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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Story By JA Baker[]

Voices in the dark
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written June 4th, 2020
Story Era Unspecified

There are some things that one simply does not expect to happen in space. Not many, as one of the first things you learn growing up on a belter colony like I did, is that pretty much anything is possible in the unforgiving blackness of space.

That being said, I'm not above admitting that I almost shat my jumpsuit when I heard a rhythmic, and very obviously deliberate, tapping on the outer airlock door just after we jumped into... well, let's just say it was somewhere we officially shouldn't have been, certainly not with a cargo-hold full of the best small arms that the Lyran Commonwealth could strip the serial numbers off of and hand out to people who wanted out from under the jackbooted heel of the Draconis Combine.

Cargo like that can make anyone jumpy. Especially given that the preferred method of dealing with people caught red-handed with that kind of haul involves finding out just how long it takes to suffocate in a vacuum.

The tapping repeated, and a shadow moved across the small viewport built into the outer airlock. It wasn't the main hatch, but rather a secondary intended to allow EVA crews ready access to one of the jump-sail rigging arms, and it was only by chance that I had even been in the area, trying to track down a slow pressure leak in the ventilation system. Gathering my wits as best I could, I pulled myself over to the airlock and looked through the window in the inner hatch. I couldn't see very much, except a gloved hand, waving at me.

I should have reported it to someone, but truth be told, I was in something of a daze: we'd just jumped almost a full thirty light-years, into what was supposed to be an uninhabited system. We weren't even supposed to meet our contact for another two jumps, so there shouldn't have been a single living being in the entire system, outside of our ship.

And yet, there they were, signaling that they wanted in.

I wasn't sure what to do. They didn't seem overly hostile, and if they had been DCMS or ISF. They would have simply blown the lock and stormed in, with guns blazing. With pirates, they tend to be more direct, more interested in getting you to surrender any valuables without risking damage to either ship. There hadn't been enough time since we'd jumped in for anyone on the crew to make their way around the outside of the ship from another lock.

Looking back, there was about a hundred things I should have done. Informed chief engineer or the duty officer or at least someone a little more experienced. I was still very much a wet-behind-the-ears nugget on their first trip out-system, ears still ringing from all the lessons I'd been given during my apprenticeship back home. And one of the first things they teach you is that, unless there is a clear and direct danger to ship or crew, you never leave someone outside. Especially if you have no idea as to the condition of their suit or how much power or oxygen they have left. Far better to have them inside an airlock and answering questions than outside and choking to death.

Making sure that the inner lock was not only secure, but deadlocked, I decompressed the chamber and cycled the outer door.

The suit was odd. And, I mean, really odd: it was the color of old canvas and covered in brass fittings that I couldn't identify even to this day. The helmet was also unusual, almost anachronistic, looking like it should have been adorning some fairy-tale Knight rather than a spacer. The visor was a thin strip of wine-red glass that gave it an almost evil look. But they certainly seemed to know what they were doing, judging by the way they swung into the hatch by way of the grab bar, shifting their weight so their feet hit the deck. They bent their knees to absorb as much of the impact as possible while the magnetic plates in their boots activated, holding them in place. They tugged one a line, and a small, airtight duffle followed them through the open hatch.

A gloved hand reached out to pull down the lever that closed the hatch and activated the pumps to restore the air.

The light on the display panel turned from red to green, indicating a stable, breathable atmosphere, but they pulled a chemical test strip from a pouch on their suit to double check. It's an old spacer habit, especially if you don't know the ship or the crew. Some unscrupulous people rig the readouts or add something to the air to incapacitate visitors for...a variety of reasons. Evidently our air was up to scratch, and they released the pressure valve on the suit, visibly relaxing as it equalized. Reaching up, they uncoupled the helmet before lifting it off, and that when I got my first good look at her.

Her skin was black. I mean as black as space, far darker than anyone I've seen before or since. It was topped by a thin covering of wiry hair the color of spun copper. In contrast, her teeth were a perfect white which were complimenting her amber eyes perfectly.

"Merci, mon bon monsieur." she looked at me with a bright smile, her almost mystical voice muffled by the thick door between us, "Vous ne savez pas à quel point je suis heureux de vous avoir trouvé."

"I'm sorry I don't speak..." I blinked, realising that I don't have the faintest clue what langue she was speaking, "Do you speak English? German?"

"I speak English." She nodded, her accent still strong, "You are Lyran, non?"

"Yes." I nodded, "I'm sorry, but, who the ****** are you? And what are you doing outside our ship in an uninhabited system?"

"That may be, how you say, a long story?" she chuckled, "Do you mind if I take my suit off? It has been too long."

I nodded. She started to pull the suit off, revealing a pretty standard looking jumpsuit beneath that wasn't that different from my own, only devoid of any name patch, department or rank insignia or anything else that may have given a clue as to her origins.

