By Beka Gremikova
“Earth to Echo.”
Electricity courses through Echo as Darbo’s deep voice prods her consciousness. She stirs, blinking out at the spaceship’s main chamber.
My jail cell.
Darbo stands by the main control panel, pressing the button that shoots shock waves across Echo’s incorporeal form. Nearby, his daughter Delilah crunches on star-puffs while skimming travel magazines. Her younger brother, Dylan, stares out the view screen, his nose smudging the glass as he watches stars slide by.
Echo pokes her head out of the spaceship’s wall. “Your request?” More like command. Ever since Darbo murdered her aboard this ship, she’s been tethered to it with Darbo as her master. To him, a ghost is just a glorified computer program.
“We’ve entered a new galaxy. Are there any black holes in the area?” Darbo’s voice is tense, and his gaze slides to Delilah and Dylan.
Echo sighs. “Let me check.” She closes her eyes, waiting for the tug on her mind that will alert her to the presence of danger. Ever since bored rich kids started blowing up stars for fun, a plethora of black holes has started popping up across the galaxies. If only Mom and Dad hadn’t bragged so much about my abilities…
During her life, Echo only sensed black holes up close. Death strengthened her perception. Now she feels them light years away—far enough to give ample warning.
“You sure we’ll be safe, Dad?” Delilah glances up from her magazine.
“Of course.” Darbo kisses the top of her head. “That’s what we’ve got Echo for. I promised you kids we’d get away from it all after your mother passed, and I’m sticking to my word.”
The presence of a black hole just ahead tickles Echo’s mind. A mass of swirling darkness that threatens to suck in the ship, stripping every living creature to the bone, leaving only souls behind.
And, light years beyond that one, another.
“Darbo, there’s…” Echo trails off as the thought strikes her.
Don’t tell him.
She swallows. As a ghost, she’ll survive if the spaceship gets sucked into a black hole. With the ship destroyed and Darbo dead… I’d be free.
It’s a Darbo-like plan.
“There’s what?” Darbo cuts into her swirling thoughts.
“There’s no…” The words slip out so easily. “No black holes in the area.”
Darbo nods, waving her away. She sinks back into the spaceship walls, alone with her musings. Is it murder if you’re just killing the person who killed you first? But—
Dylan whoops as they speed into an asteroid belt. “Faster, Dad!” He bounces around the room, pretending to be a pilot.
Delilah crosses her arms. “You’d better hope there’s no space patrol around. We could lose the ship for going this fast!”
“It’s only illegal if they catch us.” Darbo pats the control panel. “This girl’s got zip.”
The presence of the first gravity well clogs Echo’s mind with its whirling mass.
Is freedom worth my soul? Can I enter the Final Universe with murder on my conscience?
I’m so close to being free of this ship, of these people.
But the cost—
She shuts herself off from her mind, connects herself to the blinking lights of the spaceship. I’m not real. Not culpable. I’m nothing but metal and lights and—
The high-pitched sirens of the ship’s proximity alert squeal through the control room, yanking Echo back to full consciousness. Multiple dots flash on the screen.
“Space patrol!” Darbo jabs at buttons, his face white.
Echo’s heart thunders. If she leads this family into death, the space patrol will follow. I can’t do this. I could kill Darbo. But not so many innocent people.
“Swing right!” she cries.
“A black hole! Less than a light year—”
Darbo yanks on a handle, slowing their momentum and preparing for the turn. Glowering at Echo, he gently swings the spaceship around in a half-circle. “Coordinates,” he snaps.
She leads him around both black holes, hoping the patrol officers will follow their path.
The ship chugs forward, the threat of being sucked into a vortex too great to risk driving too quickly. Another idea floats through Echo’s mind. When the ship clears the black holes, she says nothing, letting Darbo think they’re still surrounded by potential danger.
The patrol catches up to them. A robot hand clamps their spaceship so the officers can board.
Darbo opens his mouth to protest, but the leading officer, Tyvane, cuts him off. “You might’ve slowed down, but you still broke Regulation Galaxy 13-50-832: Speeding Over 1200 Star-blinks in an Asteroid Belt. We’ll be confiscating the ship.” The patrol surrounds Darbo and his children, ushering them toward the exit hatch.
“More like a black hole belt.” Echo pops up behind Officer Tyvane, and he jumps.
“Black holes? How would you know—” As he turns, his dark eyes widen. He removes his navy-blue uniform cap and presses it against his chest.
“I can sense them,” Echo murmurs. “And this man murdered me to better use my abilities. I’ve been tied to this ship for months.” Anger courses through her, and the ship’s lights blink erratically. “I just want it scrapped so I can go free!”
“We can sell it for parts.” Tyvane eyes the lights nervously as he takes a seat at the control panel. “And give your family the money from the sale,” he adds.
Echo hovers beside him, her anger waning. “I’d appreciate that.”
Tyvane’s fingers clench around his badge. “I know some sort of alert system is needed, but to kill for one? That disgusting star-puff is going away for life.” He glares at the screen in front of them. Then his shoulders slump. “I’m just sorry we weren’t in time to save you.”
Echo smiles softly. Perhaps they can’t save her body. But now she can return to her family and say goodbye. She can search out the Final Universe without regrets marring her soul. She can finally leave this prison of stars.
“You were, actually,” she says.