship proper,” she says. You know her unspoken thought: that a family abandoning ship would be separated, forced apart first by panic, fear—and then by miles of soundless, heatless space.
“There’s nobody on board but the lifeboats are all here,” Comms muses. “So where is everybody?”
Meg hesitates, shakes her head.
“Okay guys,” you say. “Come on home.”
“Good news,” Comms announces from his terminal back aboard your ship, “the station just responded!” The rest of the crew light up at his words. “Great news,” he amends, reading. “They don’t have any records of the ship, nobody at the station or the colony has anything registered with that make or serial number. It’s free and clear.”
Everybody turns their faces towards you, expectant. They’re thrilled at the prospect, hungry for a cut of the payout—but waiting for confirmation from you.
As if she can feel the tickle behind your ears, Meg says, “Then what is it doing out here?” She locks eyes with you. “It’s not brand new but it’s in such great condition. It belonged to somebody. It’s there for a reason, yeah?”
She’s right. You know she’s right. You scan the rest of the crew, their hungry faces. It’s also just too damn good to pass up.
You clap your hands together. “Let’s take her in, kids,” you say, and the crew erupt in a moment of celebration.
“Comms,” you continue, “you saw the bridge. Think you can pilot it?”
He takes in a deep breath and hesitates with his head kicked back. “Um, maybe?” he hedges. “But I know I can fly the freighter.”
“Okay,” you say. “Tomorrow, the pilot and Nav will board, and you’ll fly parallel with us back to the station. Let’s all make some money.” You give Comms a pointed smile. “Worth the extra wait?” you ask.
Sitting at the edge of your bed, Meg looks up at you. “It just doesn’t track,” she says, picking at a thumbnail. “We’re gonna drag it back to the station and get arrested for trying to hock stolen goods. Not to mention being on the hook for the fuel we’ll kill in the trip.”
“We did our due diligence,” you respond. Standing between her knees you take her face in your hands. “Nobody has a better claim to it than us,” you say, and kiss her.
Pulling away, you have a moment of something like deja vu, a memory overlaid on the present: there she is again, looking up at you from the ghost ship. Here between your hands but also very far away.
You undress and lay down, curling around behind her. “Come to bed.”
“I should be the one to go instead,” she murmurs, still facing the door. “Nav can do her job just as well from here as long as we’re in com range. But if something goes wrong, I can’t do anything to help keep it alive unless I’m there.” She pauses for a moment, then nods. “I’ll go.”
You slide your palm along her back. “But I want you here,” you say. It sounds more plaintive than you meant.
She shakes her head. “I’m of more use to you there.”
It’s surprisingly casual, her boarding the derelict this second time. No EVAs or cams, just her tools and a duffle full of clothes slung over her shoulder.
“Don’t look so glum,” she says as you walk her and the pilot to the airlock juncture. “We’ll be together at the station in only a few days, and then we’ll have enough cash to take some time off. If we want. Or anything else we can think of.” You know she’s putting on a performance of bravery for you, but she’s pulling it off. Your face must betray you, though, because she adds, “Only good things to look forward to.”
They cross the threshold and now they’re off your ship, in this unfamiliar one. Her ponytail sways as they turn the corner and she’s gone. Now it’s just you, Nav, and Comms on the freighter. The airlock seals shut.
You look up at the orange rectangle of light along your ceiling. Without her here, you don’t need it on. You turn it off and watch your hands disappear into the well of blackness surrounding you. You close your eyes, open them, can’t tell the difference.
Comms is asleep in his bunk, Nav taking her shift watching the bridge. You’re grateful not to be completely alone on the ship. But you erase them in your mind nevertheless, blanking them out of the bunk, the bridge. Keeping the freighter entirely to yourself. If you have to be alone, you might as well be completely alone.
You imagine Meg sleeping in an unfamiliar room, curled up around the empty space where you should be. Or in the observatory, looking up at all that nothing. If the angle was right she could see you out there, your freighter sailing beside her.
You press your palm to the bulkhead. There’s only vacuum between you and the ghost ship, so you tell yourself that it’s as good as having your hand against its hull. As good as being close. Nothing’s between you, so nothing separates you.
Your hand is cold; you tuck it under your armpit and curl up against the wall. You’re glad she’s not here to see you. You’re being ridiculous.
Warning. Warning. Warning.
Your bed drops out from beneath you; you’re crouched on the wall; your knees slam to the floor and white-hot sparks of pain erupt before your eyes.
Warning. Warning. Warning.
The alarm screams. You stumble through your door toward the bridge, supporting yourself against the bulkhead that shudders and threatens to pull away from you. The hazard lights flash red, casting jagged shadows across your vision. Comms slams into your side and you both lose your footing. You slap the heel of your hand against the deck as you right yourself.
“I’m sorry, Cap,” Nav cries from her station as you reach the bridge, her voice high and thin. “It wasn’t supposed to be here, it—not yet.”
“What?” you shout over the din as Comms dives into the pilot’s station.
