The beginning, the end. Something exists in the depths of the black hole.
It Stares Back
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
In the silence of the moment, Ruby knew on some deep, primal level that this was wrong.
She looked at each of her four crew members, but their eyes were transfixed to what lay ahead of them in the deep vastness of nothing. She looked back at what her mind was having difficulty conceptualizing. No one spoke. What was there to say?
Her fingers trembled, resting against keys and buttons that would control the ship in whatever decision they wanted. But, for now, they stayed still--stuck in the indecision of fear.
Lucas cleared his throat. He opened his mouth, but at first nothing came out. He tried again. “This is what they’ve sent us for.”
Jenna motioned with a hand. “I just don’t...know what this is.”
Ruby didn’t respond. She thought back to the brief when she and the others had been chosen for the expedition. The stars are disappearing, and we are detecting an anomaly that we can’t identify. We want to send a team to report back. The scientist that had sent her out would be dead by now. They’d traveled a long time and been in stasis for generations.
Considering they’d only been awake from sleep for an earth day or two, it was a difficult concept to grasp. Everyone she knew--dead. But, that’s why they had chosen her and her group. They were married to space without any real commitment to the planet they’d been born to.
She looked away from the view from the flight deck windows. She grimaced; it was almost painful to move her eyes from the brightness around her to the drab surroundings of the ship. The lights glimmered around her, casting long shadows along her crewmates. Something tugged at her, an afterthought or a song that played over and over in a tuneless beat.
“How close do you think we can get without getting pulled in?”
Ruby looked back. Her trained eyes studied the pulsating nimbus of colors that undulated, far bigger than what her screens could show. A singular ring of white light cut through the center, circling back around to fade into a nothingness her eyes couldn’t quite make out. The lights occasionally flickered in one part of the spectacle or another, almost as if something massive passed between her and the phenomenon and blocked her view.
The only possible explanation for what she was seeing was a black hole, but it was not like any she’d encountered before. The others--ones that she’d helped mankind harness as traveling trinkets and energy reservoirs--were not surrounded in colors and did not have light past the event horizon.
“I’ll take us to the edge of where we should be safe,” she said. “Just to warn you, I won’t know if I’m right or not. I don’t think this is normal--it may not behave as what we’re used to.”
Marcie nodded beside her. She put a hand on Ruby’s shoulder. “Do what you can.”
Ruby nodded. “Yes, Captain.” She looked at the calculations on the screen. “It will take about a week to reach our destination.”
“We’ll use that time to make contact with Earth,” Marcie said. Ruby tapped across the keyboard, put calculations and commands for the ship to follow. She leaned away from her space, swiveling in her chair. She took one more glance at the lights that shifted along the darkness. A large, thin part of the light disappeared for a moment in a wavering, sentient movement. She frowned.
“If I didn’t know better,” Valerie said, her voice quiet and steady, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say those were shadows.”
Something cold and sharp prickled across Ruby’s skin, running down her spine. “Obviously, that’s impossible.” She rubbed a shaved head and watched the lights of the black hole cast a glow across her dark skin. She refused the desire to look back out the windows and stood.
The lights disappeared from the glow against the cabin as metal blinds slid down and blocked the sight. Lucas shook his head from where he leaned over computer switches. “You know, I think it’s best we just leave the blinds down on this mystery until we get closer.”
Ruby nodded. “The ship can fly on her own for a bit, and we’ll set up the equipment blind. We really don’t need to do anything until we get there.”
“I don’t know about you ladies,” he said, “but that shit gave me the heeby jeebies.” He gave a nervous laugh. It cracked.
No one answered him. There was no point to. Ruby had seen it, had seen...something...that crossed light that was literally defying the laws of physics. There was a heaviness in the air of the cabin now, and in that heaviness was the unspoken fear that they were walking into something they couldn’t possibly understand.
Something shifted. Restless. Anticipating. Grasping. She could feel it. There was something deeper than thought, deeper than consciousness, that felt it. That had always felt it.
Ruby was in the darkness, an oily slickness that coated her skin--free floating in the place between reality and space. She knew in some indescribable manner that this was a dream. She also knew, somehow, that this was more than a dream.
She made a conscious effort to move, to propel herself forward into the emptiness. She managed sluggish movements, pushing through a thick and viscous emptiness.
The voice choked her. A voice of nightmares, of times she’d left behind to forget. She opened her mouth in a gasp but coughed instead. Inside she could feel a thing squirming through her throat, clacking against her teeth.
“Ruby. You left me.” Ahead of her, she saw the glowing lights of a nimbus build into existence. The ring of light circled it. A deeper fear than she’d ever experienced clutched her. She tore at her skin, tried to back away from the lights that were growing closer to her. “You thought you could run? I’m your mother! I’ll never be gone.”
