The sharp click of the button was not the end or the beginning of events. It was the last step in a long process that led to the partial collapse of the very fabric of the universe. Beyond a sheet of transparent carbon alloy the infinite darkness of space shimmered. A million stars pulsed in unison and time itself shuddered with the uncertainty of a failing reality.
“Kiss my living life goodbye
Embrace the fact that I will die
Know that all is but a lie
And never ask your maker why
Tomorrow comes tomorrow passed
Our shattered dreams are all that last
The dice of fate have now been cast
I know my birth of sleep draws fast.”
The singer had first heard that tune whilst still in her mother’s womb and would hear it again as they closed her tomb. She giggled uncontrollably. The world was just so damn musical. No matter what language or species, people made poetry and sang songs. Her own thoughts danced a merry jive through her head.
The words were from an old nursery rhyme. Like all good songs for young children, the topic was about as morbid as possible. Children seemed drawn to the darkness of the world like twisted mirrors of moths, seeking out that which killed them until their wings were clipped and their bodies wrapped in a cocoon of rules and culture before emerging as fat caterpillars good for nothing beyond eating and breeding.
And here she was, Zorya Triumph, a caterpillar given wings. Wings that could tear the universe asunder. As such, she had named the ship Cataclysm and Butterflies. She laughed again, multi-shaded blue hair falling across her face as she rocked back and forth on her chair. The strands danced like blue flames.
The ship was small, but for a single person craft it was relatively massive. One man ships designed for long distances usually had simple living facilities, basic mechanics, and enough fuel to make the trek between worlds. Cataclysm and Butterflies was different. She was designed to traverse galaxies. Everything was at the peak of human science and engineering. The size of the processors used to calculate the mathematics behind the UMC engine was alone the size of a small ship. The UMC engine itself was bigger still and the fuel storage was one lit match away from the biggest bang in history.
There were no entertainment facilities, nor was there a stasis pod. For eighteen Earth months she had been in complete isolation. Each day she sent status reports but the delay in information relay was so great as to make general conversation all but pointless. She was alone. It was starting to affect her.
A series of thuds echoed through the hull. The machines were reaching full charge. The entire ship hummed violently. The sounds made her uneasy. She flicked on the ship’s audio and a thunderous noise of guitar and drums drowned out the machinery. Vibrations from the bass warred against the vibrations from the UMC engines until Zorya half feared that the ship might shake itself to pieces.
Then the millions of stars beyond came shooting at Cataclysm and Butterflies. Bright pinpricks became stretched lines that joined together and embraced the ship tightly. The light was blinding and waves of heat swelled through the narrow corridors like a raging sea of flame. Every sound began to crackle. Zorya’s body felt stretched and squashed simultaneously. Her ears popped under the pressure and it felt as though the rest of her was trying to pop as well. She clung to the words that boomed disjointedly from the speakers, singing along until her throat felt raw as the universe shattered.
Electricity flared across the screens around her. Explosions rocked the ship. All noise vanished as though at an unheard command. The white light beyond the ship had broken down into a rainbow of ever-changing colours.
The First Dimension.
Her brain couldn’t quite comprehend what her eyes were relaying. Everything that she had ever known had been stripped away from the universe. She had trained for this extensively but seeing it still made her gape in horrified wonder.
Galaxies were big. Unfathomably so. To cross them using conventional means would have taken a lifetime. That was where the UMC engines came in. Universal Matter Compression was an experimental technology that proposed to take space and screw it up into a ball. Matter would become denser around the ship as time and space were folded up, drastically reducing the distance from one point to another.
Cataclysm and Butterflies was currently between folds in space, sailing through the abyss outside of time and life. A perfect void surrounded her. Even within the ship, sound had become distant and colour had drained away to muted tones.
Zorya stood up. It took her several seconds to find her balance. Her limbs felt too light and her thoughts felt fuzzy and slow. Taking unsteady steps she examined the equipment around her. Red lights flashed dully in places while other monitors were blank. She had little time to get it all working again before re-entry. The ship would pass between dimensions several times before reaching its destination like a dolphin skimming along the surface of the waves. If each time that it passed through the folds was as violent as that then she was unsure that it would make it in one piece.
The ship felt too still now as she left the control room. The corridor beyond was narrow and forced her to stoop. The emergency lights weren’t working, leaving her in complete darkness. She tapped on the back of her gauntleted hand and a white light shone from her chest.
The door to the engine room would not open so she had to manually hack it from the control panel beside it. Inside was as bad as she had feared. The vast bulk of the engines and computers that managed them were making unhealthy noises.
“Perfect,” she muttered. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears. “At least it’s something to do.”
“True. The boredom was beginning to drive me crazy.”
She laughed quietly.
Zorya did not consider herself insane. She didn’t think so anyway. At first she had been lonely. She had started to speak her thoughts aloud more to hear a human voice than anything else. After a few months of solitary confinement she had made the conscientious decision to create an imaginary friend as a way of passing time. She knew that she was only talking to herself but she had grown to rely on the conversations and had taken steps to differentiate her mental characters in order to make banter more lively.
Years of training meant that fixing the complicated machinery was second nature to her. She was only eighteen but could already be considered one of the smartest women that the Earth had to offer.
Her parents were military scientists and had been preparing her for this mission her entire life. Even before her birth, the best genetics that either parent had to offer was chosen, though that was simply the way of humanity now. Smart, fit and quick, Zorya had taken to every challenge and surpassed expectation.
Only it had never been good enough. There was no end, no grand prize or great show of affection. It had all been business. When she passed a test it just meant that she was ready to take the next. At first she had wanted to please her parents so she tried her best. They were pleased, only, as time went by Zorya realised that they were pleased with the results more so than with her.
