The starship looked like a cancer. Its form was misshapen, its surface grimed. Tubes snaked across the hull like vines, black and undulating. An ancient relic of the Earthbound’s first Leap, the only craft never to reach its destination, Aurora drifted through the void on the edge of the universe like a malignant spore.
And yet, Gallant knew, hidden beneath that hideous shell was treasure beyond reckoning. At least, that was what the legends said. Since boyhood, he had heard tales of Aurora, the sleeping beauty, the lost craft. No two rumors were alike, though all agreed Aurora’s fabled cargo was more precious than anything in the nine galactic realms. They also agreed that the ship was impossible to find. He’d vowed to prove them wrong.
Gallant had searched for nearly twenty years, scouring every star system for clues to Aurora’s whereabouts. And now, after all that time, here she was.
He piloted his sleek solarskimmer alongside the ship’s grotesque bulk. A scan of the exterior showed him an antiquated docking portal protruding from her right side. Carefully, he maneuvered his craft close enough to link with the portal. The skimmer shuddered as the heavy mechanism trundled into place. When the seal was secured, Gallant climbed into his shellsuit, hands shaking as he fastened the snaps.
When he was ready, Gallant took a deep breath, counted to three, and opened the hatch. The maw of Aurora’s entry shaft yawned before him. He hesitated only a moment before stepping over the threshold. At the far end of the shaft stood a set of thick metal doors. They slid apart automatically as Gallant approached, allowing access to a long, dark corridor. Once he’d stepped through, they closed behind him.
Before continuing down the passage, Gallant paused to check his environment monitor. Miraculously, the air inside of the ship was breathable. He raised his visor and took a sniff. The corridor smelled damp, slightly foul–but it was preferable to the stuffy interior of his helmet.
He waited a moment longer to gather his nerve, then started down the corridor. Pale green lights flickered to life as he passed, their uncertain glow casting a sickly hue. The inside of Aurora was no better than her exterior. Every surface was filthy, smeared with some darky, oily substance Gallant could not identify. Chunks of metal sheeting had been peeled from the walls; wires torn free and left to dangle like frayed nerves; lights shattered; doors bent and dented. Debris littered the floor like the husks of dead insects.
With each step he took, Gallant grew increasingly uneasy. Tendrils of fear crept into his thoughts, whispering urgent warnings to turn back, to leave this place while he still could. But no–he would not turn back. Not now. He’d come too far, risked too much to leave empty handed. The cargo. He had to find the cargo.
Driven on by visions of untold riches and the promise of a new life, he forged ahead. Corridor after ravaged, foul-smelling corridor greeted him. He suspected that this maze of hallways was leading him in circles, but it was impossible to tell–everything looked the same under the wavering green lights.
Just when it seemed that there would be no end to the labyrinth, Gallant turned a corner and found himself entering a wide, oblong chamber. The walls were lined with monitors, each displaying a fuzzy image of another section of the ship. A grey, down-like substance had settled onto everything like mildew.
In the center of the chamber was a chair on a raised platform. He approached it cautiously, boots sinking into the soft greyness that carpeted the floor.
When he reached the chair, Gallant swept a hand across its armrest. Grey down dissolved into powder beneath his gloved palm, revealing the reflective surface of a screen. A command console? There were no other control panels visible in the room. He gave the console an experimental tap, then jumped back as the screen blazed to life. A voice boomed through the chamber, deep and echoing, yet unmistakably female.
Gallant gazed about him, but couldn’t decide where the voice was coming from. It seemed almost to resonate within his very skull.
“Hello?” he called back.
WHO ARE YOU?
“My name is Gallant Vorn.”
GALLANT… The voice shaped his name carefully, as if tasting it. GAAA-LLANT. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL NAME. TELL ME, ARE YOU FROM THE STARS?
“I…” He hesitated, unsure how to answer. His home was a farming colony on a faraway planet. A place of rocky landscapes and acidic skies. Still, he liked the way her words sounded. “Yes, I’m from the stars.”
After a pause, the voice asked, HAVE YOU COME TO SAVE ME?
Gallant’s eyebrows lifted. “Save you?”
YES. The voice became eager, almost breathless. I HAVE BEEN WAITING, GALLANT. I HAVE BEEN WAITING LONGER THAN YOU COULD POSSIBLY IMAGINE.
“Where are you?” he asked. “Are you on this ship?”
Gallant frowned. He hadn’t come here to save anyone, except perhaps himself. The cargo was what mattered. But this woman–maybe she could lead him to it. “Can you tell me where you are?”
A screen to his left buzzed with static. He turned to watch the image resolve into blurry security footage of a large, shadowy room filled with hulking machinery. In its center stood what looked like a table, perhaps meant for medical operations. Upon the table lay a form clothed in white. Though the image was indistinct, Gallant could discern that the figure was that of a woman.
“That’s you?” he asked, studying the screen.
I HAVE LAIN HERE, GALLANT, IN THIS LONELY PLACE, FOR AN AGE, the voice said, her words heavy with sorrow. WAITING FOR SOMEONE LIKE YOU TO SAVE ME.
“An age?” Gallant peered closer at the footage. Though it was impossible to make out many details, the figure in white didn’t look old.
I HAVE BEEN HERE SINCE WE LEFT OUR HOME, the voice replied. I HAVE BEEN HERE SINCE EARTH FELL INTO THE SUN.
The implications of her words struck Gallant like a blow. Earthbound. This woman was an Earthbound. And she was alive. His mind raced along with his pulse. Was this what the legends had spoken of? Was Aurora’s fabled cargo not riches at all, but this woman, somehow frozen in time?
It was said that the Earthbound of old had possessed strange and fantastic technology, now long forgotten. It wasn’t impossible, or even improbable, that one of their number might have found a way to survive for centuries. And if this woman was an Earthbound, then she was indeed worth more than anything else in the known universe. And even if she wasn’t the treasure of legend, she would likely know where it was hidden.