“It’s a storm,” Nav warbles, trying to sound calm, “solar radiation. I’m so sorry, it—it should have been behind us.”
You curse, widen your stance on the deck, trying to steady your mind by stabilizing your body. The ship groans below you, the hull contorting. The air around your head grinds and warps. Then it’s quiet: beyond the alarm, the whipping, screaming sound stills. You aren’t aware of it til it’s gone.
“And—that’s it,” Nav says, “I think that’s it.”
An expectant moment as you wait for a second wave. You don’t breathe. But the storm is gone as soon as it hit. You close your eyes, your blood roaring in your ears.
Warning. Warning. Warning.
“Can we please shut that thing up,” you say, and sink into a chair. Comms keys a command and now the alarm, too, is quiet. You suck in a long breath.
“I’m so sorry, Cap,” Nav repeats. “On this course, it should have crossed behind us. We should have missed it by a day or more.”
You catch Comms’ eyes and the thought passes between you: if you hadn’t spent so much time staring at the derelict, you would have missed it completely. You’d almost be back to safety by now. He chooses not to acknowledge it, lets the moment pass, and you’re grateful.
“But we’re good now,” Nav adds. “There’ll be a second wave, a bigger one, in a couple days, but we’ll be back at the station by then.”
You wouldn’t survive a second storm. “How many days?” you ask.
“Um, five or six,” she replies. “I think.”
“Status, Comms?” you mutter.
“Um, it could be worse,” he reports. “Starboard engine took the brunt of it, will need some serious repairs. But the port side is in decent shape, plenty of power to get us back to the station. Though we’ll lose some time on the return trip.” He clears his throat, brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Hull is intact, but um—yeah, communication is compromised. Transmitter’s down. Antenna is up, though, so we should still be able to receive messages. Just can’t send ‘em.”
“What about the, the gho—” you stutter, shake your head. “The derelict? Can we see them?”
Nav checks her display, then looks up at you, wan. “It’s not currently in range, no,” she says. “But they were flying port of us, so it’s possible we absorbed some of the shock.”
“I guess that’s good news,” you rasp. “Any word from them?”
“Not yet,” she replies.
“But we can definitely still receive, though,” Comms says. “If they’re talking, we’ll be able to hear them.”
You have time before the second storm hits. So you adjust course, make a sweep of the last location you have on record for them. Nothing. Double back to the spot where the storm hit you, nothing. Limping, you head toward the station. Maybe they’re ahead of you.
Days pass. One person bunks at a time, so there’s always two at the bridge. Always, your ears peaked, as if Meg’s voice will come rolling from the empty wall behind you. One eye on the comms receiver, one on the weather sensor. Unable to send transmissions, unable to call out to her, you feel like your lips have been sewn together, your tongue thick behind your teeth. You don’t sleep.
Finally, the freighter limps into range of the station. When you don’t respond to their hails, they give you the benefit of the doubt. They know you by now, know your ship. You flash the lights along your starboard side and they see the ruined engine, take the hint.
“Damaged freighter, you are clear to dock,” comes the tinny voice, and Comms sets you down in the hangar as gently as he can.
The grizzled dock supervisor hasn’t cleared anything like the ghost ship, he says, doesn’t have its entry logged. But he points out his record of your recent ownership inquiry. “Sorry,” he says. “That’s the last I heard of any luxury craft.”
You nod your thanks, pony up the fee to rent your spot on the dock long enough to get repairs started.
“You know another storm’s coming in a couple days, right? Gonna be worse than the last one. Might even rock the station pretty good.” He sticks out his lips thoughtfully. “And that’s your girl on the missing boat, right?”
You nod again.
“I’ll let you know if they get in.” He stops. “Uh, when they get in.”
Nav keeps a place of her own from before you hired her, a closet-sized apartment with a thin vertical port that looks out over the hangar entrance. Such decadence: a window of her own, and a few free cubic meters. You can’t fathom how she affords it. You could sleep on the freighter, but she puts you up for the night. Two nights.
She offers you her bed but you refuse. You sit on the floor, your back against the foot of the bed, your eyes riveted to the porthole. You sleep in fits. You dream of the yacht’s blade rent by the storm, cracked in half, Meg’s screams torn from her lungs as oxygen whips out of her. You gasp awake.
You have a moment of something like deja vu, a sheen of memory spread thin over the present: two days, watching the derelict come and go; two nights, not seeing it come.
“Get up, Cap.” Nav shakes you awake, her hand on your shoulder. You realize, waking, this might be the first time she’s touched you. “It’s here. We gotta go.”
You cram your feet into your boots and trudge in them, unlaced, to the hangar. You’re moving as fast as you can but feel like your ankles are dragging through mud. Nav is sprightly, darting ahead and then pausing to wait for you, looking back over her shoulder. You tighten up your jaw and clench your eyes shut, willing yourself to get there faster.
You cross the threshold into the hangar and there are the stars, your freighter, dozens of other docked ships. The supervisor flags you down from his station on the far side.
