Arnold stood behind the helm of the ship, staring out into the void in front of him. Everything in this part of space was black—some trick of the dense nebula that sucked light out of the surroundings like a greedy black hole, yet there were no gravitational effects. No one had, as of yet, been able to understand the physics behind it, despite the best scientific minds of the day running endless calculations.
The physics of it, however, were of little concern to the majority of people who lived on the thirteen planets that surrounded the great expanse, and they were of little concern to Arnold, who had a shipment to deliver to the planet of Georgia. Tapping his foot, he glanced at the ship’s chronometer, which displayed both the time dilation relative time as well as Zulu time for the planets. A tight schedule ruled him now, as the ship had been delayed from departing Providence space port due to a suspicious customs agent.
“We’re about to enter the Seventh Cold, sir,” the helmsman said, his voice edgy.
Arnold rolled his eyes. “‘The Seventh Cold.’ Don’t tell me you buy into the superstitions, Rubio.”
Rubio gave a nervous grin. “Every pilot does. You’re the only captain I’ve worked with who ignores them.”
“If we hadn’t been so badly caught up in customs, we’d have time to avoid your superstition zone. But that’s not a luxury we have today. Shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that’s what we’re sticking with.”
Chauntelle, the enthusiastic young woman at navigation, looked up from a computer screen full of trigonometry and constellation charts. “Why do they even call it that, anyway?”
“You ever read Dante’s Inferno?” Rubio said.
“No. Ancient Earth Lit was never my forte.”
“The seventh level of hell is frozen in ice, where the Devil himself sits, holding traitors in his mouth. They say that only traitors get caught up in the center of the nebula—so it’s like the seventh level of hell. And it’s cold in space anyway, but the temp in the center is as close to absolute zero as science has ever seen. Hence, the Seventh Cold.”
Arnold shook his head.“It’s the ninth level of hell, not the seventh. And speaking of science, the idea that a nebula can determine someone’s character is ridiculous.”
“Well, it’s not the nebula. It’s what lives in the nebula.”
“Which is, presumably, the Devil himself.”
“You got a better explanation as to why the stars won’t shine here?”
“I don’t care about any explanation. All I care about is we get our shipment delivered and we get paid. If it’s hell you’re worried about, Rubio, you should be worried about the buyer.”
“And don’t worry—I don’t hire any traitors, so we’ll all be safe from the Devil.”
A jolt rocked through the ship, nearly knocking Arnold over. Time dilation on the ship’s chronometer slipped down to zero.
“Arnold, we’ve fallen sub-light!” Rubio called. “We’re losing speed.”
“And we’ve been knocked off course,” Chauntelle added.
Arnold threw his hands up in the air. “Well, what the hell happened?”
“I wouldn’t use that word—not here,” Rubio said.
“I said, what the hell happened? We’ve got a shipment to deliver—”
“We’ve come to a complete stop. I can’t get the ship to move at all.”
Arnold cursed. He did not have time for this. He could not afford to be late. Not for this buyer. He glanced over at the chronometer again, only to jump when his eyes fell on it. It had stopped. The seconds had ceased ticking by, and ice crystals crept around its edges.
“What the hell is happening here?” Arnold said, taking a step back.
“Don’t use that word!” Rubio shouted.
The ship rocked again, this time throwing Arnold to his knees. He cursed again as he pushed himself up, glancing out the front viewport as he did.
Something moved, darker than the darkness itself.
His blood froze. “Turn on the external lights!”
Feeble, the lights barely penetrated more than a few inches across the hull of the ship’s nose.
But it was enough. Dozens and dozens of black tentacles crept across the bow, wrapping around the ship in a deadly embrace. The temperature inside the ship plummeted and ice crackled as it spread across the floors and ceiling.
A wave of fresh panic shot through Arnold as his thoughts flitted down to the cargo filled with hidden weapons contraband.
Of course he never hired traitors.
But that did not mean that he was not one.
“The Seventh Cold” copyright 2017 by A.L.S. Vossler.
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