"My name is Beatrix Wren. I am much like you, a spacer." she unsealed the bag that had been tethered to her suit and pulled out a bottle of, I presumed, water, from which she took a long drink, "As for what I am doing here... I guess you could say I hitched a ride?"

"Where... How... When..." I struggled to find the words.

"One question at a time, s'il vous plaît." she bid me to slow down, "I can answer many, but not necessarily all, of your questions, in time. I only ask that you try to keep an open mind."

"Okay." I nodded slowly, "Let's start with how you got here?"
"The truth is that I am not exactly sure just where here even is." she shrugged, taking another drink of water, "I was... elsewhere, before I stumbled upon your ship. I must thank you again for letting me inside. I do not think my suit could have held out until the next jump."

"I can't help but notice that you didn't actually answer my question."
"This is true." Beatrix nodded, "Perhaps I would be more open if you would tell me your name? I am, after all, sitting in an airlock that you could open the outer hatch of without warning, and my suit is floating around the room in pieces right now. I think it is safe to say that you have the upper hand."

"Billy. My name is Billy Olson."

"So then, Sweet William, do you know what hull surfing is?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's something crazy people do. You go EVA during a jump. If you're lucky you experience a riot of colors and sounds, because the human mind simply isn't equipped to process the experience when you arrive at your destination. If you're Unlucky, you misjudge the KF field boundary and your atoms get spread across thirty light-years of space."

"If you have Transit Disorientation Syndrome?" she asked him.

"If you have TDS and you try and hull surf, you run the risk of suffering a psychotic episode. Some claim they see visions of past lives or..."

"Or what?" she probed.

"They hear the Choir." Billy said.

"Yes, the Choir."

"What has that got to do with anything?"

"Mon Dieu, you have heard them!" she exclaimed

"What?" I protested, perhaps too forcefully, "No!"

"You have TDS, and you hear them, even from inside a ship?" Beatrix moved over to the inner door, pressing her face up against the small porthole to get a better look, "I hear them too, but only from outside. Please, Billy, listen to me. You can never tell anyone, understand? There are people, bad people, who look for those who can hear the Choir, hunt them. I do not know why, only that my father could hear them, and that is why they came for my family when I was just a child."

"Why?" I took a step back, confused, "Why would anyone want to find people with TDS?"

"Again, I do not know for sure, but once, I hear two of them talking: they think that we are gifted, that there is something special about us..." her expression changed, becoming downcast, "I think perhaps they are right."

"Gifted?" I laughed at the very notion, "Not the word I would use."

"If you hear the Choir, then you can see the pattern. If you can see the pattern, you can navigate them. Calculate jumps that nobody else can, putting ships in places nobody expects. That is an ability people will do anything to control. But, if you listen to the Choir, not just hear it, if you can learn their song... then you can do something remarkable."

"What?" I asked, my mouth suddenly dryer than I'd ever felt it in my short life.

"Hyperspace isn't just... nothingness. It's a whole other reality, one we were never suppose to explore. Our universe casts shadows upon it. That's why you can't jump near a gravity well, unless you can pinpoint a null zone. That's where the local bodies cancel each other out."

"Like a pirate point?"

"Pirate point? Yes, I suppose that that is a good a name as any. But, you see, there's a structure to hyperspace...not exactly stars or planets, but there are places where you can become stuck. Somebody found one of these places, and then they found a way to deliberately stop half way through a jump, staying inside hyperspace."

"That's impossible!" I gasped.
"Impossible, you say?" Beatrix shook her head, "Non, not impossible, Sweet William. I have spent the last ten years of my life, held prisoner in such a place. It was only by chance that I was outside, repairing something, they did not tell me what, when I saw the pattern change. I saw this ship passing through, and I jumped. I had no idea what was going to happen, but anything was better than staying there."

"Even if I believed you, which is asking a lot, what now?"

"I run. They will be looking for me, even if just to confirm I died, so I run." she seemed resigned to the fact, "When this ship jumps next, I will surf the hull, listening to the Choir, looking for another shift in the pattern. If I am lucky, I will find another ship, then another and another. I will keep going until I find a place that has never heard of the Terran Hegemony, has never seen the Cameron Star, and then, maybe, I will stop." she looked at me, a strange half smile on her lips, "Or, who knows? Maybe I will just drift off into the void."

To this day, I don't know if she was crazy or telling the truth, but I kept her secret from the rest of the crew. I let her sleep in an empty store room, smuggled her what food, water and other supplies I had. Then, before our next jump, I helped her back into her suit and said goodbye.

I still think of her every time I hear the Choir. I wonder if she's still out there, somewhere looking for patterns in the chaos.

The End

Notes from the Author
Yet again, thanks to Cannonshop for letting me play with one of his ideas.
Also, despite the best efforts of my highs school teachers, I can't speak a word of French beyond saying "hello" (my German isn't much better), so I've had to rely on Google translate. I apologize in advance if the grammar is off.

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