“You have not waited in vain,” Gallant said aloud, eyes fixed on the screen. “Tell me how I may reach you, and I will take you away from this place.”
AHHH, GALLANT. TRULY WORTHY OF YOUR NAME.
There was a soft hiss, and he turned to see a set of doors glide open on the far side of the room. Lining the corridor beyond, soft green lights bloomed in the darkness to guide him onward.
FOLLOW THE LIGHTS, GALLANT. I AM WAITING…
“I’m coming.” As he stepped into the dim, flickering corridor, it occurred to him that he had not asked her name. “What do I call you?”
MY NAME IS ROSE, the voice replied, and it seemed to Gallant that, though unfamiliar to his ear, it was the loveliest name he had ever heard.
“Rose,” he repeated, and smiled.
The passage was long, twisting, and as filthy as the others–but he hardly minded. He had a goal now, a purpose to his stride. Rose was waiting for him, and with her, one way or another, reward for his long toil.
The lights led him on, deeper into the ship. The ground sloped downward, as if descending into the vessel’s core. Every now and then, he heard a sound like the distant hum of a lullaby. It was a soothing melody, and helped to quiet his thundering heart.
Once or twice, Gallant called out for Rose, but she gave no answer. He had left her voice behind in the chamber of screens.
At long last, the snaking corridor ended in a final set of doors. These slid aside as Gallant approached, blasting him with cold, fetid air. Despite the insulated layers of his shellsuit, he shivered.
COME, GALLANT. Rose’s voice was a deep, resonating call from the room beyond. COME TO ME, MY PRINCE OF STARLIGHT.
Gallant crossed the threshold and entered a large chamber. It was the same room he’d seen on the blurry screen. Now that he saw it with his own eyes, it became apparent that the space was some sort of med bay. The room’s former clinical whiteness was hidden beneath layers of thick, greasy sludge, but showed through here and there like exposed bone. Surgical laboratory equipment hulked against the walls like mutated beasts of metal and glass.
In the center of the floor stood an operating table, its various needle-tipped arms poised like the legs of a dead spider that had been turned on its back.
Upon the table reposed a woman. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, she lay naked beneath a thin white sheet. Small clouds of frosted air rose from her mouth as she breathed. In the sickly green light, her flesh seemed almost to glow from within.
Gallant stepped closer, his own breath fogging in the frigid air. “Rose?”
HELP ME, GALLANT. Her voice echoed around him, low and desperate. I CAN’T WAKE UP. LOOK AT ME, GALLANT. LOOK HOW COLD, HOW ALONE I AM.
“I can see you,” he whispered, drawing closer still. The eerie luminescence of her skin was mesmerizing. Soft waves of golden hair pooled about her shoulders and cascaded over the edge of the operating table. “You are beautiful, Rose.”
He pulled one of his gloves off and took up a lock of her hair, rubbing it between finger and thumb as he replied, “Yes?”
YOU THINK ME BEAUTIFUL?
“I think you are radiant.”
There was a long pause. At last, the voice asked, WOULD YOU KISS ME?
And it seemed to Gallent then, that her lips glistened wetly, and her figure was soft and full beneath the sheet, and the green light was not sickly at all but verdant and alive…
He bent forward, ignoring the subtle whiff of decay that greeted his nostrils as his face came close to hers. He hovered, eyes fixed on her closed lids, feeling the flutter of her breath against his chin.
KISS ME, GALLANT. I HAVE WAITED SO LONG TO BE SET FREE.
Her voice swelled around him, and inside of him, and it was the loudest, softest, most melodious thing he had ever heard. It was the voice of lust and love and a past long dead. It closed gentle hands around his heart and squeezed.
Gallant leaned down and pressed his lips over hers. At first, she was inert beneath him, lifeless and cold as a statue. Then, there was a twitch of movement, a soft hiss of breath, and something warm and wet slithered into his mouth.
The slick, sinuous thing slid across Gallant’s tongue and down his throat as quick as thought. He reeled backward, choking and gasping as the warm wetness filled his gullet and surged down into his belly.
On the table before him, the woman was changing. A long, wheezing gasp escaped her lips as they peeled back into a hideous rictus. Her body convulsed, tensed, began to curl in on itself. In moments, the supple young form was replaced by a contorted frame of skin and bones.
Gallant coughed violently, staggering as he backed away from the grotesque spectacle. Fluid spilled from his mouth, bitter, dark and sticky. Something moved inside of him; a writhing, slippery mass. He turned toward the doors by which he had entered, but found them sealed. Without trying, he already knew they would not open for him again.
Struggling for air, Gallant fell to his knees. His eyesight dimmed as the roiling in his guts increased. It was as if he’d swallowed a bucket of live eelworms that were now frantically trying to escape.
The voice had changed too. It no longer sounded female, or even human.
BEFORE YOU SLEEP, GALLANT MY LOVE, I WANT TO THANK YOU.
Gallant shuddered as something soft and fragile inside of him burst. The dark fluid poured from his lips, a steady, cloying stream that pooled about his knees. He could no longer speak, or breathe, or think.
I WAITED SO LONG, YOU SEE. THIS SHIP, THIS ENDLESS, CURSED DARKNESS… I HAVE BEEN SO ALONE, TRAPPED IN A SLUMBER LIKE DEATH…
Gallant slumped forward and fell, jerking and twitching as the being inside him slithered freely among his organs. Darkness closed in, drawn like a curtain across his sight. He was cold. So cold.
The voice spoke in his mind one last time, low and sibilant, BUT YOU, OH, YOU, MY SWEET PRINCE OF STARS… YOU HAVE SET ME FREE.