“Good news,” he says, “your salvage is here. And none too soon.” He gestures out the viewport. You can see it, one spot of light brighter and more silver than the stars beyond. Meg.
You bid your mouth to sound, to form words. “That’s them?” you manage. “What did they say?”
“Nothing,” he replies. “But looks like they fared better than you did in that storm. Far as I can tell, their comms array looks okay, but, uh. They’re not talkin’.” He gives you a brusque, helpless look. “I even said to ’em, look, if you’re reading me, give me a flash or something, like you did, but no. Nothing.”
“Can we give them clearance to land?” you ask.
“Look,” he says, “I know your freighter, I could see your comms were down. Took a calculated risk, you know? But if they can’t even respond visually, we can’t let them dock.”
You beg your neck to relax, your shoulders to drop away from your ears. You imagine Meg in the bridge of the derelict, her hand splayed on the front viewport. Reaching for you. You wipe away the hot rivulets that rush from your eyes with a single abrupt motion, wishing for privacy. When that’s not enough, you press the biceps of your sleeves against your wet eyes. You clear your throat and turn back to the supervisor.
He’s polite enough to divert his gaze. “Far as I see it,” he says, “and per maritime law, you’ve got the claim to the salvage. The yacht’s yours if you want to go get it.”
“My ship can’t fly,” you say. “Do you have something I can take—or rent—to get out there?”
He shrugs and shakes his head. “You know I can’t rent out station equipment.” He looks your way again and sees your red eyes, your damp cheeks. He sighs. “Alright, there’s a dinghy you can use. It won’t weather any storms,” he tries to joke, “but it’s good from here to there.” He sobers. “Just bring it back in one piece. And soon.”
You thank him. Nav slips a bill into his hand for you. You wait while he gives the order and while his crew preps the boat. Comms darts into the hangar behind you and Nav fills him in. Your other senses yield to your ears as you strain to hear Meg’s voice come over the radio.
The three of you are squeezed onto the dinghy. You and Nav hunch behind Comms, looking over his shoulder as he leads it up and out of the hangar.
As you approach, the derelict swells in the viewport. Staring out at it, you have a new sense of its proportions: sword-like and sharp, whale-like and heavy. Comms lobs one final hail, which goes unreturned.
“Bring us in,” you murmur, and he marries the hatch of the dinghy to the derelict’s airlock. There’s a pop and a hiss, then it’s open. The stale air you’ve been breathing mixes with that of the larger vessel.
“Wait here for me,” you order, and make for the hatch.
“No,” Nav protests, “we should go with you.” She turns to Comms for confirmation. He averts his face.
You shake your head and don’t repeat yourself, then step across the threshold.
Quiet in the loading dock. It smells cleaner than you’d imagined, the air fresher. You clear your throat to break the silence and call her name, your voice swallowed up into the stillness.
You climb up to the bridge. No pilot at his station, and nothing else either. Just the animated diligence of the ticking displays, the indented seats cold to your touch. Out the viewport hangs the white mass of the station, blotting half your vision.
Your throat contracts as you burrow into the low tunnel, through the empty dining chamber, tunnel again. As you cross into the observation deck, your lungs freeze in your chest; your stomach lurches and you sway forward onto the balls of your feet, anticipating weightlessness, being pulled up and across the invisible border above you. But you’re not. You’re here. You will your breath down into your belly.
Down and before you, the empty places of the plush sofas, recessed into the floor. Up and to your left, beyond the viewport, the vacancy where your freighter once clung to the side of the ghost ship, the dinghy hanging below your view.
Quickening, you dive into the next passage, throwing back the door to each bunk. One after the other, they’re empty, the doors hanging open.
The lifeboats. Meg and the pilot could be crushed into one, wildly transmitting SOS, mayday, since the storm. It’s only a matter of time, then, before their messages reach the station, the station tracks them, you retrieve them. Or better, you rent a ship right now and search on your own.
You burst into the final chamber, that squat cylindrical room. The boundary of the ceiling described by an orange runner, unlit. Ringed by four sealed ports. You run to the first, your hands pressing to the glass. Lifeboat. The next port: lifeboat. The next, and the next. All accounted for.
Your vision blurs and you lean your fists on the final port. You will not let this tightness in your throat slow you. You missed them, that’s all. You know she’s here.
You stagger a return path through the bunks, the observatory, into the kitchen, the bridge. You slap your palm on one of the seats and wipe your eyes with your sleeve, turn back a final time.
The observation deck. Your lungs burn. You open your mouth as wide as it will go, swallowing great gulps of air.
Nav calling to you from the bridge. Stumbling through the threshold, she finds you buried low in one of the sunken couches, your arms cradling your knees.
“Cap—Cap?” she starts, stutters. Climbs down onto the couch with you, the question writ large across her dark eyes, her open mouth. A low siren escapes your throat.
Comms clambers into the observatory above, sees you two below, and rushes past toward the lifeboats.
Nav touches you again, her extended hands squeezing your shoulders, frozen forever in that question.
Above you: the stars, and nothing.