There was some debate. Nothing serious. And nothing I contributed to. I think, by that point, we were all a bit too tired, stretched a bit too thin, worn down a bit too far, to put up much resistance to what was fast presenting itself as an inevitability.
Cap directed us to our stations. But w all ended up in the cockpit before long. There wasn’t anything left to do but stand by and watch our fate. Scrub the decks? Why? Check the engines? Why? Secure the cargo? What cargo? We were all merely drifting about the ship, tending to what little preparation we needed before diving into the belly of the whale – both literally and metaphorically.
So even though Mearr, Gator, Sys, Cap, and Guhle were the only ones who really even needed to be in the cockpit – and really, the ship can get by on half that number – T’Vosh and I joined them as well. The ship’s just a bit too empty to wait below while your crewmates guide you toward oblivion.
Even Mearr was more a passenger than a pilot on this leg of the trip. Clutching our child to her chest, as she was, she was little use at the controls. But she sat by them anyway, purely out of habit.
It was Guhle – stern, reserved, terrifying Guhle – who gripped the reins and gunned the gas when Cap gave the order.
Tally ho. Off we go. Into the belly of the whale. But this time, we might not come out.
The shadows lengthened around us as we surged toward the gaping maw of darkness from whence the Dark – that shadowy leviathan – was emerging. Its lesser kin, the shades that swarmed over the Farseer battleship, streaked past our viewport and blocked out large swaths of starlight as we grew closer and closer to the rift. The void. The Dark.
The ship rocked as though bumping up against something solid. Yet all we saw, all we continued to see, was shadow.
“Steady on the reins, Guhle,” said Cap.
Guhle chirped out an avian equivalent to a terse grunt and kept his eyes fixed forward and his hands glued to the controls.
The ship rocked again, then groaned in effort as though trying to push through some invisible membrane. The Farseer battleship was still far off in the distance, despite the time we’d spent moving toward it.
“Sys, report,” said Cap, turning toward her station.
Sys clicked a few syllables before switching to words. “Engines are maxed out, captain. Putting all the power I can into them, even trying a few things I never tried before. But nothing. We’re dead in the water.”
Cap swiveled back around to face the front of the viewport. “Why are they stopping us?” he muttered.
Suddenly, the viewport was blocked out by shadows. Hundreds of them. Crawling over its surface like so many liquid insects coursing over a carcass. Swarming. Scuttling. Enveloping.
Mearr cried out. T’Vosh tensed. Gator flinched away as though struck across the face.
But Guhle held himself determined. He jigged and jagged with the controls. Tried several different configurations and maneuvers. Called out for Sys to make particular adjustments. All attempts failed.
Through it all, Cap remained stoic. Fingers steepled before his face, lounging in the amniotic fluid of his bulbous sac.
“I think you should give up,” he said. “Let it be.”
Guhle didn’t turn to confirm or acknowledge. But he did stop. He held the controls tight and still in his hands. Shoulders tensed. Knuckles creaking with the effort. And he stared straight ahead. Out of the viewport. Into the peerless depths of shadow.
Then we heard the creaking. It was quiet, at first. As if coming from a great distance. But then it grew louder. Closer. And then we could even hear the hiss of escaping atmosphere.
I noticed Guhle hang his head. Just slightly. Mearr gasped and let out a small sob, shielding the baby against her body with her arms as she turned to look – not at me, as I might have hoped, but over toward Sys. Sys, in turn, was regarding her instruments helplessly, but turned to look straight at Mearr when she noticed the feline out of the corner of her vision.
For my part, I just felt hollow. Empty. Useless. My heart dropped into my stomach and then slowly sped until it was trying to hammer its way out. The fear spread down through my legs and up into my arms until ending in my fingers and toes. Each one growing numb in turn and feeling as though it would shrivel up right there and fall off, for all the good they were doing.
“My…friends,” Cap said, with the lilting intonation of a speech unprepared yet half-remembered. “It has been a…pleasure to have you aboard my ship. To work beside you and to share in your griefs and triumphs. I regret any part I may have played in your suffering. And wish you all the best going forward, as we come to the end of our journeys together.”
And then the viewport cracked, blew open, and allowed the vacuum to suck us out into darkness and silence beyond.