The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir

By Karin Tidbeck

Award-winning author Karin Tidbeck presents a science fiction adventure of a mysterious spaceship on an interstellar voyage in The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir.

Life on the transdimensional ship Skidbladnir is a strange one. The new janitor, Saga, finds herself in the company of an officious steward-bird, a surly and mysterious engineer, and the shadowy Captain. Who the odd passengers are, and according to what plan the ship travels, is unclear.

Just when Saga has begun to understand the inner workings of Skidbladnir, she discovers that something is wrong. Skidbladnir is sick. And it’s up to her and the engineer to fix it.

Something had broken in a passenger room. Saga made her way through the narrow corridors and down the stairs as fast as she could, but Aavit the steward still looked annoyed when she arrived.

“You’re here,” it said, and clattered its beak. “Finally.”

“I came as fast as I could,” Saga said.

“Too slow,” Aavit replied and turned on its spurred heel.

Saga followed the steward through the lounge, where a handful of passengers were killing time with board games, books and pool. They were mostly humans today. Skidbladnir had no windows, but the walls on the passenger levels were painted with elaborate vistas. There was a pine forest where copper spheres hung like fruit from the trees; there was a cliff by a raging ocean, and a desert where the sun beat down on the sand. Saga enjoyed the view whenever she was called downstairs to take care of something. The upper reaches had no such decorations.

The problem Saga had been called down to fix was in one of the smaller rooms. A maintenance panel next to the bed had opened, and a tangle of wires spilled out. The electricity in the cabin was out.

“Who did this?” Saga said.

“Probably the passenger,” Aavit replied. “Just fix it.”

When the steward had gone, Saga took a look around. Whoever stayed in the room was otherwise meticulous; almost all personal belongings were out of sight. Saga peeked into one of the lockers and saw a stack of neatly folded clothing with a hat on top. A small wooden box contained what looked like cheap souvenirs – key rings, a snow globe, a marble on a chain. The open maintenance hatch was very out of character.

Saga shined a flashlight into the mess behind the hatch. Beyond the wires lay something like a thick pipe. It had pushed a wire out of its socket. Saga checked that no wires were actually broken, then stuck a finger inside and touched the pipe. It was warm, and dimpled under her finger. Skidbladnir’s slow pulse ran through it. Saga sat back on her heels. Parts of Skidbladnir shouldn’t be here, not this far down. She re-attached the wiring, stuffed it back inside, and sealed the hatch with tape. She couldn’t think of much else to do. A lot of the work here consisted of propping things up or taping them shut.

The departure alarm sounded; it was time to buckle in. Saga went back upstairs to her cabin in maintenance. The air up here was damp and warm. Despite the heat, sometimes thick clouds came out when Saga exhaled. It was one of the peculiarities of Skidbladnir, something to do with the outside, what they were passing through, when the ship swam between worlds.

The building’s lower floors were reserved for passengers and cargo; Skidbladnir’s body took up the rest. Saga’s quarters were right above the passenger levels, where she could quickly move to fix whatever had broken in someone’s room. And a lot of things broke. Skidbladnir was an old ship. The electricity didn’t quite work everywhere, and the plumbing malfunctioned all the time. The cistern in the basement refilled itself at irregular intervals and occasionally flooded the cargo deck. Sometimes the ship refused to eat the refuse, and let it rot in its chute, so that Saga had to clean it out and dump it at the next landfall. Whenever there wasn’t something to fix, Saga spent her time in her quarters.

The cramped room served as both bedroom and living room: a cot, a small table, a chair. The table was mostly taken up by a small fat television with a slot for videotapes at the bottom. The closed bookshelf above the table held twelve videotapes: two seasons of Andromeda Station. Whoever had worked here before had left them behind.

Saga lay down in her cot and strapped herself in. The ship shuddered violently. Then, with a groan, it went through the barrier and floated free in the void, and Saga could get out of the cot again. When she first boarded the ship, Aavit had explained it to her, although she didn’t fully grasp it: the ship pushed through to an ocean under the other worlds, and swam through it, until they came to their destination. Like a seal swims from hole to hole in the ice, said Aavit, like something coming up for air every now and then. Saga had never seen a seal.