By then it had become a thoughtless task to succeed. It was her routine. Playing up and rebelling wouldn’t have achieved her the goals that she sought so she simply continued. The older she grew though, the more self aware she became. She was taught to be intelligent but with intelligence came the knowledge that she was unhappy.
She had never spoken to anyone her own age except for the other children on the Exodus Program. They, like her though, were little more than tools with their emotions shoved aside and replaced with an iron will to be the best.
Thinking back, perhaps she had become mentally unstable. Different personalities had already existed within her like costumes to be worn for particular occasions. Nobody wanted the anxious bookworm with a fondness for singing along to rock metal. That soft core was locked away.
People scared her. She didn’t know how to talk to them socially so she donned the mask of confidence and said what needed to be said. The Zorya that was presented to the outside world and the Zorya inside her own head had alway been so different that maybe she had split her mind.
She sang in a whispered scream along with the strained voice that roared disjointedly from the speakers. Light flickered harshly from her metal tipped fingers that cast twisted shadows across the cold metal walls. Her hands moved with a machine-like efficiency.
There was a faint groan then the main lights slowly began to work again. Like a bee she zigzagged from machine to machine, spreading mechanical life back through the ship. Cataclysm and Butterflies had really taken on a personality for her and was the only thing beyond her own head that she could consider as a friend. It protected her so it was only right that she took care in protecting it.
“Don’t you worry. We’ll have you back to full health in no time,” she told the metal beside her. She ran a hand comfortingly along a panel.
The next moment the air suddenly felt crushing. Sound roared as she was thrown into a tangle of wires. All of the work that she had done was reversed within seconds. Zorya pulled herself up to a screen and saw that they had returned to regular space. Even the music had cut out this time.
Something was wrong. She jogged back to the command room with great difficulty. Interdimensional travel took its toll on organic matter. That was why children were used in the project instead of adults. Early tests had found anybody over the age of twenty five were left crippled or dead by the forces placed on them during the journey. When the journey was to last years it only made sense to use pilots as young as possible.
She was greeted by a cacophony of warning sirens as she swung herself into the seat. Her fingers worked furiously and her eyes scanned pages of data with near impossible speed.
“This is not good.”
“Understatement of the century right there.”
“Just stay calm. We can avoid this.”
“Avoid? You are clearly deranged. We’re going to die horribly.”
“Shut up!” Zorya snapped at herself. “I need to concentrate.”
She called up the external cameras and centred the image from the rear of the ship. Stars littered the darkness of space in complex patterns and in uncountable numbers. Had she not seen nothing but that sight for the last two years then she would have called it beautiful. There was nothing close by to Cataclysm and Butterflies.
She zoomed in on the image. Now there was something else visible. There was a vortex of colour that seemed to swirl toward a centrepoint of darkness within the lightbloom. It was a considerable distance away but still sent a spike of fear though her.
“Black hole,” she breathed. “It’s pulling us in. Messing with the equipment. Damn it.”
Zorya set the engines at their maximum speed and tried desperately to engage the next dimensional jump with little success. Running down the damage report she swore. Cataclysm and Butterflies was in no condition to break free of a black hole’s gravitational pull. She needed time to repair the engine. Time that she simply did not have.
The wailing of the sirens was only getting louder. Over on the screen the purple and red spiral was growing in size. Metal screeched as the thrusters pushed the ship in one direction while the black hole pulled it the other.
There was a juddering thud then the engine stalled. Zorya initiated the autopilot then sped back to the engine room. The systems had overloaded. The lights were off again but fires cast amber light throughout the room.
“Come on. My parents helped create you. That makes us kinda sisters so work with me. I don’t want to be killed and you don’t want to be killed so work!”
Ten years of scientific and technological study told her to go into the system and try to manually reset everything. Instead she smacked the machine. It spluttered then started up.
Back in her seat the screen showed the black hole to be far too close now. Light and time bent and shimmered in unnatural ways as everything span into the dark abyss at its centre like an astral plughole.
“We can’t outrun it. The Engines aren’t strong enough.”
“Make the dive. Come on,” she muttered anxiously. The numbers and graphs around her were useless now. They fluctuated massively every second. She was inputting commands and coordinates blindly.
Cataclysm and Butterflies shimmered and shook. Zorya once again felt inertia grip her and her body felt torn. She closed her eyes and fought down the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her.
When she opened her eyes she gave a sigh of relief. The sigh cut off mid-breath. Her entire body tensed.
“It’s here too…”
If anything, the black hole was a whole other beast in this featureless zone. There was no colour or any real axis here so the black hole was a maelstrom of vivid lights that dominated the entirety of the dimension behind the ship.
The consoles died along with the lights and the hum of the engines. Ironically, the speaker system had jolted back to life so that electric guitar screeched throughout the ship.
“I stand here at the edge
And stare into a new tomorrow
without me there…
I’m nothing but a ghost for borrow
My mind is twisted, sour, jaded
But I can’t find the strength to care
My heart has fallen, too far faded.”
She sang the words at the top of her voice. It was a time where she felt that she should cry but found that she couldn’t find any tears. She stared at the now blank screen where the image of the black hole had been and waited. There was nothing that she could do now.
Zorya had read once that in the time just before death, some people panic and break down while others gain a sense of clarity. For her, she felt a strange sense of peace. Other more optimistic people might have seen it as the start of a new adventure or a gateway to paradise but Zorya considered herself a nihilist.
Cataclysm and Butterflies lurched. Zorya turned to see the metal plating of the walls begin to stretch and bend. She reached out a hand and felt it warp, shimmer then drain away toward the swirling vortex that consumed eternity. It…tingled.
There was an explosion and she was thrown back into the computers behind her. Everything was fading and stretching. There was no air left in the room. Her vision started to spin and grow dark until nothing beyond the void remained.