Things moved in the periphery of her vision. Sinuous things. Old things. The weight of the age swallowed up the emptiness of where she was and surrounded her. It whispered to her in words she didn’t recognize, telling her stories of a universe made new and devoured.
Ruby tried to speak, but she could still feel the thing clamber in her throat. Long legs forced their way past her teeth to pierce her skin as it pulled itself forward out of her. It was a slithering thing that she felt along the length of her esophagus.
“Ruby. I’m your mother.” This time the words were tender, apologetic. She felt a soft hand on her shoulder. The hand held a strength that Ruby recoiled from. “I’ll follow you to hell.”
Ruby startled awake, a hand to her throat, tears on her cheek. Lucas’s face was less than a foot from her’s. He had his hand on her shoulder. “Been trying to wake you,” he said. There was a strangeness to his expression. Fear, but something else. He glanced around them, his eyes darting.
Ruby sat up in her bed and coughed. She could still feel it like an afterimage. “Yeah. Yeah.” She coughed again. “A dream.” She looked around her. Her other three crewmates stood at the entrance to the bunker room. “What’s up?”
Jenna shook her head. “Let’s all talk where we have more room.”
Ruby followed them out, walking through the narrow hallway that connected the living quarters to the main part of the ship. In the last week they’d been awake, things had been different. She’d slowly watched her crewmembers withdraw from each other. She heard them whispering things, looking at things that weren’t there.
The thing was though, Ruby couldn’t explain everything she saw herself. Something always seemed to move in the corner of her eyes and no matter how quickly she moved her head she never quite saw it. She’d seen people on the ship--people that had no business or possibility being there. And they weren’t pleasant people. Every person she’d run from--and that had been a long list in her short life--seemed to have followed her here. They said things. Things she believed. Things she knew. Things she hated.
But they weren’t there. Ruby knew that. If anything, it was likely some residual illness of being in stasis for so long. Her crew had been the longest withstanding experiment of humans in stasis; that had to have consequences. Jenna, their medic, seemed to not think so. Ruby didn’t know what to think.
Ruby sat down beside Jenna. The usually bubbly blonde had circles under her bloodshot eyes. Scabs speckled her skin on her arms and face. Ruby reached out to put a hand on her arm, but Jenna jerked away and mumbled something indistinct.
“Ruby?” Marcie sat in front of her. The difference in her captain was startling. Gray hair streaked through her long brown, curly hair. She looked aged. “Ruby...are you seeing things? Having bad dreams?”
Ruby hesitated and looked around. She met Valerie’s eyes. Even the mechanic, the calmest and most rational person she knew, had a wild look to her eyes. No better word than haunted described herself and the crew.
“Yes.” Ruby licked her lips. “I keep seeing my abusive mother and some of the foster parents that I…” she trailed off and shook her head. “They say these...things… Things no one knows or things I’ve thought about myself? I don’t know. I know they aren’t real, but…”
Ruby took in a deep, shuddering breath.
Lucas leaned forward, tears in his eyes. “I keep seeing this boy from my childhood,” he whispered. “We were just kids, and I thought it would be a harmless prank. It wasn’t, he never woke up. He won’t leave me alone. I see him while I’m trying to do measurements. I see him while I try to use the fucking bathroom. He just...stands there. Doesn’t say a damn word. Blood dripping from his eyes.” He looked past Ruby, staring at something over her shoulder. Her skin prickled and she looked behind her. There was nothing there.
“Dreams?” Marcie pressed.
“I keep dreaming that something is coming out of me. It just crawls out of my throat.” Ruby hugged her chest with her arms. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve never seen it, but it’s always around that damn black hole. And whatever it is--it’s old. I know that much. I can taste it.”
Jenna nodded. “Old. I get that too. It wants something, but I’m not sure what.”
“The devourer,” Marcie whispered. Silence met her words. “I just know...I don’t know how. It just...eats. It doesn’t want anything except to exist. To spread. To eat.” She fished her hands in her hair. “We’re just in its way.”
“No.” Valerie almost wore a smile. “No, we’re not in its way. We are its way.”
“I don’t understand,” Ruby said. “You’re talking as if this is all real…”
“You don’t feel it?” Lucas interrupted. “You don’t feel it here? With us right now?” He pointed to the windows that were covered by metal. “Out there?”
“Lucas, there’s nothing out there,” Ruby hoped she sounded more sincere than she believed. “We were in stasis for over a hundred years! That’s never been done. No human has ever traveled this far. That’s going to affect us physically, and--honestly--mentally too.”
“Have you heard it?” Valerie said. “No one else seems to have heard it but me. Have you heard it?”