Andromeda Station drowned out the hum Skidbladnir made as it propelled itself through the space between worlds, and for just a moment, things felt normal. It was a stupid show, really: a space station somewhere that was the center of diplomatic relations, regularly invaded by non-human races or subject to internal strife, et cetera, et cetera. But it reminded Saga of home, of watching television with her friends, of the time before she sold herself into twenty tours of service. With no telephones and no computers, it was all she had for entertainment. She had already seen all of the episodes, so she picked one at random.

Season 2, episode 5: The Devil You Know.

The station encounters a species eerily reminiscent of demons in human mythology. At first everyone is terrified until it dawns on the captain that the “demons” are great lovers of poetry, and communicate in similes and metaphors. As soon as that is established, the poets on the station become the interpreters, and trade communications are established.

In the middle of the sleep shift, Skidbladnir’s hum sounded almost like a murmured song. As always, Saga dreamed of rushing through a space that wasn’t a space, of playing in eddies and currents, of colors indescribable. There was a wild, wordless joy. She woke up bathing in sweat, reeling from alien emotion.

On the next arrival, Saga got out of the ship to help engineer Novik inspect the hull. Skidbladnir had materialized on what looked like the bottom of a shallow bowl under a purple sky. The sandy ground was littered with shells and fish bones. Saga and Novik made their way through the stream of passengers getting on and off; dockworkers dragged some crates up to the gates.

Saga had seen Skidbladnir arrive, once, when she had first gone into service. First it wasn’t there, and then it was, heavy and solid, as if it had always been. From the outside, the ship looked like a tall and slender office building. The concrete was pitted and streaked, and all of the windows were covered with steel plates. Through the roof, Skidbladnir’s claws and legs protruded like a plant, swaying gently in some unseen breeze. The building had no openings save the front gates, through which everyone passed. From the airlock in the lobby, one climbed a series of stairs to get to the passenger deck. Or, if you were Saga, climbed the spiral staircase that led up to the engine room and custodial services.

Novik took a few steps back and scanned the hull. A tall, bearded man in rumpled blue overalls, he looked only slightly less imposing outside than he did in the bowels of the ship. He turned to Saga. In daylight, his gray eyes were almost translucent.

“There,” he said, and pointed to a spot two stories up the side. “We need to make a quick patch.”

Saga helped Novik set up the lift that was attached to the side of the building, and turned the winch until they reached the point of damage. It was just a small crack, but deep enough that Saga could see something underneath – something that looked like skin. Novik took a look inside, grunted and had Saga hold the pail while he slathered putty over the crack.

“What was that inside?” Saga asked.

Novik patted the concrete. “There,” he said. “You’re safe again, my dear.”

He turned to Saga. “She’s always growing. It’s going to be a problem soon.”

Season 2, episode 8: Unnatural Relations.

One of the officers on the station begins a relationship with a silicate-based alien life form. It’s a love story doomed to fail, and it does: the officer walks into the life form’s biosphere and removes her rebreather to make love to the life form. She lasts for two minutes.

Saga dreamed of the silicate creature that night, a gossamer thing with a voice like waves crashing on a shore. It sang to her; she woke up in the middle of the sleep shift and the song was still there. She put a hand on the wall. The concrete was warm.

She had always wanted to go on an adventure. It had been her dream as a child. She had watched shows like Andromeda Station and The Sirius Reach over and over again, dreaming of the day she would become an astronaut. She did research on how to become one. It involved hard work, studying, mental and physical perfection. She had none of that. She could fix things, that was all. Space had to remain a distant dream.

The arrival of the crab ships interrupted the scramble for outer space. They sailed not through space but some other dimension between worlds. When the first panic had subsided, and linguistic barriers had been overcome, trade agreements and diplomatic relations were established. The gifted, the rich and the ambitious went with the ships to faraway places. People like Saga went through their lives with a dream of leaving home.

Then one of the crab ships materialized in Saga’s village. It must have been a fluke, a navigation error. The crew got out and deposited a boy who hacked and coughed and collapsed on the ground. A long-legged beaked creature with an angular accent asked the gathered crowd for someone who could fix things. Saga took a step forward. The tall human man in blue overalls looked at her with his stony gray eyes.

“What can you do?” he asked.

“Anything you need,” Saga replied.

The man inspected her callused hands, her determined face, and nodded.

“You will do,” he said. “You will do.”

Saga barely said goodbye to her family and friends; she walked through the gates and never looked back.

The magic of it all faded over time. Now it was just work: fixing the electricity, taping hatches shut, occasionally shoveling refuse when the plumbing broke. Everything broke in this place. Of all the ships that sailed the worlds, Skidbladnir was probably the oldest and most decrepit. It didn’t go to any interesting places either, just deserts and little towns and islands far away from civilization. Aavit the steward often complained that it deserved a better job. The passengers complained of the low standard, the badly cooked food. The only one who didn’t complain was Novik. He referred to Skidbladnir not as an it, but as a she.

Over the next few stops, the electricity outages happened more and more frequently. Every time, living tubes had intertwined with the wiring and short-circuited it. At first it was only on the top passenger level. Then it spread to the next one. It was as if Skidbladnir was sending down parts of itself through the entire building. Only tendrils, at first. Then Saga was called down to fix the electricity in a passenger room, where the bulb in the ceiling was blinking on and off. She opened the maintenance hatch and an eye stared back at her. Its pupil was large and round, the iris red. It watched her with something like interest. She waved a hand in front of it. The eye tracked her movement. Aavit had said that Skidbladnir was a dumb beast. But the eye that met Saga’s did not seem dumb.

Saga went upstairs, past her own quarters, and for the first time knocked on the door to engineering. After what seemed like an age, the door opened. Engineer Novik had to stoop to see outside. His face was smudged with something dark.

“What do you want?” he said, not unkindly.

“I think something is happening,” Saga said.

Novik followed her down to the passenger room and peered through the hatch.

“This is serious,” he mumbled.

“What is?” Saga asked.

“We’ll talk later,” Novik said and strode off.

“What do I do?” Saga shouted after him.

“Nothing,” he called over his shoulder.

Novik had left the door to the captain’s office ajar. Saga positioned herself outside and listened. She had never really seen the captain; she hid in her office, doing whatever a captain did. Saga knew her only as a shadowy alto.

“We can’t take the risk,” the captain said inside. “Maybe it’ll hold for a while longer. You could make some more room, couldn’t you? Some extensions?”

“It won’t be enough,” Novik replied. “She’ll die before long. Look, I know a place where we could find a new shell.”

“And how would you do that? It’s unheard of. It’s lived in here since it was a youngling, and it’ll die in here. Only wild crabs can change shells.”

“I could convince her to change. I’m sure of it.”

“And where is this place?”

“An abandoned city,” Novik replied. “It’s out of our way, but it’d be worth it.”

“No,” the captain said. “Better sell it on. It won’t survive such a swap, and I’ll be ruined. If things have gone this far, I need to sell it to someone who can take it apart.”

“And I’m telling you she has a chance,” Novik said. “Please don’t pass her on to some butcher.”

“You’re too attached,” the captain retorted. “I’ll sell it on and use the money as down payment for a new ship. We’ll have to start small again, but we’ve done it before.”

Season 1, episode 11: The Natives Are Restless.

The lower levels of Andromeda Station are populated by the destitute: adventurers who didn’t find what they were looking for, merchants who lost their cargo, drug addicts, failed prophets. They unite under a leader who promises to topple the station’s regime. They sweep through the upper levels, murdering and pillaging in their path. They are gunned down by security. The station’s captain and the rebel leader meet in the middle of the carnage. Was it worth it? the captain asks. Always, says the rebel.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/01/14/karin-tidbeck-the-last-voyage-of-skidbladnir/

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