Her friend sounded so desperate, but Ruby shook her head. “Heard what?”
“The music!” Valerie scratched at her ears. “I can’t explain it. It’s not like anything we’ve ever heard before. Something is singing, but it isn’t singing. It’s...like if stars had a noise.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I think the black hole is singing.”
Ruby glanced between the four people that sat in a circle around her. “You guys do know that’s impossible, don’t you?”
“You're the black hole specialist. You tell us.” Valerie snapped the words, and Ruby noted the tilt of suspicion in her voice.
“Well. I’m telling you. It’s impossible.” Ruby noted the movement out of the corner of her eye. “Has anyone answered our call?”
“I’m keeping communications open,” Lucas said. “But nothing.” He flicked his eyes over to where Valerie had her knees drawn up to her chest. “Nothing except some sort of interference.”
“Look, how about I take a walk and see if something is wrong with our coms on the outside,” Ruby said. She looked to Marcie. “I’m not saying something isn’t wrong here, Captain, but I think it has more to do with our health than something more than that. Regardless. We need to talk to Earth.”
Marcie nodded. “Take a walk. We’ll monitor you.”
Ruby stood and walked passed them. She walked past where her mother had stood and listened to the conversation. “You’re the reason my life was horrible, you little slut,” she said.
“Love you too, mom,” Ruby muttered.
Ruby swam in the weightlessness of space. For a moment, outside the ship, she took a moment of silence where for once, just once, she was no longer looking over her shoulder. She was alone.
The comms of her suit was open, and she could hear the interference Lucas had told her about. She pulled herself around the hull footholds to where their communications equipment would be. It looked fine, but Ruby opened it up regardless. She tweaked the settings in her clumsy suit.
Silence. She waited.
“Lucas. Come in.”
“Shhh…” was his answer. “Do you hear that?”
Ruby paused and for a moment she could only hear her heart beat in her chest. Then, there was a low thrum. Deeper than bass, something that shook her bones. It was a rending sound. A tearing sound. A beautiful sound. Tears blurred her vision. It was a tuneless song of one, perfect chime.
In her ears she could hear the screams of her crewmates. Deeper, more wet noises followed. Ruby didn’t try to speak, afraid of what would answer her back. Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t stop the desire to look ahead, past the ship.
There it was, in all its glory, unfettered from windows. Her breath caught in her chest. The colors were so much brighter outside of the ship. And for the first time she noticed the ring of light had tendrils that ebbed and swirled.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. The start of it all, the end of it all. A pinpoint of insanity where realms could not touch. She stared at the opening and watched something move. Appendages larger than planets shifted in the depths of the black hole, reaching out to graze the light, pulling parts of it in. She saw the glimpse of a beaked mouth that opened and swallowed the light.
Its eating the stars, she thought. But, she knew it was more than that. It was eating reality. Life, spreading and existing and consuming. An eye opened in the depth of the anomaly that she stared at. An eye of colors she’d never seen. It looked at her and saw.
Something deeper than fear, something stronger than the most primal of emotions, gripped her body. In its eye were the things that crawled through her throat. That existed inside her. She now had no doubt. She struggled through the fear and scrambled back into the ship as fast as she could.
It took her a while to find them, after she’d removed her suit. But, in the end she knew she’d find them in the cabin, with the metal shutters drawn back. The creature looked on as she stepped into the room, blood coating the bottom of her shoes.
Each death had been self inflicted, from what Ruby could tell. Lucas’s slit throat, Marcie’s eyes clawed out and blood from some deeper unseen wound. Jenna stared at her with sightless eyes, strangled on wires from the walls around her.
Valerie’s eyes fluttered, eyes glancing at each wrist that sported deep, vertical slashes that glimpsed bone. Ruby knelt. “Do you hear it?” Valerie whispered. She raised a bloody hand and touched Ruby’s cheek. “Don’t take it home with you. Let it stay here.”
Ruby understood what she meant. She nodded and kissed her forehead. She stepped over the bodies toward the controls of the ship. She didn’t take her eyes off the eye that waited patiently for her.
“I won’t take you back there,” she whispered. She could feel a piece of it moving inside her. There was depth to the creature, a horrible weight and pain. A seed of insanity from staring into the abyss. It corrupted everything it touched. Even the ship’s metal skin felt different--cursed.
She sent one more message to Earth, knowing it would never make it. “Crew gone. Don’t come for us. Don’t send more. It stares back.”
She set the course for the ship and sat down in the main chair. Behind her, her mother laughed.
Word Count: 2,853
Initially Submitted to: Show, don't Tell https://www.writing.com/main/forums/item_id/2162666-Show-Dont-Tell-Contest
(entered:11/22/20). First Place, Received Awardicon and Merit Badge